They were circling again, their leathery wings flapping slowly, noiselessly. Through a small square window lodged high in a stone wall of my cottage, I could see a large gargoyle passing just in front of me, so close that I could have touched its gray, scaly hide or wrapped my fingers around its slender neck if not for the barrier between us. Like the others, this one seemed to be a mouth breather, its jagged fangs on display every time it opened its slobbering jaws. I held my breath, sliding away from my lookout spot just as the creature's tiny, pale pink eye passed by. The guttural honk that sounded moments later announced its awareness of my presence…
I woke abruptly, my heart a battering ram, then sank back against the downy whiteness of my pillow, relieved that—this time—the encounter had been a dream.
When Prince Philippe was alive, his monsters’ forays beyond his castle walls generally caught me at my most vulnerable: going outside to draw water from my well, tending the vegetables and herbs in my garden, or hurrying home from the market. Since I lived next to the prince's spacious estate, for a time my constant anxiety was second only to that of my neighbor down the road, whose wooden house offered the gargoyles less resistance to entry than my fortified walls.
No one could figure out where the prince had acquired his unusual pets. There were whispers that an enemy had smuggled the creatures onto the castle grounds, hoping to cause the prince's demise. Instead, Prince Philippe had attempted to tame them with limited success, as evidenced by the angry welts on his arms and hands, which I'd occasionally salved and bound once he learned of my talents as a healer.
Some wondered why I assisted the prince with his wounds, having been personally scarred by his ferocious beasts. My empathy for the suffering of others was a blessing and a curse, turning me into the most sought-after purveyor of medicine in town despite my race and gender, while compelling me to spend time and energy on lost causes when giving up might have saved both me and my patient undue agony. However, in the prince's case, there were additional reasons. To begin with, Prince Philippe paid me lavishly. Second, he was far more powerful than I, and, as a single woman living alone, I needed allies. I benefited from false rumors that I was a Vodou priestess, gossip associated with my being born into slavery in Saint-Domingue; the resulting fear shielded me from the assaults I had been powerless to prevent while in my former master's house. But with the prince's protection, I knew that even those who doubted that I had supernatural powers dared not attack me. Finally, despite my natural inclination to despise him, the prince's intelligence, attractiveness and respect for my skill inspired a shallow, reluctant partiality. Once I became certain that he had no intention of inflicting himself on me, time in his company flew.
My association with the prince had one major boundary: I was too afraid of the gargoyles to visit his estate, insisting, despite the huge social chasm between us, that the injured prince come to me. My stipulation turned out to be surprisingly unique. His lovers and supporters ventured into his castle even without the threats of force that allowed him to maintain a staff he referred to as “servants.” I wasn't fooled. I recognized slavery when I saw it, a realization that flared whenever our interaction seemed on the verge of genuine congeniality.
I learned the details of Prince Philippe's household first-hand, having attended to the medical needs of his guests and workers on numerous occasions. As I cleaned and dressed their wounds, several members of his entourage told me they had tried unsuccessfully to convince him to put the gargoyles to death. One paramour insisted that the prince didn't know how to kill them; another swore that he always released them in the vain hope that they would never return. Still others felt certain that he had become convinced the flying monsters made him special. Whatever the truth, when the prince succumbed to influenza, those of us who were his neighbors hoped that his gruesome companions would soon disappear.
I waited for the flock of misshapen, nightmarish birds to darken the sky, but days passed without any sign of them. Two weeks after the prince's demise, as I walked home from the market balancing a basket of cheeses on my head, I paused at his gate. Even from a few paces away, I'd inhaled the thick stench that shrouded the once-sculpted gardens like a winter cloak. Usually, I said a prayer as I hurried past, my insides frozen with fear, but this time curiosity got the better of me. I peered through the iron bars and, startled, caught my basket before it slipped to the ground, placing it carefully beside me on the dirt road.
A panting gargoyle lay in the courtyard just beyond the gate, its rose-colored eyes rolled back in its head and its wings limp as sodden paper. As I bent down to take a closer look, I noticed that the creature's skin had become wrinkled and loose, like an old pair of hose. Gazing towards the castle, I saw several other monsters scattered among the overgrown hedges and weed-infested flower beds. Most seemed dead. Their carcasses swarmed with flies, and, in some cases, their bellies and limbs had been torn apart in what looked like a desperate attempt for the strong to survive by cannibalizing the weak. That their bodies and not just their bones remained led me to believe that their flesh was as foul as their appearance.
I wondered why they hadn't simply flown over the walls of the castle, as they had done so many times before. I concluded that whatever resourcefulness they'd previously displayed had long disappeared, leaving them completely dependent on the prince. I gazed at the pitiful creature starving in front of me at just the moment that its eye swiveled towards me. I wanted to turn away, but something in its watery stare held me fast.
The gate was slightly ajar. Before I realized what I was doing, I slipped inside, having already become accustomed to the horrible smell. Gasping for air, its purple tongue lolling from the corner of its mouth, the gargoyle tried unsuccessfully to raise its head. A faint honking sounded behind me, and I turned to see another gargoyle draped listlessly on the ledge of one of the prince's fountains, which were now either dry or full of soupy, green sludge. I carefully reached out my hand, placing it on the second creature's head. The skin was cool and surprisingly smooth. The gargoyle closed its eyes, shuddered, then lay perfectly still. For a moment, I thought it had died, but its eyes opened again halfway, with extreme effort. I swear the beast was sending me optical pleas for mercy. Is such a thing possible?
As I considered allowing the survivors to perish, a dull ache arose in my gut, equally unexpected and unwelcome—guilt. How could I ignore the gargoyles’ plight, understanding as I did the agony of having my most desperate longings for succor denied? Surely these animals would muster some of the gratitude I might have felt had someone spared me even one core-deep injury of enslavement. Providing them with relief, I decided, would both ease my conscience and eliminate my reasons to fear them.
I hurried home, gathered a large bag, a pitcher of water and a wheelbarrow, and returned as quickly as I could to the prince's property. I hesitated, then pushed the gate back far enough to get the wheelbarrow inside, knowing that without my help the unbearable mid-June heat would soon finish off the remaining gargoyles. I gently lifted the first creature's head, which was surprisingly light, poured water into its mouth, then turned to assist the second. A quick glance around showed two more displaying signs of life. I had just enough water to give each of them a meager drink. Emboldened by the ease with which I'd lifted their heads and the realization that they were far smaller than they'd appeared (winged bulldogs rather than bullocks), I hoisted each one into my wheelbarrow, careful to avoid their taloned paws.
They had just enough room and energy to rest their heads at each of the four corners, a rather unnerving sight that made me glad for the long handles that kept my hands safely out of reach. We bumped along the road, I with my empty pitcher in the bag, now slung awkwardly across my back, they peering wearily around, still panting, shifting position now and then but making no attempt to attack me. Maybe they are like dogs, I thought, recalling the loyalty that even the most ill-tempered cur could show to its master, while wondering what I was going to feed them.
That mystery was soon solved—they didn't eat grass or shrubbery, but they did eat anything and everything else. I was glad my property had ample vermin on which they could feast. I wasn't overly pleased, however, when I returned home after delivering a baby to discover that my new guests had smashed the bottles in the small room at the back of my house where I'd enclosed them (in which I could evidently no longer store my wine). I did have to laugh, though, at the sight of four monsters with red—not pink—eyes lurching drunkenly about.
Long before the gargoyles became my companions, I had come to prefer solitude to the lecherous overtures or simpleminded conversation I seemed doomed to attract from the few men in town not deterred by my race or my alleged connection to Vodou. Everyone knew how much Prince Philippe valued my medical skill, but with his death, the fear of running afoul of him had died, too. I kept my door bolted and my knives sharpened and at the ready.
While the monsters in my house provided a more than adequate substitute for the prince's protection, I felt uneasy. Domestication clearly ran counter to their nature. They were generally passive, perhaps in deference to my kindness, but at times they seemed to resent me, snarling, lashing out, and occasionally drawing blood. Nevertheless, given a choice, I preferred the prospect of being disemboweled by savage beasts to the weight of another male body, hands over my mouth, forcing my legs apart and rutting against me, as indifferent to my emotional and physical destruction as the Mongol hordes. In order to survive Dr. Le Jeune’s invasions, I had learned to force my soul into a dark corner, where it huddled in a ball with its eyes tightly shut. I never wanted to be driven to that place again. I wasn’t completely certain it still existed.
Dr. Le Jeune set me free—at his wife’s insistence—after bringing me and his family from Saint-Domingue to France. He also furthered my education by allowing me access to his library and sometimes taking me on his rounds (though a good portion of my skill came from my Dahomeyan grandmother's knowledge of traditional African medicine). Le Jeune’s final scrupulous act involved handing me keys to the property I inherited from my father, M. Duplat, a family home built before he left to make his fortune on the backs of the slaves who worked his sugar plantation. Nevertheless, the credit I give my former captors for providing me with my cozy stone cottage is negligible.
I lived a half hour’s brisk walk from town. This might have limited my ability to treat my patients if not for my friendship with Marie, a midwife ten years my senior who gave me shelter if my errands lasted too late for safe solo travel. A solidly built girl with curly, dark hair and wide-set eyes, her keen intelligence had been deemed an inadequate lure for matrimony. As a result, Marie had been chosen by her parents to remain in her family home, which she stood to inherit when they died. Her mother was widowed, but so strong and vital that I sometimes wondered who would bury whom.
Despite her lot in life, Marie seemed endlessly cheerful, because she believed that God had put her—and everyone—in a particular situation for the sake of His ultimate glory. I avoided the topic of slavery, seeing no divine purpose in human subjugation. The value of a pointless argument was far outweighed by the charity Marie had extended to me, which resulted from her radical assertion that God loved all His children equally, even the ones with dark skin.
A week after the gargoyles moved in, I had just come from applying a poultice to an infection when I heard her girlish voice calling my name. I stopped outside the bakery and turned to see her hurrying across the street.
“Youssef is back from Asia,” she announced.
Marie folded her arms. “You don’t fool me.”
I did my best not to grin, failing miserably.
“His lamp was on last night, and I saw him leaving home this morning. Perhaps you should buy some spices.”
“I’m not sure I need them.”
Marie rolled her eyes. “Then go to his shop to make conversation. Or should I drag you there? You know how often he is away.”
I also knew there were no guarantees that his returning home would coincide with a time when I wasn't needed to tend to the sick. And that my heart leaped at the thought of seeing him again…
“I will drag you,” she said, reaching for my hand.
“No, you won’t,” I retorted, avoiding her grasp. “I’ll go. Alone.”
She grinned exultantly. “Good.”
At the silvery tinkle of the shop door’s bell, Youssef turned to face me, his angular face softening into a wide smile. “Béatrice.” He held my eyes for a moment, then wiped his hands on his apron. “May I help you?”
I couldn’t speak for a moment, perhaps because the heady mingle of aromas had overwhelmed my senses, perhaps because I really had no need to buy anything...then again, if I am honest, I suspect I would have been at a loss for words with my nose congested and my cupboard bare. Whenever I encountered Youssef after a long absence, I felt as if I were meeting him for the first time.
“Do you have any cumin?” I managed.
“Certainly.” He measured a small amount into a square of cloth. “Is this enough?” When I nodded, he tied the miniature bundle with a thin cord and handed it to me.
“What do I owe you?”
I laughed, my heart skipping again. “You drive a hard bargain.”
He grinned, but his smile soon faded. “There are rumors circulating,” he said casually, “that you have guests.”
“Were there any topics of conversation before I moved here?” I responded, avoiding his eyes.
“Are the stories true, Béatrice?”
“What was said?”
“That you are harboring Prince Philippe’s monstrosities.”
I paused, glanced up, then focused on the fragrant bag of spices dangling from my fingers. “Only four of them.”
“Why on earth...are you insane?”
“They would have died!”
“My entire being rebels against the suffering of others,” I said, gazing at him.
“Other humans, I understand. But...do you...have you forgotten what they are capable of?”
“They were never acting out of malice.”
He shook his head violently. “I cannot bear the thought of them harming you again.”
I smiled at the tenderness in his voice. “When should I expect you? Or have you changed your mind?”
Three weeks after the gargoyles took over my wine cellar, Youssef came to dinner for the first time in months. I kept the back room barricaded, but every once in a while a plaintive honk from within, too loud to ignore, would intrude on our conversation. It was easier to disregard the furious scratching throughout our meal, though the resulting grooves in the door were so deep that I feared I would soon require a visit from the carpenter.
“How long do you intend to keep those beasts?” Youssef asked, after a particularly loud cry from the next room.
“Not long,” I lied, impaling a Brussels sprout with my fork.
He chewed a piece of roasted chicken, swallowed, and inquired, “Do you like them, Béatrice?”
Until that moment, I'd never thought about whether I cared for them or not. “Every creature deserves a chance to live.”
“I’m not so sure of that. What good do those...things do?”
“They scare off unwelcome suitors, for one.”
Youssef laughed. “That's useful.” He glanced at me, then back at his plate. “So if a welcome suitor were to come along, you'd get rid of them?”
“If he wanted me to. Then again, if this welcome suitor loved me enough, he'd accept a few inconveniences.”
“Like dangerous monsters living inside your house?”
Youssef cocked his head, then reached for my hand and turned it over, gently tracing a long scar on my palm with his index finger. When our eyes met, he released me, for this was our dance: words unsaid and actions undone, in what I assumed to be the interest of a propriety that neither of us had the courage to breach, even though our time alone was already enough to set tongues wagging. Not that public opinion should have mattered much, since we were both well aware that our skin color and foreign birth put us outside the realm of respectability.
“They haven't tried to kill me since I became their mistress,” I insisted, placing my hand in my lap, where it continued to send the warmth of Youssef's touch throughout my body. “I think they know I saved their lives.”
“What if they're just gaining strength?”
I'd never thought of that, either. Well, I had, but I'd tried to keep that particular thought buried, because...perhaps I did care for the gargoyles. At the very least, I was accustomed to their company. I had no evidence they would come to my rescue if I needed help, of course, but they had to sense my inherent goodness. If not, why hadn't they torn me to shreds? I made sure they had water from my well, scraps from my table and bruised vegetables from my garden. These scanty offerings, along with the occasional unfortunate mouse or insect, turned out to be enough to sustain them. If I took care of them, wouldn't they take care of me?
“Why don't you just open the door and let them fly away?” Youssef continued, wiping his full, perfectly formed lips with a napkin.
“I will, one day.”
With that, I changed the subject, pressing him for details of his latest trip to India. And this became our topic of conversation until it was time for him to mount his stallion, Armand, and return home. The chaste farewell kiss he planted on my cheek left me burning for more.
This is silly, I told myself as I blew out my lamp and lay in bed, my contact with Youssef making me acutely aware, as it always did, that I lived alone. I had good reasons for holding back, but what was he afraid of? All at once, an answer came to me, so obvious that I was struck by my stupidity in not discerning it before. I closed my eyes, ignored the tightness in my throat at the thought of dislodging the last bricks in the wall between us, and decided to let him know that he need not be reluctant to approach me boldly.
When the bell on the spice shop door rang the next morning to announce my presence, Youssef looked up in surprise.
“Will you walk with me?” I said, my cheeks flaming as his eyes widened. Had I misread his interest? But then he took off his apron and came towards me, making the room glow with his luminous smile. He retrieved a sign from a table near the door and fastened it to the window: “Back soon.” Then he waited for me to step outside, following suit and locking his store behind him.
We strolled along the main street, past the butcher's shop. As we came upon the bakery, Youssef stopped and asked, “Would you like a sweet?”
I shook my head. “Thank you, though.” I hesitated a moment, then gazed at him resolutely. “You are clearly aware of the stories people tell about me. Have you heard rumors that I am a sorceress?”
His eyes darted away. “No,” he replied eventually. “But I have heard talk that you are a Vodou priestess.”
“Do you believe it?”
He found my face again and studied me. “No.”
“Perhaps,” he admitted softly. “I can’t deny that you have bewitched me.”
A few more steps, and we neared the alley that led to Youssef's home, whose location I had learned from Marie. She often made a point of describing his visitors, who were allegedly few in number and posed no threat to “God’s plan.”
Youssef stopped again, looking directly into my eyes.
“Marie lives near here,” I said. “She tells me you—”
“Would you like to—”
For a tantalizing moment, we stood, frozen in position as if transformed by a Medusa. Then Youssef slowly reached for my hand...or did I reach for his? What came next happened so inevitably that, even now, it seems more a fantasy than a reality. Youssef's Christian faith prohibited the full expression of his obvious passion. I was grateful, although the idea of yielding to him—truly yielding—promised a delight to be savored, in sharp contrast to my previous ordeals.
Marie proved her friendship by convincing her mother to allow me shelter that night. I returned home the next morning, a smile etched permanently on my face, or so it seemed until I opened the door to terrifying, ferocious snarls from my cellar. I'd forgotten about the gargoyles completely, but since I never let them out, their agitation took me by surprise. Then again, they had missed a meal. Listening to them banging against the walls and clawing the door, I couldn't help wondering if I should I set them free. Or abandon my deepest instincts and kill them. I'd never envied Prince Philippe for harboring demons. Why hadn't I let them expire when he had?
That evening, I was both surprised and delighted by a visit from Youssef. He had brought me a bouquet of flowers and a small amount of saffron (for which I knew he'd paid a hefty fee). I carefully laid his precious gifts on my kitchen table, then fell into his arms, wondering why we'd wasted so much time on uncertainty.
Early the next morning, Youssef entered my room without knocking and woke me with a kiss.
“Farewell, my love,” he whispered.
I held out both arms to him and pulled him down so unexpectedly that he lost his balance, which drew gales of laughter from both of us. “Must you go so soon?”
He gazed at me mournfully. “I'm afraid so,” he said. Then he brightened, kissed me again, and added, “But I've left you a gift.”
“Another one? Youssef, you'll spoil me!”
“It's a fraction of what you deserve,” he replied, making my soul happy with the caress of his voice and the love in his eyes. “Good-bye. I'll return this evening, if you'll have me.”
I listened as he descended the stairs, waited for the door to close, then sprang from my bed and flew to the kitchen, guessing correctly that he'd left my present on the table. I picked up a small, elaborately decorated mahogany box, a generous gift all by itself, and examined it. Palm trees, ocean, bananas—had Youssef carved it to remind me of my island birth? When I opened it, I gasped. Gently, I fingered the delicate silver cross that lay within, then picked up the slender leather cord coiled beside it and slipped it over my head. The pendant sat directly over my heart, which began to beat faster at the thought of his return.
I had business in town that day, a visit with an elderly lady who was slowly wasting away. My patient had barely enough energy left to raise her head, so I was stunned when she took the spoon from my hand as I fed her porridge, bringing it carefully to her own lips. She swore that basking in my radiance had given her strength.
When I arrived back home, the sun was hovering just above the horizon. I drew water from the well and brought it inside, all the while singing a tune I'd learned in Saint-Domingue. I never spoke Creole anymore, because I wanted to distance myself from the nightmare of slavery. (Besides, none of my neighbors understood it). On this day, however, I felt like all of my trials had become a drawn-out prelude to my current joy.
I lit a lamp, turned the key to the cellar, closed the door behind me, and hesitated. The gargoyles crowded into a corner, as they had recently begun to do whenever they saw me. I often heard them scrambling about when left alone, but when faced directly, they became fairly passive. Then again, I never stayed with them long. They were like an undertow in the ocean of my consciousness. Or a worm in the apple of my life. Usually, I slopped water in their bowls, shoveled their waste into a burlap sack while they drank, then carried it outside, leaving it to rot in a corner of the garden, afraid that something poisonous inside it might kill my precious herbs. I would then return with whatever scraps I'd decided to feed my pets, mopping the floor while they ate, trying not to turn my back. But this day, as I gazed into their tiny, pink eyes, I felt a pang of compassion. I was better than a slaver by far; the gargoyles were not forced into any sort of servitude or subjected to any sort of physical torture. Still, my cellar was windowless and cramped. I had deprived them of autonomy, and while they had no trouble maintaining their weight (indeed, one, in particular, had become quite plump), their skin had turned pale and ghastly, and their wings seemed permanently inert.
The gargoyles need to be returned to the wild, I decided. They looked healthy enough to survive without me, so why was I keeping them around? They were beasts, after all. Even without native intelligence, they had to have some instincts. Besides, what if they were waiting for the right moment to pounce on me, as Youssef had suggested? I should let them go, I thought, knowing that all of my reasoning had nothing to do with it. Stated simply, if I had Youssef, I didn't need them.
As they honked and panted, urging me to fill their bowls with water, all moisture drained from my throat. Eyeing their razor-edged teeth, I decided that releasing the gargoyles was too risky without help.
Youssef arrived within the hour, just as the indigo twilight overtook the sun, a thin band of orange at the horizon the only shield between him and darkness. As soon as I heard Armand's hooves, I rushed outside, leaving Youssef just enough time to tie up his mount before I wrapped him in an embrace.
“I missed you,” I said, pressing my cheek to his chest.
“I came as soon as I could,” he replied, holding me close.
I drew back to look into his eyes. “The gift you gave me...it's so beautiful. Even the box was beautiful. Thank you.”
He smiled for a moment, then became serious. “I must tend my horse. Please wait inside for me? I have something important to say to you.”
When a moment seems an hour, no amount of haste is sufficient. By the time Youssef strode into my kitchen I was pacing the floor, beside myself with impatience.
“What is it?” I begged, fingering the silver cross at my neck.
He grinned, his eyes twinkling. “Please, sit down.”
I complied quickly. He knelt in front of me, then clasped my hands.
“Béatrice, I would ask your earthly father for permission, but since I cannot, I asked your Heavenly Father instead. I'd like to pretend that I awaited His response, but I know what my heart is telling me. Why would He bring together two people so perfectly suited to each other unless He meant for us to wed? I swear, I already love you more than I had hoped to imagine. All I lack is the Lord's blessing on the physical consummation of our souls' union, so that we may spend our time alone without restraint. Please make me the happiest—“
“Yes!” I exclaimed, springing to my feet.
When we finally released each other, Youssef took my hands again and gazed into my eyes. “I have one important request.” He paused, then said firmly, “You must rid yourself of the monsters. I know you felt pity for them, but I cannot live with such creatures. On this point, I must insist.”
“That was easy,” Youssef remarked, eyebrows raised.
“You're going to help me.”
I paused. “Youssef, there's something you don't know about me.”
“There are many things I don't know about myself, my love.”
“But this...this is vitally important.” I inhaled deeply, gathering strength. “I...I cannot...I cannot...have children. My master...after he forced himself on me...” My throat burned and my face flushed at the thought of my shame. Youssef's grasp had become limp. I pulled my hands away and sat at the table, unable to meet his eyes. “When his wife discovered my pregnancy, she gave me a choice. I could drink pennyroyal tea, be beaten, or allow her to instigate an infection. I chose the pennyroyal, hoping that it would kill me, grateful not to give birth to the child of a slave-owning rapist, as my mother had done when she gave birth to me.
“Mme. Le Jeune did the opposite of my request. First, she had me beaten until I was nearly unconscious, leaving me just alert enough to feel two of my fellow house slaves holding me down while she lifted my skirt and inserted a vile potion between my legs. The infection nearly granted me the escape I longed for, but Dr. Le Jeune wanted me alive. As soon as my fever broke, he resumed assaulting me as he had before, but I never became pregnant again. I wanted to kill both of them. I could have accomplished the task with poison, but it seems I am incapable of murder.
“My grandmother was a great healer who passed down to my mother her knowledge of plants. As soon as I could absorb it, they taught me, too. I was twelve when my father sold me to Le Jeune. What kind of man looks at a child and sees a concubine? My father had allowed me to be educated—he even enjoyed flaunting my intelligence in front of his white daughters—but Le Jeune was willing to pay a good price, and that mattered more.”
When I finally found the courage to look at Youssef again, he was studying me, an inscrutable expression on his face. After an eternity, he finally said, “You have suffered greatly, Béatrice.”
I thought of his stories of the persecution of Coptics in his native Egypt, how the rampant injustice caused him to leave his family and seek a better life in France. “You, too, know suffering, Youssef.”
He shook his head. “I have watched it, but you have felt it. If only I could have spared you—”
“Attempting it would have cost you your life, and they would have tortured you first.”
He frowned, sighing deeply. “Like the psalmists, I sometimes ask God why. Why are humans so given to evil? Why do we seem to enjoy it? He answers that we are lowly, fallen, made of dust, conceived in sin. But that He loves us enough to offer us Heaven, if we persevere. My twenty-two years sometimes feels like more than enough perseverance.”
“As do mine,” I said, realizing that certainty of my true age was another “benefit” my father had granted me that others born in slavery were denied. I hesitated, then added, “I never believed in the possibility of true earthly bliss until you asked me to be your wife.”
He smiled wistfully, his silence causing me more agony than any disease.
“Please go,” I said softly. Youssef looked confused. I wiped the stream that had begun to breach my eyelids, sobbing as he took me in his arms. “I know I have been defiled...and that I will never give you children.”
“I love you,” he murmured. “It's not your fault.”
“But you won't marry me.” I closed my eyes, willing my tears to cease, fighting to calm my ragged breathing. When I was able to speak without weeping, I said, “I understand.”
Youssef drew back, raising my chin with his hand. “Your virginity was stolen,” he said. “You are not defiled because of that. As for children, I will pray that God heals you. He can do all things, if we only have faith.”
My body flooded with light. “So you would still have me?”
“Is your answer still yes?”
This time, my tears were joyful. “Of course!”
Our embrace was interrupted by a loud honk, followed by the sound of scratching talons against my cellar door. Youssef's face became solemn. “Do you still agree to rid yourself of those monstrosities?”
“At first light.”
I felt a churning in my gut. “Yes.”
Shortly after dawn, Youssef knocked on my bedroom door. I opened my eyes with effort, having tossed and turned all night because of a vivid dream about being pursued by Sylvain, a field hand from Saint-Domingue who had been caught organizing a rebellion. To make an example of him, his naked, partially flayed body had been hung on a pole in the middle of the cane field, after the overseer and his henchmen had castrated him, cut out his tongue, put out his eyes, and removed the tip of his nose, all while he was still alive. I was not a witness to his torments, but his anguished screams had permanently etched graphic images into my mind. Moreover, even though I spent the daylight hours in Dr. Le Jeune's mansion, a glance out the wrong window had imprinted the gory spectacle of Sylvain's corpse, a human scarecrow suspended between the rows of cane until the scavengers and the sun's merciless heat had their way. In my nightmare, Sylvain's grisly features were animated by a leer reminiscent of the creatures I was about to either set free or murder, I hadn't yet decided which.
Youssef knocked louder. “Béatrice.”
I sat up, breathing heavily, trying to release the tightness in my chest. “I'm awake.”
The door swung open, and he peeked inside. “Are you ready?”
“No. I mean...yes, but I need to get dressed.”
His smile was as uncertain as my tone of voice. “I'll wait downstairs.”
After the door closed, I gazed out the window at the pale blue morning sky. When I noticed that the rose-tinted streaks in the scattered clouds resembled my gargoyles' eyes, I decided to set them free. After a few minutes' pondering, I resolved the question of how by suddenly remembering their fondness for wine. Once intoxicated, they could be easily carried far enough away that they would pose no threat, especially since they had lost the ability to fly. Even earthbound, I felt confident that they would survive. And, equally important, if they were unable to adjust to their freedom, I would be spared watching them die.
The first thing I saw upon reaching the kitchen was a long, curved sword lying across my table. Youssef glanced up at me, then took the weapon in his hand.
“I can't kill them,” I protested, a wave of nausea rising and falling in my gut.
“Then I will,” he replied, his eyes frosty as a January morning.
“I promised to rid myself of them, not to kill them. If I set them free—”
“They will harm other people,” he said with finality. “You asked for my help.”
A different wave rose within me, but this one refused to recede. Youssef might have been right, but I felt incensed by his unwillingness to let me to state, much less defend, my new plan. His face had changed completely, so that he hardly resembled my ardent, gentle lover. He reminded me instead of Dr. Le Jeune as he threw me to the ground, or Marcel and Jean-Claude, holding me fast as my mistress violated me, or my father turning away after the bill for my sale was paid.
Youssef's determined stare turned to a frown, then his eyes softened, blunting the edge of my gathering fury. “Is this how it will be with us?” he asked simply.
“Is unquestioning obedience the price of your love?”
“I ask for nothing but a husband's due respect.”
“We are not wed yet.”
As Youssef placed his sword on the table again, a low honk came from just beyond the room. If I hadn't known the gargoyles to be incredibly stupid, I would have interpreted the call as triumphant. And yet, whether they lived or died, whether I held firm or yielded, I faced the possibility of imminent defeat. I stood to lose either my cherished freedom or the love of my life, a man willing to give up all dreams of children, a man willing to deliver me from endlessly carrying my burdens alone. Something in me broke, and I could feel myself shrinking, my spine losing its strength.
“If I am meant to be mastered,” I said, over the persistent dissonance of talons on wood, “I suppose you will be the most charitable I can expect.”
Youssef's eyes grew wide. “The Bible calls me to be your head, not your master. In exchange, I promise to lay down my life for you. Would a slaver do the same?”
I gazed at Youssef, and knew he saw me as fully human. Was it fair to hold him responsible for those who had abused me in the past? I wanted to ask what made my head so inherently inadequate that I needed another one, but I knew his desire for control was the way of all men, an unassailable fact that caused the wave inside me to return with the force of a tsunami, crashing violently against the shores of my gut.
I turned away, collecting myself. Youssef loved me. I was quite certain he would treat me kindly. I had no doubt that he would willingly die for me. I could take care of myself, but my defensive measures suddenly felt exhausting.
“No,” I said, and he sighed with relief.
More honking came from within, as if the creatures sensed their lives hanging in the balance.
“What now, Béatrice?
I held his eyes a moment, searching their depths for the ice they had previously displayed. My Youssef was changeable; this knowledge, I couldn't unlearn. So it is with humans, I thought. So it is with me.
I answered quietly: “I cannot kill.”
“If you open the door, I will do the rest.”
I hesitated. “As you wish.”
At the sound of my approach, the gargoyles, who had maintained their restless activity, fell silent. My hands shook as I turned the key to the cellar door.
“Please stand back,” said Youssef with absurd politeness, careful, I assumed, to suggest rather than compel. I glanced at his sword, then turned my back, covering my ears. Sylvain's anguished cries rang so clearly in my memory that they seemed to come from...and then I turned, realizing the sounds were too intense for the realm of imagination.
He had cut one of the gargoyles in half, spraying its green, gelatinous blood on the walls near the cellar, but the other three were upon him, their atrophied wings useless but their teeth and claws still lethal. They tore at his flesh indiscriminately, lacerating his legs, slicing through his arm, leaving him unable to raise his sword. I pulled a cleaver from its hook above my oven and hacked through the spines of the survivors, who were so focused on their prey that they neither saw nor heard me approach. Deprived of the use of their limbs, they fell heavily to the ground, squealing, their ravening jaws streaming with saliva as I quickly decapitated each one.
Youssef lay on his back, his life ebbing away in crimson currents, leaving my floor awash with an ever-expanding pool of blood. I tore my skirt, frantically tying tourniquets here, there and everywhere, sobbing at my own futility, praying to a God who had granted my prayers often enough to inspire hope, but rarely enough to despair of a miracle. Then I knelt beside my love, cradling his head in my lap, stroking his hair and kissing his forehead.
“Perhaps,” he whispered, “I should have planned this better.”
He nudged the corners of his mouth upward. I tried smiling back, meaning to wipe away tears but smudging my face with my bloodstained hand instead.
“Don't go,” I pleaded.
“I will see you...in Paradise.”
“No, Youssef. No!”
“Kiss me to heaven?”
I pressed my mouth against his and tasted his sweet essence, bombarded by visions of our wedding night, the elusive, gilded gateway to happiness, until his lips grew slack and his breath dissipated. Then I held Youssef for an eternity, absorbing the last warm rays from his body's setting sun, rocking him until his limbs began to stiffen, then laying him gently on my floor. His eyes were closed, sparing me from placing my fingers on his eyelids, as I had done many times, to mute his vacant stare. I stood, surveyed the severed gargoyle heads lying near me, turned to examine their long necks and scaly bodies drowning in yellow-green, slimy puddles, then covered my mouth and ran into the yard, where I emptied my stomach with a force that made Youssef's horse rear up in alarm.
Perhaps his steed was frightened by the sight of me: dressed in tattered rags, covered with two shades of blood, my eyes undoubtedly haunted and wild. I wondered where Armand would take me were I to climb on his back. Maybe, if I were the rider, my fated misery would compel him to seek faraway places that seemed different, but were, in the end, familiar. Or maybe, never having ridden a horse, I would fall off and break my neck. It seemed a fitting end that Youssef's stallion should cause my demise, since my demons had killed its master.
I couldn't leave Youssef lying on my kitchen floor, so I pushed my front door open, steeling myself for the sight of his broken body with the thought that, with his lifeblood spilled, all that remained was an empty shell. I was unsure of the customs of his Coptic faith, but if what I had learned in Saint-Domingue held true, Youssef's soul would not rest peacefully without proper last rites. This thought gave me a selfish hope, for I welcomed the idea of regular visits from his ghost.
I was trying to determine whether or not to fetch a priest when I heard a faint noise from beyond the cellar door. My pulse quickened as I glanced around the room. I counted four gargoyles, all dead. I had just classified the quiet whimpers as figments of the morning's trauma when I heard the sound yet again. It bore no resemblance to any mouse or insect. I bent to retrieve the meat cleaver from the floor, wiped the blade clean with the remnants of my dress, and pushed open the cellar door, scanning the gloom, my heart pounding in my temples. Nothing.
Then it moved, stretching its scrawny neck, raising its head, staring at me with its pink eyes. The baby gargoyle was barely the size of a house cat. As I raised the cleaver it shrank back, panting, cowering...
I stepped gingerly over the bodies on the floor, being careful not to slip on the intermingled pools of blood as I picked my way across the kitchen. I placed my knife on the table and went outside to gather spoiled vegetables and draw water from the well.