Chagall Kite(This little story won the City of Derby Short Story Competition, in 2009.  It arose from a module on the MA in Creative Writing I did between 2005 and 2007 at the University of Chichester;  the module was run by the wonderful writer Alison MacLeod.  On this particular day, we were offered a selection of paintings to use as possible stimuli for a story in the Magic Realist style – and this painting by Marc Chagall was the one I chose.)

 

(after Chagall) 

Manuel is practising his smile for when the photographer arrives – his best smile, the one where he keeps his top lip pulled tight so that his teeth do not look too big.  In one hand he clutches an almost empty bottle of red wine, and in the other he holds the hand of his wife, Conchita, who at this moment is floating above him like a kite.

The remains of their picnic lie scattered at Manuel’s feet.  The food has all gone and only another empty bottle, a mess of crumbs and a couple of dozen cherry stones remain.  Manuel ate all of it – Conchita usually prefers not to eat in the middle of the day, now, as it tends to weigh her down and then Manuel finds it much more difficult to get her launched.   Mind you, to run as fast as he needs to, to get Conchita airborne, it is as well if Manuel avoids heavy foods himself.  He has an increasing tendency towards indigestion.  So today’s meal was carefully chosen:  Parma ham, rye crackers, thin slices of cheese and a bowl of cherries.

‘Is it time yet?  Will they be here soon?’ asks Conchita, who is eager to be set loose on a longer string.   It was, I suppose, inevitable that word would spread about Manuel’s kite-flying exploits:  certainly since he first flew Conchita over the rose-pink dome of the town’s cathedral, Manuel has been the object of much curiosity .  After that day, unsurprisingly, he has started to insist that Conchita pin the hems of her skirts together between her legs with a clothes peg each time she flies.  If the wind gusts unexpectedly, then she is liable to reveal rather more than might be considered seemly by the inhabitants of Arboletes.  None of the local ladies is ever seen in trousers around here.

‘They are coming, Manuel …’ calls Conchita, who of course can see the new arrivals some moments before her husband.

‘I’ll let the string out a bit, Chita:  are you ready?  Pegs in place?’

Conchita assures him that she is ready to fly high, and, putting down the now completely empty wine-bottle, Manuel lets go of her hand, stands square and leans back.  There is a thin, thin cord attached to a rhinestone-studded belt around Conchita’s waist.  The other end of the cord is wound around a wooden dowel, which Manuel now grips in both hands.  As the wind catches Conchita, the dowel turns steadily, the cord unwinds and Conchita rises about twenty feet into the air.  She gives a sigh of pleasure, a soft exhalation that drifts away on the wind.  Manuel does not hear a thing.

The man from the newspaper arrives.  His questions are predictable, and Manuel’s answers well-prepared.  The photographer points his camera first at Manuel, and then upwards towards Conchita.  Manuel glances up in alarm, worried about clothes pegs, but every possible indiscretion is well hidden.  Conchita’s pink frock has inflated like a rose-coloured cotton jellyfish , but her modesty remains intact and Manuel relaxes.

The newspaper man and his photographer leave after some moments and Manuel begins to wind in the string.

‘Can I not stay up a little longer, Manuel?’ asks Conchita, as she starts to descend.  ‘The wind is so mild and the air is so clear, I am rather enjoying myself.’

‘It is time to go home,’ Manuel says.  With a final tug, he winds in the last of the string and Conchita stands once more on the ground.   She looks at her husband for a moment without blinking, lips pressed tight together and she breathes long slow breaths through her nose.  She seems to be on the point of speaking, but as Manuel reaches towards her and unfastens the cord from the sparkling belt, she just gives her head a little shake and collects up the remains of the picnic.  She pushes the cloth, the empty bottle and a stray rye cracker into a soft basket and together they walk home across the crumpled green fields.

The next few days are overcast and thundery.  Manuel is afraid to fly Conchita if there is a risk of a lightning strike, so it is not until the following Thursday, when the day breaks cloudless and bright,  that he attempts another launch.  He calls Conchita, whom he is surprised to find lifting a large box onto a shelf in the garden shed, and they set out some moments later.  They climb together up a steep path that leads to the field which runs down towards the cliffs.  On a clear day it is sometimes possible to see the coast of Mexico from the cliff edge.

Manuel is holding Conchita’s hand, and in the other he grips the dowel, wound thickly with the cord.  In his pocket is the jewelled belt.  When they reach the fence at the top end of the cliff-field, Manuel pulls Conchita’s arms sideways and buckles on the belt.  The square-cut stones set into the leather glint like diamonds as they catch the light.  With his usual careful concentration, Manuel attaches the silver leash-clasp to a sturdy ring on the buckle.

‘Ready?’  he says.

‘Ready,’

‘Pegs?’

‘In my pocket.’  Conchita has to wait until she is airborne before she fastens the hems of her skirts.  Otherwise she cannot run freely enough to lift from the ground.

Manuel sucks in a few deep breaths, and holds the dowel in both hands.  The cord lies over his shoulder;  Conchita stands some ten feet behind him.  Manuel begins to run.  Conchita runs too.

For a moment, two sets of pounding footsteps can be heard on the stony ground and then – suddenly – only one.  Conchita’s feet move back and forth, pedalling like a cyclist but, with the cord stretched taut between her and her husband, she rises swiftly up into the air behind him.

Her skirt puffs up like a parachute.

‘Pegs!’ shouts Manuel.  He has turned to face her and is flicking the cord upwards, encouraging Conchita to gain height.

At about ninety feet, Manuel stops paying out the cord.  Conchita pushes one hand into her dress pocket and pulls out three wooden clothes pins.   (There is one other object in there, which she leaves tucked safely away for the moment.)    Pulling her splayed knees towards her chest, she pushes her arms between her legs, gathers her skirts and pegs the edges together.

The cord tugs hard on the belt around Conchita’s waist, chafing her belly, as a gust of wind pulls her sharply upwards.  Her hair lifts from her face.  She smiles and spreads her arms, and the sleeves of her dress puff out backwards like windsocks.

After a few moments, Conchita looks down at her husband and then across at the faint grey smudge of Mexico on the horizon.  She reaches into her pocket and her fingers close around a metal object.

Now, Manuel is always very conscious of safety.  Today, as on each occasion that he flies Conchita, he has been most careful to ensure that the kite-cord is tightly fastened.  He is always the one to fix the silver shackle to her belt, as his fingers are so much stronger than Conchita’s.  He can always twist the pin on the shackle far too tightly for her to be able to undo it by accident.

Conchita pulls her hand out of her pocket.  She is holding the small pair of pliers that she found in the shed.  She smiles.   With her chin tucked down so that she can see what she is doing, she pinches the round head of the shackle-pin between the two ends of the nose of the pliers and begins to rotate it.  After a few turns, the pin pulls free and falls from her hand, down, down, down towards the diminutive figure of Manuel who is gazing up at her, unaware of what she is doing. Though now unlocked, the shackle curls snugly around the ring in her belt.

Conchita tucks the pliers into her pocket, pulls her knees upwards and outwards once more, like a frog, and unpegs her skirt hem.  Looking down at Manuel with a frown of concentration, she drops each of the three pegs, one after the other.  Two fall into the grass beside him, but one finds its target, and Manuel looks up in alarm.  Conchita then reaches under her puffed, jellyfish skirt and hooks her fingers over the elastic of her knickers.  It only takes a moment to wriggle them down to her ankles.  She slips them off over one foot and then the other, and holds them out ready.

There is a sudden jerk on the cord.

Manuel has begun to wind her in.  He is shouting her name.

As she begins to descend, her skirt inflates and flattens out:  spreads like a pale blue puddle around her waist.  The wind is cool and pleasing on her buttocks;  it pushes up between her legs like the touch of a lover..

Down below, Manuel’s mouth is open:  Conchita can see his teeth.  His shouts are becoming increasingly high-pitched.

At about fifty feet, Conchita gathers her frock in one hand to get it out of her way, takes careful aim again and drops her knickers.  In the instant that she lets go of her drawers, she flicks the clip on the sparkling belt, and the cord, too, snakes back to earth.

As Conchita drifts upwards, the easterly wind begins to move her towards the coast of Mexico.  She looks back down towards the earth and sees, with a pleased smile, that her husband appears to be wearing an unusual-looking hat.

ends

© Gabrielle Kimm 2009

 

 

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