The Ground That We Walk Upon
CHARLOTTE AMALIE, ST. THOMAS
JACOBO CAMILLE PIZZARRO
He slept for eighteen hours straight after he got off the boat. When he woke it was as if he’d traveled not across the ocean but across time itself. Backward into the heat, listening to the goats’ bells in the hills and the fluttering of moths bumping against the shutters of his darkened chamber. He considered himself to be a man, but here he was still thought of as a boy. Half asleep and half dressed, he made his way to the kitchen, where Rosalie had the fongee porridge of his childhood waiting for him in a yellow bowl, the same bowl he had used when he was a boy who followed at his mother’s heels. He thanked Rosalie, announcing that her cookery tasted much better than anything he’d had in Paris. It was true, the porridge was more than mere sustenance; it brought back his childhood and everything it contained, like an enchantment. As he stood watching Rosalie at the stove, listening to her lilting French, it was as if he’d been charmed into remembering everything he had known on the island, the things he loved as well as the reasons he couldn’t wait to get away.
The major reason he had wanted to stay in France was evident as soon as he returned to his small bedchamber. There he found his mother unpacking his luggage, rooting around in the large trunk that had been battered from his voyage, the wood damaged by salt air and the rough treatment of its delivery.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he shouted, forgetting in that moment all aspects of courtesy and respect. “Do I have no privacy whatsoever?”
He went to stand in front of the trunk in which he’d stored six years of his life, protective, guarding its contents, already embattled with the woman who’d given him his life. He loomed over his mother. Perhaps his expression was more fierce than he’d meant for it to be. For an instant she appeared to be afraid of him.
“Mother,” he said, backing down. “I am used to my privacy.”
“Do you have something to hide?” She’d recovered from the initial shock of his aggressive stance.
“My belongings are my business.” He was scowling, his anger now directed to himself for his rude behavior, which was indeed childish. In Paris his aunt had been too busy to know where he was half the time. He suspected she was involved with one of his uncle’s business partners, who called at odd hours. This hadn’t bothered him at all. His life had been his own, and his artistry had been appreciated by his teachers and his fellow students.
“It’s your father’s trunk,” his mother informed him, putting him in his place. “He paid for it, not you.”
“Then let him be the one to look through it.”
But Rachel had already spied the box packed alongside his clothing. Her expression darkened as she reached for it. She glared at him and held it in her hands. “Light as a feather, Jacobo.”
“It has nothing to do with you,” he replied. “And please do not refer to me that way.”
He no longer thought of himself as Jacobo, but as Camille, his French name. But perhaps it was Jacobo, the boy he used to be, who was trying his best not to be affected by his mother’s disapproval. He reached for the wooden box, a bit unsure of himself. People in Charlotte Amalie used to say that Rachel Pizzarro could turn herself into a snake or a witch. They said if you crossed her you’d likely never sleep again. Even he’d heard the rumors, whispers that her blood was made of molasses, which drew men to her even when they had no reason to desire her. Camille took a step away from his mother. She looked no older than when he’d left, although there was a white streak in her hair that hadn’t been there before.
“It’s for Jestine,” he admitted, and then was angry with himself for feeling the need to appease her.
When she heard this, Rachel’s countenance changed into something unreadable.
“And it’s such an important item that you are willing to disrespect your mother? Did you know it took three days for you to be born? Three days when I might have died.”
Camille’s face flushed with shame. She had told him this many times before. “Mother, I apologize. But you must understand I’m not a child.”
She was unfazed. “You are my child.”
There was no way to refute this.
“Though you have changed your name,” she added.
“My father calls himself by his third name.” He had a point in this, for his father was referred to as Frédéric rather than Abraham or Gabriel.
“True enough. Well, you will evidently do as you please, so by all means, go to Jestine,” she said, surprising him. “If I’m not mistaken, she’s been waiting all these years to hear from you.”
He took the opportunity to leave immediately, before his father requested he report to the office, a fate he dreaded as surely as if he’d had a prison sentence hanging over him.
He was unused to St. Thomas after his time away and was struck by the heat as if he’d never lived here. He broke into a sweat as he made his way to the harbor, his clothes drenched as the strong sunlight went through the fabric, through his skin it seemed. He felt as though he were a stranger, surrounded by the clatter of men at work at their fish pots in the harbor, the boats being readied for service, the crowds heading to the market. And then, all of a sudden, the enchantment came over him again, and he was home. A wind from Africa rose up, palm trees swayed, and a cloud of white birds took flight, a breathing, living cloud. Like the breakfast he’d had, the landscape was a familiar part of him that surfaced in his dreams and in his art. Once his past had come back to him, he no longer had to think about where he was going. His feet knew the path, though some houses and shops had disappeared and new ones had appeared. He had come here so often with his mother, left to amuse himself while she and Jestine spoke of things he was not supposed to know about: gossip, tragedy, snippets of their daily lives.
JESTINE WAS HANGING UP herbs to dry that she would later use in her dyes, but she stopped as soon as she saw him. She felt a sort of lightness enter her body, as if she were a younger woman. She had been waiting for his return and had half expected Lyddie would be beside him on this day, even though she’d read the thief’s letter and knew a return was impossible. Lyddie was a married woman now, and it was not so easy to leave one’s husband behind and come across the world to a mother she didn’t know.
As soon as her friend’s son came up the stairs, Jestine threw her arms around him. After returning her embrace, he backed away, grinning. He asked her to call him by his French name, Camille.
“I suppose Paris changed you,” Jestine said as she appraised him. “You’re certainly taller.”
“I’m the same in one way: I told you I would find her and I did.”
Jestine wrinkled her brow, not yet knowing what to believe. “You saw her with your own eyes?”
“How many times?”
Camille laughed. “Too many to count. Trust me! She’s real and well and very much alive.”
“She has a husband?”
He nodded. “And three daughters.”
“Three?” Jestine felt her head swim as he recited their names. Amelia, Mirabelle, Leah. Had there ever been such beautiful names? Girls formed of her own blood and hope. When he’d left, Camille now told her, there’d also been another baby to come, one they planned to call Leo if it was a boy. He waited while Jestine took a moment for herself. She sat on the stair, keeping one hand upon the banister to steady herself. Despite her age, she was still beautiful. As always she wore the rope of pearls Camille remembered she favored even when she was in her work clothes, as she was today, a plain cotton dress with a black apron, to ensure that the dyes she used wouldn’t stain her good clothing. He could tell his news came as something of a shock. The details about her daughter were now spun into the thin thread of daily life.
Indeed, something inside Jestine made it difficult for her to breathe. It was as if there was a bubble rising up through her chest. It was clawing at her, everything she didn’t want to feel but felt anyway. A desire for revenge for all she’d lost. Not only a daughter had been stolen but an entire family.
Camille went to get her some water. Jestine berated herself; she refused to ruin this moment thinking of the demon in the silk dress, a dress they thought so astoundingly beautiful, though it was nothing compared with her own designs. Camille returned, and Jestine took a few sips of water. When she had her breath again, she made him describe everything in the greatest detail: the children and the house where her daughter lived, the way she walked and spoke, the nearby park with its linden trees and green benches with wrought-iron armrests, the snow that lined the cobblestones, like white powder that stuck to your boots, the husband who looked at stars in the garden, the silver color of her eyes.
“And what of her mother?” Jestine asked. It was bright, so she shielded her eyes. Her voice was flat, and Camille couldn’t tell what her emotion was.
“You’re her mother,” he was quick to say.
Jestine smiled. He had a kind heart. “The one who stole her.”
“Dead. I never met her.”
She nodded, then, satisfied. It was not everything, but it was something. The next question was more complicated. “And the father?”
“Gone as well.”
She felt a pang of regret upon hearing this news.
Camille gave her the box containing her daughter’s letters. Jestine opened the container and was overcome by the scent of lavender. “My darling boy,” she said, thanking him. “You did what you said you would.” Then she waved him away. She wanted to be alone with the letters.
“Are you sure?” Camille said, concerned for her well-being, fearing her daughter’s words and life might be too much for her to take in all at once. In this light Jestine did not look as young as he remembered. There was a slight tremor in her hands. But she had been waiting more than twenty years for what she had now received.
When he left she went up the stairs, inside the cool shadows of the house. She felt clearheaded now. Not dizzy in the least. She thought about the day Rachel came to see her when they were both first expecting, and how they had lain in bed together to dream about their children-to-be. Now she took the letters and lay down to read until there was no longer any light. After that she lit the lantern so that she might continue on.
I did not know if you would want to hear from me.
If you might hate me for not remembering.
They took away everything.
They took away my world.
But now that the boy has come to see me, it has come back to me. I remember the waves and the sound of water beneath the porch. I remember that you told me about the day the fish swam into your own mother’s cooking pot when there was a storm. You told me about the dangerous season, from October to May, when storms flew across the ocean from Africa. If a big wave comes, your mother told you, hold on to me. Because she did not trust the world and had no reason to, she had faith in her own abilities to protect you. She tied herself to the cast-iron stove, then tied you to her. It was the same with us. I would sit out on the porch and you would tie my foot to the post so that no waves could carry me away. You were never going to let me go. I remember your voice when you told me so, when the men who took me to the ship tied you to a tree. You could not get to me to keep me safe. I remember there was a pelican above us and you told it to peck out your eyes as a payment if need be, but to keep me safe.
The bird must have known you would need your eyes to see me when we meet again, so she let you be, flew after me and watched as I went onto the ship into the arms of a woman I didn’t recognize. The pelican followed us so far out to sea I wondered how she would ever get home. I wondered if I would ever see you again. I shouted into the sky, “Go back to her and tell her I’m not gone from her.”
I remember it now as I write to you as if it were only hours ago, and all of the time that has come between us never happened at all.
CAMILLE WORKED IN HIS father’s shop as a shipping clerk, but at night, he paced his room, restless, out of place, living a life he was not meant for. In their bedchamber, Frédéric and Rachel whispered about him. They heard his footsteps and knew he couldn’t sleep. He, whom they’d called Marmotte when he was a boy because he could sleep anywhere no matter what disturbances there might be, was now an insomniac, bleary-eyed in the mornings and in a foul humor. Perhaps they should not have sent him to school in France. Despite the difficulties between them, Rachel loved him perhaps too much. It was not right to prefer one child over the others, so she hid her emotions; he had no idea he was a bright light to her. More so than ever now that he had returned. She had hoped it would have done some good for him to see the world beyond theirs, as she had failed to do.
His parents waited for him to fit in and feel more suited to the business, but that did not happen. Everything he did was a disaster. He spilled ink, filed shipping orders incorrectly, and avoided his desk. After dinner, and after the dressing-down he would receive from his brothers for his many mistakes, errors he freely admitted to, he isolated himself in his room. He waited until everyone else was asleep, then left the apartment. He did not see his mother at the window watching him wander into the street, hands in his pockets, wearing black trousers and a white shirt. He was tall and lanky and resembled his father in his younger days. Although he was not as handsome, he was compelling. He was quiet but arrogant, with a sort of fire that came from desire. Women looked at him, curious, wondering what made him so proud. There was something he wanted badly, anyone could see that. A yearning he didn’t speak of. He looked past the people around him. He was a shipping clerk, but he seemed to think he was something more.
Though he was a man in form and age, he carried a boy’s rebellion on his shoulders. He dared the world to try to rein him in the way wild boys often do. He had vowed to himself that he would not be at anyone’s mercy and he had little fear of authority, yet he was eighteen, and his father’s son. He did the work he was told to do, no matter how his resentment might build. And it did build, each day, until there was a wall between him and the rest of the family.
In the back room of the store, he thought he might explode from all of those meaningless hours seeing to the ledgers. Math was difficult and pointless, and he cared nothing for finance. Money was a ruination, in his opinion, needed only to survive. Those who had it considered themselves blessed; those who did not were cursed for reasons that made no sense to him, mere circumstance and luck. He sketched in the margins of the ledgers, images of the workers who delivered molasses and rum to the back door, with cloths tied around their foreheads so that sweat wouldn’t run into their eyes as they labored. Then for a week he sketched seabirds, seeing the creatures in parts, as he used to when he was first beginning to draw: wings, feet, talons, beak. He spent hours drawing the sawlike fronds of palm trees, the ridges in each leaf distinct and individually lined. This was his release, until his father found him out and had him painstakingly rewrite the ledger pages he had ruined with his sketches.
After that Frédéric moved Camille to the front of the store to see if he would fare any better in that position. He did not. Being polite to customers who spoke to him rudely and dealing with their petty orders and concerns maddened him. He pouted and was silent. He lost his appetite and became even lankier than before. His older brothers made sure to tease him and let him know he was inept; he needed to be broken and understand he was beneath them and must do as he was told.
Taking orders did not come naturally to Camille. He burned, but kept quiet. Monsieur Savary had told him to take the opinions of only those he respected and ignore the rest. “Do not react to all the world may throw on you,” his teacher had advised. Camille had realized the truth of this advice in the many hours he had spent at the Louvre, studying the great masters. Each artist had to find his own path, regardless of the current mode and criticisms. He stood before da Vinci’s great works, every painting a world unto itself, but each clearly seen through the eyes of a singular master. It was through this single vision that the work had risen to the heights of art and artistry. This was why da Vinci had understood the true artist as no other man did.
Unfortunately, Camille himself was trapped from such flight, unable to lead an artist’s life, a victim of the bourgeois fate he’d been born into. He would have liked to open the storerooms and call for local people to come and take what they needed, free of charge, until at last the store was emptied and he was freed from its prison. Since this was impossible, he walked at night to ease his rage, stalking the streets he remembered, but remembered in a mist of thought, as if he’d walked them in a dream.
He longed for Paris and for the route he used to take to school through the pleasant streets of Passy, for the tall, ivy-covered house he’d found when he followed Jestine’s daughter to her home. He thought of the snow under his boots, the chestnut trees in leaf in April, each leaf so pale it was nearly white, the moss-green benches in the Tuileries, the sky filled with clouds, the gray rain that glowed green with light, the fields outside Passy where mustard seed and poppies grew in a riot of color. Here in St. Thomas daylight was so bright a man had to shut his eyes against the sun until colors and objects shifted into points of light. Red, green, yellow, and a thousand shades of blue.
He again came to know the narrow streets of Charlotte Amalie, taking the curved, sheer alleys made entirely of steps, where it was said werewolves used to roam. Most often he found himself heading into the countryside, for it was there he felt most comfortable. He remembered that as a boy he’d had the ability, as most islanders did, to switch to a sort of night vision; as soon as dusk fell the horizon was engulfed in the glimmering dark, an all-consuming shadow within a shadow. He made his way on the sandy roads, avoiding ditches that swelled with puddles when there had been rain. The night world was blue and black; a hot velvet curtain dropped down from the branches of the trees. He walked through it and felt the dampness on his skin, the pinpricks of insect bites, the wind when it wound through the trees and passed him by as if it were a creature with a mind of its own. Here on the hillsides there were the old stands of mahogany, and so many birds that he could hear them nesting, fluttering above him as they rested. Leaves fell down on his head, and he remembered some old story about how the spirits of the dead walked about in the trees. He was used to dark nights, he had known such nights from the start of his existence, but when he thought of his years in Paris what he yearned for most was the light, the yellow glow of morning, the green shadows of the afternoon, the silver radiance of winter splintering like ice on a windowpane.
He became silent and grudging as days and months went on, a tall, dark figure moping through the dusk on an empty road. When he saw groups of children in their yards he raised his hand to wave hello, but he was a ragged stranger and they shrieked and scattered, racing inside their houses. He began to spend nights in the herb man’s house, where he had gone to paint as a boy. It had been a secret place then, and it was now, abandoned for so long even the few people who had known of it had forgotten it was ever there. He always blundered upon it in his ramblings out of sheer luck. Or perhaps he’d been led there in the way a dreamer comes upon a dream he’d had years earlier. Everything was the same now that he’d returned, and yet it was different, as a painting with layer upon layer of paint splattered upon the canvas. There was an old cotton mattress left on the floor, which he stuffed with newly dried grass. The hut smelled of his childhood, when his mother used to take him everywhere and he’d hear bits of conversation he knew he shouldn’t and he was given hard molasses candies to keep him silent and happy. He used mud and straw to caulk the holes in the walls to keep out the mongooses that found shelter from storms. He took branches to sweep out the curled, desiccated bodies of beetles littering the corners of the room. It was the season when nighthawks migrated, and he heard them crying as they lit in the trees, exhausted from their flight. In the dark, there was a world of insects hitting against the roof and walls, with moths and mosquitoes doing their best to get through the shutters when he illuminated the room. He burned a candle anyway, though it drew thousands of insects to beat their wings against the wire and there was a constant whirring sound. He needed at least some faint light so that he might paint.
He worked at an old, handcrafted table that gave off the odor of herbs that had been chopped on its soft wooden surface. His paper became scented by rosemary and lavender, stained by guava berry. His art softened in the candlelight, and he saw objects as washed with blue and gold. He had taken paints and pencils from the store and had brought pastels and chalk with him from France. He drew over the boyish designs that had covered the walls and began to remake the world as he observed it now, as a man. His teacher had told him to embrace the landscape of his youth, as it had been the cradle of who he was as an artist, but also to see it through his current experience. Sometimes you must close your eyes in order to see, his teacher had suggested, therefore Camille imagined what he would see when the sun arose. The deep red of the mahogany trees, the brilliant shades of scarlet flowers, the emerald of the hills, the women in their muslin dresses on their way to work in town, passing by with the laundry they had washed in huge pots set over fires.
A waterfall was nearby, and he often went to drink and bathe there. One early morning, on his way back to the store, a place he thought of as his penance for the years of freedom he’d had in Paris, he got on his knees and drank deeply. When he started off again, he stumbled over something. He stopped, stunned by what he saw, but too curious to turn away. His mouth was still dripping water. The sun was warm on his back. He had come upon bones cast into the tall grass. A man’s remains, picked clean over the years by birds and mongooses and field rats. Some of the bones had been scattered by animals and weather, yet the skeleton still retained the shape of a man. From the position of the skull, it seemed he had been resting there, sleeping perhaps, out in the open country when he passed away. Camille lay down beside the bones so he might hear what the dead man heard. He listened to the drone of mosquitoes and flies, to the lulling sound of water in the nearby pool. He closed his eyes and dreamed he was the herbalist holding a baby, staring into its wide eyes, seeing his own death. Shadows from the clouds passed over him, and he remembered when he could not sleep as a babe, when he wanted to see the world so desperately he would not dare to blink.
He woke with a start in the middle of the day, alive and young. He was so grateful not to be a dead man, and to have the world to dive into. He was late for work, and he knew, as he ran back to town, he would be in trouble, yet again. He had not been able to steer clear of it since he’d been back. They said he’d changed, his sullen moodiness, his criticism of his family and the politics of the island. But perhaps he was only more himself, a man with his own opinions now, though his parents clearly considered him too young to have the right to act upon his needs and desires.
HE THOUGHT ABOUT HIS constricted life a few evenings later when he spied Marianna at the harbor. He’d been hoping to run into her. He was at a café when he saw her in the marketplace. A married woman wearing golden earrings, talking with her friends. She was as beautiful as ever, perhaps more so, but she wasn’t Marianna King anymore, the waiter told him when he asked about her current situation. Her married name was Morris. He thought back to when she knew him better than anyone. He caught her eye, but she had no expression, merely stared back as if he were a rude stranger gawking. She then avoided his glance and went on talking with her friends. A knife went through him. His brothers were right. He was no one. He kept an eye on Marianna all the same. When she left and started for home, he followed. Unlike Lydia, who had no idea she was being followed for months on end, Marianna sensed her stalker, and turned to face him.
“What do you think you’re doing?” She sounded truly frightened. “Stay away from me.”
“It’s me,” he said, plaintive, once more the confused boy who’d sat beside her at school while she explained the Bible stories they were told by their teachers. “Don’t you recognize me?”
“That’s exactly why I’m telling you to stay away. We’re not children. We can’t do as we please. I have a husband.”
He felt like a fool. She must have known he was pained by her reaction, for her expression softened.
“Don’t you know what this place is like? Have you been away that long? Just because we went to school together, we don’t live in the same world. And we’re certainly not the same people we once were.”
He promised he would not seek her out, or follow her, or even greet her should their paths cross again, if that was what she wished.
“Who said anything about what I wish? I’m just telling you how things are, just like I always did. You should be grateful to me.”
MARIANNA WAS RIGHT IN saying he was not the same person he’d been when he left, and his family had been right as well. The world had opened to him, and as it was doing so he had closed the door on this island, which ran on rules he found heartless and inhuman. When he’d first returned from Paris, and asked his family to call him by his third name, Camille, so that he could at least keep something of his life in Paris, his brothers had mocked him. Be whoever you want, his brother Alfred said, just do your work. The family did as he wished, except for his mother, who preferred not to say his name at all rather than to change it. She referred to him as he, more a stranger than a son. He’s not happy with the food. He came in late for work. He disappeared. He does not wish to join us for dinner. And, when Camille refused to go to the synagogue—He no longer appears to be a member of our faith.
In Paris he didn’t have to struggle with his people’s history every time he spoke the name Jacobo aloud. He was just a man, not a Jew but an artist. This sense of being an outsider was not an issue for his parents, who were now accepted by people of their faith and had no wish to know any Europeans outside the community. Within the family there was no discussion of the rift his parents’ marriage had once caused. The shame of having children born before they were officially wed was never spoken of, although this was still a topic discussed in other households, behind closed doors. Most people didn’t even remember why the congregation had been so enraged and why the Pizzarro children had gone to the Moravian School. All the years of bad blood had evaporated, and his brothers and sisters seemed to have forgotten those times.
“That was so long ago,” said his sister Hannah, now a mother herself. Her wedding was said to have been the turning point, but perhaps it was the dinner at Madame Halevy’s. When that night was ending, and his parents had thanked their hostess and walked into the courtyard, Madame had come into the kitchen where Camille had been waiting with Mrs. James. “Now your grandmother and I are even,” she told him, insisting he take a piece of pastry with him, though he would only toss it out for the birds when he reached the road. “Always pay back what you owe. Remember that,” Madame Halevy told him, patting him on the arm.
Frédéric Pizzarro now went to synagogue every day for the morning prayers. At first Camille accompanied his father and brothers on Friday nights, but unlike them he could not forget how these same people they prayed with had disrespected his mother, treating her as if she were a ghost. He supposed he held a grudge. He stopped going. Instead, he found himself drawn to the Lutheran church run by the Moravian brothers, his teachers, who had begun the school for slaves. Those Bible stories he had been told as a child had stayed with him, and he thought of Jesus as a great teacher, a rebel who refused to see the poor and disenfranchised mistreated. He went to the church sometimes and sat with his eyes closed, listening to the hymns, songs in Danish and German.
He owed his father his loyalty; therefore he did not mention his visits to the church, nor did he outwardly complain about how miserable he was since his return from Paris. His older brothers were happy in the family business, and the problems with the Petits in France had been dealt with. A new business had been formed, with his sister’s in-laws, one more profitable than the old business. The future was the family’s interest. So who was he to think of the past? For him this island was a mist of all that had once been, a past that enveloped him every day. Certainly he felt this each time he visited Madame Halevy’s grave and left a stone behind, for remembrance. He had done as he’d been told. He had not forgotten her. Whenever he left the cemetery the leaves shook down into his hair and he felt Madame nearby, reminding him to see to his duties, and pay back every favor.
He often brought bags of groceries to Madame Halevy’s maid, who had gone to live with one of her daughters on the outskirts of the city. Mrs. James was very old now, and her family took care of her. Camille made sure to include bananas and mangoes so she could make her desserts. “I’ll have my daughter bring a cake to your house,” she always told him.
“Please, no. Thank you but please, make something for your grandchildren.” He still did not favor sweets.
“People think they knew Madame, but they didn’t,” Helena James said one day. She’d made a guava berry custard, which she insisted he try. “She wasn’t mean the way they said.”
Camille grinned. He had spooned much of the custard into the hedges when she turned away, and now bees hovered around. “She loved your desserts.”
Mrs. James nodded as if this was a given, then went on. “I suppose she told you the story about Jestine because she also had a daughter that she lost.”
“The one in Charleston?” Camille spooned up the last of the pudding, thanked his hostess, and returned the china bowl to her. It was one of Madame Halevy’s. Everything in her kitchen had been given to Helena.
“When you work in someone’s house you know things about them they don’t know about themselves. Whatever they try to hide, you see, even when you don’t want to find it out. You open a drawer, there it is. Once you know, there’s nothing you can do about it but pity them. Here’s the truth about Madame.” Mrs. James glanced around to make certain no one was near before going on. “The pain was not that her daughter went to Charleston but that she had to go away.”
“And why was that?” Camille asked, although he was not as interested as he might have been. He had taken up his sketch pad, and was doing his best to record Mrs. James’s hands, her beautiful, long fingers, adorned with the two gold rings Madame Halevy had always worn. She’d given them to Mrs. James, rather than to her own daughter.
“It’s an old story,” Helena James said. “It’s the past and over and done with, as good as buried with the dead once I’m gone.”
CAMILLE UNDERSTOOD THAT PEOPLE often wanted to erase the pain of what they’d been through, to reinvent the past and their part in it. He’d seen this for himself in the Market Square on July 3, when the proclamation emancipating all slaves in the Danish West Indies was read. It was a joyously received, a long-overdue declaration brought about by the King’s governor, Peter von Scholten, who himself had a common-law wife who was a free woman of mixed blood. Eight thousand slaves on St. Croix living under appalling conditions had demanded and been granted emancipation from the Danish government, and von Scholten had been there to witness how this could be accomplished without bloodshed. He had set the same process to work in St. Thomas, and at last the King had granted these demands.
Camille was glad to be there for the changes that were taking place, a witness to these cruel laws abolished. He noticed those who had been in favor of slavery and who’d been forced to free their workers now behaved as if they had never used such labor. Most of the African slaves were from Ghana, for the Danes had a fort there, one identical to the fort on their own shore. It was the gate to hell, and it would now be closed. People threw paper and bark inside the doorways of the fort and watched as the windows lit up with a flickering orange light, as if the fort were a lantern that could send a message across the ocean. No more, was the message. Not in our life and time.
There was a great party in the public square that lasted most of the week. Because the date was the third, all that year babies were given names with three letters, for three was clearly a lucky number. But for many people there was a bitterness ingrained in the celebration, for they had been granted something that should have been theirs all along. For the older people, it was also a time of mourning for all the years and lives that had been stolen.
Rosalie went to the grave of the child she had lost. She wished he was alive and had grown up to become a young man who could celebrate freedom for all on their island. She took the fallen leaves from her hair and placed them under her pillow so she would dream of her baby. She no longer thought he’d been taken because she loved him too much. That was foolishness someone had told her, that she’d drowned him, poisoning him with her own milk, and she’d taken the blame upon herself. The truth of the matter was, she loved Enrique too much as well, and her love had done no damage. He was still on this earth, alive and well, the handsome man she first saw in the garden of the Pomiés’ beautiful old house where strangers from Amsterdam lived now. She could hear these new people talking when she sat outside the cottage where she lived with Enrique, though she did not understand Dutch. She still worried about bad fortune even though she no longer believed love carried a curse. She feared that Enrique would be taken from her. But fate surprised her, and on the occasion of the proclamation she felt something she had felt only once before, the flicker of life.
She told Enrique that night, knowing he had always wanted a son. He said she could name the baby after the child she lost. That first baby’s name had been Leland Frost, a name she had told no one, and his father had been a sailor from St. Croix who had drowned. “No,” Rosalie said after carefully considering. “He’ll be his own person. He’ll have his own name.”
That was when she knew they would be starting everything all over again. They sat outside and had their dinner and watched the fires on the hill all around the fort, with orange and red flashes leaping upward. She had been attached to the motherless Pomié children, then Rachel had surprised her when she came to the house and asked for her help. Rachel had been so young and inexperienced, Rosalie had felt pity for her. But that was a long time ago, after the first Madame Pomié had taken ill and wept and Rosalie had wept with her. But a servant, no matter how beloved, was not a friend, and a slave was a shadow, nothing more. The sparks from the celebrations were so bright they looked like stars. It was the last night of the old world. Good riddance, Rosalie thought. She’d name this boy a name no one else had, so he could someday be his own man, one who could stand up to the devil himself.
There were bonfires all around Skytsborg Tower, called Sky Tower, built in 1678 on the highest point overlooking the harbor. It was here that the pirate Blackbeard, born Edward Teach, had lived during his time on the island. Blackbeard was rumored to light cannon fuses dipped into limewater under his hat and in his beard so that smoke would encircle him. He would look as fierce as the devil, and some people believed that he was. His enemies so feared him they would simply turn over their boats and goods to him and even grant him their wives. His fourteen wives got the worst of the bargain, for he’d abandoned each one. Their skeletons could still be found in the hillside caves. Camille had come upon their wild gardens while he walked at night, so deep in the thickets they’d disappeared for a hundred years. Here untended avocado plants and patches of mint and juniper grew wild, rambling down hillsides, mixing with native plants. He sketched the jumbled remains, an exotic mixture of hope and despair, with vines run riot. Some gardens were bordered by seashells and rocks, others had tumbled-down fences made of bones and rocks, still another was surrounded by banks of pink and red that had all sprung from a single rosebush brought from Madagascar. He liked to search for these gardens when he went into the countryside to visit Helena James, bringing her delicacies he’d filched from the storeroom. Chocolates from France, coconut syrup, oranges sent from Florida. If he found bougainvillea, he plucked some vines and brought them along as well, then sketched them as they trembled in a vase on her table.
“There’s going to be trouble,” Mrs. James told him one day as they sat outside and ate oranges cut into slices with a bone-handled knife that had once been on Madame Halevy’s kitchen table. “The daughter’s returning, even though she swore to her mother she’d never come back here. My daughter heard about it from a woman she knows who works at the hotel.”
“Why would she come now? Madame Halevy has been gone for some time.”
“Exactly why. Think about it. Now with her mother buried so long she can’t walk out of her grave, the daughter finally is here to see what she can get.”
Camille asked around on the docks so he might ease Helena James’s worries. He’d found that the old lady was right. The daughter had already arrived and was staying at the Commercial Hotel. She’d had a meeting with a local solicitor known for his aggressive manner. Camille posted himself outside the hotel at the coffeehouse, where he ordered one coffee, and then another. The waiter, a fellow he knew named Jack Highfield, pointed her out when she left the hotel, a woman in her fifties, well dressed, with a brash sort of American ease. She wore no hat, and white leather buttoned boots showed under her green muslin dress. Since Camille was adept at following people, he set off to see what he might discover. Madame Halevy’s daughter went directly to the St. Thomas Savings Bank. Camille went in after she left, but he didn’t know anyone there, and the manager was too busy to meet with him. There were now more than forty thousand people on the island, and it was no longer possible to know everyone, along with their business, although in the Jewish community news still traveled quickly.
Camille had Hannah question the women of the Sisterhood, and of course they knew the reasons behind Madame Halevy’s daughter coming to visit. Rebecca Halevy-Stein had come for her mother’s estate. The old mansion had stood empty—there had been talk of ghosts and bad luck—and was only now finally sold, to an Ashkenazi family recently arrived from Germany via Amsterdam. Mrs. Halevy-Stein had returned so that she might collect her mother’s belongings, but when she went to the house there was almost nothing there. Years had passed, and what Madame had not given away had been seen as abandoned and therefore fair game, taken home by various deliverymen and the construction people hired to repair the roof or the shutters or the falling-down stonework.
When Camille made his report to Helena James, the news of Mrs. Halevy-Stein’s doings did not comfort her. Rather it made her more anxious. “She’s going to come after me. Even though I helped raise her, she was always selfish and thinking about no one but herself. Her mother would say the very same thing if she was alive.”
In fact, Mrs. Halevy-Stein did intend to visit Mrs. James, along with her solicitor, Edwin Holloway, who was not from the community but was instead a resettled American from South Carolina. They’d known each other in Charleston. Camille was aware of their meeting because one of Helena James’s grandsons, a boy of seven or eight named Richard, came running into the store, out of breath, frantic, not even having taken the time to put on his shoes. He was a faster runner barefoot, he claimed, just as Camille had been as a boy. Camille slipped on his own shoes, however, when the boy came to tug on his shirtsleeve. He was no longer used to jogging along over sand and stones.
The boy hurried him. “My grandmother thinks you should come and speak for her.”
Frédéric overheard and took Camille aside before he could leave the store. “How are you involved?”
When Camille explained that Mrs. James had worked for Madame Halevy for years, and was afraid of the daughter, Frédéric slipped on his jacket.
“Shall we?” he said, with the clear intention of accompanying his son.
Camille grinned, surprised but pleased not to have to face Mrs. Halevy-Stein and her solicitor alone. After all, he knew nothing of business matters, as his father was well aware, and Frédéric was respected for his professional acumen.
They followed Mrs. James’s grandson out of town. He was indeed fast, and Camille and his father had trouble keeping pace.
“I used to be able to run like that,” Camille said.
“So did I,” his father informed him.
They went uphill as quickly as they could, clouds of dust rising. It was noon, and too hot for such activities. Camille and his father both wore jackets, due to the serious nature of the occasion, and were therefore sweating through their clothes.
“They’re going to take away my grandmother’s dishes,” the boy, Richard, said. “They came with boxes and some donkeys. They’re going to steal everything she has.”
“They’re not taking anything,” Frédéric assured him.
But when they got to the little house on a hillside, they saw that several wooden crates had, indeed, been brought from town and set out in the yard. Frédéric went and immediately introduced himself to Holloway, the solicitor, who although new in Charlotte Amalie, knew of Monsieur Pizzarro and his store.
“I suspect there’s been some confusion,” Holloway said. “There are some items here that belonged to my client’s mother. Perhaps this good woman Mrs. James has had them in safekeeping, but now my client wishes to collect them for her home in Charleston.”
Madame Halevy’s daughter, the one she had lost, was so cool the heat didn’t seem to affect her in the least. She was tall and well formed, an attractive woman. She came to join the discussion, and Pizzarro wondered if that’s what women from Charleston did, act as if they had the rights of men. “I’m thankful that our maid took care of these household items,” she said in her soft, measured voice, “but they belong to me.”
Camille glanced over at Helena James, who shook her head. He elbowed his father and motioned this was not true.
“I’m afraid your mother left these items to Mrs. James,” Frédéric Pizzarro said.
“Really?” Rebecca Halevy-Stein turned to the maid. “What kind of china is it?”
“It’s the green set. The one Madame liked to use for dinner.”
Mrs. Halevy-Stein smirked as she faced Monsieur Pizzarro. “It’s Limoges. Imported from France and quite treasured. They are meant to be in my home.”
“Your mother didn’t like for you to use them because you chipped them,” Mrs. James said. “You know that to be true.”
“Do you have a written statement in your mother’s hand that these are her belongings and meant to go to you?” Monsieur Pizzarro asked Mrs. Halevy-Stein.
“I am my mother’s daughter.” Mrs. Halevy-Stein was agitated. “You heard Helena. She admits they came from my mother’s house. They were used at dinner.” She took note of something else, and her eyes widened. “And that’s the table they set.” Mrs. Halevy pointed into the house. The door was open. “It’s there in the front room. Mahogany. Handmade.”
Monsieur Pizzarro shrugged. This proved nothing. “Perhaps the dishes were borrowed from Mrs. James so that Madame Halevy might use them in her home.”
The solicitor Holloway laughed at the preposterousness of the suggestion that a woman of wealth and standing within her community would need to borrow dishes from her maid. He then saw Monsieur Pizzarro’s expression. “You’re not serious?”
Monsieur Pizzarro turned to his son. “You dined with Madame Halevy. Did you ever see these dishes in her house?”
“I never saw them,” Camille said. But of course he’d never looked. He usually had his dessert on an earthenware platter.
Rebecca Halevy-Stein was a pale blonde; now her skin flushed with anger, even more so when she noticed a flash of gold on Mrs. James’s hands. “What do you have there?”
Mrs. James hid her hands under her skirts.
“Those are my mother’s rings,” Mrs. Halevy-Stein said, turning to her solicitor. “She has them on right now!”
“She gave them to me,” Mrs. James told Camille. “She wanted me to have them.”
“This may be an issue for the courts,” Holloway said.
“Not without some paperwork.” Frédéric stared the solicitor down. “Is there a will? You say there’s not. Is there a document connecting your client with Madame Halevy’s personal items? It doesn’t seem to exist.”
“I came from Charleston to take care of this,” Mrs. Halevy-Stein said. “I made a long trip, and I did so in good faith.”
“You didn’t come even once when your mother was alive,” Helena said before she could stop herself. “And you and I know why. It had nothing to do with faith.”
The younger woman turned to Mrs. James. “I should have my mother’s rings,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned they’ve been stolen, along with everything else. Does this woman have a paper that states they’re hers?” she asked Monsieur Pizzarro. “Did my mother sign a document stating so?”
Mrs. James gazed at Madame Halevy’s daughter and shook her head. “I made your porridge when you were a baby. I know you, and I know why you didn’t come back. You never wrote to ask what happened, just left everything in your mother’s hands. I’m the one who helped her. I helped her and she was grateful. So if you want to go to court and charge me with something, then I suppose you will.”
The air felt as it did when rain would soon begin, a prickly shock of heat with a measure of cold, dampness mixing into the atmosphere.
“Charge me, Rebecca,” Mrs. James said. “Bring me to court. See if what it gets you is worth the trouble. I have the story, and I’ve kept it to myself.”
Mrs. Halevy-Stein studied the maid, then turned to her solicitor. “This is ridiculous. Let’s just deal with the house.”
“But the crates?” Holloway said, confused. “All of your mother’s belongings? Surely they’re worth something.”
“I’m not going to fight with an old woman.” Rebecca Halevy-Stein reached for her purse so she could pay off the men who’d brought the crates and donkeys up the hill and were waiting to fill them with furniture and dishes. “I hope you’re happy,” she said to Mrs. James.
“Happiness is for fools.” Helena James shrugged. “So I wish that for you.”
When the unwanted guests had left, and the donkeys and the crates were gone as well, the Pizzarro father and son were given cups of maubie and thanked by the family. Mrs. James went in to get a coconut cake she had made. She signaled for Camille to help her inside. There was a hole in the roof so that the smoke and cooking smells could escape. The stove was tiny, but the oven was clearly big enough for Mrs. James’s baking.
“Your father’s a good man,” she said.
“Yes.” Today Camille had seen the righteousness inside his father that he hadn’t been aware of before. His father was a quiet, solemn man, and Camille had always assumed the battle with the synagogue had been his mother’s doing; now he wasn’t so sure. His father, he now understood, was a fighter.
“I’m going to use the green plates you never saw in Madame’s house,” Mrs. James said. “The cake will look just right on them.”
Because Camille was tall and could reach, she directed him to take the plates from a special place in the cabinet that had once stood in Madame Halevy’s kitchen. She still called him Jacobo, and he didn’t correct her.
“Madame Halevy would be glad you have the dishes,” he said. “They’re in the right home.”
“She didn’t live to tell you all of her story. She thought about it, and we talked about it, then she died. So I can say now that the end of the story was that she died and her daughter never came to see her. But it’s the middle of the story that matters. Rebecca had a baby when she was seventeen. No one guessed; she hid it with her clothes. A lady can do that, up to a point. When the time came and she might have begun to show, she got something from an herb man that made the baby come early. This lady who wanted the dishes that you never saw in Madame’s house, who never came home and never wrote a letter, gave birth all by herself when she wasn’t much more than a girl. It was brave or it was stupid. There was a storm, which brings on childbirth. The air comes down low and brings down whatever is inside you. Mademoiselle hid herself in the woods, and when it was over, she left the baby under a tree outside of the graveyard. Not the Jewish graveyard. Ours. I know because I followed her.
“Maybe somebody would find him and maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe he would be drowned by the rain pouring down or maybe he would swim like a fish. She didn’t know and she didn’t care. She ran away like a shadow or a demon, so fast you’d never know she was there. I had followed her before when her mother directed me to. I knew she had been with a sailor who came from St. Croix. He was not one of your people. He was one of mine.
“I didn’t wait to find out if the baby would drown. I took that baby and brought him to Madame Halevy. Rebecca had already bought her ticket for Charleston. She was staying in the Grand Hotel, where she stained the sheets with blood—I know because my cousin worked there and I had her keep an eye on Rebecca. I thought she might do damage to herself, maybe decide to leave this world, but she wasn’t that kind of girl. She was already in the future. She left the next morning. Maybe she thought good-bye, but she didn’t have the decency to come around and say it to her mother. So Madame Halevy and I considered what would be best for this child and how we could ensure that he would have a good life. He was her grandson, but because I had found him he was mine in a way, too. We both knew he must go to a family where he would be loved. He had blue eyes and we decided that was a sign. We set his fate on that single fact.
Madame had a friend who had lost a baby son at birth. Her friend didn’t care that this baby’s father was an African man. She was in mourning and when she saw this child her mourning lifted. This baby was the man Jestine fell in love with, but couldn’t have because everyone thought he was a member of your faith.”
“Lydia’s father?” Camille was confused. If this cousin of his and Jestine both had African blood, why couldn’t they have married? Surely someone could have told this man the truth about himself. “Then why couldn’t he be with Jestine?”
“The truth of who he was would have led back to Rebecca. That kind of gossip would have reached Charleston and ruined her. Madame Halevy was protecting her daughter. She made your grandmother promise to do the same.” Helena put her hand on Camille’s arm. “Your cousin never knew who he was. Jestine still doesn’t know. Only Madame and your grandmother and me. Now you understand why I wear Madame Halevy’s rings, and why they will be buried with me, and why this story will be buried as well.”
“Except that I know,” Camille said mournfully.
“That’s why she never told you.” Helena James had cut up the cake while she spoke. She set the slices onto the plates that were exactly as Camille remembered them, emerald green with a pattern of gold leaf around the edges. “I wanted you to understand why Madame wanted me to have everything. It was because I was so loyal and never said a word. I would have never told you either, but I didn’t want you to think I was a thief.”
“I never would have thought that. Now I’m stuck with the story.”
Helena laughed. “We’re together in that, Jacobo.”
They went outside and had the coconut cake, which Frédéric Pizzarro declared to be delicious, though his son noticed he tossed bits of it behind him, for the rooster. Father and son walked back toward town together.
“I’m glad that’s settled,” Frédéric said.
“Thank you for helping, but it’s never settled in this place,” Camille responded. “People are treated unfairly and it’s taken as due course. Who cares what race you are or what faith or, for that matter, who you marry?”
His father clapped his son on the back. “We can’t change the world, can we?”
“Of course we can,” Camille said.
They were halfway to town when they noticed the path to the waterfall. They exchanged a look. They were expected home, but it was such a hot day. They turned onto the path. When they reached the pool they took off their clothes and dove in. The chill made Camille shout out as he hit the surface of the water. Tiny blue fish scattered. The bright sky shone through a tunnel of branches. Frédéric went to stand beneath the falling water, as he had when he first came to this island, when he was enchanted and knew that he would stay.
“What did the old lady tell you when she brought you into the house?” Frédéric asked when they had finished their swim and were dressing on the banks of the pool. “She took a long time to get that cake ready.”
The sun was so strong their skin dried in moments. But in an hour or so twilight would drift down and all of the shadows would turn purple. Then the leaves would be damp with dew.
“She told me my father was a good man,” Camille said.
Frédéric studied his son. “It took that long for her to say so?”
“She told me that she was an honest woman, and she didn’t wish for us to think otherwise.”
“Why would we? Rebecca abandoned her mother and came back only when she thought she had something to gain.”
They set off, through the woods, then onto the road. There were a few wild donkeys that trotted away when they spied the men. They disappeared up a hill, leaving a path cut through the tall grass.
“Your mother used to have a pet donkey. She still cries over him.”
Camille was puzzled. When he’d wanted a pet she’d always told him animals were dirty and a waste of time. His sisters had been lucky to have their tiny lapdog, and then only because their father pled their case. “My mother?”
Frédéric clapped his son on the back, then looped an arm over his shoulders. “Your mother.”
They stopped so that Frédéric could gather some branches of the flamboyant tree, slashing them down with a knife he carried. “Your mother also likes to bring these flowers to the cemetery. She says it brings good luck. We can stop there.”
Camille felt Madame Halevy’s story inside of him as they went on. It had the heft of a stone, and it rattled, surprising him with its weight. He picked up some white rocks at the side of the road. While his father laid the red flowers around the family’s graves, Camille went to Madame Halevy’s grave and left three stones: the first for Mrs. James; the second for his grandmother, Madame Pomié; the last for himself, for he was the last one to know her story.
NO MATTER HOW HE tried, Camille continued to fail in the store. After two years his father moved him down to the harbor to sign in goods unloaded from ships meant for the storehouse. It was a low-level position, and all he needed to do was be aware of when the ships arrived, then sign in the deliveries and have them transported. But instead of keeping an eye on things, Camille used most of his time to sketch, often forgetting appointments and having to rush to meet a ship’s purser on the docks. He was meant to count and record crates that were unloaded, but he often took his paints along and neglected his duties completely. He was drawn to seascapes, though he found them difficult. To catch a moment in movement, to add time to space in a painting was a challenge. To ensure he wouldn’t be seen by his parents, who had made their disapproval clear when it came to his true calling, he sometimes set up a makeshift easel on Jestine’s porch. Jestine knew Rachel would not approve of his art, but when he was in her home, she felt her daughter was closer to her. Camille had seen Lyddie, spoken to her, touched her. Jestine and Lydia now wrote to each other on a regular basis, often once or twice a week. Lydia had delivered her fourth child, a boy named Leo, named after the constellation, a darling child and his father’s favorite.
When I told my husband who I was it did not matter to him, but this was not true for everyone. The house with the garden where we watched stars now belongs to his brother. We no longer see his family. We live in an apartment in Paris. There is no garden, but I take my children to the Tuileries every day unless there is snow. They have a dog they love, Lapin, a little rabbit of a thing who is quite a clown. There is no maid to care for my daughters and my son, which is best. The time I spend with them is precious to me. I want to tie them to me with string so they will never get lost or wander off, as you tied me to your side when I was a tot. If I lost them, I would be beside myself. If they were stolen, I don’t know how I would survive.
My husband is employed by another bank now, one run by people who are not of his faith. There are long hours, but he is excellent at his work and hopefully that will be recognized. I like to think the good in people will be seen, that it rises to the surface, like the tiny fish in the pool at the waterfall you used to take me to. I remember being there on a very hot day, and believing that the fish came to me when I opened my hand. I remember that you told me to be careful not to slip and fall. When I say the same words to my own children, it’s your voice they hear.
Jestine had begun work on a dress that was unlike any she’d made before. For years she had put it off, but at last it was time to make a dress for Lyddie.
“You always said no dress was good enough for your daughter,” Camille commented when he saw her bent over her work.
“This one will be.”
“And how will you get it to her?”
“Let me worry about that.” That was the next step; for now she was concentrating on the creation of something that would be worthy of her daughter.
“Surely you won’t trust the mail.” Camille then had an idea. “I know. I’ll take it back to Paris.” They laughed because it was clear he was desperate to go back. The time he’d recently spent in St. Thomas had been more than enough for him.
On the porch tubs of dye had been set out: heron blue and midnight, teal and a pale lilac-hued blue that was so like a hyacinth that bees rumbled nearby. Jestine had used sea urchin spines and pressed violets and stalks of indigo to tint various hues. She’d saved up for bolts of silk from Spain and had bought twelve buttons fashioned from pale abalone shell. She had three spools of thread spun in China, carried overland through the desert on the backs of camels, then sent across the ocean on a boat from Portugal. Her stitches were so small that her fingers bled and at the end of the day she needed to soak her hands in warm water and rest her eyes under slices of cucumber or bits of damp muslin. The underskirt of the dress was made of lace, dyed with inkberries and guava berries. On the bodice she had stitched the dried, preserved scales of fish that swam in the waterfall, tiny blue translucent scales soaked in vinegar and salt that shone in the dark. She had a length of ribbon she dyed haint blue. That would make certain that the dress would always protect Lyddie. No ghosts, no demons, no sorrow, no separations, no thievery, no witchery, no abductions, no spirits of any kind.
CAMILLE WAS VISITING JESTINE, as he did nearly every day, when he saw the painter at the harbor, a standing easel set up before him on the sand. He stood upon Jestine’s porch with a spyglass. The waves were rough that day, and the trade winds blew across the island. Palm trees rattled, and fronds that were shaken fell into the roads. The painter paid no attention to the weather and worked feverishly, glancing up now and then to watch the light on the crashing waves. Jestine came out with two cups of hot coffee.
“Everyone says he’s a madman,” she said of the painter on the beach.
“Do they? Why is that?”
“Just look at him! He stands out there in the wind! If he doesn’t watch out a wave will carry him away. Maybe he needs to be tied to the wharf with rope.”
Camille was instantly interested. A few days later, when he spied the painter in the same spot, he left his office on the dock, curious to see what this gentleman was up to. The painter was only a few years older than he, Danish, with sharp features, already balding but with a boyish appearance. He was quite approachable and not in the least disturbed at having been interrupted.
“I know no one here, so to meet a fellow artist, well, I couldn’t be more grateful.”
They shook hands, and the young man introduced himself as Fritz Melbye, an artist from Copenhagen, who had been born in Elsinore in 1826. He specialized in seascapes, and though he was only four years older, he had vast experience compared to Camille, and had been to art school in Denmark. He was from a family of marine painters, the youngest of three brothers, and had set off to the West Indies to make his fortune and his name. He was fearless and friendly in a way Camille would never be, willing to go anywhere and do anything for a view of a watery vision that resonated inside his soul. They went to a tavern and Camille introduced Melbye to guava berry rum, which he declared a delight. Melbye, for his part, introduced Camille to cigars, which sent him into a coughing fit. He felt embarrassed, inexperienced, a boy living with his family, doing their bidding when this fellow Melbye, at the age of twenty-four, was on his own entirely, a grown man living on his instincts and desires.
“You make your living with your art?” Camille asked, intrigued. Melbye could hold his rum well, and the painting he was working on, a view of the harbor at St. Thomas, was impressive.
“I live as well as I can, and paint as well as God allows.”
His older brothers were better known, he confided; Vilhelm had been the first to approach seascapes, and Anton was a respected teacher and painter in Paris. Fritz himself was lighthearted, a ladies’ man, interested in seeing the world and experiencing all that he could.
“Death stalks us.” He shrugged and called for another rum. “So why not live as we wish? I’d like to paint every ocean and every major sea before I’m thirty. If I do that, then afterward I can drop into hell for all I care, for I’ll have completed my goal.”
Camille laughed. He had never enjoyed another man’s company so thoroughly. “So that’s that? The devil can have you?”
“I’d prefer to be showing in Paris, but if I go to the devil, so be it.”
They began to meet nearly every day, and took to working side by side. Camille showed his companion the Sky Tower, from which they could view nearly every bit of the shoreline. He brought him to the synagogue, made of stone and molasses and sand, then on to the inlet where vegetables were unloaded from sailboats and African laborers took carts and baskets into the marketplace. Melbye sketched at all of these places, images that he would later use in his paintings. What was familiar to Camille was exotic to the Dane, and intriguing beyond belief. Fritz wore a white suit and a white linen shirt, but he wished to leave his more refined ways behind. He’d grown a beard and he liked to go barefoot, even though Camille warned him about burrs and the local stinging bees, which nested not in trees but in the ground. Fritz spoke French and English with a clipped Danish accent. As it turned out he, too, had come from a bourgeois family; in his case, they were involved in finance. But his older brothers had fought the battle of art versus commerce with their father, and by the time Fritz was twenty his father had already accepted the fact that none of his sons would carry on the family business. “When it came to me, he gave up.” Fritz grinned.
It was a pleasure to be in Fritz’s company and to hear about the art world of Paris, and his brothers’ experiences, and Fritz’s own plans. He was wildly cheerful, so friendly local people took to calling him l’Ami Rouge, the red friend, for although his blond hair was balding, his beard was a pale red. He clearly had a desire to do as the locals did and be considered a friend among them—washing his laundry himself, learning to make maubie and drinking it with every meal. For breakfast he had sea moss, a concoction made of boiled seaweed mixed with milk and spices. He dined on plain salt fish even on Sunday, something no person with any pride would do. He meant to go to South America and back to Europe and then on to New York. While in St. Thomas he had rented a shed from a farmer in the Savan, the living area newly created for freed slaves. There were a few Jewish families there as well, but Melbye was the only Christian European to reside in the Savan, and his neighbors thought him a bit mad, for he stayed up till all hours, painting in the alleyway outside his shack, asking women and children to pose for him in exchange for a sketch of themselves or a bit of what little money he had. Once a robber broke in, thinking he was a rich man, but there was nothing to steal but paint and unwashed laundry. When Melbye protested, he was felled by a blow. The two men fought, but somehow Fritz won the thief over, and he wound up helping his victim off the floor. The robber was Maurice, son of his neighbor, Mr. Alek, and he and his neighbors soon enough had mugs of rum together, forgetting the episode entirely.
“Nobody likes that man you’re friends with,” Jestine told Camille when he next came to visit after stopping at the post office for her. There had been three letters on that day.
“Fritz?” he said, surprised. “He just has a big heart.”
“Well, he looks like he’ll bring bad luck.” Jestine hated to think that Rachel’s boy might be led astray. She’d heard the two friends were staying out all night, drinking at the harbor, and that there were some women involved, including a St. Thomas girl Camille used to know back when they called him Jacobo. People said this girl was married to a man who knew nothing about what was going on.
But the girl’s mother, the woman who had told Jacobo Camille Pizzarro to stay away from her daughter when they were ten years old, had figured it out. In her opinion he was trouble then, and trouble once again. This lady came around to the Pizzarros’ store to speak her mind, and nothing was going to stop her from doing so. Rachel was in the back room going over the ledgers. Since the time her father had first brought her to the store it had been her habit to do so once a week. It was late on Friday and Mr. Enrique had gone home to be with Rosalie. Frédéric and the boys had already set off for the synagogue, Jacobo Camille was out as he usually was, and so Rachel was alone in the shop. She looked up and there was a woman in the doorway. A local woman of her own age who looked quite upset.
“You’ll need to speak with the clerk in the morning if you want to place an order,” Rachel said.
“I don’t need to place an order,” the woman responded. She was tall, attractive, but clearly agitated.
Rachel sat back in her chair and appraised her guest. She had seen her in the market but didn’t know her by name. “Did you want something?”
“Your son is the one who wants something and he’s not having it,” her visitor said.
Rachel rose so that she might pull over a chair. She was not surprised that her son had offended someone in some way. “Please,” she said, suggesting her guest join her at her desk and continue. When the woman sat beside her, Rachel recognized her. She worked as a laundress and had sent her children to the Moravian School. “I’ve forgotten your name,” Rachel admitted.
“Why should you remember? I’m nothing to you, as you are nothing to me.”
Rachel found this woman interesting. Certainly she spoke her mind. She closed the ledger book and gave her guest her full attention.
“It’s my daughter’s name you should know. Marianna. Why don’t you ask your son about her? And in the meantime, hope her husband doesn’t find out.”
Rachel remembered Marianna. She’d been one of the reasons Rachel had sent Jacobo away in the first place. She still thought of him with his old name and refused to call him Camille. She certainly wasn’t about to let her hard work setting him on the right path be disrupted by this same pretty girl. She went to Jestine’s the next morning and told her about her visitor. They drank coffee and sat at the old table where Adelle used to give them their lunch.
“He’s not having a love affair with that girl,” Jestine said. “You don’t have to worry about that. But you have something else to worry about. He’s painting her.”
Jestine had some sketches Camille had made of Marianna carrying some laundry. He’d left them behind, and she now brought them out and set them on the table. Rachel held one up. She took note of the curve of the woman’s shoulder and breast, her thin waist, the angles of her face as she looked toward the sea.
“He may not be having an affair, but clearly he’s enamored,” Rachel said. “How long have you known about this?”
Jestine looked stung. “Shall I not be your friend and an aunt to him? Do you feel I have stolen him?”
“Of course not,” Rachel said. “You are an aunt to him and I’m grateful that you are. What I have, I gladly share with you. It’s only that he tells you everything and I’m the last to know.”
“Would you have told your mother anything?”
“But I’m nothing like my mother.” She looked hard at Jestine. “Am I?”
“Rachel, if you were, I would not be your friend,” Jestine assured her.
Still Rachel worried that she carried the seed of her mother’s bitterness. The one feature that had caused her to be vain was her beautiful dark hair. But one night she dreamed of her mother, and when she awoke her hair was streaked white, as if she’d been cursed. Her mother’s hair had turned white when she was a young woman, when Rachel’s father began to leave in the evenings and not come home. Rachel would listen to her mother weep, but she never went to her. Perhaps there was a punishment for this, and she would always be the last to know her son.
THE PIZZARROS INVITED FRITZ Melbye to dinner, an invitation he gratefully accepted, even though Camille had warned him that it was a trap. “They’ve heard rumors about you. Now they want to see you for themselves.”
“Fine,” Melbye said agreeably.
“They’ll study you as they would examine a sloth or a snake.”
Melbye laughed. He had a great, strong laugh, which suited his good humor. He often had a hangover and found it difficult to leave his sleeping pallet before noon. “They’ll find I’m more sloth than snake.”
Camille was sure his friend had no idea of who his parents were, how fierce they could be, even his mild father when the situation called for ferocity, and how dedicated they were to keeping him tied to a fate he was more and more convinced simply wasn’t his. He dreamed of Paris, often so deeply he didn’t know where he was when he awoke. Until Melbye, he’d been an early riser, but not anymore. In the late morning he often lay staring at the ceiling. The crack in the shape of a lion, the mulberry-colored drapes to keep out the heat of the sun, the mahogany dresser—it all seemed so unreal. He often thought he was dreaming that he’d come back to St. Thomas, and when he truly awoke he would be in Passy, at his aunt and uncle’s house, and that when he leapt from his bed and looked out the window, snow would be falling, covering the garden and the lawn, and all the birds that were singing in the trees would be doves and wrens instead of the parrots that woke him with their piercing cries.
AT THE APPOINTED DINNER, his brothers and sisters crowded around the table as Frédéric interrogated Melbye. Though Melbye was already balding, and seemed far older than their son, he was a good-looking, charming man who was used to dominating a room with his fluid conversation. Why St. Thomas, Frédéric wanted to know, and what was next? Fritz had already confided in Camille that his plan was to go to Venezuela, and he had invited Camille to go with him. Fritz had no concerns that Venezuela was politically unstable; there, the races and religions were intermixed and he could live as a local person might. Also, he’d been told the sea views were extraordinary, visions he wouldn’t see elsewhere. Unfortunately, Melbye did not think to be guarded, and he slipped into his conversation his intention to head to Caracas, mentioning his hope that his friend would go with him. That was Camille’s parents’ greatest fear and all they needed to know about l’Ami Rouge. He was a dangerous man, at least when it came to their family. Camille saw them exchange a look and knew that the pleasant dinner, and his chances of fleeing were, at least temporarily, dashed.
Rachel stood and left the table. “This has been a long evening,” she said as she excused herself, clearly dismissing their guest.
“Did I offend her?” Melbye asked when she’d left the room and closed herself into the kitchen.
“I’m afraid you have,” Frédéric told the young man. The candles on the table were burning down into puddles of wax.
“I apologize,” Melbye said. He hadn’t known many Jews, and thought perhaps that was the problem. Perhaps the solution was merely to get to know them better. “I don’t know your traditions. Perhaps I was supposed to say a prayer?”
Camille shook his head, trying to warn his friend, but Melbye blundered on.
“I haven’t had a Jewish friend before, you see.”
“I’m not surprised,” Frédéric replied. “Jews are too busy working to engage in the nonsense you propose. I’m afraid you have no purpose and, in our opinion, no real future.” He had heard the rumors after all. Everyone in their community had. The madman on the beach, the fellow who lived in the Savan when everyone else wanted to move out of that vile place.
“Is art nonsense?” Camille said, his hackles up.
“Not for other people perhaps. Just for reasonable men.”
“Are we reasonable men, Father, and have you always acted so when there was something you wanted?” Camille said, a not so veiled reference to his father’s past and the decisions he’d made when he first came to the island.
“I was always reasonable,” Frédéric replied. “I reasoned your mother was meant to be my wife.”
In the kitchen, Rachel had boxed up the molasses cake Hannah had brought for dessert. Rosalie had had her baby, Carlo, and her presence was greatly missed in the household. There was only a day woman to help with the laundry and cooking. Rachel would go see Rosalie in the morning and tell her about the foolishness that had happened at dinner and bring back what was left of the cake with her. She busied herself with chores Rosalie would have helped her with in the past. It was a bother, but tonight she was grateful to have cause to remove herself from the table. She did not wish to see that so-called painter and was waiting for him to leave when he suddenly appeared in the kitchen doorway.
Rachel eyed him, annoyed. “Excuse me,” she said. “You’re in the wrong place.”
“That’s what your son says about himself. He doesn’t belong here. Although it’s a beautiful island.”
Melbye towered over her. With his long, uneven, red-blond hair and loping gait, he brought to mind the monsters people said lived in the hills, one of the things that turned into a werewolf at midnight and ran through the streets. Only this fellow lived right in the center of town, in the Savan, where he didn’t belong.
“Did you ever wish to have another life?” Melbye said.
Rachel stiffened. She knew when she was being courted, for whatever purpose, and had no intention of discussing the intimate details of her life. “Sir, please do not address me. I have the kitchen to see to.”
Melbye came to lean against the stove. He wore his white suit, which he’d had pressed by a laundress for this evening’s dinner. Rachel shuddered when she realized he was not wearing shoes. This barefoot Dane had his nerve to come into her house in this manner, and he didn’t even know how rude he was. She was relieved to think he’d be gone soon enough. Still he leaned back as if this kitchen was his home. As if they’d wanted him here.
“Take my advice,” he suggested. “Let him go.”
Rachel laughed. He really was the most preposterous man. She would have a lot to talk to Rosalie about in the morning. Rosalie would surely be jealous that she had not seen this character for herself and hadn’t been there to give him a dressing-down, something she was quite good at.
“Sir,” Rachel said. “I will have to ask you to leave.”
“You know what it’s like to want more than you have. I can see it in you.” When she gave something away in her expression, Melbye nodded, pleased with himself. He theorized that an artist knew more about people in an instant than most people learned in a lifetime. “It’s true. And yet you tie him here, as you were tied here when you were young.”
Rachel turned to him then. He was a canny fellow, smarter than his friendly demeanor would have caused one to think. He thought he knew her, but he knew nothing. Could he imagine that she had stood on the Reverend’s doorstep in the pouring rain and screamed for him to open the door until her lungs nearly burst? She removed her apron and folded it neatly.
“Let me guess,” she said. “Your father pays your expenses.”
“My expenses are small.” He looked embarrassed all the same now that the topic had arisen, so they couldn’t have been as small as all that.
“I won’t do it,” Rachel said. “It will ruin him.”
Melbye disagreed. “It will save him.”
“You were a guest in my house. Now I am asking you to leave. Go to Venezuela. I think you should. Go tonight. You’ll be much better off if you do. I’ve heard you’re called the Red Friend. Well, if you’re any friend at all to my son, you’ll leave him be.”
Melbye’s brow was furrowed as he tried to figure out Madame Pizzarro, who was a puzzle to him. She may have looked mild, the mother of a flock of grown children, her features plain, her dress modest, wearing no jewelry but her gold wedding ring, but she was hardly a simple woman.
“Meaning you’ll do what if he accompanies me?” Melbye asked.
“I won’t do anything,” Rachel said. “It’s the authorities you might need to worry about.”
“SHE’S TALK AND NOTHING more,” Camille told Fritz when he walked his friend back toward the harbor after dinner.
Melbye shook his head. “She’s a force. Like a hurricane.”
“Maybe once. Now she wants everything just so. Everyone must follow the rules, including me. But that’s impossible. Wait for me and I promise, I’ll go with you.”
They shook hands on it, making a vow that they would both be in Caracas soon enough. That night Melbye was in bed with his robber-neighbor’s sister, Jenny Alek, a woman who had been modeling for him and bringing him dinner, often pork cooked with lime juice and pepper and rosemary. There was a rooster next door and it set up a racket in the middle of the night, so Melbye rose from his pallet on the floor. He peered out the door to see the gendarmes heading to his door. He pulled on his white suit, grabbed his boots, then jumped out the window with a few belongings under his arm, leaving Jenny alone in his bed. He didn’t know if Madame Pizzarro had sent them, or if Jenny’s family didn’t care for the nude sketches he’d made of her. Whatever the reason, his time on the island was over. He went directly to the harbor, barefoot, carrying his boots tied together over his shoulder, his easel under his arm. The next boat was to St. Croix, and he got on it. The weather had changed and rain was pouring down. Fritz’s mouth was set. He’d been right about his friend’s mother. She was fierce. A force he did not wish to encounter again.
Melbye wrote a letter as soon as he was settled, having left St. Croix to continue on to Venezuela, where he was set up in a makeshift shack on the beach. The letter arrived on a day when Camille stopped to get Jestine’s mail. He’d been puzzled and hurt over Melbye’s disappearance. When he’d gone looking for Fritz, all Jenny Alek would say was that Melbye was a coward and a werewolf. But another neighbor, a Mrs. Doogan, said he was a good man who had given her several sketches and one large painting of the harbor of St. Thomas as viewed from the Sky Tower. She hadn’t a bad word to say about him.
Camille was delighted to at last receive a letter. He wasn’t surprised that the gendarmes had been looking for Melbye, and suspected his parents of being the informants. Clearly the time had come to leave. He had saved enough money. He went down to a café and ordered crab and rice with shredded pork, though it was not kosher. He had come to like this dish, which Melbye always ordered and had often shared with him. He reread the letter, then burned it, to make sure his mother would never get her hands on it. He watched the smoke spiral into the air, and it was as if his past was burning up before him. That night, after he was certain everyone in the household was asleep, he packed a bag, then wrote a note for his parents that he left in the parlor. He did not mean to hurt them, but his dreams seemed realer to him than their home, and a thousand times more present than the shipping office or the streets of Charlotte Amalie. If he didn’t leave now he would be trapped. He left the next morning while it was dark, on a boat set for Venezuela, where he would stay for two years. He would travel from Caracas to the harbor city of La Guaira, where the sea was like glass.
On the day that he departed, he’d already begun to feel more alive as the boat pushed off from the dock and the smells of the sea—kelp and salt and the sweat of workingmen—flooded the air. The water was a delightful blue, haint blue, the color of protection. Fritz would meet him at the dock, and everything would appear to be blue at first, but when he looked more closely at the landscape around him, the trees would be purple at dusk, the grass pale gray, the water green as new leaves on the linden trees that grew along the Seine. He would wake whenever he wished and go to sleep as dawn was blooming. He would spend hours by himself, sketching, becoming part of what arose on the pad of paper, a bird, a flower, a woman standing in a waterfall.
WHEN RACHEL READ HER son’s letter of farewell, she was at her kitchen table. She knew she had no choice but to let him go, for he was gone already. She understood what it was to dream of another country and another life, the yearning that unsettled you and made your waking existence difficult to get through. She brought his note to Jestine, and they read it over together, trying to decipher its larger meaning. “Remember when he was a baby he couldn’t sleep?” Jestine said. “He’s still the same as he was the day he was born. Bound to cause you worry.”
Instead of walking home when she left, Rachel took the road into the hills. She wasn’t yet ready to tell Frédéric about their son’s departure; she wanted to protect her husband until she had no choice but to share the news. Now as she went along she was thinking about her own yearning, wondering if she had transmitted her dissatisfaction to her son. Were such things in the blood? Her other children were happy enough with their lives, they dreamed of ordinary things, they married, had families, they woke to the day they were in rather than yearn for something else. She soon found herself on the overgrown path that led past the waterfall where Frédéric had bathed with fish when he first came to this island. He told her he had been enchanted. When they were alone he still told her that. Love was a spell. She thought of the day when he first came to her door. He’d sat at the table and held the baby that had been born after Isaac died. As soon as she looked at him she knew. They both dreamed of rain, and of Paris; they still slept as if they were drowning people, holding on to each other.
Rachel stopped when she saw the bones of the herbalist, the skeleton Jacobo Camille had once lay down beside. They were so white in the grass. She had kissed the herb man once to thank him for saving her husband’s life. She had trusted his medicine and his advice. Where had the knowledge that wise man possessed gone? Was it in the grass? The sky? There were some tamarind trees nearby, and birds filled the branches. A pelican sat watching her. Everything Adelle had told her had come to pass, but maybe it wasn’t second sight. Maybe she could divine what was to happen because she had known Rachel so well. Better than her own mother had. You could not have all that you wanted, but if you found love, you were fortunate. He won’t be the only one, Adelle had said when Rachel was unhappily married to Isaac.
There was a path worn into the grass. Rachel thought about her predecessor, who refused to die until her daughter was named. She thought about her dearest friend in the world, whose daughter had been gone for more than twenty years. She went through the tangles of vines. White moths rose in a cyclone when she brushed by the leaves. The red flowers were starting to bloom, red blood tears of the abandoned wives. The shack was as she remembered it, sloping to one side, the wood of the door rotting in the humidity, turning a mossy green. The garden was more overgrown, though the shells marking its outline were still there. The herb man had grown what he needed most: prickly pear, rosemary, pepper, bougainvillea, tamarind. All around were mango trees, planted long ago by the women who had disappeared and had never had their love returned.
When Rachel opened the door she expected the shack to be pitch dark, but instead she found a world of light. She had to blink. She was as still as she’d ever been. Clearly her son had been here. He’d left behind paintings of Paris, the streets he had walked on that were slick with rain, the patches of gray and white fog, the park where he’d watched Jestine’s daughter for months, unnoticed, the fabled buildings of the Louvre, a miracle on earth, the white horses in the park, the garden of the Tuileries, filled with Bourbon roses. For Rachel, it was as if her dreams had been given life, for these were dream paintings, seen the way no other eyes would see, just as the herbalist had told her when he was a baby and could not leave the world long enough to close his eyes and sleep.
She spun in a circle, for every wall was covered. Some walls were of Paris, others were incandescent murals of the island, two worlds combined. There were seagulls, pelicans, stars, vines of pink flowers, women who looked like angels carrying baskets of laundry. There was a woman in a black dress, a figure much like Rachel herself if seen through a silvered mirror. He’d painted the sea the color that kept spirits away, which was why she hadn’t found this glorious place until this day. It had been hidden, protected by a spell. The sheer beauty of her son’s artistry made her dizzy. There were their two worlds, the place where they’d been raised and the city they dreamed of. He would go back to Paris, that much was clear. She could try to tie him here, or she could help him when he returned from Venezuela, broke and spent, but more excited about his work than ever. She would have to convince Frédéric that it would be best for all if Camille went to study in France. That’s who he was to her now, no longer Jacobo. That boy who might have run their business and settled in St. Thomas with a family of his own was gone. It was a loss to give up the son she’d imagined for the one he’d come to be, but if Adelle had been nearby she might have said, What did you expect? He is your boy, close to your heart.
Rachel sat on the mattress that her son had filled with fresh straw. The herbalist had slept here for seventy years. If she had ever slept here, her dreams would have taken place inside her son’s paintings; she would have sat in the park he had painted, wearing a gray silk dress as the colors shifted depending on the light. She found herself thinking about the donkey she’d left on the road, and the little girl who’d been told her mother would come for her but instead was taken away to sea, and the man she would have done anything for whom she saved from a fever, and the child who refused to sleep because he saw what the rest of the world did not.