Thursday, October 8, 2009
It was unusually hot in the city made of golden stone, and the black polyester robe Elyse wore while meeting with her tutor held the heat. Yet Elyse didn’t shed the garment—called a sub fusque—because she knew that it hid the wet rings that stained the magenta silk around her arms. Sweat trickled down her spine, as she occasionally glanced at an empty hook—a hook that had held sub fusques since 1651, when the small priory was expanded into a college out side the medieval city walls. Beyond the hooks were maroon velvet drapes, pulled back with a cord. Peonies stood in a Chinese vase on the mantle in front of the uneven window panes that distorted the striped lawns outside. A sprinkler kicked on, spitting a carefully measured dose of water on a specific quadrant of the lawn. The glow of lavender hedges coming into bloom paused her focus on the tutorial of the moment.
Much to her surprise, that morning Elyse discovered she’d aced several exams on economics. There on the step of the exam school, tacked to the door, was her name with the fact that she had scored a First rather than a perfectly honorable Second. The news was followed by luncheon where the woman who sat to her right was pale faced over the news that she had scored a Third. There was no use in pride in that moment for Elyse felt no glee. Gloating over her success in the face of someone who had so obviously failed was nauseating, so she turned the conversation to dinosaurs, the bird-boned creatures found in Wyoming, simply to pass the time—to steal the poison of the hour.
Elyse had acquired her will to study only five years before. On the first day at the university it came over her like a spell—a force so strong she’d held herself captive for years with no idea that she would one day find herself on the other side of the Atlantic, inside a gilded college gate looking out, rather than as a tourist looking in. She studied for studies’ sake, filling all the hours of the day until she often found herself stupid with knowledge by bed time. But knowledge for what? She wondered where the spell would leave her when it lifted. The greasy state university back home—with its cracking infrastructure and perennial budget cuts—had been replaced by trimmed gardens framed by gothic courtyards. Door knobs were pleasant to touch in this place—there was no turning of knobs while holding a paper towel for fear of catching the latest virus. The doors so pleasant to open were five hundred years old and stood fifteen feet tall. Turn them, touch them and they will open, majestic on ancient hinges. The kegerator binge parties of home were replaced by well-mannered trips to pubs. When she came up for air from the library stacks, or from the Xeroxed papers and notes in shorthand from lectures—when she actually drew breath acknowledging the day and where she found herself, she knew that she had unwittingly joined the aristocracy of the plucky, despite the fact that her tutor, Professor Max, was calling her bluff, scaring her out of her own ideas. Her glasses slid down her nose as Tutor Max clipped on in his well-trained English.
"Yes, but what about Degas’ dancers?" he said, obviously detesting the paintings. "Why do you see them as commentary on the economic contributions of women? How could you possibly shape a thesis on that proposal? Frankly, I find your ideas a little fluffy."
"Fluffy?" she said. She cleared her throat. "Fluffy is big business. The paintings are about work," said Elyse. "They’re not decorative at all. Look at the exhaustion," she said tapping a museum catalog from the Louvre. "Look at how the girls sleep as they await their auditions, or call backs, or what have you. Look at the anxiety on their mother’s faces as they knit to pass the time."
"All affectation, in my opinion. They’re trite—a visual cliche, really."
"They seem that way, now. But Degas was recording the economic anxiety of their time. These dancers are working girls. Daughters of butchers and lorry men, not trust-fund cases. A place in the corps of the Paris Opera put money in the family pot—so these auditions were crucial—the future hinged on the outcome."
Professor Max raised an eyebrow, whipped off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose as though he were in pain. "I still don’t know that you can stretch this topic for a D Phil."
She paused. She was finishing an MA—a lesser degree. They were highly selective about whom they chose to stay on.
"D Phil?" she said. "This is an extra topic for the MA."
"That I’d like to have fit the D Phil. You really need to narrow down your topic as soon as possible. Carry on."
Elyse continued. "If dancers in Belle Epoch didn’t move on to find a place teaching or costuming after they were no longer useful for the stage, they often became prostitutes."
"What proof do you have?"
"It says so here."
"And what proof does Professor, yes, Professor Shackleton have?"
Elyse had trained herself not to shrug. Instead her eyes widened for a moment.
"See? I caught you up," he said smugly.
"Obviously these aren’t the daughters of today" said Elyse. None of them came from rich families, nor were they trained and coached like Olympic athletes. These are emotionally exhausted women."
"Girls," he corrected.
"Whatever, my point is, where do you think Mimi in La Bohem worked before she stayed up in her garret stitching flowers?"
Professor Max poured himself a glass of port.
"She was a flower, herself," said Elyse. "And then she was relegated to the margins."
"This is all hearsay," he said. "How do you make the assumption that art—over exposed art, at that—is going to reflect empirical statistics?"
She sighed. "You yourself said that our man Ruskin said we study a culture by the three things left behind: it’s literature, art and architecture."
"What about public record?"
"I’ll have to go to the Biblioteque National and start digging."
"Well, outline it, then" he said. "Make your point and back it up. I suppose we could send you abroad between terms. In the mean time, read Shackleton’s notes, check his sources and see if they sort out. Then draw your own conclusions." He downed his port then checked the clock.
"The devil is in the details," he said. Then he leaned forward as if he were a co-conspirator. "This time, spell check and proof the outline you bring back." he said, "You ought to have the basic understandings of the English language by the time you’re a D Phil candidate. In fact we almost let you go over the issue."
"Yes, I’m sure you are right," she said.
He nodded and she was dismissed.
The bells of Magdalen Tower had been ringing for over an hour by the time the tutorial ended. The official topic was the economic contributions of women during the Industrial Revolution. After decades of exhaustive statistics that focussed on the male condition, under the guise of the "human condition", women professors began to put a price tag on the work of women. Elyse picked up on the thread, choosing to focus on conditions in the Victorian age.
The ringing, the statistics, filled her head and reverberated like chanting. It had been an exhausting day. She swore that if she blinked she might find herself transported to Massachusetts where she’d find last year’s beater car parked somewhere in a darkened lot. On the side of the car, a vandal had spray painted the words: "Shake well before using." If she blinked she might be getting in, slamming a door filled with Bondo anti-rust compound, and driving home. But she didn’t blink, she walked on a gravel path with her Professor Max, barely able to keep his pace despite his seventy years. When she saw him ride off on his bicycle, Elyse wandered across High Street and then along mediaeval back streets to a meadow full of wandering cows. The river Isis was beyond, hidden from plain sight by rushes. When she climbed the arch of a bridge that led to the college boathouses she paused to look down at the river. It wound around the town like a giant, but docile, mud-black snake. Moving on she counted six boathouses until she found the house that wore her college crest like a crown. Two griffins sitting back to back, a ticket, really, that told her come on in, you belong—you tricked them into keeping you despite the fact that you can’t spell.
The boathouse, of all places, reminded her of her unexpected entitlement. In that house, clear of worldly clutter, Elyse was given the choice of any boat that she would like to row. She stashed her books and robe in an ancient shell then chose a single crew and walked it out to the dock. She plopped it in the water returned for two oars and then was stopped by a light breeze. A chill rose up her back where the sweat had streamed down her spine. The empty punts lined up along the dock looked like giant slippers.
"My Guru’s shoes," she muttered.
All the boats for her college were red. Red like the Guru’s robes and shoes. Elyse got in her boat and pushed away from the dock. Somewhere down the stream where the river grows narrow and loops back upon its self, Elyse heard the pluck and then drone of a sitar. It came from beyond the rushes where she could not see, and blended with the pealing of the ringing bells. She stopped paddling and let the stillness of the river push the crew. Who played the sitar, she wondered. Another student? Someone teaching an Eastern music seminar? A tourist or gypsy passing through? The collision of sound was magnificent.
Entitlement. Professor Max had an anticlimactic way to tell her that she would be moving on to a Doctorate. Yet a state of entitlement was where she found herself. The boat was so new in the water-carved riverbanks. Her clothing, altered, her mind transformed by inhaling the thoughts of others and corrupting them into something different but uniquely her own. If she blinked she could almost see herself walking barefoot on lawns that were meant only for Fellows. Sometimes she dreamt herself there—barefoot and transparent. Of all the subtle hierarchies, strangers walking on certain college lawns disturbed her the most because they were fertilized with the ashes of dead scholars—to find herself in forbidden territory made her wake with a start. To be a scholar was something that seemed out of reach. What she was doing, actually, was playing. There was nothing scholarly about any of it. It all was a form of yoga; the intense focus eventually setting her free. Yet how strange it was—she was on to a Doctorate even though she had dropped out of high school—skipping college in her formative years. She blinked at that moment sitting in her crew drifting on the river. The bells rang, the sitar was struck, and the memory of living in an Indian Ashram flooded her thoughts, sweeping her back in time.
What came to mind first was the incense. It was not an ordinary incense but a concoction mixed by the great Swami—the Master—or the Guru, because it was said that She and God lived in the same body as One. Elyse didn’t know if she could believe all the talk. What she did know was that she trembled when the Guru was nearby.
Like all objects the Master touched, the incense was heavenly. When burned it blew out the Ashram gates and drifted all over the world. Ashram means "without the fatigue of worldliness," and Elyse had fled there when she thought her life was ending. The gates of the Ashram opened up like arms, and the incense made her feel as though she’d come home. She’d close her eyes to the thin smoke wafting around her, feeling as though the Guru were personally holding her in her silk-wrapped arms.
Another pluck and drone of the sitar and Elyse completely forgot about the oars in her hands. She forgot about her books and robe. Firsts and Seconds dissolved, and the memory of Degas disappeared along with everything Max had said to her only an hour before. Instead, she set her eyes on the turquoise dome reflected in the water, and shuddered with delight as incense from somewhere else came wafting up the river.
Unburned, the incense, called dhoop, was a sticky resin that held together grains of rice, sacred grass, seeds, floral essences, tree bark, dried apricots, cow dung, gold leaf, mud of the Ganges, the dust from the Guru’s shoes, a certain granola from France, ashes from sacred fires, and other unknown ingredients. Once looking in a bin full of incense Elyse discovered a small tin clown—a Cracker Jack prize covered in the amber resin. Why a toy? A cheap toy? She wondered. Why not?
Where was the plucked instrument? How in the devil could the entirely unique scent of dhoop make its way past Folly Bridge? Elyse remembered how the smell made her a bit crazy. Where did it come from? Was it in last year’s fallen leaves, still holding to the rushes, the mud from the Isis, or in the particular smell of English mold, or maybe its cure—a chemical bought from a grocery store mixed with water and used to swab down the stone walkways of the college. As she pierced the surface of the water with an oar, a gust blew about her, returning her to the Ashram.
Elyse was young—she did not look twenty-five—but she was obviously too old to pass as a teen. This secretly infuriated her because she never thought that she would age. Dancers were supposed to be young, and Elyse who was the least talented of the very best, worked inordinately hard to appear fleet of foot and ageless. Her days were spent in the scrutiny of her own form in mirrored walls. But as she watched her feet spring through intricate allegros she failed to notice how something had set in her face. She'd grown hard while girls around her shone with a supple innocence she could no longer fake.
Elyse had always been mistaken for someone younger. The years of training had sculpted her body to appear as though she was at the beginning of adolescence. One night after she had gone to the Ashram to stay, the Guru called all the young girls forward. Elyse naturally followed and felt at ease as the collective sigh and hush of the crowd rose around her. The Guru had a present for them. After each girl bowed at the feet of the Master she was given a japa mala—a string of beads delicately linked with golden wires. The mala was used to still the chatter of the mind by counting the infinite names of Shiva. Elyse waited in anticipation. One girl got pearls, another a delicate string of tiger’s eye, yet another a string of rudraksha beads—beads that were called "the tears of Shiva" and grew on a rare tree in Nepal. All were so exquisite and Elyse glanced at her naked arms—hoping the Guru would clasp a mala of coral and pearls around her wrist. Yes. Coral and pearls, that’s the one she saw sitting next to the Guru, and that’s the one she decided she wanted.
She was the last of the young girls to bow, and when she sat up from her Guru’s feet in patient expectation, the Guru had nothing for her. All Elyse could do was get up and walk away hoping no one would catch the tears that were starting to spill down her face.
The next night when all the girls were called forward Elyse went first. She bowed and sat up. The Guru loomed before her, her legs tucked under a tent of red silk, her eyes great saucers, and her cheeks dimpled by an all-knowing grin. In the Guru’s hand was a wand of peacock feathers that she used to stroke Elyse in the face. For that eternal moment Elyse forgot why she was there—forgot all things she could possibly want. The Guru gave her a swat, a gentle reminder to move along. When she took her seat along the sidelines she noticed that all the younger girls who came after her were given saris in silk and brocade. The next day the girls were to be dressed up like dolls to participate in an elaborate puja. The puja was a ritual involving chanting and offerings to invoke the blessings of celestial and earthly deities.Instead, the next day Elyse sat on the temple floor with the older women. As the parade of young beauties offered camphor, dhoop, ghee, and flowers to the temple deity, it dawned on Elyse that she had become invisible. Her beauty had disappeared in the wake of fairer girls. Elyse closed her eyes and burned as if she’d swallowed a wasp’s nest. As it had become in the corps of the ballet, so it was in God’s house.
Though she wasn’t getting attention outwardly, in meditation she went places. She saw temples in her mind, and once saw the Goddess Laxshmi open up her hands and rain down pearls on the temple floor. The falling pearls spanked the white marble and ricocheted playfully before coming to rest by piling softly in her lap. Her head, she was certain, had been filled with gems. Opened right up from the top and filled like a well-placed rain barrel. Unstruck sounds reverberated through her head with melodies tapped out by the smooth cool of pink coral.
It was odd to see Laxshmi—for Laxshmi was the bestower of boons and wealth. Odd because whenever Elyse opened her eyes on the world, all she ever saw were the things she didn’t have. Closing her eyes was her only way to escape the absence.
The next evening in meditation she noticed that within her mind she was sitting on the surface of an ocean. Her legs were crossed, heels hooked on top of each knee, and for some reason this posture kept her from sinking. Strangely enough, her right knee did not ache, nor was there fire in the scar from the two-hundred stitches that zagged over the knee from surgery three years before. The sea where she floated was made of churned milk and was topped with cut diamonds. As Elyse drew breath the gems shushed beneath her as though cooled by the tide. In this place in her head, she saw herself scooping the diamonds beside her as though they were a gritty sand. Within the handfuls were pearls that melted into the milk when they were flung away again. Elyse knew that if she could fill her pockets from this place, she could catch a bus down to New York. Somewhere around Mid-town and Sixth she could sell them. If she only had the where-with-all to fill her pockets. Somehow, though, the grit of New York disappeared as small white caps broke around her. It wasn’t money that she wanted, not when she had landed in this place, into the ocean of Laxshmi’s milk.
The temple bell sounded. She awoke dazed and wandered out onto the moon-lit lawn. For the first time since she had arrived she was distracted from the chatter of beautiful girls with their variations of japa malas dangling from their hands. Elyse wandered away to find the Master sitting perfectly still in a courtyard, clad in a robe the color of a poppy. The moment Elyse approached, the Master’s gaze pierced something within her causing her to drop on her knees and bow. For what seemed like an evening, people came and went around her, until at last, common sense told Elyse to move off her bad knee. When she sat up she overheard the Master saying "There will be boons—misfortune always hides a boon."
Everyday Elyse wanted to escape into the sea of milk within her mind and stay there, but what she needed to do was try to make sense of her life. What was Laxshmi doing in her head when her contract was up and career over? She was ashamed. The ballet company had let her go. Fifteen years of training, fifteen years of anticipation and longing, and all she had to show for it was two seasons in the corps, and an injury fatal to her career.
Elyse’s last performance was with the company corps on a stage floating on an Ashram lake. It was a mystery who booked the performance. It might have seemed like another stop, just another gig amongst many. But Elyse chose to stay behind to separate herself from the other dancers. Retirement for Elyse meant going solo without ever dancing solo. Thankfully, her last performance was an adagio with nothing quick to jar her knees or refracture her feet. She sighed. She felt pretty good, but not good enough to leap.
The dance company used up jumpers and turned them out broken. For that final time on stage she stepped into the turn sequence and spun dervish like—one quick flourish that gathered applause—five revolutions in a pique turn before sticking it in time to the orchestral big-bang ending. Her super turn was as close to a solo as she ever got. Applause erupted from the thousands of devotees sitting on the lakeside hill. The clapping became a thunder, then rhythm that turned into spontaneous chanting. Tears rolled down Elyse’s face. There were no curtains to close that would hide them, just the wide open sky full of stars above.
Elyse could no longer bear the auditions, the competitive classes that turned into contests. She was obsolete at twenty five and unable to out jump the upstarts that flooded the city every summer. After that last performance she knew that she’d cry all night, so she arranged to stay behind while everyone else got back on the bus for New York City. What stung the most was that while her contract was left un-renewed, three of her peers had been plucked from the corps to become soloists in the next season. There was no way that she could get on the bus with her merry peers. The rehearsal director took pleasure in these moments when the corps was divided into the chosen and the rejected. How could she possibly ride on the bus, her throat in her mouth? Shake well before using, she thought.
Arranging a stay in the Ashram was a bit like checking into a hotel. She got in line with a bus-load of devotees who had just arrived from Israel. She paid for a two-day stay and then watched as her former peers got on the bus—those with the resources to have been coached like Olympic athletes—those who had been surgically altered to enhance their beauty. Melinda with her size three micro waist and pelvis like a spoon, promoted to soloist for her loveliness alone. Behind the outrageously happy came the six other corps members who had been let go. Quietly they brought up the rear and filed to the back of the bus. Watching the clipped and groomed—those born with the biological lottery of the right bone structure and weight—Elyse realized that it had been a no-contest all along.
"Goodbye my life," she said as the bus drove away.
Rather than going to the dormitory where all the single women slept in what was formerly a ballroom, she stayed up all night, sitting quietly in a flower garden. When the sky lightened and birds began their racket, she heard the drums and bells of the temple, calling early risers to prayer. She followed the sound, forgetting the night before, and before she knew it she had walked into the vigorous Ashram schedule without a second thought.
Two days passed and she was back in line at the accommodation desk arranging to stay for a week. And two days after that she was wondering how she could stay longer. She calculated her money: She had six hundred and twenty dollars, and a sublet apartment in New York that she could give up. She shared the "loft" with its brown carpets and three front windows looking over Sixth Avenue with four other people. It was called a loft because it had once been an open floor that had been sub divided by sheet-rock, two-by-fours, and office dividers that had been pulled from a dumpster on a Madison Avenue loading dock. The loft now consisted of four living cubicles. Between the two sets of cubes was a very dark living room, a kitchenette, and a cubicle bathroom. At the front of the loft was one window, where parked a manic roommate who was always pounding on a Smith Corona typewriter.
It wasn’t like she actually lived in the loft, it was more like she camped there between gigs. In February she came home from the road to find someone’s cousin’s drunken friend in her bed. He was passed out and snoring away at two in the afternoon. A plugged-in amplifier and two Fender guitars took up most of the floor. She camped on the sofa and left again long before the guest roused and rejoined the living. In April she came home to a silver Great Dane stretched out on her side of the bed and a rather dirty Jack Russell terrier curled up on the pillow. In its mouth was a green tennis ball, wet with spit. It growled when she set down her suitcase. By the moans coming from the cubicle that looked over Sixth Avenue—the only room to actually have a door—Elyse guessed that the dogs belonged to a mysterious non-roommate. She woke the Dane and pushed him so that his legs flipped over the side of the bed leaving him in an upright position. Ushering them out of her space, she knew full well that her room, bed, pillow and curtain used for a door, was rented with the agreement that an occasional squatter would be welcome so long as she was on the road. She smugly got into a bed that smelled of wet dog and closed her eyes. But the dogs were not easily evicted—as she drifted off to sleep they quietly parted the curtains and crept back up on the bed. When she awoke the next morning she rolled over to find the terrier sharing her pillow, the ball still clamped in its mouth.
Why call that cubicle home, she asked herself. Why go back at all when she was bound to find someone in her bed. And why return if going there would remind her that she had no company dance class to attend? Oh, she could go up town and take an open class at the New York City Ballet, but she would be out fifteen dollars, every time. She’d also be out with her pride—company class was always mandatory. How could she pay for something she had formerly been paid to do? Why go anywhere at all when she could stay in the Ashram and chase after the Guru who was able to bestow the gift of forgetfulness?
Elyse sublet her sublet over the phone, filed for unemployment, wrote out her rent check to stay in the Ashram, and commenced to try and forget the last ten years.
But she couldn’t really. Something had changed and she was beginning to stew. In this enchanted place of clipped gardens and iridescent tiles her beauty quit working. It used to be that she’d walk into a room and all attention would shift her way. Though she took what she thought of as her rightful place among the fresh and unscathed, along side those with new breasts and barely the curves of widening hips, she always found herself separated or left behind the group. Then came the night she was given a seva assignment. Seva means "selfless service" and anyone who stayed would be given a job that would take up a full work-day. Once again, Elyse stood in line with all the other young girls. One girl with thick dark curls became the Guru’s assistant; another with a blond braid like a rope down her back would take away all the gifts the devotees brought to the Guru. A girl from India with thick eyelashes would iron saris and linens, and shine the silver like a house girl. And still another would type the Guru’s letters, while her twin sister would go to the temple to polish the marble steps in front of the statue of the Guru’s Guru’s Guru. Elyse stood in anticipation wondering where she would be sent.
"So!’ said the Guru. "Do you like animals?"
"I love them!" Elyse blurted. She didn’t know why she’d said it, except she remembered pulling a fat green tick off of the terrier back in April.
"Do you like horses?"
"I used to ride," she said, recalling the fall of seventh grade when she went riding every Sunday afternoon for a month.
"Then you shall be perfect to work in the cow shed." The Guru swatted her with the wand of peacock feathers in the direction of a new supervisor.
What was I thinking? she asked herself. Why did I ever admit that I had once rode a horse and was capable of holding a rake? Her first morning in the small barn was spent shoveling manure into wheel barrels that were then taken away. No sooner had one been filled when another would appear. After a week of shoveling cow flops by day, and dressing up like a Hindu goddess at night, Elyse began to burn with jealousy. All around her were young girls and women who were so beautiful and vibrant. It was as though the Guru held them in her hands, shined them up and let them out into the world where they did well no matter where they landed. They were so unabashedly gay. Though Elyse got gussied up every night, she seemed to be ignored. Once she committed to stay, her power to enchant lost all potency. Without a mirror in the cowshed to remind her of who she was, she felt like the sun was malingering behind a cloud.
Every fresh face she saw reminded Elyse of her mother’s nagging voice. "Have a back up plan, don’t drop out of school, what? Did you hit your head? Why don’t you become a beautician, a medical x-ray technician, an assistant mortician. But Elyse would have none of it. She was to be what she willed for as long as she willed it. Yet there she was—suddenly just past being young—only to discover that without her beauty to distinguish her, she had nothing.
She burned as she admitted it to herself that her mother might have been right. She had no safety net and she had fallen. She saw the last stop on the train of her life coming, and all that awaited her was a job in her mother’s gift shop, HAFTA HAVIT. With each cow flop she shoveled she saw herself living south of Boston, in her formally rural town that had been re-zoned into a series of strip malls. From such a shop she’d soon be selling collectibles. Regular cutie pies with big eyes, Lladro figurines from Spain—Cinderellas scrubbing away but with necks so long they were destined to get the guy, or become a soloist, or a model with a Carte Blanche credit card to Barney’s in New York. Elyse winced as she imagined herself forced to sell the Cadillac of all figures—Hummel! She wouldn’t be selling them, really, but helping the indecisive and gainfully unemployed as they auditioned them for their collections. The job also came with the role of facilitator for the Hummel Club, a monthly meeting for serious collectors who came from as far away as Utica, NY, and Naperville, Illinois; a job that also required a careful scrutiny of inventory before and after the meeting because someone in the club—her mother hated to admit—had sticky fingers. Dastardly! For who could possibly dare to steal the Accordion Boy? For lunch Elyse would soon be eating humble pie, and at closing time she’d count the take from the perpetually bored who confessed they’d wanted to be dancers, just like her, or poets, or florists, or movie stars.
Last stop, Elyse. Yet there she was in the Shangra La of the Ashram surrounded by girls who would go on to good schools and excellent careers. Girls who would eclipse her just as the girls in the corps de ballet eclipsed her. She never thought her dancing days would be over; how could they? how dare they when she worked so hard, she asked with the repetitions of the mantra.
Training had been easy. Her legs stretched and she could touch her shins to her ears. She had a back that allowed her to fold in half. Before her injury she could jump as though she were meant to dance in the sky. Turning was easy. Music? She mistook herself for sound. Elyse was so proud she’d dance and show off for anyone who would watch. She’d injured herself when she was trying to catch the attention of the artistic director outside the studio. A constantly perturbed man with a beautiful vision, he couldn’t even remember her name, and he didn’t care when she slipped on spilled water, fell, tore her ACL and shattered her kneecap.
"Where now?" she asked the sacrificial fire outside the temple. She lit a candle. She watched the people around her. They looked as though they had their heart’s desire, as though everything came as a bonus. Cars, homes, jobs that didn’t feel like slavery. They had husbands and wives and kids in the best schools, they went on cruises through paradise on spring break and still they arrived every June to bow at the Guru’s feet.
She sighed and looked down at the hem of her skirt. Fashion dictated all women should wear eyelet that summer, and she felt lucky to have scored a white petit coat on a 7th Avenue sidewalk jumble sale for only a dollar. A dollar! When she stood up straight—holding her shoulders just so—so her collarbones made a perfect top of a T to her frame—she resembled Giselle—the statue of Degas’ Giselle—the heroine of her favorite ballet. At that moment an ash landed above the hemline of eyelet. She jumped up to brush it away, but it was too late—an unmendable hole was burned. Elyse then noticed that her singed eyelet was actually dingy with wear. The piece of cloth had turned a slight shade of grey. In fact, everything was mud and shit and grey. The Guru must have noticed. Shortly after her internship in the cowshed began, Elyse was mysteriously reassigned to the schoolhouse, where she was asked to sit amongst all the ten-year-olds living in the Ashram.
It wasn’t long before Elyse realized the children were as lost as she was. Fifteen years of training out of a twenty-five year life had robbed Elyse of growing up. She’d never really played hopscotch; she worked out jump patterns. Technically she was an assistant, but really she was there as a pupil in disguise. Together, Elyse and the children were subject to the will of Delphine Fussencouch—a Ph.D. candidate not exactly thrilled to be teaching ten-year-olds. Not this summer when so much would be at stake come fall when her dissertation was due for review. Elyse had to be careful not to misbehave because Miss Fussencouch—Dr. Fussencouch to be—was full of Ivy League expectations, and took herself very seriously.
"Sit down!" said Miss Fussencouch. "I said SIT DOWN right now!" Yet all the little boys—now spring loaded from sitting all morning, listening to the drone of the stories of the Maha Barata—continued to run in circles, wielding plastic swords.
"Who’s a good sitter?" Elyse finally said. For some reason the pack of wild boys liked her, so they all swirled like leaves in a tempest, that, finally losing their fury, came to rest around her, holding their feet so their soles touched, and their knees bobbed like butterflies.
"Oh squacketty do, squacketty do," said a sullen and dreamy girl. Her hair was limp and hung as long as her chin. When washed—she looked like her name: Belle, a pretty Belle who Elyse thought should be photographed because at any moment she would change completely and forever. Going to school some morning with a rough and tumble persona only to re-emerge as a beauty in the late afternoon. It happened all the time. When Elyse mentioned this to Belle’s father—a nature photographer by trade—he replied that it would be egotistical to focus on Belle as she looked. Belle, like everyone else was not her body, but a spirit living inside the suit of her soul.
Suit of her soul? What a load of crap, Elyse thought. But actually, Elyse felt like she had been boxed in the nose. What was the point of this Belle having a picture of herself to remember these days? The girl wasn’t particularly happy. In fact, Elyse discovered that she and Belle had something in common. Neither of them liked Miss Fussencouch very much. It started when Miss Fussencouch insisted that she be called Miss Fussencouch at all times. She pointed this out to Elyse in front of the class. Miss Fussencouch was practicing to be a professor someday, not an educator. A professor was light years ahead of an educator in social rank, which meant she was NEVER to be addressed as Delphine, her first true name.
"Pssst." said Belle, as they sat on the floor in close proximity while watching a slide show on the Hindu goddess, Durga.
"What?" said Elyse, risking expulsion for quietly responding out of turn.
"Durga, the goddess of motherhood and protection, rides a magnificent tiger," said Miss Fussencouch, shining a laser-beam pointer at the projection screen.
"Should we address the Goddess as Mrs. Durga?" Belle whispered. "Do you think there’s a Mr. Durga?"
"Would Belle like to share with the class?"
Put on the spot, Belle was speechless and embarrassed for a moment. Then she piped up "Whoa to the moron who messes with Durga’s children," she said.
"Correct," said Miss Fussencouch who turned away from the class to resume her collegiate lecture.
"Miss Fussencouch is a pricklepuss," Belle whispered.
All over the Ashram was a public announcement system that broadcast chanting from the temple. In quieter moments, the chanting wafted its way into the schoolhouse windows. Whenever a set of visiting Brahman priests set up a puja in the temple, a rather fat and unmanageable boy would go to the center of the schoolhouse classroom, stand on his head and chant: "Oh what a goose I am, oh what a goose I am." He had uncanny rhythm and balance, as though he practiced yoga well and often despite his bulging belly. Elyse had no idea what his real name was. He had a Norse name that was garbled into the word "Grub"—a nickname that didn’t seem to bother him in the least. When he stood on his head, which was as often as possible, Grub’s belly popped out over the elastic of his shorts. His favorite top—now a size too small—rode up over his middle. On the tee shirt was a large drawing of a mosquito with the slogan "Minnesota State Bird". His socks were no longer white, but grey, well seasoned after the third day of wear.
As the summer ripened, Grub and Belle came to prefer collecting salamanders in the woods to sitting in the classroom. Soon their bond became a business venture, for it was Grub who would lead Belle’s father to the gems in nature that surrounded the Ashram. Elyse occasionally saw the three of them—the two children bolting ahead while the wild haired photographer, equipment in tow, trailed several paces behind. And Grub, ever the lover of the great out doors, had to be watched at all times during thunderstorms. On one particular morning, Grub dashed outside with the first roll of thunder, and stood under the trees looking up at the sky.
"YOU! You get inside here this instant!" cried Miss Fussencouch.
"I prefer to be with nature," Grub said.
"Go get him," Miss Fussencouch ordered. Just then, lightening struck the tree above Grub, encasing the world in a flash of diamond green.
"I think not," said Elyse. She looked outside, it started to pour.
"Must you always be insubordinate?"
"Are you serious?" said Elyse.
"I have a lesson to complete." Miss Fussencouch bristled, enjoying the social hierarchy that enabled her to demand someone else to do something dangerous or dirty. "Listen, if this were a true school situation, I would have you written up for insubordination."
"Must you always talk like you shit dictionaries?" said Elyse, terrified of lightening and not sure what the insubordination meant.
"OH!" said Delphine. "We have got to talk! I don’t care if the Guru said to let him go, he’s always so disruptive when he returns, I’d rather he not come back at all. If this were a real university, he would not be tolerated."
Yet Grub always tried so hard with his re entry, Elyse noted. He had something to show for his time away. Snails or frogs. Grub darted into the woods singing "shoulda-coulda-woulda shoulda-coulda-woulda, as thunder rumbled and the rain spanked the leaves. He’d dashed away so many times, the Guru advised the teachers in the schoolhouse to let the boy go. Yes, they let him go off into the wilderness, and being as nature made him a good eater, he always came back in time for lunch. On the morning of the storm he returned just as everyone had settled for the ten minutes of meditation required of all preteens before they were dismissed.
"Hey everyone," he said. His voice was like flipping on a light switch. "I have raided a nest full of salamanders. There’s one or two for everyone. Hurry, my pockets are full of them and they are tickling me."
Meditation and class was over. The children found the salamanders sublime—orange with pink spots—tiny writhing lizards by the handful, a perfect subject for Belle’s father when he came to get her.
Then came the day when he arrived late for a talk about the Lord Shiva. It was a particularly hot afternoon, one in which there were rumors floating around that the Guru was going to pay a visit to the school to listen to one of Delphine Fussencouch’s lectures. Grub moved gently and came in the back door as a slide projector flashed different images of Shiva—Shiva dancing—the Nataraj—Shiva in meditation, snakes draped around his neck. Shiva with Uma on his left—trident in hand, snakes coiled up on his head as a turban. Shiva with the river Ganges sprouting out of his head. What everyone failed to notice was that dangling around Grub’s neck was a giant bull snake that hung limply like a jump rope. It was so still that it could have been mistaken for a pretend snake one buys at a hardware store in order to scare mice in a barn. As Delphine Fussencouch continued her lesson, oblivious to Grub’s guest, the boy stretched out his arm in wonder, allowing the reptile to gradually waken and slide off and onto the floor. It was a beautiful creature—dull black and dry and warm on its back where the sun had touched it. So quiet except for the occasional flicking of the tongue, and the place where its sides flexed with its breathing. The snake had been sleeping in the midday sun across the hood of a pick up truck. It had been lulled into a hot meditative silence. When Elyse put her hand down, she brushed against it. She thought it was the arm of a child. But then it wrapped around her wrist. Elyse screamed. An arm does not become a circle and then jolt forward five feet long. Everyone else screamed and stared in disbelief as the snake suddenly slipped through a gap in the floorboards and disappeared.
All except Belle who cried, "Oh you caught her! Good job, Grub!"
"OUT" cried Miss Fussencouch as though it were Elyse who brought in the snake.
"What did I do?" said Elyse.
"OUT! How can I teach when you are the cause of constant interruption?"
"Me? I should think you’d be happy to have me here as your warden."
"Warden? The Guru brought me here to practice teaching."
"Well," said Elyse, trying not to insult Delphine Fussencouch’s sensibilities. "Somehow I think your material might not match the needs of fourth graders."
"You constantly undermine me."
"You think I don’t see that smirk on your face? Don’t you know Ashram children are special? They’re gifted and talented." Delphine Fussencouch peered through the crack in the floor where the snake exited. The schoolhouse, slated for demolition, had no basement and actually sat up off the ground on low stilts. Elyse was relieved to see sunlight through the floorboards.
"How will I ever get tenure?" Muttered Miss Fussencouch. "It’s unfair that the Guru sends me here and then gives me you as an assistant."
"Life’s usually unfair," said Elyse, parroting a line she’d often heard her mother say.
"OUT" Miss Fussencouch repeated. "And take your two troublemakers with you." She pointed to Belle and Grub who suddenly looked very small. "You are fired!"
Elyse felt her chin wiggle, a symptom of impending tears. "You can’t fire me. Only the Guru can fire me, or the Seva department.
"OUT" she said pointing to the picnic table in the middle of the yard. She shoved a book in Elyse’s hands. "Take this and read it and make them memorize a stanza."
Miss Fussencouch rolled her eyes which sufficed to say—you idiot didn’t you learn anything in school? "A stanza is a four line paragraph."
Elyse looked at the Bhagavad Gita, and then the treeless yard. "In the direct sun? But it’s blazing."
"I don’t care. These kids—AND YOU—have to learn how to endure your karma."
"Fine" said Elyse. "FINE! But let me offer you some advice before I go, Delphine: I’m sure a McDonalds somewhere would be glad to hire you. They are always looking for managers. People with people skills." Elyse turned on her heal then and fled before Delphine Fussencouch could think of something to say.
"Well said!" said Grub when they were out of earshot. "You sure told her off."
A tear ran down Elyse’s face, which she brushed away quickly so the children did not see it.
"You know what I think?" said Belle sitting on a picnic table in the unforgivable brightness. "I think Miss Fussencouch is a fucker."
Elyse sat down, put her elbows on the table and her head in her hands, and looked at the two ostracized children. For a moment they were quiet. The children sat glumly as though they expected Elyse to scold them like everyone else.
"Yes," agreed Grub. "A fucker."*"It’s hot," said Belle. "A FUCKity fuck fuck fucker."
"Enough, you guys, you shouldn’t swear," said Elyse.*"Even if she is?" said Belle.
"A Fucker?" said Grub. He scratched his side with a finger that had been God-knows-where. "Bummer," he said. "I have been trying to catch that old girl for a week now. She sleeps under the bungalow where we’re staying. And there old Miss Fussencouch had to go scare her half to death. Now I’ll never get her back, and how will she get back home to her nest of babies?"
"A snake, Grub, you brought a snake into the classroom. What were you thinking?"
"Don’t you ever listen?" said Grub. "I was trying to imagine what it would be like to be Shiva. Not only is the guy blue, but he always has a snake for a necklace."
"Or a hat," said Belle.
" I just wanted to see if Miss Fussencouch could tell I take her seriously."
"But you didn’t have to bring a snake in the school!" said Elyse.
"Well it’s not like it was a loaded gun."
"I would never bring a loaded gun. Besides I am pretty sure it’s not a poisonous snake."
"You scared the crap out of me," said Elyse.
"Me too," said Belle. "I thought it was rubber."
Elyse shaded her eyes and looked at her two charges. "Just what am I doing being punished for something I didn’t do?"
Belle and Grub shrugged up and down, embarrassed.
"Off we go," said Elyse, pointing to where swings hung in the distant shade, several paces from the cowshed where she first worked when she arrived. "Quickly, before we are found out." Quietly they crept past the front window of the schoolhouse, in plain sight of Miss Fussencouch who was absorbed in her lesson, or who was scolding someone else, they really couldn’t tell.
"I’m hungry," said Belle when they made it to the swings. A cicada above them began to rub its legs together noisily harmonizing with the chanting Brahman priests.
"Or-eee-o, Or-EEE-o!" the boy sang in unison.
"Or-eee-o, Or-EEE-o!" Elyse chimed in.
"Or-eee-o, Or-EEE-o!" They chanted for better part of an hour, rising and falling on the swings, pretending to be the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz.
It became dizzying, like endless poems that made little sense. The heat rising off the grass made Elyse long to nap, to dream, to imagine a life washed clean.
They forgot themselves and sang so loud that the Guru who, unbeknownst to them, was visiting in the cow shed came out. She gazed at them, then passed swiftly. Elyse, high on her swing felt a dizzying wave of surprise when she saw the Guru’s red robe flash in her sight. Then she noticed that the Guru carried an old boot under her arm. One of the very same boots Elyse had worn while mucking out the cowshed. Elyse wondered what happened to the other boot. She felt a pang of longing. If only she could wear the boots now, maybe her feet would take her in the right direction.
Elyse, Belle and Grub dug their heels in the gravel and came to a stop. They were suddenly quiet, as were the cicadas.
"Play on," said the Guru, "play on."
But Elyse couldn’t because much to her astonishment the Guru headed to the schoolhouse door and knocked. Out came the perturbable Miss Fussencouch, who immediately changed her demeanor. The Guru silently handed Delphine Fussencouch the boot, and left as quickly as she came, and Delphine Fussencouch, who stood in the door bewildered, held the boot and watched the Guru go.
The children, sitting in their swings, stayed silent for some time until at last, Belle began to fidget.
"My problem," announced Belle, once the cicadas resumed their song, "is I don’t like reading. It is such a bore."
"I am going to learn when I am ten," said Grub. "My mom’s a child psychologist and she says making kids learn before they are in Former Operational Thought puts pressure on them." He said this as though the statement were a pre-recorded voice over. "I’d like to wait until I am twenty. Of course it’s a real problem when your friends insist on discussing The Hobbit and all you can do is say you saw the movie which is nothing like the book from what I am told; I mean how could it? The book is as fat as a brick."
"My brother was a Hobbit Head," Elyse said. He read that book three times the summer after sixth grade. God he was smart. And me? I'm barely able to read street signs."
"Not true," said Grub. I see how you pay attention to Miss Fussencouch. You must be doing good in college."
"College?" said Elyse, who was surprised. "I dropped out of high school at sixteen in order to dance professionally."
"So?" said Grub.
"So I have two more years of high school left before I could even consider college."
"You do? You could have fooled me," said Grub "Well I mean if you were in college you’d be a brainstorm being as you are certainly in Former Operational Thought and can think about abstract things with ease."
"Oh shut up," said Belle.
"As you can tell, Belle is a child."
Belle punched him. "You know there are more interesting things to do."
"To tell the truth," said Grub, "as soon as I learn to read I’m going to renounce it because my job when I grow up will have little to do with books."
"Oh really," said Elyse, "What are you going to be?"
"An entomologist. A bug expert," said Grub. "I’m going to keep bees, and I am going to perform autopsies on decomposed bodies."
"Gross," said Belle.
"I will know how long a person’s been dead by how fat the bugs eating him are. None of that involves much reading. Seems to me it involves measuring and looking things up."
"And writing things down," said Belle.
"Piece of cake," said Grub.
"If it makes you happy," said Elyse.
"You know what I like about you?" said Belle, who turned to look Elyse over from top to bottom. "You’re not trying to make us something we’re not."
"Yeah, that’s it," said Grub. "I knew there was something about you I liked. I like bugs and that’s okay with you. Too bad we can’t get married some day."
"Why’s that?" said Elyse.
"My mother would never approve of someone much older than me."
Elyse nodded. "That sounds sensible, but why would you want to marry me?"
"Everyone jokes that no one will want me so I anticipate it will be a problem," said Grub. "I think I’ll marry the first person who does not mind my interests. You don’t seem to care so I think you’d be a good choice," he said. "Will you keep me in mind someday when you are shopping around for a husband?"
"I will indeed, Grub," said Elyse. "You’re the first person who has ever proposed to me."
Delphine Fussencouch got the foot. Not a stranger to the idea that symbols often say more than words, when she received the Guru’s boot, caked with dried mud she took it as a sure sign that it was time to leave. She had remained in the stasis of "All But Done" or "All but Dissertation" for over a year, wavering on the brink of being dropped as a doctoral candidate. What she needed most was to quit shouting at ten-year-olds, and just go write her ideas down.
But booted right out with barely a peep or hint that it was coming! Life in the Ashram was like that. Life was like that. One day you’re going to your seva and the next thing you know you are dismissed. Lessons over. Time to go. Pack it up and plan to leave in a week or four days. The same is true with jobs or careers or dancers or fruit. They have shelf life and are programmed to end whether one can accept it or not.
Elyse found Delphine Fussencouch crying silently in the schoolroom when she went back after dark to retrieve a sweatshirt she had left behind when she had been expelled. Delphine Fussencouch had expected to be alone when Elyse caught her.
"Are you all right?" said Elyse.
"Not this very second. Please go. No stay. What should I do next?"
Elyse was surprised that Delphine would ask her for advice considering their mutual contempt.
"I guess get on with my life," said Elyse.
"But that’s the thing, I’ve been stalling. I was hoping to not write a dissertation."
"Don’t you have some moldy university to go back to?"
"My time there is up, too. They wouldn’t renew my teacher’s assistance until I wrote something that put me on the track to graduation."
"So what’s your problem?" said Elyse.
"I don’t know," sniffed Delphine. "What I do have is a father who is eager to have me take over the family mortuary."
Elyse suppressed a smile. "Would you rather have my job? I’ll be selling figurines in my mother’s store in Massachusetts."
"Of course not!" snapped Delphine. "I thought you were going back to the ballet. Some place extraordinary"
Elyse wondered what to say. "I’ve retired."
"I wish I could say I was retired from something."
"You wouldn’t if you were," said Elyse, who didn’t want to talk about it.
"All this time I thought you were some sort of dance goddess, marking time before dashing off to your next fantastic season."
"Would I really still be here if I had that in front of me?"
"Why wouldn’t you be?" said Delphine.
Elyse looked at Delphine and wondered if she would ever become less acidic. It was painful to be near her, for she instinctively knew what small thing to say in order for the other person to close up and turn away. Yet this astringency didn’t prevent Elyse from talking—from reaching out.
"To tell the truth, I don’t know where I am headed, either. I wish I had a dissertation to finish—anything that put me on the road to somewhere."
Delphine nodded. "What would you do if you could do anything?"
Elyse sat back and smelled the distant sea in the air. "I guess I’d get to be the person who carried the knowledge for a little while."
"Then you should ask the Guru to make you wise."
"It’s a long way to go," said Elyse, pondering the fact that in complete exhaustion from over training, she had dropped out high school to prevent them from failing her in all her classes. All those incompletes and red Fs now required explaining, though at the time she had good enough cause, having been cast in Sheherazad.
"So maybe you’re a fallow field waiting to be turned over," said Delphine.
"Maybe I’ll just ask for a slice of the moon," said Elyse.
"You might consider being less sarcastic when someone compliments you," said Delphine. "I mean, how can you be open to receiving anything when you act like a jerk all the time?"
Me a jerk? Elyse wondered if Delphine was projecting and decided to say nothing.
"I mean, you get this vacant look on your face, are you so out of it that you don’t know what the Guru does? Don’t look dumb, now, it doesn’t become you. She’s the boatman."
"Okay?" said Elyse.
The Guru’s shoes, the very dust itself is the boat in which we ride."
Delphine picked up the pink boot. A clod of dirt broke off. "Fool," she said. "The thing is we don’t always see it that way, do we?" She handed Elyse the dirt. "Here, a treasure."
"How would I ever begin, though?" said Elsye.
"By putting one foot ahead of the other and seeing where you go," said Delphine.
Elyse forgot about the Guru’s other boot. Forgot everything about wishes and dreams as she wrapped up in an emerald sari that kept her dancers’ legs closed. All was forgotten as she made her way towards the guru in a long line that was five-people wide—all of whom bore gifts and money for unfulfilled wishes. Her heart pounded wildly, and the perfumed oil she wore released its scent with the heat that rose off her chest. It was all rather delicious. She closed her eyes as she bowed before the Guru letting the wand of peacock feathers stroke her back. When she finally sat up, opening her eyes the world looked to be a shade of watery blue. In the Guru’s lap sat the other pink boot. Ancient, its patent leather—once so gloriously shiny that it drew eyes in the streets of London—was now cracking. The pink boot was caked with dried mud. The Guru said nothing as she handed it to Elyse.
"You’re giving me the other boot?" she said in astonishment. "Does that mean it’s time for me to leave?"
"In a few days," said the Guru who swatted her face as if to wipe it clean.
For some reason, Elyse got up half-ecstatic and half-sad, because sad, after all, was what she knew how to be most.
Elyse and Delphine’s last day on the Ashram coincided. That afternoon Elyse was given the task of herding the children to the out-door pavilion to see their Guru. She was supposed to take them there and leave, not to go in and sit with the Guru, which is what she really wanted. There would be no opportunity to express all the things Elyse longed to say. The children baa-baa-ed in electric excitement as Elyse coaxed them to sit at the feet of the Guru, who as usual, looked like a poppy.
Elyse couldn’t help herself. She gawked. The Guru was dressed in shades so vibrant—her hair was so jet black—that it seemed like she was plugged in. Or that she had got hold of and kept lightening bolts in her pocket. The children lit up in front of her. As she watched them transform, Elyse spied a box of toys beside the Guru. She was suddenly filled with envy. She wanted an action figure with a space pistol, a purse full of make up, a stuffed animal—maybe the cute little badger—no—the unicorn—so beautiful pure and white. Elyse bit her lip. She wanted a toy—she wanted a bracelet—some token to remind her of the willies she got whenever the Guru passed by. Anything to remind her that sometime a boon was to follow her disaster.
The last of the bleating children passed by her, but she was so absorbed looking at the toys she hardly noticed Delphine Fussencouch.
"You have to go now," said Professor Delphine Fussencouch to be. "This is really only for the children." Delphine’s form filled the door, blocking Elyse’s view of the Guru. Elyse’s heart broke as Delphine, the almost friend, became Miss Fussencouch, a woman with a brilliant future. Miss Fussencouch closed the gate to shut Elyse out and turned away taking her place amongst the children, a haughty smile on her face. Though shoed off, Elyse quietly came back and peered through the lattice that framed the door, just in time to see the children collect their toys.
The toys were regular—having cost only about five dollars each. They were equal all except for one extraordinary doll. The doll was huge and obviously very expensive. It wore an embroidered apron, and under it poked eyelet so fresh it puffed out like a carnation. The doll had a tiny back-pack full of even tinier books, and green eyes that closed when she was laid down. Over its shoulders was a magenta cloak trimmed in white fur, and on its feet were silver skates. The more Elyse looked at the doll, the more it seemed to grow in detail. That morning, the doll had been brought to the Ashram and given to the Guru by a famous movie star, and now all the girls gawked in fascination as they walked by it. They lingered, paying more attention to the object than to the Guru. None of them dare touch it, it was so fancy.
Except for Belle who sat on her heels, halfway back in the room. Her mouth hung slack as she watched. She didn’t rush up to collect her toy. She seemed bored. After awhile her foot started jiggling, and she began looking around, wondering when it would be time to leave.The Guru stopped time. She motioned Belle forward. Belle crawled up on her hands and knees. Elyse couldn’t hear what they were saying, but she saw the Guru’s eyes loom wide as they talked. Belle was shruggy of shoulder, dispassionate, but then became attentive. Elyse watched as the sullen girl began to shine before the master. Seeing this erased Elyse’s doubts about the Guru. Some kind of alchemy was going on, the Guru shining people when they weren’t looking. Maybe, thought Elyse. Maybe someday when I least expect it I’ll shine.
The Guru was holding both the magnificent doll and Belle at the same time. Even so, Belle started to slip away. She began to bow, but the master set her up right and plopped the doll into the girl’s arms. Belle’s face lit up seeing its perfection, then she offered it back. The Guru leaned forward in her chair and then pressed the doll into Belle’s arms for keeps. Belle’s eyes were full of astonishment. She then bowed and got up to walk away, her mouth an O of surprise.
The other girls clicked their tongues jealously. Elyse could hear them muttering to each other how they deserved the doll more than Belle. But where did the Guru place the doll but in the arms of what seemed like the least worthy girl.
Belle turned to look back. The master shone, and Belle dropped down on her knees hugging her doll. Her slim body seemed to fold around the doll as the girl touched her forehead to the floor, for the first time placing her heart over her head.
Elyse wasn’t sure when the bells of Magdalen Tower stopped ringing. Maybe it was when another crew passed by, its oars piercing the reflection on the surface of the water. The blue dome shimmered and danced as the other boat slid by. There were ripples of blue and ripples of green and somewhere above in space the Guru was conducting the Universe, thought Elyse. Her spell had been broken. How glad she was she’d not been mistaken for a child. How odd it was that her scholar’s hood, trimmed in ermine, resembled the cape on that doll she saw briefly once long ago. Dreaming spires, thought Elyse. She began to paddle again, her hands stiff around the oars. In that town of colleges was the slice of moon. On that very day, Elyse wanted to drop down on her knees as if she’d been the one given the doll. Drop down on her knees in surprise as she skillfully rowed back to the dock.
"There will be boons" Elyse remembered the Guru saying. "Misfortune always hides a boon."