Raphael must be dead by now. They won’t send him to the camps, because they need information. Please don’t think this way. Consider instead the blood’s endlessly repetitive journey, and all you’re leaving behind. Your whole youth, never to be revisited. Lupine and bluebells. The child you were, inside a boy’s small, swift body.

All of them gone—Raphael, Suzanne, your parents—and you saved no one, made no dent in this war. What’s a single munitions train, a few lost pamphlets?

Raphael took you down to the river once and showed you how to skip stones. You were six or seven, Raphael would have been sixteen or seventeen. For hours you practiced, far away from the house where your parents were fighting, where Suzanne sat in her corner, praying. Raphael bent down, showed you the motion of his wrist, his arm, over and over.

“You’re the only one I like,” you said, and Raphael laughed, ruffling your hair. “Nonsense. You love Maman and Papa and they love you.”

“I don’t love Suzanne.”

“Suzanne’s a pill,” he said. She would have been eighteen or nineteen. Raphael laughed again, as if everything were a joke, and then he lifted you up, swung you onto his shoulders, and ran along the riverbank. When you got home, a chicken was roasting and Maman and Papa were sitting close together on the couch, drinking wine. Suzanne sat across from them, telling them a story that made them all laugh, even Raphael.

Or maybe that was a different day, with the chicken roasting. The skin crisp and salty, the juices soaking the little potatoes.

There’s a knock at the door and your bowels soften, but you don’t lose control; you walk to the door and open it as you would to a friend. Of all the people in the old cell—you, Raphael, Kaminsky, Monsieur Girard, Jeanine Bonnet—you’re the one who was most outraged by your countrymen’s silence. André, Raphael said, they’re terrified and hungry and they don’t like us. They might not all wish us dead, but we are not one of them. But now you open the door to the SS and nearly gesture for them to make themselves at home. Why give them the satisfaction of your fear?

···

I don’t want to try this anymore, this Method Acting way of writing. Yesterday, driving my truck—a king cab, showy as a Mercedes—I almost ran a red light. I sped towards the intersection, thinking about my German, feeling his resentment as my own, while the cars in the oncoming lane turned left in front of me. I didn’t register the color of the light. “Assholes,” I yelled, leaning on my horn, and wouldn’t slow down. I barely caught myself in time to hit the brakes.

I’ve nearly run lights before, God knows, but never like that. I thought I’d stop, give up the story—I could have killed someone —but here I am again today, at my desk. Still wanting praise for what I’ve written.

···

Two Milice and a German. The two Frenchmen are ordinary, middle-brow, one young, one old, both of them dreaming of their next meal. The younger one’s jowly; the older has a wide, innocent face and a dimpled nose. The SS looks like all the other SS. Since they’re required to have certain physical features, they can’t even be considered clichés. The SS officer walks past you as if you’re not there, leaving you and the Milice in the front room while he checks the rest of the apartment. If the younger of the two policemen were not aiming his pistol at you, you could leave. Run down the stairs and out into the watery evening.

···

The apartment doesn’t smell. Most Jews’ apartments have been closed up for so long, everyone hiding inside like rats, that the smell is awful. A terrible sick-room odor of fear I have to scrub off with lye. But André Naquet, he’s been living out in the open like a gentile. No smell at all, not even the ordinary smell of an ordinary life. The brother was living like a gentile, too, but he’d had women—I could smell them in his bedroom with its big, rumpled bed—whores who’d think nothing of a Jewish dick. I loathe this job. I might as well be a school teacher, disciplining pupils all day. What’s a teacher, after all, but a man in a strange land, forced to round up his inferiors?

There’s nothing to find here: no odor, bare walls, a bag of turnips in the kitchen. Dishes washed and put away, the counters clean. In the bedroom, a single bed that Walden has already torn apart, and the windows open to the evening. A few clothes pulled from the armoire. A toothbrush, a razor, a towel. It could be a hotel. There’s not even a headache powder in the nightstand.

Detective novels scattered around the living room and canvasses against the wall—views of the street below and one, still wet, of a marigold—but no papers, no mementoes, no actual art. If it weren’t for the books, I’d think he had just come for the weekend.

Still, there’s no reason to rush. The men will guard him as long as I need, and I could rest. The Milice are here to serve us; why shouldn’t I sit down? He may be a Jew, but this is a gentile’s apartment. I could close my eyes, pretend there’s a brandy waiting for me on the coffee table. Better yet, a bottle of beer. My eye doesn’t hurt as much now, just a dull throbbing.

···

Nicole, you think, and that’s the worst possible thought. On the best of days, you avoid thinking of her. Twenty-two years old, thrown from a horse. You’d been married a year. Tall and beautiful, with her mass of long, black ringlets, her wild laugh. A Sephardi, much to your father’s dismay. Your mother laughed at him. Really, Victor? What do you care? We don’t even celebrate Passover. What’s it to us, one kind of Jew or another?

They’re superstitious.

Be quiet, she laughed. Better superstitious than small-minded.

But when Nicole died, it was your father who sat up with you, night after night, when you couldn’t sleep, when you shivered in the hot August breeze.

Everything that had been held at bay floods through you now, and you shit your pants. The younger policeman, the one with the pistol, laughs and the shit leaks down your thigh, but it’s the grief that burns, as if the air were smoke, as if each inhalation poisoned you. Terror is just the trembling of bones, the ache in your sternum, the smell of your own excrement. And rage? You’d like to take the faces of the two policemen and crush them between your hands, like melons. But it’s sorrow that’s unbearable, growing more painful with each breath.

Your mother used to sing to you, lying next to you in your bed, the smell of perfume on her wrists. Once, when you were about six, you touched her breast, though you knew you were too old, knew she would slap you away, but she didn’t; she let your hand rest on her heart. You don’t know if she’s dead. You don’t know if any of your family are dead. Some are starved and some are burned alive. Some thrown still living into the ground. The full truth won’t be revealed for a long time, but you know enough. Sometimes it’s the thought of Suzanne, whose piety drove you crazy, that’s most unbearable: the thought of her alive beneath a pile of bodies. Please let them all be dead. Let the whole world be dead. Spare us this grief.

And then you forget them and all you’re aware of is the smell of shit. The two men are smoking, and you have a sudden desire for a cigarette. A desire to clean yourself.

But the memory lapse is brief: you remember your wedding night, when Nicole seemed to be made of light, her dark skin glowing. Other women were lustier, more experimental, but no one else glowed. No one else made you dream of children. You took precautions before you were married—but on your wedding night, nothing held you back. You spoke of children every day, and whenever she gave herself a bit of indigestion—she loved her pastries, éclairs most of all—your heart sped up. No one else died so simply: a broken neck, and she was gone, the wide world unruffled by her absence.

What could be taking the German so long? There’s nothing to find. No names, no documents, you’re not a fool. Just a few books and paints. What’s he doing? Tearing up the floorboards? But the only sound comes from the Milice, crushing their butts on the carpet.

···

What a delicious sleep. I haven’t slept this well since I left Berlin. It must be past midnight. I’ll have to get up soon, take the Jew down to the station, fill out his paperwork, but there’s no need to hurry, now that I have him. The Commissar admired my deliberation. You don’t rush, he said. You understand the value of patience, precision.

That marigold! As sloppy as a student’s. He’s even worse than Father was, but then again, he was a doctor; he doesn’t imagine himself an artist. Did no one tell him we’d gotten his brother? Or did he simply not flinch? He must be mad. He knows he’s been found out, and he pauses to paint a marigold. Maybe I’ll sleep a little more.

···

The shit has dried on you. The young policeman yawns and holds the gun so loosely you could knock it from his grip. They’re playing cards and when he needs two hands, he lays the gun on his thigh. The German could have died in your bedroom, and the Frenchmen would keep guarding you until the last tank rolled into the last city.

It must be almost dawn, but you’re still standing in the middle of the room, like a display. Something for sale. Again, there’s a burning in your ribs, a sensation of breathing in smoke. You hear Madame Compte, laboring her way up the stairs, clutching the railing. On her way to the 6th floor for a little gossip with Mademoiselle Delacroix.

The Milice open their bags and take out sandwiches. You want to leap on them, grab the bread from their hands; they’d shoot you before you touched their food and it would be a better death than what they have in store for you, but you’re frozen, and it isn’t the way it was earlier, when you stood, painting—that was madness, perhaps, a madness worthy of the horror all around, like the Vietnamese monks, decades from now, who will set themselves on fire—this is not that. This is just the paralysis of fear. The ordinary, irrational fear that keeps a man who will soon be tortured from leaping to his death for a bite of bread.

···

This could be my apartment and I, a blessedly single man, watching the sky begin to lighten. The throbbing behind my eye has stopped. After I’d slept off a migraine, I used to be so grateful, but now I know the next one’s not far off. I have only the smallest window of time. A sliver of relief as thin as glass.

···

I’m stalling: I’m supposed to arrest the Jew. That’s my role in this story, a role I chose. But maybe no clear decision is ever made to send a man to his death: they know not what they do. Killing God or killing each other. We have fleeting sensations of guilt, until we see what we’ve done and are horrified. We knew, but we didn’t know. How else to explain our infinite capacity for collective crime?

As soon as I get up, go to work, a new headache will sharpen itself into the back of my eye. And what am I to do with a Jew, who, faced with death, paints a giant marigold?

···

Which is the mystery? That a person arrests Jews, all the while thinking about his migraine and wishing he were home, basking in the praise of his Commissar? Or that my great-uncle spent the day painting when he could have run? My great-uncle might be the greater mystery, but I’m the Nazi, not the Jew. I’m supposed to direct my French lackeys to take hold of him and lead him downstairs, out into the armored truck.

···

I could punish him for painting. Push him over the balcony, beat him with my belt. The only thing that’s forbidden is to let him go, but I could put my gun to his head and demand an explanation. “I like to paint,” he’d say. It’s always something like that, something that doesn’t add up.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 | Single Page