The Marriage of Opposites

Page 10


Adelle was known for having the gift of sight, and local women who were with child often came to ask her if they would have a son or a daughter. She held a ring on a chain over them and told them to be silent. If the ring moved in a circle, that meant a daughter; back and forth meant a son. She once predicted I would have many children. I laughed at the notion. She was usually correct, but in my case was most certainly wrong.
“Maybe you’re confusing my fate with Jestine’s,” I suggested, for I didn’t like children, whereas Jestine’s manner with them was easy and assured.
“Everyone has her own fate,” Adelle told me. “This is yours. Trust me. Even you will fall in love.”
I refused to accept this prediction. I saw the constrained lives of the women in our community. I knew what had happened to the pirates’ wives. “Then I’ll close my door and lock it, and my fate will pass over me as the angel of death does at Passover.”
“You think love is like the angel of death?” Adelle laughed at me. “You can’t lock it out. It doesn’t even know what a door is.” She touched my head with her fingertips, as if testing for fever. “My advice for you is to accept what you don’t understand.”
One night my father came to talk to me in the privacy of my room. It was summer and the sky was still light, streaked with a gold tint in the east, pink in the west. There was a vase of frangipani on the bureau. As my father drew up a chair, a hummingbird darted through the window to drink the nectar of the flowers. The tiny creature was there and gone so quickly I wondered if I had imagined him. Perhaps he was another spirit. Then I noticed a feather on the floor. I picked it up and slipped it under my pillow. Such things were said to bring luck.
Perhaps my distaste for the fate of most young women was my father’s fault. He had educated me and schooled me in the ways of the business world, and because of this I understood, long before my mother ever knew, that the family business was faltering. It had been a season of storms, never good for the island. Merchandise loaded onto ships, headed for Charleston and New York, had been lost at sea. My father had large debts, ones he couldn’t repay.
He was a busy man even in the best of times; he didn’t have time for idle conversation, and so I was honored that he’d come to speak to me in the quiet of the evening. I wore a white cotton nightdress, and my hair was plaited, then pinned up. My face was scrubbed clean. My father sat in a hard-backed wooden chair with a cane seat. He wore a charcoal gray suit, formal, with pearl buttons. He was a dignified, well-mannered man. Clearly the reason for this visit was serious, for this was the same suit of clothes he wore to his shipping office.
“We must change our business and our lives, or we’ll become one of the families the women from the congregation of Blessings and Peace take pity on, bringing us supper on Friday nights. I do not intend to have us living in a hut in the Savan,” he told me.
I leaned forward, straining to hear his every word. Until this year my father had been so successful that people came to him for advice, and he made his suggestions in a quiet, forceful voice. He had fled from an island where there was such cruelty against Africans that the enslaved people finally rose up in a riot of blood. Like his forefathers, he knew when to depart even though it meant leaving his worldly goods behind. He’d had one slave, and that had been Mr. Enrique. Mr. Enrique was the one who told my father that the time had come, the flower of the revolution was blooming, fed by rage and despair. On St. Domingue, all French families were advised to leave their homes, with the men to stay and band together in safe areas where they would stand ready to fight. That was not my father’s intention. Because my father was so well known and could not be seen in public without being held back to fight against the slaves, Mr. Enrique readied a boat. My mother went to the harbor with diamonds and pearls sewn into the hem of her dress, wearing a black cloak, for she was pregnant with me. Perhaps that was when I first became a burden to her. She covered her head with an embroidered shawl so she might not be noticed. There was only one way my father could have reached the shipyard. Enrique helped him to escape by hiding him in a wicker clothes hamper he carried on his shoulders as he navigated through the mobs in the street. Like the original Moses, himself a slave whose freedom was brought about when he floated through the waters of the Nile in a basket of reeds, my father was thus brought to safety. He was so grateful that he immediately turned over the keys to his house to Mr. Enrique. He knew Enrique had saved his life, and that every day forward would be a gift not only from his maker but also from this man who had risked his own life and safety for him. In turn, Mr. Enrique gave the house to his sister and accompanied my father to St. Thomas as a free man. He said that when the mobs finally heard how my parents had escaped, he would be killed for helping them, and that when people forgot he would go back home.