Granny has made Taïgas favorite pie for dessert. It is unusually silent around the table, even Missy doesn’t seem to have anything to say. It’s their last dinner together at home before Granny escorts Taïga to France tomorrow morning.
The little girl usually devours her part, asking for more, but tonight she’s just shuffling her food around, eating like a bird. She plays with her cutlery taking a few bites, trying hard to appreciate her grandmother’s effort. But she can’t. She poses her fork, staring thoughtfully at the painting behind her great aunt.
‘Can I have your part? I mean, as you’re not finishing it…’ Missy holds out her plate.
Taïga would love to switch her hefty part against her great aunt’s empty plate but one look at her grandmother makes her hesitate. Granny doesn’t say anything but her disapproving look makes her thoughts quite clear.
‘All right. Anybody?’
Both Granny and Taïga shake their heads and Missy helps herself to the last part.
She clears her throat. ‘Thank you, Granny, but I’m not hungry anymore. My stomach hurts…’
‘Told you so,’ Missy says between bites. ‘She’ll come down with something so she won’t leave.’
‘Missy! You promised…’ Granny throws a desperate glance at her impulsive sister.
Uh-oh. They are going to start quarrelling about her again. Taïga picks up her fork, loading pie into her mouth to have something to do.
‘I did. I did. I won’t utter a single word about how relieved I am to have the wretched child out of my hair and-’
Granny tries to shut her sister up with an irritated glance. Taïga bows her head deeper over her plate, forking more food into her mouth.
‘Oh. Err… You know I didn’t mean to make it sound bad, but you have to admit it will be a little, err… liberating. Like a vacation, of sorts, but at home-’
‘Missy!’ Granny’s voice is a whisper but the single word is as efficient as a whip. Missy finally shuts up.
‘Ahem. Your stomach pain… Is it because you’re nervous about leaving tomorrow?’
‘I guess so.’ She doesn’t raise her head, concentrating on the back and forth movement of the fork transporting the delicious pie from the plate to her mouth. She doesn’t think she could ever eat lime pie again in her life. How come the quantity doesn’t seem to diminish? What if she suddenly throws up? Oh my God. She’s going to throw up. Eyes watering, she spoons more food into her mouth. ‘I shust wish ou could shtay!’ she says her mouth full, already adding another forkful.
Granny reaches out, stopping the feverish movements from plate to mouth. She takes her hand and squeezes it. ‘I think a long, hot bath would do you good…’
‘That means no more hot water, huh? I wanted to take a bath, too,’ Missy complains.
‘You can take a bath tomorrow, and every day for the rest of the week. Now stop complaining.’ Granny pushes back her chair. ‘I think there’s enough warm water to do the dishes, Missy.’
‘Oh, but I don’t think I should clean up tonight. I will have the rest of the week to do chores.’ She pushes back her chair and stomps out of the dining room, leaving Granny and Taïga to clean the table.
‘I think we should buy a dishwasher, Granny. Everybody has one. At least I think they do,’ she adds thoughtfully.
Taïga follows Granny upstairs, letting her grandmother fill the tub with hot water and add some luxurious bathing foam. Granny was right, as usual. Her stomach pain disappears, replaced by a pleasant drowsiness. Feeling better, she takes the soap but it slips out of her hands and disappears into the water. To the little girl’s dismay, the foam rapidly dissolves…
She changes into her nightgown and tiptoes rapidly into Granny’s room, being careful to stay on the rugs as her feet aren’t quite dry yet. She jumps into her grandmother’s bed, pulling the heavy brocade blanket high up over her head, trying to become as flat as possible.
Her grandmother enters the room. ‘There’s no use in hiding.’
Taïga sighs heavily, pushing back the blanket. How come her grandmother always knows?
‘But it’s all right. You can stay.’ Granny hides a smile and bends over to place a kiss on Taïga’s forehead, brushing away a strand of damp hair. ‘Goodnight, darling. Sleep tight.’ She moves towards the door, stopping on the threshold. ‘I’ll be right back, I just have to pack a few things more.’
‘Granny… Can you tell me a story?’
Her grandmother sits heavily on the bed. ‘Something about France?’
‘Not necessarily. Just any story.’
Granny rubs her chin, thinking of something suitable and not too scary. Taïga will need her sleep, so it must be an interesting story, yet a bit redundant.
‘Then I shall tell you about your ancestor, Lady Ravendancer, and how she first came to Valinor…’*
The story is fascinating but a little tedious, and Taïga listens carefully to everything Granny tells her. That night she dreams about castles in France and handsome princes and princesses, only to finish wide awake before dawn, ressassing the last days events and thinking about the upcoming journey…
All the items composing her new school uniform are folded neatly and packed in a brand new suitcase. They had done as François Lambert had told Granny, ordered the uniform on the Internet from one of the computers at the library. The huge box arrived duly on time, but something must have gone wrong, because when the box from Paris arrived, the uniform was way too big. The sports clothes were all right, and the sweaters and jacket. But the skirts and shirts were several numbers too large. Luckily the tailor in Vulturu, M. Călinescu, could make the necessary adjustments with short notice and Taïga had tried it on several times until it fitted as it should. She felt ridiculously up-dressed, especially with the snugly fit red tie and the pristine white tights.
‘But it’s summer, Granny.’
‘The rules are the rules, Taïga.’
‘But they itch.’ She scratches her leg to make her point.
‘Careful, or you’ll ruin them before you have the chance to wear them at school.’
‘All the girls are dressed the same…’
Right. All the girls in scratchy, itching white tights… Taïga tunes out her grandmother, secretly enjoying her image in the mirror.
The night is way too short. Taïga has the impression of just closing her eyes and it is already time to wake up. She takes a quick shower, jumps into her favorite shorts and hesitates between the blue and the purple scarf. She can’t help it. She just has to take a peek at the uniform again.
She struggles with the lock and with precaution she opens the zip. The lid pops open on the array of dark navy blue, white and red garments. There’s at least two of everything – skirts, tights, jackets and a raincoat. Sweaters that she has learned are called jumpers or cardigans depending on if there are buttons or not. She’ll even wear a dark red silk tie. She sticks her fingers into the crackling plastic cover, caressing the smooth silk surface before folding it again. She pulls out the pair of patent leather shoes that hurt her toes, checking if the slightly damp newspaper is still inside. It is. She wonders what hides under the neatly folded garments… When she feels around, she touches the umbrella and red rubber boots. She glances over at her own light blue ones with impressions of kittens and puppies. She has cleaned them up and they are way nicer than-
‘Taïga! The cab is soon here!’ Granny is calling from the bottom of the stairs.
‘I’m coming, Granny! Just a sec’…’ Taïga tries to zip close the suitcase.
‘Need some help with that?’ Missy is standing in the doorway.
‘Yes, please!’ Taïga moves over to let her great aunt try. ‘I was just a little worried I had forgotten something. There are so many things composing the whole outfit…’
Missy takes the shoes from her hands, pushing them down hard on top of the now not so neatly folded clothes.
‘Sit on the lid…’ Taïga does as she’s told and and with difficulty Missy succeeds in closing the brand new red suitcase, huffing while zipping it. ‘So, what do you think? About the… err… uniform?’
‘The uniform is OK. Not comfortable for tree climbing, but OK.’
‘I guess you won’t have to worry about that. There will probably not be any tree climbing in that snobbish school of yours.’ Missy stretches, massaging her back. ‘Just off you go!’
Something red catches Taïga’s eye on her way out of her room. The tie! Quickly they unzip a corner and stuff the silk tie inside.
Grabbing her beige knitted cardigan and the blue scarf that goes with her T-shirt and jeans shorts, she scurries out of her room, dragging the suitcase behind her down the stairs.
Granny is pacing at the bottom of the stairs wearing a chic grey suit. ‘Ah, there you are.’ She looks up at Taïga with a smile that quickly vanishes.
‘But you can’t go to France dressed like that!’ she exclaims, staring at her granddaughter’s appearance in disbelief.
‘What’s wrong?’ Taïga fiddles with her scarf.
Following Granny’s eyes to her feet she looks down at her light blue Wellingtons as if she saw them for the first time. ‘I can change the boots, but-’ she stammers, ‘-you said it often rains in France so I thought it was a good idea to bring them. Maybe it’s even raining when we land… And there was no room in the suitcase anyway.’
‘I have put one of the fancy dresses your mother bought you in Italy-’ Granny’s slow spoken words are accompanied by her pointing towards her room. Taïga turns on her heels, running upstairs again.
‘-on a hanger on the door to your room…’ Granny’s voice follows her all the way to her room. She stops and stares. How come she had missed the dress hanging there? It shines like a sun against the dark wood of the door. She pulls off her sweater and shorts, getting into the bright dress.
Missy is standing in the doorway, stepping aside to let her pass. ‘Don’t you forget something?’ She nods towards Taïga’s feet.
‘Oh.’ She’s still wearing her tartan socks. She sits on the floor, tearing them off, gratefully accepting Missy’s help with the yellow sandals. Her great aunt is humming happily to herself, grinning.
‘Thanks!’ She stumbles to her feet, flying downstairs.
‘Ah. That’s much better. But your hair… Well. It’s too late now-’
Taïga grins. Cool. She’ll keep her braids.
‘We’ll have to use magic… With some precautions, of course. We can’t let it get inside you.’
‘But, Granny, I…’
‘Tututut… No objections, young lady.’ Granny taps her teeth, searching in her mind for the right words. ‘Alacadola Bibbedy- Stop fidgeting, dear, or I won’t get your hair right.’
‘My hair will be a mess on the plane anyway, Granny!’ Taïga protests between clenched teeth, but nevertheless obeying her grandmother and not moving a muscle.
‘Of course it won’t!’ She studies the sulking girl, and her face lights up in a rare smile. ‘It will only come undone when you wish it will. Now, take a deep breath, close your eyes and cover your ears.’
‘If you say so…’ Taïga is dubious. She will have to concentrate so hard on not wanting this unnatural hairstyle to come undone. But if it pleases her grandmother, she’ll go through with it. Making a good impression etc. etc.
Waving her wand Granny chants,
Get my granddaughter out of this mess
Then fit her into a suitable headdress’
Fortunately she doesn’t have to hold her breath for long, the styling of her hair is done in a few seconds. A familiar tickling sensation, the same as when she used to play with her magical chest back in Bigwood Falls, overcomes her and her hair swirls around her face setting in a high, curly chignon.
She touches the stylish locks tentatively, feeling a headband she knows must be assorted to the dress. And the shoes.
‘How do I look?’
‘Perfect…’ Granny fumbles for the camera on the sideboard, not leaving Taïga with her eyes. ‘Lovely! Let me take a souvenir picture.’ Granny beams, encouraging Taïga to do the same.
But there is something troubling the young girl, hindering her from posing with a smile. It doesn’t stop Granny from shooting away.
‘I think there must be at least one picture in there I can put in a frame,’ she mumbles. Putting away the camera in her handbag, she throws a questioning glance at Taïga. ‘Tell me what’s wrong.’
‘Err… Granny… Yellow!?!’ She stares pointedly at her grandmother. The only color she really dislikes is yellow, everybody knows that. Even Missy.
‘Oh… I could have sworn it was light blue when I hung it up yesterday.’ Granny looks confused. ‘Would you like another color?’
‘Blue, huh?’ Granny lifts her wand, but they are interrupted by the cab honking outside. ‘Oh, well… Yellow suits you, dear. Now, where is Missy?’
‘She went outside with the suitcase. I think she’s happy to get rid of me.’
‘Nonsense,’ Granny says without much conviction, steering Taïga out onto the porch. ‘Missy! We’re leaving!’
‘I’m coming, I’m coming.’ Missy comes hurrying from the backyard, her arms laden with eggs. With a yelp she covers her mouth in shock, sending them all crashing to the ground. ‘It’s still yellow,’ she gasps, searching her sister’s eyes.
‘Yeah. Yellow.’ Taïga glares at her grandmother, too, crossing her arms in front of her chest.
Granny remains unruffled. ‘Blue, yellow, pink – everything suits a beauty! Now, say goodbye. We have to leave. Chop-chop.’
Granny verifies the passports in her bag as she walks over to the taxi and slips into the backseat. The female taxi driver complains about the heavy suitcases, so Missy resolutely takes them and heaves them into the trunk herself with some help from Taïga.
‘Shall I sit on the trunk to close it?’
‘What?’ She pushes the red suitcase into a corner and adds Granny’s old worn Vuitton suitcase next to it. She hopes her sister won’t tip the unhelpful woman too much…
‘Nothing,’ Taïga says, straightening her headband a little.
The taxi honks again. Taïga and Missy stare at each other.
‘Well. Have a nice trip.’
‘Thank you. I’ll be back, you know.’
‘Yes. But not for two months.’
‘All right. I get it.’
The driver honks for Taïga to hurry. A perfunctorily hug to Missy and they’re off to Henri Coanda airport in Bucharest. Granny checks for the umpteenth time her tickets.
‘Look, Taïga. It says Air France, doesn’t it? And it’s a non-stop flight, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, Granny.’ She eyes the tickets, confirming what Granny just stated.
‘I’m sure the wretched salesperson put me on a Polish flight on purpose the other day,’ Granny mutters, recalling her flight back to Bucharest from France over Warsaw last spring.
‘Why on earth would she do that, Granny?’
‘Why? Because I don’t have the Internet, of course.’ Granny puts away the ticket in her Kelly purse.
Taïga debates if she should push further, but decides against it. She doesn’t understand Granny’s logic sometimes. She decides to ask her grandmother if they could play a game instead…
After six hours in a taxi through the Transylvanian mountains, and a two hour flight, Taïga gets her first glimpse of the lush French countryside from above. They circle Paris and excitedly she points at the Eiffel Tower.
‘Look Granny! It’s huge!’
‘And even bigger when you’re on foot. Did I tell you that Zola and Maupassant refused to set eyes on the ugly tower, and made impossible detours to avoid it? You see, when it was built for the World Exposition in 1889, Gustave Eiffel…’
It is already dark when they check into a picturesque hotel not very far from Paris for the night. They get the very last room, struggling with the heavy suitcases up three floors of narrow, winding stairs. Granny swears. She has almost recovered from using magic on Taïga’s hair, and could get the suitcases up the winding staircase in a blink, but it would exhaust her. Well, carrying the wretched things is exhausting, too.
The elder woman, who has introduced herself as Madame Martin, beckons for them to hurry. ‘I have to prepare the dinner.’ It comes out as “I ave to préparr ze diné”. Muttering she opens the door to a small room with two beds, a little nightstand with what Taïga calls a Granny lamp – an antique, satin covered thing with pompons and access to a rudimentary bathroom. ‘Showers are on the landing and breakfast is served from half past six until neuf heures et demi…’
Early the next morning Taïga throws up the shutters, sending them crashing into the wall.
‘Careful, Taïga! You’ll wake up the whole neighborhood.’
‘But, Granny! I just had to see the Eiffel Tower up close and…’ Her sentence trails. There are only rooftops to be seen. Leaning out through the window she scans the horizon.
With a gasp, Granny seizes her pajamas, pulling her down again. ‘Are you crazy!?! You can’t see the Eiffel Tower from here. I promise we’ll go back to Paris to see it. Now take a towel and come with me. I’ll be damned if I let you wander the corridors alone…’
After the best breakfast Taïga has ever had, they set out for the final part of their journey.
Taïga is unusually silent during the drive. She is wearing her uniform, trying to sit still in the little Renault taxi so not to wrinkle it. She’s not at ease in the strict garments, and has promptly refused to wear her hair in any other way than her usual braids. If she doesn’t recognize herself in the mirror, how could she stay true to herself? The strict clothes already makes her feel like another person, and she’s not sure she likes that person very much… And what if the other girls finds out that her long hair isn’t for real? That she has got extensions. She touches her braids. They feel real because the hair is real hair. From a real person in India. She wonders how the girl who had to sell her long hair feels about it. If only her mother and Granny had let her be, it was kind of easier with short hair…
The tie is annoying her and she loosens it a little when Granny is busy pinching her cheeks and applying lipstick. She has checked her appearance at least twenty times during the taxi drive from the hotel to Champs-sur-Sauloise. Why is her grandmother wearing lipstick? Taïga doesn’t like it at all. She prefers Granny in long robes and a pointy hat even if that outfit is more intimidating.
After a long drive through small villages and vineyards, guided by a chatting taxi driver, they finally arrive at L’Académie d’Art de Saint-Simon.
So this is it… Taïga stares at the Academy building while Granny pays the taxi. It doesn’t really look like a château, she has seen several in Italy and a few scattered on the hills along the way here. She is nevertheless intimidated by the size of the old building. It is very quiet, but she can hear voices and the clinking on a piano through the open windows upstairs. She follows Granny up the stairs but stops in front of the double doors. Looking back at the alleyway, she watches the taxi disappear. No escape…
‘Are you coming, Taïga?’
‘Err… Yes. Coming.’ She watches her pink cheeked grandmother nervously fumble with her handbag. She doesn’t seem as cool and aloft as usual and it makes her more nervous, too. She can’t help but wonder, again, why Granny is wearing lipstick.
She follows her grandmother through the large double doors, stopping at the base of an imposing staircase. An elder man who Taïga decides must be the Headmaster intercepts them on their way to the reception.
‘Bonjour, Tara!’ He kisses Granny’s blushing cheek, holding a hand intimately on her waist.
Granny chuckles stupidly and Taïga glares at them. What is happening here?
‘Bonjour, François. Voici Taïga, ma petite-fille.’ She switches to English, ‘Taïga, meet Monsieur Lambert, the Headmaster and director of your new school.’
Taïga frowns. Tara? François? She shakes the proffered hand, forcing a smile. She suddenly realizes she didn’t really understand what they were saying, she just supposes Granny introduced her.
The headmaster smiles kindly at her. ‘I hope you will like it here at Saint-Simon’s.’
Taïga doesn’t think so. She smiles suitably again and answers, ‘I certainly will, Sir.’
She follows her grandmother and Monsieur Lambert to his office. While Granny and François settle on the antique couches discussing God knows what in French, she wanders around, looking at the books and paintings on the walls. Soft piano music wafts into the Headmaster’s office and curious she pushes the door ajar and peeks outside. The sound comes from a room a little further down the hall and after a quick glance at her grandmother, she sneaks out. She’ll just have a quick look.
She’s careful not to be seen as she stops outside the room, hidden by a pillar. A young boy is playing classical music on a grand piano. Taïga is mesmerized. She has never heard anything as beautiful, even on Granny’s old record player.
‘Ah, there you are!’ The Headmaster’s voice booms through the corridor and both Taïga and the young boy starts.
‘I told you to stay in the office,’ Granny admonishes, making Taïga blush.
‘I just wanted to listen to the music, Granny,’ Taïga stammers, feeling stupid about hiding behind a pillar.
‘Cut the girl some… err… how do you say? Slack? She can’t get very far anyway. Come here, Taïga. Let me introduce you to Louis St Clair, who is studying music. Third year, is it?’
‘Second it is then. This is Taïga Grey, our American-Romanian student. She doesn’t speak much French yet, so I hope you can take her on a tour while I finalize things with her grandmother.’
Louis looks her over. He’s wearing exactly the same outfit as she is, apart from the skirt of course. He looks like any other kid her age, dark hair, brown eyes and a very nice smile. Because now he’s smiling at her. She blushes again, he must think she’s stupid, just standing there gawking.
‘Do you want to?’
Taïga stares at him. ‘Want what?’
‘Play the piano, of course.’ He gestures to the shining black piano in the middle of the room.
‘Err… I don’t play the piano.’
‘It doesn’t matter. I can teach you something easy.’
He sits on the piano stool and pats the empty space next to him with his hand. A little hesitantly she sits next to him, making sure they don’t touch.
She stares in awe at the multitude of black and white keys.
‘You start here…’ With his index finger he pushes at one of the ivories, then another.
Taïga does as he says. Imitating his movements with her right hand, she tries desperately to remember what he has shown her. She feels utterly hopeless, wanting to give up but being too shy to just stand up and walk away. She tries again but the sounds are discordant and far from a tune.
‘Allons. Let’s try it like this.’ Louis’s fingers fly over the ivories, and suddenly it all becomes clear to her.
‘I think I got it.’ She tries again, slower than him, but a melody comes forth. She beams up at him and he beams back.
‘Cool. Just do the same thing over and over, you can move to the right or the left, but repeat the same movements, OK?’
Taïga nods, starting over again and again. Suddenly Louis starts playing, too, and confused, she stops. Louis laughs.
‘Don’t mind me. Just do your thing. I’ll start and I’ll nod when you can join in.’
She watches his hands bringing forth the music, and when he nods, she depresses the first gleaming white key, then the next.
They don’t notice Granny and François Lambert watching them play “Heart and Soul”, faster and faster, with less and less hesitation. When they giggling finish, the Headmaster claps his hands, followed by a proud Granny.
Louis immediately stands up, apologizing to Monsieur Lambert about not showing Taïga around as promised.
‘Ça va – cette fois-ci,’ the Headmaster says, turning to Taïga, ‘I have promised your grandmother lunch at the Bistro. Shall we…?’
He gestures towards the doorway and Taïga follows them. She turns to look at Louis, but he’s already sitting at the piano again, concentrated on reading the piano score.
François drives them to the small town, parking smoothly between two cars along one of the streets leading to the market place.
They have lunch outside, a new experience for Taïga. Eating on the porch at home doesn’t really count. She enjoys the bright colors and the sunshine but it’s very warm and her cardigan itches. Luckily the parasol provides some shadow and relief from the heat, as she doesn’t dare take it off.
The food is bizarre and she moves it around her plate. She’s not hungry and Granny is behaving so strangely. She watches her smiling and fluttering her eyelashes, laughing at something the Headmaster just said. Could her grandmother be in love with him? She cringes at them smiling blissfully at each other.
But he’s so old… Yuk…
Back at school after the never-ending lunch, Granny continues discussing with Monsieur Lambert, but Taïga doesn’t listen, their reminiscing about the “good old times” is soooo boring.
François Lambert takes Granny and Taïga on a tour to show them the new dormitories. They are still being renovated but should be finished in time to the second trimester.
‘This is one of the new rooms, as I promised you, Taïga has priority on this one.’
Granny admires the view. ‘I love the view over the garden… Come and have a look, dear.’
Taiga acquiesces, getting more and more nervous. She will never find her way around the winding corridors lined with identical doors. There’s so much to take in, her grandmother’s bizarre relation to the old Headmaster overshadowing everything else. She wonders if they are going to get married and have kids. Oh, no… But then again, isn’t Granny too old for kids?
After the tour, it’s time for François Lambert to give a welcome speech to the new students. A part from Taïga, there are only two others; Charlotte Dubois, a “bourgeoise” from Paris and Fahd Al’Hafed Bin Hakim, an Egyptian prince. Or sheikh… or emir. Taïga didn’t quite get the “Votre Altesse” thing. She’ll ask Charlotte after the speech. She seems kind and they talked a little while they were waiting for Mademoiselle Petit and Monsieur Lambert to get ready.
Whispering she tells Granny what Charlotte had said about Fahd, ‘… and Charlotte, her sister graduated from here last year, said that Fahd is not even new, he just wanted to skip classes and they let him because he’s so important…’
Too soon the time has come for Granny to leave.
‘Bye, Granny…’ She clings to her grandmother, trying not to cry. ‘Promise you’ll call?’
‘Yes, I will. And you’ll be happy here, I promise. You’ll soon make friends and you won’t miss me at all! And you have your phone? You know you can call anytime.’
‘But we had to leave our cells at the reception!’
‘Well, there are pay phones. I saw one on the wall. Let’s say I’ll call you every Friday. Does that sound good?’
Taïga thinks it sounds awful, just being able to talk to Granny once a week, but she puts up a brave face, nodding. ‘Sure.’
Taïga can’t sleep that night. She was so excited to come here, but it didn’t quite turn out as she thought it would. As soon as the other girls are asleep, Taïga takes out Buddy and holds him hard. Is it possible to be homesick after one day at school? She’ll count the days until Halloween, when they’ll go home for the holidays.
But the journey and excitement soon takes its toll and she falls asleep at last.
The lessons are difficult, but just listening to the teachers speaking French is lovely… Taïga tries hard to understand everything, and takes extra lessons in French foreign language. She’s a fast learner and thinks it is easier than Romanian.
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.
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. 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.
A few days later they have a new assignment. They should find a living subject to draw animal art. All her classmates set off into the huge park, but she stays behind, having decided to paint an ant just to spite Monsieur Lefebvre. She stops and stares wide-eyed at the large bird in the schoolyard. The bird tries to get away from her when she advances, clumsily jumping with one of its wings hanging by its side.
Taïga squats and reaches out her arm, beckoning 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. Hesitatingly she touches the falcon with the tip of her fingers. So smooth… The bird seems to relax, closing the piercing yellow eyes and letting its head lean heavily into her hand. It’s such a shame to see such a splendid animal being hurt. She used to heal small animals in the forest back in Bigwood Falls after they had been hurt by Minuit. She looks around her, but she’s out of sight, the large Lilac bushes are effectively hiding her from anyone who adventures a glance through one of the many windows.
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 on her arm she heads for the part of the park where the forest starts.
The proud bird stays on the branch long enough to let her finish her assignment, and Monsieur Lefebvre is duly impressed of the effort she has put in. But he 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.
It’s not so much the zero that bothers her, but being accused of cheating in front of the whole class. Especially in front of Clotilde de Cosnac and Louise Lautrec. Louise is the popular girl in her class, and probably at the whole school. Blonde, like Serena (what is the deal with blond hair anyway?) she’s an aristocratic heiress with roots from the middle ages. Very rich, very snobbish and very stupid. Clotilde is her brain. Taïga has never met anyone as mean as Clotilde.
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…
I’m doing progress in French. I just hope I don’t get that 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 she still hasn’t made any friends.
The other students are aristocrats or from old European families, and they keep to themselves, despising Taïga. Clotilde is the one who started calling her Gypsy because she lives in Romania. They don’t listen to her when she explains that she’s American after all. According to Clotilde and Louise, all Americans are newbies, up comers and rude. So maybe it’s better to be considered a Gypsy after all. At least they have traditions. Scary traditions, eating babies and all.
Water is the main subject in science this trimester. Their science teacher 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 pretending to be interested, asking Mademoiselle Florence, who is accompanying them, if she can use her pH meter instead of the strips.
Fahd has a little crowd sucking up to 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!’
Everyone ooh’s and aah’s, and Taïga rolls her eyes.
They all get fishing rods so they can study the different kinds of fish living in the cold dam. Taïga loves fishing ever since she went to Easter camp. Finally she has the opportunity to show off.
To her dismay she only catches small insignificant fishes that make Louise snort contemptuously and Clotilde snicker. 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.
Later that night, Taïga writes to her grandmother to get rid of the oppressing feeling of guilt. She has been here for a month and already used magic twice…
Today, our science teacher took us fishing. I caught a kind of lobster and everybody thought that strange because there are no lobsters in French rivers. I know I promised not to use magic, but I just wanted to catch something special to show off and I had never seen a crayfish before…”
The evenings are getting darker and a little colder. We light a fire in the fireplace in the library, it’s very cozy. But the other night one of the lamps short-circuited and the table caught fire! But Mademoiselle Florence put it out so quickly we didn’t even have the time to get scared. When the firefighters got here it was all over.”
… 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, but a girl. 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.
Taïga stops, ‘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.
But she hadn’t counted on Prince Fahd Al’Hafed Bin Hakim, who despises all cultures except his own. She tries to avoid him but Fahd and his body guard catches her admiring the Egyptian sarcophagus on loan.
‘Look! These are my ancestors!’ Fahd brags.
‘Oh, really.’ Taïga rolls her eyes.
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’ve already passed the whole Egyptian section.
‘We’re playing dominoes with Henri tonight. Why don’t you join us?’
‘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…
Taïga almost forgot 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, but the boys are fun and she quickly gets the hang of the rules. Henri’s sister Eveline is also there, but she doesn’t play.
‘I always win anyway, so it’s not any fun.’
‘Ouais. Because you cheat.’ Henri says.
‘I’m not cheating! It’s not my fault that I’m best at everything!’ She continues talking and talking, making it hard to concentrate.
It was the first time Taïga ever played dominoes and it was quite fun. It felt especially good to laugh and talk to someone.
Later she writes to her grandmother;
We play dominoes or chess in the evenings. Mostly with Henri and Fahd who are actually rather fun to hang with…”
Taïga thinks that they are too focused on boring still life. Why can’t they paint flower bouquets instead of the old mossy fountain. 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.
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’s sure her painting is as he’s requested. She mixes the colors, concentrating on the reflections of the water when someone bumps into her making her fall on the easel and the unfinished painting.
She recognizes Clotilde’s voice, but she doesn’t turn around, just lays sprawled on the ground feeling the tears burn behind her lids.
‘What is going 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. Her uniform is ruined and she can’t open her right eye as the right side of her face is smeared with acrylic paint. ‘Nothing, Sir,’ she whispers. ‘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 says.
‘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 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 kid’s laughter sticks 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 her face though.
‘It’s OK, Mademoiselle Florence. It would have been worse if I was 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.
… so we usually have art class outside, as this trimester is axed on painting nature. It’s difficult, and a little boring, but I’m getting better at it…”
Taïga is working really hard on her painting skills, and even if she’s doing well, she doesn’t do excellent. She likes painting in the Winter Garden because even Clotilde and Louise behave. They are too afraid to be surprised by the Headmaster who frequently stops by and watches the students from the little balcony above.
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…”
Henri Fournier doesn’t like the way the other girls treat the new girl so during their last painting session, he made a portrait of her to cheer her up. Even though Monsieur Lefebvre was annoyed with him, he didn’t regret having painted the sad girl. It sure was more inspiring than the Venus statue.
He decides to ask her to come with him to a concert. But not just any concert…
‘… Aznavour! Et j’ai des tickets…’ (I’ve got tickets…)
‘Great! Super!’ I don’t know who that is! Charles Aznavour???
‘Err… Tu veux venir? Avec moi? Au concert?’ (Would you like to come? With me? To the concert?)
‘… Yeah! I mean – oui, bien sûr! C’est quand?’ (Of course. When?)
Taïga googles Charles Aznavour as soon as she can, and is really disappointed when she finds out he’s 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! His name is Henri Fouchier, and he’s 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 fall is the cross-country race. All the classes 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 again after recovering from the “little apple mishap”. But she hadn’t counted on Louise and Clotilde. They cornered her so she couldn’t pass them, and then she “tripped”, spraining her ankle.
‘Ça va? Are you OK, Taïga?’ Henri stops by her side, bending over to talk to her. The boys have started after the girls, but Henri isn’t an athlete. He’s been jogging and walking, just satisfied with coming across the finish line sometime before lunch.
‘Ça va, Henri. Don’t worry.’ Taïga has some trouble breathing, and struggles to stand up. She can see the two girls running down the slope and disappear into the forest. Darn Clotilde! She tripped me up! And now they are cheating.
‘Just stay here, I’ll get help. Was Clotilde alone?’
‘No, she was with Louise, of course. But, please, don’t say anything. I just tripped, OK?’
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 Christmas, then we’ll switch to other activities…”
After the cross-country race, the popular girls sneak away to swim. Taïga wants to go home, but she tags along, hoping Louise and Clotilde will leave her alone. But she’s hot and dusty, 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 to watch her classmates fool around. She threads water, deciding to let them leave without her. Which they soon do. With her clothes. She has to sneak back to school after dark wearing only her panties, scared that she would run into someone…
We’re not allowed to go swimming without an adult, but the sun was shining and we were sweaty from running…”
Twice a week they bike to the swimming pool. Henri races Taïga, and usually he lets her win.
Mademoiselle Florence is their Swimming teacher. As all of them already can swim, they learn 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 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.
Henri asks if they can try the diving board, and Mademoiselle Florence says ‘Pourquoi pas? Why not? Who want to try the diving board? Raise your hands, please.’
All the boys raise their hands. And Taïga. Evelyn hesitates, then she raises her hand too. Of course, Taïga thinks. She just has to be best.
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, waiting for her turn to dive. When Mademoiselle Florence calls her name, she walks rapidly out onto the diving board with her heart beating fast. She brings one leg up and hops to the end of the board. Focusing on a perfect water entry, she pushes off as hard as she can with her feet. She hits the water, legs straight and toes pointed, like her mom has taught her.
Taïga can’t help herself when she watches bitchy Eveline do a splendid belly flop.
Taïga calls out. ‘Hey, Ev! Is that a frog dive?’
‘Tu ne devrais pas appeler tes camarades “frogs”, Mademoiselle Grey.’ Mademoiselle Florence looks sternly at Taïga. (You shouldn’t call your comrades “frogs”.)
‘But I didn’t! It’s just when I was in Italy last summer, I met someone who…’ She stops when overhears Eveline and Charlotte, ‘… just listen to her bragging about Italy…’
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…
Do you remember Eveline? She thinks she’s best at everything, but she’s decidedly not the best at diving…”
Taïga loves dance class as much as she loves swimming. Her teacher, Mademoiselle Béjart, is her favorite. She’s extremely proud when she praises her, but the other girl’s glances makes her uncomfortable.
‘Look at Taïga, girls! How come she has understood and not you?’
‘Because no one wants to talk to her,’ Louise whispers to Clotilde who snickers.
‘Rien, Madame. Nothing.’
‘Hm. I prefer that.’
‘Position one, everybody!’ She claps her hands and the girls scurry over to the same bar, lining up one after the other, pushing Taïga until she’s last in line.
She remembers the Pinkies back in Bigwood Falls. Serena had been pretty awful but she had survived. Unfortunately Derek is not here…’
‘Taïga, come over here… Oui. Ici.’ Mademoiselle Béjart beckons her with a graceful gesture of her hand. ‘Switch with Louise.’
‘I need someone to set the pace. First position.’
Taïga stands at the bar, feeling the girls stare at her back. She concentrates on her movements, blocking out the uneasy feeling of the angry looks. Heels together, legs are straight, maximum natural turnout with feet firmly planted on the floor. She lifts her arms, nice and rounded, and holds the position, eyes high.
‘Nice, straight spine, broaden your shoulders… Bien.’
Mademoiselle Béjart continues down the line, correcting the positions of the girls behind her.
‘Your knees and toes are not in the same direction, Jeanne.’
‘Use your bellybutton to pull up your pelvis, Charlotte.’
‘Louise, don’t bend over backwards. Your spine should be straight… Keep your shoulders over your hips, you are a ballerina, not a gymnast.’
‘Reduce your turnout, Eveline. Your feet are rolling over.’
‘They are. Your pinkie toe doesn’t connect with the floor. Now, reduce your turnout.’
‘Don’t look at the floor, Clotilde, even to correct your position. Eyes are high. Yes. Arms nice and rounded, hands and fingers elegant. Let me show you… Like this, now hold the position.’
She backs away looking them over. ‘Pull up! Pull up! Think proud. Think tall… Second position!’
There’s a soft whooshing sound when five 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 her best student… ever! Or maybe it just pleases me because she’s always nagging perfect Eveline…”
… lunch and dinner are at school, in the dining room. We are seated by class at tales of five to eight. Mademoiselle Florence is always at our 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…”
One night, after Clotilde and Louise had been extremely mean, she decided to run away. She woke up screaming from a horrible nightmare where she was drowning, held beneath the surface by Clotilde and Louise while the other girls laughed at her, only to find it was partly true. Her bed was soaked and all the girls in the dorm were laughing at her.
Mademoiselle Florence came rushing, and Taïga had to tell her what had happened so she could change the sheets. The other girls feigned sleep when she got back after a quick shower, but she was so ashamed she just knew she had to leave. There was no way she could face her tormentors, knowing she had wet her bed like a toddler. She hit her feet on a bucket filled with tepid water on her way out, and she understands what had happened. They had put her hand in the bucket while she slept and of course she had wet herself.
She slipped outside without being stopped and biked as far as she could in the pitch black night, not stopping until she realized she must have missed the crossroads. She left her bike in a ditch and climbed a white fence, trekking up a little hill to where she hoped she would see the lights of Champs-sur-Sauloise. But there was only darkness. Crying, she let herself fall to the ground under a large oak tree where she fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion.
A soft nuzzling woke her up. She stretched and yawned. It was still dark, but she could see a faint pink light on the horizon. Maybe she should go back to school. She was terribly ashamed, but it won’t happen again. Hopefully.
A low snort and another rub to her back makes her almost double over. She turns her head and scrambles to her feet in fright. The big grey horse jumps with fright too, and gallops away down the hill. A horse? She leans against the tree, watching the beautiful animal stop and shake its head. They stand there, looking at each other for what seems like a very long time. The horse finally decides that she’s 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. Cautiously she reaches out and the horse nuzzles her hand…
She gets on her bike again and returns to school. She will tell Mademoiselle Florence everything so she can help her stop Clotilde and Louise. And she will also tell Granny… Or not. Her poor grandmother will be so worried all the way back in Romania, and she won’t be able to do anything from so far away. No. This is something she must try to do on her own…
… and on Sundays I often ride my bike out to the countryside, where there are horses. I’ve learned that they belong to Agnès grandfather who breed them for show jumping competitions. Agnès is in my class, she’s OK. I’d love to ask her if I could ride, but I don’t want to come across as needy. So I just draw them, as you can see…”
She stops for a swim in the river Sauloise to get the horse scent off her body. Her clothes smell of horses, too. But Monday is laundry day, so that’s not really a problem.
Taïga revels in the cold water which envelopes her body like a purifying blanket. She wishes she could wash away the homesickness as easily as the pungent scent…
Part I – End of Chapter 40
The beautiful sketch of the falcon is by Brenda Lyons. Just click on the image and it takes you to her site.