Read an Excerpt
In the dream, death is as far off as the mountains. It’s a cold, blue winter morning, and she is riding her horse very fast over a field of snow toward a high pine forest, still dim with shadow. Her armor glints in the early light, the steel giant’s hands flashing on either side of her horse’s mane, but the metal is strangely weightless in the dream. She does not feel it. What she feels instead is the still and brilliant morning, the snow and the speed and the cold air on her cheeks, and inside of her a violent, holy joy that makes her eyes very bright and propels her wildly over the fields toward the enemy forest, snow spraying and glittering beneath her horse’s hooves.
Behind the girl rides her army of ten thousand men, all of them eager as she is, united by the same strange and feverish joy as they crash across the winter fields, across a black icy river that winds, shining like a ribbon, through the white land and toward the shadowed stillness of the pines. She can hear them thundering behind her, and hearing them, she knows that they are riding together toward a mad and glorious victory. And she knows too that they are riding toward death. But there is no fear in her this morning. She is seventeen, a peasant, unschooled, simple as a thumb. Fear has no place in her heart yet, though soon enough it will. Soon enough she will be caged, tortured, branded a witch, a whore, a limb of Satan. But on this morning she is simply God’s arrow, shot across the winterland, brilliant and savage and divine. Unstoppable.
She awakes in darkness, curled on the cold stone floor of the tower. The stink of urine and rotted straw burning her nostrils. Iron cuffs biting at the sores on her wrists. Quickly she grabs at the receding dream, hoping to pull it back, to wrap herself up once more in its fierce joy. But no, it’s too late. The last tendrils slip through her fingers, and she is left in the dark with her guards—three of them inside the cell with her, two out in the hall.
They are all asleep now, in this dim, lonesome hour. Propped in the shadows like dolls with their heads fallen forward and their mouths open, snoring. But soon enough, she knows, they’ll be awake. Soon enough the big one, the one they call Berwoit, will grin with his square blue teeth and start in with his taunts. “Lift up your skirts for us, witch. Show us what you got under there. Is it a cock or is it a pussy?”
It’s clear that she’ll die soon. She sees this too in her dreams. The enormous, crackling yellow fire in the square, the grinning Bishop, the appalled, delighted crowds. The priest Massieu says it’s not true. “You’re safe now,” he whispers. Now that she’s repented, she’s safe.
Soon, he says, they’ll transfer her to a church prison, and there will be no more beatings and no more trial, and eventually, the Goddons will forget about her. The war will end, and she’ll be set free. “Be patient, child,” he says. “Give them time to forget.”
She feels sorry for Massieu. Knows he’s half in love with her. Even with her shaved head and the rough burlap dress the Bishop makes her wear, even with her ribs jutting out like a starved dog’s, he looks at her with shining eyes, sneaks her bits of bread and extra cups of water, brings her wormwood salve for her bruises. She’d like to believe him, but she knows it isn’t true. They hate her too much, the English. They will not be happy until they dance on her bones.
Often in the night, when she can’t sleep, Massieu comes and sits with her. He waits until the guards are snoring, then drags his low wooden stool over to her cell and sits beside her in the darkness. Holds the bars with his big pink hands, gazes at her. Sometimes he reads from the Bible. Other times he sings, jokes, tries to make her laugh. Occasionally he grows daring, asks questions: “Is it true what they say? Are you a saint?”
She was twelve the first time she heard the voices. It was in the garden in Domrémy, behind her parents’ house. A summer day. Hot and green. A great wind rolling in the air, the country a riot of shaking leaves. She was picking beetles off the cucumber plants, collecting them in an old corked jug. Her father said, “You just like it because you can sit there and daydream,” but it wasn’t true. She liked hunting under the big, rough leaves for the dark little beetles with their black helmets and their scratchy hooked legs. The strange purple and green lights in their armor. Cockroaches disgusted her, but not beetles. Beetles seemed clean and somehow noble, like tiny polished knights.
As she worked, she thought of Catherine, her saint. Catherine whom her mother told about—the bravest one of all. She pictured Catherine tall and slim and very fair, with long heavy golden hair and a pale, secretive spoon-shaped face. She loved Catherine, idolized her, but she was jealous of her too. Jealous of her miracles. Jealous that she had died for her love of God. She thought of all the Romans that Catherine had taught to love God. The Emperor’s thousands of soldiers kneeling down suddenly, bowing their heads in prayer, their hearts thrown open like shutters on the first warm day of spring. Even the Empress herself kneeling, even the Empress seized by this sudden love of Christ. She thought of how the Emperor Maxentius had hated Catherine for her power, and of all the ways he’d tried to have her killed: the spiked wooden torture wheel that broke apart when the guards tried to tie her to it . . . the river from which she kept rising up like a cork, no matter how long they held her under . . . the fire that raged around her but left no mark, left her skin cool and white as lilies. At last they had to cut Catherine’s head off with an ax to kill her. Jehanne saw the great blade flashing, the pale, shocked face spinning through air, and she wished she could be that brave. That pure.
It was like a fever in her, her love for God. Not mild, not polite. Consuming. Every evening in Domrémy, the bells rang out in the church tower for Compline, and she ran downhill through the wheat fields to be with Him, her feet flying over the grass and dirt, her heart pounding like a hot red drum. He was all she could think about. All she wanted.
“Where does God live?” she’d asked her mother once.
“God lives in Heaven.”
Her mother had looked sad then. finally she pointed up to the clouds and said, “Heaven is God’s beautiful paradise in the sky. If we are very good, we’ll go there to live with Him after we die.” As her mother spoke, her eyes looked so hungry that Jehanne’s heart swelled up like a sail.
“Can’t we go there now?”
“No,” her mother said. “We can’t go there now.”
She doesn’t know when it first took root inside her, that hunger for God. Perhaps it was always there. She remembers knowing that He was the one who made the trees. And the wind in the trees. And the clear, icy green river with the round white stones on the bottom. And the red harvest moon. And the little black starlings that dipped and soared over her head at sunset, thousands of them rising and tilting and soaring, flashing their black wings against the flushed pink sky.
She remembers knowing this, and the awe she felt knowing it—gratitude rising in her like music, so strong it brought her to her knees, made her weep. Please, she would think. How can I thank you? How can I show you?
But she wasn’t thinking about it when it happened. She’d forgotten. She was just sitting in the garden with her face turned up to the sun, listening to the wind shaking the trees, when a voice came suddenly, very loud. A man’s voice and a great spangle of light to the right of her. A warmth like sunlight on her cheek, down her neck, along her spine. Jehanne, it said. The voice very deep, masculine, enormous. Setting her blood on fire. Jehanne, my virgin, Maid of France.
She was terrified at first, weeping, clutching at the grass as if she expected to be ripped away from the earth. Terrified and overjoyed. Who are you? she asked. The light had blinded her. She could not see her house.
You know who I am.
No, I don’t.
Yes, Jehanne, you do.
She did know. In her bones, she knew. It was the thing she’d prayed for. The only thing she’d ever wanted. Slowly the light began to spread inside her, through her belly, her hips, her breasts, her mouth, her thighs, rinsing through her like sunlight, warm and radiant, filling her up, releasing her . . . a bird in flight.
She doesn’t know how long it lasted. It felt like a long time, but she doesn’t know. What she knows is that afterward, when the voice and the light were gone, it was terrible. All the world gray and cold, like a tomb. Gray trees, gray sky, black sun. Black leaves scuttling down the hillside. Everything cold, shriveled, bereft. She lay curled on the ground, sobbing. Come back, please. Come back. Wanting nothing but to die, sleep. Return.
When she awoke, the shadow had passed. Amazement took its place. She turned over on her back and looked up at the sky through the puzzle of leaves. Everything was heightened, buzzing with life. Singing. The sky perfectly clear, blue and dazzling. The trees bending and waving in the breeze. Smell of onion weed and sweet clover in her nostrils. Cows lowing in the distance. Her mother inside, grinding flour, her father in the pasture, screaming at the cows.
It’s all perfect, all as it must be, she sees. Even the worst things. Even the boy Volo, in his cage in Madame de Pois’ barn, with his gray cauliflower head and his tiny slanted eyes. Or mad King Charles, running naked through the palace in Paris, throwing his own shit against the windows. The Goddons and Burgundians thundering through the hills, setting whole villages on fire, tearing apart the women and children, stealing land, cows, sheep, gold, stealing their entire country out from under them. It’s all all right now. All of it necessary, part of His plan. Just as she, Jehanne, lying in the garden, is part of His plan, though she knows not how yet, or why. She knows simply that He has pulled back life’s curtain for an instant and shown her His miraculous fire, lit her up with His miraculous fire. And she knows that she will do anything to feel that fire again.
She did not tell anyone. She knew they would laugh, call her crazy, a fool, a liar. She kept it inside her, secret, burning like a small fierce sun. Waiting.
There were seven of them in her family. Her mother, her father, and five children. The three oldest were boys: Jacquemin, Jean, and Pierrelot. Cowards, the father called them. Wastrels. And so they were. Sullen and slump-shouldered, sleeping late, kicking the dog. Next came Jehanne’s sister, Catherine, the beauty, named after the saint. Catherine with the bright plum mouth and the thick blond waterfall of hair. Hair that everyone stared at in church. She, Jehanne, was the youngest. A tomboy. Dark and watchful, with short, sturdy legs like a donkey.
They lived in the rolling green hill country of northern France, far away from Paris. Far away from everything. Theirs was a land of wide, slow rivers and tall ancient oaks. In summer the fields filled up with poppies, their red upflung skirts glowing in the sun. In winter their forest was silent as a church.
They were common people, unschooled, sunburned. Their hands and feet were calloused. The new lambs and goats slept with them inside the house during the spring frosts, huddled and snuffing in the red glow of the hearth. Jehanne and Catherine wrapped rags around their feet to keep warm, waited until summer to wash themselves in the river. But they were respected in their village. Because their father owned his land, they were respected.
They believed in one God. They were Christians. Jehanne and her mother and Catherine went to church every evening for Compline, knelt together on the dark packed-earth floor, their hands knotted in prayer. The whole family went on Sunday mornings. Jehanne’s mother prayed for God’s help and forgiveness. Her father begged God to smite down the Goddons the way He once smote down the Ethiopians. Send them all to Hell.
They disapproved of the old forest gods, the pagan superstitions. Thought them shameful, blasphemous, stupid. Jehanne’s mother tucked in her lips and shook her head when their neighbor Mariette hitched herself naked to the plow each April and dragged it through the muddy fields on her hands and knees, singing and praying to the old gods for a bountiful harvest, the fat bells of her breasts and belly swinging back and forth, slick with gray mud. Jehanne’s father did not keep a mandrake under his bed.
They lived in a stone house near the river with four rooms and two small, but finely made, glass windows. Those windows were her father’s great delight. “See how fine the mullion work is,” he’d say to visitors. “Even Lord Bourlémont doesn’t have better windows.”
A proud man, her father. He saw himself as a kind of country king. He worked tirelessly, at a run all day, plowing the fields, planting wheat and rye, taking the cream and hen’s eggs to market, collecting taxes, organizing men for the village watch. The family sat in the front pew at church on Sunday. After services were finished, he went around shaking hands, smiling, clapping shoulders. Her father, King of the Peasants.
As a child, Jehanne had adored him. On summer afternoons, he’d take her along with him to bring the cows down from the high pasture near the old oak forest, the bois chenu. She can remember his enormous hand, rough and warm around hers, his long dark shadow going ahead of hers on the road. His hand making her safe. At the top of the hill, he’d take her to where the little fraises du bois grew in the green and white sunlight at the edge of the forest. Small ruby-red berries, cone-shaped and so sweet. Intoxicating. They ate handfuls of them as they walked. When they finished, their palms were wet and sticky, stained red. Her father held his up and laughed. “Guilty,” he said. “Guilty, guilty.”
Jehanne didn’t know what the word meant then, but she sensed it meant something bad. A cold snake of warning slid through her stomach.
When he began to go mad, no one outside the family knew it. He confined his rages to the house. The red-eyed beast that reared up only occasionally in Jehanne’s earliest memories began to appear more and more, circling the house with his long teeth bared, striking out at anyone who got in his way. “Who do you think you are?” he would scream at her suddenly, for no reason. “Who the hell do you think you are?”
Her mother blamed it on the war. “It kills him to see all his hard work destroyed,” she said, squeezing one hand very tightly with the other, as if to keep it from flying away. Or later she’d say, “It’s because of Catherine. He was never like this when Catherine was here.” Her mother, pious and loving, but a coward too, hiding in her prayers, her dreams of Jesus.