In Strange Ways
By Keith Bloomfield
A steady stream of commuters mounted the stairs and emerged from the subway station beneath Union Square. They were of all ages, colors, and sizes. Some wore suits and dresses. Some were in uniforms. Some dressed in shorts and t-shirts. They flowed out onto the broad plaza enclosed by Broadway and 14th Street and scattered in all directions. Franklyn wanted to capture that energy on his canvas.
He set up his easel near the bronze statue of Gandhi striding through the tall grass, staff in hand, so he could look back at the deco structure perched above the subway entrance. The same kind of portal marked each entrance to the underworld. Franklyn liked the way the light illuminated the milk glass cupola belted by wide metals straps, tarnished by the elements, covering the yawning hole in the ground. The sunlight made the morning commuters' faces glow with a radiance that seemed to come from within, rather than from above. That was what he sought to portray and what continued to elude him.
When he was first starting to paint, he tried to mix pigments on the back of his hand as he had seen other artists do, but the colors always looked different against his dark skin and never the same as on the white canvas.
On successive mornings, Franklyn thought that he could feel the gaze of someone staring at him from behind. Each time he turned, there was no one behind him. He thought that it was someone interested in one of the canvases he always brought with him. He decided to bring different canvases on different days and see if the feeling continued. After several days, he had narrowed it down to one particular painting, that he called "Cottage Along the Rhone." Van Gogh's "Starry Night Over The Rhone" had been his inspiration to paint his way through France. Of all the canvases he had painted during the trip, this one continued to resonate deep in his soul. He could not explain why. Franklyn, set it alone on a tripod, next to the one on which he worked and he waited.
Suddenly he felt the familiar feeling and turned around. She was sitting on the stone bench near the sculpture of Gandhi. A classic white turban that might have been seen between the covers of high fashion magazines from the late 1940's crowned her head, and a long gray-wool coat with oversized buttons festooned the garment from hem to collar. She put down her coffee cup on the bench and stood up. She walked toward Franklyn, pointing with an accusatory finger. "I know that place," she said with a thick, barely discernable accent. "I hid there when I was a child, during the war."
"You lived in this house when you were a child?" he asked, staring at the picture along with her.
"When we left France and escaped to England, I told myself that I never wanted to see that place again. Now you've brought all of those horrible childhood memories back to plague me. Who are you? How did you know?"
"I guess I could ask you the same questions. My name is Franklyn Dorsey. I work in the Radiology Department at the hospital over there." He motioned toward the hospital with his chin. "I work the second shift -- from four until midnight and I spend most of my spare time painting. Now as far as this picture is concerned, I did it while I was backpacking through France a few years ago. I was walking through. . ."
"The countryside outside of Lyon, near Thil," she interrupted. "That's the Rhone River in the background."
"Yes, I was staying in a bed and breakfast in the village of Thil and I was walking along the Rhone. . ."
"When you saw it in the distance. Do you like Van Gogh, Franklyn?"
"Does it show?"
"I can see it in your brushstrokes. That area was all farmland when I was a girl. The windows on the cottage were a little larger and the door was a little smaller. The troop carrier was parked a bit further from the cottage. It was not always there, but I will tell you how it came to be. My name is Camile Baron." She extended a long delicate arm in Franklyn's direction.
"Have you been watching me while I was painting?"
"I'm afraid so," she giggled like a schoolgirl. "Each time I thought that you were turning around, I hid. I am sorry that I behaved like a child, but a lost childhood is what I think about when I see that picture. My papa worked in the silk trade. He had a job in an office, handling accounts. We had a fine apartment in Lyon. My brother and I had our own rooms. A young woman named Nannette helped mama with the housework, but only mama and I could touch our food or cook our meals. My brother became a bar mitzvah in La Grand Synagogue in 1943. Life was good, even as the war raged on around us. Then one night everything changed. Papa learned that the Nazis were sending one of their best men to deal with the Jewish problem in Lyon. Mama woke us in the middle of the night. Jakob and I packed some clothes and we met papa in the alley. He told us that we were going someplace where we would be safe. Where we could stay together as a family."
"So your entire family picked up and left your home?"
"We did not even tell Nannette. We always wondered what she thought the next morning when she found the house empty. We learned that papa and mama had planned to leave Lyon for a long time. Papa had saved some money and arranged for us to hide in the root cellar beneath the cottage so that the Nazis would not find us. There was only one way into it; a door in the floor behind the hearth. Sometimes, we would see newspapers days or weeks after they were published. Papa told us that we left just in time. The Nazis had sent a man named Klaus Barbie. He would come to be known as 'The Butcher of Lyon.' The cottage belonged to Madame Ramon and her papa. He worked as, what you call a sharecropper. He was injured in an accident on the farm where he worked. Madame Ramon did what she could for him and I guess that papa's money was a big help to her."
"I still can't believe that the four of you lived in; a hole in the ground."
"Papa made it seem like a great adventure for Jakob and me. It was dangerous and exciting, but most importantly, we were together. Mama brought with her two tiny candlesticks and candles. Each Friday night she would say the brachot, the blessings over the Shabbat candles. She would light the candles and wave her hands over the flames." Cecile demonstrated the ritual for Franklyn. "Then she would say the blessing and cover her eyes with her hands, like this." Cecile pressed her palms against her face. "Then she would kiss our foreheads and blow out the candles. At home, we would have let them burn down, but under the cottage, Madam Ramon was afraid it would start a fire. I think she was more concerned that it would call attention to our presence beneath her home. Shabbat dinner was the best meal of the week. Papa worked in an office. He did not know how to farm or hunt, but at night, he would go into the forest and return with squirrels, rabbits, or fish he would sometime catch with his bare hands so that we had something special for Shabbat. We ate animals that we would never have eaten at home. Papa said that in the name of survival the Lord would forgive us. After dinner, mama and papa would take turns telling us stories from the Torah, the Old Testament as I think you might know it, until we fell asleep."
"You didn't spend all of your time underground?"
Cecile stifled her laughter with a white-gloved hand. "Did you walk around to the back of the cottage Franklyn?"
"No, I painted it from the other side of the road. I didn't do any exploring."
"Then you don't really understand what you captured so very well." Cecile motioned him to look more closely at the painting. "Right here at the bend of the river, behind this boulder with the quartz vein, we were sheltered from prying eyes. When mama and papa thought that it was safe, the tiny plot of land between the riverbank and the back of the cottage was our entire world. We would bathe and play in the river, and sun ourselves on the grass behind the cottage. When the sun struck the vein of quartz at the right angle, it glimmered like gold."
"It sounds like an idyllic life."
"At first it was. Then the Nazis began to pay Madame Ramon periodic visits. They would drive there in their noisy troop carrier. We had to hide in the cellar and remain absolutely quiet, while they drank the wine that she made from the grapes that grew in the tiny field adjacent to the cottage. Sometimes they would fall asleep and remain in the cottage all night. We would huddle together and keep each other from making any noise that might wake them."
"How long did you stay there?"
"Nearly two years. Things became desperate after papa went out on one of his hunting expeditions and never returned."
"Monsieur Ramon asked around the village as best as he could without calling too much attention. He learned that a man was captured in the woods by the Nazis and taken back to Lyon. We never heard from him again. With papa gone, life was no longer an adventure, but a daily struggle. Mama did the best that she could. She feared that without the money that Papa gave to the Ramons, they would abandon us. That did not happen. Mama and I helped Madam in the kitchen and around the cottage as best as we could. Jakob kept Monsieur Ramon company and even learned how to play chess. Mama still lit candles on Shabbat, but when she covered her eyes with her hands, tears ran down her checks and she refused to move her hands until she was finished sobbing. Without Papa's money and his excursions into the woods for food, our Friday night meal was a meager offering. We began to lose faith."
Franklyn pointed to the statue of Gandhi. "He said that faith is putting your foot on the first rung of a ladder when you don't know where it leads."
"Mama told us stories from the Torah about people who were tested by God. Abraham. Job. Moses. We were convinced that if there was a God, that he had deserted us. Franklyn, do you believe in God?"
"I haven't been in a church since I was a child, and holidays are merely numbers on a calendar. As a painter, I look for the beauty and symmetry in the world and I see it all around me. As a radiology tech, I see the old and the sick, bent, broken, and wracked with pain. I see people in good health and on the doorstep of death. I look deep under their skin and see the marvels of the human body. No matter what anyone tells me, these wonders didn't come about on their own. Yes, I believe in God."
Cecile caught his hand between her own. "You were going to tell me about that burned out truck," he stammered.
"Yes," she said, slowly releasing his hand.
As she continued her story, Franklyn imagined that he was there with her in the root cellar beneath the cottage. He could see the straw mats that they had slept on and the few items of clothing they had brought with them hanging from the beams that supported the floor above them.
It was mid morning and the children were re-reading the few books that they had read so many times before. The door in the floor opened and Madame Baron slowly climbed down the ladder. She knelt between her son and daughter. "We leave tonight," she said slowly. "I can't tell you when or even how, except that when the time is right, you will surely know it. Leave everything here. Take nothing with you. We can't have anything that will slow us down. Do you understand?" Madam Baron caressed her children's cheeks and sat down with them to wait.
The day passed slowly and day turned into evening. They could hear the sound of the truck carrying soldiers there to drink Madam Ramon's wine. Madam Baron pressed her finger to her lips. Cecile and Jakob knew to be quiet with the soldiers overhead. They could hear them laughing and talking in German. They could hear the sound of corks popping and the soldiers slurping wine from the bottle. In time, they could hear the sound of snoring and heavy breathing as the men slumbered.
Suddenly the sound of an explosion tore through the cottage. Madam Baron worked feverishly to calm the children as the sound of groggy, drunken men stumbling out of the cottage filled the air.
Bang, bang, bang! It was the sound of someone stomping on the secret door.
"That's Madam Ramon. Allons-y!"
Cecile and Jacob knew that it was time to go. They followed their mother to the narrow ladder and waited for her to climb to the top. Cecile took one last look around the cellar. The sooner she left, the better she would like it. Her eyes fell on the only things that had any meaning for her. She snatched them from the crate on which they stood and stuffed them into her blouse. When she joined her mother and brother in the tiny kitchen, the smell of burning gasoline and rubber assailed her nostrils. Madam Ramon gave each of them a tender hug and directed them through the cottage's rear door. "Walk to the river. You will understand why."
The smoke from the raging fire that burned in front of the cottage stung their eyes, as they ran toward the bank of the Rhone. Silhouetted against the water, they could see two men in a rowboat. One man jumped out of the boat as they approached. "Monter à bord!" he whispered in a gruff voice. They clambered into the tiny craft and he pushed the boat into the water before they were even seated. As the distance to the shore widened, the Barons began to breathe easily. They could see the flames lick over the top of the cottage and hear the voices of the soldiers in the distance. Two shots rang out and one of the men in the boat crossed himself and slowly closed his eyes. The Ramons generosity had cost them their lives. As a diversion to mask their departure, Monsieur Ramon had set fire to the truck. While the soldiers worried about the vehicle, the Barons escaped unnoticed.
Franklyn found himself back in the park in front of his painting.
"When we reached the opposite shore, there was a truck waiting for us. We rode for days in trucks, cars, and carts. Finally we reached the Channel and we eventually found ourselves in England."
"And that's how the story ends?"
"Mama found a job as a companion for a wealthy woman in a huge house. Jakob and I finished school. Jakob went to University and he teaches European history. Mama lived with him and his family until the day she died."
"What about you Cecile?"
"I met a wonderful man in England, an American. We fell in love, married, and I returned to the United States with him. We had a wonderful life together. He's gone now. I have two sons, probably about your age Franklyn. One lives in Los Angeles and the other in Chicago. We talk on the telephone and I see them and their families as often as I can. I never told my husband or my family as much about my days in the root cellar as I have told you. It was something that I just wanted to put behind me. I think that it's time to sit down with them and share with them what I went through. Thank you Franklyn, you helped to open my eyes." Cecile leaned forward and gently kissed his cheek.
"One question. What did you take with you from the root cellar?"
Cecile smiled and rummaged through her purse. She withdrew a crumpled silk handkerchief. She slowly unwrapped its contents. There in the palm of her hand, bent, dented, and tarnished, Franklyn saw the silver candlesticks that helped to brighten her family's life each Shabbat.
"I want you to have them Franklyn."
"Maybe you should save them for your grandchildren."
"Alright, but only on one condition. I will take the candlesticks if you will take the painting." He removed the canvas from the easel and presented it to her.
"I don't know what to say."
"Say that you will find a place for it in you home."
"Thank you Franklyn. Thank you so very much." A tear trickled down her check as she walked north toward 18th Street, holding the painting at arm's length in front of her.
Franklyn watched her until she disappeared into the crowd. It would have been very easy for Franklyn to paint another copy of the picture. Every brushstroke on the canvas was ingrained in his memory. Perhaps next time he would make the windows larger and the door smaller. He could certainly move the burned out hulk of the Nazi troop carrier further from the house, but there would not be a next time. As she walked away staring deep into the canvas, Franklyn realized that he probably painted it for her originally and did not know it. "Now it has its rightful owner," he whispered to himself. Franklyn paused, and looked up into the sky. "The Lord does work in strange ways."
from the March 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine