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.

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

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Alice Hoff­man is the author of more than thir­ty works of fic­tion, includ­ing, The World That We Knew, The Rules of Mag­ic, The Mar­riage of Oppo­sites, Prac­ti­cal Mag­ic, The Red Gar­den, the Oprah’s Book Club selec­tion Here on Earth, The Muse­um of Extra­or­di­nary Things, and The Dove­keep­ers. She lives near Boston.