EVEN WHEN JUDE was a boy, his arms and legs bulged, his neck corded, his muscled gut humped beneath his chest. On the steep fields above the road, above the river so wide they called it la mer, he worked in clothes the color of dirt, harder and faster than his uncles, though when he paused from digging, he stood awkwardly, uneasy with inaction. By the age of fifteen, he rarely stopped. He sat and ate in the same motion. He undressed and stretched on his bed and slept. Hardship had given his face the uneven angles of an old apple pressed in among others in a cellar crate. He'd never closed his eyes to wonder at what couldn't be seen.
That autumn ended a dry summer. Foliage was dull, like rusted machinery on the hills. Potato harvest had him carving furrows in chill earth. He'd never have imagined that a decade later villagers would still discuss the days that led to his disappearance. Or that some nights, watching tv, they would dream his fierce height and red hair, as if they might see him on a Hollywood street.
Of the nineteen Hervé children, he should have been the most content to stay. His grandfather, Hervé Hervé, had raised him, and together, they'd fished paternal waters with the regularity of Mass. The Hervés had owned those first rough mountain farms since before the Seven Year War, and when Captain George Scott burned the French homes, they didn't flee to France, nor did they relocate for the convenience of a telegraph line and a doctor when Jersey merchants built company villages. But for all their strength the family had developed an unusual trait. Children were born alternately brutes or runts, as if the womb had been exhausted. It was clockwork, immense child then changeling. Villagers saw and feared this as if through some faint ancient recollection of stories that predated Christianity. They feared even the little ones, frail, scurrying beneath those hulking siblings.
Though half his children were runts as if by Biblical curse, Hervé Hervé remained proud. Strong beyond his years he brought up even the last of his sons to work the fields and fish at a time when cod stocks were failing and farmland returning to forest. He'd grown up during the worst years of the emigration south and had seen too much change to trust it, the poverty, the wealth of wars, and again the poverty until he'd become as hard as the country that had been fled by hundreds of thousands so that it was he his children now fled. In fights, men broke knuckles on his face, his wide, almost Indian features expressionless, his weather-browned skin ignoring whatever bruise. He took sons hunting hours through the drifts. He never used a compass, and once, when geologists and surveyors sent inland by the province disappeared, he went and retrieved them. In 1904, walking a dark road he heard a shot from the woods and a bullet grazed his eye. No one believed it was an accident. If anything, his remaining eye became more intent, imprinted in memories and imaginations. Some claimed he measured the distance to the sea by tasting snow.
In his first marriage he fathered three boys and three girls. Of those sons, two were keepers — he spoke of his children, if at all, in the language of a fisherman. He bred his wife hard and when she foundered in childbed, he replaced her with Georgianne, a sturdier woman of no small religious bent who gave him eleven more. Jude was the illegitimate son of a brutish Scots-American tourist and Agnès, Georgianne's fourteen-year-old daughter, who, intent on not giving birth, pummeled her belly, threw herself down hills and stairs, plunged into icy water and hurtled against low branches so that to the villagers she looked like a sideshow tough training for a bareknuckle fight. The pregnancy held and Jude was born with a flat nose and the glassy gaze of a punch-drunk fighter. But he wasn't born alone. He came into the world with a tiny twin sister, in his arms, it was told, as though he expected further violence.
All were surprised to see a keeper and a runt together, as if he should have emerged with a bag of gnawed bones. Villagers who knew the family accounts believed the Hervé curse was the result of some past perversion or sin. When winter or sickness came, the runts were the first to go, abused or disregarded by the giants. Oddly, though, with the years, it became apparent that Jude adored his quivering sister. He grew fast and started walking so young the villagers doubted his age, and whenever Isa-Marie, still in diapers, began to cry, he leaned against her cradle like a greaser on his Chevy. No two children could grow to be more different, Isa-Marie often at church, the pages of her school books crammed with magazine clippings of popes or saints, Jude eager for work, slogging up to the fields each spring just to see the sodden furrows set against the sky, the huge vents of mud.
Of Agnès no memory would remain, only a photo, a tall, strong girl, eyelashes dark and long, lips pushed-out to greet the world's pleasures. She'd fed them bitter milk for three months as outside, spring lit winter's crevices, the sky bright as a movie screen, the first tourist cars hanging streamers of dust. That July she disappeared, only the orphaned twins and Jude's name to remember her by. The tourist father had been called Jude, she'd told them. As for Isa-Marie, the grandmother had named her for a long dead sister, some Isabelle from another life.