Dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman
“...close the eyes...it is wisdom to believe the heart.”
“From your years of watching, you have grown the pupils of a cat, to see in the dark.” -- Barbara Kingsolver
This story takes place in Bourges which is located almost in the exact middle of France. Its Cathedral is an exquisite example of Gothic Architecture. The Marais, mentioned at the beginning of the story, is a somewhat marshy area just outside the central, oldest part of the city. It is a place where citizens have their own garden plots.
The alarm went off, and Eduard whispered in Celeste's ear, “It’s Monday, darling. I think the weather will be good for the three of us to go to the Marais to check the greens. If they are mature, we might need to add some items to the menu this week.”
They got up and began their morning routine, so well-honed that there was no need to discuss.
After putting themselves together for the day, they went to Arnaud’s room. They used to take turns getting him up and ready, but, now twelve years old, he was too big.
They would wake him together. Then Eduard would get a pan of water for washing. One of them would hold and turn while the other washed. Then they would dress Arnaud and lift him together into his wheelchair, securing him and setting a tray across where he would rest his hands.
They sang the same set of French folk songs and church music each day, and, though Arnaud could not talk, he would hum and smile.
Their apartment was next to their café and 800 years old, but, with the funds from the government settlement, they had remodeled the inside to accommodate Arnaud’s wheelchair. They wheeled him into the kitchen, making breakfast. They ate baguettes and jam and drank tea and cooked cereal for Arnaud and warmed pureed fruit and took turns each morning feeding him.
It was early May and typically cool and a little damp. The lilacs were blooming, and they passed old women in house dresses cutting them. When they went to Mass at the Cathedral, there would certainly be vases full of lilacs next to the reserved Sacrament, deposited there by the devout.
The Marais was a healthy walk and not all of it paved and, thus, not suitable for a wheelchair. Eduard had fashioned a special seat in their wagon to support Arnaud and a long grip on the wagon so both he and Celeste could pull together.
The salad greens were ready, and they filled the baskets they had brought and discussed how many days they might put their fresh salad on the menu.
The three of them arrived home in time for lunch.
Since the café was closed on Mondays, they spent the afternoon cleaning it and preparing for the next day.
Celeste wheeled Arnaud’s chair up to a table and placed a big tub of water in front of him and bowls of the freshly picked greens next to the tub.
One by one, he took the leaves and dipped them in the water to clean and then set them on a towel Celeste had set on the other side of the water tub. When the towel had too many greens on it, he could knock on the table for Celeste, who would move them over to dry and putting a new, dry towel next to the water tub.
They were open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 – 3, closing one hour later than most cafes. Though it would have been more lucrative for them to also be open for dinner, they decided that it was better for their small family to have quiet, early evenings. Being open the extra hour gave them business other cafes didn’t get, and, in the end, since the numbers worked out, the health and peace of their family was worth more than the extra money.
On the days the café was open, the day-to-day routine varied very little. Mornings were spent cleaning, cooking ahead, writing out the menu for the day. Arnaud, despite his limitations, was an essential part of the routine. Eduard and Celeste would set out freshly cleaned cutlery for him to sort, napkins to fold.
At 11:00 each day, Eduard would cry, “Show time!”, and the doors would open. Eduard cooked. Celeste waited on tables. Arnaud was given tasks one at a time: sprinkling nuts on a salad, doing the final garnish, counting out olives in little side dishes. Even in non-peak seasons, they had a steady stream of customers, given their location right across from the Cathedral.
When the café closed at 3:00, Eduard would take the leftovers from the day, and they would sit around the table, eating, essentially, lunch and dinner at the same time.
There was a little cleaning up, and then they would return to their apartment next door to rest. They followed this with a walk around the city.
When they arrived home their daily walk, they’d have a small repast and then do their version of homeschooling for Arnaud. They read out loud to him, both fiction and non-fiction and poetry. They’d teach him numbers, show him pictures of places, maps, and tried to teach him to recognize words. They had no idea what he actually absorbed, but they didn’t want to presume.
The only regular deviation from this routine was late Saturday afternoon when the attended the Mass of Anticipation at the Cathedral.
After Arnaud was securely in bed, Celeste and Eduard would retire to their own bedroom. The cessation of the day’s rigor brought a quiet that brought with it all the pain that their family bore – painful memories of events that impacted each moment of their day. In the nest of their shared bed, one or both of them would cry. Sleep was a womb that would bring some comfort, some respite, and morning would bring the opportunity to bravely try it all again.
It was May and not the peak tourist season, but the Cathedral kept a steady stream of visitors to the city and, because their café was across from the Cathedral, into Celeste and Eduard’s café.
An American couple came in about 2:00. Celeste knew they were American right away, as usual, though this couple seemed a little different – quiet with movements that weren’t quite as big and entitled as she usually associated with Americans.
There was no one in the restaurant, and, assuming they didn’t speak French, Celeste motioned for them to sit wherever they’d like. They chose a table in a corner.
Celeste soon discovered that they did speak French. They had both been raised in Montreal, Canada and moved to the States as French teachers in the Northeast.
They asked if they could just order soups and salads, saying they weren’t very hungry.
“When do you close?” the woman asked.
“In about thirty minutes, but you can take your time. We have our family meal after we close and then clean up.”
“That boy is your son?”
“Your only son?”
“Yes. Do you two have children?”
The man reached his hand across to his wife who took it. Celeste waited.
“We had a son.”
“Oh, I am sorry. Can you tell me what happened?”
“Maybe you know that there are shootings in the States.”
“We don’t follow the news. It can be too difficult.”
“We understand. A young man with a gun came into our son’s school and begin shooting. Our son died.”
Celeste pulled up a chair. Eduard looked out of the kitchen. It was almost three. He shut the curtains and locked the door and came to the table.
“This couple lost their son in an act as random as the way we almost lost Arnaud.”
“I’ll make our meal,” Eduard said, “Maybe you will stay with us for a little bit?”
The couple nodded.
“Will your son join us?”
“Of course. Eduard will wheel him over when the meal is ready.”
“Can you tell us what happened?”
“Our stories are similar. We were living in Nice, working at the same restaurant. Eduard was a cook. I worked as a server. When we found out I was expecting, we married and had Arnaud. We had everything we wanted and were satisfied.
This all changed in a moment. You maybe heard of the terrorist attack in Nice – the man driving into the crowd. That’s how it happened.
People said we were lucky: we weren’t hurt; Arnaud was alive. These things were true and not the whole story.
Arnaud is paralyzed. He suffered brain damage. Whatever he was born to be will never happen. Every moment is a reminder – as you both know – of how precarious life is, how much evil is in the world. Again, you both know, I am sure, the anger and sorrow and frustration that comes with all of this, emotions that will have no resolution because the past cannot be changed, and it continually impacts us.”
Celeste stopped as Eduard brought their meal and then wheeled Arnaud over.
“Is that why you are in Bourges and not Nice?”
“Yes. The government offered some settlement money. Leaving Nice was a choice we had, since other choices had been taken from us. Bourges isn’t the sort of city that Nice is. The old part of the city feels quiet and safe, sheltered. We used the money to buy the café and the apartment next door, to remodel to make things easier for Arnaud to live with us. People suggested an institution for him, but that was a hideous option.
We like Bourges. It is soothing to us. Running our own café helps us to set up our work lives to be able to care for Arnaud. “
The woman began to cry. “It’s been years for us, but we still feel like we’re making our way.”
“Years for us, too,” said Eduard.
“No one around us understands, and because of this, no one can really support or guide us.”
Both Eduard and Celeste nodded.
“How do you do it?”
Eduard, who was sitting between Celeste and Arnaud, took Arnaud’s hand and kissed it and then leaned over to Celeste and kissed her cheek.
“Love,” answered Celeste, “Only the eyes of love can truly see. Only the eyes of love have the ability to see in the dark.”