Taïga wakes up to an empty dormitory and gets to her first class late and with her hair in a mess. It is math and Madame Bonnet, their teacher, immediately scolds her and gives her extra homework to clarify the importance of respecting the schedule.
She doesn’t answer, just nods and keeps her eyes averted, feeling the other kids eyes on her back. When Madame Bonnet seems to have finished, she moves towards an empty seat in the back, but Madame Bonnet places her right in front of her own desk, moving a long nosed girl with braids.
‘-so I can keep an eye on you,’ she states drily.
‘Je m’appelle Jeanne,’ the tall redheaded girl next to her says with a broad smile. Taïga smiles timidly back. After Charlotte and Louis, this is the first nice person she has met.
The problem is that she now has Louise and Clotilde right behind her.
Taïga cringes when weasel face raises her hand and asks why Taïga has been accepted into their class, pointing out that the classes had never exceeded twelve students before. Madame Bonnet tells her to bring her administrative questions to the Headmaster, which shuts Clotilde up but doesn’t stop her from whispering loud enough for the whole class to hear that Taïga is number treize – an unlucky number.
’13 is my lucky number,’ Jeanne points out in French. ‘I was born on the thirteenth, so just shut up will you.’
Taïga doesn’t understand what Jeanne just said but the rest of the class snickers. Even though she doesn’t dare turn around and look, she can hear weasel face draw in her breath and she can imagine her expression. She feels incredibly thankful to Jeanne, but also worried. Weasel face is not the kind of person you humiliate without them getting back at you…
Madame Bonnet puts her finger to her lips and shushes, effectively calming the class. With a last glance over her shoulder even Jeanne gets back to her geometry problem.
The lessons are difficult compared to her school in Vulturu but just listening to the teachers speaking French is lovely. Taïga tries hard to understand everything and takes extra lessons in French foreign language together with some smaller children. She’s a fast learner and thinks it is easier than Romanian. Maybe because she never had the opportunity to learn the language properly in class.
It doesn’t take Taïga long to understand the pecking order at school. The blond girl, Louise de Lautrec, is the popular girl in their class, and probably the most popular girl at the whole school. She is an aristocratic heiress with roots from the middle ages. Her pretty face with heavy-lidded blue eyes, porcelain skin and a rosebud mouth, looks like the ladies on medieval paintings. Her rich blonde hair is cut in a classy bob, surrounding the perfect oval of her face. She is very rich, very snobbish but also very stupid.
Her best friend, Clotilde de Cosnac, is the duo’s brain. As ugly as she is mean, Taïga has never met anyone as calculating as the weasel faced girl.
Apart from sitting next to Jeanne Wall, the freckled tom boy who is afraid of no one, in class, she tries to approach Charlotte again. But the heavy set girl, who had seemed so nice when they first met, is only too happy to be part of the inner circle and for once not the victim of bullying, to risk a friendship with Taïga. The other girls in their dormitory, Agnès Beaumont and Eveline Fournier are too afraid of Clotilde to dare do anything she hasn’t approved of, so Taïga spends most time alone.
The majority of the students are old money with a nobiliary particle in front of their family names, like Louise and Clotilde or Tristan de Lévis-Mirepoix, Philippe de Montvilliers and Louis St Clair. Otherwise they are just rich like Charlotte and Jeanne or extremely talented like Eveline and Henri. The boys in her class are not acting the same way as Louise and Clotilde who keep to themselves, despising upcomers and people who are not moving in their social circle. They are aristocrats in a republic that is very proud of its revolution, its spirit of egalitarianism and free thinking. But that is in theory. As everywhere else, money can buy you anything, including popularity.
She learns to be quiet about her modest origins. Being American is almost an insult at St Simon’s, compared to the positive curiosity she raised in her classmates in Vulturu. Louise is the one who started calling her Gypsy because she lives in Romania. According to Clotilde and Louise, all Americans are upcomers and rude. So maybe it is not such a bad thing to be considered a Gypsy after all. At least they have traditions as old as the de Lautrec’s and de Cosnac’s. Scary traditions, Taïga muses. Eating babies and all.
Being a real prince on the other hand is totally acceptable, exotic and interesting. HRH Prince Fahd Al’Hafed Bin Hakim is used to be the center of attention. He is terribly spoilt and doesn’t understand why he has to go to school at all – he is going to rule one day, no matter what. He gets away with the strict minimum in class, being an intelligent, but terribly lazy, child. It takes a while to get used to him being accompanied by his bodyguard at all times, though, even for the teachers. Mohamed is a quiet man, very discreet and only speaking to his protégé in their native language. Taïga and the other kids don’t think he can speak anything but Arabic and soon treats him like Fahd, politely but as if he wasn’t there.
As soon as the other girls fall asleep at night, Taïga takes out her diary. She doesn’t want them to know about it, so she hides it under the mattress. Granny doesn’t like mails, she doesn’t even know how to operate a computer anyway, so Taïga writes her long letters at night, describing her life at school.
Mademoiselle Florence, my French teacher, is also Saint-Simon’s “Gouvernante”. She’s OK, I guess. I don’t understand much of what she’s saying though. The other girls say that it’s because she’s from Marseille, that’s in the south, and they pronounce some sounds really weirdly…
I’m doing progress in French. I just hope I don’t get a bizarre accent, learning from her. But strangely, she doesn’t speak like that when she’s in class…”
She’s careful to keep her stories cheerful, not mentioning that the other girls don’t seem to like her and that when the second week comes to an end, she still hasn’t made any friends.
This second weekend Taïga is the only child left when all the others happily vanish to their families for their first weekend home. Taïga is grateful to be alone, but a little bored too. After spending Saturday catching up on two weeks’ homework, she decides to start on their art assignment. She takes her brand new sketchbook and heads out through the backdoor. She is thinking about what she would like to draw when a piercing shriek makes her stop and backtrack to the bushes outside the winter garden.
Wide-eyed she stares at the large bird lying in the dirt under a lilac bush. It must have flown into a window, she thinks, scanning the facade of the house. It tries clumsily to get away from her when she advances, awkwardly jumping with one of its wings hanging by its side and scraping the dust.
Taïga squats and reaches out her arm. Calling softly, she beckons to the huge bird. It inclines its head, looking at her with an unblinking yellow eye, before deciding it safe to jump up onto the young girls arm. Taïga almost falls backwards, she had never thought a falcon could be that heavy.
She recovers her balance and slowly rises to her feet, holding her trembling arm out with the large bird balanced on it. The sharp claws are biting through her jacket and she winces. Hesitatingly she touches the falcon with the tip of her fingers. So smooth…
The bird seems to relax, closing its piercing yellow eyes it lets its head lean into her hand. It’s a shame to see such a splendid animal being hurt. She looks around her and kneels out of sight behind the large Lilac bushes that effectively hides her from anyone who adventures a glance through one of the many windows.
She used to heal small animals in the forest back in Bigwood Falls after they had been hurt by Minuit, and a falcon is only a bird after all. She closes her eyes, concentrating on the broken wing, feeling how she gets inside the animal, following its light bones to the broken point…
Five minutes later she takes her sketchbook in one hand and with the falcon still on her arm she heads for the part of the park where the forest starts.
The noble bird stays on the branch long enough to let her finish the drawing, and when she proudly shows Monsieur Lefebvre her masterpiece on Monday morning, he is duly impressed of the effort she has put in. But he insists on the fact that there are no falcons in the region and accuses her of cheating, of having copied the detailed drawing from the Internet. And he sure did not appreciate the fanciful phoenix tail she had added, so she gets a zero. And detention.
It is not so much the zero that bothers her, but being accused of cheating in front of the whole class. Especially in front of Clotilde and Louise.
Art is Taïga’s main subject. Monsieur Lefebvre is a competent but harsh teacher. To Taïga’s dismay, they start out with painting such a difficult subject as water. The other students are in their third or fourth year at the academy, only Taïga and Charlotte are starting out. Taïga is secretly happy that Charlotte encounters the same difficulties as she does, but Monsieur Lefebvre is more indulgent with the chubby French girl.
She’s not happy with the Art school exercises by the river. She hates painting water. All that talk about refraction and reflection. Grass is almost as bad…
Her eyes stray over the calm water. Fahd is skipping stones, rippling the smooth surface and making the exercise even more difficult. There’s not even a swan or some ducks around to liven it up a little. And no flowers, of course. The Art teacher must have picked this spot on purpose just to bore her out of her mind. She keeps from adding something personal – after getting detention the other day she knows it’s better to follow Monsieur Lefebvre’s instructions to the letter.
Water is also the main subject in science this trimester. Madame Bonnet takes them to the big dam to study the environmental impacts of damming up rivers. They take samples of just about everything that grows and measures the water’s pH with graduated strips. Taïga thinks it’s boring, mostly because no one wanted her in their group and she’s paired up with HRH Fahd Al’Hafed Bin Hakim and Philippe de Montvilliers.
Eveline is as usual sucking up to the teacher, pretending to be interested in measuring the pH of the water. Madame Bonnet passes her a roll of strips, but they aren’t good enough for the ambitious child who starts pestering Mademoiselle Florence, who is accompanying them, to see if she can use her pH meter instead of the strips.
Fahd has a little crowd following him as usual and he’s boasting about the exotic fish you find in the Red Sea.
‘… and the jellyfish almost touched me – it was only this far away!’ He shows with his thumb and index a ridiculously small distance. ‘I could have died!’ he adds dramatically.
Everyone ooh’s and aah’s, mesmerized. Even Jeanne seems spellbound by his animated story. Even Jeanne seems spellbound by his animated story. She watches him from her vantage point high on a rock, where she is sitting cross-legged even though they are not supposed to climb the ruins of the old church. Or was it a castle? Taïga rolls her eyes.
They all get fishing rods to try to catch some different species to study. Taïga wonders what different kinds of fish are living in the cold dam. The other kids have never even held a fishing rod so Taïga has finally the opportunity to show off. She is not an expert, but in Easter camp they fished several times, so she knows how it works and she pulled up all kinds of big, tasty specimens.
To her dismay she only catches small insignificant minnows that make Louise and Clotilde snort contemptuously. When chubby Charlotte joins in the laughter, Taïga gets angry. They can all make snide remarks about her fishing skills, but she will show them.
She takes her fishing rod and bucket and walks away from the group. Closing her eyes she concentrates on catching something extraordinary no one has ever caught there before. It doesn’t take long before the floater disappears and her fishing rod tips forward and bends slightly. She quickly hauls in her catch and gasps.
A lobster! She recognizes it from the fancy dinners in Monte Aquila, and remembers James promising her to take her to the early market by the sea to buy some. The sea. Lobsters live in the sea, not in French rivers… She holds the wriggling animal as far out as possible. Will it die if she throws it back?
A gasp makes her turn around and she catches a glimpse of Marie-France disappearing in the tall reeds. She quickly throws the lobster back into the water hoping it will survive.
Later that night, Taïga writes to her grandmother to get rid of the oppressing feeling of guilt. She has not been here a month and already used magic. Twice…
Today, Mme Bonnet took us fishing. I caught a kind of lobster but I threw it back in. Marie-France saw me though, and she told everyone about it and they thought that strange because there are no lobsters in French rivers. Of course I was accused of lying, even though I hadn’t said a word. It was Marie-France who should have been accused, not me. I know I promised not to use magic, but I just wanted to catch something special to show off…”
She finally just keeps the letter in her diary. Granny would surely disapprove, focusing on the magic part…
… our Art teacher, André Lefebvre, often takes us to different museums and castles. The French are very attached to old things… It’s very interesting to visit these places and hear the stories about the people who lived there. I like the portrait paintings but they don’t beat exotic artefacts. I think I might become an archaeologist instead of a doctor. I’d like to go on exciting adventures like Indiana Jones. You might not believe me, but the museum at the Château de Sauloise has an Egyptian section with real mummies! They are a loan from Egypt and here for a couple of months only. I hope we’ll get the occasion to visit with school. But I’ve already seen them with my own eyes…”
‘Ne cours pas, Mademoiselle Grey! Do not run! Il faut attendre les autres enfants avant d’entrer dans le musée!’ André Lefebvre calls after her to wait for the other kids when she eagerly follows two comrades.
‘But…’ She bites her lip. Fahd Al’Hafed Bin Hakim and Philippe de Montvilliers are already inside, but of course no one will say anything to them. His Royal Highness can do pretty much as he likes and Philippe is the son of one of the benefactors of the school.
Instead of talking back, she lines up with the rest of her class in the courtyard, waiting for Monsieur Lefebvre to talk to the Museum attendant before they are allowed to troop inside two by twos.
Except that Taïga is alone.
She keeps behind the others, and when they pass the Egyptian section on their way to the Renaissance paintings, she hesitates. Nobody would notice if she skipped the tour anyway.
Checking that no one is looking her way, she sneaks through the passage way and into a large room, filled with interesting artefacts.
Mummies and stuff beat dusty old kings of France anytime! Wow… Look at this…
She stands on her toes to be able to read the information about the Anubis guardians that are so well preserved they almost look new.
Making a left turn, she enters a room dedicated to a golden sarcophagus. She is so absorbed in reading the long notice about the famous pharaoh who supposedly was buried in it that she doesn’t notice Prince Fahd Al’Hafed Bin Hakim and his body guard catch her admiring it.
The young prince, who despises all cultures except his own, quickly ducks under the thick red velvet cords separating the valuable sarcophagus from the public and disrespectfully knocks on it.
‘Get back here,’ Taïga admonishes. ‘These velvet thingys are here for a reason, you know.’
‘This is my ancestor,’ Fahd brags.
‘Oh, really.’ Taïga rolls her eyes.
‘Yeah. My family lent all this to France for the exposition.’
Fahd goes on and on about Egypt.
‘… and I was left all alone in the pyramid! I could have died! Hey! Are you listening to me?’ He pulls at one of her braids.
‘Laisse-moi tranquille, Fahd. Leave me alone!’ Angrily she swaps his hand away, realizing they have already passed the whole Egyptian section. They turn into a big hallway and Taïga recognizes the stairs their class had taken to get to the paintings section.
‘We’re playing dominoes with Henri tonight. Why don’t you join us?’
She usually tries to avoid him but there is just one way to get to the stairs, and he is blocking it. ‘Yeah. Right…’ She acquiesces just to get rid of him.
‘Look! The others are coming our way.’ Fahd points behind her but she hasn’t even the time to turn around before Monsieur Lefebvre’s hand clamps down on her shoulder.
He opens his mouth to bawl her out, but stops when he realizes that getting Taïga punished means that he must punish Fahd, too. And he counts on Fahd’s father to sponsor a trip to Egypt next year with his art class. Frustrated, he just steers her to the front of the group and keeps her by his side for the rest of the visit.
Taïga has forgotten all about the invitation to play dominoes that night, but Fahd reminds her as they get off the bus. She almost says no, playing dominoes doesn’t seem that fun. Then she realizes that if she wants to get any friends, she must make an effort to be interested in what others do and think. She’s a little nervous when she shows up in the little room dedicated to boarding games and checkers. Agnès, Henri and Fahd are already seated, and they wave her over. Henri’s sister Eveline is also there, but she doesn’t play.
‘I always win anyway, so it’s not any fun,’ she says haughtily.
‘Ouais. Because you cheat,’ her brother, Henri, answers.
‘I don’t! It’s not my fault that I’m best at everything!’
Agnès and the boys are fun to hang with and Taïga quickly understands the rules even if Eveline continues talking and talking, making it hard to concentrate. It feels especially good to laugh and talk to someone.
Later she writes to her grandmother;
We play dominoes or chess in the evenings. Mostly with Agnès, Henri and Fahd who are actually rather fun to hang with…”
Taïga thinks that Monsieur Lefebvre is too focused on boring still life. Why can’t they at least paint flower bouquets instead of the old mossy fountain? Water and water yet again. Taïga would rather paint the running boys, who are warming up before a ball game, but that sure isn’t a still life. At least Clotilde and Louise are not in her group today…
Monsieur Lefebvre circulates among his students dispersed around the fountain, mostly criticizing. He has already made Taïga start all over twice, but this time she is sure her painting corresponds to what he has requested. She mixes the colors, concentrating on the reflections of the water when someone bumps into her. She tries to regain her balance by grabbing the rickety easel but she falls in a heap with the unfinished painting beneath her.
She recognizes Clotilde’s voice, but she doesn’t turn around, just lays sprawled on the ground feeling the tears burn behind her lids.
‘Que se passe-t-il? What is going on here?’ Monsieur Lefebvre’s angry voice is coming from right in front of her.
She detaches herself from the wet painting and struggles to her feet, wincing when she cuts her hand on a shard from the crushed turpentine bottle. Her shirt is wet through with paint and solvent and she can’t open her right eye as her face is smeared with acrylic paint.
‘Nothing, Monsieur,’ she whispers. ‘I- I stumbled.’
‘Is that true?’ The teacher asks, looking around him at his little group of girls. They all nod.
‘It is, Sir. She was watching the boys run past and she stumbled,’ Louise confirms.
‘Go and clean up. This is really a waste of the school’s founds.’ He looks at the destroyed canvas and the palette filled with grime. ‘You will have to be more attentive and less clumsy if you want to stay in art class. At the moment I don’t have any work I can mark for the trimester. You must know that you won’t be able to stay here if you get a zero? The school’s reputation is at stake!’
She mumbles an excuse and hurries to the showers to clean up. The other kids’ laughter stick like knives in her back.
It is lucky for Taïga that the Housekeeper catches sight of her on her way to the showers otherwise she would not have gotten rid of the paint on her hands and face. Mademoiselle Florence rubs the young girl’s skin with baby oil, which clears away most of the paint. She doesn’t want to use Acetone or rubbing alcohol directly on the sensitive skin of her face.
‘It’s OK, Mademoiselle Florence. It would have been worse if I had been painting flowers…’ Taïga says quietly looking at the dark shadows the beige color has left on her face.
‘At least it will fade with time…’ Mademoiselle Florence says thoughtfully. Then she takes Taïga with her to the kitchen and Mathilde Grosjean who makes Taïga a cup of hot chocolate and a cookie.
Monsieur Lefebvre finally understands that some students are having problems with painting water so he splits the group. Taïga is finally painting something she likes. She loves the flowers in the well-kept garden, and painting them makes her cheerful, even though she realizes the other students are better than her. At least they are more disciplined. She has much trouble keeping within the guidelines, and too often she lets her mind wander and so does her paintbrush.
… so we usually have art class outside, as this trimester is axed on painting water and nature. It’s difficult, and a little boring, but I’m getting better at it…
… and when the weather is bad, we have Art class in the Winter Garden. It’s nice painting while a music student practices on the piano. I didn’t realize before how much I appreciate Chopin…”
Taïga is working really hard on her painting skills, and even if she’s doing well, she doesn’t do excellent. She prefers the painting sessions in the Winter Garden because even Clotilde and Louise behave.
They are too afraid to be surprised by the Headmaster who frequently stops by to check on the students from the little balcony above. She would never have thought it could be so reassuring to see the old man lean on the balustrade, watching them with hawk eyes.
Henri, Eveline’s twin brother, is in the same art class as his sister and Taïga. He doesn’t like the way the other girls treat the new girl so during one of their painting sessions, he makes a portrait of her to cheer her up. He is too shy to give it to her immediately and decides to keep it until the right occasion presents itself. Monsieur Lefebvre is annoyed with him and keeps him after class for an explanation. Henri doesn’t regret having painted the sad girl. It sure was more inspiring than the ballerina statue. But he keeps his tongue about that.
Taïga is sent to make some photocopies in history class and, as she doesn’t know her way around yet, Henri proposes to accompany her. They chat a little about school and while they wait for the photocopies to print, he decides to ask her to come with him to a concert. But not just any concert.
‘… Aznavour! Et j’ai des tickets…’
‘Great! Super!’ Taïga smiles. She has no clue who Aznavour is, but he is certainly good.
‘Ahem… Alors?’ Henri looks expectantly at her.
Taïga looks back at him. What did he ask now again?
‘Err… Tu veux venir? Avec moi? Au concert?’
Ah. He wants her to come to the concert with him. At least she thinks that is what he asked. ‘Yeah! I mean – oui, bien sûr! C’est quand? When is it?’
Henri grins at her and starts explaining that his whole family is going, they are great fans of Aznavour. Passionately he sings parts of his idol’s repertoire all the way back to class.
Taïga googles Charles Aznavour as soon as she can, and is really disappointed when she finds out he is an old man. A really old man. But once she takes the time to listen to his sorrowful songs, she identifies with his soulful voice and the more she listens, the more she likes him.
I finally have someone to hang with!
She angrily starts all over again on a new sheet.
Henri Fouchier, is in my class. He sings all the time, and he will switch art for singing lessons next trimester. Can I do that too? He thinks I sing beautifully, and we’re practicing for a duet. He’s auditioning for the school musical, and he thinks I should try my luck too…”
An important event in September is the cross-country race. The whole school participate, and the students are sponsored by the different shops and corporations in Champs-sur-Sauloise. The money goes to an exchange school in Africa.
Taïga is good at running, having a dog has helped her get in shape after recovering from the “little apple mishap” and she is sure she will be among the first.
But she hadn’t counted on Louise and Clotilde. Both girls have seen Taïga run during their P.E. sessions, and they don’t want her to win. Louise usually comes second, after Jeanne. But as there is no way to scare off the sporty redhead, they go after an easier target.
The two girls have taken a shortcut and are hiding behind a tree, waiting to ambush Taïga when she passes. If they had seen Henri following so close, they would just have scared her, but now they jump out and Clotilde pushes her so hard she falls and sprains her ankle.
Henri isn’t very competitive, he is just satisfied with completing the race. He stops by Taïga’s side, bending over to help her.
‘Ça va? Are you OK?’
‘Ça va, Henri. Don’t worry.’ Taïga has some trouble breathing, and struggles to stand up.
Henri reaches out his hand to help her. ‘Did you trip? These roots are treacherous.’
She doesn’t understand what a racine is, but vicieuse is a transparent word and could only fit Clotilde. Henri must have seen her being pushed.
‘It was Clotilde! She pushed me,’ she complains, wincing when she puts her weight on her foot. She won’t be able to run anymore today, that’s for sure.
‘Just stay here, I’ll get help. Was Clotilde alone?’
‘No, she was with Louise, of course. And now they are cheating… Elles trichent.’ She points to Clotilde and Louise running down the slope towards the forest.
Henri follows her gaze, catching a glimpse of red and blue disappearing into the bushes.
Taïga tugs at his arm. ‘Please, don’t say anything. I just tripped, OK?’
Henri sighs. ‘OK. I guess it’s your call. But I’ll stay with you, I don’t care if I’m last.’
He grabs her arm, helping her limp along. After a little while the pain recedes and they finish the cross walking normally if not very fast.
After the cross-country race, the girls sneak away to swim. Taïga tags along, hoping Louise and Clotilde will leave her alone. She knows she is probably just presenting the two girls with yet an opportunity to torment her but she is hot and dusty, her ankle is throbbing and she wants to go swimming. She can’t let Louise and Clotilde take everything away from her.
The girls all ignore her, playing around in the water, laughing and shouting. She swims further out stopping at a safe distance to watch her classmates fool around. She threads water, deciding to stay where she is and not to join them when they decide to leave. Which they soon do.
With her clothes in a discreet bundle under Clotilde’s arm.
She has to wait until after dark to sneak back to school, and even then she is terrified of the prospect of running into another student.
I’m starting to enjoy sports again. It feels so good to work out in the fresh air. We have gymnastics, volleyball, trampoline, soccer, swimming and cross-country on our schedule. We’ve already started with swimming and running until Thanksgiving, then we’ll switch to other activities…
We’re not allowed to go swimming without an adult, but the sun was shining and we were so sweaty from running…”
Granny has signed Taïga up for ballet class, and finally she can show the others that she deserves her place at the art academy. Louise isn’t happy about getting competition, especially from Taïga. She firmly believes she is the next “danseuse étoile” at the Opéra Garnier in Paris, and she will go to the capital for the try outs in November. As usual, while they wait for their dance teacher, who is always late, Louise seizes the opportunity to show off in front of an audience.
All the girls admire her skills, except Jeanne who is not impressed by anybody. She prefers cheering the soccer team on instead of watching Louise gracefully dancing before her awed audience.
Taïga loves dance class and Mademoiselle Béjart is her favorite teacher. She is extremely proud when she gets rare, yet well deserved, praise but the other girls’ glances make her uncomfortable.
‘Look at Taïga, girls! How come she has understood the exercise and not you?’ Mademoiselle Béjart points out. ‘She doesn’t even speak our language – yet. She’s certainly not standing around idly chatting…’ The young dance teacher doesn’t like the way some of the girls treat each other but being protective of Taïga has the opposite effect on her tormentors.
‘Because no one wants to talk to her,’ Louise whispers to Clotilde who snickers.
‘Rien, Madame. Nothing.’
‘Hm. I prefer that.’ Mademoiselle Béjart takes up position at the beginning of the bar to show the girls what is expected of them.
‘Position one, everybody!’ Mademoiselle Béjart claps her hands and the girls scurry over to the same bar, lining up one after the other, pushing Taïga until she is last in line.
She thinks of the Pinkies back in Bigwood Falls.* Serena had been pretty awful but she had survived. Mostly thanks to Derek. She swallows, chasing the teasing image of his playfully scowling face away. He is not here and she has to go through this alone.
‘Taïga, come over here… Oui. Ici.’ Mademoiselle Béjart beckons her with a graceful gesture of her hand. ‘Switch with Louise.’
‘But I-’ Louise protests, aghast.
‘I need someone with rythm to set the pace. First position, everyone.’
Louise stares hard at Taïga and steps aside, letting her take her place. Reluctantly Taïga stands at the bar, feeling the girls stare at her back. She concentrates on her movements, blocking out the uneasy feeling and the angry looks. Heels together, legs are straight, maximum natural turnout with feet firmly planted on the floor.
She lifts her right arm slightly, nice and relaxed, keeping it at thigh height but an inch or so in front of her. Eyes high, she holds the position, imitating the teacher in front of her.
Mademoiselle Béjart turns and looks critically at them. She looks Taïga over, rectifying her posture. ‘Nice, straight spine. Broaden your shoulders… Bien.’
She continues down the line, correcting the positions of the girls one after the other.
‘Reduce your turnout, Eveline. Your feet are rolling over.’
‘They are. Your pinkie toe doesn’t connect with the floor. Now, reduce your turnout.’
Mademoiselle Béjart stares hard at her and Eveline bites her tongue, persuaded the teacher is wrong but not arguing any more.
‘Use your bellybutton to pull up your pelvis, Charlotte.’
‘Don’t look at the floor, Marie-France, even to correct your position. Eyes are high. Oui. Arms nice and rounded, hands and fingers elegant. Let me show you… Like this. Now, hold the position.’
‘Your knees and toes are not in the same direction, Jeanne.’
‘Clotilde, your feet are turned out so far you’re going to fall over. Stay comfortable, you’ll achieve suppleness with time.’
‘Louise, don’t bend over backwards. Your spine should be straight… Keep your shoulders over your hips, you are a ballerina, not a gymnast.’
‘Très bien, Agnès.’
She backs away looking them over. ‘Pull up! Pull up! Think proud. Think tall… Second position!’
There’s a soft whooshing sound when six right feet simultaneously slide out, and the girls gracefully open their arms wide…
Mademoiselle Béjart is a former ballerina at the Opera Garnier. She fell and broke her leg so now she’s our dance teacher. She’s very strict, but very kind and so beautiful. I really like her, maybe because she says I’m one of her best students… Ever!”
She wonders if she should keep the “ever”. She is not exactly lying, just embellishing a little. Mademoiselle Béjart had said she was good and that she has rhythm…
She bites her pen, thinking. Then she continues:
“Or maybe it just pleases me when she tells off Louise, Clotilde or perfect Eveline…”
Granny writes back, gently telling her she should not be happy about teachers scolding other students, but she should try to help them instead. If only she could tell her grandmother about what is really taking place at the school…
Once a week they bike to the brand new municipal swimming pool. It is not very far, but it is necessary with strict discipline to monitor thirteen excited children. Luckily the roads are not very busy and Mademoiselle Florence finds Fahd’s bodyguard very useful when it comes to keeping the kids in line. They have the whole pool to themselves during three hours. Taïga loves the bright structure with the huge windows letting in the daylight. It is even nice when it’s raining…
Emmanuel, or Manu as all the kids call him, is their swimming teacher and also the town’s life saver. Together with Mademoiselle Florence, they quickly go through the basics before starting on more interesting techniques like how to crawl and do the backstroke.
Taïga loves swimming and she’s like a fish in the water. Once she has learned how to crawl, she cuts through the water like a knife and even the boys don’t stand a chance.
But they don’t only swim, they also learn how to dive. They start out jumping from the side of the pool under Mademoiselle Florence’s surveillance.
Tristan asks if they can try the diving board, and Manu says ‘Pourquoi pas? Why not? Who wants to try the diving board? Raise your hands, please.’
All the boys come running, shouting excitedly. Taïga raises her hand. Evelyn hesitates, throwing a glance at Clotilde and Louise, but they don’t even look her way, busy gossiping about something. Then she raises her hand too.
Of course, Taïga thinks. She just has to be best at everything.
Mademoiselle Florence explains how to proceed and they line up against the wall to watch her show them before they try themselves.
Taïga doesn’t say anything. She just sits in silence next to Charlotte and Agnès, waiting for her turn to dive. When Manu calls her name, she won’t hesitate but walk rapidly out onto the diving board. She will bring one leg up and hop to the end of the board. Focusing on a perfect water entry, she’ll push off as hard as she can with her feet. She’ll hit the water, legs straight and toes pointed, just like Derek has taught her…
‘Look! Eveline is doing it!’ Charlotte stands up and points excitedly at the diving board.
Eveline has resolutely walked out onto the board as soon as Mademoiselle Florence had dived in, but now she seems to regret her foolhardy gesture. The boys are lining up behind her urging her to jump.
‘Allez, Eveline. Saute ou reviens!’ Philippe calls out with ill hidden annoyance in his voice.
Henri doesn’t say anything, he just shakes his head. He knows how stubborn his sister can be. She will never back down in front of everyone.
Taïga can’t help feeling sorry for Henri. Having a competitive sister like Eveline must be tiresome at the least.
Mademoiselle Florence swims over to the far corner and hoists herself out of the water. Manu gets tired of waiting for the hesitant girl to jump. He tries to explain that if she isn’t sure, she should make room for the next person. But, of course, Eveline refuses.
Taïga can’t help herself when she sees the snotty girl do a splendid belly flop. She catches Agnès’s eyes behind Charlotte’s back and brashly calls out, ‘Hey, Ev! Is that a frog dive?’
‘Tu ne devrais pas appeler tes camarades “frogs”, Mademoiselle Grey.’ Manu looks sternly at Taïga from across the diving pool.
‘But I didn’t call her frog! It’s just when I was in Italy last summer, I met someone who-’ She stops when she overhears Louise say to Clotilde and Marie-France, ‘… just listen to her bragging about Italy as if it was important.’
Clotilde answers, looking straight at her over Louise’s shoulder. ‘Oui! Everybody has been to Italy…’
Eveline stays in the pool, effectively stopping anyone from trying to dive but too ashamed to get out. Manu and Mademoiselle Florence tries to coax her but she stubbornly stays.
That is when Philippe looks up and starts tugging at Louis and Henri. Tristan is on the high diving board, waving down at them…
Mademoiselle Florence gives us swimming lessons, she was on the Olympic Team! Can you imagine that? The kids are in awe, always begging her to do the butterfly stroke and stuff…
… I don’t know if you remember Eveline? She thinks she’s best at everything, but she’s decidedly not the best at diving: Even Mademoiselle Florence who is the kindest had trouble keeping a straight face when she landed flat on her belly…
… then Manu promptly dived in and dragged her out, making it seem like a life-saving exercise…
… and Tristan just jumped right in. He got detention every day the whole week, and isn’t authorized to go home on weekends until Halloween. I think it was a little harsh of Mademoiselle Florence, because it was so brave of him…
… my first 20! That’s an A at home, Granny, and I’m so proud…”
… lunch and dinner are at school, in the dining room. We are seated at tables of four to eight, and I usually eat at Agnès and Jeanne’s table. But I was writing to tell you that I have now eaten twice at the table of Honor, with Monsieur Lambert. The first time all the new students did, but the second time was after winning a swimming competition…
Lunch is less formal than dinner, but if we’re late, we’re not admitted into the dining room and we have to do extra schoolwork instead of dining. Don’t worry, I’ve never been late because the food is excellent, I’m even getting used to French cheese. I don’t like the smelly ones, though…”
Clotilde and Louise don’t appreciate Taïga winning a competition and even less seeing her at the Headmaster’s table. They don’t hesitate to let her know it was the first and last time. They block the door to the toilets, leaving her there until Mademoiselle Florence passes by and lets her out.
That night she has a horrible nightmare where she is drowning, held beneath the surface by Clotilde and Louise while the other girls are laughing at her. She wakes up screaming to find that it is partly true. Her bed is soaked and all the girls in the dorm are effectively laughing at her.
Mademoiselle Florence comes rushing, wondering what the ruckus is about, but all the girls feign sleep. Whispering and hiccupping Taïga has to tell her what had happened so she could change the soaked sheets. Mademoiselle Florence sends her off to take a shower and change into a dry pajamas and then sees to it she gets back to bed again.
Taïga lies in the dark dormitory, her eyes staring blindly at a crack in the ceiling, listening to the other girls’ regular breathing. There is no way she can face her tormentors in the morning. She is so ashamed she just knows she can’t even stay another day more. Everybody at the academy will know that she has wet her bed like a toddler soon enough. Clotilde and Louise will make sure of that.
Fighting the tears she slips out of bed. She hits her feet on something and puzzled she gets down on her knees and peeks into the darkness under her bed. She pulls out a bowl, half-filled with tepid water. She understands what must have happened. The other day they talked about the unconscious in science and what would happen if you put a sleeping person’s hand in water. Of course she had wet herself. She feels a little better but the knowledge doesn’t take away her shame. Nobody would believe her if she told them anyway.
She sneaks outside without being stopped and bikes as far as she can in the pitch black night, not stopping until she realizes she must have missed the crossroads. She leaves her bike in a ditch and climbs a white fence, trekking up a little hill to where she hopes she will see the lights of Champs-sur-Sauloise. But there is only darkness. Crying, she lets herself fall to the ground under a large oak tree where she falls asleep out of sheer exhaustion.
A soft nuzzling wakes her up. She stretches and yawns, a little lost and still in her dream about horses. A faint pink light on the horizon announces the dawn. Suddenly it all comes back to her, and she can feel her cheeks heat in the dark. She is terribly ashamed, but maybe running away wasn’t such a good idea after all. She should go back to school before her absence it noticed.
A low snort and another soft rub to her back makes her almost double over. She turns her head and scrambles to her feet in fright. The big chestnut horse jumps with fright too, and dashes away down the hill where it stops and shakes its head. She leans against the uneven trunk of the oak tree, catching her breath.
They stand there, looking at each other for what seems like a very long time. The horse is curious about the little visitor. It finally decides that she is not dangerous and trots up the hill again. It stops a few yards from her and stretches its head forward until it can breathe in her scent. Taïga closes her eyes and feels the warm breath of the huge animal brush over her face and hair. Cautiously she reaches out and lets the horse nuzzle her hand.
With regret she gets on her bike again after having petted the big horse until her hands were covered in grey fine dust and her jacket full of sticky hair.
She debates if she will tell Mademoiselle Florence everything. Maybe she can help her stop Clotilde and Louise from bullying her. But maybe it will just be worse. Mademoiselle Florence is not around all the time, and she has already experienced Clotilde’s held back physical violence. She can take the snide remarks and evil glances, at least she thinks she can, but she is terribly afraid of the physical pain the weasel faced girl could inflict her.
She pedals slower and slower, stopping on a bridge over the river. She can see the roofs of the academy in the distance behind the dense trees. She longs to confide in Granny… Or not. Her poor grandmother would be so worried, and she isn’t able to do anything from all the way back in Romania anyway.
No. This is something she must try to take care of on her own…
She steers her bike off the road and down to the riverbank. She recognizes the spot where she had swum with the other girls after the cross. She hesitates, knowing it is absolutely forbidden to hang by the river. But a dip in the river Sauloise will get the horse’s scent off her body. Her clothes smell of horses, too, but Monday is laundry day, so that is not really a problem. She’ll just dump her clothes at the bottom of the laundry basket. Satisfied to have justified her actions, she strips off her clothes and enters the cold water.
She stops a few seconds to let herself get accustomed to the change of temperature before bending her knees slightly, slowly letting the water envelope her body like a purifying blanket.
She enjoys the stillness and silence of the morning. It feels like she is the only human on earth and all her problems seem far away and insignificant, like they belong in another life. She swims with long calm strokes, reveling in the sensation of the silky water against her naked body. She wishes she could wash away the homesickness as easily as the pungent scent…
Part I – End of Chapter 41
The beautiful sketch of the falcon is by Brenda Lyons. Just click on the image or the link and they will take you to her site.