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The Phantoms’ Parade

A Ghost Story set in Quebec City

by KR Slade

I have met some phantoms --‘ghostly guys’ -- on a field of an old great battle:  on those ‘Plains of Abraham’, there beside the old Citadel of the city of Quebec.  There were only two of these ghosts, until they led me inside the walls of Old Quebec.  I will tell you of these/my apparitions . . .

          When I was twenty, during one late-’60’s middle-summer, I visited the city of Quebec.  That summer, I had been leading canoe trips down the Allagash and St. John’s Rivers, from the American side, in Maine.  Travelling those mighty white-water rivers tends to instil ‘bravado’. 

          However, living life in the wilderness, can make for too-much peace-and-quiet, especially for a young guy, who would like some music, now-and-then, if not always.  Portaging canoes around a waterfall brought me near a dirt road.  On that wilderness road was a forest-fire lookout tower, with each of its four legs holding a copy of the same small poster announcement.  “Live Concert:  Quebec City -- Plains of Abraham . . .  3 days AND nights . . .  Free”. 

          The sign was in French, but that was no problem for me, since my second-language is French (or so I had thought).  The concert was the following weekend, notably all weekend-long.  A week ago, I had established with my boss that I was entitled to a week’s vacation. 

          The next day I did what was a routine/daily life-saving rescue of another one of our less-able canoeists.  As I was pumping water, quite forcibly, out of his lungs, I had the idea to ask, “Would you do me a favour, when you get back home, to Boston, tomorrow ?”

          “(gasp) Yes. (gasp)”

          “I will give you a telephone number of my friend, Doug, in a small town, just outside of Boston.  Please call him, tomorrow, when you are back there.  Tell him to meet me in front of the City Hall building, in the city of Quebec.  On this coming Friday.  At 9 pm.  For a free concert, and weekend of camping.”

          “(gasp)  OK.  (gasp)”

          I had never been to the city of Quebec, to the province of Quebec, or to Canada.  However, in this city of Quebec, they must have a city hall . . .  And, my friend Doug, as ‘camping-crazy’ as I was, would always be available for an ‘adventure’, especially any extended outdoor-challenge that required a backpack.  The fact of Canada would make it unique.  The part about the free concert would be irresistible.  

          Friday morning at 7 am, I left my backwoods Maine base-camp, got a ride to a paved road, and then spent the rest of the morning waiting.  My plan was to hitch-hike on the local but not-so-often-travelled back roads, to Jackman, Maine where I could cross the border into Quebec, Canada.  Most passing vehicles were logging trucks; then a green ‘official vehicle’ stopped.  It was my friend, the game warden. 

          I told him that I was hitching to the city of Quebec.  That was when he began to speak to me in French, but in the French-language as spoken in Quebec -- I had never heard this variety of French.  He laughed.

          He told me that I was ‘a crazy kid’, to do the thing that I intended.  I insisted; he said that he knew that I would insist.  Therefore, he drove me to the border of Canada, spoke with one of his Canadian border-guard friends -- who also told me that I was ‘a crazy kid’, <<mais, Bienvenue au Canada ! >> (“but, Welcome to Canada !”.  The border-guard later arranged a ride for me with a cordial Quebecois trucker-guy, but only for ½ hour.  This part of the province of Quebec, between Quebec City and Maine, is called ‘The Beauce’.  It began to rain.  There were several other rides, mostly from English-speaking drivers; a couple of these rides were ‘creepy’, as was the hitch-hiking scenario on the entire content of North America.  ‘I kept my cool.’ 

          I got lucky, about an hour outside of Quebec City, and got a ride directly to the main train station, in the Lower City.  I asked where the City Hall was, but my French was mis-understood, and instead of getting to the Hotel de Ville (City Hall), I arrived at the Hotel Dieu (a hospital).  No problem, the City Hall was just up the hill.  I arrived in front of the City Hall at 9:06 pm.  A body was lying on the lawn, propped-up against a tree.  Even from a distance, I thought that it was Doug:  ‘Boston Celtics’ pauncho drapped-over him, sitting on a huge backpack.  I sneaked up behind him, and took an English-language chance: 

          “Hey, college boy.  Here, we don’t much like people from Boston.”

          “You’re late.”

          “Fourteen-hour trip. Six minutes late. How long have you been waiting ?” 

          “Three hours.  Eleven-hour trip.  Where’s this concert?”

          “I’m not sure.”

          “What ?”

          “Some place called The Plains of Abraham.”

          “Great.”

          “We’ll just ask.”

          “Have you noticed, no one here speaks English ?”

          “I studied French six years in prep-school.  No problem.”

          “What is the name of the band at this concert ?”

          “I don’t know.”

          “Great.”

          “Hey, it’s free.”

          “This better be good.”

          “How about a beer ?”

          “We just got here.  How are we going to find a place that will sell beer to us ?”

          “The drinking age here is 18.”

          “Great.  I think that this is going to be a good concert.”

          “Right.  So, let’s go find these Plains.”

          “What’s the rush ?  It’s a three-day concert.  We could have a beer first, get out of this rain, get directions at a bar.”

          “OK.  Where ?”

          “There.  Any bar between a City Hall and a cathedral can’t be so bad.  Besides if we go anywhere else, we’ll probably be going the wrong way, anyway.”

          “D’accord.”

          “What ?”

          “It’s French.  It means OK.”

          “This is going to be a strange trip.”

          At the bar, we toasted our coming adventure.  Then, we had a beer to toast our summer.  And, another beer to wait and see if the rain would stop.  And, a beer for our coming final-year in university.  Then, we decided to go.  But when we went to pay, we found that the price was about one-half of what we would pay back in Boston.  So, we had a couple-more beers.  We read the blurry label on the bottle that seemed to say 5% alcohol, but we didn’t believe it because all of the beer back-home in the USA is 3%.  It was getting dark; it was really time to go.  But at this price for beer, we couldn’t resist each buying several more, to take with us.  Doug pulled out a canvas bag that would hold a dozen; I remembered that I also had a tote-bag that would hold a dozen. 

          As we made our way towards the door, a not-too-well dressed, not-too-well appearing guy, who had been sitting alone in a dark corner, and watching us since we arrived, came up to us.  He spoke some English, and asked us if we needed any help in finding anything.  We told him we were looking for the Plains of Abraham.  He knew where it was, and volunteered to show us.  Finally, we were off to our concert.

          But not directly.  Behind the City Hall, we went by a former prison where they used to hang people over their front door.  We went out one gate in the city wall, to a beautiful palace that is the Parliament; and he told us the names of each one of the many statues in the niches in the face of the building.  We walked by a statue of Samuel Champlain, and learned that he is believed to be buried in some unknown-place, nearby.  Walking down a hill through another gate, we stopped at an old graveyard.  Afterwards, he showed us the Street of the Barricades where the Americans unsuccessfully attacked the City.  We went below the Upper City and saw where the British bombarded that part of the city in 1759, and where 100 years-later sick immigrants landed, and even-later lived and died in squalor.  We were getting tired.  He suggested taking the funicular to the Upper City, where we progressed to the Citadel, from where passing ships in olden times could be sunk by cannon balls, their sailors drowning like rats.  Finally, we were in front of another former prison.  We were tired, beyond tourist tolerance; during this two-hour tour, it had seemed that we had seen some of these places more than once.  Besides, we had stopped four times in dark alleys, and other ‘secret’ places, to have a beer; half of our beer supply was gone.  Doug lost his cool,

          “Look buddy, enough with the ‘Tour of Death’.  We just want to find these Plains of Abraham and our concert.

          “This is the Plains of Abraham.  It is now a park; it was a battlefield in 1759, where many French and English died in the great battle, and . . . ”

          “No, no, no; you weren’t listening to me.  The ‘Tour of Death’ is over.  Where is our concert ?”

          “It’s there, over this little hill, on that other hill, further, you can see the stage.  Well, through the fog.  Over there, see the lights ?  Don’t you hear the music ?”

          “I hear drums.  Just drums.  Sounds like bongo drums.”

          “Yes, it is bongo drums concert.  Three days.  And nights.  It just started; you haven’t missed anything.  I thought that you would like my tour of history of the Old City.”

          “Yes.  D’accord.  Nice tour.  Here’s a beer.  Thanks a lot.  Goodbye.  Hello bongo drums.”

          Doug turned and marched with determination, at a quick gait, and with large steps,  over manicured small hills and little dales, directly towards the coloured flashing-lights of the distant stage.  I waived goodbye to Mr. Unofficial TourGuide, and hurried to follow Doug, who occasionally disappeared in more-foggy little valleys between further inclines.  When I caught up to him, we were standing on a small hill, about 400 feet in-front of the stage.  Below, was an audience of about 400 people. 

          I complemented him on finding an excellent location for locating our camp.  He said nothing.  As we had done a hundred times before, usually in total darkness, and always in less than ten minutes:  we laid out the ground cloth, put up the tent, hung the rain fly, stowed our gear inside, climbed in, lit the stove for soup and heat, and got dry.  I offered some conversation,

          “Comfy ?”

          “Three day Concert.  Bongo Drums.  Oh, sorry:  three day-and-night concert.  And rain.  Let’s not forget the rain . . .  Of all the stupid ideas . . . ”

          His tirade continued for awhile; it seemed best for me not to say anything.  I reached into my backpack for my secret-stash of brandy, took a taste, and passed it to him.  He interrupted his own speech just long enough for a healthier dose, and continued his analysis of our reality.  The subsequent swigs didn’t much delay or diminish his continuing discourses; he got louder, then faster, and finally got to cussing.

          “You know, you really shouldn’t talk like that in a place like this.”

          “Why not ?”

          “Well, this is kinda like a sacred place, like a graveyard, a lot of people died here.”

          “I’ve just had a two-hour tour, and I can name a thousand people who have died in this city.  Hanged, shot, cannon-balled, drowned, tortured, starved, diseased-to-death, and who knows how many died normal.  Cussing isn’t going to disturb any dead people.  If dead people are going to be disturbed, it’s going to be from three days of bongo drums that wake them up from the dead.”

          “It’s bad luck to talk like that.  If you’re going to talk like that, I’m going for a walk.”

          I took a tour around the concert site.  I talked with a number of people.  The consensus was that the WC protocol was <<au natural>>, and it was going to rain for at least the entire weekend.  I learned the direction of the closest convenience stores and bars.  A sound-and-light technician apologized that one of the two generators was not working, but promised that for tomorrow night a new generator would arrive; so the sound would be twice as loud, and the flashing search-lights to be aimed at the audience would be working.  There would be a special, previously-unannounced appearance after midnight on Saturday:  ‘Hare Krishna’ chants to accompany the bongo music, but only for an hour or two.  We were ‘lucky’, because since the city’s youth hostels, hotels and campgrounds were full because of other festivals, all of the bongo musical-artists would be camping here with us, enabling personalized ad-hoc accompaniments at our actual tent sites.

          I headed back to our site.  I wandered around for awhile; it must have been the fog, certainly not the brandy or the evening’s beer, but this place was definitely taking on the appearance of something like another planet.  I looked for our tent, where I thought it would surely have been; I walked by three times before I heard Doug’s voice.  The place looked different because there were two more tents, all three now connected to each other, re-arranged into one large semi-open tent.  And there was a now-happy Doug, with four girls from France; they did not speak any English, and he did not care; they had just arrived in Quebec, and so had he; they had never been camping, and Doug was their camping hero.  Night passed into grey day; at about noon, the girls packed-up and left for Montreal.  After ten hours of our own little reality of campsite entertainment from Doug’s Boy Scout repertoire, we were back in just rain and the bongo world.  I volunteered to do the beer re-provisioning expedition.  When I returned, I again had a problem finding our site.  He had re-arranged the tent again, now into a sort of pavilion, open on three sides, and extended in the front with various paunchos, flies, and some plastic sheeting that he had found.  He had also acquired about a half-dozen new friends, and his own supply of beer.  And, there was the change of colour of the hillsides, now in a hazy light.  And back in bongo-land, I realized that I had a long-running bongo headache.

          By early evening, we had run-out of beer.  Doug emptied his huge backpack, and grabbed a couple of tote bags.  I drew him a map to the beer store.  Two hours later, he returned from the half-hour trip.  He had gotten lost.  He had no trouble finding the store, no trouble returning to the plains, it was finding our tent-site at the concert that had taken him the extra one-and-a-half hours.  I had been on one hundred camping, hunting, and skiing trips with him; he never gets lost.  Something strange was going on in this place.

          We settled back to some serious beer drinking.  After a couple of beers, he reached into his pocket, looked into his palm, and then handed me what he had been holding and staring-at for five minutes.  It was his compass.  I laughed.

          “You took your compass to find the beer store ?”

          “Of course; I know your maps.  Look at it.”

          “Oh.”

          “It started doing that when I got back here to the concert.  That’s why it took me an hour-and-a-half after getting back to this concert to find you.”

          “It just spins.  First one way, then the other.”

          “No.  It spins, and then spins in the other direction.  But it doesn’t spin the same number of times in both directions, or in either direction.  The spins are not always 360 degrees; they are not any constant-number of degrees.  It spins completely at random.  And it doesn’t stop.” 

          “What are you going to do with it ?”

          “I’m going to bust it.  I’m going to take this rock and smash it on this bigger rock.”

          “Why ?”

          “Well, it’s not much good as a compass, is it ?”

          So, that’s what he did.  Well, that’s what he tried to do.  The first time he completely missed his mark, and the compass fell-off the big rock.  The second time, the small rock broke, but the compass continued spinning.  The third time, it appeared that the compass flew into the air, but we couldn’t see that well, because the replaced electric generator started working.  Exactly at midnight, the bongos became twice as loud, and the audience spotlights began.  The first spotlight flash was directly at us.  We spent the next twenty minutes looking for the compass, with the help of the occasional spotlight flashes in our direction.  We did not find the compass.                

          Some newfound friends arrived.  We had more beer.  The hour of the promised chanting came, and thankfully went.  Our friends became quiet and passed into early-morning bongo-stupor.  Some minutes later Doug looked at me, and said,

          “Do you hear that ?”

          “What ?”

          “Listen.  Do you hear anything ?”

          “Horse.  Running.  No, two horses.  Running.  Fast.  Coming closer.”

          “Just over this hill behind us.  Come on, let’s go see.”

          We ran the twenty feet to the crest.  The sound was still coming in our direction, from our left, in the ravine below.  The sound became faster, too fast; no horse can run that fast.  Fifty feet below us, a pair of flashes passed us; the sound became distant quickly, towards two-hundred feet along the ravine, where there was a bend in the direction of the Citadel.

          “What was that ?”

          “Don’t know.  Let’s go see.” 

          “Where ?”

          “Down this crest, until we can see down the bend.”

          “To see what ?”

          “Whatever there may be to see.”

          “The double flash, it might just have been from the audience spot-lights.”

          “The stage lights are behind us, coming from lower than us, blocked by the hill, and

the flashes were below.  There’s nothing here to reflect light.  Besides, the flashes were going in the opposite direction than the spot-lights rotate.”

          “OK.  Let’s go see.”

          We ran the 200 feet along the crest.  The double flashes were making a great circle around the plains, but each circle was coming closer to the citadel.  We headed straight for the citadel, the obvious eventual destination. 

          The Citadel of Quebec is an unusual fortress.  From the Plains, the fortress is below ground level.  So, when we arrived at where the fortress begins, we had to stop.  There is a man-made stone cavity the entire length, about forty-feet deep, and about fifty-feet wide.  We stood on the top of the wall, wondering ‘now, what ?’  We didn’t have to wait long for our answer.  The horses were coming.  The sound was louder, but there was nothing in sight.  Then a double blur, heading in our direction.  We both pointed at their path.  Twenty-feet away from us, the horses jumped, or more accurately flew across; no horse can jump that distance.  And those horses, they had riders.  Bluish-white blurs in yellow-white fog, yet distinctly the figures of men.

          We stood there awhile.  We didn’t say anything.  But, it wasn’t long when we just turned and looked at each other, and then turned to walk back; we weren’t going to be able to get across the citadel ditch.  We hadn’t taken but-two steps in the direction that we had come, when we both pointed, and at the same time said, “There.”

          There were two more blurs coming across the plains, towards the citadel.  We hadn’t noticed that after the first two went over the ditch, the sound of horses coming had not stopped.  Four or five more double-blurs went over the ditch, in rapid succession, but further away from us.  However, the sound of coming horses did not stop.  There were more blurs coming on the other side of us, where we hadn’t been looking.  However, these blurs were further away, not coming directly at the citadel; they were heading for the Old City.

          We didn’t have to say anything to each other.  We were of one mind:  we were going to follow, if only to see where they go.  We ran along the edge of the citadel, away from the St. Laurence River, toward the Old City.  Inside the citadel, the blurs were riding around, as if they were delivering some message. 

          For some reason, as we were running along, we looked over our shoulders, away from the Citadel, back towards the expanse of the Plains.  We came to a sudden stop.  Several hundred feet distant from us, and for a great depth beyond, there were hundreds of blurs, slowly heading from the Plains.  They were not on horses; they were as if walking.  It was some concerted mission.

          We made our way, I don’t know how because we had never been this route before; but, today’s double-crossing guide somehow gave us insight to find our away along on-top of the walls of the Old City.  As we got to what I’d later know to be the St. Louis Gate, we could see the horse-pairs racing around everywhere, and the walking blurs were coming through the gate, going down St. Louis Street. 

          We continued on top of the wall; the strangest sight of all made us stop and stare from the wall.  On the front of Parliament, blurs were floating down, from all of those statues.  They also were entering the Old City. 

          We ran over, past the next gate, heading for St. John’s Gate.  A huge procession of blurrs was entering there, from up St. John Street and Richelieu Street, and from up the hill.

          We turned, and ran back to the Dauphin Gate, across from Parliament.  There, we descended from the wall into the street.  For a couple of blocks, we walked amongst the the blurrs.  They paid no attention to us, as if they did not see or hear us, as if we were not there.  One walked through me; I saw one walk through Doug; Doug had some fun and intentionally walked through a couple of them.  They don’t seem to really ‘walk’, it’s more like ‘float’.  They seem to move at one of two speeds:  slow or very fast.  We could hear them talking, some in English, some in French, some in other languages; but their speech was garbled, incomprehensible.  Then again, some of them were very-old, and they probably would speak very differently from us, anyway.  However, they seem to like to talk with each other, and seem to be very cordial and social; all relatively more and better than living people.  They touch each other, hold hands, and arms; they stand/move close together; I think I saw some whispering, hugging, maybe kissing, but I couldn’t be certain. 

          You can see through them; rain goes through them; but they are not 100% always transparent.  When they turn/move, it is possible to see some colour and surface of both clothing and skin / teeth / fingernails / hair; but this surface is not constantly or consistently visible -- it comes and goes.  It is not like the movies, because it would be like a ‘bad’ movie; they move statically, not smoothly -- it would be like watching a movie with an irregular number of images per second; too-many, then too-few.  You can see them better if you look at them totally, and not concentrate on details.  These things seem also true for the horses.  However, I did not see any eyes. 

          Then there was the strangest thing of all.  The old prison, behind the City Hall, now called Morrin Centre:  there, something special was going on.  On all sides of the building, blurs were flying-out of the windows, especially the windows in the basement.  But not a single one of them was coming out the front-door; there was another activity going on, in front of the front-door.  From the wall, near a window, over the door, some blurs were ascending and assisting other burrs -- in a constant procession -- that were hanging there.

          We found ourselves in front of the City Hall, where we had met Friday evening.  Here, in front of the Cathedral, seemed to be the greatest centre of activity.  The square and every small street around, and at the other Cathedral, was some sort of meet-and-greet.  They all seemed to know what to do.  There was no hint as to when or why they do this, or as to frequency or duration, or whether this was routine or special.  Then again, there is no reason to believe that this was the first or last time.

          A few minutes later, all the phantoms suddenly disappeared, in a split second, and all was back to normal fog.  Probably the most significant thing is that there had been thousands of them.  A taxicab drove by and parked.  We got into the taxi, and said, “Plains of Abraham.  Bongo Concert.”  The driver said something, but we could not hear him.  Back at the concert, we had no problem finding our tent, still occupied by our last evening’s guests.  One of them said to us,

          “Where have you guys been ?”

          “Out,” said Doug.

          “Out, for a walk,”  I said.

          “Want a beer ?”

          “No,”  we both said.

          It continued to rain.  This summer storm would last for some more days.  The sky was always dark; clouds battled for control of sky -- appropriately, for the old, former fields of battle where we had bongo’d the weekend away.  And, roused some phantoms . . .      

.  .  .  .  . 

          In subsequent years, twenty-plus years later, I came to spend some thirteen years of New Years Eves; wandering below the citadel of Quebec, in ‘Le Petit Champlain’, and just below that smallest of today’s existing gates, where the barricades were thrown-up to stop invading General Montgomery and Benedict Arnold of the US.  There, at these barricades, in Old Quebec’s so-hearty winter nights of New Year’s eves, more ghosts claim their heritage.

          On nights dark and dreary, always leery, in the fog of daytime coming nighttime, or in blinding snows, or to pitch-black hours before the sun-time:  somehow, these long-dead phantoms find me.  These phantoms of olden times, they continue to visit me, they still speak to me.  All from my former walks in and around the Old City of Quebec.

          I have met other ghosts elsewhere in the city of Quebec.  There, past the Citadel, only one or two kilometres, on the Fleuve Saint Laurent, at the old mission-place of the Jesuits.  And up the river, where Jacques Cartier passed his winter.  Also, in the St. Jean Street cemetery, where lies the bastard-son of an English king; and throughout my most-favourite wanderings of the streets of ‘Le Faubourg Saint-Jean Baptiste’.  And, down in ‘Le Petit Champlain’, by the church of ‘Notre Dames Des Victoires’ -- where, just nearby, Samuel Champlain passed his winter times.  And, on streets that divided Catholic and Protestants, where young ‘cross-cultured’ lovers met.  And scores of decades of agonies of French and English conflicts.  And, up by the old prison --later called Morrin College, from the cellar cells where society’s less-fortunates and criminals screamed their sentences away; but more notably, when coming out the front-door, and seeing dangling feet, and higher, the body hanging hanged.  The many phantoms of Old Quebec taught me something:  how to see, hear, and know ghosts.

          Before the Saint Lawrence/Laurent (‘The River’, <<Le Fleuve>>) leads to Old Quebec, there is the island:  Grosse Isle.  Here immigrants, notably the Irish, from the Old World arrived.  When walking that island, one will have no question that there are coughing ghosts.

           Now I am in Europe.  Everyday, I walk the streets where Napoleon and other armies retreated; those dead soldiers and their victims speak to me.  Ghosts, they are everywhere, but none such as the ghosts of Old Quebec.

 

All Rights Reserved:   2006               kenmunications@gmail.com

The foregoing article is ‘fiction’.  Then again, maybe it is a ‘fiction’ to say that it was ‘fiction’; you can never really know with ‘fiction’ . . .

{Note:  the original version of this story is contained in an unpublished 2006 collection (of ghost stories about Quebec) in the ‘Literary and Historical Society of Quebec’ [the oldest English-language literary society outside of Great Britain], in Quebec (city), Quebec (Province), Canada.}


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