Being the confession of Perrine Mauroy, as dictated to Pierre-Martin de la Martinière, in the final hour of his life and the first hour of her own. À Paris, chez l’Auteur, ruë de Gévre a l’Espèrance, l’année de notre seigneur, 1668.
The truth is, Monsieur de la Martinière, I was hoping to see the skulls. Tiny ones burned nearly to charcoal and piled in La Voisin’s back garden, proof of all the poor babes they say she yanks daily from the swollen bellies of desperate women. Proof, too, of the magic she makes with the bones, turning ugly old women into glowing nymphs or making slow fingers fly with sudden skill across a loom.
I’d heard of the skulls and I wanted evidence, because like all good country girls I thought constantly of witchcraft: would I ever see it, would I know it when I saw it, and most importantly, would I myself be tempted to damnation? As a child I often dreamed of hungry pursuit, joyful and mad; dreamed my own mouth grinning wide as I sank my teeth into something warm and soft and full of blood, and I always looked with yearning into the darkness of the forest. So damnation worried at my mind, for even as an innocent, I think I sensed a sort of beast in me, clawed and starving.
But the day I went to La Voisin—crossing Paris in the carriage you’d loaned me, my purse sagging with the weight of your coin—I believed myself innocent still. I kept peeking through the heavy black curtains on the carriage window to watch people fling themselves from the horse’s hooves, shouting and swearing as they flattened their bodies against the walls of buildings so as not to be crushed beneath the wooden wheels; running from the danger of someone else’s money, as I myself had done many times before. But here was I now, not running, raised above them all. I was above the streets, and told myself I was above those women who went to La Voisin seeking love potions or a brew to kill an unborn child. I convinced myself I was seeking her for nobler reasons, for your reasons: the salvation of French medicine, and through it, the salvation of humanity.
Even later, watching Antoine writhe in agony as his fingers melted together and hardened, his screams shrinking to bleats and his hair coming in coarse and white... even then, I felt innocent.
But it is not to protest my innocence that I now leave this confession. Some of what I will relate, Monsieur, you will already know, for you were there. But it is not for you I speak. It is for those who will ask questions after you and I have gone. It is because I am, for the first time in my sorry life, proud.
The gossips were spilling with tales of the madman kept at the Hôtel de Montmor, and sure enough, it was there I found my husband. The Montmor home was huge and solid stone, grander than any I’d dared approach in my twenty-eight years, and I feared they’d take one look at the state of me and send me off. Days of searching the streets of Paris had left me stained with heavy mud all mixed with shit and piss, my best blue dress stained brown now nearly to my waist—yet soon as I said my husband’s name to the man at the gate, the heavy wooden door was thrown open and I was passed from butler to servant to Monsieur Montmor himself.
He was in a warm room larger than any house I’d lived in, with many other fine-dressed gentlemen and one lady. They all turned their great curly-wigged heads towards me as I entered and pressed their noble perfumed handkerchiefs to their noble noses to protect them from my stink. My knees were weak with fear and my hands shaking, but nonetheless I managed a curtsy, and in answer I heard the lady laugh, high and clear, a pure expression of delight at the spectacle I made. The memory of my shame is enough to make my jaws snap.
The Monsieur Montmor stood before me in his beautiful pink stockings and heeled shoes, the leather shining as if he’d never trod upon the streets I’d just quit, and as for the rest of him, I do not know. I had not the courage to lift my head any higher than his knees. He said to his servant, “The wife of Mauroy, you say? A sad-looking creature! What is her given name?”
“Perrine, monsieur. Perrine Mauroy.”
“Show her to his chambers,” Montmor said, and then to me, “Well, Madame Perrine, you shall soon see what an improvement we have made upon your wretched husband!”
Then he turned, his interest already transferred back to his salon, and I was once again led through a series of chilly hallways and up a flight of stone steps, and finally left at the door of a room hot with the hearth of a well-kept fire. There I found my husband lounging on a down bed, looking pale but quite contented. He was attended by a well-dressed man with close grey hair—his own—and large intelligent eyes, which he turned towards me just as my husband did the same.
“Perrine!” cried Antoine and leaped from his bed, his arms outstretched. I couldn’t help but flinch from him, for it was the full of the moon and my husband was as famous for his insanity as I was for the bruises his fists left upon my face—but to my shock he tenderly took me in his arms, saying, “Oh, you will not believe what has occurred!”
By this time I was exhausted. We lived in a village on the outskirts of the city and I’d been walking for days, terrified that Antoine had succumbed finally to one of his fits and set himself afire or drank himself to death. For as brutal a husband he was, he was better than no husband at all, especially for the woman I was then. You will no doubt remember my nature, Monsieur de la Martinière, for you took full advantage of it. I was pitiable and weak.
So I asked no questions of my own; only sat by the fire and tried to grasp the tale Antoine recounted. He was often interrupted in his story by the grey-haired man, who was one Monsieur Denis. The monsieur was a doctor—a doctor who, I was to understand, had of late opened my husband’s veins and bled him freely, several cupfuls at least. Then this doctor had replaced all of Antoine’s lost human blood with the blood of a living calf.
“Calf’s blood?” I repeated. “In Antoine’s veins?”
“For its mildness,” said Monsieur Denis. “To counteract the heat in your husband’s own blood.”
Upon hearing this, I crossed myself. How funny now, to think of that gesture!
“I pissed pure black, Perrine, for days,” said Antoine, with some satisfaction, “and bled greatly from the nose, and had energy for nothing but prayer. Now, however, I feel quite sound!”
“Do you not find him much improved?” Monsieur Denis beamed, and I admitted I did. I could not pretend to understand the science behind the experiment, and I shuddered at the thought of cow’s blood pulsing in my husband’s body, but here was Antoine suddenly without a hint of violence or of madness, his words and glance and air all perfectly calm.
“The count of Montmor found him wandering the streets quite naked and screaming, and—knowing I was seeking a madman for my experiments—brought him to me directly,” Denis said. “And what success! A blow against English science indeed. He is still under my observation, and will be for the next few days—I mean to bleed him again tonight, a porringer or two—so you will stay here with him.”
I did, gladly, scarce believing our luck to stay in such a noble home. For his part Antoine took the attention as his due: the warmth, the plentiful food, the mattress and blankets, the wine. He’d had a taste of such a life before, but it was all new to me, and I savored every moment, dreading the return to our village and to our natural circumstances. A one-room house, filthy, cold, and miserable. We were lucky if we ate meat once in a week—here we had it every day.
“It will be different now, Perrine,” I told myself. “Antoine is cured, he will find work and be occupied, he will drink less, he will quit his beatings. Perhaps you could be happy.” Fool I was, I even managed to convince myself he might apply again to the Marquise de Sévigné and resume his old position at her house, and perhaps this warm new life of mine would be not an irregularity but the beginning of a new and glorious standard. How I dreamed!
I hear you are yourself of low birth, Monsieur de la Martinière, and so may understand what it’s like to experience, for the first time, not even luxury but safety. You might understand how just the taste of it fills you up as if for the first time and you can never again be content with the same old hungry fear. So mayhap, Monsieur, you have been right all along, though not quite in the way you suppose. Doctor Denis did indeed create a monster, but it was not Antoine Mauroy—and perhaps you, even more than Denis, are to blame.
Or, as the case may be, to thank, from the depths of what was once my soul.
Always, as a girl, I felt close to animals. I longed for kinship with the predators but reluctantly felt more likeness to those we ate: the sweet-eyed cows, the lambs with their soft coats and shaking legs, the skinny goats that butted their heads against the posts of their pens as if they thought they had a chance of winning freedom. I was not soft-hearted like my cousin Marie, who wept when a dog she liked particularly was eaten during a hard winter, for it wasn’t affection I felt, only affinity.
Once, as a child, I was in the city with my mother and young brothers, and I overhead a nobleman remark loudly to his lady companion that children such as ourselves ought to be kept at pasture, behind fences, with other livestock; and she laughingly agreed. When I grew older, I used to walk to Paris for executions, and instead of watching heads roll or necks break, I watched the nobility. I stared at them staring, the way they pulled their lips back from their teeth as the guillotine fell and how their eyes showed whites when they became excited, and I thought to myself that really we are all animals, are we not? What is the difference, save that some of us are kept in mud and squalor and some of us run free?
You may remember, Monsieur de la Martinière, that when you first approached me, I was in the icy road before my house, trying to catch a cat. I wanted to bring it in to kill a rat that had been plaguing my sleep. Right before you called out to me, I was thinking how well-arranged it is that some animals are born to chase other animals, and how perfectly suited is a cat’s mind for the fun of batting at small scurrying things, and how suited are their sharp delicate teeth for tearing into the bellies of mice.
I was thus distracted and did not see your carriage until you spoke my name aloud from its window. You said it once, and then again, very slowly. “Are you Madame Perrine Mauroy?”
Finally I nodded yes, and you cried “Magnificent!” as you swung down from the carriage with great agility and enthusiasm. Perhaps you did not notice that I stepped in fright away from you, for I was much unnerved by your vigor and fine clothes. I did not understand what such a man could want with a creature such as I–but of course, it was not quite me you sought.
“I come about your husband,” you said. “May we retire inside? It’s cold as Siberia out here.”
I relate our ensuing conversation here in full so there can be no mistaking what you asked me. No mistaking what you put in motion.
In the house, I noticed you stare at the sooty fireplace until I put on our last log and kindled the embers for you. Then you sat down smiling on my husband’s wooden chair and crossed your well-shod feet at the ankles as if you’d never been more comfortable. I offered you hot wine and watched you look around our home at the meager furniture, the bed that was little more than rope and a moth-eaten blanket, the frozen-over chamber pot.
“Well,” you said, as if comforting me, “I have seen worse. In Arabia I slept the night in a bed so crawling with beetles that every movement produced a crunch like breaking bones. A poorer sleep I think I’ve never had.”
I managed to summon my manners. “I am sorry to hear it, Monsieur...?”
“De la Martinière.” You were peering at my face with open curiosity, and I turned away, ashamed. I could imagine what you saw. One of my cheeks was pulsing hot and swollen from where Antoine had knocked me to the ground the night before, and my lip was split. The neighbors had heard my cries and sent their two sons to tie him to the bed for me, but he’d gotten loose in the early hours and was now God-knew-where.
“I see your husband is not so cured, after all,” you said, and I felt a bristle of anger at the satisfaction in your tone.
“For a time he was,” I said. “But quickly the madness returned.”
“It must be hard, Perrine, to live with such a man.” This you said in very kind tones.
“It is, monsieur.”
“I am told he was not always like this,” you said. “Was he not once the valet to the Marquise de Sévigné?”
“He was, monsieur. But that was before I knew him.”
“How then did you two come to marry?” Though you were all interest and compassion, I could tell you knew the answer already. Nevertheless, I did not feel I had a choice, and I admitted it had been arranged by our families.
“I was told he was only ill,” I said. “I did not realize the extent of his madness until after the wedding.”
“I have heard tell he went mad for love,” you said, still with that air of gentle understanding. “Though not love for you. He pinned his hopes of fortune on the dream of marrying a certain noblewoman, did he not? And when she married another, he took to the streets screaming and began setting fires to the homes of nobility, threatening murder upon every head he came across.”
“Yes, monsieur,” I said. I was speaking as calmly as I could.
“Perhaps he is so cruel to you because you are a daily reminder of what he will never have.”
Do your lips recall shaping these words? Such craft and meanness, disguised with pity.
“Perhaps,” I said. In truth I believed Antoine had been cruel long before he was mad. There were, after all, many gentle madmen.
You nodded in apparent sympathy. “You must often dream of what your life might be like married to another.”
It was true that once I had. I’d wasted untold time imagining a different husband, a different life with someone who would take care of me. But with the years my reveries had changed. Now, when he hit me, I imagined I could take care of myself. With every blow I envisioned myself strong: thick-armed, sharp-toothed, with claws that could crush the words from Antoine’s throat, feet that could stomp his ribs until they punctured his chest, and legs that could run me away from him forever.
But I said, “Sometimes, monsieur. We all have our little fantasies, do we not?”
Your smile struck me. You agreed that we did. And then you asked, finally, “Would you like to know now why I am here?”
You did not wait for me to answer but reached into your waistcoat and took out a velvet bag that clanked when you dropped it on the table.
Grandly, you said: “You look upon 1800 écus. All yours, Perrine, if you agree to aid me in my quest. I come on a mission of salvation—to save French medicine from descending into violence and cannibalism, and to save the immortal souls of countless men like your husband, men who might accept the blood of animals into their bodies and unwittingly become half-beast themselves and taint themselves for heaven, forever.”
You had not yet taken your hand from the bag of coins, and it was there my eyes were fixed. I heard you say something of mummies and the application of their flesh for maladies, and then you asked if I had taken mummy flesh myself, perhaps powdered for an earache or poultice for vertigo.
I nodded that I had, if only to hurry your speech.
“Perhaps you, like I, have pictured the ancient sources of this most excellent curative—pictured the wizened, blackened forms taken with much ceremony from their tombs, their immense power unwrapped and portioned off with care. Can you see it, Perrine? As could I—until at fourteen I traveled with the pirates to Egypt and found myself in a rank, fetid room, surrounded by criminals, watching as a man extracted the brain and organs of a freshly slaughtered body, then filled the ghastly cavity with a viscous black liquid that oozed and stank like sin itself. This sludge-filled corpse was then left to dry for several days, then once desiccated it was wrapped in bandages, and then—? Shipped off to the Continent, where it was to fetch a pretty price as Mummy Flesh and be ingested by hundreds of ailing, hopeful people, perhaps you yourself amongst them. Does this not make you recoil?”
It did. My stomach churned, but I refocused on the glimmer of the 1800 écus and was calmed.
“So you see,” you continued, “I alone understand the darkness that lies beneath these ‘experiments’ with transfusion. First comes transfusion with animal blood, making beasts of men. Then, it will inevitably follow, transfusion with human blood. And if the populace believes the placidity of a cow can calm madness, imagine what the blood of a priest could do, or a virgin? Like the demand for mummies, the demand for blood will be insatiable. Every day men will kill men for the red gold that flows in all of us. Imagine blood sold at market alongside cuts of beef, or the Rue du Massacre renamed not for its animal slaughterhouse but for the striking-down of men that will be as commonplace as slicing lamb. We will all be unholy cannibals and God will weep in heaven. You understand, Perrine, that sometimes great sacrifices must be made to—”
You kept talking, Monsieur de la Martinière, but I admit it was truly an unnecessary effort. I listened, and understood your complaints, but the weight of that velvet bag in my hand had already half-convinced me. And when finally you came around to explanation of your plan, you seemed to think I might balk or skitter at the thought of killing Antoine; but I did not. Truth be told, your proposal of his death felt like yet another heavy jangling purse of wealth cast upon my table.
So I did as you asked, and took your coach to the witch La Voisin, and purchased the poison with your coin, and waited.
At first, Antoine’s sickness was indistinguishable from his madness. He shat everywhere, screamed curses, and lunged for me if I came too close, and I feared the powder I sifted daily in his morning wine would not work after all. But within a scant few days he had grown wan and weak, and when he passed his fist at my face, it landed with scarcely a sound, his hand like cold dough, his lips already blueing. I admit it was intoxicating to see him so incapable, and day by day my confidence grew. When he began to thrash and moan, foaming at the mouth, scarcely able to bring himself up out of bed, I did as you told me, Monsieur de la Martinière, and I went for Doctor Denis.
He came, as you knew he would, and as soon as he arrived at the house, I saw his uncertainty. The lamb you had provided was tied up to a fencepost in front of the house, nosing at a patch of dirty snow, and Denis hesitated when he saw it, glancing at me, his clever eyes taking in my bruise-swollen face, my filthy dress, my matted hair; the poor and cringing whole of me. I could not afford a lamb, and he knew it.
“Just inside, Doctor,” I said urgently, not letting him think too hard. “Please, hurry, I fear he’s getting worse!”
Denis looked again at the lamb, but I was close and pressing, guiding him forward, a fervent shepherd, and he moved reluctantly before me, through the doorway.
In the house, Antoine was wailing and shaking, his mouth foamy with vomit, and when he saw the newcomer he let out a howl and thrashed in his bindings. The neighbors had again helped me secure him to the bed by his limbs, and so he could not move much, save for his head, which he whipped around as if possessed. Instantly Denis forgot the lamb in favor of the patient, hurrying to the bedside to examine him.
“Pulse slow,” Denis murmured to himself. “Skin cold and clammy to the touch, burning head.”
“You must begin the procedure immediately,” I said, just as you’d told me to. “We have no hours left to spend. There is the lamb, and here on the table is anything you need. Begin at once!”
Denis looked distractedly behind him at the table, then again with more attention. He stood from Antoine’s side and bent over the instruments you’d laid out not three hours earlier, then put his head up sharply. “Madame, these are surgical tools. Tubes, bloodletting bowls—even a catlin knife. Where did you come by these?”
“They are on a loan,” I said, “but never mind. They do no good if you will not put them to use!”
“Madame,” said Denis, in very firm tones, “your husband is too hot by half, his passions too excited. I can see he has been drinking, taking tobacco. No Madame, I am sorry, but I cannot perform the surgery.”
He was moving towards the door now, and I, terrified it might all be for nothing, threw myself upon his feet and pressed my face into the silk of his stockings, my bruised cheek against his hard shin. “Please,” I begged him, “please, have mercy on me. Look what he has done to me, look how he has beaten me.” I turned my face to him and tilted towards the window’s light so he could see the full, fat swell of mottled purples and reds that painted me from brow to chin. I saw him soften, slightly. “After you first transfused him he was docile, Doctor, as sweet a husband as a woman could hope for, kind and hardworking like I’ve never seen him. So how could you, my only hope, now render me hopeless?”
Antoine let out a garbled, piteous shout, and I began to weep.
You knew your enemy well, Monsieur de la Martinière. Denis could not deny us.
Soon enough, my husband’s veins were once again exposed, his thick blood welling and dripping into the letting bowls beneath his arms, and the lamb was struggling and baaing in its restraints as Denis sliced it open. I sat at Antoine’s head, smoothing his sweating brow and giving him sips of wine.
Wine into which I had mixed not only the rest of the poison but half the other powder, too. The powder I had paid for with your unwitting gold, Monsieur de la Martinière, which La Voisin had delighted in extracting from you for my benefit.
“If any trial should arise, he means to frame you,” La Voisin had said, quite casually, as she skimmed the letter I had carried for you, then handed it back to me. I was in her sitting room, perched on the edge of a velvet chair as she reclined on a sofa. She was dressed as a midwife, capped and cloaked, but even beneath her dress her bosom was formidable, and below her hood her eyes were bright. There were no baby skulls in sight, but there was a heavy smell about the rooms, herbaceous and bitter and bubbling, and I kept hearing a high mewling cry wafting from somewhere in the bowels of the house. A sullen-faced girl who looked very like La Voisin kept stomping in and out as we spoke, and once she went to the door and paid a man for a bucketful of live toads. Anything I touched, my fingers came away streaked: with dust, with soot, with slime.
“He asks me to put your name on all our correspondence, so it can be easily traced,” La Voisin said, and waved the letter I could not read. “Already you are a very sorry-looking thing. If your plans go awry, he will make you sorrier. How do you like that?”
I did not know what I was expected to say, so I told the truth. “I like it not at all.”
“Well, there is no reason not to get something for yourself, in the bargain,” La Voisin said, reaching for the well of ink and quill that rested on a low side table. “I will write back and charge him double, and with the rest of the coin you may choose something of your own. A brew to keep a man’s attention, perhaps? Or a charm of fortune, to bring money in?”
I could not believe my ears, nor my luck. I said, “Why?”
“Why not?” she returned. “I will take any chance to trick a man.” Her laughter was deep and unfeigned. “And of course it is to me the extra coin will come. Two pleasures in one deed. Now, what will you have?”
It was remarkable, Monsieur de la Martinière, how quickly I knew my answer. It was as if I had been preparing for that moment, though no one in my life had ever put before me such an offer; nor even any offer at all. I knew exactly what spell I wanted. La Voisin claimed her witchcraft was more than capable of a feat such as the one I asked, but I could not quite believe it possible that a potion could effect such a blood-borne transformation as the one I sought. However, circumstances had provided me both the perfect subject and perfect situation on which to test the magic.
Antoine drank down both my potion and your poison just as the lamb’s blood began flowing through the metal tube Denis had inserted into his arm. The effects were subtle but nearly instantaneous—if you were looking for them. The whites of his eyes, already yellowed, grew yellower still, and his pupils began to thin and flatten. The hair on his unshaven jaw began fading from brown to grey, and the coarse curl of it grew tighter, as did the hair on his head, the roots of which were going white. One of his hands was gripped in both of mine so I could feel his fingers slowly start to fuse, and harden, and when I looked I saw his nails were turning black and spreading, taking over the flesh.
Denis was slow to see, focused as he was on the transfusion of the blood, and in truth did not notice until Antoine’s low mutterings began to take on a peculiar, throaty whine, too high to be natural. Then Denis paused, and looked closer at the arm into which the lamb’s blood ran. It was sprouting white wool.
“What in the name of Heaven...?” Denis said, and squinted, confused.
At that moment, Antoine began to seize. His body turned rigid and his eyes rolled back in his head, and his arms shook with such force that the tube was knocked away, and blood from both man and lamb spilled onto the floor, where it pooled in a glistening mirror at our feet. Denis leaped into action, attending to I know not what, for I was focused on Antoine’s face, his nose that had started to flatten, his nostrils dark and round and heaving as he struggled for breath.
I was staring into his strange slitted eyes as he took his last air and died.
As you had predicted, Denis wanted to take his corpse right then for an examination, to prove immediately that transfusion had not been the case of death, but I screamed so horribly that finally he relented, exhausted, and he left with a promise of coming to collect the body the next morning. I buried Antoine in all haste with the coin you’d given me for just this purpose, and by the time the last shovelful of dirt had been dropped on his quick-dug grave, roughly eight hours since he’d taken the lamb’s blood, his body resembled no human man. La Voisin’s magic had kept working even after the poison had halted his life.
When it was over I went back inside my house, cleaned the blood from the floor as best I could, hid your medical instruments in a sack of flour, and went to sleep.
The next day you came to collect the instruments, but you seemed unbothered when I told you that Denis had taken them with him, to examine for flaws. You were too jubilant to mind the loss of a knife or two.
“Well done, Madame!” This uttered with your usual grandiosity. “It is already all the talk, how transfusion has claimed its first victim, and I have it from a friend that when Denis heard you’d buried Antoine, he let out a shout of rage to rival that of Alala herself. It will not be long ’til he is tried for murder, and through him, transfusion itself, and this dark Satanic chapter in medicine will be forever behind us. Into the light go we, Perrine!”
You were so certain your plan had worked, and your enthusiasm was convincing. I fingered the twist of powder in my skirt pocket and considered that perhaps this all would not come to using it. Perhaps I could build my life reputably, as a widow, and find some freedom there; perhaps I would not after all resort to the measures I had set up for myself.
But maybe, even if all you’d set in motion had run smooth as a greased wheel, I would still have made this choice. All my life I had been dreaming of the forest, and the open, star-clouded sky, and how fast I’d move beneath it. Not running in fear, away, but towards.
And so, Monsieur de la Martinière, here we are.
All night long I have been on foot, evading the men sent by the chief of police, men who wish to lock me in the Grand Châtelet forever for the crime you paid me to commit. They would put me behind stinking walls and never let me see the sky again. I have paused only once, in an ill-reputed tavern, to sit by the fire and warm the vial of blood I purchased from a hunter of pelts fresh this morning. It was thick and red and proud, the blood of a predator, and in the alley I coaxed it into my own veins with the knife and tubes you gave me.
You can no doubt tell from my appearance, and from the easiness with which I gripped your throat and slashed your face with my claws, that I have been taking La Voisin’s powder; though far more slowly than did my husband, who swallowed it all in a draught. I wanted to retain my power of human speech so that I could come here and relate all I have recently told. You may hear by the slurring of my words that my teeth grow sharper and speaking becomes more and more difficult. I can feel my throat changing, my voice lowering to what might be called a growl. Finish writing, then, and read it back to me.
Now sign your name, and mine. Do not weep, Monsieur. Are you not certain of a welcome from your God, for all you’ve done in His name? Yes, put that down, too, for I want it known that even now I think of God, and I wonder what will happen to my own soul when I die. If wolves do not go to Heaven, neither can they enter Hell, so perhaps I will run in an eternal forest.
As for you, your servants will find you here tomorrow ripped open like a butchered cow, all your precious blood released—but, take comfort, still pure. Perhaps a maid will claim she saw a wolf leap from your window. Perhaps a butler will swear he heard a howl pierce the night. Perhaps this confession will be read and disbelieved; or perhaps it will be judged credible, and spark a panic in the city. I do not care. I am not for the city any longer. It is the full of the moon, and the sky calls to me.