France. 1284. The cathedral of St Pierre climbs higher and higher over the town of Beauvais. In the heat of an August night, Christina beekeeper, sister of Marguerite, daughter of the heretic and sculptor Giles of Beauvais struggles to keep a secret. The year is also 2001. We're in Chicago, city of towers and home to Fermilab, the world-renowned physics lab. Here Christina Carver, daughter of rebel physicist, Dr Giles Carver, also keeps a secret even from her sister Maggie. When a bell rings for matins when a telephone rings in the middle of the night Christina will fail to wake and all six lives will change forever. In the days that follow, each will be forced to confront what is real and what is not in a world that is precarious, relative and unrelentingly mysterious. This is a story that unfolds across two far-flung centuries and across two worlds. In each, the lives of a father and his two daughters are about to be catapulted into crisis ...
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Alison MacLeod is the author of the novel The Changeling. Her short stories have been published by Prospect, London Magazine, Pulp.Net and Virago. Her collection, Live Wire, will be published by Hamish Hamilton in 2006. She lives in Brighton.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The world yearns. This is its sure gravity: the attraction of bodies. Earth for molten star. Moon for earth. A hand for the orb of a breast. This is its movement too: the motion of desire, of a longing toward.
She slept deeply. There was a commotion outside, some panic at the site, but she didn’t wake.
The night before, she hadn’t wanted to sleep. She’d told her sister she was hungry, that she could eat a dog, a baby, the moon; that she was hot, too hot to lie there together in bed, the two of them rolling into the dip, their arms and legs smacking in the muggy heat; that the sky was crazy with summer lightning and they should go outside and see; that her bees would be restless under such a sky – they’d swarm come morning if she wasn’t careful; that each of her bees was a memory in her head, a syllable of sweetness and light ready to sting her conscience; that she’d seen a bear dancing on the cathedral steps that afternoon and the hurdy-gurdy player had told her that bears will try to make love to women because they mate on two legs, not four; that she’d heard a Dominican tell a crowd by the bathhouse that there are 301,655,722 angels and so many demons in the air, a needle dropped from heaven to earth must strike one; that, par le diable, she was hot.
‘Marguerite,’ she’d said, turning to her sister, ‘are you asleep? Marguerite?’
There was an explosion of stone. The man known as l’Ymagier – the Imaginator – ran into the street in the direction of the lodge. But he only got as far as the scaffolding at what was to be the west tower.
He’d seen it once before.
It took five men three hundred steps on the great wheel to lift even a hundredweight of stone ten feet. The bishop was insisting the vaults of St Pierre would reach an unimaginable one hundred and sixty feet. And the work was to be done faster, so the hoists were growing by the day, and suddenly every drooling halfwit knew the measure of faith: at Beauvais, the cathedral would rise above Notre Dame, above Chartres, above even Amiens. Its towers would scatter the stars.
One of the five that morning had missed the count, lost his footing. The load came crashing to the ground, spinning the treadmill backwards like a frenzied wheel of fortune at a Michaelmas fair, breaking each man’s legs over and over again.
Quarrymen,lime carriers, plasterers, pointers, artificers, scaffolders and stone cutters knelt where they stood. L’Ymagier too went down on his knees, if self-consciously. He was not easy with common observances. Somebody was shouting for the master mason. Chalk dust had turned the air to a milky film. Traders from the market were arriving, breathless – they’d heard it too. Loud as God’s fist. A monk from St Germer led the crowd in a prayer for the five. Three of them fainted as they were lowered from the wheel on to a stumbling wall of shoulders. The other two were raving with pain. L’Ymagier mumbled the responses, staring at the wrecked bodies from the corner of his eye. He knew his prayers wouldn’t save even one of those men from a life spent on his belly hauling himself from year to year, or if lucky on two twisted sticks.
Beside him, a fat shoemaker shifted on arthritic knees. ‘Was a glover,’ he said confidentially, ‘but make no mistake, pilgrims aren’t walking to Beauvais on their hands.’
L’Ymagier wiped his face with his shirtsleeve. Then he got to his feet, knocked the shoemaker to the ground with a blow from his boot, and walked away to the sound of the man’s plaintive groans.
‘She isn’t. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.’
‘Then for God’s sake wake her, Marguerite.’
She stared. Her father had returned distracted, impatient. The knees of his breeches were yellow with chalk dust. His face was rimmed with sweat. He could hardly look her in the eye. Nothing seemed real. Her sister was holding her breath.
‘She won’t get up.’ She could feel her eyes fill. ‘You tell her.’
‘Tell her what?’ He could hear again the woman who had howled, who’d said she’d dreamed it: blocks of cut stone dropping like the Books of the Prophets from the sky. She’d woken terrified. The oneiromancer, who set his stall in the arcade of the charnel house, had told her to expect a fall in fortunes. A temporary loss. And now this! Her only son, shattered.
‘Tell her that she has to get up.’
The room was muggy with heat and old breath. L’Ymagier wiped his face in his shirt, then beheld his daughter. ‘Christina?’ Her face was slack, her chin fallen, her eyes sticky with sleep. ‘Christina, get up. You’re too old for these charades.’
He laid his hand on her forehead and sank to the edge of the pallet.
‘What is it?’ Marguerite: her voice as if from the bottom of a well.
He pulled Christina to him. He touched her cheek, neck, breast, wrist. ‘She’s cold. You can see that, can’t you? And on a day like this of all days.’ As if his elder daughter was only perverse.
He slapped her cheeks. He rubbed her arms and legs as if he’d pulled her from the river in January, not from a sheet of linen. He shook her by the shoulders until her head lolled.
‘Father, don’t. Don’t.’
When the physic came at last – Marguerite afraid; slipping from the house; the physic at work across the town; the fierce stink of mustard as he drives a woman’s womb from over her heart and back into her belly; the woman crying that she can inhale no more, that her chest is on fire – when the physic came at last, l’Ymagier did not look up. ‘Marguerite is laying a fire,’ he reported, as if to say, You are not needed here. Let us be among ourselves. But the physic, young as he was, prised Christina’s wrist from his hold and searched for her pulse. He felt her neck. He lifted her eyelid and touched the membrane of her eye. He laid her flat on the pallet, requested a shallow bowl of water and placed it on the flat of her stomach, pondering it. He held a strand of wool before her mouth. Then he took the candle from the bedside, asked Marguerite to light it, and held it before her sister’s slackened mouth.
L’Ymagier blew it out. ‘I’ve told you. She’s cold.’ He turned to where his other daughter stood terrified in the corner. ‘Will you kill her with your gloom, Marguerite?’
He heard the physic tell Marguerite he would send for the priest. ‘Why? So he too can tell me my daughter is dead? So we can pray for the repose of her soul?’ He knew the words well enough. Memento, Domine, famularum tuarum qui nos praecesserunt cum signo fidei, et dormiunt in somno pacis. Be mindful, O Lord, of thine handmaidens who have gone before us with the sign of faith and who sleep the sleep of peace.
Man of science that the physic was – acolyte of Aristotle, Hippocrates and Galen – how could he understand that those words would be the death of Christina? At Paris, at the university, l’Ymagier, like the young physic, had studied the embalmed marvels of human musculature. As a student, at the age of seventeen, he had been encouraged to observe in the newly dead the principle of Anti-Creation, as delineated by Aristotle inDeGeneratione et Corruptione.He had observed more.
Death, l’Ymagier would tell you, possesses us slowly and by degrees. There is the loss of the vital heat; of the replenishing breath, yes. There is the ostensible moment when the soul flies from the mouth, a small naked thing weighing, they were told, three pounds. But death is more than a moment. L’Ymagier knew it. You had only to ask those five who were broken that day on the mason’s wheel.
On the wall by the door was the wreath of his dead wife’s hair, pale red in the light. Faded now. He’d known, but he’d let the priests take her. He’d known that death is less of an event than a slow transubstantiation: of the body into ruin; of the beloved into a warp and woof of worms; of each one of us into no more than a story that others will tell.
There is a prelude. The hands are folded, the fingers intertwined. Perhaps the rings are removed. The brow is anointed, the obsequies spoken, and the lips kissed. Then we wind words, like we do the sheet.
Yet, beneath that sheet, the body is animated still. The limbs cool and stiffen – in some, a process that will have begun in the final days of life. A greenish colour spreads from the abdomen. The surface veins turn brownish, sketching on the skin a faint aborescent pattern. Bloodstained fluid might escape the mouth, and the eyeballs will begin to liquefy. There is motion. There is energy. Even if it is gone amok.
In time, there is a shedding of the hair and nails, a blistering of the skin. The vulva or scrotum swells. The stomach distends. Within four to five days, a body can swell to two or three times its natural size – the face will hardly be recognizable – and still it will be as much as a year before the flesh slips clean from the bone.
Only upon exhumation will the beloved at last come to rest – to stillness – in that ramshackle display of tibia and skulls at the charnel house. Only then does the beloved depart us.
This, thought l’Ymagier, is what neither Church Father nor physic will have us know: life yields only haltingly to death.
Why do we gaze at statuary? We gaze because it troubles us with that which we’ve long forgotten. As primitives, as children, we once understood that the animate and the inanimate are not irreconcilable; that one energy is the basis of all matter; that all matter is always, ultimately, possibility. Otherwise, argues l’Ymagier, how is it we eat the body of Christ; that we drink His blood? How is it possible that a strip of willow knows water? That my hand hums when I lay it over my daughter’s still heart?
While Christina was with them, while she was yet herself, he would not leave her. He would warm her. He would keep her from harm. He would whisper to her that she was more than a physic’s findings or a priest’s prayers. More than a story in a eulogizing mouth. He would not let that story begin.
He pressed his mouth to her ear. ‘Possedes ton coeur, ma fille.’ Possess thy heart.
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