One afternoon, through the dark boxed rooms of the house, Jude overheard his aunts discussing the days when children were given away. They recalled how a man withtoo many mouths to feed might hand one off to a neighbor with a barren wife. Families who needed a girl in the kitchen or a boy to learn a craft would go to another suffering from abundance. Sometimes there were loans, agreements that the child would return when his oldest siblings moved out. Or there were flat-out trades for a garden cart or a saw. The aunts recalled those that Hervé Hervé had given away, a Jean-Felix, a Marie-Ange. It had once been a common enough practice in the peninsula, somewhat outdated when Hervé Hervé, ashamed of the runts, had taken it up. The aunts laughed. He'd bought men drinks and lied about ages, saying a six-year-old was four. Everyone had known that he gave away lemons.
Gradually, fear took control of Jude's simple mind, and he became certain that while he was working the fields or gutting fish, his grandfather would hand Isa-Marie off like a bag of potatoes. Though their long hours of labor were conducted in silence, at times, when Hervé Hervé drank, he spoke a little and Jude listened as best he could. Hervé Hervé mumbled about Les États, about sons who'd left with the thousands of others seeking a better life and the daughters who'd been stolen by tourists. Même ta mère, he told Jude. He spat and cursed the foreigners who took everything, the fish from the St. Lawrence, the village girls. Jude had heard some talk about tourists, that to keep them coming, shops had hired women to wear old bonnets and dresses, and to bring looms or spinning wheels down from their attics and set them into motion. Men were even employed to cure cod in public displays as it had been done for centuries. But Jude never considered that the silly, rich tourists could constitute another threat to Isa-Marie, that one might stop and toss her in the trunk of his car like a flat tire.
Now, as he worked, he considered the strangeness of the years, how he'd once been with her often, walking her to school or to church with their grandmother. He'd carried Isa-Marie on his shoulders, or clumped along behind her. But then he'd quit school to work. He'd stopped going to church, and she'd continued. With his grandfather, in the boat, on the slow rise and fall of swells, or cleaning fish, his scale-encrusted shirt like armor, he wondered where she was, what she did alone. When he saw her, they no longer touched. Evening she sat at her bedside and gazed at her with his dumb, broken features, and she at him with her delicate pretty face. They had little games. She brushed her hair behind her ear, shrugged and smiled so that it fell forward again, ducked her head and brushed it back. He watched, and after sitting awhile, shifty with unspent energy, made a passable smile. He looked at his red hands curved half-way to fists, the veins between the knuckles, the nails the shape and color of the tabs on soda cans. He often noticed her fingers on the Bible. Outside wind shook the leaves. Clothes moved in pantomime on the line. She watched him. He believed she was destined for something great.
That year, Isa-Marie was becoming a woman at last. She didn't have the rearing, disheveled sex-appeal, the galloping bosoms of other girls, but frailty and lack of appetite gave her a slight, fragile beauty. Her shy manner, the way she peeked at the world past sweeping hair, incited in men a desire to embrace her gently, as if she were a childhood teddy, and, simultaneously, to ply the plush, stretch her limbs, toss her stuffings into the air. By becoming a woman she sanctioned the pedophile in sailor and school superintendent alike.
But that she ever knew the touch of a man, there was little possibility. Jude would have cuffed the curéfor looking sidelong, and if the curé never did, it was because Jude made impossible all sins except those cherished in her heart. Among the village youths, the few who'd dared mock her or who, sitting behind her in class, had dipped the sun-blond ends of her hair in the ink pot, had received a slight shy gaze and soon after a roadside walloping that left bruises the size of horse-shoes. But those months that her pale beauty became apparent, any man who so much as tried to speak with her was at risk, and once, when a tourist stopped his car for directions, Jude pelted it with firewood. Even the few girls Isa-Marie had as friends stayed away, afraid of Jude, who, like some mythical being, watched over her constantly. Often he came upon her as she sat alone, face to the fleeting sunshine, and then she'd hear him and jump. Cold made the skin around her eyes swell as if she'd been crying. She looked at the ground when he was near. She kept to herself or lingered after Mass. At home she made a crèche, though the curé told her that the baby Jesus did not have stigmata and a crown of thorns, that the animals in the manger didn't need halos.
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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