The Orphan

The only places in the world that still allow the electric chair as an option for execution are the U.S. states of Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee. On February 20th of 2020, Nicolas Todd Sutton died by electrocution in Tennessee, becoming the seventh man executed by the state since Tennessee resumed capital punishment in August of 2018. His last words were: “I want to uplift the name of Jesus Christ, Lord of Lords, King of Kings. I’m just grateful to be a servant of God, and I’m looking forward to being in his presence. And I thank you.”

Inspired by Heinrich von Kleist’s The Foundling

            James Learner, a wealthy and respected businessman in Tennessee who owned twelve Dollar Generals, was a faithful member of his community’s megachurch. One Sunday in the late summer of 2020, as churches were opening in defiance of a resurgence of the Covid-19 epidemic (several churches even suing the government, claiming stay-at-home orders violated their religious freedom), Learner travelled to church with his twelve-year-old son, Oliver. His second wife, Rachel, stayed at home because of a splitting migraine. 

            During the service the pastor made a special announcement: he wanted to introduce a thirteen-year-old boy who had lost both of his parents to the Covid-19 virus in the past six months. The orphan, Paul, was looking for a home and the pastor implored the congregation to look within their hearts to see if they could take this young boy in, so he wouldn’t have to enter the foster-care system. James initially recoiled at this this request, thinking the pastor was overstepping his clerical bounds, but kept this disagreement to himself. 

            Later that night James told Rachel about this orphan and was about to comment on his disfavor of the pastor’s bold entreaty when his wife replied,

            “Oh the poor little boy. We should adopt him. We have the money and we have the space.” Rachel could not give birth to children herself (she was born with Müllerian agenesis), and she had been waiting to broach the topic of adoption to her husband. Their son, Oliver, was from James’ first marriage, and Rachel wanted a child they could both equally share.

            “Now’s not the time,” replied James.

            But as ill luck would have it, Olivier (who had a weak constitution) had contracted the Covid-19 while at the megachurch, and became one of the few children in the country to experience severe symptoms. A week passed, Oliver went on a ventilator, experienced lung failure, and died.

            In James and Rachel’s grief, they decided that it was their duty to God to use their despair for a better purpose, to save a life, and with Rachel’s insistence they adopted the boy from their church. After filling out the necessary paperwork and jumping through the bureaucratic hoops, James and Rachel drove home one rainy afternoon with their new son.

            During the drive James observed Paul out of the corner of his eye. Paul was handsome in a bizarrely statuesque way; his black hair hung down on his forehead and formed a straight line, hovering above a serious face with hollowed cheeks which never changed its expression. The old man asked him several questions, but he answered them only briefly; he sat there in the passenger seat, uncommunicative and absorbed in himself, with his hands in his pockets, looking pensively and diffidently out of the windows of the car as it sped along. From time to time, with a noiseless movement, he picked out a jolly rancher from a box in one of his cargo pockets, and while James quietly wept and wiped his eyes, thinking about his dead son and how life can change so quickly, Paul cracked the hard candy between his teeth. 

            Back home James showed Paul the bed in which Oliver had slept and gave him all the latter’s clothes to wear. James sent him to school where he performed well, eventually attending Princeton University, James’ Alma mater, where he majored in marketing and business, and went to work for his adoptive father. James understandably become gradually fonder of the boy, often remembering the circumstances of the adoption and proud that the boy was applying himself academically.

            Nine years later, having dismissed a manager from one of his Dollar Generals with whom he had for various reasons been dissatisfied, he hired Paul in his place, (Paul had been working in a Dollar General every summer since he was sixteen) and was delighted with the active and useful assistance which the latter gave him in his managing the store, soon giving him two more stores to manage. The only fault that the old man, who believed that everyone has their place in society, had to find with him was the excessive company he kept with the employees of the stores, who were paying very friendly and ingratiating attentions to the young man on the account of the large fortune he would one day likely inherit from his adoptive father; and Rachel’s only criticism of Paul was that he seemed to have a precocious propensity for women. For at the age of seventeen he had already, while working at one of the stores, been caught having sex with one of the employees, Tiffany Gotchim, a high-school drop-out with a criminal record; and although on James’ stern insistence Paul broke off this liaison, Rachel had reason to believe that in these delicate matters Paul was not a model of self-denial. When, however, at the age of twenty-three he married Rachel’s niece, Justine Corsino, an attractive young NYC women who had been educated in anthropology at Columbia University, this trouble at least seemed to have been cured at its source. Both his adoptive-parents were equally pleased with him, and to give him proof of this they drew up a splendid marriage gift, making over to him a considerable part of their large and beautiful mansion, leaving only a small part of it to themselves to live when they were visiting. And in short, when James reached the age of sixty-five he took for Paul the final step that a benefactor could take: he gave him legal possession of the entire fortune on which his Dollar General businesses rested, retaining only a small capital for himself, and withdrew during the winter months with his faithful, virtuous Rachel, whose worldly wishes were few, in retirement in Florida. 

            There was in Rachel’s nature an element of silent melancholy, originating in a horrifying experience during her adolescence. When she was seventeen she witnessed a school shooting, and her boyfriend (who she had been dating since the age of thirteen) at the time was killed while trying to protect her. On one ill-fated afternoon a boy wearing a black trench coat and carrying a suitcase full of automatic weapons (that he had purchased legally since he was 18 years old), walked calmly into Rachel’s high school and began murdering students and teachers. Rachel was in the gymnasium at the time, with her boyfriend, and when they tried to flee the shooter entered with malicious laughter. Rachel’s boyfriend shielded her and tackled her as the shooter fired, but one of the bullets went through her boyfriend’s head. Terrified, Rachel remained motionless on the ground, feigning death, while her boyfriend’s bleeding corpse covered her. She heard the shooter walk by, shooting any students that moved or made a noise. For years Rachel would have nightmares about this experience.

            James, who had business connections with the young man’s family, and made acquaintance of Rachel at the wake and the funeral, married her five years later; he was particularly careful never to mention the young man’s name or otherwise recall him to her, as he knew that her traumatized mind was deeply disturbed by the memory. The slightest circumstance that even remotely reminded her of the time when this youth had protected and died for her sake always moved her to tears, and on such occasions, there was no comforting or quieting her. She would at once leave whatever company she was in, and no one would follow her, for they knew by experience that the only effective remedy was to let her weep quietly by herself until her grief was stilled. Many people were ignorant of the cause of these strange and frequent fits of emotion, for never in her life had she uttered one word alluding to the episode. Her outbursts were usually explained as a nervous disorder, the aftermath of a violent fever which she had contracted just after her marriage, and this account served to forestall any further inquiry into their origin.

            Paul, who despite his father’s orders had never completely severed his connection with the above-mentioned Tiffany Gotchim, had on one occasion secretly met her at a Halloween party, without his wife’s knowledge, pretending to have been invited to a friend’s house for poker night; and late that night, when everyone was asleep, he returned home dressed up as Neo from The Matrix, wearing a black trench coat. It so happened that during the night the elderly James felt unwell and Rachel had got out of bed to assist him and had gone to fetch a bottle of NyQuil from the kitchen (the bottle in the bathroom was empty). She was half-asleep and carelessly didn’t turn on the lights, and had just opened the cupboard in the corner and was standing on a chair to search among the plastic cases of bottles purchased in bulk, when Paul softly opened the door and stepped into the kitchen in his black trench coat. Unsuspectingly, without seeing Rachel, he crossed the kitchen to his side of the mansion and just made the disconcerting discovery that it was locked, when Rachel, standing on her chair behind him with the NyQuil in her hand, caught sight of him and immediately, as if stricken by some unseen horror, fell to the floor in a dead faint. Paul turned around, pale and startled, and was just about to rush to her assistance when he reflected that the noise she had made would certainly bring James to the scene; being anxious to avoid the old man’s reproaches at all costs, he snatched with panic haste at the spare keys hanging on a hook nearby, and having found the one that opened his side of the mansion, opened the door and vanished. James, ill as he was, had jumped out of bed; he turned on the lights, lifted up his unhappy wife, and presently Paul too came out of his part of the house in a bathrobe and asked what had happened. But Rachel, her tongue numbed by horror, could not speak, and since Paul was the only other person who could have cast any light on the matter, it remained an unexplained mystery. Rachel, trembling in every limb, was carried to her bed, where she lay ill for several days with an acute fever; nevertheless, she had enough natural good health to recover tolerably well, and apart from a strange depression with which it left her the incident was without consequence.

            A year had thus passed when Justine, Paul’s wife, died of breast cancer. The loss of this virtuous and well-educated young woman was an event not only regrettable in itself but doubly so in that it gave fresh occasion for the indulgence of Paul’s primary vice; his passion for women. Once again he began to linger late at night with the employees of the Dollar Generals, on the pretext of working hard to forget the sorrow of his wife’s death, although it was known that when his wife was alive he had shown her very little love or fidelity. Indeed, before Justine had even been buried, Rachel, in the course of making arrangements for the funeral, entered Pauls’ room one evening and found him there having sex with a woman whom, with her heavy make-up and large, floppy breasts, she recognized only too well as Tiffany Gotchim. On seeing her, Rachel lowered her eyes and turned and left the room without a word to Paul. She said nothing to James or to anyone else about this, and contented herself with kneeling down in her room and weeping for Justine, for the latter had loved Paul passionately. But it so happened that James, who had been out of the town, met Tiffany as he was entering the house; and well realizing what her business here had been, he accosted her sternly and induced her, half by subterfuge and half by force, to give him her cell phone, along with the password to unlock it. Fearful of losing her job, she gave him her cell phone, and he read her text messages. As he had guessed, he saw messages from Paul to Tiffany, one even being sent less than a minute prior, telling her that he wanted to see her again as soon as possible, and asking her to pick a time and place. James sat down and replied on Tiffany’s phone: “Meet me in the megachurch parking lot tomorrow morning, in front of the statue of the crucifix.” Then he told Tiffany to not interfere with his plans or discuss this encounter if she wanted to keep her job. The ruse was entirely successful: Paul left the house the next morning, under the pretense of filling in for an employee who had called in sick last minute, drove to the megachurch, and was astonished to see James and Rachel approaching him, as the statue was not something you would pass if you were going to attend the service. Paul asked his adoptive parents what they were doing, since they normally didn’t attend services on this day. But the old man, after glaring at Paul with seething anger, merely answered, “Tiffany Botcher,” then spat at his feet and walked away.

            As a result of this deeply humiliating episode, Paul was filled with a burning hatred for Rachel, whom he believed to be responsible for the disgrace which her husband had inflicted on him. For several days James did not speak to him; and since Paul nevertheless stood in need of his favor and goodwill in connection to Justine’s estate (a family lawyer was handling it), he was constrained to repent before his father one evening with every appearance of remorse and swear to give up Tiffany once and for all. He had, however, no intention of keeping this promise; on the contrary, in the face of opposition he merely became more defiant and more cunning in the act of evading the good man’s vigilance. At the same time he thought he had never seen Rachel looking more beautiful than at the moment when, to his consternation, she had opened his door and closed it again at the sight of him and Tiffany fornicating like rabid animals. A soft flush of indignation had lent infinite charm to her gentle face which only seldom showed any emotion; and Paul arrogantly thought that she had lingered in the doorway longer than necessary to admire him in primal action; in addition he thought it incredible that she, with so many attractions, should not herself occasionally get tired of her old husband, desire a younger man, and wish to partake in the indulgence for which she had just punished him so shamefully. He burned with desire, should this turn out to be the case, to repay her in kind by informing her husband; and all he needed and sought was an opportunity for carrying out this plan.

            On one occasion, when James happened to be out of the house, Paul was passing Rachel’s door when he heard, to his surprise, the sound of someone moaning in her room. He couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman. A malicious hope at once flashed through his mind; he stooped down to listen through a crack in the door and there, great heavens! what should he see but Rachel lying, naked, on her bed with an arched back and tightly-shut eyes. But he couldn’t see beneath her torso. Was there anybody in the room? Was she completely naked? While trying to see through the crack he quite clearly heard her as, in the very accents of what seemed to be passionate lust, she whispered ‘Paul.’ With beating heart he rushed outside to the window and there took up a position from which he could watch her bedroom secretly; but it was too late; presently he saw her stand up, put on a silk robe, and leave the room. Here at last, he told himself, was the exquisite moment of his unmasking of this spurious saint: but when he ran back inside and crossed Rachel, she cast him a completely unperturbed and indifferent glance. She walked calmly into the kitchen then to the gym at the other side of their mansion. To Paul this hypocritical display of composure seemed the very height of cynical cunning; she was scarcely out of sight when he rushed to enter her bedroom. But to his amazement the room was quite empty, and though he searched every nook and cranny he could find no trace of a man, but in the bottom drawer beneath some papers he did find some faded, polaroid photographs. Paul was startled because in the pictures was a boy who looked very similar to him. But maybe he was wrong and he was merely imposing his fantasies on these images. A host of thoughts and conjectures rushed through his mind. But before he could collect and compose them he began to be apprehensive that Rachel would discover him and punish him in some way; he snatched two of the polaroid photographs, closed the bedroom door again in some confusion and withdrew.

            The more he thought about this remarkable incident, the more convinced he became of the importance of the pictures he had discovered, and the more acute and urgent grew his curiosity to know who the boy in the pictures was. For he had clearly heard Rachel moan as if experiencing an orgasm. In the uneasiness of mind that possessed him he went to Tiffany Gotchim and told her of this strange experience. Tiffany was just as anxious as Paul to discredit Rachel, whom she falsely blamed for all the difficulties that were being put in the way of their liaison; and she declared that she would like to see the polaroid photographs. For she could boast of an extensive acquaintance in their town, and if the young man in question was a person of the least consequence, the chances were that she would know him. Sure enough it happened before long that James and his wife went into the country one Sunday to visit a relative; and no sooner was the coast clear that Paul brought Tiffany to his house, accompanied by a small daughter whom she had had by a mechanic, and showed them the photographs. But no sooner had he placed the photographs in front of Tiffany and her daughter, whose name was Amber, than Amber exclaimed, “Holy cow! Mr. Lerner but that’s a picture of you!” Tiffany fell silent. The photo did indeed, the longer she looked at it, bear a singular resemblance to him. Paul tried to laugh off the sudden flush of embarrassment which came over him; he kissed the little girl and said, “Sure it does, my little Amber, it’s about as much like me as you are like the man who thinks he is your father!” But Tiffany, in who the bitter pangs of jealously were stirring, merely looked at him; and after squinting at the photos and remarking that after all the identity of the person was a matter of indifference, she took her leave of him rather coldly and left the room. 

            As soon as Tiffany had left, Paul fell into a great state of excitement over this scene. His suspicious had been correct and he remembered with delight the strange and violent turmoil into which Rachel had been thrown by his appearance on the night of the Halloween party when he was dressed up like Neo. And the thought of having inspired a passion in this walking model of womanly virtue was almost as sweet to him as that of taking his revenge on her. Having now the prospect of gratifying both desires at one and the same time, he waited impatiently for Rachel’s return and for the moment when he would look into her eyes and crown his still hesitant hopes with certainty. In this elation the one thing that gave him pause was the recollection that when he had spied on her through the crack in the door, the name she had moaned might not of have been Paul. Could it have been Rob? Col? And yet the coincidence of the photographs and his desire caused him to convince himself that it was indeed ‘Paul,’ and this reflection filled him with sweet reveries, though he could not tell why; and faced with the choice of disbelieving one of two senses, his eyes or his ears, he naturally inclined to the evidence that was more flattering to his desires.

            Meanwhile several days passed before Rachel returned from the country, where she had been staying with a cousin; from his house she brought back with her a young woman who wanted to see Tennessee, visit Graceland, and eat BBQ. And being occupied with polite attentions to this young woman, Rachel cast only a fleeting and insignificant glance at Paul as with the most amiable courtesy he greeted her in the driveway and carried in her luggage. For several weeks, which were devoted to the entertainment of her guest, Rachel was busy, visits were made to places in and outside the city which would be likely to appeal to a young and lively girl; and Paul, busy at the Dollar Generals and therefore not invited on any of these expeditions, began again to harbor keen resentment against Rachel. Bitter feelings rankled in him as he thought of the unknown man she so devoutly adored in secret; and the torment of his depraved heart reached its height on the evening after the young cousin’s departure, an evening for which he had waited with longing, but on which Rachel, instead of speaking to him, sat in silence for an hour at the dining-room table, scrolling through images on her iPad. It so happened that James, a few days earlier, had been inquiring after the whereabouts of a toy firetruck with which Oliver had played with; for since no one needed it now, it had occurred to him to make a present of it to small child in the neighborhood. Before dinner he found the firetruck and left with it to give it to the neighbor, and Paul used this opportunity to execute his plan. He sat next to Rachel and quietly placed one of the polaroid photographs beneath her iPad and waited for her to see it. With secret delight he pondered the implications of her discovery that he knew about this mysterious boy. He waited with beating heart for the moment when Rachel would become aware of the photograph. His expectations were not disappointed; for no sooner had she, in an idle moment, noticed this photo beneath her iPad and unsuspectingly leaned forward (for she was a little short-sighted) to get a better look, than she fixed a sudden strange look of anguish on Paul’s face as he sat gazing down at the photo with mocking indifference. She resumed scrolling on her iPad with an indescribable expression of sadness; she wept quietly, and a soft flush covered her cheeks. These signs of emotion did not escape Paul, who was unobtrusively watching her, and he no longer had any doubt that she had feelings for him. She grabbed the photo, and his wild hopes reached their height as she rose, laid aside her iPad and disappeared into her bedroom. He was just about to leave his seat and follow her when James entered and, on inquiring for Rachel, was told by Paul that she had felt unwell and gone to lie down. James, without seeming particularly alarmed, turned and went to her room to see how she was; and when he returned a quarter of an hour later, announced that she would not be eating dinner, and then did not mention the matter again. Paul remembered the many mysterious scenes of this kind that he had witnessed growing up, and felt convinced that he now held the clue to their meaning. 

            The following morning, as he sat gloating over his new discovery and considering how he might best exploit it, he received a text from Tiffany in which she asked him to come and see her, as she had some interesting news for him about Rachel. Tiffany enjoyed the intimate acquaintance of bartenders throughout the town, and Paul had no doubt that Tiffany must have succeeded in eliciting some information about the secret history of Rachel’s feelings in relation to the photograph which would prove favorable to his unnatural desires. There was, however, an unpleasant surprise in store for him; for Tiffany, after greeting him with an oddly roguish air and drawing him down beside her on to a lumpy couch in her apartment, declared that what she had to tell him was simply that the object of Rachel’s love was a boy who had died sixteen years ago during a school shooting. The polaroid photographs he had found in her bedroom beneath the papers in the drawer were likely taken right before the tragedy. They were of Solomon Lifchitz, who everyone called Saul. He had saved Rachel’s life. Tiffany added that she must ask Paul not to make any use of this secret, as it wouldn’t be right to rekindle such memories of trauma. Paul, flushing and turning pale by turns, assured her that she could set her mind at rest; and being quite unable to conceal from her mischievous glances the embarrassment into which this disclosure had flung him, he excused himself on the pretext of having some business at the Dollar General and took his bag, his upper lip twitching unpleasantly as he left her. 

            Humiliation, lust and a desire for revenge now conspired in his mind to engender a deed of unutterable vileness. He well knew that deception would be the only access to Rachel’s pure soul; and at the first opportunity James gave him by going for a few days into the country, he prepared to execute the satanic plan on which he had decided. He dressed himself in clothes identical to the ones in the polaroid photographs, fixed his hair like Saul did, and stealthily entered her room just before bedtime. He stood in the corner of the room and awaited Rachel’s adoring homage. And his reckoning, sharpened by shameful passion, had been entirely correct; for she presently entered, undressed quietly and calmly, and had no sooner drawn back as usual the silk curtain of the alcove and set eyes on him in the corner, than with a cry of “Saul! My love!” she fell senseless to the floor. Paul stepped out of the corner of the room; he stood for a moment absorbed in contemplation of her charms and gazed at her delicate figure now suddenly paling in the embrace of death; but presently, since there was no time to be lost, he took her up in his arms and carried her to bed. Having done this he went to lock the door, but found it already locked; and confident that even after recovering her disordered senses she would offer no resistance to the fantastic and supernatural apparition for which she must take him, he now returned to the bed and set about reviving her with burning kisses on her lips and breasts. But the Nemesis that dogs the heels of crime had decreed that James, who was to have been absent, as the wretched Paul supposed, for another few days, should chance to return to his part of mansion unexpectedly at that very moment. Thinking Rachel would already be asleep, he crept softly along the hallway; and as he always carried the keys with him, he was able to open the door without making a sound and stepped suddenly into the room. Paul stood speechless; and as there was no possibility of dissembling his disgraceful intentions, he threw himself at the old man’s feet and implored his forgiveness, vowing never to cast eyes upon his wife again. And James did, indeed, feel inclined to deal with the matter discreetly. Bereft of words of something which Rachel whispered to him as she revived in his arms and gazed with horror at her assailant, he merely closed the curtains of her bed, took a handgun from a safe in the closet, opened the door and pointed to it, indicating thereby to Paul in what direction he must now immediately betake himself. But the latter, seeing that nothing was to be gained by his show of penitence, behaved at this point in a manner worthy of the lowest, most reckless bastard; he suddenly stood up and declared that it was for James and Rachel to leave the house, for he, Paul, was now its owner by deed of gift and he would defend his title to it against all comers. James could scarcely believe his ears; disarmed by this inconceivable piece of effrontery, he put down the gun, left the house with Rachel, and drove to the house of an old friend, the lawyer Dr. Nathanial Lee. On reaching his friend’s house he collapsed unconscious in the foyer before he could utter a word. The lawyer let him and Rachel stay the night, and the next morning contacted the police to procure the arrest of the abominable Paul. But the infernal scoundrel’s legal position was strong; and while James vainly sought ways and means to dispossess him of the property over which he had already given him full rights, Paul had at once paid an enormous sum of money to a well-connected lawyer and appealed to him for protection against, as he said, the old fool was now trying to evict him. In the end, wickedness prevailed, and this prince of evil was able to induce the authorities to issue a decree confirming Paul’s title to the property and enjoining James to leave him in possession without further interference.

            Two weeks later James buried the unhappy Rachel, who as a result of the recent episode had fallen into a burning fever and died. Maddened by this double blow he went into Paul’s mansion with the injunction in his pocket, and with rage lending him strength he felled Paul, who was of a weaker build, to the floor, and crushed out his brains against the wall. There was a cleaning lady in the horse, but she did not notice James’ presence until the deed was already done; by the time she arrived at Paul’s room, to investigate the screaming, she found James holding Paul between his knees and stuffing the injunction into his mouth. Having done so he stood up, surrendered himself, called the police, confessed his crime, and was then imprisoned, tried, and condemned to death by the electric chair.

            Since James had been a faithful member of his community’s megachurch there were attempts by the religious community to convince him to receive absolution while he was on death row. When a pastor (the same one who had presented Paul in the megachurch) came to James’ cell, he refused to receive absolution. After all the arguments of religion had been vainly adduced to convince him of the heinousness of his behavior, he tried to unsuccessfully hang himself with a strip of bedsheet tied to the top of his bunk. The pastor returned and described to him all the terrors of hell in which his soul was about to be plunged if he succeeded in killing himself. He spoke to him of the glorious abodes of eternal peace if he repented: ‘Will you accept the blessed gift of the sacrament?”

            “No,” replied James.

            “Why not?”

            “I do not want to be saved, I want to go down into the deepest pit of hell, I want to find Paul again – for he will not be in heaven – and continue my vengeance on him which I could not finish here to my full satisfaction.” And so saying he told the pastor to leave and asked to see his lawyer.

            In the end the death penalty was delayed and the wretched man had to stay in his solitary confinement cell, watched 24/7 to prevent more suicide attempts. Lawyers prolonged the process and sometimes James would scream into the door, the walls, pounding his fists in bitter rage, and curse the inhuman law that forbade him to go to hell. He called upon the whole legion of devils to come and fetch him, swore he had no other wish but to be doomed and damned, and vowed he would throttle the next person who came to hand if by so doing he might get to hell and lay hold of Paul. When this was reported to the judge, he ordered that James should be executed as soon as possible; one month later James convulsively shook in the electric chair as the prison guards strapped him in, shouting his last words, “I’M COMIN’ FOR YA, YOU LITTLE FUCKER!” before a 2450 volt charge coursed through his body. Then there was nothing but silence and the smoke from his charred scalp rising up to the ceiling.

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The Lovers in Haiti*

*Santo Domingo…Inspired and adapted from Heinrich von Kleist’s The Betrothal in Santo Domingo

            On Monsieur Charles de Clichy’s plantation at Port-au-Prince in the French sector of the island of Santo Domingo there lived at the beginning of the 1800s, at the time when the blacks were revolting against the whites, a revengeful black man named Fuad. He was stolen from the Gold Coast of Africa at the age of sixteen, had been recognized in his youth to be of a loyal and honest disposition, and having once saved his master’s life when they were sailing across to Louisiana, he had been rewarded by the latter with innumerable favors and kindnesses. Not only did Monsieur de Clichy at once grant him his freedom, and on returning to Santo Domingo make him the gift of a house and a home; a few years later, although this was contrary to local custom, he even appointed him as manager of his considerable estate, and since Fuad did not want to re-marry provided him, in lieu of a wife, with an old mulatto woman called Bisoken. Bisoken, who was distantly related to Fuad’s first wife, was living on the plantation at the time with a half-white son named Jacques. Fuad was kind to the child and helped raise the boy, but he did not love him, because Jacques’ skin was lighter than all the other slaves. The boy also disliked his stepfather and secretly dreamed of buying his freedom and leaving the island, and this ambitious desire was felt and resented by all those around him. In his early youth Jacques would often play with the white children of Monsieur Charles de Clichy, since they were kinder to him than the slaves of his age, and even formed a secret friendship with the bold niece of Charles, Eva, who was visiting the island one winter at the age of twelve. They exchanged flowers and whispers the night before she returned to France, and in their childish innocence believed they would someday be married.

            When Fuad had reached the age of sixty Monsieur Charles retired him on a handsome pay and as a crowning act of generosity even made him a legatee under his will; and yet all these proofs of gratitude failed to protect Monsieur de Clichy from the fury of this ferocious man. In the general frenzy of vindictive rage that flared up in all those plantations as a result of the reckless actions of the National Convention, Fuad had been one of the first to seize his gun and, remembering only the tyranny that had snatched him from his native land, blew his master’s brains out. He set fire to the house in which Madame de Clichy had taken refuge with her family and all the other white people in the settlement, he laid waste the whole plantation to which the heirs, who lived in Port-au-Prince, could have made claim, and when every structure except the main building on the estate had been razed to the ground he assembled an armed band of black men and began scouring the whole neighborhood, to help his blood-brothers in their struggle against the whites. Sometimes he would ambush travelers who were making their way in armed groups across the country; sometimes he would attack in broad daylight the settlements in which the planters had barricaded themselves, and would put every human being he found inside to the sword. Such indeed was his thirst for revenge that he even insisted on the elderly Bisoken, her young daughter Juliette (a fifteen-year-old mestiza), and Jacques taking part in this ferocious war by which he himself was feeling altogether rejuvenated: the main building of the plantation, in which he was now living, stood in an isolated spot by the road, and since it often happened during his absences that white or creole refugees came there seeking food or shelter, he instructed the two women and his stepson to offer assistance and favors to these white dogs, as he called them, and thus delay them in the house until his return. Bisoken, who suffered from consumption as a result of a cruel flogging that had been inflicted on her when she was a girl, used on these occasions to dress up her young daughter and son in their best clothes, for Juliette’s yellowish complexion and Jacques light brown skin made them very useful for the purpose of this hideous deception; Juliette was urged to refuse the strangers no caresses short of the final intimacy, which was forbidden her on pain of death, and Jacques was urged to instill confidence in the men that the dwelling was safe; and when Fuad returned with his troop from his expeditions in the surrounding district, immediate death would be the fate of the wretches who had allowed themselves to be beguiled by these stratagems.

            Now in the year 1803, as the world knows, when General Dessalines was advancing against Port-au-Prince at the head of thirty-thousand black men, everyone whose skin was white retreated to this stronghold to defend it. For it was the last outpost of French power on this island, and if it fell no white person on Santo Domingo had any chance of escape. And thus it happened that just when old Fuad was not there, having set out with his black followers to take a consignment of powder and lead right through the French lines to General Dessalines, on a dark and stormy and rainy night someone knocked at the back door of his house. Old Bisoken, who was already in bed, got up, merely throwing a skirt round her waist, opened the window and asked who was there. ‘By the Blessed Virgin and all the saints,’ said a woman in a low voice, placing herself under the window, ‘before I tell you, answer me one question!’ And reaching out through the darkness of the night to grasp the old woman’s hand, she asked, ‘Are you a negress?’ Bisoken said, ‘Well, you must surely be a white woman, since you would rather look this pitch-black night in the face than a negress! Come in,’ she added, ‘there’s nothing to fear; I am a mulatto woman, and the only people except myself who live in this house are my daughter, a mestiza, and my son, another mulatto!’ and so saying she closed the window, as if intending to come down and open the door to her; but instead, on the pretext that she could not at once lay hands on the key, she snatched some clothes out of the cupboard, crept upstairs to her son’s bedroom, and woke him. ‘Jacques!’ she said, ‘Jacques!’ ‘What is it, mother’ ‘Quick,’ said Bisoken. ‘Get up at once and dress! Here are clothes, clean white linen and stockings! A white woman on the run is at the door and wants to be let in!’ ‘A white woman?’ asked Jacques, half sitting up in bed. He took the clothes which the old woman handed to him and said, ‘But mother, is she alone? and will it be safe for us to let her in?’ ‘Of course, of course!’ replied the old woman, striking a light, ‘she is unarmed and alone and trembling in every limb for fear of being attacked by us!’ And so saying, as Jacques got up and put on his shirt and pants, she lit the big lantern which stood in the corner of the room, went to go wake up Juliette and dress her, then gave the lantern to Jacques and ordered him to go down to the courtyard and fetch the stranger in.

            Meanwhile the barking of some dogs in the yard had wakened a small boy called Danky, an illegitimate son of Fuad’s by a negress, who slept in the outhouses with his brother Peppy; and seeing in the moonlight a woman standing by herself on the steps at the back door, he at once, as he was instructed to do in such cases, rushed to the main gate through which the woman had entered, and locked it. The stranger was puzzled by this and asked the boy, whom to her horror she recognized at close quarters as a black boy; ‘Why did you do that? Who else is here?’ And on hearing his answer that since Monsieur de Clichy’s death the property had been taken over by Fuad, she was just about to shoot the boy with a pistol, snatch the key to the main gate form his hand, and escape into the open, when Jacques, holding the lantern, came out of the house. ‘Quick!’ he said, seizing her hand and drawing her towards the door, ‘come in here!” As he spoke he was careful to hold the lantern in such a way that its beam would fall full on his face. The moment the woman started to ask, ‘Who are you?’ she became flooded with relief and joy, ‘Jacques! Is that you? Thank god! It’s me! Eva! Do you remember-‘ She tried to embrace him, but he stepped back, afraid they would be seen. ‘Eva! Yes! It’s me, Jacques. I remember! But be quiet. You can’t-‘ Eva, surprised that Jacques had recoiled, and returning to her senses, remembered the small boy locking the gate. She became suspicious. ‘Who else is living here? Jacques? Am I safe?’ ‘No one, I swear by the heavens above, but my mother, my sister, and myself!’ And he realized his mistake in stepping back, and renewed his efforts to draw her inside. ‘What, no one!’ cried Eva, snatching her hand from his and taking a step backwards. ‘Did this boy not tell me just now that Fuad is living here? And that my uncle is dead?’ ‘No, I tell you,’ said Jacques, quickly gazing up at the house then looking at Eva with a pleading stare, ‘I mean, yes your uncle is dead, he was killed by Fuad, and although the house belongs to Fuad now, he is absent and ten miles away!’ And so saying he dragged Eva into the house with both hands, ordered the boy to tell no one who had arrived, seized his childhood love by the hand as they passed through the door, and led her upstairs to his mother’s room. 

            ‘Well,’ said the old woman, who had been listening to the whole conversation from the window and learned that Jacques and Eva had recognized one another, ‘what’s the meaning of that pistol you’re tucked under your arm?’ And she added, putting on her spectacles: ‘We have risked our own lives by granting you refuge in our house; have you come in here to reward this kindness with treachery, as is customary among your fellow countrymen? ‘God forbid!’ replied Eva, who was now standing right in front of her chair. She set the pistol on the ground, seized the old woman’s hand, pressed it to her heart, and then cast a few glances round the room before saying, ‘You see before you the most wretched of women, but not an ungrateful criminal!’ ‘Who are you?’ asked the old woman as she feigned ignorance, pushing up a chair for the woman with her foot and telling Juliette to go into the kitchen and prepare as good a supper for the guest as she could manage in a hurry. The woman replied, ‘My name is Eva and I come from France. My family arrived on this island to visit my uncle a day before the rebellion broke out.’ She leaned forward and gripped her soaking-wet hair. ‘Oh how I wish we had never left home for this accursed island! We have come from Fort Dauphin, where as you know all the whites have been murdered, and our purpose is to reach Port-au-Prince before General Dessalines succeeds in surrounding and besieging it with the troops under his command.’ ‘From Fort Dauphin!’ exclaimed the old woman. ‘So you actually succeeded, with your white faces, in traveling all that way right through a country in revolt?’ ‘God and all the saints protected us!” replied Eva. ‘Who else is with you?’ asked Bisoken. ‘My father, who is wounded, my aunt, her five children, several servants and maids who belong to the family, a company of thirteen souls, with only two wretched mules to help us, and we have to escort them in indescribably laborious night marches, for we dare not let ourselves be seen by daylight on the highway.’ ‘Why heaven save us!’ exclaimed the old woman, shaking her head compassionately and taking a pinch of snuff. ‘And where are your travelling companions at this moment?’ Eva hesitated for a moment, glanced at Jacques, then replied, ‘You are someone I can trust; in your face, like a gleam of light, there is a tinge of my own complexion. I will tell you that my family is hidden a mile from here, by Raven pond, in the thick woods that cover the hills round it; hunger and thirst forced us the day before yesterday to take refuge there. We sent our servants out last night to try to buy a little bread from the country people, but in vain; for fear of being caught and killed they made no effective attempt to do so, and consequently I myself, at mortal risk and against my father’s wishes, snuck away from our hiding-place tonight, since I know the territory, to try my luck. If I am not much deceived,’ she continued, pressing the old woman’s hand, ‘heaven has led me to compassionate people who do not share the cruel and outrageous resentment that has seized all the inhabitants of this island. Please be kind enough – I will pay you very well for it – to let me have a few baskets full of food, refreshments, and medical supplies; we are only five more days’ journey from Port-au-Prince, and if you would provide us with the means to reach that town, we shall forever afterwards think of you three as the saviors of our lives.’ ‘Indeed, indeed, this frenzy of resentment,’ said the old woman hypocritically. ‘Is it not as if the hands of one and the same body or the teeth of one and the same mouth raged against each other simply because they were differently made? Am I, whose father came from Santiago in Cuba, responsible for the faint gleam that appears on my face during the day? And is my son, who was conceived and born in Europe, responsible for the fact that the full bright light of that part of the world is reflected in his complexion? ‘What!’ exclaimed Eva, ‘do you mean to say that you yourself, who as the whole cast of your features show are a mulatto and therefore of African origin, that both you and your handsome son who opened the door of the house to me, are condemned to the same fate as us Europeans?’ ‘By heavens!’ replied the old woman, taking her glasses from her nose, ‘do you suppose that this little property, which through years of toil and suffering we acquired by the work of our hands, does not provoke the rapacity of that horde of ferocious plundering devils? If we did not manage to protect ourselves from their persecution by means of the only defense available to the weak, namely cunning and every imaginable dissimulation, then let me assure you that the shadow of kinship with them which lies on our faces would not save us!’ ‘It’s not possible!’ cried Eva. ‘Who on this island is persecuting you?’ ‘The owner of this house,’ answered the old woman, ‘Fuad! Since the death of Monsieur de Clichy, the previous owner of this plantation, whom he savagely murdered at the outbreak of the revolt, we who, as his relatives, keep house for him are subject in every way to his whims and brutalities. Every time we offer, as an act of humanity, a piece of bread or drink to one or other of the white refugees who sometimes pass this way, he repays us for it with insults and ill-treatment; and it is his dearest wish to inflame the vengeance of the blacks against us white and creole half-dogs, as he now calls us, partly in order to get rid of us altogether because we reproach him for his savagery against the whites, and partly in order to gain possession of the little property that we would leave behind us.’ ‘You poor people!’ said Eva, ‘poor pitiable wretches! And where is this monster now?’ ‘With General Dessalines’ army,’ answered the old woman. ‘He set out with the other blacks from this plantation to take him a consignment of powder and lead which the General needed. We are expecting him back in ten or twelve days, unless he has to go off on other business; and if on his return he should discover, which God forbid, that we have given protection and shelter to a white woman on her way to Port-au-Prince while he has been devoting all his efforts to the extermination of the entire white race on the island – then believe me, the lives of all of us would be forfeit.’ ‘God, who loves humanity and compassion,’ replied the stranger, ‘will protect you in your kindness to a victim of misfortune! And since in that case,’ she added, moving closer to the old woman, ‘you have incurred Fuad’s resentment anyway, so much so that even if you were to go back to obeying him it would not longer do you any good, could you perhaps see your way, for any reward you like to name, to giving shelter for a day or two to my father, aunt, and our families, who are utterly exhausted by our journey, and could here recover their strength a little? ‘Young woman!’ said the old woman, in amazement, ‘what are you asking of me? How could we possibly lodge a party of travelers as big as yours in a house standing right by the roadway without the fact becoming known to the whole neighborhood?’ ‘Why not,’ urged Eva, ‘if I myself were to go out at once to the pond and lead my party back to the settlement before day break? If we were to lodge them all, masters and servants alike, in one and the same room in this house, and perhaps even take the precaution, in the case of the worst, of carefully shutting up the doors and windows there?’ The old woman, after considering the suggestion for a little, replied that if she were to attempt to fetch her family from the mountain ravine and bring them to the settlement that night, she would undoubtedly encounter a troop of armed black men on the road who were expected to be advancing along the military highway, as some forward patrols had already reported. ‘Very well,’ replied the woman, ‘then for the present let us content ourselves with sending my family a basket of food, and postpone till tomorrow night the operation of conducting them to the settlement. Are you willing to do that, my good woman?’ ‘Well,’ said the old woman, as Eva glanced hopefully at Jacques, ‘for the sake of the European who was my son’s father I will do this kindness for you, as his fellow countrymen in distress. At daybreak tomorrow sit down and write a letter to your family inviting them to come here to me in this settlement; the boy you saw in the yard can take them the letter together with some provisions and medicine, stay overnight with them in the mountains to make sure they are safe, and at dawn the following day, if they accept the invitation, act as guide to bring the party here.’

            In the meantime Juliette had returned with the meal she had prepared in the kitchen, and as she laid the table she asked the old woman, ‘Well, tell me, mother! Has the woman recovered from the fright she was in at our door? I heard yelling. Is she now convinced that there is no one lying in wait for her with poison and dagger, and that Fuad is not at home?’ Her mother said with a sigh, ‘My child, as the proverb says, once burnt twice shy of the fire. The woman would have acted foolishly if she had ventured into this house without making sure to what race the people living here belonged.’ Jacques, standing next to his mother, told her how he had held the lantern in such a way that its full beam had fallen on his face. ‘But,’ he said, giving Eva a knowing stare, ‘her mind was obsessed with blackamoors and negroes, and if a man from Paris or Marseilles had opened the door to her, she would have taken him for a black man.’ Eva, smiling and blushing, said in some embarrassment that her wet hair had prevented her from seeing his face. ‘If I had been able,’ she continued, staring deep into his eyes, ‘to look at your face as I am doing now, then even if everything else about you had been black, I should have been willing to drink with you from a poisoned cup.’ She flushed even deeper as she surprised herself with these words, and Jacques mother and Juliette stared at her in shock and embarrassment. After a pause, Jacque’s mother urged them all to sit down, whereupon Jacques seated himself at the opposite end of the table, gazing hard at Eva while she eat. The latter asked the family questions about their ages and native towns. Bisoken mostly spoke for her children and told Eva that when she had been accompanying her former employer, Madame de Clichy, she had conceived Jacques in Paris and that that was where, twenty-nine years ago, he had been born. She added that the black man Komar, whom she afterwards married, had in fact adopted the child, but that his real father had been a rich merchant from Marseilles called Gustave Ballair, and that consequently his name was Jacques Ballair. Jacques asked Eva whether she knew a gentleman of that name in France; she answered she did not, that it was a big country, and that during the years she had spent there before embarking for Louisiana she had met no one called Gustave Ballair. The old woman added that in any case, according to fairly reliable reports as she had received, Jacques’ father was no longer living in France. She said that his ambitious and enterprising temperament found no satisfaction within the restrictions of bourgeois life; at the outbreak of the Revolution he had involved himself in public affairs and in 1795 had joined a French diplomatic mission to the Ottoman court; from there, so far as she knew, he had never returned. Eva, smiling at Jacques, said: ‘Why, in that case you are nobly born and a rich man!’ She urged him to make use of these advantages, saying that he might well expect, with his father’s assistance, to rise again to a social position more distinguished than his present one. ‘That can hardly be so,’ replied the old woman, restraining her evident resentment at this remark, ‘During my pregnancy in Paris, Monsieur Ballair, feeling ashamed of me because he wanted to marry a rich, white young lady, went before a court and formally repudiated the paternity. I shall never forget the brazen perjury he committed to my face; the consequence was that I fell into a bilious fever, and soon after that Monsieur de Clichy ordered me to be given sixty lashes too, as a result of which I have suffered consumption to this day.’ Jacques, wanting to change the subject, asked Eva to give some details of the outbreak of the rebellion in Fort Dauphin. She told how at midnight, when everyone was asleep, a treacherous signal had been given for the blacks to start massacring the whites; how the leader of the black men, a sergeant in the French pioneer corps, had had the malevolence to set fire at once to every ship in the harbor in order to cut off the whites’ retreat to Europe; how her family had only just had time to escape from the town with a few possessions and how, the revolt having flared up everywhere simultaneously all along the coast, they had no choice but to set out, with two mules they had managed to find, heading straight across the island for Porte-au-Prince, which being defended by a strong French army was now the only place still holding out against the increasing power of the black population. Jacques, continuing to stare hard at Eva, asked her that didn’t she believe this violence was justified, that hadn’t the whites come to incur such hatred in the first place? Eva, a little disconcerted, replied that the cause lay in the general relationship which as masters of the island they had had with the blacks. ‘And to tell you the truth,’ she added, ‘I will not attempt to defend the situation, but it is one which has lasted for many centuries. The mad lust for freedom which has seized all these plantations has driven the black race and creoles to break the chains that oppressed them, and to take their revenge on whites for much reprehensible ill-treatment they have had to suffer at the hands of some of us who do our race no credit.’ After a short pause she continued, ‘I was particularly struck and horrified by the action of one young black man, who was lying sick with yellow fever just at the time when the revolt broke out, for the plight of Fort Dauphin had been greatly worsened by an epidemic of this disease. Three years earlier he had been the slave of a white planter, whose wife fell in love with him, but when their tryst was discovered the wife claimed to her husband that she had been raped. Her husband beat the slave to the edge of death, not killing him because he had always doubted his wife’s fidelity and because the slave wouldn’t be worth anything dead, then when the slave was recovered sold him to a creole planter. On the day of the general uprising the young man heard that his former master and his family, pursued by the furious black rebels, had taken refuge in a woodshed nearby; remembering his ill-treatment, he sent his brother to the family as evening fell, inviting the wife to stay the night with him. The wretched woman, who knew neither that the young man was sick nor what disease he was suffering from, fled from her husband, came to the black man’s room full of hope and gratitude, thinking herself saved, and took him in her arms; but she had scarcely been half an hour in bed with him, making love, caressing him, and kissing him when he suddenly sat up with an expression of cold, savage fury and said, ‘I whom you have been kissing am infected with pestilence and dying of it; go now and give the yellow fever to all your kind!’ And as the old woman loudly proclaimed her abhorrence of such a deed, Eva asked Jacques: ‘Could you ever do a thing like that?’ ‘No,’ said Jacques, without breaking his stare at Eva from across the table. Eva, lying her napkin on the table, declared that it was her deep inner conviction that no tyranny the whites had ever practiced could justify a treachery of such abominable vileness. ‘Heaven’s vengeance is disarmed by it,’ she exclaimed, rising passionately from her seat, ‘and the angels themselves, filled with revulsion by this overturning of all human and divine order, will take sides with those who are in the wrong and will support their cause!’ So saying, she walked across for a moment to the window and stared out at the night sky, where stormy clouds were drifting past the moon and the stars; then, as she had the impression that the mother, daughter, and Jacques were looking at each other, although she could see no sign of any communication between them, an unpleasant feeling of worry came over her; and turning to them she asked to be shown to her room where she could sleep.

            Jacques’ mother, looking at the clock on the wall, observed that in any case it was nearly midnight, and taking a candle she asked the stranger to follow her. She led her to the room assigned to her, at the end of a long corridor; Jacques brought her coat and various other things she had discarded; his mother showed Eva the very comfortably made-up bed where she would sleep, and after telling Jacques to get a footbath ready for the lady, she wished her good night and took her leave. Eva put her pistol in the corner of the room. As Jacques pushed the bed forward and spread a white sheet over it she looked around. She observed the luxury and taste, and remembered that it had been furnished in almost the exact same way when her uncle was here and alive; a feeling of apprehension seized her heart like the beak and talons of a bird of prey, and she began to wish that she was back with her family in the woods, as hungry and thirsty as when she had come here. Meanwhile, from the kitchen nearby, Jacques had fetched a basinful of hot water, spiced with aromatic herbs, and invited Eva, who was leaning against the window, to refresh herself with it.

            ‘Do you remember,’ whispered Eva, ‘when we gave each other flowers on the night before I left, all the years ago, and promised each other that we would marry one another?’ ‘I do, like it was yesterday.’ Jacques looked deep into Eva’s eyes as she sat down and began taking off her shoes and stockings. Eva admired his black hair and firm muscles as he set the bath in front of her; there was something extraordinarily powerful about his limbs and the way he moved, she could have sworn that she had never seen anything more attractive. She was also struck by the remote resemblance, she did not herself yet rightly know to whom, which she had noticed as soon as she entered the house and which drew her whole heart towards him. When he rose after completing his tasks she caught hold of Jacques hand, and knowing that there was only one way of finding out whether the man had sincere feelings or not she drew him down to his knees and asked him whether he was already engaged to be married. ‘No,’ he murmured, looking at Eva with great black eyes and an air of conviction; and without moving he added that his mother wanted him to marry a young black woman named Kolly who lived in that neighborhood but that he refused to propose to her. Eva, pulling him closer, and gazing at the small golden cross he wore around his neck, asked, ‘Why not? Is she ugly?’ Jacques pulled away, “Oh no! On the contrary, she is quite pretty. And she has become rich recently, her father has gained possession of the whole settlement that used to belong to his master the planter.’ ‘So will you propose to her now that she is rich?’ Jacques shook his head briefly and laughed; and when Eva pulling him back closer and whispering playfully in his ear, asked whether it was necessary to be a black woman in order to gain his favor, he suddenly, after a fleeting pensive pause, and with a frown on his face, stood up. But he didn’t leave the room, and after a moment looked down at Eva with a wide, mischievous smile. Eva, moved by his face and the smile, called him back and embraced him, feeling that the hand of god had swept away all her anxieties. She could not possibly believe that all these signs of emotion he showed her were merely the wretched antics of cold-hearted, hideous treachery. The thoughts that had preyed on her mind were dispersed like a host of ominous birds; she reproached herself for having failed even for a moment to appreciate his true feelings, and as she embraced him harder and inhaled the odor of his body, she pressed a kiss against his side, as a token of reconciliation and forgiveness. Meanwhile Jacques was standing completely still with a strange startled suddenness, as if listening for steps in the passage approaching the door; in a kind of pensive reverie he turned toward the door; and only when he realized that his alarm had been mistaken did he turn again to Eva with the same, mischievous smile, reminding her that if she did not use the hot water soon it would get cold. ‘Well?’ he asked in some surprise, as Eva said nothing but went on gazing at him thoughtfully, ‘why are you still staring at me?’ He tried to conceal his embarrassment that had overcome him by adjusting the foot bath, then exclaimed, “Do you remember when we hid in that tool shed all afternoon, while you parents were looking for you?’ Eva replied, “I do, and I remember what we did…’ For a moment they gazed into one another eyes, until Eva added, ‘You know, there’s an extraordinary resemblance between you and a friend of mine!” Jacques, noticing that the intimate mood had passed, and feeling a bit relieved, took Eva kindly and sympathetically by the hand and asked, ‘Who is he?’ Whereupon, after reflecting for a moment or two, she made the following answer: ‘His name was Marius Conleau and he came from Strasbourg. His father was a merchant in that city, I had met him there shortly before the outbreak of the Revolution and had been lucky enough to obtain his consent to marry me, as well as his father’s approval. Oh, he was the most handsome, the most loyal man on earth; and when I look at you, the terrible and moving circumstances in which I lost him come back so vividly to my mind and fill me with such sorrow that I cannot restrain my tears.’ ‘What?’ asked Jacques, moving closer to her, ‘he is no longer alive?’ ‘He died’ answered Eva, ‘and it was his death alone that taught me the very essence of all goodness and nobility. God knows,’ she muttered, bowing her head in grief upon his shoulder, ‘how I allowed myself to be so utterly reckless as to make certain remarks one evening in a public place about the terrible Revolutionary Tribunal which had just been set up. I was denounced, my arrest was sought; and since I had been fortunate enough to escape to the outskirts of the city, the bloodthirsty band of my pursuers, failing to find me but insisting on some victim or other, even rushed to my fiancée’s house; and so infuriated were they by his truthful declaration that he did not know where I was, that with outrageous cynicism, on the pretext that he was my accomplice, they dragged him instead of me to the scaffold. No sooner had this appalling news been conveyed to me than I emerged from the hiding-place into which I had fled, and hastened, pushing my way through the crowd, to the place of execution, where I shouted at the top of my voice,’ ‘Here I am, you inhuman monsters!’ But he, already standing on the platform beside the guillotine, on being questioned by some of the judges who as ill-fortune would have it did not know me by sight, gave me one look which is indelibly imprinted on my soul, and then turned away, saying: ‘I have no idea who that woman is!’ And a few moments later, amid a roll of drums and a roar of voices, at the behest of those impatient butchers, the iron blade dropped and severed his head from his body. How was I saved I have no idea; a quarter of an hour later I was in a friend’s house, swooning and recovering consciousness by turns, and towards evening, half bereft of my senses, I was lifted into a carriage and conveyed across the Rhine.’ With these words Eva, letting go of Jacques, returned to the window, where he saw her, in deep emotion, bury her face in a handkerchief; at this, for more than one reason, he was overcome by a sense of human compassion, and impulsively followed her, embracing Eva from behind, pressing her close to his body, and mingling his tears with hers.

            There is no need to report what happened next, for it will be clear to anyone who has followed the narrative thus far. When the stranger regained possession of herself and took account of what had happened, she had no idea what its consequences might be; but for the time being at least she understood that she was saved, and that in this house she had entered there was nothing for her to fear from Jacques. Seeing him sitting on the edge of the bed, naked, with his head in his hands and staring at the floor, distraught with what he had done, she did everything she could to console him. She took from her breast the little golden cross which was a present from her dead finance, the faithful Marius, and leaning over Jacques and caressing him with the utmost tenderness she hung it around his neck, saying that it was her gift to him. As Jacques continued to stare at the floor, motionless, Eva sat down on the edge of the bed, and told him, stroking and kissing his shoulder, that they should be married. She described to him the little estate that she possessed on the banks of the La Nièvre; a house sufficiently comfortable and spacious to accommodate him, his sister, and his mother as well, after they returned to Europe; she described her fields, gardens, meadows and vineyards, and her venerable aged father who would welcome him there with gratitude and love for having saved his daughter’s life. As Jacques continued to sit on the edge of the bed in silence, Eva embraced him passionately, and beginning to weep, begged him to reveal his feelings about what she said. She swore that the love she felt for him would never fade from her heart. She told him that she had loved him since they were children, and that she had never forgotten their promise. In the end she reminded him that the morning stars were glistening in the sky and that if he stayed in this room any longer his mother would come and surprise him there; she urged him, for the sake of his health, to get up and rest for a few hours in his own bed; filled with the direst alarm by his lack of response, she asked if there was anything she could do, or if she had said or done something wrong. But since he made no answer to anything she said and simply kept staring at the ground, and since daylight was already gleaming through both windows, she whispered, ‘If you won’t give me the dignity of a response, please go,’ and he collected his clothes returned to his bedroom.

            As soon as day had fully dawned, old Bisoken went upstairs to her son, sat down by his bed and told him the plan she had decided upon for dealing with the stranger and her traveling companions. Since Fuad would not be back for two days it was all-important, she thought, to delay the stranger in the house for that period without admitting her family, whose presence might be dangerous on account of their numbers. The scheme she had thought of for this purpose, she said, was to pretend to the stranger that according to a report just received General Dessalines and his army were about to march through this district, and that it would therefore be much too dangerous to accommodate the family in the house, as was their wish, until he had passed by in three days’ time. Finally, she said, the party must be provided with food so that they would not move on, and otherwise delayed in the delusion that they would find refuge in the house, so that they might all be overpowered later on. She added that this was an important matter, since the family were probably carrying property of considerable value with them; and she told her son that she relied on his full cooperation in the project she had just outlined to him. Jacques, sitting up in his bed and flushing with anger, replied that it was shameful and contemptible to violate the laws of hospitality in this way against people whom one had lured into one’s house. He said that a woman who was being pursued and had entrusted herself to their protection ought to be doubly safe with them, and declared that if his mother did not abandon the bloodthirsty scheme she had proposed, he would at once go and tell the stranger that the house in which she had thought she had reached safety was a den of murderers. “Jacques!” exclaimed his mother, pressing his hands against his sides and staring wide-eyed at the young man. ‘Yes, indeed!” replied Jacques, lowering his voice. ‘What harm has this young woman done to us? Why should we fall on her like bandits and kill her and rob her? Do such grievances as we may have against the planters here exist in the part of the island in which she comes? Is it not, rather, quite obvious that she is an entirely noble-minded and honorable woman who has in no way participated in the injustices committed by her race against the blacks?’ The old woman, observing the remarkable vehemence with which the young man spoke, merely stammered her astonishment. She asked him what wrong the young Portuguese had done whom they had recently clubbed to death at the gateway; she asked what crime the two Dutchmen had committed whom the negroes had shot in the yard three weeks ago; she demanded to know what accusation could be brought against the three Frenchmen and against so many other individual fugitives of the white race who since the revolt had been executed in this house with muskets, pikes and daggers. ‘By the heavens above us,’ replied her son, rising wildly to his feet, ‘you are very wrong to remind me of these atrocities! The inhuman deeds in which you all forced me to take part have for a long time sickened me to the very soul; and in order to satisfy the vengeance of God upon me for all that has happened, I swear to you that I would rather die ten times over than allow a hair of that young woman’s head to be touched as long as she is in our house.’ ‘Very well,’ said the old woman, suddenly adopting a conciliatory tone. ‘Then the stranger can go on her way! But,’ she added, rising to leave the room, ‘when Fuad returns and finds out that a white woman has spent the night in our house, then you may give an account to him of the compassionate feelings that moved you, in defiance of his express orders, to let such a visitor go again once she had been let in.’

            On hearing this remark, which despite its apparent mildness barely concealed the old woman’s malice, Jacques sat on in his room in a state of some consternation. He knew his mother’s hatred for the whites too well to be able to believe that Bisoken would let an opportunity for gratifying it pass by unused. Alarmed by the thought that she might immediately send out to the neighboring plantations for negroes to come and capture Eva and her family, he got dressed and followed his mother without delay to the living-room downstairs. Bisoken appeared to be doing something at the cupboard where the food was kept, but as Jacques entered it she left it with an air of confusion and sat down at the spinning-wheel; the young man stood gazing at the proclamation fixed to the door, which on pain of death forbade all blacks to give accommodation and shelter to whites; then, as if frightened into an understanding of the wrong he had committed, he suddenly turned and got down on his knees at the feet of his mother, who as he well knew had been watching him from behind. Embracing the old woman’s knees, he begged her to forgive the wild things he had said in defense of the stranger, excused himself as having been only half awake when the proposals for outwitting her had been unexpectedly put her him while he was still in bed, and declared himself willing to surrender her utterly to the vengeance of the existing laws of the land, since these had decreed her destruction. The old woman, after a pause during which she looked the young man straight in the face, said: ‘By heaven, this speech of yours has saved her life, for today at least! For since you were threatening to protect her, I had already poisoned her food, and that would have delivered her, dead at any rate, into the hands of Fuad, in accordance with his orders.’ So saying she rose, took a pan of milk that was standing on the table, and poured its contents out of the window. Jacques, scarcely believing his senses, stared at his mother in horror. The old woman sat down again by the young man, who was still on his knees on the floor, raised him to his feet, and asked him what could have happened in the course of a single night to change his attitude so suddenly. Had he spent any length of time with the stranger yesterday evening after preparing her bath? And had he had much conversation with her? But Jacques, whose heart was beating fast, made no answer, or no definite answer, to these questions; he stood with downcast eyes, pressing his hands to his head, and said that he had had a dream; but one look at his unhappy mother’s breast, he added, stopping down quickly to kiss the old woman’s hand, had recalled to his mind all the inhumanity of the race to which this stranger belonged. Turning and pressing his face into her apron he assured Bisoken that as soon as the negro Fuad arrived he would see what sort of stepson he had.

            Bisoken was still sitting there pensively, wondering what might be the cause of the young man’s strange impassioned mood, when the young woman entered the room with a note which she had written in her bedroom, inviting her family to spend a few days at Fuad’s planation. Evidently in the best of spirits, she greeted the mother and young man very affably, and giving the note to the former, asked her to send someone to the woods with it immediately, at the same time providing for the needs of the party as she had promised. Bisoken got up with an air of agitation, putting the note away in the cupboard and saying, “Miss, we must ask you to go back to your bedroom at once. The road is full of negro patrols passing one after another, and they report to us that General Dessalines is about to march through this district with his army. The door of this house is open to all, and you will not be safe in it unless you hide in your bedroom which looks out on the main courtyard, and lock its doors very carefully as well as fastening the window shutters.’ ‘What?’ said the stranger, surprised, ‘General Dessalines-’ but the old woman interrupted her, knocking three times on the floor with a stick. ‘Ask no questions,’ she said. ‘I will follow you to your room and explain it all to you there.’ As she thrust her out of the living room with anxious gestures, Eva turned round again at the door and exclaimed to her, ‘But my family is waiting for me and surely you will at least have to send a messenger to them who-” ‘That will all be attended to,’ broke in the old woman and at that moment the bastard negro boy of whom we have already spoken entered the room, summoned by the tapping of her stick. Then Bisoken told Jacques, who was looking into the mirror with his back turned to the stranger, to pick up a basket containing food which stood in the corner of the room; and the mother, the son, the stranger and the boy went upstairs to the bedroom.

            Here the old woman, settling herself comfortably into an armchair, explained that the campfires of General Dessalines’ army had been seen flickering all through the night on the hills that cut off the horizon – this was in fact the case, although until the moment of speaking not a single negro from among his troops, who were advancing south-westwards towards Port-au-Prince, had yet been observed in this area. She thus succeeded in plunging the stranger into a turmoil of anxiety which, however, she was later able to calm, assuring her that she would do everything in her power to save her, even if the worst came to worst and the troops were billeted on her. When she repeatedly and urgently reminded Bisoken that in these circumstances she must at least assist her family with provisions, Bisoken took the basket from her son’s hand, gave it to the boy and told him to go out to Raven pond in the nearby wood on the hillside and deliver it to the young woman’s kinsmen who he would find there. She added that he must inform them that the young woman was well; he was to say that friends of the white people, who for taking sides with them had themselves to suffer a great deal from the blacks, had taken her into their house out of compassion. Finally, she said, he must tell them that as soon as the highway was clear of the expected negro troops, steps would at once be taken to offer shelter in the house to the family as well. ‘Do you understand?’ she asked when she had finished speaking. The boy, putting the basket on his head, replied that he knew very well Raven pond which she had described to him, having sometimes gone there with friends to fish, and that on finding the foreign woman’s family who had camped there he would convey to them exactly the message that he had been given. When the old woman asked the stranger whether she had anything to add she pulled a ring from her finger and handed it to the boy, telling him to deliver it to the head of the family, Monsieur Gervais, as a token that the information he was bringing was correct. Bisoken then made various arrangements designed, as she said, to ensure the stranger’s safety; she ordered Jacques to close the shutters, and in order to dispel the resulting darkness in the room she herself lit a candle, using a tinder box which she took from the mantelshelf and which gave her some trouble as at first it would not kindle a light. The stranger took advantage of this moment to put her arm gently round Jacques’ waist and ask him, whispering in his ear, how he slept and whether he ought to inform his mother of what had happened; but Jacques made no reply to the first question and to the second, freeing himself from her arm, he answered, ‘No, not a word, if you love me!’ He concealed the anxiety which all these deceitful preparations by his mother aroused in him, and on the pretext that he must make some breakfast for the stranger, he rushed downstairs to the living-room.

            From his mother’s cupboard he took the letter in which the stranger in her innocence had invited her family to follow the boy back to the settlement, and taking a chance on whether his mother would miss it, he hurried after the boy who was already on his way along the road. He was resolved, if the worst should happen, to perish with the young woman whom he now regarded, in his heart before God, no longer as a mere guest to whom he had given protection and shelter, but as his lover, his betrothed wife; and he had decided, as soon as Eva was strongly enough supported in the house by her followers, to declare this to his mother who would in these circumstances, as he reckoned, be thrown into confusion. Hastening breathlessly along the road he overtook the negro boy, ‘Danky,’ he said, ‘my mother has changed her plan about Madame Gervais’ family. Take this letter! It is to Monsieur Gervais, the old man who is the head of the family, and it invites him to spend a few days in our settlement with his whole party. Be a clever boy and do everything you possibly can to persuade him to accept this arrangement; Fuad will reward you for your help when he comes back!’ ‘Very well, Cousin Jacques,’ answered the boy, carefully folding up the letter and putting it in his pocket. ‘And am I,’ he asked, ‘to act as guide to bring the party back here?’ ‘Of course,’ replied Jacques. ‘That is obvious, because they don’t know the district. But it is possible that there may be troops marching along the highway, so you must not set out before midnight; after that, however, you must be as quick as you can to get them back here before dawn. Can we rely on you?’ he asked. ‘You can rely on Danky!’ answered the boy. ‘I know why you are enticing these white fugitives into the plantation, and I shall serve the negro Fuad well!”

            Jacques then helped his sister Juliette serve the stranger her breakfast, and after it had been cleared away the mother, sister, and son went back into the living room at the front of the house to go on with their domestic tasks. After some time, inevitably, the old woman went to the cupboard and naturally enough missed the letter. She pressed her hand for a moment against her head, not trusting her memory, and asked Jacques where she could have put the note that the stranger had given her. Jacques, after remaining silent for a moment with downcast eyes, answered that to his knowledge the stranger herself had put it back in her pocket and then torn it up, in the presence of both of them, upstairs in her room. His mother stared at the young man wide-eyed, saying she was sure she could remember her handing it to her and that she had put it in the cupboard; but since after much vain searching she failed to find it and since a number of similar incidents had made her regard her memory as unreliable, she finally had no choice but to accept her son’s account of the matter. She could not, however, conceal her extreme vexation at this occurrence, pointing out that the letter would have been of the greatest importance to Fuad as a means of luring the family to the plantation. At midday and in the evening, as Jacques was serving food to Eva and Bisoken was sitting at the corner of the table to talk to her, Bisoken several times took the opportunity of asking Eva about the letter; but Jacques, whenever this dangerous point was approached, cleverly changed the subject or confused the conversation, so that his mother was never able to make any sense of what the stranger said about the letter or discover what had really become of it. Thus the day passed; after the evening meal Bisoken locked the stranger’s room, for her own safety, as she said, and after some further discussion with Jacques about what trick she might use to get possession of a similar letter on the following day, she went to bed and ordered her son to do the same.

            As soon as Jacques, who had longingly waited for this moment, reached his bedroom and had convinced himself that his mother was asleep, he took the picture of the Holy Virgin from where it hung by his bed, placed it on a chair, and knelt down before it with clasped hands. He besought the Savior, the divine Son of Our Lady, in a prayer of infinite fervor, to not only forgive him but to grant him enough courage and constancy to confess to the young woman to whom he had taken without the sanctity of marriage the crimes that burdened his young soul. He vowed, at all costs, whatever pain it might bring to his heart, to conceal nothing from her, not even the pitiless and terrible intention with which he had enticed her into the house on the previous day; yet he hoped that for the sake of what he had already done towards securing her rescue she would forgive him, and take him back with her to Europe as her faithful husband. Wonderfully strengthened by this prayer, he rose and took the master key that opened all the rooms in the house, and with it crept carefully, not lighting a candle, along the narrow passage that ran across the building, to the door of the stranger’s bedroom. He opened it softly and approached her bed, where she was lying in a deep sleep. The moonlight shone on her fresh, youthful face, and the night breeze, blowing through the open windows, ruffled her hair on her brow. He leaned gently over her, breathing in her sweet breath, and called her by name; but she was immersed in a deep dream, which seemed to be about him: at all events he repeatedly heard her, with trembling lips, ardently whisper, ‘Jacques, Jacques!’ He was overcome by a feeling of indescribable sadness, and could not bring himself to drag her down from the heights of enchanting fantasy into the depths of base and miserable reality; and certain that in any case she would wake of her own accord, he knelt down by her bed and covered her dear hand with kisses.

            But what words can describe the horror that seized him a few moments later when suddenly, from inside the courtyard, he heard the noise of men and horses and weapons, and could quite clearly recognize the voice of Fuad, who with the whole band of his followers had unexpectedly returned from General Dessalines’ camp. He rushed to hide behind the window curtains, carefully avoiding the moonlight which might have betrayed his presence, and sure enough he could at once hear his mother delivering a report to Fuad of everything that had happened during his absence, including the European refugee’s arrival in the house. Fuad, lowering his voice, commanded silence among his troops in the courtyard, and asked the old woman where the stranger was at that moment; whereupon she pointed out the room to him and at the same time took occasion to inform him of the strange and remarkable conversation she had heard between her son and the fugitive; revealing that the fugitive was indeed not a stranger, but the niece of the late Monsieur Charles de Clichy. She assured Fuad that her son was betraying them and that the entire project of killing the woman and her family was therefore at risk. At all events, she said, she had well noted that the treacherous bastard had crept secretly to the fugitive’s bed at nightfall, and there he would be still taking his ease at this very moment; he might even now, if indeed the woman had not already fled, be warning her and devising with her some means of effecting her escape. Fuad, who had had proof in the past of the young man’s loyalty in similar cases, exclaimed in reply: ‘Surely what you tell me is impossible!’ Then in a fury he shouted: ‘Wesley! Anel! Bring your guns!’ And thereupon, without another word, he climbed the stairs with all his negroes following him, and entered the stranger’s room.

            Jacques, who in the course of just a few minutes had witnessed this whole scene, stood as if thunderstruck, numbed into immobility. For a moment he considered waking the stranger, but for one thing he knew that because of the troops in the courtyard she could not possibly escape, and in addition he foresaw that she would perhaps attempt to seize her pistol and thus, with the negroes outnumbering her as they did, be struck down and killed at once if she tried to defend herself. Indeed, the most terrible thought of all those that occurred to him was that the unfortunate woman, finding him standing beside her bed at such a time, would assume that he had betrayed her and, driven to despair by so disastrous an illusion, would ignore his advice and senselessly rush into Fuad’s arms. At this moment of unspeakable anguish his eyes fell upon a piece of rope which, by some unaccountable chance, was hanging from a hook on the wall. God himself, he thought, as he snatched it down, had put it there to save him and his lover. In a trice he wound it round the young woman’s hands and feet, knotting it firmly and ignoring her stirrings and resistance; then, when he had pulled the ends tight and tied them fast to the bedstead, he pressed a kiss on her lips and, delighted to have regained control of the situation for a moment, rushed out to meet Fuad who was already clattering up the stairs. 

            When the negro, still incredulous of the old woman’s report about Jacques, saw him emerging from the room which had been pointed out to him, he stopped in amazement and confusion and stood still in the corridor at the head of his troop of torchbearers and armed men. “Disloyal bastard!” he cried out, and turning to Bisoken, who had advanced a few steps towards the stranger’s door, he asked: ‘Has the woman escaped?’ Bisoken, who had found the door open but not looked through it, returned to him with a face of fury, exclaiming: ‘The deceitful traitor! He has let her get away. Be quick and set guards on every exit, before she reaches open country!’ ‘What’s the matter?’ asked Jacques, starring with an air of astonishment at the old man and the soliders who stood round him. ‘The matter?’ retorted Fuad, and so saying he seized Jacques by the neck and dragged him to the bedroom. ‘Are you all crazy?’ cried Jacques, repulsing the old negro, who stood rooted to the spot at the sight that met his eyes. ‘There lies your stranger, tied up in her bed by me; and by heaven, this is not the worst deed I have done in my lifetime!’ So saying he turned his back on him and kicked a table in feigned frustration across the room. The old man turned to his mother, who was standing on one side in confusion, and said, “Oh Bisoken, what tale is this you have been deceiving me with?’ Thank heavens!’ replied the old woman, examining in some embarrassment the rope that held the stranger captive, ‘she is here, although I don’t understand how all this came about.’ The negro, sheathing his sword, went to the bed and asked the woman questions, attempting to verify who she was, where she had come from, and where she was going. But since the prisoner merely struggled convulsively to free herself and could utter no words except an anguished moan of ‘Oh, Jacques! Oh, Jacques!’ Bisoken spoke for her and told Fuad that she was visiting the island with her family of European dogs when the revolt began, and that they were on their way from the harbor town Fort Dauphin, but were at this moment hiding in the mountain caves by Raven pond. Fuad, seeing Jacques leaning against wall disconsolately with his arms akimbo, went over to him. The old man put his hand on Jacques’ shoulder, and asked him for forgiveness concerning his over-hasty suspicion. The old woman, who had also gone up to her son, stood with her hands on her hips, shaking her head. ‘But why’ she asked him, ‘did you rope the stranger to the bed, when she had no idea of the danger she was in?’ Jacques, with tears in his eyes on account of his distress and rage, turned suddenly to his mother and answered, ‘Because you are blind and deaf! Because she knew perfectly well the danger that was hanging over her! Because she was trying to get away to reunite with her family; because she had asked me to help her escape; because she was plotting against your own life, and would quite certainly have carried out her intention before daybreak if I had not tied her up while she was asleep.’ The old negro patted Jacques’ back, attempting to comfort him, and ordered Bisoken to say no more on the subject. He ordered two of his musketeers to come forward with their guns and execute immediately upon the woman the law to which her life had fallen forfeit; but Bisoken whispered secretly to him: ‘No, for heaven’s sake, Fuad!’ She took him aside and pointed out to him that the stranger, before they executed her, must write a letter asking her family to join her, so that by this means the family could be enticed into the plantation, whereas it would be in many respects dangerous to attack them in the forest. Fuad, taking into account the probability that the family would not be unarmed, approved this suggestion; since it was now too late to have the agreed letter written, he detailed two of his men to guard the white fugitive, and after taking the further precaution of examining the ropes and even, since he found them too loosely tied, summoning two or three of his followers to tighten them, he left the room with his whole troop, and before very long the whole household had retired to bed.

            But Jacques had only been acting a part when the old man had grasped him again by the hand and he had said good night to him and retired to his room; as soon as all was quiet in the house he got up again, slipped through a back door and out into the open country, and with the wildest despair in his heart ran along the road that intersected the main highway, towards the place from which Eva Gervais’ family would be coming. For the glances full of contempt which Eva had cast at him from her bed had pierced his heart like knife wounds; a burning feeling of bitterness now mingled with his love for her, and he exulted in the prospect of dying in this enterprise designed to save her life. Fearing to miss the family, he stood waiting under a pine tree past which they would all have to come if they had accepted the invitation; and sure enough, as agreed, the first ray of dawn had scarcely appeared on the horizon when the voice of the boy Danky, who was acting as their guide, could be heard from some way off among the trees.

            The procession consisted of Monsieur Gervais, who had miraculously recovered from his wound, his sister, the latter riding on a mule; her five children, two of whom, Tancrede and Martin, young men of nineteen and eighteen, were walking beside the mule, four servants and two maids, one of whom was riding the other mule with an infant at her breast; thirteen persons in all. They advanced slowly along the path, which was crisscrossed with tree-roots, and reached the trunk of the pine; whereupon Jacques, very quietly in order not to give alarm, stepped out from the shadow of the tree and called to the procession to stop. They boy at once recognized him, and when he asked where Monsieur Gervais was he eagerly introduced him to the elderly head of the family, while men and women and children surrounded him. He addressed Monsieur Gervais in resolute tones, interrupting his words of greeting. ‘Noble sir!’ he said, ‘the negro Fuad has quite unexpectedly returned to the settlement with his whole troop of followers. You cannot enter it now without exposing your lives to the utmost danger; indeed your daughter, who was unfortunate enough to be admitted to the house, is doomed unless you take your weapons and follow me to the plantation, where the negro Fuad is holding her prisoner!’ ‘Merciful heavens!’ exclaimed the whole family in alarm; and the aunt, who was ill and exhausted from the journey, fainted and fell from her mule to the ground. While the maidservants, called by Monsieur Gervais, ran up to help their mistress, Jacques was besieged with questions by the young men, and fearing the boy Danky he took Monsieur Gervais and the other men aside. Not withholding his tears of shame and remorse, he told them all that had happened: how matters had stood at the moment of the young woman’s arrival at the house, and how his private conversations with her had quite incomprehensibly changed everything; what he had done, almost mad with fear, when Fuad had come back, and how he was resolved to risk his life to free Eva again from the trap in which he himself had caught her. ‘My weapons,’ cried Monsieur Gervais, hastening to his sister’s mule and taking down his musket. And as her stalwart sons Tancrede and Martin and the three sturdy servants were also arming themselves, he said, ‘My daughter put her life in grave danger sneaking away in the night to find us help, now it is our duty to do everything we can to rescue her.’ Thereupon he lifted his sister, who had recovered herself, back on to the mule, took care to have the boy Danky’s hands tied so that he would be a kind of hostage, and sent all his womenfolk and children back to Raven pond guarded only by his aunt’s thirteen-year-old son Julien who was also armed. Then he questioned Jacques, who had taken a helmet and pike for his own use, about the numerical strength of the negroes and how they were positioned in the courtyard, and after promising him to do his utmost in this enterprise to spare both Fuad, his mother, and his sister, courageously placed himself, trusting in God, at the head of his small company and began, with Jacques as guide, to advance towards the settlement.

            As soon as they had all crept in by the back gate, Jacques pointed out to Monsieur Gervais the room in which Fuad and Bisoken lay asleep; and while he and his men silently entered the unlocked house and took possession of all the negroes’ firearms, he slipped off round to the stable in which Danky’s five-year-old half-brother Peppy was sleeping. For Danky and Peppy, Fuad’s bastard children, were very dear to the old negro, especially the latter, whose mother had recently died, and even if they were to succeed in liberating his captured lover, it would clearly still be very difficult for them to get back to Raven pond and from there to Port-au-Prince, where he intended to escape with them. He therefore rightly concluded that it would be very advantageous for the company of fugitives to be in possession of both the little boys, as a form of guarantee for their safety should they be pursued by the negroes. He succeeded, without being seen, in lifting the boy out of his bed and carrying him in his arms, half asleep and half awake, over into the main building. Meanwhile Monsieur Gervais and his men, as stealthily as possible, had entered Fuad’s bedroom: but Fuad and Bisoken, instead of being in bed as he expected to find them, had been wakened by the noise and were both standing in the middle of the room, although half naked and helpless. Monsieur Gervais, musket in hand, shouted to them to surrender or he would kill them; but Fuad, instead of replying, snatched a pistol from the wall and fired a wild shot at the company, grazing Monsieur Gervais’ head. This was the sign from the latter’s followers to attack him furiously; after Fuad had fired a second shot which went through the shoulder of one of the servants, a blow from a cutlass wounded him in the hand, and both he and Bisoken were overpowered and lashed with ropes to the frame of a large table. In the meantime Fuad’s soliders, twenty or more in number and sleeping in the outbuildings, had been wakened by the shots, and hearing old Bisoken screaming in the house, had rushed out and were furiously trying to force their way into it to regain their weapons. In vain Monsieur Gervais, whose wound was insignificant, stationed his men at the windows and tried with musket fire to check the advance of the negro soldiers; heedless of the fact that two of them already lay dead in the courtyard, they were about to fetch axes and crowbars in order to break down the door of the house which Monsieur Gervais had bolted, when Jacques, trembling with apprehension and carrying the boy Peppy in his arms, entered Fuad’s room. Monsieur Gervais, greatly relieved to see him, snatched the boy from him and, drawing his hunting knife, turned to Fuad and vowed that he would instantly kill his son if he did not call out to his men and order them to withdraw. Fuad, whose strength was broken by the sword-wound in three fingers of his hand, and whose own life would have been in danger if he had refused, consented after a moment’s consideration to do this, and asked them to lift him from the ground. Led by Monsieur Gervais, he stood at the window and taking a handkerchief in his left hand he waved it and shouted to his soldiers in the yard, telling them that he had no need of their help to save his life, and that they were to leave the door untouched and get back into their outhouses. This brought about a lull in the fighting; at Monsieur Gervais’ insistence, Fuad sent a man who had been taken prisoner in the house out into the yard to repeat this order to some of his men who were still standing there discussing what to do; and since the blacks, although they could make neither head nor tail of the matter, could not disregard this official communication, they abandoned their enterprise, for which everything was already prepared, and gradually, although grumbling and cursing, retired to their sleeping-quarters. Monsieur Gervais had the boy Peppy’s hands tied up in front of Fuad and told the latter that his intention was simply and solely to free his daughter from her imprisonment on the plantation, and that if no obstacles were put in the way of their escape to Port-au-Prince, then neither his, Fuad’s, life nor those of his children would be in any danger and the two boys would be returned to him. Jacques approached Bisoken and, full of emotion which he could not suppress, attempted to take her hand in farewell, but the old woman vehemently repulsed him. She called him a contemptible traitor and, bound as she was to the legs of the table, twisted herself round and predicted that God’s vengeance would strike him even before he could enjoy the fruits of his vile deed. Jacques replied, ‘I have not betrayed you; I am a white man and betrothed to this young woman whom you are holding prisoner; I belong to the race of those with whom you are openly at war and I will be answerable before God for having taken their side.’ Monsieur Gervais then set a guard on Fuad, having again as a precaution had the ropes secured round him and firmly fixed to the doorposts; he had the servant who was lying unconscious on the ground with a shattered shoulder-blade lifted and carried away; and after finally telling Fuad that in a few days’ time he would have both children, Danky as well as Peppy, fetched back from Sainte Luce, where the first French outposts were stationed, he gestured towards Jacques to follow him; overcome by a variety of emotions Jacques could not forbear weeping as, with Bisoken and Fuad hurling curses after them, he and Monsieur Gervais departed the bedroom. 

            In the meantime, as soon as the first main fighting at the windows was over, Monsieur’s nephews Tancrede and Martin had on their uncle’s instructions hurried to their cousin Eva’s room, and had been fortunate enough to overcome, after a stubborn resistance, the two blacks who were guarding her. One of them lay dead in the room, the other, shot and severely wounded, had dragged himself out into the corridor. The brothers, the elder of whom had himself been wounded, though only slightly, in the thigh, untied their dear beloved cousin from the bed: they embraced and kissed her, gave her a pistol, and joyfully invited her to accompany them to the front room where, since victory was now assured, her father would not doubt be already making all the arrangements for their withdrawal. But their cousin Eva, half sitting up in the bed, merely pressed their hands warmly, she was silent and distracted, and instead of taking the pistol they offered her, raised her right hand to her forehead and passed it across it in a gesture of inexpressible sorrow. The young men had sat down beside her and asked what was wrong; she put her arms round them and laid her head on the younger cousin’s shoulder without saying a word; and just as Martin, thinking she was going to faint, was about to rise and fetch her a glass of water, the door opened and Jacques entered carrying the boy Seppy with Monsieur Gervais at his side. At this sight Eva changed color: she stood up, clinging to her cousins for support as if she were on the verge of collapsing, and before the two youths could tell what she intended to do with the pistol she now snatched from them, she had, gritting her teeth with rage, fired a bullet straight at Jacques. It went right through his breast; with a stifled cry of pain he staggered another few steps towards her and then, handing the little boy to Monsieur Gervais, sank down at her feet; but she hurled the pistol over him to the ground, kicked him away from her, calling him a traitor, and threw herself down on the bed. ‘Why, what have you done!’ cried Monsieur Gervais and his two nephews. The latter rushed to Jacques, raised him in their arms and shouted for one of the old servants who during their march had given medical assistance in many similar desperate cases; but the young man, convulsively pressing his hand against the wound, pushed his friends back, and pointing to the woman who had shot him gasped brokenly with his last breath: ‘Tell her -!’, and again, ‘tell her-!’ ‘What are we to tell her?’ asked Monsieur Gervais, for death was robbing him of speech. Tancrede and Martin rose to their feet and cried out to the perpetrator of this appalling and senseless murder: ‘Do you not know that this man saved your life, that he loves you and that it was his intention to escape to Port-au-Prince with you, to whom he had sacrificed everything, his parents, and all he had?’ They shouted into her ears: ‘Eva! Can’t you hear us?’, and shook her and pulled her by her clothes, for she was lying on the bed heedless of them and of everything. Eva sat up. She glanced at the young man where he lay writhing in his blood, and the fury which had impelled her to the deed gave way not unnaturally to a feeling of common compassion. Monsieur Gervais, weeping hot tears and with his handkerchief to his eyes, asked her: ‘My daughter. My poor, wretched daughter, why did you do that?’ Eva, who had risen from the bed and was standing looking down at the young man and wiping the sweat from her brow, answered that he had with infamous treachery tied her up in the night and handed her over to Fuad. ‘Oh!’ cried Jacques, reaching out his hand towards her with a look no words can describe, ‘dearest friend, I tied you up, because-!’ but he could not speak, nor even reach her with his hand; his strength suddenly failed him and he fell back on to Monsieur Gervais’ lap. ‘Why?’ asked Eva, turning pale and kneeling down beside him. Monsieur Gervais, after a long pause during which they waited in vain for an answer from Jacques, the silence broken only by his dying gasps, replied for him and said: ‘Because, my unhappy daughter, there was no other way to save you after Fuad’s arrival; because he wanted to prevent the fight you would undoubtedly have started, and to gain time until we reached you, for thanks to him we were already hurrying here to rescue you by force of arms.’ Eva buried her face in her hands. ‘Oh!’ she cried without looking up, and the earth seemed to give way under her feet, ‘is this true, what you are telling me?’ She put her arm round him and gazed into his face, her heart rent with anguish. ‘Oh’, cried Jacques, and these were his last words, ‘you should not have mistrusted me!’ And so saying, the noble-hearted man expired. Eva tore her hair. “It’s true!’ she exclaimed, as her cousins dragged her away from the corpse, ‘I should not have mistrusted you, for you were betrothed to me by a vow, although we had not put it into words!’ Monsieur Gervais, lamenting, took off the man’s shirt and urged the servant, who was standing by with a few crude instruments, to try to extract the bullet which he thought must have lodged in his breast-bone; but all their efforts, as we have said, were in vain, the shot had pierced right through him and his soul had already departed to a better world. During this, Eva had gone over to the window; and while Monsieur Gervais and his nephews, weeping silently, were discussing what was to be done with the body, and whether the young man’s mother should be called to the scene, she took up the other, still loaded pistol, and blew her brains out with it. This new deed of horror threw her family into utter consternation. They rushed over to the fallen body; but the wretched woman’s skull was completely shattered, parts of it indeed adhering to the surrounding walls, for she had thrust the pistol into her mouth. Monsieur Gervais collapsed in despair; ten minutes later the cousins were still doing their best to help him regain his composure, for already bright daylight was shining through the windows and the negroes were reported to be stirring again in the courtyard; there was therefore no choice but to begin the company’s immediate withdrawal from the settlement. Not wishing to abandon the two dead bodies, they laid them on a board, and the party with muskets reloaded set out in sorrowful procession towards Raven pond. Tancrede, carrying the boy Peppy, walked first, with his gun cocked; next came the two strongest servants bearing the dead bodies on their shoulders; behind them another servant support Monsieur Gervais, who could hardly walk, and then Martin with another servant followed behind the slowly advancing cortège, with their guns cocked. The negroes, seeing the group so weakly defended, emerged from their quarters with pikes and pitchforks and seemed to be about to launch an attack; but Fuad, whose captors had prudently released him, came out of the house on to the steps and signaled to his men to leave them alone. ‘At Sainte Luce!’ he called out to Monsieur Gervais, who had already reached the gateway with the dead bodies and who could hear nothing. ‘At Sainte Luce,” Martin and Tancrede called back for their uncle, knowing their uncle couldn’t speak; whereupon the procession, without being pursued, passed out into the open country and reached the forest. At Raven pond, where they found the remainder of the family, a grave was dug for the dead and many tears shed for them; and when the rings that Jacques and Eva both wore had been exchanged in a final gesture, the two lovers were lowered, amid silent prayers, into the place of their eternal rest. Five days later Monsieur Gervais was fortunate enough to reach Sainte Luce with his sister, her children and their servants, and there, as he had promised, he left the two negro boys behind. Entering Port-au-Prince shortly before the beginning of the siege, he fought recklessly on its ramparts against an attack; and when the city after stubborn resistance had fallen to General Dessalines, he and the French army escaped aboard ships of the British fleet; the family sailed to Europe, where without further mishap they reached France. There Monsieur Gervais settled by himself and using the rest of his small fortune bought a secluded house in the Loire Valley, just outside the city of Blois. And in the year 1807, among the bushes of his garden, one could still see the monument he had erected to the memory of his daughter Eva, and to the faithful Jacques, her husband-to-be.

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The Near and the Far

5.5 minute read. Inspired and adapted from Wolfe’s The Far and the Near

On the edge of New York City, somewhere in the Throggs Neck neighborhood of the Bronx, there was a decrepit house with broken shutters, peeling paint, and a sunken porch. In front of the home was a crumbling walkway. Weeds twisted through the concrete cracks. If the dwelling didn’t have a narrow, shoveled path in the winter from the sidewalk to the door, a passerby would suspect abandonment. The whole property had a stifling air of slovenliness, neglect, and waste.

Every other day, a thirty-year old man named John Kosovitch passed by this house on his way to bartend in Manhattan. For the past three years he’d been walking the same route on his way to the bus stop, and often he observed an old woman leaning against a railing on the porch, smoking a cigarette. She looked as withered as her decaying home, her dark eyes seemed to be clouded by a mysterious and crushing regret, and her wrinkled face always wore a nasty scowl. Sometimes, John would wave and yell, “Hello there neighbor!” and the old woman’s wretched mien would break into a crooked, toothless smile.

John Kosovitch was a writer. At twenty-two he moved to New York City in hopes of publishing a novel or becoming a journalist, but for years he received thousands of rejections from agents, newspapers, publishers, and magazines, so he became reconciled to obscurity and manual labor. At twenty-seven, he considered applying to journalism schools, but out of the momentum of the daily grind, the various temptations and vices, and an obsession with his own work, he let the deadlines pass…

Despite growing hardened and jaded, John held on to a glimmer of hope. He had poured thousands of beers while watching the sticky foam drip down his trembling hands, lifted thousands of chairs in the graying dawn, tied thousands of trash bags and heaved them into backyard dumpsters, shoveled vomit out of clogged sinks, scrubbed rat shit out of crevices, and shuttled back and forth until the ache in his legs radiated up to the back of his neck. But beyond the physical demands which always became endurable, then habitual, it was the grasping pettiness of humanity which filled him with an unspeakable horror. It was the thousands of empty conversations, the whining and complaining, night after night hearing the same stories, the same mind-numbing stupidity, the vapid questions, observing the conniving callousness, the mean squabbles, the bleary-eyed drunkenness, the cackles of hoarse laughter. Were these the people who he was creating art for? Is this the world that would consume and spit out the triumphant products of his sensitive soul? No. The contrast between the ambitions and dreams in his heart with the sniveling demands of the patrons and co-workers was a pulsing pain…a pain that would throb in his chest whenever he was jostled by the rhythms of his occupation in the midst of the shining vision of what his life could be. So he wouldn’t play their game. No. He wouldn’t create for them…

But no matter the sinking doubt or seething anger, he held on to the glimmer of hope that he’d escape, that he’d achieve self-sufficiency through the pen, that his words would reach and touch a like-minded soul. And somehow, for the past three years, the image of the old woman on the porch smoking a cigarette became wrapped up in this shining vision. Because as much as John looked with dissatisfaction upon his situation and occupation, he was still moving; still learning; still growing. Meanwhile, this old woman was stuck in her dilapidated home, on the edge of death, wasting away. I still have a chance, John would think, while this poor woman’s life is almost over. Anything can be achieved if you have unwavering patience and the conviction you’re moving forward…

He created a story of the old woman in his head and scribbled it in a journal. She was a painter. At the age of twenty-two, while in art school in New York City, she met a handsome man in a Lower East Side bar who was also another student at the same institution (musician). They became close friends, but soon she fell desperately in love with him. For years she burned with unrequited love. She couldn’t bring herself to confess her love, so she channeled all her anguish and passion into her work. After they graduated they began writing letters back and forth. The man married, had children, and gave up his artistic dreams. The woman continued to paint and was able to achieve enough renown to survive solely off her art. She traveled the world in order to quench her unsatisfied passion through constant upheaval and shifting locations. Yet every couple of years, she’d meet the man for dinner, and her dormant passion would flare up again. There were moments when she thought he was about to kiss her, but he never did. One day, the man’s wife died of a heart attack. The old woman planned to confess her love for the man now that the wife was gone, and traveled back to New York City for the funeral. But when she arrived she learned that the man had died in a car accident. The man’s children discovered journals in their father’s bedroom. They read them, and sent three of them to the old woman. The old woman learned that the man had felt the same passion for her throughout his life. But he believed she was too lovely, too intelligent, and too talented for a failed musician like him. The woman fell into despair. She gave up selling her paintings. She calculated how long she could survive off her savings, bought the cheapest house she could find in the Bronx, and planned to wallow the rest of her days in seclusion…

***

One night John Kosovitch was bartending at a place called The Gander near Union Square and there were only three, occupied customers at the bar. Whenever the restaurant was empty, John would pull out a book. At the moment he was reading The Wild Ass’s Skin. While turning a page, the book was ripped out of his hands by his boss and thrown across the room.

“What did I say about reading on the job?” she yelled. “If you don’t have anything to do, polish more glasses, you lazy shit!” John didn’t reply right away because he was committing to his memory where he was in the story so he could find his place when he picked up the book. “Did you hear me?”

“Yes.”

“And make me a cup of coffee. You’re my coffee boy now.” John smiled.

“No.”

“What?”

“I’m not making you a cup of coffee.” He pulled off his shirt, which was labeled, Good Times At The Gander, and set it on the bar. “I quit. Goodbye.” John walked out.

While on the subway John calculated how long his savings would last. He felt a deep attachment to New York City, but it was time to depart. His lease was up in a week and his landlord was already introducing new tenants to his home. John planned to pack his belongings that night, and buy a bus ticket at Port Authority the next morning. To where, he didn’t know…

On the bus to Throggs Neck John thought of the old woman. He wanted to learn her real life story before he left. While walking back to his apartment he stopped in a corner deli and purchased a small bouquet of flowers. Since she was most likely still wallowing in despair, he thought she’d appreciate the gift.

When he was finished packing, John walked to the old woman’s house. The flowers were tucked inside his jacket. For a brief moment, he paused before the shattered home. His vague and hazy daydreaming fantasy was about to meet the concrete and ruthless reality…

But as he walked across the uneven path to the door, he stopped. He heard a piano playing. The classical music seemed to dance delicately in the air. Was it coming from the old woman’s home? Before he could check the source of the music he was knocking…

The music stopped. The old woman opened the door. “Why hello! My waving neighbor! What a pleasant surprise! Come in!” John stepped past the threshold and caught his breath. He had created such an elaborate story of this old woman’s squalid despair that it took him a few moments for him to comprehend his surroundings. The foyer was immaculately clean. There were landscape paintings on the walls. A winding staircase with a mahogany railing led to the second floor. Colorful pottery was arranged neatly on a table. The interior was magnificent and pristine. “And your name is?”

“John.”

“Welcome John. My name’s Cara. Follow me. Let’s sit in the living room.” Her immediate warm hospitality was also unexpected. Why was she trusting him? John had prepared himself for a closed-off and bitter hostility, and had already crafted a hasty speech to explain his affronting presence. But here this woman was treating him like a long-lost friend. Why? He followed her into the living room.

The living room was even more impressive and tastefully decorated than the foyer. There was a grand piano in the corner. A sparkling chandelier hung from the ceiling. There was an oriental rug on the floor. Three, large sofas with plush, red cushions were placed against the wall.

“I wasn’t expecting this,” John said. Cara laughed.

“I know. Compared to the outside, right? Isn’t it funny?” Cara’s laughter was mellifluous and soothing. It was then that John was able to look closely at Cara and become aware of her features. His previous perception of her being ugly and riddled by regret was mistaken. Her face, with softly flushed cheeks and eyes that were somehow dark, but bright, beamed lighthearted curiosity. She must have put in dentures, because she had broad smile which revealed perfectly-straight, white teeth. She seemed completely at ease and expressed a mood of congenial friendliness. She radiated youth. “So what brings you to my humble home?”

“I…I…we waved to each other…I thought…was that you playing piano?”

“It was. I’m a classical pianist. Did you like it?”

“I did.”

“Would you like me to finish the song?”

“Yes.” She finished the song, and John sat there in awe. Then Cara turned on the piano bench.

“And what do you do?”

“I’m a writer.”

“A writer! Let me show you my books!” Her enthusiasm was contagious. She led John to another room which was lined entirely with bookcases. “The library!” He ran his fingers along the bindings. He saw mostly French literature: Proust, Hugo, Camus

“The inside of your home is so…so nice,” John stammered. “From the outside I…I wasn’t expecting-“

“I know, it’s hideous, isn’t it? But I’ve just never cared what the outside of my houses look like…and besides, you know, with crime in the neighborhood…it’s a natural deterrent.” She laughed again. They were now in the kitchen, which had granite countertops and oak cupboards. “Can I get you a cup a coffee?”

“No thanks. I…I brought you -“

“What did you say? I’m going deaf.”

“I brought you a-”

“Cara! I’m home!” A man’s voice boomed from the front door.

“Joseph, we have a guest!”

“Wonderful!” John turned and saw an old man, hunched over, walking through the foyer. “I brought you something, my lovely.” Joseph was carrying a bouquet of flowers.

“Oh, how sweet of you!” Cara said. Joseph gave her a kiss on the cheek, then turned to John.

“I’m Joseph, pleasure to meet you.”

“John.” Cara looked at Joseph with an expression of loving tenderness. He reached into a cupboard for a vase and filled it with water. Then he placed the flowers near a window.

“My husband is also an artist,” said Cara. “See all the paintings on the wall? Those are his masterpieces.”

“They look great.”

“Save the compliments,” Joseph said. Cara laughed.

“Honey, I gotta change, the studio was a mess today. Did you offer this gentleman a cup of coffee?”

“I did.”

“Good. I’ll be down in a minute.” He hobbled away and up the stairs. John found himself piqued by a desire to ask an inappropriate question.

“Cara, I know I’m a stranger, that you don’t know me at all, but can I ask, how did you meet your husband?” Cara squinted her eyes and looked at him curiously.

“Funny you should ask, Joseph and I were just talking about it yesterday. Come, let’s go back to the living room, while the coffee brews.” John and Cara sat down on the red sofa. “My children from my first marriage called yesterday to ask about my first husband’s will. My previous husband was an abusive scoundrel. For twenty years I put up with his abuse. Then he died, and I decided to play one last piano recital. At the recital Joseph was in the audience. He approached me after the show. He told me I was an angel. The rest is history.”

“I know I only met Joseph for thirty seconds, but he seems like a good…a great man.” Cara paused, then looked down at her lap.

“I waited for him all my life.”

***

For the next hour John drank coffee (they forced it on him) and talked with the couple about art, philosophy, and books. The conversation and the setting felt surreal. John hadn’t felt this happy in years. He never gave Cara the flowers. He thanked the couple for their kindness, wished them luck, and left.

John couldn’t return to his apartment. He wandered around the neighborhood and replayed the strange encounter. Soon, he found himself in Ferry Point Park. He traveled to the edge of the park and leaned against a railing. He tossed the flowers into the water.

Across the bay were the skyscrapers; the shining lights of the metropolis. For a few minutes John became lost in the view. He knew he would miss this city after he left, but he knew he would someday return. He reminded himself of the conviction he had when he first moved to the city at twenty-two: that the longer it took him to achieve the realization of his artistic visions, the higher he would rise, the better he would become. Each challenge was a guide, a building block, a step. He would not stop pushing, not stop working, not stop striving, not stop dreaming, even as he became a decrepit, old man. Whether in love or in art, the longer or more treacherous or more hazardous the path, the greater the end. He looked up at the sky, the nightly theatre of infinity and dying stars. He looked down at the shimmering water, where the flower petals were floating away into the shadows and disappearing into the depths. Then he peered across the bay one last time before turning back. The eternal lights were still shining. The glimmer of hope was still there. The city looked beautiful in the distance.

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A Creative Process

(1 minute read):

It’s 4am in Harlem. I stand up from my desk, toss my bathrobe on the bed, and begin pacing the room, naked, like a hunted beast. For the past three hours I’ve been taking fifteen minute naps on my desk in hopes of feeling a second wind, but to no avail. I have to move or else I’ll wake up in the morning with trembling regret. The only way I’ll be able to cope with tomorrow’s exhaustion is if I finish this now. Hank, my faithful and flatulent bulldog, wakes up and follows me throughout the room thinking we’re about to play. My face aches from the lying on the wood.

For hours, each time the alarm would go off, I would set it again and try to relax, feeling the gentle warmth from the lamplight, listening to my breath, hearing the building’s whirring heating system, and the distant voices and far-off knocks of the neighborhood. Fifteen more minutes, that’s it. As I would fall asleep I’d remember being sixteen years old in a high school parking lot at 6am and sitting against a lamppost thinking the same thing: fifteen more minutes before I run, before the labored breath, before eating pain. Then I’m twenty years old in a library passing out in a chair in the 24/7 room surrounded by coffee cups and candy wrappers: fifteen more minutes. Then I’m twenty-four lying beneath a desk in Virginia as the rain beats against the windows, watching the streaming droplets as my vision fades, surrounded by crumpled balls of paper and piles of books: fifteen more minutes. How much of my life has been spent in fatigue and yearning for respite? How long will my body, this finite machine, this pumping mechanism of cells, sweat, and blood, keep ticking with a pulse?

And I always think: is all the work worth the price? Is all the doubt and sacrifice and ruthless concentration carving something inside of me that will someday create success? For the sake of the path, I have to believe it will.

The honeymoon happiness of the previous month is gone. A month ago my room was a paradise and now it is a cage. I want more.

My greatest fear next to giant insects is that I’m not improving. I fear that my life is a pendulum where I swing back and forth between petty failures and self-indulgent successes, never rising. There are a thousand projects swirling in my agitated brain. I must limit myself or become lost.

Like so many times before, I pause while moving and ruminating and realize I’m now fully awake. My darting thoughts have settled. I look at my desk and at Hank snoring near the bookcase, the two anchors of my life, and the path becomes clear. I retrieve my bathrobe, put it on, and open a window. The cold air is refreshing. The night is still. I sit at my desk and begin.

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What Will They Say?

A modern adaption of Anton Chekhov’s short story, “Neighbors.” 6.5 minute read:

Zach Lebowitz was in a bad mood: his younger sister, who was eighteen years old, had dropped out of college and moved to Los Angeles to become a porn star. To shake off his confused depression which pursued him at home and at the office, he called to his aid his sense of lofty morality, his genuine and noble ideas – he had always been an open-minded liberal, supporting ideas like gender equality, tolerance, and free love, but these political views were of no avail when it came to his personal life and his sister’s sudden departure and chosen profession, and he always came back to the recent conversation he had with his aunt (a devout Catholic), who believed that his sister had acted wrongly and betrayed the family. And that was fucking with him.

His mother did not leave their Upper-East Side penthouse in New York City all day long; his aunt (who lived with them) kept sighing, crossing herself, and speaking in whispers. His father, a respected Democrat and member of Congress, would only mumble incoherently at the dinner table and began drinking heavily at night. In the apartment it was as still as though there were some one dead in a room. Everyone, so it seemed to Zach Lebowitz, looked at him enigmatically and with perplexity, as though they wanted to say, “Your sister is ruining her life and our family’s reputation. She only listens to you. So why are you doing nothing?” And he reproached himself for inactivity, though he did not know precisely what action he ought to have taken.

So passed six days without a word from Zach’s sister. On the seventh – it was Sunday morning – Zach finally received an email. The message’s tone was flippant: “Hey! How’s it going? Sorry I took so long to reply. But…” Zach fancied that there was something defiant and provocative beneath the informality.

She doesn’t give a rat’s ass about her family,” thought Zach, as he went to his mother in her bedroom.

His mother was lying on the bed watching the television show, Girls, dressed in the same clothes she had worn for the past three days and drinking white wine. Seeing her son’s face, she rose impulsively, and straightening her gray hair, asked quickly,

“What? What do you want?”

“An email came…” said her son.

Zissel’s name, and even the pronoun, “she” was not uttered in the apartment. Zissel was spoken of impersonally, “In Los Angelis,” “Gone away,” etc. The mother’s face grew ugly and unpleasant.

“No!” she said, with a motion of her hands, as though to block a ghost that was attacking her. “No, I don’t care. I don’t want to know. Leave me alone!”

The mother broke into hysterical sobs of grief and shame; she evidently longed to know what was said in the email, but her pride prevented her. Zach realized that he ought to read the email aloud from his phone, as it mentioned his mother, but he was overcome by anger such as he had never felt before; he ran out of the room and kicked a chair.

“God damn it! God fucking damn it!”

He threw his phone against the wall, (which fortunately didn’t break because of the high-quality case he had purchased two weeks ago); then tears came into his eyes, and feeling that he was stupid, miserable, and to blame, he went out into the city streets.

He was only twenty-seven, but he was already quite fat. He wore expensive suits, chain-smoked, and suffered from a nasty cough. He already seemed to be developing the characteristics of an elderly bachelor. He never fell in love, never thought of marriage, and loved no one but his mother, his sister, his aunt, and his father. He was fond of a good meal and of talking about politics and exalted subjects. He had in his day received his Bachelor’s and P.H.D. in Economics from George Mason University, but he now looked upon his studies as though in them he had discharged a duty incumbent upon young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six. At any rate, the ideas that now strayed every day through his mind had nothing in common with the university or the subjects he had studied there.

Out in the city streets it was hot and still, as though rain were coming. The air above the avenues was wavering in the heat and there was the smell of asphalt and dust. He lit a cigarette and began to walk.

Zach stopped several times and wiped his beaded forehead. He looked at the restaurants and stores, and twice almost ran into someone looking at their phone. And all the while he was thinking that this insufferable state of things could not go on forever, and that he must do something about it one way or another. He must stop his sister, stupidly, madly, but he must stop her.

But how? What can I do?” he asked himself, and looked imploringly at the sky and the buildings, begging for their help.

But the sky and the buildings were mute. His noble ideas were no help, and his common sense whispered that the agonizing question could have no solution but a stupid one, and that today’s email was not the last of its kind. It was terrible to think what people were saying about his sister and his family!

At dinner it was only Zach and his father. As usual, the father’s face wore the bitterly resigned expression that seemed to say though he was embarrassed and ashamed, he would allow no one to insult him. Zach sat down at the other end of the table and began drinking a beer in silence.

“Your mother has had no food today,” said his father. “You ought to do something about it, Zach. Starving oneself is no cure for depression.”

It struck Zachary Lebowitz as absurd that his father should expect him to remedy the situation. He was tempted to say something rude to him, but restrained himself. And as he restrained himself he felt the time had come for action, and that he could not bear it any longer. Either he must act at once or fall on the ground, and scream and bang his head upon the floor. He pictured Zissel in a porno, moaning, taking cum shots to the face, riding a man like a cowgirl, and all the anger, bitterness, and humiliation that had been accumulating him for the past seven days welled up inside until it became too much.

My sister wants to be a porn star,” he thought, “my mother will commit suicide, my father will lose his reputation and not be re-elected the next term…and all this because Zissel thinks she’s an independent woman who can do whatever she pleases!

“No, I won’t allow it!” Zach cried suddenly, and he slammed his fist down on the table.

He jumped up and ran out of the dining room. In the study he opened a computer and typed, “Flight to L.A. from N.Y.C.” into Google. He purchased an airline ticket for a red-eye flight, hastily packed a duffel bag, and ran out of the apartment to hail a taxi.

There was a storm thrashing within him. He felt a longing to do something extraordinary, startling, even if he had to repent of it all his life afterwards. Should he kidnap his sister and take her home? But Zach was not one of those men who use physical force. He knew he would not kidnap his sister, but the idea was invigorating and propelled him on this impulsive journey.

A taxi stopped along the curb and Zach jumped in. He yelled, “Newark Airport!” and the taxi lurched away. He texted Zissel, “Purchased a plane ticket to L.A. You’re coming home.” He imagined how Zissel would try to justify her conduct by talking about being an independent woman, an adult, individual freedom, and about supporting herself however she wanted. She would argue about what she did not understand. And very likely at the end of the conversation she would ask, “And how do you have a right to tell me how to lead my life. What right have you to interfere?”

“No, I have no right,” muttered Zachary Lebowitz. “But so much the better…the harsher I am, the less right I have to interfere, so much the better.”

It was a sultry night. There was a traffic jam on the east side of Central Park. People were shouting and honking their horns. The sky seemed to suggest a downpour any second. Zachary stared out the window at the trees of the park. He had spent hundreds of hours in this park and knew every bush, rock, and path. Through the trees he pictured the carousal that he used to ride as a child with Zissel; he could picture it all down to the smallest detail, even the forms and colors of the beat-up horses. Near the carousal was the baseball field where he used to play catch. Near the baseball field was the boulder where he once fell off and broke his arm.

Above the park and the distant buildings a huge black storm-cloud was rising, and there were ashes of white lightening.

Here comes the storm!” thought Zachary Lebowitz. The taxi was now at a complete stop in the middle of Central Park. There were red lights blinking and Zachary assumed there had been a car accident not far ahead. All of a sudden Zachary felt a wave of exhaustion. The storm-cloud and the car accident seemed to be signs advising him to go back home. He felt a little scared.

I will bring her back!” he tried to reassure himself. “She will fight and talk about her rights and freedom, but freedom also means respect and self-control, and not indulging whims and passions. It’s not liberty, but awareness of others and logical consequences!”

The taxi was near the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. On the radio the song, “I’m ‘N Luv (Wit a Stripper),” by T-Pain was playing. “What a stupid song,” muttered Zachary. “Excuse me? Sir? Could you please change the song?”

“What?”

“Could you change the song?”

“Sure.”

Just then Zach felt a buzz in his pocket. It was a call from Zissel.

“Hello?” he answered.

“You are not coming to L.A.”

“Yes, I am.”

“You’ll be wasting your time. I’m not coming home.”

“You…we…I’m coming…we need to talk and-”

“We can talk now. What do you want to know?” Zach paused. Raindrops began hitting the car. There was no anger in his heart now, nothing but fear and vexation with himself. What was he doing? He felt he had made a bad beginning with the phone conversation, and that nothing would come of it but useless bickering. Both were silent for some time. “Look, Zach, I appreciate your concern. You’ve always looked out for me. I understand it, and, believe me, I appreciate it. Believe me.”

Zach looked out the window and grimaced.

“But I’m old enough to make my own decisions. College would be a waste of time for me. I’m not going $200,000 in debt and sitting in classrooms learning shit I don’t care about. I’m not throwing away the prime of my life. And trust me, the feeling that you, mom, and dad would be upset has bothered me. But let me explain myself. I-”

“You can’t-”

“Let me speak, Zach. There wasn’t time to explain myself earlier. I’m doing a movie now and I had to fly out on short notice. It’s a touchy subject to talk about, but here it comes. I love doing porn. It’s been my dream for the past three years. All I-”

“Zissel! You-”

“Shut up! Let me finish. I really shouldn’t need to justify myself, but since you’re my older brother and I’ve always cared about you, I’ll talk. Really, Zach, I’m grateful to you. But you can’t force me to a lead a life that you think is right and respectable, when I would hate that sort of life.” Zissel talked in a quiet, steady voice, but was evidently agitated. Zach felt it was his turn to speak, and that to listen and keep silent would really mean playing the part of a generous and noble idiot, and that had not been his idea upon making this trip. He sat up in the taxi and said, breathlessly, in an undertone:

“Listen, Zissel. You know I love you and want you to have the best life possible; but this…this is just…awful. It’s terrible to think of you doing porn when-”

“Why is it terrible?” asked Zissel, with a quiver in her voice. “It would be terrible if I was hurting anyone else, but I’m not doing anything that-”

“You are hurting us, Zissel. Your mother hasn’t changed her clothes in three days! Your father can’t sleep unless he’s black out drunk. You know we all have an open mind, and tolerance for everyone, but you’re acting selfish. We’re all miserable and-”

“I’m selfish for trying to live my dream? For doing what I love? Just because you, mom, and dad are living in the past, blinded by traditional values, obsessed with how strangers think of you, slaves to public opinion, means I should cater to your prejudices? Just because my actions make people feel embarrassed doesn’t prove that they are wrong. Every important step one takes is bound to distress somebody. If I became a fashion model, mother would be angry too. What am I supposed to do? Anyone who puts the peace of their family before everything has to renounce the life of excitement and self-fulfillment completely.”

There was a vivid flash of lightening outside the window, and the lightening seemed to change the course of Zachary’s thoughts. He slumped into the cushion and began saying what was utterly beside the point.

“I care about you so much, Zissel. When you were little we would go on walks through Central Park almost every day. Remember that? It hurts me to think of you doing something like…like porn. Isn’t there something else you can do? Some other job? You deserve better. You deserve-”

“Here we go-” sighed Zissel. “What do I deserve, Zach? How do you know what I like to do, what I hate, what my plans are, everything that’s happened to me in my life? Your arrogance and your desire to control me are exasperating.”

“Why can’t you just…be a normal actress?”

“Because I hate normal acting, I’m not good at it, and there’s no money in it!”

“Can’t you at least try and-”

“No! I can’t try! I don’t want to and I don’t care! And unlike you, I don’t care what people say about me!”

During the conversation Zachary listened to Zissel and wondered in perplexity why it was that she wanted to be a porn actress so intensely. Their childhood had not been traumatic. They had never suffered or been in need of anything. Zissel had never exhibited any signs that she was a whore or a slut. Yes, she had dated a handful of boys at different times, never for more than a couple of months, but she had also spent long periods of time being alone. She was good-looking, elegant, carefree; she was fond of laughing, chatter, argument, a passionate reader; she had good taste in dress, in furniture, in books, and her personality seemed in direct contrast to the seedy underworld of the porn industry. She was intelligent and clever, had advanced ideas, but in her free-thinking one felt the overflow of energy, the vanity of a young, strong, spirited girl, passionately eager to be better and more original than others…what had happened to her that caused this desire to do porn?”

She’s an obstinate and independent to a fault,” thought Zachary Lebowitz. “She’ll pay for her brash decisions one day.” But immediately upon thinking this, Zachary’s belief in the extraordinary loftiness and faultlessness of his own way of thinking struck him as naïve and even morbid; and the fact that Zachary had all his life followed the beaten path and done as he told came charging to the front of his mind. All of a sudden Zachary felt an admiration and respect for Zissel he had never felt before. He was conscious of a sort of power in her, and for some reason lost the desire to argue. Zissel cleared he throat and was about to speak, but Zachary interrupted her gently,

“Yes, you’ve always done…what you’ve wanted…but we’ve been wandering away from the point.”

“Okay. Then let’s get back to the point. I’m telling you, Zach, my conscious is clear. There’s really no need for me to prove myself. You, mom, and dad are free to hate me, cut me off, and disown me. I’ll survive. I’ll be all right.”

The taxi began to move again and Zachary’s heart began to beat in his temples. He sat up and said, “Hold on! Excuse me, sir! Pull over! Pull the car over!” The driver sighed and swerved the taxi to the shoulder of the road. Zach paid, stepped out, and began to walk.

“Well, I have to go,” said Zissel.

“No, wait, don’t hang up yet.” Zach’s hand was trembling and his eyes filled with tears. He knew that the conversation was over and that there was no use talking. The rain had stopped, but the air was damp and thick. He walked hurriedly on a dirt path towards the reservoir. “I…I won’t come to L.A. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“Okay. Good.”

“If there’s anything you need…money….someone to talk to…don’t hesitate.”

“Thanks, Zach.” There was a brief silence. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be all right.”

“Okay, do you have any idea…when you’ll be home?”

“No, I don’t. Goodbye Zach.”

“Goodbye Zissel.” She hung up. Not hearing Zissel’s voice caused Zach to immediately forget his previous admiration, and he told himself that she was unhappy. He told himself that she had made a ridiculous, irreparable mistake.

“I’ll visit her sometime and try to convince her, just not now,” he said out loud. But it sounded as though he were making a concession, and this did not satisfy him. To avoid bursting into tears he pulled out a cigarette and began to smoke. He walked into the darkness of the woods on the perimeter of the reservoir.

“I’m a baby, a pushover, a wimp,” thought Zachary Lebowitz. “I attempted to solve the question and save my sister, and I haven’t accomplished anything.”

He was heavy at heart. When he reached the reservoir he walked along the cinder path. But he wanted to sit and think without moving. The moon was rising and was reflected on the water. There were low rumbles of thunder in the distance. Zachary Lebowitz sat on a bench and finished his cigarette. He looked steadily at the water and imagined his sister’s future despair, her martyr-like pallor, the tearless eyes that would conceal her humiliation from others. He imagined her broke, unable to find a job, imagined his mother being admitted to a mental hospital, his father drinking himself to death, Zissel’s horror…His proud, superstitious mother would be sure to die of grief. Terrible pictures of the future rose before him on the background of the smooth, dark water, and among pale feminine figures he saw himself, a weak, cowardly man with a guilty face.

A hundred feet away on the right bank of the pond, something dark was floating motionless. Was it a dead body? Zachary Lebowtiz thought of the corpse that was discovered this past Tuesday in the reservoir, naked and decomposed. He stood up and walked along the path until he was leaning against the fence near the form. But all he saw was a piece of trash.

He walked to the bench, collapsed, and pulled out another cigarette. He inhaled the smoke and coughed. Then he looked mournfully into the water. And thinking about his life, he came to the conclusion he had never said or acted upon what he really thought, and other people had repaid him in the same way. And so the whole of life seemed to him as dark as this water in which the night sky was reflected and trash was left. And it seemed to him that nothing could ever set it right.

 

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