They believed in one God. They were Christians. Jehanne and her mother and Catherine went to church every evening for Compline, knelt together on the dark packed-earth floor, their hands knotted in prayer. The whole family went on Sunday mornings. Jehanne's mother prayed for God's help and forgiveness. Her father begged God to smite down the Goddons the way He once smote down the Ethiopians. Send them all to Hell.
They disapproved of the old forest gods, the pagan superstitions. Thought them shameful, blasphemous, stupid. Jehanne's mother tucked in her lips and shook her head when their neighbor Mariette hitched herself naked to the plow each April and dragged it through the muddy fields on her hands and knees, singing and praying to the old gods for a bountiful harvest, the fat bells of her breasts and belly swinging back and forth, slick with gray mud. Jehanne's father did not keep a mandrake under his bed.
They lived in a stone house near the river with four rooms and two small, but finely made, glass windows. Those windows were her father's great delight. "See how fine the mullion work is," he'd say to visitors. "Even Lord Bourlémont doesn't have better windows."
A proud man, her father. He saw himself as a kind of country king. He worked tirelessly, at a run all day, plowing the fields, planting wheat and rye, taking the cream and hen's eggs to market, collecting taxes, organizing men for the village watch. The family sat in the front pew at church on Sunday. After services were finished, he went around shaking hands, smiling, clapping shoulders. Her father, King of the Peasants.
As a child, Jehanne had adored him. On summer afternoons, he'd take her along with him to bring the cows down from the high pasture near the old oak forest, the bois chenu. She can remember his enormous hand, rough and warm around hers, his long dark shadow going ahead of hers on the road. His hand making her safe. At the top of the hill, he'd take her to where the little fraises du bois grew in the green and white sunlight at the edge of the forest. Small ruby-red berries, cone-shaped and so sweet. Intoxicating. They ate handfuls of them as they walked. When they finished, their palms were wet and sticky, stained red. Her father held his up and laughed. "Guilty," he said. "Guilty, guilty."
Jehanne didn't know what the word meant then, but she sensed it meant something bad. A cold snake of warning slid through her stomach.
When he began to go mad, no one outside the family knew it. He confined his rages to the house. The red-eyed beast that reared up only occasionally in Jehanne's earliest memories began to appear more and more, circling the house with his long teeth bared, striking out at anyone who got in his way. "Who do you think you are?" he would scream at her suddenly, for no reason. "Who the hell do you think you are?"
Her mother blamed it on the war. "It kills him to see all his hard work destroyed," she said, squeezing one hand very tightly with the other, as if to keep it from flying away. Or later she'd say, "It's because of Catherine. He was never like this when Catherine was here." Her mother, pious and loving, but a coward too, hiding in her prayers, her dreams of Jesus.
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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