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Fiction: The Fronds of Knives

Manon Peren swallowed hard. The taste of stale bread filled her mouth, an ache that reminded her of flowers and the smell of baking bread in a Montmartre bakery in the spring. Fifteen years old, she dreamed of foamy milk and pastries, with neither to enjoy. Over the scent of bougainvillea from the open window, the air reeked of burnt toast from her attempts to make a birthday cake by melting preserved cheese over bits of bread. Back in Paris, she’d have set the elaborate triple burners on high. But this apartment—tucked away beside the Promenade des Anglais, near the Cours Saleya in the old town—only had a single burner, and no salt or olives, or anything for spice. Reeking of strangers and homesickness, the place felt like a foreign landscape, constructed from someone else’s clothes, dusty furniture, and well-used pots and pans.

A light on the boulevard flashed off and on. In each flash: her father’s wide silhouette. That low-brimmed hat covering his eyes. Th at inner energy that, no matter his pace, followed him. Three weeks back, soldiers had taken him to a Besancon work camp, leaving her weeping, her mother sleepless at the doorway till dawn. They said—lies, she knew—he’d be back.

At least they’d left Paris. Her grandmother had heard the rumors at her Embassy job.

Nine at night. Her grandmother stood to clean their cups of hot water, not complaining about the lack of tea; a silence that struck Manon as sad. For years, complaining had been her grandmother’s way of showing she was alive. Her mother, beside her, had lit a single short-wicked candle. It flamed on the table, weaker than their candles in their Montmartre apartment.

A knock on the front door. Her aunt Ava. One quick rap. With piled dark curls, wire-framed glasses, and a stare like a wintry bird’s, Ava spoke in a way that implied constant drama. A dancer, she’d owned a salon on the rue de Miromesnil. Until the Occupation, she’d welcomed all manner of high society, in smoky salons that had lasted well into the night. Manon had been the youngest invited. To her mother’s horror, she’d dressed up and gone out most weeks.

Relieved at the distraction, Manon stood and walked over. Blood rushed to her head.

“I’ve got news,” Ava said, in a stage whisper. She hurried in, smelling of sweat and oranges. Her loose shirt and pants gave her a slovenly look. Back in Paris, she’d prided herself on her ironing skills. Her mother stumbled forward, and the two embraced clumsily.

“My father?” Manon asked, at the same moment as Ava exclaimed, “Matisse.”

“Matisse?” Manon fumbled on the name. Breath short, she clutched the pilled dishtowel. Each vertebra fired up in her back. Matisse. Who hadn’t heard of him? Living in Cimiez, outside of Nice, high on a hill at the magisterial Hotel Regina. In his seventies at least. An international celebrity. Six months back, she’d studied his paintings. In her stuffy classroom, her teacher had passed the book through the rows, exclaiming at the power of those images. Such wild-bodied dancers, limbs packed with movement, like branches on windblown trees.

“He’s wanting a substitute model,” Ava said, taking the dishtowel with a nervous energy. The air filled with the clack of her nails. “My gallerist friend called with the details. He’s looking for someone delicate, not too practiced, with a soft face. Someone patient, discreet.”

“I’m sure a man like him doesn’t want for models,” her mother said.

“You’d be surprised.” Ava wrung out the dishtowel. “Princess Nezy, his old model, turned twenty and got married. She went on a honeymoon, then returned, too sick to pose.”

“Princess Nezy?” Manon asked. The name marbled in her mouth. Hazy, foreign. How dull the windows looked, how homely the baseboards, edged with green paint that had started to peel. A cruise ship princess, gobbling down boiled eggs and pears; she’d force off her jealousy.

“A perfect model,” Ava said, clearing the table of crumbs. She wiped them to the floor, a habit her mother hated. “You’ve read the interviews? He called her a natural flirt, said she was pert, seductive. Dressed up in a robe, a silk scarf, a smart spotted veil.”

“Who could live up to that?” Manon pulled her housedress tighter, catching Ava’s gaze. From anyone other than her aunt, she would have dismissed this all as a fairy story. But her aunt had connections, and back in Paris, knew half the painters in the Marais. Flighty, her mother had always called Ava. Since childhood, the two sisters hadn’t gotten along. Moving to Nice hadn’t improved things. The women looked nothing alike, except for their turned-up lips.

“He started up with all these young, cosmopolitan women.” Ava looked off. “Bored in Nice, they claimed, with nothing to do. Poor them, huh? But his latest model was detained, apparently. A Jewish girl from Moscow.”

“Detained?” Manon sucked in breath. “Couldn’t he have helped?”

“Suppose not.” Outside, the cats started mewing, a flooding sound. “He’s only barely started painting again.” Ava squinted as if picturing the scene, then gestured with loose swoops. Manon envied her blustery fire. “One hour per day at his easel, and requiring frequent breaks. Probably he’ll paint mostly from bed. So he especially needs inspiration. My friend asked if I knew anyone. He knows I’ve got taste. And I said of course. That’s you.”

She thrust out a yellowed paper. Manon took it, shaking. Modeling for an artist? How absurd, like telling her to ride an elephant.

“You should have asked me,” her mother said, dropping her knitting, a purple mess of yarn. Losing her vision, each week more. Her mood had worsened with her sight. Stargardt Disease, diagnosed five years back. The central vision would go first, then the periphery, till she’d go blind. No matter how often Manon reminded herself, still she found it impossible to believe.

“But what if I could earn something?” Manon asked. “Wouldn’t that help?”

With her father’s departure, they’d lost their one source of income. How helpless she’d felt, not able to help her grandmother with her secretarial work, mailing letters, as she once had. Her grandmother had left so suddenly, she’d had no time to ask for extra funds, or for visas. Already her mother had pawned off her wedding ring. How her father had shouted.

“You are not modeling,” her mother said, glancing over with a startled look. “It’s not proper—and you’re not the model type.”

“I’m not pretty enough.” Manon echoed what she assumed her mother thought. Since she’d turned twelve, her mother had remarked on her pointy chin, her high widow’s peak, receding like an old woman’s. Visas. If Matisse couldn’t get them, no one could.

“It’s not that.” Her mother spoke without conviction, fingers at her temples.

“His paintings focus on inner beauty.” Ava clacked her fingernails. “That you have. And it’s not as if he has options.” She didn’t bother to hide her sarcasm.

Merci.” Manon ignored the slight. Doe-eyes, her mother’s nickname for her, given her round, almost lash-less gaze, and her irises, one blue and one brown. An artist—inner beauty—the words seemed to come from a foreign language. “But he’ll want me to pose—naked?”

“Well…yes.” Smirking, Ava looked away. “But it’s not sexual. You’d be a working partner to him. With what we need, you shouldn’t be picky.”

“It’s out of the question.” Her mother’s expression darkened.

“To the Hotel Regina, like some common prostitute? What would he ask her to do? Plus, she’s bound to be seen. Too much coming and going. It’ll be just like in Paris. You know, they already took Rosa.”

What?” Manon jolted up. Her knees slammed into the table, rattling the legs, until the pain-jolt startled her back. Rosa? Her classmate. One month back, they’d played cards, gossiped over the latest fashions. Rosa—heart-shaped face, perfect handwriting—had always seemed more put-together than anyone. Manon wanted to cry but sensed her mother couldn’t handle it.

“I didn’t want to tell you.” Her mother spoke sharply. “Her family was on their way here, but got stopped at Lalande. No one knows where they’ll be sent to next. And rumor has it the Italians are coming. Madame C. told me. They won’t treat us well.”

“How long do we have?” Manon asked, biting her cheek. Madame C. ran the underground shop and knew everyone.

“Thirty days at best. Assuming we find a way to get food.”

Plates clattered from the back room—her grandmother, cleaning—and a thin whistle of steam rose. That sound, once comforting, struck her as irritating, but she didn’t feel like plugging her ears. On her dress hem, a loose thread dangled. She yanked it and drew up tight, tensing her calf muscles, as she had in her pre-rehearsal stretches. Thirty days. Not enough to see the change of seasons, to watch the blaze of summer light over the Promenade shift into an easy, endless fall.

“Listen.” Ava leaned closer. Her eyes gleamed with that same fire she’d had, greeting guests in her salons. “You know his daughter’s in the Resistance? You know they’re close?”

“Yes?” Manon hadn’t heard.

“He can’t openly help, not with his international commitments.” Ava stole a glance at her mother, who wiped her eyes. “But he can pull strings with the Committee. I’ve heard he already has. It’s by far our best shot. A few signatures, some handshakes, and we’ll be on our way.”

“Visas?” Her mother rubbed her hands together.

“I’ll ask him,” Manon said, before anyone could. Could she? In any case, she wanted something to say, or some way to keep her mother from her usual evening sobs.

“What’s this all about?” her grandmother called from the back. Her voice, gone high with effort, had a ghostly air. The steaming kettle she carried in smelled of ginger. The stacked cups shook in her hands. Her narrow face, already thin as a child’s, looked even more drawn.

Manon took a cup. “It’s our only chance for visas,” she said. “And food.”

“He’ll help us only if he likes you.” Her grandmother clattered the cups down. Her mouth moved as if tasting preserves. “But if he does—that’s the golden ticket. Visas for all of us, can you imagine? And soon? We’d be off to London. The States. You’d go back to school. Forget all those restrictions. Maybe even dance again.”

“No man of his status would care for us.” Her mother patted the table for a cup but came up bare. “We’re like little ants, grabbing at sticks. He paints women on cushioned divans, lounging in harem pants. And can you imagine what the soldiers would say—a young Jewish girl, traipsing back and forth on the Promenade? A slap in their faces. Totally obscene.”

“He’s spent six months in bed.” Ava pulled her bun tighter, a hint of her dancer’s past. “I read the doctors say he won’t survive a second operation. A liver problem. He needs rest and a change in diet. Even so, he’ll probably be dead by year’s end.”

“I didn’t realize,” Manon said. Dead. She tried to imagine an artist near death but came up with only a white-haired man in a wheelchair, straining at a canvas, brush darting with mastery. Matisse flirts with colors, her art teacher had said, holding up a copy of Still Life with Oranges. A cluster of fruit inside a porcelain bowl. One orange cut in half, its juice so fresh she could taste. A famous artist. A quiet hunger lit in her, and a slow fire she hadn’t expected herself to feel.

“Posing would bring him happiness.” Ava’s voice rose. “And happiness means visas. Haven’t you read the papers? Not Jewish, himself, but sympathetic. Not like Derain. He didn’t go to Germany with SS officers. Didn’t take part in the German embassy parties. And, when he did show up with government officials, he didn’t smile. Looked stone-faced. You know his daughter’s gotten herself into trouble. He’s pulled strings to protect her.”

“He’s on our side,” Manon interjected, chest filling with warmth. The scene at the Velodrome D’Hiver, one month back, hung in her mind. Thousands of Jewish Parisians crowded in, forced to sleep on top of each other. Nowhere even to relieve themselves. Deporting thousands, including children—it had seemed impossible, even as she’d pinned on her yellow star. She’d hidden in her bedroom closet. Her Hungarian housekeeper Imre had claimed she’d gone out. But then—a guilt she couldn’t forget—the soldiers had taken Imre instead of her.

“This is the option.” Ava leaned over. “If we say no, it’s only a matter of time. Everyone knows the Germans are closing in. Please.”

“He wouldn’t want me.” Manon sipped. The ginger bite filled her throat. She’d lost the energy for tears. Still, the thought of wanting hung, proud and precious, a curtain not yet closed.

“He’s invited you, if you accept.” Her aunt flashed a smile. “I already asked.”

“Oh?” Her grandmother jolted to stand, clattering the teapot. “Without permission?”

“You what?” Her mother took the ad and, with deft fingers, ripped it in half. She had the same look as when Manon had gone out in Paris past curfew. “You had no right.”

“It’s only a one-time trip.” Her aunt hardly sounded sorry.

“A trip that could end in her death.” Her mother dropped the ripped ad.

“Nicola,” her grandmother whispered, “don’t spit at the chance for help.”

“So you’ll let Manon do your dirty work?” her mother asked, sipping in sharp breaths. “Take a pretty girl and get us visas that way? Make her into a pawn?”

“Has anything else worked?” her grandmother asked, and Manon knew she was right.

“It’s about her safety, and ours.” Her mother slumped, silhouette sharp against the green-printed tiles. “She’d attract attention. The soldiers would follow her here.”

French soldiers.” Ava craned her head back. “And she doesn’t look foreign.”

“Let Manon decide,” her grandmother said, as if discussing groceries.

“It’s not up to her.” Her mother turned to Manon, blinking rapid-fire. “Are you all crazy? A fifteen-year-old girl, traipsing around Nice? Putting her—putting all of us—at risk?”

“Please.” Manon spoke softly, sensing more words would make her mother lash out. Her grandmother laid a hand on her mother’s arm. They sat in silence a long moment. On the far wall, their silhouettes merged. Two dark outlines, quaking, against the dim thrall of the sea.

“I wish I didn’t have to forbid you.” Her mother drew to her full height—taller than the others by half a head—and tossed her half-finished scarf on the ground. “But if you won’t see the big picture, I must. You’re too naïve. Straightening your hair won’t trick the officers for long.”

“I’d be careful.” Manon picked up the scarf, fingered its soft folds. So her mother knew.

“Nicola,” her grandmother whispered. “Please.”

“Come,” Ava said, leading her mother out down the hallway. Her grandmother followed. A flutter of whispering. Manon put on her mother’s scarf, looping it three times. Its musty warmth felt heavy but didn’t soothe her. Wanted by an artist; could she be? She wasn’t pretty. An upturned nose, triangular chin, and pillowed lips, the butt of jokes among her school friends. Yet she walked straight-backed, with a strong edge.

And visas. They’d be off, away from this cleanly-lit city, this trap. She no longer found the Promenade’s white expanse welcoming, nor that outlandishly blue-green sea. But Matisse’s
rooms at the Hotel Regina must be elegant, filled with classical music, high on the hill.

In the next room, her grandmother and mother murmured, a quick patter with silences in between. An echo of those Montmartre evenings, one month back: the fleeting buzz of radio static, click-click of men playing petanque, birds cawing in alleyways, silverware clacking, waiters passing by, swiveling, taking bills. Her father’s face in lamplight, eyes lifted, the gleam of the Sacre Coeur at his back. With a borrowed telescope, they’d found the Big Dipper and gazed out at the scattered stars. He’d bandaged all her scrapes so tenderly.

She rose and opened the window. Soldiers paced outside, guns slung at their hips. The air’s sudden chill surprised her. Far chillier than she’d expected Nice to be. The sunset cast an almost purple glow onto the wire fence surrounding the terrace. The darkness, which had always made her feel safe, had a new edge. She’d always thought of herself as a girl who loved beauty—but how could she love a place of such danger? Even the palm trees had fronds like knives. She put her hand to her neck, where her Star of David necklace hung. It was warmer than her skin, with sharp points. Her father’s last gift. The night before the soldiers had taken him, he’d opened his hands, revealing a small gold chain, then passed it to her, whispering, “Be brave.”

Be brave. Thudding words. Her head, in a blood-rush, seared.

“So?” Ava returned and gestured out. Her mother close behind. “Have you considered?”

“I have to.” Manon had never made such a demand. “Let me go.”

“I won’t allow it.” Her mother grabbed the chair-edge. “I’m sorry.”

Buoyed by her own words, Manon stood and walked to the window. Her mother kept talking, protesting, but she didn’t turn. Out on the Promenade, under lampposts, those soldiers marched, heads pitched back, guns angular lines. How could they ever have been babies? What would their mothers say, if they could see? Outside, the mewing turned desperate. Sharp, angular cries. Every weeping palm tree cast small shade. Steeling herself, she dug her heels down, clenched her fists. Fear had never been a thing to stop her. She’d take the chance

Rebecca Givens Rolland is the author of The Wreck of Birds and the forthcoming nonfiction book The Art of Talking with Children. She won the Dana Award in Short Fiction and has published fiction in the Michigan Quarterly Review, Slice, and The Literary Review.