All were surprised to see a keeper and a runt together, as if he should have emerged with a bag of gnawed bones. Villagers who knew the family accounts believed the Hervé curse was the result of some past perversion or sin. When winter or sickness came, the runts were the first to go, abused or disregarded by the giants. Oddly, though, with the years, it became apparent that Jude adored his quivering sister. He grew fast and started walking so young the villagers doubted his age, and whenever Isa-Marie, still in diapers, began to cry, he leaned against her cradle like a greaser on his Chevy. No two children could grow to be more different, Isa-Marie often at church, the pages of her school books crammed with magazine clippings of popes or saints, Jude eager for work, slogging up to the fields each spring just to seethe sodden furrows set against the sky, the huge vents of mud. Of Agnès no memory would remain, only a photo, a handsome girl, eyelashes dark and long, lips pushed out to greet the world's pleasures. She'd fed them bitter milk for three months as outside spring lit winter's crevices, the sky bright as a movie screen, the first tourist cars hanging streamers of dust. That July she disappeared, only the orphaned twins and Jude's name to remember her by. The tourist father had been called Jude, she'd told them. As for Isa-Marie, the grandmother had named her for a long-dead sister, some Isabelle from another life.
Hervé Hervé was sixty-six that year, late to be a father again. On the day of Jude's birth he'd recognized the child as one of his own. He'd taken the silent newborn wrapped in a sheet to the salt-pitted scales, in the full April winds off the St. Lawrence, and reckoned his weight to a penny. By the time Jude was seven, Hervé Hervé was casting bets as to what he could pick up: crates of cod, a rusted foremast in the rocks. At his grandfather's command, Jude stripped to chicken flesh and yellowed briefs. The crates went up, the mast wobbled and rose. Hervé Hervé gathered change, fragrant cigarettes brought by a sailor, a dollar pinned beneath a rock against the wind. Off a ways Moise Maheur watched with his own son, an angular boy with a protruding chin and squinty eyes, five years Jude's elder, about the same height. Hervé Hervé put his pipe in a pocket, lit a cigarette, froze each man with his one eye and proposed a second bet. It was a June day, wind lifting spray off shallow breakers as the crowd stood in the cool light and watched. The Maheur boy threw punches as if they were stones. Jude's came straight from the chin. The men shook their heads and looked away. Hervé Hervé counted up, gave Jude a penny for good measure.
Jude grew within the time capsule of this affection, an odd tableau for the fifties: the swarthy grandfather with his pagan eye, and his atavistic protégé, fighting, stripped to the waist, coarse reddened skin like a wet shirt against muscle. Hervé Hervé decided to train him, told him to split wood, more than they could need or sell. Run, he shouted, pointing to the mountain. Each morning he gave him a jar of raw, fresh milk despite the disapproval of his wife, and Jude, stomach burbling, followed along to be weighed in.
For the people of the village, the fights were less amusing each year as small, plum-colored bruises became missing teeth, black eyes, great cancerous swellings on the faces of their sons. Soon people were saying, Doesn't he know those times are over? Does he think this can go on forever? Jude's birth had coincided with the end of the war, and only a few years afterward, electricity had reached the village. Power lines stretched over the mountains and above the potato fields so that, hoeing, they could feel the thrum in their bones. Salesmen soon arrived with new contraptions, and children crowded to inspect the fluffy contents of a vacuum bag or to let the metal wand make hickeys on their arms. There was something innocent, light about the age, the future destined to be better.
Excerpted from Vandal Love by Deni Y Béchard. Copyright © 2012 by Deni Y Béchard. Excerpted by permission of Milkweed Editions. 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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