Josephine's Bath

Josephine’s Bath

I carried one of the lighted candelabras and followed sheepishly, wondering where exactly we were going, and what we were planned to do, since I had no idea.

“This last one, that’s her chamber,” she said to me, and opened the door. I followed her in and saw a small wooden room with a pool and benches.

“OK, we’ll undress here, and take the candles inside with us. Take off your clothes!” she told me.

“What do you mean?” I asked, confused.

“The clothes, all off, naked!” she urged, “you’re a big boy, hurry up!”

“Wait a minute! Tina!” I protested.

By then she had taken off the wrap and the halter and opened the other door.

“Off, now!” she said, “you’ll see!”

So I took my shirt and pants off, but kept on my underwear, and picked up the lit candles and followed her inside.

What I saw looking around me was a grotto carved out of the stone mountain and a hot spring gradually filling a large circular pool. There were three steps that led into the water, and she had put her candelabra on a rock ledge.

“Pants off, and in,” she said, “this is Josephine’s sulfur bath.”

“She came here as a young girl, this was her chamber, the Empress of France,” Tina said as she stood into the water to her chest.

This is insane I thought to myself, but then I decided to go along with it, turned my back and slipped off my shorts, and backed into the warm water.

As I stepped into the water its warmness enveloped me with a pleasant shock, and I slowly let it calm my tense body. It had a vague smell of sulfur, and I could see the uneven rocky bottom, where I could stand on the tip of my toes holding my head above the surface. The grotto had been scooped out of the base of Gros Piton most likely by African slaves when Josephine’s planter family were on the island.

In 1750, there had been a slave rebellion, and renegade bands of slaves hid in the thickly wooded Pitons, but by that time, Josephine and her family where in Haiti, and then Europe. This was the last island shrine built for the teenage Empress, where she had bathed, the figure of a woman that French court painter Jacques David made immortal.

Old rusted iron slave made hooks for robes hung on the plank wall on the far side of the room, and a long wooden bench had built into an alcove reached by  rocky steps. On it I imagined the young Josephine once sat while she combed her wet hair, perhaps dreaming of the conquest of Europe, and the pageantry of Versailles.

Tina was laughing and splashing around, and she floated on her back hair floating in the water like the Sargasso Sea.

The story of the young Josephine Bonaparte was an interesting tale, and she told me the whole thing from start to finish, and then when we’d been in the water for maybe twenty minutes she moved toward me, her body pinning me against one of the walls.

Josephine had affairs throughout her life, she confessed, while the great man Napoleon remained mostly indifferent to love, his deepest passion was war, but whenever he was victorious on the battlefield, soil awash with blood, he sought her arms, traveling many miles, day and night, horses dying underneath him.

She took me by the hand and led me to the narrow alcove and she kissed me gently pulling me down next to her warm and wet on the bench, and then it happened.

I liked to think it was all her doing, but I was responsible too. Pip was a distant thought.

We spent another hour at the baths and then drove back to the house, and that night she came into my bed.

The next morning she wanted to sleep late, so I took my coffee out on the terrace, with thought of the betrayal on mind, but put that aside, and decided to go to the beach early, shouting to her as I was heading out the door. She didn’t come down to  that morning, and I finally went back to the house in the early afternoon. Louise was there preparing for the evening meal, and told me that Tina had taken the car into town for some shopping.

“Madame gone to do the shop!” she announced in her patois accent, a dialect based on a back and forth history of French and English colonial masters, arriving at some middle ground.

She didn’t like people in her kitchen, as she told me, and she motioned me out the door with her hand.  Her youngest brother Terry acted as house gardener, and also caretaker when Pip and Tina weren’t there, sleeping in a makeshift basement room.

Tina called Louise, or Mabel, the other native young woman who sometimes worked at the house, their ‘servants’, a term she had picked up from Pip who in his colonial way believed that, and on her lips and his too, it had always sounded laughable.

They always brought an extra large suitcase with them to St. Lucia, filled with frozen foods Tina wanted, ‘Lean Cuisines’ and turtle sundaes for her desserts, a strange contradiction in my mind but not hers, but for the most part, they loved the curries these women made, meat cooked with succulent island fruit, mangoes, papaya, or bananas.

The rest of the afternoon was replaying the night before, and wondering what we would say to one another this evening, Pip would be back either tomorrow night, or the next one, he wasn’t sure, in his last telephone call.

About six I heard her drive up, and she carried some wicker baskets she’d bought into the house, and nothing of discomfort, or guilt, marked her manner. She showered, dressed for our casual dinner, and then we continued as before, first with drinks on the terrace, and then at dinner.

Afterward, I brought up what happened, and she leaned over, and kissed me, and said, “Yes, it was wonderful, thank you.”

I tried to steer the conversation to my complicit behavior with a friend’s wife, and she responded by bringing out a Ouija board for amusement.

“Let’s see what the future holds for us, shall we?” she said.

“I don’t feel like playing games, after what happened, please,” I pleaded.

“This isn’t a game!,” she warned me, and put the board and the pointer on the coffee table next to the couch.

“First, drinks,” she said, “you do that!” motioning me to the bar. I got up and made the drinks, and returned putting them both on the table.

“We need to know what will happen!” she said, looking directly at me.

The stars and the ancients have so many answers we need, she told me, the paranormal becomes normal, everyday life.

“I lived in a house once, built right after the spread of the Mexican missions northward in the arid hills outside Escondido, and over the years it had been the location for four suicides, three murders, and a lot of alcoholic and drug madness,” she went on. “Hah, my ex- husband fell off the end of the earth there, on his goddamn head! He drank himself out of one of the large San Diego law firms, filled with ex-Navy officers, and dedicated right wingers like himself.

“He had visions of another world, usually after his fourth scotch! He had had a very detailed descriptions of this other world, and it was inhabited with a populace which included creatures from other solar systems. I thought he’d watched too much Star Trek!”

He wasn’t an idiot, she said, he’d gone to Yale, and his father had been a Navy admiral, and they were a landed family on his mother’s side with large farms near Fresno, all pretty solid people who’d spent three generations in California.

“Where is he now? I asked.

“He took a small boat out of San Diego Harbor, and he was never seen again!” she said with some sadness on her face. “It washed up on the beach at Encinitas on the north coast a week later, but without him on it.

“Oh” I uttered, not knowing what to say next. I looked at her for a long while. “OK, what do I have to do with this game?”

“It’s not a game!” she said.

“Somebody made this, the board, look!” I said holding up the top of the box.

“This ritual is very old, before Christ,” she said, “don’t you believe in the spirit world?”

“No,” I answered, and looked at her beautiful face, lost in its classic lines for a moment. “I don’t believe in God either.”

“Don’t be a fool, there’s so much outside of what you know, some writer, bah!” she said, and laughed.

I held up my hands and shrugged in surrender, and asked her to go on with how the board worked, what it did, exactly.

“We should only ask it for one thing, something important to each of us”, she warned me, “ so don’t be flippant!”

I nodded that I’d go along with whatever she said.

She smiled at me, and we started. She held the pointer gently in her hands with its magnifying glass circle, and then put it down on the tan colored board with the printed alphabet.

Oddly enough, I had remembered Ouija boards from old black and white movies with séances, usually set in Victorian England drawing rooms, where a Gypsy Madame somebody was able to contact Lord Elgin’s late wife in the next world, and coax her permission for him to marry his teenage scullery maid.

“We’ll ask the Ouija, where we’ll be in the future” she instructed, and handed me the pointer.

“You go first,” she urged.

I held the plastic pointer with its glass eye firmly, and it slowly but unconsciously moved my hand first to the letter, C, on the board, and then with aimless movement, it took me to an, H and then quickly, to an, I.

“What the hell does that mean?” I asked.

“You’re coming back to Chicago, that’s what!” she said calmly. ‘Chi’ was the well-known abbreviation for Chicago.

“That’s nuts!” I exclaimed, “I’ve got two book contracts out West!”

“The board doesn’t lie!” she warned me, and took the pointer from me.

I got up to make myself another drink, and held out my hand and she gave me half empty glass with its melted ice.

You could always count on Pip to have a well-stocked bar. He had four bottles of scotch, plenty of rum, dark and light, Jamaican and Puerto Rican, and three bottles of gin. We were both drinking gin and tonic, so I quickly made the drinks, and returned to the game, as I thought of it.

She was holding the Ouija pointer against her forehead, with her eyes shut, when I sat down with the drinks, and didn’t open them for a time.

“You must believe, or it won’t work,” she said, “I believe!”

She asked the same question of the Ouija, as she called him, or it, and the pointer first took her hand to an, S on the board, and then it moved her hand to a, D,  I thought, but it was clearly an, E, and finally she ended on an, A.

“Aha, looks like I’m going to take a cruise, I’ve been wanting to do the old Queen Elizabeth for years now, we could go see Pip’s nasty old mother, what a treat!”

We had a couple more drinks, and she told me she wanted to sleep alone tonight, and Pip would be back tomorrow for sure.

He did come in early, and we all had dinner together, and as usual, he was full of stories about the shady Venezuelans, Chavez and his corrupt ministers, and how dangerous Caracas had become. We had a lot of laughs, honest laughter, and I went to bed, and mostly slept, full of guilt for what I done.

The next day we all went to the beach, spent the day, and then had another lively dinner, and then the morning after, a taxi took me to the airport and back to Miami, and eventually to the West Coast.

I hadn’t been there for three days I don’t think, when I got a call from another Chicago friend who knew I had been in St. Lucia, and asked me if I had heard what happened.

“No, what do you mean?” I answered, sensing something distasteful, something connected to what I’d done.

“Well! Tina wanted to do a crazy nude swim with Pip one night, so they went down to the beach, and were splashing around like kids, they weren’t that far out, and she dived underwater to grab his butt, and never came back up.” he said.

“What?” I said shocked, my mouth suddenly dry.

“Must have been an undertow, there’s one at the other end of the beach, by the rocks,” he pointed out. “But never that close to the beach.”

“The sea just took her out,” he said, “what a horrible thing to happen!”

“Sea,” I repeated, and looked out my window at the blue Pacific, not hearing what else he was saying.

“Yeah, they never found her, they looked for three days,” he finally said, “a damn shame.”

And then the line was dead.


Photograph Courtesy: Sharbeen Sarash © All Rights Reserved