The Marriage of Opposites

Excerpt from The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman.

Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas
Rachel Pomie

I always left my window open at night, despite the warnings I'd been given. I rarely did as I was told. According to my mother, this had been my response to life ever since my birth, for it took three days for me to arrive in the world. As a child I did not sleep through the night, and I certainly didn't follow any rules. But I was a girl who knew what I wanted.

Other people shivered when the rains came and were chilled to the bone, but I longed for cold weather. Nights on our island were pitch dark, the air fragrant and heavy, perfect for dreaming. As soon as the light began to fade it was possible to hear the swift footsteps of lizards rattling through the leaves and the hum of the gnats as they came through the windows. Inside our stucco houses, we slept within tents made of thick white netting, meant to keep mosquitoes away. In rain barrels of drinking water we kept small fish that would eat the eggs these pests laid atop the water's surface so there would be fewer of them to plague us. All the same, huge clouds of insects drifted through the heat, especially at dusk, bringing a fever that could burn a man alive. Clouds of bats descended upon our garden, flitting through the still air to drink the nectar of our flowers, until even they disappeared, settling into the branches of the trees. When they were gone there was only the quiet and the heat and the night. Heat was at the core of our lives, a shapeshifter that never was too far from the door. It made me want to step out of my clothes and dive into another life, one where there were linden trees and green lawns, where women wore black silk dresses and crinolines that rustled when they walked, a country where the moon rose like a silver disc into a cold, clear sky.

I knew where such a place could be found. Once, it had been the country of my grandparents. They had come to the New World from France, carrying with them an apple tree to remind them of the orchards they'd once owned. Our very name, Pomie, came from the fruit that they tended. My father told me that our ancestors had searched for freedom, first in Spain, then in Portugal, then in Bordeaux, the only region in France that accepted people of our faith at that time. Yet freedom was fleeting in France; our people were jailed, then murdered and burned. Those who escaped journeyed across the ocean to Mexico and Brazil, many aided by the Marrano navigator Fernando de Noronha, who hid his faith from those in power. Even Columbus, who called our island Heaven-on-earth upon spying it, was said to be one of us, searching for new land and liberty.

In 1492 Queen Isabella expelled our people from Spain on the Ninth of Av, the worse day in the history of our people. It was on this date when the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by Babylonia and the second Temple was destroyed by Rome. It was on this very day, in the year 1290, that all Jews had been expelled from England. Thousands of our children were baptized and shipped to the island of St. Tome off the coast of Africa, then sold as slaves. In the year 1506 four thousand were massacred in Spain during Passover. Many converted, continuing to practice their religion underground. I pitied those who had stayed behind, forced to take on Christianity. My father had told me that in time even that sacrifice wasn’t good enough; such persons were called Conversos, and were looked down upon and degraded, their property and rights taken from them. Those who survived were the ones who knew when to flee.

The Inquisition followed our people across the ocean where they were once again murdered and cast out in Mexico and Brazil. My grandfather was among those who found themselves on the island of St. Dominique, and it was there both my parents were raised. But there was no peace in societies where sugar cane was king and people were enslaved. In 1754 the King of Denmark had passed an edict that proclaimed that all men could practice their religions freely on St. Thomas; he outlawed new slavery and gave Jews the civil rights of other men, even granting them admission to associations such as they brotherhood of Masons, which allowed our people to do business with non-Jews. My parents came, then, to the island of the turtles, for more free people could be found here then anywhere in the new world, and people of our faith were accepted as Danish citizens, in 1814. Nearly everyone spoke English or French, but all were grateful for the Danish rule. In 1789 there were fewer than ten Jewish households listed in the tax registers, but in 1795, the year I was born, there were 75 people, with more settling on our shores each year.

Once he arrived my father swore that he would never again travel. He brought along the apple tree, and my mother, and the one man who was loyal to him.

Our island was small speck of land, twenty-eight square miles set in the blue-green sea. The original population had all vanished now, destroyed by disease and murder. The native people, called the Caribs, believed their ancestors journeyed to this island from the moon; having seen the dull earth they'd come to give it light, travelling through the clouds, drenching our island with color, so that shades of orange and blue and red were scattered everywhere. But the Caribs' ancestors were trapped here by storms and had no choice but to stay in a place where they never belonged. They wound their long, black hair into plaits of mourning both for themselves and for our world. They were right to mourn, for until the Danes brought freedom here, the island's history was one of injustice and sorrow, a society built by convicts and slaves.

As it turned out, the fruit of our name did not grow well in tropical weather. It was far better suited for cooler climates. My grandparents' apple tree, planted in a large ceramic pot in the courtyard, never grew any bigger. When I watered it during the dry season it was so thirsty, it could never drink enough. Its brown leaves crinkled and sounded like moths as they fell to the ground. The fruit it bore was hard, the skin more green than red. Still this was our heritage, the fruit of France. I ate every apple I could find, no matter how bitter, until my mother found me out and slapped my face. My mother's full name was Madame Sara Monsanto Pomie, and she was a force few people would dare to go up against. Her anger was a quiet, terrifying thing.

"These apples were meant for your father,"she told me when she found me gathering fruit that had fallen onto the patio. I walked away from my mother and from the tree without a word. Unlike other people, I had no fear of her. I knew she wasn't as strong as she seemed for I'd heard her weeping late into the night. I told myself I would be in Paris when I next ate the fruit of our name. Though I'd been born here, I'd always believed it was not my true home. I was trapped on this island much like the people who had come across the sky and could do nothing more than stare at the moon through the vast distance. But unlike them, I would reach my destination.

From the time I could read, I found solace in my father's library, where he collected maps of Paris, some made by the great cartographer, Nicholas de Fer. I traced my hand along La Rivierre de Seine and memorized the parks and the tiny twisted streets and the paths of the Tuileries Gardens, created by Catherine de' Medici in 1664, covered with ice in the winter, a cold fairyland. It was my father who first told me about Paris, as his father had told him, and to us, it was the place where everything beautiful began and ended. Although my father had never been there, I came to believe I would someday see that city for him.

At the ages of ten and eleven and twelve I would have preferred to remain in the library, but was often forced to accompany my mother when she visited her friends who were members of Blessings and Peace and Loving Deeds, the association of women who did good deeds among people of our faith. I discovered that even these pious women of the sisterhood liked to keep up with the chic styles, and several of them had come to our island directly from France. I asked the maids in these households where I might find the Journals des dames et des modes and La Belle Assemblee, the best fashion journals from Paris. Disappearing into dark dressing rooms where I didn't belong, I lay on the cool tile floor and sifted through page after thrilling page. There were cloaks with fox collars, boots in grey and maroon leather, kidskin gloves that reached the elbow and closed perfectly placed two pearl buttons. Occasionally, I tore out a page to keep for myself. If anyone noticed, they didn't reprimand me, for in those dressing rooms I also stumbled upon secrets best left untouched. Love notes, bottles of rum, piles of hidden coins. It seemed that some of the most prominent women in our community strayed, for as Jewish women there were rules that bound them on every side: the rules of God, but also the rules of the Danes, and of our own leaders. We were meant to be mice, to go unnoticed so that we would not bring hatred upon our people, who had been so ill-treated in every nation. But I was not a mouse. In the fields where I walked, I was much more interested in the actions of the hawks.

Nearly all of my father's books were printed in French, many bound in leather with gold letters embellishing the spines. Every time a ship came from France my father was waiting on the dock, there to collect a parcel so he might add another volume to his library. I disappeared into that cool, shuttered room whenever I could. Girls did not attend school, but here in the library I found my education. My father taught me to read English, and Spanish and Hebrew, along with bits of Danish and Dutch, and of course we spoke French. He educated both me and my dearest friend, although when we read aloud he laughed at our Creole accents and he did his best to teach us the more proper pronunciations. When my mother complained that I would learn more in the kitchen, and flatly stated that Jestine shouldn't be in our house at all, my father was furious. Jestine and I slipped under his desk, our hands over our ears so we couldn't hear the bitter words between my parents. I knew my mother thought I would be better suited spending time with girls of my own faith, rather than befriend someone whose mother was an African and our maid. But of course, little of what my mother wanted meant anything to me.

But Jestine was afraid of my mother, and shy around my father, and she never came back to the library. Instead, I brought books to her house and we read on the porch where you could see between the slats straight into the ocean. Sometimes we read aloud in dreamy voices, with accents as elegant as we could manage, but mostly, I spent my hours alone in the library. I read while my mother was out with the society of good deeds, visiting women who had no husbands and children who were orphans, the sick and infirm and needy. I knew I was safe in the library, for my mother believed it to be the domain of my father, and after their argument about girls learning to read she never again came uninvited into that room.

As a reader, I first became engrossed in Histories ou contes du temps passe, avec de moralities: Contes da maere L'Oye, what the English called Mother Goose. In every marvelous tale collected by Charles Perrault, there was the sting of truth. As I turned the pages, I felt as if there were bees on my fingertips, for I had never I felt so alive as when reading. Monsieur Perrault’s stories explained my own world to me. I might not understand all that I felt, but I knew a single one of his chapters was more enlightening than a hundred conversations with my mother.

Il était une fois il y avait une veuve qui avait deux filles. L'aîné était tellement comme lui, dans les regards et dans le caractère, que celui qui a vu la fille a vu la mère. Ils étaient tous les deux si désagréables et si fier qu'il n'y avait pas de vivre avec eux.

Once upon time there was a widow who had two daughters. The elder was so much like her, both in looks and in character that whoever saw the daughter saw the mother. They were both so disagreeable and so proud that there was no living with them.

Perhaps that was what my mother disliked most. I resembled her. I could not help but wonder if for some women, that was the worst sin of all.

My mother and I never discussed my education again, until one day she brought a hired man into the library to clean the window glass, and found me there. By then I was a serious girl of thirteen, nearly a woman, but sprawled upon the floor, my head in a book, my hair uncombed, my chores left to the maid. Madame Pomie threatened to throw the fairy tales away. "Take my advice and concentrate on your duties in this house," she told me. "Stay out of the library."

I had the nerve to respond for I knew she wouldn't dare to deface my father's library. "This room doesn't belong to you,"

My mother sent the hired man away and shut the door. "What did you say to me?"

"You know my father's wishes," I said. "He wants me to me educated."

I no longer cared if my mother disliked me. I didn't understand that when I closed myself to her, I took a part of her bitterness inside me. It was green and unforgiving and as it grew it made me more like her. It gave me my strength, but it gave me my weakness as well.

My mother tossed me a knowing look on the day I spoke back to her. "I hope you have a child that causes you the misery you have caused me," she told me with all the power of a curse.

From then on she acted as if I were invisible, unless she had a task for me or a complaint about my appearance or my deeds. Perhaps she was so cold to me because she'd lost the child that had come only nine months after my birth. He had been a boy. She had wanted to give my father a son; perhaps she thought he would love her more if she had been able to do so. Perhaps she wished that of her two children, I'd been the one who had been taken.

Il était une fois il y avait un roi et la reine, qui était désolé qu'ils avaient pas d'enfants - si désolé qu'il ne peut pas être dit.

Once upon a time there was a king and queen, who were so sorry that they had no children—so sorry that it cannot be told.

My father had recovered from the loss and loved me, but my mother was inconsolable, refusing to open her door, to him or to me. By the time she was improved enough to oversee the household once more, my father no longer came home for supper. He was out until all hours. That was when I began to hear my mother weeping late into the night. There was a part of me that knew my father had left us in some deep way I didn't quite understand. I only knew I had access to him only when we were together in the library, and I loved them both—the library and my father—equally and without question.

As Perrault had questioned the women in the salons about the stories their grandmothers had told them, I spoke to the old ladies in the market and began to write down the small miracles common only in our country. For as long as I was trapped here, I would write down these stories, along with a list of the wondrous things I myself had seen. When I went to France, I would have dozens of tales to tell, each one so fantastic people would have difficulty believing them. In our world there had been pirates with more than a dozen wives, parrots who could speak four languages, shells which opened to reveal pearls, birds as tall as men who danced for each other in the marshes, turtles who all came to lay their eggs on the beach in a single mysterious night. On these occasions I would wait in the twilight with Jestine, watching as the shoreline filled with these lumbering creatures, all so intent on their mission on the worn path they always took that they didn’t notice us among them. We were turtle girls. If we had been inside of a story we would have surely grown shells and claws. In silence, we studied the beach through the falling dark. We could not light lanterns, for turtles follow the moon, and in the eyes of such creatures the moon is any globe of light, even one you hold in your hand.

I had pinched a blue notebook with fine paper made in Paris from my father's store. If anyone noticed they didn't say so, although my father's clerque, Mr. Enrique, a stern, handsome man, looked at me differently after that. The first story I wrote down was one the old ladies told about a woman who'd given birth to a turtle. They liked to take turns when they told it, so that each storyteller added a detail or two. The woman who was the turtle-girl's mother was so stunned by the green shell surrounding her baby that she ran down to the beach and left the newborn by the shore. She meant to desert the child and let it be taken out to sea with the tide, but luckily, a mother turtle with a nest of hatchlings was nearby and she raised the turtlegirl as her own. Jestine and I always searched for a turtle that was half human, with a human face and soul. She was said to have grown to be a woman who looked like any other, with long arms and legs and moss-tinted hair. You couldn't see her shell unless she was in the sea. She could have easily disguised herself and joined our world, eating in cafes, dancing with men who found her beautiful, but instead she'd chosen to live in the world of the turtles. If you happened upon her you would see that her skin was a pale green and her eyes were yellow. She had swum to every gleaming sea in the world, but always came back to our shore.

We are here, Jestine and I whispered as we stood on the beach. O Sister, we called. We would not forsake her or judge her if only she would show herself to us. But she never did, no matter how late we stayed on the beach, even when we waited until the last of the turtles had returned to the bay. It was clear that Jestine and I were as uncomfortable as the mysterious turtle woman when in the company of humans. Jestine was especially shy, perhaps because she was so beautiful her mother had warned her not to be too friendly to the boys and men who might approach her. As for me, I was distrustful by nature. The two of us roamed the island as if there was no one else in the world. We would collect buckets of hermit crabs and ghost crabs and race them against one another in the sand, before setting them free and watching them scramble away from us as if we were monsters. Sometimes I was forced to bring along my younger cousin Aaron Rodriguez, who lived with us. There were three years between us and he was nothing but an annoyance to me. I was told his parents had been lost in a storm when he was little more than a baby and afterwards our family had taken him in. My mother preferred him, even though he wasn't related to us by blood, perhaps because of the baby boy she lost. Girls were not worth very much in her eyes, especially a disobedient girl such as myself. Aaron was handsome, dark, with startlingly pale blue eyes. Even as he grew older, my mother still enjoyed showing him off to her friends, especially the formidable Madame Halevy, whose stern presence intimidated us all, but who melted whenever she saw Aaron. Mon chouchou, she called him even when he was a rowdy boy of nine. Mon petite canard. In return I pinched Aaron and called him a duck in English, not such a pretty word. He always gave me a wounded look, though he didn't complain. I should have been guilt-ridden, but suppose I was a brutal girl. I knew what happened in fairy tales. The strong survived while the weak were eaten alive.

On nights when I was forced to look after Aaron, I gave him over to Jestine, who was more kind-hearted than I. Perhaps because he was an orphan and Jestine had no father, she could feel compassion for him, even though he was a wild boy, who delighted in leaping from cliffs. I took to scaring him to get him to behave. He was terrified of werewolves, half-human beasts that were said to reside on the old plantations. My father had assured me these were made-up stories, used by the plantation owners to frighten slaves from running away. There is the outside of a story, and there is the inside of a story, he told me as we sat in his library one afternoon. One is the fruit and may be delicious, but the other is the seed.

Copyright © 2015 by Alice Hoffman. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.

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