From ‘A Graft of Roses’

A synagogue. I had never before visited one, but knew from friends in Prague that the women sat separately, in the balcony. A portly rabbi with a formidable tri-colored beard and a whip-thin cantor stood on the altar, in front of a wooden ark heavily inlaid with metals and carvings. The foreign words of the prayers washed over me, a droning, soothing rhythm. A muffled din filtered down from where the women chattered and gossiped. I imagined Marthe, smiling politely, hands folded in her lap. She would not be interested in complaining about the scarcity of fresh fruit at the market, about the lack of good husband prospects. Her eyes would widen as she focused on the ark, and soon her face would engage, her lips begin moving.

A sharp stab moved through my gut. I hadn’t known Marthe was Jewish. Had I even considered the possibility? Of course she had a history, a life even beyond what my overactive imagination fashioned… but it had never occurred to me that it might contain something so rare, so unique, that was not of her flesh, but infinitely more ancient. Had she kept this from me as she did her exploits with men, out of some sense of politeness or professionalism? Or perhaps, I thought, seized by anguish, it didn’t even occur to her to share this.

For the first time, I noticed a bright flame glowing above the altar, filtered through a rosy glass, like a classy brothel lantern. Last night Marthe rested her head against my chest, fingering my lapel. She had murmured something over and over about a light. It was a soothing chain of sound, vaguely familiar, like a spell sautering us together. I tried to touch each red strand that shot through her hair. Sleep was just starting to overtake me, but my limbs jolted, startled me awake. I thought of Venus and Mars caught in Vulcan’s invisible web, and could almost hear the mocking laughter of my mother, of Sarah, of Drouen. The joke was definitely on me: I had wanted to be original, and I had fallen in love with a prostitute.

Circles of red light emanated from the flame as I stared. An intense heat swept across my face, and sweat sprung out on my brow. Soon the sweat trickled down over my nose, my cheeks, into the thicket of my mustache, over my chin and down into the folds of my collar. A warm glow insinuated itself into my coat, under my vest and into my armpits, up my back. It tightened like a vise at the back of my skull. My eyelids flew open wider, strained to take in that rosy hue, and I felt I could hear the congregation singing through the membranes of my eyes.

I was muttering audibly. The men around me glowered; it was permitted to chant from piety, not insanity. Excusing myself, shamed, I lurched out of the pew, through the doors, and into the night. Eternal light, she had said. Eternal heat.

I swept along the quai toward my studio, nodding here and there at a familiar face, at Clovis the maitre d’, who seemed shocked when I did not stop for a nightcap. I plunged onward through the dim lights seeping from Notre Dame — hulking, spindling form resolutely anchored in the stream of time. I stopped short and ceased trembling: The heat of the eternal flame had met something within me, had not penetrated me entirely. It had touched some inner core that it could not shift or sully. The streets, the river, the shops and corners and turrets of Paris spooled through my mind, one red-golden skein: my anchor. Anchored, at last.

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From ‘A Graft of Roses’

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