15

Where Sophie takes the author on a treasure hunt; where the author's mother shows the author a valise full of cash.

We arrive around dinner time. After dinner, while mother is busy in the kitchen and I'm building a fire, Sophie comes and whispers in my ear that there's a valise full of banknotes on the ground floor, that she wants to find the hiding place and that she needs me to hold a candle for her. Suddenly I'm reminded that I'm in a madhouse and that the rules of the outside world do not apply within.

I ask why she wants to find that valise. Does she want to take money out of it? She says no, she only wants to find it and presses me to come with her. I decline but she grabs a candle from a candlestick, the book of matches I used to light the fire and puts them in my hands. As always I give in for the sake of maintaining peace and follow her. She lights the candle in the stairway and I follow her, wondering if this is really happening. She opens the door to a storage room and pretends to search for the valise for about twenty seconds without moving anything, then we go back upstairs.

We're hardly back in the living room when Mother comes out of the kitchen and invites us to follow her to our father's office on the ground floor. We go downstairs again and I worry that Mother is going to notice the smell of the candle I snuffed in the stairwell a minute ago.

When we're in my father's office she leaves us for a half minute and returns holding an ancient-looking leather valise. At the sight of it I have a shock because that's what Sophie and I were looking for two minutes ago and I have an intense feeling of shame and guilt. The valise is about sixty-four by forty centimeters (twenty-five by sixteen inches). Mother puts the valise on top of the desk and opens it. Four tight rows of banknotes appear. They fit so snugly, there's not an empty space, the depth of the valise corresponds exactly to the width of the banknotes, it seems that the valise was custom-made for them.

Mother says that the valise contains one million francs, to be divided equally among the seven children. The other day she had said that there was one million per child. Since I feel guilty about looking for the valise with Sophie a moment ago, I don't point out the discrepancy. Mother asks me if I want to calculate the share of each child. It amounts to 142,857.40 francs per child, about $28,500. Mother asks me if I want to take a part of it right now and I agree to take fifty thousand francs, or about ten thousand dollars. She takes five packets of five hundred francs bills from the valise, these very large, extremely thin bills that bear the greenish-bluish portrait of our 17th Century philosopher-scientist Blaise Pascal.

I'm confused and speechless at how thin each packet is. It's no thicker than one sixteenth of an inch. Mother explains that each packet contains twenty 500 francs bills, therefore there is ten thousand francs per packet. She asks if I want to count the bills in each packet but I politely take her word for it. But I'm confused because if a packet of ten thousand francs is no thicker than one sixteenth of an inch, there must be a lot more than one million francs in the valise.

Actually, if my visual memory of the valise, of the bills' measurements and of the thickness of each packet is correct, there is 160,000 francs per inch, and each row of sixteen inches amounts to 2,560,000 francs, multiplied by four, the valise holds a total of approximately 10,240,000 francs, or 1,7 to 2 million dollars.

After giving me the money Mother changes the subject. She opens the desk's file drawer. There, files bearing the name of each child appear in birth order. Mother offers us to view the contents of our respective file. Freedom of information! There are report bulletins in my file, and a letter I had written my parents in 1972, about one year after starting working as an entry-level secretary. I had written this letter on beautiful stock with a fountain pen so I know the contents of that letter.

In it I expressed my unhappiness at the turn my life had taken, said that I couldn't take it anymore and was going to quit, collect unemployment benefits and study what I really wanted to study (acting, dancing and music). This letter had never been answered in writing but my father, during one of my visits, had forcefully impressed on me that it was a disgrace to collect unemployment benefits, or to receive any help from the state whatsoever.

Sophie leaves the following day.


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