A Distant Planet
LYDIA CASSIN RODRIGUES COHEN
It was raining and she was home alone. From the window she could see a chestnut tree, raindrops splattering against the black bark. In that tree was a nightingale, which was silent at this hour. Usually such birds began to migrate to West Africa at this time of year, but this one had stayed on in their garden. The air was luminous and damp. The children, ages four, two, and one, were out with the maid, dressed in boots and cloaks so they might collect leaves in the park. Her husband, Henri Cohen, was a partner in a small family banking company and often came home late for dinner. Sometimes she worried, for France was politically unstable, with demonstrations against the King where violence often erupted. Henri was the love of her life and always catered to her, but he was a logical person and would likely think she was mad if she told him she thought that her mother, who had died nearly five years earlier, had come back to her in the form of a nightingale, and that whenever she saw the bird in their garden, she felt a shiver go through her. When this happened, she would go to close the mauve silk curtains, because she’d have a breathless feeling, as if she were running through a field with the sun beating down on her, as if she were a million miles away, about to explode with light.
There was a certain sadness around her lately. Her father was ill. He had a lung disease and everyone hoped he would last the year, but as the days passed, that seemed unlikely. He didn’t wish to see anyone, only the nurse who cared for him. Lydia found herself thinking that this woman, Marie, had been his mistress even when her mother was alive, for Madame Cassin Rodrigues had disliked her and at the end had begged for another caretaker. Now this Marie had moved into his house in Passy, where she took care of Lydia’s father with extreme tenderness. She spoke with familiarity. Once, when Monsieur Rodrigues had balked at taking his medicine, Lydia had overheard Marie say, But, Aaron, you must, with an authority more suited to a wife than a nurse.
Lydia’s father had said something the last time she’d visited with the children that had unsettled her. He was in a chair by the window overlooking the garden. He’d been a tall man, but now he was stooped. He had a long face that had once been so handsome few women had been able to look away. He was concentrating on the outside world. In his view, there were still a few stray poppies in bloom despite the season. Shades of orange and red. Plumes of tall grass grew untended. She’d brought him tea and was crouched beside his chair so she might add sugar to his cup with a pair of tongs.
He gazed at her so deeply she was flustered. “I wish you hadn’t had your mother’s silver eyes,” he said. “They remind me of her every day.”
Startled, she acted as if he hadn’t said something so odd. She asked him if he wanted cream as well as sugar, and he shook his head. Her mother’s eyes were blue, as were her father’s and her own, though hers were, indeed, paler, and on cloudy days, they turned a fragile gray. She had a strange flicker in the pit of her stomach. There was a light inside she sometimes felt, a sharp, stinging brightness.
Her father was becoming more and more distraught, revealing a depth of feeling she hadn’t thought him capable of.
“I betrayed her,” he said mournfully. “What sort of man acts like that?”
“I’ll get you a blanket,” Lydia said, for he was shivering.
“I should have left you where you belonged,” he said to her then. “I shouldn’t have been your father.”
She went to get the blanket and realized there were tears running down her face. Her father had always been somewhat distant, but now his words felt like an attack. Was he saying he had never loved her? What she had done to deserve this, she had no idea. Perhaps it was his illness speaking, nothing more.
She passed a gilded mirror in the hall and stared at her reflection. In this mirror her eyes did indeed look as silver as the glass.
She’d been disturbed ever since. And there was something else: a boy had been following her. It had been going on for some time. A tall boy who was almost a man. At first she thought she was imagining it. She was at the park with her three daughters and they were playing in the leaves when she noticed a shadow falling over them. She had dreams of shadows, of people who came to her to tell her secrets, but this was daylight in the park. She wore a silky woolen cape that was the color of wine along with a pretty gray dress and high-laced boots. She gazed up and the shadow darted away. She hurried the children from the park, past the green wooden benches, along the gravel paths, home to safety. She locked the doors, drew the curtains, put the children to bed. Later, when she glanced out at the street, she thought she saw him again, a tall, thin boy in an overcoat, boots, a black cap, who rubbed his hands together, as if he were freezing even though it was only October, that smoky, beautiful month when the leaves on the plane trees turned brown before slowly curling up into brittle ash.
In bed with her husband she whispered that her father was dying and that she’d felt he’d never loved her.
“It doesn’t matter,” Henri said. “I do.”
She didn’t tell him about the boy on the street or the comment about the silver eyes.
They went to Friday night services with the children, and often had dinner with Henri’s parents, who treated Lydia as if she were a daughter. The Cohens had only sons, Henri and his two younger brothers, and they were delighted with Lydia’s charm. She had a slight accent, which they teased her about, and a longing for spice in her tea, which they thought unusual and amusing. They were a jolly family, different from her own. Her mother had been moody and, although loving, not socially inclined. She didn’t care to go out, and the few friends she had came to visit her for tea or drinks as if she were an invalid, which she was not. Her father, rarely at home, was distant, more so since he’d been unwell. She wondered where he’d been all those nights when he failed to appear for dinner. Perhaps he’d been a ladies’ man all along.
Henri’s mother’s sister, his aunt Sophie, had been a girlhood friend of Lydia’s mother who she’d often visited, and so it seemed they were meant to be family. Everyone agreed, they were fated. Henri was tall and had sharply defined features, a large, beautiful head, and luminous eyes. He was quite handsome, but there was more to him. He was capable, adept at business, but he was a man of deep emotion, something his brothers teased him about. He was an ardent stargazer and had a telescope set up in the garden, and a smaller scope that he carried with him, as another man might carry a cane. He was not a banker at heart but a scientist and an observer of nature. He was elated by the discovery of a new planet the previous year and, only recently, the detection of its moon.
“There’s always more to discover in this world,” he told Lydia cheerfully.
She loved how easy it was for Henri to be made happy. He was the opposite of her father in this way, for her father had always been a man who had to have more and more. The new planet was invisible to the naked eye, though it had been spied occasionally, by Galileo for instance, who mistook it for a fixed star. On the night of the family dinner when Aunt Sophie came from Lyon, Henri was in the garden with his father and brothers, discussing the mysterious nature of the heavens. There had recently been a lunar eclipse, and ever since, the men in the family had held regular meetings to watch the sky. They called themselves Société des Astronomes Amateurs.
The women remained in the parlor. Madame Sophie had been to their wedding, but Lydia had never spent time with her, and she found the older woman to be captivating. She was a great storyteller, and though she was widowed and had none of her own, she adored children. She told fairy tales wherein men were turned into swans and girls had to find their way through the woods. Because of this Lydia’s oldest daughter liked to keep bread crumbs beside her bed, even though they brought mice into the room. The girls were already drowsing in their mother’s arms by the time tonight’s story had ended. It was a tale about sisters who had fallen in love, one with a hunter, the second with a bear, the third with a prince who was penniless. Madame Cohen, the doting grandmother, had gone upstairs to put the girls to bed after the story of the sisters had been told.
“I can see why my mother so enjoyed your friendship when you were girls,” Lydia said as the men were looking at the stars. She was wearing blue, her favorite color, a dress fashioned of silk damask. She often dressed her girls in three different shades of blue. Tonight she’d chosen teal for Amelia, indigo for Mirabelle, and soft sky blue for Leah, who was little more than a baby but did her best to keep up with her sisters, toddling after them. They were darling children, adored by Henri’s parents. Lydia wished her mother had lived to see them. Surely she would have delighted in them. Her father had taken little notice of his granddaughters, although he insisted on visiting each one on the day after her birth. Now, Lydia wondered if he was looking for those silver eyes he’d spoken of. He had not a worry. The three girls’ eyes were blue.
“Elise was a complicated woman,” Sophie said as they had their coffee. “I suppose that’s what interested me. You expected one thing of her and she turned and did something completely out of character. People who thought she was nothing more than a pretty doll had a surprise coming to them. She could be quite vicious if the need arose. But if she was your friend, she was that for all eternity.”
“Between us things were quite simple,” Lydia said. “I always knew I could depend on her. I suppose that’s why I miss her so. She was the person I could count on no matter what. Now it’s Henri. So I’m fortunate in my choice.” She noticed Sophie staring. “Do my eyes look silver to you?” she blurted.
Sophie laughed. “Not at all.”
The men had returned from their stargazing, clapping the frost from their coats. It had been a lovely evening. The guests were getting ready to leave when Sophie suggested she and Lydia have tea together, just the two of them. Lydia agreed, imagining this was an invitation that would occur sometime in the future, but the very next day Sophie arrived at three o’clock. It was inconvenient, really, and unexpected, such things were usually scheduled, but there was nothing Lydia could do but ask the maid to take the children to the park. While the maid readied the girls, Lydia would have to brew the tea herself. She chose jasmine, the scent of which always made her sad, yet she favored it. Sophie sat across from her and apologized for coming unannounced. “If I’ve overstepped, I didn’t mean to. I had no intention to upset you.”
“It’s fine,” Lydia replied, confused, meaning it was quite all right for her to come without first sending a note. “You don’t upset me in the least.”
“But perhaps I will in what I say.” Sophie treaded carefully.
“Oh, say what you will,” Lydia responded, still puzzled by the intensity of this surprise visit. “I can’t imagine I’d be offended.”
“I’m glad you feel that way. I can’t imagine it would matter now, with Elise gone. And when you asked about the color of your eyes, I felt I might be free to speak to you. Before that, I wasn’t certain you knew.”
“As I said, between my mother and myself, things were simple. She called me her great and wonderful gift.”
“So you were aware that she couldn’t have children.” Sophie appeared relieved. “But of course she would have told you.”
Lydia did not move, for fear she would betray herself. She knew nothing of this. Her heart was twisted inside her chest. The maid, already wearing her cape, brought almond cakes with sugar frosting. She had bundled up the children, who followed at her heels. It was unseasonably cold, but the park awaited. The girls were ushered from the house. The tea was poured. Jasmine tea was from Japan, deliciously fragrant with a woodsy, floral scent and a pale green color in the bone china cups. Lydia felt as though something was stuck in her throat; she found she couldn’t even swallow a sip of tea.
“She wanted you desperately,” Lydia’s visitor went on, “and was so delighted when you entered her life. You were indeed a treasure and a gift. As long as you know that.”
“How did that entrance occur?” When Aunt Sophie looked puzzled by the question, posed by one who supposedly knew her own history, Lydia added, “I can never remember the details.”
She was cold as she poured more tea for her guest, despite the fire in the grate. She heard the nightingale in the yard. It was a large garden, but the bird always perched in the same tree. The one outside her window.
“Who can remember details?” Sophie shrugged. “Some days I can barely remember my own name!”
“Was I a foundling?”
“No. Of course not. You are your father’s child—I believe from a marriage before he wed your mother. It seems your mother kept some details to herself.”
“She did.” Lydia nodded.
“I know she wanted to tell you more about the situation. I remember discussing it with her. But when do you tell a daughter that another woman gave birth to her? I suppose you were grown up when she informed you.”
Lydia tried to straighten out her thoughts, but the fact that her mother, who had been her biggest champion and the person closest to her in the world, was not a blood relation or her birth mother was staggering. “No. It was only recently,” she lied. The lie was like a block of ice, and yet Sophie seemed to believe her.
“Well, she worried over what to say for years. She never told me the details, or I would tell you now myself. Only that she had given you a far better life than the one you would have had. I assume there was some scandal involved. But scandal is everywhere, isn’t it?”
The news about her parentage changed things in a way Lydia didn’t understand. She felt angry at herself, for taking everything at face value, and angry with her mother for dying without telling her the truth.
That night she held her daughters close, and swore she would never betray them. She wanted to ask her father to reveal who her true mother had been, but when she went to visit him, Marie, the nurse, said he was too ill for company and turned her away. She stood outside the house of white stone where she’d grown up, where the vines wound up the walls to the chamber in which she’d slept as a child, and she felt a stranger.
“Would you ever lie to me?” she asked Henri later on.
“What would I lie about?” he responded.
The weather was chill, but they were in the garden, looking at stars. The nightingale fluttered from branch to branch, but didn’t sing a note. Henri was kindhearted, a truly good man, and her mother had been his champion. “I think he’s the one for you,” Lydia recalled her saying. “He won’t break your heart.”
Henri dreamed of constellations, he’d told her, and of her.
Her own dreams were unreachable, dissolving into mist before she could reach them in her waking state. I don’t dream, she insisted when he questioned her, yet the statement felt like a lie. There were birds she couldn’t quite see. Voices she couldn’t quite hear. The sound of the sea.
Henri tried to show her Neptune, but she couldn’t spy it through the telescope. Just a blue whirl beside some hot white specks. She thought about her mother not being her mother, and everything that had happened between them. Now when she looked back, the tiniest nod or glance took on new meaning. I love you anyway. I love you more. You’re mine. I’m yours.
As she’d aged, her mother’s pale red hair had turned white. She remained stylish, and to some, especially her maids, her cold eye was fearsome. She liked things done with style, her style. She had her own chamber, with red lacquered walls and dove-gray bedcoverings. Lydia’s father’s room was down the hall, and smelled of cigar smoke. Her mother said she could not stand the smoke, or his sputtering snore, but there was more, a distance between them. As for her father, he gave her mother gifts on a regular basis, but managed to stay clear of her and lead his own life. He had an apartment somewhere; it was said to be used for business meetings. Sometimes when her father looked at her mother, Lydia saw a sort of surprise behind his eyes, as if he’d wandered into the wrong house and had come home to the wrong wife.
Before she died her mother had said, “Always pay heed to the woman who comes before you. If he’s treated her badly, he will treat you much the same.”
They’d been alone in her room, with a fire going to take the chill off, though it was May. Lydia, already married and in love, had laughed. “In Henri’s case,” she’d said, “that would be his mother.” But when she’d begun to see Marie in the house so soon after her mother’s death, she believed she understood her mother’s message. Her father had not been faithful. The extravagant gifts he’d given to his wife—a ruby pendant from India, silk dresses, strands of pearls, creamy cameos—he had likely given to other women as well. Looking back, Lydia remembered walking into shops with her mother and having the salesgirl say Monsieur Rodrigues had just been in to buy a present and being confused about why such a statement should bring her mother to tears.
LYDIA WENT AGAIN TO see her father on a cold November day. The leaves were red and brown. A mist sifted down from the damp sky. Later it would rain, but not now. She wore a heavy black cape—her funeral cape, she realized—bought for her mother’s funeral in the Jewish cemetery in Passy. She knocked formally on the door, her own door, where she’d grown up. Marie answered, surprised to see her. Her father was resting.
“He’s my father, and I want to see him,” Lydia told the nurse.
She walked inside and didn’t listen to any protestations. She’d been up the stairs a thousand times before. She passed her mother’s room and continued on. Her father was in bed. The bed had been pulled to the window so he might look outside. He turned to her, thinking she was Marie. The nurse had followed and was right behind her. Lydia thought her father’s eyes brightened when he saw her. Perhaps there was some affection there, after all.
“He’s very tired,” Marie said.
There was no refuting this; all the same Lydia told Marie she was the one who must leave. Lydia made certain to close the door after the nurse edged into the hallway, then returned to the bedside, where she sat in a hard-backed chair. Her father’s eyes flitted over to her, then away.
“I hear a bird,” he said.
The rain had begun. There were no birds.
“She wasn’t my mother?”
There was a white film over his eyes, which were still very blue.
“You were born in St. Thomas,” he said.
Her mother had told her this. Lydia had been born there during their travels. Though her mother said they left that far-off island when she was a baby, Lydia had some memory of a long trip, and of her mother singing to her as the waves hit against them, of miles and miles of blue sea. Now she wondered if it was possible for an infant to have such memories, for her girls remembered nothing from their babyhood. She’d gone so far as to question them, and they could not recall the songs she’d sung to them or the days she’d paced the floor with them. Those first memories were fainter than shadows on the wall.
“To your first wife?” Lydia put forth.
“Well, I couldn’t marry her,” her father said. “Wasn’t that obvious? We weren’t allowed.”
“Why not?” Lydia asked, more confused than ever.
“Do you think I ever loved anyone else?” her father said. His eyes were so pale it seemed possible to look through them into a part of him she’d never seen before. He seemed completely unfamiliar to Lydia, a lost man. He reached for her. In that instant, Lydia felt like pulling away, but she forced herself to grasp his hand. She hadn’t expected his hand to feel so light, as if beneath the skin there were nothing more than the bones of a bird. “Don’t do what they tell you to,” he said.
Marie came in, with a maid in tow, interrupting, insisting it was time for her father to sleep. Lydia was rushed from the room. She stood in the hall, mortified, while Marie sang to him as she settled him in his bed. When he was dozing, Marie came out to the hallway to escort her from the house.
“Your father has very little time left,” she said. “I won’t have him bothered.”
“I wasn’t bothering him.”
“I think I know when he’s tired.”
Lydia felt like saying, Heed the woman before you. He’ll treat you as badly as he treated her. In fact her father had disappeared for over a week after her mother’s funeral. People said it was sorrow that had caused his absence, but now Lydia wasn’t so sure. Surely there was another woman, most likely one of his friends’ wives. That was the way such things were done. Affairs were kept quiet, and maintained within a single circle, people of the same standing and faith. The nurse was not of their faith; any relationship with her would not be serious, so it was absurd for her to act as if she were the woman of the house. It was unlikely her father would leave anything to his nurse in his will if that was what this was all about. And then she saw it as she was leaving the room. A flash of red at Marie’s throat. The ruby from India that had belonged to her mother.
Lydia turned and left, grief-stricken. After a while she saw the boy following her through the streets. She hadn’t thought of him for days. Perhaps she should have been frightened, but it was otherwise. She felt grateful not to be alone. She liked the idea of having a companion. Once she dropped a glove purposely, and when she retrieved it she turned her head in order to see him more clearly. He was no ghost, and was clearly flesh, perhaps sixteen or so, as tall as Henri, quite serious in his demeanor. He looked like a man, but there was something boyish about his posture. He ran a hand through his long, dark hair. He stopped when she did and turned to study a garden, overgrown with lime trees and weeds, then he gazed at her again. She gestured to him, but he looked panicked and backed away.
Soon after, her father died. His death was a hollow thud. Lydia went to the service and to the burial but remembered little. Only the ice-cold air as the men took turns shoveling dirt over the coffin. The sobs of the nurse. A nightingale in a tree bringing forth a ribbon of song, even though it was daylight, the wrong hour for such a creature to sing. The house was sold quickly. Although the money from the sale came to Lydia and Henri, when they went to close up the house most of the belongings were gone, the walls stripped of their paintings, and all of Lydia’s mother’s jewelry, the cameos and gold necklaces and, of course, the ruby, had disappeared. The rooms echoed.
“We can go to a solicitor,” Henri said. “Track down this Marie.”
“No,” Lydia told him. “Let her be.”
She stood at the glass doors to the garden while Henri went through her father’s desk. Later that evening, when they had gone home, Lydia was awakened by the scent of something burning. She crept down the stairs, on which there was soft red Oriental carpeting. Her husband was burning documents in a large copper pan in the kitchen, the window open to ensure that the smoke would escape. A wind blew through the house. Unless Lydia was mistaken the smoke was tinted blue.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“He wrote poetry,” Henri said. “To some woman. I didn’t think you’d want to see. They’re not particularly good.”
Some of it was burned, but she told him to stop and took up the sheaves of paper. She went to the pantry, a small wooden corridor where they stored flour and spices, and sat on a stool. She read them all and afterward felt as if she had swallowed stones. He loved someone, that much was clear. He called her a red flower, a star in the sky, a woman who could swim with turtles, who would never let him go, not that he wanted his freedom, not that he had ever wanted anything but her.
IN THE FOLLOWING DAYS Lydia searched through her memories, but they were hazy, bursts of events she’d experienced as a child and then as a young woman—lessons, parties, dinners, and finally meeting Henri, the moment when everything became brighter. At night, however, stranger images came into her dreams. She managed to catch bits and pieces, and she arose from her bed with peculiar tableaus in her mind: fields of tall yellow grass, a pool of tiny fish, the sound of the sea, red flowers tumbling down a hillside, her little girls with their eyes turned silver, a boy who tracked her in his black coat. She asked the maid if she’d ever been aware of someone following when she took the children to the park.
“It began two years ago,” the maid confided. “I didn’t wish to upset you. I shooed him away, but twice he had the nerve to come to the door. I told him never to return, but then he came again, to the back door, like a servant. He apologized for using the front door, and for trailing after us.”
“But for what reason?” Lydia asked. She had grown cold with something that was not quite fear. Perhaps it was an odd excitement.
The maid shrugged. “I never gave him time to speak his mind. I didn’t think it was proper. He was nervous and shy, yet he continued coming round until one night I greeted him with a hammer in my hands, and he hasn’t come back since.”
Lydia did not know what to do about her pursuer or even what to think. Evidently he had been searching them out for some time, years in fact. And then as she had dinner with her daughters one night, just the four of them, as Henri would be home late from work what she should do came to her as a dream might, suddenly and fully formed. She would turn the tables and follow the boy. She would become a shadow as he dodged away from spying on her. She felt a thrill inside her, as if she were waking up, taking control of her life. She played for hours with her girls, games of hide-and-seek, which perfectly suited her intention for finding her follower. By the end of the evening there was not a single place in the house—not the cellar, not the kitchen, not the tiniest bureau—where she could not find her daughters if she put her mind to it. She would do the same to catch the boy in the black coat.
As it turned out, she noticed him in the synagogue on Friday night. This was luck, indeed. Perhaps he had often been there and she’d never noticed, as the men and women were separated. But now that she’d spied him she felt her pulse quicken. She told her mother-in-law she had a headache and needed some air, leaving her children in Madame Cohen’s care. She went outside and headed for home, knowing what would happen, sensing the shadow behind her. She felt her pursuer, his tentative gait, his nervous posture, his youth. There was a comforting familiarity in his presence; it was as if her own past were following her. She entered her house, then watched him from the window. When he turned to leave, thinking she had retired for the evening, she sneaked back out through the garden, ready to turn the tables. She was light on her feet, wearing her woolen cape. The air was cold and smelled sweet, as if the dark was made of molasses. The cobblestones were slippery from an earlier shower. She trudged after him through the dark streets for nearly half an hour. Just when she thought she must turn back, and felt irretrievably lost, he arrived at a tall brick house. They were still in the Jewish quarter. Luckily a neighbor passed by and Lydia asked who lived at this address. The name was Pizzarro.
She thought about that name as she found her way home. That night she dreamed of a place where there were huge teal-colored birds trailing through a marsh. They walked as people did, regally, as if they were kings and queens. When she awoke she was steaming with sweat. She was in her chilly bedchamber, her sleeping husband beside her, the stars outside their window, but her skin was flushed with heat. She remembered looking down through the slats of a porch to gaze at the movement of the waves.
SHE WROTE A NOTE introducing herself to the lady of the house, which her maid delivered, and in return she received an invitation to tea. She went alone without mentioning her outing to Henri. She was treated warmly by Madame Pizzarro. Hers was a large family, originally from Spain, with many children in and out of the house. Lydia revealed her reason for coming, which sounded quite logical—now that her children were growing older she wished to expand her circle and become more involved with the synagogue. She said she’d been told Madame Pizzarro might help her meet other women in the congregation. Madame laughed and said her own children were growing older as well, but she had little time to visit with the Sisterhood, for she’d been helping out with a nephew for the past few years, a boy who was a boarding student at a nearby academy but who spent most of his time with his extended family. He sometimes spent weekends with his grandparents, Joseph and Ann-Felicité Pizzarro, whose son, the boy’s father, managed a family business in St. Thomas.
Lydia felt a jolt upon hearing a mention of St. Thomas. It was her birthplace, yet she knew nothing of it.
“How odd,” she said. “I was born there during a visit my parents made.”
As it turned out the nephew had arrived at the age of twelve and would be returning home at the end of the year, having studied at the Savary Academy for several years under the tutelage of Monsieur Savary, an expert in drawing and painting. The boy, whose father was a Pizzarro who lived halfway across the world, had become a good student and an excellent painter. At first his hosts did their best not to encourage their ward in this thankless arena; business was a more appropriate calling, and the one his parents wished him to pursue. But his teacher had applauded his artistry, calling him extraordinary. In fact Madame and her husband were rather proud of a small oil painting on the wall the boy had given them.
“Everyone believes we purchased it from a great artist, and we never say it’s only by our nephew. He takes delight in people’s confusion, and so do we. For all we know he’ll be a great artist someday.”
Lydia went for a closer look. The painting, in a gold-leaf frame, was luminous in tone. She was drawn to the image and could see why people assumed an expert had crafted it. A woman carried a basket of laundry to a house set upon stilts, the turquoise sea behind her, her expression serene.
Lydia sat down, overheated again and agitated in a way she couldn’t understand. She had a flash of something, perhaps a memory, perhaps a fear. She explained that she had headaches. But that was a lie. It was the painting that had affected her. She had the odd sense that she herself had been in that very same place. If you ventured along the road you would see red flowers in the hills, tumbling down like a staircase. They were the ones she dreamed of, and when she woke she still imagined them, as if petals had been set in her path as she walked her girls around the neighborhood.
At last the boy she was waiting for came home from school with Madame’s two sons, their maleness filling up the house with their deep voices and the clatter of their books and belongings and the scent of cold air and sweat. Madame Pizzarro’s sons ambled past, already in boisterous conversation, on their way to have a late tea. Then the nephew came in, reading as he walked.
“Does no one greet a guest?” Madame Pizzarro called. Lydia recognized the tall boy who was so intent on his book. “How about my dear nephew?”
The boy looked up. He seemed a confident fellow, but when he saw Lydia he immediately grew pale. She thought perhaps he stumbled. He was so angular and thin that his trousers seemed too big for him, and his jacket too small for his long arms.
“This is Madame Cohen,” the hostess continued.
Lydia walked to him and offered her hand. “I think we’ve met.”
His hand in hers was rougher than she’d expected, stained with faint blotches of paint.
“We may have,” the boy said cautiously.
“You’re an artist?”
“Yes.” He was a bit defiant in his answer, his hackles raised. “Perhaps you’d like to tell me it’s a waste of my time.”
“Not at all,” she responded.
He almost smiled then. He was no longer a ghost. He looked at her, concerned, more vulnerable than she would have imagined.
“Lyddie,” he said.
“Madame Cohen!” his aunt corrected him. “Where have everyone’s manners gone?”
“Out the window,” the boy said. “Where they belong.”
Lydia thought of what her father had said during their last visit. Don’t do what they tell you to.
“He came to us as Jacobo, a cousin several times removed. But once he arrived in Paris he took his middle name. Camille.”
The boy shrugged. “People change.”
“He’s become French through and through,” his aunt said, pleased.
Because dark was already falling, and Lydia was a woman alone, it made sense when she asked if the boy could accompany her on her way home. His aunt was only too happy for him to be useful. Jacobo Camille Pizzarro held open the double glass doors, and they stepped into the smoky air of November. The streets glittered wet with rain and the air was a mist.
“How long has this been going on?” Lydia asked.
“This?” He was wary; perhaps he thought she meant to catch him in a trap of his own admission and call the authorities.
“I’ll be going back soon, home, but I’ve been following you ever since I arrived in France.”
“Since you were twelve!” She laughed, then saw his expression. It was true.
“Well, not precisely. It took me the best of a year to locate your father’s address, and then months more before I realized you no longer lived there. And then, of course, I didn’t know you had taken your husband’s name, so I was lost again. It was nearly three years before I found you.”
“Three years!” She was quite amazed.
“Your maid turned me away every time I came to call. I thought if I approached you in a public place you might have me arrested.”
“Arrest a boy?” Lydia laughed.
“I was afraid I would offend you. I suppose, after a while, I lost my courage.”
“But not your resolve! I presume you follow me because you have something to say to me,” Lydia said gently. He was only a boy, and he had an artist’s soul, so perhaps he simply wished to paint her portrait and admired her for the character of her face.
All in all, she only wanted to know the cause of his attraction. Her husband would be getting home soon. He was at this very moment at the family office with his brothers, shrugging on his soft woolen overcoat, thinking about the dinner that awaited, the wife at the door, the stars that would appear in the pale twilight.
“If you had ever stopped and spoken to me, I would have been relieved,” he told her. “For a very long time you failed to notice me. And every time I meant to talk to you, I was uncertain all over again. You seem so happy.”
She smiled. He was so serious and earnest. He did seem older than his age. “And what do you have to tell me that would make me less so?”
“We’re somewhat related,” he told her.
“We’re both from St. Thomas.”
“Yes. I’ve discovered I was born there.”
“It’s a very small place.” He scowled at the memory. “Too small.”
They walked along as if the rest of Paris did not exist. Perhaps because he admired all things French and would be leaving at the end of the school term, Camille was glum. He said there was little freedom where he came from; his mother watched over him too closely, and he was expected to live a life like that of his father and brothers, a life that he already knew he would reject. “Shopkeepers,” he said of them. “Concerned with ledgers and sales. At least here in Paris the workingman is rising up to claim what he deserves.” “People must shop,” Lydia reminded him.
“Must they? Perhaps all shops should throw open their doors and let those in need take what they must.” He looked at her for a reaction.
“Perhaps. I don’t know the answer to the world’s woes. I barely know the answer to my own.” The loss of her father had affected her more strongly than she imagined. She sometimes worried about her own children becoming orphaned, her most dire fear.
They passed the park where he had often watched her. Sometimes he’d sat here and sketched. His teacher, Monsieur Savary, had suggested that he carry his artist’s materials with him, for a subject often appeared when one least expected it to do so. A leaf, a woman, a shaded path.
Artists were those with supporters, wealthy families or patrons. They went to the Académie and studied with masters, and few were allowed into such society. He was a Jew, from St. Thomas, seventeen years old, with no financial backing. His lanky form was stooped with regret as they walked on. And he was nervous now that he was in Lyddie’s presence. Time and again he might have spoken to her, but on each of these occasions he didn’t feel up to the task of telling her the truth. She seemed far too content for the message he’d brought. But now she spoke of woes, and he wondered if perhaps he should have told her long ago.
She suggested they sit on a bench in the park, though it was damp. She had a shiver inside of her. When she thought back, there was only so far she could reach. Her father had told her she was very ill as a child. That they’d been traveling and she’d had such a high fever she’d had a loss of memory. He said she had spoken four languages, but when she recovered she’d forgotten all but French. Something haunted her about that time. Occasionally she used a word from some unknown language when speaking to her daughters. Once when they looked at the night sky she said stjerne, and the girls had asked what she meant and she simply had no idea.
“I made a promise to find you; otherwise I would have given up.” Camille took an envelope from the inner lining of his coat. “Your mother wrote this to you on the day you were abducted.”
Lydia laughed, then held a hand over her mouth. A soft sob escaped. It was a ridiculous remark, yet it rang with a certain truth, particularly after her conversation with Madame Sophie.
“My father was my father, was he not?” she said.
The boy nodded. “He was raised by my family. He was orphaned somehow.”
“Abducted is not the right word if I was raised by my own father.”
“But it is. You were stolen.” This was what he’d come to say and couldn’t before. “From your mother.”
Lydia let those words settle inside her.
“They tied her to a tree and had hired men standing guard. She’s been waiting for you all this time. I need to know what I should say to her when I return.”
It was now fully dark. Men in overcoats and hats were walking past, on their way home. The sky was ink, the boy noticed this, ebony at the edges, midnight blue in the center. Only bits of pale light still remained. The city was a miracle, and the idea that he would be leaving it depressed him immensely.
“What was my mother to you?” Lydia asked.
“A friend of our family. And with her mother, for a time, our maid.”
“A maid?” She was puzzled.
“And I must tell you, I suppose, because of the world we live in, she was of African heritage.”
“I see,” Lydia said, although she didn’t quite. She was a Jewish woman and the wife of Henri Cohen and the mother of three daughters and a resident of Paris for so long she could remember nothing of a deeper past. She took the letter the boy offered and opened the envelope. The paper felt like silk, watery; it had been flattened and creased a hundred times over. The print was faded, pale, but she could read it well enough.
My darling, my daughter, my star, my life.
I would not have given you up for anything in the world. Not for any amount of money, not for any promise, not even if they said it was a better future. You were meant to be with me, and no one, not on earth and not in heaven, could have ever loved you more.
You can be whoever you want to be, but you will always be my child, and we will always belong to each other, even if we never speak or see each other again.
She folded the paper back into the envelope, and slid it and her hands inside her cape. They were ice-cold. She was stunned and yet, at the same time, not surprised to discover that someone had loved her beyond measure.
“I need time,” she said when she could speak. “To think about this.”
“Of course.” This boy, Camille, was quite unusual. He seemed an equal. A man from St. Thomas who could understand what a man who had been born and raised in Paris never could. He rose to leave her to her thoughts.
“What will you do when you go home?” she asked.
“I’ll pretend to be who they want me to be.” He grinned then, and she saw his youth. “But it won’t work. In the end I’ll have to disappoint someone. Either them, or myself.”
She herself did not think she could go home yet. She went to a restaurant instead and said she was to meet her husband there, for a woman on her own was not allowed inside. She sat in the lounge and ordered an aperitif and drank it. She shivered, realizing that she was always cold. She had been since the time she’d had that fever. She wondered what had come before and why she could remember only bits and pieces: a red flower, a woman’s voice, a bird that was bright yellow. All at once she knew this was the woman her father had written about and loved. The boy could easily be a liar, the letter forged, the information untrue. But she believed it. He had been following her for so long. He’d known her when she hadn’t known herself, for if this letter was indeed from the woman who had given her life, then Lydia was no longer sure who she was. Certainly not the same woman who had walked into Madame Pizzarro’s house.
When the manager came and asked if she would like him to send a driver and a carriage for her husband, stating that she could not continue to drink on her own, she shook her head and asked that the aperitif be put on her husband’s account. Everything looked new to her, the way things look in dreams. In dreams, the same street one walks along daily becomes a mystery, the stone gray color of the pavement turns to silver and then to gold and then the street disappears completely.
When she at last arrived home, Henri was at the door, worried.
“I couldn’t imagine what had happened.” He embraced her, so grateful for her well-being he didn’t notice that she didn’t respond. The children had been given dinner and had been sent to bed by the maid. Her name was Ava; she originally came from the Loire Valley, not Jewish, a working girl from a farm. Lydia had never asked if she had brothers and sisters. They spoke only of the details of daily life. What the menu would be, what the yardman had failed to do, how the children were growing so quickly, like sprouts. Even when the maid had confided about the boy who’d often come to the back door, Lydia hadn’t thought to ask if she’d been frightened or confused by a stranger. Lydia felt flushed with guilt to think she’d never spoken to this woman about anything deeper than menus and household duties; she’d never asked a question, never had any interest.
While she was preparing for bed in her dressing room, she went to the mirror and studied her reflection. She was the same and yet brand new.
It was true. Her eyes were silver.
SHE REREAD THE LETTER whenever she was alone. And then one day she took up a pen and paper and wrote back. She told her mother everything she remembered. How ill she had become on the ship. How she had refused to eat and they’d made her drink hot lemon juice to break her fever. She admitted that she could now speak only French, but that her French was flawless, so that everyone assumed she’d been born in Paris. She wrote that she dreamed of teal-colored birds that danced for each other, and that when she had such dreams she awoke crying. She wrote a letter every day for twenty days, and in each she told more of the story of her life. It was as if she was writing her diary all at once, from the time she woke from the fever on the boat to this very day. She was afraid to mail them for some reason. She had a peculiar fear that if she posted them, they would vanish or be stolen and would never reach their intended reader. Instead, she folded them into a small wooden box in which she kept lavender sachets. She didn’t notice how quickly time was passing. Snow fell in early December.
“Will you be going home for Christmas?” she asked the maid, Ava.
They were in the kitchen together, making notes regarding the pantry. Ava seemed shocked to be asked her plans.
“If I can have the time,” she said, wary. “I would like to.”
“Is it a farm?”
“Oh, yes,” Ava said, her cheeks flushed, cheerful to think about her family home. “Mostly chickens and goats.”
“By all means go home. You’ll be paid for your time.”
Snow was falling when Lydia wrote her thirtieth letter. It was Christmas Eve, a time when they always stayed at home. It was not their holiday to celebrate, but there was a peacefulness when the city was deeply quiet, so different than it had been during the riots of the past year. Lydia was in the parlor and the children were asleep. Henri came in from the garden. It was a clear night, and he had been looking at the constellations. He clapped the stray flakes of snow from his coat. There was a fire in the fireplace, an envelope on Lydia’s lap, and the small dog the children had begged for, whom they called Lapin, Bunny, was napping on a small moss-green pillow.
“If we have a son,” Henri said. “We should call him Leo. For the lion of the stars.”
“What if I wasn’t who you thought I was?” Lydia asked. Her pretty face was furrowed with worry.
Henri sat beside her. “Is this about your father? That he didn’t leave much? You know I don’t care. We’re fine, Lydia. There’s no cause to fret.”
“I believe that my father may have been a horrible person. He may have done something awful.”
“Well, he’s gone, so it doesn’t really matter. Neither does the money. The old house brought a good amount. Our girls won’t be in need.”
“But what if I wasn’t who you thought I was.”
He got them both a drink and sat beside her again.
“You think I don’t know you?” he asked.
It was the moment when she could easily have embraced him and thrown the thirtieth letter onto the fire, which was already burning so brightly. She thought about a summer trip she’d made with her parents, to the sea, when she was a girl. They were in the ancient city of La Rochelle, famous for its fields of salt and Roman ruins. She’d never been to the ocean before, but she was entranced. Perhaps she was only seven, little more. She heard her name being spoken in a soft voice, as if someone who knew her was calling to her. She walked over the stones, there for all eternity, made of a soft-clay mineral, filled with the fossils of snails and sea creatures that had lived before there were men and women. Her mother rushed after her, frightened. Don’t you dare, her mother cried. Lydia thought her mother feared she would drown or be taken up in the undertow. Now she realized that wasn’t it at all. It was how easily she was called to the sea, how familiar it seemed to her, how right and how beautiful, as if she belonged to it and it to her.
In bed she told her husband everything. She could not look at him as she spoke.
If one is not born of a Jewish mother, it is impossible to be considered a member of the faith, and if she was not, their girls were not either.
“Easily rectified. Conversion is possible if we feel the need,” Henri said.
“I cannot convert from who I am, Henri. My mother’s mother was an African slave.”
“Who your parents were means nothing to me,” Henri told her. “It’s your heart I want.”
Her false mother had been right about one thing: he was a man who would not harm her. As for her heart, it was already broken. That was the source of the fever that had caused her to lose her past and herself.
“And your family?” Lydia asked. “What will it mean to them?”
“There is no need to confide in them, or to invite them into the intimate details of our life.”
Then she knew: he feared they would not be as open as he was to her true history. The business was a family business, based as much on relationships as on the ebb and flow of the banking world. All of their dealings were held within their community with other Jewish families. The unrest around the King, Louis-Philippe, had had little to do with people of their faith in the past, but his lack of concern for working people had touched off serious uprisings. There were days when black smoke filled the city; angry crowds gathered, provoked by how little the King cared for those who felt disenfranchised. For the Cohens, the desire was to keep on in a normal working manner, and that did not include a daughter-in-law whose background would call attention to them. Still, Lydia did not wish to lie to her own children’s grandparents, uncles, and aunts.
“What if I wanted them to know?” she said. “What if not being myself had made me ill?”
“Are you ill?” he said, concerned.
“I have been in the past, and would be again.”
Henri held her close. “It’s your choice. Whatever you decide makes no difference to me.”
The snow continued to fall; still, she heard the nightingale. Lydia wept to think she had not left it any seeds or fruit, and that it might perish on this night. Yet, she did not go to it, but listened until silence overtook her. At last she slept and dreamed of the sea, and when she woke the sky was clear. The snow covered everything and was so deep it had stopped all of Paris. Before she turned to her husband, or looked in on her children, she slipped on her boots and woolen cape and went into the garden.
The bird was in the snow, frozen, feathers silvered with ice. Lydia knelt. She lifted the nearly weightless body and laid it across her knees. She had always half thought she’d imagined the bird and its song, but no, it was real. The morning was so hushed she could hear her own pulse, and then her ragged breathing, and something like a sob. She took the bird around the side of the house, where the trash barrels and coal bin were kept. She lifted the cover of one of the barrels and dropped the nightingale in. She felt a shudder go through her when she heard the soft thump. She had always thought her mother was in the garden singing to her, watching over her. But no longer. The woman who had raised her was nothing to her anymore.
The winter went on. Frozen, gray, with hard frosts that were followed by drizzles of snow. She did not see the boy on the street or in the synagogue. Perhaps he was busy with his last term of school. Perhaps he had said all he had to say to her. She found that she missed his presence. Once she walked past his aunt’s house, but didn’t dare to go to the door. He’d said he was leaving at the end of the school term. Paris itself was mayhem. The King had been overthrown, and the factions of his opposition now turned against each other. There was a lawlessness in the streets they hadn’t seen before. Henri suggested that Lydia and the girls stay close to home. For weeks on end their parlor was their world, and Lydia put off changing that world, at least for a while. The girls wore their blue dresses and danced as the snow, in record amounts, fell down and bonfires burned black in the distance.
Lydia discovered that she was pregnant in the spring. She felt different than she had during her other pregnancies, and she guessed the baby was a boy. If it were, they would call him Leo, after the lion in the sky. Henri had said nothing she had discovered about herself mattered, and to him it didn’t. But of course, there was the rest of the world. She thought about that every time she went out, had a conversation with her neighbors, discussed dinner with Ava. She thought of her children and this son-to-be and what they would have to deal with being their true selves. On some afternoons she wandered off by herself. She did this on Saturdays, letting her mother-in-law take the children to the synagogue, saying her pregnancy made her dizzy. That was not the truth. She took a streetcar to the Montmartre district, where African women worked in the market. Many of them sold baskets woven out of coils of straw, handcrafted, and so beautiful they made tears spring to her eyes. She bought one in a market stall from a woman from Senegal. There were birds in some of the hanging baskets, bright, flittering bits of orange and yellow. The basket she bought was a small oval, and the straw smelled like cardamom. She kept it on her writing table, and held it up to breathe in the scent of the straw. Her heart, though broken, still beat. In bed she and Henri held each other without speaking and made love with urgency, as if the world was ending and the storm was outside the door.
She sent the boy Camille a note asking if he would meet her in the park. It was nearly June, the time he would be leaving, a lucky thing, for the riots would grow worse until Napoleon III was elected later that year. He would remember France as it was when he first arrived, all color and light and beauty. Lydia waited on the bench as her children played with Ava watching over them. She now knew that the maid had two brothers, and that one would like to come to Paris and go to school, but there wasn’t money enough, and besides, there was the farm to care for. Lydia thought perhaps she would offer her help to Ava’s brother. It was the least she could do.
Camille was even taller now; he’d become more of a man in a matter of months.
“You’ve been avoiding me,” Lydia said as lightly as she could. “After all these years you seem to have deserted me.”
“I thought you’d never want to see me again,” he admitted.
“Why would that be?”
Camille shrugged. “Perhaps you liked your life as it was.”
“It was a lie. How can anyone like that?”
He had a blue canvas bag. “I brought you something. A gift before I leave.”
It was a painting of this very park, and of her three children, and of the chestnut tree. The park benches looked glittery, as if a rain had fallen. The painted air was a strange blue color, as if the artist had managed to catch bits of mist and add them to his paints.
She thanked him and kissed his cheek. She was so grateful, but if he wished to give her a gift this wasn’t the one she wanted. She whispered what she most desired and he nodded, then jotted a note concerning the one she preferred. She then gave him the box of sixty letters. She had written in tiny print, which allowed her to tell the entire story of her life as it had been so far, the stolen years her mother knew nothing about.
Camille took the letters and said his good-byes. He had been following her for so long, it seemed odd that he would leave her in this park and not shadow her on her walk home. He knew her route, knew the way she ran a hand through her youngest daughter’s hair, and that she usually stopped to look in the branches of the chestnut tree in her yard to see if there were birds nesting there. Before he left, Lydia embraced him. He had become quite dear to her.
“Tell my mother I’m about to give birth to a boy,” she told him. “We’re naming him Leo. I was going to write that in today’s letter, but I’m telling you instead.”
Camille walked away, then turned back to her and waved before loping off. He left Paris soon after, packing up nearly six years of his life into two small suitcases and a leather trunk. He hated to return home, and could barely bring himself to think of what was waiting for him. His mother’s demands, a job at the store, his paints drying up in the heat of August, the girl he yearned for, Marianna, already married. He would give himself two years, and then, if it was as bad as he imagined it would be, he would find a way to leave. He had that in his blood, a history of men who knew when to stay and when to run away, men who could tell when it was time to find another life and another land.
Soon after he left, Lydia went to the Pizzarro house. Camille’s aunt welcomed her when the maid ushered her into the drawing room.
“This is unexpected. But a pleasure!”
They had not seen each other since Lydia’s initial visit. Tea was offered, but tea had not brought Lydia to this house, and so she said perhaps another time.
“You must miss your nephew,” Lydia said.
“Oh, we do,” Madame Pizzarro said warmly.
“As do I. We became very close. We both were born in St. Thomas, and so he granted me something to remind me of that place.”
Lydia took out the note Camille had left with her, written hastily in the park, a grin on his face as he complied with her wishes. He wrote to ask that the painting in his aunt and uncle’s parlor be given to Madame Cohen on the day she came calling. Madame Pizzarro frowned as she read it. She had grown accustomed to the painting and did not wish to part with it.
“I’d have to discuss this with my husband,” she said. “We had it framed at quite some expense.”
“I can pay you for that. I know you admire the painting, but it means so much to me. More than you can know.” Lydia had gone to stand in front of it. A woman carrying a basket of laundry, the sea behind her. Lydia knew what was inside the house on stilts and what was down the road where the donkeys ate tall grass and dodged toward you if you dared to pull their tails. The disease and shock that had left her without a memory was returning, bit by bit. She found she understood English, and she referred to foods with unfamiliar words, calling the porridge her daughters ate in the mornings fongee and making them laugh.
She was so overcome that she began to sob.
“My dear!” Madame Pizarro said. “Please don’t do that!”
“I’m so sorry,” Lydia said. “I’m so terribly sorry.” She could hardly get the words out in French. She thought of an odd phrase—Jeg er ked af—unsure of what it meant. “I truly don’t think I can live without it.”
“That’s very clear,” Madame Pizarro said, signaling to her maid to find some brown wrapping paper. “It’s yours, my dear.”
When she was given the painting, Lydia thanked her hostess and wished her well. She went into the corridor for her cloak and stood there for a few moments to collect herself. The heat inside her felt like the heat on this road leading down to the harbor on days when this woman held her hand. Do not run too far from me, she always said. At last, Lydia ventured into the street. It was nearly summer and the trees smelled sweet. The sound of birdsong echoed in the pale blue air, haint blue, the boy Camille had called this shade. He said it kept the ghosts away. It was the color of the sky in the painting she now had of her mother, whose name was Jestine, and who had been waiting for her daughter ever since she had been stolen, convinced that one day sixty letters would arrive in a box scented with lavender, the herb that always brings a person home.