The Marriage of Opposites

The Season of Rain




There was trouble brewing in America, a lawlessness that sometimes portends war. Our business was failing due to the unreliable shipping trade, particularly along the coast of South Carolina, where piracy was not only indulged but, it seemed, encouraged. Frédéric had made a promise to the ghost of my first husband to watch over his holdings, and therefore would not leave until this promise was fulfilled. I could see he was torn. He had approved my plan to finally go to France; my daughter Delphine was seriously ill in Paris, and my son Camille would soon be going there to study. There was no longer any reason for me to stay. Frédéric knew my heart’s desire had always been to leave this island. He wished to accompany me, but he was too good a man to shirk his responsibilities. Once the business was more settled, both my son and my husband would follow me to France. Mr. Enrique would then be the manager of the store, overseeing day-to-day dealings. A third of our income would belong to him; the rest would be directed to Isaac’s family. We might have paid Mr. Enrique less, but we owed him our lives. Had he not carried my father to the harbor in a wicker basket I would never have come into this world and my children would never have been born. There would have been no woman to greet Frédéric when he arrived in St. Thomas and no one to pay the herb man to save him from his fever.

As the time for my departure grew near, my husband and I were both seized with nerves. In more than thirty years we had never spent one night apart. After all this time, he was still in love with me, and each time I saw him I felt the same pulse in my throat that I’d had when I gazed out the window and saw him surrounded by bees. Frédéric was fifty-three, still so handsome that women in the market nudged each other when they spied him. I knew what they were thinking when they saw us together, for I was not remarkable in any way. What does he see in her? What spell had she used to enslave him for a lifetime? If they wanted to think I was a witch, I didn’t mind. Perhaps I was one. Perhaps I had called him to me, ensuring that he’d had no choice but to fall in love with me when he saw me in my white slip. It was the one morning I didn’t pin up my dark hair. I had chosen to stand there, half unclothed, even when I saw the desire in his eyes.

ON MY LAST DAY in St. Thomas I went back to the house where I’d grown up. As I walked through the gate my skin pricked with sadness. I expected to feel the same turmoil I’d always experienced when I thought of the sort of daughter I’d been, never good enough. But there were only spirits of the past here now, jittery, fading things that sparked through the tangle of vines. If the new owners spied me, they didn’t chase me away. They closed the shutters and left me in peace. Perhaps they’d heard rumors about me, or it was possible they saw me open my hands so that the last stirrings of those who had lived here could gather, drawn to the heat of my flesh before they scattered into dust.

I had imagined I would be distraught when I returned to the pathways of this garden; instead I felt a surprising tenderness for the landscape of my childhood. Despite the marriage of convenience my father had made for me, he had always loved me. He’d respected my intelligence and taught me the business. Because of this I’d always had a high opinion of myself, despite what others thought. True, I was arrogant, but perhaps that is not the worst trait for a woman to have. I knelt down to peer beneath the hedges for the lizard that had been my cousin’s pet, for such creatures are said to live longer than most men. All I saw were some beetles and the neatly raked earth.

On the other side of the gate, Rosalie’s son, Carlo, was cutting back hedges of oleander. He tossed me a smile when he saw me and shyly called out hello. He was at the ungainly age when he was still a boy but longed to be a man. He worked in the store on Sundays and was a good student at the Moravian School. Rosalie loved him too much, and Mr. Enrique doted upon him even more, if that was possible, but fortunately nothing bad had happened to him. Rosalie no longer believed that love brought a curse. A cruel nursemaid had been the one to suggest her own milk had drowned her first baby. “It was nonsense,” she told me. “Babies die from fever, not from love.”

Yet I continued to fear I would be punished for my unquenchable longing for Frédéric. I thought of the way God had let the rain fall down upon us on the day the Reverend wouldn’t open the door, and how I had defied them both to get what I wanted. I felt a brand of fear I hadn’t known as a younger woman, just as Madame Halevy predicted I would. We pay a price for everything, I saw that now. I walked more narrowly and thought more carefully before I acted and spoke. I knew the chaos I had brought upon my children when I refused to give up Frédéric. No one had to tell me how selfish I’d been.

I sat with Rosalie for the last time. To me, she looked nearly the same as she had on the day I met her in Monsieur Petit’s kitchen.

“I was young then!” She gave me a cup of tea and a slice of coconut cake dolloped with cream. “But not as young as you were.”

We had both made a promise to the same ghost, and because of that we’d been bound together by fate. That had been part of my good fortune.

“Let’s not say good-bye,” she said to me on my last day in St. Thomas.

I agreed it would be best not to. We both knew that I could never thank her enough. She had taught me everything about raising children when I’d become the mother of three so suddenly. Despite the fact that she’d been violated and forced into servitude, she couldn’t have been kinder to a girl who knew nothing, not even what happened when a husband came into bed. “Didn’t your mother tell you anything?” she had asked me each time she discovered how much I had to learn. Whatever I did know had been a lesson from Adelle and then only told to me in whispers to ensure that my mother couldn’t overhear.

As I was leaving I noted that Rosalie had adopted the rose tree my mother had hated. She said it was an unnatural plant, not worth the water it needed to survive, with huge pink blooms that called wasps and bees to it, but it had been on the patio of the cottage for so long, Rosalie said, who was she to let it die?

“My mother despised it even though it was a gift from my father. Likely she wanted something more.”

Rosalie shook her head, mystified by all I still had to learn. “She didn’t like it because it wasn’t for her. There was another woman in your house, and she was very pleased with this gift. Mr. Enrique has been taking care of the rose tree ever since your mother disposed of it.”

I didn’t ask any questions and she didn’t offer any answers, but we understood each other all the same. We both had come to believe that Adelle was more to my father than most of us had known, except, perhaps, for my mother. As a girl I had known the world by way of my own angry heart, and hadn’t paid attention to issues that didn’t concern me. Children were hushed and dismissed, sent to their rooms. So much the better, I’d always thought. I was immersed in my own troubles, plotting my escape. But now my memory added all I’d failed to see: the intrigue of a closed door, three petals of a fragrant rose burning in a dish in the kitchen, a woman crying, the garden gate closing so softly I hadn’t been sure whether or not I’d heard it, the redness of my father’s eyes when he came to tell me I was to be wed, the way my mother would study Jestine, as if looking for features she might recognize.

I left Rosalie before either of us could cry. I had spent more time in her company than in anyone else’s, and she in mine. I was fierce with other people, as harsh as my own mother on some occasions, but never with Rosalie. She had managed to see through me. She’d told me things other people would have been afraid to say to my face, but she never told me I was wrong to get into the bed of the young man from France. Now as we said our good-byes, she kissed me three times, then a fourth time for luck. She reminded me of her best piece of advice and suggested I would do well to listen to her.

Love more, not less.

IT WAS THE END of the season for the flamboyant trees, the glorious month of September. I wouldn’t see flowers such as these again, not unless I traveled to Madagascar. The sailors from that country had gone to great trouble to bring the original specimens across the ocean, wrapping the roots in burlap, sharing their own precious drinking water, all for a blessing on their journey. There were only a few blooms left, but I gathered enough to leave an armful of flowers on Madame Petit’s grave, and on the grave of the Reverend’s first wife, for my marriage to Frédéric had been recognized and my children’s names had been written down in the Book of Life and I believed I owed this to her ghost. I left white stones in remembrance of my sons, and my parents, and of Isaac. He’d known I’d never loved him, but that hadn’t mattered at the time. We had an agreement and we both kept to it. When I left, leaves drifted into my hair. Usually I kept them, out of respect to the spirits, but on this occasion I shook my head, letting them scatter. They came from the bay tree and were spicy with scent. Some people folded them in with their belongings when they packed for a journey, but I left them where they’d fallen.

JESTINE AND I SET off on a windy day when the sea was green. My husband held me for as long as he could, until the captain called, insisting it was time for us to leave. There was the tide to think of, and seas that grew rougher with each day that was further from summer. Jestine and I both wore black, as if in mourning for the lives we’d once led and the people we would no longer be. We noticed a pelican swooping after our ship and left fish from our dinner on the railings. We collected feathers to keep on our bureaus. But when we were far out to sea, a chill met us and the pelican disappeared. We tossed out crusts of bread and mussels taken from their shells, but there were no birds here, so far from land, only the blue light of the open sea.

We sailed northward, and soon the ocean turned dark; there were nights a scrim of ice formed on the bow of the boat. We slipped on black gloves and woolen cloaks and drank hot tea with tiny slices of lemon. There was a bushel of lemons and two barrels of limes, and out at sea they were highly prized. We were the only passengers who braved the cold on deck as twilight spread across the horizon. Our cabins were drafty and smelled of mold, and we preferred to stay where we could gaze at the stars, as we had on the nights when the turtles rose from the sea. We’d planned to be on a ship such as this one since we were ten years old. It seemed no time had passed since then, yet we were about to turn sixty. We looked in mirrors and didn’t recognize ourselves. We laughed and pointed and cried out, “Who are these old ladies?”

When the waves became so high the deck was slippery to walk upon, water sloshed below into our quarters. We needed to hold on to ropes simply to cross to the dining room. We ignored the bad weather as best we could and celebrated our birthdays together, as we always had. We ate shrimp with lime juice and drank white wine while the waves crashed against the hull of the ship. People asked if we were sisters, twins born on the same day. We were amused and said of course not, but I had always wondered about how alike we looked and now I realized other people could see it as well. I had a twinge of feeling for my mother. If Jestine had indeed been my father’s daughter, surely Madame Pomié must have known. No wonder she despised the rose tree, and Adelle, and me, for my father preferred us all to her.

There was no one left to tell us the truth, so Jestine and I shrugged off such questions. We toasted each other, then cut our birthday cake in even halves and ate every crumb. It didn’t matter what had happened on St. Thomas in the past. All that hurt and love was long ago. It was in the time of the turtles and that time was over. All along the harbor there were lights, and the turtles went elsewhere to lay their eggs. They would not return, just as Jestine and I both knew we were never going back. That was when we stopped wearing black.

DECADES HAD PASSED SINCE Lyddie had been abducted. I couldn’t understand how time could pass so slowly when we were young, and fly so quickly now. Jestine worried that after so long apart she and Lyddie wouldn’t recognize each other. She said she was now ugly and perhaps she should wear a veil so as not to frighten her daughter and grandchildren. That was nonsense and I said so. If we had been sisters, she would have been the pretty one, I would have been the one who was too smart for her own good, and too bossy. Jestine was still beautiful. Even on the ship, men had glanced at her and could not look away. She flushed, but had no interest. She might have married a dozen times during the past years—certainly there had been men who did their best to win her over, several of whom had come to me and begged me to plead their cases. Some were local men who wished to marry her; two were men of my faith who came to me secretly, certain I would favor them considering my own struggles with the congregation. One was a European businessman who insisted he would do anything to win Jestine. He was particularly ardent and had already planned her future with him: they would go back to Denmark, where no one would know her mother was a slave and she would live as a wealthy Burgher’s wife. Jestine had laughed when I told her his plan. She said she would rather know who her mother was than who he was, so he gave up and went back to Denmark without her. She turned down all of her suitors without regret. Her plan was always to be on this ship, going to Paris.

ONE NIGHT, I WAS awakened by a sound I didn’t recognize. Then I realized it had begun to rain. We were in the middle of the ocean, between worlds. It was a light rain that fell in endless silver streams, so different from the torrential storms we had on the island. From that time on, it didn’t stop. There was so much rain that the green seed of bitterness I’d always carried inside me bloomed into a flower. It wasn’t some terrible and monstrous plant, even though it had been sown from the sorrow of my mother’s disdain for me. It wasn’t at all what I expected. A white flower with pale green edges. I thought it was a moonflower, a parting gift from the original people on our island, who had wanted nothing more than to bring light wherever they walked.

Aboard the ship, my childhood came back to me as it had in Rosalie’s cottage. What had been murky was now clear as daylight. I’d come to remember nights my mother waited for my father when he didn’t come home. She would be in the parlor and I would hear her crying. I wondered where he was on those nights. At that age, I still believed in werewolves and feared he would be eaten alive. I remembered confiding in Adelle, telling her I didn’t think my father cared for my mother. She whispered back that you couldn’t force someone to love you. Either he did or he didn’t, and no spell or trick or prayer could make it so. She ran her fingers through my hair as she spoke. I loved the way her voice sounded. I’d held on to the small hope that somehow I could exchange mothers with Jestine. But when, after a disagreement with my mother, I confided in my father that I wished I could be Adelle’s daughter, he slapped me. It was the only time he did so. Never say that again, he told me.

As we neared France, I wondered if I would miss hearing the sea beneath me as I slept. Sometimes the waves were so big the ship rocked back and forth and I had to hold on to the bedpost or be shaken onto the floor. I knew there were turtles below us, perhaps even the woman in the story who had chosen their way of life over ours. I missed my husband most at night. We often shared our dreams as well as our waking life. Later, when we reunited, we discovered that during separation we had dreamed of each other. There he would be, standing on a cobblestone lane beside the Seine. There I was, casting off my black cape, wearing a white linen slip. We sat entwined on a green bench. Don’t wake up, he would say. When I did I would know he’d been dreaming of me.

WE ARRIVED IN MARSEILLE, where we spent a few days at a hotel on a bluff overlooking the cold Atlantic. We laughed at our sea legs and were greedy for fresh fruit and vegetables. We slept almost till noontime. Jestine had caught a chill on the ship and now came down with a cough. We booked an extra day at our hotel so that a local doctor could visit. He assured us that if Jestine drank hot tea with honey we could continue on to Paris. We took a train to the gleaming Gare de Lyon station, which had only just opened. My heart was pounding to have finally reached the destination I’d yearned for. It was the last few days of the Exposition Universelle, a grand event attended by over five million people since its opening in May in the Jardins des Champs-Elysées. Paris was mad with joy, crowds were everywhere, and we were quite stunned when we arrived in the station. Exiting the train was much like stepping into a storm that swirled in circles. I closed my eyes and listened to the crush around us. It was like listening to the sea. At heart, we were still two girls from an island where everyone knew everyone else. This city was a gorgeous madhouse. Jestine took my hand and pulled me along. My eyes were wide. I was taking it in. The work of Haussmann, who had been commissioned by Napoleon III to reconstruct and reorder the parks and avenues, made the city a mystery, replacing my father’s maps with a new and gorgeous vision. Everything I’d imagined was redesigned and brand new, the Rue de Rivoli completed, and a new square, Place Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, now faced the colonnade of the Louvre, as magnificent a building as there was in all the world. I was as awake as I’d ever been; I was also inside the dream I’d been dreaming my whole life long. How bright it was. How burning. I was a moth in a shabby dress, though I wore my finery. I wanted to be closer to it all, enveloped in the light.

A beautiful woman was approaching. She wore a fur-trimmed coat over a blue silk dress. When she threw up her arms to wave, I understood this was the same girl who had sat on the porch of the house built on stilts, the child who’d been lost for a lifetime.

I had given my luck to Jestine and was glad to have done so. She ran to embrace her daughter, who was soon enough joined by three lovely girls. A young boy lagged behind his mother, too shy to say hello. This was Leo, born in August and named for that month’s constellation of the Lion in the sky. Lyddie’s husband, a Monsieur Cohen, had arranged a carriage for us. Lydia came to embrace me and welcome me to Paris as well. “So you’re Camille’s mother. We would never all be together right now if it weren’t for him. He has such integrity!”

We went first to the Cohens’ apartment on the Île de la Cité. It had begun to rain again, and we rushed into the building to avoid the showers, making our way along a stone staircase with a mahogany banister. There was the echo of our footfalls. The three girls laughed and raced up ahead of us. We would have tea, Lyddie declared, then she would have her husband take me to the lodging Frédéric had leased, where my ailing daughter Delphine was already staying. The Cohens’ apartment was small, but beautifully appointed with salmon-colored divans and crystal gas lamps, belongings, I later learned, that were the only household goods Monsieur Cohen had been allowed to take from the house his family owned. They had been disavowed by the family and the community, as Frédéric and I had once been. Beyond the issue of her African heritage, Lydia was not considered a member of our faith because her true mother had not been Jewish. The Cohens had donned black armbands and the Rabbi had read the mourning prayers just as if Henri had died, for to his family he had. Should they happen to pass him in the street he would be nothing more than a ghost to his own mother, and his daughters would be strangers though they had been cherished as babies and adored as young children.

Monsieur Cohen had been employed in another bank owned by a French company. He was not in a manager’s position anymore. He did not discuss his family, nor did he see them when they suggested they meet without Lydia. I tried not to impinge on Lyddie and Jestine’s conversation, although I couldn’t help but overhear bits and pieces. From a window I saw Notre Dame. I heard bells and the sound of water running in the streets. At last, my dream had come to pass. It was almost too much for me, the sheer reality of this new life. I grew dizzy and leaned against the windowpane flecked with rain.

Jestine came to stand beside me. “They want me to stay here with them.”

“Are you sure you’ll be comfortable?”

Lyddie overheard and called out, “Of course she’ll stay here. The girls are moving into one room, and Mama will have the room with the view of the river.”

I went to see Jestine’s room. Perhaps I hoped it would not be good enough, and I would then encourage her to stay with me.

“She has to approve,” Jestine told her daughter, nodding toward me. “She’s always been the bossy one.”

True enough, but even I had nothing to complain about. Although quite small, the chamber was lovely, with moss-green silk wallpaper flocked with gold and creamy decorative woodwork. There was a high bed with many pillows in shades of jade and scarlet and a bureau on which there was a vase of pale pink peonies, clearly placed there to welcome Jestine. Iron grillwork covered the lower half of the window, and there were damask drapes in an apricot color. The Seine was right outside. I peered out at the still green water and the rain falling down. I knew this was where Jestine wanted to be.

“I approve,” I said.

I left before Lyddie opened her present, the moon dress Jestine had sewn. She had taken my mother’s necklace apart and tacked the pearls to the bodice. She’d used silk thread from China and dyes made of lavender and guava berries. That exchange was private, between mother and daughter. Jestine and I kissed each other in farewell. We had done what we’d set out to do, and we were both exhausted. Then Monsieur Cohen took me to what would now be my home. “Don’t worry about your friend,” he said to me. “She was loved before she came to Paris, and will be even more loved now that she is here.”

I thanked him for his kind help. He and I were kindred spirits after all, willing to do anything for love.

OUR APARTMENT IN PASSY on the Rue de la Pompe was too large for us, but there was no time to look for another. Delphine was extremely ill, and I hadn’t realized how serious her condition was. She was one of the twins, as we called them, for she and Emma had been born so close together they formed their own society. Delphine had been Frédéric’s favorite, a flower he called her, and he gave in to her whims whenever she wanted dogs or tamed birds. “She has a kind heart,” he always said to me. “Like yours.” I smiled when he spoke these words, knowing full well he was likely the only person on earth who thought I had a heart at all.

I hired a nurse immediately, but Delphine did not improve. I watched her sleep in a fever, fading more each day. Perhaps I hadn’t been a good enough mother to my daughters. We had company, my niece and her five children came for weekends to cheer us up, and Lydia was often a guest. But the apartment was too quiet even with visitors. I got lost in the rooms. The kitchen was vast, and my bedroom was the largest I’d ever seen, with a bed so high I was afraid I would fall off in the middle of the night without Frédéric to hold on to. I did not walk in the park or shop on the Rue de Rivoli. Haussmann’s rebuilding had demolished entire neighborhoods. I did not recognize the city, for it was brand new, and when I did venture out, I often found myself lost. When Jestine came to call we had green tea and studied the leaves in our cups to see what our children’s futures might be.

I had the best doctors come and still Delphine coughed up blood. I thought about the herb man in the countryside and the cures he had given me. None of the ingredients could be found in Paris, not even in the African markets in Montmartre, where I went with Lydia on Saturdays to search the stalls. We found nothing from our island, no flowers, no herbs. At night I heard birdsongs I didn’t recognize. I wrapped a blanket around my shoulders and gazed out the tall leaded windows while Delphine slept uneasily. In bad weather it was not possible to get warm here in Paris. Frédéric had told me that. He’d said he’d always worn socks to bed. He was never warm until he came to St. Thomas. Now it was my turn to know the chill of this city. I could feel my blood growing colder and thinner, a pale ribbon of red. The vines outside had lost their leaves, and only twisted gray stalks were left.

Being inside of a dream was beautiful and sad. I liked to hear about Jestine’s life, her mischievous grandson, Leo, who was growing taller each day. She recounted her days spent with her granddaughters, whom she brought to dance classes and then to have hot chocolate at a sweet shop across from the Tuileries. They, too, would soon be women, on to their own lives. Best of all, Jestine said, were the evenings she spent with Lydia, for after all these years apart, they simply couldn’t stop talking. On Sundays, the entire family went to the Bois de Boulogne, the huge park Monsieur Haussmann, soon to be titled Baron, had constructed, where it was said there were werewolves at night, just as there had been in Charlotte Amalie, when the old corrupt families came out of their houses to drink blood for pleasure. Jestine’s grandchildren begged for stories about our island as we had longed to hear about Paris. Sometimes she brought them to my house and they sat on the carpet, enthralled, while I read to them from my notebooks. They thought St. Thomas was a fairyland, and asked if I could collect magic and call spirits to me as their grand-mère said I could.

“That was long ago,” I told them. “In a place where such things were possible.”

I left Delphine while she slept in the late afternoons so I could go out walking. I tried to follow the routes of the maps in my father’s library, but Monsieur Haussmann had torn up the old twisted streets from the time of Perrault’s fairy tales and begun to replace them with broad, elegant avenues and plazas. I became accustomed to the new Paris and found my way. I often passed the same old lady in the nearby park, who sat with a black pug dog on her lap. The clouds were different here, so high up in the sky. I walked along the gravel paths in the park waiting for the light to turn orange as the sun began to set. I went along the river, for although some people said it wasn’t safe, I was drawn to water. I imagined the wharves and docks I had known, the waterfall with the blue fish. Sometimes I cried and my tears fell into the river. I did not wish to be old or fierce. I wanted to be a woman who took a young man into her bed after she had drawn the shades and locked the door. As the dusk settled I walked back to the apartment, stopping to buy bunches of blue flowers at the shop on the corner, where the owner and I knew each other well enough to nod a greeting. Each flower had a thousand petals. They didn’t grow in our country, but here they were everywhere, and as the weather grew colder they turned from blue to pink and then to scarlet.

I was a little less lonely when I employed several servants, two to clean and see to the laundry, and two to work in the kitchen, an old woman named Clara, and her assistant, Julie, a girl not more than twenty who had recently arrived from the countryside of Burgundy, near Dijon. I heard the girl, Julie, tell the other maid that she had never seen a Jew before, but I didn’t hold this against her. She had spent her life on a farm, and had lived simply, and had likely not seen many things in this world. The housemaids filled up the rooms with their lively conversation and with the delicious scent of their cooking. One night Julie made a chicken stuffed with chestnuts that was perhaps the most delicious dish I’d ever tasted. I remembered reading recipes to Jestine so many years ago and how hungry we were for all the food we’d never tasted. As it turned out the assistant cook was more talented than the cook in charge. She made an exceptional apple tartine and applesauce that was extraordinary. Her family had an orchard beside their house, and she had told me that she believed apples to be a gift from God. Her God, I did not say out loud, not ours. The God that chased our people into hiding, from one country to another, in the case of my husband’s family, for nearly three hundred years. I thought of the tree we had left behind in St. Thomas, the one my father had loved and Mr. Enrique now cared for, with its twisted bark and bitter fruit, our namesake. I wondered if I had cursed myself for not bringing it with us to France. Perhaps it was fate that out of all the girls I might have hired, I chose the one who could bring me apples from Dijon.

MY HUSBAND AND SON arrived in late November, in time to be with Delphine before her death. I had now lost three children. The Jewish cemetery was in Passy, where the earth was cold and hard. There were no leaves falling from the trees, no birds singing, no red flowers, only ice on the ground. We needed to hire a Rabbi and pay for mourners, for we hadn’t enough family—there had been some disagreement over the fact that Frédéric had left the business in Mr. Enrique’s hands—and we needed ten men to say the prayers for the dead. Afterward the only people who came to the funeral supper were Jestine and Lydia and her family. The very next day I had the maids burn my daughter’s linens and make up the room for my son. Jestine returned, and we locked the door of Delphine’s chamber and burned herbs in an earthenware dish, then threw open all the windows and let the spirit of my quiet, pretty daughter go. There was a horse chestnut tree just outside, leafless now, but home enough if Delphine’s ghost wished to stay.

The apartment was so big there was no reason for Camille not to live with us indefinitely. Yet he looked displeased when Frédéric told him we would pay for his studies and that Delphine’s room was to be his. He was now in his mid-twenties, a grown man who didn’t wish to do as he was told. Perhaps he believed artists must live in an alleyway or in a canvas tent in the Bois de Boulogne. He stayed in our lodgings but kept to himself. I had dinner served every evening at seven, but he never joined us. He took his meals in cafés and came home long after we were in bed. I suppose he had contempt for us and thought of us as shopkeepers. Sometimes he was covered with paint and the parlor maid had to scrub the hallway carpets after his boots left tracks of pale vermilion and violet. He’d begun to work as Anton Melbye’s assistant. This painter was the brother of the tall red demon I had chased out of St. Thomas. I’d had to pay good money to the constables in order to do so, but in the end it hadn’t mattered. My son had followed the demon to Venezuela despite my wishes. He did as he pleased then and now.

ONE EVENING I CAME home from the Cohens’ to hear my husband and son arguing. I’d never heard a conversation as heated and belligerent between the two. My husband was defending me in response to my son calling me a cold and heartless woman. I was in the front hall, well out of sight, still wearing my cape and gloves, unsure what to do next, when the young maid from the countryside brought some tea and cake into the parlor, where the argument was taking place. She walked right in, as if this was her home, not mine.

“So kind of you,” my husband said. I could tell from his tone that he was embarrassed to have a servant observe such a private encounter.

“You needn’t serve us,” my son said as the maid began to pour the tea.

“Of course I must,” she assured him. “And you must have large slices of cake.”

I think it was an apple cake, made with fruit from her family’s orchard that she’d brought back from a visit. I’d learned that her people were Catholic farmers who had a deep attachment to their land. Before coming to Passy, this girl had worked on the family farm and in their vineyards. She knew how to handle most household situations, and she clearly knew how to handle angry men. When the kitchen had flooded during a rainstorm she’d mopped up the water, then had taken it upon herself to fix the ceiling with plaster and glue. I had stumbled upon her when she was in the midst of her repairs. White dust fell as she worked away. She looked as if she were standing in a snowstorm. “It’s winter!” she called out cheerfully, and indeed I had felt something along my spine at that very moment. I suppose I had a sense of what was to come even then. Julie was eight years younger than my son, but she seemed the more mature of the two. She had capable hands and a direct gaze. I could not fault her for her work. And her apple cake was excellent. As was her timing. She had ended the disagreement between father and son.

When my son looked up to thank her, I could see that he was drawn in. He had passed her by a dozen times, but now he clearly saw her in a different light. Perhaps he saw what I did at the moment I felt the chill of recognition. The snow, the peace, the purity. She wore a black dress and a white cap. Her eyes were haint blue. She was not pretty, but she was capable and serene. When I gazed at my son I was reminded of Frédéric’s expression when he first saw me. He had seemed like a fish in a net, desperate for air, yet not wishing for any escape. This was the way such things happened, whether by accident or preordained, whether you wished for it or despaired over it, you could not look away.

After that first encounter, Camille began to search out my maid. It took time, but soon enough he was sitting with her while she cooked dinner, as he had long ago gone to Madame Halevy’s kitchen, drawn there as if it were the only place on earth worth visiting. He still wore the old witch’s ring, a single gold band. Once I spied him twisting it while he spoke to Julie. I caught sight of the glint of gold before I saw him whispering to my kitchen maid in the corridor, his hand on her waist. I did what I could to keep them apart. Julie came to me once, when I was reading.

“Did you want something?” I asked.

We looked at each other, and I knew exactly what she wanted.

“I’m sorry if I disturbed you,” she said.

“Well, you have,” I said.

If she had stayed at home, surely she would have married some farmworker who could neither read nor write, but she had come here and she had seen Paris and now my son had changed the way she looked at the world. But that did not change the way the world was. I knew that from experience.

I would not let her ruin his life.

I gave Julie days off when I knew that my son would be home from the studio. But he was defiant.

“Your plans won’t work,” he said. “And you needn’t be rude to her.”

“If she wanted to see you, she’d be here,” I said, wishing to plant a seed of doubt in his mind. I did not want to lose him to the world outside ours, and so perhaps I was rude, but it didn’t matter. When he found Julie gone, he took the train to Burgundy and set up his easel in the snow. I came to believe that Madame Halevy had cursed me, so that I would know and understand the pain of her loss. None of the servants told me when they found Julie sitting in my son’s lap in the pantry, her arms entwined around his neck. Why would they be loyal to me? I was a demanding old woman who liked my coffee hot and my husband’s clothes pressed carefully. They were young and in love. I suspected that Julie smelled of apples, for I found several cores in her apron one day. The black seeds fell onto the carpet and I could not find them, even when I got onto my hands and knees to search.

That was when I knew. I should never have hired her.


As Jacob waited seven years for Rachel, my son waited seven years for our kitchen maid. At first I argued with him, but my entreaties had no effect. I was honest with him, as I believe a mother should be. We sat in my chamber, where I had hung the painting of Jestine and the tiny painting of the Cathedral. He was painting more all the time, but I adored these two early works. That did not mean I would give in to my son, though he was now considered a fine artist by many of his peers, not that their respect paid his bills.

“There is nothing you can say against her that will change my mind,” Camille said.

His hands were rough, his clothes unwashed, but he had gracious manners, likely inherited from his father, who had never lost his French elegance.

“She’s uneducated,” I said.

“As were you,” he shot back at me.

“I was my father’s student,” I informed him.

“She’ll be mine,” Camille said.

He crossed his long legs. He looked out of place in our chamber. His clothes were paint-smeared, but I dared not reprimand him for this.

“Our people have struggled in order to survive, that is why we band together and why it is a sin to marry outside our faith.”

He laughed then and shook his head. “You’re not serious. Do you dare to tell me about the rules of marriage? Was I not the one who went to the Moravian School? Who had no bar mitzvah? Who was an outcast from my own people? All because of you. You did as you pleased.”

“But your father was of our faith. In the eyes of God we did the right thing.”

Camille stood then, sick of arguing and sick at heart.

“You loved him and that was that. So please don’t tell me to do otherwise.”

There was the dull thud of recognition when I realized how pigheaded my son was. Tell him no, and he was bound to do what was forbidden. He had never viewed the world the way others did, and that was more true now than ever. We continued to support him, paying the rent for a studio and then, when he moved out of our apartment, also for lodgings on the far side of the city. I felt the old bitterness inside me, twisting through my heart, the distance between a mother and a child that I now knew from both sides. When I passed by the mirror in the corridor, I sometimes thought it was my mother’s image I spied, not mine. This was her revenge. Everything I had done to her, my son now did to me.

We had made the right decision to leave St. Thomas, for the War Between the States was raging. South Carolina, where much of the trade had been, had been the first state to secede after Lincoln was elected, and no ships were safe. The Emancipation Proclamation declared that as of January 1, 1863, all slaves would be freed, but the bloody business of freedom took a toll, as it had on our islands. We read about the horrors, and were grateful to be in Paris, where the only war was in our family.

Camille came and asked for our approval to marry my maid, admitting that Julie had become pregnant. We denounced their union, for we were reminded of ourselves and we did not wish the same troubles on our son that we had experienced. Then the baby was lost. After that I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror. Who would I find there? I wondered if every girl grew up to be a stranger to herself. What would I have thought of myself if I could go back and meet face-to-face with the headstrong young woman I once was, pounding on the Reverend’s door, eyes shining, convinced that love was the only thing that mattered?

Camille still wished to marry Julie, even though she was Catholic and uneducated, a farm girl who knew when an apple was ripe but had never met a Jew before her employment in our home. To marry outside our faith was unacceptable. I wondered if my mother’s ghost was whispering in my son’s ear, urging him to defy me just to be vindictive, or if he was still under the influence of that witch, Madame Halevy, who first turned him against me. He did not believe in our faith or our God or in any God it seemed. He had declared that his only faith was in nature: a leaf, a flower, a woman with blue eyes whose soul was as quiet as snow. He was an anarchist and a leader of his fellow painters, all outsiders who were not wed to the old-fashioned forms of realism, all of whom looked up to him. When I saw him now, his coat flaring out behind him, his tall, awkward form lurching down the cobbled streets, he seemed like an angel who had lost his way and was plummeting into the darkness. At last I understood what my mother had told me. I would only understand her grief when my child caused me my own.

Our son was too much of a rebel to work within any academie, and soon left his position with Melbye. He studied with the master landscape painter Corot, with whom he journeyed out of Paris, declaring that the countryside was an antidote to all that poisoned our society. He grew more radical, faithful to the best interests of the workingman. He was already an outcast among the establishment and had been rejected from the exhibition by the Salon. The established painters did not care for his work, or his politics. But the Emperor Napoleon III had surprised everyone by setting up an alternative gallery, the Salon des Refusés, for new artists such as Monet and Cézanne and Manet and the American painter Whistler, and of course Pizzarro, respected and loved by this group of radical artists. I did not understand my son as a man, but I had come to understand there was a vision other than the one we had known. After living with his art in my own chamber, I saw there was more than mere mimicry, and that art was a world unto itself, with its own symbols and language. A leaf seen in a certain light might be gray or violet as well as purple, and a latticework of twigs might easily turn red as the sky paled above the city.

One afternoon I discovered a painting left in our vestibule. I saw the wet footprints of oversize shoes on the black and white tiles. The portrait was of a woman beneath a flowering fruit tree, a basket of apples beside her. This was a gift to me, an entreaty to accept his choice. Had I not wanted the very same thing, enough to stand in the rain, to defy everyone and everything, to love whom I wished to rather than whom I was told I must? I felt the sting of pride. Even I could tell it was a great work of art. Of course I recognized the model as Julie. I brought the painting inside and stored it in the wardrobe behind the winter coats.

THEIR SON WAS BORN on February 20. I did not visit the new baby, born without benefit of marriage. On my behalf, Jestine and Lydia brought presents to the countryside, where the couple was now residing. We had shopped together for blankets, quilts, baby sweaters, and britches. On the evening when these gifts were delivered, Frédéric and I went to sit in a café. We knew it was wrong not to be with our own son and grandson, and yet here we were. Though it was chilly, we found a table outside and ordered hot tea and rum. Since leaving St. Thomas I had acquired a taste not only for rum but for molasses, which I spooned onto my toast in the morning. I had begun to want the things I had thought little of when I was young. Sometimes I longed for the brilliant sunlight I had always despised. It was already dusk, and Lydia and Jestine were probably on the train home. My new kitchen maid had likely made a wonderful dinner, perhaps a savory chicken stuffed with chestnuts. The air was silver and the evening was made bright by the ice on the ground and a light falling snow. We did not hurry despite the weather. I didn’t complain though my face smarted with the cold. My husband wore a felt hat and the black coat that had been his first purchase upon arriving home in France. I could hear the wood pigeons in the plane trees nearby fluttering from branch to branch, trying to keep warm. I looked up and saw three birds perched above us. I knew that sorrow came in threes and I feared that number. I told my husband we should leave for home, but he held on to my hand. When I’d first looked out the window on the day he arrived, I had expected to be confronted with an enemy. Instead I saw his heart beneath his shirt. I heard it beating.

“Perhaps we should accept the situation,” he said as we walked home through the dark. “The world is changing.”

“Not fast enough,” I said.

“Then let us be among those who hope that the future will be less cruel than the past.”

That night I tried on the earrings my mother had brought to St. Thomas in the hem of her skirt. I could barely see my reflection in the cold hallway. At that moment, I was so flooded with doubt I might have agreed with those who thought I was a witch with the power to commit the foulest of deeds. I thought Frédéric was already in bed, but he saw me peering into the silvered mirror. He came to circle his arms around me, and in the dark he told me that he knew the truth about me as no one else ever would. The woman who had saved his life with a kiss.


That year Lydia’s daughter Leah was to wed a doctor from Senegal, a man named Joseph Hady, whom she had met through my own doctor, Dr. Paul Gachet, for both doctors’ practices included natural elements along with traditional cures. Leah and Dr. Hady were already living together in an apartment in Montmartre. I thought there might be a scandal, for although Leah was of mixed race, she was considered European by anyone who saw her because of her pale skin and gray eyes. But Montmartre was an accepting place, and no one paid attention to the actions of this couple; clearly Paris wasn’t bound by the rules of St. Thomas. The Cohens had already been shunned by their family, none of whom attended the wedding. I brought the bride and groom a gift of crystal glasses along with a bottle of rum from our island. Dr. Hady had been treating Frédéric, who had fallen ill with a sort of wasting disease. For several months, my husband had difficulty eating, and the doctor often came to our apartment. He recommended no alcohol, no dairy, and no wheat. Still there had been little improvement. Dr. Hady checked in on him at the wedding reception, as Frédéric sat at the table, drinking hot tea with lemon.

“Does he complain about pain?” the doctor asked when he came to greet me.

“Never,” I said.

“Well, then, that is the sort of man he is,” the doctor said with clear appreciation of my husband. I realized then he meant the pain was excruciating, and that another man would not have been able to do any more than lie in bed. Dr. Hady spoke to me about looking for a studio to rent for Leah, for she was an accomplished watercolorist. I had two of her paintings in my bedchamber, lovely images of the new, broad avenues in the city. Perhaps the doctor imagined I had insights into the art world, for my son was so well known, but the most I could offer was the suggestion that she use one of the rooms in my large apartment.

“Oh, I think she wants her very own place,” the doctor said, though he thanked me for the invitation. He then asked about St. Thomas, a place he’d always wanted to visit, for he and Leah planned to travel after their marriage. The doctor was a tall, handsome man, very dark, with liquid eyes. In the St. Thomas of my childhood he and I would never have been sitting at the same table. In the United States he would be a soldier or a slave not a highly regarded doctor marrying my dear friend’s daughter. I recommended Malta as a possible destination, or perhaps the south of France.

There was music playing, and Leah signaled for her new husband to join her on the dance floor. “If you’ll pardon me.” He excused himself graciously. “There is my beautiful wife.”

She was indeed the most beautiful of the three sisters. Often when I spied her it was as though I were looking back in time, seeing Jestine at the same age. In the marriage hall, the ceiling had been strung with dozens of lanterns that floated like fireflies. At every table there were vases of delphiniums and lilies and hyacinth and lilacs, all flowers we hadn’t known on our island. I had often gone through botanical books in my father’s library and cut out the illustrations of flowers that grew in France so I might paste them in my journal. They were far more beautiful than I had imagined. I took a hyacinth to carry in my cloak. I sat beside my old friend in her place of honor, at the marriage table.

“You’re not worried anymore?” I’d asked her, for we had talked at length about the consequences of Leah marrying a man from Senegal.

“It will do me no good to worry,” Jestine said. “Perhaps we should both be thankful that anyone manages to find love.”

“Perhaps.” I wished not to discuss this issue any further, for I knew my friend’s meaning to be that I would do well to reconsider my disapproval of my son’s choice. I often thought of my kitchen maid’s apple cake, of her tarts that were so perfect, and how when she first came into my house I had felt a chill, as if she brought the future with her, clinging to her clothes.

There would be dancing into the early hours, and because we considered ourselves to be too old for such things, we left early. Our carriage took Jestine home first, and Frédéric waited, a blanket over his knees, while I accompanied my friend into the empty house, helping her to carry several baskets of flowers. The cold, purple air smelled of hyacinths. We went inside, then up to the parlor, where I waited while Jestine lit the lamps and saw to the fire. The rooms were chilly, and we kept our cloaks on while the flames took. It had been a glorious wedding, and we were both teary-eyed. I went to the window to check on the carriage. I do not know what made me do this—a surge of worry perhaps. I could see Frédéric in his black wool coat and black hat waiting for me, the plaid blanket warming him against the night air. I loved him too much, beyond all measure, so much that I was willing to ruin both my own life and the lives of my children. It was then, while I gazed at the scene before me, that I saw three crows in the tree outside the window. They were silent, unmoving, as the bats in our garden were so long ago, easily mistaken for dark, sinister leaves. I panicked. I let out a cry that didn’t sound human. The hyacinth I’d taken from the wedding party fell from beneath my cloak. I knew from Adelle what such a sign portended. All sorrows came in threes, and black birds meant death. Jestine rushed over and threw open the window. She waved her scarf and shouted out curses and the birds took flight, screaming as they heaved themselves above the stone rooftops.

“It means nothing,” she said. “Do you understand me?”

I nodded and said good night, then hurried down the cold stairs. I didn’t argue with her. But I knew she was wrong.

THE NEXT MORNING THE light was dim, mauve-colored. The city had seemed darker for weeks, as if the war in America had sifted across the water to us. People dressed in black, fretted over the future, stocked their pantries in case war should come to us as well. There were no birds singing, I noticed that first. Frédéric awoke and said he was dreaming about rain, as he had when he first came to St. Thomas. When I touched his forehead, he was burning up. My husband’s illness, the one I thought the herb man had cured, seemed to have returned. He appeared disoriented. When I spoke to him there was only a flicker of a response.

Doctor Hady came and, after an examination, said my husband’s heart and lungs were weak and that there was a mass of some sort inside his abdomen. Frédéric was only sixty-three, but the disease of his youth had come back to haunt him and a new disease had formed in his gut because he was so run down. The raw planes of his face were shadowed blue, as if he’d been bruised. I saw faint sparks around him in the dark, the spirits of those who had passed on gathering close by, waiting. After all this time, the ghosts had come back to me, unbidden and unwanted. I wept when my husband began to mutter, his words a dark tangle of pain. And then he took a breath and said that he could see the lavender growing in his parents’ garden. He laughed, delighted. There were dozens of bees, and fields of purple, and he was so young he grinned to think of all that was before him, his whole long life. He began to talk to people I didn’t recognize, the dead uncles and aunts he’d seen on trips to Bordeaux when he was just a boy. “May I have some water?” he asked me in a sweet voice. He winced when he attempted to sit up, though there were three pillows beneath him. I felt him slipping away to a world beyond my grasp.

I knew that at the end of their lives many people went backward, searching for the moment when they first glimpsed the light of our world. I got into bed beside Frédéric. The doctor had been and gone. My husband was too weak to lift his head. Still, I trusted the soothing tea that Dr. Gachet and Dr. Hady recommended, to fortify his spirit and his strength.

Yet he grew weaker. One night he didn’t know me. He called me Mademoiselle and said he was lost. I sent for Dr. Hady in the middle of the night, and he came right away, even though the weather was dreadful. The doctor clapped the snow from his coat in the hallway. I greeted him and took his scarf and gloves. “Terrible night,” he said.

He then asked me to boil water.

“For what?” I asked, concerned. I could not imagine Frédéric would have the strength for any sort of surgery if that was what was being proposed.

“For tea,” he told me. He handed me a packet that looked familiar, reddish peels of tree bark and some spices and herbs. I thought it might be the cure the herb man had given me years ago when Jestine and I saved Frédéric’s life.

I had forgotten my shoes, and the kitchen floor was freezing. None of the servants were there, for it was a holiday weekend. I fixed the tea and brought it down the corridor. Everything was silent. My footsteps, the snow sifting down, the empty streets. There was a clock in the parlor, and I could hear it as if it were a beating heart. When I neared the bedchamber I heard Dr. Hady’s voice. “Does your chest ache when you breathe?”

“There are birds outside the window,” Frédéric said.

Dr. Hady went to pull back the curtains. Flakes of snow hit against the glass and stuck in patterns that looked like clouds. Snow was wedged to the branches of the plane trees that lined our street. “There are no birds,” he said.

But from where I stood I saw the three blackbirds.

I went to the window and opened it, even though the wind came through and snow dotted the floor. I shouted at the birds and gestured with my arms, until Dr. Hady pulled me back and closed the window. I sat in a chair shivering while he drew the curtains.

I took the tea to Frédéric, but he waved it away.

“Darling,” he said. He recognized me. “You see them out there, don’t you?”

“Perhaps the yellow fever he had after arriving in St. Thomas damaged his liver and spleen,” Dr. Hady told me when we went into the hall. The doctor said he’d given my husband quinine, made from the bark of a tree from South America, which had not been freely available when Frédéric was a young man. For this medicine to be effective, however, it needed to be given immediately after the illness became present, not years later. And then there was the growth in his abdomen, perhaps a cancer of the stomach. It was too late to remove any tissue for study, for Frédéric was too weak for anything so invasive. The doctor told me to keep my husband cool when the fever came and have him drink the tea every hour. He refused to accept a fee. “You are family to us,” he said. “I am here whenever you need me.”

I SOON REALIZED THAT the doctor’s tea was a narcotic of some sort, not meant to cure but to ease the process of dying. My husband’s lean, strong body and his fluid energy had disappeared. He faltered more every hour. Still there was a gleam of response when I got into bed beside him. We twined around each other, and I breathed into his mouth so that my soul might strengthen his, but it did no good. I wept for the young man in my kitchen, his fine features, his eyes elusive, as if he feared to look at me. But he did look, and now he opened his eyes. He still knew me. No one else had known me as he had.

It took three days. Jestine or Lyddie came to sit with me. The fevers grew worse, and the chills were so terrible nothing I did seemed to warm him. On the third day, I sent for Camille. He came immediately, smelling of snow and paint. He was thinner than before, his beard longer, his clothes fitting for a peasant. I made no mention of any of this and allowed him to kiss me three times. He had brought a handful of hyacinth, the same flower I’d had with me when I knew my husband would die. They were deep purple and smelled of both spring and snow.

“You should have called for me sooner.” My son threw off his coat and went to stand at the foot of the bed. He called to his father, but Frédéric seemed very far away and he would not respond.

“Is this the end, then?” Camille asked me. I could see how shaken he was. “Is there no hope?”

“There is always hope,” Adelle had told me so long ago, when I was so unhappy with my life, after I married the first time. Much to my surprise, it had turned out to be true. Now it was a lie, but I could not tell my son otherwise.

Frédéric slept in the grip of his fever, his breathing labored. The sound of him straining for air reminded me of the sound of the wind that came across the sea from Africa before the rains began. I hadn’t changed my clothes in days, or washed, or had a meal, or left the room. Perhaps Camille noticed my distress, for his expression changed. He pulled over a chair and sat next to me.

“Did you know that Father and I once went to a waterfall and threw off our clothes and dove in together? He told me if I held out my hands little fish would come to me, and they did. It was near this same place I once found a skeleton, nearly hidden by the tall grass.”

“I know that place.” I was glad to envision it, the pool I had passed on the way to the herb man, whose death my son had foreseen when he was just an infant who refused to sleep.

“We went swimming the day we chased off Madame Halevy’s daughter.”

I looked at Camille, surprised to hear this. I hadn’t known my husband had been a party to that. It made me love him even more.

“I’ve kept Madame’s ring to remind me of that day. I’ve kept her story secret for her, but there’s no real cause to do so anymore.”

I nodded. “She was a great one for secrets.”

“She told me that your cousin Aaron was her grandson. Her daughter abandoned him because the father was African.”

“I think you’re wrong,” I told him, yet I remembered Madame Halevy at the door, late one night, when I thought she was a witch standing in our courtyard.

“Your mother had lost a son, and so the two made a pact. Your mother would raise the child in our faith and no one would ever know the truth about Madame Halevy’s daughter. When he fell in love with Jestine, they told him he mustn’t marry her; such a marriage would only bring his origins into question. These two ladies were the ones who thought it best for Lydia to be raised in France, where she would be considered a member of our faith. They were the ones who arranged for her to be taken. They thought they were doing the right thing for all concerned, but they were not.”

My son tugged off Madame Halevy’s ring. He’d worn it for so long it had left an indentation in his flesh. When he took my hand in his, his palm was as rough as any workingman’s. He seemed older than his years because of his long beard. He painted in the fresh, cold air, and his complexion was weather-beaten. I thought of how I’d carried him through the woods when he couldn’t sleep. How he was the only one of my babies I had told my stories to. I’d loved him too much even then. I saw Frédéric in him, his lanky, dignified posture, his resolve to do the right thing, his strong features.

“I had pity for Madame Halevy,” he told me. “That was the world she lived in, but it isn’t ours. Give the ring to Jestine. Tell her Aaron Rodrigues wanted her to have it. He just never had the chance to give it to her.”

My son sat with me through the night. When morning came the bright streaks of daylight were haint blue, but in this country that color couldn’t keep ghosts away. My husband died that day at noon. It might as well have been midnight, for the heavy damask drapes were drawn and the room was pitch. I did not want to look out and see Paris, the city of my beloved’s death. The world was silenced by snow, but in the dark I could imagine vines of cloudy pink bougainvillea and bees rumbling through the blossoms and the young man blinking back sunlight as he stared into my window.

His last words to me were I am no longer with you.

I did my best to tear down the curtain between death and the living world, to ensure that light and breath would enter into my husband once more. I breathed into his mouth and pounded on his chest. I called to him, but he didn’t return. He was gone from me.

There was a small service at the cemetery. Camille was there with my kitchen maid and their little boy. When it came time to move the coffin into the ground, I would not allow it. There were wood doves nesting nearby, and they all took flight when I began to scream. We had hired a Rabbi, an old man who wore a broad, black-brimmed hat and said the mourning prayers for a fee. When I could not be held away from the casket, he retreated as if I were Lilith herself, the witch who came for unnamed babies and never let them go. She had talons at the ends of her fingers and a thousand golden rings, all sacrifices from women who had tried to bribe her. But no payment would do. I held on to the coffin and banged on it. I heard an echo and thought my husband had been brought back to life by a miracle. I was not one to give up easily, no matter who my enemy might be, even death. I heard my son’s voice then as his strong arms pulled me back. He is gone and all we have is this world, here and now.

FOR SEVERAL WEEKS AFTERWARD I did not leave my room. I took the laudanum that was prescribed to me, ten drops at a time and then twenty. When that was not enough I had the coachman bring me more, from where I did not ask. I slept all day and night for good reason. In my dreams I could go back in time. That was what I wanted. The place I’d always hated, I longed for desperately now. Every night I dreamed of sitting in the kitchen while Adelle fixed our lunch. I was out in the yard where the chickens came to me when I clucked at them. There were green moths at my window and red flowers in a vase. I was wearing a white slip made of cotton and the sunlight was blinding. I could not open my eyes because of it. There were parrots in the trees, a sign of luck, the luck I had given away. A man was walking through the door and my heart was so loud I couldn’t hear anything else.

Jestine came and insisted upon opening the drapes. A dim light fell in bands across the room, but I protested even that. I did not wish to see the world, or step into it, or know it without Frédéric. We were one person, or so it had been, and now without him, I was nothing. A girl who was waiting for her life to change. An old woman who cared about nothing but what she had lost.

Camille came to see me, but I kept my back to him. He found my blue notebook in my bureau and began to read to me during his visits. He told me about a donkey with the name of a Frenchman whom I loved so well I gave him bread mixed with milk for breakfast, and of an apple tree that never grew any bigger, and a bird that flew around the world searching for love. He added stories of his own, of an old lady who rescued a baby from drowning in the rain, of people who were in love, but kept apart. He brought colored pencils and illustrated my stories, and sometimes when he left, I would study them. I cried when I saw how beautiful our world had been as seen through my son’s eyes, and my tears brought me back to life.

Jestine made me fongee and insisted I eat. She then brought out my black mourning dress, the one I’d packed in St. Thomas and had worn to every funeral except my husband’s. On that day I’d refused to wear anything more than a white slip under his long black coat. Jestine pressed the mourning dress with lavender water, then she combed my hair. Nothing had turned out as we thought it would. I gave Jestine the gold ring that should have been her wedding band. “From Aaron,” I said. “Since you were the one he loved.”

We had grown up in a world rimmed with hurt, where a lie was easier to tell than the truth. Later that day, I heard Jestine crying in the garden. It was cold and there were no birds, only the sound of her immense sorrow. What we had lost, we could never regain. I sat in the parlor and when Jestine came inside she no longer had the ring. She had buried it under a rosebush, using her bare hands to dig deeply enough. Every day as the weather grew warmer we sat on wicker chairs and watched the leaves greening. In April the war in the states was over, and there was a great celebration in our city, but then the news came that Lincoln had been shot on April 14. Black banners and buntings were hung on houses and shops. By the end of the month, the buds that appeared on the rosebushes were white. They were Alba roses, but we called them roses de neige. Snow roses. We told each other that when they bloomed our hearts would be mended. But on the first of May, when the roses opened, they were red, and we still carried our pain. We then understood we would carry it forever. We had planned to cut the roses when they bloomed, and keep them in vases, but we left them. They reminded us of the gardens in St. Thomas. Just as I suspected, a thousand bees appeared one day and drank their fill.

LATER THAT MONTH I received a card from my son announcing that he and Julie had had another child, a daughter born on May 13, whom they had named Jeanne-Rachel. Jeanne for Julie’s mother. Rachel after me. I had done many things that I regretted, and I had all but lost my son, just as Jestine had predicted. So I took his naming of the baby to be a message to me. I thought about the first Madame Petit, who had refused to die until her baby was named. What you are called marks you and makes you who you are. Despite my disagreements with the parents, I put aside my bitterness. This baby was mine.

When Jestine suggested we go to see my namesake, having figured out how I might avoid the mother, I quickly agreed. My friend had persuaded Lydia and Henri Cohen to invite my son and Julie to lunch, to discuss financial matters, for I had placed Henri in charge of my finances. I still supported my son’s family, so he agreed to this appointment. On that same day, Jestine and I took the train from Paris to the railway crossing at Les Pâtis, near Pontoise. Then we walked, for my son and his family lived in a farmhouse outside of town. We took a beautiful old looping road bordered by purple blooms scattered through the tall grass. I realized it was lavender, which I took to be a good sign. I was wearing black boots with buttons that made for good walking shoes and my black mourning dress and also Frédéric’s black woolen coat, even though the day was unseasonably warm. I did not imagine I would ever wear another color. As we approached the farmhouse I fell silent. Jestine understood that I was nervous. The sky was dull and the clouds were low. We held hands so we wouldn’t stumble on the muddy road.

As we neared the house we noticed there were chickens running free in the yard.

Jestine laughed. “Don’t kill anything,” she warned me.

“I’m too old,” I informed her.

“Don’t be silly. Old women are the fiercest ones of all.”

We chuckled as we traipsed along, our skirts dragging. Madame Halevy had told me I wouldn’t begin to understand the world until I was her age. Witches are made, not born. That was what she’d whispered to me on the night my son brought us to her house for dinner. Remember that, she’d said before I left. Remember me.

We knocked on the back door as if we were expected guests, and ignored the protests of the kitchen maid, who was startled to find two old ladies calling and did her best to put us off. We said we were too tired to be turned away, and demanded tea before the poor woman could question us about our intentions. When steaming mugs of tea and small lemon tarts had been offered and accepted, the maid explained that her employers and their little boy had gone to Paris for the day. She didn’t have the authority to entertain guests and might find herself in trouble if her mistress discovered she’d allowed strangers into the house. I threw Jestine a knowing look. The original kitchen maid was now an employer with a long list of dos and don’ts. We assured the maid we were well meaning, there to see the new member of the family, and that we had traveled too far to turn heel and leave.

Now that we were inside, I took the opportunity to evaluate my son’s situation. The house was rough hewn, but not without charm. A good thing, since I was paying for it. My son the anarchist had no trouble letting the money from our family business pay his bills. When the maid had been convinced we were harmless, we were brought into the parlor, where lovely lace curtains had been hung over the windows There was the baby in the cradle.

“Do they call her Rachel or Jeanne?” I asked the maid. I hoped it wasn’t Jeanne, the name of her other grandmother, the one who tended orchards near Dijon and likely plucked chickens each evening for a stew.

“They call her Minette.”

I was pleased to hear this. It was a pet name for a little cat. They could call her whatever they wanted as long as they didn’t call her Jeanne. As far as I was concerned, her name was Rachel.

I wished either Jestine or I could have remembered the words Adelle recited to protect a child from harm, but neither of us could recall her prayer. I wished Frédéric had been beside me. I still talked to him inside my head, and so I told him now how happy this visit had made me. My namesake was a beautiful child, with dark eyes. I believe she recognized me when I stood over her cradle. I told her about the butterflies who created a second moon of light, and of blue birds as tall as people, and of a woman who swam away from the cruelties of humankind. I’d brought a gift for her, my mother’s diamond earrings. I left them on a tray beside my son’s easel with a brief note—de Rachel à Rachel, From Rachel to Rachel. Most likely he would think the jewels wasteful, silly extravagant things, and would sell them in order to pay his bills. Perhaps that was what they had been meant for all along when my mother sewed them into the hem of her dress.

I’d brought a gift for the household as well, a basket of apples. But as we left the house I noticed there was an orchard just beside the house. We picked apples to eat on the train ride home. The light was deep and gray and the fields were purple, exactly as my son painted them.

NOT LONG AFTERWARD I moved to smaller lodgings, in the Ninth Arrondissement. Our apartment had always been too large, and I had found myself going from room to room as if searching for my husband. My new lodging happened to be close to my son’s studio and an apartment he rented for the nights he spent in Paris, while the mother of his children cared for their home. The children came to me on Thursdays. I marked that day of the week on my calendar with a star. Camille carried the baby and held the little boy by the hand. He reminded me so much of Frédéric, for he had the same sort of tenderness with his children.

“They’re not too much for you?” Camille asked. He called the darling little boy Marmotte, sleepyhead, the same name I had used for him. “They won’t tire you?”

“Do you think I’m ancient?” I said.

“I do,” the little boy said. “A hundred years old. You’re a very old goat.”

I laughed despite myself. I liked a boy who broke the rules. “Did you teach him to be so polite?” I asked my son. “Or maybe your mother told you I was a goat,” I said to my grandson, who laughed and hid behind his father, peeping out every now and then with a grin on his face.

“Be nice to your grandmother.” Camille leaned down to kiss the little boy on his head. “They adore coming here,” he told me.

“Why shouldn’t they?” I said.

Camille laughed and kissed me three times, as we used to do on St. Thomas. “Don’t let them tire you out.”

My son left the children early in the morning, and returned after his day of work at his studio. I assume their mother appreciated a day to see to her bustling household without the children underfoot. She didn’t mind the old goat when it came to caring for them. So much the better. I liked to sit with them in the parlor in the afternoons and tell them stories. I took out my blue notebooks, which I had stored away for so long. My darling granddaughter was only a baby, but my grandson listened to every word I told him, eyes wide. I told him about the werewolves who couldn’t count to a hundred, about fish who could become horses on dry land, about a donkey named Jean-François who could speak.

“No he couldn’t,” my grandson responded with certainty. “Donkeys don’t talk. We have one. My mother says feed a donkey hay and he’ll be happy.”

I shrugged. “Maybe that’s true in France. In St. Thomas, donkeys talk.”

“In English?” he asked. I saw that I had won him over, despite what his mother had told him. That gave me hope for the future.

“In French,” I informed him.

My grandson nodded, pleased. This made sense to him. He was a charming, practical boy. He took his nap very well, my Marmotte, and lay down on my settee so I could cover him with a green silk blanket. “I’m in the ocean,” he said to me.

“Swim into your dreams,” I said, as I dimmed the light.

When my pretty little namesake fussed, I lay down on the bed beside her. She was not a good sleeper, but she was a good listener, with lovely dark eyes and a mouth like a rose. I told her the story about the woman who lived with the turtles, the one who had followed me across the sea, just under the ship. All across the ocean she had slept with her long, pale arms wrapped around the anchor, she ate fish and clams, she avoided sunlight, and swam just below the surface of the waves. She came near when she heard music on board from a string quartet that was traveling to Paris. She came even closer when the captain displayed his art collection of watercolors in shades of apricot and rose and yellow, all human colors that she could never find at sea. One day a passenger’s dress was missing, and that evening I spied a skirt floating in the water, a silky thing that rose and fell with the tides. The woman who lived with turtles could not make the choice between our worlds, and at night I saw a hundred of her companions floating farther out in the ocean, their green shells like stepping-stones.

The baby was often asleep on my bed when her father came for the children at the close of the day. He said it was a wonder how well his daughter slumbered when she was in my care. I told him that babies needed to sleep in order to dream. I believe my namesake dreamed of a thousand small miracles and that she dreamed of the turtle-woman from our homeland. When he arrived for the children, my son smelled of turpentine; he couldn’t wash it away. He was considered to be famous now, although still a radical, and the other radicals who admired him wished to have his paintings for free. Every month I wrote him a check, just as I’d always done. Not that he was a spendthrift. Far from it. He wore old clothes that hung on his thin frame and favored boots with restitched soles. He’d rather eat an apple than have an expensive meal in a café. More than anything he was a family man. He was a good father and a good husband. He was intent on marrying my kitchen maid, but he still wanted my blessings. I understood. I’d wanted the same thing myself. Perhaps that was why he allowed me to spend so much time with the children, or perhaps it was simply because he could see my deep love for them. For now, I would let them wait for my approval, but eventually I would have to give in for the sake of these darling children. I gave them fongee porridge for dinner every Thursday. I had hired a cook from St. Thomas named Annabeth, who remembered all the old recipes; she could even make a mixture that tasted like guava berry rum by using local strawberries. It was a comfort to have her around, plus she was an excellent baker. Every now and then she made a coconut cake that I brought to share with the Cohens. “Don’t you want something better than porridge for your family?” Annabeth often said to me on Thursdays, but no, I didn’t want anything more. When I told Jestine about the cook’s remarks, she laughed. She, too, made fongee for her grandchildren. It was good for the body and the spirit, as it had been long ago.

On warm evenings Jestine and I often walked along the river. It was nearly summer and Frédéric had been gone for several months. Still, he came to me in my dreams. He lay down beside me, entwined with me, and I could hear the sound of bees. Time was moving so quickly. Soon it would be July and the sky would be blue and heat would rise off the gravel paths in the Tuileries in radiant waves. I’d brought the roses in my garden with me to my new address and planted them in a courtyard. As the season went on they would grow pale, withering in the bright sunlight, and then, if they were carefully pruned and watered, they would have a second flowering in August. Jestine and I would sit in the wicker chairs and watch to see whether they bloomed red or white.

We liked the quiet of the river and often took the path along the Seine. Paris was never a disappointment, although often we talked about the weather back home, and how we could sit out all night long and never once be chilled, how when the rain came down I kept my window open. One evening as we were strolling the weather changed suddenly, surprising us, as it did on our island when the wind came from Africa. All at once there was a driving green rain, so cold we shivered. This was not the rain of our island. Here it fell like a curtain. We could barely see as we plunged into a tunnel and stood there laughing in the dark. We’d run so swiftly we were out of breath. I was wearing my feathered hat and Frédéric’s black coat. I was never without it. I wondered what I would do once the summer was upon us. Perhaps I would wear his shirt, the one I slept in now, beneath my clothes and close to my heart.

We couldn’t stay in the tunnel forever, so we darted into the rain, holding Frédéric’s coat above our heads as we’d once held up leaves to be our umbrellas. Now it was the leaves from the chestnut trees that were drifting down, sticking to the pavement, a slick, coppery carpet. Eventually the rain became a pale, cold drizzle. Everything was so green, the way it was when we hid in the tall grass, unnoticed by everyone but the yellow birds darting above us. We found a painted wooden bench for ourselves and swept off the rain with our hands.

The leaves on the shrubs turned silver as dusk crossed the sky, the grass was purple. We were so still none of the passersby noticed us as they hurried along the wet gravel, intent on being on their way. Jestine and I had practiced silence on the nights when we waited for the turtles. In the tall grass we could disappear if we wanted to. We could watch the hillsides turn red, one flower at a time. We had seen so much, but we had never seen the turtle-girl until now. She was there in the river, the woman who had spent a lifetime with the turtles but had arms and legs as we did and long, moss-black hair she had wound into mourning plaits. She had come across the sea from the place that was our home, alongside our ship. I’d seen her footsteps on the bow of the boat and in the hallways of our building. All over Paris lanterns were burning. It was the hour when the haint blue sky dissolved into darkness and the bats flew above us. We watched the woman between worlds climb out of the water and walk through the park. Our sister, who could not decide whether or not to be human, sat down with us at last.