CHARLOTTE AMALIE, ST. THOMAS
When Camille Pizzarro returned to St. Thomas from Venezuela, he had not slept for several nights. He’d had to scramble to get from the seaside town of La Guaira to the harbor of Caracas, where he waited for a ship that would bring him back home. He overpaid for his passage but did not care that he had nothing left. He was used to being poor, that was not the issue. He carried the news of his brother Joseph Félix’s death sewn inside him like a sharp knife blade. It was guilt or grief or the two forged together. He’d been away for two years, but now it felt like he hadn’t been home for a decade. His youngest brother, Aaron Gustave, had died at the age of twenty while Camille was gone, and he hadn’t known for two months until a letter arrived. Now Félix, only twenty-eight, had passed on as well. Two sons gone from fever, just as Madame Halevy had lost her boys years earlier.
Once again Camille was a stranger in his own country, even more so than when he’d returned from school in Paris. Then he had hopes of escape. Now, he was not so sure. He was broke and unkempt, looking like one of the scruffy Americans who arrived on the island with nothing, desperate for a change of fate. He was no longer a boy with dreams of Paris, but a man of twenty-five who knew something of the world. He had a small bag of belongings and a trunk filled with his paintings, which he paid to have kept on the wharf while he attended to the family situation. He hadn’t been close to his brother, but now he mourned that lack of closeness. In fact he barely knew his older siblings and their children, his nieces and nephews, some nearly as old as he. With this sudden death of Félix, the oldest child of his mother and father, he found himself tied with knots of regret. Who did he matter to in this world? Who mattered to him? Because of his hurry, he hadn’t bathed, and his skin was covered by a blotchy rash he’d contracted from sleeping on louse-infested mattresses. Still, he was a handsome man, if perhaps too thin. Most people he passed by as he hurried from the docks didn’t recognize him. Those who knew him remembered him as the Pizzarro son who hadn’t a head for business, who attended the Moravian School and liked to wander off on his own, a sketchbook under his arm.
He ran all the way to the cemetery and got there as the service was ending. The service would wait for no one, especially in this weather, when dead men were packed in ice until they could be buried. Camille dropped his bag on the ground, so that he might take his turn with the shovel to offer the deceased the last favor of burying him. He wept as he helped to bury his brother. His beard and hair were long; he was too thin and emotional, consumed with bouts of melancholy over all he had failed to do. A hundred leaves fell into his hair and onto his shoulders. Was he imagining it, or were people averting their eyes? He wore no prayer shawl, no head covering. Perhaps he looked like a demon with his long hair untied, his threadbare clothes. There were well over a hundred mourners, friends, relatives, neighbors, customers of the shop, and men from the Burghers’ Association. His parents were esteemed members of the congregation now, especially on this day, when they’d lost their firstborn son. Camille went to his father and embraced him, then stood beside him as the last of the mourning prayers were said. His mother looked older, smaller somehow. She made him think of a blackbird in a tree. She nodded at him, her glance holding his. He noticed that she failed to cry. But of course she had never been one to show her feelings in a public place; she saw it as a sign of weakness.
Melbye would stay in Venezuela, then go back to Paris, before heading to New York, the destination he thought best for an artist. Fritz had wanted his friend to go with him, but Camille couldn’t have gone even if he hadn’t been called home. He’d run out of money, and everyone knew New York was a place filled with millionaires. He’d been more or less a beggar at the end of his time in Venezuela, sketching portraits with chalk for a small price. Melbye had his father’s financial backing, and he’d paid for much of their expenses, but he hadn’t enough to pay for Camille’s passage to Paris and then to New York and, once they made it there, for a studio in Manhattan large enough for them both. When the news of Camille’s brother’s illness came, Fritz had said, “Perhaps it’s time for you to go home and make some decisions. You may be destined to move forward on your own. Perhaps I’d hold you back.”
“Unlikely,” Camille had said. “It’s I who have held you back.”
AFTER THE FUNERAL THERE was a family gathering with too much food and too many neighbors. Had the apartment always been this small? Camille was taller than anyone else there, and long-limbed; he had to crouch when passing over the threshold. The evening was both a funeral dinner and a homecoming, a confusing combination. Let grief be grief, Camille thought. He felt shamed to have any attention paid to him. He ducked his head and said, “Please ignore me,” but they did not. His sisters had arranged a dinner so lavish it covered the entire tabletop. Fish soup with tamarind, freshly baked bread flavored with molasses and cardamom, an apple tart made from the fruit of the tree in the courtyard, with apples so sharp they had to be sweetened with two cups of sugar water and molasses. His eldest sister, Hannah, the mother of nearly grown children, had gone to Helena James and commissioned a huge coconut cake. His pretty, pale sister, Delphine, however, was absent. Unknown to him, she’d been sent to France to live with relatives, accompanied by her niece, Alice, who was nearly the same age as she and already had small children of her own. When he heard this news, Camille felt a pang of jealousy. In truth Delphine was sickly and their mother wished for her to have better medical care living with the aunt and uncle outside Paris. Still, he wished he’d been the one to accompany his sister. He’d told Fritz that running away to Venezuela had saved him from the bondage of his bourgeois background, allowing him to be among real people with real concerns. Now here he was, in the thick of his family. Already he felt a noose around his throat.
Everyone greeted his return with great cheer, except for his mother, who had hardly spoken to him, and had gone to lie down in her chamber after the service. Jestine was there to embrace her old friend’s son and explained that Rachel was dizzy from the heat and would soon be with them.
“How is your daughter?” Camille asked. He’d often thought of how he’d followed Lydia for all that time, how he’d sketched her before she’d known he existed, and had come to know the planes and angles of her face before they’d said a single word.
“She writes twice a week or more. She often asks for you. I informed her that you ran away to see the world.”
“Not quite the world,” he said ruefully.
“More than I’ve ever seen,” Jestine informed him.
When at last Rachel came to supper, Camille went to her and kissed her three times, though her reception to him was cold. His posture straightened in the presence of his mother, and he felt a wave of embarrassment due to his patchy beard and threadbare clothes, even more so when it came to the old, ragtag shoes he had on, the same ones he’d worn when he left St. Thomas two years earlier, although now the leather was scuffed and marked up, the soles shredding. He waited to be berated for his appearance, but his mother merely greeted him in French. In truth, after two years of speaking Spanish, it was a great relief to slip back into his first language.
“I thought you might never come back,” she said. Je ne savais pas si vous reviendriez un jour. In French this sounded like an accusation, for she referred to him formally, as if they had only just met. If he was not mistaken there was a break in her voice. But of course this had been a terrible and trying day. All the same, his mother had a strange sort of expression, one that was surprisingly vulnerable.
“I did wish to stay away,” he admitted.
Rachel pulled back inside herself. She felt this was directed not only to this island but also to her. “Jestine will have to make you a new jacket,” she said after glancing at her son’s clothing. “You’re in dire need of it.”
Camille smiled, relieved. This was his mother as he’d always known her, unable to keep her disapproval to herself. She hadn’t been overtaken by another woman’s spirit after all. In a way it was a comfort that some things never changed.
“I’m so sorry I wasn’t here during Félix’s illness,” he said.
“Really?” his mother replied. “I would have thought you were quite happy to be in Venezuela. Certainly we hardly heard from you. One letter after Gus’s death.”
From her tone and the way she quickly moved on to greet some neighbors he could not tell whether or not she was happy to have him home. That night he slept in his own childhood room, one he used to share with his brothers. He had secretly sketched upon the wall, but during his absence his renegade artwork must have been discovered, for the wall was washed clean. He heard moths hitting against the shuttered windows and thought of Marianna, the girl he’d once thought he loved. Next time he felt such pangs, he wouldn’t wait to act or give a damn about anyone’s approval of the match. He longed for love, and in his too-small bed he felt more alone than he had in the alleyways of Caracas. Now that he was home he felt more lost than ever, but it was an inner loss. There was an emptiness inside him, an odd sense that the longer he stayed here, the more of a stranger he would be to himself.
THE NEXT DAY, HE went back to the wharf to retrieve his trunk, paying out a small fee to the custom man. He had very little money left, and that was an embarrassment as well. He would have to ask his parents for help, which would be humiliating. He had actually sold a few paintings and sketches, but most of what he earned had been spent on mere survival, food and supplies.
He was in such a hurry he barely noticed a dark-haired woman standing on the esplanade watching him, an umbrella over her head, for the day was brutal with white-hot sunlight. Then she called out his old name, Jacobo. He felt something go through him like a knife. He raised his eyes and recognized his mother. Her face was in the shadows and her expression was difficult to read. Jestine had always told him that he didn’t know Rachel Pomié Petit Pizzarro, not as she’d been, not as she truly was, or had been once. But surely if what Jestine said about her was true, she would not condemn him for his time away, which, despite his early fears about his talents, had been glorious and instructive and wild beyond his imaginings. He had bathed in rain barrels and in river water where there were enormous green fish with teeth. He had slept on beaches where luminous fleas jumped into the black, shimmering air, and in sheds that had sheltered donkeys, and in the arms of women he knew he would never see again. Yet all the while he’d been in Venezuela, he’d dreamed of rain and of snow-covered cobbled streets and of the garden behind his aunt’s house, where he would go to look at stars after Jestine’s daughter had taught him about the constellations. The stars in France were pale pink, set into patterns he’d never seen before. It was Lydia who had pointed out the Lion, and the Crab, and the Hunter whose dog followed him as he chased across the sky.
“Do you not wish to come back to St. Thomas?” he’d asked Lydia once.
“That is like asking would I wish to step off the end of the earth. This is real.” She nodded to the garden around them. “The other is merely a dream.”
He was walking through that dream right now, sweating through it. His mother was approaching on the wharf, and there was little he could do to escape her wrath. His brother had struggled for breath on his deathbed while Camille was dozing in a hammock, staring at the stars, for in Venezuela the stars were yellow and so very far away. They would have appeared unreal to Lydia, so used to the skies of Paris, but he had painted them that way, bits of gold tossed out across the night.
“This is yours, I assume?” Rachel nodded to the trunk. This time it wasn’t his father’s borrowed trunk; he’d left too quickly to pack. He’d bought this one cheaply in Caracas. Already, it was falling apart, the slats of wood having become unglued. His mother pointed and said, “Open it.”
“Here? Can’t it wait?” It had been a long journey due to weather and tides, and the funeral had been a sorrow, and then last night he’d found himself haunted by the heat and the slapping of insects against the windows.
Still his mother insisted. “I want to see what you’ve been doing for two years.”
Camille slid the latch over, then threw open the lid. There were twenty of his paintings, alongside countless sketches of the beaches where he’d set up house with Melbye, if a cooking pot and two cups could be considered home. There were drawings of the women he had been with, and several views of the harbor he most admired from a little fishing village where people called him le Français. He and Melbye both had aliases, which made them chuckle, most especially because Pizzarro wasn’t French but Creole. They were oddities wherever they went, their hands covered with paint and charcoal, two tall, gawky men who liked to drink and laugh and meet women. But Camille took his painting more and more seriously. He could barely be drawn away from his work. He used so many shades of purple and gray when painting landscapes that Melbye had laughed and called him color-blind. “Do you need glasses, my friend?” he’d said. But in the end, Fritz had become his champion. Perhaps it was his rendering of the gold stars in a painted night so black that every tree and shrub was black as well. Melbye had come to understand that his friend saw what others did not. If the bark of a tree was gray at twilight, and the foliage purple, then so be it.
“I see you did a great deal of work,” Rachel said as she examined the contents of the trunk. “If art can be said to be that.” She threw a look at her son, and he shrugged, annoyed.
“It’s a calling,” he said. “Whether or not you wish to think of it as work is entirely up to you.”
“And how do you think of it?”
She had sharp black eyes, a bird’s eyes. Nothing escaped her. Or perhaps every mother could tell when her son was being forthright. Therefore he told the truth.
“I think of it as salvation.”
Rachel had begun to lift a painting from the trunk. It was a study of a harbor, filled with ships. There was a cloudiness to it, as if the seascape had been viewed through a mist. On the day Camille had begun it, he’d worked so feverishly he’d fallen ill and still he could not stop. “I’ll take this one.” She motioned for him to close the trunk and held the painting close.
“Will you?” He laughed. “Since when do you think I can paint? You told me to put it aside. You said none of it looked right.”
“I never said you couldn’t paint. I said I didn’t want you to. Now, it’s clear it doesn’t matter what I say.”
They had begun to walk toward Dronningens Gade, up to the steps where the werewolves were said to be tricked out of catching runaway slaves when they stumbled in the place where the hundredth step should be. Camille continued to be confused. He would have expected his father to have come to help him with his luggage at the harbor, not Madame Pizzarro. He dragged the trunk behind him. His arm was aching. He was sweating through his clothes, and he knew he looked like a man for hire found at the wharf. His mother carried her painting though it was quite cumbersome. She was clearly stronger than she looked, and she took the steps as if she were still a girl. He supposed the painting was hers if she wanted it; still, he wondered what it was that made her choose it.
WHEREAS SHE KEPT THE painting of Jestine in her bedchamber, so that few had seen it, she hung the new painting in the parlor, on the wall above the settee. People noticed. How could they not? It was so unusual, a dreamscape as much as a seascape. Something quite unique, an image you couldn’t look away from. Some of Camille’s older Petit brothers had laughed at how unreal it seemed, but his eldest sister, Hannah, was entranced. When she came for a visit one afternoon she studied the painting for some time, then said, “I had no idea of what true talent you had.”
Camille, embarrassed by his sister’s attentions, thanked her, then shook his head. “I don’t know why our mother wanted it. She doesn’t like art, does she? And certainly she doesn’t like mine.”
“You’re wrong,” his sister said.
Hannah believed she could remember the day Rachel became her mother, or perhaps it was only that Rosalie had told her about that meeting so many times it was fixed in her mind. She’d been a tiny baby, but young children could recall more than people suspected. She knew that Rosalie was preparing lime chicken soup, and that Rachel had held her and called her a bluebell, then had sung her to sleep. Hannah often visited Rosalie on Sundays. She liked to hear stories not only about her two older brothers, both serious men near middle age now; and her father, Isaac; but also about her first mother, the one who refused to die until she was safely named so that Lilith would not summon her. Sometimes Rachel would read to Hannah’s children from her notebooks, stories which held them rapt with wonder.
“Our mother talks about you often,” Hannah told Camille. “You are the one in the family with talent. She goes on and on about it. Now I understand why.”
He looked at her, unsure, unable to believe that his mother spoke of him in such a light. But he saw in his sister’s eyes that it was true. Hannah insisted that he come with her for a walk. She had her youngest daughters with her, and Camille felt guilty that he could not remember their names. They found themselves at the cemetery. Camille laughed when he realized where they’d wound up.
“Is this the family tradition? To go for a ramble and always end up at the worst place on earth?”
“It’s lovely here,” Hannah insisted. She led him to the Petit grave site. The children danced and played. He could not remember their names, but one had blue eyes, and the other had a wash of freckles across her face. They wore gingham dresses, and their stockings had been rolled down. They tossed brown leaves into the air, which then rained down to the ground.
“I come here all the time with our mother,” Hannah went on. “We lay flowers on my first mother’s grave.”
Indeed, there were red flowers arranged in an earthen vase, so fresh it seemed as if they were still blooming on their branches. Both of Hannah’s daughters had come close, perhaps because they were afraid of ghosts. He hadn’t noticed that they’d slipped their hands into his, but now he did. Bees were buzzing. He was wrong and Hannah was right. This was perhaps the most beautiful place on earth. He felt tears in his eyes.
“Take this with you when you go,” Hannah said, handing him a branch of flowers. “When you run out of things to paint, this place will stay with you.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Camille said. “It’s too late for that.”
WORKING SIDE BY SIDE with his father, he had come to feel a great responsibility. His life on St. Thomas was a burden he wished he could cast off, but couldn’t. Now, with his brothers gone, it was back to the store for him. There was no other option. This time he was quiet and did his work as best he could. He paid attention. He did not sleep in the storeroom or paint when he was supposed to be at the harbor, collecting shipments sent from abroad. He dreamed of Paris, though, and in his dreams he asked Lydia if it was possible to love a place yet still want to leave it. She handed him a small telescope made of steel and brass and leather with a magnifying lens. He looked and saw the constellations—the Fish, the Crab, the Lion, the Hunter—hanging above him like a canopy in the night.
In the evenings he went walking, as his father used to when he first came to this island, as he himself had when he returned from Paris and didn’t know what to do with himself. He went along twisting roads into the hills. From high above the shore he watched the colors of the sea, how the water changed from green to pewter as the clouds went past. He went to the old fort that people said was the portal to hell, where so many slaves had arrived no one could count them all. The fort was empty now, and the stones were pitted from gunshots; some had fallen out altogether and were little more than dust. He went past Madame Halevy’s house. Someone had carefully restored the old mansion; there was a new roof, new green shutters, and in the rear there was a proper garden, with rosebushes imported from England and South Carolina. He meandered out to the countryside, to where Mrs. James lived with her daughter and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. One young man, a grandson, came out to see who was looking for his grandmother.
“I used to talk to her when she worked in town for Madame Halevy,” Camille explained. “I suppose I worked for Mrs. James as well.”
As they talked Camille discovered this fellow Roland was the older brother of the boy who had run to get Camille on the day Madame Halevy’s daughter had shown up. That boy, Richard, who had been so fast Camille and his father had struggled to keep up with him, had drowned just last summer. Everyone in the family still wore black cloth tied around their left arms in his memory. But there was a black band around Roland James’s right arm as well.
“That one’s for my grandmother,” he explained. “She died six months ago.” Roland was as tall as Camille, but better built and heavier, a baker himself, he said, just like his grandmother. He was employed at the Grand Hotel in town. On this day he was visiting his mother, who was old herself. He was a young man who had a great many responsibilities and burdens. He had always been looked upon as the man of the house, though he had older brothers and cousins, because of his sensible nature. “My grandmother was ninety-three when she died. On that day she was still talking about how she rescued a baby from drowning in the rain. She always wished she’d kept him. Was that you?”
Camille shook his head. He knew who that baby was but said nothing. With Mrs. James gone, he was the only one who knew the story of Madame Halevy’s daughter and the son she’d given birth to, then left outside the cemetery, who grew up to be Aaron Rodrigues.
“She said Madame Halevy was certain that my grandmother was an angel,” Roland went on. “That’s why she gave her everything that belonged to her. But I’m going to have to sell it all now to provide for the family. I hope nobody’s ghost is going to be upset by that.”
“Of course you should sell it,” Camille said. “It’s all old-fashioned. The dishes and the furniture should bring a good price.”
“My grandmother insisted she be buried with her two gold rings, so we honored that, though I’m sure they were worth quite a bit. They meant something to her and she said some things need to be buried with you when you go to the next world.”
NOT LONG AFTER THAT, Camille ran into Roland again, this time in a tavern beside the Grand Hotel. After that, they began to meet occasionally for a drink. He missed Fritz and their camaraderie; he was an outsider in his own community, friendless, and his own brothers surely didn’t understand him. Though he went to synagogue with his father every Friday night, he felt more comfortable with Roland. By now they realized they’d gone to the same school and had had the same teachers. They could recite the same poems in German and had memorized the same Bible stories. Their current lives were divergent however. Roland had a wife and four little children, and worked twelve-hour days at the hotel. Camille sketched Roland’s wife, Shirley, and their children. He set to work on a painting of the children chasing a donkey out by the sea road. He liked to go to their family’s house in the Savan for dinner on Sundays, when Shirley made the old recipes. She’d gotten them from Mrs. James before she died and written them all down in a book that she kept on a shelf. She made a perfect fish stew that Camille would have been happy to eat every day of his life. Roland James brought home cakes and tarts from the hotel. He was an amazing baker, far better than his grandmother had been, and his coconut cake had won several awards.
MORE AND MORE CAMILLE missed the old ladies of St. Thomas. The island seemed empty to him on many levels. Some days he did not wish to get out of bed, but he knew he couldn’t be late to the store.
“If I were you I’d go back to Paris,” Roland said to Camille one evening as he walked him partway home through the neighborhood. There were no longer any Jews living in the area; they had all moved to Synagogue Hill. People did still talk about the red-haired painter who had lived in the Savan a few years back, and how the gendarmes had come to grab him, and how he’d sprinted through the streets mostly naked in order to escape the authorities. Some people said Jenny Alek’s boy was his, for he had red hair like the painter’s.
“Listen to me, brother,” Roland went on. “Run away. I know you’re going to do it. So do it sooner rather than later. One day we won’t see you around and then someone will say, Oh, he’s gone and he’s not coming back. Sure I’ll miss you, but I’ll be happy for you as well. You should do it before something happens and you wind up married with a pack of children.”
Camille laughed. In truth, he hadn’t the money for passage. He was still living in his childhood room, going down to the wharves to collect crates when tea and spices were delivered from ships that sailed from Spain and Portugal, waiting on customers and doing his best to be polite. “All I know is that I’ll still be here tomorrow,” he told Roland.
The men shook hands good night. “I know you were good to my grandmother,” Roland said. “She always talked about the delivery boy who used to sit in the kitchen and pretend to eat dessert. She said you were the only child she ever met who didn’t like sweets. And then you helped her when that lady came from Charleston to make trouble for her. She left something for you if you ever came back. I didn’t say anything right away because I didn’t know whether or not you deserved it. I had to get to know you first.”
They’d kept on walking without realizing it and were already approaching Synagogue Hill. They sat on a bench outside of a shop that sold notions and buttons and clasps, along with lampshades.
Roland handed over a bit of cloth. Tied up inside was a gold ring.
“Madame Halevy’s ring,” Camille said, surprised. It was battered from wearing. “You said your grandmother was buried with it.”
“She was buried with one, but she left the other one for you. She told me she thought you’d come back one day and I’d know you because you would look like you needed a good meal.”
They both laughed at that. “True enough.” Camille was still skinny, with knobby wrist bones and knees.
“She said you deserved to have the ring because the three of you shared something. I thought about selling it, I almost did, but then you came by and I thought I’d better do as my grandmother said.”
Camille took the ring. His hands were huge, and the band didn’t even fit halfway down his pinkie finger, so he slipped it into the small leather bag he carried, in which there was charcoal and some scraps of paper.
“My grandmother had a way to get you to do what she wanted you to do,” Roland said thoughtfully. “I used to be wild and would climb out the window at night to go off looking for trouble, but she caught me and she scared me into being good. She told me that ghosts turned into birds and if I didn’t act right they’d swoop down and find me.”
“She didn’t say anything about werewolves?”
“The old slaveholders? She didn’t need to. I was afraid of them all on my own. It was those birds she told me about that changed me. I would stand outside and watch them at dusk and I knew I had better do as my grandmother said.”
PERHAPS MADAME HALEVY’S RING inspired him. He had stored it in his artist’s bag and often took it out to look at it. He had renounced painting upon his return to the island, for he felt he could never truly be an artist due to his situation in life, yet now his art haunted him. He returned to painting, taking what little equipment he had and venturing up to the herb man’s house whenever he could sneak off. When he first arrived and pushed open the door, some mongooses ran under the floorboards. There was a film of dirt over his murals, but he was glad they were still there. The place felt like home. The sea and stars he’d set on the walls and ceiling, the women he’d seen at work he had re-created, the palm trees, worked on leaf by leaf until all he could see was green. He set up a makeshift easel and got to work. He drew out what was inside him and painted from memory. He painted everything he saw before him in the woods, but all transformed in the way he envisioned it, in a dream, in a mist, in grays and purples and blues, realer to him than the world around him.
He worked one night through in a frenzy, painting until morning. Then he hurried home in the dew and chill, and arrived with a cough. He went to bed, and when he woke his mother was there, or perhaps he was dreaming she was there, making him sip a bitter tea made of the bark of a mahogany tree, into which she’d poured salt rather than sugar. His fever lasted two days, and in that time Rosalie came to take turns with Rachel sitting beside his bed. They were all reminded of the time when Frédéric fell ill. Rachel looked ghastly, pale and overwrought. She could not bear to lose another son, and certainly not this one. She looked through his belongings. She found a gold ring that puzzled her, for it looked like a marriage band. She wondered what she didn’t know about her son. She looked through a stack of small paintings he’d brought home and hidden in the bureau. There was a very small one of the great cathedral, Notre Dame, cloaked in fog. She took it for herself, and she wept to think of his years in Paris, and to think of him now that he had returned to her, motionless in his bed.
Rosalie knew what Rachel was feeling—she thought she loved him too much, and in doing so had turned his fate against him. But it wasn’t true. She brought Rachel a cup of tea, half filled with rum.
“Love him more, not less,” Rosalie told Rachel.
Rachel nodded and sat beside him and did not leave. She barely slept, and when she did she dozed in the chair. When Camille came swimming up from his fevered dreams, he saw Madame Halevy’s gold ring on the bedside table. His mother was there beside the bed, watching him quite carefully. Camille felt he’d been away on a far journey. His arms and legs were still weak. He had forgotten about all the fevers on the island and had sat outside painting at the hour when clouds of mosquitoes arose from the shrubbery. He struggled to raise himself on his elbows.
“Will I live?” he asked his mother.
“Do you think I would allow you to die?”
Camille laughed, or tried to, and his mother helped him settle back into his bed.
“Whose wedding band is this?” she asked, nodding to the ring on the table. For all she knew he’d been married in Venezuela; he was so secretive and kept her at arm’s length.
“It’s not a ring, it’s a story.” He was still somewhat delirious. “It belonged to Madame Halevy.”
“Then it’s a witch’s story,” his mother said.
He did laugh then. He took the ring, which felt cool in his hand. He’d lost so much weight he could slip it on his pinkie finger. “Don’t worry, Mother,” he said. “I can protect myself from witches.”
AN OLD CHILDHOOD INCIDENT was brought to mind after their discussion, one Rachel still wasn’t certain had been real. She seemed to recall a night when Madame Halevy came to the door of her parents’ house. She was wearing a black cape, for it was the rainy season and buckets were pouring down. Rachel was a small child, so perhaps she truly believed a witch had come to call. She went to her window, mesmerized. The black cape flared out around Madame so that she seemed to be floating. Rachel recited the only prayer she knew by heart. She wished her father was at home, but he was often gone in the evenings to business meetings or out with friends. It was a windy night, and the whole world shook and seemed topsy-turvy. Palm fronds swept onto the ground, fruit fell from the trees, the bats settled in the bushes, closed up like flowers that bloom only in the light. When Rachel leaned farther out her window, straining to see, she spied a bundle in their visitor’s hands. The gold rings on the witch’s finger shone a dull, pale light. Two rings, and one bundle. Inside the blanket, an infant slept. Rachel’s mother opened the door, and light spilled out from the hall. Rain splattered in through the window. Rachel held her breath.
“Le secret d’une autre,” the witch in the black coat said. She turned, and Rachel saw her face. It was Madame Halevy, her mother’s best friend, who scared her with her questions about whether or not she was a good girl.
Rachel’s mother had taken the baby in her arms. “This is a secret I’m happy to take on.”
The women had kissed each other, three times, then once more for luck. Apples fell from the tree in the courtyard, the bitter ones that Rachel was not allowed to eat. Not even the lizards braved the gusts driving across the courtyard. This strong wind came across the ocean to their shores from Africa in the rainy season. There were puddles in the courtyard, and the witch, if that was what she was, held her skirts up as she strode away empty-handed. In the morning, Rachel had a cousin who would now live with them. His name was Aaron, and the servants said he’d come to them on the wind. Rachel was near the kitchen house and overheard when Adelle followed Rachel’s mother into the courtyard to ask why this child was in their house. The puddles were drying up in the sun; the wind had disappeared. There were chickens in the yard, pecking at the grass.
“Don’t ask me how I come to have my children and I won’t ask how you come to have yours,” Rachel’s mother had said to Adelle.
The island was so small everyone believed they knew everyone else’s business, but in a place where nothing was equal, there were always secrets, even in her household, even in this room where she sat in a caned chair and watched over her son whom she finally allowed herself to love more, since he seemed fated and determined to live.
CAMILLE WAS WELL ONCE more and back at work in a matter of weeks. He did his best, and yet he seemed unable to control his true nature. He began to commit small acts of anarchy, charging the customers he knew could barely afford their provisions less than the usual price for beans and flour and bolts of cloth. When Roland’s wife, Shirley, came in, he arranged the ledgers so that it was possible to charge her nothing at all.
Mr. Enrique went to Rachel and asked if they might sit down to speak. They did so over cups chamomile tea, which was said to calm the spirit.
“Do you think this is the proper career for Jacobo?” Mr. Enrique asked, using Camille’s old, familiar name. He’d known the boy all his life after all. He’d known him before he was alive if it came to that. His own son, Carlo, now was old enough to come to the store to work every day after school. He was considered a mathematics wizard and could add long columns of figures in his head, then divide and multiply them at will without pen and paper.
“I take it you think it’s not his calling,” Rachel replied when the question of her son’s abilities were brought up.
Mr. Enrique shrugged. “We’re likely to see our children as we wish to, not as they are.”
“True,” Rachel agreed. She had been thinking more and more about the witch in the courtyard, and how her mother always sent her out to the kitchen house when Madame Halevy came to call. When Rachel complained about being cast out, her mother called her a spoiled, silly girl.
“Do you know any reason that would have caused my mother to hate me?”
Mr. Enrique pushed his teacup away, his brow furrowed. “Madame,” he said. “What a thing to ask.”
She looked into his face, and there it was. He knew something.
“Was it my character? Or my birth?”
“It was not you,” Mr. Enrique said formally. He could not have looked more uncomfortable. “And I could never speak ill of your father.”
Rachel thought this over. “Then I will ask no more questions about my parents.”
“Good. Because we are here to speak of your son, and whether commerce should continue to be his vocation. I owe the business my loyalty, as I owed it to your father.”
“Has my son done something wrong?”
“In his mind it is likely right, and perhaps it is, but it is not right for the store. He believes goods should be given freely, and that charging people who cannot afford to pay is a crime. That is a good thought, but not possible if the store is to continue. I would hate to see the business handled by someone who didn’t understand or care about such matters. And it would be a burden to him to do so.”
RACHEL WENT DOWN TO the wharf. She still liked to walk the beach alone, looking for the miracles she had written down in her notebooks. There were several of them now, and she tied them together with ribbon so she would not lose or misplace them. She drank limeade and watched the boats coming in. The tepid drink was not enough to quench her thirst. She ordered a café au lait as well, for she remembered what Adelle had taught her: hot drinks in hot weather allow the skin and soul to breathe. She had left a note for her son to meet her. He likely would have it by now. It was August, white hot. The roads were chalky, scattered with shells dropped by the gulls. That morning she had watched her husband sleep, and when he woke she told him that one part of their life was over and another had begun.
“Then it will be so,” he said without question.
“Tell me what you remember about Paris,” she said, and he did, his arms around her, as if no time had passed since the morning when he came to breakfast and saw her in her white shift, with his eyes so wide she’d laughed and felt a shiver of pleasure after she went back into her bedchamber. She knew he was hers even then. He described the garden in the house where he’d grown up, the chestnut tree, the grass that turned silver in the dark, the streetlamps that were filled with yellow light, the women in their cloaks on the way to the opera, the men in tall hats, the horses pulling carriages, as they did in Perrault’s stories, white horses whose breath came out as steam into the cold, moonlit evening.
It was the end of lunch hour, and many people were on their way home to rest during the hottest hours of the day. Soon the café would be shuttered. Rachel saw her son walking across the square. He wore a white shirt and had cut his hair. She knew he was trying to fit in and do as they wished. He walked slowly, and waved a greeting to a fellow outside the Grand Hotel whom Rachel didn’t recognize, a West Indian man who clapped him on the back as they spoke a few words. Her son spied her then and ambled over, wary. He kissed her in greeting, then sat across from her, swinging one long leg over the other. On his feet were sandals Rachel didn’t approve of. She liked proper shoes to be worn. The table was small, the chair made of wood and rush. Fortunately there was a blue awning to protect them from the sun.
“I’m not quite sure why you wished me to come here,” Camille said. He guessed Mr. Enrique had told her about the missing supplies and the way the ledger had failed to add up correctly. The waiter eyed them, wanting to go take his rest on a cot in the back room of the café. “Just a coffee,” Camille called to him.
“The family believes you’re home to take over the store,” Rachel said. “But don’t make yourself too comfortable. We both know you won’t be here long.”
“I can explain what happened,” Camille began. He stopped speaking when the coffee arrived, for the waiter glared, impatient. Camille quickly paid the tab, then resumed his conversation. It was best to be honest and be done with it. “I just can’t overcharge people.”
“You think our store overcharges?” Her glare was worse than the waiter’s.
“Not necessarily. I think any charge for certain people is too much.”
She laughed. “You realize we have expenses. We have to pay for the goods we import, a rather high price, and a business is meant so that one can make a living.”
He shrugged, not convinced of her argument. “It’s not fair the way some people have to live.”
Rachel softened then. “The world is not fair.”
“Not yet,” he said.
One had to be practical in this unfair world, but her son was a dreamer. Many young men were, but there was more to him than that. Perhaps it was best that he had such hope in the world. It would likely serve him well to have faith in the future. Rachel did not laugh, as he feared she would, but nodded in agreement.
“Yes, not yet.” She reached for an envelope she’d brought and handed it to him. “One can always have hope.”
Camille gazed at her, more puzzled than ever, then tore open the envelope he’d been handed. Inside was a ticket for passage to France and funds enough to live on for more than a year if he was careful with his money. He didn’t know what to say. He was not a man of many words, least of all words of gratitude.
“Mother,” he finally said, deeply moved by her generosity. “You understand that if I go back to Paris, I won’t return?”
“Of course I understand. Before you go, you’ll help your father in the store. Without your two brothers, he needs you now. Then, when our business affairs are more settled, you can leave.”
There was a war brewing in America, and the effects rippled down to everyone. Ships were lost, ships were commandeered, with goods meant for Charleston or New York stolen. It was perhaps the bleakest time for their business, and Rachel was glad Mr. Enrique had long ago suggested to Frédéric that they no longer own the ships themselves. If they had continued in the direction Monsieur Petit had led them, they would likely be destitute by now, accepting charity from their community instead of helping those in need, something Camille seemed to have overlooked completely. Every Sunday food was brought down to the synagogue for those who were faltering in their businesses and their lives, and Rachel was more than glad to give what she could.
They had finished their coffees, and now began to walk together. The market square was nearly empty in this, the hottest hour of the day, with white cloths thrown over the fruit and vegetable stands to protect them from the sunlight. “Just do your best not to bankrupt the store before you leave,” Rachel told her son.
“I promise to try,” Camille said. It was the very least he could do.
That was enough for her. Rachel was ready to go home. She found herself exhausted by the heat, even though she’d known such weather all her life. The birds were so weighted down by the temperature, they didn’t sing at this hour. The only birds that managed flight were the pelicans, and then only far out at sea, where there were breezes. Rachel imagined that Adelle’s spirit was out where the ocean was the exact shade of gray that it was in the painting her son had given her. The idea of the wind at sea was a delicious notion on such a hot day. The clouds would be enormous, white, like a canopy. The spray would be chill, the waves as high as the roofs of the fruit stands they now passed. As for Camille, he was imagining not the sea but the street where his aunt and uncle lived, the way the dusk sifted down like black powder. He would arrive in November, the start of his favorite time of year, when the trees were red and gold and black and the grass was silver. He would write to Fritz’s brother Anton immediately and ask if he might be taken on as one of his students in preparation for attending a serious art school.
Rachel paused to lean on a low stucco wall for support, cooling herself with a small fan that had been made from bone and silk in Spain. Her son offered his arm so that he might assist her as they walked on, but she waved him away.
“I don’t need your help, even if you do think I’m an old lady.” She began to walk on, toward home, quickening her pace. They had already begun to climb the twisting street that led to the store.
“When I used to walk with Madame Halevy, she always said the same thing.”
“That old spider?” Rachel said, her mouth pursing with distaste.
Camille grinned at her response. When he did, he so resembled his father that Rachel felt her love for him rise up inside her. More, not less.
“I’ll be able to return the favor to Jestine for sewing my new jacket,” Camille said joyfully. Now that he knew his fate was his own, he was filled with good cheer. “I’ll bring the dress she made for Lyddie to Paris.”
“There’s no need,” his mother told him.
Soon she would be in the gardens of the Tuileries, where she would astound strangers when she told them about the turtles that arose from the sea on a single night, and the blood-red flowers that had been planted by the wives of the pirates, and the flights of stairs built to protect runaway slaves from the werewolves that chased after them. She had begun to pack that morning, making certain to leave room in the crate for Camille’s paintings.
She patted her son’s arm to assure him she was ready for what came next. “Jestine and I can bring the dress. We’ll already be there when you arrive.”