Edith stood on the edge of the rocks, overlooking the water. The early morning mist hovered over the Luberon, reluctant to let the day in. Even to a 13-year-old, the view was startling.
“I know where there are some much higher cliffs.”
Edith turned. There was a boy. A new instinct told her to fold her arms.
“How long have you been standing there?”
The boy smiled.
“I can show you where they are, if you like.”
Edith drew herself up, lifted her chin.
“I know where they are. But it’s not allowed.”
The boy held her gaze. Seconds passed. It felt longer. His eyes were cobalt, with darkness inside, like the lake below. He turned and scrambled down the rocks. Edith stared, long after he had disappeared from view. She shivered.
Edith huddled in the gap in the dense laurel trees between her back yard and Monsieur Magnon’s garden. It was almost too easy to sneak figs from the old man’s tree these days; her ageing neighbour was no longer a worthy opponent. But still she observed the tradition, crawling commando-style through the neglected grasses, to the glorious elder statesman flaunting his fruits in the centre of the garden, before creeping back to enjoy the spoils in her natural snug.
Who was that boy? Edith had lived in the village her whole life and never seen him before, until the rocks. She surveyed the fig in the palm of her hand and recalled the thrill of the first time she sneaked one from Monsieur’s tree. She bit deeply into the sweet juicy flesh of the forbidden fruit.
“Where have you been?”
“Nowhere,” said Edith, hanging her head.
Her mother placed flour-covered hands on ample hips.
“Edith, I have warned you about going on those rocks.” She clicked her tongue, the sound of disapproval that Edith hated.
“It’s perfectly safe, Maman” said Edith.
“Make sure you stay in the village. And no talking to strangers. Anything could happen.”
“Yes, Maman.” Edith lifted her head to meet her mother’s eyes, tried on a smile.
“What’s that on your chin? Have you been in Monsieur Magnon’s garden again?” Her mother turned back to the marble slab on the kitchen table and pummelled the dough with exasperated vigour. Edith retreated.
Market day. Edith enjoyed the bustle from her hiding place. In years gone by she would have clutched Maman’s hand, eagerly trailed round and enjoyed the rich vegetal smells of fresh tomatoes and overripe bananas, while gazing up at rotund women wearing headscarves, pressing baguettes. She would have endured thumbs and forefingers squeezing her face as the local mother hens clucked over her. By lunchtime she would have had a sore red imprint in her cheek. Now, Edith kept her distance, the familiar faces becoming more like strangers.
There he was. Standing on the far side of the village square, looking directly at her. No one else had ever found her secret spyhole, squeezed between the rafters and attic space of the neglected barn. Even from a distance, his near-translucent eyes were penetrating. Edith couldn’t stop her face reddening; she felt exposed. She looked down, waiting for the flush to subside. When she looked up, he was gone. She felt cold, suddenly. Shivered.
The rocks were her sanctuary. During the holidays, Edith would race to them early in the morning, clambering up deftly. She knew every nuance. She knew the large smooth boulders that could take her full weight, and which of the smaller rocks tended to crumble, needing a lighter tread. She knew the hot Provençal sun would bake the ground by noon, burning the soles of her feet through her thin plimsolls. At the top she would breathe in and close her eyes, before diving into the cold-water lake, graceful as a guillemot. She would emerge from the depths guided by her air bubbles, gasping for breath, exhilarated and free.
The next time, he was waiting for her at the top, wearing swimming trunks the colour of the moss growing on the rocks. It would occur to her later that she had been expecting him. He didn’t speak. She glanced down and saw his towel crumpled on a rock. She noticed his dark skin, his defined torso and his shiny, black hair like a panther’s. Edith felt one of her new feelings when everything was unclear, as if her body was telling her something she couldn’t quite hear. The boy dived, arms outstretched in a V-shape, body arched. He looked like an angel as he soared out, then down to the lake below. He surfaced, gulping in air as he looked up. Edith barely hesitated. She dove in, her breath already fast and catching in her chest. When she finally burst out into the light, he was still waiting, treading the freezing water. Expressionless. They swam to the edge and he climbed onto a boulder, reaching out an arm to pull her out. Their bodies almost touching, Edith felt his warm breath on her cheek. She swallowed.
“Okay, show me the other rocks.”
Saturday morning at school and time had stood still. Edith didn’t take her eyes off the wall clock. She tapped her pencil on the desk.
“Edith, stop it at once.” Madame was a brittle woman. Edith wondered why she had chosen to teach, if children irked her so. Edith would never take a job if she couldn’t muster a smile while she worked. She would take care to choose her path in life.
Her pleated grey wool skirt irritated her knees as she fidgeted. She rubbed them, clammy palms sticking to the skin and adding to her discomfort. When it finally came, the sound of the bell made Edith jump, despite having waited for it all morning. Now there were just the afternoon hours to get through, then the night.
They met at dawn in the village square, before the sun had had time to bake the stones. Edith had packed a knapsack with baguette, ham, and figs from Monsieur’s tree. The boy was waiting when she arrived; he emerged from the shadows beneath the old oak.
“Let’s go,” he said.
Edith followed him to the outskirts of the village, then across the field to the viaduct. She saw the high rocks beyond, and could hear her mother’s voice.
“Keep away from the viaduct, Edith. It’s too far and too dangerous.”
Edith pushed the voice further and further to the back of her mind until she could no longer hear it over the roar of the rollercoaster ride she was on.
It took them a while to climb up. Shards of sharpened rock slipped away from under their feet as they laboured up the tricky terrain. With such unfamiliar ground underfoot, more than once they reached out to steady each other. Edith’s insides were a strange kind of warm: not in her tummy, but lower. It was a kind of ache that she couldn’t pinpoint, and it felt weird. It was a nice weird. She didn’t understand how that was possible.
At the top, they took their time to arrange their belongings. Edith laid out the provisions, leaving the figs in her knapsack so as not to dry them out in the sun.
“For after,” she said, breathless and dizzy. She was seeing things as if she was a new version of herself.
The boy looked at her with his strange blue eyes. He turned and rose onto the balls of his feet, lightly bouncing as he prepared to dive. He lifted his arms while bending his knees, poised. He jumped, up and out. He started to soar. Edith gasped; for a moment she thought he might fly. Then gravity began its work and he started his
descent, which seemed to be in slow motion yet lasted no time at all. Impact. The sound was shocking and brutal, like a gunshot in the wilderness.
Edith watched for the boy to emerge, as she prepared for her dive. Nothing. She waited. Still nothing. Seconds passed. They felt like minutes. The boy did not appear. The water changed from exotic and inviting to something dark and hostile. Edith shivered. Her breathing grew shallower and shallower. Eventually she stopped peering over the edge. She sat, huddled with her knees drawn up into her chest, gently rocking back and forth. Edith imagined she was at home, and had never strayed beyond the viaduct. She dreamed of her mother swooping her up in a colossal embrace, humming, soothing. Time passed. Nothing but Edith’s gentle rocking, the sound of her own gentle humming.
She stood and gathered their things. Slow, methodical, numb. The figs, she removed from her bag and set them on the rocks. Barely touching the boy’s towel, she dropped it into the knapsack where it crumpled in the bottom. Her own covered it. She ran home, without looking back. The figs were left to bake in the midday sun.
Janis Lane has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing. Her fiction has appeared in Ellipsis Zine, Flash Flood Journal and Pygmy Giant, and her essays on Thresholds International Short Story forum. She was longlisted for the 2016 Bath Short Story Award. She lives in Lyme Regis and can be found procrastinating in her stationery shop, The Writing Room, which has wonky walls.