The great Gothic cathedrals, with their arches, ribs, and vaults, were modeled after trees in the forest, the way trees reach up and their branches intertwine. We can be lying on the forest floor, pine needles infiltrating our hair; we can be staring up at the sky, a pale miasmic, shifting blue that seems even farther away than usual because it’s on the other side of the trees; we can be lying there, staring up as the trunks etch into the sky, and our hands can touch, our fingers twining just like the branches, and beyond them, in the twinkle, our eyes drawn heavenward, we can see God.
I don’t believe any of this. Not the miasmic sky, not God, not even the pine needles, but there is something beautiful about cathedrals.
In Paris, a girl walks down the central aisle of Notre-Dame in her dark pleated skirt, white blouse, crested blazer, Audrey Hepburn hair, and black ballet flats, looking like someone’s fantasy of a teenage schoolgirl although teenage schoolgirls rarely dress exactly like this anymore, except ironically. She is clutching books to her chest, or a violin, or a box of buttons, and she is going to meet someone who she thinks will change her life. She is sweating a bit because she’s nervous. Right now, she has a place to sleep (a corner of her school’s basement) but nowhere to live. Having received a message rolled up like a scroll inside the toothbrush case she secretes in the cracked wall of her school’s bathroom, she believes she has come for an audition—violinist, reciter of poems for a blind woman, babysitter, seamstress. She hopes any of these positions will come with a chambre de bonne, its tiny window looking out to miasmic sky.
Three people sit in the front row of pews: an old man hiding a tabby cat under his long coat, a one-armed widow, and a boy thinking of his mother, long dead or right now dying, and playing the game Monument Valley on his phone. The girl allows her eyes to range over them.
If she goes with the first, she will become a tender of mice, a preparer of English trifles.
If she goes with the second, she will become a breaker of teacups, a baker of bread, feeder and fed.
For the third, she will deliver clean handkerchiefs, walk him to school, translate his silent desires. He hasn’t spoken since his mother took ill. Even to Maman, he hasn’t talked.
She doesn’t know why anyone would need a live-in violinist but she hopes nonetheless.
Now that she’s thought of them, any of these possibilities seem real. A ticking inside her—she is aware of the avenues her life might follow, but she hears no one say, “Excuse me, young lady,” no one clear his or her throat to catch her attention as she passes, and decides she must have missed her appointment by only the few minutes she was delayed at her lesson.
She wanders through the various chapels, looking at the paintings and wondering if she should pay to light a candle in memory of her mother’s soul although this is not her religion.
When she steps back onto the plaza in front of the cathedral, where the pigeons have congregated, some landing on children’s heads, the autumn twilight has set in and the sky is purple behind the Eiffel Tower. She will return to the locker where she has stowed her things.
I’ve called her a girl but that’s not what she calls herself. She might say she’s a young lady or a young woman; she feels resilient, competent. And she is. She’s got money, enough for food and violin lessons, just not enough for rent, and she actually has a place to stay—her uncle’s—where there’s a foldout sofa bed for her in the tiny foyer. But she hasn’t been “home” for days.
When she gets to the locker, the lock has been broken. She can’t think about it, about what’s been taken. When she returns to school, the door has been locked. She could call her violin teacher but they have the most distant, professional relationship (he calls her “Miss” and she calls him “Professor”), and anyway her phone is dead. So. A café bathroom. A bench in the Métro station. In each place, someone stumbles upon her, says, “Mon Dieu!,” and she scurries away. Finally, back to the cathedral, but even there the door is secured at night. Instead, she shivers by the sandbox between the building and the river, where a man emerges from his nest of blankets and cats, all suddenly mewling, and then stands aside, inviting her to take his place under them. Don’t tell me she’s stupid for going in. She played in that sandbox as a child. He is her father’s age or her uncle’s—she supposes—but looks nothing like her uncle or like the father she remembers. His hand on her thigh is appalling but when she runs, he doesn’t follow her, again unlike her uncle. At least she knows where her mother is, buried in Montparnasse, against her wishes, with her forebears, some illustrious rabbis. But a cemetery at night? She believes those gates would be locked too.
She walks. Her shoes will last. The next day is Saturday. Back at the cathedral, yet again—why? Something pulls her. She sees an old woman worrying beads. “J’ai froid,” the girl thinks and the woman opens her arm wide and the girl shrinks to pocket-size, the size of a book, and slips inside the woman’s black shawl to hear her mumbling, “You don’t belong here. I will take you away.” It’s dark under the wool, but then it’s dark in the cathedral anyway, barely a splash of color on the floor through the rose window, the stones soot-blackened from all those candles. She remembers the female figures of Ecclesia and Synagoga on either side of the central portal, the second woman with the tablets of the Ten Commandments broken at her feet. Is that what they still think of Jews? The statue has a serpent coiled around her eyes too, and the girl vaguely remembers
• Therefore shall ye lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, that they may be frontlets between your eyes.
• And ye shall teach them your children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
from High Holy Days, the only time she ever went to synagogue. Before her grandparents were deported, sent from one camp to another and then finally to Auschwitz, they stripped the mezuzah from their doorframe, put it in her mother’s hand, and closed her fist around it. Then they sent her away to a children’s home in southern France run by the Œuvre de Secours aux Enfants. When her mother moved back to Paris, an adult, she tacked the mezuzah to a new doorframe, slanted inward as if inviting God to enter. Like three quarters of the adults in Israel, her mother had wanted to believe that it guarded her home, to believe it repelled a divine anger in which she didn’t believe. She knew the force to repel was human.
Inside the book is a book. Inside the mezuzah case is the parchment klaf, on which has been scribed, with special ink, God’s instructions for affixing the mezuzah, the words from Deuteronomy: And thou shalt write them upon the doorposts of thine house, and upon thy gates. A reminder of a reminder of a reminder.
clean underwear, a scarf and matching mittens, sheet music— Bach Partitas and Mozart Sonatas, fountain pen and ink, school books, winter boots
They are moving now, and the girl hears voices, the tinkling bell of a door opening, the smell of butter and sugar. “Here,” the old woman says, and slips a baguette under her shawl. “You need to eat.” Her one hand pulls bits of bread, finds the girl’s lips, and shoves the bread in. When they come out of the bakery, the girl no longer smells diesel or hears engines. In the book inside the book inside the shawl, she smells rain on cobbles, smells horse. It’s Saturday; she hears a match struck by a Shabbas goy. They’re wandering through the old Marais, past the precursors of Sacha Finkelstein’s with its pain de seigle and the precursors of the popular falafel joints along the rue des Rosiers (Le Roi, L’As, Chez H’Anna). In the gutter, next to the rag that guides the rain water down the drain, she finds her mother’s favorite ring, a tiny ruby surrounded by even tinier pearls. I’ve called her a girl, and this is most definitely what she is when she finds the ring and starts crying: a girl, a daughter, wetting the old woman’s shawl. She has left things at her uncle’s. When he’s at work, she’ll go back there to retrieve them, stuff them into her old satchel, and never trust the lockers at Gare du Nord again.
But now she needs a nap. She feels a gentle hand set her down. “I’m going,” the old woman says. It’s gotten dark, chilly on the bench where she’s been left. She hears the rancid music of a carousel spinning in the middle of Place de la République, a double-decker of animals and chariots and flashing lights and children’s screeches of delight. Her father brought her here once, she thinks. Or did he? If she pays a sou, she might have a place to sleep for the night, lullabied, circled around, and circling. Her uncle’s place isn’t far away but her pages have turned. That volume is finished.
ring, ticket stub from an Itzhak Perlman concert, blanket, pebbles for the grave
In the café below her uncle’s apartment, there’s a pinball machine. She used to spend hours on it herself, but this morning, Sunday, a boy is playing when she goes in for une noisette. From the counter (the coffee is cheaper there) she watches his big backpack slip down his spine, his whole body rock side to side. Bells he doesn’t seem to hear. Then he shrugs: lost again, she thinks. Those could be her own younger shoulders shrugging.
When his game is done and he has no more money for tokens, the boy slips out, and the barman looks at her and then the door. It’s time for her to go too. Where—in the rain? The synagogue: no one will be there. A window on the side? In the back? Some way in? But the door is unlocked and people are there, a boy (a different boy—she checks) and his tutor, preparing. She sits down to watch them. Although he nods his head and follows along the words in the Torah, pointing with the yad, he’s silent. How will he intone the prayers and, especially, how will he make his bar mitzvah speech?
Once the boy is gone, the man comes over to her. “Are you a Jew?” he asks.
“Oui, je suis juive.”
“Have you been bat mitzvahed? It’s never too late,” he says, leaning toward her, proffering a book, but she puts her hand up.
“No,” she says, “for that you have to believe.” When he shrugs and turns away, she thinks, well, that’s a lot of shrugging today.
“I’ll be locking up soon.” Before going out, he says, “The synagogue isn’t necessary. Just a minyan.”
She hides under a bench. She’ll stay there tonight. Tomorrow, Monday, she can go to her uncle’s while he’s at work. There she can eat, take some more of her things. Her bankbook—she really needs that, and her passport, just in case. Some extra clothes. In her pocket, she finds hard candy, croissant crumbs.
When she wakes, the boy is there, finger to his lips. Under one arm is a book; under the other, his phone, which starts playing some soothing music. He has tefillin tied to his head, his upper arm. He wraps his prayer shawl around her, but he also drags her out the door into the night, shaking his head.
skin cells, bile, scrap of letter on which there is half of her father’s signature
When she had to leave her uncle’s, she thought she had three wishes left. When the wishes were used up, she had nothing. Except that she was still alive. She could feel her heart beating, she could feel the breath in her body and see it outside her body, billowing into the night air.
She is hungry, she is wet, and the key to her uncle’s door will not turn, but she sits inside the cathedral of her own mouth—restored, refurbished, the walls painted white, faux marble that the traditionalists hate, black Madonna now white—and looks out between her own teeth. A sound reverberates, arching up to the ribs of her palate. Others are in here, screeching or heckling, or are they singing with her? Is that her own voice she hears? She remembers being told to pray what’s in her heart, to say the words in her own way. This is all that’s left, all that she can hold on to: breath like a bow across her strings.