The Marriage of Opposites

The Night of the Old Year




If I had locked myself away to wear mourning clothes for the rest of my life the members of the congregation would have certainly approved. Many would have preferred I give my baby to a family who couldn’t have a child of their own. Every door shut. When I walked through the marketplace the other women passed by, ignoring me. I was a cautionary tale, and young girls especially fled from me. I came to understand why the pirates’ wives had lived alone in the caves, not wanting even one another’s company. It was easier not to face judgment, especially from your own kind.

We named our son Joseph Félix, a second son named after my predecessor’s child to bring good fortune. But he was a pale, quiet child who never fussed, too quiet, I believed. I wondered if he’d been cursed as I carried him, if the whispers about me had seeped inside and harmed him in some way, for he was listless and seemed to lack spirit. I kept him close, and at night I often took him into bed with us, so that our bodies might warm him and keep him safe despite the cold reception of our own people. For months after the birth, Frédéric had gone to the elders of our community, begging them to let us marry, but each time he was refused. The Reverend would not see him, and when Frédéric insisted on intruding on the council, the elders who made decisions for all, they disrespected him, suggesting that he find his own lodgings and look for a suitable wife.

Frédéric told me that Monsieur DeLeon had taken him aside. He cared for me and had known me since I was a child. “I’ve done all I can on your behalf,” he told Frédéric, “and will continue to do so, but this has always been the rule here. No marriage inside of a family.”

“I’m not her family,” Frédéric insisted.

“Do you run her father’s business? Are you her husband’s nephew?” The men exchanged a look. “On this island, that’s family,” Monsieur DeLeon informed him.

The council’s advice was that Frédéric return to France with haste, before the Danish authorities became interested in what was a personal matter between Jews. Frédéric came home from this meeting exhausted and sick at heart. He had always been the good son, the reliable brother and cousin, the young man who could be called upon and trusted. The judgments of others weighed upon him. Rosalie told me that in the market, people said I was a witch and had cast a spell upon him, and perhaps that was true. Indeed I wanted him to defy everyone, even God if necessary, not that I believed God would be against a love like ours. We had nothing to repent for and nothing to feel guilty about.

Because we were unmarried, my son’s name wasn’t written into the Book of Life, which charted every birth, marriage, and death in our community. That meant he did not exist within God’s sight, and should he die, he could not be buried in our cemetery. Eight days after our son’s birth, Monsieur DeLeon brought over a man whose duty it was to circumcise boys of our faith. The ceremony was performed after dusk, when no one was aware that this man was in my house. Rosalie cleaned off the kitchen table, and put down a clean white linen, and even when there was blood the child did not cry.

Since no one at the synagogue would list him in the official records, I was forced to see to it myself. The old man who was the caretaker let me in because I behaved as though I belonged. I told him I’d been sent to tidy up and brought a broom along to convince him. A woman who knows what she wants, Adelle always told me, is likely to receive it. I was sure of myself, at least on the outside. I nodded and passed through the synagogue’s gates without the least bit of trouble. The caretaker bowed and called me Madame. I didn’t correct him or let him know that most people in the congregation would have referred to me as a whore. I thought I spied a heron in the garden, or perhaps it was a woman sitting in the dappled shade where there was a small stone fountain.

It was exactly two o’clock, the hottest hour of the day, when most people went home to drowse in their parlors or bedchambers, and the stores and cafés were shuttered. My youngest children were being cared for by Rosalie, which allowed me the freedom to ensure that my newborn would be known to God. I found the most recent book and wrote in the date of Joseph Félix Pizzarro’s birth, with myself and Frédéric listed as his parents. My script was careful and legible, so that no one would refute my son’s rights to be a member of our community. When I put away the book, I discovered that the files could indeed do with tidying, though I had no intention of doing so.

Funnels of dust rose into the air. Many of the papers piled up were decades old, the ink faded on those that had been exposed to the sunlight. My father had taught me how to read documents and ledgers, but these files were completely disorganized. In the Books of Life, records had been charted one on top of the other, in spidery scrawls set down by a series of secretaries and assistants, all of whom had invented their own puzzling systems of notation. Perhaps it was fate, or perhaps it was God’s will, that I should stumble upon my cousin Aaron’s birth record. The date set down was three years after my own birth. I’d always been told Aaron’s parents had been lost at sea, and that they were distant relatives, but this document showed otherwise. He’d had an unmarried mother, a member of our congregation. The symbol for this was an X. I scanned through the files, and this symbol occurred many times. I wondered how many women had lost their children due to a single letter. Aaron’s father had been marked down as unknown. Inconnu. Aaron’s mother’s name had been inked out, making her unknown as well. I could not read the original print even when I held the paper to the light. My mother had been listed as the official guardian, and the baby’s surname, Rodrigues, was one of her family names long before they had fled Spain and Portugal.

There was no way to know if the woman who’d given Aaron life had surrendered him of her own accord, or if he’d been taken from her. Most likely she’d had little choice in the matter; perhaps she’d eased her mind by imagining that a wind had carried him away so that he might be sheltered in a treetop, watched over by parrots until my mother came for him, delighted to claim the son she’d always wanted. What Aaron had told me in the garden long ago had been true. Our mother would never have allowed him to marry Jestine.

ONE AFTERNOON MADAME HALEVY was waiting for me when I left our store. It had been months since she and Madame Jobart had tried to persuade me to allow them to find me a suitable match, another husband I didn’t want or love. I was sure I wouldn’t be interested in whatever Madame Halevy had to say now. I did my best to disappear, hurrying away. But she followed as if she were a much younger woman, despite her cane.

“I haven’t given up on you,” she called.

“Please do.” I went on, but Madame Halevy surprised me by keeping pace. I had no choice but to stop and face her.

“Your mother loved you no matter what you think,” she said. “You don’t know all the circumstances.”

My mother had always said there was no finer woman in St. Thomas than Madame Halevy, but she seemed like a snake to me, coiled and waiting. She wanted to convince me to think as she did. “Thank you for that information,” I said wryly. “Had you not told me I never would have known.”

“Sara Pomié was a compassionate woman. She wanted the best for our people. And for you.” Madame Halevy took my arm. We stood in the shadows. I felt mesmerized somehow; a sparrow to her snake. “If she saw what you were doing now, she would be horrified. Unmarried and living with that man. Searching the office of the Reverend.” She threw me a look. “Did you think you’d find God in those files?”

So she had been spying on me after all. I pulled away from her. “I also knew my mother,” I said. “Nothing I did was right in her eyes. If the goal of my life was to please her, I would have already failed a dozen times over.”

“You were a difficult baby, now you’re a difficult woman,” Madame Halevy chided. “You cried all night, I remember it well. Your mother used to call me to her so she could get a few hours of sleep. Believe me, her husband wasn’t there.”

“Do not discuss my father,” I said.

“I know you from the beginning, so let me tell you in no uncertain terms that this scandal you’re creating affects us all. There are quiet sins and ones that echo for everyone. This situation is larger than your petty needs. People look at Jews with hatred and mistrust, and if we’re fighting with each other it gives them all the more reason to despise us. We have to live with no stain upon us.”

“Is that why the Book of Life is changed when it suits the congregation? To make certain that the facts fit our beliefs?”

Her eyes narrowed. “You saw changes?”

“Names inked out. People erased.”

Madame Halevy was blunt. “We have to protect ourselves.”

“Tell this to the Reverend,” I suggested. “I’m sure he’ll agree with you. Better still, tell it to his first wife. She died in childbirth and he was married again within a year to the girl of his choice. My first husband did the same when he married me to save his business, and I never questioned why my life was worth so much less than his.”

“Rachel.” Madame Halevy stopped me. “Do you think this scandal won’t come back to haunt you?”

I wasn’t afraid of ghosts and I told her so. I’d been haunted before, and had lived to tell the tale. I thanked her politely and excused myself. I could feel her watching me as I walked away, but I didn’t care. Perhaps Madame had good intentions, but intentions were not enough. I’d thrown my fate away once, and I would never again allow other people’s opinions rule my life. As a girl I’d done what was necessary, but I was a girl no longer.

Adelle had promised I would have another husband.

This time I would choose who that would be.

WHEN FRÉDÉRIC COULD GET no further with the Reverend, I insisted upon going with him to plead our case. My weapons were bitterness and a righteous attitude. Frédéric was still a young man, with a young man’s certainty that right would win out, whereas I knew we must fight for what we wanted. The weather was wet, with a storm brewing out to sea. It was a bad omen, and sure enough the Reverend’s wife refused to let us in the door. Women were to stay at home, especially sinners such as myself. She let us stand in the rain as it began to pour down upon us.

The Reverend’s wife did not look at me but instead stared at the ground. There were red ants, the kind you don’t want to come across barefoot. The Reverend’s wife was shaking. “You need to leave or the authorities will be called.” Her face was flushed and she stumbled over her words. Clearly she’d been told what to say to us.

I was a woman with eight children, the daughter of Moses Pomié, the proprietress of the largest store on the island, a lifelong resident of Charlotte Amalie, a full member of the congregation, yet I stood there drenched, as though I were a beggar woman. Frédéric took my arm. Un-like me, he had a kind, forgiving heart, and he did not wish to insult anyone. “There’s no point in us being here. Let’s not degrade ourselves any longer.”

But I refused to leave. If anyone told me no, my back went up. I grew claws and teeth. I’d had so many arguments with my mother as a girl I was well trained in such things. I stepped closer to the Reverend’s wife. There was barely any space between us. A heat came off me, as if I were boiling inside. She backed away.

“We have a right to speak to your husband,” I told her.

Her name, I knew, was Sara, my mother’s name. She was younger than I, though her husband was nearly fifty. His first wife had died in childbirth, as the first Madame Petit had, and of the same cause, childbed fever. In her case, however, the baby had died as well. There should have been a bond between us because of the similarities of our histories, but there was not. And so I called upon the ghost of the Reverend’s first wife along with the ghost of the first Madame Petit to stand beside me. I would bring flowers to their graves. I would say a prayer in their names and light a candle every night if they would give me the strength to stand up for myself.

The Reverend’s wife told me there was nothing she could do for me, then shut the door. But I now had the two wives from the world beyond ours standing beside me, good, obedient women who had given up their lives doing as other people saw fit. I could feel their energy, the life force that had been stolen from them. Perhaps some of my courage came from them. I began to rap on the heavy door, then to pound on it. I didn’t care if my hands bled. Let them. I was ready to fight. When I began to shout and cry out, Frédéric couldn’t stop me, though he tried his best, fearing I would bring the Danish authorities upon us.

At last the Reverend came to the door. We told him it was love that had drawn us together, and that such a thing was a gift from God. He shook his head and said ours was a destroying sort of love.

I felt a dark tangle of humiliation, the bitterness growing inside me.

“See what you’ve done,” Frédéric said to the Reverend. “She’ll be made ill by this.”

“What I’ve done?” The Reverend showed little sympathy for me. “You weren’t much more than a boy and she preyed upon you. I don’t blame you for any of this. I blame her.”

The Reverend glared at me as if I were a foul sorceress, eyeing my clothes, now drenched and clinging to me. My black hair was uncombed, my boots slick with mud. I held up the hem of my skirts to keep them dry with no success. I likely appeared to be a witch, with a witch’s desires.

“Do not speak about her in that manner,” Frédéric said sternly. “Our people are brothers and sisters, not enemies.”

“You are indeed like brother and sister. That is the point.” The Reverend’s voice was raised. “Do you not understand? You are relatives and therefore cannot wed. It is against our morals and our laws. If you continue, nothing good can come of this.”

“But it has already,” Frédéric said.

He meant our love and our child. The door was slammed shut, and we walked away, the rain pouring down, as it did in our dreams. I had a chill. Perhaps I had made a terrible error and had dragged the person I loved most in the world into hell. I looked at Frédéric. As if he could read my innermost thoughts he said, “I regret nothing.”

Nor did I.

When we arrived home I was still shivering. Rosalie heated water and I bathed in the tub. I was reminded of that horrible woman Elise who had come from France to steal Jestine’s child. I slipped beneath the water, as Elise had done, and studied the ceiling until I came up sputtering. I hated rules, and law, and morals that were twisted into whatever people wished them to be. I didn’t step out of the tub until the water was tepid. By then I had come up with a plan. My father always said that I thought like a man, and perhaps there was some truth in that comment. I did not relish the role of sitting idly by with my needlework and baking, seeing to the children while the world made decisions all around me.

I went to my desk to draw up my proposal to present to Frédéric.

We would go over the Reverend’s head and petition the Grand Rabbi in Denmark for the legal right to wed.

Such things were not done. We would insult both the Reverend and our entire community. We would make them look powerless and small in the eyes of the Grand Rabbi in Denmark, but this island was small, that was the truth, and the people around us were nothing more than tiny figures when viewed from above. We had no other choice. Surely God would see that, and would bless our endeavors. I had a flicker of belief inside me.

Frédéric wrote the letter and read it aloud. I approved the sentiments within. The flicker grew brighter. I began to pray, silently, in the garden. Perhaps we had not been forsaken, and if we could address God more directly, he might hear us. We went over the letter several times that week, examining each word until at last it was done. Frédéric took it to the post office, and I waited outside, my cloak covering me, though the air was warm. Sending our letter was not unlike creating a bomb that could explode at any time, anywhere.

Frédéric came down the stairs of the post office. The deed was done, and could not be undone. He was so young. Just looking at him tore at my heart. That night in our bed we did not speak, but instead embraced each other as we had the first night we were together, when I thought he might die of fever. Perhaps we were both in a fever to act so rashly and insult our entire community. The letter that would change our fate was on its way to Denmark, and we were safe in our bed. I could think of little but that pale envelope traveling across an ocean, innocent, mere parchment and ink, until it was opened and read. Then our lives would never be the same. We would be considered traitors willing to betray our own people. The only one who wouldn’t judge what I’d done was Jestine. She understood love. What destroys you saves you, she had told me. Now I knew what she meant. My love for Frédéric would ruin me, yet I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I BEGAN TO OBSERVE things I hadn’t taken note of before. Perhaps I’d been naïve or possibly I simply hadn’t wished to see the cruelty around us, but it was there, on every street of Charlotte Amalie, and out in the countryside where the manor houses stood. Danish law decreed there was to be no more slavery, but those slaves already owned were still considered property. They were given Sundays off as if they were free people and could sail to a neighboring island to visit family, but when they returned on Monday they were slaves once more. On our island more than half of the African population was free, and that included most everyone who had a European father, but the rest were enslaved, mere property.

I now had a better sense of how an individual’s fate could be based on arbitrary rulings, invented by men for profit of one sort or another. If I had lived in Denmark, I could have married Frédéric. It was a larger community, and we could have disappeared into the outskirts of a city and do as we wished. Here, I was a sinner. I had been blind to the pain of others until I had my own burden to carry. Now when I saw slaves in the market I didn’t know how they contained themselves. They were denied rights to their own lives, their own flesh and blood and breath. To beg for salvation and find none and still have faith was a mystery to me. I felt abandoned by God and by my people. Although I lit the candles, I did not say prayers on Friday nights anymore. I left that to my beloved, who still believed.

OUR SON WAS LESS than a year old when the Grand Rabbi allowed us to wed with a legal document from the highest authority. Our wedding contract came from Denmark. It was a plain document, but it carried weight because it was signed by the ultimate voice in our congregation. In the paper, the Tidende, the next day, November 22, 1826, we paid to have an announcement printed and had the same announcement published in the St. Thomas Times: By license of His Most Gracious Majesty King Frédéric VI they had become married according to the Israelitish ritual. We thought we could resume our lives, and would no longer be considered outcasts, but the next day when Frédéric came home from the store he had the new issue of the Tidende.

“You don’t want to look at this,” he said.

He tried to burn it in the stove, but I took it from his hands and read the announcement page. We were denounced by the congregation, who proclaimed we had married without the knowledge of the Rulers and Wardens of the synagogue, nor was the Ceremony performed according to the usual custom.

OUR OWN PEOPLE WISHED to punish us for going over the Reverend’s head. Once Jews started doing as they pleased, outside the confines of the law, anything could happen, the synagogue might fall, the world as they knew it might disappear. The Danish government might be incited to act against us, and then a new onslaught might begin. And so the president of the congregation had gone to the newspaper, making us a scandal for the whole island to view. Letters had gone out from the Reverend’s secretary to the chief Rabbis in London, and Amsterdam, and Copenhagen. Protestants, Africans, Catholics, people in every reach of society had read about us, for in every kitchen we were the topic of discussion. The good man and the enchantress. Some people said I was made of molasses; one bite and you couldn’t get enough. They said I turned into a bird during the day, and flew over the island looking for my enemies so I might soar down and peck at them, and if I grew angry enough I might leave sparks of fire on their roofs. Then at night I became a woman again, they said, slipping into my man’s bed. Before he could call out to God to protect him, before he could escape, I had my arms around him.

The viciousness of the attack against us in such a public forum was unheard of. My children needed to be protected. The older ones had already heard grumblings about us in town and in the store, but we kept the seriousness of the situation from the younger ones. Rosalie, I knew, pitied me.

“It doesn’t matter what people say,” she told me. “He’s already your husband.”

Rosalie understood wanting what you could not have, as Mr. Enrique had a wife on another island and could not marry her. But I was not as patient or as tolerant as she was. The green bitterness growing inside me was a dangerous flower. I could taste the tang of sourness it gave off, like arsenic, the poison left out for the mongooses sent here from the other side of the world.

In a few weeks letters began to arrive from the Petit family, as they tried to gain control of the business. They were half owners, after all, having inherited what had once been my father’s holdings along with my first husband’s estate. The St. Thomas newspaper had been sent to them, and they were in shock, afraid their assets on our island would disappear if left in our hands. Frédéric put the letters away, but I found them. The family had written that he was too young and they’d been mistaken to send him; he was now obligated to give over control and send the ledgers and records of the business to France. But he did no such thing. He may have been young, but he was stubborn, a believer in doing what was morally right, even if it meant breaking the law.

We soon received a letter from the congregation stating they had begun a correspondence with the Rabbi in Copenhagen and had asked that the King’s court undo our marriage, which they stated was granted outside of Jewish law. We were under siege. Frédéric and all the children fell ill with some mysterious sickness that made them unable to eat. I boiled herbs and made a tea from berries and ginger, and they began to heal. But the case against us went on.

Because of the pressure from the community, the King’s court suddenly reversed itself, declaring our marriage illegal, stating that we had not presented ourselves as Jews when we asked for permission to marry. I was officially a sinner, damned by the Grand Rabbi. Now women spat on the street when they saw me. I began to carry an apple inside my shawl, not out of hunger but because it was the fruit of our family and I believed it might ward off any curses set against me. Soon I stopped going out. I locked myself in the house and wore black again.

Rosalie came to my bedside. “Don’t let them win,” she told me.

“They have.”

“They think they have. But they can’t if you don’t allow it.”

Still, I stayed in bed for nearly a week until Rosalie said I had to let her change the bed linen. When I got out of bed she dumped a pitcher of water on my head. I screamed, and stood there sputtering and waterlogged while my youngest children laughed at me.

“If you can’t wake up, then we’ll do it for you,” Rosalie said.

I was sopping and stunned, but something inside me awoke, the self I was, the woman who knew what she wanted and what she must have. I threw my arms around Rosalie in gratitude. Then I dressed and readied myself for the world, driven by anger and desire, but perhaps that is always what drives a woman to fight back. I had my sons go into the hills and cut down armfuls of flowers from the flamboyant tree. I took these with me and went to the cemetery. I wrapped the branches in wet muslin so they might bloom with a deeper scarlet shade. Dusk was near. The blue-tinted light sifted over me as I prayed at the grave of Esther Petit. I left her armfuls of the flowers she favored. Then I looked for the grave of the Reverend’s first wife. I had brought her something special as well, an apple from the tree my father had been sent long ago from France, the one that had lost most of its leaves in the heat of the fire, but still bore fruit. I begged the Reverend’s first wife to tell her husband, who was still on earth, to let us be. Perhaps he’d never known love himself in his marriages, but surely even he should be able to see it when it was right before his eyes.

WE WENT ON ABOUT our lives as if we were the only people in the world. I found several white strands in my hair, and Jestine pulled them out at the root. We sat on her porch and watched the sea, and waited for what would happen next, as we used to do when we were girls, when our lives seemed like a story we ourselves could tell. I still dreamed of Paris, only now when I dreamed I was walking through the Tuileries and I was searching for someone, driven by panic, running through the rain. Some nights I couldn’t breathe, and Frédéric woke me, assuring me that he would be with me always and that I needn’t search for him. I suppose I had been talking in my sleep. I held him close and kissed him until I couldn’t think.

When we wed we did not mention our intentions to the congregation, or to the elders, or to the Reverend who’d made us stand in the rain. We had no license to wed, but we did so anyway. The small gathering was held in the parlor of Monsieur DeLeon’s large house. He had given a speech at my first wedding and had not abandoned me even though he made it clear he did not approve of my choices. He had helped me out of respect for my father, inviting ten men who had been bar mitzvah to be our witnesses. All of them wore black, as if attending a funeral. DeLeon was a learned man, as my father had been, and he spoke the prayers the Reverend should have said. The ten pious men were uncomfortable with the proceedings, but they murmured Amen. I knew that as soon as the service was over Monsieur DeLeon would not wish to see me or speak to me lest he be cast out of the community.

That night I was a married woman. As a marriage gift Frédéric presented me with a copy of Redouté’s illustrated book of roses, Choix Des Plus Belles Fleurs, printed in France. No other man would know I wanted that book more than anything, more than diamonds or pearls. We lay in bed and turned the pages; the heavy paper was scented with salt from the volume’s journey across the sea. “Are you happy with it?” my husband said to me. I hesitated to say what I felt, for I loved him too much and was afraid I would be punished for doing so. Still, I said, “Yes,” and we didn’t leave our chamber for twelve hours.

Rosalie teased me about that every day afterward. “Married people don’t act like you do,” she said.

BY THE TIME OUR second son, Moses Alfred, was born, three years later, his name was entered into the synagogue books beneath his brother’s name. This time I did not have to break in and do it myself, the Reverend’s secretary made the entry. Rosalie thought it was perhaps because I named this second baby for my father, who was so beloved in St. Thomas, and for the patriarch who had brought our people to freedom. Frédéric believed it was because the congregation was tired of the scandal. We had outlasted them, he said. He laughed and kissed me and asked who among them could deny we were anything other than an old married couple with or without the Reverend’s blessing. My husband and Rosalie could think what they liked. I knew the truth. If the congregation was no longer set against us it was due to the Reverend’s wife, the one who was dead and buried whose ghost I honored, and the living one I’d petitioned for help.

Still, we were outcasts and we lived our lives as such. On Saturdays Frédéric said prayers in the garden with the boys, and then we went to Market Square, where people who were not of our faith spent their free day. There were over a dozen nationalities listed in St. Thomas and so many foods to choose from in the marketplace on Saturdays that it was like a carnival. I always craved Spanish food, eggs and sardines and olives, and we had maubie, a drink of fermented bark made from the maubie tree, not alcoholic, but laced with cinnamon, delicious when you’d acquired a taste for it. The Jewish businesses, including our own, were closed on Saturdays, and all shops were closed between twelve and two every day, so we often went swimming on Saturday afternoons, trekking down to the beach where the turtles came one day a year. I went in the water in my underclothes, since I was with my children. Hannah was always there, watching over them. Now thirteen, she was better at mothering than I was. I thought she must have learned what a kind heart was in the twelve days her mother had lived. Her pale hair was gold in the sunlight and I prayed she would have an easier time in this world than most women did. When she came to sit beside me, I felt her mother’s love around us both as leaves fell from the trees even though there was no breeze and the air was still.

IN THE YEAR 1830, our third son was born on July 10. Jestine and Rosalie were with me, which was fortunate, for this was not an easy birth. This baby had a mind of his own and didn’t care how much pain he caused me. I choked on my own screams, and Frédéric and the children were ushered from the house. It was not until much later that Jestine admitted that both she and Rosalie thought they might lose me, for the labor lasted three days and three nights, and every hour was an agony. I had begun talking to the spirits. When Jestine and Rosalie realized I was in deep conversation with the first Madame Petit, as if I were planning to join her, they became so frightened they took a vow that they would do all they could to save me should it come to a choice. They would let the baby go, and pull me back to life.

I knew nothing of this, of course. I was in a fevered state and didn’t notice that Rosalie was crying. I was burning up as if I were overtaken by something stronger than myself, and the aching I felt was different than it had been with any other birth. Before he appeared, this child was difficult, intent on causing me pain. Yet when he was born, I loved him best, precisely because of our struggle, a secret I kept from all the others. I had named him Abraham, after his father’s first name; then Jacobo, after Jacob from the Bible; then Camille, to always remind him that he was French. He was most like me and had my faults. He did not sleep but cried through the night, just as Madame Halevy said I had done. When I went to hold him he pulled away from me. He was perfect, a beautiful baby, but I wondered if his sleeplessness was due to an illness.

Even beneath Jestine’s tender touch this baby seemed unsettled. When I hadn’t slept for two weeks straight and Jacobo wasn’t gaining any weight, I knew what we must do. I asked Jestine if she would come with me back to the herb man, though neither of us was certain he was still alive. He’d been ancient when we last saw him, and if people in town went to call on him they did not say so, for such engagements were made to combat troubles and tragedies.

It was the center of a hot, green summer; still I bundled up the baby in a cotton blanket to ensure against chills. We brought a pitcher of limewater with us. I had gold coins with me as well, so this time I could pay the price for a cure. We were slower than we’d been when we were girls who ran through the hills chasing donkeys or being chased by them. We spotted some now, eating dried grass along the road. I wondered if Jean-François, once my children’s pet, was among them. When I said so, Jestine shook her head.

“If he is, you don’t want to know. You’ll just break your heart all over again for a creature that should be wild anyway.”

Still I whistled and called out his name. All of the donkeys glanced up at us. Jestine started laughing. “See!” she said. “If he’s among them he’s no different than they are now. You did yourself and him a favor when you set him free.”

But I saw the eyes of one of the donkeys set on me, and I knew. It was Jean-François. The pet I’d walked into the hills late one night that had tried to follow me home.

Jestine saw the look on my face. “Now you’re going to cry,” she declared.

“Unlikely,” I answered.

I turned away so she wouldn’t see my tears. In my arms, my baby was fretting. Jestine looped an arm around my waist.

“You have a soft heart,” she said. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone.”

We both laughed then. No one knew me the way she did, not even Frédéric. Whoever knows you when you are young can look inside you and see the person you once were, and maybe still are at certain times. I went ahead and let myself cry, then pulled myself together.

The light was yellow now, hotter. We went on to the herb man’s house. Our route brought us past the waterfall that fell into a pool where tiny blue fish slipped through the shallows. I wished we could strip off our clothing and immerse ourselves in the cool water, but we continued on, past tangles of vines, some with thorns, some without. There was a hush here, and Jacobo was quiet, I think for the first time in his two weeks of life. We walked on, through the coils of greenery, light-footed, almost as if we were girls once more. There were ruins, a manor house from a hundred years earlier, crumbling into stone dust, and stalks of sugarcane grew wild. At last we reached the clearing where the herb man had his hut. Someone was living here, that much was certain. There were embers in a little fire pit, and some pots and pans scattered about. Jestine didn’t know I had once come here myself to thank the herb man. She didn’t know I had kissed him. She started to go into the house, but I said I would do it this time. I wasn’t afraid. If anyone was to pay for a cure for my baby, it should be me.

“Do you want me to ask for something for you, too?” I said before I went in.

Jestine’s expression shifted, and I saw her grief. “Ask him to get me back everything I lost. See if he can do that for me.”

I rapped on the door and was told to come inside. The baby was fussing, but only a little. I had to get used to the dark. I spied the herb man in his chair. He looked so old, as if he was already in another world.

“Do you remember me?” I asked.

He shrugged. It didn’t matter. “Is that the problem?” He nodded at my baby.

“He doesn’t sleep or eat.”

I brought Jacobo closer so that he could be examined. The herb man opened the blanket and studied the baby’s form. My son threw his arms up and cried with a deep voice.

“He’s strong,” the herb man said. “He has no fever. He just has other things on his mind.”

“What other things?” I couldn’t imagine what a baby might be thinking of other than sleep and milk and the warmth of his mother’s arms.

“He sees what you can’t see.” The baby had quieted and was staring into the herb man’s eyes. “Maybe he sees my death. I wouldn’t be surprised if he sees how I’ll go out and lie in the grass and blink and be gone. I’ll travel right up to the stars and look down at him. Or maybe he just sees the shadows on the wall.”

The herbalist signaled for me to wrap up my baby. As I did he slowly got up and brought forth a bottle of a brown liquid made of soursop and powdered herbs. He gave me a bundle of soursop tree leaves to rub over the baby’s blankets. The herb man was so old he could barely walk. I wondered how he fed himself, and I thought perhaps I should leave fruit and bread every week. He came to take the baby from my arms.

“He’ll sleep with one drop of this every night. Then he’ll get used to sleeping. He will look forward to it. But it won’t change who he is or how he sees.”

The herb man gave the baby a drop of the mixture to drink from his finger. My son made a face, but he closed his eyes.

“Whenever you do this let him hear your voice. Then he will know you will always be there for him. Speak now,” he told me.

I was so taken aback, I began to tell the first story that came to me, the one that had always terrified Aaron. Surely it was wrong to speak of werewolves in the presence of an infant, but I did. I murmured of how the old Danish families had to pay a price for their cruelty, how when the moon was full they felt their bodies would become covered with hair and their claws would come in. By the time I was done, my child was asleep.

“He likes stories with teeth,” the herbalist said happily. “Another sign of his strength.”

It was then I noticed the pearls around the herbalist’s neck, the ones my mother had sewn into the hem of her skirt when my parents fled Saint-Domingue, the ones my grandmother had brought when she escaped from Spain. Jestine had paid for Frédéric’s life with them.

The herb man caught me staring. “You like these?” he said, holding up the pearls. “I’m making sure the bad luck in them wears off.”

I took out a gold coin and put it on the table. It was too much for a sleep cure and we both knew it. I explained that I wanted the pearls back.

“Someone needs them,” I said. “She wants to get back what she lost.”

“You give them to her, you’ll give her your luck, too,” the old man said. “Are you sure about that?”

I said I was. I owed it to her.

He took off the strand of pearls and gave them to me. They were so hot they burned my hand. I was about to put another gold coin on the table, but the herb man stopped me.

“What good will that do me where I’m going?” he said. “I like something more than coins.”

So I kissed him, as I’d done before.

We were halfway down the hill when I handed Jestine the pearls. There were already clouds of mosquitoes hovering over the waterfall when we passed by. “You should have what was meant to be yours,” I told my friend. Jestine gave me a look, then she slipped the pearls around her throat and kissed me. I gave her my luck, and was happy to do so.

As we continued on the road I held my child close so he would hear the sound of my voice, as the herbalist had bade me to do. I told him the story of the turtle woman who couldn’t decide whether or not to be human, and of the fish who had the face of a horse, and of a donkey who had the name of a French boy and came running home to supper whenever he was called. By the time we reached our street my baby was slumbering, as if he’d never had any difficulty.


On the night before one year ended and another began there was a special celebration on our island, when the tired, old year was swept away, a time when wrongs were forgotten and hope was restored. It was a rowdy party that included the entire city, and what was done on that night was overlooked, left unjudged. You could kiss a stranger on the street, drink all night, engage in a fistfight, gamble, run wild, and still be absolved of any wrongdoing. Sometimes I thought it was the only night when some people on our island possessed the ability to forgive in our unfair world. People of color and Europeans, the poor and the rich, some descended from royalty and others from slaves, flooded the streets to dance. Already many people of color were free on our island, and soon they would be granted the rights of citizenship and be welcomed into the Burghers’ Association so they could set up business, just as Jews would soon be granted the rights to marry non-Jews, though few would do so and dare face the congregation’s wrath.

On this one night, however, everyone was equal on the street. Some wore masks, so they would not be recognized by their mothers or wives or by neighbors who might reveal any trespasses committed and create a scandal. The celebration began at four in the afternoon and went on all night; even the slaves were free to do as they pleased, dancing and forming into bands of musicians, with many playing the drums called Gumbe. In our community only men were allowed to attend this party, but I had never listened to rules. I hadn’t even told Frédéric where I was going. I had kissed him good-bye and left him to read over the ledgers. Rosalie promised to stay with the children until midnight, then she was leaving to be with Mr. Enrique. I wore the green dress Jestine had sewn for me when I thought I would wear black for the rest of my life. I braided my hair, took off my rings, found a mask hidden in a bureau. My husband trusted me and asked no questions, which made me love him all the more. I would create still another scandal if anyone knew that I went alone through the city, doing as I pleased. I put my children to bed and went down the stairs in the dark.

There was Jestine, waiting for me. We both slipped on our masks made of feathers so we could not be recognized. Jestine was wearing my mother’s pearls, the ones I’d bargained for with my good fortune. There were always men who chased after my friend, for even masked she was clearly the most beautiful woman in the crowd. She paid no attention. Perhaps we had indeed changed places and she no longer believed in love. She had one person in mind, her child, and that left no room for anyone else. People thought we were sisters and addressed us as such, and we laughed and drank rum at a stand on the street.

“I’m the pretty sister, but you’re the one who gets what she wants,” Jestine said.

It was true. I had ten children and a man I loved. No matter what my problems were, and how my own people shunned me, I was blessed by the many riches of my life.

“The whole world starts again in a few hours. You’re supposed to have hope tonight,” I told Jestine.

“I do. I hope that the red-haired woman dies a terrible death.”

Such things should not be said aloud, but I understood, and I joined her in this wish. We raised our glasses and drank to the Frenchwoman’s death. I had no qualms about doing so.

We wandered through the drunken crowd, past Glass Bottle Alley and Ding Alley, all places we weren’t supposed to be. We went to a food stand, bought cups of guava berry rum, cheered the musicians, walked through town, hand in hand. We were out till the stars began to disappear from the sky.

HOURS LATER THE FIRE started. A fight had begun, and a kerosene lantern had been kicked over. In moments, wooden buildings went up like straw. I was in bed with my husband when we heard what we thought was one of the children screaming. But it was the wind that had picked up and the cry of fire as one building after the other caught. Frédéric was out of bed in an instant. He pulled on trousers and a shirt. I loved to see his broad shoulders and muscular arms when he was dressing. I wished he would stay beside me, and leave the fire to others, but he wasn’t a person who would recoil from the possibility of harm to himself.

“Start pouring water around the house,” he told me. “Don’t leave the hill.”

I felt panicked when he went out. I called his name but he was gone. I didn’t care about anyone but him. There was a heaviness inside me, as if my life had left me. I went to the window to look for him, but he had turned the corner, and had taken the steps down the hill, already on his way to the synagogue, where a bucket brigade had begun to wet down buildings. Every effort was made, with the men working even harder when the breezes came up, soaking every wall and roof. I woke Rosalie, and we did the same with our home and store, with the help of the older children. The air was thick with sparks and smoke, but we worked away, our clothes drenched. I thought of Jestine alone at the harbor, pouring buckets of seawater on her porch and along the perimeter of her house. By then, flocks of birds were overhead in the dark sky, fleeing the smoke, taking wing on a course that led past Jestine’s house, out to sea. The pelican who had always nested on our roof, who I’d believed carried Adelle’s spirit, left that night when sparks fell into its nest. I felt an emptiness without that bird above me, there like one of the stars that rose above us in the sky.

The fire raged for two days, during which time we stayed close to home—wetting down the street and garden with bucket after bucket. Our rain barrel ran dry, and I had to send the boys dashing to the harbor to fill buckets with salt water. I counted the minutes until they were back home, safe from the flames. Cinders stung our clothes and eyes. Birds that had waited too long fell from the sky, bodies smashed on the road, their feathers drifting through puddles. I climbed out onto the roof and the children handed me buckets of green seawater to pour over the eaves. There was no birdsong, no chatter on the street, no ships’ horns, only something that sounded like a cry. For two days we barely ate or slept. Frédéric had not returned. I felt I had lost half of myself, more than half, actually, for I was nothing without him. Many people had been killed or wounded in the fires, and over a thousand buildings had burned to the ground. I mourned for our city, but there was only one person I waited for at the gate, my heart knotted with fear. My hair was loose, thick with ash; my hands had blistered from lugging pails of water with handles so hot from the fires they had burned marks into my palms.

When my husband at last came home he was black with soot. I didn’t care, but went to embrace him. I felt my heart had been returned to me. I wept but did not let him see me do so. I had to let him be himself, a young, hopeful man. I could not burden him with the depth of my love and how afraid I was when I thought I might lose him. I stepped away so that he might wash the fire off him.

He stripped off his clothes and stood in the garden while he poured buckets of water over himself. Soon enough, the ground was black. Even after he’d washed, when he came to bed he smelled of smoke. “No one spoke to me,” he told me. “They let me help, but when it was over, and everything had burned down, they turned from me. Not a single man from the congregation greeted me by name.”

I heard the hurt and confusion in his voice, and I thought that whatever happened, whether our marriage was ever considered legal or whether we were forever outside the law, I would never trust anyone in our community. An outcast was an outcast, even when the tide turned. I would always be the woman who was a sinner. I could turn men into pillars of salt, enchant them to do my bidding, make them beg to come into my bed. My green-edged bitterness was running through my blood. Yet, despite my hatred for those men who had turned their backs on Frédéric, I was able to love my husband completely. He was such a beautiful man, both his physical self and the soul that he carried. That night in our bed he lay beside me with ashes still threaded through his dark hair, his long arms twisted around me.

The city was in ruins, with smoke rising from burned houses, and we were two people who had been scorned, but in truth I felt more fortunate than most, despite having handed over my measure of luck to Jestine. I thanked the women whose spirits walked in the trees above my head when I visited the cemetery. In the morning, when I looked into our garden, branches of our apple tree lay strewn upon the stones of the patio, the leaves burned off. But the bark was still green. This tree from France had survived both sea voyages and hurricanes. It had been transplanted whenever our family had to flee, the last time dug up with my own hands when I stole it from the garden of my parents’ house. I did not think fire would be the end of it, although from that time onward, it gave fruit only once a year, more bitter than ever, but delicious when steeped in a mixture of equal parts molasses and rum.

WHEN MY FOURTH SON with Frédéric was born, I named him Aaron Gustave, hoping my choice would cleanse that name, but it was likely a mistake. Jestine refused to look at the baby, and later, when she relented, she called him Gus, which was the name of a goat that had belonged to one of our neighbors. Even I had to laugh at that.

I now had eleven children, for I considered my stepchildren my own, though they were now grown. I still worried for Félix, the one who was in my womb when I stood on the Reverend’s doorstep. He was fragile, quick to take a chill, very quiet with shining dark eyes. And then in the following year I lost a baby who was even more fragile, a boy who arrived far too soon, when I was by myself in the garden. I had a stab of pain, then crouched down, as the pirates’ wives must have done, alone and unaided. He arrived dead before he came to life, and so he could not be named or protected from Lilith. I felt robbed and told no one of my loss. It was only Frédéric and myself at the funeral, which we could not have in the synagogue. There was a single gravedigger whom we hired, a man not of our faith. We went at dusk, that blue empty time. I laid the child to rest beside my father, who I hoped would watch over him in the world to come, if such a thing existed. I did not weep, although my husband sobbed. When he knelt and cried out to God, I felt my bitterness burn inside me. We released the gravedigger and took up a shovel ourselves and buried our child together. Now our boy with no name would be among the spirits.

IN THE YEAR OF 1833, the elders of our congregation agreed that our marriage was legal and wrote our union down in their book. It was there, for everyone to see. We were officially husband and wife. I am not certain what changed, but perhaps we had been more of a scandal as outsiders than we would be as members of the synagogue. Frédéric immediately began to go to services, but I declined. I waited for him in the garden on Saturdays, and we would sit together then and he would say a prayer for me, and for our children, and our household.

I did not expect God’s forgiveness, for I had done as I pleased. Nor did I expect luck, for I had given mine away. I had done so in the hope that Jestine would be granted good fortune, but she was still in her house by the sea, still in mourning. I had written several letters to Aaron, but had received no reply. I tried to make him understand the grief his actions had caused, and begged him to consider allowing Lyddie to return. There was no response, until late one day Frédéric came to our rooms. It was the busy season, so I was surprised to see that he had left the store while Rosalie and I were preparing the Friday night dinner. My husband brought me into the garden, where we could have some privacy. He looked worried, and so many thoughts went through my head that I felt a wash of relief when he gave me an envelope from France. When he’d gone to the post office, the letter had been waiting.

“From your cousin, I assume,” he said.

I opened the letter with a paring knife left out in the yard. The blade was rusty and left a mark the color of blood. I examined the handwriting. “From his wife.”

I did not read any more, but instead decided to bring the letter to its rightful recipient. I took Jacobo with me. He was then nearly four, a quiet child who often refused to do as he was told. In truth, I still loved Jacobo more dearly than any of the others, though I hid the fact that I favored him. He was both clever and dreamy, interested in the adult world, which the other children ignored.

“You can help me carry a package,” I told him. He always liked to be useful. We took some fruit and slices of the cassava bread that Rosalie had baked that morning and brought the food up into the hills before going on to Jestine’s. I wanted favor, and I hoped my gifts might bring this. We left the offerings in the doorway of the herb man’s house. I saw signs of life: pots, pans, and a bucket of water.

“Is this a werewolf’s house?” my son asked. I had read him all my stories, and he liked to hear that one over and over again. But now his eyes were wide.

“Oh, no,” I told him. “A good man lives here. We leave him some food because he’s very old.”

Another frightened child might hide behind his mother’s skirts, but my son peered through a window. It was covered with two boards with some meshing attached to keep the mosquitoes out. The herbalist was likely in bed, or watching us, waiting for us to leave. There were some parrots in the tamarind trees, and the leaves shook down on us. “It’s raining,” Jacobo said, and he gathered the leaves and set them at the herb man’s doorstep as yet another gift.

We went along the path that seemed to change every time I took it. We came upon donkeys and crouched down to watch them. Jacobo was entranced. When I held a finger to my lips he nodded and agreed to be silent so we wouldn’t frighten the creatures away.

“One of them is Jean-François,” I whispered.

My son shook his head. “Donkeys don’t have names,” he whispered back.

He was very sure of himself even then. I should have known there would be trouble between us, for our temperaments were too alike, but instead I laughed and the donkeys scattered and we watched them disappear into the hills.

THERE HAD BEEN A terrible hurricane some months before, and many of the buildings at the harbor were still in bad shape. My husband had paid some men to fix Jestine’s roof and fashion new wooden shutters that she could close from the inside when bad weather struck. She had painted them blue and white. Many of the palm trees had been toppled, and they still lay on the side of the road. I had the letter tucked into the bodice of my dress. It felt heavy, like a stone. I held Jacobo’s hand, but he broke away and ran to Jestine’s house, climbing up the steps two at a time while I held my breath, frightened he might fall and be swept away to sea.

There were many skilled tailors in our country; it was a useful trade on an island where sailors often needed to be fitted for entire new wardrobes. But no one’s work was as fine as Jestine’s. She had learned her craft when she made my wedding dress, and then my mourning dress, and then my spring-green dress. She had made all of Lyddie’s clothes. Now she had begun her own elite business. There was a list of women waiting to purchase her handiwork. She was a talented seamstress, but even more important, she could imagine a dress like no other. She called each one by name: The Storm, for an inky silk creation she’d begun during the hurricane when the wind swept inside her house. The Moth, pale gray linen from France, so luminous and lovely, she hated to sell it to the ugly old woman who had commissioned it. Now she was working on Starlight, fashioned of silvery damask, a fabric that would reflect light into the wearer’s face so that no one would be able to gaze away. Once again, for the old lady who didn’t deserve such beauty. There was a spool of white thread beside Jestine and handfuls of crystal beads.

Jacobo loved to visit here and made himself right at home. Jestine was like a dear auntie to him, and the truth was I was jealous. They talked about things I didn’t care about, the color of the sea, and of palm leaves, and rejoiced over how many shades of red there were. My boy went inside and lay down on Jestine’s bed, pulling the thin blue quilt over himself. Ever since he’d had a drink from the herbalist’s potion, he’d been an excellent sleeper. Jestine and I laughed to think of the time when he was an infant and kept me up all night with his screams.

At last, I handed Jestine the letter. The sewing fell from her lap in a coil when she saw it. The needle she held pricked her skin, and a single drop of blood fell from her finger. Later she would use a limewater paste to remove it from the fabric, but every time the ugly woman wore the dress in public and I saw her, I remembered this day.

“It might be bad news,” Jestine said.

I knew what she was thinking. A letter after all this time might mean Lyddie was afflicted in some way; perhaps she had died. It had been ten years since she had been stolen, time enough for anything to happen.

“You read it to me.” Jestine was shivering as she thrust the letter back into my hands.

I noticed there was a pelican nesting on the new roof, perhaps the one who had flown from my house during the Night of the Old Year fire. My luck, I was certain, was now Jestine’s. Such thoughts gave me the courage to open the letter and read, though at first my heart was in my throat.

I have often thought of writing to you in the past, but will make this brief due to the circumstances. I thought you should know that your daughter had grown into a beautiful woman. On the trip to France I feared she might die from a fever. She fell into a deep sleep and when she woke, she remembered little, not even her own name.

Now, she is engaged to be married. She is still young and must wait two years before she is wed.

I raised my eyes to see Jestine weeping. She had cast away the dress she had been working on so that her tears wouldn’t ruin the fabric.

“Jestine,” I said. I put the letter down.

She shook her head. “They almost killed her with their love. Go on. Read it.”

I thought of Elise in our bathtub, her red hair streaming down her back, her pale skin scattered with freckles, cavorting in the water as if she was nothing more than a simple, mindless girl. Perhaps I learned that people were not always what they appeared to be from that time.

I beg you to be happy for the joy in her life, and not to despise me for giving her a better one than she might have had if she’d stayed on your island. I imagine you must curse me every day, but please know I have always loved her.

I’m writing you this news in the hope that it can bring you happiness as well.

We both had thought of Lyddie frozen at the age when she was taken. She was a little girl to us, not a young woman engaged to be wed.

Elise’s monogram was imprinted in the letter paper. “We should burn this,” I said.

On this day the sea was smooth and glassy. It seemed a person could walk all the way across it, on the backs of the turtles, until she reached the shoreline of France and the salt flats of the ancient city of La Rochelle. I wished it were so, just as I wished I could give my friend back her daughter. I would have even given her one of mine, but such things were impossible.

We went inside Jestine’s house and made a fongee pudding out of cornmeal for our dinner. We saved a bowl for Jacobo to have when his nap was through, but for now we left him to his dreams. This porridge had been Lyddie’s favorite meal when she was wrapped inside the life that should have been hers. We did not set a plate for her to help bring her back home, for people say such actions call to a person’s spirit, and we feared we would disrupt the happiness she had found with the man she was to marry. But we burned the letter after we had eaten. We saw that the smoke was blue, a sign that the writer did not have long to live. Surely that was why my cousin’s wife had written after all this time as an attempt to free herself of her sins. Yet there was no regret in her message, no apology, not even any gratitude. If it were me, I would have indeed cursed her. But Jestine simply poured water on the ashes, to make certain any flaming sparks were drowned. We threw what was left into the sea.

My son woke then, and he ran to us. But it was Jestine he threw his arms around, not me.