Pas de Deux

        The crowded café smelled acrid and pleasant like burnt toast and warm milk. The father stood in the line with his legs apart—a squat anchor, bottom-resting. He gazed at the nothing ahead of him, grim-lipped without blinking. The girl stood a little away from him, delicately upright, shifting on the long stems of her own legs as if she needed to move. She sighed. Her restless eyes flitted over the interior of the place—examining floor tiles, looking out the bright front windows to the busy market and the harbor full of long-stern work boats with their clawed tongs, oysters piled mid-decks in gleaming hills.
         There was confusion inside the café. The register was broken. Behind the counter a crumpled old man with watery eyes and a peppery explosion of beard discussed the situation in undertones with a woman in a red dress two sizes too small for her sausage-shaped body. Together they peered into the defunct machine as if it were an aquarium full of exotic fish, now and then pointing to some part or other that might be the source of the problem. The baristas rushed about in the cramped space behind them, trying to fill orders for the afternoon rush. At the back of the café people sat close together at the big, rectangular tables reading newspapers or playing backgammon, their conversations public whether they were meant to be or not.
         There was confusion between the father and the girl, too, and it had been that way for a week. A space had intruded. They were people with little tolerance for such spaces, as stubborn in this as they were in their loving. People in the small town sometimes whispered how the two deserved each other. Made from the same bull steel, they said. Peas in a pod, they said. The light and laughter in the café that afternoon was powerless to diminish the intruded space or to fracture the shadow of the cherished thing between them that had been lost now for a whole week.
         “Will you have coffee?” the father asked, without looking at the girl.
         “Tea,” said the girl. She turned to the fat woman in the red dress. “Jamaican hot tea,” she said.
         The father ordered a café au lait in a ceramic cup. He paid for the drinks and carried them to a table at the front of the café where, to distract themselves, the father and the girl looked out the window at the people passing by. A couple in matching leather jackets and tight dungarees strode past and the girl noticed how the one woman’s arm wrapped around the other’s narrow waist so that her hand rested lightly along her partner’s protruding hip on the opposite side. Across the street she could see people laughing and smoking in front of the busy market. Five young men stood in a circle together blowing air into their cupped hands to warm them, talking excitedly about something, their eyes indomitably bright, their hair tossed and shining in the winter wind. A man and woman walked past together, each led briskly by a mustachioed little dog on a thin lead.
        “You’re in between,” the father said after a while. The girl blew gently across the top of the steaming tea that was black but smelled of cinnamon and fruit. The father turned to look at her but the girl’s eyes refused, focusing steadfastly on the street, on the people that seemed to her to be carved from light. She tried not to hear the father’s words. She wanted to be a girl deaf to human speech, a girl who heard only the music of the dance, its orchestral swell, the choreographed patter of slippered feet. She wanted, above all things, to be a girl in a world whose language was soaring and landing, a fluency of taffeta and silk. Her own world, the way birds moved in a world of air, speaking the language of wings.
         “It can be hard to breathe,” said the father, “when you don’t quite belong to one thing or another.” He looked at the girl and noticed tears hardening her eyes that, to him, were still delicate as a child’s eyes and ripe for wounding.
         “It’s not what I want,” the girl said. She meant the letter with its invitation to study at the college in New York and its promise of money to help. The letter lay open on the kitchen table for a week. Each of them had read it separately and left it for the other. The letter got carefully moved aside each day for meals and just as carefully replaced again. As if it were dangerous or fragile, a fuse or a porcelain cup.
         “It’s not what I want,” the girl said a second time, and she saw her words open a quick, neat wound in the father. She watched him look down into his coffee, the wrinkled eyes ironed smooth by concealed pain.
         “It’s good,” she said. “It’s what you want. But it’s not what I want.” She had steeled herself to say these exact words. She had practiced saying them in her bedroom, alone. But as she said them to the father, the fine epaulement of her elegant shoulders drooped, as if she’d been holding up a heavy shield and become too tired suddenly of the burden.
         They waited for the drinks to cool and the girl talked some more and the father listened, letting there be silences when she paused. He stopped his tongue in a way he was not used to or good at but had been practicing. Each night for a week he had lain awake pondering the letter. Thinking of the girl and of the dream in her that he had planted himself, that he had carefully sunned and watered as she grew. It was a gift. That’s what everyone said about it after they watched her dance. She’s bigger than this town, they said. Eventually, the father had been forced to admit that he never understood it might come to this. He had never known where the gift would go in the end, how a seed blows away and becomes a tree. He only knew it was a gift and needed to be grown and how it made a radiance inside the girl that he knew to be happiness and something greater even than that.
         Sitting with the girl inside the café that afternoon it struck him, full and hard, that he was himself the one in between. He nearly laughed aloud for shame when he realized it, felt the sting of its blow. He was the one laboring to breathe. It was himself who could not belong to one thing or the other, who talked on for years and years from one side of the fence, believing something on the other side.
         As he was thinking these things, the girl took his hand under the table. He could feel her looking at him now. He glimpsed the determined eyes he could never refuse. But when he turned and looked at her, the eyes were softer. They were eyes that had saved him many times from himself and from other things too. Eyes that, when he saw them for the first time, had broken him with their innocence, moved a rusted lever inside him that could never afterward be reversed. The lever when it moved had let something go, a river inside him that would run now without restraint. Looking at those eyes for the first time, the man had understood a place and purpose in the world without a flicker of doubt. But they were nearly gone now, the place and the purpose, and doubt flickered in the man like a frantic warning of rocks in a storm at sea.
         “I’ll be fine,” the girl said.
         “Yes,” the father said. His voice sounded weak and strange to him.
         “I have to do this, the same as you did once.”
         “Yes,” the father said again. He tried to smile.
         “You gave me this,” said the girl. “I have to try.”
         “Okay,” the father said.
         “It’s going to be alright.”
         “More than alright,” the father said, and he felt the shifting inside him again, this time like a drift of continents with the sea rushing between.
         It made the father close his eyes. He pressed his forehead with the palm of his hand, something the girl had never seen him do. He became aware of time doing its fearful work and of the impending loss of the girl, who would move away from him into the arms of the world, a life in studios and on stages, thin and poor and voluptuous with joy. Yes, joy-drenched. A life that would carry her far away and the world would claim her for its own.
         Grief arrived with its strange terror and the man gave himself up to it. His bones ached from their insides, as if they were suddenly hollow. What for a long time had been withheld he relinquished now. He no longer had the strength he had when the girl was a child. He must allow this, he thought. He must allow all things now. He had kept the girl safe so many times and in so many different ways that caring for her had become a thing that granted weight and meaning to his life. But in the storm rising up he could feel, already, the hand of the girl falling away from his own in such a way that the tighter he clasped it the more quickly it slipped.
         “It’s okay to take a risk for the things you love,” said the girl. She squeezed the father’s hand. “You told me that once,” she said.
         “Yes,” the father said. It was true that he had told her, the same as someone had told him once, long before the girl had arrived with her eyes like spring light on a winter field.
         “I’m going to be happy,” the girl said.
         “I want that for you,” the man said. “It’s the thing I want most.”
         The untouched drinks were cooler now. The girl sipped the hot tea and the father drank the café au lait. They turned away from the window and the busy street and sat facing each other in the way they were used to, but without anything between them now.
         In the late afternoon they walked home through the town, talking and laughing, looking into the windows of the shops along the way. The girl went into a dress shop and considered a blue purse that made her look like the French women the father admired in Paris when he was young and very happy, but also lonely, living by himself with nearly no money at all, trying very hard at painting, a thing he could not let go of or live without because it was himself and all he had. Looking at the girl wearing the blue purse the father felt the sorrow with its deep fatigue lift a little. He felt himself breathing, a thing somehow new and fresh.
         There was something else too. There was having held back the tongue that had always been willful in him, the tongue that forever thought it knew best, that would announce itself like a trumpet and stand like a stone wall, all the time making itself louder and taller. The tongue had always believed it must shape the world and refused to wait and speak from any wisdom that might come later. It had been a tongue of command, tongue of empire, hot tongue of war.
         The father was learning though. The tongue was dying, was nearly dead. The father knew how the brief silences he was practicing could bring sometimes a kind of joy. Not the joy of victory. It was acceptance, joy like water in stillness. The father was learning to hold more tightly the reins of the wild tongue and the girl was teaching him to be still. He was old enough now to understand he must be still as often as possible if he hoped to resist despair.
         The man paid for the blue purse while the girl wasn’t looking and when he looped the finely stitched leather strap over her shoulder she turned bright with surprise, her eyes pouring the familiar radiance. She kissed the father, making the stillness stronger than ever so that he felt it collecting at the roots of his hair and pooling in his warm toes, stillness gathering out along the whole wide surface of his skin. From the complicated questions of money and work and of the adequacy of time and the knowledge of loss, all the venom had been drained. Standing before the girl in the blue purse who would leave him soon, he felt a strange and all-conquering trust. It stunned him. A thing he considered to be dead in him was alive after all, had been sleeping, waiting.
         Dusk was dropping down through the winter trees as they left the dress shop and turned along the narrow, bricked street for home. The girl wore the blue purse proudly and walked with her arm looped in the father’s arm. Through the silence and shadows of the streets, the father suffered a surprising vision of himself clasping the girl’s waist, raising her like an offering to the gods of sky. He understood this lifting would be his purpose now, a thing of agony and longing greater than any he had known, but the girl was light and buoyant and shone tall and strong above him. The girl was becoming so light the man was sure that soon she would step out of his hands forever, leaving him with his arms outstretched, empty in the dusk. He knew this and still he lifted her, strongly and higher.
         All the way back to the little house on Rosewood Avenue, the father dream-lifted the girl. The girl’s arms floated up from her slender waist, gossamer lines lifting away from her shoulders and over the inclined stem of her neck. She did not seem a bit afraid growing taller and lighter in her going, as if she had been doing just this all her short life. As if the trust in her had never died. In the dark the man saw delicate wings emerge on either side of her pale back and he set his anchor-legs and reached, lifting, launching the girl into the winter sky with its sharp stars. The man breathed. He was very still and careful in the work of lifting the girl and he held the wild tongue quiet inside the tamed mouth that couldn’t say anymore where it might be going or even why.

Chris Morgan’s writing has appeared in a variety of literary magazines and journals in the United States and abroad, including Mid-American Review, Red Wheelbarrow, and White Horses. His work has received the K. Margaret Grossman Fiction Award and the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award and has been included in the Tulip Tree Stories that Need to Be Told Anthology 2018 and the Nowhere Magazine Print Annual Best Writing of 2017. He holds an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University, an MA in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College, and a PhD in Contemporary Poetry from the University of Wales. “Everywhere the Water” is his first collection of stories. He is also the author of a book on the Welsh modernist poet RS Thomas titled, RS Thomas: Identity, Environment, and Deity. Chris Morgan lives in Annapolis, Maryland where he is currently at work on a novella. You can visit his website at