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Playing Eleanor

by Blue Adams

     Maud read books because she was expected to.
     She looked at Eleanor because she wanted to.
     The current compilation of pages that restricted her gaze was one she received last week.

A book that strayed from the traditional epic genre, with anticipated literary success, was a “must-read” for the sole daughter of the Bennet family. Maud sat at her desk, quill in hand, and wrote the opening of her analysis. She imagined her writing presented next month under her father's name. The ink stained the parchment in perfect, straight lines. The letters dried fast.

     The manor was quiet that morning, but Maud’s ears liked to identify the distant melodies of her world. And although she knew the third celestial sphere rotated westward to deliver the sun over the Earth’s eastern horizon, she remained deaf to its song. Instead, Maud listened for its effects. Every morning, when the rising sun’s rays penetrated her house’s timber frame, she heard the wood creak under the threat of its flames. Her father once told her of a time when their town burned, and though generations of life and death may have allowed man to forget, the world’s sinless creations never did—the house lived and breathed memory.

     Maud heard her father walking upstairs, and the floorboards sighed under the weight of his steps. She didn’t like the sound of either. She let the distant clatters and sizzles of the kitchen grow in their place, and if she focused hard enough, she discovered, she could just barely make out the soft sounds of Eleanor’s respiration from across the room. Typically, Eleanor reserved her morning breath for humming. Maud missed how the vibrations of her voice would pivot on the patterned wallpaper and rush to tickle the corners of her mouth.

     She supposed today’s silence was a fitting enough punishment.

     But there was no sense in thinking about that then.

     And so she read and reread. She reviewed the text, and embellished it with annotations and grace notes where she deemed necessary. She revisited her favorite pages and whispered its best lines until her tongue knew them well. Maud knew a suitor would prompt her to prove her competency one day, and she would not be left silent. She couldn't afford to dishonor her parents so, but she enjoyed reciting the words of this book anyway. And after years of muttering The Lord’s Prayer, hymns, and other important literatures, memorizing words and their rhythms had become something that rather defined Maud.

     She felt compelled to understand the voice of every text. Lyrics and melodies intertwined in her mind, and with texts such as this one, she could almost feel the author’s song flow through her veins and to the tips of her fingers. If all books were written like this, she thought she’d never stop reading. She decided she didn’t know what it was about this new genre she admired so much. Sure, the meter was impressive, and the author’s alliteration was abundant, but nothing she hadn’t seen before. She only understood that it made her feel, and it made her want. And perhaps a third thing that she hesitated to admit.

     What she understood best was that how it made her feel was irrelevant to suitors. Her parents only talked of marriage these days, and for Miss Maud Bennet, there was no room for feminine error. She had seen what horrors divine punishment had laid upon her grandmother, and Black Death was no way to go. The stench of her sickness remained strong in the folds of her favorite quilt and immortal in Maud’s mind. Though the quilt laid beyond the dusty door frame of the downstairs broom closet, the house’s ventilation ensured Maud’s memory was one worthy of her parent’s pride. She supposed she must put it to good use. She knew what part she must play and rehearsed her lines well. In preparation, she closed her eyes and imagined a faceless man before her. He loomed over her. He boasted of his success. He looked at her without seeing. Maud imagined herself madly in love, and summoned her memory of page 4, line 10,

 

     “I'll be at your beck and call,
     To fulfill whatever needs you
     Have, wise or foolish--you are above

     Me, my only commandant.
     All others for you I abandon.
     From you I never want to part.”

 

     She opened her eyes to see that she had remembered every word perfectly, though that was never really in question. Despite her success, the letters left a bitter taste in her mouth. Maud set the book down on her desk and was surprised when she heard herself exhale so clearly. The room seemed quieter than before. Maud didn’t feel like confirming her suspicion yet, so she let her eyes wander with caution. The fireplace rested to her right. The bookshelf was recently dusted. She wondered if her study room had always been so bare. Her eyes climbed the pale blue wall that sat behind the bookshelf, and followed the grain of the exposed beams that lined the ceiling. When Maud was ready to look just slightly farther to the left, the crackling of the fire commanded her attention instead.

     The flames leapt as if in competition with each other and, for a moment, flickered to a perfect 4/4 time signature. She watched the flames dance, and each time they tickled the firebox’s ceiling, she tapped her finger against the silk of her dress. She counted the rhythm under her breath:

     1... 2... 3... 4...
     1... 2... 3... 4...
     She watched as the flames took turns being the tallest. The popping of air pockets bursting open articulated each beat. She counted the subdivisions:

     1 e and a,
     2 e and a,
     3 e and a,
     4 e and a...

     Drops of sweat tickled her skin. She missed the fire’s unpredictable composition that

played in the winter months, when the snow outside poked at the window and teased the flames from afar. Instead, Maud found herself in the midst of July’s heat, with windows closed, and ears open. The simple meter entranced her.

     1 e and a,
     2 e and a,
     3 e and a,
     4 e and a...
     Maud sat in front of the fireplace. The heat brought a sting to her eyes, and perspiration glued her stray hairs to the sides of her face, but Maud didn’t notice. The fire exhaled warm air like laying a blanket across her face, and each measure brought a new breath. She watched the ashes roam the fire’s box freely. They twirled and shimmered in the underlight. She imagined she was dancing among them, flittering from flame to flame, pausing to share the occasional peck with a fellow ash. A sudden pop! from the fire is what finally pulled her out of her trance. Maud finally drew her gaze to the left and saw an empty space next to the window where she had expected Eleanor to be. The room’s floor suddenly seemed too wide and its ceiling too tall to hold only Maud. Her eyes remained glued to the empty space for a moment. The window was shut and the sounds of the town muted and indiscernible.

     

     When Maud returned to her study, she avoided opening page 10. Instead, she reviewed her notes and wrote in the margins an analysis of the author’s technique in the unfeeling voice of her father. It could be fun sometimes, freeing, and right, to write in the voice of a man, but today it just felt like a chore. A few minutes later, she heard Eleanor’s light taps on the door.

     

     “Miss Bennet, I’m sorry to interrupt your study, but breakfast is ready.”

     

     “Ellie,”

     

     Maud enjoyed testing how few syllables it took to make Eleanor’s cheeks grow red.

 

     These two often did the trick.

 

     “Why don’t you tell me what I am to expect today?”

 

     Mrs. Bennet was yelling at an employee down the hall to the right, so the girls went left. As they walked to the dining room, Maud listened to Eleanor list foods and ingredients with words more appetizing than their meanings. Maud imagined the sweet flavors on Eleanor’s lips. Eleanor looked around to see that they were alone.

     By the time Maud sat down in front of her meal, she already felt rather full. She was only able to get a few bites in before her father reminded her of her meeting this afternoon with John Williams.

     “I know you must be nervous to meet him,” her father spoke from the head of the table. Maud thought his wide shoulders unafraid of taking up space made his chair a strange fit, like the throne of a child, “but his father grew up with me. You remember Jack, don’t you?” He didn’t wait for an answer before rambling on about That One Time At Knight Training. Maud just began to tune back in when she heard, “Great man. Don’t worry about a thing, doll.” The small attempt at connection unsettled Maud. She never liked the way his voice held his words.

     “Oh, yes,” her mother chimed in, “and I have a surprise for you!” She motioned for Lucas to step forward.

     He hesitated. “Have you made a decision regarding our previous discussion?”

     Maud knew servants would begin to demand more since the Black Death proved half their staff unworthy of life, but still Lucas’s disobedience unsettled her. What punishment awaits him?

     “Just give me the box.” Maud’s mother swiped the jewelry box from the boy’s hands. “Servants think they can do whatever they want these days.” She huffed. “Not you, of course, dear.” Her eyes held Eleanor’s. “You know your place.”

 

     Maud felt queasy when the gold necklace dangled like a carcass in her mother’s grasp. Mrs. Bennet walked giddily toward Maud and hummed her favorite hymn into her ear as she placed the jewelry around her neck. Maud looked across the table to meet the unfeeling eyes of her father—she didn’t dare meet Eleanor’s—and tried her best to follow suit. She relaxed her face and grew a soft smile, but Maud was always told she had her mother’s eyes. Once the clasp was done, Maud felt her mother’s hand slide onto her cheek, and heard her voice rise and fall in a pattern she was never able to grasp.

     “John is just going to adore this necklace on you, and it’s going to match perfectly with that custom dress I ordered for you, I know it. The Good Lord knows it, dear. Mhm.” They continued eating their meals to the rapidly increasing tempo of clothes, comments, food, and actions that were all vital to the inevitable joining of the Bennet and Williams families. Maud didn’t feel like eating anymore.

     Once her parents had had enough, (of food, of themselves) Maud was free to enjoy some time walking around town. Escorted by Eleanor. To pick up her custom dress. And back home in time to be proposed to.

 

     The ride to Lilly’s shop was loud and silent. Eleanor didn't feel like talking, and Maud was composing a song in her head she didn't know how to end. Inside the shop, Lilly handed the girls a heap of deep red silk, fine linen, and gems she called “the finest dress in all of England.” Maud told her she was a doll.

     When the curtains of the fitting room were drawn, Maud turned away from Eleanor and stared at the wall. As Eleanor began undoing the laces along the back of Maud’s dress, Maud imagined she was dancing along the curves of the wallpaper’s pattern. She conjured up a melody to sing in her head, and let thoughts of harmonies and counterparts cover up the screams of the fight between her heart and her head. But the heat of Eleanor’s breath against the back of her neck was distracting, and eventually Maud realized her composition and Eleanor’s respiration shared the same tempo.

     Maud stepped out of her gown, and kept her eyes glued to the sleeve’s embroidery as she handed it to her maid, who then folded it neatly and helped Maud into her new garments. When the fabric tugged at Maud’s skin, Eleanor pulled tighter. Maud felt a relentless tightness in her chest anyway, and had sin to be paid for somehow. The last accessory was the girdle.

     Maud tried to steady her breathing. When Eleanor stepped in front of her, Maud couldn’t avoid her eyes any longer. In the thickest amount of layers she’d ever worn, Maud felt bare. Eleanor ran her hands along the thin embroidered fabric and got on her knees to fasten the buckle. With one hand on Maud’s waist and the other on the buckle, she pulled at the pendant to ensure it sat securely low on her hips. Maud watched. She wanted to—she didn’t know what she wanted to do—but she felt certain that if she did anything, her necklace would tighten and choke her. When Eleanor stood up, she let her hand remain on Maud’s waist. Maud froze under the burn of Eleanor’s eyes. The hand on her waist guided her, and Maud let the warmth draw her in. Like a moth to the flame? Maud hesitated.

      “Do you think John will like it?”

     As they walked away from Lilly’s shop, Maud heard the sharp tone of a rebec. She grabbed Eleanor’s hand and followed its choppy rhythm. Eleanor ran lightly on her feet while Maud made sure her shoes grazed the cobblestone street every few beats. They skipped past townspeople, and when an especially long note played, Maud held her hand up high for Eleanor to twirl under, and smiled as the bass of Eleanor's laughter accompanied the distant rebec’s song. But even as their hands met, Eleanor noticed it was a more difficult task to meet Maud’s eyes. Instead of seeing Eleanor, Maud’s eyes remained fixed on the end of the street, peering just past the right corner, and stretching to process every new inch of brick and stone clues that revealed themselves as she grew closer and closer. They must be just beyond the corner here!

     Eleanor hoped they never found the player. Finding solace in the energy that burned in Maud’s eyes, Eleanor forgot for a moment that Maud’s eyes weren't looking at her. She forgot how strategically Maud had orchestrated their running—their dancing—so that Eleanor would laugh her predictable laugh at just the right pitch, time, and place Maud wanted. Eleanor used to think Maud wanted her too, but ever since John Williams entered the picture, she wasn't so sure.

     All she knew was that finding the player meant their dance was over. And they both knew the player was close.

     It wasn't until Eleanor began to wonder if Maud would ever look at her like she listened to music, that suddenly Eleanor didn't feel like running anymore. She thought Maud’s grip on her hand was a little too loose, too articulate, too similar to the way Maud held her viol’s bow.

“You know your place.”

 

     Pebbles scattered frantically under the crunch of Maud’s step, and still Maud ran, and skipped, and leapt, and jumped.

     Eleanor yearned for silence.

     Just as the rebec’s voice got closer and closer, and Eleanor was sure the player was just around the corner, she let go of Maud’s hand. And if Maud noticed, Eleanor wouldn’t have known. Maud skipped into the next alley, and out of her sight.

 

     When Maud found the rebec’s player, she wasn’t too surprised to see a little boy and a rebec with only two strings. She watched him play for a while and danced along when he knew the notes well. When she noticed the instrument shop next door, she bought a third string and showed him how to put it on. She sang the pitch for him to tune it to, and with the addition of the third string, Maud realized he had been trying to play the song of the 10th sphere. It wasn't long before he begged Maud to play a song for him.

     As she struck the very first string with his bow, he rushed to his feet. She swayed side to side to mirror his movements and when he spun in circles she played the notes in a sort of trance. She watched him spin and wondered if the spheres of the universe moved as freely. She wondered if she was really playing the song of the 11th sphere or if what she played was just another human’s failed attempt to be closer to God, but she saw the smile on the boy’s face and knew she must be doing something right. As she repeated the last chorus, Maud couldn’t help but smile too. Playing with her heart on strings, Maud prayed that God heard her song and knew her innocence at the sound.

     But John would be visiting soon, and Maud had one last place she wanted to see before she left. She thought of all the things she would want to do if she were to die soon. It was a crazy thing she thought—I'm just getting married—but she couldn't help but wonder what song they'd play at her funeral. There’s a reason “Ave Maria” is both an elegy and a processional piece. Either way, Maud knew she must march on. Her feet knew the way, and her mind followed. When she laid eyes on the plaza, she saw where townspeople would dance tonight. Their night would begin, while hers came to an end. She knew she couldn’t stay for long.

     Tempo Rubato. Suddenly, the baton was in his hands, Maud under his direction. The ride back to her house. The final preparations. The greetings. His voice stained the air he spoke into. He held her hand like a sword. Maud held her breath. Her necklace was too heavy.

     She was angry. She blamed The Fall of Adam and Eve like she was taught to. She blamed them for her life. She blamed them for her sin, because she didn’t want to love a man, and she didn’t want to be a woman, but most of all, she blamed them for corrupting humanity’s ears, condemning them to a world unable to hear the true music of the spheres.

     Maud brought herself back to reality and noticed all the family members and staff watching her conversation with John. No doubt, on standby to celebrate the engagement. They listened to Maud recite her lines as if they’d been waiting hungry, feasting on every word. She knew this was the right thing to do, and yet her eyes searched the room for a miracle. The closest they could find was Eleanor. Under Eleanor’s gaze, time slowed for Maud. Guilt clawed its way up her throat, threatened her breath, and in Eleanor’s tear-filled eyes she saw flames. She looked at Eleanor, and knew she was the only one in the crowded room to truly see her. She felt as if her heart were in her stomach. She feared she was beyond salvation.

     She forced herself to stare into John’s eyes instead. Cold and dark.
     She pulled at her collar.
     John was rambling on about the time he got to kill a man for King Henry IV.

 

“Now he trusts me to do and have” he looked at Maud, “as I please.”

     Maud shuddered.
     She looked at her parents, who only bore smiles and eager eyes. Is this really the future they want for me?

     

     Eleanor opened the window.

 

     Maud was having trouble remembering her lines. She heard a soft whistling that commanded her attention instead. The house carried the wind’s soft exhale, guiding it along Maud’s cheekbone, and just past her ear. And with it came a memory: the fireplace and its flames. The simple meter of the air pockets bursting open.

     Maud reminded herself to breathe. She counted:

     1... 2... 3... 4...

     1... 2... 3... 4...

 

     The wind and its song touched her with a care and a knowing that no human could replicate. She followed its sound back to the window and thought of its frame—how it sat against the wall like out-stretched lips, as if the house were screaming, yearning to remind her:

     Hell isn't the only place that burns.

     And suddenly, Maud could hear it—the ending to the song she'd been composing in her head. She could see it too—musicians playing in the plaza and bodies dancing in and out of time. She wasn't entirely sure which sounds existed in her mind and which came from outside the window, but it was all the same, really. Maud was burning. The song of the spheres beckoned her.

     1 e and a,

     2 e and a,

     3 e and a,

     4 e and a...

     When John popped the question, Maud was already reaching for her necklace. The moment the chain broke against her skin brought a fresh breath of air to Maud’s lungs. She didn’t hear the gasps, the yelling, or Eleanor’s footsteps, as she turned and ran. All she knew was that the song of the spheres was calling to her. The melody lived inside of her. And her heart knew all the words.

     The troubadours played so well, the composition could not be questioned. The Song of The 11th Sphere had been revived. The townspeople danced in the shape of the spheres. They spun and rotated in the name of the universe, and even The Lord was dizzy watching. Maud ripped the skirt of her gown and threw the fabric toward the heavens. She held the hands of strangers and danced with the torn pieces of cloth like ribbons. Maud kicked her feet against the grass, and sang for her love. And when the song had repeated enough, and Maud needed a new melody to sing, she began to miss Eleanor’s voice.

     When she heard the gentle vibrations of Eleanor’s humming, she thought she really must be dreaming. But when she turned to face her, Eleanor’s eyes pierced into her, and she knew she was finally awake. Eleanor stood with her arm extended toward Maud, palm open. Maud returned the gesture with a kiss on the back of her hand. Eleanor placed her hands at Maud’s waist, and they spun in a sphere of their own. Eleanor sang to the beat of their hearts, and smiled enough to make her cheeks ache for days. The world wouldn’t be deaf to their song any longer.

     Maud took Eleanor’s hand and they weaved their way outside of the dance circle. Maud didn’t know how to say the words Eleanor deserved. Instead, she tucked her hair behind her ear and rested her hand against Eleanor’s jaw.

 

“There she is!”

 

     She heard a familiar voice, but if the sound didn’t come from Eleanor, it was muted to Maud. She looked into Eleanor’s eyes and finally understood why she admired the new romance genre so much. Her character was the kind that inspired poets to stray from their warrior muses. Maud saw how easily lyrics poured from her hair, her eyes, her fingers. Her lips. When she first read of courtly love, she knew it was Eleanor’s gaze that could bring the proudest of knights with a basin to her feet.

     Maud saw Eleanor through clear eyes. She summoned her memory of page 4, line 10, and whispered,

 

     “I'll be at your beck and call,
     To fulfill whatever needs you
     Have, wise or foolish--you are above

     Me, my only commandant.
     All others for you I abandon.

     From you I never want to part.”

 

     The letters left a sweet-like-honey taste in her mouth. Eleanor pressed her lips against Maud’s and the sweetness spread.

     When Maud stepped away, she wasn’t entirely sure if she had decided to.

     She saw the terror in Eleanor’s face before she felt the knife in her own back. It was hard to process much after that. Eleanor was pushed out of sight, and John loomed over Maud instead.

     She felt the elements shift. Her own microcosmos skipped a step, and tottered out of balance. She thought her parents might have been right. The Lord warned her to avoid the woman whose lips drip honey and speak smoother than oil. Do her steps really lead straight to the grave? Do mine? She couldn’t remember if she was dancing or falling. Maud laughed. From The Fall, chaos emerged, and from a fall it will end. She watched the streets turn topsy-turvy. And finally, when the sounds of the world could no longer reach her, she heard the voice of the spheres calling for her, welcoming her home.

     It is among the stars Maud twirls to the beat of the universe, and watches the empyreal flames dance through innocent eyes.

Blue Adams is a writer, reader, and Oxford comma enthusiast. Currently working toward a Bachelor’s degree at Northern Kentucky University, Blue is always eager to learn and discover new ways of playing with language. You will also probably see them doing one of the following at any given time: playing Rummy 2000, eating pasta, obsessing over queer media, or playing Duolingo. Aaand writing and reading at some point. Blue is super excited to share their writing and spread all that queer love as far as it will go! To see more of their work (and them!) check out their account @xxazulado on Instagram. 

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