The velvet hours, p.31
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       The Velvet Hours, p.31

           Alyson Richman

  Solomon had remained upstairs with Rachel and little Leo, but Eva was enjoying the opportunity to be the only child at the table.

  “Have a little more chicken,” the old woman urged Eva. “It seems like you have quite a journey ahead of you.” She looked kindly onto the little girl. “And such a pretty dress you have!”

  The woman’s vision must have been cloudy or else she was just being kind. Eva’s dress was now almost in tatters. Smudges of dirt created unattractive shadows across the front placket. The hem had come partly undone on the skirt so that it hung unevenly. But Rachel had tied the girl’s braids neatly, and her blue eyes and fair hair gave her an angelic quality that was apparent even to those with the poorest eyesight.

  “We were not lucky enough to have our own,” the old woman lamented. “So it’s nice to be able to put up two families for the night.”

  She turned to me. “I suppose you’ll be a mother soon.”

  I blushed, turning the ring that Alex had given me before we left.

  Alex didn’t answer her. He simply placed his hand on mine and smiled.

  But our affectionate moment would be short-lived. Later that evening, as the radio was brought out, we heard the terrible news that Italy had declared war on Great Britain and France.

  * * *

  We all felt under a black cloud. Leo’s fever had not abated, and Rachel was now even more insistent that they not travel any further.

  “His nose is still running and he’s lethargic,” Solomon informed us later that evening. “I told her there will be good doctors in Marseille. I know we have to maintain our schedule.”

  Monsieur Armel appeared visibly torn. Our schedule would not allow a single missed day. Everything had been planned. The meeting with the dealer could not be rearranged. The ship leaving Lisbon would not wait. The transit visas had already been ordered and had an expiration date. Our schedule had to be maintained with clocklike precision.

  “Rachel.” He said her name quietly. “You know we cannot stay . . .”

  Her eyes fell to the floor, then shut closed. “I wouldn’t be a mother,” she whispered as a single tear fell down her cheek, “unless I at least asked . . .”

  * * *

  By now we were all sick of being in the car together. The evening before, Rachel had scrubbed Eva with a bar of laundry soap and towels soaked in boiling hot water in hope of preventing the spread of Leo’s germs. I could smell the fresh scent on the girl’s skin. I tried to channel my grandmother and still make myself look presentable. I had not bathed since we left Paris, but I took out a little vial of rose oil and pressed it behind my ears and at my pulse points. My hair, which was now limp and without curl, I pinned back in an artful chignon.

  We were like bedouins at this point, with all our worldly possessions packed into the car, traveling on roads that brimmed with other people like us, all trying to get as far away from the capital to places where they thought they’d be safer. I thought of the Haggadah safely wrapped in brown paper and crated in the trunk, and the story of the Israelites’ exodus now resonated deeply within me. I felt a connection to my mother, with her family, as I grasped Alex’s fingers through my hand.

  * * *

  Leo was now wrapped in a blanket. He complained the light hurt his eyes, and Rachel tried to create a cocoon for him where his face was pressed against her breast.

  It was still nearly one hundred kilometers until Marseille, and Monsieur Armel was determined to get there before sundown. My Haggadah was safely in the back, and I closed my eyes imagining the rabbi and his wife who had initially created the beautiful book all those years ago. Soon it would be passed into new hands, with a new life ahead of it.

  For the next several hours, we rode in the crowded car. We spoke little, hoping to let Leo sleep as much as possible. Outside we passed stretches of farmland. Small villages made of fieldstone, and a single church steeple that pierced the sky. Occasionally, Monsieur Armel would be forced to stop for petrol, and all of us, except for Rachel and Leo, would pile out of the car and stretch our legs and breathe in the fresh air.

  The bread and cheese we had packed at the beginning of our journey had been finished, and our stomachs rumbled with hunger. At the petrol station, Monsieur Armel bought us sandwiches and we sat outside with our faces tilted toward the sun.

  “We probably have four more hours or so until we reach the city,” he told Alex and me.

  Alex nodded, chewing on the last bites of his sandwich, and I sighed. The constant traveling had depleted me. I was exhausted. Leaning against his shoulder, I looked at the packed car, which seemed to sag from the journey. The black doors were covered in dust; the wheels were caked in mud. All I hoped was that we would get to Marseille safely.

  * * *

  I fell asleep for the rest of the journey, only to be awakened by the noise of a bustling port city as we entered Marseille. Our journey suddenly felt terribly real, far more so than even when we had first loaded our suitcases or closed down the apartments. In contrast to the countryside of the past few days, I now saw the familiar terrain of an urban setting. Though there was something far more exotic to Marseille. Unlike Paris, with its elegant stone buildings and imperial grandeur, here the city had a uniquely Mediterranean feeling. Many of the buildings were as white as the seagulls that circled overhead. As we drove closer to the port, I could hardly believe my eyes. The water was the most extraordinary color I had ever seen. Blue and veined like marble. Boats in the harbor sounded their horns, dockmen hollered, and seagulls sqauwked. Outside a tobacco shop, at least ten men in military uniforms stood smoking cigarettes, their eyes tracing the girls who floated by, their cotton skirts lifting like sails.

  It took us at least another hour of driving through the city to find a vacancy in one of the hotels that could accommodate all of us.

  Finally, Monsieur Armel found three vacant rooms, not far from the port in a hotel that looked like it was something out of one of my mother’s old novels. The building, once majestic, was now in disrepair. The facade was crumbling, the stucco was cracked, and behind the wrought-iron balconies, the hotel’s tall windows were kept open, their dingy curtains fluttering like old dresses in the sea air.

  As we began untying the cord that secured our suitcases to the roof, Monsieur Armel took charge.

  “Solomon, get Leo inside and we’ll tell the concierge to call him a doctor. There’s a pharmacy down the block.” He reached into his pocket to offer some money for Alex. “Why don’t you try to get some fever powder for him to make him more comfortable?”

  I remembered my father mixing those sachets of powder in a glass of water when I had a temperature. I felt a longing for his calm and his wisdom now. I knew he would have been able to speak with the pharmacist about what would make Leo feel better. I loathed the war, the vacuum that had swallowed up the normal channels of communication. My mind began to rush as I wondered how he’d be able to locate me once we left France. I imagined him returning to our apartment to find my note, and knew that it was essential that I write him again before we left Marseille, just in case there was the slightest chance he had returned safely.

  Alex stood watch over the car as we brought our valises into the hotel. Just before Monsieur Armel returned to park the car, the trunk was opened to remove the box with the books.

  “Oh my God!” Alex’s voice scorched through the air. I turned and peered into the trunk. Unbeknownst to us, the well-intentioned farmer had placed a bottle of wine in the trunk as a parting gift to us. The bottle had broken and flooded the bottom of the car. The crate that contained the Haggadah was partially stained the most terrifying color of Bordeaux.

  I grew pale and my stomach felt as though it had just been sliced through by a sharp blade. I reached to touch the box, and the corner was soaked through in red wine. “It can’t be!” I cried out. It seemed like we were both having the same nightmare.

p; In perfect synchronicity, Alex and I stretched our hands to pull the box closer to us.

  I had no idea if the wine had soaked through the crate, but it was clear the wooden box was affected by the spill. As I touched the saturated corner, I felt as though we were touching a painful wound.

  “Don’t panic,” Alex said in a vain attempt to appear that he had the situation under control. But I could hear the fear in his voice; the terror was palpable. The Haggadah was our ticket out of France, and if it was destroyed, we were going nowhere.

  “We need to unwrap them now,” he said. He lifted the books from the crate. The box and the bottom layer of packing material were clearly affected by the wine, but the brown wrapping paper seemed pristine. Still, we needed to check.

  Quickly I began to pull the paper off of the Haggadah, while Alex removed it from his father’s books.

  As I lifted the Haggadah out of its layers of protective paper, I was relieved to discover that it had not been affected by the wine spill. But the book had not come through our journey unscathed.

  “Look,” I said, showing him one of the red-and-blue-colored decorative birds. The rich blue color was flaking and cracking. It looked as though some of the pigment was lifting off from the page.

  Alex turned white. “The wine spill must have caused a change in moisture.” He took the book from me and began to inspect the other leaves.

  “Luckily, it only seems to be on that page.”

  “But how will we be able to repair it?” I was so upset, I could hardly breathe.

  Alex’s face still looked grave. “It will depend on Solomon,” he said softly. “He’ll be the only one who can restore it. If it can be done at all.”

  * * *

  Poor Solomon was already beside himself worrying about Leo. The doctor was called as Rachel waited by the sick child’s bed. Monsieur Armel brought Solomon into our room, where the book was laid out on our bed.

  “Solomon, we have an issue with the Haggadah . . .” His skin was pale and the strain on his face was evident. “Without the money from these books, we’re not going anywhere.”

  Solomon leaned over and appraised the damage.

  “It’s as I feared. Consolidation has occurred.”

  Monsieur Armel let out an agonizing sound, a grunt that sounded almost like a dying animal. “I needn’t tell you that our passage out of France depends on this book. You realize that more than anyone here.”

  “Is there any way we can repair it?”

  Solomon was quiet. “It’s not going to be easy, Bernard . . . I’ll need to seed a gelatin between the pigment and the parchment.” He shook his head. “It will be difficult and time intensive . . .”

  “But do you have the supplies and instruments to even do that?”

  Solomon nodded. “I can make an adhesive with gelatin and some wheat starch . . . Still, it will not be easy. We’ll have to keep our fingers crossed that I can reattach it to the parchment.”

  * * *

  As Rachel tended to Leo’s fever, Solomon immediately set himself in motion. He took the small black satchel he had brought with him and removed his instruments. Half of them looked like they belonged to a surgeon, and the other half to a painter: two flat sable brushes, three with rounded tips; several scalpels; cotton swabs; a tweezer, and something else that I didn’t recognize. Later, I would learn it was a spun-glass burnisher for removing threads from illuminated manuscripts.

  He took the book and laid it on the towel, and used the tip of his scalpel to start lifting the corners of the pages to make sure there was no other damage. He no longer looked at it as a casual observer would, but as an expert restorer analyzing the damage with razor-sharp eyes.

  We watched transfixed, all of us holding our breath as he began to prepare the necessary adhesive.

  “Seeding the gelatin beneath each little flake will take hours and require my full attention,” Solomon informed us. “It is best you leave me so I can concentrate on the work . . .”

  We all understood and were about to leave him to his work when there was a knock on the door. It was the doctor, who had finished examining Leo.

  Solomon got up and walked over to speak with him.

  But the doctor did not lower his voice when he told Solomon his diagnosis. We all heard it as clear as a bell.

  “I’m afraid, Monsieur Weckstein, your son has come down with the measles.”

  * * *

  Just when we thought we had experienced the worst-possible blow, we received Leo’s diagnosis. All of the adults knew what this meant. Leo would have to be quarantined, as would Eva, who unlike the rest of us, had not yet had the disease.

  “I will speak to the hotel director about making sure all the necessary precautions are taken. But keep him in his room. He has spots in his mouth. I suspect the rash will appear on his chest by tomorrow.”

  * * *

  Words escaped us. As Leo’s fever escalated, Rachel kept vigil. She applied cool compresses to his forehead and spoon-fed him broth that the hotel owner’s wife brought up to his room.

  * * *

  Alex went out to the pharmacy and bought fever powder. In his satchel, he carried some provisions for a modest dinner. Some bread, cheese, a jar of cornichons, and a few sprigs of parsley, which he said was the only bit of fresh greens he could find.

  “You’ve done well,” Monsieur Armel murmured softly. “Better than I expected, and we’ll make do.” He looked exhausted. He had spent the past hour shuttling between negotiating with the hotel owner, who was not as compassionate as his wife, to let the sick child remain quarantined in his room, and keeping Solomon focused on trying to save the Haggadah despite being distracted by the news of his ailing son.

  As I was lucky enough to have my own room, Alex suggested we have dinner in my quarters.

  The idea was a welcome distraction, and I began to prepare the space. I opened up the windows, allowing the briny sea air to fill the room. It felt good to inhale a fragrance that was both foreign and invigorating. Outside, I could hear the bustling sounds of the city, which felt reassuring. Taxis honked, men shouted to each other on the streets, and I could hear foghorns blaring from the port. It was unfortunate that we could not leave directly from Marseille, but at this point, only a few transatlantic ships would risk taking civilians through the dangerous waters for fear of being torpedoed. And we were informed we had no other choice but to leave on a boat from Lisbon. I looked around the dingy hotel room. The walls, once painted white, now looked like the color of newsprint. The only adornment in the room was a single framed portrait of a woman in a field holding a basket. It amazed me that in only a few weeks’ time, my living arrangements had gone from one extreme to another. I heard Marthe’s throaty laugh in my ear, as if she were there in the room with me, gazing at the completely artless painting on the wall.

  Somehow, however, I had to create a space for everyone to eat. I looked around the room and tried to find some inspiration. The bed was made up in white sheets and a simple cotton coverlet. Improvising, I removed the coverlet and placed it on the ground. I took the writing tray the hotel had provided down the hallway and washed it with soap and water.

  When Alex entered the room . . . “It’s not much, but it’s more than I expected to find so late in the day.” I smiled and took the bag from him, kissing him sweetly on the cheek.

  “Do you have a pocket knife so I can cut the bread and cheese? I’ll put it over there,” I said, pointing to the freshly washed writing tray. “We can pretend it’s our little feast.”

  “Did anyone ever tell you that you’re perfect?” he said as his arm pulled me onto my feet. He brought me into his arms and kissed me. His mouth tasted of parsley. Of spring and possibility. I kissed him back, my entire body melting into his.

  * * *

  That evening, as Leo slept in the room next door, his rash flaming over his little body
, we managed to get Rachel to come in and sit with us for a few minutes before returning to her son.

  With little extra space to spare, we all sat on the floor with our legs slightly draped beneath us. “It almost feels like a Seder,” Alex said to all of us. “We’ve left nearly everything behind, and a long journey is still ahead of us.”

  I looked around the room and felt that I had been absorbed into the most extraordinary family. My heart was full. For the pages of the Haggadah were no longer just ink and vellum to me. They had sprung to life, a narrative continuing before my very eyes.


  There is part of me, the writer, that would like to end my story here. Our makeshift dinner on the floor of our hotel room. My new life beginning with a journey from a port in the South of France, where seagulls circled in the salt-laced air.

  I would like to pretend that from there, everything worked out as it should have. That we all escaped France safely, and then managed to build a new life first in Rio de Janeiro and then in New York. That Monsieur Armel rebuilt his rare book business with the help of his handsome and hardworking son.

  But as I learned from my grandmother, every story, every life, has its own light and darkness. That beneath the veil of white powder are secrets we all wish to hide.

  * * *

  Years later, when I became a wife and a mother and eventually a novelist, my children would plead with me to tell them the details of my own life story. Their favorite episode was the chapter in which I arrived in South America with their father and grandfather, with nothing more than a suitcase filled with three dresses and a photograph of my parents, clutching the hand of their father, whom I believed to be my most prized possession of all.

  They loved for me to tell them how the Haggadah was saved, and how despite the odds being so stacked against us, we managed to escape the Nazis. That we boarded a steamer ship and built a new life in a city where the tango parlors played long into the night and where women tucked camellia flowers into their hair.

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