When Jude and Isa-Marie were ten, their grandmother, shocking village and curé alike, claimed that the ghost of her son had visited, some long-lost favorite of hers who'd fled west and never returned. In her stolid way she'd said that out there in the vast, English-speaking world she had other grandchildren who needed saving. Though Hervé Hervé tried to curb this madness, she left in the night with only her knitting and egg money, as well as some baby clothes and hand-me-downs, and was never seen again. The betrayal enraged Hervé Hervé, his bouts of drinking more violent, his sons and daughters less inhibited. Jude's grandmother, medieval in her devotion, had run the house firmly, and without her there was no one to save them from their appetites.
Soon even the youngest of Jude's aunts and uncles were gone, fled or married. The house became dirty. Clothes went un-mended. While Jude and Hervé Hervé worked, Isa-Marie studied or read or clipped up discarded church magazines and taped the holy images to her wall: missionary priests, saintly house pets, jungle savages who'd joined the clergy, the scars of piercings still visible on their round, beatific faces. From time to time two married aunts came by, gossiped in the kitchen, cleaned and left bowls of fried eggs, bacon, and potato that Jude and Hervé Hervé ate cold for breakfast, lunch and dinner. That spring another aunt moved in with her four children after her husband wrecked his rig on the north coast and was crushed by logs. The house became almost normal, hot meals, scents of baking, diversity of tastes. Even Isa-Marie ventured from her room to help, Jude hulking along at her side, learning to pin diapers and powder bottoms. In those years he became kinder, made an effort to piece letters together at school, eyes bobbing in his head as he tried to figure out where to put his hands on the book. He learned to write his name, and under Isa-Marie's supervision, wrote it often. In summer there were flowers on the table, berries picked and made into pies. During a February blizzard Isa-Marie gave out Valentines, each a paper heart glued with clippings of bleeding Jesuses, praying Virgins, and women's pumps from the Eaton's catalog. But Hervé Hervé's drinking increased. By autumn the aunt had moved out with her children. The other two resumed their visits: fried papery eggs, carbonized bacon. They smoked in the kitchen and told stories: fathers in drunken threesomes with teenaged daughters, a pregnant woman who accidentally swallowed bleach and gave birth to an albino.
Isa-Marie returned to the silence of her room. Flowers dried on the table, stems rotting in brackish water. Jude watched his aunts from the doorway. He recalled the wild, innocent laughter of children. Before that, what? An old woman with a jaw like a log splitter, the way she'd held his collar as she scrubbed at his face. His only memory of maternal love.
Shortly after Jude turned fifteen, Hervé Hervé started taking him to traveling fairs, pitting him against grown men on sawdust stages after the shows had closed. Locals who recalled the towering, wide-jawed Scots-American tourist believed Jude was a fine fusion. Even as a toddler, he couldn't be knocked down, simply rebounding like an inflatable doll with weighted feet. Hervé Hervéhad trained him well. He bet heavily, treated Jude's cuts with whisky, swigged and counseled in technique, to work the lower ribs and solar plexus. Jude's only hint of softness was full, feathery lashes he'd inherited from his mother, out of place on his red fighter's face though he was never mocked. He already weighed two hundred and twenty pounds
Though Jude did his grandfather's bidding, fought well and never lost, his greatest love remained his sister. Ever since he'd been a toddler, he'd watched over her. If she was teased or berated, he was immediately there, strutting and bobbing, his punch-drunk face bleary with that unblinking, walleyed look. Only his aunts' talk of her frailty alarmed him, the way they clucked their tongues when she left the room. She often had colds and fevers, and she'd remained small, a pale girl with green doe eyes and tentative gestures. In church she prayed with her shoulders pulled forward so that she looked to be hugging herself, and often she sat in the sun, appearing asleep, or else she put her blankets on the floor, in the warm light beneath her window. The aunts commented that it was in her blood, that unlike Jude she'd inherited from her tourist father a southern predisposition. She wouldn't make it here, they said. There was a country for everything.
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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