Author Biography: Susann Cokal has lived in various locations in the U.S. and in Poiters, France, where she found inspiration for Mirabilis. She has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, and is now on the faculty at San Luis Obispo. This is her first novel.
|Publisher:||Blue Hen Trade|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.03(d)|
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August 15, Anno Domini 1349-this is Villeneuve's desperate time, and its time of miracles. In the heart of the city, in the church of Saint-Porchaire, a virgin stands on the edge of a labyrinth. She is fifteen and her parents' every treasure, the only child of theirs who lived. And she is good.
Stone walls and a lead roof cup this girl's body in coolness, blow it full of incense, kiss it with the petals of dying flowers. The virgin barely notices. She is listening to the music of a bell; her father made three for the tower and she is called after one of them. In its peals she hears her name-Blanche. Blanche.
Blanche is full of hope. For though these two summers past the townsfolk have been dying a strange Black Death, her own limbs are strong, her skin is unbroken, and she is prepared for Communion. The streets may be paved with corpses, but her small sins have been confessed and she is here, in the church to which her mother dedicates both alms and prayers.
Her mother looks at her now and, with a wave of her rosary, indicates that Blanche should raise her eyes to pray. The bells have stopped, the censers are swinging, and the nave is full of people; their heavy feet have hidden the labyrinth's tiled lobes. In the sanctuary, priests hum like dancing beetles.
Over the shoulders ahead, Blanche sees a golden Lady set up on the altar. A virgin gazes at a Virgin, at long golden arms curving round the crystal globe of a womb in which the Eucharist sits like a promise. This is the town's finest monstrance, made to house the bread of God and deliver his son's body for special feast days; a thousand mouths water for that comforting dryness. Blanche is hungry, too.
Virgo serena . . .
A young priest with the yellow eyes of a hart takes the heavy Virgin in his hands. He murmurs the Gloriosa while sunlight streams through the colored windows and stains the rock-crystal belly. At last he raises Her. Blanche's body colors, too; her face turns blue, her hands red, and she smiles to herself as she prays. And as she does this, she feels her limbs lighten and tingle. She grows lighter, and lighter still, while the feeling becomes a sort of sparkle behind her eyes . . .
Beside her, a gasp. Within her, a lurch. Blanche is floating upward. Before she knows it, her feet have left the floor. Her mouth tastes of dust, and her left shoe falls off. Unseen hands continue to lift her until she rests high above the heads of her parents.
Blanche's mother and father fall to their knees. To them and to the others she appears to be mounting thin air-perhaps, they think, she's climbing a stair no one else can see. The people around them kneel, too, until only the yellow-eyed priest remains standing, looking dazedly up her skirt at two clean legs.
The people shout, "Grâce à Dieu-un miracle! Deo gratias!"
Silent and still as a griffin, hovering in the air, Blanche closes her eyes and prays for calm. Like a damp fog it comes over her. Then the invisible hands sweep her slowly round the nave, while the shoe comes off her right foot and crowns a baker, who cries out in gratitude.
Three times Blanche makes the sacred circuit, still too astonished to speak. Her heart beats so loudly she thinks it will burst through her ears. The people are now prostrate, faces down and arms out, their prayers booming through Saint-Porchaire. When slowly, gently, she is set down again, this time in the middle of the maze, no one dares to stand. But when she can finally bear to look through the scented air, her gaze finds the priest's. Two pairs of light eyes glitter, meeting over this miracle.
Nine months later, Blanche will lie in a heap of straw-her father dead, her mother gone, and an unholy flood about to wash her child into the world.
Book 1 Rosary
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.
But this remains a fact: That fire killed my mother, Blanche, along with two priests suspected of engendering me, and the women who said they had to cut her hymen to let me through.
For a few months after her elevation, my mother was Blanche Mirabilis, Blanche the Astonishing-her surname one of the few bits of Latin most people ever learned. After that August 15, not one soul in Villeneuve was lost to peste. People traveled miles to see her; the town fathers talked of building her a chapel, and their wives saw her face when they prayed. A young priest taught her to write so she could share her story with the world. And then I arrived, the daughter who, simply in being born, sinned unforgivably-and yet Blanche forgave and named me Good. The rest of the town called me Tardieu, God's Bastard.
On that July afternoon, as I stood on that riverbank and watched my mother burn, ashes blew over me like gray kisses. I felt my heart breaking, and I knew that if I put my hand between my legs it would come out covered in blood.
Perhaps God was watching that day at my side, and perhaps he felt as I did. Or maybe the Virgin whispered her own idea of justice to him. For even while Saint-Porchaire's rocks smoked and popped, peste broke out over the rest of the city. The victims who'd escaped the fire in the atrium died early, and the nuns who'd been tending them ran away. People fell, writhing, in their homes and the streets and the fields, one after another, hundreds of them, even as they tried to flee.
Perversely, those who survived still blamed the peste on Saint-Porchaire-said the burning sinners had put a curse on it. They let falling ash bury the atrium bodies, and let the melted roof cover the church corpses, and no one breathed here again. Except Marie, this creaky dove of the north transept; and myself, who for a time even slept in the funebral atrium, when I had no other home.
". . . you may call and call," Marie says now, "but into air you will fall."
I pause to pull a thorn from my shoe, noting that an early toad has set to croaking. His voice rivals Marie's for direness.
"In the year's second month, thunder's malign. Rain, hail, and lightning are dangerous signs. People will die," Marie concludes; then, "rich people will die-"
"No one is dying today, Marie," I say loudly. Though I don't generally set much store by Marie's pronouncements, I am a little relieved that this one concerns the rich rather than myself. "And there's no thunder, either. Centre-ville is packed for a marché-this is the first year they've had one for the Virgin's Purification, and people are very happy."
Marie falls silent, as I knew she would. The voice of Saint-Porchaire has never spoken directly to me and never will, no more than will the Virgin herself or, now, my own mother, from whom I inherited the duty of coming here. Marie doesn't like me. But I finish my journey as if we are equals in conversation. "Already we've had three days of festival," I say, though I haven't attended a single event myself. "There are beadmakers and spice merchants, jongleurs and a play every day. Today it's the life of Saint Agathe . . . Are you hungry?" I ask as I pass the bread and cheese through the slit that is all Marie has to see by, or to get food and exchange words by. "If you were walled against the new church, the one they're still building at centre-ville, you could listen to the story of her life. Remember what she said to the Roman who ordered her breasts cut off: 'Cruel one,' " I declaim in a voice much like Marie's, " 'have you forgotten your mother and the breast that fed you, that you would thus dismember me?' It's one of my favorite stories."
Marie does not respond. The hand that accepts the food is twisted with rheumatism and gray from mildew; it is a painful hand, though its owner will never tell me so. Nor will she comment on the herbs I steep in her water to soothe that pain. She may well taste the herbs and know what they're for, but she'll resent the relative easement that she thinks distances her from God.
"Of course the magistrate took Agathe's breasts anyway," I continue as I hand over a flagon of that water, "and he served them to her on a platter, before stripping off the rest of her clothes and rolling her on a bed of hot coals. But then God sent an earthquake to scare the magistrate away before lifting Agathe into heaven."
There is a scraping sound. Wordlessly Marie passes me her chamberpot, an earthenware basin sticky on the outside with the mist's humidity. I catch the wet gleam of Marie's eyes in the darkness and think that if she were capable of making a joke, this would be it. She's saying, This is what I give for your notions of holiness, Bonne Tardieu.
Almost laughing, I finish my story: "Now the blessed Agathe, virgin martyr, protects women who breast-feed-none of whom, I promise you, can lay claim to her chastity." It is my own way of jesting, a joke on myself.
I look into the basin. Three days' excretion amounts to a splash in the bottom, nothing more. This shallow chamberpot, as my mother once explained, is the measure of Marie's sin. When the recluse was first sitting in her cell, watching the walls grow around her, she told the crowd that when she's clean in spirit God will stop moving her bowels. She expects, perhaps, that then her basin will brim over with roses, as another bowl did for a Hungarian queen who was later sainted. But Saint Elisabeth was giving table scraps to the poor-offering what might enter the body rather than what surely leaves it.
In silence Marie puts her hand to the slit, and I lean forward. Then suddenly there's a great splash! in the bowl, and the front of my dress is soaked.
"Pox!" I can't help but shout. These are my best clothes.
Marie has tossed me a toad, the one I heard croaking just now. His long legs thrash the mucky water, but he can't do any worse. Holding my breath, I fish him out.
"You've given us both a bath," I say to Marie, quite calm; and then, to the toad now quietly trembling in my hand, "You called and called, but what you fell into was somewhat less pleasant than air."
Marie offers nothing further. I set the toad down and watch him hop flail-limbed away.
I have to empty the basin off holy ground, so back through the atrium I tiptoe with it, feeling frozen earth through the new hole in my shoe. Before me, on the walls of the old priests' residence, images of pain and death mock my careful journey. The patients of ten years ago carved a danse macabre wherever there was wood-a line of staring skulls and twisted bones that cover the cross-timbers and lintels and sills. Perhaps each man who could hold a knife hoped his work would trick fate-postpone the buboes' bursting, the brain's burning, the helpless convulsions that were the model for carving. The bones of those long-ago patients sometimes reach up through the soil, and when they do I sort them into piles; but there are none today. Beneath my feet I feel the bones instead pull back in resentment of me, the bastard. They ask who I am to be walking here on two healthy legs with my bowl of sin.
Now that I'm safely far away, Marie speaks again. "When God grows tired of winter's sheath, he grinds the ice between his teeth. He breaks it down and in his pain he sends it forth in pouring rain . . ." From somewhere, the toad croaks again.
Then comes a crack! that shakes the earth. Suddenly I'm on my knees. The sky is tearing itself open, white light slashing from side to side, crackling, burning, while thunder roars like Judgment Day. There's a taste of blood in my mouth-I must have bitten my tongue-and I realize I've dropped Marie's basin to cover my head with my arms.
I shout, "Holy Virgin!" and the air shimmers silver.
Cold and shining, at the cross between ice and water, the white rain pelts me drop after drop; glints over cloak and skirt, bounces on hard earth before melting a path inside. It drips off the bone piles like sweat. It drips from the walls like tears. The thunder meanwhile shakes into my marrow and lifts me onto my feet.
So I break into a run. The old bell tower looms ahead, offering shelter, black against the crisscross of lightning. My skirts tangle and I trip again and again. A tree behind me cracks and breaks.
What a way to die! Like that poor old prostitute last year, struck down as she sheltered under an oak.
The sky explodes again with a long, almost human roar. This time my body (so often a traitor to me, as I've been a traitor to it) hears the noise as the cry of a child. Milk springs to my breasts and I scream, "Holy mother!" --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. 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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In Anno Domini 1349, the Black Death has plagued the beleaguered the villagers of Villeneuve, France for two years. As the morale sinks lower, a miracle occurs at the Saint-Porchaire Church to provide hope that God has not abandoned the faithful. At the first communion of a teenage girl, Blanche Mirabilis levitates above the stunned townsfolk. Nine months later, she gives birth that many villagers believe is an Immaculate Conception. However, years later, the church burns the miracle girl at the stake for committing heresy. As a teen, that infant Bonne Mirabilis becomes a wet nurse, but with her heritage no one will hire her, treating her like a pariah. Wealthy Radegonde Putemonnoie is pregnant with her deceased spouse's child. If she gives birth to the heir she inherits her late husband¿s fortune. Radegonde hires Bonne as her wet nurse. As the town is under English siege and food becomes scarce except in the home of Radegonde, Bonne allows the less fortunate townsfolk, who previously avoided her like a leper, to drink from her ever flowing breasts. Mirabilis is a powerful medieval historical fiction that vividly brings to life the period as few books do. The story line flows deeply and graphically so that the audience tastes, feels, and smells the mid to late fifteenth century yet not all the descriptions are quite glowing and upbeat as is typical of novels depicting the period. However, the theme is not to turn Villeneuve into the Eerie, Indiana of fourteenth century France, but instead through a strong cast show how every body needs someone to care and cherish them. Susann Cokal presents a wild, wacky, but wonderful debut. Harriet Klausner
Mirabilis is a wonderful work of historical fiction, with elements of the miraculous and a poetic, masterful use of language. Readers experience life, both the beautiful and the repulsive, in a medieval French town through a strong, yet saintly and sympathetic, wet-nurse heroine. The novel probably isn't for those who prefer an easy, straightforward, 'quick read,' but it will definitely reward most other readers. Suspense elements include a long siege of the town by an English army and the threat of a crafty priest who will gladly use imprisonment and torture to increase his own position and influence. As an author of recent, complex historical fiction myself (India Treasures), I admire how Susann Cokal deftly handles frequently changing points of view, yet maintains the continuity of the tale, and how she believably and seamlessly weaves the details of medieval life into the narrative.
It's like stepping back into the Middle Ages, in all the beauty and squalor of the time. The characters speak right to you. They're funny and touching. What a brilliant book
A gorgeous, lush story of 14th century France, rife with sensuality, miracles, heresy and magic. It¿s the story of Bonne, a wet nurse on the fringes of society, who becomes the savior of her town during a famine. Mirabilis is a beautifully written, intriguing story of religion and superstition. There is a lot going on in the book ¿ purported miracles, rumored heresy, famine, healing, mischief and devotion ¿ and it would be difficult to do justice to the story here. There are three primary voices in the book, and they weave together into a vivid tapestry depicting the society and environment of medieval France. The descriptions of place are very strong, and the character development is well done. Some of the details are very explicit, though not gratuitous, and for me, made the story come that much more alive; some readers, however, might be turned off.
The San Francisco Chronicle described Mirabilis as a tale of 'Miracles, Magic, and Madness' and I tend to agree, if you want to see a cast of charactors in the tenth week of some sort of substance withdrawal. I thought this book was a terrible waste of potential and could have been so much better, as a story, if the charactors did not seem on intent in acting for some hidden camera. Sorry
One of the best books this year. Mirabilis is moving and funny and weird and beautiful at the same time. You'll love Bonne-the-wet-nurse for her innocence and hope and strategizing. Her friends the dwarf and the sculptor are engagingly insane, from misguided love of women or of God, and the love story between Bonne and her employer is well handled. You're living the Middle Ages--there is so much detail, but it never gets overwhelm