From award-winning author Chris Womersley comes an extraordinary historical novel set in seventeenth-century Paris
"One of the unrepentantly daring and original talents in the landscape of Australian fiction" Sydney Morning Herald
A woman's heart contains all things ...
France, 1673. Desperate to save herself and her only surviving child from an outbreak of plague, the widow Charlotte Picot flees her village to seek sanctuary in Lyon.
But, waylaid on the road by slavers, young Nicolas is stolen and his mother left for dead. Charlotte fears the boy has been taken to Paris for sale, for it is well known there is no corruption in a man's heart that cannot be found in that terrible City of Crows.
Yet this is not only a story of Paris and its streets thronged with preachers, troubadours and rogues. It is also the tale of a woman who calls herself a sorceress and a demon who thinks he is a man ...
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SUMMER STOLE ACROSS the country, bringing its heat and its fevers to their side of the mountain, to the cluster of cottages known locally as Saint-Gilles, and some days Charlotte Picot thought that all of them, one by one, would surely die from the plague. It had its own particular smell, said those who had encountered it up close. Slightly sour, of things turned bad, like meat gone to rot or the woollen rags found sometimes by the old bridge.
They attempted innumerable cures, as always. Scented grasses were burned in a special brass bowl, orisons were murmured, promises of one sort or another made to the stars and moon. A group of local women ventured to a nearby rock that was shaped like a crouching devil and berated the mute thing, threatened all sorts of reprisals should their families die of the sickness. Spare our mother, our sister, oh please, you little bastard.
One afternoon a travelling merchant named Hugo appeared in Saint-Gilles, a man no one recalled ever seeing before and, with much fanfare and brandishing of instruments, he set about cutting the lump from the armpit of Céline, the midwife, as others held her down.
‘It’s a method I learned in Venice,’ he told them. ‘You’re lucky I happened past! All the greatest doctors in the world are performing this procedure. In Naples, in Toulouse. You people know nothing of the wider world.’
And they deferred politely to him – because that was the kind of people they were – but said outside, privately: ‘Certainly we know nothing of the world, but what is there, really, to know?’
The smell of her exposed gristle, they said later, was putrid, and pus bubbled from Céline’s ugly wound thick and yellow, as if she had been storing soft cheese for too long beneath the folds of her skin. The operation was grotesque, a failure, and the peddler was hounded from the village with sticks, with rocks and a mighty kick up the arse. All up and down the other side of the valley he taunted them as he went, his shouts echoing against the rocks like those of a drunken soldier, all laughter and scorn and You tribe of fucking peasants, if the fever won’t get you then the bandits eventually will, peasants . . . eventually will . . . will . . .
Poor Céline’s cries and moans disturbed the sleep of everyone in the vicinity until her husband, acting from kindness, from sorrow, and on a vision that had visited him in a dream, smothered the woman with a blanket. There was no money for a coffin, certainly no time to fashion one, so she was sewn into a winding sheet, a coin placed into her clawed hand, and then buried in the cemetery further up the mountain. Happy as a corpse was the saying in their country, and never was it truer. They remarked, those who attended her burial, that Céline sighed in her sheet like a saint when the first spadeful of dirt splashed onto her face, as if she were a burning woman sensing the cool water that might ease her agonies.
When Charlotte was a girl, her father had delighted in frightening her and her brother with descriptions of the Wild Horde who roamed the countryside with the strange Hellequin at their head, leading fresh souls to the underworld. Sometimes he would tell her of having spied this unruly parade of the dead on the previous night and how he had been forced to bar the door against their entrance. And now, on some nights in the midst of this latest outbreak of fever, she heard the sinister gambolling of the Wild Horde as it passed through their country, the hem of Hellequin’s cloak swishing in the dirt, fingers scratching his bristly chin as he pondered where next to make his dreaded visit. Yes, thinking, thinking, thinking.
In the morning, Charlotte’s husband Michel Picot left their cottage to organise the sale of several horses in a nearby town, but Charlotte forbade her young son Nicolas to go outside unless he needed to shit. Already she had lost three children. Two daughters in the same year to fever and a son who couldn’t survive his infancy. She would not lose another. No. No. No. The thick curtain lapped at the window frame. They crouched in near darkness, a single candle burning, silent, their hands wedged beneath their thighs as if already entombed. Nicolas was afraid and sullen and he spoke even less than usual. He had always been easily frightened and now he sat on the edge of the bed rocking back and forth, occasionally murmuring prayers, his head overflowing with crickets.
The other villagers also remained indoors if they could.
Occasionally they called out encouragements to each other. Still alive over there, are you, my dear? Have courage. It will be over soon enough. There were more prayers offered to Saint Roque and his faithful dog. Prayers they had all offered before, with limited success.
From the centre of their low ceiling, in a hard shaft of sunlight, a spider dangled on her silken thread. The sight of the creature chilled Charlotte because, as everyone knew, it was bad luck to see a spider in the morning. Charlotte watched the creature for a long time, thinking how like an abyss must this room be for one so tiny. Did she feel fear, this spider, spinning around on her thread? What did she see with her tiny eyes? Did she wonder at the largeness and strangeness of this world? The tiny black creature hung there for a long time, revolving slowly as if admiring the room and its meagre fittings, before clambering, leg over leg, back up her thread.
At that time of the year, the days were hot and long, but Charlotte was nothing if not patient. She and Nicolas and Michel would outlast this fever. Yes. She and Nicolas and Michel would outlast this fever. In this way, time passed.
But when it came, oh, it came. Just as she feared it would.
Chris Womersley's debut novel, The Low Road, won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction. his second novel, Bereft, won the Indie Award for Best Fiction, the ABIA Award for Literary Fiction and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, The Gold Dagger Award for International Crime Fiction, The Age Book of The Year and the ALS Gold Medal for Literature.
Chris's short fiction has appeared in Granta, The Best Australian Stories, Meanjin and Griffith Review and has won or been shortlisted for numerous prizes. He lives in Melbourne with his wife and son. Contact him at: chriswomersley.com