Two months after the loss of my only child, whose death—for which I am responsible—came in an unspeakable manner, I stand in line at the gas station, waiting to pay for my gas. Even now, such mundane activities feel obscene to me. I do them, yes. My body moves, my eyes see, I make small talk. I am mastering the clichés: I live one day at a time. I await the elusive silver lining. I nod at well-meaning comments ranging from the inane to the imbecilic: He’s in a better place now. Everything happens for a reason. God only takes the best. But inside I am far away, suffocating in a limpid pool of memory and self-loathing.
My son Paul died in a farming accident. This is what I’ve been told to say by a woman named Mary, a therapist, yes, who I am seeing—the only man in my family to need such a thing, ever. She is the sister of our priest, Father Bill, who likes to say that Mary heals troubled minds, while he ministers to wounded souls. An orthopedist tends to my damaged hand, lately fused and hardened into a claw. Pieces of me are under repair at different shops, the outcome far from certain.
The gas station is busy, and as I shuffle along in line, I overhear two businessmen talking about my Paulie, talking about the manner in which he died. This is inescapable. It had been in all the newspapers, so many people know. I hear these men plainly, even though they speak in hushed voices, in sad, sympathetic tones, not joking, as some do. I’ve heard young men make jokes of how my son died, men who think of death only in abstract terms, who separate its cause and manner from its consequences, as only the young—who have not yet lived and felt great pain—can do. One of the businessmen grips a newspaper, which that morning had printed a story about my son that I could not bear to read, and I overhear this man say something no one has ever said before. He says, softly, “The only worse way to go would be to be burned alive, like Joan of Arc.”
It is incomprehensible, isn’t it, how a chance encounter, an overheard conversation, can move life in a new and unimaginable direction? Anyone else who overheard this man might have nodded, perhaps, and then moved on to other thoughts. But for me, these words open a door. Certainly, before this, I’d heard of Joan of Arc. As a Catholic schoolboy, I had eagerly read the book of saints, relishing, especially, the pictures of martyrs—Saint Philomena, her smiling mouth dripping blood, all of her teeth savagely extracted during torture; Saint Stephen, his pulpy body broken by stoning; and Saint Joan of Arc, eyes lifted to heaven as flames licked at her body. But today when I hear her name, my heart begins to beat more quickly, and I feel something like the whisper of foreign voices, telling me to hurry home.
When I come in the door, my wife is sitting in her rocking chair at the window with a blanket over her lap, her gray hair uncombed, Paul’s high school graduation picture in a frame on her lap. “Hello, Mother,” I say. It’s an old habit, calling her that. I started after Paul was born and never went back to calling her by name. She glances at me but doesn’t answer. She stopped speaking to me when Paul died. Even now, two months afterward, she can hardly bear to look at me. She stays in bed all day sometimes, staring at the wall. Father Bill has come for several visits, but she will not speak, even to him. I remove my coat and boots, and go into the laundry room where we keep our computer on a small, Formica table. The computer helped me track veterinary records and milk production, and Paul used it to do his homework in high school.
I turn on the machine. My left index finger trembles as I type J-o-a-n-o-f-A-r-c and hit the return key. Four million, five hundred fifty thousand entries. I spend the afternoon reading, until the glow of the computer screen casts the only light in the room. I learn that Joan of Arc heard the voices of saints, voices she believed carried the will of God, and for this she was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake in Rouen, France, in May of 1431. A memorial was erected on the site of her execution, near a church dedicated to her memory and a museum devoted to artifacts of her life and death.
I go to bed, but tonight the sleeping pills Mary prescribed—strong enough to put a horse to sleep, she’d assured me—don’t work. Two things I’d read on the computer keep spinning in my brain like a flock of ducks circling a pothole before landing. First, Joan of Arc had been burned alive at the age of nineteen, the same age my son was when he died. A coincidence, yes. But still. Second, it is possible, even likely, that Joan’s father Jacques—a farmer, like me—had been present to witness her death.
Without having slept an hour, I hear birds begin singing, and I watch the dawn arrive. At nine o’clock I call the county courthouse to ask how I might obtain a passport.
People who are lucky, and that’s most of us still breathing, can point to one or two moments in their lives when they might have died. Sometimes it’s dramatic: a businessman running late misses an airplane that later goes down, or a cop’s badge stops a bullet. Usually it’s something smaller, you break a rib in a car accident, say, and a shard of bone just misses your heart. When I was 33, just after Paulie was born, a tornado ripped through our county: tipped over telephone poles, flattened cornfields, and knocked over barns. After it passed, I went outside to check for damage. A light rain fell through the darkness. I crossed the porch, was a step away from the wet grass, when I heard Paulie crying. He was six months old at the time. I kicked off my boots and went inside to check on him. A few minutes later, we had fire trucks and police cruisers in the driveway, red lights bouncing off the windows. A main electric line was down in our front yard, still hot. If I’d taken even one step into the grass, I would have been electrocuted.
But when I had a chance to save my son, I failed. People tell me this isn’t true, but like so many things people say to make you feel better, that’s not accurate. I had a chance to save him. Looking back on it, it seems so plain. If I’d taken four or five steps to where the engine was running and pulled the wires from the spark plugs, the hell would have been over. But I didn’t think of that at the time. Besides, in the three or four seconds it would have taken me to get there, my boy would have lost both of his legs. I am sure of that. And so, you see, that’s my sin, really. I guess maybe I did what I did because I wanted him whole.
We were nearly finished with our work. It had been a hot June day, and we were tired. Four box elder trees had come down along the fencerow in a thunderstorm. They’re garbage trees, really—in the maple family but without any of maple’s virtues. Yes, you can tap a box elder for syrup in the spring, just like a sugar maple, but it would hardly be worth your time. You’d have to boil off fifteen or twenty gallons of sap to get just one ounce of syrup. The tree grows fast so the branches are brittle, the roots shallow. The thing drops seeds by the million, too. You put three or four female box elders on the edge of a ten-acre field, and in three years that acreage will be covered with trees. Cut one down and fifteen spring up from the roots. It’s the most fecund tree in the woods. The sapwood is creamy white, though, and easy to work. It’s like cutting into frozen butter. And sometimes the tree pulls minerals from the ground that stain the wood bright red, as if the tree is circulating blood. I don’t have much to be thankful for anymore, but for that colorful wood I am thankful it was box elders Paul and I had taken down.
We had cut up the trunks and main limbs with a chainsaw and stacked them to be split later, for firewood. Then we pulled the chipper out of the barn with the old Massey and set it up in the hay field to shred the smaller limbs and branches for mulch for Mother’s flower gardens. I bought that chipper used at an auction down in Mayville. It was an old commercial-grade model, manufactured by the Lumberman Equipment Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan, with a three-foot square hopper, a thirty-five horse Briggs-and-Stratton engine, and four reversible cutting blades. Before the sale, I watched a guy run a six-inch fencepost through it in about five seconds, so I knew it had power. I didn’t go to Mayville intending to buy a chipper, but I had the chance to pick it up for several hundred dollars, and I knew we’d get a lot of use out of it. It needed a little work, but I’m good with machinery, which you have to be if you buy used equipment.
I lie awake every night now, thinking about how things might have been different, how old and tired I feel now, since Paul is gone. If we hadn’t had the thunderstorm that uprooted the trees. If I had skipped the auction in Mayville, as I sometimes do. If someone else had outbid me on the chipper. If it hadn’t rained the night before, which made the bottom of Paul’s old boots slippery. If I had bought the boy new boots. If I had not heard Paul crying nineteen years ago, and had gone ahead and stepped onto my wet lawn, alive with high voltage. Any one of those things happened, my beautiful son might still be alive, bounding barefoot down the stairs every morning, smile on his face, his bright hair all sleep-twisted like a shock of wheat.
I find all three of our birth certificates in separate envelopes inside the fireproof strongbox Mother and I keep under the bed. I tuck Paul’s back inside, then head downstairs to talk to Mother. I don’t relish the conversation. She sits at the kitchen table huddled over coffee and a cold piece of toast. I pour myself a cup, take the chair across from her, place the two envelopes on the table. We sit quietly for several minutes, me thinking about what I might say, how I might explain. She looks at the envelopes, then back to her toast. I start in as best I know how, explain what I can, ask if she’ll go to France with me. Her face twists in anger, in disbelief.
“You want to go on a vacation?” she hisses. “Now?”
“Not vacation, Mother,” I answer. I try to tell her about Joan of Arc and her father, but I can’t find the words. I don’t even know what I want, or why I want it. Fifty-two years old, and I have never been on an airplane. I’ve been outside Wisconsin only once, and that was to drive Mother and Paul to Minneapolis, to the Mall of America, the summer Paul turned eleven. Mother would have liked to have traveled more, I know, but dairy farming is a difficult life, and for better or worse she chose that when she chose me. If I had it to do over again, I would have figured a way to take them somewhere nice every summer, but life gives you just once chance, which is part of what makes it so difficult when you realize you could have done better.
We can travel now, though, because I sold off our herd after Paul died. I asked for Mother’s help with the milking, but she refused me. Neighbors sent their sons over each morning and evening for a week, but I could not expect such generosity forever, so I called the auction house. Many people came, I think, just to see where the accident happened, but there’s nothing to see, really. A few box elder stumps sprouting suckers in the rain. We got a fair price for our best Holsteins, not much for the rest, and by the end of the day our herd was gone. Mary said this was a mistake, that Mother and I should have waited at least a year before making any large decisions. Mother wants to put the farm up for sale now, too, and move into town, but I won’t agree to it. She holds that against me, too.
Mother sighs and shakes her head. She lifts the yellowed envelope with her name on it between her fingers, folds it in half, slides it under her plate.
“We’ve never been apart in twenty-six years,” I say. “I don’t want to start now. I don’t want to go alone.”
“Sharing a house isn’t the same as sharing a life,” she says.
“I know that.”
“You don’t know much.”
“I know why you’re being mean, Mother,” I tell her. “I forgive you for it.”
“When we met,” she says, “you called me Nora.”
“Why did you stop?”
“I don’t know. Over time, it just happened that way, I guess.”
“You shouldn’t have stopped.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know it mattered to you. Nora.”
“Too late.” She takes a deep breath, as if she might be ready to sing, but begins crying instead. Mary has been right about one thing: a woman who has lost a child carries an inexhaustible supply of tears.
“Nora,” I say, reaching toward her.
She pulls her hands away.
“Come to France with me.”
She shakes her head, stares at the table.
“Please, Nora,” I say. “I have to go.” She rises from her chair, walks to our bedroom, locks the door.
I call Mary’s office, but she has other appointments throughout the day, so I drive over to the church to see Father Bill. He is at least ten years older than me, large through the neck and belly, with conspicuous tufts of gray hair growing from his ears that he sometimes playfully refers to as his wings. He smiles when he sees me, opens the door, leads me to a chair beside his, behind a desk. I explain my predicament and he listens politely, still wheezing from the exertion of coming to the door.
Just by being alive, he says, just by getting out of bed in the morning after such a terrible thing, Mother and I are a testament to God’s love for us.
I tell him I feel like a watch lost under the sofa cushions. Still ticking, but what’s the point.
The heart, like the body, takes time to heal, he says. He looks at my crooked hand. “The God that mends our bones can also put our minds to rest.”
I’m not a religious man. Sundays, I always sat in church and daydreamed, thought about chores I ought to have been doing. Now I sit and think about Paul. Pray, Father Bill tells me. Talk to God, he says. Both of you had to watch sons suffer and die. That is something you have in common.
“Should I go to France, Father?” I ask him, finally. This is all I have come for, easy advice, a simple yes or no.
He shrugs and smiles at me. “That’s up to you,” he says. “It sounds to me like Saint Joan is calling you.”
I shake my head. “I Googled her.”
Father Bill laughs. “She used a voice you’d understand,” he says.
So I get my passport and go. The airline ticket costs over seven hundred dollars, an extravagance I can’t really justify, particularly without a milk check coming in. I pack a bag, say goodbye to Mother, kiss her on the cheek and drive down to O’Hare. The plane lifts out of Chicago, rises through the clouds at 5:30 in the afternoon, and arrives at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris just after 6:30 the next morning. I feel exhausted, frightened, estranged.
I walk off the plane, hear a babel of conversation in languages I can’t understand. I shoulder my bag and wander the airport, hungry and tired, and after considerable confusion I find a terminal selling bus tickets and a kind young clerk who knows some English. I purchase a round trip ticket to Rouen, and the clerk leads me outside to a large bus idling in a cloud of diesel exhaust along a traffic-choked causeway.
Though the bus makes frequent stops, I nod off during the three-hour ride, opening my eyes at times to see a French countryside of fenced pastures dotted with grazing cattle; small, neat houses; narrow roads lined with waving grasses.
Once in Rouen, I leave the bus and stand alone on the sidewalk. While much of the area seems modern, looking toward the center of town, I can also see the dark wooden beams of half-timbered buildings crowding narrow, cobbled alleys, evidence of the city’s medieval past. I wander toward the city center, and almost immediately I come upon a cobbled courtyard before a magnificent medieval church, Rouen’s Notre Dame Cathedral, famous for being painted at various times of day, in the changing light, by Claude Monet. Now darkened by years of pollution and crumbling with decay, the church’s massive limestone towers are undergoing cleaning and repairs, and are completely encased in scaffolding.
I trudge onward. Within minutes I am hopelessly lost. I approach a shopkeeper with ruddy cheeks in a green apron, sweeping his sidewalk. Behind him, in the shop windows, are baskets of cheese. I hold out my map, point at the red star marking the site of Joan of Arc’s execution.
“Jeanne D’Arc,” he says, nodding.
“Joan of Arc.” I nod back.
“Oui,” he says. “Jeanne D’Arc. La Pucelle.” He raises an arm and points down a narrow street. “Place du Vieux Marche. La Musee, l’eglise, le bucher.”
I understand nothing of what he says, but I point in the same direction. “This way?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says, in accented English, one hand my shoulder.
“Thank you.” I hurry on.
After another fifteen minutes of walking, I turn the corner and stumble upon what I have come for. The first building I discover is the Church of Joan of Arc. Built in the 1970s to resemble the pyre upon which she was burned, its modernist angles make it look instead like a fleet of jet fighters joined at the wings, and I find myself fighting back disappointment. The architecture inside the church is no better, the stained glass windows abstract splashes of color, donation boxes arranged prominently throughout every room.
Inside the museum, though, my disappointment vanishes. I walk the timeline of Joan’s life and death, follow her in triumphant battles against the occupying English, relive her capture, review the charges made against her, read the harrowing translations of the transcripts of her trial. Many times she had heard the voices of St. Catherine and St. Margaret, whose words, she said, carried the will of God, and for this the church leaders in alliance with the English accused her of being a heretic. Their examinations had been merciless, and to save herself, she heeded their demands and denied hearing these voices. But within days, filled with shame that she had damned her soul to save her earthly life, she repudiated her denial, bringing the sentence of death at the stake.
Outside, less than a block from the museum, in a small, tranquil courtyard on the site of her execution, stands a tall, elegant concrete memorial, twenty-five feet high, shaped like a sword, or a long, narrow flame. Before it, surrounded by a colorful garden of flowers, is a simple metal plaque, inscribed in French, English, and German: “Le Bucher. The location where Joan of Arc was burnt on May 30, 1431.”
All afternoon, until nightfall, I sit on a bench bordering this courtyard, surrounded by others who have made the same pilgrimage. Old men and women, young couples, whole families crowd around the memorial. As each group poses for photographs, their shadows begin to lengthen, and eventually I find myself alone in the fading light. Cold descends. I cross my arms in a futile effort to stay warm. I wait for a revelation that never comes. Yes, Joan of Arc’s life had been fascinating, her trial excruciating, her manner of death horrifying, but I cannot understand why I am here. I feel only fatigue, hunger, and, thinking of my son, Paul, near-incapacitating despair.
We had almost finished our work. A log had jammed in the hopper, had caught on the nub of a branch, perhaps, which we’d failed to removed cleanly with the chainsaw. With the strength and reflexes of a young man, unmindful of the danger, Paul had leaped up onto the platform of the chipper to kick the log free. I had taken several steps toward the few remaining box elder limbs when I heard a subtle shift in the mechanical rattle of the cutting blades. When I turned around, the machine had already sucked in Paul’s legs up to the knee. He stared at me, his eyes wide in fear, in disbelief. The muscles in his arms bulged with effort of his struggle against the pull of the blades.
All chippers have a safety stop, a steel bar, readily accessible from above and below, which, when pressed, reverses the blades, and kills the engine. Immediately, I leaned against this stop, pounded against it with my fist. But nothing happened. The safety stop malfunctioned. I had not bothered to check it when I rebuilt the machine. Paul’s screaming seemed an extension of the whine of the engine. With all the love and strength in me, with a fury I cannot begin to explain, I hammered at that steel bar with my fist, my shoulder, my forearm. I fractured my clavicle, separated my shoulder, broke my wrist, shattered the bones of my right hand in thirty-four places.
In the end, it took less than fifteen seconds. The machine pulled my son all the way through.
Thirty-five thousand feet above the Atlantic Ocean, returning home from France, I stare at wispy clouds passing beneath us and think about Joan of Arc’s martyrdom. Death by burning, long a punishment for treason, for witchcraft, and for heresy, sometimes came from carbon monoxide poisoning, from suffocation, rather than from the painful damage inflicted upon the body by the flames. This depended upon the size of the fire. A large fire, made by piling the sticks up around the body of the condemned, perhaps even all the way up over her head, was deemed more merciful because it brought death more quickly. If suffering was the desired end, the executioner built a small fire around the feet and calves, and the condemned would live for many minutes in excruciating pain as the flames spread up the skin of the calves and legs, up the torso and arms, and the face, until she died from loss of blood plasma or heat stroke.
The executioner prepared the fire, but usually family and friends of the condemned would be allowed to carry additional sticks and brush to stack around their loved one, to make the fire hotter, to ensure death would come faster, and more humanely.
I swallow back the sting of rising tears. I don’t know what prayer feels like, but I close my eyes, and I am back in Rouen in 1431. I am standing with the father of Joan of Arc. My heart aches and burns. Beads of sweat sprout along my forehead. I have trouble breathing. I think at first that I might be having a heart attack. I open my eyes, look at the lighted call button, consider ringing for a stewardess. After a few deep breaths, though, my heart slows. I close my eyes, breathe deeply.
Joan of Arc is on the scaffold, tied to a stake above the shoulders of the crowd. She is small and slight, her face and feet dirty, her eyes wild with fear. As the final verdict is read aloud, the executioner stands silently, his torch burning. Just beyond the platform is an old church, the Church of Saint Savior, and along the north edge of the foundation, their spindly limbs reaching around the corner toward the sun, is an unruly stand of box elder trees. Stooped over beneath them, moving frantically, dressed in rags, I see the father of Joan of Arc. Thankful for the fecundity of these trees, he hurries to the scaffold with a tangle of branches pressed to his chest. It is as if he is a father bird, adding sticks to the nest. Then I see him remove his ragged shirt, watch him pull off his worn shoes, even, to pile at the feet of his beloved and strong-willed daughter.
And then the flare of flame and heat, the smell and snap of wood, burning.
When the fire has done its work, leaving nothing recognizable of his daughter’s earthly body, the father of Joan of Arc staggers away. He wanders alone until dark, lost and ashamed. Shirtless and shivering, he enters Rouen Cathedral. On his knees on the cold stone floor, he prays for the soul of his daughter, prays that she will one day forgive him for the little he could do for her.
In the morning, he returns home to his wife, Isabelle, and their small farmhouse in the village of Domremy. He does not speak once to her of the agonies of their daughter’s death. For the rest of his life, he carries inside him the scent of her burning flesh and the sound of her cries. He allows the box elder trees on his land to grow and flourish.
Over time, he builds a bridge of patience and silence to his wife, a bridge that she will one day allow him to cross over.