THE WALTZ AND THE LEOPARD
YES, the long summer evenings when the sky was turning from pale blue and rose-pink to mauve twilight, then to darker and darker blue until it was all black velvety and brilliant stars, when I listened to adults talking in a soft breath mingling with the breeze, yes, they have gone: no more time for them.
“Gabrielle, vous avez oublié votre châle et vous allez prendre froid” (“Gabrielle, you have forgotten your shawl and you will get cold”) – that was the daily complaining, whining, persuading, loud voice from my Grand-Father’s from the lighted open window of the sitting room. A shrug, half impatient and half affectionate, from my Grand-Mother, sat, erect, in a rattan armchair in the blue garden. Her daughter, my Mother, poised by her side, hands lightly folded in her lap. Her daughters-in-law reclining in the deck chairs left from the afternoon siesta and reading time. Her sons and sons-in-law wandering in the alleys, black shadows over the other black shadows of the trees, the shrubs, speaking in distant voices broken by a sudden laugh. Children upstairs in the nursery, hair damp from a late bath and the heat of the night. Curtains flapping lazily in a lazier warm breeze. The creak of my Grand-Mother’s twin chair when my Grand-Father sat, after carefully putting her shawl upon his wife’s shoulders, giving theirs to her sisters so that they would not feel forgotten in his quiet attentions – Constance, the rigid widow and Iris, the unmarried scholar.
“Squirrel?”, would say my Father, “isn’t your bedtime passed and gone a long time ago?” A sigh from me. “One more minute for Sixtine”, would plead my Great-Aunt Iris. I would smile in the dark. I loved adult talk. The music of calm voices, sotto voce, the half tamed garden and its odour of cut grass and exhausted flowers, the infinite sky over us.
“Why are you writing about the Romans?”
“I do not write about all Romans, child. Only those who lived in the second century of our era.”
“Then, why these particular ones?”
Another smile – or what I guessed was a smile – in the night.
“Because we are like them.”
“I am not a Roman.”
“We, here, in this garden, are all Romans. Or brothers of these Romans.”
“We can’t. That was too long ago.”
Another smile again. A whiff of sharp scent from the stream down the garden and the croaking of frogs in the pond nearby. A moment of silence and the twinkling trickle of the fountain in the pool. The little girl’s head growing heavier and heavier on Grand-Father’s knee.
“Squirrel, it is time to go to bed.”
* * *
A knock on the door.
“Aunt Iris? Grand-Mother says tea is ready if you want some.”
“Thank you, child. Only a minute.”
“Come in, dear. And shut the door behind you.”
Silence. The room is sheltered from the heat by the half closed shutters of plain white wood. There a ray of sunshine and dust entering through a chunk of wood that has gone. Grand-Father will see to this and have it mended when all guests have departed and before he and Grand-Mother go back to Paris.
The little girl rocks as silently as possible from one foot to the other, looks around her, and starts shuffling, still silently, across the room. Aunt Iris makes bedrooms look like studies. There are stacks of books almost everywhere. Books open on the bed, on chairs, books on the floor, neatly, squarely towering, notebooks and loose sheets of paper, pens of different colours, pencils in a jar on the desk, and a lovely vase with three cream roses which scent is powerful in the closed space and the warmth.
It always is a treat to be admitted in what seems to the little girl a sanctuary. She only hears the scratch of pen on paper and from time to time a sigh as if Aunt Iris needed to breathe more deeply. She is allowed to sit down on the floor and to pick up any book she wishes if she puts it back where she has found it, and to amuse herself with it. These are history books but she always finds something easier to read that she has to search as Aunt Iris takes pity on her and hides books for her among hers. She is to be a regular visitor and a welcome guest. Aunt Iris writes, the little girl reads. Everything within reach. Things she does not understand but Aunt Iris always stops a minute from her work and of gives an explanation. Then she goes back to her writing and the little girl to her reading.
“Who are the Romans you are writing about?”
“Why did you say they were our brothers or that we were all Romans?”
The hand stops sliding smoothly over the sheet of paper and there is a tiny fragment of silence during which a bee buzzes outside the window. Aunt Iris cups her cheek in her hand, her head a little on side like a bird’s. A sigh. A look round the room, affectionate, loving and full of regret as if a door was going to be shut upon it and she would never see it again. The other hand caresses softly the petals of one cream rose. There is a vague smile of nostalgia and melancholy. The little girl waits while the fragment of silence grows, sharpens like a shard of glass, brittle, until it breaks into a third sigh.
“The Antonines were a dynasty of Roman Emperors from the years nineties until the years one hundred and nineties, almost, two hundreds. You know Marcus Aurelius, don’t you?”
The little girl has seen his book on the shelves of the library downstairs and on Daddy’s bedside table. She nods silently.
“He was one of them, the most well-known perhaps, although Hadrian is known through Marguerite Yourcenar’s apocryphal memoirs.”
Aunt Iris’s look is locked on the flowers. The little girl does not understand everything but knows that she has to try and remember, not to interrupt but to keep questions and queries for later.
“The Antonines had understood that they had reached a perfect pitch of culture and civilisation. As one day you know in the marrow of your bones that you have reached the perfect days of summer and the perfect days of your life. They knew that all that had happened before them was but a sketch but that the Barbarians were at the boundaries of the Empire, like storm and rain threaten the most perfect summer day. They were living in precarious balance. Future was needed although dangerous and ugly. They tried to retain the balance as long as they could. But the end was there, more or less near.
We are like them, child. Our world is slowly dying. You will see it crash down and you will help create another one. At least, I hope you will. It is only for your grand-parents, Aunt Constance and me to cling to rags.”
The little girl does understand even less this dying of worlds and this clinging to rags. Which rags? And why would the world she lives in die? It looks like hard and strong under her feet and like reassuring and comfortable walls around her.
“You will have to move on in order to keep things as they are, child.”
The little girl is entirely lost. First the world will collapse and she is in danger of losing Grand-Mother and Grand-Father and Aunt Constance and Aunt Iris who will cling to rags. She hopes Daddy and Mummy will still be with her and not left behind. Nothing has been said about them. She doesn’t know if this is to reassure her that they have not been mentioned or if they truly will stay safe with her. She shall have to create another world but she doesn’t know which, what and how. Will she be alone in it? She will also have to move on. However in moving on, she will keep things as they are. Then there is a chance we shall remain all together as we are now – a family with three or four generations at least. All this does not fit.
The little girl lowers her head, look at the polished floor and trail her fingers over it. She tries to think as hard as she can to understand. Do all these Romans set an example for people to come after them? Can’t anybody escape from them and from what seems a curse they have set on the people who follow? The floor is warm and smells of wax. She hears the shouts of her brothers and her cousins playing in the garden. They are like a flight of birds, going here and there and always falling back as a pack in a nook of shrubs or besides the stream.
Aunt Iris is calmly twisting back the cap of her fountain pen. The little girl shivers in the ray of sun that has reached her and she would like nothing better than to lie down on the warm floor, roll on her side with her knees up to her chin and shut her eyes so hard that she would see golden flicks behinds her eyelids and red hot light.
“Do not worry, child. It all will come to pass and you will not notice – even forgive what your foolish Aunt told you this afternoon. Come. Your Grand-Mother is waiting. Another day, I will tell you the story of this Chinese Emperor who would know the colour of polished stones in a bowl with his eyes blindfolded.”
* * *
The shuffle of feet and rattle of chairs against raw wood. By the window, downstairs, the “quad” that was a cloister before the building was turned into a school – high school and preparatory classes. The end of a lecture. Above the bubble of noise, the not-quite-so-young professor says distinctly not to forget the essay about the vision and revision of history for next week and please to use as ground basis the text he has put for us to take on the corner of his desk.
Squeaks and grunts and grumbles. Out, out, out of here and in the corridors and down the stairs and out in the hall and out under the vault and the great big doors and the street and the rain, sharp as spears. Water mirrors on the sidewalk. Light reflected on them. No, thank you, no coffee for me. I have to go home. Yes, I shall ring you up later. My bus on the other side of the narrow street, close to the church wall. It is already night. The window is cool, almost cold against my cheek. I close my eyes. Tired.
A handful of seconds later, I look at the paper taken on the not-so-quite-young professor’s desk, still clutched in my hand. “How History can be reinterpreted by the vision of the conservative historian.” A sigh of relief. Nothing to do with “revision of History”. Nothing to do with World War Two and the extermination of Jews. This has become a politically correct academic topic – too fashionable and too sensitive for me. No. This is to deal with Roman Emperors. Roman Emperors? I read more. This is part of the text upon which Aunt Iris was working that summer. Eyes closed. I hear her voice, soft and quiet in the buzzing, lazy afternoon.
“They knew that the Barbarians were at the boundaries of the Empire, like storm and rain threaten the most perfect summer day. They were living in precarious balance. Future was needed although dangerous and ugly. They tried to retain the balance as long as they could. But the end was there, more or less near. ”
The red light behind my closed eyelids then and the darts of golden light. The smooth waxed floor, warm under me. The Antonines and I. We have had a special relationship together since that day.
“You will have to move on in order to keep things as they are, child.”
This is not in the text. Has she ever written it or was it muttered to herself? Or was it a warning to me? There is a waltz slowly swinging in my mind. I am not able to distinguish the sounds clearly. The Antonines waltz. And monkeys jumping on sofas. Marble everywhere and plush and heavy velvet and scent and hothouse flowers like wax. Lilies. A white dress. The shadow of cypresses. Tired faces covered in dust in a church, all in a row. A pew. Alluring licked red lips.
I take off my raincoat in the hall. The flat is warm but I feel too hot. There are muted noises in the sitting room. Mother comes out in a halo of soft light.
“Tired, Squirrel? You are all blush. Let me feel your brow.”
Mother’s cool hand on my forehead and my cheeks. A small furrow between her brows.
“You’d better go to bed, dear. You seem feverish. I guess a bad cold is coming upon you. And all this stress for an exam! You are still too young for this. Go to bed, dear, you are shivering. I shall bring you ‘a dish of tea’, right?”
My head is heavy on the pillow. I drink thirstily the cup of tea and lie down again. Head heavier and heavier. I listen to the far-off melody of the waltz and I float to its chords in the white dress. I don’t like the dress but I have been told to wear it. It does not belong to me. It belongs to the girl with the glossy black hair and red licked lips over there. I would rather be with the monkeys. Or would I really?
I would like to stop and watch. Watch the lovely dark girl in her white dress waltzing and the tired but excited monkeys jumping and shouting. I do not want to be part of this. I would like to roll on my side with my knees up to my chin and shut my eyes so hard that I would see golden flicks behinds my eyelids and red hot light and hear the twinkling trickle of the fountain in the pool. I would retreat in the shadows with the other shadows: my friends, the Antonine Emperors and my grand-parents, Aunt Constance and Aunt Iris. Is Mother there as well? And Father? I back slowly towards an empty room but Aunt Iris is here.
“You have to move on in order to keep things as they are, child.”
But I am so tired. So tired. Things will move by themselves. There is nothing I can do to make them change their course. They are as swift as a stream and no dam can stop or slow the stream.
“The Barbarians may be curbed, child. Go along with them. Go on dancing with them and nothing will change. Or not much. Look at the Leopard.”
The pillow is fresh under my cheek when I move it a little on one side. The Leopard is dancing with the glossy dark girl who wears the same white dress as mine. She smiles. She smiles at me. I smile back. It hurts a little. I trip and miss a step but my dancer is holding me tight. I find a new balance.
The Antonine Emperors smile. Aunt Iris smiles.
Yes, all is a question of balance. And the new one, now that I have found the right steps again, is almost the same as the previous one. It is but another breath of sweetness and softness.
Yet, another breath. Another breath. Another…