The Marriage of Opposites

Page 98


“Will you be going home for Christmas?” she asked the maid, Ava.
They were in the kitchen together making notes regarding the pantry. Ava seemed shocked to be asked her plans.
“If I can have the time,” she said, wary. “I would like to.”
“Is it a farm?”
“Oh, yes,” Ava said, her cheeks flushed, cheerful to think about her family home. “Mostly chickens and goats.”
“By all means go home. You’ll be paid for your time.”
Snow was falling when Lydia wrote her thirtieth letter. It was Christmas Eve, a time when they always stayed at home. It was not their holiday to celebrate, but there was a peacefulness when the city was deeply quiet, so different than it had been during the riots of the past year. Lydia was in the parlor and the children were asleep. Henri came in from the garden. It was a clear night, and he had been looking at the constellations. He clapped the stray flakes of snow from his coat. There was a fire in the fireplace, an envelope on Lydia’s lap, and the small dog the children had begged for, whom they called Lapin, Bunny, was napping on a small moss-green pillow.
“If we have a son,” Henri said. “We should call him Leo. For the lion of the stars.”
“What if I wasn’t who you thought I was?” Lydia asked. Her pretty face was furrowed with worry.
Henri sat beside her. “Is this about your father? That he didn’t leave much? You know I don’t care. We’re fine, Lydia. There’s no cause to worry.”
“I believe that my father may have been a horrible person. He may have done something awful.”
“Well, he’s gone, so it doesn’t really matter. Neither does the money. The old house brought a good amount. Our girls won’t be in need.”
“But what if I wasn’t who you thought I was.”
He got them both a drink and sat beside her again.
“You think I don’t know you?” he asked.
It was the moment when she could easily have embraced him and thrown the thirtieth letter onto the fire, which was already burning so brightly. She thought about a summer trip she’d made with her parents, to the sea, when she was a girl. They were in the ancient city of La Rochelle, famous for its fields of salt and Roman ruins. She’d never been to the ocean before, but she was entranced. Perhaps she was only seven, little more. She heard her name being spoken in a soft voice, as if someone who knew her was calling to her. She walked over the stones, there for all eternity, made of a soft-clay mineral, filled with the fossils of snails and sea creatures that had lived before there were men and women. Her mother rushed after her, frightened. Don’t you dare, her mother cried. Lydia thought her mother feared she would drown or be taken up in the undertow. Now she realized that wasn’t it at all. It was how easily she was called to the sea, how familiar it seemed to her, how right and how beautiful, as if she belonged to it and it to her.
In bed she told her husband everything. She could not look at him as she spoke.
If one is not born of a Jewish mother, it is impossible to be considered a member of the faith, and if she was not, their girls were not either.
“Easily rectified. Conversion is possible if we feel the need,” Henri said.
“I cannot convert from who I am, Henri. My mother’s mother was an African slave.”
“Who your parents were means nothing to me,” Henri told her. “It’s your heart I want.”
Her false mother had been right about one thing: he was a man who would not harm her. As for her heart, it was already broken. That was the source of the fever that had caused her to lose her past and herself.
“And your family?” Lydia asked. “What will it mean to them?”
“There is no need to confide in them, or to invite them into the intimate details of our life.”
Then she knew: he feared they would not be as open as he was to her true history. The business was a family business, based as much on relationships as on the ebb and flow of the banking world. All of their dealings were held within their community with other Jewish families. The unrest around the king, Louis-Philippe, had had little to do with people of their faith in the past, but his lack of concern for working people had touched off serious uprisings. There were days when black smoke filled the city; angry crowds gathered, provoked by how little the king cared for those who felt disenfranchised. For the Cohens, the desire was to keep on in a normal working manner, and that did not include a daughter-in-law whose background would call attention to them. Still, Lydia did not wish to lie to her own children’s grandparents, uncles, and aunts.