On low marshy islands in the middle of the River Seine, an encampment of Celtic fishermen, the Parisii, once founded a village. The fishermen worshipped the horned god Cernunnos whom they believed united the earth, sea and sky. To this stag-horned hunter they sacrificed goats and pigs to ensure the fertility of their women. They doused statues of him in holy water to ensure their nets returned filled with fish. They laid flowers at his feet and fought enemy invaders who attempted to desecrate the Lord of the Dance. They were certain that Cernunnos would protect them from alien hordes harboring strange ideas about politics and religion. And they burned their village to the ground rather than let it fall to Julius Caesar’s 10th Legion.
Centuries later, after being sacked by the Huns and the Romans—on higher ground to the south, the left bank of the river as it snakes toward Rouen and eventually Le Havre on the sea—a university was established that became a model for universities around the world. Its ornate, neo-classical architecture symbolized the height of liberal thought and the free exchange of ideas.
In a darkened classroom on the third floor of one of the colleges, the young woman in the fourth row of Professor Alain Pascal’s Economics of Natural Law and Justice class was fighting a losing battle. Her gentle features often turned heads: her shoulder-length, nut-brown hair and startling green eyes, her mocha skin. But today, the skin under her eyes was puffy and her hair was a knotted mess. Her gaze drifted, following a stray line of dusty sunlight from the blinds as it struck the pure white light from the projector. Eyelids like hummingbird wings, breathing shallow, her pounding head slid forward off her palm.
It had been a late night for Dara Roux at Café Saint-Michel. Vivien, the owner, had called again to tell her that she wouldn’t be able to make it down, and asked if she wouldn’t mind closing. Lately it had become an annoying routine; at about 8 p.m. on the Tuesdays and Wednesdays when she worked, she could expect the old black telephone on the marble bar top to ring. With that nasal voice, like a cat down a flight of stairs, she apologized again and again: Je suis désolé! Je suis tellement désolé! If it wasn’t the dog vomiting on her Berber rug, it was her son’s arrest for petty theft or an errand she had to run.
One regular, Aubrey, remained at the bar. He had a crumbly mash of salt-and-pepper stubble and an impish, dimpled grin that invited indulgence. Dara did not often drink with the clientele, but after another no-show by Vivien, she decided to join him for one last Stella. And then another.
Dara turned up the volume on the white plastic radio; the tune by that blonde American whose name she couldn’t remember. His picture had been splashed all over the papers since the song became popular. The bouncy tune was impossible to resist so she sang along: “et was an eetsy beetsy teenie weenie yellow polkadot bikini...”
Before long she traded her Stella for a dram of pastis. And then another.
On hearing the voice of the lecturer her head snapped back. She peered through her hair to see if anyone had noticed she was napping.
Luckily all eyes were on Professor Pascal: A veteran of World War II and short as a garden gnome, he often enunciated his words as though with them he was driving a dagger through the heart of a Nazi infiltrator.
“The fascists and communists, they feast on moments of ambiguity,” Pascal said, emphasizing feast with a sharp venom.
Dara shook her foggy head and sat a little straighter in her seat. It seemed that he was directing his unwavering hatred for them directly at her. When he clicked to the next slide she was intrigued by the black-and-white photograph on the projector: A woman in her 30’s, or 40’s maybe, stood next to a stove lighting a fire with German bank notes.
“In Weimar at this time it was cheaper to light a fire with your money than to buy a newspaper,” Pascal said. “Prices were out of control. A loaf of bread cost a week’s wages. A bottle of wine was an unthinkable luxury. The rise of prices created a demand for higher wages. The German government made the supreme mistake of failing to tax its people. Instead, they printed more money. Once the inflationary spiral begins, it is almost impossible to stop. We call this conundrum too much money chasing too few goods.”
The sudden focus on this fragile-looking woman gave her pause: the money. She had forgotten to drop the night’s take after she left the café early that morning. In fact, she couldn’t remember much of anything about last night after the pastis. Anise still lingered on her tongue, bitter and grippy. Far off, outside the classroom window, she heard the donkey bray of an ambulance echo through the streets of the Latin Quarter.
After class, she retraced her steps from Michel’s the previous night. It was the spring equinox and oddly warm. The smiling faces of the people around her seemed grotesque: women in pillbox hats and armored lips; men with their suit jackets off carelessly smoking cigarettes while strolling on their Wednesday lunch hour. The traffic pestered her: Citroens and Renaults and even a Chevrolet. Did the Americans even care that it meant goat herder in French? A fat, mustachioed man behind the wheel of a tiny Peugeot honked at her while she crossed against the light, and she glared at him. A leggy woman on a bicycle with an umbrella across the handlebars swept close to her backside.
“Regarde ça!” Dara shouted in her wake as the woman pedaled on, unconcerned.
Sweat formed at the back of her neck. She adjusted her blouse, letting air between the white silk and her clammy skin. She slowed her pace. The sun was high over rue Guisarde, and she stopped to catch her breath. The nutty, slightly sour smell of fresh baguettes wafted from a nearby boulangerie and sent her stomach rumbling. Looking down at the paving stones of the sidewalk, they did an odd dance. Silver flashes like tiny explosions pestered her vision. She shook her head.
As she tried to gather her bearings, she was struck by a painting in a gallery window. It was done in a realistic style, almost like a photograph, and nearly filled the window. A stubby-legged toddler, barely old enough to stand, looked down a long dirt road. On each side of the road were dusty banana trees and small, thatched roof huts—a village. The child was naked—chubby butt to the viewer—and alone, waving to something or someone unseen in the distance.
She steadied herself against a nearby lamppost and slowed her breathing. She closed her eyes. These attacks had become more frequent and disorienting since Maman’s death. Sweat covered her brow and she wiped it with her forearm. The post at her back was all that kept her from tumbling into the street.
The events of the past nine months swirled before her: the police knock one bright, salient morning last June; pitying, sorrowful eyes of friends and classmates; sorting through boxes of Maman’s scarves and shawls and perfumes; eating alone, drinking alone, being alone.
Dara entered the downstairs breezeway of her apartment building empty-handed. She opened her mailbox for the first time in two weeks and found it overflowing; several letters tumbled to the black-and-white porcelain tile floor. She gathered them and wound her way up to the third floor, Madam Barinsky’s shepherd barking like a thing possessed as she passed 2B.
In her efficiency flat, she settled all the other mail on the butcher-block table and took a glass of water from the tap. Bright daylight poured through the slim, floor-to-ceiling windows in the kitchen. It was a simple flat although not without character: exposed wood beams and an oak floor that creaked almost everywhere she stepped. There was a chandelier over the kitchen table missing half its crystals. It was sparsely furnished with an old daybed and an even older recliner that she had scrounged from a weekend market.
She tore the cushions and pillows off the daybed and dug her fingers into the crinkled velour of the recliner. She found a 10 Franc coin and some peanut shells. Nothing in the pockets of her clothes or her dresser. She opened all the cupboards, lifting plates and searching on upper shelves with her fingers. She pulled all the drawers open—one was loose and came out completely, clattering silverware to the floor.
On her knees, reaching for a fork that found its way under the daybed, she paused to look at a photograph of her and Maman on the end table. It had been taken not long after they arrived in Paris. Her young face with an expectant, not quite fearful look. She could almost see the quiver in her lower lip. Maman, of course, was smiling her gregarious smile. It must have been taken somewhere near their old flat in Montmarte.
The phone rang.
There was that familiar, high-pitched voice on the other end of the receiver, cat down a stairwell: “I want to talk to you about last night.”
“Oui, Vivien, I can explain. There was so much happening with one of the beer lines failing and the order of Pouilly-Fuissé not arriving, I’m not sure...”
“Dara, I cannot thank you enough.”
“I don’t think you understand...the night’s take.”
“Meager, yes, but what do you expect on a Tuesday? Thank you for the last few months. I’ve been away too much.”
Dara covered her mouth with her hand and sat down at the butcher-block table.
“Would you come in a little early tonight to do an inventory? We’ve had deliveries coming in all morning.”
“Of course, Vivien, à plus tard.”
Dara hung up the receiver. She laid her pounding head against her arm and closed her eyes.
There was a bit of goat cheese and some figs under a glass dome. She tore some day-old baguette and rubbed the cheese over it. Running late that morning she had not had time to eat. Now she ate voraciously. The image of Pascal from this morning’s class came back to her: eyes squinted, good fist clenched. Ils se régalent! They feast!
She picked at the pile of mail and noticed one of the letters was unmistakable from the adverts and bills. She looked closer at the print; her name, Dara Roux, and address written carefully in a neat, schoolboy’s French hand. The envelope was a worn light brown and had stamps with the king’s visage.
Dara slit it open with a bread knife. The letter was written in Lao, that swirling, Sanskrit-based language she knew so well:
1960 March 14
Sweet Dara Bird—
It is with a heavy hand and a heavy heart I must relate this news to you. Yesterday morning as we sat in Little Sri's hut chatting and drinking cha, your papa suddenly stood up. We asked him if he was leaving us to go fishing, this was a joke—at the time it seemed quite funny, but he was as silent as a stone. We knew something was not right when he opened his mouth as if to speak and no words fell out. He shook his head like clearing cobwebs and then looked around very confused.
We all stood and asked what was wrong, but just then he fell over backwards. As you know your father is not a small man and he nearly crushed Little Sri. We lunged to prevent him from hitting the floor, and Little Sri, but unfortunately did not have luck with either.
Oh, Dara, I do not know if I even have the strength to write these words. With all the events of last year and what happened to your Maman, I fear you will do something terrible to yourself on reading these words. Believe me we tried to do what we could. The women brought compresses to cool his head. I kneeled at his side holding his hand and praying. We sent for Master Vora, the shaman in the next village, hoping he could bring medicines to help. By the time he arrived, though, your father was cool to the touch. We all began to wail and cry. You never heard such a commotion in all your years, Dara. Oh, father, oh blessed man, leader of Nong Khiaw. How will we go on without him?
We are lost at this time. We do not know what circles you move in now; we know nothing of your life in Paris. We know we must go forward, but we need your wisdom, daughter of the great Khun. We need you.
With Lord Buddha as my guide,
Dara read the letter all the way through again and again. She looked at each of the rounded letters in each of the words. Maybe she had made a mistake with syntax or context. There must have been some error, some way she could read it to change the outcome. But each time through the truth only became more undeniable: Papa was dead.
She went to her window and looked out on the shadowed courtyard where the ash saplings worked to gain their first spring leaves. She heard a woman’s voice, heavy and harsh, calling “Marie, Marie! Viens ici cet instant!” Then, a clatter of footsteps in the stairwell.