The Black Horse
as told by Paul Fournier
As a boy growing up in a French Canadian home, where my family was so extended that it should be called a tribe, I was told many stories by my aunts and uncles. These were often related as though they had just happened the week before. When I grew up I learned to my surprise that what had been told to me as some immediate adventure was in fact an incident that happened a century or more before Dad had lit the camp fire that warmed my toes.
This particular story is very fresh in my mind. I was going to tell it in my own words, but discovered to my joy that some anonymous Internet author had written it up, thus saving me the mind-rack needed to get the dates and names right. I extend my thanks to that writer for this.
In any case, it was told to me as a true story, and I have no reason to believe it to be otherwise, excepting an embellishment here and there.
Le Cheval Noir
(loosely translated from the French)
There wasn't always a church here you know. There used to be only a little chapel, made of logs. My great-grand-parents would have to travel to the church in Cap St. Ignace, to do their Easter duties, to get married, to have their children baptised or to be buried. The only priest in the area was a missionary who lived there, and wandered the roads and paths with a pack on his back like the most humble of mortals.
News came one day that we would also have a curé of our own. There was great joy in the parish, but mon Dieu, he would really need everything. No church, no house for him. But he was humility itself, without vanity but with a great good heart, this pere Panet, our first cure. Priests are very good people, my friends. M. Panet was a saintly man, but a real saint, that man.
Now you should know that Trois Pistoles is in two parts; the lower part is where the fishermen, the tradesmen and others like gran'papa lived, and the upper part, up the hill, where the richer folk lived. We had decided to build a church, but there was a lot of passion spent on trying to decide where to build it. The people below wanted it close to them, and the rich hated the idea of having to walk up and down the hill.
Father Panet decided the only way to decide was to have everybody pray a novena to ask Heaven to decide the site. So we all prayed - the fishermen and the farmers, the mothers and the children - we all prayed that building the church would not divide us, so soon arrived from France and the Basque country.
On the ninth day, to the astonishment of some, but certainly not to Monsieur le Cure or most of the mothers of Trois Pistoles, a rectangular plot of land was found to be covered in deep snow - you understand, this was the month of August. So it was decided to build there and construction would begin the following May, 1768.
Father Panet wondered how we would manage to haul the rock needed to build the church. He thought one evening: "It is a rare thing, a horse here, and there is no season where they are not all working hard. Where will I find a horse ?" This problem kept him from sleep. Suddenly he heard his name called. He wondered if he had taken leave of his senses.
The same voice called him a second time, a woman's voice, very gently: "Francois, Francois !"
Rather frightened, he reminded himself that he was in a state of grace, so had nothing to fear. Standing upright, he answered: "In the name of God, what do you want of me ? A lovely woman appeared to him, white and radiant: "I am Our Lady of Good Succor" she said. "Don't be afraid and be confident ! Tomorrow when you wake, you will find a horse at your door. You will use him to haul the stones you need to build the church. There is one precaution, you must never remove his bridle. Don't forget !"
She disappeared, and the good priest fell instantly asleep in his chair. He awoke with a start at dawn. This was in the month of May, 1768. The sun streamed into his room. He remembered the apparition but thought it was a mere dream. Kneeling to say his morning prayer, he heard a stamping of hoofs outside. From the window, he beheld a horse tied to the red pine tree in front of the door, a magnificent black horse, its coat glistening in the sunshine. What a surprise ! He covered his eyes and looked again, but the horse was still there. He went out the door and put his hand through the horse's mane to assure himself it was real. The horse trembled from head to foot.
The workers arrived at five in the morning. "My friends," said Father Panet, "I've borrowed a horse for you. It seems it's a rare animal. He will help you haul stone. It seems he's ticklish. So watch out for him! You must never remove his bridle - never! - you understand? Otherwise he will escape you."
One of the workers, Germain-a-Fabien, asked: " What's his name, Monsieur le Cure ?" After a moment of reflection he answered: " He's called Charlot. I entrust him to you, Germain !" " Don't be worried about him, Monsieur le Cure." Germain replied.
They hitched Charlot to a little wagon with small wheels, and work began. Even though the first load was considerable, Charlot trotted along as though he were hauling a feather. The cure, seeing them arrive, shouted they could really load up this horse, and not to be shy about having the horse carry a much heavier load. The next load was twice the first and the third three times as heavy. It was nothing to Charlot. The little wagon wasn't strong enough so they built twice as big, and piled in stones as though it were hay. The wheels cracked and squealed. But Charlot seemed to be mocking them - his hoofs barely touched the ground as he trotted along.
"What a horse, my children !" said my uncle, as we held to his every word of his story. "Black as a raven, four perfect hoofs, and sinews of iron, my children ! His tail was a poem, and his mane superb ! However - there is always a: 'however' - he was always in bad humour and bad mouthed. You needed to be careful with him. Never mind, as we never needed to remove his bridle."
Germain let nobody come near his horse. One day though, as the church walls were nearly complete, he could not come to work, and Charlot became the responsibility of Rigaud-a-Baptiste.
Rigaud was a hard worker, but stubborn. He considered himself smarter than everybody else. What a boaster! To hear him, he knew everything. His horse - well, there was only one thing lacking -words to express its perfections; his cow was an inexhaustible fountain of milk - its milk was pure cream; his pigs grew fat on sunshine alone; his dog was smarter than most people; his chickens lay two eggs each every day, Sundays as every day; his land was so fertile that the only caution was to harvest soon enough; his wife cooked the best pancakes; his daughter had refused every suitor in the area; she held herself for a lawyer from town who was always about to come but never did. And what a horse dealer was he indeed ! He was half horse himself, what !
Today, he had his chance. Charlot was his, his horse. " Hoh over here, my horse, hoh over there!"
Germain had warned him: "Especially, never remove his bridle." But Rigaud to answer: " Don't worry, Germain, my old! Horses know me" Thus did Rigaud, jubilant, haul enormous rocks all day.
This was the month of August. It was a hot day. As they crossed Turtle river, he stopped Charlot in the middle of the stream and drank from his cupped hands. He whistled at the horse, but it refused to drink. In fact he had never seen the horse drink or eat. "Hmmm, this is curious" he reflected. "I wonder if it's because of the bridle ?" he wondered. "What if I took it off ? Who has ever seen a horse drink with a bridle in its mouth ? It takes a priest not to know how to treat a horse !" He drew his hand through Charlot's mane to calm him. Charlot trembled. And the bridle was unbuckled.
Poo...i-i-she...! Le horse, now buck naked, fled in terror. Rigaud, thrown fifteen feet into the air fetched himself up in the river bed. Coming to, he saw the horse fleeing like the wind down the King's road.
Monsieur Panet, the cure, was at that moment returning home, head bared as was his habit when carrying the Good God to a sickbed. He saw the horse roaring down the road towards him. "Charlot himself ! But what has happened then ?" He made a great sign of the cross to stop him. The horse reared mightily and quit the road, heading North, towards the cliff that overlooks the St. Lawrence river. The rock split with the sound of thunder. Flames leapt out the fissure, many feet wide. And the devil - for it was he - was swallowed up into hell, leaving a smell of sulfur in the air.
Since then, there has been a cavern in the cliff - "The devil's hole, or again, The gate of Hell." It's carved as if with an axe, in the hard rock. Its black mouth, facing North, defies the mighty gales, on Winter nights.
Charlot was far from being proud of himself, after this hard work imposed on him by force. Hauling rock to build churches was never a pleasure for him. It seems this was the tenth he had been compelled to help build.
But nobody will take the old road that leads past his cave; - not even to this day. Some have seen tall flames rise up to the sky from its mouth, on dark nights.
And they are afraid.
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