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ÉLODIE BY JAMES LATIMER FOR ÉLODIE YUNG 34THPARALLEL MAGAZINE ISSUE 68
Élodie ran with cranes. She ran along the shores with breaching whales, and once, with whales, beneath the churning waves. Élodie ran on creosote, on smooth-worn stones. She splashed through sodden rushes, through salt reed grass. From there, away, you might see a head above the stems, dark hair lifting and falling. Close, you might see and hear her. Élodie’s running sang. Her shoulder blades, her breastbone, her floating heels: in motion she was music.
The mother of the running girl kept a boarding house, a busy kitchen, a room to culture, press, and ferment. In the mornings, early, Élodie ran to the yeast and ginger sellers. On her way home she walked, and there was music in her walk. Her shoulder blades, her clavicle, her wrists: they were a song—and a worry. A sweetness and a sadness.
September morning. A broadside in the market. “Coming,” the broadside said. The tea-seller pointed. Élodie turned to look. A dancer? Coming. A poster, impossible, pictured a dancer soaring over rooftops, above the Eiffel Tower. Grace, Élodie saw. Close up, the dancer’s eyes were dark; her hair, wild in flight. An opera dancer? A circus dancer. A circus dancer?
Élodie thought: I will see her.
On the dancer’s day, Élodie’s mother said in signs: SEPTEMBER LODGERS COME. GO YOU TO THE MARKET. CRANES NOT MIND. Élodie’s mother gave her daughter a look. “Let the cranes run and fly,” she said. “The dancer, too. See her—some time.” Élodie’s mother signed and finger-spelled her list. MATSUTAKE, TEA AND GINGER, DAIKON, RENKON, KOME TOO. AND SOBA? YES. SHOYU? YES. WHAT ELSE? KOJI FOR MISO.
“The dancer does not fly,” her mother whispered. “She has a trick.”
Élodie walked in rhythm, her bag on her shoulder, her eyes unfocused, her mind—somewhere. The cranes and whales, the marshes, the sky and oceans: she worried about them.
At the market in the square there was a bottle-buyer, a spun-sugar woman, and girls with strings of flowers. There was a toy-man with paper boats and folded fish. And sellers of brooms and crickets. And monks in yellow robes with black umbrellas? Yes. And vendors of yeast and tea and ginger. And people, so many, there to see the flying dancer.
“Springs, she has,” said a vendor under his breath. “The dancer does not fly.”
Élodie watched, shoulder to shoulder with the people, never remembering her list. The dancer leapt. Élodie caught her breath. She thought: her hands are tassels. Her arms—kites’ tails? No, not kites’ tails: snapping silk in flight.
The dancer soared. Élodie followed with her eyes. She flies, the running girl decided. The dancer flies, she does.
Afterward, Élodie’s mother scolded, sighed—then smiled. A boarder hurried to the market. Élodie did not shop that day and did not shop the next. The next, the dancer’s last, the running girl was in the square before the ginger-men.
She thought: What will the dancer do? What will she be? And when? Élodie waited, waited. There. The people clapped. A woman with wild eyes and snapping lashes leapt before them. Élodie watched, laughing, as the dancer swarmed and spiraled, her bones turning to butter. No, not butter! She cantilevered, stood up tall, a casuarina sea-pine tree. And then? She was a cartwheel, a wheeling starfish.
“No, not a fish,” a vendor whispered. “The dancer is a disaster.”
Élodie watched the dancer collect herself and leap, spring-heeled, and then crouch low. A tiger crouch. A tiger spring. And then? At the top of the tiger’s flight Élodie saw the dancer wince. All in a moment the dancer lay, sprawled over the boards, a wreckage of bones and stripes. Someone, two people, lifted her and carried her away.
In her kitchen, Élodie’s mother cultured matsutake, mushrooms for September. She stamped to get her daughter’s attention. SEPTEMBER. BOARDERS MORE. She gave her daughter a look. WHALES...NOT MORE.
The ocean, quiet once, was loud, Élodie’s mother told her. Now a thunder, it was; below, a clamor and an uproar. And the whales were going too deep, and coming up to too fast, so the bonesetter said.
WHALES HAVE BENDS. THE BONESETTER SAYS.
BENDS. Élodie frowned. MAKE WHALES DEAF?
MAYBE DEAF, her mother told her. Élodie’s mother gave her a look. “The bonesetter has your dancer.”
BONESETTER HAS HER. GO.
Élodie found the dancer, bleak, in splints and a snarl of wild hair, sitting by the bonesetter’s window. The dancer’s eyes were...somewhere. Close to tears. Élodie wished she had brought flowers. WAIT, she signed, and ran.
“A young apprentice,” decided the dancer. “A girl who wants to fly.”
The running girl returned with rue, with wildflowers tied in ribbon—and tea from the tea- and ginger-men.
“Dancer?” the dancer asked.
Élodie watched her shape the word. No. She shook her head. Not a dancer.
But the dancer had seen this girl’s clavicle and knees, her dancer’s bones. She saw dark dancing eyes. The dark-eyed girl, not a dancer, did not speak. She left tea and flowers and a note, a question. In the morning, early, the girl was back, the question in her eyes.
The dancer had her answer ready. Icarus, she said, had wished to fly, but he fell dead. Élodie blinked. “I,” the dancer told her, “like Icarus, would not be happy on the ground.” She wrote it down. “I wished to fly,” she wrote, “like Icarus. And found a way, like him. And fell like him. And fell again. And now I fell again.”
FALL YOU NOT DEAD, Élodie signed. She looked at the dancer’s eyes—and saw a ‘no’.
The dancer watched from the bonesetter’s window as Élodie walked away; walked first, then, at the ocean’s edge, she ran. The dancer caught her breath. This girl, not a dancer, was—a glissando? No, an arpeggio of splashes. Her running was like music. The dancer heard the notes almost, until the running girl vanished in a drench of spray.
In the morning, early, Élodie returned. The bonesetter helped the dancer stretch and soften her step. “You will dance,” she said. “Not so much. And jump,” the bonesetter said. “Not so high.”
The dancer turned to the bonesetter, lifting her eyes.
“No tricks,” the bonesetter told her.
Élodie could not hear the words. She watched the dancer, studied her eyes, and saw a no. Still ‘no’.
The running girl stood, shading her eyes, watching from a rise above the sea. Where were they? There, breeching and blowing. Maybe deaf? The whales always seemed to know when she was near.
Once, Élodie, heedless as child, walked into the waves. An angry undertow carried her out to drown, but the whales saw—or heard. They carried her back. One whale held the human girl against its rutted skin. It rolled, lifting the girl above the waves, but not before she felt the whales’ song. She felt it still.
Then the whales were stranding. Three, then five, lay helpless on the shore. Élodie could not push them back. She could not do for them what they had done for her. And the bonesetter? Did not know what to do.
Still the cranes, hovering and scolding, worried the whales until they rolled back out to sea, alive for now.
But then the cranes, traveling to their winter place, had flown into a hurricane. Only a few flew home.
Élodie sat, worrying, hugging her knees.
SKY NOT BRAVE, she signed. OCEAN SORRY. A crane was watching, ticking its head. A bird, it seemed to say, cannot heal the ocean or the sky. No, Élodie thought, nor ever a running girl.
In the mornings, the dancer worked. Élodie watched her. Beautiful, she was. Strong now. Almost healed. The dancer will go home, she thought. A flying dancer does not wish to teach a running girl. Élodie turned away and she did not come back.
But the dancer had seen, had watched young Élodie; had seen the the music and the worry. The dancer asked the bonesetter who she was.
“Made up,” the bonesetter said. “You dreamed her up.”
No, she had not dreamed the running girl.
“A girl, not made up,” she told the ginger-man. “Dark hair, she has,” the dancer said. “Dark, dancing eyes.” No, the ginger-man had not seen the girl with dancing eyes.
The dancer searched the marshes. Returning, she searched the bonesetter’s house. The girl had left a ribbon, a bit of tea and cloth. The dancer closed her eyes and heard a note. Two notes. Three.
“I heard,” the bonesetter told her. “A bit of music, very slight, probably nothing.” But the dancer saw the beginnings of a smile. “She is kindred to the whales, your girl,” the bonesetter said. “She wants to mend the sky; the ocean, too. The running girl was watching when you fell.”
“Kindred to the whales?”
The bonesetter nodded.
“And wants to mend the sky?”
The bonesetter nodded. “Worried, she is, and sad.” The bonesetter watched the dancer. “Maybe angry now,” she said.
In the market square, the dancer asked the bottle-buyer, the basket-seller, a woman with drinks in plastic bags. The tea- and ginger-men drew close.
“Running girl?” they asked. “A dark-eyed girl?”
The drink-seller told the dancer no, and then she winked. “Crows,” she said. “She’s running with the crows.”
The dancer blinked.
“No,” said the bottle-man. “Not crows. She’s with the cranes.”
No, the tea-man said, not cranes: “The whales have your girl.”
The sun, setting over the ocean, did not speak of whales or crows. It did not show the dancer where to look. A crane, tall, ticking its head and swaying, watched. It seemed to point a primary feather. The crane was pointing to the sea.
In the morning, early, the dancer steered a hired boat onto the waves. A wind rose up. The boat capsized. Before she drowned the dancer felt the whales’ thrumming song. She heard its sadness, felt her own. And the whales pushed her and her boat ashore.
The running girl, meanwhile, worried about the bends. “Your dancer has gone home, is what I think,” her mother told her. “Home to Paris or New York.”
Was the dancer home in Paris? Élodie worried. Was she in New York?
No, searching for her, was where she was; looking for a running girl. A girl who splashed, who wished to mend the sky.
The dancer stood on a rise above the shore. She shaded her eyes. She turned back toward the tall marsh grass and saw—a head, hovering above the stems? Dark hair lifting and falling? No, dark birds; not the running girl. Where was she?
There. Here. Beside her.
YOU, the girl grinned.
The dancer’s eyes grew wide.
The running girl signed that she was deaf.
Deaf. And yet she sings. We will go, the dancer said, to where the sea and sky are suffering. She wrote it down.
DANCE? Élodie asked her.
SPLASH, the dancer said.
FLY? Élodie asked.
Breach, the dancer thought. Breach and splash. She wrote it down.
NOT FALL DEAD? Élodie signed.
NO, the dancer signed. She wrote: “We will leap and splash and not fall dead.”
The running girl grinned. The dancer did not have to ask her twice.
On the first night of mid-autumn, there, here in the market square, a new broadside appeared. One beside the tea-seller. Another near the toy-man, amid the folded fish. And another by the flower girls. The monks and vendors stared. The people stared. Dancers, two in floating silk with wild hair. Two—impossible—leaping on the waves. Two dancers together. Together, a double arpeggio.
I have been writing and drawing for children and young adults for a while, and have, for a decade, tutored the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants. We have a history of making posters together. RUNNING TOGETHER began as an illustration for Élodie but seemed, in the end, to have a poster life of its own. Apart from drawing and writing—what do we do? Something else, most of us, most of the time. I repair old books by hand.