Madame du Jour (Lady of the Day) by Solange Anduze James
People’s Choice Award Finalist Story in the 6th Annual Warren Adler Short Story Contest.
After the passing of Camilla, it was as if everything living had ceased to fly over the village of Grande Fleuve.
Once an important trading town buoyed by the reign of King Sugar, many moons of silt and remembrance had rendered its once thriving channels unnavigable, causing nature and its people to turn their back on the rest of the country; they became the people of a dreamtime, with sandbanks and wiry mangrove closing the door to the world outside them.
The town had been founded and designed by Mr. Oxley Keats, the unclaimed bastard child of the once flourishing Keats sugar plantation. In the hope that God would absolve him of his illegitimacy, he had originally designed the village to look like a giant crucifix from above, with King’s Lane forming the main business base and Queen’s Trace completing the apex.
It was here that Camilla, a woman who since Roman times had brought grief to men, lived. The Gods had been reckless, blessing her generously with beauty and cursing her with courage. As tall as a young redwood tree, her brown baked skin concealed a secret consortium of untold histories. With a spirit as wild as Virgil’s Volscians, she would often retire to her room, a bottle of Puncheon rum in her grasp, coming out only to summon her resident male companion when it was time for him to take her to the bar. Most of these outings would almost always end up with a fight, with some man who could not afford her attention daring to remind her as to her profession. The police however, always treated her with deference and respect as it was common knowledge that her connections rivaled the Lord’s, and that one of her important suitors would always come hastily to pay her bail.
By the time she was thirty, Camilla was one of the most sought after courtesans in Grande Fleuve. As imperious as the flaming Ibis, she had once interrupted a conference held by the mayor to take him to task for not paying for services rendered. Standing in the middle of the room in a demure white cotton dress that barely repressed her coveted goods she addressed him:
“Aloysius, it’s been one week since you came by and were happily entertained and I know you remembered that you promised to pay me the next day. I sent Clyde to collect the payment – the nerve of you to threaten to have him arrested!” she said, her eyes greeting each councilor with a gaze of silent knowing. She continued:
“I would rather not come down here and broadcast my business as such, but I can’t get in the habit of letting people think that they can get away without paying for my services.”
“Ahem– Miss Camilla” the mayor stammered as he loosed his tie that appeared in sudden danger of asphyxiating him.
“I’m kind of in the middle of some very important meetings here. If you don’t mind, why don’t you wait in the next room for me and we can discuss your issue further” he said, trying his best to cultivate some semblance of decency
“Well Aloysius, I don’t mean to be rude, but in case you haven’t noticed your fancy tone don’t faze me one bit. I’m going to wait right here till you pay me in cash-thank-you-very-much” as she placed her beaded clutch on the mahogany desk and proceeded to apply a fresh coat of conflagrant colored lipstick.
The councilors, sitting at the end of the desk looked around in feigned prostration, for they all knew that it was only but for the Grace of God that their places had not been reversed. Smug with the satisfaction that they could go home and sermonize about the Mayor’s immoral conduct, they hid their secret shame in disapproving whispers, satisfied that no one had the proof needed to point a deserving finger at them as well.
The flustered mayor tried to persuade Camilla to leave quietly, but she refused to budge until she collected her fee in full, leaving a confounded mayor who paid for services in triplicate, an attempt to silence the scandalous public encounter that would ensue in her wake.
Her outlaw spirit seemed to arouse a bestial desire in men to tame her, all with the hope that one day they could possess her, making her their sole lady of call, a woman of the day.
None felt this desire more than Gilroy Stanton. A London trained accountant of the staid planter class, he was a diminutive man, bred solely for a life spent hunched in duty behind a desk. He wore horn rimmed frames, never removing them except when he bought a new pair of the same style. The thick glass magnified his myopic eyes, giving him the guise of a small puffer trapped in twin bowls. Content to share her with other men rather than marry the subdued specters of his class, he would often proposition Camilla, receiving until her death, the same response:
“The day we sign those marriage papers Mr. Stanton, you will try to make me a proper lady, and from that minute, all our passion will quickly wilt away.”
They were an unlikely match yet through his guidance and her shrewd business acumen, by her mid thirties she had become a Caribbean Queen Amytis, lording over several properties, including a brothel which she had replicated after the tower of Babel, complete with a terrace of lush hanging gardens. Trading in the commodity of flesh, she quickly surpassed the class of her suitors, buying herself a huge estate replete with several maids, gardeners and a household manager.
She would keep a main companion for several years at a time, dismissing them when she tired of them. Gilroy Stanton, a habitué who would eventually become a life long suitor, would visit every Saturday night, at exactly five minutes to eight, dressed as if he were roaming Trafalgar Square, his somber wools woefully out of place in the stifling Caribbean heat. The house staff would time them uneasily, using the length of his visit to estimate the treatment that would be meted for the upcoming week:
“Ah, methinks Mistress is not in a giving mood tonight – look Mr. Stanton leaving and it’s only eight thirty!” Or: “Oh ho, Mistress giving lots of loving tonight! It’s midnight and Mr. Stanton ain’t leave yet!”
In spite of her weekly evening activities, Camilla diligently attended church every Sunday, belaboring the congregation with her presence, taking pleasure in the clucking of tongues and the shuffles of the self righteous, as she brazenly walked down the center nave and took her place in the front pew, drawing her black mantilla over her face in feigned humility.
In Grand Fleuve, life continued in this way, deviating little from the synonymous existence, decades aging them less languidly than the rest of the world.
The year was 1980, and Gilroy decided to throw a party in celebration of Camilla’s impending seventieth birthday. Many of those who whispered piously secretly hoped that they would get an invitation, as parties on her estate were known to be grandiose affairs, the last of them having naked knife jugglers and flying acrobats as the intermission entertainment.
They did not disappoint, and the event was a flamboyant soirée, the pinnacle of ostentation for the descendent of slaves. There was a beauty pageant, with each of the ladies representing her from a time past, all vying to be deigned the “Nouvelle Camilla” in honor of her unharnessed spirit that had not waned in over half a century.
That night in her usual manner, Camilla retired to her room; but tonight would be different – as death stole her quickly away, never awakening from her half drunken sleep.
Gilroy, destroyed by grief, shut himself in Camilla’s room, spending several days wailing like a wounded stray until Hensley, the estate manager, instructed the yard hands to break the door down.
“Mr. Stanton Sir, I don’t mean to be too much out of place, but the body is going to bloat!” Hensley continued: “Through all the years you have come like a husband to Camilla. The time to cry can come after”
This aroused Gilroy somewhat from his melancholy mood, as he realized that in addition to her household staff, he was the only person who had been privy to her affairs and therefore was the only person who could make arrangements for her burial.
When Gilroy arrived at the funeral home he was met by its director, Cuthbert Myers, who led him to the cold storage area to see the body. Shocked to see Camilla lying on a cold slab with her legs as open shears, his anger returned and he objected loudly to the careless manner in which the corpse was being treated.
Cuthbert however, morbidly exclaimed:
“Here, all the dead is the same Mr. Stanton – whether prince or pauper, all the dead is the same piece o’ meat. Well, Well. All them high and mighty man used to lust after her, yet here she is, with only you to take care of her.”
Continuing as though it was a detail as trivial as the flower request he continued:
“I was wondering, I can’t seem to close her eyes, and well, I’ve tried to sew her lids shut several times but, as you can see, it’s not working — I was hoping you could let me know what I should do about it”
”It’s as if she looked death in the face when he came take her – Let her go to the great beyond looking at the Lord in defiance!”
The morning of the wake, both the curious and genuinely bereaved began arriving around ten am. Heavy morning downpours and Gulf of Paria high tides had raised the level of floodwaters so that by the time the funeral was set to begin, many mourners, including the only priest who would agree to perform the ceremony, had no choice but to arrive by canoe, punting their boats through the Caiman infested water with uprooted bamboo stakes.
Performing the ceremony under the tent that just a few days prior was filled with merriment and pageantry, the priest quickly said the blessings and instructed the gravediggers to nail the coffin shut and lower it into the hole. However, the dirt had become saturated, pregnant on the ceaseless flow of floodwaters, and the collapsing grave pushed the coffin out of the hole with much noise and force, making it appear as if were being pulled by invisible hands.
Those who braved the rains to attend the interment began to murmur, praying softly at first, then raising their voices in boisterous supplication, as the coffin continued to squelch and refuse to submerge.
One of the gravediggers decided to stand on the coffin, hoping that the additional weight would push the box to the bottom of the grave, but instead, with one giant flatulence, the coffin flipped to a vertical position, plunging him to a murky death. In his stead, Camilla emerged, hurtling from her gilded resting place, face down and half naked in front of the now frenzied mourners.
The small crowd scattered in fear, appearing as a nest of exposed insects. They would trample each other into the mud, killing a pregnant mourner in the process, escaping what they believed, was the just wrath of God.