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The Priest's Madonna: A Novel Excerpt from The Priest's Madonna: A Novel

by Amy Hassinger

Chapter One

In those years we lived in Espèraza, a small city straddling the banks of the bending Aude. We had a cozy apartment above my father's hat shop, a place redolent of steamed felt, shellac, rabbit fur, and wool, and peopled with hat forms standing on workbenches like sculpted busts. Though we were not wealthy, Father made a good living and enjoyed his work. He employed five men and treated them like family -- they ate their midday dinners with us, and slept on the workroom floor when they were fighting with their wives or sleeping off a binge. Father entertained them with political diatribes and songs as they worked. He often said that if he had his life to live over again, he would be a cabaret singer. "Enough of this decent living, this persnickety business of fulling wool and counting money," he'd roar. "Give me the stage, give me Paris!" Mother would roll her eyes while he belted out the first phrases of "Coupo Santo" in his rich baritone, his handlebar mustache vibrating.

Our apartment was modest but comfortable: one bedroom, a kitchen, and a dining room. When the weather was poor or the river was threatening to flood, Claude and I -- and our foster sister, Michelle, after she came -- would sometimes wander down to the warm shop to watch the men work and listen to their stories. This was where I learned of the wild woman who lived with the bears in the mountains, and of Autanette, the daughter of the wind, whose father saved her from unwanted suitors by turning her into stone. This was also where I learned about my father's passionate distaste for the Catholic Church and his strong socialist views. He was outspoken and loved an argument, and he would often provoke the workers who were royalists, baiting them and then trouncing them soundly with his own republican manifesto. More than one worker stormed out of the shop in a fury on these occasions. Usually they returned the next day, when their tempers had cooled.

Michelle, I should explain, was my dear friend and sister from my tenth year onward. She came just after the death of my infant brother, Christophe, several months after our pilgrimage to Sainte Baume. After he died, Mother wore a blank stare and stopped scolding Claude and me when we were naughty. Father worried. He began bringing home tins of grisettes and tortes sent by the sister of one of his workers, a Mme Lèvre. Claude and I enjoyed the treats, of course, and Mother wrote a note of thanks. I suppose M. Lèvre had his request in mind all along.

It so happened that the Lèvre family had a cousin, M. Baron, who had just lost his wife to consumption. M. Baron was done in by grief; he refused to leave his smithy's shop, and spent his days and nights at the forge, hammering incessantly, his face blackened with soot. He seemed to hardly recognize his daughter, who was my age and in need of good meals, schooling, and company. Father told us this story one night at dinner, and I remember being angry with him for telling such a story in Mother's presence -- one that could only make her feel worse. But the next day, when Michelle arrived bearing a battered suitcase and a bunch of half-wilted lavender, I understood why he'd spoken.

My father must have thought that it would cheer my mother to have another child around the house. Or maybe M. Lèvre was a remarkable salesman. Whatever the reason, Father, impulsive as ever, had agreed to take Michelle in without consulting my mother. She was furious; she wept and raved. She wanted nothing to do with another child, especially a practically grown girl. What she wanted was a baby -- her baby, Christophe -- back again. Didn't Father know the difference between an infant and a prepubescent girl? But my father's word was his word, and he had given it to M. Lèvre. The matter was closed. I pitied Michelle, for my mother would barely look her in the eye, and the rivalry that might have easily grown between us did not so much as germinate. She had raven-black hair that she wore in plaits, and small, intelligent eyes. She must have understood my mother's grief for Christophe, for she left her alone and did not hover or cling. It was skillfully done; Mother could observe Michelle from a distance and could see how quickly the rest of us took to her. Before long, it was as if she had always been a part of our family We dreaded the day that her father would call to claim her again. As it turned out, M. Baron died a few months after his wife, and Michelle and all her quiet, sad wisdom was ours to keep.

* * *

In the fall of 1884, when Michelle and I were about sixteen, my father hired a vagabond. Gaunt and shoeless, he'd come from a tiny mountain village west of us, close to the Spanish border. We didn't know much about him, and he didn't speak our patois -- his was broader, his pronunciation closer to Spanish -- but my father hired him anyway. He clearly needed the work. My mother fed him and let him sleep in front of the hearth, and the next morning my father set him to work boiling the carded wool into felt. I don't know what his real name was, but the men called him le bandit. He slept on the workroom floor.

One afternoon, my father got into an especially heated argument with one of the men about the hypocrisy of the Church. That night our bedroom filled with smoke. I woke first, coughing, and ran barefoot to the window, scorching the soles of my feet on the floor. Father jumped first, then caught Claude, Michelle, and me. Mother appeared at the window, weeping, her arms full of lace and linen. "Jump, Isabelle!" my father yelled. He broke her fall, collapsing beneath her weight. The church bells began to clang then -- someone had raised the alarm -- and men came quickly; carting buckets of river water. They doused the fire, but not before both our house and the workshop were destroyed. And le bandit was gone.

We walked through the charred ruins that next dawn, searching for anything salvageable. The walls of the workshop still stood, but they were streaked with soot; the tables were blackened and crumbling, the carding machine half melted. "The devil's gone walking," I heard one of the old women say; and this was how I imagined it ever afterward: that the devil had stepped on our house and left an inferno as his footprint.

So, we moved -- to the nearby hilltop village of Rennes-le-Château. My father bought the house sight unseen, swayed by the low price and the reputed beauty of the village. ("Magnificent views of the mountains," he repeated to us, "and an ancient castle, just down the road!") But, as my mother had suspected, the purchase price proved too good to be true, for the house, like most others in the village, had been neglected for centuries. The incessant wind whistled through the cracks in the mortar, chilling us to the teeth. My mother forbade us from walking near the edge of the cliff beyond the church because she worried that the wind might send us over.

They say that the wind is the breath of phantoms. If this is true, then Rennes-le-Château was a village full of spirits, for the tramontane blew all the time. It seemed the wind even brought word of our arrival and the circumstances surrounding it, for the villagers appeared to know all about us: where we'd come from, what we'd lost. They did not welcome us sympathetically. When we climbed the hill, accompanied by a mule carrying the few things we'd managed to save -- the lace tablecloth, the bed linens, several pewter dishes, a few books, their pages fragrant still with smoke -- no one greeted us. They treated us from the first as if they knew that we felt coming to Rennes-le-Château was a debasement. And though neither of my parents ever said as much, I saw that there was truth in this assumption.

Copyright © 2006 Amy Hassinger