–In memory of Lyle Saxon, 1891–1946
When Father Desmond excommunicated Mathilde Benoit, denying her the benefit of the sacraments, he wrote an account of his complaint against her. He described her as haughty, headstrong, well known for her quick temper and her indifference to decorum. Was she beautiful? He didn’t say. But she was young, she was an heiress and she was an impressive horsewoman who kept a stable of horses as high strung and temperamental as their mistress. She lived on a rice plantation near Hauteville, a small bayou town west of New Orleans. Hauteville was five miles long, one house deep on both sides of the water, laced together by a fantastical web of crossings: flat boats pulled across by ropes, wooden footbridges, bridges wide enough for carts, bridges made of bamboo, iron bridges with decorative trim, but not one stone bridge, because there is no natural deposit of stone in a hundred miles.
One of the finest bridges, of iron decorated with a filigree of fleur-de-lys, stretched across the water from the road that served the cane farmers to the door of the bank owned by Mathilde’s father, Pascal Benoit. If you kept your money in the bank, you crossed the bridge for free; otherwise, you paid a toll.
When Mathilde was six, her mother, Marie Beauclair Benoit, died trying to bring a son into the world. The son died too. An aunt was brought in to supervise the girl’s education, but she passed away in a fever epidemic the following year. Pascal did what he could to care for his daughter, which was largely a matter of giving in to her whimsical decrees: that she should have a pony, that she should wear white gowns and diadems woven from clover, that she should be allowed onto the levee at dawn to collect crayfish on their daily march from one side of the footpath to the other. At ten she was sent to the Ursuline nuns in the city to prepare for her debut into society. She was an apt student and she loved music. She learned to play the piano, to sing charming ballads, and, of course, she learned to dance. As a child she had stomped with the locals to the wild Acadian bands, but now she waltzed, her back straight, her feet barely touching the floor, whirling in the arms of her partner, a girl her own age in a room full of girls, all moving gracefully in interlocking circles, while the nuns sat on straight back chairs along the walls, tapping out the time with their high-laced boots. Twice a month her father came to visit her. He took her to the two entertainments for which she lived and breathed: the opera and the racetrack. In the summers when all who could afford to escape the heat of the city did, she returned to her bayou town. She spent her days on her pony and her nights by candlelight, turning the pages of fantastic tales, imagining herself a princess on a mountain of glass, or dancing in an undersea ballroom with sea horses peering in the windows.
When she was sixteen, her father died. She returned to the nuns for a year and then came home to another imported aunt who lived not long, and then, because the Napoleonic code allowed it, her money was her own.
There were suitors, there were rumors, there was resistance to the very idea of a young woman of means doing as she pleased, but not even the priest could force Mathilde to marry, so she did not. She set up a charity school for orphans and turned over the management of the bank to her father’s partner, thereby satisfying the nuns who had educated her and the investors who relied upon her. She occupied herself with her horses in the country and with music in the city. She was free.
One broiling summer afternoon in her eighteenth year, as the sun was dissolving redly into the bayou, Mathilde was riding home on her favorite filly, Choux-fleur, along the gentle curve of the levee. In Acadiana, nature runs riot and even a split rail fence becomes an impenetrable wall of green. Along such a wall Mathilde was passing, drowsy from the clop-clop of her horse’s hooves against the damp earth, when she observed, approaching from the opposite direction on the other side of the greenery, a fellow rider, so screened that his head and chest seemed to float disembodied towards her.
He was dark, handsome, his hair flowed from his temples like waves drawn by the moon from the shore and his eyes were as limpid as the shallow pools at the water’s edge. He was dressed in a loose linen shirt, such as the farmers in the area wore, but he had none of the red-boned rudeness of the local swains. His smile was sudden as a lightning bolt, the light springing disturbingly from his sizable white teeth. Mathilde found herself smiling back, which was not her habit upon encountering strangers. His attention was not arrested by her smile, he was admiring her horse, and his first words were, disappointingly, “What a powerful filly.”
“She is, she is,” Mathilde agreed. “She’s the fastest in the parish. She has twice the spirit of the best stallion and three times the sense.”
“Why three times the sense?” he asked.
Mathilde laughed. “Why do you think?” she said.
“My name is Nikos,” he said. “I’m new to these parts.”
“I am Mathilde,” she said, flashing her whip at the hand he extended over the wall. She touched her boot to Choux-fleur’s right side and left him there. He brought the rejected hand to his temple, smoothing back his hair, his eyes wide with admiration. What a rider she was! And what a rump on that filly!
There were sightings: a groom reported finding a stranger peering through the window of Choux-fleur’s stall, a farm worker spied a man plucking quinces in the bushes near the meadow; a rider was seen galloping through the rice field, destroying a swath of new shoots just topping the water. A bag of oats went missing from the storeroom. A horse blanket disappeared, and then, two days later was discovered neatly folded on the wrong shelf in the tack room.
Mathilde was more curious than angry. She was certain it was the man she had met over the fence and she persuaded herself that he was teasing her with these mysterious doings because she had been so impulsively rude to him. She revisited the green fence on her evening rides, but she didn’t see Nikos there again.
A Moonlight Night
Mathilde had a clear conscience and she slept soundly, but one hot and humid night in September she woke with the conviction that something was amiss in her house. She lay still, listening in the darkness to the myriad creaks, buzzes, and squawks of the night, picking out the ghostly whoo-whoo of an owl, the rustle of mice in the woodpile near the veranda. No, there was no sound she couldn’t identify. She turned onto her side and hugged her pillow close. She’d had a miserable ride in the afternoon. Choux-fleur was agitated and downright hostile, refusing the bit, dancing away to avoid the saddle, and when Mathilde turned away to lead her out of the barn, the horse nipped at her owner’s well-padded backside. Mathilde chose a familiar path but the filly stamped and started as if she’d been thrust into a dangerous and alien territory. On the return she bolted, reined in only with utmost difficulty by her perplexed and exasperated rider. The groom opined that the horse was doubtless coming into her season, and Mathilde agreed that this must be the case.
Now, in her dark bedroom, Mathilde felt as restless as her horse. She twisted and turned beneath the sheet, unable to find a comfortable position. At length she sat up and lit the lamp on her bedside table. She was thirsty and hot, too hot even for the cotton chemise she was wearing, but the nuns had instilled in her the importance of sleeping with clothes on. “If you can’t stand the heat,” Sister Marie de la Croix had told her, “do what I do and pour the water pitcher over your gown.”
Mathilde didn’t avail herself of this radical solution, but she did pour a glass of lukewarm water from the pitcher and drank it, standing at the window and fanning herself with her painted silk fan. The moon was full, casting a milky sheen upon the open lawn and the worn track that led to the barn. The air was dazzlingly still, curiously quiet. Too quiet, she thought. A grating sound she recognized rifled the air—the barn door sliding on its iron track. Without hesitation, Mathilde dropped the fan and ran through the house to the veranda. Lamp light flickered in the windows of the barn. “He’s in the tack room,” she whispered.
Out into the night she flew, her bare feet scarcely touching the grass, through the wisteria arbor, along the path to the barn door which was, as she had known it would be, open just wide enough for a man on a horse to pass through. She glanced over her shoulder at her house gleaming like a white marble temple, then stepped from the yard into pandemonium.
A clatter of hooves, a clamor of snorts, a chorus of outraged neighing. She moved from stall to stall, dispensing calming solicitude, but the disturbance was universal, and even Baron, a normally placid gelding, startled her with a double-barreled kick at the wall of his stall. Choux-fleur was just ahead. As Mathilde approached, the filly thrust her dark head over the gate, her neck fully extended, nostrils flaring, teeth bared, eyes bulging with fury. “Choux-choux,” Mathilde cried out. The filly responded with a high-pitched squeal that set her barn mates on a new round of stamping and snorting.
The moon was neatly framed in the window over the stall, shedding a pure white light upon the chaotic scene inside. Mathilde could see another horse, and that man, that Nikos, in the narrow space. The alien horse’s rear legs were jammed into the corner, his forelegs raised, his hooves curled over Choux-fleur’s trembling shoulders. Mathilde was an experienced horsewoman; she knew what she was seeing, but what vexed her eyes was the position of the man. Nikos had somehow gotten between the struggling animals. He clung to the filly’s neck, his eyes wide and his lips curled back, grunting and wheezing like a pig stuck in the throat. Was he sitting on Choux-fleur’s back?
“What are you doing?” Mathilde exclaimed, hastening to unlatch the gate.
“Get back,” Nikos shouted. “Don’t open that gate.” But Mathilde ignored him, and as the wooden dowel slipped free, the door drifted open on its hinges, giving her a full view of the impossible coupling which came apart as she staggered backward. Choux-fleur bolted madly past her, down the aisle and out the open door.
Nikos stepped into the aisle gazing longingly after the departing filly and Mathilde took him in, from his disheveled hair, his flushed face, his bare chest wet with sweat, his long torso ending in a v where the tan flesh gave way to a chestnut hide, down to his long forelegs, his knobby knees, his fringed fetlocks and dusty black hooves. As her legs buckled and a fog closed over her consciousness, he turned his light eyes upon her and she heard him say ruefully, “Now look what you’ve done.”
When she opened her eyes she was resting on a pile of blankets on the tack room floor, the lamp was lit, and Nikos was bending over her, his brow furrowed with concern. “How do you feel?” he asked.
“So it’s not a dream,” she said.
He straightened to his full height, shifting his weight to his hind legs. His right front hoof rolled slightly under in an attitude Mathilde would come to recognize as thoughtful. “It’s possible,” he observed, “that everything is a dream.”
Mathilde sat up, smoothing the front of her chemise, which was wet and streaked with dirt. “I’ve read about creatures like you,” she said. “But I thought they were fantastical.”
“Meaning?” he said.
“Made up. Long ago.”
“It’s true there aren’t many of my kind left,” he said. “I was trying to do something about that when you opened the gate.”
“Choux-fleur,” Mathilde said.
“She’s outside,” he said. “She won’t come in while I’m here. She’s not very bright.”
Mathilde got to her feet. “Where did you come from?” she demanded. “How did you get here?”
He flattened the hoof, laid his exceedingly long fingers against his cheek. “It’s a long story,” he said. “But the short answer is from an island, on a boat.”
Mathilde pictured him trying to keep his balance on a pitching shrimp boat. He’d go over the side at the first squall. “Don’t tell me you can sail,” she said.
“It was a big boat. I was in the hold. In the dark. A long time.”
“You were a stowaway?”
He frowned. “You ask too many questions,” he said.
A whinny at the window announced the impatience of Choux-fleur to be back in her stall. “You stay here,” Mathilde said. “I’ll close the door and bring her in.”
Nikos went to the window, looking out cautiously. “She’s a beauty,” he said. “And you were right, she’s spirited. She tried to bite me.”
“How could you do such a thing?” Mathilde scolded him. “You should be arrested.”
He snorted, lifting his head as if to elude a bridle. Mathilde stood her ground, glowering at him. The top of her head came midway up his muscular breast. He rolled his eyes down at her. “I’m bad,” he said seriously, and then he grinned.
It was an infectious grin. Mathilde lowered her eyes, nodding her head, hiding her smile.
His eyes softened. He took a step closer, reached out and touched her cheek with his fingertips. “You’re a beauty,” he said.
“You said that about my horse.”
“She is too, in her way; you in yours.”
“And which do you prefer?”
His brow furrowed again and the front hoof rolled out slightly. “Which do I prefer?” he repeated.
Mathilde blew air between compressed lips. “Well, if it’s a difficult question … ”
Nikos turned to the window, then back to Mathilde. “What can I say?” he replied. “I’m divided.”
For a moment neither spoke. Mathilde gazed up at him; his tail swished lightly at a horsefly hovering over his flank.
“You’re divided,” she agreed, and they both smiled.
At the Opera
Though it was not in his nature, to preserve his life Nikos became a nocturnal creature. In the daylight hours Mathilde provided various refuges where he sheltered from the eyes of men: the cool shadows of a pine forest, posted round with placards warning trespassers they would be shot; a lean-to at the edge of a rice field; and a run-down barn used for grain storage which served him both for rest and for food. In the evenings he made his way carefully along the lanes and across the lawn that ended in the French doors of Mathilde’s drawing room.
Nikos was wild and defiant, but like many unruly children, he was tamed by an exciting story. Mathilde had these in good supply, tales of romance, revenge, and treachery from the operas she adored. When a new score arrived from Paris or Milan, she read the libretto to him first, then sat down at the piano and played the various arias, singing along in her clear, high voice. During these concerts Nikos positioned himself near the soundboard, his head bowed, his eyes closed, like a man communing with divinity.
He was enchanted by the idea of the opera, a story set to music and acted out before an audience. Mathilde described the instruments of the orchestra, the costumes, the elaborate sets, the transformation on the stage of day into night, forest into castle, sunlight into thunderous storm, threatening a group of hunters gathered around a fire or startling a beautiful woman as she rushed along a moonlit shore to the arms of her waiting lover.
The opera that most particularly affected Nikos was Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Often he asked Mathilde to play the music from the great sextet in the second act, when Lucia is tricked into marriage and her lover Edgardo returns to find himself betrayed. Nikos’s voice was untrained, but he taught himself to sing Edgardo’s stunned accusations, as Mathilde, taking Lucia’s part, melodiously protested the cruelty of her fate.
One evening in the fall, Mathilde greeted her companion with the news that a company traveling from Milan would offer four performances of Donizetti’s sublime music at the French Opera House in New Orleans. Nikos declared that he would risk all to see this spectacle. Mathilde considered the problem. “I can hide you in my box before the audience comes in,” she said. “No one need be the wiser. You’ll have to wear an evening coat. And a cloak.”
They laid their plans in Mathilde’s drawing room, where they met with the curtains drawn, the door bolted, and the servants forbidden to knock on the door. She stood on a chair and measured her friend’s chest, arms, and neck; she would use her father’s measurements for the unnecessary pants. “I can’t very well order half a suit,” she explained. “We’ll need a long cloak, enormously long. I’ll order two and sew them together.”
They agreed to travel separately to the city; Nikos was to go by night on the river road. He knew the route, as it was on this road that he had escaped the terrors of the town, the bustling wharves and the drunken sailors who swore as he rushed past that he was the apparition of the drink they had just had or the one they needed. Mathilde would take her carriage and one trusted servant and meet him at her townhouse, where she would let him in at the courtyard gate. There he would dress for his first public appearance. Then he would follow her at a little distance so that she could make sure the way was clear. Her generous financial support of the opera house gave her access to keys, back staircases, and the largest box, draped inside and out with velvet curtains which could be opened and closed at the discretion of the box holder. In the past Mathilde had appeared in the company of a suitor or a relative; there would be talk about the tall stranger who stood in the shadows behind her gilt-edged chair, but gossip about Mathilde Benoit was nothing new. When the opera was over, Nikos and Mathilde would stay in the box until the crowd was gone, and then disappear into the night.
Their careful preparations were successful, and at the appointed hour Mathilde took her seat at the front of her box, where she was observed in conversation with an elegant stranger who stood in the shadows behind her. Was it her cousin Gaston? The several pairs of opera glasses trained and focused upon the heiress never satisfactorily answered that question. The orchestra struck up the overture, the bustle in the audience subsided, the lights dimmed and the golden curtains opened upon a misty Scottish moor. Mathilde heard Nikos draw in his breath. A squadron of men dressed in cloaks, embroidered doublets, puffy velvet breeches, and tall boots invaded the scene, responding raucously to their leader who adjured them to search the ruins near the tower. Mathilde gave in at once, absorbed by the familiar story, though acutely conscious of her companion, who stood utterly still in the darkness behind her. He was silent through the lover’s tryst and the brother’s vow, but towards the end of the sextet he muttered ingrata along with the tenor. When the act was over and the lights flared up amid the applause of the audience, Mathilde turned to Nikos. He was blotting his streaming eyes with his handkerchief, his lips trembling with suppressed emotion.
“So you like it?” Mathilde said.
“Like it?” he exclaimed. “It’s magnificent. This is the most sublime experience of my life.”
Mathilde laughed. The audience had begun to move about. She drew the curtain half across and motioned Nikos to back in behind it.
During the intermission Mathilde did not leave her box. She opened the door to the hall and ordered a bottle of champagne and two glasses from the boy stationed there. When the wine was handed in, she poured out a glass for Nikos, who quaffed it in one gulp. “Are you miserable in this close space?” she asked.
“No, no,” he said. “The air is very bad, but I don’t mind.” He held out his glass. “I could drink a bucket of this.”
“I’m afraid it only comes in bottles,” she said, refilling his glass. The gas lights flickered, dimming one by one, and the audience filtered in below them, the women fanning themselves, exchanging pleasantries with their neighbors. Mathilde looked down upon the crowd; she had no wish to be among them and sent a grateful thought to her father whose industry and financial acumen had set her apart, above the reach of wagging tongues and petty gossip. The orchestra tuned up plaintively; it was dark in the house.
“You can come out now,” Mathilde said, and Nikos, appearing from behind the drape took his place as before. Mathilde leaned back to speak to him, but as she did so there was a searing flash of light and a clap of thunder, followed by gasps and nervous laughter in the audience. Nikos was so startled he backed into the door, threw up his hands and cried, “Oh, gods.” The stage curtain parted upon a lavishly furnished tower room, a fierce storm lashed the windows with rain, lightning flashed, and thunder cracked. “Wonderful,” Nikos murmured, and Mathilde turned back to the stage, where Edgardo was proclaiming that the weather was no more fearful than his destiny.
After Lucia’s mad scene, after Edgardo’s dramatic suicide, after the applause and the several curtain calls, the curtain closed and the lights came up. Mathilde sat quietly in the box waiting for the audience to exit. Their timing must be precise: they would make their escape between the moment when the house was empty and the arrival of the ushers who would come in to pick up the glasses, the wadded programs, the forgotten scarf or jeweled reticule. Nikos was ecstatic, his pale eyes still moist from emotion. “It was just as you promised,” he whispered. “But I hadn’t pictured how it would feel. I thought it would be very pretty, very charming, though the story is sad, but I didn’t expect it to be so overpowering.”
While he chattered on, Mathilde arranged the cape over his back. “The singing was very fine,” she observed.
“The singing,” he said, “yes, and the acting!”
“Pull the hood up,” Mathilde instructed, and Nikos complied, drawing the heavy velvet cowl low over his forehead. Mathilde stepped back to take in the effect. “You look like a man pulling a piano on hooves,” she said.
All she could see of his face was his toothy smile. “Very funny,” he said.
Mathilde opened the door a crack and peered into the hall. Then she slipped out and made a quick foray to the staircase and back again. She pulled the door open wide and motioned to Nikos, who held the hood up over his eyes with both hands, nervous now and frowning. “Follow me,” Mathilde said.
“Don’t go too fast,” he said. “That staircase will be worse going down than it was coming up.” In truth it was a difficult descent. The wide marble stairs curved perilously, the rail was low. He had to feel his way, step by step, his upper body bent over his knees. Mathilde stood at the landing, watching his awkward progress. “You’re almost there,” she assured him. He swished his tail and, pushing off with his back legs, took the last few steps in a hop. Mathilde dashed out in front of him, leading him to the stage door. This was a heavy cypress plank that rolled on casters. Cautiously she pulled it aside and peered out into the dark alley. Two men stood beneath the street lamp on the corner, their voices raised in animated conversation.
“What’s going on?” Nikos asked, pressing close behind her. Mathilde glanced in the opposite direction; no one was in sight.
A shout of laughter issued from the stair landing, followed by the rap of leather soles on marble; the ushers were descending.
“We’ll have to leave the door open and make a run for it,” Mathilde said. She approached her companion, pulling the cloak back from his flank.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Bend down,” she said. “I’ll get on your back and guide you. Once we’re outside, go left, to the cross-street, and go quickly.”
“I don’t know,” Nikos said. “I don’t think this is a good idea.” Mathilde slid the door along the track. The two men beneath the lamp were still talking volubly, interrupting each other, their voices rising with an edge of hysteria.
“Trust me,” Mathilde said. “Bend down.” Nikos obeyed and in a moment she was on his back, arranging her skirt and pulling the cape over her shoulders, wrapping her fingers in his mane. “Go,” she said, unconsciously digging her evening slipper into his side. Nikos surged into the alley, startling a shout from the arguing men, but before they could even be sure what it was they saw—a man surely, riding a horse covered in a long cape—Nikos reached the corner and, at Mathilde’s cry, “Go right,” he was out of sight. This street was mercifully empty but lined with tall, deep-balconied houses, lit by gas lamps. “Straight on,” Mathilde ordered, bringing her lips close to her mount’s shoulder, “two blocks, then left into the alley.”
“Hold on,” Nikos said, breaking into a gallop. The clatter of hooves against paving bricks startled a night watchman, who rushed out from a side street shouting a warning, for racing in the Carré was strictly forbidden. Nikos veered away, his cape streaming out from his shoulders like a flapping black wing, leaving his pursuer rubbing his eyes in wonder, uncertain exactly what he had seen. Nikos swerved into the narrow alley, which was dark and quiet, both sides lined with stucco walls covered in vines. “Slow down,” Mathilde said. “No one will see us here.” He slowed to a trot, looking back anxiously over his shoulder. “Is he following us?” he asked.
“No,” Mathilde said. “Walk now so you don’t make so much noise.” He slowed, bringing each hoof down carefully. His breath was labored and harsh and beneath her knees Mathilde could feel the nervous quivering of his muscles. “We can go four blocks here, then we’ll have to cross Rue Royale, and then it’s just one more block to my house.”
“I’d rather run,” Nikos said.
“We’ll be there soon,” Mathilde assured him. She patted his back and found the evening coat soaked through with sweat. “Calm down,” she said.
They had one more fright at the end of the alley, a lamplighter on a ladder replacing a globe, but he was so absorbed in his task that Nikos slipped by unseen on the opposite sidewalk. At Mathilde’s house, she alighted from his back and opened the gate. Nikos, glancing about as if he expected to be apprehended any moment, bolted to safety. He had his tie and coat off before Mathilde had closed the bar. “What a night,” he murmured, “what a night.” He followed her, shedding his sodden shirt, across the courtyard and in at the wide French doors. A servant had left a fire and a chilled bottle of champagne for the mistress’s return, then gone off to bed.
Nikos made straight for the refreshment, skillfully popping the cork and filling two glasses. Mathilde was occupied with drawing the drapes. They didn’t speak for several moments, during which snatches of romantic melodies and dramatic encounters lingered in Mathilde’s imagination. When she turned to her companion, who held out a glass to her, his eyes golden in the lamplight, she had the sensation that she was on a stage; that an audience, poised between engagement and disbelief, hung upon her words. “An enchanting evening,” she said.
“Nothing like it in my memory,” Nikos agreed. “So many new sensations.” He set his glass down on the tray. “I’m trembling from the excitement and the strangeness of it all.” Tears stood in his eyes, he sniffed, lifting his chin and running his palm across his cheek, down his throat. “No one has ever been on my back before,” he said. He took up a napkin, dabbed at his nose, then shuddered and burst into sobs. “It was so unexpected,” he moaned. “So wonderful and strange. I felt we were one.”
Mathilde sipped her wine, at a loss for words. It hadn’t occurred to her that no one would ever have ridden Nikos; he was, after all … Now he drew in his breath, swabbing his eyes with the napkin, as he maneuvered between a chaise and a plant stand on which an enormous fern trembled in the humid air. “Mathilde,” he said, holding his hand out to her. She took a step back. “These feelings are new to me,” he explained. Then, clumsily, bending over his front legs as he folded them beneath him on the carpet, he came down upon his knees. “Mathilde,” he said again. “May the gods forgive me. I am completely yours.”
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.