Adelaide tripped over her own feet as she tried to keep up with the flouncing white bustle. It was always thus with Sophie. Wait, wait. Hurry, hurry.
“Come on, child. We’re going to be late.” Of course she blamed it on Adelaide.
But the truth was Sophie took forever and a day to get dressed for the afternoon walk.
It happened like this, after lessons, Sophie commanded Adelaide to sit on her hands, quiet and still, while she riffled through her employer’s wardrobe. In the time it took a black speck to crawl across the ceiling, from one end of the room to another, Sophie had finally chosen the dress. Another age passed while she layered on the garments, and arranged them just so. A few precious minutes were spent rouging her cheeks and lips. By then, Adelaide’s hands were numb, and she was drifting to sleep.
Next came the rush. Sophie directed them through the alleys, which were not always the most pleasant places to be. Between the drunks, the waste, the vomit, and eager women plying their trade with vacant or calloused gazes, it made Adelaide’s tongue tingle. Her stomach fluttered.
They had to go that way, though, because Sophie couldn’t be seen wearing the clothes of Adelaide’s mother.
They marched a quick tempo. It was Springtime. Sweat glossed Adelaide’s brow, and her lungs filled with wheezing. A boy walked beside them as they crossed the bridge.
“You seem to be in a hurry,” he said. A thick accent wrapped around the sounds he made.
Adelaide glanced at him. His skin was a deep brown from all the time he spent outside. He was dressed head to ankle in white, and his garments were closer to those of peasants than anyone with any sort of rank or honor in society. His feet, bare, slapped against the stone. Yet a silver chain jangled around his wrist. A vial filled with opalescent fluid dangled from the chain.
“For now,” she said.
Sophie hissed. “Don’t talk to gypsies. Nothing but trouble.” She walked faster.
The boy grinned, kept up with them. He hummed a strange tune Adelaide had never heard before. After they crossed the bridge, he waved to her and veered right into the man-sized grass that was supposed to be the garden.
“Good riddance,” Sophie said. Just before the last little slope, she stopped, spun around to Adelaide.
Adelaide had expected this, and was already waiting.
“God, child. You’re a mess.” She mopped up the sweat with a dingy kercheiff. Her own. It would not be seen again on this outing. “Your skin is aflame. It looks like you ran for kilometers to get here. What will Mademoiselle Constance think?” Sophie pinched Adelaide’s chin, and shook it. Vigorously. Her painted lips twisted down. “You will follow far behind me. Do not address Mademoiselle Constance. Understood?”
Adelaide nodded. The instructions hadn’t changed from the last time, or the time before that.
Sophie transformed in the last twenty meters. Instead of stomping, she glided. Instead of frowning, a gentle smile turned her mouth. And then all things stopped. After the rush to get there, things moved as if they were underwater, or in some little fantasy.
“Mademoiselle Sophie,” the other woman drolled. Her dress was the same as the one Sophie wore, except it was black.
“Mademoiselle Constance.” Sophie inclined her head slightly. The game had begun.
Paris glittered behind them like a backdrop. Their gazes swooped over each other, recorded each detail with frightening accuracy. Adelaide would hear all about it on the walk home. The hem, the dye of the material, whether Constance was suited to the dress, or the dress to her.
The women turned their backs on the city, as if it didn’t interest them. As if it was so basic and commonplace as to not warrant attention. Instead, they fluffed the ruffles on their dresses. A well-placed breeze fluttered a bit of tulle trailing from their handsome hats.
There was jealousy. There was envy that tasted like longing. It was what they came here for.
Adelaide sighed, turned away from their little charade. She stood, still, hands clasped in front of her, and stared into the field.
The boy stood in the middle of it. He took stalks of long grass in his hands, crouched and cut them close to the ground. Over and over he did this, until he had not one pile, but several that were taller than he.
The constant chattering of the women, of the latest stores opening, of poor Marie, who had been seen without a bustle, and in a voluminous wide skirt, buzzed in Adelaide’s ears. It was all the same.
And he was different.
Once he had a sufficient quantity of long grass stalks, he grasped them. Sometimes in bunches, sometimes one by one. Each time he laid his hands on them, no matter their number, he stroked them, the way Adelaide would have petted her grey tiger-striped kitten, Max. The texture of Max’s fur was singular. Soft, rich. The feel of him was a wonder, a symphony of sensation.
The boy wove the stalks of grass into exquisite, finely textured spires. They reminded her of onions, the way they bulged near the ground, and curved, narrowed at their tops, to a perfect, pointed peak.
He smiled up at his creations, and strolled around them. Then he started dancing, slow at first as he leapt from the ground to twirl in the sky, arms outstretched, one lazy revolution and his face was bliss. Beaming and bright.
The movements were methodical. The placement of each step, precise. He gained speed after his first full circuit, and began to weave a pattern around the three spires. In and out of the center. Around the edges. Sometimes he stamped one foot and then the other against the ground before erupting in a bowl-legged leap. The way the Indians were said to dance. Primitive. Not quite human.
He bowed to the earth, then showed his face, neck and belly to the sky. He twisted and spun. He pranced, and became frenzied. Sweat made his skin shine, turned his clothes translucent. The vial on his bracelet glittered. Waves of iridescence streamed from it. Green and blue vapor, and orange and red wafted around the spires. Set each one of them aglow.
It was only then she began to hear the music.
It started as trickle. Flutes. Then the sound thickened, grew barnacle rough, and beat, beat, beat. Her toe tapped on its own. Her eyes watered from looking at him for so long. Her knees went next. They bent, and straightened. Bent and straightened. Her body matched the sound of the drums. That was what they were.
She drifted closer to the field. He was there. His dancing had disturbed the earth, which was raised all around him like curtain, marking one space from another.
She had only to pass through the fence. It wasn’t a hard feat. It was much like passing through a diminutive door.
Author’s note: This story is inspired by the painting called View of Paris from the Trocadero (1871-1872), by Berthe Morisot. I saw this at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art last weekend (July 7, 2013).