Today's Reading

PROLOGUE

WHERE DO WE GO?

ELISA SCHULMANN TOOK the last pin out of her mouth, slipped it gently into the silk of the skirt she was altering, and picked up her needle. She glanced up; Madame Mercier was watching her, standing in the open doorway that led to the front of the shop. Elisa kept her hands steady under her employer's frown, taking a tiny, careful stitch.

"Wash your hands."

Elisa laid down her work. "I washed them when I came in, madame."

"Wash them again. You're sweating. Do you know how much silk costs these days? If we have to replace that I'll dock every centime from your pay. Anyway, put that aside for now, I've just gotten a rush order from Madame Boutet. I'll need you to stay till it's finished."

Elisa sat up very straight, glancing at the doorway of the windowless workroom and the narrowing stripe of afternoon light. She ducked her head, keeping her hands still on the linty black fabric of her skirt. "I'm truly sorry, madame, but you know that on
Fridays—"

"You will make an exception tonight."

Elisa lifted her head and looked Madame Mercier in the eye. "I'm truly sorry, madame," she enunciated.

The woman's cold frown sharpened. "You people shouldn't work in Christian shops. I ought never to have hired you. Always rubbing your differences in people's faces—too good to drink a cup of coffee with us. I wouldn't be so proud if my religion was based on doing cruel things to baby boys—"

Elisa was on her feet before she knew it, blood pounding in her ears. She froze. "Excuse me, madame," she said through lips stiff as clay. "I have a personal need." She turned her back and walked carefully to the shop's tiny bathroom, then locked herself in and sat on the toilet lid, shaking.

"God, help me," she said in a harsh whisper. "Help me, please." She closed her eyes, thought of the lines in Papa's face last week when he'd told her the rent had gone up again. Their rent, not the neighbors. All Jews have gold under their mattresses, didn't you know? She remembered the day last year when Papa had asked her to take this job. The day David Schulmann, who once was able to provide what was finest for his family, admitted he needed his daughter's help. A tiny, burning coal had lit somewhere behind her breastbone at that moment. It was burning still. I will not fail them.

She took a deep, silent breath. Help me. She loosened her bun and re-pinned it carefully, then rose and opened the door. Madame Mercier was measuring a hem. Elisa stood silently till the woman finished, then spoke quietly, eyes down. "I apologize, madame. I will try to wash my hands more often. I apologize for my attitude and I will do as much as I can for you tonight."

"Till it's finished?"

"Till nine, madame."

Madame Mercier blew sharply through her nostrils and rolled up her measuring tape.

By nine Elisa had the new sleeves of Madame Boutet's dress pieced, pinned, and the first seam stitched, and she was exhausted. She showed Madame Mercier her work, ignoring the breathy sounds of her displeasure; they were good signs, signs that breath would be the only consequence tonight. She kept her face respectful as she said bonsoir. She walked out of the shop and heard the door close behind her, and filled her lungs with the open air.

The narrow streets of Lyon were deep in shadow beneath the three-story houses, clouds already brightening to pale sunset gold in the sky above. Elisa walked quickly, threading her way to the dingier quarters. Going down her familiar alley, she hugged the gray wall, away from the stench of the sewer drain where something seemed to have died. She let herself in the back door and climbed the stairwell, shutting her ears against the sound of angry voices through thin walls. At her own door her fingers rose instinctively, her eyes on the two ragged nail holes where the mezuzah used to be. They always tightened her stomach a little, those holes. She passed them by and let herself in the door, into peace.
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