Caleb’s sixth birthday, August eighteenth, dawned cool and wet. I came to the nursery to find him at the window, tracing the raindrops as they cascaded down the glass.
Despite the weather and so most of our things packed up for the move, we planned to give Caleb a good day. Noel took the day off work to spend the day with him, and there were half-a-dozen gifts waiting for Caleb to unwrap just from him. Samuel Christie was invited over to play; we had already decided Caleb would not have lessons that day, so Noel and I spent the morning looking after him and Samuel. For lunch, we ate Caleb’s menu of chicken noodle soup, corn bread, and watermelon, with chocolate cake decorated with six candles for dessert. In the afternoon, the boys napped in Caleb’s room and we let Caleb open his presents afterward.
Just before sunset Alex Christie came to fetch Samuel. The boys hugged each other and Caleb kissed Samuel’s cheek. Alex looked away at that, smothering a smile, and said to us, “I’m glad they had this chance to say goodbye. Don’t be strangers, Noel.”
“We’ll come back next summer,” Noel said. “And we’ll be sure Caleb writes to Samuel.” They shook hands, and then hugged each other too, and Noel said quietly to give his love to Julia and Jane. Samuel waved to Caleb as Alex drove away.
It was a lovely day, sweet and peaceful. Ordinary, in its way.
When Noel put Caleb to bed, he said, “Did you have a happy birthday, peanut?” and Caleb nodded with an enormous yawn. Noel chuckled and kissed his forehead. “Good night, sweet boy,” he said gently, and sat with him until Caleb was asleep.
In the hall, Noel slumped into my arms and I kissed his hair. “Last year he didn’t stop crying all day.”
“It was his first birthday without his parents,” I said. “I’m not surprised he was sad. But you gave him a very good day today.”
Noel lifted his head with a soft, “Kiss me,” so I kissed him with a smile. “Come to bed?”
“I want to read a little before I sleep.” I brushed my hand over the side of his face. “Go to bed if you’re tired. I’ll be along later.”
He hummed, nodded, and tucked his head against my neck for a moment before he pulled away. “Love you,” he said as our fingers parted.
“Love you,” I answered.
The summer rains continued to fall, and the wind moaned around the house. Willie had lit a fire in the fireplace in the library, and I took the ledger there to read in the warmth. The armchairs and study table were covered to protect them from sun and dust between when we moved out and the new renters moved in.
I removed a cover from one of the armchairs near the fireplace, and picked up the old leather-bound ledger. All summer I had been rereading it; I was still convinced I could find what I was looking for here, something I could point to and tell Noel, “This is why the family has suffered. This is why everything is wrong.”
I had read the ledger cover to cover more than once, and each time failed to find my solution. Achille’s record stopped with the entry recording Charlotte’s death. Whomever had kept Fidele’s records after her death, likely the plantation overseer, must have used a different book.
I rubbed my eyes. Eighteenth-century handwriting as hard enough — eighteenth-century handwriting in eighteenth-century French was enough to make my head ache, at least at this time of night.
When I opened the book again I thumbed past the blank pages to the end of the ledger, and realized that I had bypassed these pages every time I read the ledger since there was no entry to read and no loose sheet of paper shoved in for safekeeping. Everything else, I knew, had been in Grace’s possession and lost in the fire; I kept hoping to find something she missed, and was always disappointed. She had been thorough, normally a boon to a researcher, but an enormous loss now.
So I had missed the small, single entry on the final page facing the end papers, written as if to be found only by the most diligent: “Portrait of a Creole Woman,” reframed.
The penny dropped. Portrait of a Creole Woman — it was the portrait rumored to be of Achille’s mistress, hung in one of the lesser-used passages upstairs, the painting that had frightened the boys when they believed they saw it move.
I put the ledger on one of the shelves, and went upstairs to where the portrait hung. As ever, the gaze of the woman met mine levelly, her eyes dark and lively, her face and form beautiful by any standard.
I took the portrait down from the wall and turned it around. The frame was backed with a paper dust cover. I took a pencil from my pocket and poked it carefully through the paper, and then tore the paper open to reveal the back of the canvas.
Tucked inside was an envelope, brown with age, with “To my progeny” written in black ink and familiar handwriting.
I leaned the portrait against the wall and took the envelope to my room to read.
“I am Achille Thibodeaux, your grandfather or further; I cannot guess what year it is that you read this missive. Today is my son’s twentieth birthday, and it is time I tell the truth. May God forgive me for what I have done and the loved ones whose trust I have betrayed.
“I was born into a humble family in Calais, France, in 1711. I could not tell you the exact date, though I know it was sometime around Christmas Day as I was baptized shortly after. Due to a misunderstanding between myself and local authorities, I left home at sixteen and sought a new beginning, first in the colony of Haiti, then in Louisiana. I changed my name from the common one given me by my parents to the more noble-sounding Achille Thibodeaux, and told people I was an impoverished cousin of a local lord. Because of this falsehood, the merchants and gentry were more willing to assist me than they would have been had they known the truth. In four years’ time I had amassed a tidy sum from loans, wages, gifts, and investments, enough to buy a small plot of land to call my own. I named the place Fidele, for the faith that had carried me from my home to the colony and the steadfastness that had enabled me to own the land.
“Part of the reason why I was able to gather such a sum was due to my mistress, a woman from Haiti named Justine Dubois. Like me, she was determined to be more than what she had been born to be. Like me, she hid her true origins. Her father had been a French sailor, she told me; her mother a slave stolen from Africa.
“Justine taught me to talk to the respectable businessmen so that they would think I was nobility and treat me accordingly. She taught me to listen and learn from the sea captains and the merchants. She connected me to farmers who taught me the best ways to plant and raise sugar cane. Justine was my strongest advocate and biggest champion, and together we were unstoppable.
“Under French law, I was not allowed to marry her. I kept her as my mistress through the years instead, and even built her a little cottage of her own among the sugar cane fields, where she held salons and was a celebrated hostess, accepted in the liberal Creole society.
“It was during this time that I commissioned the portrait of Justine to be painted. It was, to my mind, a celebration of her beauty as well as a token of my love, and I hung it proudly in my own home.
“All was well between us until I met the woman who would become my wife, the daughter of a French merchant named Charlotte Darbonne. I loved her at once; I courted her, and we were married on December 30, 1739, and she was with child before Lent.
“For months before the wedding I attempted to break things off with Justine, though I promised her I would continue to pay her expenses until she married as well; she vowed she would never love another and would never marry another man. Again and again she convinced me to keep her a little while longer, or else she would do something drastic in retaliation.
“Not long after Charlotte told me I was to be a father, Justine told me the same news, that she would soon bear my child. I was displeased, for the last time we had been together was before my marriage. I told her she could stay in the cottage until the child’s birth but no longer, for I would not support the child of another man. She wept, swore on my life and hers that the child was mine, and entreated me on her knees not to abandon her. In my anger, I did not believe her, and left the house vowing never to return for as long as she lived there.
“As fate would have it, both she and Charlotte gave birth the same night — Charlotte a month early, and while the doctor did his best to save our child, he lived only long enough to be baptized and given the name Michel. Charlotte was half-dead and I was half-mad with grief; when one of Justine’s servants came to tell me her son had been born, I went to the cottage to see for myself, with what I must admit a wicked intention in my heart.
“I knew from the moment I laid eyes on the child that he was mine. As the sugar cane fields burned, I walked out of that house with the baby in my arms and laid him in the cradle where his half-brother had lived his short life. Once she was sensible again, I told Charlotte her son had lived, look how handsome and strong he was, and she had no cause to doubt me.
“We christened him Maxim. I buried Michel in the tomb intended for Charlotte and me, and threatened both my doctor and the two servants who knew the truth with ruin should they ever reveal who lay in the tomb and whose child played in our nursery. Maxim’s complexion was fair enough that I did not need to make excuses for him, and he clearly had my eyes and my visage — a distinctive shape that my father and distantly-remembered grandfather also carried.
“At first Charlotte loved him, and why would she not? As far as they both knew, they were mother and child.
“Two times bewtween Maxim’s birth and Michel’s burial, Justine came to the house and begged to see me. Each time I refused her, and instructed my butler to deny her entrance. She was not to cross the threshold. She was not to speak to Charlotte nor lay eyes on Maxim.
“The third time, I was the one to open the door. I take no pride in what I did then. I see now that I was still angry with myself for succumbing again and again to her charms; at the time I thought it was proper punishment for her disobeying my orders. I took her to my study where the body of Michel waited in its little coffin for the tomb to be complete, and told her the dead child was hers.
“In her grief, Justine hurled herself from a high landing, and she was taken up dead.
“I had her buried hastily and in secret, in the land set aside to bury my slaves.
“It was known to me that before we met, while we lived in Haiti, and during her life at Fidele, slaves and even Creoles had gone to her to cure their illnesses and to cast spells. How she possessed this knowledge I never asked, though I believe she learned many folkways from her mother and possessed powers she could not reveal to me. Once she was dead and buried, the slaves planted a myrtle tree over her grave, believing this would protect them. From what, I did not need to ask.
“It may have protected them from Justine’s wrath, but my own house never knew a moment’s peace. Empty rooms were full of whispers. Jewels, pens, ink pots, house keys, went missing only to be found in the most absurd of places. Always, I felt a gaze on my back, malevolent and full of hatred, as the unhappy spirit bided its time to destroy me.
“As Maxim grew Charlotte asked more and more questions. Why did he resemble me so strongly but her not at all? Where were her markers on his body? He was a sweet and clever boy, but that was not enough for her. She quizzed me regarding the night of his birth — what could I remember? What could I tell her about those hours she was in a stupor? Why had a priest been summoned?
“I had answers for all her questions, some true, some not, and when I grew tired of her doubts I scolded her enough to make her weep and declare me cruel. She pushed Maxim from her arms when the nurse brought him to her, and declared she no longer wished to lay eyes on him. She took to her bed for days, refusing to stir even when I ordered her to, and finally I summoned a doctor to cure her ailment.
“Her sickness, he told me, was not of the body but of the mind; she was convinced she was raising a stranger’s child, that Maxim was a changeling or worse. She demanded to see her own baby, and didn’t believe him when he said Maxim was her child.
“The the haunting, for there is no other word for it, began to turn malevolent. Maxim woke in the night with bruises forming as if someone had pinched him. Charlotte complained of nightmares, of someone pushing her off the bed, of her clothes rent in the wardrobe. Small fires were set in empty rooms, so often that my butler took to investigating every room for fire every night. A horse in his stall reared so violently he broke his leg and I had to put him down.
“I have no doubt that it was these occurrences that contributed to Charlotte’s madness; that they increased any suspicions she already bore and made them worse, made them eat away at her until her mind was broken.
“One night shortly before Maxim’s first birthday, I heard a noise in the nursery; on investigation, I found Charlotte standing over Maxim’s crib with a pillow over his face. I hurled the pillow away and snatched up the child, who began to breathe again at once. I saw then that I had no choice; Charlotte was a danger to my son, perhaps even to herself.
“I sent her to a sanitarium in the English colonies. There was nothing else to be done.
“She had been in the sanitarium for a year when I received word that she had taken her own life. Her body was returned to me. The circumstances of her death, of course, I kept to myself so that she could be buried in the family crypt, on blessed ground, and once this was accomplished I took Maxim and returned to France, praying that across the ocean he would be safe from the vengeance of his mother.
“Justine had defeated me, and so I ran.
“I have returned to Fidele now that Maxim is soon to be of age, and he deserves to know the legacy I will leave him at my death. I have no doubt this day will be soon, as I can already hear the whispers and feel a gaze filled with loathing on my back. Justine is still here, and she will not be kept waiting.
“I write this confession in the hopes that future generations will understand and forgive me. I have never told the entirety of this story to another living soul. Maxim is my son and heir, no matter the other half of his parentage, and I will not allow society to deny him the rights I have bestowed upon him. Fidele and all its lands and properties, belongs to Maxim Christophe Thibodeaux until the day of his death, and to his chosen heir after.
“Again I pray God’s forgiveness for all that I have done, and may He receive me into the life to come at the moment of my death.
“May Justine forgive me, too, though I know in my heart she is beyond forgiveness and remembers only how she has been transgressed. For that, I do not blame her. No one is to blame but myself.
“August 18, 1760.”
I straightened the pages, carefully refolded them, and put them back in their envelope. Noel would have to read this, though I had no idea how he would react to it.
I wasn’t sure what I felt about it, either. My mental image of Achille was already not terribly favorable; this, no matter what his intentions or how often he asked for forgiveness, did not improve it. One selfish, vindictive gesture and he had condemned his family to unhappiness and sorrow for two hundred years.
Poor Justine, I thought, surprising myself — but I felt for her. Betrayed, abandoned, lied to — she had done what a mother would do, as Achille had said. She had sought her vengeance.
As I gathered the pages, I exhaled, and my breath froze in a plume — despite the fire crackling in the fireplace, my bedroom was cold enough to raise goose pimples on my skin. The hairs rose on the back of my neck.
I looked up, not sure who to expect — I always hoped it would be Zachary, though it had been months since he last appeared to me — and in front of me was a form that quickly took shape, slight, female, hair gathered in a turban and skirts that swept the floor. In a moment she was as clear as the portrait, beautiful and fierce, a being of wrath.
Mine, filled my mind like a roar.