A bit of A Citizen of the Country
When she was ten, Sabine Wagny began to see death.
It started very suddenly on the street, one January day in Wagny-les-Mines. Though Papa had been rich even before the mines had opened, he was miserly, he always thought the Germans and the bad old days would come back. He kept no horse nor mule but always walked behind his dog-cart. He'd skin a mouse for the fur and the fat. And schools cost money since priests had given up teaching for free; so Sabine spent her days in the kitchen listening to the serving-maids talk, and one day when Lalie the greying old cook-maid clopped off to the market, Sabine slipped on her sabots and went with her.
She already knew her destiny. Lalie had said, "Your mama saw a grand fate for you. 'This one will kill me,' that's what she said, your poor mama, 'but my child will live, she'll be the mistress of a great house.' " Sabine doubted. Who would be this master of a great house whom she'd marry, when she wore a grey flannel skirt and an orange blouse, Lalie's cut-downs? When would she go to school?
That day Lalie and Sabine had bought an old piece of steer-hock full of fat and gristle, which Papa would approve of because it had not cost much, and had bought rubbery whiskered carrots and sprouting potatoes; but with the coins they had left, they had gone to a patisserie for a pain au chocolat. They stood on the streetcorner to eat it. A man stopped in front of them. He was ragged, his plush trousers shone at the knees; his beard hung down in tangles. "Give me," he said to Lalie. He held out his hand palm up, and Lalie, wide-eyed and pale, broke off a piece of the chocolate-filled bread and gave it to him, then hesitated and thrust all of it at him. He smiled wickedly with black ruined teeth, taking it and turning away without thanking them.
"You gave him it all," Sabine accused her, "mine too."
"He would have cursed us," Lalie hissed. "Don't you know what he is? A man who never combs or cuts his hair?"
"I don't care," Sabine said, near tears, "it was chocolate, I don't care about being cursed."
She followed the sorcerer into the street, curiously, resentfully, halfway admiring his selfishness. Lalie jerked her back.
"Shh! Do this." Lalie held up both her hands, fisted, the thumbs inside the fingers.
Sabine fisted both her hands, then unfisted them. "I curse him for stealing my chocolate," she said.
The streets of Wagny-les-Mines were steep and unpaved, but in the cold of that January day, the frozen slush and mud were as slippery as cobblestones. A delivery-wagon was coming downhill from the butcher's. On the ice the horse slipped and fell; the delivery wagon fishtailed, struck the sorcerer, threw him against the curb, and crushed him.
Sabine opened her mouth, astonished.
Bystanders lifted the wagon off him. Its heavy iron axle had broken his head. Sabine ran into the street and crouched down beside him. She had never seen someone dying before. His brains were leaking into the mud and his right eye was bulging almost out of the socket. It was awful and fascinating. She took his hand and looked into his left eye, which could still see.
She had cursed him and it had worked.
The sorcerer smiled again, wickedly, recognizing her, baring bloody broken teeth. He held her hand tightly and murmured words at her. Peur té seuc', she thought she heard. For your sweets. She felt some pulse flow from his hand to hers; then his hand went limp.
"Come away, come away," Lalie said and drew her round the corner where she couldn't see the man any more. "Wash your hands quickly!" Lalie forced Sabine's hands under the cold splash from the street-pump.
"I was holding his hand while he died!" she said. Lalie scrubbed at Sabine's hands with her skirt.
"He gave me something," Sabine said.
"Qué des puces! He gave you nothing," Lalie said. She made the fists against evil. "Do that," Lalie said to her.
Sabine thought about it and opened her dripping hands wide. If the sorcerer had given her anything, it was for her chocolate, and it was hers.
I am growing up, Sabine told her father. It's time for me to go to school. She stared into his eyes until he blinked and sent her to the convent school at Arras.
Arras was an old city, centered around two great plazas with seventeenth-century arcades. Lime and chalk had been mined here since Arras was Roman; now the old mines, tunneled and retunneled, formed a dark honeycomb under the city. The shopkeepers showed the fascinated Sabine medieval basements and crypts, ancient chalk rooms that stored wine and cheeses and fresh flowers, an underground maze from the shops to the city hall and the cathedral. The boves seemed to her as strange, as fascinating, as the secret parts of her own body, dark, unprecedented, forbidden.
From the postcard-seller in the Grand'Place, who never combed his hair or beard, Sabine heard rumors that des gens particuliers met in the boves. She heard certain rumors about a young dressmaker whose shop was in one of the seventeenth-century houses in the Grand'Place, whose uncle was a hermit. She developed an intense interest in dresses and soon was visiting Mademoiselle Françoise every week.
She studied the lore of her kind. When she saw anything in the shape of a cross, she uncrossed it quickly and did the fist or the horns to protect herself. She learned the uses of St. John's wort and wormwood, of pellitory and tobacco. She knew about charms and love-philtres and water from the Holy Well of Montfort. "What a superstitious girl," her classmates said.
Mademoiselle Françoise agreed to show her something special in the boves. The dressmaker bound her eyes with a piece of satin left over from a dress-measure. Sabine held to the dressmaker's skirt, stumbled down the stairs, followed eagerly through the darkness, and opened her eyes to find herself in a narrow cave. From a crevice in the rock, a carved man's face smiled down on her, making her welcome.
At the age of fourteen, under the eyes of the Old Master, she was initiated into the pleasures of her craft, and learned why a male sorcerer creates female ones and a female sorcerer males. She learned darkness and laughter, awe and worship and rejoicing. She learned that witchcraft was not spells or curses, love-philtres or charms, but flesh and the fate of flesh. A witch would not sit still with pale white folded hands and wait for Heaven but love and rejoice and tangle with other flesh. A witch might burn. (Mobs had burned a witch alive in Germany only thirty years ago.) But until she died, a witch would live.
Every witch has special talents. Sabine had three.
First, of course, she would have money.
Second, she was pretty. She had thick brown hair and white teeth. Mademoiselle Françoise, who had studied in Paris, taught her to stand so as to make the best of her curves and to tilt her chin to one side so she looked winsome. "Say parler and notpaller," the dressmaker dinned into her. "Your voice must always be low, sweet, and demure. Sit up straight."
And most importantly, Sabine could see death. She saw the grey veil drop over Lalie's face; two days later her old nurse died of a stroke. Sabine often saw veiled people on the street. She knew that death was everywhere; she could feel the screams from those stones on the Grand'Place. So it made her happy to be young and alive while other people were going to be dead.
During the Easter vacation when she was sixteen she saw the veil drop over her father's face. She was extra nice to him, making sure that his meat was fatty and even a little rancid, so that he could be sure it had not cost too much. But when she got back to Arras, she rushed off to see her dressmaker.
"Make me black clothes," she said, "and make them pretty. I'm going to Paris."
...And the rest of the story can be found in A Citizen of the Country. Enjoy!