Elisa Schulmann took the last pin out of her mouth, slipped it carefully into the silk of the skirt she was altering, and picked up her needle. She glanced up; Madame Serge was watching her, standing in the open doorway that led to the front of the shop. She kept her hands steady under her employer's frown, taking a tiny, careful stitch.
“Wash your hands.”
Elisa laid down her work. “I washed them when I came in, Madame.”
Elisa sat up very straight, glancing at the doorway of the windowless workroom and the narrowing stripe of afternoon light. She ducked her head carefully, keeping her hands still on the linty black fabric of her skirt. “I'm truly sorry, Madame, but you know that on Fridays—”
“You will make an exception tonight.”
Elisa lifted her head and looked Madame Serge in the eye. “I'm truly sorry, Madame,” she enunciated.
The woman's cold frown sharpened. “You people shouldn't work in Christian shops. I ought never to have hired you. Always trying to rub your difference in people's faces—too good to drink a cup of coffee with us—I wouldn't be so proud if my religion was based on doing cruel things to baby boys—”
Elisa was on her feet before she knew it, blood pounding in her ears. She froze. “Excuse me, Madame,” she said through lips stiff as clay. “I have a personal need.” She turned and walked carefully to the shop's tiny bathroom, then locked herself in and sat down on the toilet lid, shaking.
“God, help me,” she said in a harsh whisper. “Help me, please.” She closed her eyes, thought of the lines in Papa's face last week when he'd told her the rent had gone up again. Their rent, not the neighbors'. All Jews have gold under their mattresses, didn't you know? She thought of the day Papa had asked her to do this. The day Karl Schulmann, who had once been able to provide what was finest for his family, had admitted he needed his daughter's help. A tiny, burning coal had lit somewhere behind her breastbone at that moment. It was burning still. I will not fail them.
She took a deep, silent breath. Help me. She loosened her bun and re-pinned it, carefully, then rose and opened the door. Madame Serge was measuring a hem. Elisa stood silently till the woman finished, then spoke quietly, eyes down.
“I apologize, Madame. I will try to wash my hands more often. I apologize for my attitude and I will do as much as I can for you tonight.”
“Till it's finished?”
“Till seven, Madame.”
Madame Serge blew sharply through her nostrils, turned away and began to roll up her measuring tape.
By seven Elisa had the new sleeves of Madame Boutet's dress pieced, pinned, and the first seam stitched, and she was exhausted. She showed Madame Serge her work, ignoring the breathy sounds of her displeasure; they were good signs, signs that breath would be the only consequence tonight. She ducked her head respectfully as she said Bonsoir. She walked out of the shop and heard the door close behind her, and filled her lungs with the open air.
The narrow streets of Lyon were deep in shadow beneath the three-story houses, clouds already brightening to pale sunset gold in the sky above; Elisa went quickly, threading her way to the dingier quarters. She turned into her familiar alley and went down it hugging the gray wall, away from the stench of the sewer drain where something seemed to have died. She let herself in the back door and climbed the stairwell, shutting her ears against the sound of angry voices through thin walls. Her eyes found her own door, her fingers rising instinctively, eyes on the two ragged nail holes where the mezuzah used to be. They always tightened her stomach a little, those holes. She passed them by and let herself in the door, into peace.
It smelled like chicken. It smelled like Shabbos. The deep, sweet peace of Saturdays in the house back in Heidelberg came back to her with the scent, and her eyes stung. Her right hand lifted to the small bright mezuzah nailed in its new place on the inner doorframe, and for a moment she thought of nothing but the holy words inside. Then she heard her sister's voice: “Just stop it!”
She set her jaw and walked down the little hallway to their bedroom. Her brother Karl sat on the bed, arms crossed and face defiant, as their sister Tova, fingers tangled in her half-made braid, wailed “I'm going to have to redo it all!”
“Karl,” said Elisa.
“I didn't,” said Karl hotly, “I didn't touch her, I just asked if I could share the washbasin a minute—”
“You hit my elbow!”
“I didn't mean to!”
“But you did,” said Elisa. “Apologize. Tova, I'll fix it.”
“Sorry,” muttered Karl to Tova's shoes.
“Thank you,” whispered Tova, tears appearing in her eyes. She smiled at Karl through them. She was the only one of them who used her Hebrew name for everyday; it had stuck, Mama said, because it meant “good.” And wasn't that just like a parent, thinking pliable was good? Elisa worried for her. “Shh now,” she soothed as she braided her sister's thick, wet hair. “It's all right.”
She gave Karl his turn at the basin and then shooed them out so she could change. She heard clinking from the kitchen as she peeled out of the sweat-stained black working dress, and doubled her pace. As she combed her hair something rustled behind her. A slip of paper appeared under the door—then flicked back out of sight. She turned her back. Do you know what I do for this family? I'd like a minute's peace sometime. Rustle. Flick. She glanced back. There it was, then—flick—a grin seemed to hang in the air. The corners of her mouth softened helplessly. Whispers from behind the door; a giggle. She twisted her hair into a bun, shoving bobby pins in ruthlessly, and dove for the paper as it slid forward again. “Ha!” She threw open the door and displayed her trophy. “I win.”
“Come to the table,” Mama called from the dining-room.
As she followed her grinning siblings down the hallway she glanced aside at the open door of her parents' cluttered bedroom. Her smile fell away as she took in what lay on the bed.
Mama's jewelry box. Open.
Her heart tightened, then began to pound. The open lid, that ought to be locked and hidden in its place under the floorboards, spoke to her as if aloud. It's not all right. Tova and Karl were almost too young to remember the days back in Heidelberg when the automobile had gone, and the carved walnut furniture, and the piano. Her first piano. She'd cried and cried. The next day Papa had taken her to a rally. She'd heard words she still could not burn out of her mind. “We must leave this country,” Papa had told her quietly, as she walked home with him white-faced. “I am so sorry, Lies. I would not have sold your piano for any lesser reason than this. You see, they will not let us leave with our money. That is the price.”
“It's not fair,” she had whispered.
“It's not fair,” he'd said gravely, as if they were reciting a lesson together. Then, “We will pay them and go.”
She leaned on the doorframe, staring at the box. Who are we paying now? Where do we go? The handful of bright things in there was all their savings. Not enough. She had heard Papa say so. She had heard him say over and over that the rumors from Paris must be exaggerated; that even if the Nazis had done such a thing in the Occupied Zone it was another matter here. This was still France.
He had said it to her and Karl and Tova, his voice measured and calm. He had seemed so sure.
The gold in the box spoke its silent question. “I don't know,” she whispered, and turned away. She walked down the hall to the dining-room, to where against the scarred wall the pure-white cloth was laid on the table, the blue-and-white plates and the clean napkins by each one. To where Mama stood behind the four tall candles, and Papa by her side smiling. To Shabbos dinner, and peace for tonight.
young woman sewing: Vincent Van Gogh, wikimedia commons
alley: vanOrt, https://www.flickr.com/photos/vanort/
candles: Miheala Gimlin, https://mihaelagimlin.com/