The Real Irene

The Real Irene

Part I

The girl had been alone and friendless in that gray metropolis before she had met Mrs. Kelly. She had been sent to an aunt who lived there by distant relatives after her father’s death, but when she had arrived at the given address, the aunt had moved, and no one knew where. The girl had written to her relatives and expected a letter but none came.

She was forced to contact an agency which placed governesses. She entered an opulent household due to her command of languages, acquired from her father who had been a philologist. The girl, however, was beautiful, though she was not aware of it, and soon drew attention to herself. Before she knew it, she was ruined. She found a little pension close by, but her money ran out. When she returned to the agency, she found its doors closed to her. She knew how penniless girls ended up when turned out on the streets. Then, by chance, she was approached by Mrs. Kelly. The year was 1878, the city, Paris, the girl’s name, Irina Vladimirovna Alexeyeva.

Part II

The day had been a balmy one, but toward evening the wind had turned and now the night was foggy and cool.

‘Number 12, Rue Chabanais,’ the older of the two gentleman ordered the cab. The older man was tall, well dressed and heavyset. Years of good living had left his once handsome face florid and bloated. Still, behind the good natured facade, he retained a keen intelligence. He was accompanied by a younger man, who stood a little over six feet and was so excessively slender as to appear a good deal taller. His dark hair, piercing gaze, firm chin and sharp nose gave him the air of a brilliant bird of prey. The younger man seemed both amused by, and detached from, the circumstances.

His nephew had a fine mind but a cold nature, the older man thought, but it was so with the English. This outing was just what was needed to thaw him out.

The two men disembarked in front of an undistinguished and unassuming facade, but passing through its doors found themselves in a grotto, met by a black man in a Moorish costume. He ushered them past a second set of doors where they were met by Mrs. Kelly.

‘This way, please,’ she said, leading them to a mirrored and excessively rich salon where gentlemen dallied with young women in various states of repose.

‘Hmmm,’ Mrs. Kelly said, looking over the younger man who met her gaze unflinchingly, ‘I think, yes, he would suit the Persian room.’ She glanced over at the uncle who was already being entertained by two scantily dressed young women. ‘Do follow me,’ she said to the young man, leading him up the stairs.

‘Will he know what to do?’ one of the women asked the uncle while tickling his beard.

‘He is English, my dear, but I don’t suppose one act is too different from the other,’ the uncle replied, as the two girls burst into laughter.

The young man was left alone in the room. He seated himself and crossing his legs, took a cigarette from a case and put it in a holder.

‘Ha!’ he exclaimed, looking around him at the mock Persian décor. He sat, smoking, seemingly preoccupied by personal thoughts, indifferent to his surroundings.

A dark woman entered the room. She was veiled apart from her glittering eyes, which were amber in hue, and wore a long embroidered coat over sheer trousers. Persian slippers, and many rings on her fine fingers completed her outfit. She ascertained at once that the young man had an acetic temperament. Generally that type developed rarefied tastes in time, she thought wearily. But he was still young, and so without hesitation, she lit a hookah that had been prepared with hashish, passed it to him, and sat on a cushion at his feet.

As the young man smoked, she said:

‘In Persia there was a sultan, who, betrayed by his wife, made a vow never to trust a woman again. True to his word, whenever he would spend the night with one of his concubines, he would have her beheaded in the morning to avoid emotional entanglements.

In his harem there was a clever girl named Shahrazad, who determined she would live, hatched a plan to keep the sultan’s interest. She would begin a story to entertain him, but before it was finished, it would lead into another story and another, and so she fascinated him for one thousand and one nights, until he had fallen in love with her and decided to spare her.’

The young man raised his brows. The girl had a lovely voice, clear as a bell, though her consonants, save her rolling R’s were soft. Not Persian, he surmised, though she was from the east.

‘This is the story of the golden apples,’ said the girl, and proceeded to tell the tale of a sultan and his vizier, who down by the dockyards, where they had gone among the common people, had found the body of a beautiful woman who had been rolled into a rug and thrown into the sea. Who could have done such a thing, they wondered, when a grieving man appeared to tell the tale.

The woman was his wife, he said, and had been ill and craving apples, and he so in love with her that he would have gratified her every wish. He sneaked into the sultan’s orchards, and there risking his life, had stolen three golden apples and brought them back to her.

But the next day, as he was returning from his shop, for he was a merchant, he saw a slave tossing one of the golden apples in the air. “Oh, where did you get that golden apple?” a passer-by asked. “I have gotten them from my lover, a beautiful woman who would do anything to please me,” the slave replied.

And so the merchant came home and saw his wife still abed and two of the apples next to her and the third missing. And so in his madness, he fell upon her, and when he had killed her, he rolled her in the carpet and threw her in the sea.

When he returned home, he saw his young son weeping and asked what had passed that ailed him so. And his son told him, “I stole one of the golden apples from my mother, but when I went outdoors to play, a slave snatched it away from me.”

And so, weeping and lamenting, the merchant asked the sultan to punish him for the murder of his wife. But the Sultan said, “Let us hear from the slave, for it is surely he who set the events in motion.” And so a search was instigated, until the man was found.

As the merchant prepared for death, he kissed his children goodbye, and as he kissed them, he found a golden apple in his little daughter’s pocket. “How came this to be in your possession?” he asked. “I bought it from a slave,” she said, “who sold it to me for three dinars.”

Then the slave was found, and weeping, confessed to the sultan that he had made up the story of the lover and had stolen the apple from a boy, and yet had sold it for three dinars to a little girl who was craving apples. And the sultan said in awe, “Was any tale more strange than this?”

“If you spare the merchant and the slave, then I will tell you a tale more wondrous,” said the vizier. And so Shahrazad launched into a new tale.’

The story ended as his pipe was done. ‘The merchant acted rashly before he had all the facts in hand,’ the young man said.

‘Indeed he did.’ The woman stood and made to remove her veil, which was attached to a tiny flat hat.

‘Leave it,’ he said.

He watched her remove her garland of flowers, he watched as she took off her garment of rain. He saw her through a haze of blue smoke, an expanse of whittled whiteness, imprinted by braided rope, like a tattoo, where she had lain. But the Englishman was unused to affection, and as the girl approached him, he was crippled with shame.

‘Why did you tell me that story?’ he asked.

The girl shrugged, releasing her hair. ‘I don’t know. I suppose that for some men it enhances the fantasy of the Persian room. And, of course, there is the element of death, of the beautiful innocent wife, and the potential death of Shahrazad, which may heighten arousal – in some men,’ she added. She didn’t know why she was speaking to him this way, but he had made her feel self-conscious and strange.

‘And what story would you tell me, if we weren’t in this room?’ he asked.

Well, he really is strange, she thought, lying back on the silk pillows that were scattered about the carpet. She propped herself up on one elbow.

‘I would tell you of wolves in a snowy land, where the wind blows all winter and the trees creak when frost is upon them, and the nights are so dark, dark as the blackest tunnel, dark as death itself. I would tell you of the white maiden, who was abandoned in the forest by her wicked stepmother and left to fend for herself, and of the wolf, who ran alone, separated from his pack, until he grew wild and solitary, roaming the great forest, watching with his brilliant, intelligent eyes, indifferent to human pain.’

‘Not indifferent.’

‘Inured, perhaps?’

The young man’s lip twitched and formed a semblance of a smile. ‘The wolf becomes the maiden’s lover?’

‘Yes, because not even a lone wolf can remain so eternally.’

‘Can he not?’

‘He becomes the maiden’s lover for a short time, yes.’

‘And then he leaves her?’

‘He is a wolf. It would be his nature to rip out her throat and leave her bleeding in the snow.’

‘But before he does that?’

‘Before he does that, he would cast off his pelt and wrap it around them, and he would lie next to the maiden in the cold, cold snow.’

The young man removed his jacket, vest and tie, and mirroring her pose, lay next to her, observing the length of her body.

She sank back onto the pillows. ‘The wolf, attracted to the maiden’s hair would take hold of it,’ she said.

‘Like this?’ The man ran his fingers through her dark auburn hair. His touch was unexpectedly delicate, and though the girl shivered almost imperceptibly, he noticed. He traced his finger across her brow and the bridge of her nose, stopping short of the veil.

‘The wolf had never seen a human girl before and was curious, and so he touched that delicate part of her neck where he knew her blood ran,’ she said, moving his hand to the spot. He gripped her neck, stopped and stroked it, and watched the mild throbbing of her pulse accelerate. He touched her ear, a small pink shell, and ran his fingers across her chin and her marble shoulders. He crossed her arms, her long thin palms, and began again at the central river of tiny golden hairs that lie between her breasts, growing downward, which sprang to life before his fingers. And then he stopped short, hesitating.

She saw his pupils dilate, and rolled over on her belly, boldly gazing at him. The wolf was swift and merciless. Grabbing the girl’s hair and sinking his teeth into her shoulder, he covered her body with his.

The woods were dark, the snow was cold, three drops of blood upon it. He rent her veil, he bit her lips, her breasts were marked with bruises. He held her down, he turned her around, soundlessly, his green eyes open. He shattered her and split her lengthwise, he rolled on her until they lay crosswise; he entered her, their mutual eternities suspended. Three gypsies on a road, a flash of knife, their footprints told of two remaining, illicit lovers, who had become bold. In Babylon, he had her stoned, and wept alone amidst his gold. And near a Hindu temple she stepped on his foot; she, the creeper, he, the root. In Florence, he played the mandolin and sang, to turn her head, dissatisfied until she lay dead, at her husband’s hand. In feudal Japan, she was the daimyo and he, the concubine; in Africa, child lovers who were sold eastward into Arabia. Once, she was his mother on the steppe. In a cave in Spain, they huddled together and watched a magician, with antlers on his head, whirl about before a great hunt.

The girl opened her lips to him; he was a wolf, he was a snake, he was a seed planted deep within her. She was the sea, he was the wave, rocking the girl away from that vulgar room, away from that monstrous house of pleasure.

‘I have to pee,’ she said.

‘Pee on me.’

‘I couldn’t,’ she smiled, and disappearing behind a screen for an instant, expelled a hot golden rush of water, the absence of which made her feel empty and abandoned.

The young man was waiting for her on the bed, his arms outstretched, pale and slender as a white ash. Astride him, she held him in, employing the thousand and one tricks of the orient she had learned. ‘Don’t move,’ she said. The young man observed her with his brilliant hawk’s eyes: her haloed crown and grave expression, and her rippling belly, as she tightened and moiled. He moved her hair from her face, and brought his mouth to hers. Swiftly sitting up, he cradled the girl on his lap. He wrapped his arms around her; he enfolded her in his embrace. The girl’s heart broke, she softened and became tender, pressing her lips to his head.

He laid her back among the pillows, he clasped his hands about her hips. He crushed her soul with his pressure, he wrenched her body with his grip. He leveled her and breaking her, drew her together, until they were once again face to face. The girl entwined her legs around him, she clasped her hands about his neck. He assaulted her with a fervor and pierced her shrouded space. Between agony and rapture, and the slow circumlocution of time, the memory of the evening’s delirium folded itself within them, long before they were prepared to separate.

The boy remained within her, the wolf was under her skin, and the ash impaled her, until they were ready to begin again. She caressed him with her gaze, touching him gently. Slowly, stealthily, she stroked him to a frenzy. The two lovers lay side by side, looking into each other’s eyes, the pull of an unknown spirit between them. Her legs about him, entangled, they met the morning light, and the man kissed her lips, her eyes, her hair, with the mournfulness of an elegy that had long been sung, and made love to her with a sadness that was beyond death, beyond his inviolate solitude, beyond anything that had happened since or would happen again. When they fell apart, he clasped her fingers between his.

‘And when the wolf had finished, he left the maiden in the snow,’ she said.

‘It is his nature to be alone.’ The young man rose swiftly and put on his clothes. But the girl couldn’t look at him and closed her eyes.

Part III

‘We’ve received an invitation from the Somervilles’ for the weekend,’ the stout gentleman said to his companion, a thin man, who sat looking out the window of their shared rooms.

‘Not another dull house party.’ The thin man was clouded in a shroud of smoke. ‘Go alone, I have no patience for that sort of thing.’

‘You’ve been cooped up in here for weeks, bored silly. It would do you good to get out.’

The thin man harrumphed and continued to smoke.

‘They’ve invited someone new whom I’d like to meet. I’ve quite enjoyed his short stories.’

‘Oh, and who might that be?’

‘A Frenchman; writes under the name of I.V. Alexandre. The stories are unusual. Light, even. Seemingly nothing happens during the course of the story, and yet it does,’ the stout man paused, thinking aloud.

‘I.V.? Alexander? The name would suggest a Russian.’

‘Yes, that would account for the melancholic nature of the tales. Well, perhaps you are right, and he is one of those Frenchified Russians. Still, I would like to get a closer look at him.’

‘Why, then you shall,’ the thin man rose from his chair swiftly and unexpectedly.

‘You’ve changed your mind?’

The thin man smiled, ‘Pack your bags!’ he said.

‘Who would have said that I.V. was a woman, and a very attractive one at that,’ the stout man mused as he and his companion took a turn about the Somervilles’ park.

‘Is she? I hadn’t noticed,’ the thin man was preoccupied by his own musings. ‘Lady writers,’ he added with disdain.

‘That’s quite unfair of you, particularly as you are unfamiliar with her work.’

‘Is it? Well, perhaps it is!’ he said. But his companion noted the thin man was unusually agitated though no one but himself would have known it. Inexplicably, he felt like goading the thin man. ‘It’s 1898. The world is changing. Women are now entering its ranks.’

The thin man walked on swiftly but said nothing. He was about to point out an unusual flowering hedge, but a distant form appearing on the path made him hesitate. A tall, dark haired woman wearing a lavender gray costume approached. It had just rained, and the leaves were beginning to prematurely yellow. Somehow the slick wet walk, and the gray and yellow colors made an impression on the stout man, which he considered charming and a bit sad. His companion looked away.

‘Ah! Miss Alexandre,’ said the stout man, ‘We were just discussing you.’

The woman started and put her gloved hand to her throat, and then caught hold of herself.

‘And what were you saying, Mister Johnson?’ she asked the stout man.

‘Norwood thought you might be a Russian.’

‘That is true enough, but I have lived these twenty years in France,’ she said quietly, sensing Johnson was sympathetic towards her. Johnson pointed out a hidden path with his walking stick, and they followed Norwood who walked slightly ahead of them.

‘And how came you to live in France?’ Johnson seemed unusually inquisitive for an Englishman, but she was used to answering questions from admirers of her work.

‘I was sent to an aunt in Paris after the death of my parents. Unfortunately, the lady was old and infirm and perished shortly after my arrival. I went to work as a governess, and then later through the patronage of a lady to whom I gave language lessons, I made the acquaintance of my publisher.’

‘And you found over-night success?’

‘Not at all. I gave lessons for many years and sold my early stories to newspapers.’

‘A paragon,’ Norwood trilled.

The woman colored and lowered her head. Johnson sensed she was hurt by this remark and took her elbow to steer her around a puddle. ‘I understand you’ll be giving a reading tonight. I’m very much looking forward to it.’

‘Yes. I will be.’ The woman had regained her composure almost instantaneously.

‘Is it something new that you’ve been working on?’ he asked.

‘Yes, yes it is.’ Her eyes sparkled brightly. ‘I’m rather excited about it. I don’t often think highly of my work, but even I think it might be good.’

‘Well, I’m sure your many fans think very highly of your work,’ Johnson said pleasantly and continued chatting in a light hearted vein until they reached the conservatory leading back to the main house.

‘Until tonight, then,’ he said, taking the lady’s hand. His companion said nothing.

‘Really, Norwood, I know you have a low opinion of women, but you might at least try to be civil,’ he said.

‘It seems that you, my dear Johnson, are civil enough for the both of us,’ Norwood replied.

The guests were gathered in the salon where the hostess had assembled a number of chairs in rows. I.V. Alexandre sat toward the side, waiting for them to take their places, and after a brief introduction by their hostess, Beryl Somerville, she mounted a dais at the head of the room, facing the audience.

‘This is a new story that I have been working on,’ she said. ‘I hope you enjoy it.’

‘Irena Pavlova Ushakovskaya’s left shoe was pinching her foot as she hurried down the alee of trees, hop- limping a bit to make up for it. Two men, new arrivals in Bad Urwald were approaching in the opposite direction. She slowed down, realizing she must look absurd. She would have to be late meeting her aunt, Maria Federovna, a formidable old lady, who was having a treatment at the spa that day.

The two men passed her, nodding in her direction. The elder was a portly gentleman, evidently used to good living; the taller man was young and sleek as a whippet. Irena lowered her chin but looked at them shyly. She had not had much society in her young life. Her father was a scholar and had retired to the country due to ill health when she had been very young. Last year after a sudden illness, he had died, and Irena had gone to live with her aunt in Moscow. Maria Federovna was always ailing but that did not dampen her irascible temper, nor her indefatigable quest for treatments which would alleviate her discomfort and restore her to good health.

No sooner had Irena Pavlova come to live with her than they were off to a distant monastery to seek a miraculous cure from a penitent monk who failed to ameliorate whatever it was that ailed the old lady. Then they had gone to Yalta, and now they were here. Maria Federovna drank the waters and was rolled in mud up to her neck and hosed off on a regular basis. Though she claimed to feel somewhat better, she nevertheless complained incessantly of her aches, and would send Irena Pavlova running half way across town to retrieve her pills whenever she forgot them.

Irena Pavlova arrived at the main building, a historicist mish-mash that was pleasantly yellowed and trimmed with cream paint. Her aunt was being wheeled out by the attendant and already had a sour look on her face. Irena took hold of her chair and pushed her forward.

“I have the most painful headache. It’s been tormenting me since last night,” her aunt said, continuing to complain, while Irena clucked sympathetically.

Miss Alexandre continued to read. Her audience was charmed by the naiveté of her protagonist, her humanity in the face of poverty, her lack of social standing, and her enormous hope. All this was described in the most ordinary way: the cheap too tight-shoes, the cut-down dress, her angularity and social awkwardness. They listened as she described Irena’s growing fascination with the two new arrivals, the older gentleman and his young English nephew. They listened as Irena allowed her imagination to run away with her.

Norwood was expressionless, listening with his eyes closed. Irina Vladimirovna continued:

The Englishman was sitting on the terrace with his back toward her, smoking and looking at the setting sun. The land was lush and green, and the sky had turned a lilac hue. Irena Pavlova became quite chilled, but she did not step inside to fetch a wrap. She sat there imagining how she would say something brilliant to him that would fascinate him and make him love her.

The Englishman finished smoking and rose to leave. She stumbled after him, and in her rush, inadvertently dropped a glove. He immediately observed it and stooped, handing it over to her. They stood side by side for a moment looking at the evening; at the rosy darkening sky and the blue clouds approaching from a distance. But Irena Pavlova could not think of a single thing to say; she was mortified by the shabbiness of the glove that she now held in her hand, which spoke to the enormous distance between them.

“Well, goodnight,” the Englishman said, touching the rim of his hat.

Irina Pavlova looked at his receding form; she looked at him walking out of her life, (for they were to depart the next morning for Moscow), and thought, he’ll never know me; he’ll never know all the things I have inside of me that have never come to expression. And then she thought, it’s worse than that, much worse. He never noticed me at all.’

Norwood was one of the last to leave the room. ‘He noticed her, Miss Alexandre. I’m certain of it,’ he said as he passed, leaving his hosts wondering exactly what he meant by that statement.

Part IV

In the year 1922, Norwood was passing a London bookshop when he caught sight of the photograph of a woman in the window. No doubt they thought her face would sell the new book. He estimated she would be fifty-seven or eight now, but she was still lovely. He normally did not care for literature, but he had followed her career, and now he stopped and purchased a copy.

Arriving in his rooms, he ordered a pot of black coffee and changing into his dressing gown and slippers, lit the first of many Egyptian cigarettes he would smoke that evening.

The book was odd in a sense, since he found himself immediately immersed in the running monologue of the protagonist, a woman who had lost her son in the war. While she fantasized about the potential futures the boy missed by his brutal and untimely death, she recalled her own lost opportunities. It was different in style from her previous work, but not in substance, Norwood thought, and all her characters were unable to overcome their own limitations in the face of an indifferent world. He read into evening, until he came to the following passage.

“I’m unable to release the memory of that single incident from my life, she thought. I keep going back to it, and revolving around it, eternally. It haunts me, not for the loss of any significant status that I might have had up to that time, or the loss of good opinion. I’ve never cared for those things and have made my own way in the world, in spite of them.

And yet how could he and I come together in such a way and then part, knowing that a connection was made, a connection that, despite its brevity, touched me to the core of my being and rattled me forever after. My son, an extension of myself, lived out my own unspoken life to some degree, but despite that closeness, even as a child, he retained his own inviolate space and individuality and had hidden thoughts that I could never share, though I was content to watch him in his secret world, his play land of invisible friends and terrifying monsters, which he conquered daily. Even when he would rush into my lap for comfort, and bury his head in my skirts, it would only be for momentary reassurance, and then he would be off again, to slay dragons and fight knights.

What soul’s moment, though fleeting, was captured in that encounter? Not the familiarity of a lifetime’s common utterances, not the shattered brilliance of shared thought, nor the anxiety of growing sentiment, nor its painful and premature loss. What could it have possibly meant, and why did it seem more significant and real than thousands of days that were lived out in the closeness of our little family circle, the excursions and holidays, the planned menus, the school lessons and conversations, the mud on our shoes, the soggy umbrellas in the stand near the door, the books that lie open on the divan?

And I have to wonder, what could it have meant to him, a man entirely unused to love, though robust in his physicality. Was it just another experience to be tried on, simply for the sake of experience, or did he feel something too? The body, I fear, has its own essence, its own being, and its own messages to impart to us. It’s no dumb thing to be willed and conquered, but something that is magical and divine in itself, and yet we despise the love that arises from the body and call it coarse and commonplace, and regard it as less lofty than the love imbued by chilly spirit or sentimental soul. But to a man of science, who lived for the most part in his mind, could it have been anything but a tawdry encounter in a provincial town with an awkward and lonely girl, who had nothing to offer but herself?’

 

Norwood put the book down. Three references to him in thirty years’ time. The first had been in an odd book of tales within tales she had written under an assumed name for a collector of erotica, a friend of Mrs. Kelly’s, taking place in a house of pleasure, which he had come across by chance in a Parisian bookstall. The second, in a grouping of short stories set on the continent featuring the girl and the thin Englishman: in a spa; in the household of his uncle where she was a governess; in a small seaside town where he betrayed and abandoned her; on a tour of Italy, where she spurned him to follow an uninspired artistic career; and now this. Of course, he knew she had never had children or married, just as he himself had not. Irina, he thought, he noticed you. He was not indifferent, but he made a mistake, though you yourself were not blameless.

He waited for your imminent arrival that autumn, after he had seen you again at the Somervilles’. Every moment he spent waiting was a joy and a torment to him; and the lakes had never seemed as beautiful, and nature never as filled with wonder. He knew you would come, and he would bury his face in your skirts, and erase the years of loneliness that had meant little compared to that final night that had turned to morning. He had been fully alive and awake then. But you did not come, just as he had not when you waited for him all those years ago when you were both young, waited for him in the dying twilight of day at bottom of the agreed upon lane, waiting until night fell. He realized that his fear of life had caused him to make that grave mistake, one which you could never forgive.

Norwood crumpled the paper. He knew he would never write about what he had felt, nor what had happened between them. He knew he would never tell her that she was the most real thing that had ever happened to him or would ever happen to him again.

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Mister Heathcliff’s Fortune, Chapter 21

The great ship, alone in the vastness of a flat and monotonous sea, on a hot still night, a sliver of moon lighting its way, made its way to Europe from the New World. Plop plop, a pod of dolphins appeared at the starboard, and soon bored, swam away. Heathcliff watched them without interest. He had been speaking to the first officer, who also bored, had walked away.

He thought back over the last three years, of his time soldiering and of the two women, so strange and still unknown to him. He was coming back to the only peace he had ever known. But Marie, he thought, I was lost in your arms for a while, and now I am damned to hell forever, without chance of redemption.

It was the other that had damned him from the beginning, but he had been so lost and alone. Before Marie had taken him up, he had fallen into that cursed girl’s arms, and from then he had never had a moment’s peace. She had hounded him with her love and her empty eyes, clinging to him as if she would float away like flotsam if he let go for a minute. She’d hounded him with her suspicions and her jealousy until he was unable to breathe, and he thought he would go mad unless he cast her off in order to save himself.

And then there was Marie herself, so different, different from Catherine Earnshaw and different from Seraphine. She had no need of anyone to make her whole. She had been so generous even when he had gambled her money away. She had said it didn’t matter, but he could have no more because she was expecting their child and had to prepare for his coming. And he had been so desperate then, to provide for her and the child, to prove that he was a man, to not abandon them, the way he himself had been abandoned.

Oh Marie, he thought, you could have saved me if you had only lived. When he saw their child he went mad with rage, but later, comprehending what had happened, had pitied and understood her. In a fit of jealousy, Seraphine had left her to bleed to death and stolen his child. He had gone back there and a doctor had come, unexpectedly and uncalled, and although Heathcliff suspected his efforts would not be of any use, the old man, though he made a poor impression, was able to staunch the bleeding.

He had gone to the Congo woman’s place in the swamp to look for the baby and Seraphine, and not finding them, had riped the place apart. He was about to leave when the Congo woman stood in his way, and he had snapped her neck, and that was what damned him to hell.

He could not find the baby anywhere and knew that Seraphine had killed him, since she was insane and consumed by envy, and he cursed all blacks and knew that he would hate them forever. He had no money, and he had lost the child. He could not live with himself as he was and too was ashamed to try again with Marie, and so he sent a letter to Percy, who he knew was rich enough to take care of her, and then he had taken her there despite her entreaties and cries of protest.

‘Where will you go now?’ Percy had asked him, but he knew that it was all over, and so Percy had lent him money for one last game, which he had won. He paid Percy back and then had put the money into a venture that he knew he would profit from.

 

He had seen that witch Seraphine, once more. She had tried to foist herself on him and when he had pushed her away, revolted by her clinging arms and black skin, she had cursed him with her Congo curses and cried, ‘May you be as tormented and loveless as you have left me; may the spirits of the dead haunt you for the rest of your days.’ And then she had said that his child was dead. ‘What’s it to me!’ he had shouted, but inside he had died along with Marie and that child.

 

He had to forget all that if he wanted to go on living, and he was returning to Cathy, who was familiar, as familiar as if she was a part of himself.

Mister Heathcliff’s Fortune

I thought about what to do and about what Marie had said. Even though he was gone and the danger had passed, I saw how the city was changing, and I thought how greed and the love of money had made men evil. I left some of the money with blacksmith’s family and some in the bank and took as much as I thought we needed. My grandmother passed, the Congo woman was dead. I had no more ties.

On the way to the Choctaw, I stopped at Percy’s to visit Marie’s grave. I found Percy sitting on a bench he had installed under a willow tree close by. He was looking past the grave, past me, out somewhere beyond himself and everything that had happened. He was thin and all the life had gone out of him.

I carried the baby in a sling, and he was getting heavy, so I put him down and knelt near her grave, not caring what Percy thought. When I was finished, I hoisted the baby on my back and started to walk past him.

‘My lust killed her,’ he said. I didn’t say anything, I only stood there. ‘I shouldn’t have done it. That gypsy devil convinced me.’ He looked at me directly. ‘He knew my weaknesses. He used that blood money to play cards, and then he took his winnings and put them to use. He’s a slaver now.’

I turned to go. ‘Is that her baby?’ he asked.

‘Her baby dead. This child is mine,’ I said.

 

I didn’t look back and kept walking. The Choctaw took me in, and I married and became a medicine woman. My husband is raising Marie’s child as his own son. I try not to think about those times and look toward the coming day, but once in a while I read the final words Marie wrote in the book she left behind.

 

Spring again, the rain is falling – oblique drops, first slowly, scattered and sparse, then pattering across the bright foliage, new and shiny. The sound comforts me; it’s familiar. Soon it spreads across rooftops in sheets of gray and the sky darkens. I rarely think of the hurricane these days. In fact I think of nothing at all. My feelings seem to have have fused with the world around me, the new shoots, the buds and rain. Soon the end will come, for me- either death or a new life; we will see. I don’t torment myself any longer with what might pass, and now realize that I have wasted many years living in fear.

There are many kinds of slavery: that of the body and that of the mind and soul.

My grandmother was white, a orphan, living on the streets of a distant city when she was snatched up and brought with many such children to New World. The city fathers thought it might be good for them to have work instead of being indolent. They worked her mercilessly and bred her with African slaves to produce a new stock. She died young, my mother said. The Old Master acquired her daughter on a visit to an English acquaintance. He had her first and lived long enough to regret his son’s obsession with her.

My Father, the Young Master, was enslaved to his vices : drink and cards and women. Sometimes he was ashamed and tried on religiousness and then we were brought into the house with her and had fine clothes and food and lessons. But he never stayed sober. He killed her in time, and then he gambled the plantation away, at first slowly then more recklessly, until only his children were left to hear his pathetic lamentations and bear his curses. He blinded my bother in a fit of rage, after many beatings, though when he recovered he grieved and knew not why he had done it.

When the hurricane came, I left him, wanton, drunken, inert, lying in his own vomit, and made no attempt to drag him away, until a beam crashed down on him, smashing his head. An unpleasant sound like a calabash breaking, despite the howling wind. I couldn’t help him and took the blind man by the hand and waited out the storm. I dug up the coin our father had hidden, and then we departed for the coast on mule back. It was the year 1776, a time of revolutionary change, though I did not know it then. Later the great hurricane came to our island and killed many thousands.

I know what it is to hate and what it is to feel as if one is less than nothing. I understand him and his hatred and his lack of feeling. He doesn’t even love money, like so many do, only the revenge it can bring him. He’s told me many times that when he is rich, he’ll return in splendor and all those who have hurt him will pay the price. He could have loved me. There were nights when I could see that he was almost there. Almost, but not quite. His mind is twisted and he is a slave of his bitterness as I was.

 

My brother died of a fever in Cuba, and I was glad of it. Glad he had gone to a better place. He was unable to feel joy or happiness or pleasure. Life was a misery for him and he was always sad and unwilling to fight against the darkness. I fed us and made our way as best I could, but I was exhausted by him and he knew it. I took care of him well but perfunctorily, and I knew then that I was as heartless as my ancestors had been. When he died I became the mistress of a Creole planter and learned fine ways. But I was afraid that the past would catch up to me, that someone would recognize me, that I would be accused of murdering my father. I lived in a state of near panic always and grew obsessed in my thoughts, though I had the finest things that money could buy. I did not bring my master joy, and he grew weary of me as I did of him. I wanted to earn my own way in the world and after four years, I left for New Orleans with my one skill which I practiced at the gaming tables.

I don’t know why I let that Devil make love to me. He was as alone as I was and for a moment when he talked of the mud and the stables and his moors and the wind and heather and rain, I felt something stir in my own heart. He looked like man I knew on our island who was kind to me and loved me once when my heart as still open. He ran away so many times, and in the end they hung him.

I was afraid to have this child for the Devil’s skin is of a darker hue, and I have heard it said that he is a Gypsy or perhaps from Hindustan and was lost or abandoned long ago. But now there is nothing to be done. If he makes trouble when the child is born, I will go to the Choctaw, a great nation, which has shown me friendship and whose values are better than the white, black and colored world that I have known. If I die, I will ask Seraphine to take him there, for she is a good person, and I believe I can put my faith in her.

 

Marie put down her quill. That is the version of her life that would remain, the version that either she Seraphine would leave with her child. She had tried not to make herself seem too good, to make herself be bad enough to be believable and human. And some of it was the truth, certainly the part about her fears and her memories. The real truth was elusive and she had lied to herself so many times in the past, rationalizing and justifying, trying to piece it all together.

Her father had been a unjust and brutal man, and she considered herself fortunate indeed to have lived through his rages and his beatings. He had driven her mother to an early grave, it was true, but she had been no better than he, vain and stupid and selfish.

She had started crawling onto her brother’s pallet very early on, terrified by the shouting, horrified by the whispering that went on at night and led to brutality and recriminations. Sometimes their father would drag them out of bed just to beat them, particularly after her mother had died and he had no one else to vent his rage on. One night he had caught them at their games, the only games they had ever played, but by then it was too late. Marie gave birth some time later to a dark skinned baby, which was born blind and which they buried in the garden after it sickened and died. Her brother had run away then, and no one set out to find him. He came back for her after the storm. She had waited for her opportunity for a long time, until her father was drunk and incoherent, though she had warned him of the impending storm. She had dragged him bodily, close to a beam that had fallen, and propped it up with books and fallen wood, which she kicked away once she had positioned him under it. The sound of a calabash breaking; she had had no mercy for him. And she was weary of her endless duty, to procure his drink, to wipe up after him, to change and bathe him while he heaped abuse upon abuse on her.

Her brother had known, known from her wild look and her uncontrollable shaking what she had done. After the storm, he had taken her away, down to the sea and put her on a ship to Cuba. He turned back because he said it was his place to stay, and one day she would hear his name again, once the slaves had been freed and justice came to their land. He sent her to the friend of his friends, whose mistress she became. An easy life, but there were rumors on the islands about her and her brother and their family life and so she had run off with her clothing and her jewels and forged papers with a new name and a new story. She didn’t stray so far from the truth, she embellished it a bit here and there, omitting the horror, and omitting what she knew others could not understand.

I almost loved him, she thought, almost but not quite. It was just that he looked like my brother and suffered from the same bitterness and pain, but once I knew about him and Seraphine, I knew I could not trust him again.

Mister Heathcliff’s Fortune Chapter 19

I did not find her. They had disappeared from the face of the earth. I went to the river boats and to the quay but got no answers. His house had been closed. I looked for his servant who had gone as well, and then I looked for the Frenchman. I finally found him, drunk and penniless in a saloon, caked in the mud of the streets and his own urine. He couldn’t talk or stand, much less recognize me, and so I took him to his miserable lodgings and watched for three days while he shook and trembled and screamed for brandy.

‘It’s you, my girl,’ he said when he finally awoke. He was lying on his filthy pallet, one eye open, the other crusted with tears.

‘Where is he?’ I sank to my knees by his side.

‘The devil only knows,’ he said after a while.

‘What happened to her?’ I asked, but he wouldn’t tell me. Finally he saw that I wasn’t going to leave, and he said, ‘Where she is, no one can help her.’

‘Where?’ I shook him, ‘tell me, where is she?’

‘She’s with the Virginian.’

‘With Percy?’ He must have heard the relief in my voice because he looked at me and knew that I hadn’t understood yet.

‘The blackguard sold her. He sold her to the Virginian.’ He turned his back to me and I could hear his muffled sobs, and I knew he had been part of it, but somehow that Devil had betrayed him too. I left a few coins by his bed and departed.

 

The money was in a sack under my skirts when I got on the boat, though the blacksmith and his wife had warned me not to go. ‘You free here, on dat man land you still slave. Why he sell her back to you, when he be rich enough to buy ten of her?’ they asked, but I could not let her go. I sailed up the river and walked down the allee where we had landed so long ago. But when I got there, the house was dark and everything was still and hushed. I went around to the back and knocked and the cook let me in. She was a formidable woman in size and manner, and when she looked at me I thought I would blow away in a puff of smoke. But when she recognized me, she took me by the arm and sat me down and gave me a cup of buttermilk to drink.

‘Mr. Percy, he real bad. He don’ come out of him room fo’ days now. Him man say he have fever and he sunk real low,’ she said.

‘Is she here?’ I said in a small voice, knowing that I was too late.

‘She die, honey. She done kilt herself.’

I sobbed and sobbed and that woman rubbed my back and held me, and then she took me by the hand and led me to the place where they put Marie into the ground, where I stood for a long time thinking about what had happened.

 

When I got back, the blacksmith said that he had word that the Frenchman had been making inquiries about me. I went to his lodgings but found him at a nearby tavern. He was about to disappear into a haze of forgetfulness and only by repeating my name over and over again and that of Marie and that Devil’s was I able to jar him.

‘I know who you are, ‘ he said, ‘and I know where he is,’ he held his finger to the side of his nose and laughed.

‘Where is he? I insisted.

‘I’ll take you there,’ he said, reeling out into the street. I followed close behind until we came to a fine house.

‘What is he doing there?’ I asked doubtfully.

‘He’s playing a big game. With the money he made off her.’ Staggering away, he fell in the street, but I was transfixed by the house, and when I looked over, he was gone.

I waited all day and night and into the next morning. My heart was thundering when he emerged, and I followed him a way because he was on foot. He was buoyant, and I knew he had won the pot. I followed him to a shipping office and waited outside until he concluded his business. I was certain that he was going away now that he had gotten what he wanted.

I waylaid him when he came out. I could see he was surprised, but then that old look overcame him, and I knew he meant to twist me and use me to his advantage.

‘She dead, you know. Suicidee,’ I said the word in French, but he understood me. ‘But you kill her with your cruelty.’

He brushed past me as if I wasn’t there. I trotted after him, and when we were clear of the docks and people, he grabbed my arm and pulled me into an alley. He pressed his body into mine and held me tightly against the wall. He nuzzled my neck, but I turned my face away.

‘I’m leaving, come with me now. I’m rich, and soon I’ll be even richer.’

‘You just want her money. When I go with you, you take her money and get rid of me just like you get rid of her,’ I said. He saw his power over me had faded and looked at me mockingly.

‘You kill the Congo woman,’ I said.

‘She was about to curse me,’ he spat.

‘She don’t need to curse you. You already curse. Everything you do, evil. Everything you touch turn bad. Your baby dead,’ I lied.

‘Well, what’s it to me,’ he growled, turning away from me.

‘You not a man. You not human!’ I shouted after him, but he had gone and did not hear me. I heard he left New Orleans shortly thereafter, and I never saw him again.

Mister Heathcliff’s Fortune Chapter 18

Madame Marie didn’t die, but I wasn’t thinking too clearly when I left her behind. The baby was silent, and I understood  I was heading the wrong way,that there was no milk for him at the edge of town. I went to Laetitia, a woman I knew, who was kind and had many children, now grown. She was a seamstress and her husband, a blacksmith. She brought me inside and looking at the baby, sent her youngest girl for a wet nurse. I was exhausted and could not tell her the story, but she did not press me. ‘I take care lots of babies. You be fine here girl. Rest now,’ she said.

When I woke up, I went to the bank and drew out enough money to pay for the wet nurse and the baby’s keep. I told the banker that I would be back once I knew when I would be leaving, since I could not take the baby on the trail until he was bigger. The whole time I was afraid that he would find me, but he wasn’t anywhere to be seen.

I sent Laetitia’s daughter to the undertaker and told her to be on her guard. I knew he wouldn’t spend money to have Marie buried, and we would have to do it ourselves. But when the undertaker’s assistant came back, he said Madame Marie was gone.

‘Gone where?’ I asked the girl since she was telling me the story.

‘The gentleman took her away, her servant said. She left this for you,’ the girl held out a book wrapped in a silken scarf.

Then I knew it was only a matter of time before Marie would tell him where the money was, because he would treat her cruelly when she was so ill, so I rushed to the bank and drew it all out, and I forgot all about the book. I hid the money with the blacksmith, and then I said I had to leave, for if anyone saw me with them they would know where to find the baby and the money. I said I would go to the police and make them look in his house for Marie, but Laetitia stopped me.

‘Girl, you a free woman of color, and you have money, but no police gonna take yo word again’ a white men’s.’

‘I can’t leave her there,’ I said.

‘You don’t leave her. My man take care of dis.’

The blacksmith organized the raiding party, six strong black men who pulled scarves over their faces; but when they got to his house, it was already empty.

‘Where could he have taken her, sick as she was?’ I wailed and Laetitia held me to her firm bosom and comforted me like a mother.

I left them the next day and went to get my things and say goodbye to the Congo woman, but when I got there, the place was empty and all her pots had been broken and spilled onto the floor. I knew he had been there, looking for me and the money. I thought the Congo woman was hiding in the swamp, and she’d curse him well and good when she saw he had desecrated the alter where she worshiped, but when I stepped out back, I saw her body and saw that her neck had been broken. I put her in the ground under her sacred tree, though I do not know if that is what she wanted for herself.

I took her Prenda, the consecrated cauldron of iron, which was filled with the things she called the spirits with, bones and earth and sacred trees and herbs, for I did not want it to fall into the hands of others. Then I started my search for Madame Marie.

Mister Healthcliff’s Fortune Chapter 17

When her lying in time came, I went to stay with her, and when the labor pains came, I went for the mid-wife who was delivering another child elsewhere. She promised to come as soon as she could. Marie was sick, sickly white. She panted and struggled. I sat her up and pushed on the baby the way I had seen my grandmother do, but nothing happened. I left her alone to find a another midwife and when I couldn’t, I found a doctor, drunk and filth,y who promised he would follow me in his carriage. I started back on foot, but as I was about to turn toward the direction of her house, I suddenly changed my course and went to fetch that Devil.

He wouldn’t hear me at first after I forced my way in, but in time, he made sense of my story, and his face darkened. He ordered his horse to be saddled and rode out at once. I was running alongside and asked him what he meant to do, but he looked at me like I wasn’t there and rode off. I followed, and when I came in to the house, he said, ‘Get in there, the midwife needs help.’

The midwife looked at me, and I could tell she had lost hope. Marie’s sobs died down ,and then a piercing scream rent the silence, and she muttered things I could not understand. We sat her up and massaged her belly and pushed and pushed. I never heard anyone scream like that, She screamed until she fainted dead away. We worked all night, then I fell asleep in my chair.

I was woken by a cry and could see the midwife take the baby, but she did not wipe and wrap it. I went over to the bed, and then I saw that Marie’s child was alive. And I saw he was black, though not as black as me. I could see the midwife was disgusted,and I took the baby and told her to go. I cut the cord and wiped and cleaned him and bundled him up. I placed him in Marie’s arms, but her eyes were dead pools.

He had come in to see his son, but when he saw that child, he flew into a black rage.

‘Who did you lie with you miserable doxy?’ he shouted at her, while she turned her face away from him. He made a motion to snatch her baby, and I was not fast enough to stop him. ‘I’ll smash your bastard against the wall,’ he threatened. I screamed for him to stop, to have a care for his immortal soul, but he pushed me away. I rushed at him again to take the baby away, since I could see she would not tell him. I could see the madness in his eyes, and I knew he would do it, and I shouted, ‘Tell him, Marie before he kills the child.’

‘Then he’ll be killing his own son, because he’s his and mine and nobody else’s,’ she said quietly, turning to face him. The look on his face altered from fury, to shock, then comprehension. He put the baby down on the bed and flew out of the room.

‘You’ve killed me, Seraphine. You killed me when you went to him,’ she said quietly.

‘No,’ I denied it, shaking my head.

‘Take the baby and the money, but don’t go to the witch, because he will find you. Go to the Indians, they’ll shield you and my son. Tell them who I am and pay for your freedom with them. Get away from here when my son is old enough to travel and begin a new life, somewhere where he won’t find you.’

‘Where can I go? I don’t know any other place,’ I protested. When she wouldn’t relent, I said, ‘Come with us, come now.’

But she pulled back the coverlet to show me that she was bleeding out. ‘I’m finished,’ she said.

‘I’ll take care of him, Madame Marie. I promise I will, I promise.’

She smiled weakly at me and touched her baby’s head. I don’t think she believed me then, but she did believe she had done everything she could to shield her child.

I started for the Congo woman’s house because it was too early for the bank, and I needed to put the baby somewhere safe until I could get the money.

 

Mister Heathcliff’s Fortune Chapter 16

When Marie called for me again, I could see things had not gone well with her. Her body was cadaverous and distended at once, as though she had been starving herself, but her baby had been growing despite of it. Her thick hair had lost its luster and hang lankly around her face, which had thinned giving her eyes more prominence in her face.

‘Seraphine, if something goes wrong with me, if I die, take my baby, but don’t let him get it. My banker and lawyer have instructions, they have the money. It will be in your name. I know you must hate him as much as I do. Promise me he will not get the money nor his hands on the child.’

I couldn’t believe she would trust her money or baby to me and told her no matter how bad he was, the baby would be better off with a white father. Then I added that nothing would happen to her, but we both knew I was lying.

‘You still love him,’ she said with wonder in her voice.

I didn’t say a word, but I couldn’t look her in the eyes. ‘You must know in your heart that he is evil and rotten to his core. I knew it the moment I found out about you two. The only thing he wants is money. How he’s harangued me these last months for it! You must promise you won’t have anything to do with him ever again.’

I promised her, but when the time came I betrayed her.