If You Leave
CHARLOTTE AMALIE, ST. THOMAS
RACHEL POMIÉ PETIT
When I thought of the last moments of my husband’s life, the sudden stab of pain he must have felt in his heart, the speed with which he slumped over his desk on a hot afternoon, the lemon-colored sunlight falling across his shoulders, I wondered if he cried out for me, or if he had called to Esther, his beloved first wife. I hope she was standing there waiting for him, her arms outstretched to hold him, and that his spirit lifted itself out of his body with joy. On the night my husband died I came home from the office alone with his spectacles and his watch. I got into our bed and waited for the spirit of the first Madame Petit to lie down beside me and mourn with me, but she was gone. She had been there for only one reason, to watch over her husband. Now he belonged to her in the world beyond ours.
His was the third death, and the one that changed my life more than any other. Isaac was only fifty, and his death came as a complete surprise. I was just twenty-nine, too young to be a widow. I went to Jestine and asked her to make me a black dress, for I would have to wear black for the next year. She knew I didn’t love Isaac, but he was my husband all the same, the father of my children. She understood my fear. I was still young and I was responsible for six children, all of whom had experienced loss.
The day of my husband’s funeral was hot, the kind of weather that made people faint. It was a blur to me, and I was glad when it was over. At last dusk had fallen and the children were asleep. David, Samuel, Hannah, Joseph, Emma, and the youngest, always called by her French name, Delphine. Rosalie dozed in a chair in the nursery. I still hadn’t told her that tomorrow we would be forced to leave. We could no longer afford this big house, and it would eventually be sold. In the past months the business had been failing, and it was possible that we might have to close the store, our last real asset. I dreaded Rosalie’s reaction. She had lived at this address longer than I had, and was already here working for Isaac when the first Madame Petit arrived from France, limp from the heat, her freckled face flushed with exhaustion, her luggage so heavy four men had to carry her trunks from the dock. Madame’s dresses from France were still in the cabinet. I intended to sell them with the household goods, though it caused me pain to do so.
On the last evening I would ever spend in my husband’s house, I felt a struggle within me. I was free, unmarried, but I was also trapped. This was the moment when I’d always imagined I could begin a new life; now I wasn’t so sure. The green shutters at the windows were open, and the breeze came spilling through the house. The cool stone corridors were empty, for the mahogany furniture Rosalie oiled every other week would soon be sold at auction and had already been collected in a horse-drawn cart. Adelle had cautioned me before I married that the Petit family would know only tragedy, but she’d never warned me how much I would love my children, both those I gave birth to and those I had inherited, or how that love would imprison me. In the fading light it was still so stifling that sparks of heat rose into the pockets of darkness. As I walked across the courtyard I noticed that parrots came to the stone fountain to drink. Though it was good luck to see them, especially in your own garden, this would not be my garden anymore. At the funeral, people had held wet handkerchiefs to their overheated foreheads. I’d had the sense that I was in a dream as it was happening, and that in my true life I was in my bed in Paris, under cold linen sheets pressed with lavender water, and that the rain was pouring down on the slate roof as I slept. Surely, it was only in my dreams that I was a widow with too many children and that I did not shed a tear as others wept around me.
I returned to the cemetery after the children had been comforted and had their supper, this time alone, so that I might leave branches of the flamboyant tree on Esther’s grave. Her grave and Isaac’s were next to each other. HUSBAND and WIFE had been written on her headstone in Hebrew, and there had always been a space for him. The branches I’d brought were only sticks, but the fragrance of the wood was sweet. I wandered through the paths, looking for spirits and finding only still, heavy air. On my way out of the cemetery I heard the gravedigger say the flowers had bloomed all at once, as if they were growing on the hillside in the season when everything turns red. I turned and saw it was true. That was how I knew my gift had been received.
IT IS FOOLISH TO cry over things you cannot change, yet on my last night in the Petit house I did exactly that as I looped a rope around the donkey’s neck to lead him from the barn my husband and sons had built for him. The donkeys on the island may have been nasty things, but not this one. This one trusted me, and that is why I wept. I was not trustworthy. Later I would tell the children that Jean-François ran away and vow I could not hold him back. I had told them this once before, on the first day he came to us, but the donkey had returned of his own accord. This time I intended to bring him far into the mountains. He wouldn’t find his way back now. We could no longer afford to feed him, and there wouldn’t be a stable once we moved into town.
There were clouds of mosquitoes at this hour, so I slipped a white shawl over my head. The fevers here were deadly: yellow fever, malaria, illnesses few survived. I had reason to live, six of them. On nights like these I always made sure there was netting over the children’s beds. They would cry tomorrow when they went out to the stable, even the oldest, David, who was nearly a man. He was as tall as his father had been, and he would turn his back to me so I wouldn’t see his tears, but he would miss Jean-François as much as anyone.
After Isaac’s death, I’d gathered the frightened children and assured them that it was God’s will to release men from pain. Their father was gone from this world, but he would always be with them. That was what love did, it kept a person close. We covered the mirrors and tacked black fabric over the windows.
I had thought I would have to get rid of the donkey by myself, but when I stepped into the yard, Jestine was waiting for me. She had forgiven me, but there was a distance we hadn’t known before, caused by Lyddie’s absence. As girls we had imagined we were one spirit divided into two forms. Now, we kept things from each other, especially when it came to sorrow. We never spoke Jestine’s daughter’s name aloud. The word brought too much grief. The air was spicy with the scent of the bay trees as we walked together, leading poor Jean-François along. Bats hung from the branches like black leaves. As girls we had always come to this mountainside to make plans for what we would do when we were women. We used to think women our age were growing old, yet on nights such as this I felt the same as I had when we were sixteen.
“You should have gotten rid of him the first night,” Jestine said of Jean-François, who balked as he was led away from home. “Now you’re crying like he’s your baby.”
“You take him,” I suggested. We still liked to argue like sisters. “He’ll follow you as well as me. You could put up a barn beside your house.”
“And feed him what? Oh, no. I can’t have a pet. He should have stayed wild. You should never have spoiled him.”
Before long, Jestine and I had walked so far the moon was hidden. We were both deep in thought. We thought of the men we loved and the men we didn’t. Though we didn’t speak, our breathing was in the same rhythm. We let the donkey go on the dark road. He stood where he was, confused. Then he came up to me and nudged me. I did not shed a tear at my husband’s funeral, though he was a good and decent man, but now I wept openly, sobbing, and I could not stop. Jestine slapped the donkey on his rear to force him to trot away. Still he looked back. He did not want to leave me. Who would give him bread soaked with milk as a treat? Who would brush the dust from his coat? I didn’t believe I could love anyone, and yet I was in tears. I was as alone as that poor motherless creature.
Then and there I thought of all the things a woman could do to escape her life: She could walk into the water and see nothing but blue, hear nothing but the rising tide. She could leap into a ravine where the parrots were hidden in the leaves. She could climb onto a boat in the harbor, cover herself with a muslin tarp, eat limes until her journey was over. Jestine and I could make our way to France. I could leave my children until I was able to send for them; surely they would receive the blessings of our congregation, even though I had little to do with the Sisterhood. I could buy the tickets, pack a suitcase, wait for Jestine outside her house. But there on the dark road, I felt a kick inside of me, the spark of life. I had kept to myself what I knew to be true. There was a baby to come. I had known for some time, but I’d told no one, not even my husband. I had already decided to name him Isaac in honor of his father, the man I could not bring myself to love. The baby had been inside me for six months, but I wore bigger clothes and ate less.
Waiting for the third loss, I hadn’t known who would live and who would die. Sorrow always comes in that number, and I had feared the child I carried might be taken. But instead it was Isaac. Tonight I told Jestine about the baby. She hugged me and said all children were gifts from God, therefore God must believe I could carry this burden, even though I was alone. I remembered what Adelle had told me, that I would love someone one day. But that day was not yesterday and it wasn’t today. It was the red season, when the twisting roads were covered with petals, as if a woman had cried blood suddenly, without warning, after her heart had been broken.
WE MOVED IN WITH my mother. I wore black on that day and kept my eyes lowered. This was the last place I wanted to be, but I was a widow with six children and one still to come. I needed to practice logic and thrift. Most of our belongings had already been sold to pay off Isaac’s debts. Women were entitled to no earthly goods in this world, and when the will was finally read in the parlor of my mother’s house, I was passed over for a male relation in France. No one had heard of him before, no one had met him, but Isaac’s family in France now owned most of the estate, including my father’s store and house. We would be allowed to live off our smaller portion. A stranger would decide all of our fates. Our situation did not surprise me. I was more shocked when the will was read to discover that Rosalie was not a maid but a slave, something my husband had kept from me. Perhaps he was embarrassed, as he should have been. He was a kind man, but he believed in the social order, and his views were not mine. My father had freed Mr. Enrique before they reached this island. I begged Rosalie’s forgiveness when I discovered the situation, yet again there was nothing I could do. Because I was a woman, I had no legal right. I could not change what had been written into the law.
Once I’d moved into my mother’s house, I attended services on Saturday mornings and sat among the women with my mother and her good friend Madame Halevy. “You haven’t been here for quite some time,” Madame Halevy remarked. Nothing went unnoticed by her sharp eye.
“I was mourning my husband,” I said.
“As I once mourned mine. But I didn’t forsake my God.”
We stared at each other, then I said, “I’m sure he will take that into consideration when you die.”
“Which will be a very long time from now,” Madame Halevy assured me.
I turned from both of them. Their lives had been built around our faith and our congregation, but I went to the synagogue only because I was expected to do so. When prayers were spoken, I didn’t ask God for anything, nor did I beg for mercy. My life had returned to the one I’d had as a girl, only now I had six children depending on me. I was more trapped than ever. During the months that we waited for Isaac’s relative to arrive and claim his property, I worked beside Rosalie at mealtime and in the laundry. There was a space between us now that I was aware of her situation, and we did not speak as freely as we had when we lived in my husband’s house. There was endless work to be done, and I often was too tired to eat. Sometimes in the evening I sat in the garden and thought of my dreams and how they were further away now than they’d been when I wrote my stories in a notebook. I’d packed away my notebook. I was a disbeliever now. All the books in my father’s library had been sold. I had managed to save a single volume. Perrault. But of late I hadn’t the heart to read those stories and imagine cold, black nights in Paris and paths that might lead through the woods outside the city where the old châteaus could be found. My oldest daughter, Hannah, often came to sit with me, as if she could sense my despair. She was nine years old but wise beyond her years. She had always helped me take care of the younger children, who were a little troupe, always together. Although she was not my daughter by blood, she understood me and she slipped her hand into mine when she took note of my despair. I stroked her hair and was glad she had an open heart and was nothing like me. She asked me for a story, for I had often read to her from my notebook, but I said I didn’t believe in such things anymore.
“You do,” Hannah insisted.
I went searching for my notebook. It was in the kitchen, stored with Madame Petit’s cookbooks. From then on I kept it in my bedchamber. I never lost sight of it again. I wrote in the evenings, and whenever I could I went to speak to the women in the market. Tell me a story, I would say to them, as if I were a child again, and they would sit beside me, near the crates of chicken or the piles of fish, and describe the wonders of our world.
LATE IN THE AFTERNOONS I visited the cemetery. On most days it was so hot steam rose from the puddles after the rain. A simple walk and I was soaking wet. At the gate, I slipped off my dress and wore my white muslin petticoat. I wanted to be the girl I used to be, to go backward in time so I might sit in the mountains and watch for parrots and believe my whole life was ahead of me. I brought branches of flamboyant flowers to place on the graves of Isaac and Esther, and the bees drifted above me, rumbling through the air. Esther’s ghost had never again visited me; she must have been satisfied to have her husband back in her arms. Beside their graves there were ground doves nesting in the weave of oleander, calling to each other. Perhaps they were in love, as Esther and Isaac had been. Although I’d never loved my husband, I missed him. My milk was still in from the baby before the one I now carried. Perhaps I should have been more modest, but I didn’t care, I was too hot to wear anything more than my petticoat. Sometimes I wondered what I did care about. Rosalie was the one who went to my children when they cried at night. Their cries were so distant when I was asleep that I barely recognized them. I thought perhaps I was becoming more like my mother than I’d ever imagined I could be. Cold and far away. I missed the three people who had died, and I thought perhaps I myself would be better off dead. I lay down on the soft earth of the cemetery and imagined what it might be like, even though I knew such thoughts weren’t good for the baby I carried. Perhaps inside me he was crying, too.
People began to notice me in the place of the dead, there in my white undergarments, lying on my back and studying the leaves and the treetops where ghosts walked. The old men who came to pray in their black hats and prayer shawls ran away when they spied me. They covered their eyes and asked God to protect them.
My mother soon heard the rumors about me. She called me to her. “People are starting to talk about you.” She had developed a cough. Ever since the death of my father she had seemed weaker, but only in her physical aspect. Her tongue was still just as sharp. “They think you’re going mad, or that you’re possessed. You think you’re the only one to know grief? You think I didn’t lose more than my share? Cry all you want at night when you’re alone in bed,” my mother advised, “but compose yourself when you go out.”
Other than my undergarments, the only clothing I’d worn since the funeral was the black dress Jestine had sewn for me. It was filthy. When I finally gave my mourning dress to the day woman who came to help us with the wash, the water in the tub turned black; burrs and sticks rose to the surface, for they’d stuck to the hem of my garment.
Rosalie cried when we left our house. She had good reason to do so. My mother was horrible to live with and ordered her around so that she had double the work, as well as the children to look after. Rosalie had begun to spend time out behind our house, where Mr. Enrique lived. She was younger than he by twenty years, nearly the same difference as that between me and my husband. Still he seemed like a young man whenever Rosalie came around. As for her, she sang to herself even when we did the laundry together. I knew love when I saw it, from the flattering white dress she wore, to the cakes she baked for him, to the sound of their laughter as they sat together outside his cottage. One night I waited for her, to see if I was correct. I was there when she came into the courtyard. She was aglow, singing a song I didn’t recognize in a language I didn’t know.
I admired Mr. Enrique, the man who had saved my father’s life. I’d given him all of my father’s clothes and personal belongings before my mother could stop me. He was a solitary man, but he didn’t always spend his time alone. I warned Rosalie that she was not the first woman to want him and that he didn’t seem to want a wife.
“It doesn’t matter. I’m the best,” Rosalie assured me. I suppose this is what love can do to a woman, bring her into a garden at night, convinced she somehow can affect fate’s plan with her desire. Love like this was a mystery to me. I didn’t understand how people allowed sheer emotion to get the better of them. You couldn’t see love, or touch it, or taste it, yet it could destroy you and leave you in the dark, chasing after your own destiny.
MY SON CAME WHEN the weather changed, during the storms. The day began with blue light but ended with rain and wind. I shivered in my bed. When I was sure it was the baby’s time, I begged Rosalie to get Jestine. My friend arrived quickly. She and my mother did not look at each other or speak. It was the first time they had contact since Aaron was sent to Paris. But there were no arguments, for it was business on this night, the work of bringing a child to life. My mother didn’t dare to keep Jestine from our house. As she herself had never helped in a birth, I suppose she was grateful to have a more experienced woman there. When the hard pains came, my mother left my chamber. She said a verse from Isaiah as she departed, to keep Lilith away, granting the screech owl demon peace if she would stay away. At least she’d said a prayer for me, which was more than I had expected from her.
It took four hours to bring the last of Isaac’s sons into the world. I swallowed my screams and my agony, but my bitterness grew. I felt it taking root in me, right beside my child. A seed that was growing greener. I bit my lips until they bled and tried to fly out of my body to escape the agony of birth. When I thought I might die, I screamed out for Isaac’s first wife to take me with her. Just when I was ready to go to her, the baby arrived. He was small, but he howled like a wolf as soon as he was born, the sign of a strong constitution. Jestine wrapped him in a clean blanket and murmured a prayer under her breath, the one her mother used to say when we were ill or in need, in a language spoken in a world so far away Jestine didn’t understand the meaning of the words. All the same, we both knew it was a plea for long life in this cruel and beautiful world.
It was a relief to give birth to this child, and I was grateful for the sleep I could now have. I thought perhaps my mother would now drop her antagonism toward Jestine, and show her the gratitude she deserved for bringing her new grandchild into the world. But I heard them talking out in the garden while I was dozing one afternoon, and my mother was not offering words of thanks. Their voices were rising and falling, and some of the words carried the sting of bees. Beside me, the last child I would have with Isaac was sleeping deeply, his breath even. I left him curled up and went to the open window.
“I don’t want you here again,” my mother said to Jestine. “I could have you arrested if I wished.”
Jestine laughed. “For what?”
“I was the one who was robbed! My daughter was taken by that witch, your daughter-in-law.”
“You were the first to steal from me,” Madame Pomié cried.
“What did I steal?” Jestine said. And then she was silent. She knew. There were tears streaking my mother’s face. Aaron.
My mother shoved a strand of pearls into Jestine’s hands. They were the ones she had sewn into the hem of her dress when she’d fled Saint-Domingue. “Take them. They’re yours as long as I never see you again.”
“Of course.” Jestine looped the pearls around her throat. “I’ll take the payment for your sins. But that doesn’t change anything, Madame. We both lost our children because of you.”
ONCE THE BABY WAS settled I began to go to the office. I had already discussed the situation with Mr. Enrique. I thought we could see to it that the business remained in our hands, and keep the family from France at a distance. My father had taught me most of what I needed to know, and Mr. Enrique would see to the rest. We worked well together, and I quickly understood that the business was on shaky ground. Once more we were victims of the weather. In the seasons of storms we had lost both ships and merchandise. Mr. Enrique’s suggestion was that we sell what was left of the shipping business, the province of my husband, and return to sales, my father’s original endeavor and his best asset, the store. “Let other people run the bigger risk and earn the bigger profit. The store will provide steady income. It’s safer for a woman alone with a family to care for.”
I thought he was wise, and let him draw up the figures. Then I presented the plan to my mother. The very idea of sitting down with her made the rash that had disappeared once my baby was born rise again across my skin. Still, like it or not, it had to be done. My mother and I were the family now, the two of us, and perhaps we could agree upon a plan that would help us maintain some say over all the property that had once belonged to my father.
We met in my father’s study. Surrounded by his empty shelves, I felt my grief over his loss all over again. I thought of the night he came to tell me I would be married, and the satisfaction I’d felt in rescuing our family from disaster. But my husband was clearly drawn to bad fortune, as Adelle had warned. Tragedy had followed him. When he combined his business with ours, instead of strengthening both, he’d brought it all down, unwise in ways of commerce and of the dangers of the weather. The pride I’d once felt for saving my father’s business by agreeing to wed Isaac was a false pride. The marriage had been for nothing. But perhaps now I could truly rescue us when I presented my mother with a plan that would make the business smaller but more reliable. She glanced at the ledgers and figures, then waved her hand, impatient. “You don’t think the business will be entrusted to you and Enrique, do you?”
“We work well together. So yes. It makes sense.”
My mother’s expression was sour. “You could never accept the fact that you were a woman and nothing more. I knew that when I was carrying you. You would cause trouble.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” I said, even though I wasn’t sorry at all. I was glad to have caused her trouble.
My mother stood up, away from the desk. The meeting was over. “Your husband’s family is sending his nephew from Paris. What happens next will be his decision.”
I stood as well. I didn’t think she could tell I was shaking. I wouldn’t have wanted her to know. “You prefer a man you don’t know to your own daughter?”
“It is the legal system that prefers such things, not I,” my mother reminded me. “I did not inherit anything, and neither will you. But you think you’re above rules, and you can do as you please. Be sure that’s not what you teach your children.”
I could not bring myself to tell Mr. Enrique that our plan had been overruled, but he knew. Everyone knew my husband’s nephew was coming. Mr. Enrique continued to see to the business, but I took to my bed. I felt a fever come over me, a jade green fever in my heart and my bones. My bitterness, inherited from my mother. I was so ill that my mother did not protest when Rosalie called Jestine to visit me. Jestine defied my mother and came to give me ginger tea, but it was not the cure I needed. I noticed she was wearing the pearls, and she laid them on my chest; they were cold as ice. I could focus once more. Jestine said the fever was inside my mind. It was true, a black curtain had come down ever since I’d moved into my mother’s house. The edges of the pink flowers on the vines at the window were blocked out by wooden shutters. I could not see anything that was beautiful.
My mother came to the doorway, a shadow. She had worn black ever since my father died. I looked at her and felt I was looking into a mirror. We resembled each other too much.
“You’re not to come here again,” she said to Jestine. Then she turned to me. “If you don’t intend to die, you’d better get out of bed.”
When she left, Jestine and I looked at each other and broke into laughter. So much for compassion.
“You would have never traded places with me,” I said.
Jestine agreed with a nod. “Not for a day.”
Jestine took up her satchel and brought out a gift she’d made for me, a pale green dress. It looked so fresh, like grass and new leaves. “When you’re ready to give up your mourning it will be here. Then you’ll show your mother you’re not afraid to be who you are.”
I WOULD HAVE LIKED to close my eyes and go on sleeping, but I had children, seven of them. I did what I must, but I did so as a sleepwalker, still in mourning clothes. I was not ready for the green dress. All the same, something had changed inside me. I had one goal in mind: to escape my mother’s house. One afternoon I went to the store to pick up some sugar and flour for Rosalie, and Mr. Enrique signaled me to follow him. There was a staircase that led upstairs. I had remembered the area as a storeroom when we had an overabundance of goods, but now our merchandise had dwindled to a bare minimum, and the rooms revealed themselves to be lodgings. There were several bedchambers and a kitchen with an old stove left behind by the previous owners.
“We could rent this out,” Mr. Enrique said. He had had some of the workmen clean the place up and collect some unused furniture, too old to sell. “Or perhaps you have an idea for this place.”
I grinned. Mr. Enrique had saved me, as he’d once rescued my father. “I’ll take it.” I opened the shutters, and light spilled in. I could see the street and some vendors outside selling fruit.
“What will she have to say about it?” Mr. Enrique asked archly.
“She can say what she likes. It’s up to the stranger from France to decide our fates. My mother has no more say than I do.”
When I insisted we move into the rooms above the store, my mother didn’t challenge me. Perhaps she was thankful to be rid of me. We had caused each other enough grief, and she had aged enormously. She was so ill that she spent her days in my father’s chair. Often, in the dusk, a neighbor would pass by and she would call out my father’s name, as if she had seen him.
Our new lodgings were crowded, and we didn’t have enough furniture, but I preferred it. The younger children all shared a single room, with mattresses on the floor. The older boys, David and Samuel, slept in what had once been a parlor, and we used the kitchen as our common room. I heard Mr. Enrique in the morning, working in the office, setting out orders and keeping the ledgers. Rosalie often made him his tea. She stayed in his office for an hour or more, but I didn’t complain.
WHEN MY MOTHER PASSED on, fully dressed, lying upon the bed she had shared with my father, no one was surprised. I sometimes think she willed her death. She was done with her life here and wanted nothing more than to join her husband. She left me her jewelry, the diamond earrings and brooch she’d slipped into the hem of her skirt, but everything else would belong to my husband’s nephew when he came, including her house and all of her belongings. I sneaked in one night and took some of my father’s maps of Paris, along with a silver pen he used. When I walked through my family’s darkened house I saw sparks in the palms of my hands, but when I tried to catch them, they vanished. If I’d ever been able to call spirits to me, that gift was lost to me now.
In the garden I thought I saw the lizard that had been Aaron’s pet years earlier, there beneath the bushes where the leaves were so dry they sounded like paper rustling. As I was leaving, something held me back. I turned and went to uproot the apple tree from its large ceramic pot, then dragged it along with me. I left a trail of dirt behind, and my arms were aching when I reached the little garden behind the store. I deposited the tree there for the boys to plant in the morning.
In the days that followed I accepted visitors who wished to pay their respects when they called on me with trays of food and sweets. I cannot say I felt true sorrow, and although I kept this to myself, my mother’s closest friend, Madame Halevy, threw me a look when she and her maid brought us dinner, chicken curry and sweet molasses bread and several mango and coconut pastries. “Try to pretend you understand grief,” Madame Halevy said in a pinched voice.
“You seem convinced you know so much more than I do,” I responded ungraciously.
“Think back to this moment when you’re my age,” Madame Halevy told me. “Then you’ll know the answer.”
I wrote to Aaron, and although I didn’t expect the courtesy of a letter, a few weeks after my mother’s death, one arrived. He sent his regrets regarding her passing in a single line. She was good to me when she didn’t have to be. The remainder of his brief letter concerned Jestine. I felt uncomfortable with the intimacy of his words. He missed her terribly, he wrote, and could not stomach his regret. In that way, my mother had ruined his life as well as mine. I stopped reading and brought the letter to Jestine. I sat outside while she took his letter into her bedchamber. After a while she came and joined me. I had glanced at enough of Aaron’s missive to know he had written that their daughter was well cared for, as beautiful a child as she was intelligent. As if that message would lift Jestine’s despair. Perhaps I acted wrongly, he had written, but I acted out of love, so that she might have a better life.
BY NOW IT WAS spring. It was the time when Jestine and I used to wait for the turtles to come to shore, but she had no interest. She didn’t care what happened on our island. She looked toward France, where her heart and soul resided. When we met in the late afternoons, leaving the children in Rosalie’s care, we often walked along the wharf. We watched the harbor, eyeing the ships as they came in, then we made our way home separately.
We spent our thirtieth birthdays together. We were nine months apart, but we took a day in the middle and used it for both of us. We cooked ourselves dinner at Jestine’s house, a child’s meal of fongee pudding and coconut cake, although we also drank plenty of rum in the hope that it would make the next year easier. We did not say aloud what we wished for, though we wished for the very same thing, to board one of those sailing ships and cross the ocean. Late in the evening, after we had had too much rum, Jestine wept for her daughter. I stayed with her until she fell asleep. I hadn’t realized how lonely it was in her house at night, like a ship lost at sea. When it was past midnight, I walked back to town, up the hill to the store. There was a certain freedom in being a widow. No one asked where I went or with whom I spent my time. Without my mother to keep an eye on me, I could do as I pleased. I wasn’t afraid to be alone on the road. There were bats in every tree, but I waved my hands and drove them away as if I were a spirit. I had been young only a moment ago. I imagined that in the blink of an eye I would be old, and my life would be over before I could make it my own. Perhaps my story would not end as I had planned. Or perhaps it would change into something I had never expected, so that years from now, looking back, I would realize just how little I’d known as a young woman, precisely as Madame Halevy had said.