THE STORYKEEPERS PROJECT #39: THE FOURTEENTH GUEST

detail_reveillon_noel_campagne_1881-jpg-christmas-eve-in-the-countryside-detail-1881-bibliotheque-et-archives-nationales-du-quebec

Réveillon de Noël. Christmas Eve in the Countryside (detail), 1881. © Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.

Genot “Winter Elk” Picor for The Storykeepers Project

The time leading up to “Saint Noël” or Holy Christmas as it was called, was a time of busy preparation in the little village above the strait. Cards and packages were addressed and mailed, sending fond wishes to friends and family near and far. Food was ordered at the local butcher shop. Banners of green and red and buntings of every size were draped in the shop windows and clapboard houses that stood along the bay road. And so it is, I tell this story to you as it was told me so that you might believe.

Midnight Mass had concluded that Christmas Eve night. The family of Mimi and Pipi were gathered at the home of Claire-Marie and Cousin Gilbert for the Réveillon feast. Pipi settled in to tell Christmas stories to the children while Mimi and Claire-Marie finished adding the garnishments to the evening’s delicacies. The men puffed away on their pipes giving each other advice on how to repair the joist beams in the barn. But the tranquility was soon broken when Genot Élan de L’Hiver burst through the door. Bent slightly at the waist and trying to catch his breath, the messenger shouted out the news most forthcoming.

“Père La Forest cannot come to dinner. Mrs. Gros-Louis is in labor and will soon give birth. The Good Father was called upon to help the midwife deliver the baby!”

Mimi smiled and spoke.

“Oh, a new life is coming into this world…and on the same day our Lord and Savior was born to deliver us from sin. Un miracle si précieux (Such a precious miracle)!”

But Claire-Marie soon realized the impact of Père La Forest’s absence.

“That means we now have thirteen guests at the dinner table. Thirteen guests is bad luck, and especially on a holy day. We need to find another guest to make fourteen!”

“If we can wait another fifteen minutes, Uncle Gautier will be asleep in his chair. He snores so loud, he’ll never know we’re eating. We can wake him when we’re done. That will make twelve guests,” said Cousin Gilbert.

“I won’t have such a thing on Réveillon. Everyone here is an invited guest. And you’re lucky Uncle Gautier is hard of hearing, or he’d give you ‘une raclée forte (a strong thrashing),’” warned Claire-Marie.

Always one to have a quick solution, Cousin Gilbert offered what he thought was a reasonable remedy to the problem.

“Well then, send Genot Élan de L’Hiver out to find a guest. He’s the best tracker and he’s already dressed for the cold.”

All those present turned to look at Genot. Not a word was spoken, and the silent stares of those in attendance told Genot what he had to do. He nodded his head and reluctantly accepted the task set before him. And so it was, Genot’s search commenced for a fourteenth guest.

The snowfall that year was surprisingly sparse, but Genot could see his tracks that led from the church to the house. He deftly followed these same tracks back from whence he came, hoping Père La Forest might have returned to the church. Genot opened the door and headed straight away down the main aisle for the sacristy. If Père La Forest had returned from the birthing, he would surely be in the sacristy changing his clothes.

But something caught Genot’s attention. There was a faint sound, like a whimpering coming from the bell tower. Genot stopped and stood motionless. A chill ran through his body. He closed his eyes tight, now, barely breathing. He waited for another sound that would confirm to his senses an inevitable suspicion. Someone…or something was in the bell tower.

Now, as rational people, you or I would have called out in a firm and steady voice hoping for a humanly response, but Genot Élan de L’Hiver was not always rational; he trusted his instincts. From the time he was ten until he was sent to the boarding school, Genot lived with his mother’s Huron kin. He was schooled in the practice of hunting and tracking. His instincts told him that the bell tower was inhabited. Again he thought, was it a person? Was it an animal…or an apparition come down from the spirit world? He would soon find out.

Genot cautiously made his way up the winding staircase that led to the bell tower. His pounding heart beat so strong, Genot feared this sound alone would betray his approach. But when he ascended to the top of the staircase, he saw, huddled in a corner, a shivering old woman. She was dressed in a pauper’s coat, ragged and stained. Both of her hands clenched the garment tight against her body as she trembled. Her long, thin frock was in a wretched state of disrepair. She wore no gloves or shoes. Buried beneath wavy strands of tousled, coarse gray hair was an expressionless face with vacant eyes, fixed and unblinking.

Genot approached her and touched her on the shoulder.

“Grandmother, what is your name?” he asked, but the old woman didn’t answer.

“How did you come to be huddled in the bell tower on this night?”

The old woman remained silent and trembling.

Genot picked her up and carried her down the staircase. After they had emerged into the cold night air, he hoisted her on his back, and like St. Christopher carrying the Christ child through a river current, the bearer and his charge crisscrossed the frozen earth to the home of Claire-Marie and Cousin Gilbert. Even for someone who was so haggard and thin, the old woman was surprisingly light, as if Genot was carrying a bag of feathers.

The two soon arrived at their destination. The dinner guests gasped in disbelief when Genot opened the door. He crossed the threshold with the frail passenger still on his back and carefully sat the old woman in an empty chair.

“Here is our fourteenth guest,” he announced. “I found her in the bell tower of the church. I don’t know her name. I don’t even know if she can speak.”

Mimi, now seated in a rocking chair set down her knitting, rose and knelt in front of the old woman.

“Are you hungry dear? Would you like to join us for Réveillon dinner?”

The old woman nodded slightly and was led to the table. One by one, the dinner guests followed Mimi’s lead to sit for Pipi’s Réveillon benediction. All eyes remained focused on the old woman even as Pipi said grace. Little Rosanne pressed against her mother, Claire-Marie. Tears welled in her eyes. In her short, sweet life, she had never seen such poverty and despair, and was filled with pity.

Everyone at the table waited with anticipation for the old woman to sip her first spoonful of pea soup.   She closed her eyes, smacked her lips softly and took a deep breath, inhaling its warm, savory goodness. A thin smile crossed her craggy face. An approving “Ah!” rose among the other dinner guests and the Réveillon feast commenced.

That night, the family and their guest dined on hearty helpings of traditional fare, enjoying ragoût de patte (pig’s feet stew), tourtière (seasoned meat pie) and glissants (chicken and dumplings). There were generous portions of venison marinated in a wine sauce, spiced pickled vegetables, fresh breads and finally, Bûche de Noël (Yule log cake). Through it all, the old woman never said a word, but she seemed to enjoy the fine Réveillon meal. After dinner, Mimi helped the old woman into the back bedroom, where she was cleaned and groomed. Claire-Marie led those assembled in song accompanied by Michel La Françoise’s fiddling. Claire-Marie’s sweet soprano voice could lure the souls of the departed from their heavenly thrones! Her favorite tune was Un flambeau, Jeannette Isabelle.

When Mimi and the old woman reappeared, their dinner guest was a sight to behold. Her gray hair had been combed back, held in place by a silver barrette. Mimi had given her a linen frock to wear and keep as her own. Old trunks were opened that stored warm clothes. The old woman’s ragged coat was traded for a fine wool capote; something more suited to the climate. She was given thick socks, moose-hide moccasins and a pair of knitted mittens. A trade blanket was folded neatly and placed on her lap. Little Rosanne came forward and handed the old woman her only doll.

“She will keep you company when you get lonely. You can share with her your secrets and she won’t tell anyone,” whispered the little girl. The old woman smiled, nodded and accepted the little girl’s most treasured possession.

“You will stay with us dear until we find your family. And if you have no family, then we will care for you,” Mimi proclaimed. A cheer rose from everyone in attendance.

I told you earlier I would tell this story to you as it was told me, so that you might believe. Well, perhaps it was the wine, the excitement of the evening or a combination of the two, but everyone soon fell into a deep and peaceful sleep. When the family awoke in the late morning, the old woman was gone. They searched outside for her but the only footprints they could see were those left by Genot Élan de L’Hiver the night of Christmas Eve. But by the greatest of miracles, sitting beside the hearth were gifts intended to satisfy the desires of each dinner guest; new carpenter’s tools, dyed wool for knitting, shoes and clothes, aromatic tobacco, a new violin bow for fiddling and bags of the finest ground wheat and barley. There were shiny toys, with a new companion for little Rosanne’s doll, which the old woman had returned to the child.

On the table was a note, and written with an angelic, flowing hand was this message:

“Mon nom est Emanuelle. Ce nom signifie ‘Dieu est avec nous.’

Là où sont la charité et l’amour, Dieu est présent.

L’amour du Christ nous a rassemblés et nous sommes un.

aimons-nous les un aux autres d’un coeur sincère.

Mon nom est Emanuelle. Ce nom signifie ‘Dieu est avec nous.’”

Joyeux Noel et Bonne Année”

“My name is Emanuelle. This name means ‘God is with us.’

Where there is charity and love, God is present.

The love of Christ has brought us together and we are one.

Let us love one another with a sincere heart

My name is Emanuelle. This name means ‘God is with us.’”

         Merry Christmas and Happy New Year”

 

From “Stories that Mimi and Pipi Told” © Genot “Winter Elk” Picor” 2016.

Used with Permission

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