Saint Agathe's Day [February 5, 1372]
If there is a sound or a smell to holiness, I would say they are here, in silence and the faint smell of smoke. In this district of shadows, a white mist blankets shapes and sounds, muffling sensation till, just aboveground, it winds around the feet like rope. I stumble through the narrow streets home to soothsayers and charlatans, mages and fillettes de joie--people every town spurns but somehow can't do without. They come here to disappear, if they aren't mad enough to try living in the forest.
But even sinners and madmen fear what lies at the very heart of the shadow district: the blackened church of Saint-Porchaire. A decade ago, a great fire burned its center hollow, and the sinners inside it died; since then I have been its only parishioner. And its welcome twines into the maze of silence-"Beware, beware . . . of the demons that live in the air!"
Marie, the anchoress walled against the north transept, always rhymes gloom with doom. She is the voice of Saint-Porchaire, having lived here more than twenty years. By a small miracle, she alone survived the fire, so she has seen real air-demons here, orange tongues licking and gray bodies twirling over the walls. She wails her rhymes in the voice of a traveling preacher- "Woman, have shame, lest the air take your name . . ."
By this I know she's heard me coming.
I break open the mist, jump a tumbledown boundary, and land in the atrium between the burnt church and the abandoned priests' house. Saint-Porchaire's walls close in, black with memory, and as I draw close Marie moans again, "Beware . . ."
People have said that this place is a sign of both God's great wrath and his infinite mercy--because when the fire raged, it lasted only as long as it was needed to purify the town's collective soul. The sinners died and the just survived.
I was across the river that day when I saw a vivid yellow sunburst and black clouds purling over Villeneuve. My twelve-year-old heart burst, too--I knew these meant fire, and I was sure my mother was inside. My mother, who had sent me into the country to play, though I was already too old for that.
We were in the midst of a season of peste. Already nine people had died, and twice as many lay in a makeshift hospital in Saint-Porchaire's atrium. The townsfolk feared a pandemic like the one so long ago. So in secret council the town fathers--merchants, priests, citizens--decided the city must be cleansed of sin and sinners. That afternoon the most prominent wrongdoers were herded inside the church that Blanche Mirabilis had dishonored. The doors swung shut on Jews, adulterers, and people who'd congressed their own sex. Outside, the virtuous waited and watched; some even cheered as the council processed from the Palais de Justice, holding candles, and set fire to the straw before the great wooden doors.
The fire bloomed instantly, in a ball of light. Then it disappeared, worming its way into the church's wooden skeleton, jumping from doors to beams, from one level to another, causing stones to explode with heat, making the church an oven. The people inside pounded against the doors until smoke overcame them and they collapsed. One by one, on top of each other, they died. Meanwhile the flames reached the network of beams crisscrossing inside the roof, and all at once they, too, caught fire.
This is what the master builders said must have happened, when they tried to explain the miracle of the fire: The roof was composed of lead slabs. The flames heated the lead and destroyed the rafters beneath, and in the same instant the roof melted and the beams disappeared. The lead began to boil as it plummeted, and then it poured itself over the nave below, over the altar and ornaments and bodies. And this was the miracle--the collapse kept the flames from spreading, for the lead doused them and then froze solid. So the fire never claimed the bell tower or the deserted priests' residence, not even the little stone cell where Marie still wails her lyric prophecies.
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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