July 22, 1210. It is a date that is forever branded into my heart, as if by the same fires that took so many lives.
As if to mock our suffering, or to demonstrate heaven’s indifference to our plight, the morning was crystalline: the kind of fair, cool summer morning with skies of the lightest, palest blue, with high clouds and a faint breeze. The air was fresh, invigorating, only hinting at the warmth to come: more like the champagne days of late fall than a morning in late July. From the burning grounds, the view was magnificent: one could see out over all of the rolling hills and the jagged ravines that surrounded our village, still lovely, still serene in its warm-hued stone despite the roofless houses and gaping holes in its walls that the trebuchets had inflicted.
It was the first full day after Minerve’s formal surrender - the first, bitter day of peace – and the day that had been chosen to witness the death by fire of the recalcitrant. Those Perfects who had refused to renounce their faith – some 143 souls – would die by burning on the very cliffs from which the trebuchets had fired their deadly loads, prompting our surrender.
The Perfects were amassed in a designated area of the cliff-top field, surrounded by soldiers, while witnesses and families were contained in apart. Huge, towering pyres of wood, as yet unlit, separated us. Here I linger, along with other family members and neighbours.
For how could we leave? Yet how could we stay? How could we watch? Yet how could we not? We needed to honour their deaths. We needed some of those who would witness their suffering, at least, to stand in prayerful solidarity with them, not to mock them. We needed to pray with them, for them: to sing the songs that would raise them heavenwards. We needed to provide what comfort we could and, if nothing else, give them the gift of our understanding. Our benediction of their sacrifice.
But did we understand, really? We were of the same faith, yes. And we had not renounced it, either. But, as credentes – ordinary Cathars - we had not been faced with the same stark choice that they had been. We had not, ourselves, actively chosen death. We had been allowed to remain on the side of life, with our faith intact. And, at this moment, life and death seemed the true adversaries, not Catholic and Cathar. Waiting and watching, we shared more in common with our loved ones’ mortal enemies, arrayed with us on the side of life, than we did with them, the soon-to-be martyred souls vowed to death.
And so we feel a strange brew of emotions, we the Perfects’ family and friends. There were the expected ones: sorrow, pity, and fear for the horrendous suffering to come. Pride in their courage. Anticipatory grief at our own looming bereavement. Horror that it has come to this.
And worry, too, for those who are not here. For the children not old enough – however old that is - to witness their parent’s tortuous death. For ten-year-old Lise, smothered with kisses and left with a kindly neighbour, whose torrents of tears, to my mind, shamed my wan-faced, hollow-eyed mother. It is Madame Lemieux who will care for Lise until it is over. Until her parents are ash. Until she is an orphan, with only a feckless older sister to guide her.
Then come the feelings that we do not, that we must not acknowledge, not to each other, and not to ourselves: anger chief among them. Though in awe of their stand, we also wonder why they don’t love us enough to stay, enough to betray themselves - or even God. We watch, bereft and woebegone as they throw us over: jilting us for another, more ardent love.
We are also - strangely – almost embarrassed for them: that they believe in anything this much, that they have let things get this out of hand. Are they noble martyrs, or are they merely fools? we wonder, traitorously. Is all of this for nothing? Is all of their suffering just a waste? Are they dying for an illusion, dying – as they have lived – in a fool’s paradise?
And we wonder about our own role in all of this. For we are truly damned if we do, damned if we don’t. For, if we stand back and let them follow their insane, unnecessary desire to die, rather than utter a few meaningless words, aren’t we, too, guilty of their deaths? But, then again, if we do try to persuade them to recant at this, the last minute, do we deprive them of the martyr’s palm? Of ultimate bliss? Of the simple dignity of living, and of dying, on their own terms?
What are their obligations to us? What are ours to them? If we really love them, do we yank them back or, blessing them, let them go?
I don’t know. I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. All that I know is that I don’t want to stand idly by and watch my mother and father die.
It is a relief to escape the whirlpool of my thoughts and just act. Pushing past the guards with a terse: “I just want to say one last goodbye” – I search desperately through the ranks of the self-condemned for Maman and Papa.
I find them beside the middle pyre. Unbelievably, their faces, turning toward me as I approach, register strong concern, as if they are expecting me to give them bad news. Even now, on the brink of death – and such a death - they watch and worry for us. Even now, they deprecate their role in our lives: thinking that there could be some other reason for my presence more urgent than their own immanent demise. I throw myself into their arms and, waiting until my lips are close to my mother’s ear, I whisper:
“Please don’t do this. Please, for me. For Lise. We need you. We can’t go on without you.”
Maman stiffens and pulls away. She seems, ludicrously, to be embarrassed in front of her martyr friends by my bad behavior: by my transgression. But it is pointless, now, to hold anything back. This is my last chance to change her mind. To bring them to their senses. To save them. I drop to my knees and, weeping, throw my arms around her legs, pinning Maman in place. My voice comes out painfully, in hiccupping gasps, as I plead:
“Please, Maman, stay. Please. Just say the words. God will know what it is your heart. You won’t be betraying Him, not really. You will live to pass on the faith. You will live to teach it to us. Please, don’t make us go on alone. Don’t make us live without you. We need you. Maman!”
This last is a startled shriek, as I am pulled back from her with an unexpected jerk. The soldiers have arrived to shut me up, to restore order. They don’t want a scene. There is just a skeleton crew of Monfort’s men here, with the unenviable task of keeping control of a bunch of pacifists vowed to turn the other cheek. They have been given the gruesome job of burning the intransigent, whom they see as hopeless - too cowardly to fight, yet too brave to renounce: the worst of all possible worlds.
Evidently, they are uneasy. For what if the great mass of Perfects assembled here renounced, not their faith, but their pacifism? And what if they were joined in their resistance by kin unwilling simply to sit back and watch them die? Even now, after the long siege, they still do not understand our stubborn fidelity to a faith that has lead us only to death. As they clutch at me, preparing to drag me away, the soldiers seem almost embarrassed: apologetic at my thoughtlessness in disturbing the Perfect’s imperfect peace.
Their rough hands liberate me from any further inhibition. This is it. I struggle, and then start fighting back in earnest: kicking, flailing, lashing out, and screaming as loud as I can for my parents not to do it, not to die. I scream I hardly know what – a mix of abuse and curses on the northerners - a call to all the assembled Minervois to rise now, to fight, to save our Perfects from the teeth of death by force. It is such a blessed relief finally to vent my hatred and my defiance. With infinite satisfaction I feel my struggling, unmoored foot connect with the unguarded ribcage of one of my tormentors, the jaw of another, and I kick out again - as hard as I can - thrilling with pleasure as I feel the shattering impact of contact, and hear a startled “oomph.” But to my infinite frustration, the soldiers – though startled - only laugh.
“That one’s no Cathar, that’s for sure!” smirks one.
“No, not too much pacifism in that little hell-cat!”
“Hey sweetheart, want a job? She’s got more gumption than you do, Gustave!”
Contemptuously, all but one soldier - the one who holds me fast, with my arms pinned behind my back with one of his hands, the other firmly over my mouth - saunter off in a laughing group, as if to mock me with how little manpower my one-girl rebellion takes to tame. Clearly, they are grasping for any levity they can find as they complete their final, grim preparations prior to lighting the three giant pyres.
I hear the voice of the man they have left behind loudly in my right ear, even as I feel its reverberations through my tense body, he holds me so closely. He speaks fiercely, both to and beyond me.
“We are not the problem, here, mademoiselle. You see? It’s no good trying to take it out on us. We are only too happy to let them go. We are family men, some of us. We don’t relish this business, not at all. 143 Perfects to burn!”
I can hear the burden and – could it be? the pain – in his voice.
“But this is their decision, not ours. Your parents can go with you right now, if they choose to. But first they must say the words. Those are our orders.”
Then, still holding me firmly enough that my wrists hurt, he wheels me around to face my parents, shouting out now, loudly, over the large crowd of assembled Perfects:
“Your daughter wants you to say the words and come with her. There is still time. You can still do it.”
I can see him now, this young man, clearly. He has stepped out from behind me, releasing one of my arms. He holds me, now, by only one wrist. But this he holds hard, in a ring of fiery pain. He is looking at Maman and Papa with great seriousness.
Unbelievably, he is arguing for me. He is taking my part. His voice rings out, clearly in the blue air, over the heads of the assembled parfaits.
“They are just words. Say them, and go with her. Remain a family.”
Maman and Papa look at me, still held in the soldier’s iron grip. Unbelievably, their faces light up, with a soft warmth that slowly smudges down into tears.
Could it be that they are listening? Could it be that they are changing their minds?
Belatedly, I realize that they are not looking at me, but at something behind me, beyond me.
It is my sister. Lise.
She seems so small as she makes her way through the crowd towards us: not even her full ten years. Somehow, she has managed to escape the well-meaning Madame Lemieux, and has come to find us. Her family.
Dazedly, timidly, but unopposed, she approaches them, sliding her arms around Papa, her small hand clutching Maman’s dress tightly. She looks younger than her ten years, as her slim body shakes with unshed tears and confused fear. Gently, she takes their hands in her own, so that the three of them stand, linked together, in a row. She looks up, with her wide, trusting eyes, first at Maman, then at Papa. Then she gazes at the soldier – my soldier - and in the sudden silence her voice is like a piping flute carrying high over the crowd.
“Can we go home now?” she says, simply.
His face breaking apart, Papa swings Lise up into his arms as hers stretch out to clasp him tightly around the neck. Crying, Maman hugs them both, stretching her body up across Lise’s back, as if to protect her. All of the Perfects are weeping now, undone by the simple innocence, the stunning normality of this everyday question: a question that corrodes the niceties of theology in its directness, in its hungry need.
Lise’s words, coupled with soldiers’ lighting of the middle pyre, has an immediate impact. A woman, racked with sobs, emerges from the group of condemned and falls to her knees in front of my startled soldier.
“I cannot do this,” she croaks. “I want my daughter. Do you hear me? I renounce my faith. I abjure my beliefs. I promise to follow, in all of its teachings, the Church of Rome.”
Staggering to her feet, she runs away from us, towards the distant crowd of family members and witnesses shouting, wildly: “Béatrice! Béatrice!” A young woman darts out from the assembly to embrace her, the two of them laughing and crying with a giddy joy that is contagious. It is for all the world as if the soldier himself had decided, willy-nilly, to lift her death sentence, instead of this being the belated choice of the woman herself. Their reunion creates a sense of possibility: possibility that this scenario could yet go another way.
Hopefully, I turn from this happy scene and look at my parents, who look utterly stunned. There is an uneasy ripple through les Parfaits: a ripple of whispered commentary. It is impossible to say whether it is approbation or condemnation, or simply confusion. Maman exchanges a wavering, unreadable glance with Papa, glances down at Lise and suddenly reaches out her hand to me where I stand, feet away from her, still in the soldier’s adamant grip. She opens her mouth to speak.
But before she can speak there’s a stir, and the crowd of the condemned parts to let another soul though. A man advances toward my soldier, his face a mask of misery. Unable to meet anyone’s eyes, he squeezes through the tightly packed crowd, forcing Maman to drop her arm, and drops to his knees on the rough grass before my solder.
“God help me, a sinner…”
As he starts to speak, his words of renunciation distorted by harsh sobs and punctuated by bitter blows to his own chest, my mother’s face hardens, and her mouth twists in anger. She shoots me a scathing glance, as if this is all my doing, and wheels to face the audience of Perfects surrounding her. She speaking loudly, determinedly, over the man’s fragmented words and sobs, and the crackling of the fire as the branches of each pyre start to catch, and flare, the yellow flames more felt than seen in the bright morning sunlight.
“My friends, we are at war here. These… their soldiers of Satan…” - here she pauses to gesture angrily at the man who still holds me – “They have surrounded our town. They have besieged us. They have starved us. They have shattered our walls with these mals voisines” – she gestures to the trebuchets – “their demonic instruments.
“They think that this is the nature of war: that now that they have taken our city, and have custody of our goods, our homes, and our bodies, that they have won this war. But this only shows their ignorance, their worldliness.”
She pauses, wetting her lips with her tongue, and leans into her point.
“For the war – the real war - is just starting, right now. Our war. The war that we fight. Unarmed, save for the truth.”
Maman’s voice rang out across the plateau, strong and clear in the blue morning air. Pausing, she let her fierce eyes rake over the assembly, searching out those of her fellow Perfects.
“Ours is a war between light and darkness. Between God and Lucifer. Between force and grace. We fight it not with weapons, but with the strength of our beliefs. We fight it not with our bodies – those hollow husks – but with, and for, our souls that - if we are steadfast - today will be released, even as our bodies perish.”
She gazes at them, turning her head to sweep them with her eyes, defiantly.
“For neither life, nor death, can separate us from the faith that we hold sacred.”
Her words met with a rising murmur of approbation, with the occasional shouted word of agreement. Behind her, the tormented man, mid-recusal, has paused in his self-accusation to listen, raising, ever so slightly, his hanging head. Looking at him, and then at me, Maman says, more softly:
“We all love our families: that is true. God help us. We shouldn’t have brought them into this world, we know that, but we ache at the thought of leaving them. We do.”
General nods, assent, she speaks for all present.
But then Maman pivots suddenly, like a swordsman.
“But of what man can you say, ‘He is exempt from death?’ Can you show me a family that is never shattered by loss? If we stayed, now - if we lived - this would not render us immortal, or keep our families together forever. And how could we lead our children, if we quail in the face of this supreme test of our faith? How could we presume to guide them, should we fail? What message would we send them, if we falter now?”
Her eyes are challenging, daring her listeners to think this through. And then she says what they dare not.
“That our beliefs are false? That cowardice, not courage, is a virtue, and the mark of a true Christian?”
She waits, anticipating a response. Apparently, her questions have not been merely rhetorical. But none come. Maman presses home her point, then, her words a surge of passion.
“We have seen the light. And when you have seen the light, you cannot go back into the darkness.
We have lived the truth. And when you have lived the truth, you cannot consent to live in falsity.
We know the Word. And when you know the Word, no empty ceremonies, no painted idols, no pretended pope can ever suffice.
Nor can their so called ‘Catholic Church.’”
She turns her head and spits, as if even saying the hated name has polluted her mouth, and once again rakes her listeners with her fierce stare.
“Oh, it is a church, indeed.”
Immediately, there is a groaning, a wordless denial of her words. But Maman just smiles.
“It is a Church, all right.” She pauses, as if daring them to contradict her, before doing it for them.
“A Church of Wolves.”
They roar their approval, now, thunderously, at her use of this, our nickname for those who thoughtlessly slaughter us, the true sheep of Christ. Who do know what they do.
“These men” – she gestured to my soldier and others, more distant - “they think that we are their prisoners!”
This is said laughingly, triumphantly, as if she cannot believe the magnitude of their folly, their arrogance, all the while smiling her pitiless smile.
“But they – they are the ones imprisoned in darkness, in their failure to grasp the truth. ‘And the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness does not understand it.’ They think – some in pity, some in anger, that they put us to death here today….”
Maman is shouting in earnest now. She pauses, before delivering the final blow:
“They do not understand that they only liberate us.”
The Perfects listen, rapt and absorbed, to her words: intent, alert, animated. Many have sunk to their knees, signalling their submission to her impromptu sermon: her passionate words.
Maman looks down at Lise’s face, upturned to her own.
Then she looks at me.
The wind sweeps her, ruffling her home-spun cloak and catching up her hair like a banner in battle. Her expression is animated: wild with triumph.
“Today, we fight for the Light, the Truth, and the Word.
Today, we shuck off the filthy rags of this body, and put on the armour of God.
Today, we leave this vale of tears, to join Him in eternal joy.
My friends. We have long fought this war, in how we have chosen, of our own volition, to live.
“Today, we fight this war in how we choose to die.”
She regards them, searchingly, with her raptor’s gaze. That gaze that is so familiar to me, that I have so loved, in its all its unflinching ardour.
“Who will die with me today? Who will storm heaven’s gates by my side?”
A roar of assent goes up from the assembly, like a mighty gale.
And then, with a final, loving touch of Lise’s hair, a smile of eagerness and complicity at Papa, and half-pitying, half-triumphant glance at me, Maman runs and, gathering up her skirts, launches herself into the flames.