Let’s pretend I’m the German and you’re the Jew. I don’t want to be the German—to admit to being the villain!—but I’m writing this story, so I’m the responsible party. The one digging around in the bottom muck of the soul. I understand you don’t want to be the Jew. Obviously! Who would want to be the Jew in a story with Germans? Only a crazy person. But the roles have to be divided somehow.

I’ve written this story before—the story of my great-uncle’s arrest by the SS—but I was younger then. In those days, my fantasies were heroic: I survived the camps, spent four years in an attic, fought with the Maquis. The first time I wrote my great-uncle’s story, I imagined myself suffering as he had.

That story was short-listed for a major prize—a thrill until the judge explained that what had made her decision difficult was the paucity of choices. The finalists had all been terrible. So I re-wrote the story. I’ve been re-writing it for thirty years, and every time, I hear my great-uncle say, Wrong again. You’ll never understand. In real life, everyone says, my great-uncle was the kindest of men, who would never have criticized someone’s story-telling, but, still, I keep at it, hoping to do better.

It might be too late to tell this story—too many other wars bloodying the decades in between—but I’ll try once more. I’ll picture myself as the enemy this time, to see what light the darkness sheds. You’ll be the kindest of men, and I’ll write out your death warrant.

···

Imagine, then, that it’s spring, 1944. Chestnut trees are blooming all over Paris, the flower beds in the Luxembourg have been laid in neat, geometric patterns. For the first time in years, you’re not thinking about a leg of lamb, sweetbreads, a tongue and watercress salad. You’re not preoccupied with the tiniest particulars of long-ago meals—the feel of a breadcrumb pressed into your fingertip, the sheen on a pat of butter. Nor are you watching every shadow for the officer who will step out and order you to drop your pants. You aren’t dreading the embarrassment you’d feel, with your underwear around your ankles, handing over papers that claim you’re a gentile.

You’re in the Luxembourg Gardens, and you can see the easel and paints in front of you, but you can’t remember setting any of it up. Apparently, your idea was to paint the fountain where, after the long winter, children are once again racing their boats. Their excitement fills the air, and you wish they’d shut up. You’ve always wanted a houseful of children, but now you want silence. The fountain isn’t an original subject, but you’re not an original painter. It’s just a hobby. You’re a gynecologist—one of the best in Caen—though you haven’t practiced for three years; since you moved to Paris and became Vincent Leclerc, gentile, you haven’t even owned a stethoscope.

Earlier today, Madame Compte, the concierge, hauled herself upstairs to see you: blue apron, red face, red hands. The war has cost her ten kilos, but she still shuffles like a fat person, and, because she’s in menopause, she sweats profusely. She laughs that she’s the only Parisian who doesn’t mind the lack of coal, and you smile vaguely, as if you had no idea why she overheats.

But this morning, she wasn’t laughing. “Monsieur Leclerc,” she said, and before she went on, you knew: Raphael, your older brother, has been arrested. Madame Compte is the one who must have realized you were Jews, who must have informed on him. Maybe. Or maybe not. It’s impossible to know. But if not Madame Compte, who? Hardly anyone else even knows you and Raphael are brothers. Madame Compte will have informed on you, too, then. How else to explain the delicious scent of paté and cognac on her breath?

But then, what? A wave of regret, and she came to warn you? And here you are now, in the Luxembourg, painting. It seems there’s helium in your lungs, and where your stomach was, nothing, as if you’d been neatly eviscerated. And then your body rushes back into itself, a sensation of pins and needles, the blood in your veins so heavy that the effort of holding yourself upright makes you tremble. But still, you aren’t thinking clearly. You’ve forgotten so much in the last few hours that it seems your life happened to someone else, an acquaintance you barely recall. You have no idea how you got to the Luxembourg.

Oh, Raphael, who taught me everything I know. Who taught me nothing. Who, until he became his own gentile (Jean Carreau, landscaper) was a pediatrician in Caen. A lover of married women, father to patients all over the Calvados, who called him Docteur, and did not know they were part Jewish.

There’s a safe house with a well-stocked attic in Orsay where you can go if you hurry. Tins and tins of food. More food than you’ve seen in years, to last however many years remain. Peas, asparagus, tomatoes, anchovies, rice. Sweetened condensed milk. It was your idea. Chocolate and cigarettes. Food from before the war. No one else had your prescience. As soon as Poland fell, you remembered the rickets of your childhood and wrote to your niece in Paris: Horde. Store as much food as you can where no one else will find it. There’s a place in Orsay. You and your siblings will still be able to eat if France goes to war.

She did what you said—the nieces and nephews hang on your every word; you’re the young, fun uncle—but your sister, Suzanne, the children’s mother, sent her sons and daughters to America, and then Suzanne and your parents were arrested in the street, and you changed your name—Kaminsky gave you and Raphael the forgeries before you’d even asked—and you moved to Paris with one change of clothes and a set of paints. Raphael found an apartment on rue d’Assas, you found one around the corner on rue Madame.

You’d never intended that food for yourself, but who could you feed, once you were so newly, lightly, a gentile? So the attic with its stores became yours and Raphael’s, though neither of you went there, or spoke of the food, hidden away for the worst of emergencies; you barely spoke at all as gentiles, barely set foot in each other’s apartments.

Clearly, your memory isn’t completely shot. You can reconstruct the events of your life, even the events of this morning, if you put your mind to it, but so much is breaking apart; who can say which pieces are important? Madame Compte at the door, the news about Raphael, the sight of your suitcase, already packed for just this moment—and then the circular staircase down to the lobby, the weight of the easel under your arm, right onto rue Madame, left onto rue de Fleurus. The bright spring air, the gates of the Luxembourg. Details as tedious to list now as the muscles of the foot, and as seemingly irrelevant: you’re a gynecologist, after all.

Once, you dynamited a munitions train. You know this to be true, as you know that you’re thirty-two, widowed, and responsible for various crimes against the state, including the distribution of pamphlets, as punishable an offense as the dynamite and the composition of your own blood. “Once,” sounds like the beginning of time, but it was just two years ago, when you were still a Jew, before you went into hiding out in the open. After dynamiting the train, you crawled away under a blackberry thicket. There was a late frost, and you could probably see your breath, but that’s too fine a detail to picture now; you can’t imagine the weight of the dynamite in your hands, or the chill of the iron rails.

What you do remember, as vividly as if her scent were still on your hands, is Mademoiselle Maurette. Her thin, reedy voice, as if she’d never fully come into the world. You were just out of medical school, but you had examined hundreds of women before her, and never with any desire; you hadn’t guessed that desire could stun you this way, in the middle of an examining room with a speculum in your hand. Docteur, she said, in that small, empty voice. My cramps. They’re so painful that every month I vomit for a week. You lay the speculum down and put your hands in your pockets, where you found a piece of candy, which you unwrapped and put in your mouth. Buying time. It’s the candy you remember most clearly, butterscotch. Some nights, weak with hunger in your gentile apartment, you’ve thought of going to Orsay and plundering all those supplies—you’ve eaten almost nothing but turnips and horse marrow for a month, and the rickets have come back—but you’ve always been able to resist temptation. You dip your brush, mark the canvas, dip again, mark, dip. Raphael will be dead soon, you hope. You hope it will go quickly for him.

A giant marigold? That might be it, that smear of red on the canvas. And next to it, it seems, a tiny rubber tree. This isn’t the way you paint. It’s hard enough to paint what’s right in front of you, to be faithful to the minute, incredible, shifting details of ordinary life: the flickering, silver underside of a leaf, the bones of a woman’s wrist. Who could ever record such things the way they are? The blur of children playing. If you had the six children you’ve always wanted, you’d wear them out making them sit for portraits. Best not to picture a wife, but children—they’re always a possibility. Six children by six different women or six by one: three boys followed by three girls. A house ringing with laughter, toys everywhere, music, squabbles. Maybe more than six. You might need to keep procreating until your oldest has children of his own, so there’s always a tiny one underfoot, or sitting in a corner somewhere, a plump little Buddha, earnestly turning the pages of an upside-down book—but you’d like the children at the fountain to be quiet. You yourself are very quiet, standing at your easel as if you’d been ordered to. As if, if you stood long enough, you might dissolve into the bright, windy day.

Years later, people will speculate about why you didn’t run. He was too sad, they’ll say. He was in shock. He’d used up all the adrenalin of a lifetime, and nothing further could alarm him.

Three and a half years of evading capture: even asleep, dreaming your fitful dreams of food, you were afraid. You’d see something on the ground—a glistening lamb shank, or a bowl of ice-cream—and you’d bend down for it, but it was always a trick: everything revealed itself to be a yellow star, a Kippah, a Tallit. And how was that possible? A bowl of vanilla ice-cream! Who could mistake that for a piece of cloth? You wept, trying to explain yourself, insisting the game was rigged, you ought to be given another chance. You sobbed, howling finally, and that was the stupidest move of all: if you would stop, they might forget about you, and you could slip away. You awoke on your back with your eyes dry, your arms frozen at your sides. There were variations in the opening scenes, but the end was always the same: the shouting, the pointless self-defense. You slept two hours at a stretch, three at the most; the rest of the time, you were in the back room of your apartment, working on pamphlets, and little by little your heart stopped racing, because the typesetter was an old Linotype Model 8, half-broken, and it required all your attention.

Until the day you transformed yourself into an ordinary, anti-Semitic little bourgeois, and then you were just afraid, and there was nothing to do. Why lock yourself now in the half-light of the attic, and begin the infinite process of doling smaller and smaller portions of tinned food to yourself so that it will last forever? Like the turtle in the arithmetic problem who, going always half the distance he went before, never reaches the wall.

···

Prisoner’s Name: Raphael Naquet. Alias(es): Jean Carreau. Race: Jew. Criminal Activities: Terrorism. List of crimes:

Somewhere in the city an SS officer is filling out the paperwork on Raphael; it shouldn’t take long, and when he’s finished, he’ll come for you. Who is this man, so hell-bent on sending you to your deaths? Let’s assume he isn’t a monstrous aberration. Let’s assume, given the endless repetition of atrocities throughout history, that he’s an ordinary man. I have to give him qualities of my own, if I’m to be him, so let’s say he has a headache. He’s already taken three powders, and he can still feel it, like a knife lodged in his eye. The point is not whether or not I “create sympathy;” the point is to imagine us as one. So: my head hurts. Three powders and I can still feel it, a blade stuck in the optic nerve. The light’s too bright. Everyone raved about Paris in the springtime, how beautiful the light is; and Greta said, oh the girls in Paris, you’ll have a good time, wanting me to reassure her.

I have to imagine his wife, too: Greta. What he thinks of her. No girl in Paris could compare to you, Greta, with your fat belly and your mustache.

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.

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.

Sure enough, my head’s hurting again. It scares me to death when it starts and I don’t have any powders.

Once, after Mother and Father died of their rotten livers, I dreamt I was flying. In my dream, I was back in my room at the university, and the window was open, calling to me as if I should kill myself. I went, spread my arms, and jumped, but the air buoyed me and I thought, of course, this was always possible. All I had to do was spread my arms. I didn’t go very high—there were buildings I had to circle around—but still, I was airborne and when I awoke, I knew: I couldn’t fly in this life, but I’d be able to in the life to come.

I doubt it now. Whatever greatness might have been mine isn’t going to come to me, in this or any other life. The Americans have reached the coast; we’ve been sent to catch the last Jews because we’re losing, and the Commissar will have no job to offer me when it’s over. So why not keep sitting here a while longer, pressing my thumb into my eye? Or get up and paint a marigold! Why not?

Hah! What if I did? What if I set his canvas on the easel, squeezed the tubes of paint onto his palette, and began? And if, after fixing his terrible marigold, I let him go? Oh, why not take my clothes off and dance a jig in the street? You can’t stop what you’re doing and change course. I mean you. You Jew. I did, in fact, like painting. When it was going well, I hardly noticed the brush, just the image taking form. I might have applied to Düsseldorf, if I hadn’t been so disgusted by Herr Ohle.

You won’t say what you were thinking even with a gun to your head, will you? How could anyone make sense of such a thing? You blow up train tracks, get word to people about what we’re doing, pretend to be a gentile, and then, when you’ve been found out, you act as if this weren’t a war at all. As if you thought yourself a Rembrandt. You go outside to paint. Where, Jew? Where did you go for your marigold? I ought to paint it over, a black square, just to show him.

···

Your mouth is dry and your legs are trembling, your hands. You’ve been standing so long—days, weeks, it’s impossible to tell—and the Milice are still playing cards. You won’t be able to stand much longer, your legs will give out, and you’ll collapse on the floor, curled up like a dog, you think, your heart racing.

···

Carmine, bone-black, cadmium yellow. The marigold with its fire-tipped, fan-shaped petals, its golden throat. I hardly know how to hold the brush anymore; and yet, stroke by stroke, the colors deepen, then lighten, then deepen again. The Commissar’s promises meant nothing, they were as hollow as Herr Ohle’s praise, but how delicate the petals are, like the edges of a breeze. My left eye’s leaking again.

···

The German appears and the Frenchmen leap to attention, but the German tells them to leave you—Go! he barks, a ragged yelp, and he follows them without a glance in your direction.

Your breath is so rapid it’s like not breathing at all, until you see your finished marigold—luminous and perfect with its golden edges—and you understand that the attic in Orsay, the chocolates and cigarettes, are yours. You haven’t died. You wait until you hear the German drive away, and then you clean yourself; you run downstairs and out into the morning. But you mustn’t run in public, so you walk the twenty kilometers to Orsay as calmly as you can.

In the attic, marigolds will haunt your dreams: your mother’s hands, smoothing the dirt around their stalks before she pulls them up and offers them to a pair of SS officers. There are always two of them, identical in their tall boots.

When, after many months, you hear church bells, you’ll go down into the street and the light will burn your eyes. You still won’t know who’s dead. They all are. The entire family, except your nieces and nephews in America. There’s only you, in the burning light of a freed city.

And here’s the deepest mystery: not that you painted when you could have run, not that the German let you go, but that you’ll come to love the world again. You’ll see pictures of the camps, learn how each member of your family was killed, a knowledge that shuts off your windpipe every time it comes to you, and it comes to you again and again without end—and yet, the shifting light, the bones of a woman’s wrist, the Buddha posture that is every toddler’s elegance, will once more seem beautiful to you. You’ll set up a new practice, marry a bird-like pediatrician who seems always on the verge of laughter, and who can quiet a crying baby in seconds.

But you’ll have no children. You won’t even discuss it, though others—people who don’t realize Naquet is Jewish—will mention the importance of re-building the nation, the maternal fulfillment every woman requires, the optimism restored to us by our children. You’ll shrug a little, or your wife will. You might exchange a glance, though you won’t need a glance to know what the other is thinking. Such excellent children you could have had! Smart, funny, beautiful. And so many names to choose from: your parents, hers, her siblings, Raphael, Suzanne. But the problem is not exactly—or not only—the long history of Jewish persecution. The problem is how easily the world rips open, how closely darkness hews to light.

At last you’ll be too old, and no one will bother you about re-building the nation anymore. Most of the world will be too young to imagine that you ever really had a life. Still, they’ll adore you, with your bright blue eyes, your grin, such a kind doctor.

At seventy, you’ll retire to the coast of Brittany, and in the ocean you’ll find that you’re as flexible as a boy again. You’ll give thanks for all of it: the smell of the Atlantic and the shimmering taste of oysters and your wife’s hair, fading from grey to white until it’s no more than dandelion fluff. She’ll make you laugh until your eyes well up with tears, and then she’ll bring you plates of food so lovely they make you gasp. Every morning, you’ll sit in the sand with her, wearing a cloth cap, shucking oysters, cleaning mussels.

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