The Elixir of Life
CHARLOTTE AMALIE, ST. THOMAS
RACHEL POMIÉ PETIT
Adelle and Jestine and I worked feverishly on my dress, sewing until our fingers bled. We used cornstarch to stanch the bleeding. “You may need this on your wedding night,” Adelle told me. She explained how a woman bled the first time she was with her husband; she said this was natural, for a marriage was a blood pact. The wedding was in a matter of weeks. Adelle had given me some information concerning what went on between men and women; the rest I discovered from watching donkeys in the fields and listening to the whispers of the pirates’ wives.
“You think he’ll be like a donkey?” Jestine laughed at me. “Why marry a man at all?”
Both Jestine and Adelle thought I was making a mistake to do my father’s bidding, but I didn’t care to hear their opinions or warnings.
“She doesn’t want to talk about love,” Jestine told her mother with a grin. “She wants to marry a donkey.”
“Just a man,” I said. “One who understands my father’s business.”
“Maybe she’s right.” Adelle shrugged. “Since she’s not bound to know love in this marriage.”
What was a husband, after all, if not a partner? Why should I ask for more than that? Why should I ever want it?
EVEN IF JESTINE WOULD have agreed to attend my wedding service, my mother made it clear the ceremony was only for people of our faith. The marriage prayers were recited at the same altar where Monsieur Petit’s wife’s funeral had been held. The synagogue was a dark building, but when light came through the windows it became a radiant place. My mother was pleased that I was to marry Monsieur Petit, and because she approved she gave me her wedding veil, smuggled from Saint-Domingue, the only thing she’d taken other than her jewels. “You’re not as foolish as I thought you were,” she told me.
I supposed it was a compliment.
“Marry from here.” She touched her head. “Not here.” She hit her chest. “Love will do nothing for you.”
As soon as she offered her approval I began to doubt myself. If she thought something was right, it was usually wrong. But it was too late for me to have second thoughts. I’d given my father my word.
On the day of the ceremony I asked that branches from the flamboyant tree be placed in a vase on the altar to honor the first Madame Petit. Her husband would now be mine. He looked very somber and handsome and much too old for me. During the ceremony the boys were solemn and quiet, and Hannah did not call out once. Everyone said she was an exceptional baby, calm and sweet-natured. The wedding contract, a lavishly illustrated document bordered by gold leaf, had been signed the evening before. Time moved quickly during the service; the synagogue was so close and crowded and hot. My mother beamed with pride, which gave me a case of nerves. I felt myself grow wobbly. I refused to faint, but my heart was so loud it was all I could hear. I concentrated on a vase of pink flowers at the altar beside the branches of the flamboyant tree, placed there by Jestine, who knew bougainvillea to be my favorite flower. And then it was done. I was a married woman.
The marriage dinner was in the garden of my parents’ house. Tables had been set out, and silvery lanterns were strung from the trees. Everyone was there, all of the old families from St. Croix and Saint-Domingue, and some of the newer families from Amsterdam and Morocco. My father’s good friend, Monsieur DeLeon, gave a speech in which he declared that every bride should have a father as wise and kind as mine. Though I agreed, I couldn’t wait to get out of my heavy wedding dress, which Jestine had already decided we would dye blue so I might get some use of it in the future.
Jestine now worked beside Adelle as a maid in our house, and had helped cook the food for the dinner, but on this night she came as a guest, invited by my father. She wore a pale pink taffeta dress. She and I had both had our hair braided by Adelle’s deft hands. There were little white pearls scattered through my hair, and pink pearls threaded through Jestine’s hair. People said we looked so alike we might have been sisters. I introduced her to Monsieur Petit, who took her hand and said it was a pleasure to meet such a dear friend of his wife’s. Without thinking I laughed when he called me his wife. It seemed like a joke, some wild mistake. Monsieur Petit crinkled his eyes when he smiled; he wasn’t the least bit insulted. I carried Hannah in the crook of my arm during the party. The boys ate cake and my father let them take sips of wine. When it grew late, I had to send the children home with Rosalie, even though Samuel held on to my skirt and said he was afraid of the bats his brother said perched on the window ledge. I whispered for him not to worry. “When I get to the house I’ll take a broom and chase them away.”
The night was hot and long. I drank rum punch until I was dizzy. As the evening was ending my mother took me aside. After all these years of disapproval and silence, she suddenly wanted to begin an intimate conversation concerning what went on between a husband and wife. I suppose she thought it was her obligation to do so.
“You may not like your husband’s desires, but it is your duty to fulfill them, and in the end you’ll become used to him. Do not fight him, and do not think he means to murder you when he takes you in his arms.”
I nearly laughed out loud. “Thank you,” I said, “but you don’t need to say any more. My husband will instruct me.”
My mother gazed at me, eyes narrowed. “You’re very sure of yourself.”
Perhaps she thought I was experienced in matters of a physical nature. In fact, I wasn’t, which was why I’d had so much rum. A carriage took us away. Usually a bride’s carriage would be decorated with ribbons and flowers, but in deference to the first Madame Petit, ours was plain. The black carriage horse was the same one that had brought her coffin to the cemetery. I went upstairs, relieved to take off my wedding clothes. Most people avoided a summer wedding, and now I understood why. It was too hot for the heavy clothes one had to wear for such an occasion. I was happy to be in my muslin undergarments, barefoot, my hair freed from the tight plaits that Adelle had decorated with pearls. The little beads scattered onto the floor, and they sounded like falling rain. Though I had never spent the night here before, I had the sense of being at home. I peered into the nursery to watch Hannah sleep, then went to look in on the boys. True enough, bats were perched on the window ledge. In the morning I would instruct Rosalie on how to place sharp shells and bits of broken glass along the casements to keep these creatures away. For now, I merely opened the window and shook a handkerchief until the night creatures flew to the treetops.
When I turned, Monsieur Petit was there.
I cared nothing for love, yet I was terrified of all I was yet to learn about my husband’s desires. My mother had frightened me with her instructions.
“We are married,” my husband reminded me.
I said I knew.
“What else do you know?” He was gazing at me in a way he hadn’t before.
“Nothing,” I admitted.
I thought of Jestine and Aaron and the way they were drawn to one another, even when they didn’t wish to be. When I’d asked Jestine to teach me all she knew about love, she’d declined. “If I told you, it would all sound silly or ugly, but when it’s you it will be different. You have to learn for yourself.”
Monsieur Petit brought me to bed and taught me what people did in the dark. He undressed me and I let him, though I had it in my head that I could escape into the baby’s room at any time, turn the key, and sleep on the floor. Monsieur put his hands on me and I let him do so. He told me he wouldn’t hurt me, but everywhere he touched me I began to burn. He moved away from me to ask if I was all right. I nodded and waited for what came next. I found myself to be a bit disappointed. I’d had certain expectations, and Monsieur Petit didn’t act in the manner I’d expected. I’d heard women in the market say that a man would become a beast of sorts, a slave to his desires. Certainly my mother had prepared me for some sort of violence, which in a way interested me. I thought of Perrault’s story of Bluebeard, who’d had so many wives, each one mad for him despite the ill treatment they received.
Monsieur Petit, however, was quiet, possessing a tenderness I hadn’t anticipated. He didn’t rush anything between us, merely held me to him. I could feel the way he wanted me, and that was curious to me. It wasn’t love, but he seemed to possess a sort of passion for me, perhaps a hunger he’d had since his wife had been gone. He had one hand on the small of my back. The other hand slipped between my legs. Who was I that I wanted this? I felt the heat spread out inside of me in a way I didn’t understand. I could not think clearly. I believed I saw a shadow in the velvet chair against the wall. I could have sworn I heard a sigh from that area as well. A single breath. I moved away from Monsieur Petit and gazed in that direction. I had the sense that we were being watched, although aside from the two of us, the chamber appeared empty.
“Is something wrong?” my husband asked me.
I shook my head and closed my eyes. If the first Madame Petit was with us, that was her right, but it was also my right to ignore her. Before long it seemed I had drifted out of my body, as if my spirit were flitting above us. I could watch myself on the bed below. I was inside a dream, but I could feel a stab of heat inside me. Perhaps I was shivering, as if I had flown away with the moth outside the window of my bedchamber, a place where I would never sleep again.
Monsieur Petit said again that if I liked he could wait for me to become more used to him, but I said no. We were married, and because this was our wedding night I asked if on this single occasion he would think only of me rather than of his first wife. I would never ask this of him again, and when he did call me Esther on other occasions I never once complained.
THERE WAS SO MUCH to learn about the children and the household in the first weeks I might have easily become overwhelmed, but I had Rosalie to educate me, and she was a good teacher. She told me she had been born in this country, on the grounds of one of the old Danish farms, and that she had been cooking since she was a little girl. I stood beside her in the kitchen, both of us in our aprons, our hair covered by scarves. I learned the recipes for lime chicken soup and for all her other dishes. I soon became expert in cooking the children’s favorite food, the fongee porridge of cornmeal with vegetables that I myself had always enjoyed. The children’s play in the muddy garden made for masses of laundry, which were hung out on two rope lines nearly every day. The clean clothes smelled like sea air, and before Rosalie pressed them with a heavy iron she sprinkled them with lavender water. David was already attending the school at the synagogue, but Samuel followed me around from room to room. I allowed the children to stay up late, for I hated to discipline them. Often Monsieur Petit read in the drawing room while I played games with the boys.
“You worried you wouldn’t love them, now I’m worried that you love them too much,” Rosalie warned.
“There’s no such thing.” I laughed.
But Rosalie said I was wrong. We sat on the porch and drank ginger tea. In a low voice she told me she’d had a baby who had died. She had loved him too much and so she took his death as a punishment from God for being too proud. The baby spit up blood and turned so hot he was on fire in her arms. The milk he drew from her breast boiled in his mouth, and perhaps that was what killed him, she whispered, his own mother’s milk. She was crying as she spoke, the wound was that fresh even though the baby had been gone for several years. I slipped my arms around her and insisted that neither her God nor mine would be so cruel as to do such a thing. A baby could not drown from drinking milk. He’d clearly had yellow fever, and that was no one’s fault. I was young, and I thought I understood grief, but I knew nothing. I had no idea of how deep a mother’s sorrow could be.
Rosalie was polite enough not to tell me I was a fool to give her advice. I think she pitied my stupidity and saw it as innocence, so she embraced me in return and said nothing more. But after that I often heard her crying behind the stairs, and I knew it was for the baby she had loved too much.
THE WOMEN FROM THE congregation invited me to join them as a member of Blessings and Peace and Loving Deeds. This was an honor and in my mind, both unexpected and unwanted. All the same, I had little choice. Monsieur Petit was an esteemed member of the community, and I was his wife. At last my mother could be proud as I sat among the women from the best families. I overheard her speaking of me. At first I thought she was referring to my predecessor, but no, when she had said Madame Petit, whose house was so lovely, whose children were so well behaved, I realized she meant me.
After tea at Madame Halevy’s home, there was conversation regarding orphaned children and those of our faith who did not have luck with business or had fallen prey to illness. We planned dinners to raise funds for those in need and wrote up reports to present to all of the committee members. People who faltered were discussed at great length, for in a group such as this, any hint of wickedness was worth uncovering, including those men who dared to keep two wives: a Jewish wife and another wife, and perhaps another family, living near the docks. The scandal concerned Nathan Levy, born in Baltimore, but now a resident of Charlotte Amalie. Levy had been granted the honor of being the United States consul but was said to be dishonorable in his business dealings. The women seemed most concerned that he lived with an African woman named Sandrine, flaunting the relationship in public, treating her as though she were his wife. I’d seen them once when I was at the market with Adelle. She had stared after them, interested.
“My mother says it’s the marriage of a heron and a parrot,” I said to Adelle.
“Does she?” Adelle made a disapproving face. “Well, your mother knows nothing. They’re not birds. They’re people in love.”
Levy was a member of our congregation, and although there were several letters sent to the office of the United States Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, in Washington, no one dared to discuss this matter with Levy face-to-face, for he was a man of power who helped the business interests of those on the island. Rather than confront him, people crossed the street when they saw his woman or when she and Levy walked arm and arm near the harbor.
I went directly to Adelle’s house and found Jestine on the porch, folding laundry. “I thought you were too busy being married to come see me,” she said. “Aren’t you attending a meeting today?”
“I have three children. And I left the meeting.” I thought perhaps I would find excuses not to attend any meetings to come.
Jestine threw me a dark look. “You have one true friend,” she reminded me.
“Whereas you have two,” I teased. “How is Aaron?”
Jestine laughed, a catch in her voice. “I haven’t any idea.”
She said he had been avoiding her. Twice he had not shown up at their appointed meeting place. She’d stood alone in our garden. She’d thrown stones at my cousin’s window, but there had been no response.
“He’s a heavy sleeper,” I told her. “And you know as well as I do, he’s lazy.” It was, to be honest, part of his charm. He liked to take his time and have lengthy conversations with other businessmen, rather than work in our father’s shop, which he clearly thought beneath him.
Jestine shook her head. “I think someone’s turned him against me.”
We both knew who that someone was likely to be. My mother. “We should have never let him come with us,” I said to my friend. “We should have left him home when he begged to follow us. He was always a troublemaker.”
“No, he wasn’t.” Jestine stacked the laundry neatly in a reed basket. “We inherited our troubles.”
After the laundry was completed, we went into the hills, the way we used to, before I was married. Jestine was right; I’d been consumed with my new duties and hadn’t been a good friend. In truth, I’d missed her. We linked arms and chattered until there was a burst of rain, and then we had to run to take cover. When the torrents ended, a pale drizzle came down around us. Everything smelled green and sweet. On this island there were a hundred varieties of rain, from blue to clear, from whirlwind storms to a dash of dew to the driving rain of winter. We used banana leaves as umbrellas and sat under the canopy of the trees. On very clear days we could see the islands that were used as pastures, Goat Island and Water Island, where livestock ran free, chewing the wet, salty grass. Light drifted through the raindrops and the sky broke into colors. The heat came back, and we lay down in the field. We made garlands out of tall grass and bits of twig. No one passing by would have seen us, except that the grass moved whenever we breathed.
“Have you learned to love Monsieur Petit?” Jestine asked me.
“I don’t hate him.”
She laughed and shook her head. “That isn’t an answer! I told you not to do it. He’s old enough to be your father.”
“He’s not my father when we’re alone.”
“Oh?” She smiled. “So now you know. But is it good with him in bed? Do you long for him to touch you? Yearn for him when he’s not there?”
I shrugged as if I were an old married woman, though I was little more than twenty. “It’s better than I thought it would be.”
Jestine snorted. “Because you thought it would be hell.”
I was surprised to find I was insulted on my husband’s behalf. Although I didn’t love him, I respected him, and surely that counted for something. Another woman would have thought him a considerate lover, but I had been inflamed by the stories I’d read and the passions of Solomon, and I wanted more. “I could not ask for a kinder man. That can’t be hell.”
But Jestine knew me and could see this wasn’t love. “There are those who say that heaven and hell are not so far apart. They are not at opposite ends of the world beyond ours, only a step away from one another.”
EVERY FRIDAY NIGHT WE had dinner with my family. I brought Rosalie along so she could watch over the children if they fell asleep, but also because I had made her a promise, which I intended to keep. I would never let Rosalie go, even though my mother had instructed me to dismiss her and get a new maid, one who hadn’t been loyal to the first Madame Petit. I smiled and nodded but did the opposite. I gave Rosalie extra spending money, Saturdays and Sundays free, and warned her to stay away from my mother on Friday nights.
“I’m happy to do that,” Rosalie said.
I grinned. “If only I could do the same.”
All of the men in the family were now partners, members of the Burghers’ Association, for tradesmen must be accepted by the royal Danish organization in order to do business on our island. The marriage had strengthened the business, although Aaron Rodrigues wasn’t happy to have Isaac Petit rise above him in a single day. My husband was a full partner, Aaron merely a distant cousin whose official title was manager, which couldn’t have pleased him. I knew that he and my father had been meeting to discuss the future, and on several occasions I had heard my cousin slam out of the house, grumbling under his breath, striking the gate with a stick on his way. I heard my parents arguing in the parlor.
“There are ways around this,” my mother said.
“So you can keep him here? And baby him while you treat him like a son?”
“Why not? He is a son to me.”
“And what will his child be to you?” my father asked.
“What is yours to you?” my mother said coldly.
This was dangerous territory, I thought, even though I wasn’t certain what my mother’s meaning was.
“Am I not married to you still?” my father said, which ended the conversation.
THAT EVENING AT DINNER my father revealed that Aaron was being sent to France. My mother looked like she’d been crying, and my cousin did not look pleased by the announcement. All at once I viewed him differently. There was a hidden vulnerability inside him that was in direct opposition to the careless man he appeared to be. I suppose he’d thought he would be my father’s heir, and now it was clear that honor had gone to my new husband, in the manner of the law if the oldest child was a girl, for women had no rights to property. It was a slap to Aaron, a reminder that he was not a true son, though my mother treated him as such. Yet he was not to be entirely forsaken. We had distant cousins in France, and many business connections, and Paris could not get enough of the island’s rum. Aaron would be introduced to all of our relations and their friends. I felt a bitterness rise inside me. I was the one who wanted to go to Paris. Adelle always said if a person doesn’t speak her mind she will carry her resentment until it burns her, as I was burning now.
“Perhaps we should be the ones sent to France,” I said to my husband.
There was an immediate hush of the dinner table chatter. My father and husband both looked at me as if I was a bee with a stinger who had settled on our table without invitation.
“That wouldn’t be possible,” Isaac said to me. He looked over at my father, embarrassed by my outburst.
“And why not?” I had already convinced myself, now all I had to do was convince the men of my family. “The children would be in a good school and would get to know our family. It would be an adventure for them. And we could take Rosalie.”
My husband shook his head. “Our life is here.”
Still I didn’t give up. “You came from Paris, it would be a homecoming.”
My father’s gaze was blistering. He didn’t like to be disrespected, and this was the first time I had opposed his wishes. “You’ve said enough,” he told me. “Your husband is an excellent partner and the business here is what matters most.”
“A business you clearly don’t need me for.” Aaron threw his napkin onto the table and stormed out.
“Let him go,” my father told my mother when she began to rise from her chair. She sank back down, near tears. “This day was bound to come,” my father told her. “You have done more than enough for that boy. We will follow the law. The business will belong to Monsieur Petit. Not to Aaron.”
I couldn’t keep quiet. “Even if I want to leave and he doesn’t? If the business is to be my husband’s, do I not also have a say?”
“My apologies for her behavior,” my husband said to my father, as if I were a child he had to make excuses for. He turned to me displeased. “Say no more.” He looked his age on this night, and I could see he thought me nothing more than an ill-mannered girl, too young and foolish to know enough to hold my tongue.
I thought of what Jestine had said, that we had inherited our troubles. Certainly I had inherited mine. This marriage, this man, this house, this family.
“I’ll find my own way home,” I told Isaac. “I’ll go with Rosalie.”
I left the table and followed Aaron outside. Once, he had been my baby cousin, a fondling in desperate need. Now he was a handsome man who stood alone, tossing some crumbs to the old lizard that had been his pet when he was a boy. He had only just turned twenty. He was a favorite with many of the young women in our congregation, but he’d never looked at anyone other than Jestine.
“I should be the one going to France,” I told him.
“I wish it could be so. I’d be happy to stay here.”
“Then let me go!” I said impulsively.
“I have no power, Rachel. Not even over my own life. At least you’ll get what you want. Someday your husband will take you there.”
“I plan to go with Jestine,” I told him coldly.
Aaron laughed at what a fool I was. “You think you’re so smart, but you don’t understand anything. You’re never going there with her. Just as I would never be allowed to marry her. Don’t you understand she’s the reason I’m being sent away?”
I felt ill. Perhaps the weather was too hot. I left my cousin and rushed along the stone path, past the fruit trees. The bananas were ripening and wasps were gathering, drawn to the sticky sugar inside the leaves. I didn’t make it into the house, but instead was sick in the bushes, bringing up my dinner. Afterward, I sat back on my heels in the grass. Rosalie had come outside to search for me, and when she saw me she went to the well. She came to hand me a cup of water.
“You know what this means,” she said.
All at once I did. I thought of the nights in bed with my husband, and of the first Madame Petit, who had died of childbed fever. I thought of my cousin, who had never even looked at a map of Paris and would soon be living there, staring out his window at the rain.
“They say if you’re sick in the morning you’ll have a daughter, and if it’s in the night, you should expect a son,” Rosalie announced. “It will be a boy for certain.”
“I don’t wish anyone to know until I’m sure.”
“Well, I’m not.”
I was thankful that my mother hadn’t needed Jestine to serve dinner, so she was saved the dreadful news about my cousin. I went around to the patio kitchen, searching for Adelle, who I’d assumed had cooked our meal. Often she sat beside the rose tree my father had ordered from France. My mother despised and ignored the tree, she thought it too showy, but I knew that Adelle secretly watered it, perhaps to spite my mother. When I searched for her now, I found she hadn’t appeared that evening. Another hired woman had helped with the dinner, one I didn’t know.
“Is Adelle ill?” I asked. “Will she be back tomorrow?”
The cook threw up her hands. “I only work here!”
I went then to the bedroom where the children were sleeping and lay down beside them. I found some peace when I closed my eyes and listened to them breathing, but too soon it was time to go home. Rosalie came for us, and I carried Hannah as I followed Rosalie down the corridor. The boys clung to her as they ambled after her, sleepy and thickheaded with the heat.
When I said good night to my mother, I asked where Adelle was.
“Not here.” My mother shrugged. “That’s all I know.”
THERE WAS A SERIES of squalls after that, with the appearance of the raging wind and rain that often comes in September. It was a terrible month, which ended with a hurricane of enormous proportions. My husband spent his nights at the office, worried over our ships at sea. Perhaps it was best for us to be apart; certainly, I had not forgiven him for taking up my father’s argument against me. While he was gone, I made the best of the situation for the children. We played games, hiding under beds and in wardrobes, making birds out of paper and flying them across the rooms. We had some of the long pods from the flamboyant tree that we had set out to dry in the sun, and we used the husks the children called shack-shacks to make music. It was a delight to feel like a child again, but it was impossible to stay in that frame of mind for very long. The wind was screaming, and the shutters at every window needed to be nailed closed. Later I took out my notebook of stories and added a storm in which goats and sheep were lifted out of a pasture and deposited on the other side of the island, still chewing their cud. I wrote about a woman who was left behind and did her best to return to the moon, even though every storm could take her no higher than the treetops. When the center of the storm was above us, there was an odd quiet that was even more frightening than the howling of the wind. I wondered if God was above us, and if he could see our love and our fear. We all got into bed together, and Rosalie joined us. We said our prayers and she said hers as we held hands.
When the worst of the storm had passed, a stray little donkey came into the garden, drenched and bawling for its mother.
“Look who came calling!” Rosalie laughed when she looked out the back door.
The rain was still falling, and the puddles were huge, some as deep as ponds. When such things happened, fish would appear, as if brought about by magic. Samuel was terrified of the donkey at first, and hid behind my skirts. I told him it was a baby, nothing to fear.
“Let’s help him,” I said to Rosalie.
While I held Hannah and Samuel clung to my skirt, Rosalie and David caught the donkey with a rope, then brought it into the yard, where we offered it soft bread and milk from a tin pan. It was shy at first, but starvation got the best of it and it ate with such abandon we all laughed. Samuel soon lost his fear of the donkey. He asked if he might keep it as a pet. He had already named him Jean-François, and indeed the creature trotted over when called so. I shook my head and told Samuel no. This was a wild donkey, meant to be with its mother.
“Why does he have to be wild? Can’t he be like Gus?”
Gus was a goat who lived nearby and who escaped from his pasture every once in a while to terrorize the local dogs.
“No,” I told Samuel. “Some creatures are not meant to be pets.”
When the sky brightened, and the donkey was well fed, we set it free. Samuel cried for so long that David teased him and called him a baby, which made him cry even harder. That night when I was putting Samuel to bed I lied and swore that I had seen the little donkey on the road with its mother, and that the day had turned out for the best. He slept easier then, his hand clutching mine. I curled up beside him rather than go into my marriage bed. But the wind arose again, hammering at the roof, and I couldn’t sleep. I felt I had become a different person since moving into this house. Before I’d had no trouble killing chickens for Friday dinner, but now I wept over a wild donkey as I thought of him wandering alone. My dream for my life was slipping away from me, and perhaps that made me more tenderhearted toward this motherless creature.
I needn’t have worried. In the morning the donkey was in the kitchen. He had let himself in through a door that had been blown open. Maybe it was true what they said, that donkeys and mules would not cross over a shadow, and this one had turned back when he reached the end of the property. The boys begged and begged, and even Hannah wailed and cried, reaching her hands out to the beast everyone now referred to as Jean-François. I relented. When Isaac came home at dinnertime, he found that I’d made his favorite dish, wild mushrooms and rice. I poured him a glass of rum with limewater. I said there was no reason to let our disagreement fester and interfere with our daily lives. Then I told him that the children had a pet they had named Jean-François.
“Pets are a foolish expense” was his initial comment.
“Sometimes being foolish is the right thing to do. Look at us.”
“You’re never foolish. I know that much.”
“Not even when it comes to Paris?”
“The business cannot be run from Paris, Rachel, though I wish that it could be. Do you think I haven’t thought a thousand times of leaving this place behind? I have terrible memories here. But I have to think of the children, and children expect to be fed and clothed.”
“And you would be leaving Esther if you went back to Paris.”
Whereas other men went to taverns in the evenings, I knew my husband went to the cemetery. Rosalie and I could both tell because there would be red mud on his shoes and red flowers in the pockets of his jacket.
“I couldn’t leave,” he admitted.
I went to sit on his lap. He was a kind man, and although I couldn’t change his mind about Paris, when it came to the household I knew how to get what I wanted. “Be ready to be surprised.”
“You always surprise me.”
Because Isaac disliked dogs, he was somewhat relieved when I took him out to the barn.
“Voilà,” I said. “Jean-François.”
Isaac laughed, despite how tired he was. “Let me guess—he’s a French donkey.”
“Exactly. So we had no choice but to take him in.”
Isaac stroked my hair. He was grateful that I was good to his children and humored them. “The boys talked you into this.”
“Would Esther have let them keep him?”
“Esther would have been terrified of him. But she would have been glad you kept him.”
I DID NOT HEAR my husband laugh again for some time. The storm was terrible for everyone, and nearly ruined us. Every workingman on our island found himself thwarted. Desolation was everywhere: roofs collapsed, houses were washed away, mudslides ruined roads and streets. The island was ravaged by destruction, and we suffered the fate of those who depended on the sea. Trading ships carrying merchandise to Charleston, including those belonging to our family, had sunk. It was a financial disaster, and Isaac spent weeks in the office, sleeping there and taking his meals at his desk, doing his best to salvage the business. Three months had passed since I’d been ill in the garden, but our bad fortune kept me from telling my husband of my condition. He didn’t need more worry.
At least we still had a home. Other people were not as fortunate. Roads were impassable, and part of the shoreline had disappeared. Boats could be found on hillsides, swept there by the rising tide, broken apart so that their wooden hulls whitened and became skeletons left in among the vines. There were bodies of creatures, dogs and rats and iguanas, along the streets. Parrots in the trees drowned from turning their faces toward the sky; when they fell their feathers scattered in the mud.
I worried for Adelle’s house, so close to the harbor. Neither Adelle nor Jestine now worked in my parents’ home. They avoided me as well. As soon as crews had chopped up fallen trees and hauled them away, I left the children with Rosalie and made my way to their house with a satchel of food and clothes. There was a huge flood between the town and the docks, impassable. I paid a man to take me across in his canoe. Clouds reflected in the water. Everything was calm now, and the sky was an indigo color. When people in Paris thought of paradise, surely they imagined this.
The boatman dropped me off. I waded through knee-deep water until I reached Adelle’s cottage. There was a starfish on the road. It was a good thing the house had been built on stilts, and that the stilts were pounded into rock, otherwise the house would have likely floated away to the other side of the world.
Adelle came onto the porch. She took the necessities I’d brought her, then hugged me close. “I’m grateful, but you shouldn’t have come here,” she said. The roads were dangerous, not only because of the flooding. There were looters and bands of wild dogs, all of them hungry. Adelle said that Jestine had been unwell and had taken to her bed. During the storm they had both said their last prayers as seawater rushed in through the windows. At the worst of the flooding they’d tied themselves to the cast-iron stove in the kitchen, which was the heaviest thing in the house. There was still sand on the floor, and the blue paint was pale with salt. Adelle swore that a flatfish had swum through the window, right into a cooking pot, which was God’s way of seeing that they had enough to eat through the storm. They were Christians and believed in a merciful maker who would watch over them.
I told Adelle I’d come despite the floods because I missed them both. And because I had a secret. I wanted Adelle and Jestine to be the first to know.
“It’s no secret, Rachel. I told you your fate before you got married. I saw that man and his children and all the other children that you’d have. Now you tell me my fate in return. Is your mother going to have me come back to her house?”
I suppose my mother had bad-mouthed Adelle and she could not get other work. I didn’t mention that a hired woman was now serving dinner there. I was still confused over the matter. I asked Adelle what had happened between her and Madame Pomié, and she simply said, “We had words.”
“What kind of words?”
“What kind do you think? Would your mother say anything nice to me? She didn’t want me or Jestine in the house.”
Just that morning my mother had ordered one of the hired men who worked in the yard to cut down the rose tree Adelle favored, but fortunately Mr. Enrique had taken it to his house before any damage was done.
“I’ll speak to my mother,” I promised. “You’ll see. You’ll be back and nothing will change.”
But Adelle didn’t agree. “Everything changes. Look at you. Look at Jestine.”
I went into the bedroom and saw Jestine in her bed. She wore a white nightdress, and her arms were bare. It was afternoon and hot and murky, the way it is after a storm, with air that smelled like the tide. I lay down beside her, and she opened her eyes. As girls we had done everything together. At least that hadn’t changed. What had happened to me had happened to her as well. I could tell from the sleepy look in her eyes, the rise in her belly. I was happy about it. Our children would be friends, although they couldn’t be the cousins that they truly were. This child to come was the reason Aaron was being sent to Paris.
“We should have run away when we had the chance,” Jestine said. “If you hadn’t gotten married we could have gone and been there waiting for Aaron, but you had to go and fall in love with those children. I could tell after your first visit to his house that we would never get out of here.”
I felt stung by her remarks. I promised that nothing would be different. I swore it on my blood. I bit my own arm and let it bleed onto the sheet. We watched as the blood formed the shape of a bird. We would still go to France, I insisted. We would leave after the children were born, despite the fact that I was a married woman. I’d lately been reading about the history of Paris, and now I told these stories to Jestine, how the streets were built over tunnels that were a thousand years old, how the Île de la Cité had been shored up by ancient ramparts to ensure that the island would never float away, no matter what floods might come. I told her Perrault’s story of a girl who was in love with a beast and knew he had a true heart.
“Not that one,” Jestine said.
I also recited from an old French recipe book on Esther Petit’s bookshelf that I read as if it were a storybook. I’d memorized the instructions for making chestnut pastries. I recited the recipe to Jestine now, even though neither one of us had ever seen chestnuts or tasted them.
That night when I told my husband we were to have a child, he was so grateful he gave thanks to God, but in my prayers I gave thanks that there would always be ships in the harbor, there to carry us away. That night I made the pastry in the first Madame Petit’s cookbook, even though I had neither chestnuts nor almond paste. I used what I had in the kitchen, molasses and papaya, and though it was not what the recipe called for, the results were delicious all the same.
MY MOTHER READIED AARON’S wardrobe the following week. It was a major undertaking, and of course I agreed to assist her, but I insisted Adelle return to help us with the laundry and packing. “Does my father know you let her go?” I asked.
“She’s not here. He’s not blind. So he must know.”
“But you told him some story. That she left because she was unhappy.”
“Keep out of it,” my mother said.
“I’m not afraid to tell him the truth,” I told her. “He despises a liar.”
It was a horrible moment between us.
“You think you are so special to have Moses Pomié’s love,” my mother said.
“But I do have it,” I said. “Can you say the same?”
“I’ll take Adelle back. But not Jestine,” my mother said. Clearly she knew a romance had gone on. “Not until Aaron is gone.”
Adelle came back the following day. She was quieter than usual. After a while, she and my mother took up a conversation as if nothing had happened. But it had.
The next evening, as he was preparing to go, my cousin was checking through one of the trunks he would take with him when he found a packet of lavender tucked under his freshly pressed suit. He held it up, puzzled. When he asked me what it was, I shrugged, even though I knew better. I said, “It makes your clothes smell fresh even after a long voyage.” He tossed it away, saying it made him sneeze. I’m sure he had no idea what the herb was meant to do. Adelle had told me that lavender could keep a man bound to the woman who loved him. When she found the packet on the bureau later that day, she shook her head.
“I will never set eyes on that boy again.”
“He might come back.”
“Even if he comes back, I’ll never look at him.”
I WENT TO THE harbor with my parents on the day my cousin left. My mother wept as I’d never seen her do before. When Aaron came to me to say his good-byes, I threw my arm around him so I could lean close and no one would overhear. “It’s your child she’s having,” I said.
He showed no surprise, only kissed me three times, as was the custom. I then understood that he already knew, and that he was not strong enough to give up his life and start anew. I wished this was a fairy tale and we could exchange places there on the dock, and I could be the one to leave that day. I would take nothing with me, only a map of Paris and a heavy black coat. Perhaps a cat would help me make my way and find treasure once I reached the shore of my newly claimed country. I closed my eyes and wished that when I opened them again I would find myself boarding the ship, and Aaron would stay and live in the house on stilts and we both could have the lives we were meant to have.
But when I opened my eyes he was gone and only I remained.
THAT NIGHT, I WAS even more restless than usual. I opened the windows in my bedroom. Isaac shivered as he dreamed. It was the season when the air sparked with heat in the afternoons but became damp and chill at night. I still had the same dream I’d had as a girl, and if I fell asleep the dream would come for me. There was a man in Paris who was waiting for me. He would listen to my stories, about a woman who was a turtle, and a bird that flew halfway around the world for love, and the original people that had come here from the bright side of the moon, only to be trapped, as I was. It was not fair to my husband and children, but the truth was, I still yearned for another life.
In this house the walls were not painted haint blue and spirits couldn’t be kept out. That was why on certain nights when I couldn’t sleep I spied the first Madame Petit in the chair in a shadowy nook that I always avoided. Rosalie said it had been my predecessor’s chair. Madame Petit had often sat there before her death, rocking the baby. She had come from Paris and could never tolerate the heat. She would break out in a rash beneath the heavy fabric of the painted silk and brocade dresses she’d brought with her from France. Rosalie said she would cry when the gnats bit her, as her skin was sensitive, and she was forced to stay out of the sun, for she turned red and peeled. She had a fear of donkeys and parrots and refused to go into the countryside. She didn’t like to go any farther than the front gate. Still, she had enough strength to refuse to die until her daughter had her naming day. She had loved her husband, and now I was beside him. Each night before I went to bed, I promised I would treat her children like my own. I explained that I did not love her husband, though I cared for him deeply, and that he still belonged to her. Love was out of the question for me. She needn’t have any fear that I would ever take her place.
Perhaps she was watching over me during my pregnancy. As my time grew near I found I could sleep the moment I lay down in bed. Sometimes I barely had to close my eyes. I slept for hours, through the night and well into the morning, so deeply Rosalie had to shake me awake. I saw Esther Petit standing at the foot of the bed when Adelle and Jestine helped me to deliver my first child. I told her if she helped me survive this birth, I would honor her for the rest of my life. I didn’t listen to people when they told me not to name my first son after a child Madame Esther Petit had lost. I went ahead and named him Joseph.
I knew who to thank for all that I had.