Literary breaks

In the Embrace of the Rock

A Dance unto Ecstasy

By Emmanuelle Pagano 31 January 2020


© Jérémie Fischer

In the Embrace of the Rock

A woman climbs, falls, meets a man, falls in love, falls once more and dies. When she climbs, it is gravity that she defies each day, detaching herself from the world and from human reality. Like a Vila, the woman abandons herself to her dance until she reaches a state of exhaustion. The apogee of a new romantic aesthetic, Giselle celebrates the ballerina on pointes whose tutus of white tulle give an impression of floating. Emmanuelle Pagano takes up this ballet and considers this illusion of etherealness, evoking the sad destiny of those women dead for love and grief, lost forever in the abysses of the void.

First of all, she fell upon me. Literally.
She lost her grip on the rock face. It was the second time she had fallen, before she lost her grip for good, the third time, the fatal one.
The first time, it was a separation, the second, a meeting, and the third, another separation. Definitive.
There were so many separations between us. More or less prolonged. Before the last. The final one. There were so many, so many days and nights, those days and those nights when I waited for her, when I imagined her in someone else’s arms.
I preferred to think of her in the arms of a man, I had terrible and ridiculous rows with her out of jealousy: with such a man I could have competed, I imagined myself as his rival. I was in with a chance.
But there was no man, only the rock. Which took her, and kept her, even at night, as long as the moon illuminated the pockets and crimps in the cliff wall. Then, she opened her body in the dark, unleashing the full extent of her desire for the rock.
There had been men, and especially one, one man, but that was before me. She left him just as she met me, as she was to leave me, as she would one day die: falling. It was him who belayed for her. He had saved her life. She could not bear the fact that he had witnessed her fall, she could not bear the fact that he had saved her life, that he had stopped her from dying but not from ricocheting against the rock, crashing from injury to injury, from humiliation to humiliation. He was her climbing buddy, and after him there was no one else. Never again a man between her and the rock face.
When she fell, the first time, she banged against the rock so much that her body was grazed and bruised from head to toe. She had become one immense bruise, of varying shades, purplish, yellow, black and green: She had taken on the colour of the rock. She had become all the colours that a rock can be. That first marriage was violent, fusional. It inaugurated what climbing was to become for her: a total hand-to-hand combat.
It wasn’t without a struggle that she agreed to be rescued and taken to hospital, that she agreed to be emptied under anaesthetic of the huge pockets of blood that enveloped her.
I never knew anything about that fall, about her life with her climbing partner, of their climbing partnership, I never knew anything about that life before her death. She carefully hid it from me. But, after her burial, he came to see me, the man who had saved her life, and who had so wounded her, on the rock face, in his pride. He came to see me, and we wept together, we spoke of her, of her prowess, of her falls.
With me, it was different, it was a short fall, which would have gone unnoticed and from which she would have hardly suffered if she had landed on the pebbles, if I had not been there. Not even a bruise. Not a single bruise on her.
She fell on me, in the cove, when I had just fallen asleep, knocked out after my swim, and from the heat, the summer suffusing my exhausted body with a gentle heat. The creek was out of bounds because rocks often fell from the cliff; I knew it, I wasn’t afraid and I wasn’t the only one to defy the restriction. But I was not expecting to be landed on by a woman.
I bore the brunt of her; she crashed into me, my body breaking her fall.
Of course, she regained her balance. Just about. I got away with a bruise, and she was uninjured. Just wounded pride, again. Not a word but a smile, a grace in that wound that charmed me from the outset.
Later, she would tell me that to lose one’s balance, on such an easy cliff, during a simple excursion in verticality, was something shameful. She didn’t know where to put herself. It wasn’t that she had landed on me, or even that she’d hurt me, no, it was to have lost her grip there, with something so easy.
I’d seen clearly that she hadn’t known where to put herself, and that she was so beautiful in her embarrassment, even if I mistook its cause. I massaged my shoulder with a smile. I behaved as if I hadn’t noticed her embarrassment, even though that was precisely what had already seduced me.
When you love somebody that much, you love their faults, their weaknesses. More than all the rest.
I didn’t know that she would look even more beautiful to me without her embarrassment, when I saw her espouse the rock with her body, when I saw her dance on it, her gestures perfect, in a flawless choreography dictated by the rock face. Still more beautiful, but less touching. Still more beautiful, but inaccessible.
At first, when I watched her climb with an ease that pinned me to the ground, I wasn’t merely in love, I was gripped.
Then, when I shook myself a bit, I was jealous. I was jealous of other climbers, but I soon realised that I had nothing to fear from them: it was when she climbed solo that she drifted away from me. The other climbers didn’t interest her, only the rock held her, totally, and when she climbed solo, she was utterly elusive.
Then she started climbing entirely without any safety measures, save the strength of her own body, her mind and, sometimes the cushioning of water, the possibility of falling, but without ever, ever falling except deliberately, gently, at the end of the day, to cool off and rest.
She began to climb completely solo and bare-handed, without any equipment, no ropes, no belaying, no nothing.
She wanted to be able to really feel the rock face vibrate, to espouse the cliff to the point of adhering to it, in order to, she used to say, fit herself to its contours, read the braille of its asperities and of what she called “the way”.
I think it is then that I lost her, that we all lost her, that she lost herself. When the hand-to-hand with the rock would brook no intermediary, barely even her clothes, reduced to a minimum in the lingering summers in the hollows of gorges where the limestone flesh still offered up its heat to her already sweat-soaked body. Heat stored up there, perhaps for her, all day. The water remained, below, to refresh her little dance. That water was only a prolonging of the cliff, a sort of recompense, from which I was excluded.
She only let herself drop into it once she had exhausted every crevice and handhold in the rock, once she had played with her equilibrium on the edge until her thirst was quenched. The call of the water was only the sequel to the call of the rock.
Sometimes she stilled her movements in the crevices where the water also rested awhile before falling in a series of cascades downstream, pooling in the limestone hollows then becoming river once more. Here warm body hugged the cool of those natural pools, interrupting the downward cascade for a moment: you could hear a change in the sound of the water, or perceive an alteration in the rhyme of its fall. This musicality, it was her, curled up, upstream. Her, like a barrier. Before stretching herself and restoring to the water its voice. Before stretching herself and resuming her acrobat’s pathway.
During those summers she climbed in a swimsuit, sometimes naked, flirting with the river that splashed her as she leaned out. She dipped her weight into it, that lightness that she left abandoned to the eddying current, in a swinging movement to transfer her body from one side to the other, with a perfect awareness of her centre of gravity, that she worked on unceasingly and that called simply “my core”.
Working on her core was to sharpen a plumb line that ran through her abdomen at the height of her navel and circulated in her legs which were almost always apart, sharpening it until she could feel it, until it hurt, so as never to forget it.
Always to be balanced, at the cost of contortions ever more painful. She worked like that, honing her suppleness by suffering around the taut line between her thighs, hooked on the intoxication of climbing, climbing ever higher, going always farther, exploring the world upside down, head first.
I wasn’t there, of course, I saw nothing of all this but I could imagine it from what she told me, when at last she returned.
She did not have the humility of the really great climbers, who know that there is no possible second chance. She did not tell herself, I am not allowed to fall. She never fell, but out of pride. Except that one time, the time we met. I had not measured the consequences of her wound – that second wound to her pride – I had not understood that she would always resent me because of that fall, that she would leave me for the same reason that had provoked our meeting, that had brought us together.
Her fall.
Her fall, although so minor, so derisory, was a misunderstanding, and that misunderstanding drove us apart.
She left me falling, a third and last time, she left me in dying. I’m well aware that she had already left me, a long time ago, as she had left everybody, when only her dance above the whirlpools retained her, surrounded by birdsong and the minute cries of the rock, which she listened to attentively. She often spoke to me about that, the cry of the rock, the rustlings that called to her. Sometimes echoes.
She could not countenance that these noises – she called them “music” – emanated from herself, that it was she, as she climbed, who produced them. The impact of her feet breaking off fragments of stone, her hands widening the cracks, her knees and elbows, scraping the rock face, grazing themselves on the cliff, to open up new routes. Routes for her alone, that she would reveal to no one.
She made virgin rock groan as she opened up its pathways, jealously held secret. These groans, she said they called to her, that she had to climb, and climb, in order to answer. Groan in her turn. And appease them, quieten them.
Quieten them in her head.
Her holds, all her holds, espousing the cracks, had become high risk. She took no precautions in the fissures, she sought them out, enlarged them, made them her own.
The rock, which for a long time had given her strength, now passed on its fragility. She told me: “Don’t you understand, when I stop climbing, it’s as if I were tearing myself apart”.
I didn’t understand, no, I reminded her that I loved her, that I could no longer stand her remoteness, the dangers she ran. That’s what I said but, in reality, I understood. I understood that she had lost all contact with me, all contact with us, all contact with what one might call reality, the world of men.
She pressed herself so close to the rock that I was afraid that she would tear herself apart, as she put it, that she would tear her skin, together with the bit of rock. I imagined her laying down her skin like those peel-off silicone membranes used to clean historic monuments that are too fragile for pressure washing, cataplasms that are delicately peeled away to remove impurities from them.
But I was wrong. It wasn’t the rock she was cleaning as she fused her body with it, it was herself. She scraped off everything that encumbered her. And, making herself so light in order to climb, she was, perhaps, seeking only that, her lightness. To unburden herself, on the pretext of climbing.
Unburden herself of what, I did not know.
I did not know what was encumbering her, weighing her down.
When we made love, however, she was detached.
When we made love, she was heavy, of a disconcerting passivity, she who could fling herself upwards with such ease, in order to climb, seeking out every foot and finger hold, scenting the rock, in a gestural form of climbing made possible by her inexhaustible muscular strength of which I suspected the origin: an extraordinary desire, hunger.
She was hungry for the rock.
And gave herself to it utterly.
When she fell, she did not die straight away.
She died, as they say, “from her injuries”, several days later. But not in hospital, not in my arms, not in anybody else’s arms. She died alone, in a ravine. In the rock’s embrace.

This article is also available in the folder Giselle

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