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Souterrain

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He led her away, down one tunnel, then another. He took her through a passage where the bones were piled so high they had to wriggle over them on their bellies.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/matisse-copy_TOP-min.jpg
Henri Matisse, The Piano Lesson, 1916. Oil on canvas. © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Pierre Maillard lay dying of a stroke in his creaky old canopy bed at the age of seventy-six. Above him drooped a swag of faded blue, patterned with tiny silver stars, but he did not see it. Born blind, he saw nothing, not even darkness. In the cool and quiet predawn, sheets and plumes of numbness and electricity traveled through his body in silent, spectacular auroras. As his mind crackled and clouded, it returned him to his earliest memory:

He is emerging from an afternoon nap to the sound of his mother playing the piano. His noisy dreams fall away, leaving a solitary melody, bittersweet, drifting up the stairs. Sunlight warms his face; his wandering fingers sleepily strum the varnished bars of his crib. He doesn’t question who is playing. The sound of the piano is as essentially his mother as the warm, lavender-smelling body that embraces him. That is the memory: the comfort of her flowing around him, moving through him like a breath.

*                      *                     *

Six months after Pierre’s death, early on a June morning, a man named Lili Harmou, aged thirty, steps in front of the Métro between St. Paul and Bastille and is killed. The train is of the automated, driverless variety, and so no one sees his last moments, his dark figure parting from the tunnel wall.

The authorities politely label Lili’s death an accident, which it is not, though it is a terrible mistake, a dark blossom sprouted from a tangled mass of other mistakes and accidents. To list only a few: In 1983, a girl was sent to buy tea in Algiers. In 1942, a woman craved butter. In 1927, a man bought a piano for his wife. There is also this: Lili believed Pierre Maillard was his father.

*                      *                     *

Pierre’s granddaughter Iris inherited his tall, narrow house on a narrow street in the Fifth Arrondissement. To acknowledge that her grandfather’s death and bequest were well-timed felt disloyal—her grief was honest—but Iris had already been thinking she needed a change from New York. Another lighthearted romance had turned sour and dull. Best to pack up and leave, make no plans to return.

She flew to Paris in early December. White lights garlanded the city so densely it seemed to have been caught in a luminous net. Pear—she had always called her grandfather Pear—had been dead for three weeks, discovered by Madame Harmou, his housekeeper, and kept by the undertaker until Iris could arrive and see to his wishes. Iris was thirty-one and blessed with a portable career: she put makeup on models at photo shoots or fashion shows—South American bombshells, bewildered Siberian teenagers, daughters of rock stars—glossing their mouths, shading the contours of their skulls. Her French was fluent, almost native, learned from her mother, Hélène.

She had settled with a man who raised epiphytes, plants that grew on other plants and did not need to root anywhere.

Hélène ran away at nineteen, following a man to San Francisco after her own mother died of breast cancer. She or the man lost interest before long (not before she became pregnant with Iris), but Hélène never returned to France, never saw her father again. When Iris asked why she would not go, Hélène sometimes said only that she preferred America or that she could not leave her latest boyfriend to fend for himself or that she hated airplanes. When Iris suggested she take a ship, Hélène said, darkly, that she and her father were happier apart. In any event, she was not surprised to be passed over. “Why do you think I was always sending you to visit?” she said to Iris on the phone from Tallahassee, where she had settled with a man who raised epiphytes, plants that grew on other plants and did not need to root anywhere. “I wanted to remind him you were his next of kin, not all those refugees he collects.”

“I thought you sent me to get me out of your hair,” Iris said mildly, remembering the eagerness with which her mother had waved her down a jetway every summer.

“Darling, don’t be so dramatic,” Hélène said and hung up.

Pear had requested there be no funeral of any kind, and his coffin was squeezed into the family tomb at Père Lachaise without ceremony, his name added to the roster of Maillards etched on their little limestone chapel that stood slightly askew, its cast-iron gate fastened with a medieval-looking padlock.

Paris cemeteries, Iris learned, were always being dug up to cram in more people or evict those who were behind on rent. A million people were buried in Père Lachaise, in 70,000 graves. C’est normal, the lawyer said. He also told her Pear had paid up another fifty years on the lease.

And after that?

Ah! Bien sûr, madam, if nobody renews in a timely fashion, you will all be exhumed and your bones moved to an ossuary and the plot sold again to someone else.

Pear’s will contained a handful of small legacies to friends and to some of the people he had helped over the years—the refugees her mother so disdained. A larger sum was left to Lili Harmou, son of his longtime housekeeper, and another, still larger amount was set aside for the continued employment of Madame Harmou herself. The arrangement pleased Iris, who had known Madame Harmou since the summer she first emerged, six years old, into Charles de Gaulle airport, her small hand passing from the manicured grasp of an Air France stewardess to the warm, dry fingers of a solemn dark-haired young woman who smelled of mint and said she would take her to Pear. They rode in a taxi in silence, Iris struggling to stay awake. Madame Harmou, she quickly learned, was not given to superfluous conversation. Her care was gentle but impersonal, never playful, and Iris’s summers passed as long, quiet reveries, broken only when Lili was around—poor Lili, an irresistible target for all her pent-up cantankerous energy.

Madame Harmou only seemed to talk to Pear. Iris heard them sometimes, behind the closed doors of his study, though they fell silent if she creaked a floorboard.

The week before Christmas, on Pear’s street, as Iris was returning from a walk, a dark-haired man in a dark suit and burgundy scarf brushed by. “Lili!” she called.

He turned, at first quizzical in an ordinary way, and then, when he recognized her—it was the strangest thing. He stared at her with alarm but seemingly without recognition, as though she were some stranger accosting him, some ranting lunatic. His body tilted as though he might simply ignore her and hurry away. But, no, he smiled tightly and came to brush her cheeks with bisous, wafting her in expensive cologne. Some time ago, Pear, a reliable email correspondent, had mentioned that Lili ran a nightclub. As his mother says, Pear wrote, he has always had a gift for the nocturnal. Iris had not seen Lili in years. For a long stretch of their twenties he was away, working in, maybe, Marseille.

“It’s been so long,” she said. “How are you?”

“I’m well. And you?”

“Settling in. Missing Pear.”

She thought he should say something about her grandfather, who had always been good to him and his mother, who had left him money, but he only nodded. His gaze drifted. His blue eyes had always been so striking, so unexpected against his skin, which was a goldish, ochreish color like unpolished brass. She had always been attracted to him, even when she was a child and didn’t recognize attraction as such, only thought he irritated her. When they were teenagers, she had been intimidated by his long hair and clothes full of safety pins, his jeering friends, his silence. He went into the Métro with spray paint, she knew, and into the catacombs, not the tourist part but the miles of tunnels that clung to the city’s underside like a shadow, officially forbidden but accessible to those in the know.

“You look very dapper.” She made a little flourish, half flirtatious.

“I’m on my way to work. My mother asked me to stop by.” Stony, looking away.

“Pear said something about a nightclub? I mean, as far as your work?”

“Yes.”

“You manage one?”

“Three.” Nothing more. As though she had him tied to a chair under a naked lightbulb.

“Well,” she said. “I don’t want to make you late. It was nice running into you.”

She turned without even attempting cheek kisses and walked quickly toward the house, twisting with humiliation. Maybe there were new rules of Parisian etiquette she had somehow violated, nightclub rules. He had seemed almost repulsed by her, but she had been more attracted to him than ever. What did that say about her? Nothing she didn’t already know. When she paused to fish her keys from her bag, though, he was still standing where she had left him, watching her.

After the new year, Iris went and bought a ticket to the catacombs. She had not been since she was a teenager, when she had gone a few times to mope and commune with the dead and roll her eyes at the tourists. The tunnels were as she remembered: dim and chilly, with skulls and femurs stacked high, neatly arranged, nothing to stop you from touching them, though touching them was against the rules. But who could resist just reaching out one finger?

She glanced at a brochure. The tunnels were limestone quarries, originally. The source of Paris. When the cemeteries became overcrowded in the decades before and after the Revolution, the dead were dug up and their bones poured down chutes into the catacombs.

At the end, Iris opened her bag for a man who looked inside with a flashlight for stolen bones, then waved her up the stairs.

A group of British teenagers clowned around taking photos with their phones, bones in the background. They made silly faces, struck poses. What had Lili done down here? Just spray-paint his initials? Sometimes on the Métro she still watched out the window, wondering which of the brash, illegible tags were his, or if his had all vanished under fresh layers of paint and rebellion. “He could get in trouble always burrowing around down there,” Madame Harmou had said while Iris listened at the door of Pear’s study. “And for what? I don’t understand. He says he’s too fast, but I know the police have caught him before. He crumples up the tickets and throws them away. You can’t do that forever.”

At the end, Iris opened her bag for a man who looked inside with a flashlight for stolen bones, then waved her up the stairs. A pale, wintry evening had fallen, and the buildings looked bluish and chalky. During the day, especially in this leafless season, the city reminded her of an enormous mudflat: resolutely beige, cracked through with a web of streets, the khaki river in accordance with its embankments. She preferred this fleeting time when the light had faded but the streetlamps and yellow apartment windows had not yet asserted themselves, when all that limestone, ancient sea creatures, dead and compacted and dug out of the mirror-image city below, took on a delicate, lunar glow.

*                      *                     *

But before, back in the canopied deathbed, in the cool and quiet predawn, as the walls of Pierre’s inner labyrinth continued to disintegrate, another memory opened off the first like a cavern:

He is a young man in Paris, a student. At a party, a friend puts on a record. Beethoven. Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, “Pathétique.” When the adagio begins, a glass of red wine slips from Pierre’s fingers and breaks on the parquet. He barely notices. Slashing haphazardly with his cane, he crosses the room and crouches beside the stereo, clutching its edge.

“Again,” he says when the movement ends. “Please.”

A hand on his shoulder. A zip and a crackle. He listens with his forehead against the rough fabric of the speaker. This is the music, unmistakably. It has been lost for years, lost like his mother, lost like her piano, which was no longer in the house after the war. Had it been chopped up and burned? Had an enterprising soul somehow carted it off to sell? Had it gone to reside in an occupied country chateau to be pounded away at by a circle of singing Nazis? His mother will never return, but as he listens, he believes she is just in the next room, lavishing her caresses on a mass of smooth wood and cacophonous ivory, taut steel strings, sheet music easily sent cascading, pedals smooth and cold as cobblestones that, when he was small and would lie on his back beneath the instrument, hissed faintly as she depressed them with her small feet, her narrow leather pumps.

A sparkling tightness in his head. He is lying on his back, idly touching the varnished wood of the piano leg. Or is it a bedpost? Perhaps he is in his crib, his fingers passing over the smooth bars. Music floats up the stairs like a paper lantern.

*                      *                     *

As a child, Lili often came to Monsieur’s house after school to wait for his mother. While she finished in the kitchen, she might give him a cloth and set him to dusting bookshelves or the long banister that coiled up five floors to the attic, or she might allow him to loll on one of Monsieur’s hard sofas and do his schoolwork. He had not liked Iris, who was a bored, waspish child, vigilant for any opportunity to disconcert. Sometimes she would make a show of examining Lili in silence before bursting into peals of laughter. “Nothing,” she would say when he asked what was so funny. “You wouldn’t understand.”

But she was the one who did not understand.

For Lili, the belief that Monsieur Maillard was his father took form slowly, gathered into his young consciousness from wisps of instinct and conjecture the way some plants collect water vapor from the air: stray phrases, certain silences, the lack of other candidates, the way his mother talked to Monsieur when she thought no one was around. His mother told Lili his father had married her in Algiers, brought her to France, and was promptly hit by a car, but Lili did not believe her.

What was his name? Was he from Algeria, too? Didn’t he have any family who would want to meet me?

Please don’t trouble me about the past, Lili.

By the time he was nine, Lili was more or less certain.

Thanks to the boy who lived in the apartment next door to Lili and his mother and whose father had a collection of dirty videos, Lili had a clear idea of what his mother and Monsieur must have done together.

Monsieur asked after Lili’s marks in school and patted his shoulder, called him mon garçon, which was all very nice, but sometimes Lili would stare at the closed doors of the study where Monsieur sat all day dictating into a tape recorder or running his fingers over goosefleshed papers and wish fervently for Monsieur to burst out, arms open, cane aloft. My son, he would say. Come here. Come to your papa.

Thanks to the boy who lived in the apartment next door to Lili and his mother and whose father had a collection of dirty videos, Lili had a clear idea of what his mother and Monsieur must have done together. His mother was slender and very young, with smooth black hair. Men often looked at her. Had Monsieur, still in his forties and newly widowed when Lili’s mother arrived, simply been unable to resist his curiosity? Had he reached out and found a curved hip, a small breast? Lili could not bring himself to ask his mother. If he made her admit such a thing, the humiliation would surely cause her to shatter into a million pieces, and he would be left with nothing.

I am your uncle, Lili thought when he looked at Iris, while she glowered at him or sassed by on the stairs, bumping him out of the way. He decided he must be patient with her, in what he understood to be the way of uncles, even though she was a year older, even though she laughed at him.

Then suddenly she was a busty adolescent in thrift-store dresses and Chuck Taylors and elaborate makeup, witchy and sharp-eyed as a fortune-teller, rarely glimpsed by Lili, who only came to Monsieur’s house when his mother insisted. The sight of Monsieur infuriated him in his teens, filled him with the injustice of being unacknowledged, the indignity of watching his mother meekly cook and clean for the man who had fathered her child. So he busied himself with getting messed up and chasing girls and exploring the Métro with his spray paint, leaving his mark wherever he could, even in hard-to-find stations abandoned since the war, ads for shoe polish and face powder still plastered to their tiles. Pascal, an older Tunisian kid with facial piercings, showed him how to cross from the Métro into the catacombs. Some tunnels and chambers were flooded; some were full of jumbled bones. Six million Parisians, Pascal said. Robespierre and Marat down there somewhere, in pieces like the rest. Disarticulated.

There was privacy underground. Being unknown and unacknowledged was a natural state. So was silence. Sometimes he turned off his headlamp and simply walked, running his fingers along the stone, trusting he would be able to find his way back out.

Monsieur was kind man, a good man, Lili’s mother was always reminding him. Monsieur was always droning out letters and articles and motions on behalf of the persecuted and displaced, dictating endlessly into his tape recorder or to one of a string of assistants. When the doorbell rang at the tall narrow house, it usually opened to strangers: Arabs and Asians and Africans, men from the rubble of what had been Yugoslavia, Polish laborers with concrete dust in their hair, sometimes veiled women or men in priests’ collars or dour government suits. Monsieur opened his door to all these strangers, and yet he pretended his only son was just a kid he knew.

Once Lili saw Iris with an unknown man on a bench in the Jardin du Luxembourg. It was broad daylight and children were playing nearby, but the man had his mouth on her neck and his hand under her patchwork skirt. Her eyes were closed, her lips parted. Without meaning to, Lili stopped and stared. Iris opened her eyes and looked directly at him, heat lingering in her gaze.

He asked his mother later what she thought of Iris, and she had considered the question (which Lili told himself he was asking out of avuncular concern and not because he kept finding himself imagining his mouth on Iris’s neck, his hand under her skirt) and then said she did not think Iris was a nice girl.

As Lili grew older he might have relinquished his belief about Monsieur except that his mother had confirmed it when he was eleven. His class had studied genetics, and Lili had, in turn, studied Monsieur. Monsieur was left-handed, like Lili. His earlobes were attached to his head, like Lili’s. His eyes were blue, like Lili’s—so unusual, everyone said, Lili’s eyes with his complexion. Surreptitiously, Lili examined Monsieur’s thumbs to see if they were straight or curved, the middle digit of his fingers to see if hair sprouted there, his forehead for a widow’s peak. He had wished to see Monsieur’s toes, to ascertain if the second toe or the big toe was longer, but, alas, Monsieur always wore polished black shoes. Evidence was mixed, but: the left hand, the earlobes, the blue eyes that wandered their sockets like creatures in an aquarium.

One day his mother found him weeping in the attic. He liked the attic partly because no one else seemed to. It was accessed by a normal door at the top of the stairs and was quiet and dim, its big windows battened behind wooden shutters. Disused furniture under white sheets made an alpine landscape. His mother knew to look for him there.

“Little one,” she said, “what is it?”

“I don’t want to go blind,” Lili said.

She bent down and took his chin in her hand, lifting his head to look in his eyes. “You can see fine, can’t you? Why would you be blind?”

“Monsieur is blind.”

“Monsieur was unlucky. What does that have to do with you?”

In his fury, Lili reached up and pushed at her shoulders. “Don’t lie!” he said. “It insults me.”

She stared down at him. “What are you talking about?”

“I know Monsieur is my father. I know it.” Lili lowered his face to his knees and cried. When he could catch his breath, he said, “At least, if I go blind like him, then someone will have to admit the truth.”

His mother was silent. She stood with her arms folded, gazing at nothing, light from the shutters striping her body. He thought she might come and sit beside him, but she did not. She said, finally, “You won’t go blind, Lili. Monsieur was born without sight. You are already eleven. And eleven is old enough to keep a secret.” She pulled him to his feet, wrapped her arms around him so his face was buried in her neck. “You are lucky,” she murmured into his ear, “to have such a good man for a father, to have his blood in your veins. You must try to become a man like Monsieur one day. But, Lili, you must also never breathe a word.”

*                      *                     *

“Has he ever mentioned the Gliks?” Monsieur’s cousin Rosalie was in the kitchen, whispering over a cup of tea. Madame Harmou had been working for Monsieur for a year or so. Lili was only a baby.

Madame Harmou, forming little pastry boats to be filled with apricot jam, shook her head.

“I suppose he wouldn’t. I shouldn’t say anything, but—really it sheds so much light, and I expect you must be wondering why he was so eager to help you—why he helps all these people. I would hate for you to think he expects anything improper.” Rosalie waved her hands to cut off any potential protest from Madame Harmou, bracelets rattling. “Listen. Here it is. In the war, Pierre’s parents sheltered a family. Jews, you know. In the attic. A couple and their four daughters. Pierre was only a small child. The man, something Glik, had been his mother’s piano teacher for years. Anyway, they were betrayed and taken away. All of them. We didn’t know who did it. Pierre bribed someone in the archives after the war—turns out it was a neighbor who turned them in. In exchange for butter.”

Rosalie cast an accusatory glance at the yellow brick lying in its dish on the counter. She went on, “They all died, of course. All six Gliks in Auschwitz. Pierre’s father was shot. His mother died of typhus in prison.”

Madame Harmou knew she was supposed to say how horrible it all was, to express disbelief, to cluck and shake her head. But she knew Rosalie was skilled at having both sides of a conversation and so continued her work in silence.

The story was sad, but she had heard many sad war stories.

“Horrible, isn’t it?” said Rosalie, clucking. “My parents raised Pierre. He’s like a brother to me. These charitable impulses of his—he inherited his parents’ wish to do good. By doing good, he’s trying to honor them. Their misfortune was your salvation, Madame Harmou. And that is my little bit of insight for you today.” She leaned forward to catch Madame Harmou’s eye, winked, and was gone.

Madame Harmou raised a wrist to wipe at her tears, streaking her face with flour. The story was sad, but she had heard many sad war stories. Her own grandfather and all three of his brothers had been conscripted during World War I, taken from their orchard and sent to Europe for the first time only to die immediately in the mud. She was crying at the thought of Monsieur, his goodness, which was so profound, so moving to her.

*                      *                     *

All he was doing was walking down Monsieur’s street.

“Lili!”

He stopped and turned, and there was Iris after so long, short and sturdy, thighs like a lyre in black jeans, a blunt bob of hair, red lipstick. Her coat and scarf barely disguised the swell of large, alert, carefully scaffolded breasts. His desire for her stunned him, the virulence and immediacy of it. It did not dissipate even after he was rude to her, nor after he walked away and went about his nightly work like an automaton, gazing over a blue velvet room of sparkling people, sparkling bottles and glasses. Even after a week, the fever raged. He lived in a haze of wanton fantasies that did not disperse even when he was fucking some other girl. After two weeks, he asked to be sent to Cannes to oversee an underperforming club.

Beside the sea, he began to think less about Iris, but still she was there every night when he closed his eyes, even after a whisky and a sleeping pill, even if there was a girl next to him. Iris Maillard. If Lili believed in God and could ask him one question, it would be: Why Iris? Of all women, why was Iris the one to inhabit and abrade him, to take over his thoughts like a parasite, to make him strange to himself? The more he tried to squelch his desire, the more it thrived. Maybe he was simply a degenerate, an incestuous pervert. Maybe he was being punished for something. Maybe the frustrations of his youth had changed states, ice to water to steam, and become a different kind of torment.

You must try to become like Monsieur one day, his mother had said, years before. But, Lili, you must also never breathe a word. Monsieur made me promise never to tell you, and everything we have we owe to Monsieur. Monsieur helped me when I had nothing. Monsieur has provided for us.

It was my fault, she said. I tricked him. I exploited his weakness as a man, his loneliness, his grief for his wife.

Lili, she said, it would kill me if you said anything to him. I would die of shame.

Even in Cannes, he found himself thinking sometimes that if his mother were dead, he could have Iris and no one would know anything was amiss. Then he regarded himself with horror, wondered if he was losing his mind.

*                      *                     *

In the collapsing cosmos of Pierre Maillard’s mind, wisps of memory drifted and dissipated, more and more of them: long, feathery, vanishing cirrus tails.

Madame Harmou flits through, not dark eyes or slim hips but nearly silent footsteps, like those of a cat he had once had, the whisper of a dust cloth, the heat of an oven, the smell of mint. Mint tea, mint soap. Her son is a polite voice, eager, something in it that inexplicably saddens him.

He remembers Hélène as a child: small and compact and tart, an unripe fruit of a girl, not yet the unruly creature she would become, musky and furtive, brushing by.

Then he is lying beside his wife Martine in the canopy bed as she drifts between life and death, his fingers tracing the bones of her hands and arms. She smells of morphine. She is so young, only forty-two, but her skin is papery and fragile under his fingers, as though the cancer were trying to excuse itself by making her old. His lips find her ear. The small cavern seems, at that moment, like a portal into the beyond, but he can’t think what to whisper into it, what message to send to his parents, to the Gliks.

After, he lets grief get the better of him. He is cruel to Hélène. He is very drunk and will never remember exactly what he says, but, in a rage, he implies she was to blame for her mother’s death, that her sluttish, selfish behavior brought calamity upon them. The man from San Francisco is the rope on which Hélène swings away, off into the void.

A cat—he remembers a cat, presented to Martine by his cousin Rosalie as a wedding gift, a warm liquid unexpected thing curling around his ankles. Martine describes the cat as pumpkin-colored, and the glossy feel of the animal’s coat becomes forever linked to the taste of squash.

He is even younger, still a student. He has asked around and found a clerk in the police archives who will help. He tells her what he is looking for, slips her some cash, which she refuses, then accepts. He does not tell her about the fear that has nagged him from childhood, his hope she might exonerate him. No, said his aunt and uncle who had taken him in during the war, no, it was not his fault that his parents and the Gliks died. But he does not feel innocent. He feels, always, a nagging, amorphous fear. The clerk finds for him the document describing the betrayal and arrests and brings it to a café in the evening. Briskly, she reads aloud the few sentences. Butter, she says. Then a rustle of papers, her voice again, warmer, worried: “Monsieur, are you all right?”

His aunt buys the canopy bed, the bed where he will die, in a flea market. All the markets are still glutted with a war’s worth of orphaned furniture.

He is eleven, returning to Paris for the first time after the war. His uncle guides him carefully through the tall, narrow house, steering him around bits of ruined furniture, warning him where the banister is not be trusted. He feels stray papers sliding under his feet, grit. The house had been occupied by the Gestapo and then the Americans and then six displaced families crowded together, his uncle says. His uncle, a lawyer, will wrest the property back from the government and begin the most essential restorations (paid for out of Pierre’s large inheritance). “Where is the piano?” he asks. His uncle doesn’t know.

The house is rented out until Pierre is older and returns for university, studying law and also learning, with his long, tapping cane, the curbs and cobblestones of his birth city. His aunt buys the canopy bed, the bed where he will die, in a flea market. All the markets are still glutted with a war’s worth of orphaned furniture. For its drapes, she finds blue fabric patterned with tiny silver stars.

*                      *                     *

By May, Lili believed he had rehabilitated himself and could safely return to Paris. In June, despite his best efforts to avoid her, he ran into Iris on the Rue de Rivoli, far from Monsieur’s house. She was so burdened with shopping bags, so pleased to see him, so flushed and pretty that he had no choice but to accompany her home, the bags seeming to multiply as she ceded some to him, enough so they both ended up with their arms full. He tried to deposit her things and flee, but she barred the door, insisting he stay for a glass of wine. “Drink one small token of my gratitude,” she said. “That’s all I ask.”

She sat on a sofa while he perched on the edge of a chair and gazed at his hands or up at a chandelier where spiders were making lace, anywhere but at her face. Iris said she had gone to the catacombs after they ran into each other the last time, and didn’t he go into them when he was a kid? Not the public tunnels but the other ones? There were more, weren’t there?

Miles more, he said.

Did he still ever go? Would he take her?

As a matter of fact, he said (reluctant, thrilled, bargaining with himself), a DJ he knew—his old friend Pascal, now DJ Cathedral—was spinning at a party that very night. A secret party. It would be in the catacombs, in one of the Nazi bunkers. He could take her, if she wanted. “But first,” he said, pointing up at the chandelier, “I need to clean that.”

Iris said not to be silly. It would have to be taken down and done specially. But Lili, who fetched a ladder from the attic and went up with a cloth among the gently chiming prisms and glass beads, felt that the neglected chandelier said something embarrassing about his mother, about small advantages taken of a blind employer.

And so he found himself underground with Iris. Techno ricocheted off walls still painted with “Ruhe”—“Quiet”—in a Teutonic font. Iris danced, her knees swiveling, wrists turning, reminding him of a temple dancer, perhaps a genie. He had told her to wear rubber boots, and, grooving in her yellow Wellies, she looked cheerfully apocalyptic, a disaster worker getting down.

Lili went to shake Pascal’s hand in the glow of his laptops. “Like old times down here,” Pascal said, slipping him a tab of ecstasy. “Feel fantastic, yeah?”

The drug had always seemed aptly named to Lili. Fireflies floated through his belly, his heart, multiplying. He pressed his cheek against the bunker’s cool wall. The Nazis could never have imagined. Everything would be fine. There had been no need to be so worried. Love is love. Love is good. Iris pulled him into the crowd of dancers. She wanted him, too; he could tell. The music was more than music. The music was love. He told Iris this, and she looked at him askance but laughed. He clasped her wrist. The blood moved through her veins in time with his blood in his veins, in time with Pascal’s beat, in time with the clenching of his jaw.

He led her away, down one tunnel, then another. He took her through a passage where the bones were piled so high they had to wriggle over them on their bellies. The dry, rattling sound pleased him, like bamboo wind chimes. In another tunnel, beige water lapped almost to their knees. He paused to dip his hands, to feel the drops run off his fingertips. “Hence the boots,” Iris said, splashing after him. The music faded to a distant beat and then nothing. He stopped in an open chamber where multiple tunnels fanned off into blackness. He turned off his headlamp and took her flashlight from her hand and turned it off, too. When he inhaled, the darkness entered his lungs, cool and inky, undiluted. They were not touching, but he sensed her warmth. The Métro rumbled somewhere overhead, a passing comet of sound.

“We might as well be in outer space,” he said. “Or dead and buried. Maybe there isn’t so much of a difference, you know. They’re both things I’ll never see. And they’re both… beautiful.”

“You know,” she said, “you could have gotten some of whatever you’re on for me, too.” Then, quickly: “It doesn’t matter. Just don’t get us lost.”

Somehow then her warmth was against him. He didn’t know if he had reached for her or her for him, but the feel of her overwhelmed him, the way her body took shape out of nothing. In a moment—more than a moment?—he unlocked himself, staggered away, his fingers trailing along the wall, every seam in the stone loud through his nerves. He didn’t go far. Around a corner. Far enough to regain control. She didn’t call after him. He crouched for a minute. The sensation of his own fingers raking through his hair soothed him. Her face in the flashlight when he came back was determinedly proud, the face of a woman who believed she had been the victim of a childish prank. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Please believe me that this is a bad idea. You should slap me, please. It would make me feel better.”

“But the only thing that would make me feel better,” she said, “would be for you to kiss me again so I don’t feel like such an idiot.”

They made love in the catacombs, partly dressed, down in the dust. He felt as though he were inhaling and inhaling without ever reaching the capacity of his lungs, as though he had become an infinite vessel. The scale of it was almost unbearable. When he led her back up aboveground, the warm, humid air and the bright night filled him with awe. The Eiffel Tower fizzed with light. From its apex, search beams rolled and tumbled across the sky.

But in the ultramarine quiet just before dawn, while Iris slept beside him beneath the starry, bellied-out blue of the canopy, a chasm of irrevocability swallowed him up. The drug and all its buoyancy, its iridescence, had gone and left behind a terrible vacuum.

Quietly, he slid out from under the covers, picked his clothes up off the floor. He dressed in the dark hallway, crept down the stairs.

He paced. Sat down, stood up again, drank warm vodka from a bottle, chewed some pills without being sure what they were, only knowing that any alteration of state was for the best.

He eased open the servants’ door and there was his mother, head bent, one hand in her large cloth purse. At first she looked at him in blank surprise. Then he saw her understand, and he saw disgust beginning to coalesce in her features. He fled. The street cleaners had already been through, and the cobblestones were slick and gleaming. He could not bear to descend below ground and so walked the three miles to his apartment. Once there, he paced. Sat down, stood up again, drank warm vodka from a bottle, chewed some pills without being sure what they were, only knowing that any alteration of state was for the best. He craved escape, privacy from himself. Whenever he was not guarding against it, whenever the slightest slack came into his mind, there it was. More than a thought, almost a wish: If she were dead, then no one would know.

*                      *                     *

The back door opened as Madame Harmou was searching for her keys, and Lili appeared, hair tousled, eyes bloodshot, clothes streaked with pale mud and dust, a vision of his teenage self—sleepless, bearing traces of the souterrain—but older, horribly so, blue shadows in his face. For a moment she experienced only bafflement, then a brief, vertiginous notion that it was evening and he had come looking for her, even though he had not come to the house since Iris arrived. Ah, there it was. As soon as her mind alit on Iris, Madame Harmou knew why she was encountering her son, why he looked so anguished at the sight of her.

“Lili,” she said, reaching to restrain him, knowing that he would—as he did—twist past her and vanish down the street, running. She stood on the threshold, looking in the direction he had disappeared. A moped sped by, vibrating on the cobblestones. Slowly she turned and went inside, lugged her bags up the stairs. She had come early to bake bread. She liked being in the house, made excuses to be there. In the kitchen, she filled a bowl with warm water and added a spoonful of yeast, a pinch of sugar. She would not allow herself to think yet. Outside, yellow light seeped through the early haze.

“Good morning.” Iris was in the doorway in her robe. Madame Harmou knew she herself had never looked (would never look) the way Iris did: pink and tenderized as veal, dreamy, only half in the world. Nor could Madame Harmou fathom how much Lili must have wanted this particular woman, who looked like quite an ordinary woman. The realization of what he had done revolted her. That wishful lie, told so long ago, intended to spare them both from shame, had rusted into place. She almost believed it herself.

She had considered telling him the truth after Monsieur was dead, but what would Lili think of her, his mother, for allowing him to be angry at Monsieur for so many years? So much righteous indignation at an innocent man. This business with Iris… Madame Harmou had not predicted it. The lie aside, Iris was not a good girl for Lili. She ran around with men, like Hélène did. She must have tempted Lili. Madame Harmou decided she would wait a day, let Lili settle down, and then she would tell him the truth.

Iris said, “Is there coffee?”

“I’m sorry,” said Madame Harmou. “Not yet.”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m going back to bed.”

Madame Harmou made coffee in the American machine Iris had brought with her, sifted flour, turned on the oven. Buying bread was simpler, but she liked the alchemy of kneading and baking.

Not long after Lili’s birth, Monsieur had taken her aside. “I don’t think you have anyone to talk to, Madame Harmou. Do you want me to introduce you to some kind, good women, also from Algeria? Women with babies?”

No, she had not wanted that. She wanted no connection to home.

“Then I hope you will talk to me sometimes. Especially about the boy. It would be a terrible hardship, not to speak about your child to anyone, and you would be keeping a lonely widower company.”

She had found him lying dead in bed, flat on his back, mouth agape, eyes open, sunlight blazing into the milky irises. She had reached to close his eyes but could not, in the end, touch him. She was not sure she had ever touched him. Lili had cried like a child when she told him the news, bent over in his chair with his face in his hands. She had not seen him cry since the day in the attic.

Even before she knew about the Gliks, even before it became the site of her terrible lie, she had not liked the attic. She did not like the white-shrouded furniture, the rustlings of mice, the small corpses of moths scattered beneath the shuttered windows. She did not like the slanted bars of light that fell onto sheets and floorboards the way they had fallen on tablecloths and tiles in the empty café in Algiers, its shutters closed against the midday heat. (“Hello?” she called. Something rustled behind her.) Her father had sent her to buy some tea. When she returned without it but would give no explanation, he had pinched her arm and accused her of stealing his money, even though she had fished the coins from her pocket and held them—all of them—out in one trembling hand. Her assailants had only been blurry shapes through the cotton dishtowel they stretched over her eyes.

Sometimes she caught herself examining Lili’s face, trying to subtract her own features, searching for the face of a man she had never seen. He must have had blue eyes. When she discovered she was pregnant, her favorite uncle, a magistrate who had studied law with Monsieur in Paris, wrote Monsieur a letter on her behalf. Monsieur’s wife had just died; he would give her a job; he would help with her papers. Madame Harmou was only sixteen then. Her uncle, embracing her before she boarded her ship, promised never to tell her father where she had gone or why.

Near the end of Monsieur’s life, when she was sitting with him in his study, he had said, “I will tell you this, which I have never told another soul. I think it will be a relief to tell someone.”

The room had grown dark around them as he told her about the Gliks, the piano teacher and his wife and daughters, how they were taken and his parents arrested. He thought he remembered the policemen’s voices and heavy footsteps, but he suspected the memory was counterfeit, imagined. His parents had not come to the nursery to say goodbye. Maybe they had no opportunity, or maybe they did not wish to draw attention to him. His nanny took him to her own apartment, and in a few days his uncle came from Lyon to collect him.

He wept and apologized, and his uncle gathered him into his lap on a train station bench and wept and apologized, too.

During the long and difficult journey to Lyon, his uncle in his distraction nearly lost Monsieur several times in crowded rail stations when he walked off without him, forgetting he could not see to follow. The abandonment was accidental, but Monsieur believed he was being punished. He wept and apologized, and his uncle gathered him into his lap on a train station bench and wept and apologized, too.

When bombs fell on Lyon in 1944, Monsieur was hiding in the cellar with his uncle and aunt and cousins Rosalie and Marcel and their dogs, down in the cool earth like so many potatoes, dust showering onto their heads after each detonation. When the liberating army came, he heard their jeeps and tanks, their motorcycles and boots. His uncle, joyful, lifted him onto his shoulders, above the crowd, where Monsieur swayed in the open air and called, in confused excitement, for his mother.

Some months later, at the movies with his cousins, he did not see the emaciated prisoners on the newsreel, the piles of corpses, but the narrator explained enough. He vomited on the floor and had to be carried out. A doctor was summoned.

“Who are the Gliks?” the doctor asked Rosalie and Marcel, squatting on the lobby’s marble floor as he replaced his stethoscope in his bag.

From then on, Monsieur could not abide the mildewed cool and plush seats of cinemas, the booming voices.

“My parents,” Monsieur said to Madame Harmou, “must have decided it would be safer to keep me in ignorance. How difficult could it be? I was already, as it were, in the dark. I have to say, I’m offended by this still, in a completely childish way, a nonsensical way. I believe I could have been trusted, even though I was so small. The Gliks must have crossed the city in the night and come in while I was asleep, just before one of the deportations. They were, it must be said, extremely quiet, only moving around the house late at night when I was asleep, but sometimes I heard sounds.” He paused. His eyes swiveled unevenly up to the ceiling.

“All six of the Gliks died in Auschwitz, Madame Harmou. And my father was shot in Paris, and my mother died of typhus in prison.”

“I know,” said Madame Harmou. “Rosalie told me years ago.”

“Ah. I should not be surprised.” He was silent for a moment. Then he said, “There is one more thing.”

Monsieur had played sometimes with a neighborhood boy, Luc, the rare child who did not seem bothered by his blindness. In retrospect, Monsieur wondered if Luc might have been a little simple. Luc’s mother was an entrepreneurial collaborator, it turned out, and it was she who traded a tip about the Maillards’ attic for butter. He learned this from the archive clerk he bribed, the papers she brought to the café. Luc’s mother had gone to a Vichy policeman and told him she wanted butter. She wanted to eat it; she wanted to rub a bit of it on her cracked feet; she had something to trade for it. Dutifully, the policeman noted this all down. Being unusually thorough, he also recorded her reason for suspecting the Maillards.

Poor Monseiur, only five years old, had born no ill will against the Gliks. He had decided, in his innocence, that the sounds from the attic were the murmurs and shufflings of ghosts. Ghosts, he whispered to his friend Luc, who, wide-eyed, repeated the story to his father and to his mother.

Madame Harmou will tell the story to no one—why should she?—and when she dies, it will join a sea of dark matter that surrounds the living, undetectable but exerting force, the memories of the dead.

*                      *                     *

Another Monsieur Maillard, in 1927, buys his wife a piano, a parlor grand with rosewood veneer and mother-of-pearl inlay. She needs, he says, something to pass the time, at least until she becomes pregnant. She asks around about teachers, and a friend recommends Hermann Glik, newly arrived from Austria with his wife and baby daughter. “He’s a Jew,” the friend says, “but he’s an excellent musician and really very polite.”

A week later, Madame Maillard positions her hands over the keys the way Herr Glik has shown her.

“Like this?”

“Very good.”

It is her first lesson. She does not expect she will have much time for piano once she is pregnant, which she expects will be soon. She does not expect it will take, as it does, ten years and five miscarriages before she holds Pierre in her arms, perfect except for something odd about his eyes. She does not expect to give up hope of ever having a child, to seek comfort in her power to bring down tiny hammers on the sonorous strings, to learn from Herr Glik how to expel music from her body and send her sorrow with it. She does not expect another war to come, that she will play for hours so the Gliks, in the attic, can hear.

“C major scale, please,” he says. “Like we discussed.”

Feeling foolish, peering nearsightedly at the black dots arrayed on the pages in front of her, she presses the keys.

“Yes,” he says, “but don’t worry about looking at the paper now. It’s very simple. Only white keys. One note follows another, follows another, follows another. So.”

He demonstrates, leaning over her shoulder to reach the keys, singing the names of the notes in his soft voice and clipped accent as he goes. “Now two octaves,” he says.

As he reaches the high C and begins to descend, she interrupts. “Herr Glik, you play so much more beautifully than I ever could. What if you came every week and played while I listened? I would pay the same rate, and it would be so much nicer, don’t you think? I will be a mother soon anyway, so there’s really no point in you taking the trouble to teach me. It would be a waste of your time.”

He sits in the spindly dining chair she placed for him beside her piano stool and regards her from above his long, unfashionable mustache. “Madame Maillard,” he says, “I’m sure you will be a wonderful mother and very soon, but we can’t know the future. If you wish to study the piano only to while away the hours, then we will part now as friends. But if you respect the instrument, you will not waste anyone’s time. Those hours will pass, and you will unfurl music into them, which is a good, in my opinion.”

She doesn’t know quite what he means, but the intensity of his gaze, the seriousness with which he is treating her intentions, beguiles her. “I’m not sure what to do,” she says. She laughs a little. “I’m at a loss.”

Herr Glik has a new baby and is worried about money, about making a life in a new city. He says, “Think, too, how nice it will be for the baby to grow up with music in the house, to learn to play himself. Or herself.”

She likes the thought. She imagines herself giving concerts for her friends, playing lullabies to soothe her baby. “Very well,” she says. “Let us proceed.”

G

Author Image

Maggie Shipstead is the author of two novels: Astonish Me and Seating Arrangements, which won the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction. She is a graduate of Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford. Her writing has appeared in many publications including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New Republic, Tin House, and The Best American Short Stories. “La Moretta,” a story published in VQR, was a National Magazine Award finalist. She lives in Los Angeles.

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