Chapter 17: A Departing Ship
This chapter discusses the topic of suicide. Please read with caution and stop reading if this topic is uncomfortable or triggering for you. Thank you.
René: -March 1868-
René’s fingers caressed the wedding band around his neck and he sighed as the familiar scent of New Orleans reminded him of his wife. He closed his eyes and let the cool breeze cover his body. He listened to the bells in the harbor, getting lost in a temporary moment of bliss. It had been nearly seven years since he’d stepped foot in The Crescent City, and the foul stench of it made him nervous. It made him feel like the man he used to be, but he was not René Pellerin anymore. He could barely face himself in the mirror and certainly didn’t want his father or even his wife to see the man he’d become. He saw their faces everywhere. The men who’d ruined his life.
“You’re not going to die today, René.”
He’d begged so ardently for them to let him die. He was bruised and weak and didn’t understand why these men insisted that his father had harmed their families. After he pleaded to them to let him go for months, he had finally accepted his fate. He knew he would die at the hands of these men and had surrendered completely. He’d tried starving himself but the men forced him to eat, and when he realized that they were keeping him alive merely to torture him, he slipped into the darkest, most foreign places within himself. Those places slowly became his reality, until every glimmer of his previous self disappeared. They nursed him back to health each time just so they could do it again. The three men that captured him would remain his only company for four years. They took turns torturing him, creating numerous hideous scars, berating him, and insulting him until he didn’t recognize himself anymore.
He was an entirely different man if he could call himself a man at all. They were right from the first day. They’d broken him, and he was no longer René Pellerin. It wasn’t until the news of Raymond Pellerin’s death in the newspapers that they realized their mistake. They felt no remorse for their abuse, despite their mistake in taking the wrong man, something he’d spent years trying to convince them. A changed and damaged man, he’d surrendered to homelessness and found himself living off of discarded cigars and whiskey. He didn’t know where his wife was, or if she was even alive anymore. He was alone and he wanted to die. It wasn’t until a raven-haired foreign beauty named Isabella found him that he regained any self-worth he once had.
Isabella had insisted on visiting The Crescent City at least once in her lifetime before she returned to her home country of Spain. They’d explored the city, but the marvelous jewel of the South that he once called home was now a crippled, war-torn place. Finally, he would run away. Away from America, away from his past. He kissed his wedding band and turned his attention to the crowd, eager to board the ship and leave New Orleans. Due to a bullet in the leg by his gracious captors several years prior, he limped with each step. His scars were a frightening sight, and he had learned to ignore the gasps and snickers from passersby. With a cane in his hand, he stumbled through the crowd, intent on meeting Isabella when a young girl, alone in the crowd, caught his attention. She was no older than five or six years old, with a dress covered in mud and thick black ringlets swooping to her sides in the breeze. He didn’t know why, but he approached her. Though her hair was a deep black, her eyes were green and vibrant and the moment he saw them he thought of Elise.
“Hello young miss, what are you doing here alone?” He glanced around her to see if her parents were nearby, but she was completely alone, awestruck by the ships in the harbor. One of which he would be boarding soon, taking him away from New Orleans forever. She did not flinch at the sight of his scarred and battered face, his cane, or disheveled hair. She spoke to him as if she’d seen him before.
“I like ships, sir!” Her voice was shrill and sweet, and he softened his face at the sound of it. She was precious, but he worried for her safety. She leaned in closer toward him. He obliged her movements and scooted closer to her until her mouth was inches from his ear. She whispered, “Don’t worry, my mama is close.” He smiled at her, something he had not truly done in years. She eyed him and asked him his name. When he told her, she gasped.
She grinned widely before responding, “That’s my name too, sir!” Before René could respond, Isabella called him from the ticket booth. It was time to board the ship. He acknowledged her with a wave before setting his attention back to the little girl.
“Young miss, I am proud to share my name with you. But I must go. It was an honor meeting you.” He bowed his head to her and she giggled as he stood. Before he walked away from her, guilty about leaving her alone, he said, “Find your parents. It isn’t safe for a young lady to be alone.”
Isabella greeted him with a kiss on the cheek, and he limped following the bellhop to the ramp. After boarding, he wasn’t interested in going to their cabin. Though he was ready to let go of his old life, he wanted to take in the foul stench of his home one last time. To have one last moment as René Pellerin.
He kissed Isabella on the cheek after they arrived at the cabin. “My dear, I think I will stand on deck. Please, get settled in.” She understood that he wanted to be left alone, and lit a cigarette, giving her attention to the bellhop instead. It was going to be a long journey to Spain. René pressed the cane into the wooden deck with each step, attracting the attention of the people near him as he hunched toward the hull of the ship. The ship’s bells signaled them of departure, and he stared out past the railings, watching the sun sink into the horizon. The sky was melting together in a bright array of golden orange and purple, and he closed his eyes as the breeze poured through him. He was ready to go. The ship moved, and he felt himself finally escape from everything. When he opened his eyes he gave one last glance at the docks when he noticed her. He recognized her luscious, long red hair immediately as it blew delicately in the breeze. His breath caught in his throat as he saw the love of his life for the first time in seven years. He’d spent those years dreaming only of her face and the touch of her hands on his skin. The many nights the burning pain from the cuts had dulled his senses, he’d imagined her hands delicately stroking his hair, whispering in his ears, ensuring him that everything would go back to normal and that he would return to his old life with her by his side.
She was older now, but her hair was still the same vibrant red, and her slender, delicate body was standing at the edge of the dock, her hand reaching to him. As the ship picked up speed, her image began to shrink. He dropped his cane and ran to the edge of the rail as best he could, nearly toppling into the water to see her for only a moment longer. He tried to scream her name, but the sound did not leave his body. His breath was ragged and heavy and he felt his heart beating rapidly through his chest. I should jump, he thought. He imagined himself leaping into the water and swimming to her, enveloping her in a loving embrace, sharing the moment he’d dreamt of for years. He could hardly believe she was real. He’d convinced himself that she’d died if only to comfort his own tortured life during the war. With each passing second, he sunk further into despair. It was too late. He no longer resembled the man she’d fallen in love with. His heart shattered into thousands of pieces as his reality crashed into him, filling him with the harsh truth. He was leaving the States, drifting away on a boat to Spain. It was a one-way ticket, he couldn’t go back. He never wanted to go back. As she faded from view and grew smaller in the distance, he imagined what her life had become. Had she remarried and had children? What kind of man would he be if he intruded on that? He was dead. All he wanted for her was pure, complete happiness and he would not be the man to ruin it. As she completely disappeared from his view, he collapsed under the weight of his grief and wished he’d fallen in the water, to remain beneath the waves forever.