Skip to main content

Excerpt

Excerpt

Joan: A Novel of Joan of Arc

DOMRÉMY, SUMMER 1422

Her job is picker-upper of stones. Not pebbles but rocks of heft and edges and sharp corners. As the boys of Domrémy gather in the field, Joan is bent-backed over the ground, dig­ging missiles out of the earth with blackened fingernails. From her skirts, the ends gripped in a tight fist, she makes a bundle weighted down with hard treasures.

At her brother Jacquemin’s whistle, the others come padding over, a shuffling and uncertain army of which he is captain, being the eldest—sixteen—and tallest. From his mouth, a stem of wheat curves in a long arc like a single whisker. He looks out at the scorch of afternoon sun in a clear blue sky and stretches a leg, shakes a foot as if to wake it. Above them, a hot wind exhales, stirring a few hairs on every head. A stillness eases into the grass. One boy opens his mouth to yawn.

She shows Jacquemin her collection, and he nods. As captain, he has first pick of stones. He takes two of the largest for himself and flicks his eyes in the direction of the rest of his men. She goes slowly, deliber­ately, down the line. What she distributes is not randomly given. She examines each outstretched hand, assessing whether it is one accus­tomed to splinters, cuts, and scrapes, to dusty fights in yards and hay­stacks, or as yet uninitiated in the rites of boyish scuffles and hard labor. You don’t want to give a boy a rock that is bigger than his palm, that he cannot clutch in his fingers and throw with precision. So, she gives her brother’s friends, the square-shouldered boys of twelve and thirteen, rocks she thinks suit them: stones blunt and heavy.

For the smallest of this makeshift army, a boy she knows only by sight and by name, she saves the best. He is aged seven years to her ten and chewing the fingernails of one hand carefully, even thoughtfully, while the other dangles at his side. When she holds out her prize, he does not take it, so she has to grip the hand that isn’t in his mouth and press the two rocks allotted to him into his palm. As far as rocks go, one is ordinary. But the other is smooth and narrow and easily held. Unlike the rest, it features a jagged edge. She’d smiled when her hand had grazed its sharpness in the warm earth.

“They may not show their faces,” Jacquemin tells them, already bored. He tosses a rock like a juggler about to put on a show, catching it with a small flourish.

“They are cowards,” he adds.

But even now, behind them, at the edges of the clearing: a rustle, a stir so subtle they jump, and she can hear her heart beat inside her ears. The enemy has come, and for a moment, just a moment, they are struck dumb by what they see. It is as if they are looking into a mirror, and for every boy from French Domrémy who is here, there is his counterpart, his twin, from the Burgundian village of Maxey, their neighbor less than half an hour’s walk away on a fine day, their sworn enemy. Ten against ten.

As number eleven, she stands out: a girl dressed in faded red wool with dark hair in knots swinging past her shoulders. Jacquemin says, in a low snarl, “Get out of the way, Joan,” and she glowers at him before moving, at her own pace, to the periphery of the battleground. She leans against a tree, folds her arms, regards the scene. Her brother does not know it, but in her pocket she has kept back three stones, and when she looks down, she spots a thick branch, like a club, at her feet. It is good to be prepared.

They are, on both sides, a ragged bunch. You can tell where their mothers or sisters have patched up their tunics and trousers, the discol­ored squares sewn onto knees and elbows, where fabric easily wears thin. You can hear, almost, the collective grumbling of stomachs. Boys are always hungry, though their portions are often larger, and in her house, you have to eat quickly if you want your share of bread and pot­tage. She knows this, having three brothers (two older, one younger) of her own. When food is scarce, they talk on and on about what they would eat if they could: the cuts of dripping beef, the smoking fillets of fresh-caught trout, the banquets they would hold if they were lords. Sometimes, when they are in good spirits, they let her crouch nearby and listen, and her mouth waters, for her appetite is no less than theirs, and she, too, is always hungry. But usually, they chase her away, and if they cannot chase her away because, like a wall, she will not shift from her place, then they will stop talking until she grows tired of the silence and leaves of her own accord.

No one knows with certainty how these mock battles started or why the boys of French Domrémy and Burgundian Maxey should take up stones when their fathers are able to hold a watchful peace between themselves. But here they are, these boys, on the field. Here they are, face forward, wiping final threads of milky snot onto their sleeves, ruddy-cheeked not from anger but from the warmth of a summer day. Here they are, flint-eyed, faces blank, jaws set. Only a few, she thinks, look like born fighters: you can always pick them out; it is the way they stare across at their enemy without blinking, their stillness and quiet, how they lift and hold their heads. The Maxey boys come ready. From their pockets, they show their hands, palms full of dark rocks. She wonders which of their sisters helped them pick out these stones and whether missiles selected by another girl, a Burgundian equivalent of herself—perhaps her name is also Joan—will be as good as the ones she has found in this place, though she thinks not. She has picked the best stones for her brother’s army.

How does a battle begin? Which side will strike the first blow? Or does it commence all at once, like the meeting of hands for prayer? This is a question she and her uncle Durand Laxart have turned over during his many visits. Despite his low birth, his lack of learning, her uncle is a thinker, a teller of stories, a wanderer who has lived the life of a dozen men in his forty or fifty years. No one knows his precise age. When he smiles or laughs, showing off his good teeth, each one intact, not chipped or missing or a blackened stump, he could easily pass for thirty. He says he has been a ship’s boy, a cook, a tanner’s assistant, a one-hour, one-day, and one-month laborer, in the fields, on the docks, even, he claims, on the scaffold as the hangman’s helper.

So, how does a battle begin? He has told her stories of battles, leg­endary battles, that start with a song. A scream. A curse. A prayer. But on this fine summer afternoon, on a good-sized plot of neutral land wedged between their two villages, the battle starts with a question.

“Who is that?” the leader of Maxey asks, pointing in her direction.

She answers before Jacquemin can: “Are you talking to me, Burgun­dian filth?” Perhaps it is the rocks concealed in her skirts that make her bold. Or the stick she knows is lying within reach of her foot, which she can roll into her hand at a moment’s notice.

Jacquemin shoots her a death glare, a look that says, Go before I tell Father you were here, and then you’ll be sorry, just as the enemy captain spits on the ground. He spits with such force, you expect a front tooth or two to roll in the grass. He is a safe distance away—his spit lands nowhere near her—but Joan is startled. Usually her voice alone is enough to ward off her brothers, to make them shrink back. She moves closer to the tree, anchoring herself against it. “Armagnac cunt!” the Burgundian captain shouts, and a rock is tossed in the air—she can’t tell from which side. Not necessarily thrown, she observes, at any par­ticular target. She hopes, for the boy Guillaume’s sake, that he hasn’t wasted his prize with the sharp edge so soon.

Stones fly, launching themselves through the air like angry, whiz­zing birds. Every time a rock hits a target, a shoulder or a stomach, there is a yelp of pain.

When the stones are exhausted, fighting follows, though it is more like a brawl, each boy gripping another of similar height and weight and rolling through the dirt as one body. Teeth sink into ankles. Thumbs press into shut eyes. Everywhere, a tangle of gangly limbs, a wobbling, lurching dance through clouds of kicked-up dust. The high-pitched shrieks of younger children splinter the shouts of older ones. She would join, except she doesn’t know where to begin, and she can’t tell the enemy from her own side anymore. Next time, she thinks, it would help for the boys from Domrémy to mark themselves somehow, perhaps to wear a piece of cloth tied around their arms in the same color. Or the Burgundians could dress as horned devils. That would do the job, too. At the thought, she smiles.

When they’d first arrived, Joan had noted the dark borderline of trees that rimmed the land and said, Look, Jacquemin, look up. In the voice that never failed to put a murderous glint in her father’s eye, she’d told her brother, You should have begun collecting stones weeks ago. Every mock battle, its date and hour and location, is determined by the captains well in advance. We—she includes herself in this we—could have found the best rocks and put them in sacks to raise, by rope, to the tops of the trees. Then each boy would climb to a covert branch, and from his perch, he could ambush the enemy as soon as they ar­rived. The boys of Maxey, they’d believe the sky or God was pelting rocks at them. They’d piss themselves. They’d run.

But her brother had only glared at her. A lad of few words. Her fa­ther thinks this is one of his strengths; she thinks he’s just slow. “If you want to stay . . .” he’d said, not finishing the sentence. He’d extended an arm and gestured carelessly at the field. Look for rocks.

From a distance, she spots Maxey’s captain in a deadlock with Jac­quemin, which makes her want to reach out to her brother with a long arm and shake him. Not five minutes have passed, and already you need my help! But she bends. The stick fills her right hand. She runs in the direction of the enemy’s exposed back, the head like a wisp of or­ange flame, catching the sunlight. She raises the stick to strike, as well as to fend off anyone who might think of attacking—

A scream stops her.

She hasn’t yet reached the fight, but the branch tips out of her hand. She turns and stares in the direction of the noise, not knowing at first what she is looking at. Then she sees: in the midst of the fighting, there is a patch of silence. The quiet feels strange; it does not belong here. In a corner of the field where two boys should still be throwing fists and kicking, one boy has detached himself. The other is lying on the ground. She observes, even from this distance, the white terror of the moving boy’s face as he stumbles backward and nearly trips over his own feet. He covers his mouth, wipes whatever is there across the front of his shirt, as others, too, begin to look up from their pummeling. Her gaze returns to the boy who doesn’t move.

Already she knows who it is before her eyes can make out the face. Guillaume: seven years to her ten. The light that heats the back of her neck is the same light as before, but different. There is an edge to it now, like the point of a sharpened knife held against her skin. The boys step aside to let her pass. Perhaps they think, because she is a girl, she can do something to help.

Now the enemy is moving again: faces bewildered and pale, fleeing in the direction of Maxey, where they will close their Burgundian ranks and admit to nothing. No one calls out or runs to stop them. By the time she nears Guillaume, they are gone, cutting through grass and the shadows of trees as nimble as thieves in the night.

When she reaches him, she exhales with relief; he is alive. Then she kneels, and it is as if she has swallowed one of her own rocks. She tries to convince herself that the wound isn’t as bad as it appears, that a flesh wound, a clean cut, can release a surprising amount of blood. She sees that Guillaume’s eyes are open, that they are the gray-blue of clouded skies and fixed on a spot in the far-off distance.

Behind her, she hears Jacquemin swear revenge. She turns; this is not the time for blood feuds. Now it is she who gives flinty looks and blunt directions. “Get help,” she orders. Her brother makes a sound, a stifled cry like a dog that has been stepped on, and begins to run. Three of his followers tag behind him. Those who remain look like they might be sick. They turn their eyes away; the blood, she would guess, frightens them. There is so much of it.

Theirs is a small village, so no face remains a stranger for very long. She has seen Guillaume sitting on the threshold of his cottage while his mother tends to her garden, considered the best in Domrémy. She has seen him pick up a gray cat, which their family keeps to fend off mice, and rub his cheeks, first one, and then the other, against the scruff of its neck. For his age, he is small, and the cat must be heavy to carry for long periods at a time, but he is always draping it, like a sack of flour, over his shoulder, always petting its ears and trying to cradle it like a baby, though the animal won’t let itself be cradled. She thinks: A boy who is so tender with animals can’t be a bad person, can he? From her skirts, she tears a strip of wool and presses the cloth to his head, and the wool turns dark, nearly black, until her own fingers are sticky. The patch of grass, from the back of his skull to the bottom of his neck, is leaking red, as though the ground itself were being dyed, a bolt of mossy-green fabric dipped in a tub of scarlet. She hears a strangled sound catch in his throat, which she feels echoed in her own throat. It is as if they are, the two of them, linked together in this brief moment; what he feels, she also feels, this dizzy and dazed confusion, a growing nausea that can’t be vomited up. Her hands, now cold, now hot, now cold again, tear a bigger piece off her dress, and she presses, pushing it against the wound. To keep from gagging at the smell of blood, she tells him words she knows are empty before they have even left her mouth. It is only a small cut. Hold on. Help is coming.

She wants to ask Guillaume how it happened. Was it a rock, a piece of wood, or just fists? Did the boy who did this have a weapon con­cealed? But she doesn’t ask. She is thinking, because she knows he will die, My face shouldn’t be the last one he sees in this world. It should be his mother or father or sister here. Even the cat. Not me, someone he barely knows.

She feels she is memorizing the picture of him, a body that has grown over seven tender years from infancy to boyhood, from swad­dling bands to trousers. His face has not yet lost its baby roundness. His skin is smooth and probably soft, his hair springs up in yellow-brown tufts, the color of sunlight on a dirt field. His blood, too, looks new, and his hands are clenched in fists, as if he is still fighting. But now one loosens, and her hand extends to meet it. She is surprised to feel something drop into her palm. When she looks down, she sees rocks, the ones she gave him, both unthrown. She folds her fingers over them. She wants to ask, even as she fights back tears, Didn’t you think of using them, stupid boy? Fool, coward. I saved the best for you.

They are only three years apart, though his hands couldn’t be more different from hers. No calluses. No roughness. These are the hands of a child who is loved and spared hard labor. The one blemish she can spot: a pink scar, a thin line that runs for about an inch from the inside of the top of his thumb. The cat, she suspects. Except for his leaking head, he is all a boy should be: whole and sound, healthy and strong. For a moment, panic seizes her; she is afraid her hands, rough and large, the hard and solid grip of her fingers, will hurt him.

The moment the last breath goes out of him she can feel it. It is like a disappointed sigh that no one, apart from herself, has arrived to see him off.

Then, all at once, the men are here, and she is rising slowly to her feet. She is being pushed back and away, and two of the men, close friends of her father’s, are staring as though there is something wrong with her. They think she has been hurt because her hands and wrists, her skirts where she had knelt, are covered in blood, and her dress is torn. Did Maxey do this, they ask, as if what happened here were the work of an entire village. But she says no, it is all Guillaume’s blood, and she shows them the cloth she used to try to stanch the bleeding. They seem to understand; they nod and pay no more attention to her.

It is Guillaume’s father, called from another field, who carries his son back to Domrémy, to his mother, grandmother, older sister, and to his cat. The dead boy’s head falls over his father’s arm, leaving a crim­son snake trail in the grass.

She is the last to leave. She stands, staring up at the sky, as though waiting for the glinting sun to explain to her what has happened. She feels that it is important for her to make sense of this. A boy has died. She watched him die. What did he die for?

When she comes back to herself, she sees that one of her hands is balled in a fist. She is surprised by the effort it takes to open her own fingers, to reveal the rocks she had earlier passed to Guillaume, which are now returned to her. She has been holding them so hard, they have made pink-red indentations in her palm, like tiny bird tracks. She tosses the ordinary stone away. But her prize, the one with the sharp edge, she keeps. She slips the rock into her pocket. She considers, surprised by the calmness with which she reasons, that if Jacques d’Arc, her father, had been Guillaume’s father, then Guillaume would have thrown the rocks to save himself. He would have used his fists, and it is possible he would still be alive.

Her father has said to her brothers (while she was listening out of sight), We will never see a great battle here, not in Domrémy. Can you imagine Agincourt or Crécy taking place in these fields? Not in a thou­sand years! And he laughed, picking at his teeth with dirty nails the color of blackest earth.

But if we consider how battles begin, then this one, between France and Burgundy, between Domrémy and Maxey, between rock-throwing children born in different villages, began three years ago. It is a tale everyone knows, a tale simple in nature, of vengeance, of how the Dauphin, in the town of Montereau-Fault-Yonne, had John the Fear­less killed because John was gaining too much power for himself. And now John’s son, Philip, the present Duke of Burgundy, says he will not rest until the Dauphin is dead.

The Dauphin is still alive, but in this place, a boy has died. This, her uncle Durand has told her, finishing another of his battle stories, is the way of war. One day, all is well with the world. The affairs of kings are solely the problem of some ancient and royal bloodline that has noth­ing to do with the poor cottager who eats cabbage for every meal. The princes are feuding, but the earth is being tilled, the grass is being cut, the sheaves are being tied. Until one day, the yawning guard climbs the stairs to the battlements and, peeping over the crenellated edge, sees an army ten thousand strong waiting for his surrender. One day, the cot­tager wakes in the dead of night with the tip of a sword pressed against his ribs. It is not always parents and grandparents who die first. A fa­ther, sweating over his work, hears a shout to come and come quickly and, running, he steps as through a nightmare, into a clearing to see a face familiar to him from its birth. The face will never wake again. It is cold to his touch.

Joan: A Novel of Joan of Arc
by by Katherine J. Chen

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 1984855808
  • ISBN-13: 9781984855800