Rislène Namani stepped off the bus in front of the parc du Peyrou at the highest point of Montpellier’s centre ville. She glanced to her left, where dozens of people mingled leisurely in the wide square that was flanked on either side by two rows of naked plane trees with their dappled bark. The air was brisk but the sun high on this bright Sunday afternoon in late November. She took in a deep breath and let a smile erase the frown she’d been wearing.
She glanced around her, then crossed the wide avenue, walking away from the park and through the thick Roman arches that had earned this monument the name of le petit Arc de Triomphe. She thought it as beautiful as the one in Paris.
She turned down a side street that meandered around and opened into a small square. It too was crowded with students sitting on benches and children playing in the dirt around an ancient fountain that sprayed water from little mermaids’ mouths. Again Rislène looked behind her, heart thumping in her chest.
Practically jogging now, she pushed her thick black hair off her neck, feeling a pulsing in her head, a tingling in every part of her body. Almost there!
She glanced once more over her shoulder as she stepped into the little Café de la Paix, around the corner from the bustling little place.
“Bonjour, mademoiselle,” the barkeeper crooned.
Rislène kept her head down, her multicolored scarf twirled carelessly around her neck, and hurried to the back of the café.
He was there!
“Eric,” she whispered and let the tall boy with the coarsely cropped red hair draw her into an embrace.
“Rislène! You made it!” Then his freckled face wrinkled at the brow. “No problems? No one following you?”
“No. Nazira went out with her friends for the afternoon. She glared at me the whole morning as if she knew a big secret, but she didn’t try to follow me.”
Now they were sitting at a little round table, holding hands, staring into each other’s eyes. Eric’s were a bright green. How she loved his eyes! How she loved him! She was out of breath with the thought.
They ordered two cups of coffee, and when the waiter set them on the table, the couple held each other’s gaze with the steam from the coffee rising between them.
“Don’t worry, Eric. We’re safe. No one knows.”
A faint smile spread across his thin face, and he breathed a sigh of relief. “So many months of hiding our love.… But soon, Rislène. Someday soon, I’ll tell my sister. Ophélie will surely understand—why, she writes plays that are filled with impossible love stories. She’ll be thrilled, and she’ll help us.”
“Yes, I hope she will. I know she likes me—as a student in her class, that is. I don’t think she looks at me and thinks, She’d make a good girlfriend for my little brother!” Rislène’s smile vanished, and her voice dropped to a whisper. “I’m scared about Father. He grows more fanatical each day. And Nazira is even worse. It’s not the peaceful Islam I grew up with.” She fumbled with a paper napkin, turning it over in her hands.
“Shh. Please. Let’s just enjoy this time together.” Eric grabbed both of her hands tightly.
She looked at his pale, thin fingers entwined with her dark olive-skinned ones. She loved this young man with a head filled with dreams and a heart of courage and conviction. But how complicated he made her life. Why, she wondered for the thousandth time, had she allowed herself to fall in love with a Christian, the son of two American-born French citizens?
She hadn’t meant to. It had happened gradually, over the course of the past year … when she had become a Christian too.
Eric Hoffmann watched as Rislène left the café, then he followed her out, putting a distance between them. How hard it was to hide his love for her from the rest of the world!
The Algerian beauty had stolen his heart the first night they’d met, over a year ago now. He thought of the young people gathered on the beach, the end of the summer’s heat warm on their shoulders as the sun set and the lazy Mediterranean lapped at their feet.
“Meet my friend Rislène,” Oumel had said, smiling broadly. “She wanted to tag along tonight and see what in the world I’ve been talking about.” He had hardly taken his eyes off her the whole evening, while he strummed his guitar and the young people munched on chipolata and merguez sausages cooked over a makeshift grill. He’d felt his face turn red each time she glanced his way. She was so delicate, her café au lait skin so smooth, her eyes dark ovals that flashed pleasure and maybe even mischief, her black hair, soft and thick and full, tumbling past her shoulders …
Eric watched her board the bus near the Arc de Triomphe. She turned and looked his way, eyes full of love. The doors closed behind her, and as the bus pulled away from the curb, he let out a sigh of relief.
Rislène felt the tension the moment she stepped back into her family’s apartment. Her mother regarded her suspiciously as Rislène hurried back to the bedroom she shared with her sister. Nazira was standing there, a wicked gleam in her eyes, holding up a small leather book.
“You’re a traitor, Rislène.”
Rislène’s legs buckled under her, and she collapsed on her bed. “Nazira, let me explain.”
“Explain!” her sister shrilled. “Yes, explain it to me, Rislène! Why are you hiding a Bible under your mattress? Explain that!”
This wasn’t the way Rislène had imagined sharing her newfound faith with her sister, but it seemed the moment had been decided for her. Nazira didn’t want to listen, though, and her face grew red with rage.
“We’ll see what Father has to say about such beliefs!”
“Please, Nazira, don’t tell him!”
Nazira gave a cold laugh. “I would never keep news like this from Father!”
With a groan, Rislène watched Nazira leave their bedroom, calling out, “Father! Father! Come quick!”
When he stepped into the room, Rislène shrank from her father’s harsh gaze. Usually his deep brown eyes held a fierce pride in them for his oldest daughter. But not today.
“What is this, Rislène? What have you done?”
Rislène stood and reached for him. “It’s nothing against the family, Father. Please let me try to explain what I’ve discovered … in this book.”
His hand was swift and strong across her face, sending her reeling backward so that she fell across her bed with a sharp cry. She hid her face in her hands and whimpered, “Please, try to understand.”
But she knew he would never understand. As he left the room, with Nazira behind, Rislène knew that she had just lost the innocence of her youth to the angry hand of her father.
At seven forty-five Monday morning, traffic was moving slowly along the broad avenue on the east side of Montpellier. Ophélie Duchemin frowned as the light turned red, and she pulled to a stop.
A man tapped on her window, a cardboard sign in his hand. She read the sign and shook her head, not meeting the man’s eyes. These homeless people! They were forever begging for handouts at every major intersection in Montpellier. She felt a stab of guilt. Sometimes she handed them a few francs, but today she didn’t have time to rummage through her purse. Anyway, how could she be sure this man would take the francs and buy bread instead of a cheap bottle of red wine? She couldn’t help everyone on a high school teacher’s salary.
Still, she wished she could offer the man something. She stared straight ahead, willing the light to turn green so she could get past this pitiful man and get to school. If she looked at him, if she met his eyes, she knew that feelings of sorrow would overtake her. The light changed. Ophélie sighed and inched the car forward as the homeless man stepped back onto the curb and waited for the next group of victims trapped by a traffic light.
Ophélie smiled at the young people who hurried into the classroom, talking among themselves. She stood and welcomed the teenagers to her French class as she did every day, challenging their intellects with an obscure quote from a favorite French author.
“Je te frapperai sans colère. Et sans haine, comme un boucher …”
The students contemplated the quote, some leafing quickly through their literature book from which, Ophélie promised them, all the quotes came.
Finally a girl on the front row called out, “Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal.”
Ophélie nodded her approval, gave the class a half grin, and started her lecture. She was tall for a French woman, five foot seven, and slim, with long shining hair that fell past her shoulders, brown and thick. For years she had been kidded that she looked like one of the students, with her jeans and T-shirts. Even now, at thirty-eight, she could pass for a university student.
She had already begun her lecture when the door opened and a young woman of Algerian descent slipped into the classroom, her face turned down, her notebooks gathered tightly to her chest. Rislène Namani—the girl who had converted to Christianity last year, was attending Oasis meetings for teenage Muslim converts and had even started coming to church services. As she found her seat, Ophélie followed her with her eyes.
After class, Rislène waited until the other students had left before approaching Ophélie’s desk. “Mlle Duchemin, could I … could I talk with you?”
Ophélie gasped slightly, seeing the girl’s bruised face. “Rislène, what happened?”
Normally Rislène’s smile was infectious. But today the girl was obviously terrified.
“My father found out I’ve been reading the Bible.”
“Oh, Rislène!” Ophélie stood and took the shaking young woman into her arms. “I’m so sorry.”
“My sister betrayed me,” Rislène continued. “She found my Bible hidden under my mattress.” She wiped a tear and covered her mouth. “I’m afraid to go back tonight. I don’t know what he might do.”
Ophélie closed her eyes to think. It was a very shaky time for Algerians. The civil war in their country was threatening to spread to France. Fear could be tasted. And Rislène’s story resembled that of so many others. As a young North African woman who had grown up in France, she was French in every way. Yet in the past few years, a sudden reemphasis on Islam was encouraging North African fathers to demand that their daughters wear the hijab and attend the newly built mosques popping up throughout France.
Rislène’s danger was greater, however. She had converted to Christianity, and her father saw that as an unpardonable sin. A black eye might be just the beginning.
Ophélie held Rislène’s hands and looked her in the eye. “You’ll come to my apartment, then, until we can think of what to do.” She touched the girl’s face. The ugly bruise covered her left eye and cheek. “Come back after classes, at five. Don’t worry. It’ll be okay.”
Rislène was cuddled up on Ophélie’s floral-print sofa, snuggled under a bright-blue afghan. In the waning light, the bruise was less visible on her dark skin. Ophélie offered her a mug of tea, and she took it gratefully, holding her face over the mug and letting the steam warm her.
“It’s worse than you think, Mlle Duchemin,” she stated, sipping the tea.
“Please, Rislène, call me Ophélie.”
“Ophélie then.” She smiled shyly. “I’ve done the worst possible thing. I’ve not only become a Christian and been baptized, but …” She hesitated. “I’m in love with a Christian man. My parents will kill me if they find out. I know they will.”
“Is there anyone who could talk to your parents? Have they ever met anyone from the church? Perhaps my father, M. Hoffmann, could go see them?”
“My father would not let M. Hoffmann in the apartment. I know it. Your father has already tried to speak to him once.” The dark of late November came upon them suddenly as the clock showed five thirty. “But maybe Mme Hoffmann.”
“My stepmother? Does your mother know Gabriella?”
“Yes, they’ve met before. One time Mme Hoffmann invited my mother and me over to her house for a goûter with other Arab women.”
“Your mother was aware that you’d become a Christian?”
“Not at that time. Mme Hoffmann was simply trying to get to know some of the mothers of the Algerian girls who go to Oasis. We didn’t talk religion. But my mother was very impressed with Mme Hoffmann’s knowledge of Algerian customs.”
“She and my father lived in Algeria for almost twenty years. They love Algeria and the Algerian people.”
Rislène nodded. “Yes, yes, I know. Anyway, Mother liked Mme Hoffmann. Perhaps she could meet with her when my father is out. It would be risky, but perhaps.”
“I’ll speak to her then.”
They dined on endive salad with avocados and bits of bacon and hard-boiled eggs. Ophélie tossed the salad gently with her own special vinaigrette dressing made with hot Dijon mustard, red-wine vinegar, and the pure virgin olive oil that was so renowned in the region, seasoning it with garlic and parsley.
They avoided the fearful subject of Rislène’s father, talking instead of words from the Gospels and then reading aloud some of Paul Verlaine’s poems.
Almost shyly Rislène asked, “Can you tell me what it’s like to be a playwright?”
Ophélie cocked her head, surprised.
“Some kids at the church have talked about it. They say your second play is being performed right now in one of Montpellier’s theaters.”
Ophélie acquiesced. “A very small theater.” Then she winked at Rislène. “I like the writing,” she admitted, “but I also like teaching my students and chatting with them after class. I want you all to continue your studies.”
Rislène smiled. “Yes, Mlle Duch— Ophélie. We’ve all heard you say that many times. You don’t want us to ‘become another statistic in France’s alarming unemployment rate. Twelve percent and rising.’”
Ophélie grinned. “Quoting your professeur! Well, that will certainly get you on her good side.” But it was true; Ophélie hoped to inspire her students to continue their studies, to succeed.
Rislène slept peacefully in Ophélie’s bed. Ophélie had given her a long T-shirt and left the girl to snuggle beneath her covers. Now Ophélie sat on the couch, her legs pulled under her, papers scattered around her in every direction, the faint smell of garlic still permeating the salon. From a pine-finished étagère crammed with every type of book as well as her small hi-fi stereo, strands from The Golden Flute played softly in the background, punctuated occasionally by a high arpeggio from the woodwind.
This was the way she liked to grade papers, surrounded by a type of ordered clutter, with a cup of tisane in her hands. And tonight, curled up and all but purring like a cat, Ophélie could practically taste contentment. Her satisfaction was full, like the moon outside her window.
Tonight the terrible loneliness that at times engulfed her, especially in the quiet after an evening of entertaining dinner guests, had not rushed upon her. Someone else was in the apartment. Ophélie had never been afraid to live alone. She liked the silence and needed time to herself. She had not tolerated roommates very well in past years. But she missed a human presence.
In her heart she knew she was waiting for a man to fill the need. It had almost worked once. Almost.
Her mind drifted momentarily to the shores of Algeria, where she had lived for a time as a child. Now the country seemed bent upon another war—a civil war. And even those Algerians who lived in France were being sucked into the iron hold of Islam that was sweeping over the once socialist state.
The flute trilled brightly a high F, the orchestra faded into silence. She marked her last paper, turned off the light, and sat in darkness for a long time, looking at the moon.
Gabriella Hoffmann hesitated only a moment before ringing the doorbell of the sixth-floor apartment. When the door opened slightly, she smiled at the middle-aged Arab woman, bowed her head, and said softly in Arabic, “Hello, Mme Namani.”
“Hello, Mme Hoffmann.”
Altaf Namani’s smile was cold, her black eyes suspicious. She looked behind her, stepped into the hallway, and pulled the door closed. Her voice was barely a whisper. “You have news of Rislène? That is why you have come?”
“I cannot speak with you now. My other daughter is here. Whatever she hears, she will repeat to Rislène’s father.”
“When can we meet?”
The Arab woman looked around furtively. “Friday afternoon. I’ll come to your house. It is where we met before?”
“Yes. Take bus number 9, the last stop.”
“Very well. Friday then.” Gabriella turned to leave, but Altaf grabbed her arm.
“She is well, Rislène?”
“Yes, very well.”
“Take care of her, please. She has been very foolish.”
From inside the apartment a girl’s voice called, “Mother! Who’s there, Mother?”
“I must go,” Altaf mouthed. “No one, dear,” she called out in Arabic, opening the door. “Just a salesman. You know how they are. Pushy.”
Gabriella walked to the elevator. Once inside, she wiped the perspiration from her brow. That had gone relatively well.
It was ironic, she thought, that she and David had gone to Algeria to live not long after so many of the people she loved had fled Algeria for France. It was just a few years after Algeria’s war for independence had concluded. Anne-Marie and Moustafa, Ophélie, Eliane and Rémi Cebrian—these pied-noirs and harkis were building a new life in France, but she and David had felt the call to Algeria. They had witnessed the country’s struggling independence, had grown to love the people, and had mastered the Arabic language.
And twenty years later, they were forced to leave.
How they had wept before their Algerian friends when the word came from the government in the spring of 1985. All missionaries out. Leave immediately.
But their work was far from over. France now housed close to four million North Africans. The hatred and prejudice had only ripened over the years. And now those who were devout Muslims were demanding that their religion be honored in France. That their daughters be allowed to wear the hijab to school. That mosques be built. Not only the culture and language, but now also the religion, once practiced privately, was becoming public, and this displeased many of the French.
Gabriella walked out into the chilly November midday with its gusty mistral. She loved living in Montpellier, just as she had loved living in Algeria and Senegal and America. So many different adventures in her life. She thought of her three sons, William, Roger, and Eric, all now grown. She and David had one grandbaby and two more on the way.
Then she thought of Ophélie, who had always been like a daughter to her. Ophélie had never married. It was a heartache that her mother, Anne-Marie, carried silently. But the world was no longer a place just for couples. There were many options for a smart, gifted teacher and playwright who loved her work. Ophélie vibrated compassion, confidence, and faith. It was a pleasure to watch her life unfold.
Still, Gabriella thought, I too would like to see a man come into her life.
A scene flashed in her mind and she added, A man who would stay.
Nazira knew that her mother was lying. The other voice in the hall had been that of a woman, not a salesman. She ran to the window in time to see a woman with long red hair leave the apartment building. Someone had come to talk to Mama about Rislène, she was sure.
She laughed to herself. Mother couldn’t hide the truth from her. If Nazira waited and watched, followed her mother to the market, she was sure she would learn her sister’s whereabouts.
Foolish Rislène! Converting to Christianity. It made Nazira feel sick with rage. She, who so proudly wore the hijab and attended the mosque, could not tolerate the fact that her sister had betrayed her family, betrayed her heritage and her religion. Rislène deserved to be punished.
She recalled Rislène’s tearful plea when Nazira had confronted her. She had been too angry to hear her sister’s explanation of why Christianity worked for her. Something about grace and salvation, and the prophet Jesus being God’s son. How could Rislène believe that? All through their childhood they had faithfully learned from the Koran: Jesus was a prophet.
Muhammad was the greatest of the prophets. And Allah was the one true God. Christians were heretics, worshipping three gods.
Her mother came over to where Nazira was standing. “What are you doing, dear?” Her voice was tinged with fear.
Nazira shrugged and turned from the window. “I’ve got some work to finish, Mother. Call me when you need help with lunch.”
She closed the door to her room and repeated to herself, “Rislène is a traitor. Rislène will pay!”
~from Two Destinies, by Elizabeth Musser, c2012, published by David C Cook. Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.
The French called it the Réveillon. It was the family feast served on December twenty-fourth, usually starting after midnight Mass and going straight through the night. More money was spent on the preparations for that one meal than for all the gifts and presents given during the whole Christmas season.
Janine Dufour loved the Réveillon. The last performance at the theater was December 22, giving her two days away from her work to spend with her mother, cooking. On the evening of the twenty-third her two brothers had arrived with their families. And just this morning her sister had pulled in after driving through the night from Lille with her boyfriend.
"The bûche will be a huge success, Mama!" she called out from the kitchen as she carefully rolled a thin, moist rectangular yellow cake, spread with chocolate cream filling, into a long cylinder. After it had been refrigerated, she would take it out and frost it with stiff chocolate, drawing a fork’s tines through the frosting and sculpting it so that eventually the cake resembled a log—a bûche. She could have bought a frozen bûche at the store. But for Janine, the pleasure was in the preparation, not just in the tasting.
Why she still longed for these age-old traditions she did not know. In spite of its reputation for wonderful haute cuisine, France was seeing McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants spring up throughout the major cities. And with the convenience of microwaves and frozen food, plus the pressures of a busy career, what woman had time to spend on cooking? Perhaps this old, celebrated art of France was dying, but Janine was determined it would not end with her.
Her mother came into the kitchen in a rush. "Ooh là! Is it all ready? Let me see."
Together they inspected the various platters and bowls crammed into the refrigerator. The foie gras had been chosen from her father's friend's farm, as it was every year, the freshest goose liver around. Her mother's specialty, a feuilleté au jambon, was ready to be baked in the oven when they returned from Mass. Janine could almost taste the light, buttered pastry filled with creamed ham and cheese. The turkey was stuffed with chestnuts. The large old house was filled up with succulent smells and warmth. Janine felt content.
Soon it was time to herd the whole family into cars for midnight Mass. All of France went to church on Christmas Eve—never mind that they didn't set a foot inside during the rest of the year, Janine contemplated a bit cynically. They were good Catholics, and good Catholics went to Mass at Christmas. Mme Dufour was what was called praticante, which meant she attended Mass fairly regularly, but she was a loner in the family. Janine herself hadn't attended St. Vincent since last Christmas.
But she had been to church. Ophélie Duchemin was forever inviting her to events at the strange little Protestant church on the east side of Montpellier. This past year she had acquiesced, more out of intrigue than true interest, attending what they called a Bible study. Each week a small group of people, including several non-Protestants like herself, studied a different passage in the Gospel of St. John. Everyone, even she who had never opened a Bible before in her life, was free to share an opinion on the passage. Sometimes the discussion got quite lively.
Ah, well. Tonight she was a good Catholic again. And once this nice formality was over, the meal could begin!
* * *
The Hoffmanns' house was overflowing with people. Ever since the end of the war in 1962, whenever they were in France for Christmas Gabriella and David had spent Christmas Eve with two other families: the Dramchinis and the Cebrians. The end of the Algerian war had united them to each other and to God, and their bond of friendship had endured. Whenever possible, the three families gathered for the Réveillon. Over the years, their numbers had grown.
This year Gabriella expected twenty-six. It was quite a crowd for their small house, but no one minded. Until three years ago, the friends had gathered at Rémi and Eliane Cebrian's ample home in Prades-le-Lez, a village twenty minutes north of Montpellier. Gabriella's eyes misted up momentarily, but before she could succumb to sad thoughts, the doorbell rang.
She opened the door wide to admit Rémi and Eliane, laden with packages. Behind them, in another car, Gabriella saw their daughter, Rachel, arriving with her husband and children, as well as their son José and his fiancée.
"Gabriella! How wonderful to see you!" Eliane was petite and plump, her sixty-year-old face still round and cheery, her silver hair cut in an attractive style. For years Eliane had been the hostess, jolly, optimistic and in control, loving every minute of the Christmas Eve bedlam. But her eyes were not so bright now, and the lines on her face were not only from age, Gabriella knew.
"I've been counting the days, Eliane. It's so good to see you both!" Gabriella embraced them warmly. "Oh, look at all this! You've done too much, as always."
"You know how it is, Gabriella," Eliane whispered, her voice catching. "It helps to be busy at this time of year." She cleared her throat. "Someday perhaps we'll meet again at our place. Until then, at least I can cook."
Rémi Cebrian was stocky, still muscular in his midsixties, a little round around the middle, with short-cropped gray hair. "You're a saint to have us all, Gabriella!" he said good-naturedly, kissing her on each cheek.
"Oh, no! Not at all. Here, let me take your coats. You can set the food in the kitchen and then let David get you something to drink."
As Gabriella climbed the stairs and laid the coats on her bed, she closed her eyes briefly. Dear Lord, give us joy tonight, as we anticipate celebrating Your birth. Please don't let the memories of what we have lost crowd out the knowledge of what we have gained.
The day's schedule had not changed much in thirty years: a mixture of traditions from France, America, and Algeria. Gabriella made cut-out cookies and let the children help decorate them. At five o’clock Ophélie organized what was one of the highlights for the children: setting up the crêche, a manger scene made up of miniature santons. The tiny clay figurines had been collected over many years. Ophélie could remember helping her half sisters, Aurélie and Christine, carefully arrange the six-inch clay figures around the wooden barn when they were small girls. Now she observed Aurélie holding her own daughter, two-year-old Chloé, on her knees, and slowly unwrapping a tiny sheep from within crinkled newspaper.
"Oh! Maman! Regarde ça!" Chloé exclaimed in glee.
Aurélie laughed. "Hey, Ophélie? Remember this one? You helped me paint it."
She smiled to think of the santons they had bought unpainted and decorated over the years. Somehow they blended in perfectly with the “real” santons, those with every detail minutely painted in bright colors by Marcel Carbonel, the well-known artisan from Marseille.
Roger Hoffmann came over. "Hey, can we get in on the fun, Ophélie?" He lifted his small daughter onto his lap and began unwrapping another santon.
Ophélie had three half brothers, the Hoffmann boys, and two half sisters, Moustafa and her mother's girls. Christmas Eve was one of the rare times they all got together. She cherished the memories of the years past, the celebrations, the laughter. One by one, each sibling had married, until now only she and Eric were single. And even he had someone picked out, straight from the hand of God.
She was surrounded by family, almost overcome with thankfulness to belong to these people. She took little Chloé from Aurélie and squeezed her tight. The smell of her niece's baby hair, the feel of her silken ringlets on Ophélie's cheeks brought a deep contentment that helped to make up for all the times when her arms were empty.
* * *
David Hoffmann enveloped Rémi in a big bear hug, then slapped him on the back.
"You Americans! Always hugging!" Rémi mocked playfully. Hugs were definitely not French, but hugs had gotten these men through many trials.
"Hey, Moustafa! Rémi's here!" David called out to the small backyard where Moustafa was playing with one of his grandchildren.
A few minutes later the three men were sipping pastis and commenting on how much the grandchildren had grown. Rémi kidded Moustafa on his short hair.
"Long gray curls did not make me look distinguished," he defended himself. Then, playfully inspecting David's salt-and-pepper hair, he added, "You've got a few silver threads too, my friend."
They ate peanuts and the fresh green olives that were Rémi's contribution every year, the best quality, imported from Algeria.
"Montpellier's team won the big one Thursday," David commented. "Did you see it?"
"Just the first half," Moustafa laughed. He motioned with his eyes to where his wife stood talking with Gabriella and Eliane in the kitchen. "Then Anne-Marie insisted we watch her movie. You know my sweet lady—she’s never been too fond of le foot. I always tell her she should thank the Lord we have only girls."
David nodded, tossing an olive into his mouth. "Now that's for sure. Between our three boys, Gabby says we spent our retirement fund on cleats, and all our vacation got swallowed up in tournaments!"
Small talk never lasted long between them, David reflected. Why pretend that their lives were filled with banalities when they knew differently? He put a hand on Rémi’s shoulder. "How are you and Eliane doing?"
"We're okay." There was an awkward pause. "Getting here is always the hardest for Eliane. Once she's with the rest of you, it makes everything easier."
"I suppose there's nothing new to report?" Moustafa queried.
Rémi tightened his lips and shook his head. "Nothing. It's been a little rough lately with Rachel's baby. I thought maybe a new little granddaughter would help Eliane, but . . .” He couldn't finish his sentence.
"Sorry to bring it up," Moustafa said softly.
"Ce n'est pas grave." Rémi shrugged. "If I can't share it with you guys, who do I have? Christmas is always the hardest time. But then God gives hope by bringing us here."
* * *
The littlest ones stood around the dining room table, eagerly watching the big red candle shining its light from Gabriella’s homemade chocolate bundt cake. Everyone joined in singing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. Then Gabriella and Anne-Marie and Eliane sliced pieces of cake and passed them around.
Eric smiled to himself. It was the same every year. But this year, his mind kept straying to Rislène, wondering what she was doing with her family. And wishing she were here with him.
The meal was consumed. Stacks of Gabriella's fine china, which she insisted on using every year, stood on the kitchen counter. The six grandchildren were sleeping in different bedrooms upstairs. Rachel came down the stairs, wiping a strand of hair from her face. "The baby's out, finally."
It was nearly one o’clock when the kids were finally asleep and David led the adults in a time of thanksgiving for their many blessings. Eric let his gaze fall lovingly on the people crowded in the den—his family and dear friends. All the lights in the house were off except for those on the full, sparkling Christmas tree, covered with a jumble of handcrafted ornaments added over the years. Another small light illumined the manger scene of miniature santons that the children had set up. Eric strummed his guitar softly, and the whole group began to sing.
At one point a little head peeked over the banister, bright cheeks and wide eyes, to listen to the peaceful harmonies. Roger, the middle Hoffmann brother, stood with difficulty in the mishmash of bodies and went up the steps to retrieve his daughter and snuggle her in his lap while the singing continued. Eric felt God's faithfulness wrapping them up together like a blanket.
Rislène, he thought, with a catch in his throat.
The singing over, the adults rose and yawned, stretching arms over their heads, smiling at each other. As the older adults headed up the stairs to find a mattress or any empty bed, Eric stood, eyes twinkling.
“We’re starting a new tradition this year, for all of you who can handle it.” He winked at his mother, who was yawning unabashedly. “I’ve taped the old American film It's a Wonderful Life, complete with subtitles, and we’ll be starting it up in ten minutes.”
His brother William punched him playfully and said, “Not me.”
“Oh, come on, William,” his wife pouted. “It’s a great movie. Don’t be a spoil sport.”
Soon his brothers and their wives, along with Ophélie, the Cebrian and Dramchini young adults and their spouses, were crowded around the TV, lying on the sofa and mattresses, cuddled under blankets and his mother’s old quilts, watching the story of George Bailey and Clarence the angel. Eric rubbed his eyes, fiddled with the sound, and then settled into an empty chair. Looking around at the others, comfortable with their spouses, he longed for Rislène to be snuggled safely beside him.
Someday soon, he promised himself.
* * *
Late in the morning on Christmas Day, after croissants and pain au chocolat and plenty of coffee, the families made their way to the little Protestant church for the Christmas service. Many of the regular attendees were absent, scattered throughout France to be with their families. Still, there was a reverent joy, a deep, rich emotion that passed among the believers that morning as they lifted tired voices and sang familiar carols from centuries past. They sang what in their hearts they knew to be the truth. Christ our Savior is born! And they left the church building comforted.
Gabriella and David bid the Cebrian and Dramchini families good-bye. Ophélie left to be with Anne-Marie and Moustafa. But the three Hoffmann boys and their families came back to their parents' house to help clean up. They shooed Gabriella out of the kitchen, promising their mother that no china would be broken.
David pulled his wife to him and kissed her softly. "My beautiful Gabby," he said. "God has blessed us immensely with family and friends. Thank you for making this possible once again."
"It was wonderful, wasn't it, David?" She closed her eyes and yawned. Nodding to the kitchen as they listened to the boys joking together, she added, "I sure am glad someone raised those boys right."
Later in the afternoon, when the house was empty and the leftovers had been consumed, David took out a cassette tape and popped it into the stereo system. On the casing was written in his hand 50 Favorite Christmas Songs. He had copied the songs from an old 1950s vinyl album. "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer . . .” wafted through the living room.
"Now whatever made you put on that old album?" Gabriella asked.
But when he turned around, her eyes were sparkling, full of love, and she motioned for him to sit down beside her. It was another tradition for them, this music from a Christmas night thirty years ago, before they had dared declare their love for each other. And every year they put on the cassette to remind themselves of another aspect of their God: His faithfulness in bringing people together.
With the music softly playing in the background, Gabriella asked, "Sweetheart? Did Ophélie seem happy to you today?"
"Yes, she did. All smiles to be holding her little nieces and nephew."
"Do you think the Lord will give her someone someday?"
David smiled tenderly at his wife. "Dearest Gabby. Don't worry so about Ophélie. She's a big girl with a wonderful, full life."
"Eric missed having Rislène here, don't you think?"
"I’m sure he did. But that kid! He was having a fine time himself." He rubbed her hair playfully. "Quit your worrying, woman!"
"Just one more question, David."
"Go ahead, dear."
"Do you think one day we’ll celebrate Christmas again at Remi and Eliane’s?"
David did not answer immediately. He thought of the pain in Eliane's eyes, the awkward moments during the previous day. He drew his wife into his arms and held her there tightly. With a catch in his voice he said softly, "I don't know, Gabby. All I know is that I pray that the Lord will remind them that He is a God of hope and of new beginnings."
"Me, too." The music continued as they held each other, lost in their memories.
~from Two Destinies, by Elizabeth Musser, c2012, published by David C Cook. Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.