The velvet hours, p.5
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       The Velvet Hours, p.5

           Alyson Richman
 

  During the course of my visits, she had yet to reveal how she came to sit for the large portrait. Nor had she mentioned how she came to own her luminous pearls with the emerald butterfly clasp. Yet, for weeks she had managed to keep me enraptured. I held on to her every word, anxious for the next installment of stories. She came alive when she spoke, her neck grew slightly longer from beneath her collar, and her eyes grew wider. And though she used her hands to emphasize certain elements, she never raised her hand further than her waistline and her fingers never opened. She used them a way a bird might use its feathers, to give her words flight.

  When I was in her company, it was easy for me to understand how seductive she must have been at the pinnacle of her youth. But I had yet to figure how she sustained her financial independence after all these years.

  She did not appear concerned about money. Somehow, she had managed to prevent the struggles of the outside world from penetrating her apartment. There were luxuries aplenty. Not just in the furnishings and artwork of her living room, but in the smaller details like the full-time housemaid, the expensive chocolates, and the abundance of bouquets of fresh flowers. Even her perfume smelled regal and refined.

  In contrast, my father continued to work even longer hours as he, like the rest of France, struggled to make ends meet. On the streets, people mirrored the country’s depression on their faces. Their expressions tight. Their clothes more and more somber. The newspapers screamed headlines of factory strikes and the growing rise of Facism throughout Europe.

  But my grandmother’s apartment offered a respite from all that. It remained my refuge, a place where I could lose myself for a few hours of the day in the cocoon of another person’s life story, one that was so much more interesting than my own. Those hours were like velvet to me. Stories spun of silken thread, her own light and darkness, unabashedly drawn.

  When I exited the large oak doors of her apartment building, however, the chill outside seemed even more brutal than before I had arrived. And the beauty of her apartment made the lack of ours more apparent. I began to write on the days I did not see her, in a café not far from our house. I’d bring my notebook and pen and sit beside the glass, my imagination trying to conceive a way of weaving what she told me into a book. I could envision her as a young girl with her basket of laundry, her worn gray dress and her apron. I could then see her as a young woman pulling a needle through yards of chiffon, as well as her singing on the stage, her face illuminated by the gaslights, then later cloaked in the shadow of Charles’s carriage.

  I had never once stepped outside Paris, yet I could imagine with ease the pale green of the water in Venice. The plush banquettes of Caffè Florian, where Charles baptized her with her new name.

  And then I would return home. I’d walk up the narrow steps to our apartment on the Rue des Saints-Pères. I’d find the living room with my mother’s needlepoint pillows. The small wooden dining table. I’d light the stove and boil myself a cup of tea.

  * * *

  In our small, modest apartment, my mother’s bookshelves resembled the intricate tiles of a fortress. Each one tightly stacked against the other. And since her death, I had looked at each book as though it contained pieces of her soul, stories that had nourished her during the course of a too-short life.

  My own life was rooted in that bookshelf as well. My first childhood memories were on its lowest shelves, where the picture books she had read to me were placed. And beside those were my first chapter books like Les Aventures d’un Petit Parisien or Le Dernier des Mohicans that she had encouraged me to read when we curled beside each other in her bed.

  Her taste in literature was both varied and mysterious to me. She enjoyed Dostoevsky as much as she did Flaubert. But her library also contained secrets to a past that I, as a young child, had failed to understand.

  On the top shelf, she had books that she instructed me, when I was no more than seven years old, not to reach for without her help. “They are rare and valuable,” she cautioned me one afternoon. “If you’re curious, let me know and I will take them down for you.”

  I had, of course, asked to see them immediately. What child wouldn’t want to look at books she was forbidden to touch on her own?

  I remember she smiled and that she cradled my cheek. Her eyes appeared to grow moist, as though my interest in her books, which was both innocent and genuine, had deeply moved her.

  She pulled a stool from the kitchen and withdrew one of the thicker volumes from the shelf. The design on the tooled cover was worn; its fragments of gold leaf flickered in between the rivers and tunnels of the design. When she opened the book, I remember I felt as though I was gazing at something written in a magical code.

  The pages were ancient looking. The parchment was yellowed. The edges were rough and in some cases torn.

  The words were not written in a language I understood or recognized, but my mother informed me that it was Hebrew.

  Though I would never be able to read the books, it gave me a strange comfort just to touch the pages and to think of those who had owned the books over the centuries before my mother and me.

  My mother rarely spoke of her family. Her own mother had died during childbirth, and her father had never forgiven her for marrying my father, an act he believed was not only a desertion of him but also of her faith.

  She had spent her early years in a small apartment on the Rue des Rosiers, her father a dealer of rare and often ancient books.

  She grew up without a mother or siblings, her childhood instead spent amongst leather bindings and parchment leaves. I had heard her whisper into my ear, more times than I could recall, that a person who loved books would never feel alone. We would spread out on the carpet and she would read to me her favorites: Les Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé by Perrault or the stories of Hans Christian Andersen. I can still recall the flicker of her finger as it turned the pages, and her smile as I drifted off to sleep, begging her to read one page more.

  But the books with the timeworn covers, those, she did not fully explain to me until she approached the last months of her life.

  I caught her looking at them with more and more frequency when her illness began to transform her. I have often wondered if, as death approached, she wanted to return to the part of her life she felt guilty for having left behind.

  When I would come home from school, I would find her in bed, her slender arms emerging from the sleeves of her robe, her long fingers tracing the ancient lines of text.

  She had become so thin those last months. Her black eyes were rimmed in circles. Her hair was no longer lustrous, but coarse like straw.

  I curled next to her and tried to give her some of my warmth.

  “When your grandfather died,” she began, “I sold most of his books. All but a select few.

  “The fifteen I took for myself were not the most valuable. I sold those early on in my marriage to your father, I’m sorry to admit. Instead, I kept the ones that, in my hands, felt like they had a soul.”

  She placed a frail hand on the cover of the book she had brought with her to the bed, and momentarily closed her eyes.

  I knew the meaning of my mother’s words. Old books contain a history that transcends the words inscribed within their pages. The paper, the ink, even the spacing of the words. They possess an ancient soul.

  “My father taught me to read Hebrew when I was much younger than you are now . . .”

  She smiled and lifted her hand off the page to reach for mine. I could feel the birdlike bones of her fingers, and her grasp was weaker than it had been just the day before.

  “I should have taught you, too,” she said as her voice began to crack. “I didn’t resist your father when he wanted you to be Catholic. He never went to church, and I told myself that if dipping my daughter briefly in holy water could shield her from experiencing bigotry and hate, I wasn’t doing anything wrong.”
>
  “Let me . . . ,” she said, but her voice began to tremble.

  She took my finger and pointed to one of the Hebrew letters that to me looked almost like a musical note. “That’s the letter shin,” she began. And with great effort, her lungs taking shallow and frequent breaths, she began to decode what was written on the page, guiding me through a text that had been handed down over the centuries. After her death, I read those sentences, over and over in my mind. I did not understand what the words meant. But to me, it was the language of my mother’s last breaths.

  5.

  Marthe

  Paris 1892

  Instead of bringing flowers or boxes of chocolates as small gifts of appreciation, Charles now started giving Marthe books about the history of art and other subjects he thought might inspire her. It bemused him that she wanted to educate herself beyond her toilette of expensive face creams and perfumes, closets of silk dresses, and drawers of delicate lingerie.

  “You might find this of interest,” he would tell her as he left her a book on the history of English furniture or one on the evolution of French landscape painting. She admitted freely to him that she had many blank pages in her education, and it delighted him to help fill them.

  One afternoon, he arrived particularly pleased. He handed her a dark leather volume with gilded edges.

  “What’s this, my love?” she asked coyly.

  She took the book in her hand, looking at the cover embossed with the title: Fables by Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian.

  “Ah, the name.” She smiled and reached over to his cheek and kissed him. “Might I claim him as a relative?”

  “It is not only the similarity of the name, my dove. Although it might add to your glamour to say you descended from an eighteenth-century writer . . .”

  “Indeed.” She ran her fingers again over the cover, smiling at Charles’s most recent gift.

  “What I found most remarkable was the last line of Florian’s eighth fable.”

  She sat down on the sofa and began leafing through the pages until she found the one of which he spoke. It was entitled “True Happiness.”

  “I believe you will find yourself captured within the lines.” He reached for his pipe and struck a match. Blue plumes of smoke filled the air.

  “A poor little cricket,” she began, “observes a butterfly fluttering in the meadow . . .”

  The fable continued to describe how the butterfly is chased by a group of children who race to catch the fragile insect. The butterfly tries in vain to escape them as they eventually seize the butterfly and tear off a wing from its fragile body, then its head.

  The cricket seeing the cruelty of the world remarks:

  “It costs too dear to shine in this world.

  How much I am going to love my deep retreat!

  To live happily, remain hidden.”

  She paused as if unsure she truly understood the words.

  “Don’t you see, little dove . . . I saw you at that dance hall, where all the unsavories threatened to tear at your lovely wings. But I have enabled you to live quietly and safely in your own elegant retreat.”

  He took the book from her hands.

  “My dove is hidden safely. Her wings are only for me.”

  “Yes,” she whispered into his ear as his arm now tightened around her waist.

  “To remain hidden, to be protected.” She softened in his embrace. “To be yours alone.”

  * * *

  The gift of the Florian book had touched her. Now she set out to give Charles a gift that would remind him of her during those long stretches when they were apart.

  One afternoon, on her way back from visiting Ichiro, Marthe came across a small secondhand jewelry shop on one of the side streets not far from her apartment. As she stepped closer to the window, she admired the display: a jet-beaded necklace, an enameled brooch, and a cocktail ring with an aquamarine stone the size of a robin’s egg. But it was the gold pocket watch that caught her eye.

  Marthe moved closer to the glass pane. The watch was open, displaying the guilloche dial and its dark roman numerals. But its interior casing was what intrigued her most. For inside, was the engraving of a dove.

  Her heart fluttered. The watch would make the perfect gift for Charles. Like a secret between them, he could open the case in private and see the image of his nom d’amour for her—the beautiful wings spread in flight.

  Marthe walked inside the store and asked the sales clerk to see the watch.

  “I’m afraid this is a purely decorative piece, mademoiselle,” the sales clerk informed her. “There is a defect with the escape wheel, and it has defied several attempts of repair.”

  Marthe removed her glove and took a finger to the edge of the case. The bird was etched in a beautiful fluid silhouette. Its wings a sensual V shape.

  “So the only person who should own such a watch, is one not interested in keeping the time . . .”

  “Yes, I suppose so, mademoiselle. That would be correct.”

  She smiled.

  “The watch is very well priced, mademoiselle. The store owner established its value based solely on the weight of the gold.”

  He took a pen and wrote the price on a piece of paper.

  “Well priced, indeed.” She reached to open her silk purse strings and pulled out a check. “It will make the perfect gift. I’m so very pleased.”

  * * *

  The next time she saw Charles, she waited until he was untangling himself from the bedsheets and reaching for his clothes.

  “When will I see you again?”

  “Ah, my dove, you know I can’t tell you that now. I never know my schedule from one week until the next.”

  Her smile was coy as she pushed herself up against the silken headboard. Around her shoulders, coils of red hair draped languidly.

  “Before you go, I have a gift for you, Charles.”

  Her long leg emerged from the linens, and she pulled the sheets around her as she walked toward her dresser drawer.

  “A gift? Oh now, I do hope you haven’t spent a lot of your allowance on me, my sweet girl. Because if you have, I’ll be quite cross.”

  “No, in fact, I believe I bought it for a rather splendid price considering the craftsmanship involved.”

  From her dresser, she pulled out a blue velvet box.

  “I believe you’ll understand why this was meant for you.”

  His shirt buttoned, he slipped his coat over his arms as he began to walk toward her.

  She opened the box and revealed the gold pocket watch with its solid gold casing. She took it out and handed it to him.

  When he lifted the watch’s cover, and saw the engraving inside, she sensed he had grasped its significance.

  “How perfect.” He beamed, kissing her on the cheek. “It will remind me of my favorite little bird . . .”

  “It no longer works,” Marthe said, taking the watch from his hand. She glanced at the bronze clock on her fireplace noting the current time. “At least not in the traditional sense . . .”

  She rolled the small dial on the side of the watch so that its hands matched those of her own clock. “I’m setting the watch for this exact hour and minute. It will remain set at this time until I see you next.” She handed it back to him and closed his fingers over the smooth, round casing.

  “This way time will stand still until I see you again.”

  He took the watch and placed it inside the breast pocket of his coat.

  “Then I will keep it close to my heart until we can move the hands of the dial once more.”

  * * *

  Marthe no longer simply wanted to collect just shunga prints and Oriental porcelains, she sought to expand her mind during Charles’s absence. She now began to take excursions to Paris’s most fashionable art galleries and museums. As a child, she’d alwa
ys been intimidated by the Louvre, an imperial stone vault that she imagined was filled with immeasurable treasures. She had felt at odds with the sumptuous surroundings, as if admittance was not possible for a girl of such low social standing. But now, dressed in her finery, she felt she could pass through its doors and wander through its chambers.

  For hours, she walked through the museum’s many portrait galleries. She studied the detailed, fine brushwork of the Dutch masters and the celestial-like faces painted by Da Vinci and Botticelli. She marveled at the way the Greeks captured both the contours and the sensuality of a woman’s limbs. The glow of the marble. The use of light and shadow. She saw that it was as relevant in painting and sculpture, as it was in life.

  But it was the large canvases filled with life-size re-creations of women through the different centuries that she loved the most. She would stand beneath their ornate, gilded frames and study their faces, looking for clues that might reveal something hidden or locked away. She wondered about their passions, what they were like after their corsets were untied and their gowns fell to the ground.

  She did not look nearly as long at the portraits of the Venuses in their nude splendor, or the nymphs who frolicked in meadows of pale green grass. She knew what a beautiful woman’s body looked like. But it was what existed behind the white flesh and flinty blue eyes that captivated her interest. She wondered where they hid their fire and heat.

  * * *

  The rooms of her apartment began to grow in complexity. Now it wasn’t just an apartment created for whispers and caresses, it became an extension of Marthe herself. Her collection of Asian ceramics lined the shelves of her parlor, and her secret shunga prints were hidden in the drawers of her bedroom. She was already into her second year of living as a kept woman with Charles when she purchased her first oil painting—a young girl, no older than twelve, dressed all in white.

 
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