Spiess Walden says Paris is like a beautiful woman he’s grown to despise. All he wants, he insists, is to go back to his little house in the country, be greeted by his dog like Odysseus, and spend a week in bed with his wife. What I want is never to have come here at all. I was happy in Berlin, and what is the ERR going to do now that so many of us have been conscripted? (Yes, I’ll make him a member of the ERR, an ordinary functionary in the service of Nazi looting.) Someone needs to keep track of the inventory, and if we’re over here, tracking Jews, who will keep the books?

That was a nice job: a private office, the lamp with its green shade, the heavy door. I rarely had to speak to anyone, I just had to make sure that all the records were correct, that the value of the repossessed paintings and antiques and silverware and bank accounts was properly noted, that there were no misplaced commas, no careless errors. No one kept the books more beautifully than I. The Commissar praised my work, he said when the war was over he might hire me to run the mines with him. He’s growing old, needs a younger man with a clear mind. But the Americans and the Soviets are closing in; they want us to be soldiers now, and this is a messy job. The job of a dog-catcher.

I’d take a fourth powder if it would help—hell, I’d swallow a cupful. But to go out that way, I’d like a private room, not this cavernous office with the others barging in all the time. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask. If I could just close the door, pull the blinds, I’d press a gun to my own eye.

I wouldn’t want a French girl anyway, Greta. Even with a boot to the back of the neck, they let you know what they think of you. That little tsk, tsk of disdain if you don’t hold your fork just right. I’d have bedded my own mother if I wanted that kind of scrutiny.

In Berlin, I kept regular hours, slept a decent night’s sleep. Sometimes, at the end of the day, the Commissar offered me a brandy. I don’t like brandy, but that isn’t the point. It was an honor.

An ice pick seems to be sticking straight through my left eye to the back of my skull, and the light is bouncing off the walls like shards of glass. But I’m not crying. Note that my right eye is perfectly dry. When a man weeps, he weeps with both eyes. Still, I had to start over: Prisoner’s Name: Raphael. I had to throw out two tear-stained pages. I don’t want a French whore as my reward, I want a dark room. I want to lie at the bottom of a cool, dark lake.

When Walden arrests someone, he ransacks drawers, riffles through papers, tips over a couple of armoires, and he’s done. He never cleans himself afterwards. I’m slower, but more thorough, and I touch almost nothing. There’s no one here to appreciate my efforts, but I do my best. I imagine the Commissar with his white gloves, his small, slow smile.

If I press my fist to my eye, I can think. I’d like to scoop it out of its socket.

···

This is the only thing that’s wholly yours, these paints, shimmering in the sunlight: carmine, bone-black, cadmium yellow. The thick, soft texture of the oil, and the brush, so light in your fingers.

You understand that for all intents and purposes, you’re dead. You died when they arrested your parents and Suzanne and you had to become someone else, a little man who paints, who sits in cafés now and then, pretending to read the official news, though mostly you’ve kept to your apartment, painting the view from the window. It was better than hiding in an attic. If you couldn’t work against the Germans, you could at least see the sky, the trees, the children racing home from school. You could go down the street to the Luxembourg now and then. But your old comrades—your fellow terroristes!—don’t know where you are, and you can’t risk a radio. Even Kaminsky is out of bounds. Only Raphael knows you anymore. Knew. And the SS, of course. They know. If you run to Orsay, they’ll hardly give up the chase, and when they find you, they’ll pause just long enough to gorge themselves on your food.

Which means you’re yourself again—you might as well pin a star to your chest—but, still, for all intents and purposes, dead. What remains between now and the moment you give up the ghost entirely are formalities—terrible formalities, it’s true, but formalities nevertheless.

You pause, considering the marigold and the two red, fan-shaped petals you’ve completed. Is that what marigolds look like? There are none in front of you at the Luxembourg, and it’s hard to remember. A yellow throat, or yellow on the petals’ edges? Not a big, round, pom-pom marigold, you don’t like those; you like to count the individual petals.

Yellow at the throat and on the edges—those were the marigolds your mother grew. One of the children bursts out laughing, as if she’d been following your train of thought and is delighted by its conclusion: Yes, her laughter says, yellow at the throat and on the edges! Excellent! You’ve got it now! Her laughter’s quickly spent, but you still hear its bright echo, suspended among the boasts and reprimands of the boys and girls who are instructing each other in the proper technique for sailing a toy boat.

You gaze over at the children, but it’s already impossible to tell which of the girls laughed. The one with the long black braids? The little redhead? There’s nothing funny about this business anymore. The boats are getting tangled up, someone’s done something wrong—and yet, you still hear a girl’s laughter, and you can’t imagine having been irritated by the children. What could be lovelier than these stern little adults with their sailing missions? The laughter hovers, inaudible even to you now, though you know it’s there, as you know there are colors the eye can’t see. If you could—if you weren’t dead—you’d steal the children away to Orsay and give them chocolate, asparagus, anchovies, whatever they want. Inside their mended socks and wood-soled shoes, you know, are feet still raw with chilblains.

The thought of the anchovies momentarily blurs your vision. A wave of hunger comes over you, as sickening as nausea. But that’s just life, clinging to you in its cobwebby way. Still, all that food going to waste breaks your heart, which, mysteriously, will not stop beating, and so it’s best to look away from the children, to focus on your marigold.

You brush a bit of yellow on the tip of one of the petals, and suddenly it comes to you: to be dead is to be weightless, a miracle! You wish it for everyone—even the Germans, why not, with their impossibly heavy boots—and yet, though the world is horrifying—so much rot and grief from the very beginning—how beautiful it is: light drifts down into the Luxembourg, onto the sandy paths, the lawns, the statues, the sparkling water.

And nothing further is required of you. You can stand here forever, dead, tending your marigold.

···

As if it’s not enough to have an eyeful of broken glass, through which I still have to work, still fill out endless documents for a single arrest, I can’t even sit here without needing to vomit. Another man might have given up, but I am not that man.

In Berlin, I’d have a migraine once a year at most, and I could go home, sleep it off, be back at work the next day. I didn’t get any sleep last night, and I’ve still got the brother to find. Walden’s already gone to the brother’s apartment, and he wasn’t there, so I’ve got to go and wait for him. Walden thinks nothing of making other people finish his work, and everyone tolerates it—admires it, even—because he’s charming, with his sad, grey eyes, his smooth laugh. But I’ll never get to the brother if I keep starting over with the paperwork, and I’ve got to get to him. Müller botched an arrest in the Marais and was gone within a week, sent to the front. It’s not the fighting I’d mind so much if I were Müller—though the thought of the noise and filth makes my teeth ache—it’s the humiliation.

···

My German’s an unhappy man. But let’s make him more than a glorified accountant with a headache, a wife he doesn’t love, a former commanding officer whose praise he misses. Let’s say he plays the flute, paints, knows Goethe by heart. It’s important to remember the sensitivity of so many members of the SS, their love of classical music, literature, art, their faithful dogs. Hitler may have been a poor painter, but many of the SS were gifted.

···

Yes, if I could go back to Berlin, I’d be okay. I’d close the shutters and lie in my own bed. Afterwards, I might go to the Altes and sit for a while. I’d like to see the Berlin Goddess again, with her straight back, her pomegranate. Herr Ohle kept me after class to tell me I should apply to Düsseldorf. He loved my watercolors, he said, stammering, beads of spittle forming on his lips. In the corridor outside the classroom, Hans Lutz mimicked him for the other pupils. They laughed until they wept. How, Herr Ohle asked, could I prefer numbers? I was thinking too much about my own father, he suggested, imagining he was psychoanalyzing me when it was hardly a mystery of the psyche that I didn’t want to end up like Father, with his execrable wire dogs that sold for less than the cost of the materials. Herr Ohle said I was a true artist: my family wouldn’t starve. But I prefer numbers, I said, clenching my fists. I prefer the predictable, the real. I hated being seen with him, standing beside his desk, forced to listen to his drivel. It wasn’t Father I was afraid of becoming, it was Herr Ohle, with his tongue flashing between his teeth, whatever dreams of glory he’d had worn away by the tedium of teaching boys whose only gift was a talent for mockery.

Mother wanted me to be an artist, too. Mother! Carting her cash to the grocer’s, only to find out she was still half a million marks short of the price of a kilo of potatoes. It never occurred to her that if she’d married a sensible man, things wouldn’t have gone so badly for her. They were all fools: Mother and Father drunk half the time, and Herr Ohle with his wet, stuttering sincerity

···

It’s not a very good marigold. Alive, you preferred bluebells, rock jasmine, lupine. Delicate, alpine flowers with shadowy throats. But if it’s a marigold you’re painting, you’d like to do it well.

And suddenly, they’re here: two of them in boots and armbands. Your hand freezes, the pulse in your neck is like a grasshopper, but the SS walk by, ignoring you.

The air around you is empty and blinding; and then you dip a brush in the yellow, and your heart slows. Once again, your body comes back into itself with a sensation of pins and needles, but this time your blood isn’t so heavy. You can hold yourself upright without shaking. You try to remind yourself that you’re dead, but it doesn’t work anymore. The blood demands to keep swimming through your veins, over and over through the chambered heart, feeding every useless desire: for anchovies, women, a pride of children.

A single petal. If you can’t get the whole flower right, concentrate on a single petal.

At last the shadows lengthen, a breeze lifts the hairs on your arms, and the children are called away, herded back to dinner. Mothers with painted stockings, bony hips. You could stay here, wait for them to arrest you in the Luxembourg, but you don’t. You pack everything away, carry the wet, unfinished canvas back along the garden path.

There’s no sign of Madame Compte in the apartment building, no sign of anyone, though it will be curfew soon and everyone ought to be heading home. It’s as if they’ve been warned: Monsieur Leclerc will be arrested tonight, you won’t want to see that. Wrinkling their noses the way the old doctor did when he examined that poor girl from Calais. Warts as big as brussel sprouts hanging off her labia, but what business did he have being a doctor if he had to look away? You’ve never had any patience for squeamishness. Yes, it will be ugly, you think, a couple of SS men carting away that nice Leclerc. A Jew! We had no idea.

But you know it’s just chance, one of those moments when the world falls still, as if it had forgotten what it was about. There’s no reason the lobby is empty, it just is; in a moment, everything will shudder back into action: Oh, curfew! Oh, dinner! And they’ll rush indoors.

The windows of your living room are violet, dusk filling the city like water. The SS have been here—your books have been knocked off the shelves, your bed’s unmade—they’ve come and gone. They’ll come again. We’re drowning in this half-light, you think. If only night would fall.

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