But this remains a fact: That fire killed my mother, Blanche, along with two priests suspected of engendering me, and the women who said they had to cut her hymen to let me through.
For a few months after her elevation, my mother was Blanche Mirabilis, Blanche the Astonishing--her surname one of the few bits of Latin most people ever learned. After that August 15, not one soul in Villeneuve was lost to peste. People traveled miles to see her; the town fathers talked of building her a chapel, and their wives saw her face when they prayed. A young priest taught her to write so she could share her story with the world. And then I arrived, the daughter who, simply in being born, sinned unforgivably--and yet Blanche forgave and named me Good. The rest of the town called me Tardieu, God's Bastard.
On that July afternoon, as I stood on that riverbank and watched my mother burn, ashes blew over me like gray kisses. I felt my heart breaking, and I knew that if I put my hand between my legs it would come out covered in blood.
Perhaps God was watching that day at my side, and perhaps he felt as I did. Or maybe the Virgin whispered her own idea of justice to him. For even while Saint-Porchaire's rocks smoked and popped, peste broke out over the rest of the city. The victims who'd escaped the fire in the atrium died early, and the nuns who'd been tending them ran away. People fell, writhing, in their homes and the streets and the fields, one after another, hundreds of them, even as they tried to flee.
Perversely, those who survived still blamed the peste on Saint-Porchaire--said the burning sinners had put a curse on it. They let falling ash bury the atrium bodies, and let the melted roof cover the church corpses, and no one breathed here again. Except Marie, this creaky dove of the north transept; and myself, who for a time even slept in the funebral atrium, when I had no other home.
". . . you may call and call," Marie says now, "but into air you will fall."
I pause to pull a thorn from my shoe, noting that an early toad has set to croaking. His voice rivals Marie's for direness.
"In the year's second month, thunder's malign. Rain, hail, and lightning are dangerous signs. People will die," Marie concludes; then, "rich people will die"
"No one is dying today, Marie," I say loudly. Though I don't generally set much store by Marie's pronouncements, I am a little relieved that this one concerns the rich rather than myself. "And there's no thunder, either. Centre-ville is packed for a marché--this is the first year they've had one for the Virgin's Purification, and people are very happy."
Marie falls silent, as I knew she would. The voice of Saint-Porchaire has never spoken directly to me and never will, no more than will the Virgin herself or, now, my own mother, from whom I inherited the duty of coming here. Marie doesn't like me. But I finish my journey as if we are equals in conversation. "Already we've had three days of festival," I say, though I haven't attended a single event myself. "There are beadmakers and spice merchants, jongleurs and a play every day. Today it's the life of Saint Agathe . . . Are you hungry?" I ask as I pass the bread and cheese through the slit that is all Marie has to see by, or to get food and exchange words by. "If you were walled against the new church, the one they're still building at centre-ville, you could listen to the story of her life. Remember what she said to the Roman who ordered her breasts cut off: 'Cruel one,' " I declaim in a voice much like Marie's, " 'have you forgotten your mother and the breast that fed you, that you would thus dismember me?' It's one of my favorite stories."
Marie does not respond. The hand that accepts the food is twisted with rheumatism and gray from mildew; it is a painful hand, though its owner will never tell me so. Nor will she comment on the herbs I steep in her water to soothe that pain. She may well taste the herbs and know what they're for, but she'll resent the relative easement that she thinks distances her from God.
Reprinted from Mirabilis by Susann Cokal by permission of Blue Hen, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2001 by Susann Cokal. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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