Elodie Martel could not find the cerulean blue that she had been looking for since Sunday. [i]She had thought, perhaps, that it had been ruined the night that Olive had spilt wine on the wicker basket that held her paints. She’d had her fill of spirits by then; neck warm and words thick and glazed like honey. So much so, that she failed to salvage most of her paints, spellbound by the beauty of the drops trembling in the moonlight like warm blood. She had ample time to make it to the paint shop and back before Monsieur Martel and Emile made it back to St. Germain; the spiced smoke of their aged cigars informing each inhabitant of the Rue Bellechase of their return. She set out into the stale afternoon sunlight with a paintbrush tucked in the soft space behind her ear. [ii]
Elodie was almost always stained with spilt watercolor paints. They dripped and bloomed slowly across her pale skin like bruises so that she hardly ever noticed them anymore. The fibers of her horsehair paintbrush caught in her hair, and she had a strange habit of leaving mason jars brimming with water dyed in varying shades of smoky blues and grays. “Painting herself into a still life”, said Emile. He brought her brighter shades of paints on the days when he walked back from work with Monsieur Martel. She would come home from the Lycée Saint-Cyr to find pale lemons, orange creams and melon pinks arranged in flower-like shapes on her pillow. He never outright gave them to her, for it was known to all dear to her that the soft shade of thistle that blushed her cheeks when she was complimented was the one color that Elodie kept to herself.
Oh, but Olive![iii] Olive who’d clawed her way through Elodie’s blankets of solitude, who’d whispered and kissed her, who’d braided her hair, who’d caressed her until the most tender parts of her swelled and flushed with warmth. She’d seen the colors of Elodie’s skin, she’d painted them across her damp, Cimmerian pupils, she’d stolen them away from the stillness and the solitude of Elodie’s studio, from the space between her sheets that now smelled of their skin; acrylics, ethanol and the peppery scent of female perspiration. Olive was a thief. Olive had most likely stolen her Cimmerian blue. Olive had even stolen her name, for she was baptized Olivia. But that girl was known to take only that which was not given to her.
She paused for a moment on the corner of Rue de Grenelle, the wooded smell of maple and chestnuts always stopped her short in the streets of Paris. A taste of the pastoral hearth rising above the atmosphere of automobile exhaust, baked cobblestones and stagnant rainwater. She’d paint the chestnut vendor one day, she thought, with shades of raw umber and burnt sepia. Les couleurs de la campagne. She loved the darkest colors above all, painted shadows first, and filling the empty spaces of the canvas up with flecks of light. Browns and deep, blues were the best. She’d always resented her own physiognomy due to her penchant for darkness; her thin, ash-blond hair and sleepy grey eyes. “Skin as pale and freckled as a swallow’s eggshell”. [iv]Emile had meant it kindly but Elodie bristled at any mention of her pallor. She wanted to be dusky and violently handsome- like Olive.
A gentleman packing a pipe on the steps of the Hotel Collot nodded solemnly in her direction- a friend of her father’s perhaps? He was a very important man, and his was a very important family. Their three-story neoclassical apartment on Bellechase, her spectrum of watercolors and oil paints, her mother’s oyster pearls and chandeliers of Italian glass dripping from the ceilings of every room; her father’s modest law firm in the Latin Quarter had certainly reaped a handsome sum from the swollen pockets of corrupt politicians and businessmen. Her father was often in the company of such men, he invited them for cocktails and smokes and Madame Martel would bring the little crystal wineglasses from her boudoir, and eau-de-vie distilled with water. She often passed these gentlemen on the steps of the sumptuous left-bank hotels, idly smoking or patting the steaming, knotted flanks of carriage horses as they chatted with the coachmen. More often than not, they were accompanied with young ladies no older than herself. Olive had boasted of enjoying the company of such men, smoking wine-soaked cigars between sheets of Egyptian satin, being fed caviar on a silver spoon, spending hours on end in warm bathwater perfumed with rose petals. How preposterous. She had to remind herself that must take Olive’s embroidered anecdotes with more than a grain of salt. But then again, Olive was as likely to have done the outlandish as she was to lie about having done it.
Olive, Olive. She’d fallen asleep in a meadow behind the Louvre. The ribbons of evening air came cold and soft through the grass. She awoke with a start, the vestiges of a nightmare pooling around her like fading shadows. Her lips were sour with foam and vomit. She’d lost a copper ring from her right hand. Damn it, summer couldn’t come too soon. She’d catch her death in these deceivingly cool springtime evenings. How warm Elodie’s little body had been, resting beside her, breathing little puffs of sleep in the cracked winter air. Elodie. She should have finished her painting by now, had Olive not taken that lovely shade of blue from the wicker basket, after they’d torn and clawed drunkenly at each other’s skin and hair, after she’d told Elodie- with complete intoxicated indifference- about her wilted passion, her hot itch to shed the moth-eaten, dusty blanket of Paris and move someplace golden and sensuous, like Corsica or Verona perhaps. She hated the broken streetlamps, the phosphorescent rivulets of gasoline between the cobblestones, the tramps now nodding at her luridly on the corners of the Rue de St. Honoré. She walked into the square at Chatelet, past the cedar trees on Rivoli, the chimneys coughing up the first plumes of soft brown smoke. She felt the first knots of hunger twisting about in her stomach. Elodie would surely be asleep by now. Or perhaps taking tea with that naïve bastard Emile. They’d be married in the month of June, she was sure, beneath the maple light of drooling candles and blinking fireflies, happy and stupid and dreaming of a warm hearth and cherubic babies. Little Elodie. How she’d wept and writhed about! She would be fine, Olive was sure. Cry a bit, maybe a hangover or two, and then she’d curl up beneath the soft blue floodlights, in her lace and her rose petal perfume, with her stuffed bears and painted porcelain dolls, and Olive would shimmer away from the memories of her peachy life like a faded watercolor stain from her fingers. [v]
Olive, Olive. The thought of her made the milky afternoon sunlight curdle around the edges. A burnt swallow feather floated up out of a chimney. Dusk had settled on Elodie’s heart, her composure began to crack and peel. Olive, Olive. Elodie had worked so hard to trap the ethereal summer air of childhood deep within herself. And then she’d met Olive. Olive, Olive whose touch split Elodie open like a warm and ripe fruit, leaving her raw and peeled open, trembling and naked, the world infinitely more stained and impure than she ever could have imagined.[vi]
A thin mist rose up from the banks of the Seine and moistened her hair. She felt the splinters of the Concorde bridge splitting beneath her feet. The day was ebbing into twilight; the bone white veil of a sky without a sun; she could see pale blue light curling up over the rim of the horizon at the yawning mouth of the Seine.
Oh, but where could Olive be? What was she doing? Elodie had first seen her in autumn, on the banks of the river, scrubbing blood from underneath her fingernails. “Are you doing alright?” The current sighed and moaned against the bottom of the bridge. The girl turned to face Elodie, her eyes so blue and incandescent like the stars that winked and crawled like fireflies against the fabric of the night sky. “Want to help me hide a corpse?” Elodie would’ve turned, she would’ve run home and finished her floral still life, had a glass of milk and honey to nurse her cold, snuffed out the candle before midnight. But she didn’t. “I’m Olive.” And with that, Olive extended a hand, cool and dewy, and Elodie found herself willing to follow her to the stars in the sky, to the silted depths of the Seine. As it turned out, Olive had found a little dog, washed up on the banks of the water, bleeding where pebbles had torn through the fur like bullets. It’s flesh was warm and faintly pulsing with a heartbeat but it couldn’t breathe and two of its paws were badly mangled. Olive had crushed its wet brown head in with a rock and dragged it to higher ground, to bury it neatly, with Elodie’s help. Nothing had been the same since then. Olive… As dark and sleek and bitter as the fruit. A forbidden fruit. The vaporous tangles of mist that rose up out of the water reminded Elodie all too sharply of Olive’s cool, slim fingers curled into her palm, leading her deeper into the intoxicating smoke of pagan rituals, her Victorian effigies burnt at the stake, lulled deeper into a current of dark and feverish pleasures. A diaphanous veil of mist settled like a glaze over Elodie’s eyes. The air was growing so cold, the stars began to harden against the sky like bleached scar tissue. It had been so cold that night in September, by the frosted banks of the water ,and Olive’s hand- so firm and fresh- had led her to a charming little apartment building on the Avenue de la Victoire. The first of many nights to come- Olive slowly peeling the virgin, gossamer folds from Elodie’s heart, the milk from her breath, the silk and cotton from her body, teaching her things, telling her things that she couldn’t unlearn. She’d saturated her with dark, rusted wines, acrid spirits that set her breast in an ice blue blaze, kissed her through the amethyst smoke of opiates, taught her to make talismans of moonstones, taught her sin and spells and lascivious secrets and conjured within her an insatiable hunger for it all. And Olive and Elodie had swollen into womanhood, together, taking note of the wrinkles and the bumps, the promise of life that their bodies could create, of blood and of milk, the hours spent beneath the sheets, counting each other’s ribs where the blankets of baby fat had melted away.[vii] And all that time, Emile, dear Emile, had been waiting for her to come home, been asking her father where she’d been, bringing her daisies and cornflowers to put in her tangled hair- they’d all wilted by the time she came home, bent and worn from whatever unbridled debauchery Olive had incited that weekend. Her parents hardly noticed. But Emile- Oh Emile! He’d loved her so, she’d seen her wavering shadow in the honeyed blond of his iris, she’d seen him quiver when she laughed, ache and writhe at the slightest hint of her disappointment or dissatisfaction. And then, all at once, he had seen it, seen her with Olive- how she had changed. He’d fallen in love with an oyster pearl still pure within its shell, a virgin in a linen dress, a nymphet still fresh with the memory of fairytales and children’s books, and watercolor daydreams. “Corroded.” That was the word he’d used last night. “Spoiled. Gone.” But they had left her, hadn’t they? The comfort and warmth of a soft, clean shaven man with a modest income. The wild and feverish chimera of a woman who’d walked her through the inferno and cast her away just as they’d reach the cold and stale cavers of purgatory. She was alone and naked. She was split and raped and ruined. Couldn’t go back, couldn’t walk forward. She’d reached the middle of the bridge now, rusted moss beneath the worn soles of her slippers, the trees of the Tuileries undulating before her like ashen feathers, the sharp spires of the Musée D’Orsay tucked behind the wings of her shoulderblades. She could see the frothed spit of the river water drooling through the splinters in the bridge’s oak panels. And the color below. Oh! What a blue! Hadn’t Olive once told her that she’d never seen Elodie use a paint that didn’t melt perfectly into the Seine; malachite greens and burnt eucalyptus, smoky bronze and gasoline grey, and that deepest of cerulean blues. The blue of Olive’s eyes and of the dyed carnations that Emile had brought her on the first of May. How that blue should look spread out over her skin, veiled over her hair, filling in the hollows of her eyes and mouth and throat. If she could curl up and sleep in a deep cerulean blue. She leaned over the iron railings of the bridge, crusted over with salt and pigeon feathers. Her tears hit the water first, before the tips of her fingers and the flushed skin of her aching breast.
He’d been sitting on the bridge all afternoon, reading a book called The Worshipper of the Image that he’d found on Elodie’s lacquered dresser as he came to bring her a handful of lilies and hyacinths he’d picked along the Tuileries, bound up with a ribbon of pale, worn blue. He had come by in the morning to pay a visit to Madame Martel. He’d brought in the porcelain jugs on the porch, filled to the brim with milk warmed by the late morning sunlight. Madame Martel regretfully told Emile that she had just sent Elodie out for petticoat buttons and a sourdough baguette. He’d gone up to her bedroom and set the flowers down on the dresser, picking up the book as he left. He’d looked for her by the water, she loved the abysmal blues and greens of the riverbed, the downy tufts of moss and silver stones polished by the current and the mineral salts from factory waste. He’d sat there all afternoon, on the Pont Carousel, scanning the spires of Notre Dame for swallows and rainclouds, and the banks, left and right, for any sign of Elodie. He’d wanted to speak with her, to apologize, to touch her skin at all and breathe the mayflower perfume on her neck. But the moon was carving itself out against the sky now, and she’d hardly dare wander about Paris in the evenings. As he picked up the book and straightened his peacoat, he watched as a pale, sinewy shadow soared across the vaporous moonlight between the water and the skeleton of the Pont Royal across from him. And the deep cerulean blue split by the shadow, swallowed it whole, and all was still in the Paris moonlight. [viii]
“ L'Inconnue de la Seine was a young woman whose identity remains unknown. Her body was found washed up on the shores of the Seine river, in Paris. She is believed to have been no more than 16 years old. Her death mask became a cultural icon and was the inspiration for numerous literary works.”
[i] I began my short story with a simple sentence about some banal aspect of the main character’s quotidian existence. Mrs. Dalloway begins with such a sentence (“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” p.3)
[ii] Reflections and “stream of consciousness” memories from the main character’s point of view interrupted by banal observations on the city surrounding her and her trajectory through the urban landscape.
[iii] Emotional exclamations; Woolf uses these often (e.g. “Ah dear!” p.112)
[iv] Fragments of dialogue introduced into the text. Woolf’s characters often reflect on past conversations in this manner.
[v] Change of perspective.
[vi] Focus on female relationships.
[vii] Intimate account of experiencing womanhood.
[viii] Although each perspective is distinct and unique, the characters interact in some indirect manner; here one character sees another from afar, without recognizing her.