Tout en haut d'un grand chêne
Un rossignol chantait
Il chantait les louanges
De Pierre et de Jeannette
These days, Jeannette's thoughts often lingered on the man. It was as if without his presence, her heart felt snowed in despite the acrid heat of summer. The warm vapors of July joyfully loitered in the streets, staving off the persistently smothering dusty stench, and yet inside of her, all half-formed thoughts, all half-bloomed hopes, all unknown pain curled into tight wisps of feeling and stayed covered by immaculate cold – a soft, stifling snow-cloth that let no sound break free and seemed to have lingered ever since their encounter in the winter.
It was as if all threads had stretched out and knotted together in the exact same moment in time: when the wind had been impetuous and snowflakes had been biting at her cheeks, when the tavern had been full and loud with boisterous travelers coming in from the north and from the south, from the east and from the west, when she had gone out into the stark, crispy morning and had been carrying an armful of wood for the fire – and then she had seen him, as if carved out of stone.
Their town lay at the crossroads, with meadows plunging into the dark forest thickets, twin lakes swallowing up the fields and hard mountains tangling with soft hills. And yet Jeannette had never seen a man quite like him in these parts, for all that she worked in the tavern day in and day out. Many travelers came to find merriment and respite at The Great Oak, leaning against the sturdy tables and grasping their pots of vegetable stew in delight. She was used to all kinds of faces: flushed pink and pale blue, in hues of olive and dusk, like warm clay and like scallion stems. But Jeannette had never seen the likes of the stranger before that day.
The snow had been falling in wet flakes, and the man, rooted to the spot and right in her way, had been solid in a way no other living being had seemed to her before; he had appeared dense and heavy for all that he had been no taller and no thicker than most men. His face had been gray, the color of ash or of a pebble at the edge of a road, and Jeannette had been taken by a fancy to be friendly to him.
Later on, it dawned on her that she might have been too overt and too brash. There were prostitutes at their tavern, just like at any other inn, and the servant girls were peddling their loveliness for coin as well; mercenaries and soldiers were oft passing through their town, and she was used to women in their tow. The sanctity of marriage and the chastity of daughters and wives meant that there had to be available women for the soldiers, for the travelers, and the countless apprentices, forcibly staying unmarried by the guilds' decrees. So an unmarried tavern girl like Jeannette was looked upon just like she should, for all that the reasons for it were few and far between.
But she was irked at the worrisome suggestion that the stone-faced man might have thought her openness had been due to a mercantile interest when in truth, it had been prurient, desirous – an amorous curiosity that had settled into the smile lines around her full mouth for the entire period of his stay and had lingered in her fingertips, prickling the back of her neck with the phantom suggestion of his approach and twisting the inside of her belly with pulsing hotness. Wiping down the wide, chipped tables and sweeping the floors, Jeannette had felt eerily aflutter, winter sluggishness all gone, and had had to will herself to focus and see the steaming bowls of soup and the ruddy faces of the guests instead of the stark, dark shadows cast by two figures intertwined before her mind's eye, with heavy, bared limbs in restless motion.
But he had left quite promptly, and Jeannette had been mournful ever since.
Winter seeped into spring and spring bled into summer, and Jeannette kept bustling about the tavern as always, with shards of winter lodged under her skin. Some days she smiled to himself and carelessly tightened her fingers, ripping the dough she was kneading, crumpling the worn out bed sheets she was bringing to the rooms. Some days she cried in silence, unsure and unmoored, thinking of people passing through the tavern and through her life like rolling stones. Midsummer came in a burst of fragrant heat, bringing fairs, and song, and dance, but Jeannette could not enjoy any of it, haunted by an uncanny sense of wrongness. The tavern-keeper joked around about marrying her off, and all Jeannette could do was cry, stupidly and uselessly.
There was a jewel-maker about to finish his apprenticeship and become a master at the guild, and Jeannette knew all too well that he had taken a fancy to her ever since he had begun to frequent Marguerite, who was making her business at the tavern. And surely he was a good match, everyone told her, the bastard son of the baron from the place over the mountain ridge, but all Jeannette could do was howl when they would not leave her alone with their ribbing. She felt her reactions becoming out of place, overblown and superfluous, but could not help the abject horror that would rise within her sometimes, drowning out the noise of the crowd and pressing at her ribcage from within. She wanted to run through the backyard, through the narrow cobbled streets, through the yellow fields and hide.
One day she ran, and halted like a deer that had been shot, seeing the drawn image of the stone-faced man who occupied her mind. She asked around. She spent hours walking about as if drunk, for he was in prison, waiting to be hanged. He was waiting to be hanged while the puppet-makers and the candy-sellers crowed and cheered at the fair, and no one cared. Jeannette could not believe it. She let a traveling barber stop her, and let him convince her to have a perfectly good tooth ripped out of her jaw in front of the public for him to have good business; she let him cut off her braid as well and then ambled to the prison gate, with cropped hair and a trickle of blood coming from the corner of her mouth. But they would not let her see the stone-faced man, not even for the money the barber had paid her.
Jeannette went back and she did not know what to do.
For now, threads of anxiety were winding around the spindle of her spine as bleak daylight poured its dreamlike haze over the town. And at night, she would weave the fabric of her terror, the shroud covering up the stars and common sense alike, until she jumped awake at the first cry of the rooster, sweat-soaked and clutching at the covers.
She was profoundly afraid, and she did not know what to do but shake. She must have dreamed the talk of the cardinal coming to their town – the cardinal was a Prince! The late King's son, and brother to His Majesty! – and wanting the confession of the stone-faced prisoner. They all called him Pierre now, but Jeannette was not sure if he had ever told her that that was his name.
In winter, his words had been sparse and his grip had been solid, his body unyielding like a rock.
Now, she turned her tear-swollen face away from the guests, from Marguerite and from the tavern-keeper as they half-heartedly mocked the cardinal's quartermaster, who had come with yet another survey. He had already went through the town with a fine comb to count the urchins, the beggars, the prostitutes, and was wearing the resigned face of a man prepared to be beaten, but not determined to be diligent enough in pursuing his duty to arrive to that result. The tavern where Jeannette had worked for so many years now felt like a strange place, and all the people in it like strangers.
The wind, master of all things transient, pushed insistently at the tiny window, and the stretched bladder creaked its displeasure at the disturbance. Thoughts rushed through Jeannette's head, haphazard and tangled as a jolly milkmaid's petticoats, and carelessly flowed past the edge of reason, urging her to drop everything – the pots, the pans, the firewood, her life entire – and to flee, dress and temper in disarray, to the prison walls, splaying herself open for all the town to see.
The quartermaster was asking Jeannette a question but she could not hear a thing. She looked down at her fingers, red and cracked from the laundry, and thought of the jeweler. He was pleasant enough, bold and committed to forging his own fortune, if perhaps lacking in good sense and consideration since he had let Marguerite fleece him for so many years. She looked at the colors of the quartermaster's attire and thought of his master, the cardinal, a true prince with good manners, gallantry and independence, the power of church, coin and blood all behind him.
And she seemed to know in the marrow of her bones why the cardinal had come and what he was pressing Pierre for, but she could not put it into words. She wished she had been the town's most celebrated courtesan, or the mayor's daughter, or anyone in any position to get near the cardinal, such a brave, astute, noble man God bless him, and strangle him with her calloused hands.
But she was not.
Inside Jeannette's head, the wind laughed at her meek surrender, belittling her immoderate, ardent urge to be hanged beside Pierre.
With little regard for her surroundings, Jeannette ran outside, her skirts smacking at her calves, and kept a brisk pace until she lost her footing on the slippery cobblestones before the butcher's shop. With her knees bruised and her palms split open, bleeding, she crawled forth, leaving stains on the stones and hoping to catch a glimpse of the town square ahead, where the carpenters had already built a new scaffold. But she was too close to the ground to see behind the backs of the mob. Instead of the gallows pointing to the sky, she saw the stones move underneath her, sucking up grime and blood and growing warm under her aching hands. She could barely hear the announcement of the town crier and the bellows of the crowd; instead, the voice of the stones reverberated through her very being, so similar to that of Pierre.
So when the ground shook and the whole town trembled, meadows collapsing into the forest and lakes drowning out the fields, Jeannette grasped at the gray stones and held on, confident that when all settled down, her beloved friend Pierre would come find her.