THE SLOW ACTS
by Sanaë Lemoine
In the autumn when the summer heat has burned to the ground, my father drives me to Elsa’s home before school. Her house is old and tall with peeling white paint. It reminds me of my mother’s flaking skin. Plump-armed vines crawl the walls and the windows fight for territory, small gaping mouths into Elsa’s house. Elsa hasn’t dressed yet and I help her with the buttons while her mother trots around naked. She is pale other than red elbows and knees from the cold weather. Their plumbing is rusty. I don’t know if the heat works. Their house is by the seaside and holds humidity year round. Its floorboards ripple from dampness and patches of black mold grow like soot in the bathroom.
I noticed it in Elsa first, as I was buttoning her school uniform, beginning at her round thighs. I was so close to her skin that I could see soft bristles on her legs. I buttoned up to her belly and then past her flat chest, the buttons closing with ample room as they closed the space between two tiny hills. I could fit my head there easily, as if resting on an ironing board. But she seemed very far away that day. I saw this in the thinness of her neck skin, her throat glowing like a fading light bulb.
I’m dying, she said, it’s happening. Her voice creaked. It reminded of a smoker’s, raspy and dry.
It’s not supposed to happen at our age, twelve, we are too young to change. In the town we see the alone men and women, their sheer-skinned bodies skimming the pavements like Jesus walking on water. But these are older men and women. You don’t die of love at our age. Who is it? I ask Elsa, my fingers fluttering over her warm throat. She feels ablaze. I finish the buttons. She gives me a stern look and says: Love requires no age.
Elsa’s mother squats in the garden picking roses. I wonder what she would think if she saw her daughter with the other dead creatures. They aren’t bothered by sand or cold. They don’t feel water and they have no eyesight. I ask Elsa if she is going blind. No, not yet. She looks up at the ceiling, there’s a faint smudge of grey mold above a bookshelf. She seems wise and I fear she’ll give me a loud, adult sigh any minute.
In this town, when you lose a love, you lose a limb. Your liver explodes, your neck turns yellow, and you begin to disappear. But you stay, walking among the living. You join the troupe, and there are songs and rituals to cope. They are less agile than us humans, their hands are clumsy, and they have no texture.
I go to my father’s shop after school where he fixes prosthetic limbs but people come for all kinds of repairs. My father is with a client so I sit in the waiting room accompanied by wooden and metal displays. One of them enters. He must be sixty years old. He smiles apologetically. My wife left me for a truck driver, he says, and I nod in acknowledgment. He leaves a trail of clutter. His chair falls over and the prosthetics are strewn on the floor like children’s toys. I’m sorry, he says. His feet toss and stamp, he leaves with a rattle of the glass door. We always clean up after them, we don’t complain.
The following day Elsa’s eyes are clear like the deep pools in the hidden coves, north of the town. Her hands are light and they breathe rather than touch when she holds me. I think it happens quicker in us, she says, because we are younger and have less life to give.
Out of the water the air bakes us, roasts us, and we are hot, so hot that we don’t want to touch one another. The boat is small and we are perched on it like birds, our legs dangling over the edge, four pairs of legs, we are four sisters. Matilda fixes lunch and hands us sandwiches dripping with mayonnaise and tomato juice. We munch on them like soldiers and drink lukewarm water from plastic bottles, though it’s hard to feel hunger when your body is fighting the heat. We are fifty kilometers from land: we have a captain and Matilda and the sea around us. She is thirty and has weak arms and legs browned with sunspots. The ozone layer is thin in this part of the world. We are zebras with zinc on our noses and upper cheeks, war paint for the sun. The water is cold when we sink in, stepping down on the metal ladder, it is marble stone cold, cold like the flat soles of our feet in the winter, and it cuts our breath and sharpens our skin. Matilda leads the clan with her slender arms swimming long strokes into the sea. Matilda knows these waters well, but we sense in the air, we know, for an instant that though she knows these waves, she owns them and guards them, there is something amiss. In the way her hair shrouds her face and in the way she splashes her twig fingers saying: come here. We are strong, swimming behind her. The captain stands, a tall Viking against the aquamarine sky. He waves at us.
We swim down and up, our thighs grazing against the coral and bleeding. This coral infests the waters like weeds. We see the fish and their colorful scales. Matilda, we don’t see. She’s to the left, to the right, no, she’s gone, we scan the horizon, the current is mighty, there’s a hand somewhere, we’ve lost her, we look under and our eyes burn from the salt. We don’t see her legs. The captain yells from the deck and we swim to the ladder, climb out one by one, solemn children. We’ve lost Matilda, we say, banging water from our ears and wiping our pruned toes against the wooden planks. The boat sails in circles but still no trace of Matilda. The sun shuts down and the sky blackens while we are now dry, salted, clothed in our bathing suits, mourning Matilda. But we knew, that morning, as we bit into our sandwiches and Matilda smiled at us crooked, teeth bleached like old bones in the sun, rubbing her weak arms with cream, limbs not made for swimming or breathing, not wings but sad things, we knew she would disappear and so we turn around with understanding and tell the captain, Return to shore!
Market day comes every five days and that is how the rhythm of the week is regulated, weeks built around food: cooking, eating, storing in voluminous pantries. The market is a dry place despite the nearby sea. Food keeps for longer, better preserved by the salt air. I weigh myself on market days to verify that I’m not losing matter, turning into another one of those. They’re not like us, Mother says, the same shape perhaps but they weigh nothing, so light that the wind could blow them away when they hide behind bushes to urinate, a moment of stolen privacy, before they go up into the grey and wet heavens. They keep Russian novels in their coat pockets to stay grounded. At night their throats glow like lanterns as they dance down the streets. Mother checks on our weight, writes it down in a small notebook before she dresses for the market. Leo used to keep a handful of polished stones under his bed to slip into his pockets if he ever felt the tightening in the soles of his feet, that odd buoyancy. I don’t want him to change, but I tell him, No Leo, don’t lie to Mother, no! He tenses and knocks his fingers on the side of his hard-boiled head. Shut it sister. Let me be, he says. I am glum. I observe my weight with scientific rigor, and retreat. My weight hardly varies. At times I weigh a little more if Mother buys steaks and potatoes at the market, the meat served with a glistening béarnaise, sprouting with shallots and tarragon.
The winds blow like trumpets outside. At night I tiptoe out, past the black TV, the whirring refrigerator, and my wheezing brother. I creep to the beach and hide behind aloe vera plants. I watch them, their bodies nimble as grasshoppers leaping into the air. Mother says: being around them contaminates our earthly, pure, pumping souls, we who are plenty heavy. But I feel extravagant, sitting there on a mound of sand, my ottoman, with this fleshy weight pulling down my body like a black cape.
And then I begin to change. There must be an illness within me. Here I am, standing on the old, rusted scale, listening to Mother whistle in the room next door. My weight is down ten kilograms. My body is identical of course, the same paunch on my belly and the closeness of my two thighs. I have to search for my ribs under the fat. I have a few months left, I calculate, and as I arm myself with stones, stealing from Leo’s collection and sliding them in my underwear, I watch my body grow lighter.
Mother remains unaware of my transformation, and how does a daughter say: look, I’m dying, soon I’ll weigh as much as your shoes, soon I’ll weigh as much as a wisp of your hair. I can feel how the ground grows harder to grasp when I glide to the market. My hands hover over the potatoes, the fish slips through my fingers. The cobblestone streets are silent when I walk them. I caress the earth. Six months go by and it’s time for the beach. Past the shrubs, down the hill to the water, I see them dancing. I weigh as much as a penny. There they are, hopping in circles. They turn when they see me approaching, and they jump higher in frenzy, their limbs quiver and they shake their arms. They invite me, saying they will show me how to work the wind currents.
There were no seats, so we stood arms touching arms and legs against legs. We filled the space until we were all perspiring and every time someone shifted or lifted an arm we caught the strong smell of anticipation. We licked our lips, sucked on rinds of oranges from our drinks, and passed messages among our neighbors. The yearly show was an attraction of some sort, mostly because by December the streets of our town had emptied, the shops were quiet and the beach gutted out. We missed the tourists and so we found ways to cheer our spirits. The large auditorium housed five hundred of our eager bodies. Its square windows were fogged and the stage took up one long wall. It was built with dark wooden slabs that shone from being freshly oiled. Resplendent. We waited. The lights flickered and dimmed. We didn’t hear them enter but we saw them, they looked just like us after all, with the same body parts, though they made no sounds. We heard the hum of wonder, the tensing of our shoulders, as the performers settled on stage like the first snow of winter. One of them, tall and thin, walked to the center, noiselessly clapped his hands and began. He took a thick canvas sheet, folded it in half and spread it out on the stage. He removed his sneakers and slid into the sheet as one does into a bed. His body, now hidden, wriggled. From under the sheet he sewed up the seam until he was tightly encased. We watched his legs kicking against the material, his chest thumping up and down with vigor, and then he stopped. Asphyxiation, a voice whispered in the crowd. They cleared the stage. A second one walked to the center. She looked like a young girl, perhaps ten or eleven, with hair tousled like feathers. She undressed until we saw her white body glinting under the stage lights, a peeled radish. Our tongues grew warm, we licked our lips, we waited. Her knees were pink and her stomach slightly rounded with a popped belly button. She pushed a ceramic bathtub to the front of the stage. We heard water sloshing up its sides. She stepped inside, her head disappeared below the edge, but there were no bubbles. We waited, she stayed under, until someone said: It was her mother who drowned her.
The show lasted two hours. There were new additions, new performers, and old timers as well. We yawned during the slow acts. One sat in his rocking chair without moving; another bent down on her knees and mimed placing her head in an oven. We applauded and wiped our sweaty brows. Our feet grew tired but we were glad to have witnessed another year. As the evening ended we filed out of the building and asked one another which ones had been our favorites, those that we would like to see again, but we did not speak of when we would also begin to perform.
Sanaë Lemoine was raised in France and Australia. She received a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania and is a graduate student in the School of Arts at Columbia. Sanaë teaches essay writing at Columbia and meets with writers in the Writing Center. You will often find Sanaë in her kitchen at work on her novel, cooking, and writing about food at www.petitriz.com.
Image credit: ciadefoto on Flickr