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One woman's unforgettable quest for freedom, love, and god.
- HarperCollins Publishers
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- 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.68(d)
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They say I am mad.
Listen, I have seen enough to drive anyone mad, and when the townsfolk see me now, straggling down the street in my ragged gown, sometimes leaning on the rough stone walls of a house or stopping at the fountain to look in the water, when they find me leaning on both hands on a fence to catch my breath before picking up my pack again and hobbling on, then I feel them ease away. The children come out of the byways, calling, "Witch, witch!" They throw stones at me. They are like rats or buzzing flies swarming at some undisclosed signal to my plight; they throw mud and stones at the poor madwoman, with her wild gray hair, which is me. They hoot and point and run in circles round me, touching my torn gray dress and making me forget who I am and what I came out for.
I cover my face with both hands and weep, because I am afraid; because I am a clod of dirt and should have been burnt with the others.
I told them so. "Burn me," I cried. I ran to the two Dominicans, the Preaching Friars in their black robes and stark white hoods, who like our perfecti live in poverty. There were two of them begging outside the cathedral doors. I threw myself on my knees, there on the flagstones, and made obeisance as I used to do to the perfectus bishop Bertrand Marty, bowing in adoratio at his feet. "Burn me," I begged the friars, I am not worthy," and held out both my hands to show the rope-burns on my wrists. But they pulled away, repulsed. I could see the younger one curl his lip at my smell. "I am not worthy to live," I cried. "In the name ofChrist! I have lied. I have sworn oaths. I have drunk, fucked, killed. I am unclean."
They gathered their garments and scurried away from the cathedral, away from me.
Then I sank in the dust, leaning against the heavy wooden doors. Not a large cathedral, this one beside the monastery. Not a large monastery either -- only ten or fifteen brothers living there. I scratched my fingers in the dust as our Lord did once when passing judgment on the adulteress, and I thought of all that had happened to bring me to this pass, and all my lovers gone, my friends, a way of life wiped out, and I, the wanderer, lost and trying to do right and trying to serve Christ.
Esclarmonde used to say that misery and self-pity are the lies of the demon. "Take control," she would command in that firm, impatient way she had. I laugh out loud, remembering. "Esclarmonde," I whisper. I can see her crossing the square in her long black habit with a white cord at the waist, and the way she used to cock her head and purse her lips at scrawny me, one reproving eye trying to push some sense into my head. Her socia, Ealaine, would be at her side. Es-clar-monde, the light of the world.
"Jeanne, you don't let horses run away with you," she used to caution me. "You rein them in. The same with the wild horses of your mind. Take control of your thoughts. Curb the dismal thoughts, and force forward those of blessings and thanks. They are horses at your own command."
After a time I picked myself up from the cathedral stones and took my cane and let my feet lead me slowly over the cobblestones, out of the town, past the vineyards and into the woods. My feet knowing where to go.
They took me right through the forest into the pastures where cattle grazed, tended by two little boys. There were some geese too, I remember, and one little goosegirl about six years old with hair as black as night. It fell into her eyes like a straggly pony's mane.
I stopped to stare at her for a long time, leaning on my stick.
But she was not mine, that girl, for mine would have been much older, I think, maybe grown by now, though I cannot say for sure, for time has flooded through my brain, days into nights and seasons into seasons, and I don't know how long I've been like this or even what year it is anymore, and maybe my daughter's older than I am now; it's not impossible.
I went on a few steps, carried by the inner spirit that was guiding my feet, and then I sat on a stone by the side of the road and cried. I cried first for my dead daughter, and then for Esclarmonde, whom I miss so much, and Baiona and William, then for all the children of Montségur, and finally for all the children everywhere, including myself, that other child, who was also born in war. She wore a white dress with little pearls sewn down the front. I used to turn it in my hands. I watched it shrink smaller and smaller every year, until it seemed impossible that I'd ever been so tiny, no bigger than a kerchief, it seemed. One day I put it on my own child, and tried to ignore the brown bloodstain that ran all down the front. I should not have done it. Baiona claimed it didn't bring a curse, but I buried my baby soon after. She died of pox, not war. She lay in my arms, that cold little form. That's not a thing a mother can forget. I suppose if she hadn't died, she would have been burnt up too.
Guilhabert de Castres said the first burnings took place two hundred and fifty years ago, in 1002. Three men burnt here, ten there. They hunted witches too -- and still are doing it.
They would burn me for...The Treasure of Montsegur. Copyright � by Sophy Burnham. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Meet the Author
Sophy Burnham is the author of several books, novels, and plays, including the New York Times bestseller A Book of Angels, which was translated into more than twenty languages. Her work has appeared in various magazines, including Esquire, the New York Times Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. Ms. Burnham has worked at the Smithsonian Institution and the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays.
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