| Days became cooler and the nights were longer, Julia’s only reminders of the passage of
time. She only remembered Christmas because the children brought home presents
crafted at school, a basket woven from palm fronds and a necklace of sea shells strung on
fishing line. She hurried to the haberdashery to buy a kaleidoscope for each of them,
expensive toys, but so pretty! They spent the holiday sleeping late and looking in the
windows of the Duval Street shops. As a treat, Julia bought them each a mince meat pastry.
With the new year, the days began to be noticeably longer. In February, an unusual cold
spell lasted for two weeks. As Julia spent her savings on sweaters for the children, she
wondered when they’d have occasion to wear them again; winter was seldom this harsh in
the subtropical climate. Then spring announced itself with budding trees and nesting
birds. The mockingbird nest in the sapodilla tree next to the captain’s house was a hub of
activity with the parent birds coming and going with berries and insects to satisfy the
apparently-limitless appetites of their four offspring.
One Sunday afternoon in April while Maggie and Jonny played in the street, Julia got
down on her knees and looked under the bed for the brass box she’d hidden there the
morning she fled the Point. She’d checked every once in a while to see it was still there, but
hadn’t summoned the determination to tackle breaking the lock and looking at those old
keepsakes again. Opening the box would set loose memories she wasn’t sure she wanted to
revisit. But today she was beginning to feel things were working out. She pulled out the
box and took it downstairs.
“I’d forgotten all about that!” exclaimed Caroline when she saw it. “Do you have the
“No,” said Julia. “But I think we can open it with a chisel and a hammer, don’t you?”
“I’d hate to scratch the brass. Let me get a rag to lay it on,” said Caroline. “It would be a
shame to mar that smooth surface. I’m sure you’ll want to give it to Maggie one day.”
They assembled tools and a thick rag and went into the courtyard. Julia placed the edge
of the chisel in the crack between the lid and the bottom and right at the point of the lock.
The hasp flew free on the second blow. She paused for a second and took a deep breath.
Then she opened the box and tipped the contents into her open hand.
“Oh!” exclaimed Caroline. She impulsively took the ring and slid it onto her little finger.
The cameo portrait of a Roman noblewoman was meticulously carved from translucent
alabaster and mounted in gold filigree. The little face was no bigger than a bean, but
somehow the artist had managed to define gracefully arched eyebrows, an aquiline nose,
and full lips. The elongated mounting came to a point at each end and halfway between
the carving and each point sparkled a tiny diamond in a raised prong setting.
Caroline blushed. “I didn’t mean to grab your jewelry,” she said.
“Here, look at the brooch, too,” said Julia, extending her open hand. “They’re both very
Caroline fingered the filigree edges of the brooch and held it out to admire the august
woman whose creamy portrait stood out against the rose pink background of the conch
shell it was carved from.
“Where did you get these?” she asked.
“They were my mother’s,” replied Julia.
“What lovely gifts!” Caroline exclaimed. She paused. “But I thought you said you and
your mother didn’t get along.”
“She didn’t give them to me. I took them when I left.”
Caroline raised her eyebrows and looked at her without speaking.
“She had a lot of things and I figured those would be my due when she died, but I
wouldn’t be there to claim them,” Julia continued, lifting her chin. She pulled the ring
from Caroline’s finger, giving it a little tug to get it past the wide knuckle and slid it onto
her own. “I wanted a memento of her. She was my mother. She didn’t agree with my
point of view. She wrote saying she considered me to be no better than a common thief.
She said she would have willed them to me later. I never believed that and I never
answered her letter.”
“Are you in the habit of taking things that you consider to be your due?” asked Caroline
“Are you asking me if I’m a thief?”
“ I’ve never stooped to stealing. Count your silver and your sheets if you want, but you’ll
find that nothing has disappeared since I’ve been here.”
“Take your finery. I hope it makes you happy,” said Caroline, dropping the cameo in
the dirt as she stood and turned to go inside.
Julia picked up the cameo and dusted it off before she put it back in the box. She
brushed the ring against her cheek and considered it thoughtfully.
She remembered how, as a child, she would admire the heirloom on the few occasions
her mother deemed important enough to wear it — Christmas, Easter, her own birthday,
and that of her husband. Once Julia asked her why she didn’t wear the ring on the
children’s birthdays, too.
“I’d have worn the gold band through putting it on and taking it off seven extra times
every year,” her mother sighed. “Although maybe I should have taken up wearing it on
your birthday when I realized you were really the last one.”
Julia was seven at the time, and every year on her birthday, she’d watch hopefully to see
if her mother took out the treasured ring. She had been disappointed every time, but now
she smiled at the memory of her mother’s sarcasm that was lost on her as a child. Seven
children who lived and how many others who died and were never mentioned? Her
mother must have found it great cause for celebration when Julia, born five years after her
sister, did indeed prove to be the last!
She gently placed the ring in the box with the cameo and went upstairs, sliding the box
back under the bed.
Memories of her resentful mother and Caroline’s distrust gripped her chest like a vise.
She threw open the window and thrust her head out to catch her breath. The children were
playing tag below in the street and she took the stairs two at a time and burst out the door
to interrupt their game. Gasping for freedom and space, she herded them toward the dock.
If they were lucky, a schooner would arrive and tie up, always an occasion in the deep
water port. The children would be amused and Julia might sit quietly and enjoy the ebb
and flow of the waves and regain her composure.
“Aren’t we eating dinner with Caroline?” asked Maggie.
“Not tonight. Maybe we can find a vendor with fried fish. It will be fun to do something
different,” replied Julia, trying to make the outing into a treat.
Maggie looked at her dubiously. Increasingly, she’d clung to routine and predictability.
As it turned out, no ships were expected. There were just the usual comings and goings of
sailors unloading the ones that recently had arrived or stocking those preparing to depart.
A few people from town had come down to watch the sunset. A young couple leaned
together, her head resting on his shoulder, his arm around her waist, waiting for the sun to
dip into the ocean. Another elderly pair held hands and chatted as they watched the
“Let’s go watch with the others,” said Julia.
“I don’t know what’s so special about the sunset. It happens every day,” said Maggie.
“That is what’s special. Every evening it sets and every morning it rises. We can count on
it. Regardless of whether we’re happy or sad, healthy or sick, the sun will rise in the
morning and set to bring us night. There aren’t many other things in life that are so
reliable, and few that are as beautiful,” Julia said.
As the sun dropped lower in the sky, it touched the edges of the cumulus clouds and
gilded their edges like the filigree on the keepsake ring. The clouds’ soft pink gently curved
center echoed the contours of the cameo and for a moment Julia imagined she saw a
woman’s face, smiling but haughty with an aquiline nose and straight-lipped mouth. Her
mother! As the splendor of the sunset exploded into fiery crimson and gold, Julia felt her
anger burn away and relaxed into the serene blue and white clouds on the horizon after
the sun disappeared. The face was gone, too, and Julia wasn’t sure if she’d seen it at all.