The night before sailing for America with Comte de Rochambeau’s naval fleet, Antoine Cocq cracked one kneepan while pleading to convince Marie Barbe to marry him. The force of his kneel didn’t split the bone, though he had with passion dropped to her skirt hem. He coaxed her assent a long time, weathering her grounded reasoning for answering either way. Her words birdlimed him. He favored his weight to one side, the bone grinding on the stone floor of her father’s washing-down room, one paver loose, canting underneath the knee’s pressure. It split a hair fracture, yielding to the hard surface, which in his fever of persuasion Antoine did not feel though when he stood the joint buckled, and Marie Barbe caught his arm to steady him.

Antoine woke to a worrisome swelling. His mother, Agnesse Therese, heeded the turgency as a dire omen, snatched holy beads off the sleeping bodies in the household, and draped the rosaries around his neck. Marie Barbe pressed a sliver of holy wood into his hand, a fragment from the shoots that grew in the grotto where the Virgin Itron-Varia had glowed as an apparition years before.

For the voyage, Antoine wore the commoner’s seaman uniform. Agnesse Therese and Marie Barbe hushed at seeing him dressed for duty, disbelieving the fine blue and red wool, the silken dark stockings. When he departed, they watched him drag behind the other men of his regiment marching for the docks, the ships looming at the harbor like a dark storm. The walk to board for war was no longer than an errand for a half-Louis of sugar. Antoine knew these ships, vessels that for years had been docked in his town of Brest for construction or refitted for battle readiness. There had been a British blockade lurking in the wide mouth of the harbor for weeks, and when there was a call for men to break through, Antoine had enlisted. At the wharf, the men thronged around Antoine and in an artful ploy to disguise his limp from the commanding officer hoisted him onto their shoulders and cheered as if he had performed an act of valor.

His father, Ignace, a drayman, had since before dawn been delivering cases of wine unaware that his son was leaving injured for war overseas. Ignace had argued against the separation. He needed help with his dray route and the family had no military lineage. Couldn’t Antoine take up arms here in Brest to protest the outrageous taxation of the local abbot? Yet when he returned to the wharf to load more cases from the import vessel, Ignace witnessed Antoine upon the shoulders of the uniformed men, believing his son was already a hero before the fleet’s departure.

Onboard, Antoine threw himself belowdecks, feigning a tumble in view of the ship’s surgeon, Gilles Houin. The impact widened the fracture yet made it seem as if Antoine had not boarded the ship wounded. Despite the confines of the sick bay hammock for the entire passage, his knee did not heal by the time they landed at Rhode Island. Nor during the time they were ordered south for the capes to weigh anchor at lower Chesapeake Bay.

❅ ❅

My dear madam,

I write you though doubt you will receive this letter. The last courier ship was hijacked by an escaped condemned man who wreaked devilment, setting ablaze the mast. The ship wrecked in shallow waters, her cargo irretrievable. I regret I must crowd my words around the margins of the apothecary’s notations, for there is hardly a surplus of any good here least of all paper. If you do receive this, you must wheel the paper round, reading like many hours’ revolutions of a clockface. I will make two copies of this letter and send each upon different ships. If the second copy survives, you will have an easier time reading between the lines of the surgeon’s inventory of tonics, emetics, bone nippers, and needles.

I am confined with putrid fever and bad leg. The air is foul as I am kept between decks though if I sit and strain, I breathe fresh air from a loose porthole. I regret my proposal of marriage was not formal, but fervorous, without witness of your mother, and you clad in dirty milking clothes. I know best the smell of you after milking, our only time away from the crowded household. It is not unpleasant, but I am expectant of your other smells—upon climbing the hill for clover, buttering breakfast in the first kitchen light, dredging the cistern for frogs and snails. I anticipate knowing your daily customs. And while it may seem that I intend to sit on a rail and inhale as your labor, I pledge to work of my own merit outside the farm. My father’s toil over the dray cart has worn tracks into the stone roads of his delivery route, and I assure you that I will assume the trade barrel-strong as before when I carried the newborn ox dropped onto the road as the mother foundered from her birthing pains.

❅ ❅

On the open sea, the shipmates had visited often to cheer Antoine with reports of good weather or a spoonful of marmalade. Partway to America, twin streaks of infection had crept upward from his knee. The surgeon drew back Antoine’s lap blanket.

“Am I allergic to marmalade?”

Houin tucked the blanket to cover the red lines. “No. I must take the leg.”

Yet Antoine begged him not to and offered the sliver of holy wood Marie Barbe had given him. The surgeon accepted it as bribe and did not look at the leg again until the ship landed offshore of Williamsburg.

After anchoring there for weeks to blockade the British, the men were to row ashore to march to Yorktown to join the French encampments, fortifying the American troops. Both had established footholds in the woods and though allied, the soldiers occupied separate camps, bounded by the Warwick River and its marshy offshoots.

As the men tidied their berths to depart the ship, Antoine peeked beneath his blanket. He let it pile at his shins so the surgeon would see on his next pass.

“If you don’t need the warmth of that blanket, I have other men in need.”

“Would you still take my leg?”

Houin lifted his spectacles, tracing the red streaks from Antoine’s knee to his groin. “It’s too far now. Irrecoverable. I could have two weeks ago.”

“Perhaps the veins work to empty the sickness. The lines are so bright, surely a sign of vigor?”

The surgeon touched the skin where the red lines ended and tracked up Antoine’s belly. He tapped with finality the breastbone. “The infection inches to your heart.”

Antoine flinched. “Give back my holy wood.”

“I have already traded the token and it has since been swapped again.”

Houin ordered two men to assist Antoine to the French field hospital, which was better equipped to handle his limb. He cautioned the men, “Beware mal de débarquement” as he rubbed dried hellebore flowers into their beards. But none of them understood the term, believing land a sanctuary.

Antoine was assisted above decks and lowered into a small craft. He was painfully jostled by the surf as the others fought with oars to penetrate the breakers. He braced to launch from the boat as it slid onto sand but sank back at the pleasant grind of earth. The men carried him on a litter and stumbled from the disorientation of weeks at sea, the land sickness the surgeon had warned for. Yet Antoine bobbed on his litter, the motion not unlike the sway of the ship, preventing the land sickness from taking hold. With a clear head, he inhaled the dank forest.

They had all heard of the makeshift French hospital, remarkable for its use of the plantation’s teacups as receptacles for bloodletting and the profusion of red-bellied snakes on the path from the house to the privy. The place was filled with shell-battered men from a rampage of fire the day before, and they were not allowed inside for lack of an available bed. A nurse ripped off Antoine’s tattered stockings to staunch the blood of a ball-struck man.

The soldiers were ordered across the river to dig a trench, a shelter for the night until they could reach the French encampment the next day. They marched, and dug, and lowered Antoine into the trench, and soon after nestling into sleep, they woke to fire strikes bursting above their heads. They huddled miserably through the night, the assaults propelling them to leap out, to flee, but they were beat back by commanders who ordered they defend their position. In the morning, they saw that the nearby haven of empty trenches was out of range of the cannonade. They sank to their knees, grimly beholding what had been their initiation by fire and fright.

They opened a late supply of provisions to find them spoilt. When the tang of mold and mouse droppings hit his face, Antoine’s strength resuscitated. He threw the rot into the trees. Two men scrambled, picking flour and dried pork from the pine needles as Antoine hobbled toward the coast. There was little to rustle along the way, nothing being familiar. It was all nettles and spongy wet growths. Or spiky holly leaves leathery as beetles’ backs and dotted with alarmingly red berries. He studied a clump of muscadine, dismissing the green fruit as too thin-skinned and hard, probably poisonous, at least underripe. He reached sand, low tide, oysters standing upright in clumps. His favorite boyhood meal had been foraged sea edibles. Here he could wade into clear water, small fish flushing at his steps, the whisper of crabs behind him picking through the shoreline grasses. At Brest, the deep-water port was crowded with ships, murky. The shore beyond the city of Brest proper, where Itron-Varia had appeared, was steep and treacherous. He would have wandered and scouted Virginia’s shoreline for hours, but his strength waned.

Back at the encampment, a scant knob of butter was salvageable. Antoine dropped crabs and oysters into the pan as the butter foamed and browned. The crabs relaxed. The oysters sighed open and spit sea water. He finished the oysters over a direct flame. Antoine shared his feast with the Americans who showed him that muscadines were not poisonous, but delicious floated into grog. They plucked a fresh cluster for him, skinning the fruits, and holding the musky flesh to his nose, before dropping them into a steaming vat. Antoine greedily reached for it, but they held up their hands, and he understood to wait out the method of an overnight soak.

In the morning, he could not move his stiff leg. He was transported back to the ship without tasting the grog.

❅ ❅

My dear, my love—

I am back aboard the Ardent as it guards the mouth of the Chesapeake River where our sentry waits to scuttle any British invaders. I doubt this letter will reach you, for I am sloppy and open with our exact position and battle tactics. Unless the censors are drunk, they will seize and destroy this letter for it violates all discretion and protocol. I disclose these secrets in hope you may name where I have been and where I will die. Perhaps one day visit this coast yourself, for there is nothing like it at home, the open sense of wandering and discovery.

I was on land one time and did not last long for my poorly knee makes movement difficult. The other men, armed with word of incoming fire, had to drag my deadweight hide from trench to trench. A load of us injured were then dispatched back to the ship. The winds shift our position on the fulcrum of an anchor rope, and when westerly, I can spy the coast, so different from Brest—no cliffs, the wide mouth of the channel leading to low-ground ports and bare settlements. My crewmen prop me against a porthole, so I breathe a fresh influx. The tide pulls us close and out so the air freshens in the cabin, each day filled with an oaken pollen rinsed in the evenings by salt breeze.

The Neptune anchors off our larboard, and yesterday, I watched troops row to her and climb aboard, many of the men waving to me, and I back through my porthole. The battle camp is soggy and the sucking bogs many. The officers state no notion of when we shall return home. I am to float between the fighting field and you for a long time.

❅ ❅

New men came aboard each day from injury and to report on the fighting, on gained and lost ground. They brought Antoine the stomach contents of a tern that had been landing on deck each day of their mooring. The bird regurgitated small crabs and leeches onto the forecastle as if feeding a nestling, flying back to shore after detaching from its saliva string. This bolstered the men’s morale, the offerings of the tern an augury foretelling they were on the winning side. Yet Antoine’s spirits flagged. The tides were shifting. They swelled at noon instead of evening as when they had first arrived.

Antoine recalled as a boy when all the children crowded together near the grotto to see Itron-Varia. The tide frustrated most chances, for they had chores except for a half hour at noon, and were not strong enough to swim the swell and depth to get near. Two of the poorer children yelled her name in rapture, bobbing in the water. They were young and underfed but were somehow buoyed with stamina. Neither Antoine nor Marie Barbe had been among the chosen, but she boldly swam free from the cluster of children, brushing her hand against Antoine underwater, propelling herself to the base of the grotto where she pried free the splinter of wood as the other children shouted, “Not that close! Come away!” Marie Barbe swam back, cupping the treasure.

Antoine and the others eventually gave up trying to see Itron-Varia, accepting that they had not been chosen. Some reported a glow of light over the coast each night. It lasted a month and did not return.

❅ ❅

My beautiful Marie Barbe,

I am told General Washington has built an artifice of giant bread ovens near the coast of New York to trick Cornwallis into thinking we shall stay long there. Instead, we French dig our own trenches near enough to the British to flatten them with fear. I saw the first artillery sent up, igniting the sky, and soon the cannons fired over each other, the coast lit during the week-long assault as if the port were greatly populated and rich in abundant supply of lanterns and candles by the hundredweight. All has otherwise been dark as a cave.

❅ ❅

Antoine’s leg throbbed. It grew worse though he had not the courage to lift his blanket. Another long boat rowed to the Neptune, yet this time, none of the men looked toward Antoine’s porthole as he bolted upright, waved, and yelled to them. He felt his life ebbing.

He beseeched Houin again to take his leg. He offered his mother’s rosaries. But Houin stopped him. The beads were worthless to the surgeon, and beside this, the leg was too far gone. It was only a matter of time.

“Have you recovered my holy wood? Figured out which man it was traded to?” Antoine felt the cost of the bribe. He would never again see Marie Barbe. He would receive neither her warmth nor the occasional, unexpected joy of more gifts spread across years together.

“No. This is not how it works. Once a trade leaves a man’s hands, it’s done.” Houin did not speak the Breton dialect. He tried to use the word micher for “trade” as if the holy wood were crafted by a man’s hands, that Antoine’s family whittled slivers of wood to supplement their living.

Antoine understood the rules of barter. He had only intended to give Houin a security for sparing his leg. And what could a surgeon have acquired from the other seamen? They hoarded nothing more valuable than buttons and cordage. The holy wood was dear, inviolate, outside the bounds of exchange. The splinter had been touched by Itron-Varia’s nimbus and pried from the grotto by Marie Barbe’s hands.

Bois sacre,” Antoine said in French, then in Breton, “Saints Row.” He floundered for a phrase to explain, a word both men could understand.

Yet Houin grasped the meaning. He scoffed. “La Sainte Croix.” He had seen many men desperate for care, but none had tried to pass off a shard of wood as part of the Holy Cross. It was time to be blunt. “The men dig a common grave near the redoubt. For French only. A recent high number of casualties. You’ll soon go ashore with a long boat.” He left the sick bay.

Others were worse off than Antoine. Their bunks hung close, so he looped his rosaries around their wrists. In the morning, men came for the weakest. Antoine grabbed onto his hammock. He watched as some were willingly lifted from their beds, leaning against the able to assist them above decks. Antoine begged them not to take him, but to allow him to die onboard the ship, then roll his body into the channel. He could not abide a common grave even with countrymen. The men assured him he would not go today, but they could not pledge a promise for his eventual burial. It was not their decision. Antoine spat at them to leave for they could not permit him even the courtesy of a lie. The dying men chosen held their dressings in place, making ready to depart and Antoine grabbed his rosary from the wrist of one of them. Alone in the sick bay, Antoine piled the glass beads into his palm and tried to sleep.

In the morning, Antoine threw off the blanket. The lines were not as bright, blackening softly at the edges. Yet they surged parallel, didn’t waver, intent upon their route as his father’s dray cart tracks.

He fell back to sleep and woke to find that he was being lifted, the blanket slipping away. He grabbed for the holy beads. One of the men had draped them around Antoine’s neck. The row to shore was calm. Terns wheeled in the overbright morning sky, and there was a scuttle of spiny creatures in the clear water. The constant shuttling between land and sea burdened the senses, but on the water, the men livened, marveling at the exotic even as they hauled the dying ashore. They pulled abreast of the Neptune’s long boat, exchanging greetings and casualty numbers.

❅ ❅

Itron-Varia had spoken to the two young children as they treaded water, her words pouring down the cliff, skimming across the surface. But she had not pontificated in the local dialect, so the children’s reports to their parents lacked any profound instructions or sentiment.

They had been scolded. “Why would the Holy Mother take pains to appear only to complain about import costs?”

This was a frequent topic at Brest dinner tables, and the children were accused of parroting their parents’ complaints and trying to pass them off as divine dispatch. The adults of Brest soon lost interest in the miracle, and those situated near the coast covered their eyes at night with the collars of their sleeping jackets to shield the glow penetrating their thin curtains.

❅ ❅

Onshore, the men loaded Antoine into a cart with wheels for the long trek to the grave. This pitched him upright, his legs straight. For a brief time before they organized to march and push the cart, the land sickness had seized Antoine. His head swamped, the void of the coastline expanding and contracting, until the cart pitched forward, and its rocking sway settled him. Itron-Varia’s image would never project skyward from this location for the barriers of low ground and dense trees. There was no point from which She might choose to be seen.

At the redoubt, two Americans, Battrick Lynch, a private, and Garet Cavenier, a matross, relieved Antoine’s shipmates. They spoke with sympathy, but Antoine did not understand them even when they stopped and the bearded man, Cavenier, declared in a cankered French that his grand-mère was from Nîmes. Antoine heaved and slapped the side of the cart, whispering for them to pull forward so his head would stop spinning. The men did not understand him.

“That is not my granny’s French.”

Lynch laid his hand on Antoine’s shoulder. “You will be reunited with your countrymen soon, brother.” He was clean-shaven and sported a teal blue felt cap. The militia were not provided a uniform, and the result was an array of homespun oddities, each man distinct and memorable.

Antoine breathed through his mouth and scooted his flanks, urging the men to start the motion of the cart again.

Garet Cavenier chanted in French “douar, douar, douar,” trying to console Antoine. He traced his finger in a circle around Antoine, pantomiming the ring of tents that would surround Antoine like an encampment securing its prize horse in the center.

But in Antoine’s language, douar meant “earth.” He withdrew from communicating at what he understood as a harsh reminder of his fate, the earthen grave.

Both men carried lanterns and Lynch gave his to Antoine. He held the light on his lap, meager comfort and warmth. The cart mercifully pulled forward, and the land sickness receded.

Lynch caught Antoine’s eyes fixed on his teal blue cap. He lifted it, showed off the side and back views. He said the felt material had been looted from the seat covering of a Loyalist’s wagon, “I slit it clean off like a scalping,” then shaped and sewn by his sister. Lynch traced the tiny stitching along the rim, did a sailor’s jig with his elbows and slapped the cap back on his head. Had Antoine lived, he would have told his sons and nephews and grandsons about the American filled with lively pride for his cap, that Antoine had been sure the American had conveyed details of the cap’s provenance, yet Antoine had not understood English. And those details were not important, anyway, to make a man vivid in memory.

When they arrived, Antoine was taken around the perimeter of the grave. Trowels were strewn about, and the whole site was cordoned by string on stakes. Half the pit was yet to be excavated. There was a scuffle and flapping below in the dug-up section. A hawk feasting on a songbird. The grave appeared otherwise empty though Cavenier declared it was only a fresh layer of dirt. They set Antoine’s cart underneath a tree, out of range of the lime stench. He yelped when they walked away, leaving him alone. They did not turn around, and Antoine understood his condition was closer to death than he had thought. He quieted and heard men nearby, digging trenches and stripping rifles of bayonets.

He wanted to be useful, to feel alive, to take up a trowel and to dig what he could of the unearthed portion of the grave. He wished to stand from the cart but had no strength. Back home in Brest each evening after hauling barrels with his father, he would fall into bed, spent, yet wake restored each morning after sleep and a hearty breakfast. His energy was now finite. It would never renew.

He slept in fits, woke to a high, small, bright moon and the bantering of three men walking with a lantern. He recognized the uniformed man as one of the American generals. His camp was nearby. The men did not look in his direction. Antoine’s lantern had burnt out. He called, but his voice was too weak to carry or the general and his aides were too tired to hear.

Antoine tried to remember who had been aboard after he had given the holy wood to the surgeon. It could have been passed to one of those already buried in the pit. Though many of the injured men had recovered and returned to the fight. The splinter might be tucked close in a man’s breast pocket, pressed against the dirt of a trench. Or it might have been jostled out from a man’s terror, lost forever as litter in the marsh.

In the morning, a cart squeaked close. Men unloaded fresh bodies into the grave and covered them with dirt. They leaned on their shovels regarding Antoine. “This man has breath yet.” They set a gill of rum on the edge of his cart.

These were not the Americans who had peeled fresh fruit for him. Nor were they Battrick Lynch or Garet Cavenier.

“Where are they? Cavenier? Lynch?” Antoine called, but he did not get a response.

Antoine thought of Cavenier’s and Lynch’s fates. A litany of drudge duties swerved to dire outcomes: ferrying water, mortar repair, immobilized by fright in a trench, slitting loyalists’ throats, desertion, injury, death. How had he not asked for the names of the men who had peeled him muscadines? The unknown men had perhaps completed their service, uprooted muscadine vines for transplanting to their families’ farms, and begun their long walks homeward. You brought a vine out of Virginia. To the great river, it stretched out its roots. These words chimed through Antoine’s thoughts, and he recited them, dreaming of the men as they dragged the wild grape roots and trekked home until he remembered the words like a prayer from his childhood. And it was. A prayer from his mother’s breviary; except God had brought the vine out of Egypt, and men had plucked it and burned it with fire. And they beseeched God to bring back the vine. He considered the story of the prayer: Visit this vine and protect it. Antoine repeated the only line he could remember.

The other men had not replaced Antoine’s candle, for they were rationed. A shipment of candles and a chest of gold specie had been looted by thieves en route overland. The land sickness bloomed up in Antoine’s skull, and his chin dropped to rest on the dark lantern.

Marie Barbe had not given him the splinter of wood for religious protection. Her belief was not rooted in the church. The gift had been an emblem of their childhood, and among the youngest were those who had been chosen to receive Itron-Varia’s benediction. The oldest people in their town could not recall a legacy of holy visitation. They proclaimed this was the first time Brest had been blessed. And perhaps Itron-Varia would one day visit again, this time speak in a common language. Marie Barbe’s gift to Antoine represented this hope that in their years together ahead, perhaps their own children would receive clearly Itron-Varia’s message. If he had been lucky, Antoine might have returned to Marie Barbe, lived a full life in the belief she created. He thought of his mother who would impel his love to kneel praying each night even after his death, keeping her close in their home as if she and Antoine had received the sacrament of marriage. Marie Barbe would comply out of a bitter duty.

The rosary dangled against his navel. His in-parts ached. He had earlier checked the infection in the daylight. The lines were not tracking to his heart and no longer traveled parallel. One line veered to his maw, the other to his umbles. Where the lines split near his navel, there was a billowing like a cloud building under pressure, heavy-bottomed and raggedy. The rosary irritated this point. It was heavy and clacking, this giblet he had gifted then stolen off a dying man. Antoine threw the rosary. It arced high and dropped into the dark grave. Before he slipped back to sleep, he cursed. It was a temporary separation. He would be rolled inward soon enough. He would never be rid of it.

The land sickness swung its heavy pendulum. He fainted then recovered to his own fresh weeping. There was a high whine, a boom, and the night flashed with artillery. He watched awhile as the stars were blotted by airborne fireballs unfurling like poppy flowers, the exploded metal of the shells raining down. There was an uptick in the eruptions of the howitzers. A barrage of poorly aimed hot shot winged overhead, singeing the treetops. Golden streaks crackled on the air. Sparks littered and snuffed out. Light pinholed through the gaps in holly boughs, silhouetting the black trees. The percussions overlapped, an onslaught of projectiles as if troops sent high the remaining supply of shells in celebration of victory. Or a madman seized the linstock and touched off many mortars at once in a fury of opposition. At the height of the bombardment, Antoine slumped and did not wake again, the sky luminous.

Janice Kidd

Janice has published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in Alaska Quarterly Review, Artful Dodge, Blue Mesa Review, and The MacGuffin. She’s been the recipient of the Marion Gordon Memorial Prize in Fiction from Western Michigan University and the Irving S. Gilmore Emerging Artist Grant from the Kalamazoo Arts Council.

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