Joan of Arc
BY BEN LOORY
Everyone knows about Joan of Arc, how she was burned at the stake and all that. But this is a story about Joan when she was little– or at least it starts then, when she was four or five.
Joan of Arc grew up in a small town in France, and her family owned a lot of land, so as a child, Joan spent a lot of her time outside– in the fields, chasing butterflies around.
And one day Joan was out there, just wandering through the forest, when she saw a tree that she’d never seen before. It was a big tree– it was huge, the size of a redwood– many, many, many yards around.
And Joan of Arc stood there and stared at this tree. Then she noticed something strange on the front. There seemed to be an opening, a tiny little doorway.
So Joan stuck her head in and looked around.
And inside, Joan saw that the tree was hollowed out– it looked exactly like a circular room. And though it was dark, she could still just make out there were framed things hanging on the walls.
So Joan of Arc turned away and quickly ran home and found some scraps of rag and an old stick, and she bound them all together and made herself a torch, and lighted it, and ran quickly back.
And this time, when Joan of Arc re-entered the tree, she could see the walls were lined with old paintings. They were laid out in a circle, all around the edge.
And in the torchlight, she began to examine them.
She followed them along, from the nearest to the next, and gradually– strangely— what she found was that the paintings were of her— they showed her entire life— beginning one day, with three angels coming down.
And as Joan made her way carefully around the wall, it almost felt like she was living it all. She saw herself going out to meet the King of France, putting armor on and going into battle.
She saw herself arrested, and taken before a judge. She saw herself imprisoned in a tower. She saw herself tried and found guilty of heresy.
And just then, Joan’s torch went out.
There must have been a breeze, a gust inside the tree.
But how does it end? she said.
There was one more painting that Joan hadn’t seen.
Wait here, I’ll be right back, she said.
And Joan of Arc turned away and ran home again, and made and lit herself another torch. But on her way back out the door, she was stopped by her parents.
Where do you think you’re going with that? they said.
And Joan of Arc sputtered and tried to explain, but her words didn’t make any sense. This long, crazy story about paintings in a tree.
We don’t have a tree like that, her parents said.
And they took away the torch, and sent Joan up to bed, and they locked all the doors and shuttered the windows. And even though Joan tried, she couldn’t sneak back out.
So the earliest she could go was in the morning.
And then, in the morning, when she did go back out, Joan found it very hard to retrace her steps. And when she finally found the clearing where she’d been, the tree was gone.
There was just a darkened spot.
Hmm, said Joan of Arc. This is very strange.
She turned and hunted all around.
But the tree– and those paintings– were nowhere to be seen.
Though of course, Joan always remembered them.
She remembered them often– every day, in fact. She thought about those paintings for years. In a way, it was almost like she was rehearsing them– learning her lines, chasing away her fears.
And it was in her thirteenth year that the angels came down. It was exactly as she’d seen it in the tree. And the angels spoke to Joan, exactly as expected, and exactly as rehearsed, she answered them.
And Joan, she lived her life that way, moving on through time, as if walking down that line of torch-lit paintings. She went to see the king, and fought in many battles– always with her shining armor on.
And exactly as expected, Joan found herself arrested. She was imprisoned and placed in a tall tower. She was taken before a judge, and found guilty of heresy.
Then she was sentenced to be burned at the stake tomorrow.
Burned at the stake? Joan of Arc thought.
Burned at the stake? she said.
She had never expected anything like that.
There must be some mistake, she thought.
How can this be? Joan of Arc thought. How could all of that have come to this? When I did everything that I was supposed to do?
And suddenly, Joan was filled with fear.
She lay there in her cell, shaking and trembling.
Oh God, she thought. Please, don’t make me burn.
She looked around the room.
There must be some way out, she thought.
And she got up, and started to hunt about.
She rattled all the windows; she rattled all the doors. She ran her hands up and down the walls. She tried to move the flagstones that made up the floor.
But there was nothing– no exit, no way out.
And Joan of Arc stood there. She didn’t know what to do. So finally, she decided to pray. She knelt down and prayed, and she prayed all through the night.
Please God, she said. Please, make this right.
And when the morning came, Joan of Arc stood up. She washed her face and slowly combed her hair. And pretty soon she heard a key turning in the lock.
The door opened, and the jailer was standing there.
And the jailer and his helpers escorted Joan outside, and they tied her tightly to the stake.
And piles of wood were laid down, and someone brought a torch.
And they asked Joan if she had any last words to say.
And Joan of Arc– she stood there, and looked up at the sky.
And then she looked at them, and shook her head.
And a priest took the torch up, and held it to the wood.
And right then, something opened in Joan’s head.
And in Joan’s head, she saw her life, exactly as she’d lived it. She saw the king; she saw her armor shine. She saw the angels coming down, and heard the words they’d said.
And she went inside the tree one more time.
And this time in the tree, Joan didn’t have a torch, but this time there was light instead of gloom.
And there upon the wall, only one painting hung.
It was so large, it seemed to fill the room.
And Joan of Arc, she stood there, and looked up at the painting. She expected to see herself burning at the stake. And indeed there was the stake, and indeed it was on fire– but it burned alone.
There was no one tied to it.
And for a moment, Joan seemed to be in two places at once– in her head, she was safe inside the tree. And in the other, she was back there– she was burning at the stake.
And she was screaming, her body bubbling and blackening.
And in the tree, Joan stood and cried for her other self. She was so glad she didn’t have to burn. But then she looked around and noticed something about the tree.
She noticed that the door to the outside was gone.
And for a very long moment, Joan thought about that. She thought about what it might mean.
Does this mean I can’t leave? Joan of Arc thought. And I’ll have to spend forever in this tree?
And just then Joan suddenly thought of something even worse– what would happen when the fire burned out? What would happen when the light from the painting was gone?
Would she stand there forever in the dark?
And Joan of Arc thought about the choice there before her.
All right, she finally said. Okay.
And she walked toward the painting and took a step up, and she calmly entered through the frame.
And then, of course, Joan of Arc was burning at the stake.
There was pain beyond belief– but no fright.
For back inside the tree, Joan stood, and her armor shone.
And she walked out the door into the light.