Here is the story your eyes are telling: olive light, narrow streets, seabirds gliding down towards the harbor. A drifter has docked at the landing. On the bow stands a leathery fisherman throwing a tether ashore. His voice echoes amidst the arches of the portside arcade. Rows of steel buckets line the frame of the boat. I watch as the silver scales of the gilthead bream reflect the falling light. Bareheaded schooners float by in the distance, their sails limp in the lazy breeze. The buckets of fish are overflowing.
Thus I gain entry to your faraway gaze, to a narrow alley in the ancient city you so loved, where cypress trees grow on limestone hills. I touch your outstretched hand. Where have you gone now?
It is morning. All last night the wind shrieked with frigid voices, and you turned and turned in the sheets. A tuft of fresh snow falls onto the sill when you crack open the window. You take two nervous puffs on a cigarette, three, then let it burn. A crooked finger of ash hangs limply from the tip. I want to taste the cindery fingers of your cigarette hand between my lips. My eyes lift from your bluish wrist to linger on the nape of your exposed neck. Sitting there on the arm of a wingback chair with your head twisted to contemplate the snowy roofs, you look like a heron with a broken neck. You turn and discover my gaze. There you are! Here I am.
The wind whispers death in your ear. I know you can hear it. Don’t pretend you can’t hear it.
“Mme Pagnol leaves early on Saturdays,” you say, snuffing your cigarette in an empty flowerpot, “if we want flowers for the party.” Your lips leave a chilly imprint on my forehead.
We go out into the crystalline air. It is December in Paris, and you insist upon bringing a bouquet of fresh flowers to every party we attend. I have always loved your stubborn elegance, your childlike pout. I love watching you enter a room full of people. Your sails catch wind and take flight.
But this morning your wings are folded neatly beneath a double-breasted coat. A million golden worlds swirl inside your inkwell eyes. I realize, of course, where your grieving mind has gone. On days like today, when Paris is dusting off its festive charms, the scent of it slips out into our small room, heady like old roses, with a tinge of black pepper, the kind that makes you sneeze. Sometimes your heart will bounce softly off the bedside table and land with a gentle thud on the rug. I place it back under your collarbones where it belongs and say, “Why don’t we go out for a walk?”
The air is austere, but the morning light falls in downy feathers on the cobbled streets. See those chestnuts lining the bank? Their black boughs are poised to dive into the Seine, to slip into its argent waters and glide with the patience of a river past the verdant lungs of the Bois de Boulogne, past the sprawling wisteria of Giverny, past the martyred remains of the maid of Orleans, and finally to unfurl their aching limbs and set sail in the English Channel.
Remember the cypress that lined your father’s lane in Marseille, those noble columns stretching up to the heavens to touch the outstretched hand of god? I found you sleeping once beneath the parasol of a stone pine. I feared the rising wind would catch its leafy crown and carry you away. Remember that winter evening, years ago, on our way home to the city? You lifted your veiled eyes for a moment in your mourning, and spotting the square-cut London planes along the broad boulevards, you exclaimed in a dreadful voice, “Poor soldiers! All marching to their death in a row.”
If I could give a color to your sadness that day, it would be mahogany: sanguine, smoldering, ripe. Now your grief is barren as a winter forest, whispering memories of leaves.
The pavement in front of the Marché des Enfants Rouges is cracked and protruding. A trio of uniformed gendarmes has been standing there in their boots for so long that their deep Gaulish roots have forced up the concrete in jagged edges. Your bones turn to bells under your skin. You quiver. Be still, my sparrow. You pined for flowers, now here we are. What rueful blooms have you come to harvest here? Come, my sorrow, give me your hand.
Mme Pagnol has planted her wares in the alley behind the market’s green gate. She is of the fleshy, rustic type, all skin and sunshine. Her aegean eyes sing ocean songs, like a conch shell pressed to a child’s ear. She cradles the trumpet blossom of a scarlet amaryllis in one rough-hewn hand. With delicate motions she inserts a wooden cane inside its hollow stem and arranges the heavy flower in a vase with branches of silver birch.
“Your white chrysanthemums,” you say, “are finally blooming.”
“What grave are you decorating now?” says the florist, wiping her hands on her abundant hips. And then, gently: “All the heroes in the world would die to know your dedication.”
Mme Pagnol wraps the chrysanthemums in parchment, then pulls a bulb from the pocket of her smock. “Plant it in a well-drained pot in the sun and the crocus will bloom crimson in the spring.”
I see your smile for the first time today. I catch my breath. Then it is gone.
The flowers are for Marcel, the writer. Once, while you were studying literature at university, you were wine drunk at a party somewhere outside of Aix, and Marcel was sitting on the kitchen floor in a dinner jacket reading an early Saganaloud in a silly provincial accent. I have never seen you so happy. Peals of your laughter were strewn across the floor. You have loved him ever since. You can’t help it, and I don’t mind. You love him like some kind of father. It is a boisterous and temperamental affection.
Marcel lives north of Montmartre with his wife, Fanny, who cooks in a fish restaurant in the tenth. By the time we arrive the courtyard already smells of slow-cooked bouillabaisse. It is a spicy, brackish scent. We start up the stairs. Marcel is half unbuttoned when he opens the door. I peak inside. We are the first to arrive, or the last. The carcasses of fish for the soup are scattered across the kitchen table: brittle bones, bulging eyes, silver scales. On a newspaper tossed askance I see a bloody image of the black lorry that rammed into a Christmas market in Berlin last week, killing twelve.
“We missed you last night,” says Marcel, cupping your elbows in his palms as he kisses your cheeks: left, right, left. The chrysanthemums are slightly crushed by his embrace. You hold the bouquet against your chest with folded arms like a child with a beloved doll.
The seconds pass relentlessly as you realize your mistake. Distracted by expectation, you chase after a receding horizon: one day late, always late, never sure.
“Stay, why don’t you,” says Marcel. “There’s no reason to go now that you’re here.”
But of course I cannot contain your sorrow. Suddenly it swells and spills out into the room. I can hardly hear your hurried steps as you breeze past Marcel and throw open the doors to the balcony, fumbling to light a cigarette. You lean with creaking bones over the balustrade. The black current of an indifferent crowd surges below.
I remember the night after your father’s funeral. We had taken the train back to Paris, and I followed you out into the clear night. The cold fell in slate sheets, leaving a briny patina on everything it touched. We lost our way coming home from the Gare de Lyon and ended up southeast of the Bastille beneath the arches of an elevated railway track. We climbed a set of stairs that emerged unexpectedly where the Avenue Daumesnil intersects with the Rue de Lyon and wandered into a strange forest in the sky. The decommissioned tracks had been converted into a floating parkway. Bare branches scraped a leaden sky. The city was drifting off into the distance when suddenly you spoke.
“I thought the world would come to an end,” you said. “But of course it goes on living.”
And then, desperately: “That is something one must learn.”
I could see your breath in the cold. It shimmered. I thought how beautiful you were standing there in the dark, with lotus blossoms blooming in your new moon eyes. I have loved you ever since. But I was too late; you were already gone. “Stay!” I wanted to shout into the night. But what angels would have heard my cry? You left ripples in the stillness that I could not catch. And sometimes, when you are sleeping, I still try to retrace the fragile outlines of the person I came to know in that hour.
At the far end of my father’s cypress-lined lane in the limestone hills on the outskirts of Marseille stood a birdhouse where the sparrows that screamed in the rafters at dusk had never deigned to roost, not even once. Abandoned by the birds, my father turned the wooden nest we built together into a makeshift mailbox and nailed it to a stake, in hopes, perhaps, that other feathers would land there, fluttering in from faraway countries on the sea-salt spray that we could smell, on summer evenings, when he cooked with the kitchen window flung open, floating on the breeze from the harbor beyond the hill. He was waiting, always waiting, for a word from the woman he called my mother.
I never knew her, my mother, but I could see the shadow of her silhouette in my father’s eyes when I grew tall enough to catch him gazing distractedly at my long hair in the reflection of a window after dark, at that hour when glass betrays stolen glances, as a mirror. After, I would stand for hours in the bathroom with my back to the sink, gazing at my reflection in reverse in a handheld mirror, trying to discern in the poise of my shoulders and the length of my neck—slender, like a heron’s, he said—the shape of the woman my father first saw, and never stopped loving, from afar.
Imagine the dark mass of a barge docked in the Bay of Algiers on an unseasonably warm evening in early spring, the exposed deck aflame in gaudy florescence against the black depths of the Mediterranean beyond. Imagine me, a young man—he would say when I would ask him, endlessly ask him, as a child, how he met her, this mother of mine—leaning with lanky limbs against the balustrade on the promenade smoking a cigarette. On the deck of the barge young people from the European quarter were dancing to Algerian raï, the husky voice of Cheikha Rimitti el Reliziana distorted by cheap speakers, the drumbeats echoing amidst the arches of the portside arcade. Below the promenade, on the quai that lined the port, fishermen were climbing onto the roofs of their idling lorries to steal a wink of sleep before setting sail in their drifters for the midnight catch. They used floating lanterns, my father would explain, that imitated the light of the moon to lure the fish to the surface of the still waters near the harbor, ensnaring whole schools of fish in their ready nets, then return to shore at dawn, their steel buckets overflowing, the silver scales of the gilthead bream reflecting the light of the rising sun.
Somewhere not so far away, but still far enough away, French colonial forces were planting bombs in civilian quarters, attaching electric wires to the erect nipples of shivering prisoners in the damp basements of villas that had been gutted of their furniture and converted overnight into torture chambers, shooting suspected dissidents in broad daylight in village squares as their wives watched in horror from curtained windows, half covering their eyes in the folds of the white haïks the women still wore in those days. But on the deck of a barge anchored in the Bay of Algiers, as fishermen napped before the new moon catch, young people were dancing to the scandalous provocations of the temptress of Oran, who called in her songs for a liberated female sexuality, singing a folklore perverted by colonialism. It was then, my father would tell me (and always in a whisper), that he first saw her, my mother, dressed in white. She was dancing alone in a crowd, her arms outstretched like windblown sails, about to take flight.
Forgetting his half-smoked cigarette, descending the urine-caked stairs to the quai, slinking like a cat between the fishermen’s lorries, stubbing his toe on an exposed anchor, climbing an uncertain ladder up the side of the barge, crawling over the slippery rails, and traversing the vast desert of the dance floor where young people from the European quarter swayed together with the stubborn elegance of youth, my father, a tender, timid Algerian, planted himself squarely in front of my mother and introduced himself as Albert, taking his hero’s name. He was sixteen years old at the time; she was older, eighteen. She smiled. Her name was Francine, but she called herself Frankie.
Two years later, as the last boats left the Bay of Algiers carrying crowds of sobbing Europeans—pieds noirs, as they learned they were called—across the sea to a country they had never known, but supposed was their own, my father held in one hand my mother’s suitcase, and in the other, his fiancée’s hand. Frankie had her back turned. She was smoking a cigarette, suddenly orphaned of her homeland, watching the ancient city she so loved disappear on the horizon in a desperate blaze of white.
I sometimes wonder, in my moments of weakness or resentment or longing, when I doubt the strength of her commitment to my father, if it was simply the prejudice of her so-called compatriots that compelled my mother to leave the man she loved. In the market, on Saturday mornings, where she went every week with my father to buy flowers, she avoided the stands staffed by Arabs, who called out to her husband using his given name, Yahia, in a language she never managed to learn. Playfully, stubbornly, she still called her husband Albert.
It was Albert, my father, who took a dirty job at the docks in Marseille repairing ships while his wife pursued a university degree in journalism. It was Albert, whose lanky limbs had grown strong but always ached, that would wash my mother’s long hair in the kitchen sink in their first apartment, too small for a shower but with a view of the sea, when she was too tired to trudge to the washroom they shared with their neighbors down the hall. It was Albert who carried my mother’s suitcase, accompanying her whenever he could to the airport when she left, with increasing frequency, on her trips abroad to report from the front lines of a cold war that was getting hotter, sparking wildfires in remote corners of the globe: Libya, Chile, Cambodia.
It was, perhaps, this proximity to death that led my mother to ask my father, her Albert, to give her a child, one otherwise unremarkable morning when the Mistral was blowing in Marseille, as the Khmer Rouge regime was killing millions in a country far away, but not so far away. Or maybe I was an accident. She was thirty-five when I was born, and she left my father before I had learned to talk.
When my mother disappeared, after my father finally accepted that she had left, he bought us a house in the limestone hills on the outskirts of Marseille. Each year on my birthday, he planted a pair of cypress trees along both sides of the lane. And so as I grew, so too did the forest of my father’s solitude, stretching each year closer, root by spindly root, to the sea.
We did not know, at the time, that we were at war. It wasn’t until after, when the bodies were buried and counted, and the boats were leaving the harbor, that we understood that we had been nothing more than ungrateful guests that had overstayed our welcome by some one hundred and thirty two years in a country we had deigned to call home, depositing bloody traces of our decadence like the red circles left behind by empty wine glasses the morning after a party that had gone on too long. But by then it was too late, and we had already forgotten, and the ancient city we so loved was disappearing on the horizon in a desperate blaze of white.
I thought the world would come to an end, but on the other side of the watery expanse that we crossed together, hand in hand the whole time (I couldn’t let go), of course it went on living. That is something one must learn. You found us our first apartment in a narrow alley near the cathedral, too small for a shower but with a view of the sea, and in the olive light of the early morning, with the seabirds drifting down towards the harbor, Marseille looked through blurry eyes just like home.
From the portside window of our tiny tenant in Le Panier, we would watch the lives of a thousand anonymous neighbors unfold in the dark through the backlit glass of their living rooms, illuminated like rudimentary cinema screens, and you would spin me tales of bourgeois intrigue, the kind we could never afford. Through the lives of distant strangers, you pined for exotic flowers, you longed for diamonds; you tried to convince me, night after night, that the life we would build together in France could cover up the crimes of our forefathers, as the wind effaces footsteps in the sand.
When we married, quietly, in the municipal courthouse, our neighbors from down the hall gave us a dozen roses, and we left them in a vase on the kitchen table until they wilted and then rotted, reluctant to throw them out. I still remember that heady, peppery scent. Sometimes, when we would make love, I would suddenly smell that wretched stench, and then come. You wanted a child from the start, you wanted to watch our sea swell inside me; you wanted to resurrect the bitter promise of l’Algérie française by giving life to a little français algérien of our own making. I suppose you were mourning, in your own way (as was I), the brutal end to our childhood.
I say our childhood, but it wasn’t. It was sand and water, it was windows and walls, it was the vast desert of the dance floor that you traversed, with the ardor of a martyr, to touch the outstretched hand of god. We were at war, but the bombs exploded elsewhere, in byzantine streets I could never navigate, in villages with names I couldn’t pronounce, where the men were lined up in rows in the square and summarily shot, in that unrelenting sunlight, with no one to hear the cries of their abruptly widowed wives but the wind, shrieking with frigid voices across the barren planes. I never managed to learn your language.
On the morning of my first day of classes at the university, you presented me, as a good-luck gift, with two newspapers, both dated May 8, 1945. The first, in French, announced in triumphant typeface the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. The second, in Arabic, showed the massacred civilians of Sétif, their bloated bodies aligned in the street, bellies up, like sardines. And then you kissed me, gently, desperately, on the forehead.
When I went to work for the newspaper as a war correspondent, the post-war order as we knew it was crumbling, while the ferry that putters back and forth, back and forth, from one side of the Vieux Port to the other—you know, the one that Marcel Pagnol writes about—pursued its unalterable course. The Americans kept on signing treaties they knew full well they would ignore, Soviet guns kept popping up in improbable places in the Middle East, and the Michigan-based company that invented cling wrap for suburban wives was developing a chemical that would burn the skin off of children in the jungle of Tonkin. Upon my return to Marseille you would meet me at the airport, always tanner than I remembered, somehow changed (or perhaps it was me), and we would go, every Saturday, to buy flowers at the Marché du Soleil.
Once, years later, I was invited to Paris to accept an award for my writing, and I implored you to accompany me, finding it ludicrous that you had never seen the Tour Eiffel, that gaudy metal skirt suspended from the sky that had somehow become the symbol of freedom in the West. We took the train into Paris, and spotting the square-cut London planes along the broad boulevards, you exclaimed in a dreadful voice, “They even massacre the trees.”
We got lost coming out of the Gare de Lyon, and we were late to the ceremony, both of us windswept and underdressed, but they waited and applauded when we arrived. And when the presenter pronounced my name (half of it yours), inviting me to the podium to accept my award, I glanced back at you over my shoulder, and I saw you whisper, “Frankie.” Then seeing you from the stage, your tanned face a new moon against a white linen sea of tea lights and cocktail dresses, I wondered what would be my legacy, in the end.
At the after party, a German writer was reciting lines of poetry that had been scrawled in black arabesques onto the Berlin Wall. He was speaking in crude Alexandrians of revolution, of the crimson blossoms that had bloomed in the cracks of the concrete, foretelling the coming of spring. And you were dancing alone in a corner, swaying drunkenly like a cypress in a vicious, salty wind, telling strangers dark fictions about the end of the world. I had never seen you so happy.
When we returned to Marseille the next day, the Mistral was screaming something fierce, that frightful, knocking wind that blows in from the north when the winter turns abruptly to spring, and the ferry was still puttering, back and forth, back and forth, from one side of the Vieux Port to the other. The sight of it, suddenly, made me cry. Don’t pretend you couldn’t hear it. We made love the next morning, the wind still whistling through the wooden shutters, closed, and I asked you to make me a mother.
But when my period the next month was late, and then the blood never came, I knew somehow that our love had outgrown us, as a million unborn worlds swirled inside my swelling womb. I stopped traveling after the first trimester, and I took to reading fiction: the novels of Françoise Sagan and Albert Camus, the collected short stories of Vladimir Nabokov and the sonnets of Rainer Marie Rilke. As my body acquired new and strange amorphous shapes, I no longer fit like a spoon against the hollow of your sunken chest as we slept, and you would fall asleep, whimpering, with your arm draped across my aching belly, holding me as tightly as you could.
I left you sleeping one morning, your arm outstretched across the crumpled sheets, and I walked barefoot, in the olive light, to the sea.