She was twelve the first time she heard the voices. It was in the garden in Domrémy, behind her parents' house. A summer day. Hot and green. A great wind rolling in the air, the country a riot of shaking leaves. She was picking beetles off the cucumber plants, collecting them in an old corked jug. Her father said, "You just like it because you can sit there and daydream," but it wasn't true. She liked hunting under the big, rough leaves for the dark little beetles with their black helmets and their scratchy hooked legs. The strange purple and green lights in their armor. Cockroaches disgusted her, but not beetles. Beetles seemed clean and somehow noble, like tiny polished knights.
As she worked, she thought of Catherine, her saint. Catherine whom her mother told about - the bravest one of all. She pictured Catherine tall and slim and very fair, with long heavy golden hair and a pale, secretive spoon-shaped face. She loved Catherine, idolized her, but she was jealous of her too. Jealous of her miracles. Jealous that she had died for her love of God. She thought of all the Romans that Catherine had taught to love God. The Emperor's thousands of soldiers kneeling down suddenly, bowing their heads in prayer, their hearts thrown open like shutters on the first warm day of spring. Even the Empress herself kneeling, even the Empress seized by this sudden love of Christ. She thought of how the Emperor Maxentius had hated Catherine for her power, and of all the ways he'd tried to have her killed: the spiked wooden torture wheel that broke apart when the guards tried to tie her to it... the river from which she kept rising up like a cork, no matter how long they held her under... the fire that raged around her but left no mark, left her skin cool and white as lilies. At last they had to cut Catherine's head off with an ax to kill her. Jehanne saw the great blade flashing, the pale, shocked face spinning through air, and she wished she could be that brave. That pure.
It was like a fever in her, her love for God. Not mild, not polite. Consuming. Every evening in Domrémy, the bells rang out in the church tower for Compline, and she ran downhill through the wheat fields to be with Him, her feet flying over the grass and dirt, her heart pounding like a hot red drum. He was all she could think about. All she wanted.
"Where does God live?" she'd asked her mother once.
"God lives in Heaven."
Her mother had looked sad then. Finally she pointed up to the clouds and said, "Heaven is God's beautiful paradise in the sky. If we are very good, we'll go there to live with Him after we die." As her mother spoke, her eyes looked so hungry that Jehanne's heart swelled up like a sail.
"Can't we go there now?"
"No," her mother said. "We can't go there now."
She doesn't know when it first took root inside her, that hunger for God. Perhaps it was always there. She remembers knowing that He was the one who made the trees. And the wind in the trees. And the clear, icy green river with the round white stones on the bottom. And the red harvest moon. And the little black starlings that dipped and soared over her head at sunset, thousands of them rising and tilting and soaring, flashing their black wings against the flushed pink sky.
She remembers knowing this, and the awe she felt knowing it - gratitude rising in her like music, so strong it brought her to her knees, made her weep. Please, she would think. How can I thank you? How can I show you?
But she wasn't thinking about it when it happened. She'd forgotten. She was just sitting in the garden with her face turned up to the sun, listening to the wind shaking the trees, when a voice came suddenly, very loud. A man's voice and a great spangle of light to the right of her. A warmth like sunlight on her cheek, down her neck, along her spine. Jehanne, it said. The voice very deep, masculine, enormous. Setting her blood on fire. Jehanne, my virgin, Maid of France.
Excerpted from The Maid by Kimberly Cutter. Copyright © 2011 by Kimberly Cutter. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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