MIRABILIS ... a novel
of miracles in 1372
Reviews, summary, pictures, notes on breast-feeding and a long excerpt from the beginning.
My first novel, Mirabilis, was inspired by my year living in Poitiers, France, and begun while I was a grad student at SUNY Binghamton. A wet nurse (someone who breast-feeds children who aren't hers) is suspected of working miracles while she falls in love with her pregnant employer and tries to make a life for herself, a rescued dwarf, an ambitious sculptor, and an anchoress sealed into the church walls to pray.
Eventually, Bonne Tardieu ends up feeding many residents of the town when the English lay siege to it during the Hundred Years' War. But how will she choose (if she can choose) which ones to nourish?
Mirabilis was published in the U.S., Germany, Australia, and worldwide in Spanish.
One of the first signed artworks in Europe,
a capital in the church of Chauvigny (see the village just below). One of the characters in Mirabilis is a sculptor conflicted about whether to sign his work—a lifelike statue of the Virgin and Child.
A typical half-timbered building such as the one in which Bonne might have lived.
Reviews for Mirabilis
“A tender, touching, voluptuous book.”
--Carolyn See, The Washington Post
“Susann Cokal’s tale of miracles, magic and madness is a double-decker coup: making the [fourteenth century] seem real … and making it matter. [Cokal] translates all she sees so deftly, in language incantatory yet immediate, that the window between then and now becomes dazzlingly clear.”
--San Francisco Chronicle
“Evocative … vivid ... adept.”
--The New York Times Book Review
“An absorbing medieval novel … original and convincing … unsettling and bold … outrageous and wondrous.”
--Sandra Scofield, Chicago Tribune
“A novel of creative wonders.”
--The Orlando Sentinel
“Sprawling, spiritual … rich with passions both religious and sexual—and with an awareness of the occasional fine line between the two.”
“This beautifully crafted story about miracles and belief will not soon be forgotten. The characters are wholly believable, and the medieval world is presented in all its rich brutality and color by an author who knows every detail of the period. One expects to stay up late to finish the latest John Sandford, but a book about medieval wet nurses with dwarfs and monks and exotic, Sapphic witches? Yet readers will, for it is that compelling.”
--Library Journal (starred)
“Rich with the language and surprise of magic.”
--The Santa Fe New Mexican
Delightful Skype chat about miracles, milk, and all the rest with Leslie Hayes's book group in Pojoaque (Santa Fe)--thanks for the great time!
Medieval Images of Charity and Breastfeeding
In the Middle Ages and beyond, human breast milk was considered the best food not only for infants but also for sick and elderly people. The image of a woman breastfeeding was--like all those pictures and statues of Virgins nursing their Jesuses--an allegory of caring and love. "Roman Charity" or "Caritas" is a specific story referring to a daughter who fed her aging father as he languished unjustly in prison. The story was a significant inspiration for painters from the Renaissance onward.
Virgin and Child, Friesach, Austria, c. 1230
Mary and Child – detail by Gerard David, 1490
Circle of Gil de Siloe: Virgin of the Milk, c. 1500. Polychromed wood, visible atThe Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Roman Charity, by Jean-Baptiste-Henri Deshays, 17th century
Bernard of Clairvaux receiving the Virgin's milk as a miracle, which happened in 1145. The image is from an illuminated manuscript of later date.
August 15, Anno Domini 1349—this is Villeneuve’s desperate time, and its time of miracles. In the heart of the city, in the church of Saint-Porchaire, a virgin stands on the edge of a labyrinth. She is fifteen and her parents’ every treasure, the only child of theirs who lived. And she is good.
Stone walls and a lead roof cup this girl’s body in coolness, blow it full of incense, kiss it with the petals of dying flowers. The virgin barely notices. She is listening to the music of a bell; her father made three for the tower and she is called after one of them. In its peals she hears her name—Blanche. Blanche.
Blanche is full of hope. For though these two summers past the townsfolk have been dying a strange Black Death, her own limbs are strong, her skin is unbroken, and she is prepared for communion. The streets may be paved with corpses, but her small sins have been confessed and she is here, in the church to which her mother dedicates both alms and prayers.
Her mother looks at her now, and with a gesture indicates that Blanche should raise her eyes in prayer. The bells have stopped, the censers are swinging, and the nave is full of people; their heavy feet have hidden the labyrinth’s tiled lobes. In the sanctuary priests are humming like beetles.
Over the shoulders ahead, Blanche sees a golden Lady set up on the altar. A virgin gazes at a Virgin, at long golden arms curving round the crystal globe of a womb in which the eucharist sits like a promise. This is the town’s finest monstrance, made to house the bread of God and deliver Christ’s body for special feast days; a thousand mouths water for that comforting dryness. Blanche is hungry, too.
Virgo serena . . .
A young priest with the yellow eyes of a hart takes the heavy Virgin in his hands. He murmurs the Gloriosa while sunlight streams through the colored windows and stains the crystal womb. At last he raises Her. Blanche’s body colors, too; her face turns blue, her hands red, and she smiles to herself as she prays. And as she does this, she feels her limbs lighten and tingle. She grows lighter, and lighter still, while the feeling becomes a sort of sparkle behind her eyes . . .
Beside her, a gasp. Within her, a lurch. Blanche is floating upward. Before she knows it her feet have left the floor. Her mouth tastes of dust, and her left shoe falls off. Unseen hands continue to lift her until she rests high above the heads of her parents.
Blanche’s mother and father fall to their knees. To them and to the others she appears to be mounting thin air—perhaps, they think, she’s climbing a stair no one else can see. The people around them kneel, too, until only the yellow-eyed priest remains standing, looking dazedly up her skirt at two clean legs.
The people shout, “Grâce à Dieu—un miracle! Deo gratias!”
Silent and still as a griffin, hovering in the air, Blanche closes her eyes and prays for calm. Like a damp fog it comes over her. Then the invisible hands sweep her slowly round the nave, while the shoe comes off her right foot and crowns a baker, who cries out in gratitude.
Three times Blanche makes the sacred circuit, still too astonished to speak. Her heart beats so loudly she thinks it will burst through her ears. The people are now prostrate, faces down and arms out, their prayers booming through Saint-Porchaire. When slowly, gently, she is set down again, this time in the middle of the maze, no one dares to stand. But when she can finally bear to look through the scented air, her gaze finds the priest’s. Two pairs of light eyes glitter, meeting over this miracle.
Nine months later, Blanche will lie in a heap of straw—her father dead, her mother gone, and a nine months’ flood about to wash her child into the world.
Book 1: Rosary
Saint Agathe’s Day [February 5, 1372]
If there is a sound or a smell to holiness, I would say they are here, in silence and the faint smell of smoke. In this district of shadows, a white mist winds about the feet like rope. I trip on it, stumbling through narrow streets housing soothsayers and charlatans, mages and fillettes de joie—people every town spurns but somehow can’t do without. They come here to disappear, if they aren’t mad enough to try living in the forest.
But even sinners and madmen fear what lies at the very heart of the shadow-district: the blackened church of Saint-Porchaire. A decade ago a great fire burned its center hollow, and the sinners inside it died; since then I have been its only parishioner. And its welcome twines into the maze of silence—“Beware, beware . . . of the demons that live in the air!”
Marie, the anchoress walled against the north transept, always rhymes gloom with doom. She is the voice of Saint-Porchaire, having lived here more than twenty years. By a small miracle, she alone survived the fire, so she has seen real air-demons here, orange tongues licking and gray bodies twirling over the walls. She wails her rhymes in the voice of a traveling preacher— “Woman, have shame, lest the air take your name . . .”
By this I know she’s heard me coming.
I break open the mist, jump a tumbledown boundary, and land in the atrium between the burnt church and the abandoned priests’ house. Saint-Porchaire’s walls close in, black with memory, and as I draw close Marie moans again, “Beware . . .”
People have said that this place is a sign of both God’s great wrath and his infinite mercy—because when the fire raged, it lasted only as long as it was needed to purify the town’s collective soul. The sinners died and the just survived.
I was across the river that day when I saw a vivid yellow sunburst and black clouds purling over Villeneuve. My twelve-year-old heart burst, too—I knew these meant fire, and I was sure my mother was inside. She had sent me into the country to play, though I was already too old for that.
We were in the midst of a season of peste. Already nine people had died, and twice as many lay in a makeshift hospital in Saint-Porchaire’s atrium. The townsfolk feared a pandemic like the one so long ago. So in secret council the town fathers—merchants, priests, citizens—decided the city must be cleansed of sin and sinners. That afternoon the most prominent wrongdoers were herded inside the church that Blanche Mirabilis had dishonored. The doors swung shut on Jews, adulterers, and people who’d congressed their own sex. Outside, the virtuous waited and watched; some even cheered as the council processed from the Palais de Justice, holding candles, and set fire to the straw before the great wooden doors.
The fire bloomed instantly, in a ball of light. Then it disappeared, worming its way into the church’s wooden skeleton, jumping from doors to beams, from one level to another, causing stones to explode with heat, making the church an oven. The people inside pounded against the doors until smoke overcame them and they collapsed. One by one, on top of each other, they died. Meanwhile the flames reached the network of beams crisscrossing inside the roof, and all at once they, too, caught fire.
This is what the master builders said must have happened, when they tried to explain the miracle of the fire: The roof was composed of lead slabs. The flames heated the lead and destroyed the rafters beneath, and in the same instant the roof melted and the beams disappeared. The lead began to boil as it plummeted, and then it poured itself over the nave below, over the altar and ornaments and bodies. And this was the miracle—the collapse kept the flames from spreading, for the lead doused them and then froze solid. So the fire never claimed the bell tower or the deserted priests’ residence, not even the little stone cell where Marie still wails her lyric prophecies.
But this remains a fact: That fire killed my mother, Blanche, along with two priests suspected of engendering me, and the women who said they had to cut her hymen to let me through.
For a few months after her elevation my mother was Blanche Mirabilis, Blanche the Astonishing—her surname one of the few bits of Latin most people ever learned. After that August 15, not one soul in Villeneuve was lost to peste. People traveled miles to see her; the town fathers talked of building her a chapel, and their wives saw her face when they prayed. A young priest taught her to write so she could share her story with the world. And then I arrived, the daughter who, simply in being born, sinned unforgivably—and yet Blanche forgave and named me Good. The rest of the town called me Tardieu, God’s Bastard.
On that July afternoon, as I stood on that riverbank and watched my mother burn, ashes blew over me like gray kisses. I felt my heart breaking, and I knew that if I put my hand between my legs it would come out covered in blood.
Perhaps God was watching that day at my side, and perhaps he felt as I did. Or maybe the Virgin whispered her own idea of justice to him. For even while Saint-Porchaire’s rocks smoked and popped, peste broke out over the rest of the city. The victims who’d escaped the fire in the atrium died early, and the nuns who’d been tending them ran away. People fell, writhing, in their homes and the streets and the fields, one after another, hundreds of them, even as they tried to flee.
Perversely, those who survived still blamed the peste on Saint-Porchaire—said the burning sinners had put a curse on it. They let falling ash bury the atrium bodies, and let the melted roof cover the church corpses, and no one breathed here again. Except Marie, this creaky dove of the north transept; and myself, who for a time even slept in the funebral atrium, when I had no other home.
“. . . you may call and call,” Marie says now, “but into air you will fall.”
I pause to pull a thorn from my shoe, noting that an early toad has set to croaking. His voice rivals Marie’s for direness.
“In the year’s second month, thunder’s malign. Rain, hail, and lightning are dangerous signs. People will die," Marie concludes; then, "rich people will die—"
"No one is dying today, Marie," I say loudly. Though I don’t generally set much store by Marie’s pronouncements, I am a little relieved that this one concerns the rich rather than myself. "And there’s no thunder, either. Centre-ville is packed for a marché—this is the first year they’ve had one for the Virgin’s Purification, and people are very happy."
Marie falls silent, as I knew she would. The voice of Saint-Porchaire has never spoken directly to me and never will, no more than will the Virgin herself or, now, my own mother, from whom I inherited the duty of coming here. Marie doesn’t like me. But I finish my journey as if we are equals in conversation. "Already we’ve had three days of festival,” I say, though I haven’t attended a single event myself. “There are beadmakers and spice merchants, jongleurs and a play every day. Today it’s the life of Saint Agathe . . . Are you hungry?” I ask as I pass the bread and cheese through the slit that is all Marie has to see by, or to get food and exchange words by. “. . . If you were walled against the new church, the one they’re still building at centre-ville, you could listen to the story of her life. Remember what she said to the Roman who ordered her breasts cut off: 'Cruel one,'" I declaim in a voice much like Marie’s, "'have you forgotten your mother and the breast that fed you, that you would thus dismember me?' It’s one of my favorite stories.”
Marie does not respond. The hand that accepts the food is twisted with rheumatism and gray from mildew; it is a painful hand, though its owner will never tell me so. Nor will she comment on the herbs I steep in her water to soothe that pain. She may well taste these herbs and know what they’re for, but she’ll resent the relative ease that she thinks distances her from God.
“Of course the magistrate took Agathe’s breasts anyway,” I continue as I hand over a flagon of that water, “and he served them to her on a platter, before stripping off the rest of her clothes and rolling her on a bed of hot coals. But then God sent an earthquake to scare the magistrate away before lifting Agathe into heaven.”
There is a scraping sound. Wordlessly Marie passes me her chamberpot, an earthenware basin sticky on the outside with the mist’s humidity. I catch the wet gleam of Marie’s eyes in the darkness and think that if she were capable of making a joke, this would be it. She’s saying, This is what I give for your notions of holiness, Bonne Tardieu.
Almost laughing, I finish my story: “Now the blessed Agathe, virgin martyr, protects women who breast-feed—none of whom, I promise you, can lay claim to her chastity.” It is my own way of jesting, a joke on myself.
I look into the basin. Three days' excretion amounts to a splash in the bottom, nothing more. This shallow chamberpot, as my mother once explained, is the measure of Marie's sin. When the recluse was first sitting in her cell, watching the walls grow around her, she told the crowd that when she’s clean in spirit God will stop moving her bowels. She expects, perhaps, that then her basin will brim over with roses, as another bowl did for a Hungarian queen who was later sainted. But Saint Elisabeth was giving table scraps to the poor—offering what might enter the body rather than what surely leaves it.
In silence Marie puts her hand to the slit, and I lean forward. Then suddenly there’s a great splash! in the bowl, and the front of my dress is soaked.
“Pox!” I can’t help but shout. These are my best clothes.
Marie has tossed me a toad, the one I heard croaking just now. His long legs thrash the mucky water, but he can’t do any worse. Holding my breath, I fish him out.
“You’ve given us both a bath,” I say to Marie, quite calm; and then, to the toad now quietly trembling in my hand, “You called and called, but what you fell into was somewhat less pleasant than air.”
Marie offers nothing further. I set the toad down and watch him hop flail-limbed away.
I have to empty the basin off holy ground, so back through the atrium I tiptoe with it, feeling frozen earth through the new hole in my shoe. Before me, on the walls of the old priests’ residence, images of pain and death mock my careful journey. The patients of ten years ago carved a danse macabre wherever there was wood—a line of staring skulls and twisted bones that cover the cross-timbers and lintels and sills. Perhaps each man who could hold a knife hoped his work would trick fate—postpone the buboes' bursting, the brain's burning, the helpless convulsions that were the model for carving. The bones of those long-ago patients sometimes reach up through the soil, and when they do I sort them into piles; but there are none today. Beneath my feet I feel the bones instead pull back in resentment of me, the bastard. They ask who I am to be walking here on two healthy legs with my bowl of sin.
Now that I’m safely far away, Marie speaks again. “When God grows tired of winter’s sheath, he grinds the ice between his teeth. He breaks it down and in his pain he sends it forth in pouring rain . . .” From somewhere, the toad croaks again.
Then comes a crack! that shakes the earth. Suddenly I’m on my knees. The sky is tearing itself open, white light slashing from side to side, crackling, burning, while thunder roars like Judgment Day. There’s a taste of blood in my mouth—I must have bitten my tongue—and I realize I’ve dropped Marie’s basin to cover my head with my arms.
I shout, “Holy Virgin!” and the air shimmers silver.
Cold and shining, at the cross between ice and water, the white rain pelts me drop after drop; glints over cloak and skirt, bounces on hard earth before melting a path inside. It drips off the bone piles like sweat. It drips from the walls like tears. The thunder meanwhile shakes into my marrow and lifts me onto my feet.
So I break into a run. The old bell tower looms ahead, offering shelter, black against the crisscross of lightning. My skirts tangle and I trip again and again. A tree behind me cracks and breaks.
What a way to die! Like that poor old prostitute last year, struck down as she sheltered under an oak.
The sky explodes again with a long, almost human roar. This time my body (so often a traitor to me, as I've been a traitor to it) hears the noise as the cry of a child. Milk springs to my breasts and I scream, “Holy mother!"
This is my sanctuary, where I’ll find a roof for my head and quiet for my ears. A safe place, a black place—for though the paint used to be bright on the carvings, when the church burned the colors drank in soot.
I grope my way inside, where the walls are cold, damp, roughly hewn because the masons thought none but God and his priests would see. There are no windows. I feel for the bottom step with my foot, and then I begin to climb, palms on stone, feet numb in the darkness. I haven’t been inside in months, but my body knows the way and the lure is irresistible, even in a lightning storm. I spiral with the stair until, at the top, a gray light grows and the tower gives into the lofty quadrangle that used to house the three great bells of Saint-Porchaire. I emerge into the light.
Gray sky fills half the room; the rest is darkness, partially roofed. There’s some fluttering of pigeons in a sheltered corner. If not for them, the tower would now be mute—the famous bells, Anne, Aliénore, and Blanche, have been moved to the new church rising in the new center of Villeneuve. The virgins of Saint-Porchaire, as the bells were known then, had been untouched by the fire, and new bells are costly. In any case no artisan now alive can duplicate those three. They are known throughout France, and brought their maker fame and a small fortune in gold, enough to hope life would offer his daughter something better than a dubious miracle and a fiery death.
The rain falls gentler now, plashing against the rock. I’m tired from the climb and my foolish breasts still ache. I lean against a wall and fold my arms over my heart to make the pain subside. Thus can a woman sometimes cheat her own body. While I wait I count the beats of my heart until I run out of numbers. Then I say a prayer for the maker of Anne, Aliénore, and Blanche. And then one for Blanche herself, alone.
"Dear holy Virgin, shining lamp who enlargeth humankind in their time of misfortune, pray for me and for my departed mother . . ."
If you fear the Father, Blanche said to me once, go to the Son. If you fear the Son, go to the Mother. This is what I've done all my life—prayed to the Virgin, the Mother we can cry to even past the age of calling maman.
The one time I asked about my father was the one time Blanche spoke to me harshly:
You have no father.
When I wept she softened a little and added, God gave you to me, and nobody else.
". . . and grant our souls full life in the presence of God, though my petition is unworthy and myself undeserving."
There, I've finished. The prayer worked; the milk has withdrawn toward my heart, and my pulse is slow. I have only a chill settling into my bones.
And a morbid temptation. I tiptoe to the church side of the tower and look down into the nave, into my mother’s tomb.
With rain dripping gently on the head it’s soaked already, I grab onto the broken wall. Gray space pulls at my body. The distance to the floor—now the roof—is vast and I am afraid of heights, particularly this one; I fear I might plummet through that gray light, through the ruined air. Beware, beware . . .
Instead I blink slowly and look again. Somewhere below lie my mother and, perhaps, my father—one sleeping cozy by another under their blanket of rubbled lead. In the sound of the rain I think I hear them groan: This is a cold place.
Now I do find myself falling, dropping like the rain; but not down, not forward. I fall back, into the shadows. To where the floor is rough with decades’ dust and I am pricked by splinters of broken beams. I roll over, feeling for a place to lie quiet.
One hand touches cloth—and, underneath, feels a body stirring.
I jump back. What is this thing? An animal brought here as a sacrifice? Peasants from the forest have been known to desecrate churches this way, misunderstanding true faith. I sit up, find a wood splinter, and poke at the thing. It moves—but does not yowl or grunt or whimper. Then I think this might be a baby left by foolish parents who don’t realize Saint-Porchaire is deserted, that no priest will find and care for the child they don’t want.
Slowly, by touch, I begin to peel away the cloth. The long-damp wool crumbles under my fingers, and I feel, somewhere inside, a small round arm, a fragile hand.
As I touch that hand, a whisper stops me. It is eerie, high and quiet, and it disturbs the pigeons. "You are like Christ," it says.
I sit back on my heels. The name of Christ frightens me, here in this burnt house of God.
"What did you say?" I whisper back.
"Christ, being God incarnate and thus all-knowing, possessed the same wits at birth as he did when slain. And you, my lord, being a man, possess only the same wit today as you did at birth."
I wait a moment; there is nothing further. "I'm not a lord, and I'm not a man," I whisper into the bundle. "My name is Bonne, sometimes called Tardieu."
"You are like Christ our lord—you are not our Lord," the voice says sharply. Its tone is high pitched; the words have cost an effort. They are, however, clearly formed, and tell me I have found an older child, perhaps aged six or ten. "Will you be my lord?"
"You are raving," I say in a normal voice, and continue to dig down through the cloths. The smells of mildew, wet fur, sweat, not so uncommon in winter—this creature hasn’t washed in weeks and his reek rivals Marie’s basin. Again I touch flesh, soft but damp and chilly.
“Holy septum!” the creature swears. “That hurt!”
“I barely touched you.” But more carefully, I pull the child into my arms. "How long have you lain here?"
The child trembles; its body is slight and it fits me, chin on my shoulder, legs against my belly. My breasts ache again.
"I don't know," the child says. "I’ve watched the light change many times. I’ve had a fever. My heart aches."
"Where are you from? Shall I take you home?" I want to feed it, to nurse it, but the creature is so prickly.
It sags against me, neither agrees nor refuses.
"I mean," I say slowly, clearly, "I can take you home with me . . ."
There is still no answer. But the body seems to grow lighter in my arms, and I stand up as if carrying no burden at all.
Outside, heavy drops are lancing gray-brown puddles, one prick after another. As I leave the tower a muddy bone grabs my foot, and I trip—strike some ceramic shards and send them flying against the cell wall. I hear Marie cry out. The sky speaks too. But I land with the child on top of me, and I have it wrapped inside my cloak. Soon I am running again—this time, for home.
by Bernardino Mei, 1600s, Siena