“School for Girls”
from École pour filles by Ariane Lessard
La Mèche, 2020
translated by Frances Pope
It isn’t the first time that Miss Dominique has cautioned me. She saw me push Annette and run to hide behind the shed. This is where Miss Anguish does all the maintenance work on the main yard, repairing the fence, the paving stones that get slippery when it rains. It has rained a lot in the last few weeks. The ground doesn’t look like anything much, without roots to hold it in place. The carpet of moss is soaked through with brown-looking water, here behind the shed. I imagine that rakes, shovels, wheelbarrows, and other rusty metal tools are kept in there. I can’t be sure. Miss Anguish, the handy-woman, never lets us in. All I can see in the shed is rolls of sheet metal patched with rust, and the shingles that Miss Anguish scrupulously repairs in the fall, ready for the coming winter. I pushed Annette because she’s silly. She fell in the mud and her long dress stopped her from getting up again. The way she follows me around seeking my approval was driving me round the bend. I’ve often glared at her, telling her with my eyes to stay away from me, but she always comes back. I don’t need a little sister, I don’t even need a friend, I’m perfectly fine on my own. Anyway, nothing she does is worth anyone’s attention. Hidden behind the shed, I look at the moss growing along the edge of the stone wall. It’s squashy and my feet sink into it. I like plants. I like how they smell, how they surround and cover. You can’t get away from them. Behind the shed is the forest. Once the snow starts to fall, it’s likely I’ll miss the woods. Everything will be different then. This is where I hide, behind the shed. Before, it was where the other Catherine used to come. I’m standing in her footsteps. Miss Dominique came and found me, shook me out of my thoughts. She put her hand on my forehead, then told me to come back to class. Miss Dominique sets me straight. She knows I’m bright. In Literature, it’s my writing she likes the best — its ebb and flow, she says. That’s what you would hear if you could listen to people’s secret thoughts. All of it veined with mystery, creeping in until you’re surrounded.
Before I came here, I lived with my parents and my brothers, away down the lane. In a farm village that smelled of manure. Fields, everywhere fields. Dirt lanes bordering them, sky over half the horizon. Blue and yellow. We’d drive down the dirt lanes on a horse and cart. Our wheels carved out tracks, and on our way back, the tracks got a little deeper. Our wheels would show the way we’d gone. You could see every trip we made, just by looking at the churned-up dirt behind us. House to village. House to forest. Then, finally, house to boarding school. After that, there were no more outings on the horse and cart. Sometimes they came to fetch me in the summer. My brothers are still carving up the land. But I have lost the freedom to come and go, the lanes. I don’t move anymore. I’m rooted here at the window. The girls at the boarding school go walking. They go into the forest, which has no door but a thousand doors. I don’t go roaming around there. I stick to familiar paths. Walking on habitable ground. I’d like to turn into a boy, go back to the hamlet, drive the horse and cart. I’d like to go back to the village on the horse and cart and turn into a boy. If I had something dangling between my legs, would my father let me come home? If they were on the outside, could I go back to my brothers? All I have is this hole. This hole means I can’t go home. This hole brought me to the boarding school. This hole, I’d stop it up.
Corinne is my friend my best friend. She has long sharp nails like a cat. With her long nails, she scratched Jeanne’s hands, drew blood, while we were playing Devil’s Tail in the main hall. You have to go behind people and steal their tail their fabric tail. Corinne came to take mine, but Jeanne stole hers, so she scratched her. Jeanne’s hands bled and the blood ran down onto the floor of the main hall, it ran like that drip drip. Miss Anne who teaches mathematics came and stopped the game. After recess we played on our own, Corinne and me, in my little bedroom up in the attic. We play often with our feet. I sit on this side of the bed. Corinne sits on that side. I tickle her with the ends of my toes. First on the soles of her feet, then the crook of her knees when she’s lying on her front. It’s nice. I tap her on the bottom with the sole the sole of my foot. Then I slip my toes up to. I try to slide my foot into. She’s the one who showed me. I wouldn’t do it with anyone else but Corinne, I would only do it with her.
my pulse jumped in my palm
my pulse jumped in my whole hand
my pink cheeks in the mirror
my reflection blurred in my hand’s deep lines
flatten the pedal of the sink
my blood in stars in the fountain
miss anne takes me to the nurse
her hands on my martyr
I smile as I follow Jeanne’s trail out of the main hall. Miss Anguish hands me the mop. It’s not my job to clean up her drops. The red water oozes over the tiles. The red water gets stuck between the cracks in the floor. I kept my fabric tail, took it back to my bedroom up in the attic, rolled it up in a ball and slipped it into my pants. If it weren’t for the older girls, I would be king.
Science class is in the basement, where the floors, washbasins, and stairs are made of concrete. A house reflected upside-down. The whole basement seems to have sunk into the ground. They dug out the cellar to put the basement there. When you go down, you don’t feel the sun anymore, except from two windows. Nothing leaks, nothing escapes. Every room has two lightwells that get blocked in winter. Then, Miss Gabrielle sends us out a few times a week to shovel the courtyard — for her mood, she says. When you put your hand on the dusty floor, the concrete is cold and damp. The ground has started to freeze. And always that dreadful feeling, the further you go into the cellar. In the dark, but in the light too, the feeling of going quietly down to your own grave. The rooms around the science classroom are workshops. A printing room used by the older girls, with tiny letters scattered across the desks. And the press for when our stories are fixed. In the other corner, the laundry room and the dresses that hang from the ceiling like ghosts, to dry. In the darkness at the end of the corridor, there’s the vault with its heavy metal door. A sarcophagus. At every bend in the corridor that borders the inner courtyard, I imagine seeing a ghost, or even just a pair of eyes. Just for a second, during a class — catching a glimpse of something. I often have the impression that I’m being watched. Even if it feels unreal, I’m still afraid of death every time I go down the stairs and the dry, earthy smell of the concrete enters my nose. I keep going down there alone, despite my fears. If someone were there. If something dead came and carried me off to harm me. The Léa with her soft skin and her orifices. I say that I’m afraid, but it’s a pleasant fear. It’s also an expectation. A morbid expectation. Maybe the last girls are watching us from the other side of the wall.
In the cafeteria, I sit between Catherine and Diane. I like to go around with them, because we look good together, if I may say so. And if someone wanted to take a photograph of us, I would sit in between them and put my arms around both their necks, to show that we are friends. We eat the meals that Miss Françoise makes for us, that she cooks very well. Her hands are always dirtied from something — the garden, the rake, the beets. They chose Miss Françoise for the meals because of her maternal instinct. She had a daughter once, but she had to give her up for adoption. It seems that that happened a lot, back then. It’s been twenty years now, she says. Her daughter is older than we are. It must be wonderful to be an only child. It is good of her to feed us, when underneath, she must be thinking about all the times she couldn’t feed her daughter. I am happy that Catherine became my friend because Diane’s silence was starting to bother me, if I may say so. She has always shut herself up in silence. But after a while, you need people around you who talk, otherwise all you hear is the wind whistling between the old bricks. Benoîte, my sister, is with the older girls. When we’re at the school, it’s as if we had nothing to do with one another. It’s only in summer that we meet again at our parents’ house. And then I make the most of Benoîte’s company because I know it won’t last long. I never know what my sister thinks of me. The first snow fell yesterday, and it got mixed up with the dead leaves that smell of leaf-mould and rain.