The Marriage of Opposites

Mortal Love

CHARLOTTE AMALIE, ST. THOMAS

1825

ABRAHAM GABRIEL FRÉDÉRIC PIZZARRO

He arrived at 14 Dronningens Gade, in an area known as the Queen’s Quarter, a day late, after a season of storms, when so many ships were lost between St. Thomas and Charleston that the indigo sea was a graveyard of sails and masts. He’d been sent a parcel that contained the keys to the properties his mother’s brother had owned, as well as all of those this same uncle had inherited from his father-in-law. Abraham Gabriel Frédéric Pizzarro was twenty-two,¹ but he was the executor of his uncle Isaac’s will and now the sole person to decide the fate of the business and of nearly a dozen relatives, all but three unrelated by blood. His family, some of who lived in Passy, just outside of Paris, and others situated in Bordeaux, where Jews had been recognized as citizens for seventy-five years, had met to decide the fate of the business. His grandfather Pierre Rodrigues Alvares Pizzarro was a Marrano from Portugal, a hidden Jew whose family had lived in that country for several generations after fleeing Spain. After much debate they had concluded that Frédéric’s youth would serve him well in undertaking the long, arduous trip and help him make the adjustment to the tropics. Not many among them wished to go into a region known for yellow fever and losses at sea. Frédéric had read all of the accountings of his uncle’s holdings: two houses, one store, and a failed shipping business. His uncle had left behind too many children and too many debts, all of which must be dealt with. It was up to Frédéric to turn the situation around, as it was now a family enterprise, owned in equal parts by Isaac’s widow, who had no voice in business matters, and the family in France, who did. This was the law and the way property was divided. Frédéric was fluent in French and Spanish and English and Portuguese, which would be helpful despite his complete ignorance of Danish, the official language of what would be his new country, a tiny island he had never heard of before. Still, he was their choice. He was responsible, respectable, and learned in legal matters, the right man for the job.

There had been several women in Paris who were displeased to hear the news of his imminent departure. After all, Frédéric was tall, with dark hair and an easy gait, so handsome that women often chased after him, even on the street, much to his embarrassment, handing him cards with their addresses, inviting him to supper and tea. He always declined these offers of introduction. He didn’t like the feeling of being hunted. He was something of a loner, and his dreams were filled with numbers and theorems. He believed in logic and had a mathematician’s spirit, and he carried a memory of a section of Galileo’s declaration with him. The universe cannot be read until we have learned the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written, which is a mathematical language.

Without these, one is wandering in a dark labyrinth.

Some people said he was an angel, for certainly no ordinary man could act with such integrity, but he laughed when he heard these statements. He was flesh and blood. He lost his temper, made mistakes, knew fear, had wicked thoughts. At times, the intensity of his own desires unnerved him; they were under his control, but struggling to break free it seemed, just beneath his skin, as if he might surprise himself with his grasp of pure pleasure, something he rarely knew. He burned for all he wanted, but ignored his yearnings, for he had a plan for his life, to prosper and be the man in his family that everyone could depend upon. He wished to do this to honor his God, his faith, and his family. And so, when they’d come to him and told him he would be leaving France, he assumed this was God’s plan. He was not an overtly religious man, but he was a believer in miracles both small and large. The voyage had amazed and changed him. He’d clung to the railings of the ship in the midst of storms and let the rain splash down on him. During one particular bad tidal surge, when the waves were twenty feet high, he closed his eyes and told his God to take him and do his will with him. When he opened his eyes to find he was still alive, and had not washed away to a watery death, as two other men on board had, vanishing before anyone could lend a hand or a length of rope, he knew he had a future that was his to claim.

He had left France as a young, naïve student, but three months at sea with older, harder men had made the world seem like a different place, dangerous, it was true, and mystifying, but open and fascinating, a book he had just begun to read. Perhaps fate was not written by God but made by men. The first week he had been too ill to leave his bunk, sickened by the roiling sea and the metallic taste of the water from the barrel outside his door. But by the second week, when storms returned, he pitched in with the sailors and learned more in that one week than he had his entire life. He learned that rats and lemons could be eaten by some men when there was nothing in the storeroom but molded bread, just as he discovered that the stars in the southern world were far brighter than any he had known, and that beneath the water there lived creatures so immense they created waves, as if they were masters of the ocean, and of the universe, and of fate. He gave in to the world that was bigger and more mysterious than he’d ever imagined, and he gave up some of the control he’d kept over his nerves and his desires. People in Paris would have been shocked to hear how often he laughed, and how drunk he managed to get without falling on his face.

He came off the boat with his beard unshaven and his hair so long it fell into his eyes. His leather bag of belongings had been discolored by salt, and his clothing was as filthy as any common sailor’s. He was still too handsome for his own good, but with lines on his face now, despite his youth, formed by the salt and the sea, and tanned skin that was a harder covering, one he’d realized he would need to survive. He knew no one in the town of Charlotte Amalie, or in St. Thomas, or anywhere else in this new world that was so bright he had to blink. The world was incandescent, on fire, and the gloom of his time at sea evaporated. He’d been babied by his mother, a favorite of the family, encouraged by his teachers and mentors. Hardship was a story he’d read about, nothing more, until this voyage, which had let him know some of what the world was like. He now understood that the sea was enormous and bottomless. It was overwhelming and gorgeous and far beyond his control, just like the rest of life. He felt a fool to ever have thought he could predict his future, for he never could have predicted a country in which the steep mountainsides were red, where flocks of birds shook themselves from the trees, like yellow flowers falling upward, into the sky.

He felt blinded by the tawny sunlight as he left the ship, and he quickly developed a squint that lasted the rest of his life. The heat was like a living thing that reached out in an embrace. If you fought it you couldn’t win, so he gave in to it. That was what he’d learned at sea, not to fight the elements or, he was still learning this, his own nature. He didn’t bother dressing in a jacket, as he would have done in France, but instead ducked into a cobbled alley and slipped on the one good white shirt he had left, packed away for this occasion. He’d been told some men collapsed with heat prostration in their first instants on this island. Others slowly went mad, driven to drink by boredom or weather, taking shelter in taverns and the old Danish taphuses, where they fell prey to rum. But as he went along, all he felt was free. He stood on the dock and gazed along the shore, where the houses were built on stilts, so tall they seemed like storks, their shutters painted bright hues of blue and yellow and green. Frédéric had been ill as a boy, with lung disease. In the winter in Paris he always wore two pairs of woolen socks and a heavy vest under his jacket. The heat here felt like heaven to him.

He went along the road into town, passing several busy wharves, stopping under a vine of bougainvillea so he could listen to the bees. The hum was overwhelming; he could feel the buzzing go through him and lodge somewhere inside his heart. Perhaps he had never heard anything before he’d known the sound of these bees. He was a businessman, sent to set things straight and reclaim a failing business, a serious endeavor, and yet it seemed he had walked into a dream. He spied a donkey feasting on green stalks of grass and laughed so loudly that the donkey startled, then brayed and ran away. In his bag he carried a folder of documents, along with a Bible. There was not a day that went by that he did not recite the morning and evening prayers, wearing the skullcap he carried with him. He was a Sephardic Jew whose grandfather had come from the little town called Braganza in Portugal, chased from his home in the middle of the night because of his faith with no belongings and no destination. It was in Frédéric’s blood to travel. He took his prayer book from his bag and stopped in the road to give his gratitude to God, for this day and for every day to come. The time was right to thank the Almighty. A star was appearing in the still blue sky. Evening was early to come here and he hurried with his prayers. Two African men passed him by with a cart of fruits and vegetables, many kinds that Frédéric didn’t recognize. There were brown fruits so sweet the flies buzzed around their bursting, ripening rinds, and orange ones that seemed to be tinted by a painter’s brushstrokes. Each fruit seemed a miracle, plucked out of a dream.

“You look lost,” the older man said. He spoke Spanish, the language that had always been spoken in Frédéric’s home. “Are you in the right country?”

Frédéric laughed. He gave the street name he wanted, and the fruit men pointed out the way. He spied some reddish fruit in one of their baskets, the only thing he recognized. The fruit sellers said it was very rare in their country and that an old man from Saint-Domingue had planted a tree in his courtyard and it had grown so tall the fruit fell over the wall and a few people had planted seeds from this one fruit and now it grew in several gardens. They gave him one to eat, an apple, not crisp, but warm from the sunlight, the pulp dissolving in his mouth. It reminded him of home, and it was, by far, the most delicious thing he’d eaten since he’d begun his travels.

“Are you looking for a woman?” the other African man asked him, switching to French. “Or just a place to stay?”

“A place to stay,” Frédéric was quick to respond. “I’m not ready to be involved with a woman.”

“Who is?” the older man countered. They all laughed. Frédéric was young and handsome. His Parisian French was so precise it was nearly a different language than the Creole spoken on this island. The men probably thought he was experienced with women, but he was not. His cousins went to whorehouses, and had often insisted he go with them. On those occasions he sat on a divan in the hallway and talked with the madam about her life and gave her business advice. He had ideas about everything, and helped her to figure out ways to raise her profits.

“You prefer men?” she said to him once.

“I prefer love,” he replied.

“You are young.” She’d shrugged at his naïveté. “Come back in two years.”

Now two years had passed and he was in St. Thomas, where he knew not a single soul but, if anything, was grateful for his aloneness. The world around him was an amazement, more than enough to satisfy him without the intrusion of anyone close to him. In a dream, it doesn’t matter with whom you are acquainted; all that counts is what you do and see. Here every color was vibrant, a completely different palette than in Paris. The pale sky that had burned white with heat only hours ago, when he’d stepped onto the wharf, was now washed with pink and gold. A miracle, he thought, with more to come.

Frédéric knew the widow had been sent a message concerning his arrival by the family, and that she had responded negatively. He had then been asked to write a letter, which he’d done, though there had been no reply. Perhaps she was expecting him, but he was filthy, in no condition to have a formal introduction. The fruit men led him up to what they called Synagogue Hill. They said his people mostly lived here and wished him luck. They told him to be careful; some people thought the old Danish families that kept slaves could turn themselves into werewolves. They ate Africans and Jews for supper. They could run faster than any man. That was why some of the streets were made of ninety-nine steps, so that the werewolf would stop to search for the hundredth step, and while he did, his victim would get away.

The streets were indeed steep, and Frédéric’s long legs were tired. He noticed an address he’d seen in his legal papers, one of the houses the family owned, empty now that the matriarch had died. It looked like the ghost of a house in the falling dark. He spied a spiral of smoke circling up behind the house and pushed open an iron gate so that he might see what was there. There was a skittering that unnerved him, the flash of some creature’s tail. He thought of monsters and fierce animals, of scales and teeth and claws. The air was perfumed, and there was fruit everywhere, growing wild, untended. No one had lived here for some time. He went through the courtyard and opened another gate, painted green, which led into a rear street. There was a cottage before him, and a well-dressed black man was eating his dinner at a wooden table set out on a small stone patio. Or at least he had been having his meal until Frédéric came through the gate. The fellow looked up, ignoring his food. Frédéric saw the other man’s hand move. There was a gun on his lap.

“I didn’t mean to disturb you,” Frédéric said in Spanish. He refused to believe it was his fate to be shot when he had just entered what he considered to be paradise.

“I’d prefer if you speak French,” the other man said. “Then if I have to shoot you, at least I’ll understand your last words.”

More had happened to Frédéric in the hours since he’d landed at the dock in Charlotte Amalie than had occurred in all the years he’d spent in France.

“You don’t have any reason to shoot me.”

“Tell me why and we’ll see if I believe you.”

In elegant French, Frédéric quickly explained that he had only just arrived and was looking for a place to spend the night before he went to meet the widow whose business he’d been sent to oversee.

“So while you prepare to swindle the widow out of her business you wish to stay here?”

“I’ve been sent to run the business, not steal it. I would go there directly, but I can’t present myself like this to a widow with six children.”

“Seven,” Mr. Enrique said. “You’re behind the times.”

“You know the family?”

“You clearly don’t. And now you want to spend the night in the house of a stranger you’ve never met before?” He gazed at the intruder, and then shook his head. “Do you think you’re clever enough to run a business?”

Frédéric considered himself a good judge of character. At that moment, he didn’t fear for his life. If anything, he felt more alive than ever before. “Do you always have dinner with a gun over your knees?”

“I’m the watchman here, among other things. The big house is empty. There are always thieves. You can stay there for the night. In the morning I’ll take you where you want to go. I think you’ll need help on this island. This isn’t France, you know. We have bugs that can kill you, let alone men.”

Frédéric gratefully accepted the dinner he was now offered. It was a stew called callaloo, made with taro, spinach, okra, and forbidden salted meat, a dish so savory, with a flavor spiced with cloves and pods of cardamom, that it loosened his tongue. He balanced his plate on his lap and swore he’d never had as good a dinner in France. He drank something sweet, a dizzying concoction called guava berry rum, and soon found himself speaking of intensely personal matters, of his life in Paris and his family there, and of their expectations that he would return. He knew some men from the outside world hated this island—the weather, the informality of the people, the mixing of race and religion and station. But some men dissolved into it and became a part of it; they took the embrace they were offered. Frédéric already knew he was of the mind of the latter group, those who felt they’d finally come home.

He made his way to the empty house in the dark along the overgrown path that led through the garden. It was a stucco mansion with a stone foundation, with moss growing up along the stones. The scent of the flowers was dizzying. Pink blooms on vines snaked along the verandas and wound up the walls. In the hedges were nesting bananaquits, yellow birds that glowed in the dim shadows as if bands of sunlight had been painted across their chests. The front door had been left unlocked. The hinges groaned as Frédéric pushed open the door and went into the spacious, cool hallway. A bottle of rum and dusty glasses were perched on a high mahogany table. He drank directly from the bottle. A lizard peeked inside the door, then ran into the hall, hiding under a rug. Frédéric drank far too much. At home, he rarely had wine or alcohol and often had tea before bed. Here, he seemed unnaturally thirsty.

It was late when he found his way upstairs and let himself into the first bedchamber he came upon. He pushed open the shutters, disturbing the bats in the courtyard so that they all rose in a dark vortex, like smoke lifting from the trees. Drunk, he fell deeply asleep. The pillows smelled like lavender. They were almost too soft, filled with the feathers of local birds, a thousand colors inside the cotton pillow sham. That night he dreamed of Paris, and of the rain. His dreams were gray and green, filled with shadows. When he awoke the sun was blinding and his head was pounding from all the rum he’d consumed. There were pink petals on the stone floor, and the lizard was on the windowsill, a pale green thing with wide eyes, kingly, as if the house belonged to him. Frédéric rejoiced to think that this was his waking life. He offered his gratitude to his family for sending him here. On the ship he’d worried that he would fail them, that he would be better off at home, in the job he was used to, in the world that he knew. But now he understood. They had chosen correctly.

HE FOUND CLEAN CLOTHES that were nearly his size in a cupboard. They were made of lighter cloth, linen and cotton. Pale gray and white. He poured a pitcher of cold water over his head, and shaved as best he could. His hair was longer than acceptable in Paris, but here he’d seen men simply tie it back, and he did likewise. He looked through his bag for a silk scarf he wore on formal occasions.

“All set to rob the widow,” Mr. Enrique said when they met up in the courtyard.

There were black birds with green throats that were no bigger than moths darting through the air, lighting on trembling branches.

“I’m here to help her. If I were a thief, there was plenty to rob in France and I would have avoided the pains of traveling here.”

“Well, I don’t think she’ll see it that way.”

They walked down the hill to the commercial district, boots clattering. The streets were filled with the din of working people and with trills of birdsong. A fellow in the market sold tamed birds, bits of yellow and pistachio-green fluttered, contained in bamboo cages. Frédéric wished he had the time to visit all the stalls and try everything before him, food of all sorts that he’d never seen before. The drinks offered had names that delighted him: pumpkin punch, peanut punch, coconut water, lemon tea. There was fruit on the trees, and in the distance the mountains looked red rather than green. It was May, and the first flowering of the flamboyant trees had begun. The air was thick with salt and the scent of limes. They passed a café where fishermen, already back from the sea, were bolting down their breakfasts.

“Let’s stop and get ourselves a meal,” Frédéric suggested. The fish soup looked especially delicious, and the scent of curry drifted toward them.

Mr. Enrique threw his companion a look. “There are some things you should know about this place.” He realized now how young and naïve his companion was. “Your people were granted full rights on this island, other than the fact that they cannot marry out of their race, but mine don’t have that benefit. There is no selling of human life since the first part of the century; the Danish government saw to that when they took the island. But those who came here as slaves, remain so. True, many people of color here are free, but that doesn’t mean you can publicly sit down for a meal with me.”

Frédéric shrugged. “We could take it with us.”

“I wouldn’t be served at this establishment. We’d have to go down the street, and there isn’t time.”

Frédéric laughed. “Because the widow is waiting. Snoring in a chair?”

He clearly had a vision of her, and Mr. Enrique gave him a hard look.

“You should know the widow isn’t old. She’s not what you expect. She understands the business and is bright.”

“And you know this because?”

“I was her father’s clerk, and then your uncle’s clerk, and now it appears I’ll be yours as well. That is, if she allows you into the office.”

“I am the heir to my uncle’s estate, which includes her father’s properties. I’m afraid she has no choice,” Frédéric informed his companion, his more serious side emerging.

“That may be, but she’d probably do better running the business than anyone, if it was not against the law for a woman to do so.”

They had reached the store, which was already bustling at this hour. Frédéric admired the stone and stucco façade. Enrique explained that above the commercial area were the rooms where the widow and her children lived. This was just as well. The estate wished to sell the house where his uncle Isaac had lived, and the house of his uncle’s mother-in-law, where Frédéric had spent the night. He thought of his dreams of rain and felt a chill. He had just turned twenty-two, and all at once he felt his youth, how little he knew about the lives of others: widows, children, dying men. He was about to enter into the daily life of people he didn’t know. He hesitated at the door. There was a hedge of those same pink flowers he’d seen in the stucco house, and the bees seemed to have followed him. He closed his eyes for a moment and listened to their buzzing, then suddenly felt he was being watched. He gazed upward, squinting, but all he saw were some lace curtains, made in France.

Once they were inside the main hall, Enrique directed him to the widow’s lodgings, before continuing on to the office at the rear of the store. Frédéric went through a side door and took the stairs to the modest living quarters. In France, this would have been considered the home of a person with little means. He had the key to the place and was legally the owner of everything, but felt too uncomfortable to use the key unannounced, so he knocked at the door. Frédéric heard people talking inside, the rise and fall of voices speaking French. He rapped on the wood again, and again there was no answer. He waited in the corridor for some time, long enough for him to realize no one would likely respond, and so he used one of the keys that had been sent to him.

There was a click, and then the door opened into the world he’d been sent to manage and guide. He hadn’t expected the scene before him, two boys who were nearly men gathering some books, so many children at the table he could not count them all, an African woman seeing to their breakfasts, admonishing them for being greedy and late, a little boy and some even younger girls, barefoot, their hair braided and pinned up. They were Emma and Delphine, so close in age they seemed to be twins. It barely mattered how many there were; he could not see any of them clearly as his attention was riveted on the woman who came out of a bedchamber, wearing a white shift, her masses of dark hair loose, a baby at her hip. He thought of a white rose, for there were some in his parents’ garden outside Paris, blooms which grew on thin, wavering branches covered by thorns. The woman appeared to have just come from her bed. Her clothes were loose and light enough for him to see her form. He found himself immobilized, there on the threshold of a home to which he hadn’t been invited or, it seemed, expected.

A little girl saw him first and pointed. “Qui est cet homme?” she asked in a singsong. It would take weeks before he could tell which one was Delphine and which was Emma. The rest of the children, who had been as noisy as birds, quieted, staring with suspicion. The black woman said, “What do you think you’re doing here?” in accented English. They were all speaking to him at once, except the dark-haired woman dressed in white, who merely raised her eyes to his. She gazed at him coldly, not wanting him to realize how handsome she found him. There was a soulful cast to his features, as if he revealed his innermost self. She saw that he was wearing gray leather boots and she knew he was from Paris, and at that instant Rachel Pomié Petit, who had the sharpest tongue on St. Thomas, found she could not speak.

Frédéric ignored the others and managed to walk up to the lady of the house and introduce himself. He could imagine what a fool he must have seemed to Mr. Enrique when he spoke of her as if she were an old woman. He’d been warned that she was not what he expected. He managed to introduce himself and to say surely she must have received the letter stating he would be arriving from France.

“My goal is to help you in any way I can,” he assured her. “S’il vous plaît, permettez-moi de vous aider.”

The widow stared at him. His accent was perfect; careless and elegant. She laughed and said, “Before I’m dressed or after?”

He realized she wore a chemise and a petticoat, not a white dress. He could not quite remember her name, but then the African woman called her Rachel—a familiarity that never would have occurred in France between mistress and servant. He recalled what he’d read in the files he carried with him. Rachel Pomié Petit, born in St. Thomas, daughter of a well-respected shop owner named Moses Pomié, married to his uncle Isaac when she was not much more than a girl.

The children had gone back to the business of getting ready for the day. The older boys continued to stare at Frédéric, uneasy, perhaps because he was not that much older than they, but the younger ones paid him no mind. He felt surrounded by mayhem, the children finishing their food, the maid, who was called Rosalie, clearing up as best she could, shouting out instructions that the children more or less ignored. Frédéric could see only the woman before him. The rest faded away, sinking out of his line of vision. He would always think of the scent of molasses from the store downstairs when he thought of this day, the morning when he fell in love with a woman who had seven children.

“I had Rosalie go down to the boat to meet you yesterday, but you weren’t there,” Rachel told him. His posture was so straight, not like that of the men in St. Thomas, who slouched in the heat. He stood the way she imagined all men in Paris did, with a natural grace. “I thought you’d changed your mind and stayed in Paris, which made me think all the more of you.”

“You’ve been there?” he said to engage her in a conversation that might make them less uncomfortable with their situation, more social, if that was possible.

“Not quite yet.” When she laughed she looked like a girl to him, no older than himself, though she was, technically, his aunt, and seven years older. The amount of time that Jacob had served to win his Rachel in the Bible, though each year had seemed like a day because of the love he felt for her.

“Well, I’m flattered that you thought of me at all,” he said. “I didn’t want to disturb you, so I imposed on your clerk and spent the night in your parents’ house.”

“How quickly you moved in to what was once ours. You’ve come from Paris to this dot in the ocean to claim what belonged to my husband and my father, and, if the laws cared anything for women, to me.”

There was color rising in her face and throat as she spoke. Clearly she resented him. She had begged Isaac’s family in France to trust her with the business, and in response they sent this tall young man who stood in her kitchen, surprised by everything he encountered. It was as if a heron had flown in through the window and then had frozen, shocked by the peculiar manners of humankind. Rachel studied him more carefully now, for he was equally strange to her. His Parisian accent, the way he ran his hand over his brow when he was speaking, his eyes, which appeared to change color depending on the light. Despite his youth, he seemed commanding in some way, comfortable with himself in a manner she assumed a man educated in Paris might be. She’d seen him from her window and had immediately known he was the one. The man who’d come to take over her life. She’d taken note of how good-looking he was, how French in character he seemed due to his extreme composure. Well, face-to-face, he was no longer quite so composed. He plucked at a thread on his shirt. Rachel recognized his jacket and trousers. “You’re wearing my cousin’s clothes, I see.”

“Am I? They’re only borrowed. I’ll give them back, of course. Certainly I’m not a thief. I assure you, I’m here to help. Nothing more.”

This wasn’t entirely true. The Petit family in France was claiming what was legally theirs, half of the business, and they wished it to prosper, so he was there for reasons other than assisting her, no matter how he claimed to be at her service. He was here for the family. Now that he stood before her, he felt somewhat pained by the legal arrangements he was sent to oversee.

“Keep the clothing,” the widow told him. “My cousin won’t be returning. He’s wise enough to stay in Paris. But please excuse me while I find my own clothes.”

Frédéric waited at the table while the widow dressed and the children were sent off to school. He would have liked some tea, but did not ask for fear of overstepping his welcome. He wondered what sort of tea they drank here. Surely it was made of roses and jasmine rather than mere black tea leaves. The maid put a cup before him, as if she’d read his mind. Lemon and ginger. Sweet and sour.

“She’s not going to like you,” Rosalie told him. The maid had the baby on her lap, but she kept her eye on him. “So don’t even try.”

Rachel returned in a pale green dress, her hair knotted at the back of her head. It was the first time she had not worn her mourning clothes. Instead, she’d slipped on the dress Jestine had made. She told herself the dress was the first thing she found in her bureau, but that was not exactly the truth. The dress had pearl buttons, as French dresses often had, and a crinoline trimmed with lace.

No longer caught unawares, Rachel seemed different, more distant. Frédéric wanted that other moment back, when she’d first come out of her chamber, unguarded, her hair falling down her back. There were thousands of women in Paris wearing silk dresses, but he’d seen not a single one in a white shift.

“I presume you’re here for business, so we should begin,” she said to him formally.

One of the children sang a bit of a song, and Rachel laughed and once again was the woman he’d first spied, her upturned face filling with light, her mouth dark and beautiful. He felt he was seeing a secret, a vision granted to only a few. He could feel his desire when she glanced at him. As she caught his eye, her expression had darkened. Perhaps she could read his thoughts, which were embarrassing even to himself. The things he wished to do to this woman, he could not have brought himself to say aloud.

Rosalie went out with the children, and for a moment it was awkward between them, two strangers in a small room, the plates and dishes left on the table with crusts of bread and bits of fruit, flies gathering on the rims. The heat of the day was beginning. There was nothing and everything to say. Women were not supposed to be alone with men, but he was family and so young, only a few years older than David, the household’s oldest boy. Surely there was nothing wrong in being in the same room. She gave Frédéric another cup of tea and accidentally spilled some on his hand. He couldn’t have cared less. He let the pain radiate through him. It seemed all of his senses were heightened. Though he assured her it was fine, and she hadn’t burned him, she was unsure and placed a cool washcloth on his skin. His expression was unreadable. He didn’t even seem to blink. There was a salve she could get for him.

“It will just take a minute,” she said.

He told her please not to bother, he was fine. She took the cloth away and saw a blister rising. She could feel her concern but also much more. Something far too hot. She felt as if she were the one who might faint. He was right, she must let it be. She turned her back to him and wrung out the dishcloth. She was thinking too much about him already. He looked like a man who had stepped out of a cold world, in his gray boots, with his black hair tied back and his posture so straight, even though he’d been burned.

“We should go,” she said.

“We should,” he agreed.

They went downstairs, and Rachel introduced him to Monsieur Farvelle, who was now running the daily goings-on at the store. The air was so sweet it was difficult to breathe. Soon Frédéric would learn that everything on this island carried the aroma of molasses, but for now he equated the scent with desire. While the men spoke, Frédéric took a cursory glance at the shop books, quickly spying dozens of errors. Rachel sat in a chair, her hands folded, watching him. He felt himself grow feverish under her glance. He gently pointed out a few errors to Farvelle, who was not at all pleased to be upbraided by a stranger, and one as young as his own son.

“You’re good at numbers,” Rachel said, as they went to the shipping office at the rear of the store.

“I dream of them.”

She laughed. “That’s an odd dream to have. But who am I to talk? I dream of rain.”

The corridor was small and packed with boxes. There were dust motes in the air, some as big as moths. He could not keep his eyes off her. He wondered if it had been her bed that he’d slept in, in the big house, and if the dream he’d had had been hers. He had despised rain when he was in France, but now he longed for that rainy dream, for the bed that might be hers, the pillows that were so deep, the open window and the yellow morning light and the cool, green dream they had shared.

She brought him to Mr. Enrique, who shook his hand and said, “Good morning, sir,” as if they’d never met or discussed life on a personal level.

“Good morning,” Frédéric replied, quite confused about the intricacies of social expectations here. He understood that he should follow Mr. Enrique’s lead and act as if last night had never happened, and they had never dined together and discussed their personal histories. In Paris one’s place in society was set; an individual did not have much to do with those outside his own position and faith. Jews were in a circle with other Jews, bankers with bankers, and so on. It all made perfect sense. Later Frédéric would understand that on this island there were the rules of what should be, and then the deeper truth of what actually was. People knew each other intimately, and then pretended they’d never met.

“First things first. Mr. Enrique is not to be removed from his position,” Rachel told Frédéric, although she had no right to give orders.

“Of course.” Frédéric did not wish his stewardship to be unpleasant, and there was no cause to disagree. It was in his best interest to keep Mr. Enrique on.

“And I need these papers signed immediately.”

Rachel shoved a document in front of him, which he scanned, trying to make sense of it, though she was hurrying him along, handing over a pen, pointing out the place for his signature. When he hesitated she put her hands on her hips.

“I see you don’t trust me, but I’m sure you will expect me to trust you,” she said.

“Is business about trust or knowledge?” Frédéric asked. “I’m here to do what’s best for you.”

“This is best. These papers allow Rosalie to be a free woman. I haven’t the right to do the signing.”

Now he understood, Rosalie was a slave. He supposed she was, in essence, part of his uncle’s estate, not that there was any reason for the family in France to be notified of this, for it was a violation of the deepest human right. Rachel was watching him carefully, and he could tell this was a moment in which she would either praise or condemn him. He already knew he didn’t wish to lose her.

“Of course,” he said once again.

When he glanced up, the widow and her clerk were exchanging a pleased look.

Frédéric handed her the document. She did not thank him, but rather studied him more closely than before. She was staring at his jacket. It was as if she could see beneath his clothes. “I presume you gave him my cousin’s clothes,” she said to Mr. Enrique in a teasing tone.

“He wasn’t given them. He took what he wanted, though he swears he’s not a thief.” Mr. Enrique and Rachel often shared jokes, and they did so now, at Frédéric’s expense. “You should be careful that he doesn’t take too much from you without asking.”

Rachel turned to glance at the nephew of her husband, the young man from France who was too handsome for his own good, who dreamed of numbers, who took what he wanted, and who now hung his head, embarrassed at the very idea of being judged untrustworthy, even if they were merely having fun with him.

“What do you have to say for yourself?” Rachel asked him. “Do you plan to steal from me?” She said so to taunt him, but all of her intentions took a turn when he raised his eyes. His look went through her. His eyes were some color that she couldn’t define, a gray or green. They were the color of rain. She hadn’t known rain could have a color; she’d thought it was clear, but she’d been mistaken.

“I would only take what you offered,” he said.

Rachel was impressed by his forthrightness and not at all offended, as another woman might have been. If anything, she felt her interest deepen.

Something had come to her from Paris at last.

FRÉDÉRIC WAS QUICKLY GRANTED his Burgher Brief by the business association, which allowed him to take over his uncle’s holdings and be accepted into the community. He lived in a spare room in the store, below the apartment, beside the office where he worked. It was expected that he would move to his own lodgings when a property became available, not that he was in a hurry. He didn’t even look for other accommodations, or respond to suggestions offered by the men of the congregation who knew of boardinghouses and rooms to let. He said he was too busy, and his time was taken up with his uncle’s business matters, but the truth was, he did not wish to go anywhere else. In his current room there was a single window that let in more sunlight than had streamed through all of the windows in his family’s home in France combined. Here, every day was a joy, bathed in light. Bananaquits nested outside his window and woke him with their song. Yet no matter how hot the weather, every night he dreamed of rain. It poured down in his dreams, and when he woke he felt much as a drowning man pulled from the sea might have as air rushed back into his being.

Inconveniences did not matter. He did not care for luxury. There was an outhouse beyond the shop and a washbasin on the dresser. He shaved only every other day, and tied his hair back with a string of leather. He sold the houses first, which paid off debts and gave the business a tidy sum to invest. Rachel came with him to walk through the empty houses. First they went to his uncle Isaac’s house. There was an echo on the tile floors, a thickness to the air. She stopped on the threshold of the chamber she had shared with her husband and held out her hands as if in some sort of prayer. Frédéric stood beside her, his throat raw.

“She’s gone.” Rachel’s expression was grave, her black eyes piercing.

“She?” Frédéric asked, thinking he must have heard incorrectly. Surely it was his uncle Isaac to whom Rachel referred.

“The ghost.”

“Ah,” Frédéric said, relieved that she was not still mourning her husband. “So the house was haunted.”

“You don’t believe me?” Rachel threw her shoulders back as if ready for a fight. “She was his first wife. The one he loved.”

“He loved you,” Frédéric said before he thought better of it.

“Why would you say that?”

Frédéric shrugged. “Because he’d be a fool not to.”

They walked along the empty loggia that adjoined the rooms. All the furnishings had been sold and taken away. There was a poppet in a corner, a child’s toy.

“You’ve seen the way he managed the business.” Rachel’s voice was soft. It was terrible to walk through an empty house, lost by mistakes of fortune. “Maybe he was a fool.”

“Well, I’m not,” Frédéric said simply.

They went out to the porch, then down to the gate decorated with herons. The sky was opalescent. Rachel shielded her eyes so that she might look into his. Doing so was like stepping into the rain.

MR. ENRIQUE WAS GIVEN the title of manager, and in return he worked long hours, teaching Frédéric the business. He was a good teacher and as talented at numbers as Frédéric was. Rosalie often brought them their dinner when they worked into the night. It wasn’t long before Frédéric realized there was something between them, a tenderness brought by years of intimacy. “Your wife?” he asked one evening.

“Is that your business?” Enrique turned away, and Frédéric dropped the subject.

Later, as they were closing up the office for the day, Enrique said, “I had a wife once, but we argued. Now I don’t know if she’s alive. This was all on another island, another lifetime. So how can I marry?”

They kept their attention on the ledgers after that, for a discussion of one’s personal life could lead to trouble. They both agreed that the store was the most profitable piece of the estate, and they concentrated on increasing the importance of sales, as Mr. Enrique suggested, for the shipping business was besieged by bad weather and pirates and taxes. Fate was a terrible business partner, Mr. Enrique told him. Frédéric took his manager’s advice in all things: they would sell molasses and rum and let other men take their chances on shipping and ruination.

When he wasn’t careful, Frédéric dreamed of Rachel. He kept his distance. He heard stories about her at the synagogue. He overheard other women say she thought too highly of herself, that she spoke her mind as if she were a man and was never polite to the other ladies. He walked away from such conversations. It was none of his business anyway. Still, when members of Blessings and Peace invited him to dinners, he had little choice but to attend. They were formal events, and he had only one black suit, which Rosalie pressed for him every time he went out in the evenings. He realized he was being introduced to all of the unwed young women and girls. At one dinner he was so overheated and nervous that he went into the courtyard, taking a glass of rum with him. It was even hotter outside, but at least he was alone. Or so he thought. At first there seemed to be a heron on the patio, one of those strange blue birds he’d spied in the marshes. Then Frédéric realized it was one of the older women from the congregation, wearing an azure-colored dress.

“Do you know what a sin is?” the old woman called to him.

“Pardon?” he said, taken aback. He waved away the moths that seemed to be attracted to the hair tonic he used.

“It’s what you want and know you cannot have.” It was Madame Halevy.

“Are you referring to the rum?” he asked in an amused tone.

“I’m referring to desire,” Madame Halevy said.

“Well, thank you for your interest.” Frédéric was doing his best to keep his wits about him. He thought perhaps he had run into a mind reader. He’d heard there were such women on this island.

“It’s not interest.” The old woman signaled him to help her up from the stone bench, and he had little choice but to do so. “It’s a warning,” she went on. “So you understand there is a covenant against incest.”

“Madame, I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“As a brother cannot lie with a sister, nor a father with a daughter, neither can a nephew and an aunt. You do not need to share blood to be in the same family.”

He felt like thrashing her, old bones and all, but was polite, as he had been taught to be. “I don’t know what would make you say such a thing,” he said in a cold tone.

“Rachel makes me say such a thing,” Madame Halevy said. “She has never understood she must obey the rules. For both your sakes, I’m hoping that you do.”

He helped the old woman inside, then fled from the congregation. From then on, he kept to himself. The old woman’s warning had made him reexamine his actions. Now when he had free time he explored the island. He swam in a waterfall that Enrique mentioned, a secret place set in a marshy area that was a nesting place for herons. Frédéric’s first real bath, not one from a washbasin, was had among tiny blue fish that flashed around him. He quickly accepted the local wisdom that it was better to drink rum rather than wine. Rum kept away diseases, as did the netting that he strung around his small bed. Sometimes he went back to the place where he’d heard bees on his first day in Charlotte Amalie. He closed his eyes and listened to the thrum as bees darted among the flowers, and despite his resolve not to do so, he thought of Rachel.

When he visited his uncle’s widow on Friday night after services, he was schooled in the proper way to hold a baby on his lap while he took his dinner. He tutored the boys with their schoolwork, and thought David had an especially good head for numbers. He told himself, and anyone who might bother to ask, that he went to the Friday-night dinners to be polite, and because it was his duty, and because in some way he was now the man of the house. At these times, and at all times, he did everything he could not to look at Rachel or imagine her in her white shift. Yet he seemed to have memorized that garment: the seams, the pearl buttons, the way it fit her body, the way he might undo it and tear it off her body, the way she might beg him to do so. He was furious with himself for thoughts he could not seem to control.

She was seven years older than he, and had lived a lifetime in those seven years. She had been a married woman, a widow, a mother, and he was nothing more than a young man who was good at numbers. Once, after leaving, he stopped on the street and glanced into the window. He saw her unpin her black hair. He stood there even though he knew she would remove her dress. It was as if his imagining had been willed into being and he couldn’t turn away. Those next few movements when she stepped out of her clothes undid him. He could not look away. He heard bees somewhere, but he couldn’t have told whether they were beside him in a hedge or halfway across the island. Afterward he walked through town, and then into the hills; he trekked for miles and miles, hoping he could walk away his thoughts. He found himself lost in a meadow. Everything was pitch. He felt alone in all the world, more so even than when he was at sea, where no one would have known if he slipped into the waves. He panicked when he saw eyes staring at him through the dark. He thought he had come upon the devil, and that the devil had been the one to give him the thoughts he had about Rachel, and now he would be punished. But when he looked more carefully he saw it was only a goat, kept behind a wooden fence, staring out at him. He laughed at himself and his fears then. He had told Rachel he wasn’t a fool, but now he appeared to be one.

ONE EVENING AT FRIDAY-NIGHT dinner, Rachel touched his hand with hers while passing him his plate. It was nothing, a passing stroke, yet his flesh burned. He did not care to have his meal. He saw her later, pouring cold water on her own hands, and then, quite suddenly, he knew she felt as he did. After that he worked harder, kept later hours. He wrote to his family in France, long letters about the business, and did not mention her. At night he listened to the whir of mosquitoes and moths. He felt the blue-black darkness all around him. He wished that when he awoke he would find that he’d forgotten the first time he saw her.

There was a night she came to his room when he was asleep. He was dreaming that she was there in her white petticoat, and when he opened his eyes there she was, holding a lantern. She whispered, “Hurry up, get dressed,” then went into the corridor to wait for him. He leapt from bed and pulled on his clothes, hurrying to see if she had been real or the work of a fevered brain. He carried his boots and darted into the corridor. She laughed when she saw him rush from his room, so tall and lanky and disoriented, wiping the sleep from his eyes.

“You look like you expected something else,” she said, for she was fully clothed in her green dress and she wore a light cape.

Her amusement made him slightly angry, or perhaps it was the pure hurt he felt when he thought about the fact that she had belonged to his uncle, an old man who had ruined the business. “You came to me,” he said coldly, then instantly regretted his tone.

“So I did.” She nodded, chastised. “I don’t deny it.”

It was as though everyone else in the household had disappeared, magicked away in the blue night. Rosalie lived with them during the week. She slept in her own room when she cared for the children, the door open so she could hear the babies if they woke. All were asleep. No one seemed a part of this world, except for the widow and her nephew. The air was heavy, enchanted, and the frogs made a singing noise that was urgent and low. A few days earlier, Frédéric had discovered a frog under his pillow, green with a red dot on its back.

“Poisonous,” Rosalie had declared when he described the creature at breakfast. “You’d better watch out for yourself. This isn’t Paris.”

He’d learned later on from the children that this wasn’t true, the frog was harmless and Rosalie was having fun with him. Now every time Rosalie saw him, she said, “Are you watching out for frogs?” It had become something of a joke between them.

But his uncle’s widow leading him out into the dark night was not a joke. He thought he could hear his own heart, and he hoped she couldn’t hear the thudding, as if he were a schoolboy who couldn’t control himself. They went down the steep street, empty now, and headed out of town. The air was soft and thick as they approached a beach Rachel wanted him to see. It was the time when the turtles came to shore. She explained they could not hold a lantern, for it would confuse the creatures that had come to lay their eggs, drawn from the sea by the moon’s light. She blew out the flame, and then they lay down in the sand. He stretched himself out beside her, the length of their bodies against each other. She told him about the turtle that was half human, who looked enough like a woman, and made every man who saw her fall in love with her. Some of her suitors dove into the water after her, even the ones who didn’t know how to swim, but she didn’t look back.

This story worried Frédéric. Was it a warning or a confession? Was she telling him to stay away, or urging him to follow her?

“I used to come here with my best friend, but she doesn’t want to see miracles anymore,” Rachel confided. “She doesn’t believe in them, but I’m surprised to say I do.”

He was grateful to whoever this friend was; her lack of faith meant he was the one who was beside Rachel to see the miracle of this night. The sand was cold and damp, the air nearly wet as the sea, but he was burning up now. He couldn’t believe she didn’t know, and he half expected her to slap him for his thoughts, but when she looked at him he saw a sort of compassion in her eyes, as if she pitied him for being human, and perhaps she pitied herself as well.

There were hundreds of turtles coming from the sea. Some walked right past them, lumbering across the beach, intent on finding the perfect stretch of sand in which to nest. The moon was pale and full beneath banks of clouds, and there were pinpricks of stars. The brightest light came from the reflections of the whitecaps of the sea. And then the clouds shifted and the moon lit a path for the turtles; the beach turned green as more and more made their way ashore. It took all night for the turtles to lay their eggs, and to hide them under the sand, and then, at last, exhausted, to return to the sea.

As Rachel and Frédéric walked home, morning was breaking through the sky. The world was pale and beautiful, filled with a weave of birdsong, music so loud it seemed to Frédéric that his head would burst. They had not slept, and so the night seemed to have lasted far longer than any ordinary night.

“I should hate you,” Rachel said.

She was wound up in a nameless longing, and she blamed him for her raw emotions. His presence was like a spell, his name an incantation. She had been avoiding him, but that tactic hadn’t worked. She hadn’t been to the cemetery once since his arrival. She ignored her children when they cried. She locked herself in her chamber every night and stared into the mirror, wondering if she was old, and if there was a cure for aging, some leaf or herb she might ingest or apply to make him want her. She should have had nothing to do with him, he was the enemy, the unwanted relative, but now it was too late. She knew too much about him, and everything he did took on a cast of intimacy. How he hung his jacket on the chair before he set to work, how he cut his food so carefully, how he looked at her when he thought her back was turned to him, how he gasped when the first turtles went past, how he’d moaned when she accidentally touched him the first time. Adelle had told her that her fate was waiting for her, and that she would recognize it when it arrived.

He pulled her to him when they passed the door of a neighbor’s house, into the dark entryway, where he kissed her. He was so ardent that she could hardly catch her breath, but she did not consider telling him this could not be. She felt his heat as he shifted his hands inside her cloak, then inside her dress, the one Jestine had made her to remind her of spring. Now she knew, after seven children, after all these years of waiting for another life, listening for rain: This was what love was. She did not stop him, but fell into him, and then there was a noise, a bird perhaps, and he startled and quickly moved away as if he’d committed a criminal offense. In the traditions of their society, what he had done was both immoral and illegal. He apologized and left her at her door without another word.

HE TOLD HIMSELF THE relationship with his uncle’s wife couldn’t go any further. He spent his evenings with Enrique and no longer came to the dinner table on Friday nights. It didn’t matter if he and Rachel were related by marriage rather than by blood—such things could not happen within a family, there was a covenant against it, as he had recently been reminded. His hours at the synagogue increased. He had been known as a pious man, now people wondered if perhaps he wished to be considered for the governing board, as the synagogue appeared to be his life. Was it pride or penance that made him sweep out the entranceway, gather prayer books, tend to the garden, pulling out weeds by hand? Either way, he was to be commended, and people spoke of him fondly and with pride.

When he saw Rachel in the store or on the street, he lowered his eyes. He made certain to call her Madame Petit, to remind himself that she was his uncle’s widow, nothing more. He’d been enchanted. It happened to men on this island. He’d heard stories about it in the taverns and taphuses, men who lost sight of themselves and jumped off cliffs, swam out to sea, swore they saw women in the treetops or beneath the water.

He tried his best to be sociable, and accepted invitations from those who wished to know him better. All the same, he fidgeted and stammered when he spoke. He soon got the reputation of being shy, for he often excused himself, leaving before dessert was served. He was too pious, perhaps, to be looking for a wife. He went to bed early, blew out his lantern, tried his best to sleep. He knew that she was in the room above his. He often heard something outside his door. It was not a frog. Frogs made no noise. It was his uncle’s widow, wandering through the store. In his imaginings she was wearing the white shift, a rose in the dark night. Once he dreamed she was in his arms, that she’d come into his room, and to his bed. She wanted him in that dream, and told him what to do and how to please her. In the morning, when he licked his lips he tasted molasses. He often thought of the old woman in the garden. Again, she must have read his mind, for she wrote a note, brought to him by an ancient maid who could barely walk down the path. Ne détruisez pas cette famille et, en même temps, vous-même. Do not destroy yourself and this family.

“Do you have a reply for Madame Halevy?” the maid asked him.

There were bees in the garden and a tree that was said to have come all the way from France and the sort of heat that made you want to close your eyes and dream.

“No,” Frédéric told her. “I do not.”

THE SUMMER CAME AND went, the heat of it a mystery and a delight to him. He wanted something burned out of him. He went to the waterfall at dusk, the hour when the mosquitoes appeared and most people knew enough to stay away, and he submerged himself in the cool brackish water. The children adored him. He played with the young ones in the garden and taught the older boys about the business. The little girl, Delphine, was especially attached to him. She accidentally called him Papa one glimmering afternoon, and afterward he did not play with them as often, and he asked the children to call him Monsieur Frédéric. Because he no longer ate with them, Rachel left a plate in the corridor for him on Friday nights.

“You prefer to eat in your own room?” she asked.

“There’s no reason for me to impose on your family,” he responded.

“You’ve already imposed a thousand times over, what difference does another dinner make?”

“So you admit it, I’ve imposed,” he said.

“Frédéric,” his uncle’s wife said in a soft voice. “I will not bite you if that’s what you’re afraid of.”

“I’m not,” he was quick to say, for in his dreams he wanted exactly that.

He continued to take his dinner at a desk in his room, and even then, he could not enjoy his meal. He lost weight. He often could not sleep. But he stayed away from his uncle’s wife, though he thought he heard her, now and then, late at night. Or perhaps that was only his wish. That one day she would step over the threshold and tell him that she wanted him, and he would respond gratefully, willingly, without any attempt to stop.

HE DIDN’T KNOW HE was ill at first, for the weather was changing, and there was the sudden damp chill that comes when the air is windy and blue. Summer was over, and he thought it was the coolness of the season rather than his own constitution that made him feel so weak. He had been in Charlotte Amalie for eight months. More and more he considered going back to Paris to stop himself from acting on impulse, a challenge every day. He could have Mr. Enrique take over the day-to-day business, for they were equals when it came to such things, and he trusted the clerk’s good sense, but he stayed because he could not imagine the world without the widow. Paris became more and more distant, darker, a place of overcast skies, a mottled fish-colored river running through it.

And then the darkness gathered within him and he could feel it like a cloud inside his lungs, and he became ill. There were trade winds from Africa that rattled the leaves, and flocks of birds overhead flew south. The darkness of his home had followed him here. He was freezing cold. He couldn’t keep food down, and then he could not sleep. He felt something creep into his bones, as if he were under a spell. His sleep lasted too long and he couldn’t force himself to wake. On days when it was chilly he sweated through his clothes, and then in the bright sunlight he shivered. Maybe such things happened on this island, and a man had to fight this kind of exhaustion any way he could. He drank rum for its healing properties. He ate only fruit. He wore his jacket when he went to bed, and kept his boots on as well, to keep him warm. He saw the frog again, and he wondered if it had poisoned him. It sat beside his bed, but he was too tired to catch it and set it into the garden.

One morning he did not arrive at the office. Mr. Enrique found him in his chamber, shivering in his small bed, his clothes strewn around his room, plates of uneaten food on his desk. It was an unseasonably warm day, and the temperature was ninety-four degrees. Frédéric called for a quilt and then another blanket. The doctor came and said it might be yellow fever, they would have to wait and see. He let some of Frédéric’s blood. Frédéric didn’t seem to notice, not the cut with the scalpel or the loss of blood or the fact that he was talking out loud, saying what he should not. Rachel and Rosalie took turns holding cold wet cloths to his face. Once Rachel put her hand inside his shirt, and felt for his heart. He was burning there, too.

She went to the cemetery and brought the last of the boughs of that season’s red flowers. She begged her predecessor for help in keeping death away from him. She had cared for Esther’s children and loved them as though they were her own, surely she should be granted this one wish. But his illness grew worse. It seemed that Esther no longer listened to her. Her ghost had dissolved as soon as her husband joined her. It was no longer possible to reach her.

Monsieur DeLeon, along with some of the elders from the synagogue, came to pay their respects. They gathered around Frédéric’s bed and said the evening prayers. There were ten of them, a minyan, the number of men needed in the Jewish faith for an official gathering. “We are here for him,” Monsieur DeLeon said as the men left. “For his time in this world and in the next.”

All at once Rachel understood they expected Frédéric to die. She saw how veined with pallor he was, the tinge of yellow around his eyes, his listless form. Seeing him this way, she knew what must be done, just as she knew she didn’t much care what the doctor or the men from the congregation predicted.

Though Jestine no longer liked to be around children, she had been keeping Rachel’s with her, in case the fever was one that might spread. She hadn’t hesitated to take them in. Now Rachel returned to the house on stilts. All of her children were asleep on quilts spread upon the floor, breathing softly, lulled by the sound of the sea.

“I need you to help me,” she told Jestine.

Rachel’s hair was in tangles and she wore an old skirt, one she used to put on when they escaped into the hills to do as they pleased for an afternoon. Again, Jestine didn’t hesitate. They woke David, the eldest, and told him he was in charge. He was sixteen, old enough to be responsible. If he was shocked by his stepmother’s appearance and how rail thin she was, he didn’t say.

Jestine found a lantern and wrapped a shawl around her shoulders. They went into the hills, to an herb man Adelle often went to for help. Jestine had been there once as a child and believed she might be able to find his house. Rachel thought about Paris as they walked through the dark, slapping away mosquitoes. The bells in the chapels, the stones on the streets, the doves in the parks, the lawns that were a deep, velvet green. If Frédéric had stayed there he would never have become ill. Rachel’s resolve to make her way to France was like a stone inside of her, rattling as she walked through the tall weeds. Frogs sang beside a stream. She wondered if Lyddie had already begun to forget everything she had known of their world: the dark woods that tumbled down the mountainside, the heavy curtain of dampness in the air, the purple flowers growing on vines, the hummingbirds that came to drink from blossoms in the gardens, her mother, her aunt Rachel, her life before she was taken.

Rachel and Jestine held hands as they made their way through the dark. Before they knew it they had found the cottage. The herb man stood on the threshold. He was old, but he hadn’t been sleeping. It was as if he’d known someone was coming here to him. They told him Adelle had spoken highly of him and his cures. He invited Jestine in but insisted that Rachel wait outside. Perhaps he didn’t trust her. She didn’t mind. Jestine went into his cottage alone. She told him there was a man suffering from fever and chills and the doctor could not name his disease. It seemed like yellow fever, but he burned with such intensity the doctor thought it was too late for him.

“This disease takes three cures,” the herbalist said.

“Does it?” Jestine was skeptical. “Does that mean you will charge me three prices?”

The herb man gave her a swift glance, but he did not answer. He made a tea mixture from the leaves of the silk-cotton tree that would be healing, and then he made a second packet of tea from the bark of a mahogany tree mixed with salt that would relieve fever. Finally he made a poultice from the tamarind tree, brought to this island from Africa, to relieve both fever and pain, especially in the liver, where yellow fever collected.

He wanted to be paid for his work, as any man would. All Jestine had to offer was Rachel’s mother’s pearls strung around her throat, which she handed over willingly. “I never liked them,” she told Rachel later. “They felt cold on my skin.”

After Jestine had paid for the cures, she came out of the herbalist’s house. She held a package tied with string. “He asked me to kiss him for luck,” she told Rachel. “I told him if this man of yours lives, I’ll send you back to kiss him, and he said that would be fine.”

They walked back through the vines.

Rachel was thoughtful. “He’s not my man.”

Jestine looked at her, then they both laughed.

“You can’t fool me,” Jestine said. “Just everybody else.”

They passed a ring of stones that was all that remained of a house that had been abandoned. A fire had recently been lit, leaving a charred odor. Cooking utensils were scattered about. Someone was moving in, trying to rebuild.

“Be careful with this,” Jestine said when she handed over the remedy. They had reached the outskirts of the city. Everything was midnight blue, the way it is in dreams. “Maybe his fate is already set down. If you save him you may change everything that would have happened if his illness had taken him, the good along with the bad.”

Rachel hardly listened. She already knew this time she would decide her own fate. She hurried home, running most of the way. Rosalie had been sitting up with Frédéric, and now Rachel told her she could go.

“What if you need me?” Rosalie said.

“I already needed you and you were always here, but Mr. Enrique doesn’t need to be lonely tonight.”

When Rosalie was gone, Rachel made the first tea and carried it to Frédéric’s room. He was disappearing; she could barely see him beneath the quilt. The room was so quiet she could hear a moth at the window. The same moth she had heard as a girl when she wished to wake up on the other side of the world, in a bed in Paris.

Frédéric sat up when she asked him to, but he was so weak that swallowing the tea was difficult. When she made the second tea, he could take only a few sips, so she had to feed him with a spoon. As he drank the tea she told him a story about a bird as tall as a man who danced in a marsh and made his beloved fall in love with him. She wept as she told the story, consumed with panic and the thought that Frédéric might die. She laid the poultice over his broad chest, covering his heart and lungs, and then his liver, where the illness dwelled. His body responded to her, he moved toward her without thinking. She did not know why she was shivering. It was brutally hot and Rachel was drenched with sweat. She took off everything but her white chemise underbodice and pantalets. Still she was burning. She feared she had caught the disease, but she didn’t care. She got into bed beside him and pulled the quilt over them.

Rosalie found them that way in the morning, wrapped around each other as drowning people are said to be, so that it is often impossible to tell who was meant to be the rescuer, and who had been drowning. She had been expecting as much, and she hadn’t been surprised when Rachel sent her away. She knew what love could do to a person. She would wait till the next day to collect the children, and let Rachel and this young man go on sleeping. They held on to each other, dreaming of rain.

THE NEW SYNAGOGUE WAS finally finished in that year, with mahogany benches and an altar set in the center of the hall, in the Spanish style. It had taken a long time, but now it was perfect, and no fire or storm could pull it down. There was a low carved wall separating the women from the men. The floor was kept as sand, as it had been in the past in Spain and Portugal, though there were many Jews recently arrived from Denmark and Amsterdam who thought it madness to have this daily reminder of a brutal history when every prayer was a secret and every Jew was an enemy of the state. Rachel Pomié Petit was past thirty now, and although she’d been considered plain as a girl, she had become quite beautiful, her dark hair wound up and kept in place with tortoiseshell combs, her eyes like black water. Getting older had given her more definition. There was a ferocity to her features now. It was difficult to fault her, for after all her losses she’d managed better than most women in her situation. She ran her household frugally, her business was prospering at last, and her children were well mannered. The boys that had been her husband’s were both considered men now and worked in the store alongside the nephew from Paris.

As for that handsome man, Frédéric Pizzarro, he, too, had turned out to be standoffish after such a promising start. He refused all overtures of friendship, though he came to pray every morning and every evening. He excused himself from social events and dinners, even when the most accomplished women from the Sisterhood invited him. There were daughters who would have liked to have gotten to know him better, young women who were clearly interested. One, Maria Mendes, was so intent on charming him that she took to waiting outside the store on a daily basis, dressed in her finery. She was only nineteen, quite beautiful, but Frédéric treated her as if she were a child. “I’m sorry,” he said to her, after he’d realized she was pursuing him. “I am much too busy to do anything other than attend to business.”

She didn’t give up, for all men say they’re busy until they’re not, and then one day, as she stood there patiently, waiting for him to change his mind, a pitcher of water was poured down from an upstairs window, drenching her. She looked up, sputtering, and although the window was being closed and the person responsible was backing away, she told her friends she’d spied the widow’s shadow. Rachel Pomié Petit was like a spider, Maria said, her web stretched out to keep other women from Monsieur Pizzarro. Frédéric was still well thought of even though he was not socially inclined; he was considered to be a man of integrity who honored God every day. It was said he retreated to his room after work. His interests were mostly those of the mind. He was known to be a great reader, and he tutored the Petit children in mathematics. He was often seen with the children, who had grown more than accustomed to him, treating him as if he were an older, wiser brother. When work and studies were completed, he took them to the wharf to go fishing. He liked to run, for the sheer joy of it, and the boys often went running with him through the streets, down toward the beaches. There was nothing suspicious about all this, and yet there were those in the congregation who felt Pizzarro’s presence in the widow’s home was improper. He should find his own house, his own woman, these people said. He had helped her long enough.

One of the men from the congregation passed by the Petit store on a dark, blue night, and after he did, nothing was the same. Whether his knowledge of the situation was gained by accident or by design, he never said, but when this gentleman, a young cousin of Madame Jobart, glanced at the window he spied a woman in Frédéric Pizzarro’s room. The curtains were drawn, but he was able to see her, naked, on the bed. The truth was this prying man had crept quite close to the window. From his hiding place beneath a vine of bougainvillea he had heard a woman moaning with desire. He waited in the shrubbery, listening; when he reported his story he failed to mention that he had reached through the open window to lift the curtains, the better to see. It was Isaac Petit’s widow he spied, and despite what people said about her cold nature, she was clearly more than friendly to her young nephew, and it seemed she was sharing not only her home, but also his bed.

News of the scandal went from house to house, like the angel of death on the eve of Passover. It appeared like a mist, red in color, sifting down chimneys and through windows. Now when Rachel Petit walked through town she did not have to bypass anyone, they avoided her. Her path was red, for she had committed a sin in the eyes of their faith. People crossed the street rather than confront her, as they had when they saw Nathan Levy with his African wife. The rumors had not yet come inside the Petit house, and the couple thought no one knew. At the dinner table, with the children around them, Rachel and Frédéric made certain not to sit too near to each other. But at night, when everyone else was asleep, they drew the curtains, then closed the shutters tightly and latched them, as people did whenever there was a storm brewing. It was possible that they had the sense they had been spied upon, for now they always found each other in the dark.

TWO WOMEN FROM THE congregation, old friends of Rachel’s mother, invited her to tea. She refused. She sent a note thanking them and stating she was far too busy. She had her children, the store, endless responsibilities, and therefore sent regrets. Her lack of time was not the only reason she did not wish to see them, and the older women knew this. They wanted to discuss the red mist, the rumors that had caused a division in their community and might soon have Europeans looking too closely at the congregation’s affairs. They wanted to remind Rachel of her debt to her mother’s memory, so they came to her. They waited outside the shop, and when Rachel came out, carrying her youngest child, Isaac, born months after his father’s death, with two other children trailing behind her, her mother’s friends followed her into the street and talked to her there, as they would a common whore. The women were Madame Halevy and Madame Jobart, Sara Pomié’s closest friends. They had been to the Pomié house nearly every week when Rachel’s mother was alive, and had attended both Rachel’s wedding and her parents’ funerals. They had been among the mourners at Isaac Petit’s funeral and had noticed that his widow did not cry. All the same, they’d had their maids deliver baskets of food for her children and black mourning clothing for Rachel, who insisted upon wearing a single black dress. Now they noticed she had on a pretty green frock, inappropriate for a woman who had lost her husband less than a year earlier.

“Many women are delirious after their husbands’ death,” Madame Halevy said to her. “They stay in a sort of madness for months, or even years. Madame Jobart and I are both widows. We understand your grief.” She looked at Rachel carefully. “If grief is what it is.”

“What are you suggesting?” Rachel said, curious to see just how brutally honest Madame Halevy would be.

“I’m suggesting you listen to someone older and wiser for once in your life.”

It was an honor to be addressed by Madame Halevy, but Rachel did not consider her advice worth having. She knew why her mother’s friends had come. It was not out of concern, but rather an issue of control. They would tell her that the situation in her house was improper and Rachel should be looking for a husband among the older, widowed men in the congregation.

“Some women turn to the wrong person for solace,” Madame Halevy told Rachel.

“Do they?” Rachel said. “Do they turn to you?”

“Let us help you,” Madame Jobart suggested. She was involved at the synagogue’s school, and had gone so far as to question Rachel’s children. They called Monsieur Pizzarro Freddy, and they didn’t seem to understand what she meant when she asked where he slept. His room, she had been told by one of the sons. I don’t think he sleeps, she had been told by the other. “Once you are involved in the right activities,” Madame Jobart now suggested to Rachel, “you avoid any actions that can lead to disaster.”

“Perhaps we can help find you a suitable match,” Madame Halevy added.

The children, quiet and well behaved, were listening in. Isaac was quiet in his mother’s arms, his eyes wide.

“Thank you for your consideration.” Rachel’s face was burning. She was certain they had a list of old men who would just as soon have a maid as a wife. She swallowed the words she wished to say, having practiced trying to tame her arrogance in every conversation she had ever had with her mother. “At the moment I’m quite busy with my children.”

“We would hate to see you make a mistake,” the women who were not her friends told her.

“Everyone makes mistakes,” Rachel said.

“Not like this,” she was told by Madame Halevy. She pulled Rachel aside. “I spoke with Frédéric,” she said. “But it is clear he is under some sort of spell.”

“You spoke with him?” Rachel was furious. “Who are you to say anything?”

“I was your mother’s friend, therefore I am trying to do as she would have if she were still alive. Your feelings about this man may seem earth-shattering now, but what is love if not an enchantment. Is it worth it to destroy the lives of your children? If you choose to be an outcast, so be it, but it will be their fate as well.”

“What do you know about love?”

“It’s ruin I know about,” Madame Halevy told her. “Be as smart as you think you are. Put your heart away and listen to me.”

Rachel took the children home and left them in Rosalie’s care. She needed time to think things through. She walked along the beach where the turtles nested, where she and Frédéric had lain together in the sand watching a miracle. She considered what Rosalie said could happen if you loved someone too much. She remembered everything Jestine had lost in the name of love. Her thoughts were scattered and she could not gather them together. And then she realized she could not act on thoughts alone.

At night she lay beside Frédéric in his small bed. She went there after the children were asleep, moving so quietly through the corridors that she might well have been a ghost herself. Sometimes she could hear the rain when they fell asleep together. He would say how wrong it was, how he was betraying his uncle and, most important, defiling her. It was at these times she remembered how young he was. He had no idea she didn’t care about any of that. And anyway, such regret did not stop him. He often pushed a chair against the door so none of the children could wander in accidentally. He kept a hand over her mouth so she would not cry out, but there was a time when neither could control themselves. Emma came to the door, frightened, asking if there were ghosts in the house for she had heard their moaning. Rachel slipped on her nightgown and opened the door; she scooped her daughter up to put her back to bed. “There are no such things,” she whispered. But Emma had seen a ghost in her mother’s bed. He had taken on the form of their beloved Freddy. In the morning Emma left a circle of salt around the chair where her uncle usually sat, for Rosalie had said that spirits feared not only the color blue but the sting of salt as well.

That same night Frédéric asked to marry her. He did it in the French manner, formally. He had planned the evening, asking Rosalie to take the children out, going to the finest jewelers, where he bought a slim gold band that was exquisite, with hallmarks from France. He took pink flowers from the garden for their table, but was stung while doing so. When he came inside with the bougainvillea, Rachel saw that he’d been hurt. She paid no attention to the flowers, but instead took his fingers into her mouth. The old women in town said a bee sting could be soothed in this manner, but Frédéric was inflamed. He took her to bed right then and wouldn’t let her leave, even when Rosalie called for her that supper needed to be started. He kept one hand over her mouth so she couldn’t answer, and she bit him as she had in his dream, and he laughed to think there was so little room between the everyday world and his dreams.

At last, Rachel moved away and slipped on her dress. While her back was turned, Frédéric went onto one knee, without a stitch of clothing on, and asked her to be his wife. Rachel laughed so hard she collapsed beside him on the floor.

Frédéric shook his head, hurt. “You’re laughing at me.”

“I’m not,” she insisted. “It’s simply that we can’t.”

“Of course we can.” He stood and turned away from her as he began to dress.

Rachel went to embrace him, resting her head against his back. She felt everything inside of him, including the hurt she had just caused him. She loved him twice as much as she had only a moment ago.

“Are you certain you want to face Madame Halevy?” she asked.

Now it was his turn to laugh. “I thought you had no fear of that witch. I know that I don’t. This is our business, not hers or anyone else’s. In the end they’ll be won over.”

“You don’t know these people. They have lived a hundred lives of suffering, all for their freedom. There’s a reason for their rules and a reason they can’t abide people like me. They will turn against us.”

“No,” Frédéric insisted. “They’ll have no choice but to accept us.”

He kissed her without stopping, and she knew what Madame Halevy had said was true, and that she would bring ruin on them if it was her fate to do so.

She said yes to his proposal, but refused to wear his ring until they were wed. She walked along the beach in the evenings, wondering if she should reconsider. She was the older, more experienced person. She should have known better and called a halt to their love affair. She could have written to his family and insisted they bring him home and send someone in his place, an old uncle, a married couple, the nastiest man in the family.

She had tried her best to keep Frédéric away. After Isaac’s death she had written a letter to his nephew, suggesting he stay in France. Thank you for your kindness, but don’t feel you must come to our Island, for I am fine on my own. He’d written back, Of course I will come to assist you. She had cursed him, but in the morning after she’d read his response she’d woken to rainfall though it was the dry season. Now she reread his letter and noticed a line scrawled beneath his name she’d overlooked before.

I will think of nothing but you.

Every night she walked farther, until there came an evening when she was so deep in thought she paid no attention to her whereabouts. Before she knew it she was lost, even though she’d spent her childhood in these hills. She found herself on a path that led into the mountains. She heard running water. The waterfall. It sounded like a heartbeat. She thought about love and what a mystery it was, how when it came it seemed to be inevitable.

She had stumbled upon the herbalist’s house. She had no idea how she had discovered this place, which was so hidden even Jestine had had trouble remembering where it was. Perhaps everything that had happened was meant to be, for this was where her love had led her. The herb man came outside as if he’d been expecting her. She owed him something, it was true. “Thank you for giving me my life,” she said. She kissed him then, and although he neither thanked her nor stopped her, he accepted her gratitude.

THEY WENT TO THE synagogue to ask to be married. They wore their best clothes when they went. Both were rattled, filled with nerves. But they needn’t have dressed in their finery for the occasion, as they were not allowed into the Reverend’s office. His secretary said he was too busy, and when they’d sat there for more than four hours, with people going in and out to meet with the Reverend, Frédéric rapped on the door. Now his secretary told Frédéric the good man had gone home to dinner. They went back the next day, and again they were denied. They did this for a week, wearing the same clothes. Each day they were told the Reverend could not see them and each day they waited on a carved wooden bench. At last the Reverend sent them a written message that his assistant brought into the corridor where they were waiting. Frédéric read it, then crumpled it, dropping it on the floor before he stalked away. Alone in the corridor, Rachel bent to retrieve the missive directed to Frédéric.

It is a sin and an abomination to lay with a member of your own family, as well as a criminal act. We suggest you return to Paris.

Frédéric was waiting for her on the street. Rachel had brought along her mother’s wedding veil. She gave it to the first woman who passed by, a young African woman who thanked her for the gift, for it was beautiful French lace.

“I never cared for it,” Rachel told Frédéric.

He laughed, which was a relief. He had seemed so hurt and confused to have been turned away and told he was a criminal.

“I never care for anyone’s opinion of me either,” Rachel said.

“I’ve heard that about you.” He grinned at her. “I’ve heard many things about you.”

“It’s all true.” Rachel might have felt herself to be a fool, wearing her best clothing and standing in the street, but she did not. They walked back the way they had come. Some who spied on them said they were hand in hand, though they were so close to one another it was difficult to tell.

IT WAS A SURPRISE to some and not to others when, two years after her husband died, and less than a year after his nephew had arrived on the island, Rachel Pomié Petit appeared to be expecting a child. She acted as if no one noticed, but in fact she was all anyone could talk about. In every household the scandal was discussed at breakfast and then again at the dinner table. Those who so blatantly broke rules usually had the decency to disappear; they withdrew from the congregation and went to the Carolinas or South America rather than bring shame upon their people. But not Rachel Pomié Petit. If anything, she grew more defiant with each passing day. Some people said that a pelican flew above her when she brought her children to the synagogue’s school, perhaps to prevent taunts from the other children. As it was, no one said a word about her condition. Not the children or their parents or the women of Blessings and Peace and Loving Kindness. They were all waiting to see what would happen next.

That handsome man, Frédéric Pizzarro, still came to the synagogue to pray in the morning and at sundown, even though no one spoke to him and no man would sit next to him. He didn’t seem to mind. He had been something of a loner since he’d first arrived. When Rachel Pomié Petit was too huge for anyone to ignore her circumstances, she stayed at home, where it was said that Frédéric Pizzarro had moved into her room without the benefit of a marriage contract.

The family in Bordeaux, business partners worried for their financial future, heard the gossip and immediately denounced the relationship. The couple didn’t seem to notice their disapproval, or if they did, they didn’t care. Frédéric did not answer the frantic letters from his relatives, but merely continued to send a monthly business report. When the baby’s time came, on a bright February day, Rachel called for Jestine, who helped to deliver her. After only a few weeks Madame Petit could be seen carrying the baby through town as if she were a married woman, as if the father of her child was not the nephew of her husband, as if sin was the last thing on her mind.