Whenever Manon awoke from dreams in which she still played for l’Orchèstre Symphonique de Montréal, the feel of the cello lingered between her knees, and the whitecaps of her life—the echoing arcs of before, during, and after the accident—came crashing in her thoughts once more. The instrument remained with her throughout the day like a phantom limb. It was still pressed against her during her solitary breakfast when, among a stack of bills on the counter, she opened a letter from the town of Matane. She knew that part of the Lower St. Lawrence well, having vacationed there as a child. She imagined the smell of the sea imbuing the envelope.
She pulled out a note written in decisive penmanship that explained the drawings accompanying the letter. In one drawing, three stick figures stood on a hill of white. Two tall women, with aggressive fingers pointing in all directions like the branches of brambles, flanked a little girl dressed in a red snowsuit, with tears in her eyes, great big drops of blue as big as the women’s ski boots.
In another drawing, a multitude of misshapen hearts floated around the words Je t’aime.
Manon had received several other letters like this one, but she hadn’t replied to the little girl. She’d shut out so many people from her life and lost interest in so many things already. She’d become difficult, even refusing to wear the brace she’d received from the hospital. What was the point of wearing it if it couldn’t cure her handicap?
She ricocheted instead through a series of daily appointments and self-selected tasks: read for one hour, walk outside if the weather allows, cross the street to the dépanneur to buy little Vachon cakes, meet with the physical therapist or the psychologist—or, better yet, the psychic—or the social worker. In Manon’s own words when speaking to her therapists, she’d been assigned a ‘government-issued’ social worker to help with her request for unemployment. The worker, Catherine—she could never remember her last name: Lévesque or Lavallée or Larivière—told her she should at least try to teach music.
Whatever chores Manon performed, the clinicians’ prognosis rang clear in her ears, words that thrummed her disappointment: she would never play again. It had been months since the surgery and she couldn’t accept her fate.
* * *
Months before at Mont-Tremblant, in the queue to the chairlift, Manon had listened to a mother pushing her daughter ahead. “Marie-Soleil, grouille-toi!” she’d said, her hand on the little girl’s back. The girl had been wearing a red snowsuit and she appeared a glossy tomato gliding along a white plate. She skittered her feet back and forth and made little progress. She was learning to ski without the aid of poles. The mother turned to Manon and said, “Scuse ben,” and, fearing she might be an American or an Anglophone from a neighboring province, mouthed a loud exaggeration of words: “So sorry! My daughter is new.”
“Y’a pas de quoi,” said Manon. She helped the mother by scooting on the other side of Marie-Soleil, and together they pushed the girl into the mouth of the lift cabin. At once, they sat in the chair, which scooped them up with an accelerating sweep, and the mother pulled down the bar over their thighs. Manon and the mother arranged their poles while Marie-Soleil wiggled her bottom between the women. She took off her insulated mitten and handed it to her mother so she could wipe her nose with the back of her hand.
The mother said, “Véronique Turcotte. On vient de Matane.”
“There are places to ski around Matane,” Manon said in French.
“Val-Neigette, oui,” she waved Marie-Soleil’s mitten as though swatting a fly, “but it’s not the same as this.”
“Manon Tremblay.” She held out her hand.
Marie-Soleil whimpered. She dangled her short skis and the chairlift shook. “What if I can’t get off? What if I fall?”
“It’s her first time here.”
Marie-Soleil said, “At Val-Neigette, you put a stick between your legs and it pulls you up the bunny slope.” She had the earnestness of a five-year-old facing certain death. Her brown eyes stared at Manon with rabbity fear. Her body reminded Manon of her cousin Amélie at that age, yet Marie-Soleil exuded warmth and charisma when Amélie had been cold and calculating.
Manon tried to soothe the girl. “Voyons donc, Marie-Soleil, ta maman et moi, we’re going to hold you and you’ll be sandwiched between the two of us when we get off. You’ll just ski along. I promise, it’ll be all right in the end.”
The women talked of nothing: of the weather, gray and cold over the Laurentian Mountains, of Montreal and Matane, of their careers. Véronique worked in finance, one of those jobs she described as eternal bureaucracy. She took interest in Manon’s status as a cellist.
“Wow,” she said, “une musicienne comme ça! T’es quelqu’un, toi.”
You are somebody.
The chair climbed up the mountain and slowed, dipping before a hollow of snow where those who had already gotten off the lift assembled to wait for friends or adjust their goggles or position their poles. Marie-Soleil put on her mittens and pawed at her face with those great lobster-claw puffs. She said she was afraid of the teenagers sitting in a semi-circle, their snowboards a short wall toward which they would careen. When the time came to disembark, the red heft of Marie-Soleil squirmed and fell forward. Manon reached out to catch her, slipping an arm around her waist. The girl was solid and heavy, a soup can tipped forward, and she took down Manon with her. Véronique, holding her daughter’s hand, toppled over them.
Manon heard the fracture of her ulna and screamed.
* * *
Mont-Tremblant. The irony of that name, the trembling mountain, in addition to her common last name, Tremblay, foreshadowed that accidental moment of losing her abilities. Her bones mended but her tendons did not. Halting movements accompanied by a staccato of pain replaced the dexterity of years of practice. When she tried to hold her bow, her hand shook, and music became a series of scratching sounds on the strings.
Now here she was, Manon Tremblay, sitting on a hard chair in the corridor of a dusty school for the performing arts in Westmount, on the Anglophone end of the island of Montreal, awaiting her turn, a folder of papers in her lap. She closed the brief on the boy with whom she would be auditioning. She’d met him once before, seated like this in a different yet identical hallway, and they’d played a game of listing all the peculiar things they loved to varying degrees of strangeness. He’d confessed to liking the smell of strangers, while she revealed that she loved to lie.
She wiped her palms on her pencil skirt. She could wear fitted clothing that entrapped her legs now, though she found no comfort in this newfound freedom. Heat gathered at her collar, her long hair blanketing her body. She should have tied the strands in a knot, the way she used to when she played in the orchestra.
A woman in a tweed blazer, neither unkind nor enthusiastic, greeted and led Manon through a maze of turns to the auditorium. They passed the door to a swimming pool, and Manon heard the squeals of children within. The smell of chlorine assailed her. “The students are swimming?”
“We rent out the pool on weekends. We had an athletic program, but no more. There’s no money for the arts now, and the budget is even worse for athletics,” said the woman. On the opposite end of the long hall, she opened double doors, and they walked down a narrow aisle separating rows of folding seats covered in burgundy velvet.
At the evaluators’ table, three figures sat without moving. They would not smile at Manon. The man in the middle held her resume to his face, as though he needed the illumination of paper to understand why she was auditioning for this job.
“Manon Tremblay? Of the OSM?”
He said, “Why are you applying to this secondary school? The money is…” He did not continue.
“I would like to teach.” Her French accent was unforgiving.
“Someone like you could do better.”
She thought, “I am nobody now and nobody wants me.” She said instead, “It has always been my dream to teach children music.”
She was afraid they’d dismiss her. They’d say they couldn’t afford her, though it was she who couldn’t afford not to work. She’d been turned down elsewhere already. This was her second interview with this school, and she faced the impossible task of turning pages of sheet music written in a cypher she couldn’t read. What stories she’d told the committee to charm them! She’d once heard that to lie convincingly, she should practice by telling a story backward, as though life were a trail on which she could walk in any direction, but she thought of her stories as waves, and she modeled their variations to the ebb and flow of her desires. She’d managed to convince her interviewers that, along with her parents, she’d learned Braille as a child to teach a younger sibling who was born blind.
She hoped the languor of music would transport her through portals of knowledge and offer her the instincts necessary to accomplish miracles. She inhaled deeply to fill her lungs with what bravery she could muster, and she turned to face the stage, where Christophe, the teenaged boy she’d met previously, shifted on a long bench, a keyboard before him. Un clavier. She’d expected the enormity of a grand piano, its keys yellowed with age. She could not hide behind a keyboard, and they would see her falter.
She approached him. Christophe Michel was thirteen years old. She’d read his brief fully. He was born in Haiti, near the capital, and in 2013 during an explosion in the center of Marché Hyppolite, his body was thrown some distance against the wall of a building. He’d been walking to school, just five years old. His family immigrated to Montreal soon after. Now he stared ahead and waited for her instructions.
“Christophe,” she said. “C’est Manon. Tu te souviens?” Do you remember? She placed her hand on his shoulder. “J’ai un peu peur, tu sais.” I’m a little afraid. She wanted to say something profound and moving so he would come to her aid, but she opted for truth. “I need your help. I know it’s you who’s playing, but it’s me they’re judging.” She remembered what he’d said about strangers and she told him she liked the scent of his shampoo, which reminded her of green apples. She regretted that detail, the mention of the apple’s color.
He smiled and told her she smelled of vanilla mixed with the warmth of a winter fire. Her hair, which fell to her waist, brushed him. He touched the strands, and so she put his hand on her wrist and let him trace the scars of her surgery.
He asked, “Does it hurt?”
She whispered so only he could hear, “I need this job and I’d like to teach you. I’ve been lonely without the music.”
With a curt movement of his head, he let her know he understood.
She hesitated and said, “I have a secret: I lied about the sheet music. I can’t read it. And I don’t understand the experiment. When you play, you’re not reading the partition with your finger. So why this page-turning?”
“Sometimes I need to find my way through the music and there’s a pause, so you’d put my hand in the right place, but this piece I know by heart. Assieds-toi, tout près.” Sit closer. He added in French, “Turn your body so they won’t see us.” He traced a treble clef on her thigh. “Manon-la-vanille.”
“Perfumes have notes and accords, like music,” she said. “J’aime l’odeur des instruments. Et l’odeur des pages de partition.”
“Moi aussi,” said Christophe. “Et j’aime l’odeur du chlore.” I love the smell of chlorine. He whispered, “Regarde mon pied.” Watch my foot.
“When you’re ready, Christophe!” yelled the evaluator.
“One moment!” he yelled back. He said to Manon so only she could hear, “There’s something I want. I’ll cover for you and you’ll get the job, but you have to promise to help me.” He told her what he most desired from any teacher at this school. For practical reasons, he’d been denied his request every time.
“If they find out, I’ll never get the job or they’ll fire me before I can even begin.”
“They won’t.” He waited. “Promise me,” he said.
Instead of annoyance, a familiar happiness overtook her. Her heart beat faster just thinking of it. “When?”
“They’ll invite you again to meet the other students and teachers in two weeks, on the day of Open House. Come one hour early and meet me on this stage. I don’t have big enough shorts and I can’t ask my parents or they’ll know I’m up to something.”
“I’ll take care of it. C’est promis.”
“On commence!” announced Christophe to the evaluators, who shook their heads at his sudden use of French.
How strict and proper those Anglos always are, thought Manon.
Christophe splayed his hands on the keyboard and exhaled. He played Gabriel Fauré as if guided by the stars of the nocturnes, and she wanted to close her eyes and join him in the music; to feel the sound of his notes filling the air in concert with the remaining sharpness of the swimming pool; to value the talent of this boy beside her who conjured the purest adagio from such a terrible instrument. He played so well, she believed she sat next to the great Evelyne Crochet.
Manon’s index finger traced the sheet music, too quickly or not quickly enough, she didn’t know. She could not decipher the raised dots on the paper. They lined before her in full mystery, and she wondered at the boy’s tenacity, the hours spent reading notes followed by the accompanying transposition to the keys.
If she passed this audition, she would learn Braille because her fingertips could still feel. She would learn a new language for a boy like Christophe, a boy who could play to the rhythm of an old auditorium’s fragrant mustiness and the notes of her perfume. Christophe tapped his foot on top of hers while he continued to play. She understood he’d given her the signal to turn the page.
* * *
The previous fall, just before Manon’s accident, the director of l’Orchèstre Symphonique de Montréal had commissioned new advertisements for the upcoming season and the musicians arrived early for the photo shoot. There was talk of making classical music sexier and more accessible to the public. Manon watched, unfazed, as Gilles Nadeau, who vied for Manon’s position as first chair and principal cellist, volunteered to unbutton his shirt. His bleached teeth dazzled, just as his permanent tan enchanted both the men and women with whom he slept. Manon rarely listened to his stories of sexual conquest and, to punish her, he’d tried to convince the other cellists that she was nothing more than a diva.
The photographer ignored Gilles and asked Manon to move her cello to center stage. She ordered a stylist to undo Manon’s hair, and she begged her to play Saint-Saëns’s Swan because she was a fan of Yo-Yo Ma’s rendition and she wanted to hear her version. Swaying from side to side and then stopping as though she’d found something at last, the photographer positioned the umbrella lights so their reflection fell on the length of Manon’s body.
When Manon played, the swath of her hair draped the side of her cello. The musicians, gathering to the side of the stage, watched her transformation. The director clapped his hands and moaned while bending his knees like a child, “Oui, oui, oui! C’est parfait, Manon. C’est parfait!”
That photograph of Manon—her face and body half-bathed in light, arms bent to receive the world—graced billboards all around Montreal. She was suspended above l’autoroute Décarie; among terrible ads for sex shops and La Ronde amusement park and the casino; on Boulevard Taschereau in Longueil and Brossard; on the outside wall of Places des Arts; and in metro station after metro station, where, when the compartments moved at terrifying speeds, she became nothing more than a blur.
* * *
At the department store, Manon rode the escalators with her bad hand trembling on the black rubber handrail that advanced upward to the floor above. She thought of the chairlift and being with Véronique and Marie-Soleil. Sunlight pierced the clouds, casting a momentary, yet scintillating, glow on the snow. Marie-Soleil chanted, “C’est tout brillant, partout, partout.” The sun had disappeared when the chair slowed its ascent.
Manon perused rows of books until she found a manual for learning Braille. After buying the book and another titled Pedagogical Practices for the Effective Teaching of Disabled Children, she rode two more escalators to reach the top floor. She asked a salesperson where she could find clothes for teenagers. The woman told her to round the corner where a mannequin wearing a Hawaiian party shirt stood guard. Manon saw him, his arms bent against his chest, his head turned to the side. He surveyed women’s vacation clothing across the aisle like a neighbor peering over his fence in a beer commercial. He seemed almost human and in a state of perpetual fulfillment. She envied his detachment from the world.
Two older women, short and round and wearing felt hats atop their heads, walked behind Manon. One said of the mannequin, “Y’a une tête de Gino celui-là.” He looks like a Gino, that one. They moved on to the vacation racks.
Manon said aloud, “Y’a une tête de Gilles.” She looked about her, combing her long hair away from her face with her fingers. The two women, some distance away, slid hangers on a circular rack, which squeaked with every push of too-large blouses. They were arguing with each other about each item’s size and color and suitability to Fort Lauderdale’s climate. “Doux Seigneur, Thérèse!” one of the women said in supplicant exasperation, and Manon smiled to herself. She took three steps forward. The mannequin’s feet were screwed to a plinth. She couldn’t resist reaching for his hand. No one saw her pull at his wrist, where the hinge popped out as easily as quartering Barbie dolls of their movable limbs.
Manon put the hand in her purse. If she second-guessed herself, she would run out the store and throw the hand in the nearest bin, afraid to be caught stealing something of such questionable value. Would they make her pay for the entire mannequin? For a replacement hand? Would a judge punish her for the nightmares that Thérèse and her companion would claim to have when they were interviewed by police as witnesses who had actually seen nothing at all? Manon felt alive and exhilarated at the prospect of either being apprehended or being invisible, a heroine taking home a perfect man’s stolen hand.
Once among racks of boys’ clothing, she inspected fabrics and patterns. She wanted the right shorts for Christophe, even if he couldn’t see himself wearing them. She slid her own set of hangers, repeating the couic-couic of metal on metal other customers made. It sounded to her like the tuning of strange instruments, but the scent in the air was altogether different than in the spaces of auditoriums. She smelled something artificial and manufactured she supposed pleased buyers.
There on the rack, in a glorious hue of flamingo pink and striped in teal and orange, was the thing she’d rode two metro lines in the dead of winter to find. She took the hanger to the register and, when the cashier asked if she was making a purchase for her son, Manon said yes while being careful to push the mannequin’s hand to the bottom of her purse when she extracted her wallet.
Someone tapped her shoulder. “C’est vous, la dame sur toutes les affiches?” Are you the woman on all the posters?
Manon recognized the two women from before, women who had enough imagination to name mannequins. She liked them for being capable of invention. “Oui,” she said. She’d begun to tell strangers who stopped her during long walks in her neighborhood that her twin had been separated from her at birth in a freakish hospital mishap, swapped with another child who’d been raised as her sister, and that she was the woman on the posters. Haven’t you seen the story in the papers? My twin is quite famous. She plays the cello like a dream.
One of the two women produced a cellphone from her purse and asked if she could take a picture with Manon.
“Bon sang, Thérèse!” said Lucette to Manon, “Ça vous dérange pas, Mademoiselle?” You don’t mind, Miss?
“Non, bien sûr.”
The cashier gave Manon her bag and offered to take the photo. The three women smiled.
Manon went home to her apartment and put the mannequin’s hand on the counter next to Marie-Soleil’s drawings. She lifted the pages, smelled the waxy odor of crayons and phantom sea breezes from Matane. On the refrigerator, she placed the drawings, held by magnets in the shape of semiquavers.
She tore paper from a ledger and retrieved a pen from a catchall drawer. She put on her brace to hold her wrist while she sat at the counter, pushing the plastic hand with the tip of her pen. It was like a congenial friend or a toy animal—a crab or an octopus—or a volleyball on a deserted island to keep her company. Manon wrote the date in the right-hand corner and she addressed her letter with the words,
Ma belle Marie-Soleil,
Je te remercis fortement pour tes bon voeux. …
She named the hand Gillou. When she went walking, she stuffed Gillou in her large coat pocket, holding it in her own hand, fingers pressed like forks in a utensil drawer. She put the hand next to her when she watched television and read books on her living room couch, where afternoon rays warmed her through icy windowpanes. She carried him from room to room and she thought of buying him a leash, yet she didn’t want to scar him the way her own hand had been scarred, so she carried him everywhere instead.
Once, she opened the large case of her cello. The case had gathered a thin film of dust, which she wiped off with the help of Gillou, a polishing cloth balled in his palm. She traced the white horsehair of her bow and pinched the strings on the cello’s neck. She liked to hear the little plinking sound, alive and wanting.
She perched Gillou on the lip of her kitchen sink when she washed dishes. Before bed, she lay the hand on her nightstand where, in its palm, she placed her earrings. While he was there beside her, fingers straight but curled at their tips like a cup begging to receive alms, she no longer dreamed of playing in the symphony as she did before. She believed the hand was a dreamcatcher. She’d had Gillou with her only two weeks, but already he’d inspired her to give to her physical therapy sessions the dedication she’d previously denied them. She considered calling friends to ask them over, even the musicians with whom she no longer played.
* * *
In a dream made from her memories, Manon, five years old, wearing a purple bathing suit covered with stars, sat in a slight channel of seawater, hitting hills of sand with a red plastic shovel. She was surrounded by a set of excavation tools. She raked and ploughed furrows through which rivulets sluiced down to the hole she’d dug so deep that water seeped up and filled the bottom. She could put her legs in the hole and she’d halfway disappear.
She fished for silver minnows swimming in schools near the shoreline. She’d caught seven, using her hands to scoop them out. She liked the tickling of their little fishtails and the way the sun refracted on their bodies like tinfoil. She carried them in her orange pail to her hole, where she hoped they would go about their business so she could observe them. Her cousin Amélie stood above her with her fists on her hips, chubby legs splayed. She was knock-kneed and her potbelly stretched out her Strawberry Shortcake swimsuit.
“C’est quoi ça?” she asked. She was just three months older than Manon, yet already six and not still five, so she thought herself the manager of whatever enterprise Manon undertook. “They’re going to die,” she said in French. She reached down to eddy the water. The fish darted away from her hand.
“They’re not,” said Manon, hoping to dismiss her. She despised Amélie, who was already so much taller and bigger than she was.
“Oh, they are. They can’t live in sand.”
“I’m taking them home and putting them in a bowl.” Manon had already named two of the minnows: Justin had a nick near its eye and Caroline was marked with a spot of black by its fin.
Amélie stomped her foot too close to the opening and sand fell in a landslide on the minnows. Enraged, Manon grabbed Amélie’s leg and bit her calf. She was quick and efficient, leaving two red arcs of teeth prints on her cousin, who howled and ran off to her mother.
“Manon! Ma petite malcommode!” yelled her aunt Lynne from her beach chair. She got up and ran to Manon, who looked at her with a quizzical expression. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
Manon feigned innocence and repaired Amélie’s damage by cementing the wall with wet sand and tapping it into place with her shovel. “Quoi?”
“You bit Amélie.”
“I didn’t. It was the dog.”
“What dog? There are no dogs here.” Tante Lynne pointed to the leg of Amélie, who sobbed. “Those aren’t fang marks. They’re your teeth.”
Snot collected under Amélie’s nose and her mother pinched her nostrils and wiped her fingers in the sand. Amélie pointed at Manon. She was crying and hiccupping and coughing all at once, and her face was red and wet. “C’est elle, la menteuse!”
“I know, mon amour. There’s a special place for achalantes like Manon. Oui, les petites menteuses seront toujours des petites perdantes.” Little liars will always be little losers.
Manon thought to herself that she would accomplish great things and become somebody even if Tante Lynne didn’t believe it. Tante Lynne was such a cow anyway. Une vraie vache, she’d heard her mother say after they’d had an argument on the phone.
Both Tante Lynne and Amélie left her to go summon Manon’s mother, who’d fallen asleep on her beach towel some hours before. Manon stomped off toward the waves. The sun was setting and there was a pretty glow on the sea. Shells and sea urchins littered the beach and among them she saw a dead jellyfish. It danced with the motion of the waves. She found a piece of driftwood and pulled the jellyfish ashore. She loved its translucence tinged with pink. She poked it a few times and it wobbled.
Manon’s mother approached her and said, “You’ll have to say sorry.”
Manon wanted to lie to her about the dog, yet she loved her mother, so she told the truth.
Her mother stroked her hair and asked her to make amends. “It’s time for supper,” she said. “Come. I’ve brought sandwiches and potato salad and cubes of jello.”
“What color of jello?” asked Manon. When her mother told her cherry red, she was disappointed.
They ate on the beach from a cooler filled with ice. The two girls faced each other. Every so often, Amélie would mewl and complain about the throbbing in her leg. Manon ignored her and asked for more jello. She took the bowl of cubes, which had begun to lose their shape, and walked over to her hole. The water was so murky from the landslide that she could no longer see Justin or Caroline or the other minnow she hadn’t named. With her bowl still in hand, she lifted her shovel and went to inspect the jellyfish. She prodded the mound to find the right place to carve out a small piece. She tried to cut a perfect square and she put it in her bowl. She returned to the hole and waited.
Amélie arrived, as Manon planned, her fists on her hips. “I told you they’d die.”
“You did.” She turned her body so Amélie wouldn’t see the jello.
“Extra jello. My mother didn’t tell you, but there was cream soda jello with the cherry jello. She just didn’t want to share it with you.”
“Cream soda jello? That exists?”
“It’s the best,” said Manon. “It tastes like real cream soda. It’s my super-favorite.”
“I’m sorry,” said Manon, ready for what would come next. “I’m sorry I bit you.”
Amélie crossed her arms in front of her chest, covering the eyes of Strawberry Shortcake’s face. “Give me your cream soda jello, then.”
“It’s the last piece.”
“You owe me,” said Amélie. She knelt next to Manon and turned her face to the sky. She opened her mouth.
Manon held her hand high above Amélie’s face so she would see the color of the little blob she’d pulled from the bowl, so creamy and delectable-looking. Then she released the jiggly thing and watched it drop into the gaping hole of Amélie’s mouth.
* * *
On the day of the Open House, Manon packed a small duffel bag with clothing for herself and Christophe. She’d bought two new towels and a nylon cap for her head, and she tucked Gillou in her bag. She thought of all the ways this experiment could go wrong, yet she was unafraid. She entered the school building and listened for echoes of people’s movements. She heard the scraping of chair legs against the floor somewhere in a room to her right. When she peered through the small windows of the double doors, she saw administrators and teachers putting tablecloths on rectangular tables and decorating the space with balloons and signs. She remembered the way ahead to the auditorium. No one saw her push through those doors.
Christophe sat on the stage, legs dangling. “Manon?” he said.
He hopped off the ledge and gripped his cane. “I know the way to the changing rooms,” he said.
Christophe guided her to a small alcove with a drinking fountain. On each opposite end, a door led to a locker room. Even in the corridor, they could hear the sound of splashing water, the shrill blow of a whistle, and children talking and laughing. They smelled pungent chlorine. Manon unzipped her duffel bag and gave Christophe the swimming trunks she’d bought for him at the store. She had wanted these trunks to match the colors of her swimsuit. She described the flamingo pink and mango stripes, while putting a big towel in his arms. She knew she could not help him change out of his clothing, so she spared him the embarrassment of asking if he could manage it on his own. She squeezed Gillou and said to Christophe, “I’ll wait for you on the other side.”
He nodded and went through the door to the left. Manon went in the other direction and changed into her swimsuit. She pinned her hair back and donned the nylon cap, tucking loose hairs underneath the elastic band. She took out a towel from her duffel bag, which she stuffed at the bottom of a locker. Before closing the metal door, she pulled out Gillou.
When she entered the open space of the pool, Christophe was already there waiting for her. He’d draped his towel over his shoulders. She took it from him and placed both their towels on one of the plastic chairs lining the wall. The pool was long and wide. Children from a church group took little notice of Christophe and Manon, though she saw the puzzled looks exchanged among a few mothers. Their leader, a woman in a modest skirted suit, waded in their direction, so Manon took Christophe’s hand. She held Gillou in the other. She didn’t care if these mothers saw. Together, they went down the steps and submerged their bodies to their waists.
The water was cold. Christophe shivered. The mother in the skirted suit swam closer. She seemed angry, her eyebrows furrowed. She looked like Tante Lynne. Before she could speak, Manon held up Gillou to stop her and mouthed in English that Christophe was blind and needed therapy. She said, hoping these women were Anglicans or Presbyterians or whatever form of Christianity possessed them, “I’m part of the volunteer group with the foundation. Did the pastor text you? He told me he would.”
The mother said, “What foundation?”
Christophe tugged on Manon’s arm, a pained look on his face she perceived as theatrical exaggeration. “Is she a racist? Is it happening again?”
The woman put a hand to her chest and inhaled as though she’d been struck.
Manon cooed, “Non, non, mon garçon.”
The woman nodded and said with disdain, “Ok. Stay.” She waded back to her children, the smallest of whom, a redheaded boy, waved to Manon. She used Gillou to wave back. The boy laughed. He was missing three front teeth on top.
Manon pulled Christophe to her but only touched his shoulders. She tipped him backward, and explained how to float. He did what he was told, his arms at his side. When he’d gotten the hang of it and his body settled in plank position, she joined him. Her hearing tunneled surrounding sounds, through water and the mat of her hair against her ears.
She held Christophe’s hand in her left hand and Gillou in her right. They were starfish with sunrays for fingers, stick figures of an enclosed sea. Christophe whispered, “C’était mon rêve. En Haïti, tout petit, je voulais nager dans la mer.” It was my dream. When I was little, in Haiti, I wanted to swim in the sea.
Manon said, “My parents took me to Sainte-Luce-sur-Mer when we couldn’t go to New Brunswick, which my aunt’s family preferred. Sainte-Luce is between Rimouski and Matane on the Saint-Lawrence, where it’s a gulf and no longer a river.”
“In Haiti, Port-au-Prince is on the Golfe de la Gonâve. I remember the smell of brine mixed with seaweed on the wind.”
She played along. “I remember the smell of sea urchins on the sand.”
“I remember the color of waves and trees and birds.”
“I remember the transparency of jellyfish moored on the beach.”
“I remember my father promising to teach me to ride a bicycle and my mother promising to teach me to swim in the sea if I practiced my scales.”
“I remember playing the cello.”
He turned his head to her, even if he could not see her. “Teach me to swim.”
Manon imagined the notes of Gabriel Fauré’s “Sonate pour violoncelle et piano n° 2 en sol mineur,” and she dreamt of the two of them playing together on the small stage of this school’s auditorium, she with her cello and he with a proper grand piano. She heard the music in her head.
She said, “They’ll fire me, you know, if they find out I brought you to the pool without your parents’ or the school’s consent. And I haven’t even worked my first day.”
Christophe said, “My parents think I’m practicing and helping out with the Open House. People meet me and think this school is so wonderful.” After a long moment, he asked with some hesitation, “But wouldn’t it be worth it, even if they did fire you?”
She turned her face to him and answered, “Oui.” She pulled him toward her gently and said, “Merci, Christophe.”
Through that motion, Gillou slipped from her hand, tumbling like a dying polyp to the bottom of the pool. The redheaded child, splashing near her, fetched it. He surfaced and asked if he could keep it. Longing for Gillou tugged at Manon, yet the behavior of this little boy’s mother bloomed in her mind, so she whispered, “Go hide it in your towel and take it home. Later tonight, surprise your mother by putting it under her pillow. She’s always wanted a hand. She told me. That’s why she tells everybody in the family, ‘Won’t anyone give me a hand?’” The child brightened with understanding. He tucked Gillou in his swimming trunks so his mother wouldn’t see.
Manon followed the boy’s progress to the chair where his mother had dropped his things. She saw him bury the hand away. She moved her arms back and forth and her body skimmed the surface. There were ripples around her like the swaying of currents. She studied Christophe next to her and the contentment on his face. She wanted to ask him if he could smell the seawater of this pool, like the Golfe de la Gonâve so far away, but she didn’t want to disturb his waking dreams. Instead, amid the cries and laughter of church children, she listened to the music she and Christophe made on the stage of her mind. She heard the echo of Marie-Soleil chanting about the brilliance of snow, and the rhythm of that song accompanied the piano and the cello. She imagined a symphony. She kept on floating.