Years before her mother bundled her onto a bus bound for New York City in a blizzard, Madeleine Lamontagne had been a little girl who loved Easter bunnies, Christmas trees, and the stories told by her dad, Louis Lamontagne. After all, everyone loved to hear Louis “The Horse” Lamontagne’s tall tales.
As any drinking man in Rivière-du-Loup will tell you, it was TV that killed the Horse, not the combustion engine. They’ll also tell you—and there’s no reason to doubt them—that any man’s story, wherever he may be, never finds a more attentive ear than his daughter’s, especially if she is the oldest and as such occupies a special place in her father’s heart. All of which is to say that Louis “The Horse” Lamontagne, or Papa Louis as the children liked to call him, had the full regard of his little Madeleine, sitting right there on the sofa in her father’s funeral home on Rue Saint-François-Xavier, in the parish of the same name, in the town of Rivière-du-Loup in the province of Quebec.
Amid the 1950s furniture stood a ghastly ashtray mounted on an honest-to-goodness moose leg. A cousin had made it after carving up the carcass of the animal that Papa Louis had killed in the fall of 1953, when Madeleine was just three years old. She was now eight. Papa Louis was sitting in his armchair, and her two brothers on the bottle-green sofa. In her left hand, she held a full glass of gin that Papa Louis was eyeing thirstily.
“Get a move on, Mado! We wanna hear the story!”
It was Madeleine Lamontagne’s oldest brother Marc, age seven, who had just told his sister to hurry up and get Papa Louis another drink so the story could at last begin. The other brother, Luc, watched a dust mote drift through the air.
“Cut it out!” Madeleine retorted before sitting down to his right.
Marc slid his hand in under her thigh. She twisted his finger back, just enough to get her point across, but he slipped his hand back under her thigh, and this time she let him. “His fingers must be cold,” Madeleine reasoned, thinking that if she picked a fight with her brother, Papa Louis might suddenly decide to send them all off to bed. Fortunately, Marc turned his attentions away from her and watched Papa Louis knock back his second gin. To Marc’s left, little Luc, his dark-haired head leaning against his big brother’s frail shoulder, was about to fall asleep. Luc, age five, had come into the world the day of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II: June 2, 1953. The sofa was almost full, but there would have been room for the cat if their mother Irene had allowed it.
“No cat on the sofa. It’s not hygienic,” she had decreed one day.
There had been cake for supper. Luc had eaten too much of it—he had eaten Madeleine’s share as well as his own—only to vomit it back up all over his brother Marc. So Luc was already in his PJs. Madeleine had changed him out of his dirty clothes; their older brother had had to get cleaned up. Little Luc was nodding off, but maybe the dead man in the adjoining parlor would find the story entertaining.
“Tell the one about the dune!” whined Marc.
“I told you that one last month,” said Papa Louis as he emptied a spoonful of sugar into his warm gin.
“Tell it again then!”
“Don’t you want to hear a Christmas story instead? Hang on! We’ll ask the dead guy what he wants to hear! Hey, Sirois! Wanna hear a Christmas story?”
The children fought back giggles. Papa Louis only fooled around with his customers when his wife Irene wasn’t around; she found his jokes to be in terribly poor taste. Papa Louis took Sirois’s silence as a formal request for a Christmas story, appropriately enough in a room still decked out for the nativity. A scrawny fir tree was still standing, its lower branches providing shelter to a porcelain crèche whose figurine of Saint Joseph had a chip missing from its face. On the radio playing softly in the background, the family rosary ticked by with the regularity of a Swiss timepiece . . . full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus . . . Once a month, when the time for the family rosary came around, Papa Louis would find himself alone with his three children while his wife Irene went off to visit an aunt who was a nun at the Sisters of the Child Jesus convent. Since he was supposed to be reciting the interminable rosary with them, he preferred to keep the wireless on. It was a cunning plan since the valves took at least five minutes to warm up. By leaving the radio playing softly on the walnut dresser right beside him, Papa Louis would always have enough time to throw himself to his knees if, by some misfortune or other, his wife were to come home early from the convent. Papa Louis had given the kids strict instructions: at the first sound of footsteps on the wooden staircase, everyone was to throw themselves to their knees in front of the radio and pretend to swoon with emotion. Or else that would be the end of his stories. And so it was with the rosary playing in the background that Papa Louis would always start telling his children stories. One time it had happened. Irene Lamontagne had come home early to collect a coat she wanted to donate to the nuns. Papa Louis’s plan had gone like clockwork. At the first thud on the steps, Papa Louis cranked up the radio, the cardinal’s voice reverberating so hard off the living-room walls it could probably be heard outside on the street. The father and children fell to their knees, rosary beads in hand, already intoning a Hail Mary, eyes half closed as though in a spiritual trance. Madeleine prayed especially fervently, stressing each syllable: “. . . born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried . . .” adopting the nasal tone she had learned at the convent. She might have laid it on a little thick, but the ploy worked like a charm. Irene opened the door without a sound, not wanting to disturb the touching scene of family devotion. She crept upstairs to collect the forgotten garment and, index finger pressed against her lips, crossed herself as she left in silence. When he realized he was out of harm’s way, Papa Louis turned down the radio, sat back up on the armchair, picked up the glass of gin he had hidden behind the dresser, and sighed.
“Keep going! What happened to the Lady with the Big Melons?” Madeleine and Marc had chorused.
Once a month, the children got to hear a fantastically fabulous story from Papa Louis, like the time he had narrowly beaten Manitoba Bill—the Blackfoot with the blue eyes—at arm-wrestling, or the tall tale about the Saint-Jean-Baptiste night when he had danced with the Lady with the Big Melons on the Trans-Canada Highway on the far side of Saint-Antonin. Madeleine was expecting to hear for a second time how one evening he had ended up by mistake at the Malecite reserve and how the Indians, stunned at the sight of the remarkable Louis, had grown angry, because you can’t just pop up on people’s doorsteps unannounced. There would be a price to pay, and that price would be to dance with the Lady with the Big Melons. If he hadn’t, Papa Louis would never have made it back from his trip to New Brunswick alive! Not a chance! But he wasn’t going to tell them the one about the Lady with the Big Melons, because the last time he’d done that, little Luc had delivered a flawless summary to their mother; not with all the juicy details, admittedly, like the actual size of her melons, which the child had felt compelled, following the example of his father, to mime with his hands, but at the very least the circumstances leading to the events of that evening (and the accompanying hand gestures). Irene Lamontagne had been forced to go to confession, and to appeal to what remained of Papa Louis’s common sense so that in future he might leave the juiciest details out of his stories.
“Do you want them to go around telling that story at school, Louis Lamontagne?”
Irene had gotten her husband to agree that he would tell other stories, though the damage had been done. Luc would remain a rather vulgar child until the end of his short existence. But that evening, Papa Louis wanted to tell a Christmas story. The children were surprised because Papa Louis’s stories usually didn’t touch on religion. Those kinds were the exclusive preserve of Irene Lamontagne and Sister Mary of the Eucharist—better known as Sister Scary—a figure cloaked in black and white who, two or three times a year on a Sunday afternoon, would glide silently into their home on Rue Saint-François-Xavier.
It was probably Marc who—like father, like son—was the first to call her Sister Scary, because she always appeared when least expected and without making the slightest sound. You turned around and bam! There she was! Sister Mary of the Eucharist would suddenly rise up in front of you, an unnerving shadow in the doorway, beneath the clock, sitting outside on the wooden porch, or on the stairs leading up to the bedrooms. The ghostly Sister Mary of the Eucharist also seemed to have a gift for being everywhere at once. Regulars at the Ophir bar on Rue Lafontaine would say they had seen her stepping onto a train at such and such a time, while others would swear she had been standing outside the church of Saint-François-Xavier at the very same moment. The Lamontagne children were about to learn, on that December evening in 1958, why exactly Sister Scary would come to pay homage to Louis “The Horse” Lamontagne three or four times a year, most often shortly before Corpus Christi, a day or two after All Saints’ Day, and on or around the feast of Saint Blaise, the patron saint of throat ailments.
In the living room on Rue Saint-François-Xavier, Papa Louis straightened himself to his full height and raised an index finger.
“I will tell you, at last, how your father came into this world. Because we’ve had it up to here with all those nun stories.”
Papa Louis glanced back at the door, to be sure his wife hadn’t slipped in silently just in time to receive the full brunt of the blasphemy. The silence lasted for two seconds while Papa Louis hoped an angel would come down and erase from his children’s memories his jab at the Sisters of the Child Jesus, whom in reality he considered almost real sisters. He waved his empty gin glass under Madeleine’s nose so she could run to fill it again, adding just the right amount of warm water. “I’ll speak up so you can hear me from the kitchen,” he promised, giving her a peck on the cheek. Madeleine poured the gin and warm water into the glass, devoting her full attention to the story so as not to miss a single word.
“I’m going to tell you the story of my birth!” began Papa Louis, slapping his knee.
“You weren’t born in Rivière-du-Loup?” inquired Marc, who thought there was nothing left to be said once a person’s place of birth had been revealed.
“I was, but back then it was called Fraserville.”
Papa Louis was a little Baby Jesus. It was a well-known fact. But his mother—known as Madeleine the American, not to be confused with Old Ma Madeleine and all the other Madeleines that came after the arrival of this particular ancestor on Canadian soil—and his father, Louis-Benjamin Lamontagne, well, they had no advance warning. Everyone thought Papa Louis would be born long after the three kings had come and gone.
The story was going to be a good one, there was no doubt about it, what with their mother out, another warm gin on its way, and that holiday feeling in the air. The signs were all there. “’Twas Decemburr 1918 an erryone was dyin ah Spanish flu. Fullin like flies, they was,” he went on in the language that people of Madeleine’s generation were the last to understand perfectly and that there would be no point reproducing here in its exactitude, since so many turns of phrase would only bewilder minds used to the standardized tongue we speak as an official language in this land.
Louis-Benjamin Lamontagne and his wife Madeleine the American were expecting their first child during that glacial, silent Lower St. Lawrence winter. “Why was Grandma Madeleine called ‘the American’? And why are the ladies in your stories always called Madeleine?”
The question came from the kitchen. And a good one it was, too. Why was Madeleine Lamontagne—mother to Papa Louis and grandmother to Madeleine Lamontagne—known colloquially as “the American”? Quite simply because she came from the United States. But beneath the innocent tone of this perfectly reasonable question, Papa Louis sensed that his children could no longer distinguish between members of their lineage—the result of a Lamontagne family obsession with always having at least one living Madeleine in their ranks. And kids are like that: they want to understand everything and are forever forcing storytellers to go back further in their stories and justify what just happened. Or was it nothing more than a clever ploy to push bedtime back further?
“My father, my dad, was Louis-Benjamin Lamontagne. My mother was Madeleine the American. It’s not hard to wrap yer head around!”
“But the other Madeleine?” groaned Marc, perplexed.
“Well, there’s Madeleine your big sister!” Papa Louis shot back. “No, no, there was another one,” the boy insisted.
“Ah! Old Ma Madeleine, my grandmother. Louis-Benjamin’s mom. The one who, quite by accident, brought the American to Canada!”
“What was that Madeleine called?”
“Well, just like your sister! ‘Madeleine’ is what we called her!” he said with a loud guffaw that warmed the ears of his daughter, who had just set his hot gin down on the arm of his chair. She rolled her eyes. Papa Louis softened.
“We’ll call her Old Ma Madeleine so as not to make a mystery out of nothing. Don’t worry, you’ll be able to follow it all. I’ll draw you a picture if I have to.”
Madeleine Lamontagne—a.k.a. Old Ma Madeleine, mother to Louis-Benjamin Lamontagne, grandmother to Louis Lamontagne and great-grandmother to Madeleine Lamontagne—wanted her son Louis-Benjamin, born January 14, 1900, to marry a Madeleine, like his father before him.
“The Lamontagnes need one Madeleine every generation,” she had proclaimed.
The story was repeated several times throughout the childhood of Louis-Benjamin, the first baby to be baptized in the twentieth century in the church of Saint-Patrice following a shorter-than-usual mass. The boy came to understand relatively early in life that he would be better off marrying a Madeleine than a Josephine, and so, in the springtime of his life, when he became, like other boys his age, more acutely aware of the song of the black-capped chickadees, he felt the urge to marry a Madeleine. It wasn’t that this particular spring arrived any more or less quickly than the others, but it was—let’s put it this way, because Luc is not quite asleep yet—the spring when every boy comprehends the precise nature of his aspirations and when the words to the hit songs of the day begin to take on a whole new meaning.
The day Old Ma Madeleine surprised her oldest, ahem, swashbuckling behind a stack of firewood, his black tuft of hair rocking left and right like a woodpecker’s head, she realized the time had come to find him a Madeleine of his own.
Old Ma Madeleine’s choice fell upon a sickly, weak-lunged young thing by the name of Madeleine Lévesque, who had the distinct advantage of being her niece. The young lady from Kamouraska had no sooner given her consent than the parish priest gave his own. He signed in December 1917, and the records of the parish of Saint-François-Xavier leave no doubt: it was the third time that month that special permission was given for first cousins to marry. The engagement party was held on January 1, 1918; Madeleine Lévesque’s funeral, in Latin, on the fifteenth of that same month. The Spanish flu had taken the girl in less than a week as it decimated the villages along the coast. But Old Ma Madeleine took this fateful blow as a challenge thrown down to her by God himself.
“Son, your mother won’t let you down. I’ll find your Madeleine. Even if it means rowing across to the lands your German forefathers left behind.”
Old Ma Madeleine recalled that a younger brother had left Canada for New Hampshire in 1909 and had once mentioned in a letter the existence of a little Madeleine he had adopted in the town of Nashua, the orphan of a French-Canadian couple. Might the little girl already be of child-bearing age? She must be at least sixteen by now . . . Old Ma Madeleine had the priest write her a letter in which she asked for news of her younger brother, wondering, at the very end, if young Madeleine might not be, by any chance, ready to start a family. She enclosed a recent photograph of Louis-Benjamin, his cowlick standing straight up across his forehead, his ears sticking out a little, his fleshy lips pressed into a little wave. Looking positively thirsty for affection. The letter was mailed on January 17, 1918. The answer was not long coming. On March 1, Father Cousineau of the parish of Saint-François-Xavier knocked on Old Ma Madeleine’s wooden door. He held in his hand a distressing telegram sent from New Hampshire the previous day and announcing the arrival of a certain Madeleine from the United States. She was to be picked up at Fraserville station tomorrow.
“Tomorrow, that’s today?” Old Ma Madeleine asked slowly. “Yes, tomorrow means today,” squawked the priest.
Marc loved it when his father quoted the characters in his stories verbatim, wondering all the while how he could be sure of the words since he hadn’t even been born that freezing morning of March 1, 1918, when the parish priest threw up his arms at the imminent arrival of a bride sent by railroad. He figured Papa Louis probably made up the odd bit to keep things interesting. Old Ma Madeleine and the priest stood staring at each other for a minute on the wooden steps outside the Lamontagne home, she thinking this was more than she had bargained for, he wondering how it was all going to end. Time did not afford them the luxury of putting together a little scheme to delay the bride’s arrival. The train would arrive that same evening. Upon hearing the news, Louis-Benjamin, terrified yet delighted, felt an electric current surge through him. By this time, his belle must already be on Canadian soil. With a little luck, they would be gazing upon the same star barely minutes before meeting.
Old Ma Madeleine, her oldest son Louis-Benjamin, her other son, Napoleon, his four sisters, so small that the youngest could barely stand, and Father Cousineau stood shivering at Fraserville station. The father of the Lamontagne household hadn’t been able to make it back from the logging camp where he was working all winter. Every screech of the locomotive sent shivers through Louis-Benjamin’s body, in parts that until then had not been overly insistent, that is, no more so than he had become accustomed to. He was poised to discover the extent of this inclination just as soon as the train from Quebec City pulled into the station. He felt the ground begin to shudder underfoot as the locomotive ground to a halt, a glistening beast in the dark night. A century passed before the car doors opened, spilling out somberly dressed passengers, a handful of Sisters of the Child Jesus holding each other by the arm so as not to slip on the damp ice, and men returning home from their work in the capital, shivering shadows half asleep.
The American girl kept them waiting. Outside the station, flanked by her horde of kids, clutching her youngest children tightly underneath her coat to shelter them from the cold like a penguin on an ice floe, Old Ma Madeleine was ready and waiting for the devil himself to step off the train. All the expressions a person’s face can bear when they know they are about to meet their destiny were on display from left to right. Once they concluded there had been a mistake, that the priest had misread the telegram or else the American girl had missed her train, talk turned to which road they should take back home.
She stepped out of the third car, carrying a single leather suitcase in her right hand and a box in her left. She wore a beaver fur hat and a long fur coat, the fur ripped from an animal that Old Ma Madeleine could not identify at first glance, but that later turned out to be a marten. The young woman looked right, then left, the cloud of steam produced by her mouth following her head’s movements in the pale light of an uncertain moon and the locomotive’s headlamp. The priest took the initiative of casting out into the night air the traveler’s first name, a cue to which she promptly responded. The creature then approached the welcoming committee, which could now make out her features. Madeleine the American had pale skin that was covered in freckles, even in the middle of winter. She removed her gloves to extend her hand like a lady. Louis-Benjamin, who must have been a good two heads taller than she was, had never seen a hand so white nor eyes more teal. In fact, he had never really seen teal-colored eyes before. The American girl smiled at him, deducing this must be the boy promised her at the end of the long journey. Judging by her smile, everyone understood it to be a done deal. Louis-Benjamin, a big strapping lad of six foot six, looked the little lady from the South up and down; his mother had parted his hair to the left, as she did for high masses, and ironed him a clean shirt made from warm fabric already soaking wet beneath his long beaver coat.
With a wave in his hair that, on particularly windy days, transformed into a small tuft, with the long eyelashes inherited from his mother, with shoulders as broad as an ox, with his pale complexion and cheeks turned rosy by the cold, the young man, had he not already been promised to the American lass, would have had no trouble at all finding a wife for himself from among Fraserville’s six thousand souls. The catch was that she had to be called Madeleine, a condition that disqualified the vast majority of admirers at a time when, as Papa Louis put it, “No one ever dreamed of changing their name.”
“You were born Louis, you died Louis. Not like young what’s-her-name. That Norma one who calls herself Marilyn for the movies. Anyhow, if the girls of Fraserville had known that just by changing their name the way Fraserville changed its name to Rivière-du-Loup in 1920 they would have stood a chance of catching young Louis-Benjamin’s eye, well they’d all have changed their names to Madeleine overnight. He was a good-looking young lad, was your grandpa!”
And yet Papa Louis had been through his fair share of name changes himself. Papa Louis might have been born Louis Lamontagne, but then he became Louis “The Horse” Lamontagne—the name everyone throughout the region respectfully called him as soon as he started performing public feats of strength—then, once tamed by Irene Caron, Papa Louis it was until the day he died. Between “The Horse” and Papa Louis, there had been, depending on where he found himself, other nicknames: The Incredible Lamontagne, Cheval Lamontagne, The Great Canadian, and others that had never reached his ears. But he was still yet to be born in his own story.
“Papa, it’s complicated enough as it is . . .”
And so it was a bolt out of the blue, or its Nordic equivalent, a Northern Light, that marked the first encounter between the sturdy Lamontagne boy and Madeleine the American as she took from her purse the photograph of Louis-Benjamin sent by Old Ma Madeleine. The American looked down at the photo, then up at its model, then back down from the model to her photo. Her face lit up as though she had just seen an apparition. With not a thought for good manners or the rules of etiquette, Louis-Benjamin scooped up the traveler as if to see how much she weighed, like he did with his cousins and sisters several times a day to build his strength, the little girls having become something akin to living dumbbells that had only to be caught as they ran by. Louis-Benjamin held his new bride tight against him, because this was the girl he would marry, the doubt in his mind having several minutes ago given way to a certainty as implacable as winter, as strong as the squall from the east that had just picked up in the starry night. The bride’s feet floated a foot off the ground, like those of an angel in flight. During the warm but brief embrace, Madeleine felt through her marten fur coat precisely why she had been summoned from so far away. When he set her back down onto the ice, a giggle could be heard; then Madeleine said in the prettiest New England accent:
“I see you’re happy to meet me.”
From The American Fiancée by Éric Dupont. Used with permission of the publisher Harper Via. Copyright 2020 by Eric Dupont. Translation copyright 2020 by Peter McCambridge.