The train bound for Milan snakes into the Berlin station, sending billows of steam high into the station’s skeletal rafters. Its whistle pierces the night once and then recedes. Silence reclaims the cavernous space, broken now and then only by the slow, steady scraping of a sweeper’s broom.
The sweeper has learned not to stare openly at the horrors that pass through the station. He knows to keep his own counsel and inhabit the shadows. Yet he watches, head bowed, from beneath the brim of his cap.
Track by track, click by click, the train comes to a stop. In the last car, a couple sits facing each other. They wait without moving, framed like portraits by the window’s ruby curtains. Their incandescence defies the heavy, quiet darkness, and the sweeper slows his pace.
He considers the woman first. A station lamppost throws her proud profile into bold relief against the dark cabin corners. The low light catches the folds of her silk persimmon dress and the ermine trim of her traveling jacket and cloche hat. He shakes his head at the decadence of her clothes and calculates the loaves of bread her ensemble could fetch on the black market. Then the sweeper shifts his attention to the man, whose overall deportment seems more respectful of a wartime journey than the woman’s. He has a naturally engaging round face, but he is dressed somberly in a charcoal suit, simple black overcoat, and fedora. His right hand clutches a worn brown envelope so tightly his knuckles shine white, and the jagged points of a yellow star peer out from his coat. The sweeper supposes that both must understand the precariousness of their travel.
Suddenly, the door to the compartment swings open with a jolt, and the man and the woman spring to their feet. The sweeper steps back into the safety of the shadows.
Flaxen boy-soldiers swarm around the couple. Their black uniforms gleam with gold buttons, and every jacket boasts the slash of red swastikas. The sweeper knows that these are not the usual station militia, and he jumps when their gloved hands cut across the compartment to take the man’s tickets.
Then the boy-soldiers part to let a decorated officer come forward. The official leans closer to address the couple. He hands over a document with a fountain pen and demands the man’s signature; the officer wants the man to surrender something. Lowering his eyes, the traveler shakes his head. Instead, the man relinquishes his precious envelope, his hand trembling as he presents it to the officer.
The officer holds the envelope up to the cabin light, then slashes it open and scrutinizes the letter within. He stuffs the letter back into its envelope and returns it to the man. The officer and his soldiers pivot and depart, shutting the cabin door sharply behind them.
The train whistle cries out again, and the couple returns to their seats. A cautious smile curls on the corner of the man’s mouth, but the sweeper turns away in despair. He has seen the boy-soldiers hard at work. He knows that when the train pulls away from the station, the last car will remain.
New York City, Present Day
Mara tapped her fingers on the bar and checked her watch again. Her new client was nearly an hour late, and the butterflies in her stomach danced ever more restlessly.
To calm her nerves, she took another sip of her tonic and lime, wished again that it were a chardonnay, and looked around Maggie’s. The restaurant was once a speakeasy and rumored to connect to a maze of underground tunnels that ferried booze during Prohibition. Although the alcohol now flowed freely, the smoky jazz-era dŽcor hadn’t changed. The embossed tin ceiling and burnished plank wood floors reflected the crackling fire. Couples nestled into chocolate-brown leather banquettes that were lit by low votive candles. Strains of Ella and Louis rose over the hubbub of the bar; surely no music born later than the fifties ever played here. It felt safe, anchored in a simpler time Mara felt sure must once have existed.
As she turned back toward the entrance, Mara caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror over the lively bar. She smoothed the skirt of her fitted suit and looked down at her high heels, feeling, not for the first time, as though she had squeezed herself into someone else’s skin, a bit like a duck wedged into the glossy-feathered costume of a swan. She wished she were roaming the aisles of her neighborhood bookstore in her favorite broken-in jeans and turtleneck sweater instead of waiting for Michael Roarke—the in-house counsel of her law firm’s intimidating new client, the venerable art auction house Beazley’s.
When Mara glanced again at the door, she was just in time to watch a cab pull up.
The outline of a tall, broad-shouldered figure emerged, his face in shadow. He crouched down to the passenger-side window and handed the cabbie some money. The glimmer of a street lamp illuminated a smile and the crinkle of laugh lines around his eyes. A joke passed between the two men. He tapped the top of the cab twice in a friendly farewell and turned. Although the man was neither paunchy nor slightly balding, as most inhouse lawyers she’d worked with were, Mara somehow knew he was her client.
He crossed the threshold of the bar, but the street lamp behind him kept his features obscured. All that Mara made out were the tweed of his blazer and the knife-edge crease of his charcoal pants.
When his face finally did come into focus, she saw that a dimple on his chin softened his square jaw; his sandy brown hair was cut close except for the longer, cowlicky front; he had celadon eyes, like a cat, and sinewy muscles on his hands. She hadn’t expected him to be so handsome or to elicit a nagging sense of familiarity.
Then the din muted. The bustle slowed. She tried to stifle her reaction, but a blush spread across her cheeks, and she gazed down in embarrassment.
He slowed his step as he approached. “I know you,” he said as she looked up. “Georgetown.”
“The Art of Byzantium,” she answered.
Michael Roarke had once sat next to her in the Byzantine art history class, by chance at first, and then later by choice. They used to have long conversations about iconography and the fall of Constantinople as they walked to the library across campus. She remembered his effortless courtliness: how he always walked on the street side, how he always stood when she sat. But there was Sam then. So when the class ended, their time together had ended as well. Now here he was, her new client from Beazley’s.
As he apologized for his tardiness, a hostess took them over to a corner booth that seemed better suited for a date than a business dinner. At first, she liked the twist, perhaps because their meeting conjured up her original attraction toward Michael, and because she found him just as appealing as she remembered. Then she chided herself for the unbidden thoughts, so improper for an attorney toward a client—especially one she needed to secure in order to have any shot at partnership later that year.
Still, Mara wondered how he now saw her. Did he see what she had been told others see: a tall, slim force, with dainty features, neat auburn hair, and professional poise? Or did he see the person she used to be before she had fashioned herself into a self-possessed city lawyer: the gangly bookworm of their college years, the young woman harboring aspirations of the scholarly life with an angular jaw and an uneven sprinkle of freckles?
They started with a bottle of Cloudy Bay, a practice she usually avoided with a client, and talked haltingly, uncertain at first how to navigate the surprise of their acquaintance. The script she’d prepared to discuss with and impress her new client—based on Beazley’s research she’d undertaken earlier that day—suddenly seemed silly and false, too obvious and pushy to trot out. Robbed of her dialogue, she was unable to perform with her normal self-confident flourish and instead felt like a stage actor who had forgotten her lines.
After an awkward silence, Michael took the lead and began asking gentle questions about Mara’s life since college. He asked her about her decision to settle in New York when her prominent political family lived in Boston, about finding her way alone through the minefield of big New York law firms, and finally about Sam, the question to which Mara felt sure Michael had been building all along. The wine helped loosen her tongue, as did his mild yet pleasantly teasing manner, and she answered most of his personal questions without hesitation, quite against the grain of her typically guarded self. But when he touched on Sam, her boyfriend of nearly six years, who had broken up with her a few years ago, the catlike hairs on Mara’s self-protective back stood up, and Mara turned the questions onto him. There’d been no one serious in her life since Sam, and despite the time, the wound was still fresh.
“What about your move back to New York after law school?” she asked. “Your family must’ve been thrilled with your return.” She recalled that he was from the area—Queens, she thought.
“Sure, they were happy—at first. But my return to New York was also the beginning of my tour of duty as an associate at Ellis & Broadhurst. After I’d spent six years slaving away there, my friends had drifted away, and my family had learned not to count on me. They’re all regular people with normal work schedules; they couldn’t understand my long hours and unpredictability.” He paused and then rotated the conversation back to her. “I’m guessing you know what that’s like from working at Severin. Am I right?”
Mara nodded. Minus the references to Sam, she enjoyed this conversation; she rarely had the chance to talk with someone who understood the thrills and the sacrifices of being a young lawyer who was in a large firm but wasn’t currently in the firm’s throes. But she was also conscious of the reason for their meeting: the plum Baum v. Beazley’s case, which her boss, head of Severin, Oliver & Means’s litigation department, Harlan Bruckner, had just conferred upon her as a final test of her suitability for partnership.
Before she could force the conversation back on track, Michael continued. “That’s part of why I left Ellis. I looked out from the pile of work I’d been buried under for years, and I didn’t like what I saw, what I’d been forfeiting friends and family for. I didn’t like the people who’d be my partners, mostly men and women who’d been kicked around in the sandbox as kids and couldn’t wait to wreak their revenge on the incoming class of first-year associates. I didn’t want to play with such a vicious lot.” Mara smiled; he could be describing her boss, whom she long suspected had been an ostracized youth who rose to success by sacrificing any and all relationships and who now demanded the same surrender from his associates. And usually got it.
Michael interrupted her thoughts again. “Do you remember those talks we used to have about what we were going to do with our lives?”
“Yes,” she answered. As soon as she had recognized him, their conversations came back to her in a rush. They used to talk na•vely about becoming archaeologists or art historians, uncovering some long-hidden secret or artifact critical to unlocking the past. Mara and Michael had shared a passion for discovery and a kinship she hadn’t experienced with anyone since her late grandmother, her father’s mother, who passed her own Irish love of legend and lore and mystery on to Mara. They used to spend countless evenings before the fire in her grandmother’s little sitting room in the rectory where she lived and worked, a warm sanctuary away from Mara’s chilly home, reading faerie tales, Agatha Christie, classic mythology, Irish fables, saints’ lives, Arthurian legend, The Chronicles of Narnia, always seeking the “aha” moment of clarity, as they called it. After Nana died in Mara’s junior year of high school, Mara carried on the search for “aha” moments with her college major in medieval history, archetypes, and symbols. After her walks with Michael stopped, Mara’s fantasies continued. She applied to Columbia’s medieval studies graduate program during her senior year at Georgetown, but her father had vetoed it: too impractical, too frivolous, too unlikely to yield material success, and not the stellar trajectory he’d charted for his only child. She had let the veto stand, and here she was, ten years later, all but convinced that her father’s dreams were her own.
“Well, over the years, I’ve thought about those talks. I still think about them,” Michael continued, “and they began to make me think that the firm’s goals—papering the latest, greatest takeover—didn’t have enough worth, at least for me. I started to think back on what I wanted to be before the law locked onto me, who I wanted to be.”
His statements mirrored Mara’s unvoiced doubts, the secret uncertainties that she kept even from Sophia. Mara didn’t allow herself the time to second-guess the choices she made. It was not part of the plan, and it certainly wouldn’t help her make partner. Yet, almost unconsciously, she whispered, “I know exactly what you mean.” As soon as the words escaped from her lips, she wished she could swallow them back into the abyss where they normally resided. They might be perfectly acceptable sentiments coming from a friend, but from the lawyer you’ve hired to champion your cause? They couldn’t be more inappropriate. She stammered, trying to regain what she perceived to be lost ground. “I-I didn’t mean that. I meant—”
Michael interrupted her backtracking with a laugh. “Mara, it’s okay. I know what you meant. I still think you’re a bloodthirsty New York litigator fully geared up for winning us the Baum case.”
She was relieved and thought they might segue into the case, but he seemed determined to continue with his confessions.
“I guess the thing I didn’t like most about my years at Ellis was who I became personally.” He paused to take a sip of his wine.
“I’d spent six years at Ellis not doing some very important things,” he said. “Not developing new friendships, not pursuing any outside interests, and not forming any relationships. So I decided to get out—of the firm, at least, if not the law. I thought that working for a company connected with history and art might help rekindle some passion for my job and maybe free up more time to work on the other stuff. Like a girlfriend.” He paused then asked again, casually, “Is that what happened to your relationship with Sam?”
Mara was increasingly nervous about the intimacy of their conversation. She felt curiously close to him, almost as though they’d fast-forwarded past the small-talk stage of a relationship to comfortable familiarity. Whether this stemmed from their past connection, his natural ability to draw her out, or the wine, she didn’t know. But this rapport, so unusual for the seemingly open and self-assured yet actually private Mara, was not at all the one she had planned for her new client.
Despite her hesitations, she felt compelled to respond. So she took a bolstering sip of her wine and answered the persistent question. “Well, Sam and I stayed together through law school and even into my first couple of years in New York. I’d pack up a pile of cases and take the train down to D.C. where he worked, nearly every weekend. Then the State Department offered him a job in China, and he took it. His true passion always was politics.”
“I see,” Michael said, with a note of sympathy in his voice. She glanced down suddenly, uncharacteristically shy, and saw the manila folder on the Baum case sticking out of her bag.
Mara counted to ten and looked back up. Her poised, professional demeanor was in place, and she asked about Baum v. Beazley’s.This new conversation did not go as smoothly as the more personal one, almost as though Michael resented her return to the topic that had brought them to Maggie’s in the first place. He withdrew into the banquette and spoke in a much more clipped tone. He even pushed away his wineglass and folded his napkin on top of the table. Mara ignored his tinge of disappointment and listened intently.
Michael explained that a former client, who wished to remain anonymous, had hired Beazley’s to sell a painting—The Chrysalis by Johannes Miereveld—as part of a prestigious Dutch art auction timed to coincide with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s much-anticipated Dutch exhibit.
Once Beazley’s circulated the auction catalog with its photograph of The Chrysalis, it received a barrage of calls and letters from the self-styled true owner, Hilda Baum, who claimed she had been searching for the painting for decades. She asserted that the Nazis had taken both The Chrysalis and her parents’ lives. Specifically, they had labeled her Catholic parents Jewish, shipped them off to a concentration camp, and then stolen their art collection. Beazley’s explained its practice of investigating a painting’s lineage and shared The Chrysalis’s crystal clear provenance with Hilda Baum, but she was not appeased. She wanted The Chrysalis back. The suit soon followed, and Beazley’s was forced to pull the painting from the auction pending the outcome of the case. Mara’s job was to keep The Chrysalis from her.
Michael signaled for a waiter and paid the check, though Mara protested. “Can I walk you to a cab?” he asked. Clearly he was ready to leave, and Mara feared that she’d upset him somehow but knew it wasn’t the time to indulge her feelings. They both had a lot of work ahead of them in order to win this case.
As they crossed the street to catch a cab going downtown, a livery car ran a red light and screeched to a halt at their feet. Michael reached for her hand to steady her. For that moment, the warmth of his grip felt completely natural; at Georgetown, she’d often wondered how it would feel to hold his hand. But when he slid his hand away, Mara pulled herself back into the present moment.
After Michael closed the door of a cab behind her, he leaned through the open window and asked, “Are you free next Thursday?”
“I think so,” Mara answered hesitantly.
“I’d love it if you could come to the auction.” She thought she saw a flirtatious twinkle in his eye but dismissed it as a trick of the light, perhaps a projection of her own feelings. After all, he had given her no real reason to think he shared her attraction, except for initiating their personal banter, which could easily be explained by his affable manner. “We’ll even call it business, meet with some people beforehand. Will you come?” He waited for her answer.
“Yes, of course,” she said, knowing that whatever else she had penciled in on her calendar she would erase the next day.
The following morning, mara heard the familiar tread of Sophia’s step before she heard the knock on her closed office door. Mara shut her eyes. She wasn’t ready yet to dissect her meeting with Michael, least of all with Sophia, the one person who could pierce through any barrier Mara erected in the way of full disclosure. Still, she knew that silence would only make Sophia more curious. So, removing her reading glasses and tucking a misbehaving strand of hair behind her ear, Mara crossed the little room and let Sophia in before she knocked a second time.
Sophia entered, closed the door behind her, leaned against a bookshelf in Mara’s minute but tidy office, and cocked one eyebrow. On the outside, Sophia embodied composure, but Mara knew that inside, Sophia was in constant motion, like a hummingbird. Her poise was a sleight of hand from her arsenal of tricks.
When Mara resumed her seat but failed to respond to the interrogating expression, Sophia’s deportment gave way, and she slumped into the chair across from Mara’s desk. “Come on, I can’t believe you’re making me work so hard to find out about the dinner meeting with your big new client. How’d it go?” Sophia asked in her soft southern drawl, a disarming device that belied her sharp intellect like cotton candy wrapped around a blade.
Mara paused for a long moment before answering. “It went well.”
“Why so hesitant? Aside from the hell of working for Harlan, you should be thrilled with the opportunity he’s giving you.” Sophia knew the torment that Harlan had inflicted on Mara in past assignments with his manipulative games and general meanness, yet, better than anyone, she understood that Mara must endure his machinations if she really wanted to progress. The bottom line was that Mara’s advancement to partner hinged on his approval. Sophia had been slightly more fortunate in that the senior partner of her department was not as overtly power-hungry and controlling as Harlan, but she also maintained that Mara was particularly susceptible to Harlan’s maneuverings because his mercurial standards and blatantly conditional approval reminded Mara of her larger-than-life politician father. It was no secret between the two friends that Mara had gone to law school and joined this particularly competitive firm as much to please her father as to please herself. But Mara claimed to have embraced partnership at the world-class firm as her own goal and said that Harlan’s tricks took a toll on her only because she endured them so frequently.
“I am thrilled,” Mara reassured her, knowing that Sophia wished one of her own corporate partners would select her to be the point person on the initial assignment for such a sought-after, high-profile client. Sophia, too, was up for partnership that year and would love the positive reinforcement of such a project. Mara believed that Sophia, with her boundless appetite for long hours and slavish adherence to the rules of the game, deserved partnership even more than she did.
Yet Michael crept into Mara’s thoughts again, and she felt her cheeks grow warm and flushed.
Sophia stared. “Mara, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you’re blushing. What’s going on?”
“It turns out that I know the client from college.”
“Aw, Mara, you didn’t date him, did you?”
Mara shook her head. “No, nothing like that. We were friendly; we had a class together.”
“Then why are your cheeks as red as an apple? Don’t forget what happened to Lisa.” Lisa Minever’s very public failed relationship with a powerful client had led to the loss of millions in business for Severin and an ongoing legal malpractice suit that named Lisa, a law firm classmate and acquaintance, as a defendant. More than once the night before, Mara had indeed thought of her, and she understood why Sophia felt the need to threaten her with Lisa’s demise. Sophia envisioned that, years down the road, the friends would become the grandes dames of Severin, and so she needed Mara to share her ambition, required the strength she drew from their mutual efforts to advance, and feared any misstep that Mara might make on that path. Sophia had risen far from the poverty of her small-town Carolina upbringing, and Mara served as Sophia’s lifeline in her new existence.
Mara started to open her mouth. She would love to reveal the emotions Michael had stirred up, to laugh with Sophia and strategize together. But in her play-by-the-rules striving for success, Sophia had turned the yearning part of herself off and would not understand. So Mara sealed the near fissure and tucked her secrets more deeply out of view. This one she’d work out on her own, and, anyway, she needed to quash her feelings toward Michael. “It was just really strange seeing him after all these years,” she said, “especially as a client.”
Eyes askance, Sophia took a long, hard look at Mara, but she didn’t probe any further. She wanted to believe Mara’s assurances; there was no room in her plans for alternatives. So Sophia adjusted her tightly wound blond braid and said, “I hope so. I wouldn’t want anything to spoil this opportunity.”
The bubble floats toward the cottony sky. He giggles as he sees the clouds catch it in their vaporous arms, tossing it back and forth in a merry game. He dips his hollowed-out scallop shell into the bowl and blows another bubble. The sun joins in the sport, ensnaring the iridescent orb in its rays and turning it from vermilion to ultramarine to verdigris. He knows the colors from his palette.
The bubble pops.
For the first time, he realizes he is alone by the canal. He cranes his neck to make sure Judith is not keeping watch over him. Then, with silent steps, he creeps down the cobblestone walk, toward the little bridge over the canal.
His eyes cannot help but see how the lines of perspective converge on the arched bridge. His instructors are teaching him the mathematical method for creating three dimensions out of a mere two on a page, though they need not. He knows it without schooling, a fact they find curious. The cobblestones, the steps near the water, even the boats on the canal—all conspire to produce orthogonals, diagonal lines that recede and meet at a single spot on the horizon, just below the bridge’s center arc: the vanishing point.
The lines hook him like a lure and reel him in. Riding them over the crests of the canal’s wake, he nears the vanishing point and reaches out to grasp it. Yet it disappears the closer he draws.
He hears his name being called. It is Judith. “Johannes, what would the townsfolk think of your father if they saw you unattended?” she chides. She marches toward him, her meaty hand outstretched, her corpulence spilling out from the tight leather laces of her shift. Her advance cuts through the orthogonals, disrupting the order.
A shaft of sunlight reaches deep into the corner of her wimple. It reveals her florid cheeks, normally hidden from view. They are as doughy as the bread she kneads every dawn. As scrumptious as her boterkoek, her almond butter cake.
His hand securely lodged in her fleshy palm, they return to the whitewashed archway of his home. Cobalt light streams through the leaded glass windows of the back door. The light washes the scurrying chickens in the kitchen courtyard periwinkle and stains the drying laundry indigo. Judith drags him past the gleaming copper pots and the glazed earthenware to the voorhuis, the formal living room used to receive visitors.
Judith cries out for his mother. Punishment must be meted out for his wandering, for the inevitable judgment of the neighbors.
The gentle tinkle of the harpsichord stops. Peering around the corner, he glimpses the landscape painted on the underside of the virginal’s raised cover. He catches Mother’s eye in the convex mirror that faces the instrument. Before she fashions the admonishing expression expected by Judith, she smiles at him, at her Johannes—her conspirator.
They wait until Judith leaves for the market. Canvassing the lane for familiar faces, all dangerous, they slip out the back door. Mother’s story for traveling the way of scullery maids is at the ready. But mercy provides an empty path.
He knows the way by touch, for they have traveled it after nightfall on holy days, with nary a candle to light the way. Testing himself, he closes his eyes and runs his hand along the uneven brick walls of the narrow alleyways. His fingers memorize the undulations of certain corners, the roughness of particular stones, and the end of the passage. He wonders how to capture the texture of the mortarwork with his paints, settling on hues of white over reddish brown with brushstrokes of different widths and concentration.
He opens his eyes. The illuminated windows of a diminutive house blink at him with wide-eyed innocence. Only the initiates know the truth: The smallness of the exterior masks a subterranean expanse that billets a banned Catholic meetinghouse. Here, far from the Calvinist sight of Father, far from the condemning view of the townspeople who pretend to practice religious tolerance but, in truth, see themselves as foot soldiers in the battle against the remnants of Spanish Catholic tyranny, Mother furtively worships.
Pushing aside a rough-hewn wooden door, they descend a steep staircase. Though it is Monday, the hall teems with familiar faces, all of which greet them with nods. Like so many Catholics, Mother attends Calvinist service on Sundays—as marital vows dictate—then repents on Mondays.
They wait in silence for Mass to begin. Except for the paintings of Jesus and the saints that adorn the walls and altar, the whitewashed, vaulted interior and rows of wooden pews remind Johannes of the Calvinist church they attend with Father. Mother says the pictures are meant to help achieve a prayerful state, to bring them closer to God. Yet he learns in Sunday school that Catholic worship is heresy and idolatry, that the Word alone should be used for spiritual meditation. Johannes pities his Calvinist teachers, that they cannot feel the sacred power of the art.
The procession to the altar begins. The priest leads the pageant, resplendent in robes embroidered in gold and silver thread, and incants the Introit and Kyrie at the foot of the altar. He welcomes the congregation: “Dominus vobiscum.” Of his own volition, for Mother does not demand participation, Johannes greets the priest in reply: “Et cum spiritu tuo.”
During the Mass, the priest places his left hand on his chest and lifts the censer to incense the altar. As the censer swings like a pendulum, candlelight catches on its golden surface, irradiating dark corners and shadowed faces for a moment before arcing to brighten others. It gives all the chance to share in the light.
The incense rises. Johannes inhales the heady, sweet-smelling perfume, as exotic as his cimarron paint or perhaps the Indian yellow. He watches the smoke ascend high in a pleasing offering to God, an emblem of their prayers.
Excerpted from THE CHRYSALIS © Copyright 2011 by Heather Terrell. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights reserved.