Left Hand Of The Moon by Alexis Brooks de Vita

EXTRACT FOR
Left Hand Of The Moon

(Alexis Brooks de Vita)


Left Hand Of The Moon

CHAPTER ONE: HEAVEN'S DYING TIME

 

This was the story that would never be known, never be told. That's what I couldn't stand. That the real story, the story that told who I'd been all my life and what I'd lived through, would be known only to me.

Dirty little secrets, whispers and lies. Jules's mother had won. Our love and our hope to be together were finished.

Jules and I broke up under the left hand of the moon, when all things can't help dying. But I didn't know the moon was waning when I let Jules catch my hand on the stairway.

He whispered, "When the clock chimes ten, Aurelie. I'll be at the servants' side of the fountain," which meant the dark side facing the servants' quarters, where no torches burned.

I tossed my head and climbed the stairs with the freshly washed chamber pot for his grandmother's room in the attic, where she lay like an uncovered corpse and had lain all our lives. Let Jules wonder.

He had not spoken to me for days. I hoped my cold jasmine water splashes had kept the swelling out of my eyes, long and slanted. "Enchanting," one of the family's dinner guests had called them. I couldn't afford not to be beautiful and sweetly scented, now that Jules's only remaining promise to me was abandonment.

But I would always love him. So I did trail slowly across the courtyard well after the chime's beats lay silent under the patter of droplets in the fountain's bowl.

I unwound the sweat-heavy turban from my hair and dabbed the fountain's water across my forehead. Being there was all the mercy I meant to show Jules.

He paced, a dark shape that shifted the darkness ahead of me. I swished my fingers through the fountain's pool to make him turn.

He jumped, startled out of his distraction, and strode to me. "Aurelie. You have to understand."

I smoothed the black wings of my eyebrows and coaxed tendrils of water into the fine hairs along my hairline. I lifted my face, eyes closed, to the cooling night.

I didn't have to see Jules to know that he had crossed his arms and spread his legs. He began to drone in that tone he had learned from his father.

I crossed my arms, dangling the turban, and turned my back on him.

He stumbled in his speech but rallied and plowed on about the importance of his engagement to marry this other girl his mother had chosen for him. I wanted to whirl and snap at him, Not for you! For your brother, you fool! But this was not last year, or even a few months ago, when I could have gotten away with saying-or doing-anything I could think of to Jules.

This was different. We both faltered, unsure how to proceed with both of us hostile and refusing to apologize.

Jules had always loved me. He had held me and cried into my neck, hot tears that madethe fine hairs at my nape slip from my smooth chignon, when he first heard of this same engagement. Why should I even listen to this sudden change of his fickle heart?

It didn't matter what Jules had made up his mind to say to me. It didn't even matter that he betrayed our sweetest memories by saying all this on the dark side of the fountain. Where we first admitted, nearly three years ago, that what was humiliating us and driving us from each other was love. Has he forgotten what standing in this place means to us? Commitment, not betrayal!

Jules couldn't want to marry that other girl. He'd cried and dug into the space between my arms and my breasts like the baby he's always been with me.

And European men, even exiled Frenchmen, didn't have to do anything they didn't want to do. We'd had a lifetime under the shifting rule of transient governments in Louisiana to learn that. So there isn't even a reason for me to be here, listening to him.

Except for my patience. My loyalty in the face of his efforts to prove himself. I was just standing in front of one more rehearsed speech, like the one he made last summer at his cousin's wedding with-thanks to my listening and clapping-hands dry and still enough to lift the champagne glass without spilling it or dropping it.

That was the wedding where his mother met the girl she had just engaged Jules to marry, wearing the ruined finery of her fallen titled family.

I, too, could tell them a few things about being fallen. I had no pity for Jules's fiancee and no sympathy for his mother's social climbing. And when he never marries this other girl, we'll both see that I suffered, poor fool listening to Jules play the man with his chest stuck out, for nothing.

The fountain gushed a song behind his thoughtless words. I swayed to the rhythm of the water as it carried me into that safe place that drifted through my mind. How can he enjoy being so cruel? Jules always had his family's selfish streak.

Despising him, denying that he was there saying these hateful things to me, I opened my eyes and looked up into the night sky.

I meant only to divert myself, to force the time to pass until even Jules couldn't take the sound of his own voice anymore.

But what I saw stunned the breath out of me.

For there we stood under the slender left hand of the moon. The waning moon. The dying moon. The power of death is spreading over us.

This was no game.

So this is why Jules isn't reaching out to me, taking my hands to beg to be forgiven! This is why he is pushing himself to say such hurtful things. He is driven by the power of heaven's dying time.

This is the end.

I unlocked my arms and spun around, flung my turban to the cobblestones, and threw myself at Jules to still his lips with my fingers. "Don't speak, mon cher ami. No more. Not tonight." Only two more nights would see us into a safer time to play this tiresome charade.

Am I too late? Even in this faint light, I could see that Jules's face was closed against me. A stranger rose up in him. My fingers touched a tight, dry line.

He pulled my hands from his mouth. "You will never again address me without saying 'maitre,' Aurelie. I won't have my wife-my whole family-humiliated by you. Is that understood?"

And then, mercifully, he was gone. He didn't wait for an answer he must have known I couldn't give. Master? Jules?

I'd cleaned Jules's scraped knees of gravel and blood when we were children and he couldn't beat me at footraces around the courtyard. I'd teased him out of being a sissy who ran with tears, blood, and snot on his face to his mother every time his older brother battered him. And I'd sewn his ripped breeches back together when he finally learned to climb the wrought iron gate and sneak out to play and steal with the street children, saving him many a whipping from that same mother who only thought to use him now for her own social climbing. In fact, I've been more of a mother to Jules than she has ever been. I've been his sister and his best friend, too. And I will always be his first love. No matter to whom she marries him.

We had hidden for hours at a time, days in a row, in the servants' quarters, while Jules taught me to read so I could enjoy the beauty of the poems and love notes he wrote me. We had known for nearly three years now that someday we would have a small home of our own, away from his family, where we would make love for the very first time, raise our children to be freemen, and live quietly.

For that, we could make sacrifices. I've sacrificed.

I'd bitten my cheek and called Jules "Maitre" enough times, in front of his parents and friends and waited table, serving the wards, nieces, and plain, penniless younger daughters that important families paraded in front of Jules's mother.

But Jules was never my master. It was just a game, like all the others.

I stared across the courtyard to the tall glass doors Jules had just gone through, back to his parents' quiet evening in the library. He is my admirer and my slave. His poems say so. He never wanted to be anything else.

I fell to my knees, meaning to pick up my dirtied turban. But now I felt oddly weak and maybe a little nauseated.

I'm shaking. I never shook. Fear was for Jules, facing the world of a free and wealthy Frenchman and frightened, reaching back for my hand and my faith in him. I was supposed to be the brave one.

I was still on my knees in the blackest shadows behind the fountain, bent double with my face in the soft ball of my turban cloth, hacking up tears, when Tante Clothilde came to me. "Hush, minou. All this noise. Do you want Monsieur Jules to look down on you? One more sobbing female at his feet!" She slid her arms around me.

I raised my scrubbed face. Fresh tears washed it as I spoke. "He doesn't want me, Tante Clothilde. He's changed, and the moon-" I pointed-"Oh, just look what we've done."

Tante Clothilde looked and sighed. Then she smiled, as if making up her mind, and shrugged. "So what? So much the better-"

I pulled away. Would even Tante Clothilde turn against me, now?

Now it will begin. The three African women who lived in the servants' quarters, and their lovers who stole in with little gifts of ribbons and chocolates for them, and a piece of ripe fruit or sugar cane for me in exchange for promises to be silent and keep secrets, they would all turn against me, now that Jules had abandoned me. They'd say I'd thought too highly of my position, my influence over Jules, the power of the secret that made Jules's father keep me here despite his wife's screams and hatred.

Tante Clothilde grabbed at my hands and frowned into my face. "Petite." These were almost her names for me, she used them so often. Little one. Kitten. "Aurelie, yes, I see the dying moon. And what does it signify, minou? That now is the time to kill, and the time to cleanse." I stopped fighting.

Tante Clothilde pulled me closer. "This is the time to purge, to purify. It all depends on what is before you. You're not too young to understand that this is the end of nothing but hiding and waiting and daydreaming about Jules taking you away from here. Death tonight is a good death that brings life." She kissed my hair. "The love of a girl and a boy dies to make room for the love of a woman and a man."

Dare I believe? "Really, Tante Clothilde?"

She laughed, and the world turned and was again as it always had been. "Have I ever told you wrong, ma petite?" She shook her head as if such a thing were impossible.

And, indeed, it was. Tante Clothilde never told me anything that did not come true or prove to have been true all along, when only she could see it. Her vision of the world walked me through a lifetime of being needed by Jules when I envied him, and of being hated by his mother, whom I resented in return. Tante Clothilde always knew. She could not be wrong.

She was, again that night, not wrong. But I was unprepared for how suddenly Jules would prove Tante Clothilde right.

Jules appeared in my room in three nights' time, under the silver sliver of the growing moon. He waited for me just inside my opened door.

His hand shot out of the damp darkness and put out the lamp I carried. Then he gripped my wrist and pulled me into the room that smelled of sweaty skin and the breath of tired sleepers.

I was ashamed of this room, though Tante Clothilde had cared for me in here ever since I could remember. Most nights, I looked forward to the woody darkness and my familiar cot above the mildewed and softly splintered floor, ruined by summer floods. But a year ago, as I read Jules's awkward, yearning poems, I also began to feel ashamed that Jules might see me in here, someday.

I did not want him to follow me in here, as I heard from Tante Clothilde that most owners did with the women they liked. A year ago, I refused to allow him in here any longer.

Mistaking my shyness, Tante Clothilde had offered to sleep in the kitchen, creeping with her visiting husband through the courtyard shadows. This was sensitive of her. For she had only asked that I turn my back, eating the little gifts her husband brought me as I fell asleep listening to the sweet thoughts in my mind rather than the sounds that followed her husband's soft scrabbling at our alley window.

"The Madame will never allow Jules's father to buy or rent him a garconniere of his own, some nice little apartment where you two can set up housekeeping," Tante Clothilde reasoned. "You must learn to strike while the iron is hot. Let him come to you in our room. The kitchen floor can be quite comfortable for me, for one or two nights. Don't let your concern for me keep you from snatching with both hands at a chance for happiness." She snatched at the air to show how it must be done.

Tante Clothilde meant well. But I had always thought that Jules's and my love would never need a garconniere. Jules and I would never share our love in sneaky stolen moments spent clutching and crying out.

I would be bedded like a bride. Our love would have a home of its own. We would wake together over coffee and sleep again after brandy, for the rest of our lives.

I was sure Jules felt as I did. I'd memorized his wistful poems.

Stars in the fountain.

Study the brittle

nature of illusion:

Illusion that you and I

Could part,

Your soul separate from mine,

And I remain whole.

My wholeness

Is in you ...

Until he pulled me into my own room's darkness and put a hand over my mouth. Suddenly, I was unsure that Jules was not really the stranger at the fountain saying I must learn to call him master. How far was he willing to take this game?

I held the darkened lamp and wondered if I dared hit Jules with it. Or should I just break away and run?

Jules released me with one hand and shoved a bundle into the crook of my arm. "Aurelie, you must forgive me for everything I've said to you. I'm mad with regret. I've been thinking about what you said that night. We will escape together. No, don't argue with me. And don't waste time making me beg. My mother is watching. She'll have my father empty my account, if she suspects, and we will need that money. Now, I must go." He pressed his lips to my forehead. "My good girl," he whispered. "I owe you my sanity."

I watched him slip out through the heavy wooden door and into the fragrant night.

Suddenly, I could smell again the potted flowers that adorned the courtyard. All white, for pure love: jasmine, honeysuckle and magnolia. I could hear again the musical notes of the fountain, like a harp played after dinner. And were those nightingales singing?

I had not been about to argue with him. I only wanted to ask him what I said at the fountain that had suddenly changed his mind.

But as he disappeared into the singing night, I let the question go and took the bundle with me to my cot. She is always right.

I slept with the bundle pressed to my stomach, just where I'd held in the pain of Jules's rejection only three nights before, doubled over. What is in the bundle? I hoped and fell asleep dreaming that it was a bridal gown and veil, more light and fine than the one I had unpacked and aired for the Madame to entice Jules's fiancee.

My bridal gown would be draped with tatted lace and float free of stays, as my figure was trim and perfect, and I would drift down a church aisle trailing silk and dreams like an angel.

In the morning, Tante Clothilde ignored me feigning sleep in my cot and hurried across the courtyard to the kitchen, having washed herself quickly with splashes of jasmine water that steeped in a clay jar in the corner. Only when she was gone did I crawl from my cot to shake out Jules's bundle.

It was not a bridal gown. I should not have been so disappointed. But what the bundle is not isn't nearly so surprising, I argued with myself, as what the bundle is.

It was a masquerade costume.

I held up the cascading pieces. They were meant to disguise a Frenchwoman as an enslaved woman. But few enslaved women dressed in such fine fabrics. Bright satin flowers shimmered in the rippling skirt, and fine lace edged the lavender apron. The bleached cotton blouse would fall below a woman's shoulders, to be caught up and held by a bow tied between her breasts. A scarf of blood-red silk curled in a pool at my feet. In my hands were a silver-spangled satin shawl and gilded mask to cover the wearer from face to feet and convince others that she couldn't possibly be the penniless captive woman she pretended to be.

I tied the costume back in on itself and sat on my cot. I had to work up the courage to go into the house and ask Jules what this meant.

I didn't find him. Instead, Jules found me dusting the chess set after setting out the brandy decanter and snifters in his father's library, that night. His family had dined unusually late.

He pulled the curtained glass doors shut and came to me. "I pretended an upset stomach. My mother will follow me to my rooms soon, bringing some vile concoction or other." He smiled and shrugged a little. "To be truthful, I can use it. I've been sick with worry. Have you put the costume in a safe place, where you can get to it easily?"

I said nothing. I never did, when he apologized badly, no matter the questions I was desperate to ask.

Jules grabbed at my hands so that the dust of the rag puffed into our faces. "This is no time to punish me, mon coeur-my heart," he insisted. "Remember. On All Saints' Eve, put on the costume and wait in your room until you hear the cathedral bells sound midnight. You can hear them in your room, can't you? There is a window to the alley. At midnight, if you hear no one outside that window, leave your room and go to the street gate. You know how my mother has all the fires and lanterns put out on All Saints' Eve. She's very Old World, that way. Don't be afraid. Even if you cannot see me, I will be there. I will protect you. You must not fail me."

"As you planned to fail me, Maitre?"

Jules winced. "I deserved that."

The rap of his mother's fashionably heeled shoes sounded on the marble of the foyer. "Jules? Is that you in the library, chou-chou?"

"Damn. Still a cabbage, at twenty years old." Jules pulled the rag from my fingers. Then he lifted and kissed both my hands. First the backs. Then the palms, closing my fingers against the stubble-prickly, baby-smooth curves of his cheeks and chin.

His lips hovered over the dry palms of my hands and whispered something into them until I yanked them away, as his mother passed right outside the curtained library doors. Then Jules turned and slipped through a doorway that would wind up the servants' stairs, to avoid his mother as she doubled back to the grand staircase.