The velvet hours, p.29
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       The Velvet Hours, p.29

           Alyson Richman
 

  I folded my hands in my lap and waited to hear what Monsieur Armel had to say. “You may ask me anything. With my father away, I feel as though you and Alex are the closest thing to family I have now.”

  “I have written to every contact I have, in the hope that I can sell my remaining inventory. But everyone seems to share the same problem as me. All the best Jewish book dealers are trying to liquidate their libraries to get out of Europe.”

  I was puzzled. “But how can I help?”

  Monsieur Armel clasped his hands together, and I saw his knuckles turn white. He was clearly uncomfortable with what he was about to say.

  “Do you remember meeting a gentleman by the name of Frédéric Clavel the other day, when you were having coffee with Alex?”

  I nodded.

  “Well, he came by yesterday. He told me he knows about a particular dealer that is interested in purchasing your Barcelona Haggadah.”

  I sat quietly for a moment, soaking in his words.

  “He does?”

  “Yes. Evidently, he had seen it years ago, just as I had, when it was still in your grandfather’s possession. He knows how rare and valuable it is, even if he didn’t let on when Alex mentioned it at the café.”

  I hesitated for a moment. “Well, in fact, he did ask me there and then if I was interested in selling it.”

  “And if my information is correct, you told him you weren’t.”

  “Yes, that’s right. Luckily, Alex spoke on my behalf.”

  Monsieur Armel smiled. “I’m sure he did. And I’m sure he conveyed to Monsieur Clavel that if you weren’t willing to sell to us, why would you sell to him?”

  “Exactly.”

  “But what if your book could get us all out of France?”

  I raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure I understand.”

  “The amount of money Clavel says the dealer is willing to pay would be, shall we say, considérable.”

  He paused after emphasizing that last word, and then looked down at the table briefly before lifting his eyes toward me.

  “By all, do you mean your family and Solomon’s?” I wasn’t sure whom he was including in this statement.

  “And you, Solange. Of course, you, too.”

  I felt a sense of relief wash over me.

  The Haggadah and the less valuable Zemirot book were precious to me because they represented a lasting connection to my mother. But I believed those books also had a destiny all their own. They were what had initially brought me to the Armels, and I was willing to sell them if it could save those I loved.

  “Of course, I’ll sell the book if it can ensure us all safe passage.”

  “I know this is not an easy choice for you to make, Solange. Especially not knowing what has happened to your father.”

  I looked down at the floor. It had now been months since I heard from my father. And the radio broadcasts all reported that the area where his military hospital had been located had been heavily bombed.

  “I know I wouldn’t want my daughter to be alone in Paris. I’d want her to go where she’d be safe.”

  “Yes, that’s why he wanted me to move in with my grandmother . . .” I nodded my head. “My safety was his only concern before he had to go.”

  “And that is why Alex asked you to come stay with us. It is human nature to want to protect those we love.”

  Monsieur Armel’s words affected me, and I struggled to fight back my tears. “I’m so happy my mother left me such an important gift. Who knew one book could save so many lives?”

  Monsieur Armel’s color had returned to him. He stood up and embraced me, and I could feel the warm pulse of his heartbeat pressing into mine.

  * * *

  That afternoon, I went into the guest bedroom where I had been staying and unwrapped the Haggadah. I held it in my hands. Its weight had always felt substantial to me, but now it seemed even heavier, infused with a deeper meaning.

  I looked over the illustrations once again, lifting the dry, yellowed pages one by one. I remembered how Alex had explained many of them when we were alone. The stylized depictions of the matzo and the plate of the bitter herbs; the drawings of the plague of locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn. The colors of red, blue, and gold on the figures were still surprisingly vibrant even after so many centuries.

  As I continued to turn the pages, the story of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt was not lost on me. If Monsieur Armel managed to negotiate the sale of the Haggadah, I knew the money would be used toward our own exodus. My suitcase remained underneath the bed where I now slept. I was ready to leave whenever Monsieur said the word.

  * * *

  Every day that passed, the tension escalated. It was the last week in May and the shops were nearly empty, the grocers having nothing to offer. As the cherry blossoms fell to the ground, we looked at the sky and prayed the Germans would hold off their bombing. But our prayers were not answered.

  Just as we were finishing lunch on June 3, the air-raid sirens began to sound. The noise was blaring. We could hear an ominous rattle in the sky, and we knew we had only minutes to get to the bomb shelter across the street.

  All I remember was Monsieur Armel, shouting: “Now!” Alex and I, unable to speak, locked eyes for a split second before we all jumped up from our seats. We left everything where it was: the bread on the table, the radio still broadcasting the news. Everyone realized there was nothing more important than getting out of the apartment building alive. No one mentioned a single rare book or my priceless Haggadah. We just rushed out of the apartment, and as the sky went from blue to dark gray, all we could do was hope we got inside the hatch before the city was engulfed in a blaze of red.

  Once inside the dark, damp chamber, we saw the flickering of flashlights and families crouched together. I kept close to Alex, grateful to have a warm and comforting body next to me.

  In the corner, I saw a mother trying to soothe her small children, while not far from them two older boys, around nine or ten, were debating whether it was better to die by bombing or by poison gas.

  “Gas,” one of them finally decided. “There wouldn’t be any blood,” he said pragmatically. The other one nodded, as if impressed with his friend’s practical reasoning.

  Inside, I had a pit in my stomach. What had the world become that children were now discussing their own death, as though it were a menu option? As I looked around and saw the blank faces clustered amongst us, I realized that our emotions might be the first thing we are forced to abandon in war. That the numbness that engulfed our senses was the only way we could sustain ourselves against all the chaos.

  * * *

  Hours later, when we were told it was safe to return to our apartments, we stepped out of the open hatch and into the light. Our eyes had become so used to the darkness, that now the sunlight threatened to blind us.

  The roads were paved with broken glass and debris. Store windows were shattered and streetlights were pulled out from the pavement like rootless trees.

  As Monsieur Armel steadied himself on Alex’s arm, we all looked in the direction of their apartment building, breathing a sigh of relief that it still stood intact. We began to make our way back, the shards of broken glass crushing under the soles of our shoes.

  * * *

  Although the apartment had not been damaged in the bombings, we all remained quite shaken. Many buildings were not as lucky, and smoke could be seen rising from the neighboring destruction. Torn curtains floated out of broken windows, like apparitions. A broken desk, cleaved in half, managed to find its way into the street, perhaps thrown from a building during impact. Around us, debris floated like a flock of dying birds.

  * * *

  We would later learn that the epicenter of the bombing was in the Auteuil quarter, dangerously close to us. The Germans had sought to bomb the Renault and Citroën factories t
hat bordered the city, but the nearby areas had also suffered extensive damage from the one thousand bombs that had been dropped.

  If we needed a wake-up call, we now had one. The radio blared the reports of the French causalities: hundreds feared dead, dozens of fires, and fifteen factories destroyed. We all knew that the warfare would only escalate and that the danger to Paris would increase.

  I could see the anxiety on Monsieur Armel’s face and knew that he had been finalizing the negotiation with Clavel’s contact.

  “Monsieur Clavel has a dealer meeting us in Marseille that will be the liaison for the collector that is purchasing the book,” he informed us.

  “We leave in four days for the south,” Monsieur Armel announced later that afternoon. “We can take only our essentials. Solomon and his family will be coming with us, too.”

  He looked exhausted. “Solange, you will need to take care of both your father’s apartment and your grandmother’s.

  “I’ve already paid a deposit to an organization that is helping to arrange the transportation of Jewish travelers out of France. They’ll be securing our transit visas and boat tickets. But we must not waste any time. The visas will have an expiration date, and the boat from Lisbon won’t wait for us.”

  * * *

  As Monsieur Armel and Alex prepared to leave, I had two apartments that I needed to close. My childhood home was now devoid of most of my sentimental attachments. I had already moved most of my journals, clothes, and even the old Mickey Mouse doll from my father’s to my grandmother’s. My father had taken care of what paperwork there was before he left, and there was little of value that remained except for my mother’s beautiful bookshelf, which I knew I could not possibly take with me. But if I was going to sell the Barcelona Haggadah, I needed to replace it with another book that could keep me connected to my mother, something of sentimental value. So I returned to the apartment to take one last piece of her before I left Paris.

  * * *

  “Do you want me to come with you?” Alex asked as he stood knee-deep in his family’s living room trying to figure out if there were any books they had overlooked that they still might be able to sell.

  “No, that’s kind of you.” I shook my head. “But I think I need to do it myself.”

  Less than an hour later, I arrived at my childhood apartment, quietly opening the door to the entrance and walking up the narrow stairs as I had done so many times in my life.

  When I entered, the apartment already looked sparse. Although it was early spring, the rooms were cold, and if emptiness had a smell, this was it. It struck me then and there that the smells and sounds of life are what created a sense of warmth within a home. The same could be said about Marthe’s apartment. Without the fragrance of her fresh flowers, the trail of her perfume, or the sound of her heels against the wooden floorboards, the apartment seemed more like a mausoleum than a home.

  The only bit of color remaining in our old apartment was my mother’s bookshelf. I walked over and scanned the shelves, which were lined with scores of novels and slender volumes of poetry. If I could take only one book that encapsulated my memory of her, it had to be one that I remembered her holding between her hands. I reached for the book of fairy tales that she had read to me so many times when I was a child, and placed it in my bag. The cover was worn around the edges; the paper had yellowed. But when I opened the book and smelled its pages, it reminded me of my mother. I was bringing with me the fragrance of my childhood when I slipped that tattered old book into my bag.

  * * *

  As I walked toward my bedroom, I had the strange sensation that I was moving through the rooms of a dollhouse. Everything looked smaller than I remembered it. My bed with the floral coverlet now looked childish to me. My chair, with its pale yellow cushion, also didn’t look like it befitted a grown woman. Even my wooden desk contained traces of me from another time. I lifted one of my old notepads and saw that some of the sentences I had written over the years had transferred through the sheet paper. Like an old palimpsest, the words were etched into the wood.

  But I would take nothing from this room on my journey with the Armels. I had already removed what I needed. And now I had in my possession one more book from my mother. I felt at peace with the notion that I might never return to this apartment. Unlike Marthe with her apartment, Father did not own his. How many months in advance father paid the rent, I did not know. And it was likely that the landlord would take possession of our apartment once the rent ceased to be paid and neither my father nor I reappeared.

  So I silently said good-bye to the rooms where I had spent my childhood, and the furniture on which I had shared meals with my parents or read my books.

  I shut the door and walked toward the living room one last time. I took a piece of paper from my father’s desk and sat down to write.

  Dear Papa,

  I have written you more times than I can now count, but my letters have remained unanswered. I don’t know if you’re alive or dead. I pray that you are safe and unwounded, and that it is only the channels of communication that have prevented you from telling me how you’re faring . . .

  I placed my note in an envelope and wrote on the front, For Papa. Then I quietly walked out the door.

  * * *

  When I arrived at my grandmother’s apartment, I was surprised to discover Giselle’s bag in the vestibule.

  Perched on a stepstool, she was dusting with a feather brush the ornaments on the shelves flanking Marthe’s portrait, her gray hair pinned behind her ears.

  “I wasn’t expecting to see you here,” I said as I placed my bag down and walked closer to her. “Please tell me you and your family are safe and no damage happened to your home from the other day.”

  “No, Solange, we were lucky, thank God.”

  I placed my hand on her back and helped her down from the stool.

  “And still after all the chaos, you come here . . . I had hoped you’d be able to spend more time with your family now that Marthe is gone.”

  Giselle placed down her feather duster on the lower shelf. “I have spent nearly all my adult life here, Solange. It’s hard now to know what to do with all the extra time I have.”

  My eyes softened as I looked at her. She was still strong. And with her silver hair and blue-gray eyes, she appeared attractive despite her age.

  “I have kept this house sparkling and the household running for fiftysomething years. During the rare times when your grandmother’s coffers were low, I went weeks without being paid. But your grandmother never went back on her word. She always managed to come through for me.” Giselle’s voice began to waver slightly. “Do you know I received a letter from her lawyer? She left me a small pension for my retirement.”

  “Yes, it’s so well deserved,” I answered. In my conversation with Marthe’s lawyer, I was surprised how much thought Marthe had put into the planning of her estate. In addition to creating a fund for Giselle, she had also put a considerable amount of money aside to pay for the annual maintenance of the apartment.

  “You are now nearly the same age as your grandmother was when I began working for her,” she said, her gaze firmly focused on me.

  “You have the same dancing eyes, and soulful intelligence. I cannot properly express how happy it made me to see you come into your grandmother’s life.”

  I could feel the emotion thick between us.

  “And knowing your loyalty toward my grandmother all these years has been a great comfort to me,” I added.

  Giselle lowered her gaze. “I know you no longer need me. But it was important for me to come back to the apartment for one last good-bye.”

  I smiled, and could feel the emotion welling inside me. Tears began to form at the corners of my eyes.

  “I, too, am going away now, Giselle. I’m not sure when I’ll return, but you needn’t worry, the apartment will be well cared for. Marthe
will still rule over the apartment.” I lifted my chin in the direction of her portrait. “Just as she wanted, and just as she should.”

  * * *

  “We must assume that I won’t be coming back for some time,” I told her. “So we should remove anything that is perishable and clear the cupboards and icebox. Take whatever is left home for your family,” I told her.

  So she packed up the flour and sugar, the jars of fruit preserves, and even the tins of dried herbs. I then went into the little room where I had slept since December, and made sure nothing had been overlooked. I left the Mickey Mouse doll from Father and a few of my old notepads. Taking only the journals of Marthe’s story that I had filled over the past two years.

  It was only after I had embraced Giselle and we said our good-byes that I allowed myself to amble through the apartment one last time. I pushed open the French doors to Grandmother’s bedroom, which had remained untouched since her death.

  Giselle had made up the bed. The pillows were crisp, the silk shams puffed up like clouds. And in dazzling colors woven above, butterflies danced within the upholstered headboard. I could almost hear the beating of their wings.

  * * *

  I walked down the hallway and stood gazing at the portrait of Marthe rising over the fireplace, ruling over the room. I heard her voice in my ear, as if she were still there beside me, telling me another story, and sharing with me her wisdom from a well-experienced life.

  “Go,” she said, urging me onward. “I am as I should be, safely ensconced in my home. And I’m still young and beautiful.”

  I felt the warmth flowing from her pearls around my neck. I gave one last farewell to all her beautiful ceramics, the two matched rhinoceros horns, the velvet bergères, and cushioned settee. All those things that Marthe had handpicked and kept so dear. And in those final glances, I pressed them each into my mind as though they were pieces of her that would remain forever beautiful and untouched, like a secret treasure chest sealed from prying eyes.

 
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