She was terrified at first, weeping, clutching at the grass as if she expected to be ripped away from the earth. Terrified and overjoyed. Who are you? she asked. The light had blinded her. She could not see her house.
You know who I am.
No, I don't.
Yes, Jehanne, you do.
She did know. In her bones, she knew. It was the thing she'd prayed for. The only thing she'd ever wanted. Slowly the light began to spread inside her, through her belly, her hips, her breasts, her mouth, her thighs, rinsing through her like sunlight, warm and radiant, filling her up, releasing her... a bird in flight.
She doesn't know how long it lasted. It felt like a long time, but she doesn't know. What she knows is that afterward, when the voice and the light were gone, it was terrible. All the world gray and cold, like a tomb. Gray trees, gray sky, black sun. Black leaves scuttling down the hillside. Everything cold, shriveled, bereft. She lay curled on the ground, sobbing. Come back, please. Come back. Wanting nothing but to die, sleep. Return.
When she awoke, the shadow had passed. Amazement took its place. She turned over on her back and looked up at the sky through the puzzle of leaves. Everything was heightened, buzzing with life. Singing. The sky perfectly clear, blue and dazzling. The trees bending and waving in the breeze. Smell of onion weed and sweet clover in her nostrils. Cows lowing in the distance. Her mother inside, grinding flour, her father in the pasture, screaming at the cows.
It's all perfect, all as it must be, she sees. Even the worst things. Even the boy Volo, in his cage in Madame de Pois' barn, with his gray cauliflower head and his tiny slanted eyes. Or mad King Charles, running naked through the palace in Paris, throwing his own shit against the windows. The Goddons and Burgundians thundering through the hills, setting whole villages on fire, tearing apart the women and children, stealing land, cows, sheep, gold, stealing their entire country out from under them. It's all all right now. All of it necessary, part of His plan. Just as she, Jehanne, lying in the garden, is part of His plan, though she knows not how yet, or why. She knows simply that He has pulled back life's curtain for an instant and shown her His miraculous fire, lit her up with His miraculous fire. And she knows that she will do anything to feel that fire again.
She did not tell anyone. She knew they would laugh, call her crazy, a fool, a liar. She kept it inside her, secret, burning like a small fierce sun. Waiting.
There were seven of them in her family. Her mother, her father, and five children. The three oldest were boys: Jacquemin, Jean, and Pierrelot. Cowards, the father called them. Wastrels. And so they were. Sullen and slump-shouldered, sleeping late, kicking the dog. Next came Jehanne's sister, Catherine, the beauty, named after the saint. Catherine with the bright plum mouth and the thick blond waterfall of hair. Hair that everyone stared at in church. She, Jehanne, was the youngest. A tomboy. Dark and watchful, with short, sturdy legs like a donkey.
They lived in the rolling green hill country of northern France, far away from Paris. Far away from everything. Theirs was a land of wide, slow rivers and tall ancient oaks. In summer the fields filled up with poppies, their red upflung skirts glowing in the sun. In winter their forest was silent as a church.
They were common people, unschooled, sunburned. Their hands and feet were calloused. The new lambs and goats slept with them inside the house during the spring frosts, huddled and snuffing in the red glow of the hearth. Jehanne and Catherine wrapped rags around their feet to keep warm, waited until summer to wash themselves in the river. But they were respected in their village. Because their father owned his land, they were respected.
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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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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