CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|Et In Acadiana Ego
Part 2 of 2
Continued from Part I of Valerie Martin’s Et In Acadiana Ego, published on Web Conjunctions Tuesday, July 12.
HEAR THE AUTHOR READ FROM THIS STORY
In memory of Lyle Saxon, 1891–1946
A Visit from the Priest
In the spring Mathilde received a card from Monsieur Delery, her favorite importer, who kept a shop on Rue Royale. He wrote to announce the arrival of a new shipment from Paris, fine brocade, carpets, tapestries, furniture, paintings, and statuary. She wanted an étagère for her dining room in the townhouse and an armoire for the farmhouse. On her next visit to town she made a point of stopping at Monsieur Delery’s emporium. As she browsed among the luxurious displays, the importer pointed out those items he thought might particularly attract her interest, a painting of the race track at Deauville, a carpet with a design of red roses on a pale green ground, which he was certain would look well in her dining room, a bolt of lavender voile embroidered with a gold thread that would make festive curtains for the summer season. At the back of the shop she paused to examine a grouping of statuary: a marble woman carrying a vessel on one shoulder, the folds of her gown disarrayed to reveal a taut white nipple on a veined white breast; a bronze greyhound, life-size, his legs gathered for a burst of speed; a marble bust of a garlanded emperor gazing stupidly across the table at an ebony panther with eyes of glittering green stone, crouched to pounce upon him. Mathilde was turning away when she spied, beyond the emperor’s nose, partially obscured by the raised arm of a porcelain girl leaning on an arbor, the shapely legs of a horse. She leaned across the table for a closer look. Monsieur Delery feared she had grazed her hip against the table edge, for she let out a startled “Oh!”
Angling past the porcelain girl, Mathilde cast the proprietor the confident smile of a gratified customer. The statue, bronze on a black marble base, was not large. It was designed to grace a mantle or an entry table. “Where did you get this?” she asked, as he came up behind her, worriedly stroking his chin.
“Ah,” he said, “That’s old Chiron. A fanciful thing. It was in a box with Saint Jude and the Archangel Michael, inappropriately enough. I think it was the dealer’s idea of a joke, but it is a fine piece of work.”
“I’ll take it,” Mathilde announced.
Monsieur Delery gave her an anxious smile. “I wouldn’t think this quite a suitable piece for the home of a single lady. I’d rather expect to find it in a gentleman’s club, if you don’t mind my saying.”
“I do mind,” Mathilde replied. “I’ll take this, and the carpet and the armoire with the rosewood inlay. Ship them all to the farm.”
“As you wish,” the doubtful proprietor acquiesced. There was no point in quarreling with a customer over a matter of taste, especially one so strong-minded as Mathilde Benoit. But, oh, he thought, as she turned her attention to a glass-fronted étagère, how this purchase would have horrified her father.
Once the statue was installed in the foyer, replacing a marble bust of Napoleon that had glowered at visitors for thirty years, Mathilde brought Nikos through the dark hall to view it. “It’s Chiron,” he said.
“Yes,” she said. “Monsieur Delery told me. Did you know him?”
Nikos snorted. “He was before my time. Why would you buy such a thing?”
“I had to buy it,” she said solemnly. “When I saw it, I knew it had been sent to me.”
“By the fates.”
“And are you tempting the fates, Mathilde, displaying it here where anyone who visits you will see it?”
She smiled. “Why should I care what people say?”
“You should care what they think.”
“I don’t care,” she insisted.
But she should have cared. The town was already outraged by Mathilde’s indifference to the local swains and her preference for a man she had met who knew where, a man who, according to the servants, visited her only at night, a man so enchanted with his horse that he brought it into the drawing room. So rumor flew from house to house, flapping its feathered wings and wagging its countless tongues, and it wasn’t long before Father Desmond heard the din and made up his mind to pay a pastoral visit on his wayward parishioner.
Nikos was in the drawing room finishing his favorite meal, a bowl of oat porridge and a glass of red wine, while Mathilde, seated at the piano, played to him from a new score. He claimed oat porridge satisfied both his man and his beast. Chewing grass, hay, and grain was the opposite of pleasure in dining, but his stomach wasn’t designed for much else. The standing order for a large bowl of porridge was one of the many mysteries that created a buzz in Mathilde’s kitchen, despite her assurance that the doctor had recommended it for her health. As Father Desmond gripped the cord and slapped the clapper inside the bell, Nikos clanged his spoon into the empty bowl, refilled his wine glass, and lifted it to his lips. “Visitors?” he said.
Mathilde pushed aside a curtain that gave her a view of the drive. She recognized the prelate’s old white gelding tied at the post, rubbing his long face against the fence rail. “It’s Father Desmond,” she whispered.
Nikos swallowed his wine. “Chi mi frena in tal momento?” he sang softly.
“Stay here,” she said. “Don’t make a sound.”
He poured out another glass, frowning at her tone of command. “A priest in this house,” he said.
“And stop drinking,” she added, inflaming him further.
They heard the door open, the servant’s greeting, her footstep in the hall. Mathilde glanced back anxiously. “Behave,” she said, as she opened the door and slipped out to ward off the servant.
Nikos narrowed his eyes. “Why should I?” he said.
Mathilde glided toward her confessor, her hand outstretched, a welcoming smile on her lips. “Dear Father,” she said, ushering him into the parlor with practiced ease. “How long since you’ve paid me a visit.”
“And how long since you’ve been to Mass,” the priest replied.
“May I offer you a glass of sherry,” she said. “Or something stronger after your ride? A brandy, or perhaps a liqueur?”
“Plain sherry will do,” he said. “Strong spirits are not for me.”
“I suppose you are always in the company of strong spirits,” Mathilde mused, uncorking the cut glass decanter on the tray.
“I don’t know what you mean by that,” the dull fellow replied. Mathilde measured out a thimbleful, tamping her temper as she pushed the cork back into the bottle neck. “Strong spirits?” she said. “The saints, the angels, the hosts of heaven.”
“There’s a great deal of scandalous talk about you in the town. Are you aware of it?”
She handed him the glass, her lips pursed, her eyes modestly lowered. “I’ve the feeling I’m about to be.” That was when they heard the first loud knock from the drawing room. “Good heavens,” the priest exclaimed. “What was that?”
“The carpenters,” Mathilde replied. “I’m having some shelves put in.”
There was another knock, so hard it caused the lamp to flicker overhead. The priest was frankly incredulous. “At night?” he said.
“They’re so busy; it’s hard to get them to come. I have to pay them more, but it’s worth it.” Two more knocks, a crash, followed by a clatter as of metal objects settling on a brick floor. She could see him, charging about the room, directing his hooves at the walls, taking up the tea tray and pitching it at the hearth. His drinking was a problem.
“What’s going on in there?” the priest demanded, setting his empty glass on the sideboard as he moved for the door.
“I’m very sorry, Father,” Mathilde said, following him into the hall. “I can’t allow you to go in there.”
“They say your visitor brings his horse into the house. Is that what’s in there?”
“Father, you are a guest in my house. I forbid you to enter that room.”
“Something more than a guest, Mathilde,” he insisted. “I am your spiritual advisor. Your soul is in my care.”
“Don’t worry about my soul,” she replied.
“It is your soul I fear for,” he said. He moved toward the drawing room, and she didn’t try to stop him. Instead she leaned against the hall table and as he turned upon her a cold glare of remonstrance, his eyes fell upon the statue. “Holy Mary, Mother of God!” he exclaimed.
Mathilde bowed her head at the sacred name, a smile flickering at the corners of her mouth.
“But this is an obscenity,” he whispered. Two sharp cracks rattled the panels in the drawing-room door. The priest stepped back, bringing his hands to his lips. Behind the door a high male voice began singing in a language he didn’t recognize. Mathilde, collapsed in giggles, clung to the edge of the table. “You have given yourself over to Satan,” the priest concluded. He swept past her to the entry, where he took up his wide-brimmed hat from the stand and charged out into the night.
Mathilde waited until she heard the soft clop-clop of his horse moving away down the drive. Then she went to the drawing room, threw open the door, and announced with fake solemnity, “I have abandoned my God for you.”
The Death of Nikos
Upon painful and sober reflection the following morning, Mathilde had the statue moved to her dressing room, and Napoleon returned to scowl at those visitors, few in number, who called upon the wayward ex-communicant. Father Desmond’s letter, a copy of which went to the Bishop, cited her worship of a heathen idol he had seen in her home, an image so appalling he refused to describe it, as the cause for her expulsion from the communion of Christ. It was rumored that he had seen something else, but there was as much talk of the loup-garou, a wolf-headed bandit who preyed on travelers foolhardy enough to venture out when a bad moon was on the rise. Sagacious citizens, who knew the night was the province of wicked men and fearsome creatures, stayed inside. Nikos was cautious; he wore a shirt when he ventured forth and chose his route with an eye to screening, though some nights, after too much wine, his spirits were so high he tempted fate by running full out on the levee.
Summer blazed into the bayou and with summer came the daily rains, the customary plagues of mosquitoes, fevers, agues, prostrations, and death. Nikos slept poorly, waking some days every hour with the conviction that a man carrying a rifle was moving stealthily closer in the blinding light outside his shelter. Mathilde, too, was worn down by the heat, the need for secrecy, and the upheaval in her own diurnal clock. She rarely rose from her bed before noon, she who had once greeted her groom on his dawn arrival at the stable door. Now she neglected everything; her horses, her social obligations, even her bills which went unpaid and were submitted to a collector. She hired an accountant and had everything sent to him. “I can’t be bothered,” she told him. “I’m not well.”
So word went out that she was ill and her neighbors had pity on her. Dishes were sent round and homely remedies, and prayers were offered up for the unfortunate outcast who, all agreed, would not recover her health until she made peace with her creator.
One night, as she stood in her open windows watching Nikos make his way across the soggy lawn, she noticed that he was moving lethargically, that his shoulders drooped, and that his linen shirt was unbuttoned, hanging limply from his shoulders. It was the same shirt he had worn that first day when she saw him across the fence, a farmer’s shirt which he admitted he had taken from a clothesline during his escape from the city. As he came into the drawing room he pulled it off and dropped it on the carpet. “It’s too hot,” he said. “I’m good for nothing in this weather. And the flies!”
“I could rub you down with geranium oil,” she suggested.
He coughed. “I don’t feel well at all.”
Mathilde looked up at his face, which was flushed and damp; the whites of his eyes were, she thought, tinged with yellow. “Let me feel your forehead,” she said.
He lowered his head and she pressed her palm across his brow. “You’re burning with fever.”
“I just want to lie down,” he said. “My hooves are killing me.”
Mathilde pulled aside a low table and a stuffed hassock to make room for him as he came ponderously down upon his haunches. “I’m going to get some ice,” she said. “Rest here.”
He groaned as he rolled onto his side, his torso propped on one elbow.
In the kitchen Mathilde chipped shards from the ice block, dumped them in a basin, pulled a clean towel from the rack, and hurried back down the dark hall to her companion. She was conscious of a tightening, like a vise closing on something hard in her chest. She found Nikos lying flat on his side. He coughed again, a wrenching cough that shook his shoulders and drew his eyebrows down with pain. Mathilde took up the water pitcher and, kneeling beside him, filled the basin. She dipped the towel into the quickly chilling water. “When did you start feeling poorly?” she asked.
“This morning,” he said. “I thought the day would never end.”
She wrung out the cloth and laid it across his forehead. “How does that feel?”
“Heavenly,” he said.
“Let me look at your feet.” Mathilde kneeled beside him and set the lamp on the carpet next to his front hooves. “This light is so poor,” she said. She pressed her thumb against the sole of one hoof. “Does that hurt?”
She pressed again at the apex of the frog. The hoof jerked and banged her thigh. “Ouch,” they cried simultaneously.
“Sorry,” Nikos said.
She recaptured the hoof and pressed around the edge to the toe. “It’s hot,” she said.
He coughed. “I’d like some water.”
“Water!” she exclaimed. “You must be sick.”
“How bad is it?” he asked. “Can you tell?”
“We’ll try a poultice,” she said. “It will be easy with you. The horses always tear them off.”
All night Mathilde nursed Nikos with cold compresses and hot poultices. He slept a few hours and woke streaming with sweat. Towards dawn he announced that he felt some improvement and with no more than the usual difficulty, got to his feet. “A little sore,” he said. “But much improved. What a woman you are.”
Mathilde smiled, pretending a confidence she didn’t feel. “Can you get back to the barn?” she asked.
He paddled his front hooves, testing his weight upon them. “I’ll just go slowly,” he said. “A good rest and I’ll be fine.”
They stood together at the open doors looking out at the fading moon. The early light reanimated the dark bushes crouched along the path. Nikos rested his hand on her shoulder, and she leaned her head against his chest. “I’ll be fine,” he repeated.
“I’ll come to you in a few hours,” she promised.
“Get some sleep,” he said.
She slept fitfully. At last the sun burned off the morning mist and the servant came in with the coffee tray. She dressed, pulling on a canvas apron with deep pockets over a light summer dress. She stopped in her father’s office and took down the medicine cabinet. There were lancets for humans and fleams for animals, a scarificator with a powerful spring, purchased when her mother was ill because she couldn’t bear the drawing of the blade. From which part should Nikos be bled, nearer the feet or the heart? Horses were bled from the jugular, but that would be too risky on a human. She settled on a lancet kit, a wad of wool for a compress, a roll of cotton bandage; these went into her pockets. Lastly she took up the pewter bleeding bowl with the volume marked off by lines. She knew how to open a vein inside the elbow; she’d seen the process often enough at school when a classmate fell ill or exhibited excessive agitation. She would start with that.
As she approached the barn she was relieved to see Nikos’s torso through the window, but inside she found his face ashen and his pupils dilated. His stance, forelegs stretched stiffly out, his weight thrown back on his hind legs, confirmed her worst fears.
“Did you sleep at all?”
“I’m afraid to lie down. I won’t be able to get up.”
“We’ll try the poultice again. And I’m going to bleed you.”
He nodded, bringing one hand to his forehead and gripping his temples. “The cough is better,” he said.
Mathilde dropped to her knees, running her hand down over the fetlock to the hoof. “Can you lift this foot?” she asked.
“I can’t. I’ll fall.”
“What if you hold on to the stall and take your weight in your arms?”
“I’ll try it,” he said. It was a matter of two steps, each accompanied by a groan of pain. He rested his elbows on the crossbar and gripped his hands together, pressing down to take his weight into his shoulders. Mathilde was quick, pulling the hoof up and making a hurried examination. There was a spot of blood at the apex of the frog and a pinkish bulge inside the white line all the way around the sole.
“I can’t hold it long,” Nikos said.
Mathilde got to her feet. “Set it down,” she said. “You’re bursting with blood. We’ve got to get some of it out of you.” She looked about for something to stand on and found a wooden bucket in a stall. This she set next to Nikos, who was speechless from pain. She stepped up on the bucket, drawing out the lancet case.
“How is this done?” he asked softly.
“I’m going to make a cut inside your elbow.”
“You won’t mind if I don’t look,” he said.
“Don’t look,” she said. “And don’t faint either.” She opened the case and took out the largest of the three lancets. “Hold this,” she said, handing him the tortoiseshell box. Having thus distracted him, she took in a breath and drew the blade quick and hard across his arm.
The blood spurted out so forcefully it splashed across her neck as she bent down for the bowl. Nikos was silent, stretching his head up high on his neck as if trying to get out of his body. Mathilde watched the blood rising in the bowl; how much was enough? They’d taken two pints from her friend Juliette in school, every day for a week before she recovered. For a man, two times that? For a horse? She’d seen the farrier take a bucketful in a case such as this, in the end to no avail. The blood made a soft whishing sound, swirling down the side of a bowl. The air was still and hot; a sparrow flew in one window and out another. Nikos began to sag, his back legs bearing more and more weight until his rump approached the floor. Mathilde, concentrating on her task, stepped down from the bucket, following the blood with the bowl. “That’s it,” she said. She set the bowl on a bale of hay, holding his forearm up with her free hand. “Mathilde,” he said weakly, and she looked up at his white face, his fluttering eyes. His front legs gave out and he shifted, rolling down on one side. Mathilde leaned over him, holding his arm, stanching the wound with the compress.
“My heart,” he said. “It’s racing so.”
“Be calm,” she said. She drew the roll of bandage from her apron pocket and wrapped it round and round the arm. Then she bent her ear to his chest and closed her eyes. The sound was a wild ride on a dark night. “Don’t be afraid,” she said. “You’ll get up again. You need to rest.”
“It feels good to lie down,” he sighed, and then he yawned. Mathilde stayed with him until his heart had slowed and his eyelids were drooping with sleep. “I’ll be back soon,” she said. And she went out to find the farrier.
She found him banging out iron shoes amid a fountain of sparks at the forge he had set up outside his cottage. She greeted him and drew him into a conversation about his trade, about the special demands of the racing horses they both admired. Tactfully she brought him round to the subject of founder. A neighbor’s horse had nearly died the year before, and the owner claimed that this farrier, who knew more about horses’ feet than anyone in the parish, had saved the beast in a desperate hour. That, the farrier explained, was a difficult case. It was a mare and she’d gone in all four feet. He bled her for three days and gave her nothing but water, no food at all, that was essential to the treatment. Her fever went down but the feet were still swollen. For two days she couldn’t stand and the owner made up his mind to end her suffering, but the farrier had heard of a case cured by opening the sole, and that is what he did. A deal of blood and pus issued from the incisions, he bound them up and left her overnight. In the morning she was on her feet. But he knew of another case that hadn’t responded to this treatment. The feet didn’t heal and the bone protruded right through the sole. The poor animal was writhing in agony. When the vet finally arrived, he took one look and called for a pistol. “No one knows what causes it,” the farrier concluded. “But for my money, it’s overfeeding. Bad bedding will bring it on as well.”
Mathilde went back to the barn praying for a miracle, but though her prayers pressed against the wall of her skull, they would not rise, and she remembered that this avenue of assistance was now officially closed to her. She resolved to call on the gods of Nikos, whoever they were, to guide her, to save him. At the barn she found him standing. He was weak, but the fever had subsided, and he could put a little weight on his front feet if he held onto the rail of the stall. “I slept a little and when I woke up I knew I was better. I knew because I’m so hungry.”
“No food,” Mathilde cautioned him. “Only water and I have to bleed you again, and if that doesn’t work I’ll have to open your feet.”
He frowned, opening and closing his mouth as if to taste this bitter sentence, but he didn’t protest. Mathilde took up the bucket and went out to fill it at the well.
For four more days and nights, Nikos suffered. Bleeding relieved him for a few hours, then the fever shot up again and he couldn’t stand. Mathilde finally resorted to cutting his soles and, just as the farrier had described, a stream of pus, blood, and gas erupted from the wounds. She wrapped the feet with gauze soaked in vinegar, and the next day he got up again, though he was so weak from hunger and loss of blood he had to hang his arms over the stall gate to keep from sinking down.
It’s never easy to watch an animal in pain, but if half of that animal is a man and he puts his trust entirely in your hands and you love him, well, what must that do to you? It wore Mathilde down to a hard nub of despair. The fever returned; the horn of the hooves cracked at the toe; on one hoof the bone protruded through the sole. Nikos lay on the floor sweating and moaning. He said that he could see his island, that he would take her there. He called out names she didn’t recognize, spoke in a language she didn’t understand. His pulse was slow, his lips dry and swollen, tears leaked noiselessly from his eyes. The last night she sat on the floor with her back to the wall and his head in her lap, moistening his lips and forehead with water from the bucket; it was all she could do. He slept a little and so did she, her head dropped forward on her chest. When she woke he was gazing up at her, his eyes spectral and distant. “Do you have a pistol?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “I have my father’s.”
“Do you know how to use it?”
“I do,” she said.
“Go and fetch it, dear heart,” he said. “I’ll never get up again.”
Joseph Petrie, Mathilde’s trusted groom, walking along the path to the barn, saw through the heavy morning mist a wraith of a figure—he thought it was a ghost—stalking through the knee-high grass between the house and the old storage barn. Her head was bowed, her hair a wild tangle falling over her shoulders. The wet grass parted before her as she advanced. She seemed to float across the field like a skiff in a marsh. He crossed himself and hurried along, not looking back until he was at the barn door. She was gone. He went inside, greeted his equine charges, and began his morning chores. He was forking a net of hay into the pony’s trough when he heard the sharp pop of a shot fired at some distance. Joseph thought little of it; doubtless it was an early hunter out to bring down a duck for his dinner. The pony shoved him aside, eager for his breakfast, and the groom laughed softly, patting his thick neck. He was an old fellow, his mistress’s first mount. Joseph took up a pitchfork and began mucking out the stall. He heard the coo-coo of a dove. A flush of sparrows rose up from the azalea bush outside the window and then he heard footsteps, unhurried and light, along the path. He didn’t think it could be his mistress. She had been too ill to come out for over a week, and even if she had recovered, she wouldn’t come from that direction. Then he recalled the ghost he’d seen in the meadow. His scalp prickled. He stepped into the aisle and propped his fork against the wall, squinting at the bright empty space beyond the open door. The footsteps stopped. He blinked, touched his eyes, and looked again.
A woman stepped into the light. He would say later that she simply appeared out of the air. She was dressed in a summer gown covered by an apron so saturated with blood a butcher would have declined to wear it. Her head was lowered, her arms hung limp at her sides, her left hand gripped a pistol. It was the pistol Joseph recognized, his dead master’s pistol, and then the woman lifted her eyes and he saw that it was not a ghost but a real woman, and that it was Mathilde. “I need your help,” she said.
“What’s happened?” he cried, bustling towards her, with the certainty, he would later vow, that she had come back from some other world, and, as it turned out, he was right.
“A poor, sick monster has dragged himself into the feed barn,” she said. “I’ve put him out of his misery. I want you to help me bury him.”
Joseph Petrie was well paid and sworn to secrecy, but he told his wife what he buried that day, and she told a friend, and soon the story, embroidered with colorful variations, was general knowledge. A few incredulous locals wanted to sneak in from an adjoining farm, dig up the grave, and see with their own eyes what was in it, but Father Desmond got wind of the scheme and threatened anyone who took part in such an unholy business with eternal damnation. So Nikos was left to rest in whatever peace he could find. Mathilde withdrew from the world, at first because she was too heartbroken, and then because she was too ill. By Christmas she was dead. Before she died she gave a great deal of money away, all to the benefit of local charities and schools. She endowed a library, a music series, and a race track. Her passing was an occasion of sadness to her community, and her wishes regarding her own remains, which were detailed in a codicil to her will, were respected. She asked to be buried without ceremony next to the unmarked grave near the pine woods. Joseph Petrie knew where this grave was and should be consulted on the matter. She bequeathed him a prime piece of land, all of her horses, and her thanks for keeping the promise he had once made to her. For her own grave she requested a plain stone with her name and dates engraved upon it, no more. For the unmarked grave she ordered a second stone to bear the name Nikos and a peculiar epitaph: His soul goes whinnying down the wind.
Over time much has changed on the bayou. A hurricane blew down the ruins of Mathilde Benoit’s house a few years ago, and the rising water washed out the last bridges and the few remaining houses in the town. Most of these were inhabited by fishermen and trappers who survived the storm by jumping out of their windows into their boats. The rice fields turned brackish long ago, and the only thing that flourishes in the mud is crayfish. In the spring the heavy rains flood the former streets and fields, right up to the edge of the pine forest, but when the waters recede the two grave stones are still in place. If you go to Acadiana in the dry season, you will find them there.
Valerie Martin is the author of three collections of short fiction, a biography of St. Francis of Assisi, and nine novels, including Mary Reilly (winner of the 1990 Kafka prize and the basis for the Stephen Frears film of the same title), Property (2003 winner of Great Britain’s prestigious Orange Prize), and most recently The Confessions of Edward Day. This is her first online publication.