Shannagh Rowland

Shannagh Rowland was born and raised in the West of Ireland and lived for many years in New York City. Her work has appeared in Mudfish, The Gallatin Review and Play(ed)Boy Vol.II.

 

Ceremony

Abigail didn’t want to leave.

Beginning the semester abroad, there had been ample time to distinguish between the cornices of Budapest and Vienna, to taste the polar flavors of anise seed, to encounter desire. Now, it seemed as if there was no time left at all.

Abigail drained the last frothy drops from her cup, rose from her perch – a woven wooden chair from one of the many, nearly indistinguishable Parisian cafes – and slipped a crinkled five Euro note beneath the chrome napkin holder. She pulled a napkin from the dispenser, wiped the crusted remains of a latte and a raisin danish from the corners of her lips, crumpled the paper and placed it in her empty cup. Well, she may as well not waste what was left of it.

The young woman – discreet in a knee-length linen sundress  – strolled through the crowds of the 5th arrondissement. The area was home to the Notre Dame, the Seine and fine universities such as Collège de France, Université Paris-Sorbonne, along with Abigail’s academic base in Paris. Unfortunately, it did not house her. Abigail’s apartment was closer to the city’s southern suburb, Villejuif. It may not have been as pretty as her friends’ locales, lacking the flamboyant facades of the city center but there were no tourists, the train was reliable, and the rent was cheap.

With only a weekend left of the semester, Abigail reminisced as she strolled. The evenings spent reading her latest assignments by the river – delving into Madame Bovary or Don Quixote between worksheets on French inflections and syntax – drinking wine in small cafes and sleeping alone in an apartment with the lowest ceiling she had ever seen. The Sunday afternoons reserved for phone conversations with her parents, her father attempting to slip in a word as her mother monopolized the conversation. Abigail’s mother religiously checked in on Abigail’s weight, her laundry, her studies and her love life. She always closed the conversation with a question.

“And your gift, you haven’t lost it?”

Abigail often twirled the ring around her finger at this moment. It was an eternity ring, silver with a row of clear stones running round the band. If Abigail didn’t look so young, people may have thought it was a wedding band. In class and in restaurants, if anyone asked, they asked her if it was a promise ring. In a way, she supposed, it was.

After that, all that was left was “goodbye” and “I love you” and the click of the receiver on the other end.

 

Abigail headed towards the nearby fruit market as she did most days, occupying the slow moment between the middle of her day and its close. She had collected no souvenirs and the tiny, sparkling Eiffel Towers glinted at her from the stalls lining the Seine. Abigail moved into and through the markets.  The semester in Paris in its entirety may have turned out a little slow.

As she walked from stall to stall, she sampled thick, molten honeys and ripened grapes. Around her, the Parisians rolled French questions and slurs up from the back of their throats and out onto the street. The market’s pavement was often littered with fruit peels, spilled coffee beans and once in a while, an escaped fish-head. Somewhere beyond the stalls, a street performer played an accordion, the wheezy sounds drifting amongst the market’s patrons. Abigail appreciated these solitary Friday afternoons and the small scenes of Paris that manifested in her memories. While her friends travelled most weekends, she had only gone on a handful of trips. If pushed for an answer, she blamed her seclusion on a thin wallet. They usually didn’t need a reason beyond money.

On this particular Friday, turning away from a fruit and flower stand – at which, the clerk was trying to sell her compliments more than any petal or leaf – Abigail elbowed a clementine directly into the path between the wooden stalls; stepping forward, she crushed the fruit underfoot. The pulp and juice seeped into the leather of her sandals, nestling between her pale toes.

“Oh, Lord,” Abigail stammered, flicking her foot back-forth at the ankle, willing the zest away. The fruit’s filth cemented the sole of her foot and shoe together in the rising heat, shuddering her afternoon to a halt.

Running her foot across the tarmac, bending her leg at the knee to check the damage to the bottom of her shoe, she looked over her shoulder; a young man, leaning against the stall across from the scene, smiled. Making eye contact, the man lit a cigarette and rose fully to his feet.

“You seem to have stepped into some trouble,” he pointed to her foot covered in orange junk.

Abigail wrapped her dirty foot around her standing leg, grounded, folding her arms across her chest. She had bumped into this man before at the market. On the Friday before last, he had helped her choose the best apples from the complimentary clerk’s stand, chiding the seller when he kissed the air before Abigail’s face. And last Friday, he had been there too, smoking and chatting with one of the many vendors. Every now and then, he seemed to turn to check her movements but she couldn’t be sure.

Although the young man was almost unknown to her, Abigail felt self-conscious before him.

“Well, I don’t recall asking for your opinion,” she said, even though the language was awkward and dated. The young man’s face looked smooth – probably from this morning’s shave – with decisive eyes and a lean jaw, resembling the rest of his form. A fierce awareness of Abigail’s weight on her leg invaded her consciousness. She tried to remain upright.

“You didn’t ask for my help neither, but I’m going to offer it to you anyway.”

Abigail’s standing leg buckled beneath her, throwing her small form off balance and tumbling towards the ground. The young man, catching her by the elbow, steadied her.

 

The first time Abigail saw him, he was holding a pregnant woman. His arm was hooked under the woman’s armpit, curling up and around her shoulder. The woman limped along beside him, her swollen ankles peeping out between the hem of her floral sundress and the cuffs of her flat, supportive sandals.

He sat the woman down on a wall, jogging to buy water from a stall nearby. From the moment he carried her to the moment he returned with water, he gazed at the pregnant woman’s feet, her toes poking out of the leather like uncooked cocktail sausages. The young man looked pained, almost horrified.

Abigail stood with her hand resting on a piece of fruit from the stall nearest her, a forgotten decision from the moment before she saw him. He looked up from the pregnant woman’s feet to Abigail’s face. She flushed pink, released her grip, turned and walked away.

 

Abigail waited outside the market’s entrance. By the time Daniel returned with a handful of napkins from a nearby cafe, she knew a number of things about him. He lived around the corner from the outdoor market and visited it every afternoon.

“You never know what you might come across in this place,” he said.

Daniel handed Abigail the bundle of rough, white tissues.

He was German, born in Berlin, and the youngest of three boys. His brothers were doctors, following their father’s example. He had moved to Paris a little over two years ago to work as a photographer.

“Why, then – if you don’t mind my asking – do you sound almost American?”

“Wouldn’t you prefer to know about my work?” he said as he turned to her, “but if you do care, I watch a lot of American television. I hope to visit one day.”

The flirtatious clerk from the fruit stand passed before them, blowing a parting kiss at her.

“He likes you,” Daniel said.

“I’ve noticed.”

“Me too.”

Abigail held the napkins in her hands, patting her palms dry. Turning over the tissues, passing them from right to left and back again, her ring glinted in the sun.

“What’s this?” Daniel caught her left wrist, unusually relaxed in his grasp.

Abigail explained the story behind the ring. Daniel raised his eyebrows.

“Can I see it?”

Abigail placed the ring in his palm. Daniel turned it over a couple of times, looking at the stones. He held out his hand for Abigail’s and slipped the ring onto her third finger.

“That’s not –”

“We wouldn’t want people getting confused.”

“I suppose not.”

A stirring grew like a flower from her gut, blossoming in her larynx.

“Want to split a cigarette?”

He handed her one, offering his lighter. Abigail coughed up her first inhale.

Daniel took the cigarette and rolled it between his forefinger and thumb, pinching it a little in his grip.

“So, what are we going to do about your feet?”

They both looked down at her toes, orange and stuck to the soles of her sandals.

 

Abigail climbed the stairs to Daniel’s apartment. She twirled the ring around her middle finger rhythmically as she climbed.

“Tell me about your art.”

She leaned against the doorframe at the entrance to his apartment. She listened for a moment to hear voices of children or lovers from above and below them: nothing but the music of the streets, wafting in from an open window somewhere unseen.

“Oh, I’ll show it to you later,” Daniel turned the key in the lock and leaned his hip against the door, “right now, I’m more worried about your orange toes.”

Bumping against the door, he pushed it open. His apartment was small, characteristically Parisian, with low ceilings and grimy, yet open windows. The kitchen, living room and bedroom joined together in a long, open space. The bathroom was tucked into the far right corner. A door, slightly ajar, separated the rooms.

Daniel, holding the door open for her, ushered Abigail into his apartment and shut the door, softly but promptly, behind her. She stood in the middle of the combined rooms for a moment, looking around at the kitchen, the walls and – for any kind of artist – they seemed abnormally bare.

Daniel walked around her to the bathroom. There was a swish of the shower curtain, the little hooks rattling against the pole, before he returned with a metal basin.

“Want some coffee?”

She nodded. He moved across the room, faster than before. She turned to sit on his couch, her back to the window facing the street, and leaned into the silk cover laid over the cushioned frame. Metallic sounds rose from the kitchen as the tap water, ringing like rain on a steel roof, hit the bottom of the basin. Daniel intercepted the stream with a kettle, before placing that on the stove and resuming the original flow.

Abigail, bent over, had begun to remove her sandals when Daniel turned in the kitchen, cutting the flow of water into the basin and carrying it to her.

“No, no!” he cried, “you mustn’t do that.”

Abigail paused, loosely grasping the straps of her sandals. Daniel placed the basin and a kitchen towel by her feet before quickly and firmly pushing Abigail’s fingers aside and unbuckling the leather straps, some sticky, with his own hands. Abigail looked to his face, attempting to catch his eyes, but they remained fixed on her ankles, her toes. She leaned back again, watching Daniel as he slipped off the brown straps one by one and rested his palms beneath the soles of her feet. Once, he lifted his eyes to her with a look that struck her at the back of her throat. Those decisive eyes, his lean jaw, locked onto her and held her there on the silk couch before Daniel’s chin dropped down to her toes and he dropped each foot, from ankle to toe, into the basin of water. Abigail shivered at the sober chill.

With both hands, Daniel took Abigail’s feet – one at a time – and bathed them in the cool liquid; running his fingers underfoot, he traced the sole of her body over and over and she trembled from the sensation, before he invaded the most distal part of her limbs, slipping his fingers between her toes, conscious and careful to remove any and all residue of pulp left behind from the decimated clementine. Above the water, now murky and tinted with the fruit’s remains, Abigail’s body grew warm and she shifted on the silk throw, slipping her calves a little deeper into the basin. Daniel, running his hand from her ankle to her knee, looked to her at this moment; his mouth in a loose O, as though to speak, to say –

A scream tore through the air.

“Ah, shit!” Daniel dropped Abigail’s feet into the basin. The water splashed up to her thighs. The kettle wailed as Abigail picked up the kitchen towel and wiped her legs, stepping up and away from the basin. She turned towards the bathroom.

“Do you mind if I use your restroom?”

Daniel, hearing a faint noise over the clatter of cabinet doors and the kettle’s dying howl, flicked his head to Abigail, nodding.

Abigail slipped through the crack of the half-open door into the small bathroom. She shut the door. The space was noticeably darker. She looked to the room’s tiny window, expecting more city grime on the wooden-framed panes. Instead, they were covered with black plastic. She rose up on her toes and leaned closer, gripping the bath’s shower curtain for support. A piece of the plastic curtain shuddered and tore from its hook. Stumbling back from the window, she carried the curtain with her, tearing – one by one – little pieces of the fabric from their hooks. She landed against the sink and looked up to where the shade had been.

Pictures hung on a line draped across the tiled wall surrounding the shower – dozens of them, in different tones and sizes – with additional prints floating in the shallow, dark water of the bathtub. Abigail leaned to pick one from the tub, grasping the corners with her fingers, and held it close to her face; framed by a thin white border, a pair of feet – slim, sculpted and female – rested on a layer of silk. They were folded over one another as though resting on a cross, yet relaxed. Abigail dropped the photo back into the tub and fingered each of the other photos across the line and in the water. In each of them, the feet lay one over another in Christ’s pose. She placed her hand to her lips. The heavy thump of her heartbeat skipped in their tiny veins and capillaries.

“Oh my—”

Daniel knocked on the door.

“What are you up to in there? Is everything alright?”

Abigail remained against the sink, heart hammering, and rolled her options over and over in her head. Climb out the window. The least likely, she was four-stories up and two inches too wide. Slam open the bathroom door and sprint to the apartment’s exit. Had Daniel locked the front door? She couldn’t say. Or, playing cool and steady, she could drink a cup of coffee and after thanking him for his hospitality, leave through the front door, just as she had come in.

Daniel knocked again. Abigail twirled the ring on her middle finger, out of place. The image of the pregnant woman’s swollen feet revisited her, now menacing. She stepped back from the sink, looked down to her own feet. They were still damp, small pools of liquid speckled with orange peel surrounded her heels, two pale islands in a faint orange lake. A third knock came through the door, stronger this time. Checking her reflection in the gritty bathroom mirror, she turned the doorknob to stand face to face with Daniel. He smiled, a little strained.

“I have a surprise for you!” he said, stepping aside. Before the silk-covered couch, Daniel placed a camera, aimed at a point below the couch’s seat where a pillow, layered in silk, rested. Daniel walked towards the couch and patted the arm nearest the camera.

“Please, rest.”

Abigail nodded. The smell of burning buried itself in her nostrils and sat on her tongue, mingling with musty tobacco.

“Where’s the coffee?’

“Agh, ruined! Germans, we’re not famous for our coffee, are we?” Daniel patted the couch once more.

Abigail sat and, without instruction, placed her feet – one folded over another – on the silk pillow below her. A familiar chill washed over her as she waited for Daniel to kneel before her, clutching his camera. For a moment, she smelled the oranges, strong and familiar, transporting her back to the market. She attempted to gather her thoughts of the moments before Daniel approached her. She could not grasp them.

She did not wait long for Daniel. Crouching down at her feet, Daniel mumbled a slew of barely audible phrases as he raised the camera to his eye and held it there, like a prayer, before releasing the shutter. The flash erupted in Abigail’s face, blinding her. Shutting her eyes, she leaned back into the couch, amplifying the hollow snap of the camera capturing this moment.

Breathing deep, the smell of orange and burnt coffee filled her. The music of the street market drifted by, wafting in from an open window behind her, obscure and unremarkable.

© 2019 Shannagh Rowland