canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Damned

by Michel Basiličres

At the end of a hard day’s tramp in snowshoes their breath was freezing on their beards, the air they chewed scraped in their lungs and even their words were gelling as the sun sank below the tops of the pines. A merciless cold came whistling through the trees as if the forest itself were wheezing and the small jokes they made to cheer themselves fell dead with their laughter on the silent snow.

The great canoe which had been their burden was laid on its side and became their wind break. In its shelter they huddled together around a tiny fire, trying to figure out how far they were yet from Detroit. That would be their first contact with other Europeans, the first tenuous promise that the journey might someday end.

They swore as only men lost together in the woods can do. They spoke of their wives and children, of the beds they’d enjoy, of wooden houses with stoves to heat them, of freshly baked bread. They spoke of all the things they were missing out here on the frozen ground of winter, without proper bed or bed mate, without even a little alcohol to deaden the terror of the thousand miles left between them and home.

Home — Montreal — seemed as far away and ephemeral as Heaven itself: A delicious fantasy, but not a place to which one might be guaranteed an entry in this hard life.

One of them took out his stick and counted its notches: A single cut for each week. But had he miscounted the days? Was it now Christmas Eve? Or was it even New Years?

“Tabernac,” said Pierre, the one with the stick. “Fellows, I think it’s Christmas.”

“Maudit,” said another.



“Why is it always coldest when it’s holiest?” asked one, shuffling closer to the fire to thaw out his beard.

“It’s a test for the faithful,” said another.

“It’s to keep you at home with your wife.”

“What I wouldn’t give to be home with my wife tonight,” said Jean, who sat in the stern of the canoe (and was paid more for this harder job).

“Yeah, with the kids all running around.”

“And a good portion of rum.”

“Or cognac.”

“Christ, you said that. Cognac.”

“What would you give?” asked Jacques, who sat in the bow (and was paid the most for this hardest job). It was a game they sometimes played: What would you give, what is the price, of your dreams?

One piped up: “I’d give a little finger off my hand, tabernac.”

“Left or right?” asked another.

“For a deal with the Devil like that, it’s got to be left.”

“T’es fou, toé? You think the Devil himself would come out here in the middle of stinking nowhere to take your little finger? I think he’s back at home having tea with the bishop.”

“You’ve got to give more, he drives a hard bargain. Worse than the Indians.”

“I would give a thumb,” said one.

“Câlisse,” said Jean. “Your wife must be good to you.”

“Better than you”

Another exclaimed, “I would give a hand. A whole maudite baptęme hand.”

There was silence.

Jacques said, “It would be hard to paddle with only one hand.”

“Yes,” said the man, staring into the flames, “but if the Devil took me home I wouldn’t come back.”

Feet shuffled. Someone poked the fire.

The one with the stick said, “But the thing is, fellows, do you think the Devil wants your hand, or even your whole goddamn arm? What’s he going to do with a piece of your body?”

“Not what you do, I hope.”

It so happened that the Devil himself (who was shying away just then from Christian communities, where at least for a single night no one would have any use for him, and where the talk of the Baby Jesus would be incessant and the murmur of prayers continuous and, cumulatively, a veritable ear-splitting roar) was wandering by near enough to hear his name mentioned.

“Now here’s the luck of the Devil,” he said to himself. “Cast into the wilderness when He is most present in the world, I find these men not only alone and helpless, not only disposed to bargain with anybody about anything, but negotiating the terms even before I put the proposal!” And he laughed.

The men jumped. As would you, to hear the Devil laughing behind you.

“’sti!” exclaimed Jean.

“Calvaire!” said Jacques, holding his heart.

But as the Devil stepped into the light of the fire, Pierre, the one with the stick, laughed at their fears. The Devil was wearing the simple black robe of the Society of Jesus, which he had found as effective a costume in the New World as in the Old.

The men all sighed in relief and laughed.

“Câlisse, Father, you gave us a fright.”

“Tabernac, I never expected that.”


The Devil put his hands up to ears and said, “Don’t say those things please.”

At once all the men were ashamed for having blasphemed in the presence of a priest, but the truth was that even taken in vain the name of the Lord and his sacraments was painful to the Devil. They made space for him around the fire and beset him with questions:

“Where did you come from?”

“What are you doing out here?”

“Where are you going?”

“I was meditating in the silence of the woods when I heard your conversation and saw your fire. I, too, would rather be back among civilised folk.”

The men turned away their gaze and shuffled. He must have heard them offering themselves to Satan.

“Oh, well, Father, don’t take any notice of what we said,” pleaded Jacques. “We’ve been so long away from other Christians …”

“Yes,” said Jean. “We were bragging, that’s all. We’ve nothing else to do at night, Father.”

But the Devil could look into their minds and knew better. “Well, you mustn’t let my presence deter you. I was once an ordinary man, too.” Of course the Devil was never a man and so he was lying. But what’s to keep the Devil from lying, especially after hearing men do so?

And to cement their good will he brought from beneath his robe a bottle of cognac and offered it around.

Pierre said, “Now that’s a Christmas miracle, Father.” He took a swig and wiped the mouth of the bottle with his hand.

“And so you don’t think Satan wants your bodies?” asked the Devil as the bottle went around.

Warmed by the drink and the Devil’s gesture of camaraderie, Jacques dared to reply. “He’s already got them, you see, Father.” The others all laughed in agreement.

Jean said, “Just like you, they say he’s more interested in souls.”

The Devil chuckled too. “Would you give him your soul, then, to see your wives tonight?”

A chorus of denials sprang from their lips:

“No, no Father!”

“You’re having fun with us now.”

“You’re teaching us a lesson!”

Eventually their chatter dissolved into a nervous laughter, and then silence befell the camp.

Quietly the Devil said, “Would you give your souls to me?”

When they heard this the men resigned themselves to a sermon. It was true they longed to be back home, but in their hearts the one thing they’d never missed was the Sunday mass their wives pulled them to. And now they were afraid that somehow even here in the wilderness they had ended up in church.

“Anyhow, it’s impossible,” said Jacques. “We’re a thousand miles from Montreal.” The others murmured in agreement, hoping the conversation would find a new subject. But none could think of one.

After a while the Devil said, “Yet I brought you cognac and you said that was a miracle. And here I sit with you tonight.”

Some of them looked away from the fire, but some turned to stare at his face. As the flames danced over it, they began to have their suspicions.

“Are you a miracle worker, Father?” asked Jean.

“If I can show you what you’re longing for will you believe I can take you to it?” Lucifer asked.

The voyageurs glanced around at each other, wondering what to think. When they looked back into the flames they exclaimed in surprise, for there in the light were the faces of their loved ones.

“You’ve not seen them in quite a while,” said the Devil. “Aren’t your wives more beautiful than your companions?” They were in fact much cleaner and softer looking and altogether more appealing than the leather and skin-clad woodsmen. “And see what they’ve done and are doing for you: Your fields and animals are tended, your children are clothed and fed, your beds await you — and I point out that your loving wives, at least, have been faithful.”

Many of the men turned their eyes away in shame, but naturally the Devil was lying again.

“See how your children have grown in your absence,” said the Devil. They saw their sons and daughters laughing, playing with pets, helping their mothers in the chores. The men’s hearts filled with shame and longing and each swore to himself he would do anything for his family, for no man had one better.

When they looked back to the Devil he was no longer in disguise. But they weren’t afraid, for he said, “No simple priest can return you to your families tonight. But I can.”

They believed him. He looked exactly like a patron, one of the English bankers or Hudson’s Bay men in Montreal who bought their goods and sent them out year after year. He looked like a man who could do what he said he could do.

“I’ll take you home to be with your families and I’ll bring you back here tomorrow.”

Jacques said, “Back tomorrow? What good is one night?”

The Devil replied, “It’s this particular night. What other night have you even thought of your wives and children?” The men were silent. “And you think I’d do this just for you? Don’t you think your families want their men home tonight? Don’t you realise this is when you’re missed most? Oh, your wives understand the nature of your work but the children, my friends. The young ones. They don’t know why you’re here in the woods. They know only that while their friend’s fathers are treating them and playing with them tonight, you’re absent. Soften your hearts! Think of someone other than yourselves for the first time since you left home.”

And he passed around another bottle of cognac.

The men drank and muttered to themselves. When next they looked into the fire each saw his own wife naked and awaiting him in a clean bed.

“I ask only what your local priest asks of you,” said the Devil. “You said it yourselves.”

Jean said, “But you ask too much. Who would give their soul for one night of happiness?”

The Devil smiled and said, “I once bet a man his soul for a single instant.”

Jean was not stupid. “A bet? That’s different. A bet can be won or lost on either side. But a straight trade like that is too much to ask.” The others agreed.

“Very well,” said Satan. “I’ll wager with you.”

Jacques said, “And maybe we’ll wager with you, but only after we know the terms.” The Dark One handed him the cognac, but he refused it. He might deal with the Devil, but he wasn’t stupid enough to do so drunk.

Satan shrugged it off. “I’ll get you home for the midnight celebrations. I’ll carry your canoe through the air to Montreal. You can have all night with your families; at dawn, I’ll bring you back.”

Jean said, “What’s the wager?”

The Dark Prince smiled and said, “I’ll bet you can’t last the trip without blaspheming your God. You mustn’t say his name in any form, or speak of his church or servants or rituals, or celebrations of any kind.”

“Tabernac,” said Pierre.

“’sti,” said another.

“You see?” said the Devil. “If you’d already agreed, you would already have lost the wager.”

“Câlisse,” said a third.

Jacques took the cognac. “Impossible.”

Satan shrugged. “You have no faith. Despite your constant invoking of your religion, you have no faith in it or in yourselves. That is the point.”

Jean said, “Not so fast. It’s you we have no faith in, Master Fiend. How do we know we can trust you?” At this, the others joined in:

“How do we know you’re not some cheap trickster making fun of us?”

“How do we know you’re who you say you are?”

The Devil quieted them and said, “You see? Nothing but doubt. But if I can’t do what I promise, what have you lost? If I’m a trickster, who’s here to see you making fools of yourselves? No one but myself, and your God. And you don’t have to trust me. Rather I must trust you since I have to prove myself first. And even then you may still win what I offer and I’ll gain nothing.”

The men were silent.

The Devil said, “So you see, it’s I who has the faith.”

Pierre, the one with the stick, asked quietly, “How do you know you can trust us?”

Satan considered lying again but for once he gained by telling the truth. “I don’t have to. If you win the wager I’ve lost nothing. If you loose, you can’t cheat me. There are no cheaters in Heaven. I know; I’ve been there.”

The men debated amongst themselves. “How can we make a deal with the Devil?” asked one.

“Tabernac, he’s right here bargaining with us.”

“He’s not that smart. Remember, none of us is pure. What do we have to lose?”

“You know, when we get to Montreal we could go to mass and confess. Then we would be pure again.”

“Idiot. Then you would lose the bet!”

“I think I’m shocked. This means there really is a God.”

“And a Heaven.”

“He said so himself.”

Jacques shook his head. “If that’s true we must have nothing to do with him. We must repent and pray, and find a real priest to absolve us as quickly as we can.”

“Mais non,” said Jean. “We must make this bargain.”

“What?! And how can we keep silent in a flying canoe? How can we keep from swearing, câlisse?” said Pierre.

Jean nodded. “Yes, it will be tough. But we’ll think of God and our families, and our faith will protect us. Isn’t that what the curé always says? Don’t you see, even the Devil said that’s what this was about. It’s a test of our faith.”

“Yes, you’re right. And at Christmas, too.”

“Come,” said Satan, “and we’ll have a grand meal first to seal the bargain.” He stood before a table laden with Christmas food: Roast fowl and ham, meat pies, wines and punches and egg noggs, all laid out on linen and china and even with clean napkins to hand.

“But remember: From now until we’re back tomorrow morning, not a word about your God! You must eat this meal without saying grace.”

The men laughed, sat down and tucked in. But they didn’t know that this was the Devil’s first trick: What they put into their mouths was really that which usually comes out another end.

Their gear was stored safely under a bush, the fire was put out and Pierre’s comb was passed through their heads and beards. The great canoe was righted upon the snow.

The moon was squeezing through the tops of the pines but it was so dark they stepped on each other’s fingers getting in.

“Eh — “ and a hand was clapped over the mouth which nearly gave them away before they’d even sat down. “Sorry, boys,” said Pierre and shook his sore hand. At last they were settled.

Jacques said, “Be careful now. We must be going to go pretty fast, so watch your tongues.”

Sure enough the canoe was lifted up into the air and over the treetops in an instant and the air rushed passed their ears painfully. But the earth was reluctant to give up its grip and now they were sorry they’d eaten so freely. The world below seemed to be turning under them, the moon glared in their eyes from a very small distance away, and the canoe pitched and yawed as if they were shooting the rapids, but without the scrape and bump of the rocky riverbed.

Jean looked over the starboard side and said, “Look ahead, there goes Detroit.” But his voice was whipped away by the wind. The warm glow of the scattered cabins was behind them as quickly as he said it.

It was too much. No one could have expected all these novel sensations: The incredible speed, the pull of the earth as they rose, the sudden letting go into weightlessness, looking down on clouds from above — as the Angels and birds must see them — and the clear line of the curving horizon constantly approaching like the edge of the world itself.

At first they were breathless, but then they could not resist speaking.

“Merde,” said Pierre.

“Merde,” said another.

A third said, “Merde.”

Jacques said, “Merde,” and then so did Jean.

Their words came out in big puffs which quickly froze and dropped into the canoe alongside their feet. In a few moments the icy curses were piled up to their ankles and they began pitching them over the side, where they crashed into the frigid trees below, sending huge falls of snow to the forest floor.

The longer they had to consider their position, the more their amazement grew and the more they swore. They could think of only one thing to say which wouldn’t cost them their souls, and so what came out of their mouths was that which usually finds another exit. As they flew over New France they threw frozen curses in their wake as fast as they could, for there was only so much room in the canoe.

“Merde! Faster, boys!”



The words fell in the fields and trees and on frozen streams, in village squares and on barn roofs, and once in a while through windows closed against the winter. Cows and dogs and an habitant or two were stung red with the piercing force of a curse. But by the time wondering eyes were raised to the sky the canoe had vanished and only the cold stars winked down in silence.

In the glare of the moonlight our voyageurs counted the Great lakes below and then the mighty St. Lawrence River, frozen over, appeared as a winding white line cutting through the blackness of the surrounding forest to point the way home. Now they sailed low above the ice, tossing their words to starboard and port as they went. The trees on either bank whipped by faster than ever, and the bends in the river leapt at them like nightmares; and they held their hearts in by shutting their mouths.

And then they were home.

They stepped out of the canoe into Place d’Youville as the church bell was ringing for Midnight Mass. Here came their wives to the service, dragging sleepy children through the cold behind them. The men called to their families who recognised them in shock and ran forward in joy; but after the hugging and laughter the wives began to pull them into church.

“No, no,” cried the men. “We mustn’t.”

“Why ever not?”

“Ah, well, you see … we cannot.”

The wives laughed this off and pleaded, then insisted; and finally they threatened. “Have you lost your faith?”

But the men were unmoved. “We can’t go in, and we can’t really say why. We’re tainted, you see.”

It was true that even though Montreal was just an overgrown fort, by Montreal standards the voyageurs were more than dirty: They even smelled of the bush. And inside the chapel waited every good Christian in town — and some not so good — and the curé and the Governor of the Island, and even the Company Men of Hudson’s Bay — who (although they weren’t Catholic, had no church of their own and so celebrated Christmas with their French compatriots and who) after all, were the bosses.

So the wives sent their men home to bathe, and went in with the children to pray for their husbands.

Afterwards the families traded presents and jokes, and exchanged news of their lives apart (excepting certain details about Indian maidens or English merchants or worse) and had as much fun as they could for the rest of the night.

Yet behind it all, in their own minds and their wives’ too, lingered the unpleasantness before the church.

At Jean’s, his wife was incensed that he’d tackled the tourtičre while they’d been at mass instead of waiting for the family to sit down together. But that was the only solution he could find to the problem of the Christmas meal: How could he have said grace?

At Jacques’, his wife couldn’t believe he’d forgotten the words to Minuit Chrétien when even little Jacqueline knew them. When he refused to sing along even after being reminded, she worried he’d lost his soul out there in the wilderness.

And at Pierre’s, where his wife had laid out the nativity scene he’d carved himself, his joy turned to grief when she asked him to relate the story it illustrated to the twins.

For once it was the women who cursed and the men who were silent.

At dawn they put on their coats and went out into the cold of Place d’Youville and climbed into the canoe without a word.

When all were ready they flew off again and it was just like the first time except in reverse. Instead of trying to reach a horizon which bent away as fast as they flew toward it, now they chased the twilight receding in the dawn which crawled up their backs. Once again they couldn’t help themselves: Such speed was unnatural, not heard of even in fairy tales, and the wind stung their now beardless, sensitive faces and eyes; the swooping and curving and upping and downing played Hell with their guts — and they were flying!




Again, when they’d climbed into the upper air the chill froze their words, which piled up in the canoe until they were forced to throw them overboard along the way.

But each man was mindful of his mouth and what came out of it, and at last they landed back at the previous night’s camp in the woods. There lay the heap of furs they’d traded knives and axes for; there were the paddles and packs; there was a small black spot in the snow that had been their fire; there were the two empty cognac bottles.

And they had won their bet with Lucifer.

Even so, once out of the canoe they had not much to say. They were as sore and stiff as if they’d slept all night on the cold ground. They stamped their feet, shook out their arms and slapped their faces against the winter morning.

Behind them the Devil was now dressed in the blood-red silks of a Cardinal to match the burgeoning sun. He didn’t seem disappointed to lose and he didn’t argue.

“You win!” was all he said as he disappeared into the dawn.

“Câlisse,” said Jacques.

“Tabernac,” said Jean.

“’sti,” said Pierre, the one with the stick.


Ever since that day, whenever someone in Quebec believes they’ve beaten the Devil and won their heart’s desire, at the moment of their greatest happiness, shit falls from the sky.

Michel Basiličres, like everyone else born and raised in Montreal, carries it with him forever, no matter where he lives now. He is currently teaching writing at Humber College in Toronto, raising a son, writing a novel, reviewing books for the Toronto Star, and learning to deal with the internet. He is the author of Black Bird, which won the in Canada First Novel Award, was a Globe & Mail Best Book of the Year, a Leacock Medal and Commonwealth Writer’s Prize finalist, and has been published in four languages. He has also written radio drama for the CBC, stageplays, songs, loveletters, and I.O.U’s.






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