Here is a most peculiar object. Come closer, take a good look. See, here it is, laid out in this museum basement. It is a battered iron cage—human-shaped. At the top, there are two bent strips to enclose the head. Down here are thicker bands to surround the rib cage, the pelvic bones. Look, here are iron rings to snap shut around the arms, the legs, the ankles, the wrists.
There are many mirrors here. Turn around. See how they reflect the cage on all sides? We are standing in a hall of cages, you and I, and no two of them are exactly alike.
Wait. There is something else I must show you. At the very edge of the table, so small that we almost missed it, there is a placard. Just a simple rectangle, beige with brown edges, and two words stamped in black.
Her name was La Corriveau and she was a witch. In the old days, before the English conquered Québec, she lived in Saint-Vallier, on the southern bank of the St. Lawrence. Throughout her wicked life, she had seven husbands and killed them all: with nooses, and with axes, and with molten lead poured down their ears, which was her favourite method.
After she was finally caught and hanged, and her body suspended in its cage over the crossroads, a man named Dubé was walking by the St. Lawrence late at night. When he passed the spot where La Corriveau’s cage had been hung, cold, clammy fingers suddenly wrapped around his throat.
A breath hissed in his ear, like air escaping from an opened tomb. "Take me over the river," the voice rasped. "I must lead the witches’ dance, and I cannot cross unless a baptised man carries me."
Well, Dubé knew that it was the ghost of La Corriveau, trying to get to the Île d’Orléans for the witches’ Sabbath. He wrenched her fingers from his neck, his blood running cold.
"Take me over the river!" Her voice sharpened to a shriek; her hands clawed at his frock coat. Dubé whirled around, and he saw her under the moonlight, her long black hair streaming behind her, her flesh mouldering, yellow teeth bared and eyes flashing red.
She wore the shape of a woman, but Dubé knew that La Corriveau was no woman. With a prayer on his lips, he shoved her backwards, and ran as fast as he could to the nearest village. The next morning, the curate came to exorcise La Corriveau, but no one ever dared the crossroads after sunset again.
Actually, her name was Marie-Josephte Corriveau, and she was a farm girl from Saint-Vallier, the only surviving child of nine. When she was sixteen, she married a neighbouring farmer. His name was Charles Bouchard, and he was twenty-three.
They wed in November. Withered leaves carpeted the ground and the trees’ bare branches scraped a sky gone cold and grey as iron. Marie shivered as she stood before the priest. The wind seeped under doors, through the joints between walls and windows. It tickled the back of her neck, playing with the strands of long, dark hair that had fallen loose despite her mother’s efforts. Even as Marie clasped her hands together to stop them shaking, her fingertips went cold and purple.
Charles reached across and held her hands, rubbing his thumb over her knuckles. As the priest read on, Charles watched her, questioning. A flush rose in Marie’s cheeks and she nodded, just a quick dip of the head.
Slowly, as though he didn’t want to startle her, Charles raised her hands to his lips. He did not kiss them. He simply exhaled, letting his breath warm her fingers. And then—still slow, still gentle—he lowered her hands, let go, and stepped back.
She decided in that moment that she loved him.
Though she was wicked, La Corriveau was a beautiful woman. No one disputes that. Her black hair tumbled to nearly the centre of her back. She was small in stature, slight, with cheek bones like knives and dark eyes that flashed with temper.
Her lips were always red, as though stained. Those lips had only to twitch upwards, and she could capture the heart of any man in Québec. With a single lift of her thick eyebrows, she set the women burning with envy. I heard a story once, that she killed one of her husbands by strangling him with her bare hands. Her fingers, you see, were long and tapered. A pianist’s fingers, if she’d moved in the right circles in Paris.
But she lived in a hovel in Québec, and she didn’t move in the right circles, even there.
Bien sûr, she was small. Maybe the hard winters that carried off her brothers and sisters stunted her, somehow. On their wedding night, Charles Bouchard thought that Marie-Josephte Corriveau looked like a child. Such little hands, that trembled as she let her petticoats fall to the floor. Her hair was quite dark, but not exactly black. In the flickering light of the rush lamps, Charles picked out hints of copper, chestnut strands that hid themselves among the darker curls.
A shudder passed through her as he trailed a finger along her cheek. High cheekbones, yes, but right now, they lay buried under childhood’s roundness. Her eyes held his: wide and frightened, a deep, glimmering brown.
"C’est d’accord," he whispered to her, drawing back. "It is all right. I will not hurt you."
She looked like a child. She was sixteen—she was a child, though not so young for a bride in those days.
"Marie . . ." he began, and found he could not finish. He gathered his nightshirt and dressed himself in the next room. When he returned, she lay trembling at the edge of the bed, her green Sunday dress—her wedding dress—and brown kirtle folded neatly on the chair. The white shoulder of her nightdress showed above the woollen blanket; she had turned to face the wall, the blanket twisted in her hands.
Quietly, Charles slid into bed beside her. He blew out the rush lamp and curled himself at the far edge of the bed. Then he let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. His jaw clenched with nervousness of his own.
"Bon soir," he said, into the darkness.
And then, a soft voice. "Bon soir, Charles."
Do you know the story of La Corriveau’s first husband?
Like all witches, La Corriveau was sterile. Nothing grew in her womb, and nothing grew in her garden either. When she brushed her fingertips along the cows’ flanks, they gave sour milk, and when she stroked her husband’s chickens, their eggs turned black and hard inside the shell.
La Corriveau did not care, of course. She roasted unbaptised babies with the other witches.
But this was a story about her first husband. Unlike La Corriveau, her first husband loved children, and he wanted nothing more than to bounce his own little son or daughter upon his knee. But La Corriveau did not respond to his kisses, or to his embraces, and when they did share a bed, no child came from it. Her husband was heartbroken, and so when another young woman smiled at him in the market, he could not help but smile back. Naturellement, he would never dishonour his wife—even a wife so cold as La Corriveau—but oh, it had been so long since a woman had looked on him with anything but scorn.
La Corriveau saw the glance that passed between the two. She seethed with jealousy. That evening, after they had eaten, she raged at her husband. He apologized, again and again, but La Corriveau was not satisfied. Her husband went to bed, but she paced before the hearth, unable to sleep for anger.
And so, she stoked up the fire as high as she could and she melted a lump of lead. While her husband slept, she poured the molten lead into his ear, and he died then and there.
She liked gardening, but baking was her favourite. In their house, Marie positioned a little table just so—close to the hearth, so the bread would rise better, but near enough to the window that the sunlight fell across her work, and she could gaze across the rippling barley to the forest on the far side. While Charles worked in the fields, she worked at her dough, stirring the flour, yeast, and water in the ceramic bowl they’d received as a wedding present from Charles’s mother. She added brown sugar, because Charles liked it, and while she punched and kneaded the dough, she pondered names for their children.
"Jean-Luc," she whispered, as she raked out the bake oven, scraping the coals into the main section of the hearth. Her long iron peel clanged against the brick as she shook her head, her house cap nearly sliding off. "Non. Charles. Petit Charles."
That would do for a boy—but a girl? She bit her lip as she held her hand inside the bake oven, testing the temperature. Perhaps Françoise, after her mother, or Coralie, because she thought that sounded romantic. She was only nineteen, after all; she was allowed to be romantic.
When Charles came in that night, they dined on tourtière and warm, dense bread. They stole glances across the table, and when Charles rose, he raised his eyebrows at Marie. She hesitated for a moment, but only a moment, and then the tin plates and the bread pans and the remaining tourtière were all forgotten.
She approached him slowly, shyly. For his part, he could not hold her gaze, looking down and blushing. Mon Dieu, Marie realized, he is more frightened than I.
But am I so frightening?
Non. I am not. The thought filled her with warmth. Non, he is frightened of himself, he is frightened for me . . . .
She took Charles by the arm. She placed his hands on her waist, and they stayed there, resting. Stretching on tiptoe, she grazed his lips with her own. Charles’ hands tensed for a moment, and in a voice gone thick, he asked, "Marie? May I?"
His lips softened against hers. His tongue nudged at her lips, her teeth, and then retreated so that he could plant kisses along her neck. With a careful finger, he pulled the shoulder of her dress and chemise to one side and kissed the soft skin beneath. Marie shuddered. Tingling spread to her toes, her fingertips, gripping her belly and stealing her breath.
"Marie? I can always stop, if you are not—"
"Je t’aime, Charles."
I love you.
He led the way to their bed. But she pulled him down among the pillows.
They say she married a doctor next, non? Bien sûr, a wealthy doctor, who kept her in a fine house with real silver and paintings brought over from France. The doctor did not mind that La Corriveau was barren—he had a nephew upon whom he doted.
To tend to his patients, the doctor rode to villages beyond Saint-Vallier. He might leave before breakfast and return long after midnight, if he returned at all. These long absences suited La Corriveau. Several times each month, she left the house in the dead of night and travelled to the Île d’Orléans, in the centre of the St. Lawrence River.
On the island, ghosts drifted like mist over the meadows. By their glow, La Corriveau could just see the hills humped to either side of the river. Her fellow witcheswere already there, bending and swaying before Satan, who sat enthroned on a high dais. He stamped his hooves in time to the unholy dance, scratching his furry rump with a long-nailed hand. La Corriveau was his special favourite, and so she sat closest to him, sharing wine with her master.
After one such Sabbath, she returned late, not arriving home until the next morning, just as her husband the doctor was setting out. When he saw her, he shook his finger and said, "You are returning from the Île d’Orléans! I forbid you to go there—it is the haunt of witches!"
La Corriveau did not like to be forbidden anything, and she was a witch, the most powerful witch in Québec. That night, while the doctor slept, she melted more lead, and she poured it down his ear, and he died just as quickly as her first husband.
They had three children: Françoise, Angélique (not quite as romantic a name as Coralie, but pretty nonetheless), and petit Charles. The blood and screaming of childbirth terrified Marie, but none of the children died. They were happy for a time.
Then the English came, breaching the Île d’Orléans when Françoise was just seven. Their scarlet uniforms blazed through fog that covered the river. Marie watched from the banks and shivered, lifting her skirts in one hand and running home to her children.
Of course, Charles fought: he was part of the militia. While her husband stood on the Plains of Abraham, his gun clutched tight in trembling hands, Marie huddled before the fire with her three children, petit Charles nestled on her lap and her daughters hanging off each shoulder. She sang to them, and she stroked their hair, and she did not let them see how terrified she was.
The English won, though they lost their commander, and Charles came home, already burning with fever. Marie ripped his shirt open, desperate to cool him, and gasped. An angry red rash spread across his chest. Charles scarcely managed the walk to his bed. He did not rise again; only gasped in a pool of sweat until finally, he died.
Marie felt herself shatter, as though the English cannons had struck her. She swept petit Charles into her arms and held him close, his face hot and wet against hers.
"Oh, mon petit, it will be all right, I am here." Her voice was little more than a murmur, and it kept catching. She cleared her throat and prayed for strength. "Françoise, Angélique, come sit with us, Maman is here . . . ."
She was only twenty-seven.
La Corriveau strangled her next husband, and then she hung him from the rafters to make it look like a suicide. She poisoned the next. The fifth, she shot, and for the sixth, she stoked another fire and melted down more lead.
Ouais, death by lead again. Perhaps she was running out of ideas, hein?
But the worst murder—her last murder—was her seventh husband: Louis Dodier.
Louis Dodier had been their neighbour, working the next farm over. He and Charles had exchanged no more than pleasantries; Dodier was two years younger than Marie and quick to anger. But Marie had three children to feed, and every time she looked at them, desperation curled itself tighter around her chest.
They had been married only months when Dodier stumbled home, eyes blazing. "Your father," he hissed. "He says I did not gather enough wood for his outdoor bake oven. There would be enough, if he did not heap it all in at once, the mauvais cochon." He spat. "Why do you need to use your parents' oven anyway? We have one inside, hein?"
Marie kneaded her dough harder than necessary. Angélique and petit Charles were playing on the floor nearby, and she did not like them to hear such words. She fought to keep her own voice light. "Ben ouais, but is quite small, you see, and—"
Dodier stepped forward, his hand quivering at his side. "Tell your father, if he wants more wood for his oven, he can get it himself, or go to le Diable."
"Louis, he is my father, I cannot—"
He moved so quickly, she didn’t see it. She heard the crack, and then her cheek flamed. Touching it, Marie stared at Dodier, her mouth falling open. His hand was drawn back, ready to strike again, and petit Charles let out a wail.
"Not before my children," Marie said, clenching her own hand, willing the tears in her eyes not to fall. "Never before them."
Perhaps she should have said nothing. For that night, he followed her into the bedroom. As she unpinned and combed her dark hair, he was silent. He stood with his thumbs hooked onto the waist of his trousers, watching her with predatory eyes.
At last, he spoke. "The children are not here."
And then, he latched the door.
She was a drunkard, La Corriveau. While her poor seventh husband toiled, she lay about the house drinking whisky straight from the bottle. Her children ran wild in rags, mocking Louis Dodier and flinging clods of mud at his horse. La Corriveau’s father was no kinder to poor Louis. He mocked Louis for being young, for being weak, for being small.
La Corriveau stumbled from the house when she heard the shouting, a bottle dangling from her grasp. She joined her father in haranguing Louis, her shrill voice ringing right down the end of the lane. The next time Louis went to Mass, he felt every eye land upon him, and he hunched his shoulders against the whispers and sniggers.
Of course, La Corriveau did not go to Mass, and when Dodier arrived home, he found her sprawled on the floor, snoring. He stepped over her, but her bloodshot eyes snapped open. She hauled herself upright, hissing, "Any one of my husbands was twice more man than you, Louis Dodier!" Her breath stank with alcohol, and Louis extricated himself with a shudder. As he turned, he felt her eyes on him, always on him.
Ouais, it is true, Joseph Corriveau, the father of Marie-Josephte, had a terrible temper. He had liked Charles Bouchard well enough, but when he saw the bruises on Marie’s face and along her arms—when he saw the way she sat so gingerly—he could not control himself. All the parish heard the screaming matches between Joseph Corriveau and Louis Dodier.
"Please," Marie begged Joseph Corriveau, "please do not anger him."
"Please," she begged Louis Dodier, "he is my father, try to humour him."
She felt herself stretched thinner and thinner between the two, a cord about to snap.
Here is how La Corriveau killed her poor seventh husband Louis. One night, while he was asleep, she took a small axe. Without even hesitating, she swung it into his face—un, deux, trois, quatre! Then she dragged his body outside, into the barn. She led Louis’s favourite horse from its stall, and then, the witch whipped the frightened animal into a frenzy so that it trampled all over Louis.
She planned to tell the neighbours that Louis had been killed by his horse. But as she left the barn in the grey morning light, a passing farmhand saw her laughing, her face and arms covered with blood. He fetched help, and before the end of the day, La Corriveau was clapped in a cell.
She will always remember the stillness of that dawn. The pale winter sun had not yet broken above the horizon. The sky and snow stretched grey and smooth as far as she could see, and it was hard to tell where one stopped and the other began. The world seemed to be holding its breath.
Her boots crunched on the snow as she ran. Cold air burned her lungs and her hair had come loose again, falling across her face and sticking to her cracked lips. Heart pounding, Marie opened the barn door. It creaked, too loud in the morning quiet. Shadows shrouded the barn. Until the sun rose to splinter through gaps in the wood, one could scarcely see the inside. Somewhere in the darkness, Louis’s horse whickered, hooves thumping on the floorboards as it paced.
Back and forth. Back and forth.
And oh, she would think later, it was so beautiful, this dawn . . . .
When the trial began, La Corriveau manipulated her father and confused him into taking the blame. She stood to one side, hiding a smirk, while her own father was sentenced to hang. But when he gave his last confession to the priest, he revealed her treacherous game, and so justice was delivered and La Corriveau sentenced to death, her body to be hung in chains as a warning to all other evildoers.
As they led her to the gallows, La Corriveau threw back her head and shrieked, "I will be avenged!"
I almost forgot to say—in the weeks before Louis’s murder, La Corriveau went around asking the newly garrisoned soldiers to give Louis a thrashing. She promised to give them a fat sheep each for their services. Oh, such a powerful witch she was, hein?
It wasn’t just any trial. The English had conquered Québec, and so Marie-Josephte Corriveau stood before an English court martial. Her legs shook as she stole glances at the Englishmen with their stiff white wigs. They spoke to her, but she did not understand their harsh, halting tongue.
She wasn’t the defendant. Not that time. Her father was the one on trial, and the verdict didn’t take long to reach. As I said, all the parish had heard the vicious arguments between Joseph Corriveau and Louis Dodier. A great chasm yawned in Marie’s chest as witness after witness took their place. Neighbours, English soldiers, her father’s farmhand, and a dear little servant girl. Her fists clenched as each repeated the same story—Joseph Corriveau detested Dodier, he had told three people that Dodier would come to a bad end, and she, Marie, had shouted at Dodier, telling him that she missed her first husband.
Joseph Corriveau was sentenced to hang. As his accomplice, Marie would receive sixty lashes and the letter "M" branded on her left hand. That night, she gazed at her hand in the firelight, rubbing it and imagining an angry, scabrous "M" etched into the skin.
In the next room, her children snuffled. They had made Angélique testify, her tiny voice quavering in the hall of the Ursuline convent. Dull anger pulsed in Marie’s chest, and then faded. She drew her knees up and wrapped herself around them, shaking.
"How have we come to this, Charles?" The smouldering fire blurred through her tears. "I thought . . . I thought . . . ."
In truth, she had thought they would have forever. She forgot that no one ever does.
Hanging was too good for La Corriveau. For her, the English constructed a monstrosity in iron, an abominable punishment such like Québec had never seen. It was a cage, just taller than La Corriveau, with thick bars that curved upwards to join at the top. There was a spike as well, carefully positioned so that if La Corriveau tried to sit—
They forced her into the cage as one forces a wild animal. She snarled like an animal, gnashing her teeth and swiping at the English soldiers with curved, rotting nails.
By order of the governor, the English erected a scaffold at the crossroads by Pointe-Lévy, and they hung her cage there. For three days and three nights, La Corriveau cursed and raged. But it was winter, and the nights were cold, and she had no food or water. She died with her fingers wrapped around the bars, her mouth frozen into a gloating sneer.
In the confessional, staring at the grating, Joseph Corriveau admitted that he was the accomplice—Marie herself had killed Louis Dodier with a gardening fork.
Or perhaps, it went like this. In the confessional, staring at the grating, Joseph Corriveau begged the priest for mercy, lies sticking between his teeth—denouncing his own daughter to save his life.
Or no, perhaps, it was more like this. In the confessional, staring at the grating, the priest murmured to Joseph Corriveau, low and comforting. The Corriveaux were a respected family, influential in the parish. They could not lose their patriarch—another victim must be found.
Who can say, hein?
I can say that Marie did not die in the cage. They hanged her first. She was such a small woman, though. So light, there was not enough force at the end of the drop to break her neck. Instead, she dangled at the end of the noose, slowly throttled.
They should have attached weights to her ankles. It would have helped.
I can say cage, and it was a cage, and yet it wasn’t really. The French never had gibbets and hanging irons like this. They saw the English monstrosity, fumbled for words, and said, "La cage de la Corriveau."
The Québécois said cage, and eventually even the English forgot that it wasn’t, really. When enough time had passed, they all imagined birdcages large enough to hold a grasping skeleton. Mistranslations are rarely so easy to trace. Language does not usually shatter into such neat shards. Myself, I like body-cage.
No grass ever grew near the spot where La Corriveau’s cage was displayed. Even after it was taken down and lost, the ghost of La Corriveau remained. Travellers hear her cage rattling on windy nights, and her blood-curdling screams ring over the river without warning.
Werewolves still prowl the crossroads, begging for La Corriveau’s hand in marriage. Do they not know what she did to her first seven husbands?
After five weeks or so, the corpse was removed and buried by the church, still in its cage, the iron bands now loosely clasped around bones and scraps of putrefied flesh. The children could not see their mother in the empty eye sockets, the bits of dark hair and scalp peeling back from the skull, the leathery skin along her chest and upper thighs.
Nearly a century later, workers dug into the church’s foundations. Their shovels clanged against iron, and they unearthed the cage. One leg bone, also. The rest had gone to dust.
Iron remains, though. And it travels. An American named Barnum eventually got his hands on it, displayed it in a glass-fronted cabinet labelled: From Québec.
But he lost it again, somewhere in Boston, or Washington, or perhaps New York. It depends on the storyteller.
There. We have examined this cage from all sides, you and I. The lamps are burning low. Are you unsatisfied? Perhaps you feel I have cheated you: that after all this, I have not shown you La Corriveau. Not the real one.
Perhaps I have not, but you see, La Corriveau—Marie-Josephte Corriveau—she went to dust long ago. Have you ever tried to catch dust on the wind? A grain here, and a grain there. Nothing that stays in the hands.
Iron remains, though. Sometimes, it even travels home. Not to Saint-Vallier, but at least to the right province. And so, here we stand, us two.
We have examined this cage from all sides. Come. Stand here. Look through the bars, to the mirrors beyond. You see yourself reflected, hein? Now, it is you who is in the cage. It is a good trick, non?
But it is not a trick. Not really. Not like history is so often a trick, a shattered reflection pieced back together into something that looks right.
These mirrors were cracked from the start. Here in this museum basement, I can only laugh and shake my head, shake out my long, dark hair. C’est vrai, I promise. C’est tout vrai, it’s all true. All of it. I promise.
But who can say?