The Escape Artist
CHARLOTTE AMALIE, ST. THOMAS
JACOBO CAMILLE PIZZARRO
I wanted my freedom from the start. I did not wish to go to school and would have preferred to walk through the streets of the city, skirting the harbor, making my way to the shore so I could study waves, sand, birds, light. This was my library, the landscape around me, luminous and white-hot or starry and black. I liked to be with everyday people, watching them work, especially at the docks, where there was a riot of color, and a rush of great excitement every time a ship arrived, for that was the way the world came to us and woke us up with news and events and people. We had small lives here. Each group stayed to themselves, and people of our faith were very close-knit. My older brothers and sisters had all attended European schools, and several had left the island due to marriage. But we younger brothers did not attend the school at the synagogue, rebuilt from stone and brick after the fire that had burned it to the ground. Nor did we go to any of the schools that non-Jewish Europeans attended. We were outcasts, and as far as I was concerned this was good luck. So much the better.
But my mother insisted that all children must be taught to read and write, and she brought us to the school run by the Moravians, missionaries from Denmark. The Moravians on St. Thomas had been funded a hundred years earlier by the Danish princess Charlotta Amalia, the beloved wife of King Christian V, born in 1650, and it was her name that graced our capital city. My brothers and I were the only Europeans to attend this school, and at first the other students gawked and joked about us, but that didn’t last long. We had to work too hard for there to be time for ridicule. We were taught in English, Danish, and German. At home we spoke French, and I didn’t know a word of these languages, so I sat there in a dream state. I wondered if this was how our dog, called Souris—meaning mouse—felt when my sisters would chatter to him. Souris was a descendant of one of the dogs brought here by pirates from Madagascar, common on our island, a breed that was white and fluffy as cotton, but tough when it came to chasing after rats and lizards. My sisters, especially Delphine, liked to dress him up in a baby’s bonnet and have him sit on a chair for tea, and my father, who was easygoing, allowed this. My father loved peace and quiet; he was most interested in figures and ledgers. He was soft-spoken, though, and had a big heart. I think when my mother’s back was turned, he gave my sisters biscuits to share with Souris and laughed along with them at the dog’s antics. Delphine was his favorite; she was so pretty it was hard to say no to her. It seemed far easier to say no to me, for when I begged my father to let me escape from hours wasted at school, he told me every man should be educated. I knew he would not go against my mother. He never would.
Luckily, at the new school I sat beside a girl named Marianna King, who grinned at my confusion and whispered in French, “Pretend you know what they’re saying and eventually you will.” This turned out to be true, although it took months for the miracle of my understanding to occur. During that time everyone came to believe I was an idiot, and perhaps some of them thought that was why I was in this school with people of color, rather than in the school run by the synagogue like other boys of my faith.
But my idiocy in matters of scholarship was not the reason I was there. Something had happened years before I was born, and people of our own faith were not friendly to us. We had not been made to feel welcome to worship in the synagogue. I had once or twice sneaked up the marble steps so I might slip through the gated courtyard to peer inside. I saw the mahogany cabinet that was home to the Torahs, the scrolls of our law, and the huge tablets with the rules of Moses inscribed upon them. There was a domed ceiling, and at night the house of worship was lit by candlelight, so that the ceiling glowed as if it were the firmament. Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord. But I had come out of curiosity and wonder, rather than drawn there by faith. Our family was not invited to holiday dinners, parties, funerals, or weddings. I knew that my parents had offended the Reverend and a scandal had ensued. My mother never once admitted this to me, but I’d heard gossip, and my older brothers had told me they’d been born before my parents had been officially married. I found this difficult to believe.
Perhaps my family’s standing was fueled by the fact that no one liked my mother. Only her maid, Rosalie, defended her headstrong ways. Rosalie had cause to favor my mother, for it was my mother who had insisted that my father hire a solicitor to search for his manager’s wife on another island. In doing so, he had discovered that this wife had died ten years earlier. Mr. Enrique was therefore free to marry Rosalie. For that reason alone, Rosalie was loyal, and though they belonged to different societies, the two were faithful to one another. Tell one a secret and it was as good as telling the other.
My mother had arranged to hold Rosalie’s wedding in the garden of the house where my mother had grown up, opposite the cottage where Mr. Enrique, and now Rosalie, would live. She rented it from the new family in residence without bothering to mention it was not a Jewish wedding, but rather a marriage for African people. The new owners of the house closed their shutters and went out for the evening. Because of this they missed how ethereal their garden became on the wedding night, enchanted, lit by candlelight. The music was wonderful, flutes and the drums. We were the only Europeans invited. There was dancing until all hours, and my brothers enjoyed watching the women dressed in their finery. But I preferred to be in the back of the garden, where I could examine the pink flowers of the bougainvillea growing up the stucco walls in huge bunches. There was an ancient lizard beneath a hedge that barely moved when I studied his form. I sketched with a stick in the dirt, trying to capture the outlines of a century plant with huge gray-green leaves. Mr. Enrique worked with my father. On this night he was wearing a formal suit and vest ordered from Paris, a gift from my mother. He surprised me when he came into the garden. He was now a married man, and perhaps he needed a quiet moment to think through his new standing in life. He was at least twenty years older than his bride, respected by my family and by his community.
“Marriage is a lot of noise,” he said, but he looked pleased.
My mother had told me that if Mr. Enrique hadn’t saved my grandfather I wouldn’t be alive, so I was a little in awe of him.
“A piece of paper doesn’t mean anything,” the new groom went on. “Your mother knows that.”
From early on, I was aware that just because something was a rule, it wasn’t necessarily fair. My mother glared at other women of our faith on the street for they never greeted her, and when they came to shop in our store, there was no conversation. However, the love between my parents was unlike what I saw between other married couples, who were dutiful toward one another, often referring to each other as Madame and Monsieur after decades of marriage. My parents could not restrain their emotions. Sometimes I heard murmuring and laughter from their chamber at night, and often I saw them holding hands when they thought no one was near. Their love was a mystery to me, and yet it was part of our lives, a door that shut out the rest of us, a place inhabited by them alone. I would not like to have witnessed anyone say a bad word about my father in my mother’s presence. She was fierce, and when I was very young I wondered if she’d been bit by one of the werewolves in the stories she told me. I had seen her gazing at the moon as such creatures are said to do, as if she recognized something up above us that was invisible to the human eye.
My mother lit the candles on Friday night, but she did not pray. My father, on the other hand, was an extremely pious man. Though he was not welcome at the synagogue, he prayed in the yard every morning and at dusk. I would watch him sometimes, bowing to God, his voice like a river, rising up in shades of gold and blue.
“Do you think God hears him?” my mother once asked me. I was only a boy, but she often asked me questions she might have posed to another adult.
“I think he hears God,” I said.
My mother looked at me hard, to see if I was making a joke. I wasn’t. I thought perhaps it was more important to listen than to be heard. I kept a vigil into the night listening to the moths at the window, the frogs in the puddles, the wind that came from across the ocean.
My family’s disagreement with the synagogue was the reason I attended school with people of color, something so unusual most of the students couldn’t help but gape when my mother and Jestine enrolled us. Jestine was like an aunt to me, especially as we had no extended family on St. Thomas. Since I had few dealings with people of our own faith, I did not understand why the other students seemed so stunned by my arrival. My brothers were standoffish, embarrassed to be so different, but I was pleased. Jestine had told me this was the best school on the island and promised me I would find my calling here. Our teachers were religious, dedicated people whose goal was to bring education to the new world, and they were tolerant of race and religion in ways that astounded and refreshed me. Even as a very young child, I did not approve of dictates, and thought even less of those who enforced them, those who were our elders and called themselves our betters. These were the same people who spat on the street after my mother passed by. If I had not been born a rebel, if the treatment of my parents hadn’t turned me into a radical, then I had been made one by the injustices I saw on our island. From the very start I wondered about the meaning of freedom. My mother said I asked too many questions. You look too deeply into things. Don’t make trouble, she said. A laughable statement considering all the trouble she’d made for our family, and how my father still had to remind her not to speak her mind in public, for she often held nothing back. Her tongue was sharp, and when she was angry I avoided her as best I could.
THE TRUTH WAS, I was happy not to be at the school at the synagogue because I could escape the extra work of learning Hebrew and studying the Torah. At the Moravian School we learned Bible stories as well, but they were about Jesus, whom I had not heard of before, and of the possibilities of salvation, despite our sins on earth. Such stories were interesting to me, and over the years I was in school I paid careful attention to them. The idea that God would have a son on earth was particularly fascinating. It made God seem closer to humanity, more involved with our daily trials. I had struggled with the concept of a God that would let his people suffer, and make the world we lived in so unequal, especially when I passed the shantytowns on my way to school, for it was a long walk and I dawdled behind my brothers so I might take it all in. Was it fair that some people on this island should live in huge houses surrounded by courtyards filled with fruit trees while others lived in shacks? In the stories we were told, Jesus was an outcast and a rebel. He was a Jew who would not bow down to the Romans or to any authority other than God. I grew to admire him, something I would not have dared mention to my mother. I was not a believer in the Christian faith, merely an interested observer. I said amen at the end of their prayers, then had pangs of guilt.
I asked Marianna about this one day, and she shrugged. She told me her family practiced the old religion from Africa. “At school you have to pretend you accept their faith. My family doesn’t believe in such things. I just go along with these stories.”
In that instant I saw that we were the same—disbelievers surrounded by believers. Outcasts on an island where we were not equals, she less equal than I because of her color and sex. I felt a tightness in my throat due to this bond, and an understanding of the world that would stay with me all the rest of my life. I was eight or nine at the time, but later, I came to feel that this was my first moment of true love: to know and be known by someone. It did not hurt that Marianna was beautiful, more so as we got older. She had high cheekbones and was very dark, with light-filled eyes flecked with green. When she smiled, the world was something new to me. This is what I wished for, even as a boy: to see what was there, but also what was underneath flesh and blood, core and pit, leaf and stem. Above all else, despite my mother’s warnings, I wished to see.
I began to draw in class. I had no idea that I had any particular talent until people told me so. Other children gathered around and asked me to draw this or that. They flattered me and begged me for my art. Sometimes I complied, drawing their faces or the form of a donkey, but mostly I did as I pleased. I had always looked at the world as if it were a puzzle—whether it was a scene, a landscape, or a person—the pieces dissolved inside my mind so that I then could put them back together to form a whole. This made sense when I began to draw, creating the elements one image at a time until the world appeared on the paper. Instead of going directly home, as my brothers did, I went to the beach and drew Marianna, using a bit of charcoal and some heavy paper I took from the storeroom at school. I drew Marianna so many times I knew her face better than my own. I felt I had come upon the core of the meaning of life, to discover and re-create beauty. We spent hours together, but after a while this stopped. Marianna’s mother caught us together. She grabbed me and told me that if I bothered her daughter again she would have me beaten. I doubted this, but Marianna was too afraid of misbehaving to see me anymore. We were only children and Marianna was respectful; in many ways she was more grown up than I. She told me she could no longer be my friend. I understood. My sisters were the same when it came to our mother’s demands. They did as she said. They didn’t want trouble.
When Marianna could no longer spend time with me after school, I did not give up art. I drew the island around me, beginning with a palm tree. I sketched it section by section, leaf by leaf. I became the palm tree as I did this, knowing it inside out. The undersides of the leaves, which I did not draw, I still knew inside my head. I dreamed of whatever I drew: the palm fronds, a bat hanging from a tamarind tree, a woman walking down the street with a basket of laundry under her arm. I did not have much to do with my brothers and sisters. They were busy, the older ones working in the store, the younger ones interested in their studies. Sometimes I caught my mother studying me. She had a cautious expression at these times, as if I were a specimen she was studying under glass.
When I was a young boy they called me Marmotte, sleepyhead. I could nap under the table with ease. My parents said they often found me dozing on a bench in the garden, or on the beach while the other children played and swam. Now that I was older I didn’t sleep much. When I did, I dreamed of color. Of blue, mostly, in every shade, for our island is made up of the many delicate hues of that color. In the hottest months I dreamed also of green. On those occasions I awoke dizzy, as if I had slept in a field. I smelled wet grass, snarls of berries on vines, honey-scented flowers. And so it came to be that I carried these colors with me, awake or asleep. It didn’t matter if I was in the classroom or in my parents’ house; I was somewhere else as well. Inside blue, inside green, inside a palm tree, inside Marianna’s light-flecked eyes.
Being an outcast meant I possessed a sort of freedom I wouldn’t have had otherwise, and that was what I wanted from the time I could crawl. As a boy I was a loner. There were days when no one knew where I was. I pinched paper and brushes from my father’s store, then went into the hills and soon learned to make my own pigments from nature: red petals, mud, clamshells, nut shells. I often used planks of wood as my canvases. I used a knife and created my images in slices. I learned much about dyes for my paints from Jestine. As close as my mother was to Rosalie, Jestine was the only person my mother truly confided in, though their relationship was a rocky one, with ups and downs I didn’t understand. Sometimes when my mother came to visit, Jestine would act as if she couldn’t hear her at the door. This could go on for months, and then one day Jestine would embrace my mother as if she were a sister.
Jestine was a dressmaker, the best there was. I often went to her house at the harbor, where she had vats of dye set out on the porch in a line of brilliant color. When one of the dresses she made was particularly beautiful she would say, “This still isn’t worthy of my daughter.” She had no daughter, so I assumed that she hoped to have one someday, or perhaps it was just a saying.
“Yes, it’s beautiful enough,” I would tell her, but she would always shake her head.
“You don’t know,” she’d say. “You’re too young.”
I found it much easier to talk to Jestine than to my mother. I was closer to her and could talk to her about things my mother would never have understood. It was in our conversations that I first learned about color, how tint laid upon tint created a mist of a certain shade. Jestine had told me never to rush something I was creating, but instead to let it come into being as if it had a soul of its own. It was so pleasant to be at Jestine’s house. My mother watched me like a hawk, as if waiting for bad traits to surface. She kept that hawk eye on me in a manner that made me want to run away from her. But Jestine let me be.
I loved my homeland, yet I wanted to leave. I walked alleyways lined with warehouses that led down to the harbor. The desire to travel was in my blood. I watched the boats depart from the wharves and wished I were on one. I didn’t care what the destination was: South America, New York, Europe. I was willing to go anywhere, greedy for all the color in the world. I watched the reflections of clouds disappearing into the water and thought that in another harbor the water might be an entirely different color, the sky a soft dove gray, the mountains forest green, the ice-cold waves a deep and endless indigo.
Jestine allowed me a glimpse of the person my mother once had been. I made a remark about how my mother understood nothing about the beauty of our world, that she was focused only on household chores and on my father. Jestine told me I was wrong. She took me to a field where she said she and my mother used to go whenever they could run off from their chores. She said the only task my mother enjoyed was killing chickens for the Friday night dinner, a fact that made me laugh. There were blue snails climbing up the tamarind trees, and seawater cut through the field in a crisscross of salty, shallow pools. It was here, Jestine said, they would lie in the grass without moving, except for breathing out and in, which moved the grass in waves, like the sea. I couldn’t imagine my mother as a girl, but I painted the grass and the red flowering trees and the gleam of the water in my next painting. I did my best to show the wind in blues and overlapping grays.
Jestine next took me to a stretch of beach where she said turtles came once a year to lay their eggs. It was the place where she and my mother would hide in the dark. They would pretend they were girls who were half turtle and imagine that they would swim away and never look back. The sky was midnight blue, one of the colors I loved to paint with, a shade I often dreamed of. I painted the beach and a palm tree that unfolded like a flower. In the shadows there were turtles, their shells a green-black from the depths of the sea.
Then we went to stand outside the shop, beneath my mother’s window. Jestine said, She fell in love looking outside onto this street. The street was yellow, with rose-colored blooms in the hedges. We went on through our section of town, to the big house where my grandparents had lived, where the oldest lizard on the island hid in the courtyard.
I remembered Rosalie’s wedding and the garden aglow that night. My mother had come looking for me. She thought I’d disappeared to sleep in a quiet place, but I was crouched beside the bushes, looking for the lizard. “My cousin used to do what you’re doing. He could call the iguana to him. He was such a handsome boy.”
Perhaps my mother forgot she was speaking to me. She let slip that when she had come to her first husband’s house, Rosalie had been a slave. She hadn’t been aware of this until Monsieur Petit died and the will was read. The first thing my mother had done as a widow was to have papers drawn up for Rosalie’s emancipation. But she had to wait for my father to come from France to sign those papers, because a woman hadn’t the legal right to do so. At Rosalie’s wedding a hundred candles had been lit, and it seemed as if the stars had fallen from the sky. In bringing me back to that house, Jestine reminded me of the moment when my mother and I stood in the garden. When I went home, I took out my paint and brushes and did my best to create the rooms inside my grandfather’s house without ever having seen them. The walls were in tints of pistachio and salmon and pale gold.
I practiced my art until I was ready to complete a real portrait. I chose to sketch Jestine as she worked dyeing clothes, and then to paint that image. When I sketched her I saw something in her face I hadn’t noticed before. All at once I saw that the color of grief was blue and that it radiated from her. I painted her in that shade. Flesh tones didn’t show the real substance of people, neither their physical aspects nor their souls.
Since I’d begun the painting I found I had difficulty sleeping. I thought about Jestine’s mention of a dress for her daughter, and the color of sorrow, and my mother standing in the garden watching me, suspicious, as if I was her cousin from long ago. I thought of things I had overheard when my mother and Jestine had no idea I was listening. I wasn’t really paying attention, yet still I heard bits of conversation. How could a person be so selfish? How could love turn to ash? Why would God allow cruelty in the world if he truly were watching over his sons and his daughters?
The next day I worked up enough courage to question my mother. I found her in the kitchen with Rosalie. They were discussing dinner, something they did nearly every day, and yet they seemed to find the subject endlessly fascinating. Would we have chicken or fish? Would the sauce be sweet or sour?
“Does Jestine have a daughter?” I asked.
My mother and Rosalie exchanged a look. They kept cooking the Friday night meal, slamming around cast-iron pots. They had decided we would have chicken flavored with thyme and parsley and tomatoes, along with a cornmeal porridge and loaves of hot bread. My father would say the blessing over the meal, and then my brothers and I, starving by the end of the day, would grab for what we wanted until my mother clapped her hands and told us to be civilized. Usually I would have tried to sneak a bit of the food that was being prepared, but on this day I merely studied my mother, who was clearly upset by my question.
“You’re a busybody,” Rosalie told me in her matter-of-fact way. She was always protecting my mother, telling me to hush, saying I should keep my thoughts to myself.
I didn’t back down. “She mentioned a daughter.”
My mother shrugged. “She had one once,” she admitted.
I’d had my suspicions, yet was shocked to hear this news. “And? What happened to her?”
“Ask Jestine,” my mother suggested.
I knew my mother. That was it. She turned her back and would say no more.
The next time I saw Jestine I asked if it was true, if she’d had a daughter.
“It is true. Maybe you’re too young to know about such things.”
“I’m not,” I told her.
She fixed on me with her deep-set gray eyes as if searching for something. For a moment I thought she might tell me to leave, but she didn’t. She gestured to the sea. “My daughter was stolen.”
“Stolen? Who took her?” At that moment I envisioned myself a hero jumping up to track down her missing child. I would swoop in to thwart the abductors, and perhaps prove to my mother that I was worth more than she thought.
“Ask your mother who the thief is,” Jestine said with an odd sort of calm. “She knows well enough.”
I never liked to be between the two of them, and I had begun to realize whatever had happened was at the root of all their squabbles. I was afraid to say more to my mother. I feared she would clamp down on those few small freedoms I had. I secretly worked on my painting of Jestine, keeping it in the back room of the store where there were barrels of grain and rice. I thought it was the best work I had yet done, different than my other paintings, more layered and complicated, and yet simple in its emotion. One day I came for it and found it was gone. I was burning with rage. At least I knew who the thief was. There was only one person who continually told me that drawing and painting were a waste of my time. One person who shook her head as if I were doing something shameful when I leafed through illustrated books so that I might study the work of the great masters that I someday hoped to see for myself in the Louvre.
My mother was in the garden where we had fruit trees, including an old twisted apple tree. The bark was black as a snakeskin. Sometimes Rosalie made a cake from the apples, adding herbs and spices. No matter what she did, any recipe made from the fruit of this tree was bitter, though my mother seemed to enjoy it.
As I approached, my mother looked me up and down. “You should be concentrating on your studies,” she said before I had time to formulate a single word. Perhaps she had seen the stain of dye on my shirt. “I know what you’ve been doing,” she informed me.
“There’s nothing wrong in what I do.” I could feel some shackle being thrown off. I didn’t feel the fear I usually experienced when I talked back to her.
“In fact there is,” my mother said. “The way you paint doesn’t look anything like this world. I worry that you have something wrong with your vision.”
“You think this world is all there is?” I was both insulted and embarrassed. The colors I used might not have been of this world; instead they showed what lay below the surface of this world, the spark of color at the deepest core. “If your eyes see everything, did they see who stole Jestine’s daughter?”
My mother lowered the basket of apples. I think she took in who I was for the first time, a person who would not easily bow to someone’s command. Perhaps for the first time I allowed my real self to be seen. A pelican flew overhead, and cast its shadow upon us. All at once, my mother regained her composure.
“That is none of your business,” she said. “It’s Jestine’s affair. No one else’s.”
AFTER THAT MY FATHER told me I would work in the store on Sundays. I was perhaps ten at the time and already knew I would rather be anywhere else. My older brothers all worked at the store, and I did the best I could, but I was easily bored by figures. When my inability to add was discovered, I was given the job of making certain the shelves were filled and dusted. Then I could easily take off into the storeroom. I pilfered a drawing pad, and though I felt guilty, I was delighted with my new possession, and used burned wood as charcoal for my sketches.
One of my duties was to carry packages home for the ladies who shopped with us, and I enjoyed this, for it gave me back a bit of my independence. Sometimes the ladies presented me with a coin, which I saved up, hoping for a box of pastel chalks. Once I carried the groceries of a Madame Halevy, a very old woman who barely looked at me. She was a bit terrifying, like the old lizard in the garden of my grandfather’s house. When we got to her home, a huge stucco mansion painted firefly yellow, she told me she wanted me to bring the packages inside. Then she demanded that I put the flour and molasses and ground sugar in the pantry, where such things were kept away from beetles and stinging ants. She had both an indoor and an outdoor kitchen, and I wondered if she was so rich she had two of everything. She sat at the table and studied me as I worked, calling out where the items should be placed. When I was done she told me to sit across from her.
I saw the folds in her skin, the white film over her pale eyes. I found all of this very interesting. One of her hands had a tremor she couldn’t control, and I had the notion she might grab me and shake the life out of me there in her kitchen if she disapproved of anything I did or said. Yet I was more curious than I was frightened. She took off her thick white gloves; they were an old-fashioned accessory that only the very old ladies on the island kept to anymore. It was far too hot for gloves. I would have loved a glass of limeade, but I didn’t ask for anything.
“Would you like to know the truth about your family?” she asked.
I made a face. “Truth is different things to different people.” Frankly I was parroting Jestine, who had told me this.
Madame Halevy laughed. “It’s one thing when your mother sleeps with a nephew young enough to be her son, then marries him when the congregation denies the union, and yet another when she still thinks she’s better than everyone.”
“Maybe she is.” I might have been ten, but I was sly. My mother and I had our problems, but that was private. All the same, I was glad to be told information I had mostly guessed at before.
Madame Halevy laughed again. I could tell she had taken a liking to me despite herself.
“Would you like to come to our school and learn Hebrew?” she asked.
I shrugged. “I’m not much of a student.”
“Well then, would you like to know what happened to Jestine’s daughter?” she asked.
I was stunned by this offer, and it must have showed in my face. The old lady smiled. She had my interest now. I realized that other than her maid, who sometimes came to shop at our store, Madame lived alone. Her husband and children had passed on, aside from one daughter, who I’d heard had gone to America. Perhaps she was lonely and wished to speak freely to someone. What danger was a ten-year-old child?
“Come to tea tomorrow,” she said.
At dinner with my family that evening, I mentioned that I had carried Madame Halevy’s groceries to her house.
“That witch,” my mother said. She spat on the floor.
“She was a friend of your grandmother’s,” my father told me. Then when my mother shot him a look, he added, “Long ago.”
I saw my mother that night, standing outside, feeding a pelican that lived on Jestine’s roof but sometimes came to our garden. I recognized the bird because it had a ruff of gray feathers around its throat. My mother gave it not merely fish bones but an entire small fish, cooked and spiced. She talked to the bird as if it were human, conversing with it though its only response was to stare back at her. “You agree with me,” I heard her say to the bird. My mother was crouching down near the frangipani as though she were a girl. The sky was a soft, fragile blue. The air itself was tinted an inky shade, as if there were drops of water in the veil that surrounded us. I could see my mother as Jestine had described her: a girl who ran off into the countryside to look for turtles and birds, who intended to fly away, or jump into the sea and be carried to another shore.
I could not sleep that night and dreamed of shades of aquamarine and navy and indigo. All day next day in school I thought about whether or not I should return to Madame Halevy’s house when I knew my mother wouldn’t approve. Marianna and I still shared a desk, but next year I would have to share my desk with a boy. By then we would be considered too old to sit together innocently. I had the sense that soon enough this would be my long ago.
At three o’clock I went to Madame Halevy’s and knocked at the back door, and the maid let me in. “She had me make banana cake for you,” the maid said. She was nearly as old as Madame Halevy, and I knew that when she came into the store, my brothers made fun of how stooped she was. “I haven’t made it in so long I forgot the recipe,” the maid told me. “Eat it anyway so she won’t yell at me.”
Madame was waiting for me in the dining room. It was an elegant room filled with antiques from France: silver candlesticks, expensive china, a lace runner on the table. There were emerald-green cut-velvet chairs sent from France, and the rugs were handwoven, spun of pale gold wool. The light coming in through the window was obscured by silk curtains and turned red as it filtered across the floor.
“There you are,” she said to me. “I thought you might come back. I’m a good judge of character.”
We had our tea, and I ate an entire slice of the nearly inedible cake to please the maid. The crumbs stuck in my throat, and I had to wash them down with cold ginger tea before I could speak.
“You were going to tell me about Jestine’s daughter,” I reminded Madame.
I thought she must be eighty or so. Maybe ninety. She wore two gold rings.
“I was very close to your grandmother. She was a lovely person and the best friend I could have had, like a sister. The good deeds that she did have gone unknown. But she didn’t get along with your mother. No one likes a headstrong girl who won’t do as she’s told. Your grandmother adopted a boy out of the kindness of her heart. She treated him like a son, and I suppose your mother resented that. Maybe this caused a rift between mother and daughter that was never healed. Or maybe it was because your mother always tried to get what she wanted by any means necessary, even if it would ruin her own children’s lives.”
I ate another slice of the horrid banana cake and kept listening. I noticed the old Madame’s eyes were so pale they were like stones on the beach. I wondered if she could see through the white film. The angles of her face were sharp, planes in the shape of a bird’s wing. Loss had cut into her and left a mark. I could see that she had once been strikingly beautiful. She had an entire book of stories inside her, waiting to be told, but she didn’t give anything away without a cost. I knew she wanted something from me, though I couldn’t imagine what that might be.
After a while she waved her hand, dismissing me. “Come back on Thursday if you want to hear more.”
I thanked her formally, and she took my hand. She was strong when she held on to me. She wasn’t quick to let go.
“Tell your mother you were here. Ask her if she has anything to say to me.”
I was confused. Here were two women who clearly hated each other, and yet they were interested in one another’s lives. When I returned home I told my mother of my visit simply to see her reaction. She was sitting with my sister Hannah, who was a grown woman, and very close to my mother. When I told them where I’d been, Hannah and my mother exchanged a glance. My sister was of marriageable age, and I knew there was a young man she met late in the evening. I’d heard their voices in the small yard behind our store. There was some bitterness involved, and some intrigue, for he came only at night, when no one knew he was there. I soon understood my sister was not considered good enough for his family.
“You visit Madame Halevy?” My mother seemed genuinely shocked. It had been years since she’d had anything to do with people of our faith. On an island as small as ours, they had needed to try hard to avoid each other, but they had managed. The street could always be crossed, after all, when you saw someone you didn’t wish to greet.
“She wants to know if you have anything to say to her.” I was a calm, detached messenger, but inwardly excited to annoy my mother. I felt the drama of the situation, and believed that for once I had the upper hand.
I noticed that Hannah tugged on my mother’s arm, urging her to give me an answer.
“Tell her she’s a witch,” my mother said.
The very next day, Hannah was waiting for me when I was let out of school in the afternoon. We walked together for a while. The sea was aquamarine, the sun so bright we squinted just to see. The world was light and white. We’d had different parents, but she was the sister I felt closest to. She was tall with blue eyes and pale red hair. Anyone could tell Hannah wasn’t directly related to my mother. She had a sweet nature that was to be found nowhere else in our family.
“When you go to see Madame, tell her our mother sends her best regards, and asks for her forgiveness.”
I was many things, but not a liar.
“Hannah,” I said. “Our mother would have my hide if I said that. And I doubt that Madame Halevy would believe me.”
My sister explained that she wished to be wed to a man from the congregation whom she’d met when he came to our store, but since my mother and father’s marriage was still such a sore point, this man could not tell his family of his love for her. We were outcasts and he was an upstanding member of the community. He was a cousin of Madame Halevy, and her good wishes could change everything if she was inclined to help. Hannah was flushed as she talked to me. I realized she was beyond the age most girls were when they married. She was animated as she spoke, her pale skin flushed with heat, and with something I was too young to recognize as desire. I saw there was blue thread in the yellow dress she wore, a ribbon that was nearly invisible to the naked eye.
I worked in the store that day, beside my three brothers, who were better at any task than I was. At the end of the day I took a bottle of rum, wrapped it in burlap, and put it in my schoolbag. I had recently turned eleven, and after that birthday my father had sat down with me for a talk. He wanted me to learn Hebrew so that I might be bar mitzvah when I turned thirteen. He told me the synagogue would not be able to deny me this, but I thought they likely would and I had no interest in my lessons, other than the fact that the teacher he had found for me, a Mr. Lieber, was an affable, learned man from Amsterdam who told me stories I enjoyed hearing. He spoke of skating on the canals, but more interesting to me was the color of his childhood world, for it was incandescent and white, with snow falling everywhere, onto the frozen river, onto his eyelashes. I thought about the many shades of white there might be: white with cold blue, and white with gold, and silver-white falling from the night sky.
I’d learned some Hebrew from Mr. Lieber, but all in all, despite my father’s good intentions, I was a terrible student.
I went for my lesson on the day I was to visit Madame Halevy, but as usual I wasn’t prepared.
“I notice you don’t study,” Mr. Lieber said to me. “If you did it might change things.”
“I’m a bad student.”
Lieber shook his head. “You’re a disinterested student.”
I presented Mr. Lieber with the bottle of rum I’d taken from the store, and asked if I might skip my lessons from now on. I would instead stop by, say hello, then be on my way, ready to wander into the mountains with my sketch pad or, something I failed to mention, sit in Madame Halevy’s dining room and listen to her stories.
“And what do I tell your father?” Mr. Lieber asked me.
“Tell him I’m a work in progress,” I suggested.
“Is there anything you care about?” he asked me.
It was a difficult question, but I knew the answer. I cared about light, color, bone structure, the movement of the leaves on the lime trees, the luminous scales of fish in the harbor. I did not know how to explain this, so I said, “There is. But it’s not in any book.”
“At least you’re honest,” he said to me.
We shook hands, he accepted the rum, and then I went to Madame Halevy’s. The more she refused to tell me the story of Jestine’s daughter, the more I wanted to hear it. I think I was obsessed. I loved Jestine and could not stand to think of her in pain. It was as if the mystery of the world would be revealed to me once I understood what had happened to this girl.
The maid had prepared a mango pastry that was syrupy and brought flies to it. “Here’s our little guest,” she said when I walked through the door. I was as tall as she, so I laughed. I had inherited my father’s height and was the tallest fellow in my classroom, as well as the laziest when it came to my studies.
I went to sit at the dining room table. The lace runner, from Burgundy, was set over the gleaming mahogany. I saw now it was frayed, thin as tissue. Upon inspection, I realized the silverware was twisted and very old, brought from France two generations ago. Some of it had turned black due to the salt air. Everything that had been new and beautiful was ancient now. The island’s weather was not good for preserving delicate things.
Madame Halevy came in to greet me. “Your mother has a message for me?”
“She does indeed.” I still wasn’t sure of what my response would be.
Madame seemed to like the pastry her maid had concocted; she dug right in, so I pretended to eat to be polite. Mostly I pushed the crust around my plate. The pastry was pale and flakey, the color of damp sand. I decided to give Madame Halevy the message constructed by my sister. “My mother sends you her best wishes and asks that you forgive her all of her transgressions.”
“Does she?” Madame Halevy said thoughtfully. Her eyes were bright beneath the white film that covered them. I could see the intelligence in her expression. I didn’t think for a minute that she believed me. “How is your sister Hannah?” she asked. She was cagey at all times.
“Fine.” I nodded. “Ready to get married.”
I wasn’t certain if I should speak of this or not, so I concentrated on my tea. The china was from Paris, gold and green, bone thin. I added sugar, and then, as people on our island did, a dash of molasses. It made a very sweet and delicious mixture.
“Married properly in the synagogue?” Madame Halevy asked.
“That is her wish,” I said.
“What your parents did tore apart the community. We are too few, and we as a people have suffered at the hands of too many to fight among ourselves like chickens.”
I remembered something Jestine had told me. “My mother used to kill chickens on Fridays when she was a girl. She said she enjoyed it.”
Madame Halevy laughed grimly. “I’m not surprised. Enough for today. I will take your sister’s wish into consideration.”
“What about Jestine’s daughter?” She seemed to have forgotten her promise to tell me the story.
“Tell your mother I accept her apology. I invite her and your father for dinner next Friday night. Hannah can come with them. We’ll all go to services first. Come back after that happens and I’ll tell you the story.”
In order to hear the end of the story I had to accomplish a task I thought might be impossible. I had to convince people who hadn’t spoken to each other in over ten years to take up polite conversation across the dinner table. It felt like a Herculean undertaking. I thought about my father praying in the garden, alone. He was a good man, and sometimes he went past the synagogue at night and prayed at the doorstep. I wondered if my mother had placed some sort of spell on him that bound him to her. If I ever pledged myself to a woman she would need to have a kind and open heart and understand there was another way of seeing the world beyond the rules we had been taught.
I stopped in the kitchen on my way out of Madame’s house. The maid was still there, preparing dinner. She had made loaves of cassava bread that smelled heavenly. Her name was Helena James, she told me, and now that I seemed to be a fixture in the house, we should know one another. We shook hands solemnly. We were the only two people Madame had in her home. She went to services, and to meetings of the Sisterhood, but she liked to be alone in her house. However, Mrs. James told me that her employer looked forward to my visits. Madame had lost two children to fevers, and a third had left for Charleston and was rarely heard from. Her daughter had an entire family in America whom Madame Halevy had never met. I stayed for a while and sketched Mrs. James as she diced vegetables and fruit with a sharp paring knife. Mrs. James favored mangoes because they brought good health. She informed me that a person could live on mangoes alone and that the pirates used to do exactly that for months on end. Mrs. James was not a great cook, far from it, but her cassava bread was a miracle. I would be happy to have her bread for every meal. I enjoyed her unruffled manner, and the fact that she liked to talk. When I idly brought up Jestine, not imagining I would have any more information from the maid than I’d had from Madame Halevy, Mrs. James shook her head sadly. “I don’t talk about bad luck. Best forgotten about.”
“I don’t believe in luck,” I said.
Mrs. James laughed and said, “You’re too young to know what you believe.” She looked to make sure that we were indeed alone in the kitchen and wouldn’t be overheard. “Abduction,” Mrs. James whispered to me then. It sounded like a religious act. I thought it was perhaps a practice at the church or one of the African meetinghouses. I rolled that word around inside my head all that day. When I next went to Mr. Lieber’s to drop by so it would appear I was studying, he was napping. I took the opportunity to look through his library. I found the word in a small leather-bound dictionary. Capture. Abducción. Enlèvement. It was as Jestine had told me. Her daughter had been stolen.
Hannah had to direct me on how best to renew relations between our mother and her old enemy. I went to speak to my parents after dinner. They were sitting in the parlor on a settee, close to each other, deep in conversation. My mother had her hand inside my father’s sleeve. It was as if she was a vine encircling his arm beneath the white linen. It was an oddly intimate gesture, one that made me uncomfortable for reasons I didn’t understand. From the doorway they looked like the lovers I sometimes spied by the harbor who were so intent on each other they seemed to have forgotten there was a world outside themselves. I saw a smile on my mother’s face that surprised me. As soon as I stumbled near, she looked up. The smile quickly disappeared.
“Don’t you announce yourself?” she said to me. “You move the way thieves do.”
“I have an invitation,” I declared. “Friday night dinner at Madame Halevy’s.”
My voice sounded unsure, perhaps because of my mother’s darkening expression.
“Did I hear you correctly?” she asked.
“After services,” I said. “The two of you, and Hannah.”
“We’re not welcome at services,” my mother said. “And who asked you to interfere?”
“You’ll be welcome,” I said, enjoying the power of knowing more than my mother.
“Fine.” My father seemed pleased. “We accept. We’ll come to dinner. After services.”
ON THE FOLLOWING FRIDAY my sister took an hour to dress. I could hear conversation blooming down the hall as Rosalie helped her get ready. They laughed and talked about hats and shoes. My parents seemed nervous. In fact, they’d been quiet all that day, exchanging glances. I heard my father say, “What more can they do to us? Perhaps the time has come to move forward.”
“That time came and went,” my mother responded.
I wondered if whatever had happened in the synagogue was the seed of her bitterness. The shadows around her appeared green, lengthening along the mosaic floor as the hour grew later and the time for her to return to the congregation approached. For an instant I saw her as she must have been when she was young and unsure of herself. Her familiar features shifted and seemed vulnerable and unformed. I had the sense I was looking straight through time. Later I studied myself in a dim, silvered mirror. I didn’t like to think I resembled her, but our eyes were the same. Dark and filled with defiance.
I went to the synagogue for the first time that night. I had never walked inside before, only peeked in, and now I was stunned by how beautiful it was. A sort of hush stirred within me, and I thought about God abiding in a place, listening to the prayers that were sent to him. I wore a black suit and white shirt borrowed from one of my brothers. Everything was too big, so my father nodded for me to tuck in the tails of the shirt. “I hope you learned your Hebrew,” he joked.
I hadn’t, and I was forced to mumble along when prayers were said. My father and I stood with the men, while Hannah and my mother remained with the women. I caught a glimpse of Madame Halevy. She wore a lace shawl and a plum-colored dress. She raised her eyes to me, and a message flickered across her face. I had done well to bring my parents here, and she was pleased. My mother narrowed her eyes and gazed at me, and I quickly looked away from the women. I stared straight ahead to the altar in the center of the room. Despite my mother’s questioning look, I felt oddly pleased to have assisted Madame Halevy.
When we left, people stared at us. A few men came to my father and shook his hand. With their greeting, my family was accepted back into the congregation. My mother held her tongue and merely nodded to the women who had ignored her for so long.
I hadn’t been invited to join the adults for dinner; instead I sat in the kitchen with Helena James. Mrs. James had made a chicken dumpling stew, the wonderful cassava bread, and the terrible mango pastry. “Madame’s favorite,” she said. She told me she had been working for Madame Halevy for almost fifty years. She had helped her raise her children and they’d all loved mango pastry. “Just like you,” she said.
I ate everything on my plate, of course.
I could hear voices rise and fall in the dining room. I waited for an argument, and my mother’s sharp tone of anger, but heard nothing. I must have fallen asleep with my head on the kitchen table. All at once it was late; my parents were leaving and Hannah was embraced by Madame Halevy, who called her a most charming guest.
That evening was the end of our shunning as the cloud cast over my family evaporated into mist. After that time no one mentioned the scandal and the years when no one would speak to us. I believe that after that night, letters were sent to the King’s court and to the Rabbi in Denmark, withdrawing any complaint against my parents. Customers now spoke with us as if we were part of their family. Every once in a while my mother looked at me, as if trying to figure me out. How had I accomplished this fragile peace after so many years of war between her and everyone else of our faith? She pursed her lips, and seemed to wonder who I was. But that was nothing new, and I went my own way. I had several friends at school now, boys who had to work in the fields after classes or fished alongside their brothers. I went out on skiffs with them sometimes, but they called me lazy because I wanted to sketch them as they worked rather than join in the fishing. My closest friends were Peter and Elijah, two brothers, one older than I was and one a year younger. In order to join in I learned how to fish, and how to clean the catch. I got to know the water and saw its many layers, the sea creatures floating below us, pale gold and red fish, moss-green seaweed, shells that glowed like opals, fire, stars dropped into the sea. I began to look at working people in a different way, and took to sketching them as they labored.
In a matter of weeks Hannah had her proposal and my father began to attend services at the synagogue regularly in the mornings and on Friday nights. The family went to services every Friday night as well. I often skipped out and took the opportunity I was afforded of having these nights to myself. I went to the harbor to sketch and even made some money when sailors wanted their portraits made. In the evenings my father still said his prayers in our garden, privately and alone. I could hear his blessings rise up through my window. He was still in his thirties then, still a young man, serious, interested in the world around us. He liked to talk to working people and appreciated them, as I did. When we walked together he would ask questions about the simplest things, for he hadn’t grown up on this island and every bird and flower interested him, as they interested me. I felt closer to him as I grew older, and I think he felt close to me. He often spoke to me as if I were a friend as well as a son. He said that when he came to this island he had been bewitched. He laughed when he said this, but he still seemed mystified by the turns his life had taken. I told him then of my interest in sketching and painting. When I said color was everything, he nodded, agreeing. He remembered his first glimpse of the turquoise sea, the red hillsides, the flocks of brilliant birds. Once we took a vine of bougainvillea and removed every bloom, twisting them carefully and laying them out upon the ground to study the varying shades of scarlet and pink. On another night, as we walked along the wharves to check on a shipment to the store, he told me that he and my mother often had the same dream. I could see that this was part of the enchantment he’d spoken of.
I CONTINUED TO BRING Madame Halevy her groceries, still waiting for the story she’d promised to tell, but somehow always managed to avoid. Sometimes I would run into Marianna on the street. She would laugh when she saw me carrying the sacks of flour and bags of vegetables. “You’re going to the mean old lady’s house? Why do you do this? You’re not her servant.”
I couldn’t explain. Perhaps I’d simply gotten used to going to Madame’s huge stucco house. It was in disrepair, as she had no sons to shore up the walls and roof, and no money for servants other than Mrs. James. Still, I went. I appreciated the way the shadows drifted across her garden, falling through illuminated bands of yellow light, and admired her home, the old dishes on her table, the peonies she raised in her garden, apricot and pink, some as big as plates. I found the tilt of Mrs. James’s head pleasing as she chopped up onions and mint, and perhaps more than anything I liked the way Madame Halevy and Mrs. James admired my abilities; both old ladies applauded when I could fix even the simplest thing. Many times I took up a hammer and nails and did the best I could to repair the shutters or the porch.
During one of my visits I found a small portrait of a girl on a shelf. A blue-eyed child I assumed was the daughter who lived in Charleston. For some reason, I knew not to ask about her. I’d come to understand that Madame Halevy would tell me her stories in her own time.
One day she surprised me. Instead of waiting for my visit, Madame came to me. When I left work, she was waiting outside the store. In the full sunlight I saw how ancient she was. Surely more than ninety years on earth. I saw, too, how frail she was. I could nearly spy her heart beating with the strain of having walked uphill to the store. Mr. Enrique carted out a metal chair for her, since she was clearly exhausted.
“I would have brought you your groceries,” I told her. It was noon, and the heat of the day was upon us.
Madame Halevy gave me some money and asked me to purchase molasses and sugar. A few other things: some mint, some nuts. Not much. She wanted Helena James to make a special cake for the next time I visited.
“Walk me home,” she said when I had finished her shopping and returned with her purchases. We went slowly and in silence, but soon she began to talk. “The worst that can happen is that you lose a child. My younger son was about your age when I lost him from yellow fever. He was twelve.”
I was happy that she thought I was older than I was.
“My other boy was fourteen. I lost him the next season. I covered every window. I wouldn’t let him go outside, but somehow the fever followed him into his room.” She lowered her voice. “It was fate,” she said. “I couldn’t fight it.”
“And your daughter?” I said.
“She’s alive,” Madame said. “That’s all one can ask for.”
And yet all the while I’d known her she had not received a single letter from Charleston. Though I posted the ones she wrote to her daughter, there had been no reply. Several times I’d had the urge to tear open one of the letters Madame Halevy wrote and see what she had to say to her daughter in America, but I didn’t have the heart to do so.
“Your grandmother lost a baby boy,” she told me now. “You can’t know what that does to a person. He was born and died in the same day. I know because I was there. I was her friend and I watched her cry. It brought her some solace to take in a baby who had been abandoned. She raised him and loved him as her own. Your grandmother did everything for him. She could not have done more. Unfortunately, the ending was not as anyone would have wished. You want to think the best of your child, so you look the other way when you see failures. Maybe it was because she spoiled him. He squandered vast sums from the business. Part of it was bad judgment. I believe he gambled. Do you ever go to see the cockfights?”
The fights occurred every night and every weekend, and I had been to several. I’d stood in the background with my friends from school as their fathers and brothers bet on which rooster would live and which would die. Once blood splashed over my shoes, and I could feel how hot it was, and how hot the men’s tempers were. I knew Madame would disapprove.
“I’ve heard of them,” I said.
She laughed. “Yes, I’m sure.” She really could see right through me. “Well, the son of my dear friend was a darling boy, but he had been cast away as an infant and perhaps that abandonment left its mark. I told her to be stricter, but she had a tender heart when it came to this boy. I’m telling you this because he was the father of Jestine’s daughter. He was in love with Jestine, but he couldn’t go against his mother, and she said they couldn’t marry. Jestine was not a member of the faith he’d been raised in. But that didn’t stop him from making a child with her. You understand me?”
I nodded. I knew as much about sex as any eleven-year-old boy, perhaps a bit more because my friend Elijah had given me some of the details.
“The affair was a mistake,” Madame continued, “but when you make a mistake you take care of it, you take responsibility, don’t you agree?” I mumbled that I did, so she went on. “He left, and that would have been the end of it, but he came back. He and his wife were childless. They’re the ones who took Jestine’s daughter.”
“You can’t just take someone,” I said. “That’s theft.”
“You are twelve,” Madame replied. Again, I didn’t correct her. “Do you know that women have few rights? And African people even fewer? People are stolen every day, dear boy. And there are those of us who feel she was taken to a better life.”
The heat was strong and my companion faltered as we went on, though she had her cane. She had to lean against a building we passed. After that we stopped every once in a while so that Madame Halevy could rest. When she was quite tired, she sat on a stone wall beside an orchard. There were some parrots that she pointed out to me, slashes of bright green and scarlet among the leaves. “When I was a girl there were hundreds of them,” she said. “You probably guess that I’m a hundred years old myself and that I can’t even remember being young. Do you think you’ll get old?” she asked me.
“I’ll probably die before I do, in a fight or a fall.” I saw myself as a hero not as an old man with a long beard. “Maybe on a boat. Or in the mountains.”
“Unlikely. No. You’ll be an old man who has to sit on a stone wall, and when you do, you’ll think of me.”
When we reached the old mansion, I asked Madame where Jestine’s daughter had been taken.
“Paris. If she’s still alive. It’s been years. You lose people sometimes, you know. You don’t expect to, but then it happens and you can’t get them back.”
We went into the kitchen, where Mrs. James took the groceries from us and asked Madame Halevy what on earth she was thinking to be walking through town on such a hot day. People fainted in weather like this. She should stay behind the shutters, which would block out the too bright sunlight.
“I had to tell this boy the end of the story.”
“It’s not the end,” I said. “You don’t know if she’s still in Paris.”
“The end of that story,” Madame Halevy corrected me. “Jestine’s not the only one with a story, you know. There are people who die all of a sudden, as if their hearts exploded. But for others it takes a long time. They walk around, as if they’re still alive, and it’s years before you realize nothing’s there.”
“Enough of this,” Mrs. James told us. We were told to remove ourselves from the kitchen and she would bring us limewater to refresh us. She would add a splash of rum for Madame. After she brought our drinks, Madame and I sat together in the parlor. It was much cooler there, with a breeze. The paint on the walls was faded, I saw, with patches of plaster showing through. There were dark veins of soot in the window glass.
I realized that my companion’s eyes were closed and that she had fallen asleep. The stray bands of sunlight in the room were lemony, with a dusky brilliance. There was the scent of verbena. I closed my eyes and dreamed of walking along a path of pale red earth under a soft cloudy sky. There were birds I didn’t recognize. I woke with a jolt of fear. My companion was already awake, watching over me. I realized then she hadn’t said one word about her own daughter, and I asked after her. Why had she gone to Charleston? Why didn’t she answer Madame’s letters?
“I’ve decided I don’t want to burden you with my story. I think I’ll fold it up and take it with me when I go. You’re too nice a boy to carry something that doesn’t belong to you for the sake of an old lady who won’t be in this world much longer.”
She patted my arm, and I realized then that I was not just a delivery boy to her. She had become attached to me, and I to her.
Afterward, I kept thinking about her story, folded into a desk drawer or in her night table or perhaps in a pocket she had sewn, close to her heart. I intended to go back to see her, but a shipment came in from Portugal of all manner of fabrics, embroideries and lace and flowered muslins. My father insisted I help my brothers unload the shipment and store everything neatly folded in tissue paper. I did put something aside, perhaps you can say I stole it, though I didn’t think of it that way. It was a lace table runner to replace the frayed one on Madame’s table. I never got to give it to her. Madame Halevy died the next week. I attended the funeral at the synagogue. People prayed and I saw my father there among the men. I followed the mourners and the Reverend to the Jewish cemetery.
I was wearing my brother’s black suit, the one I’d worn to her dinner, though I’d gotten no farther than her kitchen. I didn’t understand the way I felt, my heart knotted, as if I had suffered a great loss. I barely knew Madame Halevy, and she had never finished her story. Then I understood that when someone begins to tell you her story, you are entwined together. Perhaps even more so if the ending hasn’t been divulged. It was exactly like dreaming the same dream, then waking too soon and never finding out what had happened. I watched leaves fall as the mourning prayers were recited. People here say that means a spirit is walking above you, in the trees, and that once a soul is free to join with them she can walk all the way to the world to come. That was a story I decided to believe.
I OFTEN THOUGHT OF Madame Halevy’s son, lost when he was only a year older than I was, and the second son that she tried to protect from fever by keeping him inside for a year. Time seemed different to me, less spread out in front of me. I saw it now as a box. I was inching my way across that box, and before long I would reach the other side. I often imagined myself as that old man sitting on a stone wall, the one Madame Halevy had predicted I’d be.
I stepped back into my own life. I concentrated on my painting. My mother glared and asked how I thought I would make my living as a man.
“There’s only one thing I want to do,” I said. “I intend to do it.”
“Whoever says that is a fool.”
“Were you a fool to live as you pleased?”
“That’s none of your business,” my mother told me. I laughed at that. After all, the decisions she’d made had formed my life.
I stomped out of the house. If I had only a limited amount of time, I planned to do as I pleased. I painted for hours, finding shelter on rainy days deep in the woods in a shack that had been deserted. I stumbled upon it by accident and immediately decided it should be mine. The woods were green and shadowy, and there were gumbo-limbo trees, whose red bark fell off in strips like skin off a sunburned man. I knocked on the door, and when there was no answer, I pushed it open. No one had lived in this place for a long time. It was as if it had been waiting for me.
I liked the way the light came in through the windows, falling through the trees in slashes of brightness. I painted like a madman, covering the walls of the shack with portraits and then with landscapes, one on top of another. Outside the grass was high and birds swooped down to catch mosquitoes at dusk. I stayed so late I brought candles with me, so that I might paint far into the evening. Colors changed in these conditions. The light flickered as if stars were trapped inside with me. I saw differently; objects became cloudy, then bright. There were all sorts of ancient herbs hanging from the ceiling on lengths of old rope. The scent in the shack was of anise, wood, and mint. Every time I went home I felt as though I were leaving my true self behind, that I was leaving the real person crouched down near a wall flecked with color, whereas the boy who walked through his family’s home was nothing more than a ghost.
One day as I was painting, trying to perfect the definition of a human hand and using my own as a model, I saw a shadow. Marianna was outside. I went out and stood in the grass beside her. She no longer went to school. Her mother needed her in their laundry business. They took in laundry from sailors and often found trinkets in the pockets of their clothes, shells from across the world, keys to hotel rooms in Europe and South America, addresses of women these sailors had once loved. Marianna showed me how she could carry a basket of laundry on her head. She did so perfectly. I tried, and when it fell she laughed at me. I invited her into the shack, but she shook her head, and took a step back. Something crossed her face, an expression I didn’t recognize.
“There was an old man who lived here. He used to put spells on people and save dying men. He could heal people whom no one else could, but you had to pay him with something that was dear to you. I wouldn’t go in there,” she said. “And I wouldn’t go with you.”
Our differences were there between us and I hated that. I turned and went inside. She followed me and stood on the threshold. I could tell, our friendship was over. She was too grown up, she told me. Not a schoolgirl anymore. She proved that to me by kissing me. Then she vanished so quickly it seemed she had never been there. I had dreamed it surely. There were footsteps in the grass, but soon they disappeared too. I am embarrassed to admit, I cried, for she had been my truest friend, and she wasn’t that anymore. I’d had the first stirrings of love, but it didn’t matter.
I hoped that the old man who had lived here could heal me. I painted and painted, desperate, hoping for a vision the healer might send me. I sat on the floor and looked around me, and all at once I realized I had my answer. I had sketched my hand as if it was made out of palm fronds and meadows. This island was inside of me. I had captured light, heat, grass, sky. I had it all in my hands.
Just before my twelfth birthday my father called me to him. He gave me an envelope. The paper was a fair sky blue. When I opened the envelope I found a ticket for passage on a schooner. I thought I was dreaming. I pinched my own leg and it smarted. My mother was standing in the doorway. There was her green-tinged shadow. It was likely she knew I wasn’t going to my lessons. Certainly, she knew I was not interested in the family business. Now I was being sent to relatives in Paris, and to a school there to study with a Monsieur Savary. My parents were not pleased with my schoolwork, and they thought my world should be broadened. Clearly, they feared for my future or they would not have taken such a radical step. I would miss Hannah’s wedding, I would miss my own birthday and celebrate it not at home with my family but in a land I’d only seen in drawings, living with people I’d never met before.
I didn’t know how to feel. St. Thomas was all I knew, and I wondered if going away might change me in ways that made me into someone else; if I might become more like the boys my age from the congregation who abided by their parents’ laws and rules. I was defiant, and I supposed I was being punished for that. In the days that followed I went wandering and didn’t come home till morning. Sometimes I saw the slim deer that were brought here for the sole purpose of being hunted more than a hundred years earlier, creatures that had become so shy of human contact they were rarely seen. I stood outside a ring in the countryside where there was cockfighting. Men were drinking hard and betting on their roosters, and there was the scent of blood. My blood raced as well, and I drank a fair amount when I could manage to get hold of a bottle. My friends, the two brothers, were wary of me now. Perhaps our differences were too much for our friendship in this time and place. My mother would have disapproved of my being there at the ring, she would think the men barbaric. And yet Jestine had told me my own mother seemed to enjoy dispatching chickens when she was a girl. So there it was: my mother was a hypocrite and a stranger. She did one thing, but insisted I do the other. I realized that I hated her. This was not what I was supposed to feel and so I hated myself as well.
I found myself at the harbor one day when the sky was still dark. I walked around taking in the scents and sounds, then I went to sit on Jestine’s steps. I wished that she had been my mother, for she understood me in a way my own never would. There were still the last few stars in the sky, their dim light reflecting in the water. Jestine emerged from the cottage with mugs of coffee mixed with sugar. Her hands were dyed indigo blue from the dresses she had tinted that day.
“You can’t sleep,” she said. “Neither can I.”
“I know what happened,” I said. “I’m going to Paris. When I get there I’ll look for your daughter.”
“Looking never did anyone any good.”
I amended my words. “I’ll find her.”
Jestine nodded and patted my back. I felt that she had faith in me, even though I was a boy. She went inside, and I drank my coffee. She came back with a letter in a sealed envelope. “I wrote this the day they took her.”
I folded the letter into my jacket. The paper felt soft, like silk, as if it had been touched ten thousand times. I folded it the way Madame Halevy had folded up her own story.
I arrived home when dawn was breaking, walking through clouds of mosquitoes. The light was a pale pink. I thought I would sneak into the house, but as it turned out my mother couldn’t sleep either. She was waiting for me outside, sitting on the metal chair that had been left there ever since Madame Halevy had come for me in one of the last weeks of her life.
“Let me guess. You were at Jestine’s.” My mother sounded hurt.
“To say good-bye,” I told her, for there was nothing wrong in that.
My mother led me upstairs without a word. She didn’t berate me or punish me for being out all night. We were quiet on the staircase so we wouldn’t wake my brothers and sisters. Outside the birds were stirring, and there was a haze of mist as the heat of the day settled onto the streets. My father had already been to the garden to say his prayers and left for the synagogue to offer his help to those in need. My mother hadn’t told him I was missing. She didn’t like to worry my father; she was tender with him in a way she wasn’t with anyone else. Now she opened the door to the chamber she shared with him, a room we children were never invited into. To my great surprise there was my painting of Jestine, the one that had been taken from the storeroom. It had been hung upon the wall. My mother had tears in her eyes, something I had never seen before. I was confused. She had told me my paintings were nothing like the real world, and yet she’d kept this one. Because my mother was a stranger to me, I had always thought I was a stranger to her as well. Now I wasn’t so certain.
“You think I don’t see what Jestine sees, but I do,” my mother said. “I know you have talent. But you must put it aside. I want you to study hard. When you come back the business will be waiting for you. You were always the one I wanted to take over. Before you do, I’m sending you to Paris so you can have what I didn’t.”
I couldn’t have been more surprised if she had told me she wasn’t my mother. Her black hair was loose and her eyes were wet and dark. I saw something new in her, the person Jestine had told me about.
“My father was like you,” she said. “He saw no differences among people. He believed that every man had rights in this world. I know he believed that women had rights as well, for he treated me as he would have a son, until the rules we lived by made it impossible. Some things are impossible, it’s true.” My mother was weeping then. “But some things are not,” she said.
I realized what I would miss most about my home were the colors, the light, the flowers, the fields, the women at their work, carrying baskets of laundry. I would miss Jestine, and my sister Hannah, and if the nights were cold enough, and the snow was silver-white, I would likely miss my mother as well.
I COULD NOT SLEEP on the night before I left. I went walking in the dark and met Marianna on the beach. We sat there, hands intertwined. She cried when I told her I was leaving. “Yes, go,” she said to me, but she still held my hand. By the time I came back she would probably be married. She would sit on this beach with somebody else. But I would carry every detail about her with me.
When I packed in the morning I found a sachet of some herb in my luggage. I sniffed it. There was the scent of lavender. Pleasant enough. I meant to keep it with my belongings, but in my haste I left it on the bureau. I was late and had to race to catch the boat, and so I did not have time for proper good-byes. My mother ran after me and insisted on embracing me.
“Come back to me,” she said, as if it was a hex of some sort.
Her eyes were bright, and if she were anyone else I would have thought she shed tears. I kissed her three times, and then embraced my father and my brothers and sisters. I should have been afraid to leave my home and everything I had known. I was a boy and France was a long way off, but the journey didn’t unnerve me. I was ready for the seas and skies and storms.
The boat was a dream and the world at sea was a haze of life. Everyone spoke another language, and men twice my age offered me rum. I sketched whenever I could. The seabirds hovering, the lamps that burned at night, the men who worked so hard their arms were huge with muscles. The voyage seemed to take forever, and then, quite suddenly, we could see the shore. When I arrived in France, the twilight was gray, a shade I’d never seen before, and the silvery sky seemed within reach. I took note of chimneys and cobblestones as a pale green rain began to fall down. It was autumn, a season I had never known but fell in love with immediately. The air smelled like smoke. The leaves on the trees were yellow and copper. The clouds went on forever, banks of gray and blue and a shade of pink so fragile it was fading as I watched. All around me, for as far as the eye could see, were colors I had never observed before: the emerald lawns, the deep brown-green chestnut trees, the lime-colored vines, the rooftops smudged black and midnight blue. There were a thousand different blues all around me in the falling dusk. They shifted like waves in the sea. I took one breath of Paris and I knew. At last, at the age of twelve, four thousand miles away from home, I was free.