A Cold Wind
CHARLOTTE AMALIE, ST. THOMAS
RACHEL POMIÉ PETIT
In six years I added to Esther’s three children with three of my own, first Joseph, then Rebecca Emma, then, a year later, Abigail Delphine. After each birth I continued the tradition of visiting the first Madame Petit to show my gratitude, leaving flowering branches on her grave. In return she gave me her blessing and allowed me to live the life that should have been hers. It was not a life in Paris, but it was one that was happily cluttered with children. Because of this, time was like a river, and I was a fish in that river, moving so quickly that the world outside my household was a blur.
Jestine often walked with me to the old Jewish cemetery when I went to pay my respects to the Petit and Pomié families. But she refused to go any farther than the gates. She was afraid of spirits, so I went on alone, and she stayed outside the gate with her daughter, Lyddie, who was four, the same age as my Joseph. I didn’t tell Jestine, but sometimes I was aware of a tug when a spirit would latch on to my skirt as I turned to leave the cemetery. I felt it, a pull on my clothing, a hand around my ankle. I had great sympathy for these women snatched away by death before they’d held their children in their arms, but not so much that I intended to stay beside them. I recited the mourning prayer and they vanished, back to where they belonged.
When I left the cemetery I brushed the leaves from my hair. The fallen leaves were a sign that a ghost had been walking in the branches of the trees above me. Jestine noticed, and it proved her point. “You think those who’ve passed on are content to leave this world? They’ll wrap themselves around you and live off your breath,” she told me.
“I hold my breath when I’m in there,” I assured her.
“No you don’t!” She laughed at me. “I see you talking to your husband’s wife, telling her news of her children.”
I always left my children home with Rosalie, but I loved having Jestine’s daughter along. Lyddie was an extremely beautiful child, perhaps even more beautiful than her mother, with silver-gray eyes and hair that had strands of gold running through the curls. When no one else could hear, she called me Aunt Rachel.
A new synagogue had been built with plaster covering the wooden beams and joists, for fires were common and Synagogue Hill wasn’t immune to disaster. Children of our faith were taught in the new building. Lyddie went to the Moravian School, open and free for all children of color, including the children of slaves. The Moravians were some of the earliest Protestants, their faith begun by a Catholic priest named Jan Hus in the fourteenth century. Forced to leave Moravia and Bohemia by their Catholic emperor, they, like the Jews, needed to practice their beliefs underground, or flee. They arrived on the island in 1732, and soon built their church. In the new world they focused on the education of the masses, and their missionaries began the school for slaves, carrying a single mission in their teachings: In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things love.
I had sat in Lyddie’s classroom to make certain the education was worthwhile and was astonished by the excellence of the teachers from Denmark and even more so, by the work of the teachers from America, many of them resettled Mennonites. They insisted their students sit in neat rows; each had a new pen to write with and fresh paper. Although many local people spoke Dutch Creole, the school decided most lessons would be in English. Lyddie’s reading of Danish and English was far better than my own children’s, her letters more beautifully shaped than my own, and her reading of French was impeccable. I occasionally dictated letters to my cousin in France for her to write down for practice. Not that he ever replied. He had disappeared from our lives, and we heard rumors about his life in Paris. Many women had fallen in love with him, and he had a wide social circle, but the family had had enough of his antics and was considering cutting him out of the business. Lyddie had no idea who Aaron Rodrigues was, which was just as well. People judge a girl’s worth in many ways, but one must hope they do not include any judgment of the deeds of her father.
When Lyddie was born, the rift between my mother and Adelle became too deep to repair, and despite my threats, my mother let her go.
“That’s fine,” Adelle said to me. “I would not wish to work with her even if I were starving.”
Because of my mother, no woman from our community would hire Adelle, and in the end she was forced to take in sailors’ laundry, a job far beneath her. My mother had no idea that my father sent Adelle a monthly check or that I gave her a portion of my own household funds. Isaac never asked me why I did this, nor did he question me when I went to visit Adelle every day when she fell ill. It happened suddenly. One day she simply grew weak, as if under a spell. I went to see her, bringing my baby, Delphine, along. Adelle taught her to clap her hands and how to wave good-bye. When Adelle could no longer eat anything solid, I made her a soft fongee porridge, the same recipe she used to fix for Jestine and me when we were girls. I fed her until the day she waved me away. “Give it to the baby,” she said.
Adelle’s illness made breathing difficult. The day when she could no longer rise from the bed without being lifted came. Jestine sent Lyddie to fetch me because Adelle had had a dream about me. I went down to the harbor, my throat and chest aching. I was afraid of what Adelle might tell me. I hoped she didn’t blame me for how cruel my mother had been, or how badly my cousin had treated Jestine. I sat on her bed. I’d left my children at home. Adelle had me lean close so no one would overhear. As it turned out she wanted to tell me more of my future. “He won’t be your only husband,” she said of Monsieur Petit. She sounded like a bird, distant, breathy. “If you find happiness, take it. You won’t find it again. But you’ll know him as soon as you see him.”
There were so many questions I should have asked. I never even knew who Adelle’s parents were and how she had come to be on St. Thomas or what her African name had been. I had written down so many stories, but I’d never asked Adelle for hers. I should have asked if Jestine’s father was a man I knew. At the end Adelle could no longer speak and it was too late. Each evening I sat beside the bed and read to her from my old notebook, stories of the stars in the sky, how God had placed them in a path between him and us so we could always find our way to him. How a pelican had then scattered those stars above us so we could lie in our beds at night and be comforted resting beneath the path to God. How a bird had traveled halfway across the world for love.
Adelle took my hand the last time I was there. She ran a finger inside my palm. Her fingers were long and thin, and she wore a gold ring. Perhaps someone who loved her had given it to her, or perhaps she had bought the ring for herself. She would never tell. This was as close as anyone from our different worlds dared to be, for fear the past would destroy what we had. Still, the past was close, outside the door. Adelle’s touch felt like the skin and bones of a bird, weightless. I shivered because I knew this was her good-bye to me.
Jestine came then, and I watched Lyddie with my own children for the next day and night. And then it happened and we lost her. I saw Jestine standing in my yard alone and I knew. I hoped Adelle’s spirit would be above us in the sky to watch over us.
THE NEXT MORNING MY father called me into the library. Mr. Enrique had brought him the sad news, and my father hadn’t slept. My mother was out visiting Madame Halevy, so my father and I were free to talk. I thought perhaps he had planned it that way. He asked that I place a rose from our tree at Adelle’s grave. He had been sending provisions from our store to her house twice a week, and had done so ever since my mother had let her go. Now he would send the funeral dinner as well. I kissed him and thought him the most generous man in the world. We embraced each other and shed tears for Adelle, then my father stalked away. He didn’t want me to know what he felt, but I heard him sobbing in the garden. If I am not mistaken, my mother, walking up from the street, heard it as well.
I went to the African churchyard for the burial. I stood outside the fence made of sticks and wire and ached for Jestine. She wore a borrowed black dress and stood with her little girl by her side, holding hands. The cemetery was different than ours. There were wooden crosses carved with angels, shells set in intricate patterns, potted vines of purple blooms. Some people were Christians; some practiced the old religions of their homelands. I knew most everyone at the service, including Mr. Enrique, who had continued on as the clerk in the office with my husband, teaching him the business. I had only recently discovered that although my father had long ago granted him his freedom, Mr. Enrique was still listed in the official records as a slave. I suppose I didn’t want to know these things, especially when it came to my father. I wanted to believe the world was different than it was. But there was just so much a grown woman could pretend. There was more than one world on our island, and boundaries that could not be overstepped. On the day of the funeral, I knew it was not my place to mourn with Adelle’s family and friends, although when Jestine exited the churchyard, she came to kiss me.
The ground was littered with fallen leaves, so many I couldn’t see the earth. That does not often happen on our island. It was as if the trees were crying. It was the coldest day anyone could remember, and butterflies froze and fell to earth. There was a shimmer of blue and white on the ground. I stood and wept, and even my tears were cold. I still have the marks from that day, though they have turned to freckles. I saw someone beyond the fence. I thought at first it was a ghost, perhaps Madame Petit, but it wasn’t. I was stunned to see my mother. When she signaled to me, I went to stand beside her. She was wearing a scarf knotted over her head, perhaps so she would not be recognized as the woman who had dismissed Adelle, though surely everyone knew. My mother and I did not embrace.
The service had ended, and my mother was staring down the road at the funeral procession. Women held up straw and paper umbrellas, not against the sun or rain but to ward off the falling leaves. Jestine followed last, her daughter by her side.
“That’s the child?” my mother said.
All the neighbors would now gather in Adelle’s house and eat the meal my father had sent over as they remembered her life. Lyddie was holding her mother’s hand. She had on a blue dress with smocking Jestine had sewn by hand. It was Adelle’s favorite color, the color of protection and of faith, haint blue. I’d paid for the fabric and pearl buttons, and why shouldn’t I?
I saw that my mother had taken note of the rose on Adelle’s grave.
“Why do you ask about the child now?” I said to my mother. “She’s nearly five years old.”
My mother nodded grimly. “Maybe you’ll understand when you have to protect your own family.”
“What do you think I do every day?” I had six of them after all and was not yet thirty. I dreamed of storms and boats at sea and of my children drowning. I often sat in the nursery until daybreak, and Rosalie would laugh when she found me there. “You think you can protect them with your presence?” she’d said often enough. I did not answer, but if I had, I would have said, “Perhaps.”
“I hope you don’t visit her. If you do it will encourage her to think that life is different than it is,” my mother told me.
“Jestine is well aware of what life is like,” I responded coldly.
“Not Jestine.” My mother was still gazing down the road. She seemed older to me on this day, her features sharper, her eyes hooded. “I’m talking about the girl.”
I didn’t have to listen to my mother anymore. I had done enough to please both her and my father. I’d given them my marriage and my fate. I presumed my father was at work on this day, even though Adelle had been a part of our household for so many years. At that moment I felt detached from both of my parents.
“Did you ever care about anyone but yourself?” I blurted to my mother. “No wonder my father locks himself away.”
My mother gasped as if I’d struck her. “You’re my daughter! I don’t expect you to speak to me that way!”
I lowered my eyes and apologized. “Please forgive me.” I should have honored her, and I knew that in some way I would pay for this sin of disrespect.
When I walked home a pelican followed above me. Maybe it was the bird Adelle had become, a spirit now freed. I closed my eyes and wished that she would appear in her earthly form and instruct me as she had throughout my life. I was the one who did not love my husband. I was embarrassed, because he was a good man. I had whispered a single question to Adelle before she passed on. What is life without love? That was when she took my hand in her own, though she was as frail and weightless as a bird. She made a circle within my palm. I knew what she was telling me. A life like that was worth nothing at all.
She had told me that Isaac would not be the only man in my life. I had begun to look for that other man. I felt like a witch, like a demon. I didn’t want the spirit of my predecessor to know I was willing to betray her husband. But I couldn’t resist. I gazed into the face of every man who passed by, searching for the one I was meant for.
I lived every day for my children and remained a dutiful wife. But every night I thought about my other life, the one that had yet to begin.
I WAS SO BUSY with my children I did not see my father aging. Mr. Enrique was the one who came to tell me he had died, suddenly and peacefully, in his own bed. It seemed impossible that two people I loved would die one after the other. Adelle had always told me that bad luck comes in threes. I felt a chill to imagine there was one more death in store for us.
When my mother sent for me, I put on my wedding dress, which Jestine and I had dyed blue, and went to her. It was traditional for the burial society to sit with the deceased overnight, to bathe him one last time and cover him with white linen. In the past they would have protected him from evil spirits as well, though no one believed in such things nowadays. Now it was so that the family could have some rest and peace. My mother insisted that my father be brought to the library. She became so overwrought that she had to be given smelling salts when his body was carried into the room he had so loved. I had never seen my mother quite like this, so vulnerable, her sorrow stamped on her face, her clothes wrinkled, hair uncombed. I went alone to sit beside my father. He seemed smaller in death than he had in life. The air in the room was different, still and quiet the way it was before a storm arrived. My father was wearing his nightshirt. That alone brought me to tears. The man who had commanded our family and demanded respect would never have allowed anyone to see him this way. His eyes were closed, but I half expected them to fly open so that he could order me to leave. They did not. He was gone from us. I could spy his knees, knobs of bone. His thin legs veined blue. There was a knock at the door. My mother had collected herself and had returned with a washbasin of soap and water. I had never seen her look as distraught. She had wanted his love, and had failed to have it for her own.
“Are you sure you can do this?” I asked.
“How can I be sure of anything now?” She nodded. “You see to his feet.” She would take care of the rest.
I took a damp cloth and washed my father’s feet. The water was cold. I looked up to see that my mother was crying as she bathed my father. We covered him with a sheet of fine white linen, then sat together without bothering to light a candle.
“I can’t believe he’s no longer in the world,” my mother said. Her hands were in her lap and she stared straight ahead. “Now everything will change.”
It was true. Some people hold a family together, and for us that person was Moses Pomié.
There were lengthening shadows in the room. The air had grown heavy and damp. I saw a trickle of water on the stucco wall, as if the house were crying. I held out my hands, as I’d done as a child. I prayed for the flicker of my father’s spirit to appear, but it didn’t happen. A spirit has to want to come to you. It is his choice. My father was gone, and my mother and I were in the dark, with nothing more to say to one another.
OUR TRADITION INSISTED THE dead must be buried before two days had passed. My cousin Aaron was called back to St. Thomas, though it wouldn’t be possible for him to attend the funeral; it would be months before he arrived to go over business dealings and honor the dead. My father’s oldest colleagues and their sons carried the coffin to the cemetery. My husband assisted as well, for he was the head of our household now. Monsieur DeLeon, my father’s dearest friend, helped my mother walk to the grave site. Her cold wailing went through the streets, sharp and hard, from the center of a heart I hadn’t known she had. She threw herself upon the grave and had to be lifted off before the men of the congregation could offer the mourning prayer. There were parrots in the trees, bits of red and green. Mr. Enrique stood at the rear of the gathering, wearing a black suit and a black hat. There was no one Moses Pomié had trusted more, for he would not have been alive if not for this man who had carried him to the harbor in a basket made of reeds.
The men of the congregation lowered the casket into the ground, and then took turns covering my father with shovelfuls of fresh earth. I waited until everyone was gone. Once they were through the cemetery gates, I called to Mr. Enrique and handed him the shovel so that he might have his turn. He spaded earth onto the casket for some time and then, sweating through his coat, returned the shovel to me. Women were not supposed to help in this burial ritual, but I did so anyway. In so many ways I was my father’s son, therefore I acted as one now as he left our world behind.
I IMAGINED AARON RODRIGUES would be a stranger when he returned. He no longer worked for the family in France, and we rarely heard from him, although my mother addressed monthly letters to him. I assumed there were checks inside those envelopes. But as it turned out I knew him as soon as I saw him among the disembarking passengers. He was much the same, handsome and carefree. The difference was, he’d brought home a wife, a French girl named Elise, a young woman with lovely features who seemed timid, a pretty little mouse. She hesitated on the dock before being guided toward my mother to be introduced. Aaron hadn’t bothered to let anyone know he’d been married. He’d clearly cut himself off from home, if that’s what he still considered this island. I dreaded having to tell Jestine, who had been overjoyed to hear of his homecoming.
“My dear aunt,” Aaron said, greeting my mother tenderly before bringing Elise to meet her. “I could not have had a better woman to care for me and raise me,” he told his wife. “I have always considered Madame Pomié to be my mother.”
Elise had red-gold hair, and her pale complexion was flushed with the heat. The crossing had clearly been difficult for her, for she seemed unsteady on land. She wore a dress that reminded me of those I’d found in a cabinet in my own house, frocks brought from Paris by the first Madame Petit, too heavy for the climate, but beautiful all the same. Elise’s dress was a rose-hued silk, and there were silver threads in the smocking. She wore a cameo necklace on a plaited gold chain. After she greeted my mother, we were introduced. I didn’t know what to think of her, especially when instead of greeting me with a proper hello she leaned close to whisper, asking if she might bathe immediately. Clearly unused to the rough conditions aboard the ship, she had been thinking of nothing else for days. She seemed to view me as a housemaid.
“I’m filthy,” she announced, clearly embarrassed by her condition. She had a lovely voice, huskier than I’d expected. She smelled of cologne.
“You look perfect,” Aaron told her.
“Looks are one thing.” Elise grimaced. “I’m far from perfect.” She turned to me, perhaps thinking she had found a sister of sorts, as we were nearly the same age. “Please. I would sell my soul for some soap and water.”
Elise and I walked together as Aaron and my mother trailed behind. My mother was tender toward him in a way that I found frustrating. I heard her ask why he hadn’t written more regularly, and then she laughed as he teased, insisting that his handwriting had always been dreadful. Besides, he said in a low voice, he had turned his attentions to finding a wife who would please her, and it was Elise’s wealthy family he worked for now. Just then a lizard ran across our path. It was a small green iguana, but Elise panicked at the sight of it, stumbling and grabbing on to my arm.
“It’s only a baby,” I told her. “It couldn’t hurt you, but you could step on it easily.”
I gave Aaron’s wife a day, perhaps two, before she was demanding to go home to Paris. I had seen such women from Europe, dressed in their exquisite clothes, their manners polished, organza ribbons in their hair. Soon enough they would be happy to give up their gorgeous clothes for lighter muslin shifts; their perfect upswept hair would be in tangles. They’d stand on the wharves looking out over the cruel ocean that had brought them here, wishing themselves home once more.
“Whatever that creature is, it’s vile.” Elise was young, and had no experience other than her life in France. She freely admitted she was spoiled, from a wealthy family that gave in to her every desire. I gazed over at Aaron, wondering if that had been the attraction. Elise was already put off by our island; she wondered aloud if there might be lions in the forests here.
I laughed. “No. This isn’t Africa. The most you will see is a dog. Or a donkey. Perhaps a mongoose.”
“What’s that?” she wanted to know.
“A creature with a taste for parrots and bats. They don’t bother people.”
Elise eyed the hills with suspicion, the tumbling vines, the purple flowers, the clusters of tamarind with their seedpods hanging down like bats wrapped inside their leathery wings. “There must be snakes,” she declared of the wild land beyond town. “I dread them,” she confided.
There were snakes, it was true, as well as bats and rats, but I glossed over that. I certainly said nothing of the local tales of werewolves. “We have nothing that will harm you.”
The heat was weighing down on us as we continued toward home. Soon enough Elise began to falter. She squinted in the harsh light and announced that she had a headache. Before I could offer my assistance, she collapsed on the road.
Aaron ran to her, motioning to me crudely. “Couldn’t you help her?” he snapped, as though blaming me for his wife’s delicate nature.
“Help her what? Walk? I assumed she could do that by herself.”
He glared at me for mocking his wife while he lifted her, then clasped her in his arms. He had to carry her the rest of the way. “I’m so sorry, dear husband,” I heard her whisper to him. She hid her face against his coat, and he did his best to cheer her. He called her his darling and his delight and vowed she was as light as a feather. But I could tell from his expression, he wasn’t pleased. I could not believe he had chosen this woman, so very different from Jestine.
I walked beside my mother now, our pace evenly matched. I realized that as delighted as she was with Aaron’s homecoming, his wife brought her no joy. “He brought home a feather,” my mother said contemptuously. “He would have done better with a woman.”
“Well, she’s a feather weighted down with money. He might have had someone with more strength, but you didn’t care for her,” I ventured to say.
“That was impossible and you know it. I don’t decide such things.”
“If you think I make the rules or that I have any choice but to abide by them, you’re more of a fool than I’d ever imagined. Maybe when your own children disobey you and break your heart, we can discuss such matters. Until then, I don’t care for your opinions or advice. I did what I did to save him.”
Once home, Aaron carried his Elise into the washroom, then left her to Rosalie and me. “This time make sure she doesn’t fall,” he said.
“Does she have someone to bathe her at home?” I asked.
“What is that your business?” Aaron said. “What she wants, she gets. That’s the way it is when you can afford to do as you please, Rachel.”
All at once, I pitied him. “Do you at least love her a little?”
“Do you think you’re the one to ask such questions? You of all people, who married a business rather than a man.”
“And what shall I say to the woman you do love?” I asked.
“That’s my affair,” my cousin told me. “Not yours.”
THOUGH WE WERE PLEASANT enough to Aaron’s new wife, Elise was wary of our ways from the start. She gazed at Rosalie’s skin color rudely as Rosalie poured buckets of water into the bath. Before she entered the claw-foot tub, Elise cried, “The water’s green. I hope there aren’t frogs in there.”
“Is there anything that makes you say thank you?” Rosalie said primly.
I wanted to laugh but elbowed Rosalie to hush her.
Elise threw us a look; then she slipped off all of her clothes, including her petticoat and her chemise, and tossed them on the floor. As she stepped into the bath, water sloshed over the silk. We noticed she didn’t wear pantalets, which was something of a shock. She clearly liked to show herself off, and I wondered if this was how she had caught Aaron. Soft, naked skin and money.
“What kind of woman is she?” Rosalie asked me.
“One from Paris.” I grinned.
“She won’t last here.” Rosalie shook her head. “Not for an hour.”
Elise dipped her head under, and when she arose she blew out a stream of water like a dolphin. To our surprise she laughed with pleasure. “Now I feel better. And the water is wonderful, so yes, thank you! But I want more. And colder. And be sure to get me my own soap. It’s in my bag.”
Perhaps she was more resilient than she seemed.
I AGREED TO TAKE Elise on a tour of Charlotte Amalie while Aaron met with my husband to discuss business. The synagogue was being rebuilt after several fires; we would soon have a beautiful stone edifice and a larger congregation than ever. Wooden buildings were no longer allowed on main streets, and the new synagogue would be both fireproof and hurricane proof, with four stone pillars, each representing one of the matriarchs of our people, Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, and Leah. There were mahogany pews made by the best furniture makers. The walls were fashioned from sand and limestone, bound with sticky near-tar-like molasses, the island’s biggest export, along with rum. Despite the space for six Torahs to be housed in the mahogany ark, and the Baccarat crystal chandeliers that would be lit with oil, the floor was made of sand, there to remind the congregation of the sand floors that had muffled their footsteps when they met for prayer during times of trouble in their home countries so their presence would go unnoticed by the authorities. I explained the reason for the sand floor, so that Elise would not think our congregation barbaric. When I told her molasses had been mixed in with the mortar to bind it, and that the children said when they ran their tongues across the walls the building was sweet to the taste, she didn’t believe me.
“There’s quite a lot you won’t believe about our island,” I said. Molasses and rum were at the heart of all we were and did, since the rest of the world wanted this from us. “We have to spray salt water on the synagogue to keep the ants away.”
Elise grinned and said she wanted proof, so we went around behind the building and put our tongues on the mortar as the children often did. The taste was gritty and sweet.
Elise was delighted. “It’s like candy! Perhaps I’ve judged too quickly. Now I want to see everything it’s impossible to believe.” She had grown accustomed to the heat quicker than I’d imagined, perhaps because she wore lighter clothing borrowed from my mother’s cabinet, a white cotton skirt and blouse.
I should have reconsidered, but I welcomed a day without the children when I could play at being a guide. I found Elise fascinating, and couldn’t yet imagine how conniving she could be. I loved her chatter about Paris. She told me about the new fashions, the teashops and lounges she and her friends went to, the parks with carousels. She spoke of the leaves turning color in October, a soft gold that made the entire city glimmer, and of the snow in the winter, when she and her brothers had built forts out of ice. I felt a sort of enchantment come over me, and I wondered if this was what had happened to Aaron. A door had opened into another life.
In return for these tales, I would show her our marvels, small as they were. We went to the harbor to a café, where we drank limewater laced with a dash of rum; then we went to the fish market so Elise could gape at the piles of fish, which were so fresh they were pink and gasping. There was a fish we called ballyhoo that was a big favorite, and there were dozens lined up to be sold. All along the beach men had built fish pots in the surf out of straw and sticks and wire; fish could swim in but they couldn’t get out, and we waded in to see the coils of fish within these contraptions.
I took Elise to the Petit house, and we had lunch with the children, who were all on their best behavior. She was especially charmed by the girls, Hannah, who was so lovely and polite, and the younger ones, Delphine and Emma. They were charmed in return, arguing over who would sit next to her, delighted by the way she approached a banana with a knife and fork.
“You’re so fortunate,” Elise said to me when Rosalie took the children inside for their naps. “Those children are treasures.”
I introduced Elise to Jean-François, our pet, and after her initial fear, she calmed down and fed him oats from her hand. She told me more of her life with Aaron, the house they had in Passy, on the right side of the Seine, which her father had bought for her, the garden with linden trees, the little park she went to on sunny afternoons. I had an edge of guilt when I thought of Jestine, and how she would ache when she saw Elise. I knew my cousin had forsaken her, but I was inside a story of Paris, and I simply couldn’t hear enough. In the afternoon I took Elise into the hills to search for wild donkeys. She was telling me about the goats that ate grass in the Tuileries when we spied some of the local beasts of burden. She grabbed on to me as one approached, then laughed when the donkey ran away, more frightened of us than we were of it.
“See,” I told her. “No lions.”
“I feel so free here.” Elise had taken off her boots and was barefoot, arching her beautiful, pale feet in the tall grass. “My family always babies me, and so does my husband. I want to do something Aaron would never imagine I would do.” The end of the day was nearing, and the sky was turning violet above us. “Something daring.”
I asked if she’d ever been swimming in the ocean, and she laughed and said, “That’s it! I’ll be a mermaid! That will shock him.” We went to the beach in the fading light. It was a secluded cove, surrounded by greenery, the one where the turtles came. The path went through the tamarind trees. The air was silken and the water pale blue. We wasted no time in undressing. I felt happy to be a wild girl for an afternoon. As we laughed and hid our shoes in a log, I forgot who I was with, the woman who had come to possess all that my dearest friend wanted. Or perhaps I thought I could not blame Elise for the ways in which my cousin had hurt Jestine.
We hung our dresses on a branch and walked into the water in our petticoats.
“This is madness!” Elise grinned as she went deeper into the water. A blue crab scuttled across the seafloor, and Elise shouted out, then recovered and laughed, diving in where the water was deeper and bluer. “Actually it’s heaven,” she called to me.
The water was so calm here. Sandfish floated below us, and we tried and failed to catch them in our hands. Even though the evening was perfect, I had a nagging feeling of dread. I thought I saw a woman, out at sea, so far in the distance it did not seem possible a human could survive.
“What do we do if someone comes onto the beach?” Elise said, when we ran out, soaking wet, our undergarments clinging to our skin. We were as good as naked if anyone spied us.
“No one ever comes here,” I assured her. “It’s a secret beach.”
But I heard something. When I looked up I spied a figure beyond the trees, where the shadows were dark green. I recognized her shadow as she fled, for I knew her better than anyone.
AS SOON AS WE returned to my mother’s house, we could hear my cousin’s raised voice. He was speaking with such fury that Elise and I didn’t dare go any farther. We stopped inside the corridor. My husband was in the parlor with Aaron. His expression was grim as he tried to calm him. “I’m not the one who wrote the provisions of the will. That was your uncle.”
“How do I know you didn’t write it and force him to sign? He was an old man.”
“You are a ward, though you were called cousin. There is no relation by blood.”
My father had left a gift to the synagogue and one to the Lutheran church, which was the custom. It was expected that he would leave my husband in charge of the business. To divide the company would be to weaken it, and my father wanted to keep the family’s holdings together. Aaron would have a monthly check, but he was to have no say over how things were managed. After all, he had proved himself a poor businessman in France, and had lost money for our company. Our French relatives had relieved him of his duties, and he now worked for his wife’s father, who had a prestigious store in Paris. Still, he’d clearly come back with expectations. I wondered if he thought he might inherit everything and stay on and reclaim his life, perhaps have two families, as so many men did. The one he brought to the synagogue and the one he visited on Sundays as dusk spread across the sky and he would not be spied as he made his way along the alleys beside the wharves.
We let the men speak and went to have tea with my mother.
“Don’t worry, they’ll come to terms,” my mother assured Elise. “Men like to argue.”
Elise’s skin had burned during our excursion to the beach; she was flushed and overheated and soon excused herself, saying she had never been as tired in her life. As soon as Elise went to lie down, my mother grabbed my arm and whispered, “She’s been here. Uninvited.”
It took a while before I understood who she was talking about.
I WENT THROUGH THE courtyard to Mr. Enrique’s house. He was sitting outside, still dressed in the black suit he wore at the store.
“Is she here?”
“I don’t get involved in these things.” He looked away; therefore I knew the answer was yes.
I went inside, and there were Jestine and Lyddie sitting in the dark. The shutters were closed and only the last of the day’s yellow light came through in bands. Jestine was in her best dress. She wore laced boots, and her hair was braided and pinned up. Lyddie was beside her, quiet, her hands folded on her lap. When she looked at me, I could tell she was alarmed. Jestine, on the other hand, was furious.
“You didn’t think you should take it upon yourself to tell me that he had a wife?”
“I was going to,” I said. But I hadn’t wanted to face her.
“I suppose you were too busy. Well, don’t worry, I found out. Don’t you think Lyddie should meet him? A daughter should see her father at least once in her lifetime.”
I asked Lyddie to wait outside with Mr. Enrique while we spoke.
“You came to see his wife,” I said when the little girl had gone. “It won’t lead to your happiness.”
“What do I care about her?” Jestine made a face. “Lyddie is his daughter. He should know her.”
“You cared enough to spy on us.”
“Because you didn’t even tell me he was back. You seem to care more for her than you do for me!” Jestine’s voice broke. “Is she your sister now?”
“She’s nothing to me,” I said. It was the truth. Elise had been an amusement, nothing more. I suspected the same was true for Aaron. “And she should be nothing to you.”
“I saw her fall on the road when she got off the ship, and you assisted her.”
“She needed a cold bath, with her own soap from Paris.”
“It didn’t help her from being ugly.”
We laughed at that. Elise wasn’t ugly, but she certainly wasn’t beautiful, like Jestine.
“I came to show him his daughter, and that is what I still intend to do. He says he wants to see her.”
“You’ve spoken to Aaron?”
Jestine glared at me. “What do you think?”
I begged her to reconsider, but she wouldn’t listen. Perhaps I should have warned her that Elise was not as weak as she might appear to be.
Jestine led Lyddie into our courtyard. All of the yellow birds that loved the sweet fruit in our garden so much some people called them sugarbirds hushed when she appeared. There was a shadow at the upstairs window.
I followed Jestine so I might stand beside her. I’d been wrong and thoughtless to befriend Elise. My cousin had been gone for more than five years. “He won’t come,” I warned.
“He will.” Jestine held tightly to her daughter’s hand. Lyddie looked over at her mother, confused.
The last of the sunlight was in our eyes, but Jestine refused to move into the shade.
“How long do you intend to stand here?” I asked. “Don’t you see him for who he is by now?”
“Do you want Lyddie to have to look into every man’s face, searching for herself? I have to see to this now, before he’s an ocean away and she never has the chance.”
My mother was the one at the window. She gazed down when she heard Jestine, then promptly closed the shutters.
“You’re locking me out?” Jestine shouted.
I put a hand on her arm to hush her. “This won’t work out the way you want it to.”
“He’ll see me.” Jestine turned back to shout at the house, to my mother, I assumed, and to Aaron as well. “I’m waiting for you to show yourself. You know she’s your daughter.”
Surely Aaron heard her raised voice, but instead of coming to face her, my cousin played the coward and sent his wife. I suspect he feared meeting up with Jestine, and perhaps was most afraid of his own emotions. Elise came out in her rose silk dress. Jestine was too dazed to say anything as she approached.
“He asked if you would leave,” Elise said.
“If I don’t?” Jestine said. “What will you do then?”
“That won’t happen, so we won’t discuss it.” Elise’s eyes flitted down to Lyddie, who still held her mother’s hand. Jestine glared back, fiercely protective of her daughter. Lyddie wore her blue dress, beautifully smocked. She gazed wide-eyed at the woman from France, who clearly had the upper hand.
“Is this the girl?” Elise focused her attention on Lyddie entirely. “What a pretty dress you have.”
“You know who she is.” Jestine’s chin jutted out. “And so does he.”
Jestine sounded strong, but I noticed her hands were shaking. For once I was glad I had never been in love.
“This is Lydia,” I told Elise.
“May I?” Elise was clearly entranced by the child. Jestine was so taken by surprise, she didn’t stop Elise from questioning Lyddie about her education at the Moravian School.
“I’m going to learn four languages,” Lyddie said. “I already speak Danish, and soon I’ll study German and English and Spanish.”
“What about French?” Elise smiled with a warmth I hadn’t seen before. “Do you study that as well?”
“I’m speaking to you in French, Madame.”
Elise laughed, delighted. That was when I felt a chill go through me.
Elise turned to Jestine, cool but not unfriendly now. “Let me see what I can do. I’ll speak to my husband.”
When Elise went inside, Jestine seemed shaken. “Who does she think she is to say ‘my husband’ to me?”
“That’s who he is to her.” I don’t think Jestine had truly realized Aaron now possessed a life beyond what they’d once had together.
We left the garden and went to my house. Since Aaron and Elise had arrived, I’d been so caught up with them I’d hardly been home. My children greeted me and hugged me, then ran off to play with Lyddie. Rosalie came out to the porch and threw me a look. “Do you still live here? Or did you move back in with your mother?”
“I was trying to be polite to our guests,” I said.
“Don’t be. Stay at home.”
Jestine was quiet during this interchange, but when Rosalie went to keep watch over the children, Jestine turned to me. “You were right. I was a fool to go there.” She took my hand. She feared Elise’s pleasantries had been a deception. “Don’t let them do anything to me.”
“They wouldn’t,” I assured her. “There’s nothing they can do to you.”
I truly believed that at the time.
There were green frogs in the garden, and the children were set on catching them with a net. We could hear them whooping, then gathering together to examine their catch. It was a near-perfect night, but beside me my dearest friend was crying.
WHEN I SAW MY husband later in the evening, he told me that Aaron was so angry to learn that my father hadn’t left him any part of his estate that he’d already made arrangements to return to Paris. There had been threats and arguments at the store that were humiliating. My cousin’s insolence drove him forward. He insisted he would take legal action. I worried for my husband’s safety. “There’s no need to worry,” Isaac assured me. “He realized it would be worth his while to leave.” My husband was clearly relieved that Aaron was preparing to go. “Your father made a wise choice. We’ll all do well to be rid of him.”
But we weren’t rid of him so quickly that I didn’t see him walking down the road toward the harbor. It was dusk, the hour when it was possible to do as one wished as darkness fell. Yet the sky was still bright in the east, and I knew where he was going. He went there every night and waited outside the house on stilts, and nothing could be done to send him away. He had come halfway around the world, after all, and found what he wanted here on our island.
THE MAIDS IN MY mother’s house told me that my cousin was leaving in a matter of days. This time there would be no packet of lavender, no cause to call him back. I had gone to the store and looked through the ledgers my father had taught me to read. I found what I had suspected: Aaron was being paid off handsomely so that he would let go of the business without further argument. I’d kept away from my mother’s house after the scene in the garden, not wishing to see Aaron or his wife. But on the afternoon before they were to leave, Elise arrived at my house. I was on the porch, mending my children’s clothes. Their trousers and shifts always seemed torn after a day of play. I liked to sew, for my own relaxation, to clear the thoughts in my head. The last thing I expected was company.
Elise was wearing one of her beautiful dresses. Her hair was braided carefully.
“You don’t like us anymore?” she said archly. “You’ve disappeared.”
I gazed at her and saw someone different from the girl who’d walked off the boat. She held a parasol to ward off the sun, but she seemed quite steely. She spoke to me as if I were a servant rather than a relative, however distant. When some chickens came pecking around, Elise kicked up dirt to drive them away. I suppose in Paris she did as she pleased, and had everything she ever wanted.
“He said we can take her,” she told me.
I was confused. Was it Aaron’s intention not only to live with his wife in Paris but to have Jestine as well? Many men did so here, surely it must be the same in Paris. But such things were not spoken about, and certainly a wife would never announce that she was aware of that sort of arrangement, even if she tacitly agreed. Why on earth would Aaron inform Elise of his plan, and why would she be the one to tell me?
“And you’re fine with this? You don’t mind taking Jestine to Paris?”
“Jestine!” Elise laughed. “It’s the girl I want. She looks enough like me for people to think I’m her mother. It’s the gold in her hair.”
I was speechless, though she didn’t seem to notice. She went on to announce that they had decided to take Lyddie and raise her as their own. The girl was young enough so that in time she would forget Jestine and this island and the house that was so close to the sea she could hear the tides as she slept.
I listened as Elise went on at great length discussing her plans, the lycée for girls Lyddie would enter, the dozens of dresses she would buy for her, the bedchamber that was larger than the house where she lived now. There would be horses, for Elise’s parents had a home in the country, and hunting dogs, and dinners on Friday nights with Elise’s family.
I listened openmouthed, unbelieving and silent, until she announced that Lyddie’s name would be changed to Lydia Cassin Rodrigues. Cassin was Elise’s family name, and her father would be so delighted for his name to be carried on. Hearing that, I at last found my voice.
“Pardon me, but you do know who the father is?”
“A man who made a mistake, but one who has legal rights.” Now I understood. Elise intended to rewrite Lyddie’s history as she pleased. “He is the father and I will be the mother.”
“Have your own daughter,” I said harshly.
“I can’t.” Elise knew what she wanted, and she wasn’t about to let a few words from me hurt her or change her tactics. “Put our proposal before your friend. Tell her of my plans. She will come to understand it is far better for her daughter to live with us in Paris.”
I WENT TO SEE Aaron, but he shouted that he didn’t want to see me. When I wouldn’t give up, he came into the hall in a rage. He’d been drinking and was unstable.
“Do you know what your wife is trying to do?” I asked.
“Give my daughter a better life?”
“Better than what? Being with her own mother?”
“Rachel, you’ve never understood what the world is like,” he told me. “You’ve always thought I could do as I pleased, but that’s never been true.”
“Because you have no courage,” I said.
My cousin slapped me then. I was shocked and so was he.
“I didn’t mean that,” he said. “You know I didn’t.”
I turned and ran. There was no talking to him. We’d put a spell on him to bring him back, but we’d done so without thinking of all that enchantment might do. He was a ruined person, he was crying in the hall, and the saddest thing to me was that I could see he loved Jestine, and he wasn’t going to do anything about it.
I went down to the house on stilts, my heart beating fast. I thought of what Rosalie had told me, how loving someone too much could be dangerous and how she’d been punished for her pride. When I reached the harbor I noticed there were shingles missing on the cottage, which hadn’t been painted in several years. Since Adelle had passed on, things had fallen into disrepair. The same was true for my childhood house, which hadn’t been the same since the death of my father.
Jestine was waiting for me on the steps. I could tell from her expression that she hadn’t slept. She had been waiting for a message from my cousin, but a different one entirely. She wanted to hear him admit that he’d chosen the wrong woman and say he was coming back to her. I was reminded of the lavender Adelle had placed into my cousin’s luggage to bring him back to Jestine. I wished I hadn’t found it and hidden it there again after he’d discarded it. I wished he’d never returned.
I told her what Elise had proposed. Jestine said nothing, but she grew cold.
“They’re going to steal her,” she said.
Jestine was a free woman, but her rights were limited. She had publicly declared that Aaron was the father of the child. Everyone in our household had heard her say so, including my mother, who would certainly act against her if given half the chance.
Lyddie was inside, studying her lessons. Jestine sat there weeping. “There’s no way for me to fight them. You people always get what you want.”
I was stung, even though I knew what she said was true. People of my faith had fewer rights than Europeans, but compared to Jestine and Adelle we were part of the established order.
“He’s found me every night he’s been here,” Jestine said. “I was good enough for that but not good enough to be my own daughter’s mother.”
Perhaps Elise had guessed and this was part of her revenge.
Jestine went inside without saying another word. I peered through the window to watch as she gathered a few belongings into a basket, then grabbed Lyddie by the hand. When they came back they took the stairs two at a time. “He’ll never find us now.”
Lyddie tossed a frightened look back at me as her mother hurried her along. I began to trail them, but Jestine turned around and snapped, “Don’t you dare follow us! You treated that witch as if she were a sister. Now look what’s happened! You’re one of them.”
I stood alone in the road and watched Jestine take her daughter into the mountains, where the mahogany trees were hundreds of years old, their bark made into the strongest medicine on the island. Adelle had once brought me a tea made of this bark when I fell ill as a little girl. I remembered only a haze from that time. My skin was so hot I felt that fire had been laid across my bed. I felt a wave of that heat now, and my heart sank. I feared there was no way to protect Jestine from my cousin’s wife.
In the morning, our visitors were standing in our courtyard while their trunks were brought down. They waited, exchanging glances.
“Jestine won’t bring Lyddie to you, if that’s what you’re thinking,” I said.
“I don’t suppose we’ll see each other again.” Elise kissed me goodbye. I recoiled and wished her away. My cousin looked sad and somehow resolved. He leaned close so he could whisper to me. “We made a mistake to think we could have what we wanted.”
“Her mistake was you.” She should never have trusted him or thought he would marry her. She should have stayed away from our courtyard.
I watched them leave our garden. My mother was so distraught she had gone to her room. Despite my cousin’s failures, she still had a deep attachment to him. I think she would have been pleased if he had chosen to stay. She might even have supported him. But of course, Elise had more to offer.
Once they were on the street, I heard Elise’s bright voice echo, and I was puzzled. I couldn’t understand why she was so cheerful when she hadn’t gotten what she wanted. I heard a burst of her laughter, and she said the name Lydia in a loving way and then went on to discuss how she had written the maids at home so the girl’s room would be ready for her. All at once I knew she hadn’t lost. I ran after them to the docks. I stood on the wharf, sunlight and tears clouding my eyes. I could see the rowboat of passengers that Elise and Aaron were joining, a little girl among those waiting. My cousin had hired some local men to search for Jestine. They’d found her and restrained her until they could get Lyddie away from her. The child was told that her journey was a brief trip to France, one her mother had approved. So why had her mother been sobbing when they came for them in the mountains, and why had she refused to let go of her daughter until she was held back by men who had left bruises on her arms? Lyddie asked, but these questions went unanswered. The men who’d been hired to bring the child to the wharf were sailors who cared nothing for the people of our island.
Jestine might never have been discovered, but I knew the secret places in the hills. I ran until I heard a woman crying. It was up by the caves, where ruined women often went to end their lives when they had nothing left, near the gardens of the pirate wives. The sailors who’d stolen Lyddie had left Jestine tied to a jacaranda tree. There were a dozen pelicans above her, each one perched on a higher branch. Some people believe that when a pelican cries the tears shed are as red as blood; they say the pelican will pluck the bloody feathers from its own breast to make a nest for its young despite the damage to itself.
Jestine screamed at me as I untied her. “You let them take her!”
“No,” I said, but she wasn’t listening to me. I broke all of my fingernails, frantic, because she was crying.
“Hurry! I have to follow them.”
I knew the rowboat had left, the ship had boarded, but I stepped away once she was free and watched her run down the hill. I never knew a person to run so fast, to disappear the way ghosts do, out of our line of vision. I heard that everyone fled the dock when she got there. That people could hear her crying for miles.
No one saw Jestine for several weeks afterward. She refused to answer her door, not to me and not to anyone else. I left baskets of food, but they went untouched. I sat on the stairs until evening, but she refused to come out. My husband did everything he could. He wrote to his family in France and explained the situation. A solicitor was hired, but in the end there was little anyone could do. The laws gave Aaron Rodrigues the right to his own daughter, especially once she was on French soil. My husband went on to find a second solicitor, one who was not above paying people off to get around the law; he took the high fee Isaac sent, but though he was well connected, he could not undo what had been done. I dreamed sometimes of Lyddie on that ship, en route to Paris. In my dreams she looked toward our island. A pelican followed her until she was halfway across the Atlantic, a place that was too cold and too far to reach, even for those who loved her best.
Elise wrote me a single letter months after she’d returned to Paris. It was now summer. We hadn’t heard anything of my cousin or Lyddie, therefore I was shocked to find the envelope on my table. Elise had beautiful handwriting, and the ink she used was a shade of blue so dark it was almost purple. I thought about reading the letter. I held the brass letter opener and debated. But in the end I didn’t feel the message was meant for me. I brought the letter to Jestine. She had avoided me all this time, and my loneliness was like a stone in my shoe. When I knocked on the door Jestine didn’t look pleased to see me, but she let me in. I knew she put blame onto me, for I had befriended the witch from Paris. That much was true, and I regretted it every day. The house felt empty when I came inside. The windows were shuttered even though it was a beautiful day. The sea was green.
“What is this supposed to be?” she said when I held out the letter.
“Something from Paris.” The envelope felt hot in my hands, as if it had breath and life. “Would you rather I burned it?”
She gestured for me to hand over the letter. Then she went into her bedroom.
Whether or not she read what Elise wrote I will never know. Perhaps she cursed its author, perhaps she gave thanks for what little news she had of her daughter. When she came back the letter was folded in half. Together, we burned it in a bowl Adelle had once used to make elixirs, including the one that had saved my life. The sparks flew up. As they did I made a wish, and this one came true. From then on Jestine answered the door when I came to call. One day she was sitting in my garden, and I knew that she had forgiven me for having Aaron as my cousin and the witch from France as his wife, even though nothing was ever the same after that.