Together they sat in the dark, listening to the soft splitting sounds of the knife ripping through their mother's hair. Once they heard Mama cry out in pain. Matthew cursed aloud. An answering sob came from the bed where Joan's seven-year-old brother John was hiding under the covers.
At last the ripping sounds stopped. After a brief pause the canon's voice began to rumble in prayer. Joan felt Matthew relax; it was over. She threw her arms around his neck and wept. He held her and rocked her gently.
After a time, she looked up at him.
"Father called Mama a heathen."
"She isn't," Joan said hesitantly, "is she?"
"She was." Seeing her look of horrified disbelief, he added, "a long time ago. Not any more. But those were heathen stories she was telling you."
Joan stopped crying; this was interesting information.
"You know the first of the Commandments, don't you?"
Joan nodded and recited dutifully, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."
"Yes. That means that the gods Mama was telling you about are false; it is sinful to speak of them."
"Is that why Father...?"
"Yes, " Matthew broke in. "Mama had to be punished for the good of her soul. She was disobedient to her husband, and that also is against the law of God."
"Because it says so in the Holy Book." He began to recite, "'For the husband is the head of the wife; therefore, let the wives submit themselves unto their husbands in everything.'"
"Why?" Matthew was taken aback. No one had ever asked him that before. "Well, I guess because...because women are by nature inferior to men. Men are bigger, stronger and smarter."
"But--" Joan started to respond but Matthew cut her off.
"Enough questions, little sister. You should be in bed. Come now." He carried her to the bed and placed her beside John, who was already sleeping.
Matthew had been kind to her; to return the favor, Joan closed her eyes and burrowed under the covers as if to sleep.
But she was far too troubled for sleep. She lay in the dark, peering at John as he slept, his mouth hanging slackly open.
He can't recite from the Psalter and he's seven years old. Joan was only four but already she knew the first ten psalms by heart.
John wasn't smart. But he was a boy. Yet how could Matthew be wrong? He knew everything; he was going to be a priest, like father.
She lay awake in the dark, turning the problem over in her mind.
Towards dawn she slept, restlessly, troubled by dreams of mighty wars between jealous and angry gods. The angel Gabriel himself came from heaven with a flaming sword to do battle with Thor and Freya. The battle was terrible and fierce, but in the end the false gods were driven back, and Gabriel stood triumphant before the gates of paradise. His sword had disappeared; in his hand gleamed a short, bone-handled knife.
Excerpted from Pope Joan by Donna Cross Copyright© 1996 by Donna Woolfolk Cross. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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