The Color of Music Excerpt


Paris November 29, 1970

Babette Genesse hardly slept after Dr. Charonne said he would come soon for the baby. She must think of a way to stop him from taking away this little boy she had nursed like her own child since he was ten days old. She had grown to love little Paul with all her heart and she could never let him go.

When the morning light crept under the shutters, she put her hopes on her husband, Maxime. While he showered and shaved, she wrapped the baby in a blanket and dashed to the boulangerie. Maxime’s favorite rolls were still warm when she brought them home.

“What a nice breakfast, cherie,” he said when he came to the table dressed for work. He eyed the butter pats, the basket full of rolls, and a little pot of strawberry jam. “But why do you look so tired?” he asked, his hazel eyes fixed on her face.

“I can’t sleep— Dr.Charonne told me he’s coming soon for Paul.” She could feel her eyes tearing up and she felt around in her pocket for a handkerchief.

“But surely it’s time to return the child to his mother,” he said as he tore a roll in half and buttered it. “You were only supposed to care for him until she got on her feet. It has been a long time.”

“Not so long—it’s barely four months.” She looked at the plump little boy who sat in the high chair an arms-length away. Babette smiled as she watched him struggle to pick up a rattle. With each grab, it tinkled and slithered out of his little hand.

“Dr. Charonne doesn’t think I can have another child.” She sighed deeply.

“Is that what he says?” Maxime nodded in a sympathetic way and dumped three sugar lumps into his coffee. “He could be wrong. You’re still young. I wouldn’t worry, dear.” He poured milk from the pitcher into his coffee cup until the color turned pale and the aroma of coffee filled the air.

“After God took our little Pauline, I prayed and prayed. God heard me and sent me Paul.” She said and hoped he would see it her way

“Babette dear, aren’t you forgetting that he has a mother who wants him back?”

“That foreign woman,” she disparaged with a flip of her hand, “the baby would have starved to death if the doctor hadn’t brought him to me. I saved his life. She has no right to him anymore.”

“His mother certainly owes you her gratitude.” Maxime said as he took a second roll out of the basket. “But he still belongs to her. You must return him when she asks.”

“But Max, I don’t want to give him up. Can’t you think of something?” Through teary eyes she looked at the child and was rewarded with a toothless smile. I love him so much. I’ll die if I have to give him up.

“Think of something? I wish I could. I know you love this little boy but he’s not your child.” Max looked very serious. “You’ve done so well with this baby I wouldn’t be surprised if the doctor doesn’t bring another for you to nurse.”

Was his answer supposed to make me happy? Max doesn’t realize that giving up Paul would tear my heart out.

“I hate to see you looking so sad,” he said. “Christmas is coming. There’ll be something special in a little box to make you smile again.”

He put on his reading glasses before he opened the morning paper. Babette wiped her eyes and lifted the child out of the high chair. She worried as she rocked him and held him close to her body. Will Denise’s idea work?

“Time to leave for the office.” Max looked at his watch. “Au revoir, cherie.” He folded the paper, tucked it under his arm, and kissed her mouth. His long nose brushed her cheek.

As soon as he closed the front door she decided to spend her saved money on a long distance call to Montreal. Her wise, older sister Denise would understand and know what to do.

Babette dug around under the clothes in her bureau drawer until her fingers found the hidden purse. She counted the coins— yes, she had enough francs to make the call. She put on her heavy coat and wrapped the baby warmly for his ride in the stroller to the post office on this chilly November day.

At the post office she parked the stroller and headed for a phone booth.

“How nice of you to call, Babette,” she heard her wise, older sister Denise say. “Are you calling to ask my advice? Of course I am happy to help if I can. You say you prayed on your hands and knees after your little Pauline died? And only two days later the doctor brought you the little boy? Then it is perfectly clear that God took Pauline and sent you Paul. His intention is clear—this twin is for you and the other one for the mother. Now tell me— how soon did the doctor say he expects to come for the child?”

“It wasn’t definite. Dr. Charonne came Friday to examine Paul. That was the first time I heard that the woman has a job and wants Paul returned to her as soon as she has saved up a little. It could be soon. Oh Denise, I can’t part with him. Max doesn’t understand. Please tell me what to do.”

“Let me think. All right, yes, I have it,” Denise said in her assured voice. “The answer is that you must leave France. How about coming to Canada? You’d have a good life here and wouldn’t it be nice if we lived close to each other again?”

“Move to Canada?” Babette repeated. Her heart sank. Maxime will never agree to this. He’s always lived in Paris, he likes his job, and he is very attached to his mother who lives nearby in Sčvres.

“Can you get your husband on a plane to Montreal soon?” Denise asked.

“I don’t think so. This is his busy season. He won’t want to go.”

“But dear sister, you must both leave before the doctor comes for the baby, n’est ce pas? We’ll have to invent an emergency.” Denise spoke with authority. “Suppose he thinks I am at death’s door? Yes, that ought to do it. Do you want me to buy the plane tickets? You can pay us back later. How about Thursday?”

“Do you mean this week Thursday? In three days?” Babette felt a stab of fear. “That’s awfully soon.”

“Babette” Denise scolded, “You can’t take a chance on waiting.”

“You’re right, but how can I be ready so fast?” she opened the door of the booth to look at the baby. He sat smiling in his stroller.

“You’ll take only what you must have and leave everything else behind,” Denise answered.

Babette felt her stomach cringe. Does she mean for us to never return to our flat where we’ve lived for eight, almost nine years? Leave the furniture and all my things behind?

“Yes, Denise. I’m listening,” Babette said. “But how will we manage if we arrive in Montreal with no furniture, no dishes, and no money?”

“Leave it to Armand. He’ll find your husband a good position. You’ll soon have plenty of money to replace what you’ve left behind and very likely enough to buy a house.”

Own our home? That would be a dream come true. Babette began to find the idea of living in Canada more acceptable.

“Are you sure Armand can do that? Get Max a high paying position?”

“Absolutely. He is well connected. You’ll have a much better life here. Listen,” Denise continued, “you must keep Max in the dark. You only tell him that Armand called—I am in the hospital and my condition is very serious. That is why you must fly to Montreal immediately. Don’t give him time to think it over.”

“Denise,” Babette felt her heart begin to beat hard. “I don’t think I can do this—force Max to move to Canada.” Her eyes filled with tears. “This is a terrible thing to do, deceiving him like that—I love him.” Babette felt the tears run down her cheek.

“Didn’t you just tell me your husband doesn’t understand? And that he wouldn’t agree to leave the country? Then what else can you do, sister? God sent you the child and I can’t think of any other way for you to keep him.”

“I guess you’re right.” Babette’s throat began to ache. “I’ll have to do it. But after we get there, I know Max will insist on going back. How can I stop him?”

“You will insist that you won’t leave Canada. Then he can’t go back, either.”

“I don’t understand. What’s to stop him from buying a ticket and returning to Paris alone?”

“Think, Babette. What happens when the doctor comes and there’s no baby in the house? He’ll go to the police and report a kidnapping. The police will question Max. If he tells them where you are, you’ll go to jail and they’ll take the baby from you— so he wouldn’t do that. If he refuses to tell, then he’s an accomplice in a kidnapping. He has no choice. He must stay, too.”

“But Denise, won’t it be the same thing if we’re both not there? The doctor will still report us to the police. They’ll come and put both of us in jail.”

“Babette, you have nothing to worry about. Doing what I say will not be committing a crime. It isn’t kidnapping when God sent the child to you. If those people are going to make a fuss, when you arrive you’ll begin to use a new last name. No one knows you here but Armand and me. The police may look but how can they find you with another name? So please stop worrying.”

“I can’t help being worried. Max will be furious with me, and I’m afraid of being wanted criminals. But if you are sure this is the only way, I’ll do as you say.”

“You’ll thank me later. You’ll see. Now, do what I tell you and let nothing stop you from getting your husband and the baby on the plane. Lie and do whatever you must.” Denise issued a few more instructions before the coins clinked and they were disconnected.

Babette left the post office pushing the baby in the stroller. She felt both hopeful and full of concerns. She tried to memorize the street of old apartment buildings with mansard roofs and the rows of old chestnut trees which dropped fruit and leaves on the sidewalk.

She passed the small shops where she bought food every day—the boulangerie for bread, the green grocer, the patisserie for desserts, and two doors farther the fromagerie. Cheese. Babette went in and selected Maxime’s favorite cheeses, and paid with the last of her coins.

At home she unwrapped the little boy. She wondered if his wide-open eyes were turning green as she kissed his creamy cheek. He smiled. Her heart fluttered with joy. He loves me too.

Air France called that they held two tickets to Montreal. Please check in at the airport before six thirty P.M.

Denise has the answers and I must do as she says.

From the open kitchen door she looked at the sunny room that was both living room and dining room. How could she leave the beautiful antique chestnut hutch, which displayed her collection of hand-painted Quimpčre dishes? Or the elegant in-laid dining table where they’d eaten countless meals? Or all the other treasured belongings, saved up for and used during the nine years of their marriage? None could go with them and they could never come back. No, never—they would be wanted criminals. Babette repressed a sob. Is keeping Paul worth the sacrifice?

Thursday morning dawned dark with black clouds and heavy rain, which landed so forcefully on the sidewalk that the drops bounced up. When Maxime left for work with an open umbrella, she went to the storage area. Three suitcases and a big cardboard box were all they had. Everything she could take had to fit in them.

She bathed the baby, glowing over the bracelets of fat on his chubby arms and legs. Four months ago when Dr. Charonne brought him for her to wet-nurse, he was a scrawny, starving ten day old. She threw away the hospital band she cut off his wrist that said his name was Eddie. Now his name was Paul because God sent him to replace Pauline.

The pink corduroy outfit with a small round collar and a zipper between the legs for diaper changing fit him perfectly. It had been too large for Pauline when she died but Paul was big for his age.

She dried his neck and ears. Wisps of his brown hair showed a tendency to curl and his sapphire-blue eyes were turning blue-green. Whenever he looked at her he burst into a toothless grin except for just a tiny white speck on his gum that would be his first tooth. How sweet he was, and how much she loved him! She would never let him go.

The first item on the plan was to call Dr. Charonne. She was relieved that a machine answered. Babette spoke slowly and clearly, saying that she must leave immediately for Lyon. Her sister Marie was in hospital delivering another baby. She was needed to look after the other children. She expected she couldn’t return to Paris for at least a week.

There. Dr. Charonne doesn’t know that I have no such sister. When he comes, we will be long gone.

She dialed the beginning of another number and then left the phone off the hook. No one can get through—the line will be busy.

She walked through the flat, looking at her beautiful Lalique vase, the cut-glass bowl, and her hand-painted Quimpere dishes on the antique hutch. She reminded herself that keeping her baby was what she wanted most. She must proceed with the plan.

She pulled clothes out of drawers and off hangers. She began to fold and tuck clothes into a suitcase lying on the dining table. Baby Paul gurgled happily on a blanket she put on the thick rug. He watched her walk back and forth. When he cried, she lifted him, sat on the ottoman, and nursed him. He needed to be changed —she looked at the clock before she put him down for his nap. No, not time to phone yet.

After the lunch hour she would call Maxime’s boss. She didn’t want her husband coming home too early, asking questions, and finding reasons why they couldn’t go. No, she didn’t want him home until almost everything had been packed, and it was nearly time to leave for the airport.

At two thirty she tried to speak the carefully rehearsed words to the boss’s secretary without crying.

“This is Babette Genesse, Maxime’s wife. We have a family emergency.” Her mouth dried as she realized that she would leave Paris forever in a few hours.

“My overseas sister is in hospital,” she began to cry. “They’ve sent us tickets for tonight. Please tell Maxime to hurry home,” and she listened to words of sympathy before she hung up.

It would take Max almost an hour to get home in all this rain. That was about right. Babette changed into her good suit which she’d, left hanging in the closet, and brushed her shoulder-length brown hair. The blue scarf Max gave her for her last birthday hung on the back of the chair. He said it was the blue of her eyes. She’d wear it later.

Maxime came in, his umbrella dripping and his forehead wrinkled with worry.

“Ta soeur;” he asked. “How serious is it with your sister? My boss rushed me into a cab and said there was no time to talk.”

“All Armand said was that she is in the hospital. I think it they bought us plane tickets it must be very serious. Cher Max, we must hurry,” she answered with her head down. Having to lie to Max made her throat ache. She reached a hand to squeeze more folded garments into the nearly filled suitcase.

“Pack the clothes on the couch in that brown suitcase, dear,” Babette told him gesturing with a plump arm. “Please hurry.”

“Why must I go?” he asked as he scooped up a last armload and then looked up at her. “I don’t even know your sister.”

“They assumed you’d want to go with me.” She forced two more garments into the suitcase.

“Of course,” he answered. “This is your oldest sister in Canada, isn’t it? It’s a bad time for me to leave but I wouldn’t let you make a trip like this alone.”

“Thank you for understanding. Are you finished?” she asked and she snapped her suitcase shut. She put on her coat and tied the blue scarf over her hair. Then she swaddled the baby using all the blankets in the crib. She had the purse strap over her shoulder and the diaper bag on top before she reached for the baby. She tucked him under her arm and squeezed him tightly to her body.

Babette surveyed the room, nodded, and lifted the heavy suitcase off the table. It pulled her to one side so that she had to lean way over when she walked.

“Open the door for me, please Max,” she said. ”Bring the other bags and lock the door behind you. Oh! Good. It has stopped raining. We won’t need the umbrella.”

Her husband shouldered two suitcases and the box. He slipped the umbrella under the suitcase handle and followed her up the Rue Blanc. Babette walked as fast as she could on the dark, slippery sidewalk. Clouds concealed the moon, and the dim streetlights barely penetrated through the gloom.

“Flag a cab, and tell him Orly airport,” she told Max when they reached the boulevard. No one saw us leave, just as Denise instructed. A cab came, the luggage was stored, and they were off. Then Maxime began to fuss.

“Dites moi,” he said. “What’s wrong with your sister? Is it really so serious that we have to go?”

“I already told. You/ Armand didn’t give me any details.” She tried to keep her voice steady and calm. “What worries me is that they bought us tickets and she’s in the hospital. Doesn’t it sound very serious?” She hoped her answer would satisfy him.

She looked through the rain and dirt streaked window at the scenery as the cab raced along the ring road toward to airport. Max reached out a hand to pat her shoulder and seemed to notice the child on her lap for the first time.

“Babette, why is the baby with us?” he asked in a worried voice.

“What else could I do?” She felt a moment of panic. “I couldn’t leave him alone in the flat, could I?”

“Why didn’t you call Dr. Charonne to come get him?”

“Max, I did call Dr. Charonne. I told him we had a family emergency and had to leave immediately. He said he couldn’t possibly find anyplace for the baby on such short notice and the mother isn’t nearly ready to care for him yet, so I must continue looking after him.”

“Did you tell the doctor you intended to take the child out of the country?” Max sounded anxious. “Since he’s not ours, this could be construed as well, kidnapping.”

“Yes of course I told him,” she lied, just as Denise had instructed. “Dr. Charonne said not to worry. We’ll only be gone a few days, a week at most. He’s sure it’s all right.” She rearranged the blankets that covered the sleeping child.

“He may be a good doctor but he doesn’t seem to know the law,” Maxime sounded very upset. ”From what I know, this puts us in a very precarious situation.” He cleared his throat. “I think wĺ must turn around and go home. We’ll wait until the doctor can find a place for him. We can take a later plane.”

“We can’t do that,” she said alarmed. “The tickets may not be good for a different flight and if we delay, it could be too late. My sister may not—.” The worry in her voice was real. We can’t go back. I told the landlord to sublet the apartment.

“Bien. We’ll use the tickets. Your family spent good money for them. I agree, we must get there as soon as possible,” he conceded. “But I think we must fly home as soon as we can.”

“Yes, dear,” she crossed her fingers and kept them under the baby’s blanket. He patted her shoulder.

”But maybe I’m worrying for nothing,” he said, and sounded pleased with himself. “When we check in, we’ll be asked if the baby is ours. Since he’s not, we won’t be allowed to take him aboard.”

“What will happen to him?” Her voice quavered and she felt completely hopeless. Her eyes filled with tears.

“I’m sure they have some sort of care arrangements for this contingency,” he said.

“I hope you are wrong.” She tapped her pocket book. “I brought our passports and Pauline’s birth certificate.”

“That was a good idea but I seriously doubt they’ll accept the birth certificate,” he said. “There’s a major discrepancy. Pauline was born in April and this child was born in August. Most likely the airport staff will have trouble accepting that this four-month old boy is an eight-month old girl. If they uncover him, it’s all over.”

“Would they really ask to uncover a sleeping baby?” she asked and pulled the child so close that she could smell his talcum powder.

“We’ll have to wait and see.”

The driver parked in front of the terminal. Max looked worried when he saw the meter and frowned as he took bills out of his wallet. Max doesn’t know I withdrew all our money. I have it right here in my purse. He piled their bags onto a trolley and pushed it into the building. She switched the baby to her other arm as they walked toward the queue labeled, “Montreal.” Only one couple stood in line before them. Soon they left.

“You are late, Monsieur and Madame Genesse,” the flight agent said when Maxime gave her their name. “I can still get your luggage on the plane but your bags are way over the limit. There’s a surcharge.”

“How much?” Maxime asked and wrinkled his forehead again when he handed her a hundred franc bill.

The agent took the money, glanced at the passports and the birth certificate, and handed everything back to Maxime with their boarding passes.

“Please take the escalator up to the next floor. You’ll see our area. And hurry. They’ll be boarding very soon.”

“Why on earth did we have to bring so much luggage for a few days?” Maxime asked as they rode up on the escalator.

“I guess I was too upset to think straight. I couldn’t decide what to bring and thought it was better to have too much than not enough.”

“ I understand. I’m not angry, just sorry about the unnecessary expense.” He reached to hold her hand. “Of course you are upset about your sister. I have to admit I worried you for nothing—not a single question about the baby.” He smiled at her. “It looks as if everything is going to be all right.”

I’ll wait until Max tries to buy return tickets to tell him that I won’t leave Canada. He won’t think it’s all right that I’m forcing him to stay there. I hope Denise is right about all she promised. I pray that Max will be happy and that he will forgive me.