Twilight of the Naturally Occurring Elements
It is May. They took the Cross away
And the afternoon creeps away.
A damp breeze rises at the river
Where my heart was cast an hour since.
On the square, the crowds are gone;
I wait, drifting, drifting with the ashes
Still riding the hot current over the dark
Stain on the cobblestones.
Up, white rags, into that lavender sky.
Across small windows, fairy wings or relics
Melt on damp black branches and new leaves
Too painfully green.
Blossoms sink that pale, already on the wind, I wait,
not for their crowing, nor their weeping
But for that old blue light, for the soft corner of her dress,
Or his radiant brow.
Splitting clouds, they come
I knew too much, but never, never
Paris, Oct. 1937
Monsieur Bardet appeared in the crémerie like a large carrion bird. His dark coat flapped around his knees, a felt hat crushed in his hand, ragged hair continually falling over one eye. He scanned the room as if looking for trouble, breaking into a brilliant smile when he saw Noelle and Lili spooning up ice cream in the corner of the shop.
The white enamel counters and pastel walls of the crémerie caught the equally pale light of the winter afternoon. Nöelle watched her friend in the long section of mirrored paneling ran along one wall, reflecting the white sky and throwing the caramel of Lili’s hair a hundred times across the room. Although the two girls met here often, an awkwardness had hung between them this afternoon. They ignored it, falling into comfortable patterns of conversation.
She loved to hear her friend speak, relished the mixture of compassion and cruelty, candor and humor, the cutting observations, the rapid-fired delivery, and the half-buried romanticism that infused Lili’s monologues. Nervous as she was today, she could still be distracted in laughter. “No, I’m telling you, you can’t possibly believe it, when the Spengler’s come in with their little monster, Phillipe, she’s practically kissing their feet, ‘Oh Madame, Monsieur, quelle precieuse, darling boy, don’t hurry back, we’ll have a lovely time, won’t we my dove?’” Lili’s thin white fingers danced in the air as she described her evening at the nursery school. Her weekly reports pilloried the snobby parents and spoiled toddlers and her despised employer, Mme Richoud. Lili had an intriguing ability to expel her observations in an almost visible mass. Nöelle’s own reflections on daily life always stuck somewhere inside her, the ideas and images tightly bound and too mysterious to emerge in conversation. With Lili, understanding frequently outpaced experience, her intuitive analysis multiplying exponentially along with the boundaries of her life. Nöelle listened and laughed and was comforted, her own half-formed observations brought to life in her friend’s chatter.
“And then, take my word for it, she literally shoves the little terror in my direction. Meanwhile, every single, solitary baby has a messy diaper, and she just flicks her hand at me and she’s hissing over her shoulder in that little sing-song voice, ‘Oh, Lil-li, I think someone’s stink-y!’” She paused for breath, and the image of the plump, powdered nursery director rose between them, conjured out of the cool air of the crémerie, a sycophant to the richest couples at Synagogue. Nöelle grinned and relaxed into Lili’s review of the week.
Still, the day wasn’t quite like every other day. They weren’t killing time before studying; they weren’t passing an hour waiting for a crowd to gather at someone’s house to play American jazz and debate politics. They were waiting for a man to come, someone with a mission in the real world, a man who wanted their help. At last he arrived on a draft of cold air, his black and grey tweeds out of place in the little shop.
After his first smile there was no laughter in his face, none of the faintly ridiculous pretensions of most adults in their circle. He bent to kiss Liliane and pulled out a chair, scraping it along the tiled floor. Looking at him made Nöelle uncomfortable and frightened her a little. The conversation died around him. Lili’s uncle didn’t notice.
“So this is Nöelle Lorraine?” His eyes encompassed her in one glance. Suddenly she was aware of the moth-hole in the sleeve of her sweater and began to doubt her choice of a wide, fashionable belt. Under his gaze she felt reduced, a pretentious, bourgeois brat -- motherless, fatherless, without family connections, of middling intelligence. Her studies at the Sorbonne vanished under his appraisal, along with her violin lessons, her attempts to learn Greek, her work sorting Egyptian potsherds for a favorite professor. Nöelle pressed her lips together, and straightened her back. He was here to ask a favor of her, not the other way around.
“Uncle, this is my friend Noelle Lorraine de Cassignac. Noelle, my mother’s brother, Monsieur Bardet.”
“Charmant.” The waitress brought him coffee before he asked. He was a man in a hurry and the world moved out of his way. Silence hung over the small table, broken only by a slurping sound as he drank.
“So,” he said at last, looking directly at Nöelle as if making up his mind. “Mademoiselle, you are aware of the situation in Germany, no?”
She nodded. Was there anyone left in the world who was not aware of Hitler? The student world seethed with hatred for his efficient and extreme anti-Semitic government. Headlines concerning Hitler’s latest moves screamed from the front pages of the dozens of competing French newspapers, polarized at the extremes of right and left wing politics. The controls to aggression set up at the end of the Great War had disintegrated. Hitler cast his eyes upon his neighbors and no one could meet his stare. A year ago the Olympic games in Berlin had allowed Hitler to demonstrate the new prosperity wrought by Fascism. The elaborate ceremonies effectively disguised the dismantlement of Germany’s parliamentary system and the systematic dispossession of the Jews. Germany was all anyone talked about anymore.
“There are people in Germany that need to get out,” he said. “Every day, the restrictions to travel and emigration grow more extensive and the price of escape has become nearly impossible. Not only Jews must get out, but Communists and others who have been vocal in their objections to Hitler’s government.”
Both girls nodded, but he was not satisfied. “We are not discussing people who at risk of losing a scholarship or a promotion, jeune filles. There are camps now for agitators or alcoholics, the homeless, communists, gypsies …” He stared at them, obviously wondering how to describe such places to these two well-dressed children. “I’m talking about brutal penal colonies designed to break men. Break them.” His thin face hardened into lines of despair. I’ve seen a few come back from these places, and they are … ruined, human husks, barely recognizable. “
Lili spoke up calmly. “Uncle. We aren’t babies. We’re at University.”
“And the Race Laws?” he gestured for more coffee. “You understand that in Germany Lili would no longer be a citizen, couldn’t attend your Sorbonne, couldn’t become a lawyer…,” a half smile, “or a chemist.” He must be following Lili’s progress and knew she was having trouble making a decision about her studies. “You two could no longer sit together here, for in Germany there would be a large sign on the door saying ‘No Jews allowed.’”
Nöelle spoke for the first time. “It’s why I came to meet you.” She tried to get him to smile. “The infamous Uncle Fleury!”
His face softened a little. “Alright then. Tell me about this coming trip, Mademoiselle Nöelle. “
And so she told him, seeing her strange family from the outside as she spoke. “I’m visiting my cousin, Cette. She just got married last summer, into an old Prussian family. Her husband is a baron or something.”
Uncle Fleury interrupted, “His name?”
“Von Sternau. Frederich von Sternau. Very nice, very good to my cousin. So, I’m going there for Christmas – we’re always together for Christmas. She and I, we’re more like sisters. We went to school in Switzerland together and I’ve always spent summers with either her family --or Lili’s.”
“And your mother, she travels with you?”
How to explain her mother. “Mm, no. She has other plans.”
“She isn’t close to that side of the family. They are my father’s people.” She hoped that would be enough, that she wouldn’t have to explain the apartment on the Rue Nicolet, the parties, the writers, the men, then the long weeks of shuttered gloom before the cycle began again.
“And your father?”
“He owns textile mills, mostly in South America. I hardly ever see him.” Nöelle drew a breath, “What difference does it make?”
He frowned. “If you attract attention, someone will be asking such questions. Better to know what will be known.”
Rapidly he extracted all the necessary information. Her timetable, her shopping plans, events she might attend, the address of Cette’s new house in the suburbs of Berlin. He had said nothing about her task. What, exactly, did he want her to do? At last, as they gathered their things and walked out into the windy street, he confided a few specifics.
“I’m asking you to carry money for us. Money for papers, for bribes, to get people out. It will be hidden, of course, but I don’t know how yet. Nothing obvious, no false bottoms in your suitcase.” He grinned showing perfect white teeth and looking suddenly more like the beloved rascal Lili’s mother had described so often. “You will do well. You are young, innocent, but smart. I commend you and I thank you.” He didn’t mention that it would be dangerous. That much was obvious, even to young girls.
Monsieur Bardet settled his soft hat on his head, kissed his niece on both cheeks, and offered Nöelle a short bow. “We’ll meet again, my dear, before Christmas.”
He was gone. The girls walked home in the twilight with little to say. At Lili’s apartment they paused. “Can you stay? Papa will help you with your translation.” It was tempting to clamber up the stairs to the warmth and laughter of the Rostaing household. There would be something hot and savory for dinner and being near Mama Rostaing brought its own comfort. It would, however, be difficult not to mention their meeting with her brother. They had contacted Mama Rostaing’s brother without her permission and Lili’s mother was a difficult woman to keep a secret from. Usually no one tried.
“I think I want to go home.” Suddenly she was really very tired.
Lili shook her head. “He came on a bit strong,” she paused, “You don’t have to do it you know.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.” Lili’s lips were cold as they brushed Noelle’s cheek.
“Ça va. But you’ll be sorry when you start on your Greek tonight!” Lili forced a cheerfulness that neither felt, each aware of the other’s discomfort, helpless to dispel it.
It was a short walk to her own tiny apartment but the wind grew stronger, whipping across Noelle’s face and throwing her breath back into her throat. She ducked her head, hitched her book bag higher on her shoulder and hurried for the corner where she could jog right and have the wind to the side. She should have worn a scarf or brought a hat, why did she never think ahead. It occurred to her that a person who couldn’t remember a hat on a winter day might not be best suited for smuggling money into a foreign country.
At home in her tiny apartment she ran a bath and put the kettle on the hot plate. The water took an age to fill the giant cast iron tub, and Noelle had the evening ritual down to an art. She put her boots away and put on chenille slippers, hung up her coat and pulled one of her father’s old sweaters over her head, switched on a small lamp with a rose-colored shade. Then to check the bath. Only half full and making a magnificent steam. She sprinkled a small handful of carnation-scented bath salts into the tub and watched the color bleed and disappear into the water as the smell of oeillet filled the room. In the kitchen Noelle sliced a thin sliver of butter and dropped it into her favorite mug, an iridescent golden thing her father had once brought home from the United States. A dollop of cream, a gurgle of brandy, a touch of nutmeg. Boiling water made this concoction into a toddy that was very comforting on a cold night. Once, on a Christmas visit home, Papa had made her a drink like this. She had wrinkled her nose at the bite of the brandy as he sat on the end of her bed and told stories about his trips. Hot milk punch was popular on the ski slopes in upstate New York. She like to think of him there, long ago, wearing ski pants and a big sweater, the dashing Frenchman among all those happy Americans.
As she sank into the water she imagined that distant life. There would be a big fireplace and snowshoes crossed on the mantle. A piano, of course. Someone would start a song, some American boy with a friendly face, like Bing Crosby. All the young people would gather there, and then her father would sing. Young and fresh, his black shiny curls touching the collar of his sweater, Papa would sing with Bing Crosby. Outside big snowflakes fell on a black lake, and golden light lit the snow banks outside the windows.
Maman hated those stories of American life, the life that took him away from them. She hated his leaving, but not enough to go with him. Not enough to leave France and her friends and her pretty house. After a while, Papa didn’t come home as often. For the past few years, he had barely come at all, though he still paid the bills. Last summer, after Nöelle had written begging for permission to move in with him in Sao Paulo, Paul de Casingnac began to send money directly to Nöelle. This allowed her to escape the house on Rue Nicolet and get out on her own. His letters, though generous and kind, never quite said why she couldn’t come and live with him. Nevertheless, it obviously had something to do with a woman.
For years the fantasy of the ski lodge, and others like it, had lulled her to sleep. Now that Nöelle was older she tried to bring herself into the picture, to see herself sitting by that piano, walking on the snowy paths. It never quite worked. Somehow she didn’t belong with those laughing Americans. She tried imagining a beach in South America, his friends now sporting dark tans, wearing tennis whites, and drinking cocktails with fruit. Even in imagination she remained an outsider. Perhaps, like her mother, she was too much a Frenchwoman to sit on a piano bench with Bing Crosby.
The water was tepid when she pulled herself out. In her old flannel robe she padded into the tiny galley kitchen and found a chunk of ham and some bread and mineral water. Thus equipped she began the ordeal of the Greek verbs. The act of writing the strange characters in a neat, precise hand was, in itself, enjoyable, even if the future conditional and present imperative were still confusing. She worked past midnight, first writing out the translation, then writing and rewriting the tenses as they applied to various verbs until she was sure she could answer any question that might be put to the class.
There was also a reading assignment, an ethnographic description of the Sauk and Fox tribes of American Indians, a people who lived in closely woven lathe houses, in dense forests, steamy hot in the summer and cold in the winter, far away on the great Missouri River. For the entire evening she didn’t think once about Christmas, a trip to the Berlin cousins, or a tall man who slurped when he drank his coffee and whose coat flapped around his knees like the grey wings of a long, graceful bird.
In the faint blue light of dawn sleepy students met in a chilly classroom for the Greek study session. The rest of the morning was devoted to labeling boxes in a dingy basement. Nöelle covered her skirt and sweater with a cotton smock and diligently labeled and recorded box after cardboard box, full of bones and pieces of pots, for removal to the new Museum of Man in the spring. Madame Rellion, head of the record-keeping staff, and several secretaries came in and out during the morning, vocal in their appreciation of her help with the dirty job. The work didn’t pay much, but provided a feeling of independence; life wasn’t completely paid for by the parental stipend. Pitching in when they needed help with less glamorous parts of the archaeology programs might ensure that she retained her employment, especially now when the flood of refugees, many with advanced degrees, made for fierce competition for even the most menial jobs.
Her plan was to obtain a place at the new Museum. Nearly finished, the museum complex dominated the site of the old Trocadéro Palace, its two broad wings lined with Grecian columns and set to house four museums. Only one, however, was important. If she could maintain even a small job at the new Museum de l’Homme, do well on her examinations, attend a couple of summer excavations, and write something useful, a place might be available on the staff as an expert on Ancient Religions or Egyptology.
There were few female lecturers, but soon there were sure to be more. It was a difficult dream, but not impossible. Diligence now, availability for any kind of work, would keep her name in the view of those in power and would be a recommendation later. She tried to be careful and professional, to demonstrate that she was someone who could be trusted with delicate work, someone who understood the importance of these fragile artifacts. In this spirit she packed and labeled boxes until past noon, then cleaned up as best she could at the sink in the ladies room of the office building they were using for storage.
On the metro she prepared herself for the next, most difficult, part of the day.
The shades were drawn at 12 Rue Nicolet and the front steps had not been swept. Madame de Cassignac must have given her staff this Friday off, perhaps the whole weekend. Nöelle picked up a letter that had not made it through the mail slot and lay on the doormat like a white flag. She had to walk to the end of the block, past the doors of the other buildings, to get to the back of the row of houses. At two in the afternoon the street was quiet. In a ground floor parlor a woman read a magazine the fire, perhaps waiting for the children to arrive home from school. On the left ,the neighbors had new curtains, pastel silk replacing the red damask that had hung there for as long as she could remember.
The back alley lay in the shadow of the buildings, a narrow street lined with rubbage bins. Small piles of cigarette butts lay near the doorsteps where maids had stepped out to smoke. Too bad no one was there now to give her an unvarnished account of happenings at number 12. The rear door was open, as she expected. Inside the kitchen was neat and still. No lights on the ground floor, no music, no voices. Upstairs someone had ordered all the curtains drawn and it was even darker than below. The first door at the end of the hall was tightly shut. Without knocking, she opened it, “Maman?”
The half-light muted the colors of the boudoir. Marcelline lay twisted in the sheets, the smell of sleep and tears lying heavy in the air. She should have come sooner. “What’s going on?” Nöelle said, resisting an overpowering urge to turn on the lights and open the curtains. That’s what they did in the movies -- threw open the long silk drapes and called for tea, said something clever, and plumped the pillows. “Come on, sit up. Tell me everything.”
Marcelline rolled away from her hand. “Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.”
Nöelle did what she could. Cracked the window, lit the candles on the mantle to burn away the frowsy smell, and made a pot of strong coffee. She left a note on the kitchen table saying that all days off were cancelled.
A good daughter would have stayed. Instead she pressed black coffee on her mother and tried the pillow plumping trick. She sat on the end of the bed and chattered about school, leaving out the scholarly parts and concentrating on the antics of her friends. She described Max and Denise, who looked like twins but were lovers and she exaggerated the importance of her work at the Museum. Gave a quick account of Madame Rellion, prim and professional but widely believed to be having an affair with the museum director. Marcelline answered in monosyllables, but at least she answered. This was not the time to remind her mother that she’d be gone for the Christmas holidays or about Cette’s new house or her new husband.
Around three she turned on the lights, ran a bath, and hid the razors. While her mother was in the tub Nöelle found a cheerful program on the radio and let dance music leak into the sad, dim room. Downstairs she threw together an omelet and reheated the coffee. An hour later, Marcelline was temporarily engrossed in removing minute black hairs from the impeccable arch of her eyebrow, still not talking, but at least clothed and smelling expensive again.
Back on the Metro, now traveling toward the Sorbonne. This was her favorite part of the week. Days stretched out ahead with nothing required of her, no place she had to be, no lectures, no appointments, no work. The stairs out of the subway were steep and crowded with Parisians on their way home at the end of the day. Not far from the river and her own apartment lay the Rue Galante and he apartment where Lili’s family had lived since long before the Great War. Her father was a popular professor of political science, his father had been a well-known musician. The family lived together on two floors of a narrow old building near the university. Sabbath began at sundown. Her arrival was precisely timed for the moment when darkness fell.
Clement and Albertine converged on the house at the same time. Both looked like younger versions of Lily, with the same wild hair the color of burnt sugar and the same delicate frame.
“On time as ever!” Clement pulled the door open for the girls.
Tiny Albertine, at six, was dwarfed by the long baguettes she carried, their ends pushing out from the white wrapping paper. “You didn’t come this week, Nöelle. You said you’d show me hieroglyphics.”
“I know, mon chou. I’m sorry. Maybe tomorrow.”
Albertine grinned. “I’m just teasing you.”
Clement yanked her long braid and in the ensuing scuffle the treasures from the bakery at the end of the block were almost lost. At fourteen, Clement was at the awkward stage when the simplest gesture often ended in disaster. Nöelle grabbed the baguettes before they hit the floor and together they tramped up through the dark of the stairwell waving gaily at the concierge. The old lady pretended to check her mail box and retired to her apartment grumbling about noisy beasts. This sent them into more giggles. Upstairs the family gathered in the drawing room. Madame Rostaing served wine and new cider in crystal glasses. No lights had yet been turned on and the last rays of the sun reflected from the river into the room through curtains of old Belgian lace. Madame, her head covered by a wisp of silk, lit the Shabbat candles. Her hands were graceful, white and delicate like Lili’s, as she made the ritual gestures over the flames, covered her eyes, and repeated the blessing. Afterwards the family greeted each other and Nöelle with hugs and kisses, as if they had been parted for months.
Papa Rostaing always said that coming to the Sabbath was like greeting a beloved bride, and the weekly event did evoke the spirit of a wedding feast. Not the kind where everyone watched with cynicism and predicted the unhappiness the couple would soon be causing each other, but the rare occasions where everyone brought joy to the day, and a man and a woman looked at one another with faith and compassion. Usually the family attended evening services at the synagogue after the candles were lit. Nöelle spent the time before dinner practicing the violin, allowed, once a week, to use the instrument that had once belonged to Lili’s grandfather. Not an exceptional musician, she nevertheless found a certain satisfaction hearing the pure notes fall over the quiet apartment.
She polished the violin, using a soft cloth to rub at nicks and scratches that attested to a long and productive life, and then tuned it against the grand piano in the drawing room. The formal notes of the minuet were not so different from the regular movements of the Greek verbs. Letting her mind wander during the familiar measures, she imagined, not court dances of the eighteenth century, but brown Egyptian girls barely clothed in white linen. High mud walls, a marble pond with floating lily’s and stalks of papyrus rising from the water. As the practice pieces grew more difficult, all thought vanished in the effort to maintain proper position, to coaxing a pure note from the temperamental strings, and keep the fingers, the bow, and the flying notes in some semblance of cooperation.
Before the family returned, she replaced the violin in its shabby case, loosening the strings of the bow and nudging it into its slot. A hand sewn label on the violent purple velvet lining read “Vittorio Bellarosa vivaio unico allievo dei M. Lautain cav rodoifo fredi di roma fece panno 1850 in Napala.” Her own instrument had been expensive, but never achieved the warmth or brightness of Grandpa Rostaing’s. It was a treat on Fridays both to sound better when playing and to play better in order to maximize the sound. She remembered old Monsieur Rostaing as a tiny bent figure, always full of smiles, so fragile-looking that one was always shocked when he picked up the violin and jolted the room to life with a thunder of gypsy flourishes.
The last few minutes she spent supervising the last details of the meal, pouring water carefully into the goblets on the table, filling the sugar dish, and placing pats of butter in perfect triangles on tiny dishes next to each plate. It occurred to her that Monsieur Bardet might be with them when they came back from synagogue. If so, would he mention their meeting in the crémerie?
The family thought of Uncle Fleury as a wild child, although he seemed ancient to Nöelle. He was brave, but high-strung, probably a communist with leanings towards dangerous political associations. Whatever he was involved in, the Rostaings found it far too risky to even be discussed in front of the children. Lili loved her uncle with a passion and tenderness shared with her mother. Both of them talked of Fleury as if he were a prince from an old medieval tale. After meeting a few refugees at family dinners like this one and hearing Hitler’s hysterical speeches on the radio, Nöelle had been haunted by the violence taking place across the border. Then there was Guernica.
The reports last April had defied belief, even set against the previous horrors of the civil war in Spain. Photos and eyewitness accounts flooded the papers. Hitler’s Heinkel bombers dropped wave after wave of incendiary bombs on the tiny village located fifteen miles behind the battle lines. Even veterans of the Great war had never encountered this form of warfare, a new kind of bombing that erased a non-combatant village from existence in a matter of hours. On market day in Guernica, peasants had gathered from miles around, the festival day shattered by a three-hour bombing spree. Families streamed from the marketplace in the center of the village and ran into the fields where they were gunned down by low flying planes making strafing runs across the newly planted fields. For days the piles of livid embers remained too hot to allow mourners to retrieve the burnt remains of the victims. No one could explain why so much firepower had been expended on one small village. The students talked of nothing else for a month, pouring over the photos of bodies stacked in the square. Ironically one gnarled oak tree had been left standing, a symbol of Basque freedom that marked the site of their traditional assembly.
Max thought he understood the reasoning behind the attack. “It’s an experiment,” he said. “The Nazis think of themselves as extremely scientific. They wanted to see what could be done in an afternoon’s work.”
“It’s not even their war,” the others objected.
“Exactly,” Max replied. “Ask yourself why he needs experiments in burning small villages.” Silence greeted this pronouncement.
Nöelle’s notebooks still bore traces of her obsession with the attack. In the margins she doodled stacks of cocoon-shapes, personal imprints of those photos of faceless bodies lining the blackened streets. It was reported that the old oak was sporting a green sprout and, after seeing Picasso’s painting at the World Exhibition last summer, leaf buds and bull’s horns began appearing beside the mummiform shapes in her notebooks. Guernica was the beginning of something new in the world and in her heart. Afterward it seemed important to act, to do something concrete, to throw one’s weight against an onrushing terror. As long as she had been aware of the political world, the actions of nations, and current events, it had seemed as if the Old World was hastening toward destruction, not by accident but with a great sense of purpose. Eruptions in local politics and revolving leadership made France seem a poor shelter in the storm. Throughout her adolescence, refugees had been streaming in from other countries, jamming the poorer quarters of Paris, crowding the schools, starting their own newspapers and sleeping under them in the streets.
Perhaps she saw them more than most. From earliest childhood she had dreamed of prison cells, of the muddy trenches where her father had survived. She was still haunted by images of the tumbrels taking their victims to the guillotine in 1789. The White Russian cook served cream puffs and stories of Bolshevik massacres. She had a clear vision of the Romanov children, shot and bayoneted in the basement of that house in Ekaterinburg. The sticky floor, the white cotton soaked in blood, the screams. Such things happened. They were immediate, not distant, not black and white accounts on printed pages with tintypes of the teenage princesses, not romantically imagined, but concrete images. Often she felt herself to be the ghost, her life the image, her days passing somewhere beyond the borders of hard reality.
Fighting back was a new idea and contacting Lili’s uncle was the first step. Surely, there were some small things could be done to help those who were suffering right now and, perhaps, having taken some action herself, the hauntings of the imagination might subside.
While ready to take action in the real world, Nöelle was not prepared to face Maman Rostaing’s anger should she find out that one of her girls was involved in helping Fleury smuggle money into Nazi Germany. When the family straggled back into the apartment, Lili’s uncle was, indeed, among the guests. She was relieved when he winked at her, and allowed himself to be introduced again. The tiny spark of humor lit his dour face like a star emerging out of a night mist.
At a signal from Mama Rostaing, Nöelle turned on the electric lights, another action proscribed on the Sabbath and reserved as a special privilege for their Gentile guest. A maid and a part-time cook helped with the rest of the labor necessary to provide a perfect Friday-night meal, but the lighting of the chandelier in the drawing room had always been Nöelle’s special duty. The great flower, dripping crystal, sprang to life, casting gold over the dark furniture of the dining room, the linen and flowers, and sparking off of the heavy silver.
The moment was the same each week and always brought satisfaction. She was almost part of a family. Before dinner she received the children’s blessing with the others, Papa Rostaing’s hands resting for a moment on her head as he passed from child to child praying that they be filled with God’s radiance and peace. Mama Rostaing insisted that there be no sad talk at Sabbath dinner and so the children led the discussion. Uncle Fleury and the German refugee couple, the Hoffmans, seemed relieved to let the light conversation float over their heads, but Nöelle noticed them exchanging half smiles now and then. While part of her laughed with the family as they listened to Leon describe his attempts to find a secretary for his newly opened medical practice, another part floated over the scene observing her second family and trying to see them from the point of view of the penniless couple who had arrived in Paris only days ago. Their one small suitcase stood beside the front door now, all that remained of their worldly possessions.
It was a happy family scene. Perhaps like those the Hoffmans had left behind in Munich. All the children shared their mother’s warm hair and fair complexion. Albertine, Lili, and Clement were small-boned and graceful as their grandfather had been, but Leon carried the height and commanding presence of Mama Rostaing’s side of the family. He was eager to begin his practice and had opened a clinic in the old Jewish quarter where he was already treating refugees. Many evenings Mama invited a girl from synagogue to meet him, but so far he had shown no more than polite interest. From his description of the qualities he looked for in the woman who would take on the duties of nurse and secretary, Nöelle had the feeling that he was searching for more than an employee.
Lili followed Leon’s story with her imitations of community leaders, ending with a hilarious impression of her employer. Her pretty face contorted into an unmistakable version of the old lady, demonstrating her sugary expression as she battled her natural inclinations to brandish a whip over the inattentive children during practice for an upcoming pageant. This story brought a stern admonishment from Lili’s mother, but sent the young woman from Germany into a fit of giggles that threatened to choke her. The laughter goaded Lili to more exaggerated burlesques. Mama Rostaing shot her a black look of warning. Mme. Hoffman took a sip of wine, trying to calm herself, but gasped and giggled again, finally burying her face in her napkin as wine spurted from her nose. Big tears leaked from her dark eyes, and everyone else’s laughter died as she fought to regain her equilibrium.
“I’m, I’m … dreadfully sorry,” she managed. “It’s just that …I know someone just like that at home….” She burst into renewed laughter, struggling to get her breath. “The woman at the post office, don’t you see it?” Her husband’s smiled and patted her back helplessly. Everyone held their breath as her tears of laughter turned to the other kind. “She’s living in our apartment now…playing my piano.” Her chair overturned with a crash and she ran from the room.
“Lili, will you never learn when to quit?” Papa Rostaing stopped, seeing that Lili was also close to tears. Monsieur. Hoffman moved to rise, but Mama gestured him back to his place.
“Lili pour some more wine for Madame Hoffman. I’ll take it to her.” She rose calmly from the table. “Albertine, why don’t you recite the speech you wrote for the school play. Leon may have some suggestions for you. I’m afraid a few of the rhymes are excessively…original.”
Mr. Hoffman bent his head and paid strict attention to cutting his meat and Uncle Fleury leaned in towards his youngest niece.
“I didn’t know you were a playwright, little cabbage.”
Albertine didn’t have to be asked twice. She scooted her chair back from the table and stood ramrod straight, arms akimbo. “I am the hero Roland, mighty savior of France, the fires of war I have fanned, whenever I’ve gotten the chance. Oh, I am the hero of France, and king of all I can see, my job is to water the plants, of freedom and security.”
Those remaining at the table did their best to stifle their laughter.
Fleury spoke first, putting his arm around the little girl. “I can see that Roland is quite a proud fellow.”
“Modest, too.” Leon said with a perfectly straight face. “Reminds me of Mareshal Petain.”
“Leon,” his father said warningly.
Nöelle spoke for the first time. “Why does he water the plants? You’d think he’d have a servant to do that.”
Albertine grimaced. “It’s all I could think of to rhyme with ‘la chance.’”
“How about ‘dance’? Clement’s face was red with the effort not to laugh.
“Or, Rosencrantz?” offered Lili.
“Who’s Rosencrantz?” Albertine sat down again, stacking buttered carrots into neat piles on her plate.
“A very small character in Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, also a great playright, but unfortunately not French.” Fleury went on to explain to Albertine the ability of such a man to create memorable characters for even the bit players. He inclined his head toward the child, his saturnine features serious and respectful. By the time Mama Rostaing and their guest returned to the table the conversation had safely turned to the merits of Shakespeare versus Voltaire.
Lili remained subdued as the dessert was served. She met Nöelle’s gaze over the coffee, grimaced briefly, and returned to picking caramelized plums away from the yellow crust of her cake. Undeterred by his wife’s tears, Monsieur Hoffman ate his way steadily through the last course, happily accepting Mama’s offer of the last slice.