Chapter Eight - The Gaspards

The house cleared out early the next morning: Noel with Caleb to take him to therapy, Emmanuel into the city and driven by Willie. There were no papers for me to correct or tests to grade, of course, so I said to Mrs. Bell, "Teach me to make biscuits?" and after she gave me a thoughtful look, she agreed.

Learning to make biscuits, proper biscuits that baked up light and flaky, took most of the morning. I offered to teach her a dish that I knew, but she laughed and patted my arm, as if to say no Northern boy could have anything to teach her.

With the biscuits in the oven, I was left to my own devices again. I decided to work on my comic, and took my sketchbook to the library. I sat at the study table, my view the wall of books opposite, organized by the color of the leather bindings as many great home libraries were.

Out of curiosity, I left my sketchbook and climbed the rolling ladder a step, just to see the titles that weren't easily visible from the ground. I found Balzac novels in original French, Dickens in both English and French, a first edition of Victor Hugo. I pulled the ladder along the track idly, curious about what other novels Thibodeauxes of years past had deemed worth keeping. There were more books in Latin and German as I went along, everything from Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic Wars to The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe. They were a family of readers, it seemed, and that gave me hope for Caleb's educational prospects.

As I replaced a copy of Ovid on the shelf, I heard a rustling sort of thump, and saw that one of the books had fallen to the floor. It must have been placed on the shelf precariously, and my rolling around on the ladder must have dislodged it. I climbed down from the ladder and picked up the book to put it away, but first took a few minutes to look it over.

It was small volume compared to my own sketchbook, about the size to fit in a roomy pocket, plainly bound in brown leather with no indication of a title on the front cover or the spine. On the frontispiece were lines to note the dates -- which were 1731-1745 -- and the owner, Achille Thibodeaux.

As I paged through it, I realized it was a ledger -- an accounts book of sorts, recorded purchases and sales in increasingly large amounts as the plantation began to sustain itself, starting with the purchase of the land itself and the materials to build the house. I had little experience reading eighteenth-century French, much less in reading eighteenth-century handwriting, but this turned out to be an accounts book and not heavier fare. I knew the words for things like cotton and eggs and sugar, of course, and I would come to recognize words like hectare, auction, and overseer.

I started to put the book back in its place, but then paused. It might give me some insights into the history of the plantation and of the family. Granted, it wasn't the same as finding a diary or a cache of letters, but I thought it might still answer some of the many questions I had about the Thibodeaux family and the history of Fidele.

Before I could read further, I heard Willie pull up in the Packard, and looked out the window toward the carriage house to see Caleb walking with Willie to the house. Caleb looked gloomy, and dragged his feet even though he held Willie's hand.

I put my own things aside and went out to meet them. "Caleb, Willie," I said and stooped down, leaning on my cane, so I could speak to Caleb directly. "Wait until you see what Mrs. Bell and I made for lunch. I made biscuits! And they're even edible!"

As I hoped, that got a smile from Caleb, even if it was just a small one. I rose and ruffled his hair, and Willie took him inside.

Proper lessons began that afternoon. We worked on writing numbers and letters, and went over the first few French vocabulary words. After his nap we read another chapter from The Lion, a The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and then a geometry lesson -- by which I mean we got his marbles and played Ringer in the garden until Emmanuel and Noel came home.

Caleb was indifferent to Emmanuel, but as soon as he heard the smooth purr of Noel's Jaguar on the drive, Caleb was antsy to meet him. I kept him out of the carriage house until Noel had safely parked and turned off the engine, and then he ran to Noel and Noel swung him up into his arms. Caleb put an arm around his neck and kissed his cheek. "Did you have a good day with Mr. Malcolm, Caleb?" Noel asked him, and Caleb nodded vigorously. "Good, because I have something for you after supper." Caleb's eyes grew big and he wiggled eagerly, and Noel laughed. "After supper, peanut. Go and wash your hands." He put Caleb down and Caleb ran into the house ahead of us.

Noel lingered to wait for me. "How has he been today?"

"A bit sad after his therapy session," I said and we began the slow climb up the stairs. "But I think I distracted him afterward. He does fine once he focuses on his lessons again. Do you meet with his therapist at all?"

"I pick him up afterward," Noel said. "I usually have a word with her about what they covered. He doesn't speak to her, either, but he draws pictures, and she watches him play with the toys she has in the office." He paused. "He doesn't draw pictures of the fire."

"Does he trust her?" I said, and Noel looked at me with his brows drawn.

"I hope so. I never thought about it."

Supper that night was beef pot pie, its gravy fragrant with rosemary, and I added this to my mental list for future cooking lessons. Again the meal was mostly silent until I told them what Caleb and I had done that day, and that got Noel talking a little bit, too.

Willie had brought us our coffee and Caleb another glass of milk when Noel said, "Willie, will you bring in the package I brought home?"

Willie smiled and said, "Right away, Mr. Noel," and went to fetch it. Caleb wiggled in his chair until Emmanuel cleared his throat meaningfully, and then Caleb pressed his lips together and gave me a sidelong look. I gave him a sidelong look right back.

Willie returned with a box wrapped in brown paper, which Noel took and gave to Caleb. "This is to help you look at the stars, peanut," he told Caleb, and Caleb's eyes grew enormous before he started ripping off the paper.

"You're spoiling the boy," Emmanuel said.

"Somebody has to," Noel replied, not looking at him.

Caleb tore off the paper and opened the box to find a small toy telescope. His mouth formed a silent "O" and he looked at Noel with shining eyes. Noel smiled in return, genuine.

"I'm glad you like it," he said. He looked at me. "I hope it fits into your lesson plans."

"It fits," I said and leaned my chin on my hand to watch Noel and Caleb unpack the telescope and figure out how to put it together. It was small and simple, with a limited range which meant we wouldn't discover any new planets; but given the reverent way Caleb held the telescope and silently begged to take it outside that very night, it didn't need to see all the way to Jupiter to be perfect.

The three of us took the telescope to the garden, away from the lights of the house, and set it up on one of the small wrought-iron garden tables. Noel stood close to me as I brought it into focus. "It'll be easier to find planets in the early morning, just before sunup," I said, keeping my gaze focused on the deep field of dark blue as I caught a whiff of the ocean-water scent of him. "But there are plenty of stars out. I'll find the Big Dipper."

"That sounds like a good start," Noel said, putting a hand on my back, and then he hastily removed it. "Here, Caleb, let me boost you up."

Caleb held up his arms. Noel picked him up and held him so that he could peer into the eyepiece. I held the telescope still for him and said, "The Big Dipper is part of a bigger constellation called Ursa Major, which means 'big bear'. Do you see the bear, Caleb?"

We gazed at stars and talked about their stories until Caleb was yawning, awake past his bedtime. Noel carried him inside and I followed with the telescope under my arm. I put the telescope in the school room, and by the time I was done with that Mrs. Bell was giving Caleb his bath.

Another day finished. It had been a quiet one, and I hadn't heard or seen a strange thing the entire day. I reflected that the noises I thought I heard, the feeling of being watched, were due to me being spooked by the history in the place and the atmosphere of the city.

It still felt early. I sat in the window-seat in the school room and looked out at the gardens as the wind blew softly through the trees, making them gently sway.

Silently, Noel joined me on the window-seat. I felt highly aware of Noel -- I won't say attuned, though it was something like that, as if my heart was beating with his and my breath slowed to his calming rhythm.

Before I could do something regrettable, I distracted myself by saying, "Some morning I'll get him up before dawn and we'll look for some planets."

"Good idea."

"How often do you come home with presents?"

"I try to keep it to once a week." He added after a pause, "I'd do anything to make him smile."

"You do a lot."

"Never enough," Noel said. "Nothing can make up for him being orphaned."

"He's not friendless or penniless," I said. "He's better off than most orphans -- better off than a lot of kids who have both parents."

Noel looked away, as if my praise unsettled him. He said, "The thing that kills me is that I always thought we'd have more time. I hadn't seen them since Christmas. I was traveling a lot that winter and thought I was just too busy for visits and there would be plenty of time later. And then there wasn't any later anymore."

I said quietly, "He's lucky to have you."

Noel looked unsettled again. "I hope you're right." He inhaled. "Well, I have work I should be doing. Excuse me, Malcolm."

"Good night," I said, and then turned in the window-seat before he left the school room. "Noel, I found an old ledger today in the library when I was poking around. Is it all right if I read that? It's an old, old book."

"Oh, we've got so many old, old books," Noel said. "Read anything you like. I trust you to take care of what needs care."

"Thank you," I said. He nodded and left the school room, and a few minutes later, I took up my cane and left too.

I didn't read any more of the ledger that night. I would, soon enough.

The third day at Fidele passed much as the others did: lessons with Caleb in the morning, lunch in the gardens, lessons and reading in the afternoon.

At supper that night, I was telling Noel and Emmanuel what we had done that day the same way I had the first few days, when Emmanuel interrupted me to say, "We're not paying you to fill his head with nonsense, Carmichael. We can't have him behind when he goes back to school."

"He won't be," I said mildly. "But children need--"

Emmanuel slapped the table, startling us all, Caleb enough to visibly flinch and drop his fork. With great deliberation, Noel place his water goblet on the table.

Emmanuel said, "I'm sick of you telling me what children need, Carmichael. The boy needs a firm hand, not fairy tales."

"Imagination needs to be fed," I said, not cowed. "An intelligent boy like Caleb--"

"A simpleton like Caleb, you mean," Emmanuel growled.

"Father!" Noel said sharply. "Don't you ever say that!"

Emmanuel slapped him hard across his face. Noel blinked, stunned, and beside me Caleb quivered, his eyes enormous. Even I was too shocked to speak.

Noel broke the silence. "Malcolm," he said calmly. "Please take Caleb out of the room."

I looked from Noel to Emmanuel and back, and then stood and held out my hand to Caleb. "Come on, Caleb. Let's go listen to the radio. Uncle Noel is okay. Let's go, Caleb."

His gaze warily fixed on Emmanuel, Caleb put his hand in mine and slipped out of his chair. When we were in the sitting room I turned on the radio and settled into the armchair beside it. Instead of taking his usual place on the floor, Caleb crawled into my lap and lay his head on my shoulder. I crooked my arm around him and leaned my cheek against his hair.

"Uncle Noel is very strong," I said. "I think Grandfather Emmanuel doesn't understand how strong Uncle Noel is. He will, though. He will."

I could hear raised voices from the dining room. I turned up the volume on the radio.

After Mrs. Bell took Caleb for his bath and bedtime, I sought out Noel. He wasn't in the library or in his room, nor in the music room or any other room that I passed in my search. I went to the carriage house to see if he had gone into the city for whatever comfort it might offer him. The Jaguar was still parked there, so despite my now-aching leg I went into the garden.

No sign of him, there, either. The path through the trees, though, with its darting fireflies and lazily swaying branches, held a certain sort of promise. I followed the path, and after a few minutes of walking found that it opened into a clearing.

A portion of the clearing was set off with a wrought-iron fence, and the path led through its gates. Through the trees I could see one of the sugar cane fields, and within the clearing were about two dozen stone structures -- above-ground tombs in the Creole style. I had found the family cemetery.

On the furthest tomb from the gates -- and therefore, I realized, the newest -- lay Noel, tossing an unlit flashlight back and forth in his hands as he talked, his voice only just audible above the other night sounds around us. I cleared my throat and he sat up abruptly, frowning, and flicked on the flashlight to shine it at me.

"Oh," he said when he saw me. "Malcolm."

"If you came out here to meet someone I can go."

"I'm not here to meet anyone," Noel said, so I went through the cemetery to join him. Some of the tombs were flat and square, with an upright headstone or a small statue of an angel or a lamb. Some had flowers planted beside them, still well-tended. Some were brick and marble structures, weathered with age, and the most ornate of them had to be Achille's. I thought I should return during the day sometime to view them more closely and learn more about the people whose names appeared in the Thibodeaux family Bible.

More urgent matters were at hand. When I reached Noel, I took the flashlight and held his chin so I could examine his face without hurting his eyes. The slap had faded to an angry throb on his cheek in the dim light. He let me inspect his face for a moment or two before he moved it out of my fingers.

"Better me than Caleb."

"Better neither of you. You're a grown man."

"Leave it, Malcolm. I'm fine. Just, no more relating your studies during supper. Tell me later. Emmanuel isn't interested."

"It still gives him no right to hit you."

Noel looked away. He said, "Your parents. What are they like?"

I paused, trying to think of the best way to sum them up. "They never made me cry myself to sleep."

"You were a lucky child." He took the flashlight back and shut off the beam.

"I know I was," I said and lowered myself onto the tomb beside him. "I never went to school with a black eye or beaten backside, and not all of my friends could say that." I took a deep breath. "But just because that's the way it's always been--"

"I don't want to talk about it, Malcolm."

"All right."

We sat in silence for some time, watching the darkness grow deeper in the woods around us. He didn't move closer to me, but neither did he tell me to go, and so I stayed.

Finally I said, "Who's buried here?"

"All the Thibodeaux clan," Noel said. "From Achille Thibodeaux to--" He swallowed, and I looked at the headstone behind us.

Of course. In times of trouble, he came to his twin.

I put my hand lightly on his back. He didn't object or move away, so I rubbed his back in a slow circle, as comfortingly as I could manage.

Eventually, slowly, he said, "When Simon and I were toddlers, Emmanuel didn't want us sleeping in the same crib. But every time Mrs. Bell put us to bed in separate cribs, we both would cry for hours and wouldn't sleep. Finally Emmanuel let us sleep together, and we stopped crying at bedtime." He paused. "I think that's the last kind thing he's ever done for me. I was fed and clothed and educated, but -- well, Emmanuel was never kind."

I wanted to say it couldn't be as bad as all that -- but obviously it was. The mark on his cheek put paid to that. I lay my head on his shoulder, still rubbing his back.

He said, even more softly, "When Grace was expecting Caleb, Simon once said to me, 'What if I'm like him? What if I hit my own child?' And I told him, 'You won't, because you're asking that question.'" He looked down at me. "So you must understand. Better me than Caleb."

"I don't like it, but I guess I understand."

"It's not your job to like it or not like it."

I lifted my head. "I live in this house," I answered. "I'm going to have opinions."

Noel gave me one of his small, mostly-in-the-eyes smiles. "Yes," he murmured, "of course you have opinions."

"I was never told children should be seen and not heard." I smiled back. "It's stayed with me."

We gazed at each other, and his eyes dipped to my lips. I licked them -- mostly without meaning to -- and he did the same.

Before I could lunge for him -- and I wanted to, I wanted to see if he still tasted like rain the way he always smelled like the ocean -- he turned away.

"Malcolm, I don't want to be ill-mannered, but I came out here to be alone."

"Right," I said. "I'll leave you to it." I gave his back one more pat, hauled myself to my feet, and started down the path out of the graveyard.

At the gates, I turned. "If he hits you again, I can't promise I'll just let it be."

Noel sighed. "He's my father, Malcolm."

"He's a jackass."

"Well," Noel said, "yes. But still my father. Try to show some respect."

"I'll try," I said, and as I went up back to the house I thought it was much easier to give respect where it was earned rather than where it demanded.

The next day was Saturday. In the morning, Noel, Caleb, and I played in the gardens, pretending we were explorers in the jungle. Among Caleb's toys were plastic swords and binoculars, which lent themselves well to chopping through a jungle and watching out for lions and tigers

Sometimes I glanced up at the house, not sure what I was looking for, and saw Emmanuel watching us from what I assumed was his study and puffing on his pipe. He turned away when our eyes met.

In the afternoon, Noel left us to meet with the farm manager, so while Caleb napped I cooked with Mrs. Bell.

We chatted a bit at first, mostly about baking techniques, which I actually knew something about. But when the conversation lulled I said, "You were right. They could only keep the façade up for so long."

Mrs. Bell sighed as she punched down bread dough. "I knew Mr. Emmanuel would show his colors eventually."

I stirred the gravy. Dinner tonight would be ham and red-eye gravy, and the aroma was making my mouth water. There would also be green beans and mashed potatoes, and, of course, biscuits. "Was he always like that?"

"Oh, no," Mrs. Bell said. "Before the war, he was the gentlest man you can imagine. He and Fabi -- Miss Fabienne -- they were true sweethearts. But the war changed every man who came home, that's sure as sunrise."

"You knew Fabienne," I said.

She nodded. "We were girls together."

"What was she like?"

"Like Mr. Simon," Mrs. Bell said. "Fierce and loving, with a big heart and a love of music. She loved her babies so much. She wrote Mr. Emmanuel every week while she was expecting, to tell him how they were doing."

"And then he came home to a pair of motherless twins," I said. "I imagine he didn't take it well."

"No, Mr. Malcolm. He didn't."

We were both quiet, her face pensive. I said, "Noel seems to think that's just the way things have to be."

"It has been ever since he was a child." She paused. "It's a child's lot, and a woman's, too, to suffer what must be suffered and to endure what must be endured."

"But he's not a child anymore. He went to a university. He went to war."

"Mr. Noel and Mr. Simon, they both tried to leave, they tried to make a life apart from Fidele, but the house called them back. It doesn't like to let go of its own." She looked at me. "You should leave before it claims you, too, Mr. Malcolm."

I said quietly, "And if I choose to stay?"

She looked down at her dough. "You stay, you cast your lot in with us, I don't know what will become of you."

"If I cast my lot with you, I'll protect what's mine."

"Yankees," she murmured, though it was not altogether disapproving.

"Cowboys," I said. "I'm from California."

"California," she said wistfully. "Is it really as beautiful as it looks in the pictures?"

"Oh, yes," I said. "Savagely so. In some places where the land meets the sea, it looks like it was bitten off in great chunks. San Francisco, the city where I grew up, is made up steep hills and goes right up to the cliffs over the ocean. The water is cold because it comes down from the Arctic. And in the mountains, there are trees so big and old they cut tunnels through their trunks to let cars through."

"You're making it up, Mr. Malcolm."

I crossed my heart. "Swear to God. I've seen them, the redwood forests like Woody Guthrie sings about. When we were kids my father would take us camping, and we'd pitch our tent under those big trees and sleep where it smelled like cinnamon and the air was as cool as a cave."

She gave me an exasperated look. "Stop toying with an old woman, Mr. Malcolm, and go ask Mr. Noel if Mr. Christie is staying for supper."

"Yes, ma'am," I said and put aside the spoon I'd been using with the gravy. "And you're not that old." I grinned at her and left the kitchen.

The door to the overseer's office was open, and I could hear the low murmur of voices as I came up the passage. I rapped lightly on the door with my knuckles, and they both looked up from the work table where they had spread out maps and ledgers and spreadsheets.

"Malcolm," Noel said, "come meet Alex Christie, our farm manager."

"Hello," I said and came into the office to shake his hand. Alex Christie was a man our age, with dark Gallic eyes and curly dark hair, of slender build and average height. He shook my hand firmly, which I appreciated -- I hated it when people treated me as if I were fragile just because of the cane.

"Malcolm Carmichael, Caleb's tutor," Noel said.

"A pleasure to meet you," Alex said. "Mr. Carmichael, I've got an idea and I'd like your opinion on it. I've got a little boy called Samuel who's about Caleb's age. I think Caleb could come to our house to play sometime, or I could have Julia bring Samuel here. It's hard for children to be alone."

"I'm still not sure Caleb is ready to be around other children," Noel said. “I’m worried he’ll be teased, or worse.”

"Samuel's a gentle child," Mr. Christie said. "He's so good with his baby sister. I'm sure he would do no harm to Caleb."

Noel said, "What do you think, Malcolm?"

"I think we should at least give it a try," I said. "Mr. Christie's right, it's not good for children to be isolated."

Noel still looked uncertain. "I'll ask Caleb and see what he thinks about it. I don't want to push him before he's ready."

"All right," I said, and Mr. Christie looked a little disappointed but nodded too. I went on, "Mrs. Bell sent me to ask if Mr. Christie is staying for supper tonight."

"Not tonight," he said. "Julia is expecting me."

"I'll tell her," I said and went back to the kitchen. Caleb was up from his nap, and sat at the kitchen table with one of his books, flipping through the pages as he sipped from a glass of milk. I relayed the message from Noel to Mrs. Bell, and then scrubbed my hand through Caleb's hair. "What shall we do with the rest of the afternoon, Caleb?"

He hopped down from his chair and Mrs. Bell tsked at him. "Finish your milk, Caleb. Don't be wasteful. There are starving children in China."

Caleb picked up his glass and gulped it down, and then grabbed my hand and tugged me out of the kitchen to his favorite place on the property, the gardens.

We played outside until the sun began to sink and Noel walked Mr. Christie to his car, which was parked in the drive. Caleb ran to Noel, and Noel swung him up into his arms.

"Did you have a good day with Mr. Malcolm today?"

Caleb nodded and smiled at me over Noel's shoulder.

"Ready for suppertime?"

The smile disappeared, and Caleb shrugged.

"Oh, now, peanut, don't look like that," Noel cajoled him. "It's not so bad. Grandfather was just in a bad temper last night."

Excuses, I thought, but I didn't want to contradict Noel in front of Caleb so I kept my opinion to myself.

Rene Gaspard had invited me to Sunday dinner as soon as I was in New Orleans. My first Sunday morning, as the rest of the household went to church -- Noel and Caleb both looked at me with envy when I said I preferred not to attend -- I called Rene to make certain the invitation was still open. He assured me, loudly and jovially, that his family was looking forward to meeting me that afternoon.

Half an hour before the appointed time, I took the truck into the city. Rene lived in a neighborhood called Bywater, full of small houses in neat rows, with the smell of barbecue in the air. When I rang the doorbell, the door was thrown open and I was greeted by not only Rene but most of his extended family.

"Is it a special occasion?" I murmured to him as we went through the house to the courtyard behind, where his mother and aunts were boiling crawfish with corn on the cob and onions in an enormous pot.

"Naw, Sarge," he answered. "It's just Sunday."

So it was true, then, what I had heard -- that New Orleans greets Sunday the way other cities greet the Fourth of July. I shrugged and decided to roll with it. I was from San Francisco, after all, not Boston.

Rene introduced me to his family members -- his mother and father, his two sisters, many cousins -- and then pulled over a pretty brown-haired girl wearing a cherry-red cotton dress and with red ribbons braided in her hair. "Ma belle Angelique," he said and kissed her cheek. "My future bride. Meet my old Sarge, Malcolm Carmichael."

"Sergeant," she said, and then her eyes widened and she gave an alarmed look to Rene. He didn't seem to notice, though, as he guided me to one of the long tables and a comfortable chair with room to stretch out my bad leg. I smiled at Angelique helplessly and hoped we'd have a few minutes sometime in the evening for me to explain whatever had unsettled her.

Before long I had a plate full of Gulf seafood and a cold beer to wash it down. The family drifted between Cajun-French and English and back again as they talked and ate, and as I joined the conversation I soon did the same. One of the uncles brought out a concertina so there was zydeco to go along with our meal. The young people began to dance as soon as their plates were empty, joined by the children, dancing awkwardly but without self-consciousness, and even the elders who were mobile enough strutted around to the music.

A few of the girls tried to get me up to dance, too, but I begged off. "It's hard to dance with a cane," I explained, and they cooed with disappointment.

Rene threw himself onto the seat beside me and shooed the girls away. "Leave Sarge be," he said. "He's a wounded vet. Show some respect." The girls left, hair ribbons fluttering, and Rene looked at me with a resigned smile.

"Let's find a quiet place, Sarge," he said, gesturing with the green glass bottle and two cups he carried in one hand, so I got to my feet and we left the courtyard to sit on the front porch instead.

The sun was setting and fireflies swooped lazily among the trees. Rene poured us both drinks from the bottle and we clinked glasses with a murmured, "Salut." I had a sip to find it was homemade cherry wine, tart and delicious.

I said, "You were going to tell me more about Fidele and the Thibodeauxes."

Rene raised his eyebrow at me -- the other was bisected by a scar, and that side of his face didn't move so easily anymore -- and said, "Where would you like me to start?"

"I've already heard that Emmanuel Thibodeaux blames Noel for the death of his wife. I assume there's more to the story than that."

"There is," he said. "Everyone's heard the story 'round here. It's well-known and often told."

"Tell me," I said, and he settled back in the porch swing, the bottle tucked against his thigh.

"The Thibodeaux family," he began, "has been in Louisiana since the days of the first French settlers and the casket girls. They survived the Spanish, they survived the purchase, they survived the War Between the States -- they've survived everything Fate conspired to throw at them. And yet they're cursed."

"Cursed," I said.

Rene nodded and drank. "Every Thibodeaux bride has died before her time. Sometimes they die in childbirth, like poor Fabienne Thibodeaux. Sometimes it's the times, like the yellow fever epidemic in the 1800s. Sometimes it's due to carelessness on the part of the husband, like young Caleb's parents."

"Carelessness?"

"The fire started in the bedroom, so says the fire marshall. Story goes one of them was smoking in bed and fell asleep without putting the cigarette out, and Grace didn't smoke."

I knocked back my wine, trying not to picture it -- but I could, entirely too well. I knew not only the sight of burned bodies but the stench, and the horror of burning to death was all too easy to imagine. "Good God."

Rene nodded again, looking grim. "It's always been like that. The first Thibodeaux bride, poor girl, they say she went," he spun his finger by his temple, "and tried to kill her baby. Achille Thibodeaux sent her to a sanitarium and there she died."

I shivered despite myself. "I can understand people believing in a curse two hundred years ago, but we've split the atom. We're going to go into space within our lifetime. It's not a world of demons and monsters anymore."

Rene sipped, watching the fireflies. He said softly, "I saw the same horrors you did, Sarge. I saw the same miracles. I don't know if it made me cynical or more open to belief." He shrugged. "It's a strange and puzzling world."

"That it is," I murmured and drank, letting the wine settle on the back of my tongue before I swallowed.

Rene said, "I'm surprised Noel stays with Emmanuel. Story goes that Emmanuel was terrible to him when the twins were boys. They were even taken away from him for a while, until his powerful friends made Children's Aid give them back."

"He's pretty awful to Noel still."

Rene huffed and drank. His fingertips tapped a rhythm on his knee. "I do know this. The Thibodeauxes are an old family, and old families have deep closets, full of skeletons." He looked at me. "Teach the boy, but stay out of the rest. That's what I think, me."

"I don't think I can do that," I replied.

"You always had a kind heart for a beautiful mess, Sarge," Rene said with a smile.

"Malcolm," I said, smiling back. "I'm a civilian now."

We both were still a moment, and then we moved away from each other as the front door opened and Angelique looked out. "There you are, Rene," she said and came to sit on his knee.

"Ma belle," he said and gave her a hearty kiss. He said to me, "My first wife left me for another during the war, but Angelique has been doing her best to heal my broken heart."

"I'm glad," I said, and I meant it. Rene and I had fooled around some during the war but we both knew it was more about comfort than anything else, and he was moving on. Marriage, a child or two or more, days working in the garage his family owned -- that was the life Rene wanted, and he was getting it. I envied him the simplicity of it -- but as pretty as Angelique was, she couldn't compare to Noel, even with all of his complications. "Congratulations."

She blushed under his praise, her arms around Rene's neck, but when her eyes met mine there was still something unfathomable in them, like there was something she wished to say but she didn't know how to broach the subject. I wanted to tell her it was fine, she had nothing to worry about from me, but I didn't know how to broach it, either.

"Tell you what, Sarge," Rene said, his arm easy around Angelique's waist. "Next Saturday night is yours, uh-huh? Come into the city and I'll show you where you can hear the best music and drink the best beer."

Angelique said, "We'll find a pretty thing for you, Malcolm."

"I'd love that," I said, though I doubted my idea of a pretty thing matched hers.

We drank more wine and talked until finally it was time for me to go home. I thanked Rene and Mrs. Gaspard, and everyone else who let me thank them, for inviting me for supper; I kissed a few cheeks and had mine kissed many times; and finally got into the truck to drive back to Fidele.

>> Chapter Nine