The velvet hours, p.30
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       The Velvet Hours, p.30

           Alyson Richman

  Only then did I reach into my pocket for the key to the apartment. I stepped out and quietly locked the door.


  June 1940

  In the days before our own departure, we could hear cars being packed, the men and women shouting at each other as they tried to tie their suitcases atop their cars and cram as many people inside.

  “Can’t they leave more quietly?” Monsieur Armel complained. He lifted his fingers from the typewriter and pressed them to his temples.

  From the Armels’ tall living room windows, I could see several cars loaded with trunks and suitcases. Carpets tied to the roofs. Dogs ran alongside the cars.

  “Where will they all go?” I asked Alex, who now stood beside me.

  “To the countryside. Burgundy, perhaps. Some to the south. No one wants to be here if there is another bombing.”

  I was surprised that I didn’t feel panic. Instead, a numbness had overtaken my body as if I couldn’t allow myself to think further than a few hours ahead.

  “It will take them all day to get out of Paris and probably several more to get any further.”

  I touched the sleeve of his shirt. We had all been counting the days until our own departure, and the frustration and impatience with the situation was thick.

  I peered down at the streets, my eyes again falling upon the abandoned dogs.

  “Those dogs were once beloved pets, but now their owners are just leaving them . . .”

  His hand slid down to squeeze my fingers.

  “We’re not leaving anyone behind.” He came closer and whispered into my ear. “You know that, Solange. Not you, not Solomon, not his family.”

  “I know,” I said. “But I wish we could take one with us . . .”

  He shook his head. “I do, too, but the car will be too tight as it is with Solomon’s family.

  “Someone will care for them. I promise you.”

  I couldn’t help but wonder if what he said would prove true. If the Germans came into the city, would they be kinder to the dogs than they would to the men and women whose lives fell into their hands? I knew there wouldn’t be enough kindness to go around for both.

  * * *

  We left at the crack of dawn, moving as silently as mimes, gesturing what to bring and what to leave behind. Outside, black birds flew overhead, and the sky was cloudy as quartz.

  We packed only the essentials. The car would be taking seven people, so the children would have to sit on Rachel’s and my laps. The suitcases were loaded and secured atop with rope.

  I stood just outside the car waiting for Monsieur Armel’s signal that I should sit inside. I felt Alex slide up against me. “I want to give you something before we set out.”

  He reached into his pocket. “Consider it a promise,” he whispered as he pulled out a gold ring and slipped it on my finger.

  I stared at the slender gold band, hardly able to believe my eyes. “It was my mother’s,” he whispered. “Papa gave it to me last night.” He leaned over and kissed me. “We’re leaving everything behind, Solange. So this is my first step to putting down roots, wherever we end up.”

  I felt my heart in my throat. My hands reached for his. I wanted Marthe’s watch. I wanted to believe it was possible to make time stand still.

  But Monsieur Armel had a schedule to maintain. Both Alex and I heard him barking orders for everyone to get into the car.

  As Rachel slid in with the children, Monsieur Armel came over to Alex and me and patted him affectionately on the back. “Congratulations to the two of you . . . We’ll celebrate once we get to Marseille, but for now, there is no time to spare.”

  * * *

  Solomon sat on the passenger side, with Alex, Rachel, and me squeezed in the back with the children.

  We were already packed tightly against each other, with one in the middle. Leo, the more restless of the two children, was on Rachel’s lap, and the young boy was fidgeting to get comfortable.

  “Let me take Eva,” Alex whispered to me.

  Eva had just turned six, but she was finely boned and felt nearly weightless on my lap.

  “It’s no bother,” I told him. “I find her a comfort.” The warm smell of the little girl’s skin close to mine was soothing.

  “We have a long ride ahead of us.” He squeezed my hand. “You must tell me if your legs get tired from the extra weight.”

  I tightened my fingers around his, marveling with the new sight that my ring finger was no longer bare. The gold band shimmered in the light.

  “I will, I promise,” I told him. And my heart fluttered. I nearly wondered if the precious butterfly clasp, which I now had hidden beneath my hair, beat its wings against my neck.

  * * *

  Monsieur Armel took one final look to make sure the suitcases were tightly secured. The night before, Monsieur Armel and Solomon had carefully examined the Haggadah one last time before packing it in several layers of protective paper.

  “We must try to make sure the car doesn’t get too hot or too cold. Changes in temperature or humidity can cause the pigment to lift off the page. We’ve told the dealer the illustrations are intact, and we’ll need to ensure we deliver it that way.”

  “Yes,” Monsieur Armel agreed. “We wouldn’t want any of the illustrations to detach.”

  They had prepared the Haggadah as though it were a priceless jewel. Not only was it wrapped in protective paper, but also in a cushion of white sheeting. Then, it was placed in a separate box along with two other books Monsieur Armel hoped to sell. Everyone in the car knew the books were our currency. Since we had not been successful in getting sponsorship to the United States, we would go to South America, where no sponsorship was necessary, and try to make a new life there within the expatriate community.

  “It is not ideal,” Alex had confided to me, “but perhaps eventually we can then make our way to North America. Papa just doesn’t want to wait here until it’s too late.”

  I understood. Time was of the essence. With the oceans already filled with battleships, no one knew how much longer passenger boats would be able to cross the Atlantic. Once we got to Marseille, there was still much we had to do before we got to Portugal and began our voyage. We needed to pick up our transit visas at the Spanish embassy, as well as a certificate of health and good conduct for each of us. And our entry visas to South America. It was no wonder that Monsieur Armel didn’t want to squander a single minute. The organization HICEM, which was assisting us, would also need to be paid in full so we could receive our boat tickets.

  “Are we all set back here?” Alex’s father opened the back door of the car and leaned in.

  Rachel pulled Leo close to her chest, and the little boy gave off a little whine.

  “Shhhhhh,” she whispered into his ear. “Bernard, I think it will be best for everyone if we start to drive.”

  “Agreed,” he said as he shut the back door and made his way to the driver’s side.

  Monsieur Armel turned on the ignition, the rumble of the engine sending waves beneath our seat. From the front of the car, Solomon quietly uttered: “May God be with us.”


  June 1940

  We were packed like sardines. Even with the windows rolled down, we were hot and uncomfortable. Our thighs pushed against each other, and our arms touched. We could smell each other’s breath.

  I had not expected to see the roads as crowded as they were. Both in front and in back of us, large sedans packed to the brim with valises and trunks surrounded us. We saw carts loaded with families, too. Some carried with them furniture, or cages with brightly colored chickens. On a flatbed truck, we saw an old piano secured with several yards of rope, with mattresses and suitcases buttressing it from all sides.

  After nearly three hours of driving, Rachel suggested we pull off the main road and try to find an inn so the children could us
e the bathroom and have something to eat.

  It was a good thought. None of us had eaten breakfast, and the children had grown increasingly restless under the cramped quarters.

  Leo had been whimpering for the past hour in Rachel’s lap, and she had tried to no avail to soothe him.

  “I’ll try to pull over soon,” Monsieur Armel agreed. In the rearview window, I could see the fatigue in his eyes. None of us had slept well for the past few nights. Solomon also looked exhausted. His olive skin was sallow, his hair was unruly, and his clothes were creased. It was hard to imagine the quiet and elegant Rachel being drawn to such a rumpled character.

  “Maman, Maman,” Leo was crying in his sleep.

  Solomon turned around and spoke to Rachel in Yiddish. She caressed the little boy’s hair with her hand as she answered him.

  “We’re sorry he is complaining so much. I hope it’s not disturbing everyone.”

  “He’s such a pest!” Eva chimed. “Papa told us we had to be on our best behavior!”

  “Shhhhh!” Rachel admonished the little girl. “He isn’t feeling well. Let him be.” She shook her head to show her dissatisfaction with Eva’s behavior. “We all just need to get out and stretch our legs.”

  * * *

  A few hours later, we found an inn and piled out of the car, our legs wobbly as if we had been at sea. Rachel still had Leo in her arms as she stepped out. Eva ran ahead of us, and I hovered behind to try to have a few moments of privacy with Alex.

  “I feel sorry for the children,” I said softly. “We’re all so cramped from the drive.”

  Alex shook his head. “We’ll let them run around here a little bit. They probably haven’t experienced the French countryside before.” He stood there looking a bit pale, his white shirt and pants now as creased as Solomon’s. The house before us, with its thatched roof and the tractor stacked with bales of hay, looked like a painting. Even the sunlight appeared preternaturally golden.

  I stepped closer to him, hoping to feel the graze of his hand against mine. The air smelled of spring, a perfume of freshly cut grass and blooming honeysuckle. For a brief moment, I wondered what it would be like if we traveled no further. If we managed to find a farmhouse somewhere and raise a family quietly under the canopy of trees and scampering animals.

  “It’s so peaceful here,” Alex said as if reading my mind. “It’s a shame we can’t stay longer, but I think Papa is hoping we can make it to Orléans by tonight. We will see how crowded the roads are,” Alex said, breaking the silence.

  I took a deep breath of the air. I did not want to imagine reentering the car and squeezing against the others again.

  “Then, hopefully we can make it to Dijon.” Alex leaned over and kissed me. His eyes remained closed as our lips parted. “I never had the chance to thank you for agreeing to sell your mother’s Haggadah.”

  I felt his breath warm against me, and saw the dark rounds of his eyes.

  “I would like to believe it was destiny,” I whispered. “Without that book, we would never have met each other.”

  Alex’s fingers tightened around mine. “I wonder if Rabbi Avram and his wife are smiling down on us. All these years later, the book has been passed down through countless hands, creating a story with each of its owners.”

  I smiled. This book, which had been created to teach the ancient traditions of the Jewish faith, had now inspired love and also helped ensure our survival. I was not thinking of Rabbi Avram or his artistic wife, however. I was imagining the woman who owned the Haggadah before me. My thoughts were solely of my mother.

  * * *

  That evening, a farmer outside of Bourges agreed to let us use his loft in exchange for some francs Monsieur Armel offered for us staying the night. When we all climbed the wooden ladder, we discovered that the accommodations were sparse. We would be sleeping on mattresses that smelled of straw.

  Leo seemed unlike his playful self. He hovered close to his mother. His pallor was chalk white.

  I undressed behind the stacks of hay, pulling my nightgown over me like a tarp. Beneath the white cotton, my skin flushed. I kept Marthe’s pearls around my neck, believing they were safest there.

  It was cruel to be so close to Alex and not be able to touch him. The slender gold band on my finger felt like a promise, and now, beneath my nightgown, I could feel the pull of my body yearning to be close to his. Alex had brought the box with my Haggadah and the other valuables into the loft so they wouldn’t be left in the car overnight.

  He placed them between our two mattresses. And as I lay down on the bed, I closed my eyes and imagined the books forming a bridge, hoping he, too, felt my desire flowing through the space between us.

  * * *

  In the morning, I found Monsieur Armel crouched on an old wooden crate speaking with Solomon. He held a long twig in his hand and he was drawing a map on the dusty floor.

  “If we don’t encounter any problems, we can get to Lyon from here by the evening.”

  Solomon’s eyes were focused on the ground. He looked haggard, as if he hadn’t slept all night.

  “That will keep us on track for meeting Clavel’s dealer Thursday morning.”

  Solomon nodded.

  “Our own exodus.” Monsieur Armel nodded in agreement with Solomon. “Let’s hope the waters also part for us in Marseille just as they do in the pictures in the Haggadah.”

  * * *

  Leo had slept curled at his mother’s side all night, his cheek pressed to her chest, his arm draped over the width of her body.

  “Lieblinge,” Solomon whispered as he knelt down closer to them. “Darlings.”

  Rachel’s arms instinctively stroked her sleeping child as she was roused from sleep. The sight of such pure, maternal affection warmed me as I slipped away to get dressed behind the bales of hay. When I emerged, Alex had already put his pants on and was buttoning his shirt.

  “Seems like we’ll be off as soon as the children and Rachel are ready.”

  I nodded. I was nearly ready. All I needed to do was put on my shoes.

  Alex and I glanced over at Rachel, who seemed to be whispering to Solomon. Her face looked pained. Leo was still in his pajamas and she cradled him in one arm, his legs dangling over her lap.

  We both sensed something was amiss.

  “I think she just told Solomon the child has a fever.”

  We watched silently as Solomon placed a hand on Leo’s forehead. The little boy shivered slightly at his father’s touch.

  Solomon’s face was also now pale. He said something again in Yiddish that neither Alex nor I understood. But Monsieur Armel, who had a working understanding of the language, seemed to understand perfectly well.

  For several minutes, we stood silently, unsure of what would happen next. Rachel was now rocking little Leo in her arms in an effort to soothe him. Eva, who had awakened and dressed herself, now walked over to Alex and me.

  “He’s sick.” Her voice sounded very much like an annoyed older sister. “Maman is saying we should let him rest here before we go any further.”

  My heart sank. I knew this was an impossible request. There was no way we could make it to Marseille in time to meet the dealer if we delayed ourselves by even a day here. Time was of the essence if we were going to get out of France.

  * * *

  “I’m very sorry, but we all must leave today. We need to bring him with us; we can’t leave you here alone.” Monsieur Armel’s voice was firm.

  “He just has a cold, Rachel,” Solomon insisted. “Look, even his eyes are red and his nose is runny. Let him sleep in the car. I’m sure it will pass by tomorrow or the next day.”

  I could see the look of anguish on Rachel’s face. Clearly, the child was in terrible discomfort.

  Again she muttered something underneath her breath as she placed Leo down and reached for her clothes beside the bed
. He clenched his eyes shut and he looked like a newborn rabbit, his eyes swollen and rimmed with pink.

  No one but Rachel seemed to think he was suffering from anything more than a cold.

  In less than fifteen minutes’ time, we were all headed toward the car.

  * * *

  We arrived just outside Lyon by sundown, and Solomon carried Leo up the stairs of another farmhouse that was renting two rooms for the night.

  “I’m sorry you’re stuck in here with us, Solange, but they don’t have any other options for us,” Monsieur Armel apologized. “A young lady should have her own room, or at least sleep with a mother and her children. But no one wants to risk you also getting sick. We’re already in too-tight quarters with the car.”

  “I don’t mind,” I said, and it was true. I was happy just to be able to stretch out on a bed at night after sitting in such a twisted position in the car for so many hours. Secretly, however, I wished I could be alone with Alex in the room.

  Monsieur Armel looked at his watch. “The farmer and his wife have invited us to join them for dinner tonight.” He stood up and walked toward the window. Outside there was nothing but fields and orchard trees. The urban splendor of Paris was far behind us now. It seemed completely possible that the owners of the farmhouse had never laid eyes on Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower. I closed my eyes for a moment and tried to imagine I was not cramped in a small room in the French countryside, but back sitting in my grandmother’s elegant parlor. That instead of the damp smell of wood and straw, I was inhaling the delicate bouquet of violets.

  * * *

  We settled down for dinner around a large wooden table and several mismatched chairs. A basket of thick bread was passed to us by the matron of the farm, and we all tore large slices and filled our hungry stomachs with the warm and yeasty loaf.

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