About the Author
Alice Hoffman is the author of thirty works of fiction, including Practical Magic, The Red Garden, The Dovekeepers and, most recently,The Museum of Extraordinary Things. She lives in Boston. Visit her website: www.alicehoffman.com
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Marriage of Opposites CHAPTER ONE
We Followed the Turtles
CHARLOTTE AMALIE, ST. THOMAS
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. Scores 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 shape-shifter 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, Pomié, 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 Fernão de Loronha, who financed expeditions and 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 worst 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 São Tomé off the coast of Africa, then sold as slaves. In the year 1506 four thousand were massacred in Portugal 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 Saint-Domingue, and it was there both my parents were raised. But there was no peace in societies where sugarcane was king and people were enslaved. In 1754 the King of Denmark had passed an edict proclaiming 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 the 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 than anywhere in the new world, and people of our faith were soon 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 seventy-five 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 A small speck of land, little more than thirty square miles set in the blue-green sea. The original population had all vanished, 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, traveling 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 fluttering 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 Pomié, 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 Nicolas de Fer. I traced my hand along la rivière de Seine and memorized the parks and the tiny twisted streets and the paths of the Tuileries Garden, created by Catherine de’ Medici in 1564, 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 Assemblée, the best fashion journals. 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 maroon leather, kidskin gloves that reached the elbow and closed with two perfectly placed 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 Jewish women were bound by rules 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, Jestine, 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 served spending time with girls of my own faith, rather than befriending someone whose mother was an African and our cook. But of course, little of what my mother wanted meant anything to me.
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 Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités: Les Contes de ma mère 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 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 une veuve qui avait deux filles: l’aînée lui ressemblait si fort d’humeur et de visage, que, qui la voyait, voyait la mère. Elles étaient toutes deux si désagréables et si orgueilleuses qu’on ne pouvait vivre avec elles.
Once upon a 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 I was sprawled upon the floor, my head in a book, my hair uncombed, my chores left to the maid. Madame Pomié 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 be 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. I often wondered if she wished that of her two children, I’d been the one who had been taken.
Il était une fois un Roi et une Reine, qui étaient si fâchés de n’avoir point d’enfants, si fâchés qu’on ne saurait dire.
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 had access to him when we were together in the library, and I loved them both—the library and my father—equally and without question.
JUST AS PERRAULT HAD interviewed 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 it. 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, bird...
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