Les Feu Follet

The following is excerpted from Were-Wolves and Will-O-The-Wisps: French Tales of Mackinac Retold, written and illustrated by Dirk Gringhuis. The stories in this book are the basis for Fort Fright, taking place October 5 and 6 at Colonial Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City. The book is available at the Colonial Michilimackinac Visitor’s Center, and tickets for Fort Fright are available by clicking here

Les Feu Follet

Marie and her husband Robert along with their baby, Jean, lived in their home outside of Fort Michilimackinac. One warm summer day, Marie’s cousin, young Jacques from Montreal, came to pay a visit. Marie was delighted when Robert suggested that he take a day’s trip to meet with some courerurs de bois near the Ottawa Indian village of L’Arbre Croche, the Crooked Tree, Marie was quite content to stay at home with her young cousin, the baby and a Pani woman servant. Panis were Indian slaves, prisoners taken in Indian wars who served as domestics.

All went well until evening when storm clouds began to form over the lake and white caps showed their plumes far out in the lead coloered water.

The women watched it approach the cabin. Now the sky was very dark except for the brilliant lightning forking lakeward. Marie began to worry about Robert and asked the Pani woman to split some slivers off the Christmas Log (always preserved year by year) and to throw them on the fire to prevent the thunder from falling. She then glanced at the door and was relieved to see a branch of white torn still in place. This bush was thought to be a divine lightning rod. The custom had probably come from the fact that thorns such as these had crowned the Saviour’s head.

Gradually the rumble of thunder and the lightning passed. By not it was dark. Marie’s fears began to rise once more as her husband failed to return. Going to the window she peered into the darkness. Suddenly all were startled by a shrill whistle. Even Jean in his crib, began to cry. Quickly, Marie slammed the shutters clossed, and bolted them. “I saw the feu follet dancing over the fields, if I had not shut it out it would have entered and strangled us!” she cried. “Le Bon Dieu preserve Robert this night!”

Her cousin tried to comfort her. “Do not fear, Robert your husband can take care of himself.” he said. “If you like, now that the rain has stopped, we can go looking for him.” A sturdy young man, he moved toward the door confidently trying to ease his cousin’s fears. Jean was sound asleep and the Pani woman was a good nursemaid. Marie made up her mind. Robert was never late, something must have happened on the trail.

“Let us go,” she said, wrapped a shawl around her shoulders and handed a lantern to Jacques. “I know the path well.”

As they walked Jacques, trying to keep her mind from her missing husband asked, “What are the feu follet like at Michilimackinac, cousin?”

“They are not always dangerous and they appear as lights above swampland. When twin lights are seen in the twilight, they are called Castor and Pollus and this is a happy omen.”

“This I had not heard,” said Jacques, lantern held high, watching the dim trail ahead.

“But,” Marie continued, “When a single light appears it is named Helene. Then he who sees it must throw himself on the ground and cover his face. For the light holds an evil magic that lures the traveler to desert bogs or steep ravines then leaves him there to die … But Robert does not believe in them” Jacques shook his head. “Grand-pere who came from Caen in Normandy said that the feu follet there, are male and female and are supposed to be those who have sinned against purity. Therefore the Normans call maidens who have sinned, fourolle, such as ‘fourolle Jeanne’ or ‘fourelle Mignonette’. The Evil One gives them power to turn themselves into bright lights leading travelers to their deaths.”

Marie shuddered.

“Perhaps it is time we shouted for Robert” said Jacques. Together they called out his name again and again, for now the ground was getting miry and frogs croaked dismally close by. The lantern threw weird shapes against the dark trees, and Marie held her shawl tighter around her shoulders. Still there was no answer. Desperate, the young wife uttered one last despairing cry. It was answered instantly by a pistol shot. With a shout they both sprang forward through the underbrush. There in the swamp was a figure up to his waist in the sucking mud. It was Robert.

Together they made a bridge with their hands and soon the weary traveler was in his wife’s tearful embrace.

As they made their way happily homeward, he told his story. Returning later than expected from the village, he had become lost in the storm. All at once he had seen a light and followed it only to plunge into the swamp. He cried out for help until he grew hoarse and all he heard was the mocking laughing of goblins. At last, when he thought all hope gone, he had heard his wife’s final cry. It was then he had fired his pistol.

“Perhaps now, mon cheri, you will believe in les feu follet?” asked Marie.

Robert nodded, thoughtfully, “You were right, ma petite. I believe!”

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