Fandom: Shakespeare, Henry VI Part 1; historical RPF; the Christian bible
Warnings: Death by burning, rampant Catholicism
Prompt: 12) I might have been born in a hovel, but I am determined to travel with the wind and the stars Jacqueline Cochran (1906-1980).
Summary: Joan of Arc sits in her prison cell the night before she is to be executed. This is Shakespeare's Joan, who dealt with the devil for her victories. But it wasn't always that way. Tonight she receives a visitor from her past: another woman who was born in poverty and defied the conventions of her age to achieve something great, but who has come down to us with a very different kind of reputation.
This story was born of a desire to integrate Shakespeare's La Pucelle with Joan of Arc as she's perceived today.
I was also thinking about the ideas of obedience and reputation, particularly as they apply to female saints. I think Shakespeare's portrayal of Joan was basically slanderous, and I'm not convinced that St Mary's reputation today is much better - there is very little that's meek about this woman who agreed to go ahead with a pregnancy outside marriage at a time when she could have been punished with death for it, and who sang about putting down the mighty from their seats!
I dislike the saying: "obedient women rarely make history", because it seems to me that history is made by women who are selective about what they obey. Neither Joan nor Mary was obedient to the conventions of her time, but both were highly obedient to something they perceived as more important. Yet one of them has come down to us as a rebellious feminist heroine and the other as an ultra-submissive 'good girl'. I wanted to put them in a story together to draw out some of the parallels.
Huge thanks to awesome beta readers atreic and venta.
She had seen a woman burnt for witchcraft once. She was eight, and she and her brother Jacques had gone without their parents knowledge to the little village square in Domrémy, and dared one another to keep looking until the end. The woman, who had poisoned her husband and his lover, stood on a high dais, a little like the one on which they crowned the May Queen, tied with cloth bands to an iron pole. ("But when the iron gets hot, it will hurt her," thought Joan, though she knew even as she thought it that it was nonsense. It is easier for the mind to grasp the theory that human beings cause one another terrible suffering, than it is to believe in the reality of it.) Wood was piled around her legs, up to the knees, and daubed with pitch.
A good crowd had turned out to watch. Joan recognised several of her father's friends, and tried not to catch their eye. Some were drinking and laughing loudly, as though it were a Holy Day, but others spoke in hushed whispers, only looking at the woman now and again, out of the corner of their eyes.
"Sometimes they strangle them first," Jacques whispered. "But sometimes they live right until their faces burn off and their skull explodes."
Joan laughed, though she didn't know why.
Apart from the others, on the steps to the town hall, stood the woman's mother-in-law, standing very erect, her mouth set, but her eyes ringed with red. Her friends stood about her, some openly jeering at the woman on the dais.
Joan watched as the woman's calves were eaten away by flames, as she shouted "mercy, mercy, mercy". The screaming began properly as the flames reached her thighs and hands. Joan could not watch these being burnt, because the smoke was too thick, though she could still see the woman's face, red and moist with tears and sweat. Really, thought Joan, the bet should have been to listen, not to watch. She considered that she could put her hands over her ears and still win, but decided that would be against the spirit of the bet. Soon the screaming was reduced to smaller sounds, like those of a grumbling baby, and then even those were gone, perhaps because the woman was dead, perhaps because they were hidden by the fierce thunder of the flames.
Of course, the nature of the bet meant that neither Joan nor Jacques knew if the other was telling the truth when they said they had watched to the end. To look away to check would have meant losing it oneself. But laughing about it afterwards, they both said they remembered the woman's twisted, red face as she threw her head back at the last moment before it disappeared behind the smoke, pig-like with its wide nostrils.
Now, of course, Joan wished she had looked away, so she could be spared some of the horror of knowing what was to happen to her. 'Though it doesn't really matter,' she thought. 'Tomorrow is going to be so much more horrible that it doesn't make much difference how horrible tonight is.'
She got up from her straw mattress and once more measured her cell. Three paces by four paces; the long wall twenty stones wide, the short one fifteen. Twenty stones high. The window was narrow and high, half obscured by thick iron bars: even in the day it only let in a dull glow, and on this cloudy night, it simply melted into the rest of the dark.
The clock struck nine. 'It's nine o'clock, and nine hours until I die,' she thought. 'Or start to die.' She took a sip of wine. They had given it to her with supper to help her sleep, and she had resolved not to drink it all at once, but just have a little bit every time the clock struck, so that however much pain there was in her future there would always be a little bit of pleasure too.
She carefully put the cup back down on the little oak table, which was of better quality than the ones in her father's house. Some nights they gave her a candle, some nights they didn't, but tonight they had given her two, and she arranged they on either side of the little cup, almost like an altar. She thought about trying again to summon her little demons, begging them to save her, or at least to comfort her.
Light footsteps outside her door, and then the bolts being drawn. "Who's there?" She was afraid, and laughed at herself for her fear. Who could be worse than what was surely going to happen to her tomorrow? She ought to be leaping for joy at the prospect of an assassin's knife, and if one of the guards had come to rape her, she could struggle until he had to kill her.
But when the door opened, it was a woman's face she saw, with dark hair, and a kind, motherly face. The door shut, and for a while they just looked at one another.
"What do you want?" asked Joan, trying to sound rude, even though what she wanted most of all was to bury her face in the woman's bosom and weep.
"May I come in?" said the woman.
Joan nodded curtly and gestured to the straw mattress. They sat down together, legs curled under them like children.
"I suppose you've come to tell me off," said Joan.
"I've come because I missed you," said the woman.
Joan hung her head. "I've missed you too," she said, remembering the first time.
Joan was out in the furthest field, spending too much time making up stories in her head, and not enough watching her father's sheep.
"Thank you," she said to the stranger who brought her the lamb she hadn't realised was missing, then blinked, because (despite the blonde statues in Domrémy church), she knew that the dark-skinned, dark haired woman in front of her was the mother of God.
Mary smiled. "Aren't you afraid?" she said.
Joan smiled too. "Why should I be?" she asked.
Then Mary took out a sword and grew as tall as the church and looked down on Joan with her terrible, beautiful face. And she was afraid then, but didn't let it show. Instead she pointed to the sword. "Can you use that?" said Joan. "Could you teach me?"
And Mary came down again, until she was only a little taller than an ordinary woman and laughed, and Joan laughed too. And Mary showed her how to hold a sword and how to swing it, and told her that she had to practice because –if she wanted – God would let her be the one to drive the English out of France.
"I suppose you know they're going to burn me," Joan continued.
"Yes," said Mary.
Then a tiny glimmer of hope kindled in Joan's heart. "Have come to save me?"
"Not from burning, no," said Mary. "But I've come to tell you that you can save yourself from what comes afterwards."
Joan stared at her, at first not understanding what she meant. Then: "It's too late for that," she said. "I sold my soul to the devil." She hadn't been thinking about hell until then, but it suddenly occurred to her that by tomorrow suppertime, she might look back on being burnt alive as preferable to whatever was happening to her then, and that what happened the next day might be a thousand times worse, and so on forever and ever with no end.
It was the feast day of Mary Magdalene, and Joan had ridden from the Court to one of the Dauphin's country estates, where she met her friend by the riverside. They sat in the fields, cooling their feet in the stream, chatting about this and that like any two peasant girls.
"I want to be able to fly, like you can."
Mary laughed. "You're not a bird. God has no need for a flying Joan. I'm sure that if he ever does he'll give you wings."
"The Dauphin has asked me to share his bed," said Joan, looking carefully at her friend's face.
"I'm going to say yes."
"And you want me to scold you for it?"
"I can't just be one thing, Mary. I want to be a woman and a warrior, a virgin and a mistress; I want to fly like a bird and swim under water like a fish. And if you won't give me those things, there's someone else who will."
She had expected Mary to get angry with her, or else capitulate and say actually it was God's will that she should have those things (after all, why would God make her want them so much if she were not supposed to have them, and what harm would it do?) but instead she just smiled, perhaps a little sadly, and said: "As you will. But you can't have both me and your 'someone else'. If you do what you're planning, I won't come back to you after today."
And they went back to paddling, and talking about this and that, and (since it was her day) Mary made Joan smile with stories about the Magdalene and the other women who had been her friends back in Galilee a millennium and a half ago.
"It's never too late," said Mary, taking the sobbing Joan in her arms. "Never too late. You offered him your soul, but he was not permitted to take it."
Joan looked up. "Not permitted?" she said, roughly wiping her eyes with the back of her wrists. "I thought he didn't want me. I thought I wasn't good enough."
"Oh Joan," said Mary. "On the contrary, you're far too good." Then, seeing Joan's smile, added: "as is every other human being, of course. All you must do is repent of your sins and ask forgiveness."
"Repent of my sins," repeated Joan.
She remembered charging into battle. Those bodies in front of her, not people, not souls, merely the English, merely lumps of flesh made for her sword to destroy.
She remembered that day by the riverside, when she had longed to fly like a bird, and she remembered the ease with which her wish – all her wishes – had been granted.
She remembered the coronation feast. Sitting by Charles' side, her skirts more richly embroidered than the queen's, her armour gleaming more brightly than the king's, wasting more food in a hour than as a child she had eaten in a month. And she remembered afterwards, when she shared his bed, and waking up with their young limbs still entangled.
So much joy. Victory, food, drink, sex; knowing oneself to be loved and admired; living within a young, strong body, at the height of human ability, and with abilities beyond any other human as well. All those moments of now whose glory obliterates past and future alike.
"Yes," lied Joan. "I repent of my sins."
"Oh Joan," said Mary. "You could at least avoid adding to them."
"How can I repent," said Joan, "when all I can think about is tomorrow? They say there's no worse death than burning."
"Crucifixion?" suggested Mary.
"Oh, shut up," said Joan. "Why can't you be more like they say you are? Meek and humble and all that?"
"For the same reason you can't. But we're wasting time. If you manage to get yourself into heaven, you'll have all eternity to sit around with the other martyrs squabbling about the worst way to die."
"People don't squabble in heaven," Joan said.
Mary waved her hand. "There isn't a word for it," she said. "It's like squabbling but ... holier. You can't understand unless you've been there."
Joan's brow furrowed. "Other martyrs?" she said.
Mary smiled. "Certainly," she said. "If you die a Christian you'll become a saint. There will be golden statues of you riding on horseback and carrying your standard aloft. People will pray to you and write plays about you. You will be patron of France, of course, but also of soldiers, prisoners and transvestites. You will–"
"But wanting those things, wanting more glory," interrupted Joan. "That's not enough, is it? That's not repenting of my sins?"
"Indeed not," said Mary. "But it might help."
"Stop it," sobbed Joan, standing up, overwhelmed with panic. She wanted to beat down the door, or smash her own head against the wall or anything. "Stop it and go away. It's all your fault I'm here. If you hadn't come to me I could have had a normal life and lived it."
"You'd never have been content with a normal life any more than I was," said Mary.
"I would," said Joan. "I would."
Mary looked at her with infuriating compassion. "All right," she said suddenly. "Come with me." She held out her hand.
Joan stared at it suspiciously. "What?" she said. "Come where? What do you mean?" But she took it without receiving an answer.
Joan and Mary sat in a tree together watching the little girl who was spending too much time making up stories and not enough watching her father's sheep. Joan breathed deeply, the fresh air as strange and delicious to her as her first taste of wine.
"I'm about to go to her," said Mary. "About to pick up her lost lamb and tell her about her destiny."
"And teach her to fight!" said Joan.
Mary smiled. "That too."
"Why are we here?" said Joan.
"If you like, you can take my hand and I won't go to her. I'll find someone else instead. France is full of little girls with strong arms, fierce hearts, and dreams of glory."
"And what'll happen?"
"You will fade away, and the Joan we're watching will grow up. She will marry some boy her father finds for her, and if she's lucky she may love him. She will have babies, and if she survives childbirth, may live to see her grandchildren. She will cook and bake, and sow and reap, and weave and spin, and some days she will envy the other little girl, the one who was visited by saints and angels, but most days she will have no time for thinking, which she will call 'nonsense'. I'm going to her now. Here's my hand. All you need to do is take it, and the future will be as I said."
Joan looked at her friend and shook her head.
The clock struck four. There was something golden about Mary's face now. At first Joan thought it was some kind of divine radiance, but then she looked up at the little window and saw the first rays of sunlight. Two more hours of life.
"I can't separate them," said Joan. "The good things and the bad things. I thought ... when I didn't take your hand, I thought, 'it's the good things I did that I don't want to lose, not the pride and lechery and wrath, but when I was helping Charles to be brave, and thinking about all the people who would be free if we could get the English out', but now I can't separate those from the pride I felt and ... and the help I sought to make it all happen."
Mary nodded. "It's called being human," she said. "Ask God, and he will separate them for you."
"Wait," said Joan. "You know, don't you? You can see the future. You know whether I repent or whether I don't. Tell me. Tell me whether it's even worth trying."
She smiled, kindly, or perhaps sadly; and Joan felt that one of the worst things about dying now, in her sins, was that she would have no more time to better understand this woman who was her friend, though the world would have seen that name as hubris.
"Pray for me," said Joan.