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The Hand of Fat’ma

ISSUE:  Autumn 1992

Homage to M. R. James

Neither the Adult Education Center of New Salem nor the Colonial Museum, where it occupies a modest corner, has ever produced a ghost or even the footprint of a ghost. The old Greek-Revival mansion, with its sagging blinds and darkly gleaming green door, dates from the late 18th century, when Vermont, still an independent republic was quarreling over boundaries with New York and resisting the newfangled Federal Constitution. But the house shows no trace of ancient enmity, either xenophobic or supernatural—at least no overt trace. I enter that qualification because about 20 years ago, when I retired from the Foreign Service and became curator of the Museum, something did happen here that no one in the village liked to talk about with strangers.

New Salem is a little off the beaten path, about 30 miles south of the capital, but in summer Stafford College—the “Academy,” as the locals still call it—attracts people from all over the world. At the Stafford Writers’ Workshop in August you can hear the languages of Europe, Latin America, and what General de Gaulle used to call the Arab Universe. New Salemites tune in—perhaps more clearly than New Yorkers or Bostonians—to the torments and turmoil that afflict regions halfway across the globe. So it was not surprising that the Education Center should sign on as a language instructor a French woman who had showed up, unexpected, for the summer course at Stafford and then stayed on in order to drink deeper of what she called “la paix et la tranquillité de votre cher petit Vermont.” The director of the Center told me that Mme. Pardieu had spent her earlier years in French Morocco, where I had been stationed briefly myself, and I looked forward—mistakenly, as it turned out—to sharing memories of that half-medieval world.

My interest in the French and Indian War and its echoes in New England had led me to undertake a monograph on the Marquis de Montcalm. I planned a trip to France during my winter sabbatical from the Museum, and since I needed to tighten my grip on the language I would use in archives and at seminars, I signed up for Mme. Pardieu’s course at the Education Center, which met just downstairs from my office. Overestimating the modest competence left over from college French, I chose the advance group. I soon found the work a bit exacting in the austere domain where Mme. Pardieu guided her flock through the mazes of her native tongue.

Our instructor was tall and thin. Her straight black hair, which framed her forehead symmetrically like that of the Queen of Spades, showed traces of white at the roots of a waxy central parting. Like many French women, she had known how to convert shortcomings into advantages. Her beady eyes were enlarged by surrounding makeup and surmounted by eyebrows trimmed and trained to rise into circumflexes when she wanted to convey surprise or amusement at linguistic gaffes. The men in our class were convinced that her chic pallor and slim figure, even her small breasts, deliberately outlined by tight, dark dresses, held promise of discreet sexuality. She was what the French call une jolie laide, and estimates of her age—the men in the class gave her 35 or 40, the women at least 50—varied widely.

The neckline of her dresses was always held together by the stab-pin of an intimidating Moroccan brooch, a large silver hand of Fat’ma, the symbol of good luck. At its center was a turquoise, wreathed by Arabic characters: a date, 1953, and below it a kind of fishhook, which I remembered as the Moroccan letter G.

The ten women and four men of our group included younger people from the Academy, a few middle-aged entrepreneurs who did business with French-speaking firms in Montreal, and senior women with time on their hands in the evening. Our only military representative was a retired admiral named Jack Gannon, whose ruddy face and silver hair would have done honor to magazine covers or recruiting posters. Mme. Pardieu addressed him as Monsieur l’Amiral or, if he misused the subjunctive, simply as Amiral. We did not use first names in the classroom. She told us to address her as Madame, and then as the course began to warm us up, she tolerated the veneer of familiarity with which Americans cover up class distinctions and allowed us to call her Madame Josette. Anyone who dared to call her Josette tout court earned the circumflex eyebrow and a moue of distaste that restored formality. But Mme. Pardieu was not unfriendly or impatient, and she had an attractive tinkling laugh, with a shade of condescension, for our Yankee humor. Yet nothing quite dispelled the nimbus of her reserve. When I asked her whether life in Morocco had changed since my days there during the French Protectorate, she abruptly changed the subject.

At the beginning of each class she explained which hallowed principle of the French language she wanted us to illustrate that day: the subjunctive of uncertainty, conditional sentences, the order of object pronouns. She then gave us ten minutes to inscribe our own masterly examples in our cahiers, the sacred brown notebooks that we handed in for discussion and correction. After the clock in the Congregational Church across the common had struck seven, she reserved a few minutes for each student who required a remedy, while the rest of us filed out.

These exercises furnished opportunities for badinage and innuendo about life and love among New Salemites (“if I were to care for her, she would know”) and even sly amorous compliments for our instructor. Jack Gannon tried at first to exploit these possibilities, but while Mme. Josette would never have used a phrase so vulgar (or so un-French) as “sexual harassment,” her eyebrows made clear to the Admiral that whatever she might think of American gallantry, such pleasantries touched the extremes of bad taste (“le comble du mauvais gout”).

During one of these auto-didactic bouts, Mme. Pardieu explained how to distinguish thinking as contemplation (penser à) from thinking as opinion (penser de). After much wrinkling of brows and gnawing on ballpoint pens, most of the class dredged up anodyne formulas such as “je pense à vous souvent” and “que pensez vous de Vermont?” But when I glanced at Admiral Gannon, I saw that he had fallen into a blue trance. He sat staring through the open window as though someone were calling to him from the village common. Uncharacteristically, he was holding up the conversations that mainly interested the class, and we began to mutter and shuffle our feet. At last he looked around, and when he saw Mme. Pardieu’s frown, he flattened out his cahier with his fist and scrawled hastily in it. Shaking his head several times, like a dog who has come in from the rain, he passed it up to the instructor’s desk. In the chitchat that followed he took no part. When the clock struck, he pushed back his chair with a loud scrape and hurried toward the door.

Josette Pardieu raised a hand. “I should like a word with you, Admiral,” she said in English. He halted beside her desk while the rest of us straggled out.

I waited for the Admiral on the portico of the Museum, but he strode on past the pillar I was leaning against as though he hadn’t seen me. On the common, I caught up with him near the bandstand. He stopped and blurted out, “I’ve got no idea why I wrote such a damned stupid thing. It just came to me out of the blue.”

“Like automatic writing?”

“I suppose so, yes. But I’ve never had much truck with that stuff.”

“But what was it?”

In Naval Academy French, the Admiral told me what he had written: G. pense bien de toi, mais il pense toujours à la Menara.” When we had gone a few paces farther, he said, “G. could be me, Gannon, but who in the hell Menara might be I haven’t a clue.”

“The Menara isn’t a person,” I told him. “It’s a palace in Marrakech. Maybe you remembered it from Morocco.”

He stopped in his tracks. “I’ve never been in Morocco.”


“Never in my life.”

“Well, the Menara was where the Almohade Sultans used to organize orgies or one-night stands. Sort of like Louis XV’s Deer Park. In front of the palace there’s a big rectangular pool, and the legend is that at dawn the Sultan used to have his partner thrown in the water and left to drown.”

Gannon leered. “No reproaches, eh? What a set-up!” Then the color drained from his face. “You know,” he said, “just before I wrote down all that crap, I saw rows of pillars and a big sheet of water.”

“What did Josette say to you?”

“She wanted to know where the Gannon family came from. When I told her we’d come to Burlington from Montreal before the Revolution, she gave that little nervous laugh of hers, and then she said the same thing you did: maybe I remembered something from Morocco. Had I been in Marrakech during the war? I thought she’d gone off her rocker.”

The next day Admiral Gannon went off to Newport for a reunion at the Naval War College. I hung back from discussing his experience with anyone else in the class, but after thinking it over, I wrote a letter to a former chief of mine who had retired in Marrakech. I asked him whether the wagging tongues of that gossipy city could furnish any tidbits about Josette Pardieu. His reply reached me two weeks later:

“Josette Pardieu,” he wrote, “is the daughter of a French civil servant, a contrôleur, in the Protectorate. During Morocco’s battle for independence, when she was only seventeen, she shocked her family by marrying a nephew of the Glaoui, the famous Pasha of Marrakech. You probably remember that the Pasha joined the French in cooking up an uprising of his Berber tribesmen against the Arab Sultan in Rabat. But the nephew turned maverick: he conspired against the Pasha. Josette’s parents were then doubly horrified. They forced her to divorce, or “break the card,” as they say here. That was in 1953. The husband suddenly vanished. Gossips here said the Glaoui family had arranged his murder, but how or where no one knows. Josette resumed her maiden name and took off in a hurry. Odd she should turn up in Vermont, but I don’t wonder she longs for peace and tranquillity.”

Since no one in New Salem seemed aware of this murky-history, I didn’t see why I should spread it around. I saw that the letter G had nothing to do with the Admiral’s family, and I often asked myself what telepathic presence had targeted him as its medium during a harmless exercise in grammar. But as the class resumed its even tenor and nothing happened for several weeks, I thought it better to go on concocting our little jewels of French prose without further excursion into the hidden past.

Toward the end of the course, as the Vermont foliage blazed into autumn splendor and the days grew shorter, Mme. Pardieu decided to put us through the final hoops of the French subjunctive. She explained the shadings of meaning which that complex mode, unlike its pale and tattered English counterpart, can express: possibility versus probability, desire, doubt, and degrees of necessity. The Anglo-Saxon mind finds these subleties uncongenial, and some of my classmates did not stifle their groans of boredom. Mme. Josette told us sternly that since General de Gaulle had seen fit to deploy the subjunctive in all its forms, even using the pluperfect during press conferences, we must follow his example if we expected to acquire all the “aisances de la langue française.” So we struggled with eût and fussent and that bit from Pascal about what would have happened if Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter, and we filled our notebooks with a good deal of nonsense.

It was during the third session on this subject that things really came unstuck.

We had finished our discussion and handed up our notebooks. From the front row Admiral Gannon and I watched as Mme. Josette began to examine our masterpieces. Suddenly she gave a weird ascending cry—it was like the hoot of an owl—and pushed the notebooks aside. Clutching at the hand of Fat’ma, she staggered to the door and disappeared in the dark hall. We all sat staring at one another. When she did not reappear, the Admiral and I got up and put the notebooks in an orderly pile on the desk. One of them had fallen open on the floor near my chair. The page was covered with thick black capitals like those made by an inkbrush. When I held it up, the others swore they hadn’t written it, and the Admiral remarked that all of us used ballpoint pens. The inscription seemed harmless enough; only the first letter connected it with the earlier incident. “G. desire que tu reviennes; sinon, il faut qu’il aille te chercher.” (“G desires that you return; if not he must go to seek you.”)

The cahier was smaller than the others. It was a booklet such as one buys in French stationery stores, and it smelled of mildew. When I added it to the pile on the desk, I saw that the total of notebooks came to 15. The class, as I have said, was composed of ten men and four women.

Turning my back to the others, I slipped the extra notebook among my own papers when no one was watching. I still have it. But the strange thing was that when I opened it again in the privacy of my office, the page had gone blank.

After a few minutes, Mme. Pardieu appeared at the door and walked slowly to the desk, steadying herself against the edge. She had calmed down enough to tell us in low, husky tones that she was not feeling well and that we might as well go home. As we got up, she darted a look at the heap of cahiers. Her pale lips moved and then she gave a little wheeze of relief. At the time I figured she had counted the books again and probably thought she had suffered a hallucination.

The following week she came to class again. She treated us about as usual, except that we had no more written exercises.

The course was scheduled to end two weeks before Christmas holidays. Colder weather set in, with flurries of snow, and darkness fell earlier each evening. On the night before the final class, I stayed in the Museum to clean up paperwork and prepare for my winter trip to France. Through the window I watched the moon rising, yellow and theatrical, above the bare branches on the common. It got smaller and whiter as it climbed up the sky, but a few minutes later, when I looked up from my work, the window had gone completely dark. I got up and peered out toward the twinkling lights on the other side of the common. A rack of clouds was scudding over the face of the moon. I tried to resume my work, but I couldn’t shake off a growing uneasiness. Then I heard heavy footsteps hurrying down the corridor. Admiral Cannon flung open the door without knocking.

When he had caught his breath, he whispered, “Turn off the light.”

I switched off the desk lamp. “What is it, Jack? What’s wrong?”

He grabbed me by the elbow and pulled me to the window. “Look over there on the other side of the common. Near the bandstand.”

The cupola and the gingerbread railing shone white in the light of the moon, which had recovered from its brief eclipse. “I don’t see a thing, Jack.” His interruption was beginning to annoy me, but his voice sounded so shaken that I stifled my impatience. I asked him what he had heard, what he had seen.

“I didn’t hear anything,” he said. “It was what I saw.” He turned away from the window. “I was coming down Ethan Allen on my way home. When I got near the bandstand, some character was standing on the platform, leaning over the railing, like he was looking for someone.”

“Anyone we know?” By now I was talking in whispers too.

The Admiral groaned; he didn’t seem to hear me. “Whatever it was, he had on a long robe, grayish, with a burnous, you know.”

“An Arab!”

“The hood was all wet—shiny and kind of floppy.”

“Wet, how could it be? We’ve had no rain—only a few snow flurries. Maybe it was the moonlight. Didn’t you see his face?”

“I didn’t dare look.”

“Why not?”

“You won’t believe this, but this guy had no shadow.”

“But Jack, it’s night.”

“I know that, damn it. But the arc light behind the bandstand was on. I saw my own shadow on the walk. It was the only one.”

“And then you came straight here?”

“As soon as I saw your light was on. By then the sky had gone all dark. I had to fight to keep from running. It was sort of like a rain squall at sea. All I could do was keep moving, holding steady on course. I never looked back,”

I pulled down the blind, snapped on the light, and fished out a bottle of Jack Daniels I kept in a desk drawer. After we had had a couple of snorts, we got up without a word and went across the common together toward Ethan Allen Street. No one in sight. Gannon was breathing easier now. But when we passed the bandstand, I noticed at the bottom of the steps a little puddle of water. The Admiral saw it too. Neither of us said anything.

Madame Pardieu didn’t come to class the next day. Nor the next week. She never showed up again in New Salem—or anywhere else, at least not in the land of the living. The Adult Center said she had skedaddled for reasons unknown; the Director’s official explanation was that a family emergency had no doubt called her away. In a way I guess he was right.

I never mentioned to anyone the letter I had received from Marrakech, and the Admiral said nothing about his encounter—or non-encounter—at the bandstand. I think we both felt the usual reluctance of those who have figured in such experiences to talk about them.

Several months later, after I had finished my researches on the Marquis de Montcalm, I stopped in Morocco on my way home from France. On my second evening in Marrakech, where my old friend and informant lived, we strolled through the noisy crowds in the Djemaa el Fna (the name means The Assembly of the Dead), pausing to sip mint tea at one of the torch-lit stalls. When we had had enough of zithers and tambourines and shouting and wailing, my friend took me to his house, an old Arab mansion on the edge of the medina, and offered me a cigar and a forbidden Scotch.

I told him about Mme. Pardieu’s disappearance. He stared at me for a long minute. Then he went into his study and came back with a brown chamois sack. Something in it jingled. He loosened the drawstring and took out an object which he held up to the light so that the silver glinted.

“Good God,” I said, “where did you pick that up?”

“A stall in the Djemaa el Fna. It was in a basket with a lot of junk jewelry. The turquoise is real, though, or so the fellow told me. They found it when they drained the pool over at the Menara. The nation-builders wanted to turn the place into a parking lot, but the tourist bureau had sense enough to kayo the idea. You know the Menara, I suppose.”

“You mean the Almohade Pavilion, where they drowned the Sultan’s whores. And was that all they found?”

“Well may you ask. As a matter of fact it wasn’t.”

“You’re going to tell me it was a body.”

“Two,” said my friend. “Two bodies.”

“A man and a woman.”

He stirred uneasily in his chair. “No one knew how long they’d been lying in the muck. One of them had its arms around the other.”

“Around the woman.”

“Right. The brooch fell out of whatever was left of the woman’s clothes. European they were.” He held the brooch out to me. “See if you can make out what’s cut there, on the hand of Fat’ma.”

I waved it away. “I don’t need to look,” I said. “It’s got a date on it.”

“1953,” said my friend. “That’s the year the Pasha organized the tribal uprising that sent the Sultan into exile.”

“Yes,” I said. “And that fishhook down below it is an Arabic G.”


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