the hands of a clock
raise arms in desperation
fighting against time
It was Saturday and I had made up my mind to waste the day. I never made plans for a weekend. I just let the day roll towards me by the hour, or let the hours pass by slowly.
I walked down the street, crossed Rue Lafayette, and saw my friend Loïc, from Brittany, from a distance. He sat in front of his antique shop, sedate, thick and comfortable, with a Gauloise in the corner of his mouth, and, already in the early morning, in front of him, a glass of red wine on a small round table.
He said that he had just dealt with some customers who, of course, had bought nothing, but only had complained about the bad times.
They were now standing sadly, like death birds, ‘les oiseaux du mort’, as he put it smugly with raised eyebrows, on the other side of the street, looking at the display in a bookshop. Following my gaze, he sighed, without losing the cigarette from the corner of his mouth: Ah, les français.
I let him reach into the paper bag I was holding and shared with him the small croissants I had just picked up from Boulangerie Dujardin, which were still warm.
His shop was full of rarities, such as old radios, boxes of old photographs, medals and decorations, old toys, which generate memories, porcelain dishes and figures.
“Can you take my place for a moment? I have to pick something up from the pharmacy,” Loïc asked.
Some Saturday morning idlers poked their heads into the door but decided to move on.
A while later, an old, bent over man with a black slouch hat entered the shop. I could barely see his face. His accent sounded German.
“I come back to this Meissen porcelain figure.”
He pointed to the shelf. There were about ten figures displayed.
To find out which one he meant, I said: “Why don’t you take the figurine in your hand, it will speak to you?”
He carefully took one, representing a shepherdess with a lamb, in his trembling hands and carefully put it back in slow motion.
I stepped closer to the shelf to see the price. On a small sticker, written in Loïc’s handwriting, it showed 250 euros.
He said: “It was mine; the figurine and I are the only of our family which are left. I got it on my Bar Mitzvah.
My questioning look made him continue.
“From one minute to the next we had to leave our flat. I was separated from my parents at the station Gare d’Austerlitz, where we were rounded up to be deported. My father had implored me to go into hiding. I escaped to Spain but never saw my parents again. Our flat was ransacked, all our possessions taken.
By chance, I was made aware of this antique shop by Mrs Belmonte, who owns a bookshop in Rue Liancourt.
I have been searching antique shops for years. But fate leads us to what we are looking for. It is often mysterious. Maybe the dead lead us.”
“But there may be several similar figures on the market. How can you be so sure it is yours?” I asked him.
“Turn the figure over.”
Two Hebrew letters in gold lettering were on the underside. Gold on white. Alef Beit. A B
“The initials of Aaron Blatt…That is my name. How much do I owe you?”
“The price tag says EUR 250.”
“You might expect that I will try to beat the price down. On the contrary, I would like to reward the owner. I will take that price as a basis, plus appreciation, handling, storage, interest…” He thought with his head down. “Let us say EUR 550?”
“That’s a lot of money.”
“Money is only printed paper and I like to spend it to repair suffering, to free myself from the past.”
Wrapping tissue lay on the counter and I carefully wrapped the figure. He took it, almost tenderly, put it in his old leather bag, left the banknotes on the counter, and with a slight limp left the shop and disappeared.
I saw Loïc on his return hobbling across the street.
“Ça va?” his sonorous bass voice resounded.
“I represented you well and I just sold a Meissen figure, the shepherdess.”
“For how much?? For the full price?”
“You are a genius. It has been sitting on the shelf for years, gathering dust. Who bought it?”
“A Mr. Blatt, and he added a good bit to it.” I told him the story.
“Oh yes, I think I remember him.”
“He said a Mrs. Belmonte had recommended your shop.”
“Ah, Mrs. Belmonte. She is a bit weird, creepy. Has an antiquarian bookshop near the catacombs. So, so, Mrs. Belmonte? Hmmm. Her nickname is Chaperon blanc. White riding hood. She is a witch, white magic, you know?
“She had settled in the 14th arrondissement as a mature woman in the 60’s with her father who died shortly after their arrival. From where she came nobody knows. She must be over 100. Strange.
“I will tell you what, I will close for the day and we will visit her antiquarian bookshop, you will be interested, you are a book lover, the antiquarian bookshop is unique. And a little creepiness whets the appetite. I’ll invite you to a bistro tonight.”
Loïc closed his shop and we drove with his old, likewise “antique,” Renault 4 in about ten minutes via Place de la Concorde, down Boulevard Raspail, past the Cimetière du Montparnasse to Rue Liancourt.
When we dove over Boulevard Raspail, Loïc said: “Do you know that we are driving over six million dead. Beneath us are the catacombs of Paris.”
The bookshop was in a street with a few small shops and bistros, one of which, oddly enough, was called Les Petites Sorcières. White facades, with wrought-iron balconies and wooden shutters, gave the street a Mediterranean flair.
From the outside, the bookshop was inconspicuous, rather unspectacular, with a plain shop sign over a heavy entrance door ‘Librairie Belmonte.’ When we opened the door, the pleasant, peculiar smell of books hit me. I loved this smell and absorbed it, hoped to internalize all the wisdom these books contained.
The first thing I noticed when we walked into the bookshop was that in the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, the books were arranged horizontally, lying flat, with the spines parallel to the shelf so that you avoid tilting your head, rather than lining books vertically, spines perpendicular to the shelves, as most people do. As I looked across a layer of bookshelves, I could see a neat arrangement of stacks of books, each about 10 to 12 books high. The second thing I noticed was smaller books placed vertically, nestled in between these stacks of large books as if to plug in the holes.
Loïc nudged me. I turned around. In front of me stood a small woman with snow-white hair and a face that belied her age. Her eyes were light, ethereal blue, which made them seem almost entirely white and eerie.
“What can I do for you?” she asked in a voice with a dark timbre.
“Mr Blatt, whom you directed to my shop, bought a porcelain figure today. Thank you. I wanted to show my friend Édouard your bookshop. He’s a book addict.”
“Mr Blatt? But he died six months ago. I attended his funeral.”
Loïc looked confused, puzzled, but said nothing. Mrs. Belmonte did not react. It seemed to have no meaning for her or did not surprise her.
I said “You have an impressive collection of books. Probably you are often confronted with the silly question: ‘Have you read all these books?’”
“Yes, I have. I only recommend books I have read.”
I looked around. Roughly 5,000 books. Maybe the same amount on the upper floor.
I calculated, generously estimating 6 days reading time for a book equals 60,000 days, divided by 365 days per year equals 164 years.
Although minimalistic, the shop seemed out of time, with a somehow wearying, overshadowed atmosphere I could not describe.
She looked at me penetratingly. “What are you interested in?”
“Poetry, philosophy, some contemporary writers. Walser, Dürrenmatt, Houellebecq, Handke.“
“Books contain secrets and mysteries, especially these old books, some are nearly 200 years old. This is where our secrets lie. All existed before. We are just moving in a loop. We think we have died but are only in another sphere and think it is still our reality.”
She pointed to the left.
“If you take one of these books at random, the book will reveal your past. Here,” and she pointed to the right, “a book will contain your wish which will never come true and here in the middle you will find your biggest regrets in your life.”
I hesitated. Who wants to discover what might have been missed and what one did wrong? It reminded me of a habit of my grandfather who closed his eyes, opened the bible, and pointed blindly on a piece of text, which would give him a sign, advice or hint for the day or in time of distress.
“You have an interesting theory of death”, I said, “I think death is the only calculable and reliable thing in life.”
“Have you ever visited the catacombs, this collection of death?”
I shook my head.
“Come with me,” she pointed with her head to the back of the shop.
“She will show you the ‘Chamber of Horrors,’” whispered Loïc.
We walked to the end of the bookshop, past all those tempting books.
She opened a door, ahead of us stairs that ran into a basement.
We descended many stairs, then walked along narrow dimly lit corridors, seemingly a network of old tunnels stretching under Paris, cavernous passages, until we reached an extraordinary sight, a part of the subterranean ossuary: bones and skulls, all stacked neatly, part of the remains of inhabitants from many graveyards from the past to find their final eternal rest in the former limestone mines, remains collected from improper burials, open graves, abandoned graveyards and unearthed corpses.
The words abyss came to my mind and the words: ‘..he descended into the realm of death…’
“Do you know the poem Memento by Mascha Kaléko?” she asked.
“Yes….” I said.
“I am not afraid of my own death,
Only of the death of those who have been close and dear to me.
How shall I ever live if they are no longer here with me?…” she recited.
She jumped swiftly up the stairs, turned around and for a moment it seemed to me that I was looking at the face of a young girl.
After I had felt my way back up through the semi-darkness, I stood in front of the shelves with the old books that had magically fascinated me. I stood in front of the middle shelf.
I randomly grabbed a book, a thick tome, that had attracted me, and bought it.
Mrs. Belmonte smiled sadly. “You have a lot of regrets.”