Read an Excerpt
Outside the City of Mexico
September 16, 1835
Enclosed with this missive you'll find a draft for what I hope is sufficient money to pay your passage here by the speediest available transport. My host at the moment is being so good as to hold the minions of Justice at bay, which is quite generous of him given that I am widely supposed to have murdered his only son. Were Don Prospero de Castell-n even marginally sane, I would probably already have been executed--the evidence is fairly damning. By remarks the Don has made, however, I have the uncomfortable conviction that after the first of November--the second at the latest--he will fall in with the popular view, not that I killed the fellow, but that I deserve to be punished for the deed. In company with most of the rest of the household, he believes that young Fernando will re-visit the house, along with various other deceased relatives, at that time, the only difference between his belief and that of his daughters and their families being that he thinks he will be able to ask the murdered man outright--and receive an answer in no uncertain terms--about what ought best to be done with yours truly.
The local constabulary is also in fairly steady attendance. If ever I have earned your regard or affection, please come and engage in a few sleuth-hound tactics. I am at a complete loss to imagine how anyone but myself could have made quietus for young Fernando--who certainly deserved what he got--and if you do not prove otherwise, I shall soon be forced to begin suspecting myself. Please come. I am in fairly desperate straits, though, as I said, I believe I shall be safe enough until the Days of the Dead.
Postscriptum: I don't know whether they still garrote heretics like myself here, or hygienically shoot them as they do in the countryside. You understand that I don't really like to ask.
Benjamin January folded up his friend's letter after its perhaps seventy-fifth reading in the three weeks since its arrival on the morning of his wedding, settled back against the jolting seat of the Vera Cruz diligencia, and wondered--again--if he was going to make it to Mexico City alive, and if he did whether Hannibal would still be alive when he got there.
At every inn en route, the innkeepers had whispered darkly about "bandits in the mountains," prompting the passengers of the diligencia to ride with rifles cradled in their arms and pistols at their belts: their fellow-passenger Mr. Dillard of Tennessee seemed to take January going armed as a personal affront. But then, Mr. Dillard had not ceased glaring at January since the coach had pulled out of the baking, vulture-haunted streets of Vera Cruz. "You're not gonna let nigras ride inside, are you?" Dillard had demanded of the driver.
"They paid for their ticket like everybody else," the driver had retorted in a nasal Yankee twang. "Something he's permitted to do in this country, which has had the courage to strike down the foul abomination of slavery . . . unlike some nations which purport to be free."
"Damn Whig abolitionist," had snarled Dillard.
"Godless fleshmongering Democrat," the driver had replied.
It had not been an auspicious beginning to a journey that rapidly got worse. In addition to the threat of bandits--which had not, in four days of travel, so far manifested itself--there was the more clearly present threat of the inns themselves, ancient, filthy structures of adobe-brick, primitive beyond belief and inhabited by nests of scorpions and centipedes as well as the more usual fauna of chickens, pigs, and village dogs. There was the food--mostly greasy tamales, inadequately cooked beans, and the national staple of tortillas, unleavened corncakes cooked on an open grill. Born in the slave-quarters of a cane plantation upriver from New Orleans, January had eaten worse, but not recently.
Most deadly of all, there was the Yankee coachman's driving, as he lashed his team of four skittery little mustangs at crazy speed over the high yellow passes of the Sierra Madre Orientale, causing the diligencia to sway and jolt and causing January to wonder if he shouldn't have damned his friend Hannibal to whatever penalty the government of New Spain--Pardon me, he corrected himself, MEXICO--thought fit to dole out, and stayed at home to enjoy the wonderful state of having actually, finally, against all odds, married Rose Vitrac.
A particularly savage rut hurled the coach nearly sideways and precipitated his new bride nearly into his lap. Covered with yellow dust, sweating in the crystalline heat of these parched gray peaks, her soft snuff-colored curls skinned back tight into unflattering braids for travel . . . it took everything in him not to seize her in his arms and cover her with kisses.
That would really give Mr. Dillard something to complain about, he thought. And it would shock the other passengers--two German merchants, their doddering Swiss valet, and a young priest--speechless. Instead, he remarked, "At least, at this rate, we'll get there soon, and learn what actually happened." He gestured with Hannibal's letter and tucked it back into his pocket.
Rose removed her spectacles, sought vainly for some portion of her clothing not thick with dust in order to clean the dusty lenses, then sighed and resignedly replaced them on her nose. "You don't think Hannibal actually did it, do you?"
This was a question they'd asked each other for three weeks now, when not occupied with the logistics of honeymoon copulation in a stateroom bunk barely the size of a particularly stingy coffin. (The Belle Marquise, out of New Orleans to Vera Cruz, transported pineapples, tobacco, and the insect life that invariably accompanied them, and the floor was not an option.) Mostly they wondered if their friend--of average height and skeletally thin from the ravages of consumption--could have physically accomplished murder.
And the answer, of course, was yes. Even were "young Fernando" as tall as January and, like January, built upon what English novelists liked to call Herculean lines, there was always poison, there were firearms, there was the possibility of a stiletto in the back in a darkened room. January and Rose had whiled away many hours evolving such hypothetical scenarios ("What if Fernando habitually wore a steel breastplate to bed?" "One can mix sulfate of mercury with candle-wax and make a poisoned candle that when burned will kill the person in the room. . . .") as they strolled the decks of the Belle Marquise, waiting for a northern wind to fill the sails for those last few maddening miles into Vera Cruz; and, latterly, as they'd had the marrow pounded out of their bones by the frantic pace of the diligencia over rutted mountain roads.
In the absence of the slightest information about the victim, the circumstances, or any conceivable motivation for the murder, it was as good a way as any to pass the time.
But that wasn't what Rose meant now, and January knew it.
His mind returned to the reeking heat and darkness of the waterfront at New Orleans, the tail-end of summer, 1832. Even at that hour of the night--and he'd heard the Cathedral clock strike three as he'd left the garaonniare above his mother's kitchen--there was activity along the levee, stevedores unloading bales from the big, ugly flat-sided steamboats, filthy ruffians in coarse calico shirts and heavy Conestoga boots driving pigs from the flatboats by the light of torches, whores in tawdry dresses plying their trade in the shadows. Music jingled from the saloons along Rue du Levee, where men gambled through the night, somewhere a slave gang hauling wood onto a boat wailed a primitive holler. Roaches the size of mice crept on the sides of the warehouses, or flew with roaring wings around the flaming cressets; the warm air breathed and blew with the storm that flickered far out over the Gulf.
New Orleans. The home January had fled sixteen years before, seeking education and freedom in France.
He'd made his way along the levee, away from the docks where the steamboats waited three-deep and toward the taller masts of the ocean-going ships. The Duchesse Ivrogne, on which he'd come from France only two days before, would not even yet have left port. When he'd risen, sleepless, dressed and gone out, he'd told himself it was to see if the Duchesse was still in port, and to learn what her captain would ask to take him back to France again, though what the man would have been doing up at three in the morning January hadn't considered--perhaps in his heart he'd known that wasn't his intent at all. Around the ships the dark was thicker, and there was little activity beyond the scurryings of rats. Between the wet hulks, the river gleamed with the reflection of the distant torches, the occasional riding-light.
January found an empty wharf and walked out along it, the stink of the river pungent in his nose with a thousand memories. Hereabouts, where the river bent, the current was ferocious.
He didn't think it would take him long to drown.
He could barely see the wharf's end when he reached it. Occasional heat-lightning outlined the sable clouds of trees on the opposite river-bank, but illuminated nothing nearer. He'd advanced feeling his way with his feet--an absurd precaution, he thought, with the part of his mind still aware of the world of the living: wasn't the point of his coming here tonight to walk off the end of the wharf in the dark?
But when he reached the end he only stood there, looking out into the blackness, with the electric whisper of far-off storm-winds passing like silk ribbons over his face.
Whether he would have jumped he still didn't know. He knew--even three years later--that he'd been close to it.
But behind him he heard music, the light sweet embroideries of a single violin, playing a Mozart air in the dark.
And he turned back.
A white man was sitting on a bollard about halfway between the wharf's end and the levee behind them, a thin man of medium height whose long dark hair hung straggling over his shoulders like a disheveled mermaid's. He played like an angel, dismissed from the Heavenly Choir, for drunkenness, perhaps, because a squat black bottle of gin sat on the wharf-planks at his feet. He didn't look up as January came back toward him out of the night, only embellished the little dance-tune till it sparkled, calling secret rhythm and resonance from it until it seemed to speak of all joy, all light, all life.
He hadn't been there when January had walked out onto the wharf. He must have followed him, and sat down to play.
Then he looked up at January with the darkest eyes January had ever seen, and said: "You look like a man who needs a drink."
He was the first white man since January's return to his home city who had addressed him as a man, and not some lower form of life. When January had departed in 1817 the town had been mostly French, and the Creole French had long ago come to accommodation with their half-African libre cousins who made up most of the town's free-colored community. To Americans, who seemed to have taken over the town in their thousands, all blacks were potential slaves.
January said, "I do."
The fiddler nudged the bottle at his feet with the toe of one battered boot. "Try this. They lie, who say drafts from the River Styx bring oblivion. Who knows what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil. . . ."
"Aye, there's the rub," January had agreed, and bent to pick up the bottle. He answered in the English in which the fiddler had addressed him, the white man's voice not the twangy rasp of all those Americans who had told him all those things that a nigger couldn't do these days, and had asked him for his free papers, to prove he had the right to walk around by himself: rather, it had the slight lilt of the educated Anglo-Irish, overlaid with the whispery hoarseness of consumption.
"Or do you think you'll find someone that you've lost in those waters?"
With cholera walking the dark streets of every city in the world that year, it was a reasonable question. January saw again what was, at that time, his last clear recollection before the long haze of grief and agony in which he'd taken ship for New Orleans from Paris--his wife Ayasha's body, stretched across their bed in their grilling-hot room in Paris, her long black hair trailing down into the drying pools of vomit on the floor. The disease had spared her nothing. She had suffered and died alone.
"Not think," he'd replied, the whole conversation with this slight fantastic figure feeling to him like something from a dream. As the past two months, since finding Ayasha's body, had all felt like a dream. "Hope."
"Hope is something the living do." The fiddler coughed, switching the bow into his other hand so that he could press his hand to his
side. ". . . to hope til Hope creates / from its own wreck the thing it contemplates. . . . It's too silly an occupation for the dead."
January took a sip of the gin--which was cheap and unspeakably bad--and said, "You may be right about that."
The diligencia jolted, bringing him back to the present. To the knowledge of money in his pocket, and Rose--whom he had not known existed on that hot storm-whispering night three years ago--at his side.
Slowly he said, "Hannibal has been my friend for three years. Drunk or sober, I don't think you could find a more peaceable soul in creation--or a more hapless one." He spoke French--across from him the two German merchants muttered together in their native tongue and glanced worriedly out at the gray and yellow landscape of stone, distant pines, and dust. The entire journey had been a series of translations and recapitulations, and even in the close confines of the swaying coach January and Rose had a curious sense of privacy, as if everyone else were trapped within their own linguistic worlds.
"But it is also true," he went on, "that I have no idea what Hannibal did, or even what his name was, before the night I met him." The morning after that encounter on the waterfront January had gotten his first music pupil in New Orleans, and two nights after that had been hired for his first job playing at a quadroon ball. Hannibal had been playing as well, as usual the only white among musicians who ranged from musterfinos--men who were considered to be "of color" on the grounds of one African great-grandparent--down to January's nearly-pure African blackness. For this reason alone the fiddler was considered rather degenerate by the whites in the town.