Bent in the corner-most seat of the final row of the Sorbonne lecture hall Simon felt claustrophobic, fought in his mind with the thickened crowd—to find an exit just in case. This was a harmless salle de conférence, lost in a labyrinth of hallways, small with a few hundred seats that dipped quickly toward the stage, but the stately arcades with their chiseled vines and flowers grew here a sense of majesty. Simon rubbed harshly the tendon of his neck, which was sore from swiveling brushes and pencils, small talk and war talk and the heart of the matter back and forth between the canvas and the prostitute until dawn. The chair he sat in was comfortable, its scarlet upholstery worn but softer than his bed. The tendon gave out for a moment, so that his head seemed to fall from the atlas bone and into the lap of the empty chair beside him. I am losing my mind. Literally. Breathe. At once he picked his head up, was brought to his senses by a violent itch to speak with Jean-Pierre—to ask him a question. The early train from Versailles to Paris had been filled with itching inquiries too: German soldiers muttering indecipherable uncertainties about their apparent assignments, and so many French eyes wandering over to them and then away, eyebrows hooking down and blending into noses to form question marks around the blank looks of too many faces.
The auditorium was mostly dark, but he could read the ranked organization of the audience, a crowd young with students and progressively aging until it reached the final breed, the final row, which was filled with two women who looked somehow like nuns missing their habits, an owl in a three-piece but two-penny suit—pale blue and faded in the little light—and a man separated from everyone by three seats on each side, a man who sat upright like a corporal at attention, whose eyes, set deep, constantly blinked against weariness. He looked from side to side often, and did so as though he thought he was being discreet. Which he probably was, but Simon, too tired to listen to the lecture, was stealing the same discreet glances at him.
The rest of the crowd seemed to heave forward and sit tensely according to the lecture, the urgent elegance delivered by his beloved friend Jean-Pierre, philosopher, anachronistic disciple of St. Thomas Aquinas—the plump monk and muscle of the Middle Ages. Rouge owned a deep admiration for Jean-Pierre, even though he himself had never been engaged in politics: the intricacies of political order escaped him, even after hours spent poring over newspapers—into a fog they went—and, Simon repeated to himself and to Jean-Pierre, he was an artist. He was not made for public life. How many times Jean-Pierre had pulled on his collar, breathed in quickly, then pulled on his mustache: ritually he expiated his disappointment. Rouge, used to letting people down, remained barely touched by his friend’s frustration. But now, watching the crowd follow Jean-Pierre’s every word, a hundred hungry beggars eating everything he said, Rouge paid attention, heard: “Is war just an escalated duel? Is it that easy?” Jean-Pierre laid his dark-plaid suit on top of the lectern and smoothed it as he blinked several times, letting the question grow concentrically from his fiery eyes. Simon’s left hand started shaking. War grew into his arm like a thin but wide-spanning weed, wrapped around his wrist, and concentrated there. Idiot. So many brown-uniforms, so many long-legged boots sleek and strangely sheik enough for Paris, had not been goad enough for him to face this. It had been those planes. Those great manmade birds—those things men one hundred years ago would call bullocks, divine almost the way their mere passing made the very earth tremble. Jean-Pierre raised his pale blue eyes, raised his voice, and spoke so much with his arms that Simon waited for them to fly off. Fists against a crowd made of more friends than enemies. He muttered a prayer for his friend’s life—afraid that he would turn up tomorrow as a long black-and-white column in a Resistance newspaper.
“So many of you, I know, pace with questions over the actions that are just. Or so I hope. For the question would be a good sign, a sign that you are figuring your place in this disaster. Do not doubt my sympathy, but too many are now defeatist, are now collaborating with Pétain in the Vichy government, and have submitted like, what, house-slaves, under our uninvited pestilence. Are you, lovers or haters of our country but citizens nonetheless, like citizens of every country—lovers or haters—ready to leave all we have become in the hands of collaborationist mystiques? For they still reign. And though the blame is manifold, in our country as much as anywhere in this cowed Europe, the culprits are easy enough to cue: on the one hand the aegis of reactionary bourgeois leaders who feared and even hated the people and feared Communism enough to collaborate with nearly any other authority, to, with Machiavelli, worship any brute force—Mussolini or the terrible Herr—in order to preserve order . . . and on the other hand a socialism of demagogy founded on a false philosophy, with a revolutionary insistence capable only of frittering away the nation’s vitals and furthering divisions, all the while ruining the just and praiseworthy energies of labor. You must see: the left failed democracy and the right failed France.”
Simon shook off the heavy night, the stressed sketches of Jeane and Raissa, and saw a glimpse of Therese, who seemed so steady under all the lip-biting and heads scratched so hard they bled. War. So this is war. The last one too was war. But they say this one—this one! War it could still be called but—violence. His family was assuming a new form, one forged in this . . . as though war was their earthly father.
As though raised by one hundred nylon marionette-strings, the entire audience sat straight at Jean-Pierre’s voice, and Simon started to hear: “It is this raw anti- which we would need to eliminate if we would not see all we say we fight for eliminated. We cannot be just anti-. The more practical-minded will accuse me of that privilege of distance which makes the philosopher’s words devoid of reality. You need to be anti-, now, and whatever will be built on that will be built later. You by necessity can only be the resistance. But let this be known. Machiavellianism, which again is politics ruled by art and empty of content—the total art of power. Machiavellianism, of which National Socialism is a concrete example, may, if we have nothing other than resistance to repeal it with, be replaced by one more nothing. Nihil. For Nazi Machiavellianism is an anti-political politics. And the French resistance is quickly turning into an anti-political militarism. Let us not prostitute politics to the same principles of negation at work in the enemy.”
Jean-Pierre was always answers. He would start out tremulous, his voice soft and even inaudible. And then, his eyes often closing, his parted hair mussed by hands that did not know where to go with their verve, his mouth would water the world with words that really worked—all rationales driven by his charismatic certainty that what one said here carried consequences into eternity.
Simon recalled the heated talk he dared with Jean-Pierre some days back, deliberating over the newest character of his caricature-paintings: the prostitute, the daughter of joy. Ah—what a petty trial now that his eyes were open to see the pestilence, the marching pestilence, the brown-uniformed pestilence stealing lazy leans in trains, stealing another bloc of Paris every day. It was comforting, now, to go into these qualms of conscience.
“You would never guess,” Jean-Pierre had tapped his cigarillo ash and answered, “that our great St. Thomas Aquinas also had his qualms over a daughter of joy. Imagine. His family was already fed up with him for rejecting the high social standing and innumerable kin-shared luxuries of life in the Benedictine abbey. As though to stop him, his brothers, who later locked him in the family prison cell—ah when morals and mores were holy!—, paid a prostitute in advance. Entering his room on the eve before he left to join the rabble-rousing Dominicans, they shoved her in and shut the door. Not long after, she came firing out, chased by Aquinas, yes, who was wielding a fire-poker. Ah, if only those who, meeting only his potent but laborious writings, could meet the man! But,” Jean-Pierre had been sitting at the very edge of the cafe stool, his hands on his knees and his almost lavender-blue eyes lost, “but you asked a question, friend. The very act of which is made of humility. You ask after morality and art. Oscar Wilde spoke as a student of Aquinas when he said that a man’s being a poisoner detracts nothing from his prose. St. Thomas himself has said that art’s good, the good art is after, is not the good of the human will, of the human appetite. Forgive me if I turn to the Greek word kalokagathos, beautiful-and-good, which is used to designate the moral good. Is it possible for you to accept that art’s good is not the same as the moral good? Yes, you are a painter, but you are not your painting. And you are also a man. You are stretched, in tension: it is madness for morality to pronounce judgments on art, and it is equally mad for art to pronounce judgments on matters of morality. Art and morality. Each is sovereign in its own separate sphere. Still, you are a man before you are an artist. So art is indirectly subject to the law of morality.”
“You have thoroughly confused me,” Simon admitted, sipping at the froth of his still-hot coffee. Was his own breath blowing on it keeping it warm? Feverishly, he said, “I mean. Not you. But. Yes, I think I understand. Understanding does nothing to remove the tension.”
“I am not saying that it does not matter what one paints, writes, puts into poems. This would be—forgive me for my mind is always halfway in politics these days—a truly Machiavellian aesthetic: content is trumped by, oh, what? Consequences? I have to work that out . . . I see your thoughts, thank you, laid out on the table. It is not terrible that you question—”
“It is not that I question what you say simply, as you sometimes suggest, because your teacher has been dead for over five hundred years. No. Maybe I just wish we had a painting painted by St. Thomas himself, of that prostitute. It is hard without a model. Without imitation. Without . . . ”
Simon looked ahead, focused his own eyes on Jean-Pierre, at whom he had long been staring blankly. He blinked hastily, surreptitiously.
Jean-Pierre, forty minutes into his speech, was staring at the ceiling. His broomstick limbs jutted out sporadically as he spoke:
“If some day absolute Machiavellianism triumphs over mankind, this will only be because all kinds of accepted iniquity, moral weakness and consent to evil, operating within a degenerating civilization, will previously have defiled it, and prepared slaves ready-made for the man without law. The only Machiavellianism democracy is capable of is a weak Machiavelliansm subject to the limits on power. Facing absolute Machiavellianism, either the democratic states, inheritors of the Ancien Règime and of its old Machiavellian policy, will go on with their Machiavellianism, and be unravelled from without, or they will choose recourse to absolute Machiavellianism, and totalitarian spirit; and thus they will destroy themselves from within. They will survive, finally—and, more than survive, they will assume a place in history worth taking—only on condition that they break with all forms of Machiavellianism. If absolute Machiavellianism succeeds totally on the earth, this will mean not the end of man but the end of political life, will leave only a knot of animal and slave life, littered with saints. And, listen, if—and I am not without hope to think such could happen—this knot is what we find ourselves with, do then know that the apparently palpable presence of evil is only an absence: evil destroys itself by destroying the good that it feeds on and expires like a parasite. We must take into consideration the dimension of time. In time that which boasts of its immediate and massive victory massively collapses. I cannot wish that I had more comforting words tonight. Ransom the time. All other comforts in this case would be counterfeit coins. Thank you.”
Coming at the end of his spiraling critique, the word merci was flat and only emphasized the horror of the hour: that, in this stale hall arcaded with meticulously chiseled flowers, carvings so nuanced they rivaled nature, the words Jean-Pierre said were part of the war. The sometimes great chasm between lectures and life had quaked back together until only a trembling fissure kept the two apart. Simon felt this again in the way that the war and the words physically numbed his arms, and left him prisoner of the occupation.
Jean-Pierre disappeared for a time, and his absence and silence allowed the crowd to file through the exit that may only have been an entrance had a brown-clad soldier appeared in the door frame. But he hadn’t.
Jeane. Therese. Raissa. Simon sketched them again in the dim, using bold lines to accentuate their eyes—eyes whose light accentuated the bruises circling them, like the bruises of a boxer caught in a ring that signifies fair play, but look! Children and women are being thrown into it indiscriminately, told to hold up their fists and fight. When the philosopher finally slipped onto solid ground beneath the stage, Simon stood up to greet him, but when he turned, he saw instead another man. The one who, separated from everyone and stealing quick glances, smacked of something military and now stood at attention as a soldier. The one who let no one within three seats of himself, who, set-apart as he was, still made strange company near the seeming nuns and the owl-faced man. Perhaps he was a baker, a doctor, and his posture but a sign of the times—
“Jean-Pierre?” the man asked Jean-Pierre. His words were hot with urgency. Simon, stepping aside from them, was certain now that this man was a soldier, and his stomach squeezed with scared wonder over which Machiavellianism he was making manifest.
“And you are?” Jean-Pierre asked, hand in the inside pocket of his dark-plaid suit coat, fingering little flakes of whiskey-flavored tobacco and forming them into a wad fit for his pipe.
“M. de Gaulle has sent me. With this,” and he produced a letter. “I recommend that you read it immediately, before I leave. But before you do, I must say I cannot understand why the General is so hot after your help. I am being blunt with you. I mean—I actually admire you, and even brought for you a personal letter filled with puzzles and the tangles of my head, in hopes that you may have something to say about all of that . . . But as part of the Resistance? As I listened as carefully as I could to your talk, I could not help asking myself: have you, Jean-Pierre, ever. Hmm. Killed a man? With a bullet or with your hands?”
Not a baker. Not a doctor. A soldier. His eyes, deep-set like dark cannon balls in craters, did not condescend. They were sweet, actually, with sympathy He straightened his sleeve-ends and stood straighter himself, swiveling his head toward the door and toward—
“Be damned I should be,” the soldier said, as though just now seeing Simon there, staring at him as though at a specter, then holding open the palms of his hands, palms covered in glyphs, blood-red. “You are?”
“He is not an enemy,” Jean-Pierre said, and just when Simon started nursing a hurt, said, “But a friend.”
“Oh wonderful. A friend. With a mouth and two eyes that can see, apparently, better than mine, and who will have no trouble repeating everything—everything he hears here.”
“A friend. A true one,” was all Jean-Pierre said, and the man, whose face had gone crazed, with lips put together like a winepress and pupils swirling in two conflicting directions, calmed down. When he regained composure, his raw palms still showed.
“These,” he said, “they still burn. I broke a power cable. When we couldn’t get to the control box. When the plan failed. I pulled the cable apart myself. It was almost a mystery. I did not believe I could do it, to be sure you wouldn’t either. But I did. And the. Germans. They had to resort to steam trains for a long time after. They had to reverse progress for all of their talk. But,” the man testified now, as though before the monk-judge Simon had painted and repainted until dawn. “But! Do you deny that this world is tragic? In exchange for my deed they annihilated some two thousand lives. Because I did not come forward to be the sacrifice. One for the many and all that. You know. You—Christians. The many for the one it was with me. Forgive me, I don’t know what I’m doing exactly. Saying.
Simon remembered now something Raissa had told him. Something he had half-listened to as he brushed another yellow orb to another dark-alley scene. “Adrian. Your old friend. Whatever happened to you two anyhow? He was killed. In reparation. Along with some thousands.”
Without thinking, Simon shuffled quickly toward the soldier and held his hands. Held his hands. “Out of the depths I cry unto you,” he said, his eyelids allowing no light into this dark night. And he let go.
“You know de Gaulle, closely?” Jean-Pierre asked the messenger, his fingernail working away at the scarlet wax that sealed the envelope.
“I study him,” said the soldier. “I am his student.”
“He was my student,” Jean-Pierre said, staring toward the stage and the sea of empty seats.
“Not in war,” the soldier said, and stood at attention again, as though awaiting Jean-Pierre’s orders. Seeing this, the philosopher unfolded the thick paper somehow folded into a flat box, and, for a moment hesitating, he said, “My eyes. I forgot my glasses at home. And this pair in my pocket I borrowed from one of my students who is gone now. I must get them back to him, hmm. But never mind. What I mean is, I need your eyes, Simon. Please.”
Simon, whose armpits were splotched with sweat, looked to the soldier as though to ask permission; but then, before the man’s mouth could object, he began reading (he could not believe the swiftness, the decisiveness with which he moved) aloud as the soldier moved toward the door not to exit but to guard:
My Beloved Teacher:
It has been some time since you have written me. In turn, if you are seeing this you are seeing the third trial of the same letter, as two of the previous were lost with their carriers. They surely burned them before your name was made known to the enemy. My men leave no traces, certainly not the kind of traces you tell me our Creator has left in the contours of this charged world. How I need you at this hour to tell me these things with your living words.
Please be sympathetic: if up until this point I have insisted again and again that the disaster is only military and so the solution, too, must be purely military, I need you to know that I believe, as you without any doubt do, that our problem is a moral weakening. Our people is weak in moral and morale. Our loss of the Rhine in ‘36, abandonment by Austria one year later, and finally the Czech exit in ‘39—all of this added to the muddled state of our politics and mediocrity of all strategic maneuvering contributed to the catastrophe. France has been falling down for so many many hours.
All the while I have thought that to climb up from the chasm we must do all we can to do so without resigning ourselves into slaves. But we have resigned. We are as houseslaves.
In this condition I have concluded it necessary that we reform our country into a military image. Restoring it to its rank in this way is what we are working on from Britain even now, and not without hardships inflicted even by our allies. In such a serious crisis we have so much to expect from you, Jean-Pierre. There is only one way, that of total unselfishness. Yes, this is preached all over now by men disfigured by disgust and a misery akin to the saints. We know there is no alternate way. Self-denial allows each one to come to his part. We need, and I am serious, a people clad in military dress, working under the open light of day: open. This is to be the fruit of our revolution. I am certain that all youthfulness in France desires this. You may in some senses be one, but you will not disagree with me when I say that we cannot depend on or expect anything from the academics, the academies.
Democracy, I worry not for it. In our country only the puppets are enemies to it. And I worry not for religion. Some bishops placed their bets on the wrong man and at least some could not have expected this kind of house-slavery in a land made strange by Hitler. But sound, good country priests and
pastors are working in the vineyard to salvage the faith. And everything, you will say. Maybe. Will you write me very soon? Or, and you can be sure I will arrange a way, come to see me.
This letter is too drawn-out and quick. It is written both by me and our times. To be sure it is entirely sincere.
I am, my teacher, your devoted
C. de Gaulle
“The answer is no,” Jean-Pierre said softly, after only seconds of quiet. The messenger hung his hand awkwardly over his shirt-neck, and pulled at the fabric, kept it tense as Jean-Pierre explained, “I’ve a teaching appointment in the Middle West of the United States.” Now the estrangement entered Simon as well. All of his friend’s words working out ways of commitment, engagement, and this, this. The news was absolutely new to him and he longed to leave, to shoot home and talk well into the night with his wife.
The soldier released his shirt-neck. “Can I tell you I am not surprised? I came here on orders, under obedience to General de Gaule. But I told him directly that I was familiar with your work, with your gentle disposition of a lucid but still faraway philosopher. I hate cliches as much as the next but, let me guess: you are opting out in favor of your eternal ideas. For the teaching appointment, yes. But really that is a convenient excuse.”
By now each of the three men had his hands in his pockets, and each stared at the dull maroon carpet, at his shoes. JeanPierre was poised to reply when footsteps, faraway but growing rapidly louder, came from the hallway. Simon sped to the corner and flung his frail body under a row of chairs, found himself with a nose-full of old must. He sneezed. The soldier was immediately at attention in the door frame, and the footsteps came to a halt before him. Jean-Pierre, who had not moved, said to Simon, “All is well. Or, arise and walk. It is only a student of mine. And while I should defend him and spare him the interview, I need to be quick with you: we have one extra seat on our trip to the United States. One adult and one child, that is. And an infant could come too—we could convince them or smuggle.”
Simon tasted the dust, felt it gather at the back of his throat. Emboldened, his mind erupting with rehearsals for departure, he said, “You are joking. Jean-Pierre, I do not know what has come over you. I came here to ask you a favor. For how many years you have told me to do my art, to work at it habitually. Without habit, you said, there is no beauty. And that meant, you said, leaving off the lofty job or the easy comfort. And how many times did you offer me money? And how many times were you met with no reply? But now—not to blame you, mind you—but these are not times, these are extraordinary, extreme times. And not times for . . . principles. At least not . . . ”
“I have some money. Pay off your debts. But if the Apostle is right, if the only debt you owe in the end is love, you owe Raissa and your children this exit. They are less and less restrained: you know the fate of Jews.” Then, as the soldier returned, trailed by the student, Jean-Pierre said, urgently, “I was already planning to come to your house—after this. Send Raissa to mine. Tomorrow. I have heard news of a mass roundup.”
The soldier, mediating between all present, said, “Your student says he borrowed you his glasses.” The boy—he could not have been more than nineteen—had carefully trimmed facial hair, cut to form a thin beard along his cheekbones, the arc of a mustache almost invisible across his mouth: lips bit firmly. “I. I’m. Sorry, Professor.”
“Yes. So am I, Gilles. I am. But this is good—to experience this. We are not, decidedly not, able to fool ourselves any more about our times. Farewell then,” he finished, handing the boy his thin-rimmed glasses. Simon stared. Everything about him was thin. Was this the next generation? You could blow them over with a whisper. He halted his mind’s hasty claims: always people became caricatures, or at best symbols, in his mind. Always one man revealed could be everyman. But such making fell far short of the real, and ever since the soldier had asked the philosopher, “You ever killed a man?”, Simon had been fighting against the sense that Jean-Pierre and he were living in words and ideas and images as much as they were living in war. He, Simon, had fancied himself freed from the illusions of the academics: they could cultivate ever finer hairs to split while the whole world was submerged in catastrophe. Better little lauds in a university than being lost in the universe. But now it was vivid, lucid, a lump gathering at the back of his throat. Anyone could cultivate the illusions of the academics. Even those whose work meant sweat. It was a tendency of, what, of our times? Of humans in all times? To know one little nook well and so to know it all. To know something so well and mistake it for the world. And wince and resist when pieces that did not fit, but pieces that one could touch and taste and smell and hear, showed up before your face. Better confidence in smallness than smallness in a space impossible to master. But! He protested against the accusations not yet leveled at him by the soldier. What would someone like himself do, what could he possibly do to be of use to the Resistance?
Gilles, his dishwater hair greasy and disheveled, walked away, cleaning his glasses. Adjusting them. Nearsighted, he staggered until he fit them on his nose. And then he—the next generation—was gone, disappeared. Footsteps retracing the past, sounding small in the large Sorbonne hall. To think that St. Thomas studied here. Here.
“Listen, I need to get a message out. To the General,” the soldier said to Jean-Pierre. “I need to get to the Metro station down near Port Royal and Rue Jacques. But—I have been deliberating this the whole talk, the whole time—I need to ask you whether you know of a home, of a place for me to lay my head tonight.”
Simon stepped ahead, and, his right heel rubbing into the arch of his left foot, he said, “My house. You can. It would be the floor. But you can have it. Maybe some pillows can be arranged.”
“Oh God. Man. I don’t need pill—Well, but one should take comfort, I suppose. God knows it won’t return for . . . ”
Jean-Pierre was as a ghost, as a man who was already living in the future. He snapped out of this spectrality long enough to say, “I will write de Gaulle. Tonight. I will deliver the letter to Simon’s —for this man’s name is Simon and you are?”
“And I will deliver the letter to Simon’s tomorrow morning. Early, before the city and the sun also rise. For I will not sleep tonight. A, well, something of a penance. For sleepwalking so long. No, A.D., please don’t take pleasure in my lack of realpolitik. For one does not get real as quickly as the next. And,” he paused, “some get real too quickly, and what is called real is . . . And please don’t take offense when I tell our friend Simon that he must maintain his art. Must maintain his habit, his daily and always seemingly futile brushing, sketched looks, in spite of all logic to the contrary. For there will be a world beyond our national apocalypse. Large as it is, it will be somehow smaller, once. In the long view. And that. Preserving your art, my old friend,” his gaze fell softly onto Simon’s softly following gaze and they gave there all they could of love to one another, “will be your resistance.”
Jean-Pierre left with folded hands, returned to embrace Simon lightly. But left without conventional adieus, which he customarily omitted in favor of the solemn silence that assures last words be left more than paltry pleasantries in the mind.
Simon looked at the soldier, and the soldier looked at the dim light of the empty stage, at the podium on which no man leaned, and he stumbled, almost fell, closer to Simon, resting his hand on his shoulder.
“You aren’t a drinking man, are you?” he asked.
“I was. Well, let me just say I would begin again to let the bottle drink me if I had even a sip.”
The train ride home was silenced by German soldiers standing in the center aisles. Simon and A.D. took seats on opposite sides of the train, and, without spoken arrangement, A.D. sat behind, in order to watch his host for their stop. Every passenger seemed to be stealing breaths sparingly, although the man next to Simon kept slipping some fold of newspaper between them, nudging and reading the number of casualties and other facts under his breath. Somehow these facts seemed to reassure this traveling companion, whose yellowed and grayed face filled with blood as he read.
At their stop, Simon did not look back, but plopped clumsily down from the train, stumbling a bit as his feet touched the earth made smooth and rational by the hands of men. A.D. was beside him by the end of the first block, and the Rouge home was only another half a block down, down a slender alley paved with red tiles. Its bottom windows, barred, were ringed with stained and leaded glass. An icon of the Good Thief, one hand holding stolen bread, the other sacred bread, filled the space above the front door, and was only visible when the flicker within was generous enough to illuminate. Simon saw the soldier’s mouth open, heard shock in his sudden suck of air. Surprised that his window work could reach this dry-eyed man, Simon welcomed the unexpected and unspoken appreciation silently until, seconds later, he saw the real reason for the startle.
Through a window without color, sitting at his supper table. He saw him, the soldier in the brown suit, his collar black and tight, his eyes set close together so that the active imagination could see a cyclops. His mouth full. And the portrait filled as well. His wife sat next to this substitute who sat in his habitual seat. A.D. said only, “Yes. It is real,” and tucked out of sight.
No one saw Simon approaching, and for a solitary moment he saw in the enemy the stability he could not give his family, for the table was full and Raissa, Jeane, and Therese filled their bellies from thickly served plates. He heard no scrapes, no signs of forks plundering pointlessly for more. He heard only his feet staggering like an absentee father, drunk with this vision against the scarlet tile. But then he heard no laughter. Heard no children. Saw but heard no children. Saw Raissa bent toward her plate and subtly obstructing from even her peripherals the confident face, the carefully combed burnt-blonde hair, and the teeth that gleamed even as they chewed their dark meat.
Before he realized it, he was standing before them. Therese said, “Papa,” and wrapped both arms around his bending knees, nuzzled her nose against his. He felt a tear that he did not know fell pass from his nose to hers. She looked at him now with so many questions, said nothing. Kneeling there, on the ground, he pushed his nose close to baby Jeane, smelled the son they had, after shirking off possible misinterpretations, named after Jean d’Arc. How he wished him of age now, of age and with fermented visions. He cast his eyes upon Raissa then, knowing that this would provoke the man covered with the insignia to say something.
“I enjoy your wine. Truly,” said the cyclops. No, said the human, the man who was no monster. “You really must take better care of your family, put them before your—pursuits” he said, and suddenly Raissa responded, “We are together in this. We, not he, takes care of us. It is a bi-lateral arrangement. Something you would know nothing of.” Simon could see by a wrinkle of her nose that she regretted this luxurious condemnation.
“Well there now, she does talk,” said the soldier. “I was beginning to wonder whether the whore upstairs, the one who lay there sleeping as I did my search, was a, compensation for this mute little mouse here. But who am I to judge? Ah love, it will bring the ugliest and most decrepit out from the muck.” The officer’s French was solid but slow. No mouths now chewed food. The smog-colored walls. If only their fog could swallow him. “I will talk to you. Upstairs,” said the soldier, standing, saluting, and saying, “I simply had to see whether the cuisine was worth the romantic words spent describing it. And I have to say . . . the lamb, with those bitter herbs, was quite delicious.” A low accordion asked for change outside, the hands that played it obviously wrecked. Still, as the family and their guest sat interrupted to listen, the player worked into a slow waltz worthy to accompany a Psalm.
Simon waited until the soldier dropped his napkin and shot a strangely companionable glance before he headed for the ladder that led into his studio. His stomach churned. He wished he had vomited all over the lovely meal dressed with blood and impossible in the surrounding scarcity. He wished he had charged in, chewed the lukewarm food, and spat it on the soldier’s face. He breathed in a long lungful of attic air, and these vengeances died in his mind.
“I am not so cruel, Simon,” the soldier said, able to read his thoughts—or simply giving the obvious answer to the obvious unspoken accusation—his head just poking through the rectangle of light. “I am not like so many others. Yes, I must take your wife with me when I go. Oh for God’s sake don’t look at me in that way I will not sleep with her. I am not that low.” A longago-lit candle stood almost entirely melted, its wax drooled over several paintings of prostitutes. “I see you are set on this theme. Repression. It can breed horrors in the mind. But,” he said, “Two things. First, I called you upstairs because I am making a deal with you. I do not plan to take the children. Their baptismal certificates, fake or not, are sufficient to do away with any later investigations into Jews here. I want you, artiste, to paint me that whore”—he pointed, and Simon stepped back as he saw for the first time that the daughter of joy, the prostitute he had painted the night prior, was still here. “We,” the officer said, “crossed paths earlier. And I invited her to stay. The thing is, I want imitation. None of this disgusting modification you are so obsessed with. And, I want it quickly. If I am pleased, you will have your children and I will have a, memento, of my first French love. Ah, France!”
Simon moved fast, unearthing his finest canvass from the corner, where it lay buried under a cloth and awaiting some ritzy’s commission. The soldier commanded the woman to lay on her stomach, and after trying with words to arrange her his way, finally bent down as a sculptor bends down to a lifeless clump of clay, and formed her to his liking: stomach down, breasts and, as though by default, face, turned toward Simon. “And none of this black and white,” said the soldier, who stood between Simon and his subject. Jean-Pierre’s words went into his ears and seemed to drip down his throat like honey, but at the same time his stomach growled and protested this strange form of resistance. He almost laughed, and may have, for the soldier looked over his shoulder, smiled; said, “I want the painting to fully appreciate her gifts,” and then stared again at the daughter of joy. Simon this time could not help laughing, but he caught the laughter in the back of his throat and turned it into a hmmm. “Ah, the inspired,” said the soldier, and Simon proceeded to enlarge the image’s breasts beyond all proportion, elongating them into two grotesque circles that ended up looking oddly like pale rats whose mouths flowered with two spots of curdled blood. Dead by pestilence. His concentration was superb. He was out of his mind, Simon. He. He muttered the word unconscionable under his breath.
The soldier walked backwards without removing his eyes from their fixation, so that, when he came close enough for Simon to smell mousse au chocolat on his breath, he switched immediately from the real to the representation and stiffened.
“I am supposed to believe that is how you see her?” asked the German in poor French.
The glass shattered first in time, but in his mind Simon saw first a silent soldier fall to his knees and then fall prostrate before the real, a presence which he failed to represent. In the sill A.D. squatted, small pistol in his unshaken hands, saying loudly but calmly, “You Christians—you know something of expiation of sins by the blood of one man. If only we could repeat the mystery and make it work again” before a run of great diving birds, with wings steeled in steady outstretch, again moved toward Paris, this time their shrill sound thick enough to shake the house in its very foundations. Raissa’s footsteps, as though she thought the sound would shush them out. Then Simon saw the daughter of joy arise from her archipelago of pillows, saw her drape a deep claret shawl around her whole body, saw her see with small awe the grotesque on the canvas, saw the grotesque grow on her face as she stared at the prostrate dead. Raissa’s raising voice trembled, “Oh, I was too scared to see who would be living,” then almost by instinct added, “Sophocles, here again.” Then lowly, as though it were too secret to be shared, she whispered, “How is it you can impart to us the architecture of this vale, when we in the midst of it know only the terror? How saturated your words: ‘What is the rite of purification? How shall it be done? By banishing a man, or expiation of blood by blood.’”
As she brought these words out from some ancient wine cellar of memory, Simon saw the subject of his painting kiss his hand, bloody his knuckle with rouge lipstick, and mouth “I love you” to the open window, whose sill was empty but for the eucharistic moon.
For Further Reading
Jean-Luc Barre, Beggars for Heaven. Trans. Bernard E. Doering. Notre Dame, Indiana; University of Notre Dame Press, 2005.
Jacques Maritain, France, My Country Through the Disaster. New York; Longmans, Green, and Co., 1941.
Jacques Maritain, “The End of Machiaveallianism.” The Range of Reason. New York; Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952.
Jacques Maritain, “The Responsibility of the Artist.” http://www2.nd.edu/Departments/Maritain/etext/resart.htm 8/5/2011.
“The Good Thief” is the second chapter of Joshua Hren’s unpublished novel, The Wine Press.