When he opens the container he is startled, like a fawn that stumbles into a tree in the hours after being born. They watch him, as they have watched him struggle to open it, they watch him and think he is not as old as they had believed, or perhaps they think that even though he calls himself a man he is nothing but a taller version of the child that he has always been.
This morning he was proud of the broadness of his shoulders, proud that his mother had bought him a suit for this day because the old one was too small. But now he is ashamed. He asked at the wake if he could spread her ashes and now it has been granted and now he holds them open by the river, and he is ashamed of everything he has wished.
His grandmother told him once when he was a child, once when they walked by this river: We may not believe everything as my father did, and you may someday believe even less than you do now, but you must always believe in the goodness of the Lord. He had not understood her when she said this, and he does not know why he remembers it at this moment, even though he is standing by the river, standing in the place where she had said this very thing, but he thinks that he will never understand how belief has ever lasted, if it fades some small volume at every death and every generation. He asks silently: If faith is only ever lost, what will remain for my ashes?
When he was first a teenager, when she seemed very old but somehow had the strength to walk with him on Sabbath afternoons, she told him finally of the deportations. I walked by the Seine each morning, just like this, when I was young. This was before she wore the yellow star, before her brother had been taken and before her father took them one night to live in the south, where they stayed for many years. My friends all were young like you, and then they disappeared. When no one asked where they had gone she asked her father. He told her only that it was a dark time and that every question had a dark answer in those days. She had not understood him when he said this, but on that day in her old age when she walked slowly by the river with this grandson that she loved above all, she knew that that dark time had passed and that for this she would always believe in the goodness of the Lord.
Though he is ready now to spread her ashes while they watch, though he is ready to let her pass into the river that she had only once touched during life, he waits, for a boat of tourists passes by, even at this hour, even as they stand in silence on the dark banks. They are blinded by the lights of the enormous boat, blinded by the foolish gaiety of so many passengers from places far away, blinded by the things they cry out into the silent darkness that they do not know is populated by a family’s longing for the dead. He is ready to let her pass once the boat is gone but he must wait for the wake to die so that she will not be subject to the remaining waves of those that did not believe in the goodness of the Lord. He knows in this moment that his family no longer thinks he is a fawn, for though he cannot see their eyes he knows they feared he would cast her away even as the lights shone from the boat to the edges of the river, even as the tourists called out drunkenly past the river’s banks that they could not see.
But he waits because he is not a child. He waits, he thinks, like she waited on the morning her mother sewed the yellow star to her favorite dress, the day she awoke to see her father mourning in the kitchen, sobbing soundlessly at the table with one hand frozen in the air, holding a fork, his back curved as if in seizure, his own saliva pooling on his plate. She did not understand why he was crying, but she held him from behind and he did not put down his hand that held the fork until she made him do so, and even then he would not close his mouth as he moaned. She had never wept that way but she hoped when she was old her sadness would appear more beautiful than his. Her mother sewed the star to her dress also at that table, and she did not cry, and she did not comfort her weeping husband.
He waits until the boat is gone completely, until he knows – as he thinks a man must know – that even the memory of the sounds they heard has passed from the minds of everyone who stands around him. He kneels to see that the wake has gone, that the river is as smooth as it can be at this hour, and he readies her ashes: but he waits still another moment before he casts her out. The others do not understand, for every prayer has been spoken. Yet he remembers on that day when she seemed very old that she kneeled with him by the river, that she asked him to hold her so she could feel the water, that for all these years she had never touched the Seine because she could not swim. She placed one hand on his face and said to him: In your old age you will also be renewed. And he steadied her then, held her from behind while she knelt and felt the water with her hand for the first time, and she could not remember if it was the same hand that her father had held his fork with that morning, but she lowered her hand into the water in the way she remembered lowering his hand to the table. And though she could not remember if it was her father’s hand she mirrored, she remembered then that her mother sewed the yellow star above her heart and that her father stopped his soundless moaning when the star was sewn. When he lifted her from the edge of the river she was not crying as he expected but smiling, and she put her hand first on her heart and stained her dress with water from the Seine, and then she held his face with both hands, the coldness of it stunning him as if he were seeing her in her youth, and the water dripped onto his shirt and down her arm and she said to him: For the goodness of the Lord is with us always.