In the dream, death is as far off as the mountains. It’s a cold, blue winter morning, and she is riding her horse very fast over a field of snow toward a high pine forest, still dim with shadow. Her armor glints in the early light, the steel giant’s hands flashing on either side of her horse’s mane, but the metal is strangely weightless in the dream. She does not feel it. What she feels instead is the still and brilliant morning, the snow and the speed and the cold air on her cheeks, and inside of her a violent, holy joy that makes her eyes very bright and propels her wildly over the fields toward the enemy forest, snow spraying and glittering beneath her horse’s hooves.
Behind the girl rides her army of ten thousand men, all of them eager as she is, united by the same strange and feverish joy as they crash across the winter fields, across a black icy river that winds, shining like a ribbon, through the white land and toward the shadowed stillness of the pines. She can hear them thundering behind her, and hearing them, she knows that they are riding together toward a mad and glorious victory. And she knows too that they are riding toward death. But there is no fear in her this morning. She is seventeen, a peasant, unschooled, simple as a thumb. Fear has no place in her heart yet, though soon enough it will. Soon enough she will be caged, tortured, branded a witch, a whore, a limb of Satan. But on this morning she is simply God’s arrow, shot across the winterland, brilliant and savage and divine. Unstoppable.
She awakes in darkness, curled on the cold stone floor of the tower. The stink of urine and rotted straw burning her nostrils. Iron cuffs biting at the sores on her wrists. Quickly she grabs at the receding dream, hoping to pull it back, to wrap herself up once more in its fierce joy. But no, it’s too late. The last tendrils slip through her fingers, and she is left in the dark with her guards—three of them inside the cell with her, two out in the hall.
They are all asleep now, in this dim, lonesome hour. Propped in the shadows like dolls with their heads fallen forward and their mouths open, snoring. But soon enough, she knows, they’ll be awake. Soon enough the big one, the one they call Berwoit, will grin with his square blue teeth and start in with his taunts. “Lift up your skirts for us, witch. Show us what you got under there. Is it a cock or is it a pussy?”
It’s clear that she’ll die soon. She sees this too in her dreams. The enormous, crackling yellow fire in the square, the grinning Bishop, the appalled, delighted crowds. The priest Massieu says it’s not true. “You’re safe now,” he whispers. Now that she’s repented, she’s safe.
Soon, he says, they’ll transfer her to a church prison, and there will be no more beatings and no more trial, and eventually, the Goddons will forget about her. The war will end, and she’ll be set free. “Be patient, child,” he says. “Give them time to forget.”
She feels sorry for Massieu. Knows he’s half in love with her. Even with her shaved head and the rough burlap dress the Bishop makes her wear, even with her ribs jutting out like a starved dog’s, he looks at her with shining eyes, sneaks her bits of bread and extra cups of water, brings her wormwood salve for her bruises. She’d like to believe him, but she knows it isn’t true. They hate her too much, the English. They will not be happy until they dance on her bones.
Often in the night, when she can’t sleep, Massieu comes and sits with her. He waits until the guards are snoring, then drags his low wooden stool over to her cell and sits beside her in the darkness. Holds the bars with his big pink hands, gazes at her. Sometimes he reads from the Bible. Other times he sings, jokes, tries to make her laugh. Occasionally he grows daring, asks questions: “Is it true what they say? Are you a saint?”
She was twelve the first time she heard the voices. It was in the garden in Domrémy, behind her parents’ house. A summer day. Hot and green. A great wind rolling in the air, the country a riot of shaking leaves. She was picking beetles off the cucumber plants, collecting them in an old corked jug. Her father said, “You just like it because you can sit there and daydream,” but it wasn’t true. She liked hunting under the big, rough leaves for the dark little beetles with their black helmets and their scratchy hooked legs. The strange purple and green lights in their armor. Cockroaches disgusted her, but not beetles. Beetles seemed clean and somehow noble, like tiny polished knights.
As she worked, she thought of Catherine, her saint. Catherine whom her mother told about—the bravest one of all. She pictured Catherine tall and slim and very fair, with long heavy golden hair and a pale, secretive spoon-shaped face. She loved Catherine, idolized her, but she was jealous of her too. Jealous of her miracles. Jealous that she had died for her love of God. She thought of all the Romans that Catherine had taught to love God. The Emperor’s thousands of soldiers kneeling down suddenly, bowing their heads in prayer, their hearts thrown open like shutters on the first warm day of spring. Even the Empress herself kneeling, even the Empress seized by this sudden love of Christ. She thought of how the Emperor Maxentius had hated Catherine for her power, and of all the ways he’d tried to have her killed: the spiked wooden torture wheel that broke apart when the guards tried to tie her to it . . . the river from which she kept rising up like a cork, no matter how long they held her under . . . the fire that raged around her but left no mark, left her skin cool and white as lilies. At last they had to cut Catherine’s head off with an ax to kill her. Jehanne saw the great blade flashing, the pale, shocked face spinning through air, and she wished she could be that brave. That pure.
It was like a fever in her, her love for God. Not mild, not polite. Consuming. Every evening in Domrémy, the bells rang out in the church tower for Compline, and she ran downhill through the wheat fields to be with Him, her feet flying over the grass and dirt, her heart pounding like a hot red drum. He was all she could think about. All she wanted.
“Where does God live?” she’d asked her mother once.
“God lives in Heaven.”
Her mother had looked sad then. finally she pointed up to the clouds and said, “Heaven is God’s beautiful paradise in the sky. If we are very good, we’ll go there to live with Him after we die.” As her mother spoke, her eyes looked so hungry that Jehanne’s heart swelled up like a sail.
“Can’t we go there now?”
“No,” her mother said. “We can’t go there now.”
She doesn’t know when it first took root inside her, that hunger for God. Perhaps it was always there. She remembers knowing that He was the one who made the trees. And the wind in the trees. And the clear, icy green river with the round white stones on the bottom. And the red harvest moon. And the little black starlings that dipped and soared over her head at sunset, thousands of them rising and tilting and soaring, flashing their black wings against the flushed pink sky.
She remembers knowing this, and the awe she felt knowing it—gratitude rising in her like music, so strong it brought her to her knees, made her weep. Please, she would think. How can I thank you? How can I show you?
But she wasn&...