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Dove and Sword: A Novel of Joan of Arc: Chapter 2

I was never sure if the first birth in 1428 was a good omen or a bad one, for it could have been either. The mother was carrying twins, Maman was sure, and indeed this was so. One, a boy, came easily, but the next one would not, until we gave the mother carrot seeds and then ergot. When it finally did come, we could not tell if it would have been a boy or a girl. God had mercifully not allowed it to live; it was flat and thin, more like a drawing than a child, and monstrous, with a demonlike face pointing upward—and demon I feared it was, with one leg curled around what was meant to be its body, and the other absent, and the arms the same way. Maman bade me hasten to the church to baptize the living boy, and when I returned, there was no sign of the monster. I did not ask where it had gone, nor did she tell me.

By this time, Catherine had married Henri’s older brother and left our house for his, and Pierre and I had grown apart. He planned to wed our neighbor Jeanne Baudot soon, and Maman said it was not seemly for me to spend much time alone with him.

But one day in May I went into the church to pray for Marguerite, who had been very ill the night before, and I saw Pierre there on his knees, at a time when he would normally have been in the fields. He stood when I came in, looking embarrassed, but I ignored that and, touching his arm, asked, “What is it, my friend? You seem distraught.”

He gave me a look I had never seen from him. Then he shook his head and went outside.

I followed. “Is it Jeanne Baudot?” I asked as gently as I could.

Again he shook his head. “No, not Jeanne,” he said. “My sister Jeannette. She is getting worse. Every evening at Compline she speaks to the thing that is not there and seems to listen to it as well; she goes to the Bois Chenu and the Ladies’ Tree to meet it. I have heard her many times, for I have followed her. I do not think our mother knows, or our father, or anyone, and I dare not speak of it to them.”

“Is it so wrong?” I asked.

“I cannot tell if it is God or the Devil who comes to her,” he said, the words bursting out of him, “but something does come, I am sure of it. I heard her say to the thing, ‘No, I cannot; I am only a poor country girl and know nothing of armies or of riding a charger into battle.’”

I stared at him, and heard myself whisper, “What?” She must be mad, I thought, or Pierre is right and the Devil tempts her, for God would not ask a girl to go to battle!

Pierre turned to me; he looked stricken, as if he had seen Death. “I have heard her say this about armies and battles many times. I have also heard her promise the invisible creature that she will remain a virgin. Gabrielle …” He hesitated, and dropped his voice, as if he feared he would be overheard. “Gabrielle, I have heard her promise that she will have the dauphin crowned!”

I must confess I almost laughed aloud, for this was even more absurd than leading an army: a peasant girl, one grown up among us, to have the royal dauphin crowned when he and all his nobles could or would not!

“There are prophecies,” Pierre said, his face so troubled that it quelled my laughter, “saying that a maid from an oak forest near Lorraine will save France.”

“We are not quite in Lorraine,” I pointed out to him.

“But we are near,” he said. “And we do have an oak forest. Not long ago Jeannette went to Vaucouleurs,” he continued, “with our married cousin Durand Laxart. She told our parents she was going with him to his home in Burey-le-Petit to help his wife, but when she came back she told me she had gone with him instead to Vaucouleurs. I fear her going there had to do with what she hears each night when the bells ring.”

I still could not believe it, so I said, “I will go with you tonight at Compline, to listen.”

And so that night we hid near the Ladies’ Tree. This time I felt a tightness in my throat and in my head when I heard Jeannette and saw her.

She dropped to her knees when the bells sounded, and her face had that glowing look I had seen before. Her hair fell back when she raised her head, and the dying light painted silver edges on its blackness. “Dearest Saint Catherine,” I heard her say, “blessed Saint Michael, and Saint Margaret. If you wish me to go again, I shall go. But the dauphin’s own captain in Vaucouleurs, Robert de Baudricourt, refused me; he would not give me men, or a war-horse, and he laughed when I said I would take the dauphin to Reims to have him crowned.”

She paused a moment, her eyes skyward; then frowned and went on.

“Do you not think, beloved saints, that another might be better suited to this purpose than I? I can ride my father’s mare bareback and run quickly in my dress, but I have never sat on a saddle or ridden a charger, or worn armor, or handled a sword. I would do God’s will in all things, but I am doubtful of this. I am not a knight or a soldier.”

She fell silent then, as if listening, and I strained my ears, but all I could hear was the wind and the fading echo of the church bells.

Beside me, Pierre was white and still.

Jeannette spoke again, bowing her head as if in obedience. “Very well. I will go again … Yes, you did tell me he would refuse at first; I do remember. And I remember you said I would know how to wear armor, and how to do what must be done … Yes, yes, I will have faith. Forgive me that I doubted, gentle saints. I will not doubt again, I promise.”

“A madwoman or …” said Pierre when Jeannette had gone home and at last we could move our cramped legs.

“Or a saint herself,” I finished, shaken and beginning to believe that there might be good reason after all for Jeannette’s growing piety. I could not doubt that something came to her, and it certainly did not seem evil. It seemed impossible for such a thing to happen in our own village, and yet I, too, had heard the prophecies Pierre had mentioned. And I had been told of people in other places who heard saints’ voices, and spoke to them, and became saints themselves. Such a thing could happen, of course. It filled me with awe that it might be happening here, and to someone I knew.

But happening, of course, it was.

That summer, when the people of Neufchâteau had sent their cattle to graze on our valley’s rich grass as they did every year, the war came close to us again. We could not protect both their beasts and ours in our island stronghold, so we fled with all the livestock to within Neufchâteau’s protecting walls, and decided to remain there, grazing our herds nearby, till it was safe to go home.

Neufchâteau, with its wide market square and its cloth merchants, its Franciscan monastery, and its grand churches, was the only town I had ever seen. Jeannette and her family stayed at an inn run by a widow everyone called La Rousse—the Redhead—but we lodged with my mother’s cousin, and there were so many to help with the chores that I had time to explore Neufchâteau’s narrow streets: the street of the bakers, and the cloth merchants’ street, and the street where they sold meats to those who had the money to buy. The houses were large and ornate in comparison with those I knew, crossed with timbers and showing stone or plaster walls between, red or brown, or yellowish white. I felt trapped among them, for I could often reach out my hands and touch the houses on both sides of the streets, and their upper stories jutted out and nearly met over my head as I walked. Soon I was eager to return to the Meuse valley’s fresh air and open fields, and was glad when at last we all set out for home.

But when we neared our village, Henri, who had run ahead, gave a terrible cry. Soon we saw the reason, and stood aghast at the sight, though perhaps we should have expected the destruction that lay before us. The d’Arcs’ stone house still stood, as did the mayor’s and a few houses at the far edge of the village, ours among them. But of others there was nothing left save ashes. At first we thought the church was safe, for its stone walls were intact, but when we went inside, we saw that all of its contents had been burned, broken, or stolen. The oats and rye and barley were gone from the fields, and our small crop of wheat as well, and there were few cabbages or carrots left in our gardens. We stared at the naked fields—Maman, Papa, my sisters, and I—and Maman, who was again with child, wept as if she would never smile again.

Once more it was Papa who cheered us all by saying, “They did not harm us ourselves; we are strong and well, and we will start again.” That seemed the view of everyone else also. For the rest of that summer, we rebuilt the houses and the inside of the church, and did without the cooking pots and baskets and sticks of furniture that had been stolen or burned. We plowed again, the men at the plows and we women breaking the clods. The men planted the few remaining seeds, and we all prayed for rain to make them sprout and a long warm fall to make them grow.

One day I came in from gathering herbs to find Maman and my sister Catherine laughing together by the fire while they spun. I smiled, for I had not heard Maman laugh since the raid. “What makes you so merry?” I asked as I fell to sorting the herbs by the fire.

“Oh,” said Catherine, “have you not heard? Surely Pierre has told you about his sister, the fair Jeannette, who wants to be an old maid!”

I remembered, then, Jeannette’s promise to stay chaste. I knew that if she had been chosen by God for some great deed, she would not be able to wed, for the truest servants of God must remain virgin. If she had now made her promise known to others, could it mean that she was indeed the maid of the prophecies?

But aloud I only said, “No, Pierre has told me nothing. What is the news?”

“Why,” said Catherine, wiping the laughter-tears from her eyes, “it is said that she was visited by a young man in Neufchâteau while we were all there, and that she promised to wed him—and high time, too, one would think!”

“Catherine,” said Maman severely, nodding toward me, “many a good maid weds late. We are not all as fortunate as you.”

“Oh, la, it is true, of course,” Catherine said quickly. “But in the end Mademoiselle Jeannette refused this man, breaking her promise, and so she was brought to court, in Toul. Think of it, a law court, with Jeannette in her plain red dress, standing before the learned churchmen in their long robes, and saying”—here Catherine put on a high, squeaky voice, nothing like Jeannette’s sweet one—“‘No, honored sirs, I do not mean to wed; I told him I would not, and I will not, and there you have it!’ Can you not just see her?”

My mother smiled again, and laughed, but looked nervously at me, and did not laugh as hard as she had been laughing earlier.

“What happened then?” I asked, tying together a bunch of parsley.

Catherine shrugged, spreading her hands, palms out. “I know not,” she said, “but since the maid is still unwed, and since no angry man has come to carry her away, I suppose the action against her failed.”

I smiled, and turned back to my herbs, rejoicing secretly, for it cheered me to hear of a maid who refused to wed, whatever her reason. And in a court! Perhaps I had misjudged Jeannette; she had never seemed strong to me before. But I admired her now, for I myself had secretly vowed not to wed. Had my family been wealthy, I would have begged to go into a convent, where I could learn to read, and then I would study what books there were about healing. I had no hope of that, for my father could not pay a nun’s dowry. But, though I had told no one, I had resolved to learn to tend the sick beyond what my mother knew to do. Jeannette’s refusal gave me courage.

That autumn the weather was not as gentle as we wished, and we constantly watched for raiders. We did manage to grow a small amount of grain and to harvest it before the rain came—rain so cold it froze on the houses as it fell, and formed long spears of ice.

That year waned and turned, and my mother’s time came early in 1429. Maman was cheerful when the pains began, and as she sat waiting between them, she said, smiling, “Perhaps next time, my changeling, it will be reversed, and it will be you crouching to deliver and me below, waiting to show you your own little one.”

“Perhaps,” I said, though despite my love of children, I hoped it would not be, for I knew I would have no time for them were I to perfect my art as healer. I had been hoping that I could travel someday to a great monastery and learn what I could from the monks, if they would teach me.

Once more the birth went quickly. I barely looked at the child when I cut the cord, and then, cleaning him, I nearly dropped him—yes, him, for at last Maman had a son!

“It is a boy!” I shouted, so loudly that Papa and my sisters came running in. As Papa seized the baby, who screamed lustily, tears coursed down his cheeks, and down Maman’s as well. Paulette and Marguerite and Cécile—Brigitte too—jumped up and down for happiness, shouting, “A boy! A boy!”

I turned back to Maman, surprised at the tears—sad tears, unlike my parents’—that burned my own eyes. Was I not happy that at last Papa had an heir, and I a brother?

I was, but I fled to the Ladies’ Tree and let my tears mingle with the cold rain, weeping for myself and my sisters, my real sisters and my sisters-in-sex—for I saw clearly then that no one rejoiced at our births as at the births of sons. That seemed wrong, for without women to bear sons, and nurture them, and heal them, there would be no sons at all. So was not the one worth at least as much as the other?


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