August 15, Anno Domini 1349--this is Villeneuve's desperate time, and its time of miracles. In the heart of the city, in the church of Saint-Porchaire, a virgin stands on the edge of a labyrinth. She is fifteen and her parents' every treasure, the only child of theirs who lived. And she is good.
Stone walls and a lead roof cup this girl's body in coolness, blow it full of incense, kiss it with the petals of dying flowers. The virgin barely notices. She is listening to the music of a bell; her father made three for the tower and she is called after one of them. In its peals she hears her name--Blanche. Blanche.
Blanche is full of hope. For though these two summers past the townsfolk have been dying a strange Black Death, her own limbs are strong, her skin is unbroken, and she is prepared for Communion. The streets may be paved with corpses, but her small sins have been confessed and she is here, in the church to which her mother dedicates both alms and prayers.
Her mother looks at her now and, with a wave of her rosary, indicates that Blanche should raise her eyes to pray. The bells have stopped, the censers are swinging, and the nave is full of people; their heavy feet have hidden the labyrinth's tiled lobes. In the sanctuary, priests hum like dancing beetles.
Over the shoulders ahead, Blanche sees a golden Lady set up on the altar. A virgin gazes at a Virgin, at long golden arms curving round the crystal globe of a womb in which the Eucharist sits like a promise. This is the town's finest monstrance, made to house the bread of God and deliver his son's body for special feast days; a thousand mouths water for that comforting dryness. Blanche is hungry, too.
Virgo serena . . .
A young priest with the yellow eyes of a hart takes the heavy Virgin in his hands. He murmurs the Gloriosa while sunlight streams through the colored windows and stains the rock-crystal belly. At last he raises Her. Blanche's body colors, too; her face turns blue, her hands red, and she smiles to herself as she prays. And as she does this, she feels her limbs lighten and tingle. She grows lighter, and lighter still, while the feeling becomes a sort of sparkle behind her eyes . . .
Beside her, a gasp. Within her, a lurch. Blanche is floating upward. Before she knows it, her feet have left the floor. Her mouth tastes of dust, and her left shoe falls off. Unseen hands continue to lift her until she rests high above the heads of her parents.
Blanche's mother and father fall to their knees. To them and to the others she appears to be mounting thin air--perhaps, they think, she's climbing a stair no one else can see. The people around them kneel, too, until only the yellow-eyed priest remains standing, looking dazedly up her skirt at two clean legs.
The people shout, "Grâce à Dieu--un miracle! Deo gratias!"
Silent and still as a griffin, hovering in the air, Blanche closes her eyes and prays for calm. Like a damp fog it comes over her. Then the invisible hands sweep her slowly round the nave, while the shoe comes off her right foot and crowns a baker, who cries out in gratitude.
Three times Blanche makes the sacred circuit, still too astonished to speak. Her heart beats so loudly she thinks it will burst through her ears. The people are now prostrate, faces down and arms out, their prayers booming through Saint-Porchaire. When slowly, gently, she is set down again, this time in the middle of the maze, no one dares to stand. But when she can finally bear to look through the scented air, her gaze finds the priest's. Two pairs of light eyes glitter, meeting over this miracle.
Nine months later, Blanche will lie in a heap of straw--her father dead, her mother gone, and an unholy flood about to wash her child into the world.
Reprinted from Mirabilis by Susann Cokal by permission of Blue Hen, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2001 by Susann Cokal. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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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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