In her unique and mesmerizing voice, Winterson blends reality with fantasy, dream, and imagination to weave a hypnotic tale with stunning effects.
About the Author
A novelist whose honours include England’s Whitbread Prize, and the American Academy’s E. M. Forster Award, as well as the Prix d’argent at the Cannes Film Festival, JEANETTE WINTERSON burst onto the literary scene as a very young woman in 1985 with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Her subsequent novels, including Sexing the Cherry, The Passion, Written on the Body, and The PowerBook, have also gone on to receive great international acclaim. She lives in London and the Cotswolds.
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It was Napoleon who had such a passion for chicken that he kept his chefs working around the clock. What a kitchen that was, with birds in every state of undress; some still cold and slung over hooks, some turning slowly on the spit, but most in wasted piles because the Emperor was busy.
Odd to be so governed by an appetite.
It was my first commission. I started as a neck wringer and before long I was the one who carried the platter through inches of mud to his tent. He liked me because I am short. I flatter myself. He did not dislike me. He liked no one except Joséphine and he liked her the way he liked chicken.
No one over five foot two ever waited on the Emperor. He kept small servants and large horses. The horse he loved was seventeen hands high with a tail that could wrap round a man three times and still make a wig for his mistress. That horse had the evil eye and there's been almost as many dead grooms in the stable as chickens on the table. The ones the beast didn't kill itself with an easy kick, its master had disposed of because its coat didn't shine or the bit was green.
'A new government must dazzle and amaze,' he said. Bread and circuses I think he said. Not surprising then that when we did find a groom, he came from a circus himself and stood as high as the horse's flank. When he brushed the beast he used a ladder with a stout bottom and a triangle top, but when he rode him for exercise he took a great leap and landed square on the glossy back while the horse reared and snorted and couldn't throw him, not even with its nose in the dirt and its back legs towards God. Then they'd vanish in a curtain of dust and travel for miles, the midget clinging to the mane and whooping in his funny language that none of us could understand.
But he understood everything.
He made the Emperor laugh and the horse couldn't better him, so he stayed. And I stayed. And we became friends.
We were in the kitchen tent one night when the bell starts ringing like the Devil himself is on the other end. We all jumped up and one rushed to the spit while another spat on the silver and I had to get my boots back on ready for that tramp across the frozen ruts. The midget laughed and said he'd rather take a chance with the horse than the master, but we don't laugh.
Here it comes surrounded by parsley the cook cherishes in a dead man's helmet. Outside the flakes are so dense that I feel like the little figure in a child's snowstorm. I have to screw up my eyes to follow the yellow stain that lights up Napoleon's tent. No one else can have a light at this time of night.
Fuel's scarce. Not all of this army have tents.
When I go in, he's sitting alone with a globe in front of him. He doesn't notice me, he goes on turning the globe round and round, holding it tenderly with both hands as if it were a breast. I give a short cough and he looks up suddenly with fear in his face.
'Put it here and go.'
'Don't you want me to carve it, Sir?' 'I can manage. Goodnight.'
I know what he means. He hardly ever asks me to carve now. As soon as I'm gone he'll lift the lid and pick it up and push it into his mouth. He wishes his whole face were mouth to cram a whole bird.
In the morning I'll be lucky to find the wishbone.
There is no heat, only degrees of cold. I don't remember the feeling of a fire against my knees. Even in the kitchen, the warmest place on any camp, the heat is too thin to spread and the copper pans cloud over. I take off my socks once a week to cut my toe-nails and the others call me a dandy. We're white with red noses and blue fingers.
He does it to keep his chickens fresh.
He uses winter like a larder.
But that was a long time ago. In Russia.
Nowadays people talk about the things he did as though they made sense. As though even his most disastrous mistakes were only the result of bad luck or hubris.
It was a mess.
Words like devastation, rape, slaughter, carnage, starvation are lock and key words to keep the pain at bay. Words about war that are easy on the eye.
I'm telling you stories. Trust me.
I wanted to be a drummer.
The recruiting officer gave me a walnut and asked if I could crack it between finger and thumb. I could not and he laughed and said a drummer must have strong hands. I stretched out my palm, the walnut resting there, and offered him the same challenge. He coloured up and had a Lieutenant take me to the kitchen tents. The cook sized up my skinny frame and reckoned I was not a cleaver man. Not for me the mess of unnamed meat that had to be chopped for the daily stew. He said I was lucky, that I would be working for Bonaparte himself, and for one brief, bright moment I imagined a training as a pastry cook building delicate towers of sugar and cream. We walked towards a small tent with two impassive guards by the flaps.
'Bonaparte's own storeroom,' said the cook.
The space from the ground to the dome of the canvas was racked with rough wooden cages about a foot square with tiny corridors running in between, hardly the width of a man. In each cage there were two or three birds, beaks and claws cut off, staring through the slats with dumb identical eyes. I am no coward and I've seen plenty of convenient mutilation on our farms but I was not prepared for the silence. Not even a rustle. They could have been dead, should have been dead, but for the eyes. The cook turned to go. 'Your job is to clear them out and wring their necks.'
I slipped away to the docks, and because the stone was warm in that early April and because I had been travelling for days I fell asleep dreaming of drums and a red uniform. It was a boot that woke me, hard and shiny with a familiar saddle smell. I raised my head and saw it resting on my belly the way I had rested the walnut in my palm. The officer didn't look at me, but said, 'You're a soldier now and you'll get plenty of opportunity to sleep in the open air. On your feet.'
He lifted his foot and, as I scrambled up, kicked me hard and still looking straight ahead said, 'Firm buttocks, that's something.'
I heard of his reputation soon enough but he never bothered me. I think the chicken smell kept him away.
I was homesick from the start. I missed my mother. I missed the hill where the sun slants across the valley. I missed all the everyday things I had hated. In spring at home the dandelions streak the fields and the river runs idle again after months of rain. When the army recruitment came it was a brave band of us who laughed and said it was time we saw more than the red barn and the cows we had birthed. We signed up straight away and those of us who couldn't write made an optimistic smear on the page.
Our village holds a bonfire every year at the end of winter. We had been building it for weeks, tall as a cathedral with a blasphemous spire of broken snares and infested pallets. There would be plenty of wine and dancing and a sweetheart in the dark and because we were leaving we were allowed to light it. As the sun went down we plunged our five burning brands into the heart of the pyre. My mouth went dry as I heard the wood take and splinter until the first flame pushed its way out. I wished I were a holy man then with an angel to protect me so I could jump inside the fire and see my sins burned away. I go to confession but there's no fervour there. Do it from the heart or not at all.
We're a lukewarm people for all our feast days and hard work. Not much touches us, but we long to be touched. We lie awake at night willing the darkness to part and show us a vision. Our children frighten us in their intimacy, but we make sure they grow up like us. Lukewarm like us. On a night like this, hands and faces hot, we can believe that tomorrow will show us angels in jars and that the well-known woods will suddenly reveal another path.
Last time we had this bonfire, a neighbour tried to pull down the boards of his house. He said it was nothing but a stinking pile of dung, dried meat and lice. He said he was going to burn the lot. His wife was tugging at his arms. She was a big woman, used to the churn and the field, but she couldn't stop him. He smashed his fist into the seasoned wood until his hand looked like a skinned lamb's head. Then he lay by the fire all night until the early wind covered him in cooling ash. He never spoke of it. We never spoke of it. He doesn't come to the bonfire any more.
I sometimes wonder why none of us tried to stop him. I think we wanted him to do it, to do it for us. To tear down our long-houred lives and let us start again. Clean and simple with open hands. It wouldn't be like that, no more than it could have been like that when Bonaparte set fire to half of Europe.
But what other chance had we?
Morning came and we marched away with our parcels of bread and ripe cheese. There were tears from the women and the men slapped us on the back and said soldiering is a fine life for a boy. One little girl who always followed me around pulled at my hand, her eyebrows close together with worry.
'Will you kill people, Henri?'
I dropped down beside her. 'Not people, Louise, just the enemy'.
'What is enemy?'
'Someone who's not on your side.'
We were on our way to join the Army of England at Boulogne. Boulogne, a sleepy nothing port with a handful of whorehouses, suddenly became the springboard of Empire. Only twenty miles away, easy to see on a clear day, was England and her arrogance. We knew about the English; how they ate their children and ignored the Blessed Virgin. How they committed suicide with unseemly cheerfulness. The English have the highest suicide rate in Europe. I got that straight from a priest The English with their John Bull beef and frothing beer. The English who are even now waist-high in the waters off Kent practising to drown the best army in the world.
We are to invade England.
All France will be recruited if necessary. Bonaparte will snatch up his country like a sponge and wring out every last drop.
We are in love with him.
At Boulogne, though my hopes of drumming head high at the front of a proud column are dashed, I'm still head high enough because I know I'll see Bonaparte himself. He comes regularly rattling from the Tuileries and scanning the seas like an ordinary man checks his rain barrel. Domino the midget says that being near him is like having a great wind rush about your ears. He says that's how Madame de Stäel put it and she's famous enough to be right. She doesn't live in France now. Bonaparte had her exiled because she complained about him censoring the theatre and suppressing the newspapers. I once bought a book of hers from a travelling pedlar who'd had it from a ragged nobleman. I didn't understand much but I learned the word 'intellectual' which I would like to apply to myself.
Domino laughs at me.
At night I dream of dandelions.
The cook grabbed a chicken from the hook above his head and scooped a handful of stuffing from the copper bowl.
He was smiling.
'Out on the town tonight, lads, and a night to remember, I swear it.' He rammed the stuffing inside the bird, twisting his hand to get an even coating.
'You've all had a woman before I suppose?'
Most of us blushed and some of us giggled.
'If you haven't then there's nothing sweeter and if you have, well, Bonaparte himself doesn't tire of the same taste day after day.'
He held up the chicken for our inspection.
I had hoped to stay in with the pocket Bible given to me by my mother as I left. My mother loved God, she said that God and the Virgin were all she needed though she was thankful for her family. I've seen her kneeling before dawn, before the milking, before the thick porridge, and singing out loud to God, whom she has never seen. We're more or less religious in our village and we honour the priest who tramps seven miles to bring us the wafer, but it doesn't pierce our hearts.
St Paul said it is better to marry than to burn, but my mother taught me it is better to burn than to marry. She wanted to be a nun. She hoped I would be a priest and saved to give me an education while my friends plaited rope and trailed after the plough.
I can't be a priest because although my heart is as loud as hers I can pretend no answering riot. I have shouted to God and the Virgin, but they have not shouted back and I'm not interested in the still small voice. Surely a god can meet passion with passion?
She says he can.
Then he should.
My mother's family were not wealthy but they were respectable. She was brought up quietly on music and suitable literature, and politics were never discussed at table, even when the rebels were breaking down the doors. Her family were monarchists. When she was twelve she told them that she wanted to be a nun, but they disliked excess and assured her that marriage would be more fulfilling. She grew in secret, away from their eyes. Outwardly she was obedient and loving, but inside she was feeding a hunger that would have disgusted them if disgust itself were not an excess. She read the lives of saints and knew most of the Bible off by heart. She believed that the Blessed Virgin herself would aid her when the time came.
The time came when she was fifteen, at a cattle fair. Most of the town was out to see the lumbering bullocks and high-pitched sheep. Her mother and father were in holiday mood and in a rash moment her papa pointed to a stout, well-dressed man carrying a child on his shoulders. He said she couldn't do better for a husband. He would be dining with them later and very much hoped that Georgette (my mother) would sing after supper. When the crowd thickened my mother made her escape, taking nothing with her but the clothes she stood in and her Bible that she always carried. She hid in a haycart and set off that sunburnt evening out of the town and slowly through the quiet country until the cart reached the village of my birth. Quite without fear, because she believed in the power of the Virgin, my mother presented herself to Claude (my father) and asked to be taken to the nearest convent. He was a slow-witted but kindly man, ten years older than her, and he offered her a bed for the night, thinking to take her home the next day and maybe collect a reward.
She never went home and she never found the convent either. The days turned into weeks and she was afraid of her father, who she heard was scouring the area and leaving bribes at any religious houses he passed. Three months went by and she discovered that she had a way with plants and that she could quiet frightened animals. Claude hardly ever spoke to her and never bothered her, but sometimes she would catch him watching her, standing still with his hand shading his eyes.
One night, late, as she slept, she heard a tapping at the door and turning up her lamp saw Claude in the doorway. He had shaved, he was wearing his nightshirt and he smelled of carbolic soap.
'Will you marry me, Georgette?'
She shook her head and he went away, returning now and again as time continued, always standing by the door, clean shaven and smelling of soap.
She said yes. She couldn't go home. She couldn't go to a convent so long as her father was bribing every Mother Superior with a mind to a new altar piece, but she couldn't go on living with this quiet man and his talkative neighbours unless he married her. He got into bed beside her and stroked her face and taking her hand put it to his face. She was not afraid. She believed in the power of the Virgin.
After that, whenever he wanted her, he tapped at the door in just the same way and waited until she said yes.
Then I was born.
She told me about my grandparents and their house and their piano, and a shadow crossed her eyes when she thought I would never see them, but I liked my anonymity. Everyone else in the village had strings of relations to pick fights with and know about. I made up stories about mine. They were whatever I wanted them to be depending on my mood.
Thanks to my mother's efforts and the rusty scholarliness of our priest I learned to read in my own language, Latin and English and I learned arithmetic, the rudiments of first aid and because the priest also supplemented his meagre income by betting and gambling I learned every card game and a few tricks. I never told my mother that the priest had a hollow Bible with a pack of cards inside. Sometimes he took it to our service by mistake and then the reading was always from the first chapter of Genesis. The villagers thought he loved the creation story. He was a good man but lukewarm. I would have preferred a burning Jesuit, perhaps then I might have found the extasy I need to believe.
I asked him why he was a priest, and he said if you have to work for anybody an absentee boss is best.
We fished together and he pointed out the girls he wanted and asked me to do it for him. I never did. I came to women late like my father.
When I left, Mother didn't cry. It was Claude who cried. She gave me her little Bible, the one that she had kept for so many years, and I promised her I would read it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Passion"
Copyright © 1987 Jeanette Winterson.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
One The Emperor,
Two The Queen of Spades,
Three The Zero Winter,
Four The Rock,