Jeanette Speaks Poem by Ali Alizadeh

Jeanette Speaks

Rating: 2.7


A bright and barefoot little girl
with a garland of cherry blossoms
enters the unattended village church.

She makes a shorthand cross
upon the makeshift wooden amulet
attached to her leather necklace.

She then runs her bony fingers
through the long, black locks
parted above her forehead.

She walks past the empty benches
towards the peaceful altar
and her petite, russet-clad figure
stoops to kneel there.

She clasps her delicate hands
in front of a wooden statue
and casts her large, green eyes
upon the Saint’s figurine.

She whispers
in a soft but confident voice:

– Sister Catherine. I didn’t give you
the spring’s gift yesterday.

Mama told me to donate
my pickings to Mother Mary.

It’s Jeannette speaking, sister
in case you’ve forgotten me.

Please don’t be mad.
Here, I hope you like these.

She places the crimson wreath
at the pedestal of the religious icon
and stands up to leaves the chapel
glowing with a heart-felt grin.


I think
she liked the flowers.

I know I would
if I was a saint.

I wonder how
a girl gets to become a saint?

My Godmother, old Madame Agnes
says before there were saints
there used to be sacred women called High Priestesses
or Goddesses in this land. But Mama says
Madame Agnes is a witch
and I shouldn’t listen to her.

Now I should go and do my chores.

Afterwards, if there’s time
I’ll go with my friends
to the slopes near the Fairies’ Tree.
The Tree, they say, is a hundred years old.

We’ll pick lilies-of-the-valley and camellia
for wreaths to put on the branches of the Tree at Lent
and I’ll get some jasmine
for Mama’s vase at home.

The jasmine have such an amazing
smell now
in early spring.
The best mushrooms grow on the paddocks
behind the Virgin Spring.

I’ve heard the nuns at the Hermitage say
the Spring has healing powers.
I’ve even seen a leper and a blind monk
come all the way from Nancy to drink its water.

I wonder if any of them is cured. I’m lucky
to be “strong and healthy,” Mama says.
She reckons
I was born in winter, on the night of Epiphany
about nine or ten years ago. She says
Epiphany was when Lord Jesus
was first recognised as the Son of God by people. But
Madame Agnes says my birthday
was on the same day as Le Jour des Rois,
Day of the Kings, an ancient celebration
when the rich baked a cake for the beggars
and the last beggar to get a piece
was named the Bean-King, or something like that.

Mama says
it’s blessed for girls
to go down the Valley to pick
blossoms and weave garlands
for the images of saints in our Church
and for those in the Hermitage behind the Bois Chesnu
Oak Forest. I love
Saint Catherine’s statue, and Saint Margaret too.
She sometimes looks
straight at my praying and
when feeling the kindness of her eyes
I wonder why Papa says
the statue is a lifeless thing.

Mama calls Papa sacrilegious
whenever he makes fun of our praying. Why does he call the statue
lifeless? Doesn’t wood
come from the living trees?

My dress today
is the colour of oak. It’s made of
rough wool cut out of Mama’s old dress.
She’s given it
puffy sleeves and stitched pretty blue ribbons
on the skirt
making it look like the dress
of a rich city girl. She says
I’m short like her but have Papa’s

I’m not sure what she means.

My hair’s black like Papa’s
and really messy today
I’ll have to get Mama to brush it
once I’ve been to the well
and drawn water. Now

she’s making lunch for Papa and the boys
and putting the bundle of bread and fruit
into the saddle of the mule they’ll take with them
to the farms.
Sometimes they take me with them
to help with sowing the seeds, pruning the plants
or ploughing. I like
digging furrows between the rows of grape and corn.
I like using a sharp spade
and getting my hands dirty, but
being a girl, and “little”
Papa usually makes me take the sheep
to the meadows near the Village of Maxey.
I have to sit there and watch them
stuff their mouths with grass and leaves.
I use my spinning distaff
for handling the silly animals when they don’t listen to me.

I have wound a bit of wool
on top of my staff. When I get bored with being a shepherdess
I spin the wool
around the stick. I use it
like a cane when climbing a steep hillock
and it’s a weapon
if the Maxey kids come to annoy my flock.

I know I’m supposed to act like a girl
and scream and cry if there’s trouble
but sometimes I can’t help
chasing the bullies, or at least yelling at them.

Mama gets upset sometimes
telling me I’m too much like a boy

but I’m very good at spinning wool
and sing with the girls
the Maiden Melodies
at the dances and celebrations.

And today
after visiting Saint Catherine,
getting water and milking the cows,

I’m in the kitchen with Mama
with canvas aprons over our skirts.

She’s teaching me to make
the dish she calls
“Our great region’s most famous cuisine.”

I don’t really like Quiche Lorraine.
I prefer fresh bread and creamy cheese.

But Mama is very keen
and doesn’t give up until I’ve beaten my eggs
and made them as foamy as hers. She tells me
with pride in her voice:

“Ah, Jeannette, have I told you about my pilgrimage to Rome?”

(She has. About a hundred times)

“There I presented a slice of our cherished pastry
to our Holy Father, the Pope himself.
That’s why they call me
Isabelle Romee, because I’ve been to the Holy City.”

After pouring the mixture
into the vessels covered with pastry
we take the clay pots
to the communal village oven.

Mama’s worried I could burn myself
and lets me go before
kindling the fire herself. I return home
take off the apron, put an apple
in my pocket and fasten the clog sandals
to my ankles. I take my distaff
and go out into our back garden…
the silly rabbits
have made it through the fence again.

I step over the leftovers of our baby carrots
and yell at the neighbour’s cottage:
– Margarette! Margarette! You wanna go
graze the sheep?

My oldest friend quickly runs out.
Her golden hair is so beautiful
and her teeth are much nicer than mine.
She throws herself at me
and giggles: “Let’s run! I’m so sick of my baby sister!
She’s crying all the time!”

And we lock arms
and skip in our heavy clogs
to where the animals are caged
in a fenced field behind our cottages.


We open the strong gates
and my cattle dog Claude
a big wolfy breed called Alsatian
barks the sleepy sheep into action.

The lazy beasts bleat unhappily.

I yell: “OHOY OHOY” and poke my distaff
into the stubborn ones refusing to move
accidentally hitting the grumpy ram
Papa’s told me to stay away from.

I stand still and see the horned beast
huff and shiver with anger.

My heart beats fast and I go
to call for Margarette but how
could she help?

The ram attacks me.
I jump out of his way
over the lazy sheep.

But he hasn’t forgiven me
and shoves the others out of his way
spotting me with his furious eyes
and bolting towards me again.

And all of a sudden
a gilded image
I’ve seen painted on the walls of the Hermitage
flashes across my mind:

Saint Michael the Archangel
Hero of the Battle of Heaven and Hell

a winged, armoured knight
pushing his lance into the throat
of a vicious serpent.

All of a sudden my distaff
becomes the Angel’s holy lance
and I firmly aim it
at the oncoming monster
pushing it into his thick fleece
making him stop. The ram
angrily stamps his short legs pushing against the tip
of my hard distaff.

I clench my teeth and groan
against his force
holding the distaff with both hands
when Claude, my strong wolf-dog
jumps over the other sheep
into the scene of my battle
and furiously barks at the ram
who’s been outnumbered
and begins to set back.

I pat Claude’s hairy neck
when the ram has been pushed
into the flow of sheep
exiting the fenced area for the pastures.

I plant my distaff into the ground
to catch my breath while putting my messy hair
into a horsetail. I notice
Margarette staring at me from the other side of the fence.
I say:

– Stupid ram! What was his problem?!

Margarette doesn’t laugh
at my smart remark
like she usually would. Her blue eyes
are bulging with fear. She speaks
how did you do that?”

– How did I do what, Margarette?
“Fight! How did you
fight like a…
like a…
boy! You looked
so mean…so angry! Why didn’t you
cry for help?”

– I… dunno…

Margarette hitches her skirt
and steps carefully over the fence
coming over and giving me a hug
her beautiful eyes breaking into tears:

“I was so worried... Oh sister... I was so scared...”

I giggle and boast: – It was only a sheep! By God!
It wasn’t a wild boar or anything!

She sniffs her nose and says: “No it wasn’t… it was… it was…
terrible… you… you
scared me… don’t do that again. Promise me!”

Feeling confused and uncomfortable
I push her away and run towards a wandering lamb
who’s left the others
yelling: – C’mon Margarette! I wanna pick mushrooms later on…
we’re gonna run out of time. C’mon!

That night after the Campanile
when Papa and the boys return from the farms
Mama serves the quiche
she’s made. My quiche
“didn’t have the proper consistency” she reckons
and was given to the parish priest instead.

Papa teases me:

“You won’t find a husband if you can’t cook properly!
We’ll have to send you to a bloody convent! How about that?!”

I stick my tongue out at him.
He laughs and ruffles my head.


A few months later, on Saint Jean the Baptist’s Eve
everyone in the village brings a log
or a bundle of sticks. Jeannette has a twig

for the bonfire lit every year near the Fairies’ Tree.
Madame Agnes has told her that this ritual is actually
a pagan salute to summer called Midsummer,

symbolising the passage of spring
with a bonfire that consumes the flowers. But
Jeannette’s mother, Isabelle, believes

that the fire is a reminder of Hell for the sinful
and the vain; she’s told her daughter to burn
something precious to her, so Jeannette’s tied a fresh lily

to her twig.

The evening begins with the chiming of church bells
and the villagers, in their best dresses and tunics
walk cheerfully up the hill towards the primeval Tree.

Jeannette and the children sing:
“This is Saint Jean’s night
The great occasion
When lovers delight
And burn with passion
The moon has risen.”

Madame Agnes, despite her frail legs,
has climbed the hillock ahead of the others
instructing the young men and girls

to arrange the wood in a pyramid
that would last long and look prominent.
She whispers to Jeannette’s oldest brother, Joe

quietly so that the parish priest can’t hear:
“You’ll see, dear boy, once the flames have risen
the fairy folk will come to dance beneath the Tree.”


Jeannette is full of verve
running ahead of the other children
her singing is the loudest

noise after the ringing of the bells.
The thin girl hops like a stag
and her green eyes radiate

with anticipation. The elders choose her
as “Saint Jean’s Queen”
to light the bonfire. She’s hoisted

on the shoulders of her uncle, Durand,
and Isabelle holds the torch that sets fire
to her daughter’s twig. Jeannette brushes

the unruly black hair off her pink face
and throws the ignited flower
at the hay stacked beneath the tower of wood.

The villagers crack open the barrels of wine
and the priest begins playing his lyre.
Margarette is holding the hands of a boy

called Collot and Joe has his eyes on a girl
he hasn’t met before. Jeannette, having drunk
a cup of wine diluted with water,

is almost shouting at Madame Agnes:

– The Goddess of Moon?!!!
I wanna see her! And the fairies!
Where are they! You promised!

Jacques and Isabelle watch their children
from a distance. She tells him: “Jacques
could we go to Toul, please. I wanna give alms

at the cathedral there. We must thank our Lord
for our children, the harvest, oh…for everything!
We’re so blessed…Can we Jacques?”

Jacques kisses her and empties another goblet
into his mouth before saying: “Sure, sweetheart.
We should thank God, and our lucky stars.”


Now everyone’s smeared with the orange glow
of the flames. Some are dancing in a circle around the pyre.
Some of them believe that this dance will prevent

illness and bad luck for the next year. As is
and has been customary for centuries,
the night ends with the younger couples jumping the subsiding blaze

holding hands to strengthen their romance. Jeannette
who has no interest in boys yet
has decided to take part in this closing ritual alone

because Madame Agnes has told her that her father’s crops
will grow as tall as her leap tonight. She’s rolled up her skirt
above her calves and kneecaps, watching impatiently

as the others hesitate to brave the fire. She yells:

– My turn! My turn!

and runs towards the flames. Her legs heave
and fly over the bonfire. She swims through
the smoky air. The flames brush the soles of her feet

but can’t hurt her. She makes it and joyously screams
upon landing, but her excitement
quickly dissipates. She’s exhausted; her large eyes close

and her body collapses into the grass. By the time
Jacques has come to her side, she’s fast asleep.
She’s so bloody adorable, he thinks

and lifts his snoring daughter carefully. He places her
on the bed at their house and himself returns
to have a few more drinks with the other farmers.


Jeannette’s tiny lips shiver in sleep
and her cheeks tremble as she breathes
heavily; she dreams
of the villagers drinking and being merry
a year of joy descends upon the Valley

her white sheep flying through the blue sky
the crops weaving into crowns for her head

ghosts twist into the tubers of the Fairies’ Tree
Archangel Michael and Saint Catherine get married

a bouquet of daisies burns in the sacred fire
the sun mixes with the soil and plants are born

and far behind the Oak Forest

a flood
of identical men
wielding axes

cut down the trees and crush the farms

they’re thousands and their stampede rattles the Valley

they’re soldiers of the greatest army in the world

their faces are eyeless and their feet are hooves

they have black crosses tattooed on the forehead…

Jeannette wakes up
next to her parents and brothers under the blanket.

They’re deep asleep
and the girl’s shivering figure doesn’t wake them.

Outside, a few farmers
strew the ashes of the fire over the vegetation
to banish bad omens.

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