BY THE TIME MY brother and I arrived at Donabedian’s Market, our mother was waiting on the sidewalk outside the shop, having commandeered the grocer’s wooden handcart, which was loaded with gunnysacks of bulgur, net bags of onions, liter tins of olive oil, along with miscellaneous brown-paper parcels tied with red string.
From behind the plate-glass window, Baron Donabedian waved to us as he and his assistant were busily ringing up sales. Half the neighborhood’s housewives had joined the effort to empty his shelves.
“Missak,” my mother said, “you and your sister take this cart home. I have more errands to run. Maral, help your brother carry everything up the stairs.”
My brother asked, “What’s all this?”
My mother said, “Food.”
“Right,” he answered. “Are we starting a restaurant?”
“Don’t be smart.” She tugged at the sacks on the bottom, checking that the pyramid of goods was securely settled on the cart.
“How did you pay?” I asked.
She shrugged. “The money in the cracker tin.”
My brother and I exchanged glances.
For as long as I could remember, at the end of each week my mother had climbed the step stool in our tiny kitchen to put coins and small bills into the gold and red cracker tin on the top shelf of the cupboard. She was saving to buy an electric sewing machine that would replace the ancient and venerable Singer pedal machine she used to do piecework as a vest maker. She had a newspaper advertisement showing the different electric models, one mounted on extravagant marble, one with an elegant sewing table, and the one she had set her heart on, which was a simple black model on wood that came in a leather-covered carrying case. She coveted the small electric light affixed to the body of the machine.
My mother said briskly, “After you take everything upstairs, Missak, you return the cart to Donabedian as soon as possible. Maral, put the spices in the jars, and the sugar on the top shelf. The rest goes wherever you and Auntie Shakeh find space.”
That was how our war began. It didn’t start with blaring newspaper headlines announcing a pending invasion, nor was it signaled by the drone of warplanes overhead. Our war commenced that afternoon when my mother stockpiled groceries so that, no matter what this new war might bring, her family would have something to eat.
As the trickle of people fleeing Paris turned into a torrent, my father decided we would remain in our apartment in Belleville, an eastern district that at the time still retained some of its character as an outlying village. Schools across the city were closed, and at the order of the authorities, children were being bused out of town to safety. Many stores were shuttered, and their owners loaded cars and streamed toward the peripheral exits. My father wagered, however, that remaining where we had a roof over our heads and where he could keep an eye on his cobbler’s shop was safer than wandering across the countryside to God knows where. As he said, “We’re staying put. The last exodus we saw led straight to hell.”
That afternoon Missak and I pushed the handcart up the hill on the sidewalk past our neighbors — the French from the Auvergne and other rural provinces, along with Armenians, Greeks, and Eastern European Jews who had flocked to France for its promised liberties, and all of them looking for employment in Belleville’s factories, shoemaking ateliers, and tailoring workshops. We wended our way though half a dozen languages as street vendors and their customers engaged in commerce at the end of the workday. As the war moved ever closer, most of the residents of Belleville chose not to join the mass flight from the city.
My brother and I made a number of trips up the five flights to our apartment, where we deposited the provisions at Auntie Shakeh’s feet. She stood in our front hall wringing her hands. While Missak went to return the hand truck, I climbed on the stool to put the sugar on the top shelf, as my mother had instructed. Next my aunt and I dragged the sacks of bulgur from the front hall to the bedroom that we shared. With much effort, we wedged two of them under my bed and the other two under hers.
“That’s a lot of bulgur.” My aunt wiped perspiration from her face with a hankie.
“Enough to last until we won’t be able to stand the sight of it on our plates,” I said.
“Don’t talk like that, Maral. We will be grateful for every bite.” My aunt’s tone was uncharacteristically severe.
Missak stumbled back in, panting under the weight of more packages, having made his final trip up the stairs with my mother at his heels. My father arrived just behind her.
“Do you feel better now?” my father asked my mother.
She nodded. “I found some more rice, and I bought machine needles, hand needles, and three dozen spools of thread. But I know there’s something I’ve forgotten.”
“The animals,” my brother said.
“What animals?” my mother asked.
“You know, the pairs of animals two by two,” Missak answered.
My mother dismissed him with a toss of her hand. “Talk to me in two months, Mr. Wise Guy.”
That night my mattress, which usually dipped in the middle, hit up against the hard bulk under my bed. I turned from side to side, trying to find a position that felt less as though I were lying on top of a boulder. I slept fitfully, waking a number of times in the night worrying about the sacks of bulgur that seemed in the dark as sinister as carcasses. Some time toward morning I dreamed that I was standing over a cooking pot someone had left on the stove in the kitchen. I watched a bubbling lamb and tomato stew that rose and rose until, to my horror, it overflowed the pot and like scalding lava spread over the kitchen floor.
Ten days later, when the Germans marched down the rue de Belleville, Missak and I watched through the slats of the closed blinds of the Kacherians’ apartment, on the third floor of a building two blocks from ours. Missak; his best friend, Zaven; Zaven’s brother, Barkev; and I were crowded around one window, while Mr. and Mrs. Kacherian with ten-year-old Virginie between them were at the other.
As the first tank rolled down the hill, none of us breathed. The tanks were followed by armored trucks, and behind the trucks came tall German soldiers in black uniforms, their boot heels hammering the cobblestones in cadence. When Zaven leaned toward the window for a better view, his shoulder pressed against mine. I had never been so near to him before. I glanced at him sideways, so close that I could see the beads of perspiration on his temple. I stayed perfectly still, prolonging the contact between us and wondering if he felt what I did. When I noticed that his older brother, Barkev, was staring at me, I was ashamed. I quickly turned to peer through the slats at the columns of troops.
Suddenly Virginie exclaimed, “How handsome they are!”
Her father, who never raised a hand to his children, unthinkingly slapped her face. “Handsome? They are the Angels of Death.”