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
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
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.
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
This was different. We both
faltered, unsure how to proceed with both of us hostile and refusing to
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?
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!
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
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,
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
This is the
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,
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?
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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
That now is the time to kill, and the time to cleanse." I stopped
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
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.
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
you and I
separate from mine,
And I remain
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
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
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
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.
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
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?"
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.