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FICTION: La Corde

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Jean-Luc, on the threshold of adolescence, sulked into an overwhelmingly proper office. A stern old man with solemn eyes, magnified by heavy spectacles, bade him sit at a formidably exquisite desk of mahogany. A lavender envelope bearing his name lay before him. Jean-Luc inhaled the familiar fragrance of lilac before he slit it open with his forefinger. Sighing, he parted the folds in the crinkly, pale stationery retrieved from the envelope. His mother’s choice of faux parchment accentuated her flair for the extraordinary—even after she was gone. The letter, written in her hand, was smoothed on the desk under his drooping chin. Briny tears falling from milky cheeks dappled the paper as he began to read.

If you are reading this mon Cherie, I, la Corde—your devoted mother, am dead. Do not let your spirit cry, as I have surely died a glorious death. Your eyes must not fog from tears. They should remain focused on a path that leads to your glory. I have sensed you are following mine. So, I have written this to encourage—not instruct—you. For where you yearn to tread, the steps can never be learned. And they must be walked with a stout and exultant heart.

My heart always belonged to the wire. I grew up travelling the fairs of Paris with my father, as he peddled herbs and elixirs. Astonished by their spectacular feats, I befriended the acrobats of these fairs. Pierre, the friendliest of them, walked the high wire. One day, he begged for my company while he labored over threads of transparent steel entwined around a core of rope. Pierre stressed that the rope was the soul of his wire. This is when I knew I wanted to be la Corde—the Rope.

Pierre’s intuition had told him of my desire to promenade in the sky—not I. He never offered that I should learn. In fact, he explicitly told me that the art could not be taught. But Pierre never discouraged my following him about and studying the intricacies of his practice of it. It is no wonder he initially engaged me while toiling over his wire. If a person dares to truly walk one, it is to be regarded as a lifeline. And they, in turn, must become a living entity of it.

Pierre told me his wire was a snake. He rescued it from the tall grass of Belle-Ile. There, it had hibernated for years to shed the lubricants with which it was conceived. Pierre, with petrol and emery, revived his snake to a state where all it lacked was the bristles of a brush and the caress of a towel. These removed all that was foreign to the soul. Thus, what is often equated to death is prepared to adhere with life. Pierre lived for the wire and, when he walked it, he was le Serpent.

The wire I saw le Serpent bring to life was the length of a pole used for telephone lines. He straightened it between two sturdy oaks that stood adjacent to a stream where livestock drank. Pierre then secured, with a clamp, an end to one of the trees. He lifted the other and stretched it to its limit, asking if I could do the same. I obliged, leaning back, to keep the wire taut. He travelled over it with a cloth, trying to discover kinks and splinters. Once satisfied of purity, Pierre spliced an eye, to fit a thimble, in my end—attached it to a hoist—drew the eye with a pulley fastened to the other tree — joined them— and tightened. The span, across those oaks, is where I learned; watching le Serpent, eight feet off the ground, go through his exercises.

Pierre put on slippers that appeared to have grown on his feet. Looking at the tree, he vaulted onto the wire and propped himself on one foot. He switched to the other, then reached for the tree, turned around, and rest his back against the knurly bark. Le Serpent remained there long enough to fix his eyes on the far oak, when he poised himself on his right foot. Later, I would learn that this was the foot he depended on for stability. He then planted the other, for two ticks of a clock, and switched again. In this manner, he walked the length of the wire, accompanied by the gurgling brook and disinterested glances of cows.

I, however, was enraptured. Not realizing this beginner’s exercise was done for my benefit, it was repeated several times. Pierre even jumped off intermittently, only to thrust himself immediately back on. If it were not for this example, I might have been too embarrassed, during my first attempts, to allow myself to leave the wire when my balance betrayed me—I was simply mimicking le Serpent. It was vital for me, at this stage, to know I should not struggle with what I had to learn to trust.

There is no doubt that day inspired my conviction to walk the wire. After the performance of elementary exercises, I witnessed the essence of living on it. Le Serpent displayed an immutable stance as he either sashayed like a matador stalking his bull or strolled like a tourist returning to his train. He ran, danced, and did gymnastics—rested without dismounting—then on one knee saluted his audience, which numbered only me and the lingering cattle. All he did, boasted ownership of that portion of space he occupied, as though it was the atmosphere’s duty to support him.

When I decided to own the wire, I purchased it with an endless attention to detail. My senses borrowed all available capital from seasoned acrobats. None was given freely. Preparation became a priceless investment. Developing an exclusive panache was a golden deposit. And rehearsal fortified the account. You, mon Cherie, do not inherit this account. You must initialize yours with time and deed. The only contribution of value I can offer is the experiences I have presented you.

Now, you have been presented with my death. Even in its glory, you heart must be wrenched to discover I was fallible. No one cheats their demise forever, Jean-Luc. How many times can one exhibit seamless grace, when endlessly confronted with the ultimate consequence? My perfection of this most respected attribute on the wire may have deceived you into believing that fate was in my control. That was never my belief when I stepped on the wire. I was destined to die on it, in the same spirit that it was meant to be my life. It only concerned time, which I lost all conception of, when I walked suspended in the sky. Walk your own path to the clouds, mon Cherie—especially if you choose to follow me on the wire.

Your Loving Mother.

Jean-Luc decidedly lifted his head to challenge the feigned empathy poised to engage him from across the condescending expanse of a desk. “I want my mother to die again.”

“What—er—?” the abruptly shaken man began to stammer.

“She will die at the cliffs of Port de Donnant, Belle-Ile.”

He stood with a determination that denied the befuddled solicitor an option to respond. The great la Corde could not fall victim to a slippery bathtub. Jean-Luc knew that his mother deserved to plummet from the clouds.

Robert Lages grew up in Vienna, Va, and currently lives in Allentown, Pa. with his wife Johanne and daughter Emma. He has been exercising thoroughbred race horses the past 32 years in the mid-west and on the east coast. Lages started attending Mercer in 2009.

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