Dance at the Edge
L. Timmel Duchamp
Emma Persimmon discovered the Edge in the first month of her life. Chance gave her a glimpse of starscape, of a black denser than that of simple night, of a glittering spray of lights as splendid and desirable as a gold pendant dangling just out of reach. How it fascinated her infant self! It was the very second thing she pointed at; and countless times a day it made her giggle and stretch her fingers to grasp.
At five months, Emma knew where to look to see the Edge and that it was different from everything else and always changing. Suddenly able to crawl, she raced to enter it — only to discover that touching made it recede (or sometimes even vanish altogether). The large, strange, shaggy creatures splashing about in a mud hole were there, yes, to her eyes, but not to her hands, fingers, toes, mouth. Emma learned she could crawl to the Edge and occupy the space where something else had been, and the Edge would leap back, and instead of a mud hole, there would be just the floor, just the air, just herself… In this, Emma resembled most babies. They, like her, played fort/da with the Edge. But at least one of Emma’s parents did not pretend to her infant self that the Edge did not exist, although as Emma grew older, that parent of course denied ever seeing it.
By the time she started attending school, Emma understood that any acknowledgment of its presence was beyond “bad,” “naughty,” and “unacceptable.” Even so, Emma got in trouble her very first day. The Edge in her classroom lay along the back wall, out of her proper line of vision. Usually in such new circumstances the Edge would have been easy to resist. But the Edge in her classroom that day was not just any Edge. It was a scene of a desert wash so full of light that whenever Emma looked at it straight on, she reflexively put her hand up to shield her eyes from a glare that she only, of course, imagined. Through the rocky wash trickled a thin silver stream of water, in which grew long thick grasses, tiny jewel-like blossoms of sapphire, topaz, and garnet, and tall willows, lush with mauve trumpet-shaped flowers and long slim leaves. Tiny green birds with fantastically long beaks hovered over the willows, wings whirring, dipping their needle-like beaks into the bells of the flowers they courted and drained in exuberant, darting dance. Emma’s parents had taught her about bees and nectar and pollen. It excited her almost unbearably to think that these strange little birds were probably doing what bees did. The classroom, by comparison, seemed dull and stupid.
Emma, young model of propriety, did not openly stare over her shoulder; rather she stole glances from the side. But — “Emma Persimmon!” The teacher’s voice cracked like a whip, making Emma jump guiltily. “What are you doing, staring off into space, daydreaming?” The tone of the teacher’s voice clearly implied that daydreaming was among the worst crimes a student could commit. Emma almost cried with humiliation. Obediently she stared straight ahead, directly at the teacher, for several minutes. But unused to sitting in a classroom, increasingly fidgeting and restless, she forgot — and turned her head to snatch just a glimpse. “Look at Emma Persimmon,” the teacher said almost at once. Jeering: “Off in her own little world.”
The children copied the teacher’s words every chance they got, tormenting Emma with the confidence of the unthinking young.
No, Emma wanted to protest. Not off in my own world, off in another world. But just a kindergartner, she lacked the words for talking about the socially invisible and knew the whole present world against her. So she kept quiet and grew very shy and strove mightily never again to be seen staring at that wall in the classroom (though she still stared often enough to get a reputation for daydreaming).
Most children let go of the Edge in their earliest years. Emma Persimmon never did. Instead, she wondered how the teacher, facing it, could so easily pretend not to see it and, later, whether others even saw it at all. And since everyone — even the one parent who acknowledged its reality during Emma’s preschool years — acted so completely as if they did not see it, she finally understood that at least in one sense they did not. By the time she was sixteen, Emma began to wonder if it was even really there and not just something she’d been fantasizing all her life.
The need to avoid social opprobrium can be truly terrible, not to say terrifying and terrorizing. Emma carried it all inside, afraid to whisper a word of it to anyone — until her parents sent her to town for training in the Ecohusbandry Guild, and she met Viola Knight.
The moment Emma Persimmon laid eyes on her, she thought Viola Knight the bee’s knees. Clad in tailored muslin pajamas, she stood straight and smart, brushing her teeth with a style that literally took Emma’s breath away. Oh such beauty, Emma thought inanely, transfixed by the graceful precision of a wrist bone framed by elegant pajama cuff. Emma, stationed at another basin, fiddled with her bath kit, eyes glued to that wrist in the mirror, and forgot to brush her own teeth.
Viola Knight, thorough in all she did, never noticed.
Emma returned to her room, burning with that all-consuming awareness. She fought off sleep for most of the night, tormented by images of the lovely wrist and perfect white sleeve, until sunrise tricked her into a doze.
Viola Knight, lost in the fascination of the Elementary Principles of Optics, never much noticed anybody who didn’t shove themselves right up into her face. Emma, though, now living for even the most fleeting glimpse of the divine object of her desire, almost forgot the Edge existed. When her genetics instructor caught her mooning, it wasn’t for staring at the Edge, but for doodling hand after hand of thick, strong, spatulate fingers and comely, sharp-boned wrist, compulsively, religiously, intemperately.
Emma had it bad.
In her first three months in town — before she saw Viola Knight brushing her teeth — Emma had taken to hanging out with a disparate collection of individuals living in her dorm, all apprentices in arts guilds. They amused her and easily swept her into their intense personal dramas and fantasies. With them she developed the beginnings of confidence in her capacity for existing socially. For the first time in her life she discovered a tolerance for the “daydreaming” and eccentricity people of her own sort found by turns irritating and disquieting.
She attended a play with them her second week in town. It struck her that the very idea of a staged drama must have come from somebody’s awareness of the Edge, and this insight plunged her afresh into her old metaphysical questions. Were all of these creative people attracted to the arts because they sensed — but had been taught to ignore — that it was there? Or did they all know it was there and seek somehow to replicate it in such a way that their audiences would see it without a loss of innocence as to the real Edge they did not? As bright and imaginative as she found her new friends, Emma did not dare speak any of her questions aloud.
Quickly Emma slid into a sort of niche with them. She made them laugh, but with pleasure at — rather than to mock — her rather ingenuous wonder. She did not know why they accepted her, only that they did. But she discovered her position among them to be conspicuous when at dinner, a few nights after Emma’s body began burning for Viola, Letitia Shadows murmured, “For shame, Emma Persimmon,” as Emma’s eyes tracked Viola Knight all the way from the salad bar back to a table of engineering apprentices. “Inspired by the slide-rule over the cello.”
“Both instruments celebrate the abstract,” Paulus Square, the only cellist present, said. Pale and unsmiling, he bowed across the table at them, his austere body virtually as abstract as either calculus or music.
“People have been known to fall in love with paintings, statues, and vases,” Royal Quiet said.
“But I’ll take someone with a warm, juicy body, any day,” Elizabeth Peartree said.
“Yes,” Letitia Shadows said, sounding sad. “Someone like Emma Persimmon, whose body, in the perception of my senses, bursts with heat and juices like a peach hanging ripe in the sun.”
Emma blushed hotly and denied nothing. She glanced sidelong to the far reaches of the room where Viola Knight sat, only a meter or so from the Edge.
“Never fear,” Paulus Square said to Emma. “She’ll never know — unless you tell her yourself.”
Emma sighed, relieved and disappointed when she believed him, relieved and fearful when she did not. She was amazed that they had seen her passion without her speaking it. Why, then, would Viola Knight herself not see it, too?
Surely it was inevitable that Emma Persimmon’s ardent devotion to Viola Knight would eventually bear fruit. Had not all the famous Fated Lovers of their world, from its earliest history, always come — eventually — together, even those from distant villages or feuding guilds? Emma hoped, feared, believed that her own desire combined with simple proximity must make it happen.
One Saturday afternoon, Emma followed Viola Knight onto a bus to the edge of town and from there on foot into the forest. She stalked and tracked Viola Knight with no subtlety whatsoever, flying from one inadequately-shielding tree-trunk to another, frequently catching her flowing red scarf on the bare winter thorns, wincing often at the racket her sneakered tippy-toes made as they scuffled gold, red, and brown leaves and fractured sharp, dry twigs. When Viola Knight came to a stream, followed its banks for a few yards, and then trod a narrow log to cross it, Emma’s desire grew giddy. Flitting and gliding after Viola, ever deeper into gloomy, fern-loving wood, Emma knew the delirious thrill of the hunt and the delicious chill of the possibility that the hunter, discovered, might herself become the hunted.
Then Viola Knight stood stock-still, hands on hips, head thrust slightly forward in total, utter concentration. Emma took a look around — and gasped. Viola had brought her to an Edge. A huge, stunning, exceptionally wonderful Edge. Out of doors.
Viola Knight walked along its face — and then turned sharply, where the Edge actually seemed to come to a point, as though it were an acute angle — and walked along an apparent second face. Emma, so astonished that she forgot her purpose in tracking Viola, unthinkingly followed and saw for herself that this Edge was actually wedge-shaped, like a sliver of giant pie plopped down right there in the middle of the forest.
And what a pie it was! Emma Persimmon had always been more enchanted by the existence of the Edge than by the things she usually saw beyond it. But beyond — or rather inside — this three-dimensional wedge of an Edge glittered a world unlike any she had ever seen. Wild gouts of flame poured out of torches topping twisted cast-iron rods that had been placed among bizarrely-shaped trees, brilliantly illuminating the immediate areas around them, creating dark, impenetrable pockets of shadow. Willowy human figures wove in and out of the torches and trees, their faces painted the cloud-white of their stockinged legs, their eyes, mouths, and eyebrows heavily outlined in thick black paint. All of them wore scarlet, gold, and purple knee-length coats over tight black bodices and black silver-buckled, blockily high-heeled boots they stamped smartly each time their hands came together in a clapping Emma Persimmon fancied she could almost hear. They spun. They jumped. They clapped and stamped. They leaped. The intricacy of their dance surpassed any Emma had ever known.
Emma forgot Viola Knight altogether. So fiercely did she concentrate on extrapolating the rhythm from the dance that she heard nothing but it. And peering into a scene of night, she forgot that though dim, the forest in which she stood lay in full — albeit cloudy — daylight.
Viola Knight turned and paced back toward the vertex of the Edge. And since she, too, never took her eyes off the entrancing scene, she ran smack into Emma.
Yanked out of their common dream, they stared at one another in shock. Viola’s eyes blazed; she grabbed Emma’s arm. “You’re the girl who’s always following me into the bathroom!”
Emma Persimmon’s heart beat violently hard; her breath caught in her throat. The moment seemed lifted out of a traditional romance, for Viola’s grip on her arm was steely enough to leave a substantial bruise afterwards. She realized that Viola had, indeed, noticed her existence. “Yes,” Emma said breathily. “I live across the hall from you. Emma Persimmon.”
“Emma Persimmon,” Viola Knight repeated with near-disbelief. “What kind of name is that?”
Emma’s body oozed and throbbed with sexual excitement. Their dialogue was going exactly the way it should! What more could a girl in love ask for?
A quicksilver flash of color — torchlight catching the sequins powdering the fat white towers of curls topping the dancers’ heads as they all bowed in unison — distracted Emma, reminding her of what she had momentarily forgotten. Her heart lifted in wildest exultation. “You see it, you actually see it!”
Viola Knight looked puzzled. “See what?”
Emma’s heart sank. She jerked her head at the dancers. “You aren’t going to claim you don’t see the Edge, are you? You’ve been walking alongside it and staring in on all those strange people dancing. I know you have, I saw you do it!” Emma swallowed; heat scoured her face. Since coming to town she had not been mocked even once for her sin of Edge-watching. The very thought that Viola Knight, of all people, might now be mocking her was devastating.
Viola Knight’s eyebrows shot high in her elegant broad forehead. “The Seam, you mean? You called it what — an edge?”
“Seam!” Emma said, shivering with more excitement than she could hold quietly inside her.
Viola looked at her curiously. “Oh,” she said. “Did you run a little too forcefully into the denial all the people in town profess?” She shook her head. “Really, it’s so childish. I must say I’ll be happy when I’ve finished my studies and can return to my village, where no one plays such silly, jejune games.”
Emma Persimmon was stunned. “Your village — you’re saying that all the people there see the Edge, too?”
“You mean the people in your own village act like those in town?” Viola shook her head. “But that figures, I suppose. Apparently all the guilds but mine follow the same silly line on Seams.”
Emma’s eyes shone more brightly than any of the torches lighting the world beyond the Edge. She wanted to dance for joy, or, rather, drop to her knees and kiss the toe of her adored one’s soft leather boot, the only gesture she could imagine capable of giving full expression to the power of her feelings. She touched Viola’s arm timidly (not daring, of course, even to approach her wrist). “So the people in your village and guild call them Seams? Do you know what they are, and where they come from? Or why most people don’t seem to see them at all?”
Viola Knight and Emma Persimmon walked out of the forest side by side. They walked as separate individuals, without touching, but listening to Viola expound on “Seams,” Emma took pleasure simply in hearing the sound of Viola’s voice and feeling the heat of Viola’s body.
“Oh,” Viola Knight said. She frowned sidelong at Emma. “I’ve just realized. My parents warned me that a prerequisite of certification is taking an oath to preserve the guild’s secrets, which include everything we know or have theorized about Seams, even their very existence.”
Emma halted to face Viola. “Which would mean that after certification you couldn’t, for instance, let me know that you saw what I was seeing back there in the forest?” Her excitement in finding another person in the world who saw the Edge, her pleasure in finally sharing company with this most wonderful of persons, drained out of Emma. Her body went stone, dread cold. The implications of Viola’s words struck her like a blow to the solar plexus. She saw it all too clearly: that everything — the very world she lived in — was false — and wrong, terribly, terribly wrong.
Viola Knight put her hand to her throat, under the thick black scarf protecting it. “Oh shit,” she said. “What a fuck-up.” Her eyes searched Emma’s face. “I could be thrown out of the program for having this conversation with you. I’m not under an oath yet, no, but if the masters ever found out, I’d never make it to certification.” She blinked. “We have all these rules for apprentices, you know. Like not using a hand-held calculator for the first two years, to make sure that we all get to be proficient in using slide-rules. But because I hardly know anyone who isn’t an engineer, I never much thought about the Silence-About-Seams rule.”
Emma felt guilty for putting Viola’s future in jeopardy — and then crazy, too, for feeling guilty. Her heart pounded in the thick, nauseating silence that made her feel as though she were smothering. “Don’t you realize how terrible your guild’s silence is? It’s nearly ruined my life — making me worry all the time that I might be crazy. I’m sure there are people who do go crazy, never knowing what’s real and what’s not!”
Viola’s lips parted. “Oh,” she said softly. “They told me people were trained to block Seams out of their vision, like the floaters in one’s eyes. They said that only engineers ever saw them at all.” Her eyes darkened in sweet, dewy softness. “I’m sorry, Emma, I’m so very, very sorry. But at least now you do know.”
They resumed walking, and Viola revealed some of what she knew about what the Seams were and what little she had been told about why people were taught not to see them. Since Emma had no idea even what a particle was, Viola’s mini-lecture on tachyon fields meant nothing to her. But when Viola told her about how in earlier times people had made religions and claimed powers of divination from the appearances of particular Seams, Emma listened with rapt attention.
“They were, in effect, used to manipulate large groups of people,” Viola said as they came within sight of the bus, parked at the terminus. “There were terrible wars as a result. And so it was decided that it would be best if people just pretended they weren’t there. Seeing how easily certain persons could use them to manipulate large groups of people. And so everyone did forget them — except the engineers, who swore themselves to secrecy. Well, it stood to reason, you know. It’s not as though we could ignore them. And so they became a sort of trade secret.” Viola fell silent at the sight of the driver leaning against the bus, reading. They greeted her and asked her how long before the bus returned to town.
The driver consulted the digital readout on the cuff of her sleeve. “Three minutes, twenty seconds,” she said.
Viola Knight and Emma Persimmon boarded the bus. Since they could not talk about the forbidden subject in the presence of a non-engineer, Viola asked Emma about her village and guild. Only later did Emma realize that Viola had not asked her why she had followed her out of town, into the woods, in the first place.
In the days following, both the pleasure of Emma’s love and the pain of its being unspoken and unreturned intensified. Emma grew self-conscious in her surveillance of Viola. Instead of being emboldened by the advance in their relationship, Emma grew fearful of causing offense. Her friends, having seen that the two were now acquainted, teased Emma, trying to prod her into open pursuit. “Seduce her,” Letitia Shadows said. “She won’t be able to resist! Not you, Emma.”
Emma began, for the first time, to spend long hours in the library so that she could “brood in peace,” as she thought of it. She assumed that sitting in the Biology section would preserve her from her friends’ scrutiny. But she had not counted on the need of art students to consult biology texts in their search for tropes.
“Emma Persimmon, what on earth is all that?”
Emma was doodling — the usual, of course. She looked up guiltily at Sanctus Geloso, then back down at her screen. She made a jab for the Clear button, but Sanctus caught her wrist and stopped her. “Sanctus,” she whispered in protest, but the name came out little more than a hiss.
Sanctus Geloso’s scowl was fierce. “Why representational drawing?” he asked, though not whispering, keeping his voice low. “Why not thieve a piece of her clothing, or hair, or the damned toothbrush?”
Emma realized that she was getting good at drawing not only Viola Knight’s wrist and pajama sleeve, but her hand holding the toothbrush as well. So good, she thought, looking now at the doodling she usually erased after she’d finished a screenful, that she actually felt like tracing her finger over the screen as a substitute for touching the real thing.
“I love those hands,” Emma Persimmon said. “I just love them. If I could sculpt the way you do, I’d make a pair of them in marble, and it would be wonderful.”
Sanctus Geloso was shocked. He insisted that Emma go with him for coffee, so that they could talk. That’s what he said. But once he got Emma outside the library, out into the cold, frosty air, he began lecturing her like a parent who has discovered his child playing with matches. “How can you be so disrespectful!” he said. “I wouldn’t have thought if of you, Emma.”
Emma was bewildered. “What do you mean, disrespectful?”
“An image is a map,” Sanctus said. “And we map people and parts of people for only the most concrete, practical reasons. Healers map a specific person’s hand in order to designate an injury. We map generic human bodies and their parts to help us understand how they work. But we don’t map specific persons’ bodies because we desire them, or to make aesthetic objects of them.” Sanctus Geloso’s eyes froze her with disapprobation. “If your parents didn’t teach you manners, surely you had ethics, if not art classes, in your village?”
Though he was a couple of years older, Emma had regarded him as a friend. The sharpness of his attack took her utterly by surprise. Emma’s sight blurred with tears; she swallowed convulsively three or four times. All of that stuff was so dry, and it hadn’t seemed of any concern to her — or indeed to anyone in the village. They weren’t artists, they were all very practical people. Yes, of course she understood about drawing, about how a sketch was a map that highlighted certain kinds of information but never attempted to represent the whole, since the whole of a thing could never be adequately represented in any way shape or form except as aspects of it conformed to classes and subclasses of orders. But drawing Viola Knight’s hand — doodling — hadn’t felt like mapping or attempting a representation, exactly… . She had done it without thinking, compulsively — a response, really, to the way that image was always with her.
Emma got her tears under control. She began to feel angry at being so grievously misunderstood. She said, “Sanctus Geloso, you don’t understand! I was drawing an image that evokes something of how I feel about Viola Knight. I wasn’t trying to represent her.”
“Just your feelings for her?” Sanctus said — looking and sounding scathingly skeptical. “Trying to pin down what it is that so excites you about her, is that it?”
“No!” Emma said. “That’s not it! It’s more like an evocation. Only I’m not an artist, so I can’t do it with any sophistication!”
“No ethical artist would ever evoke a person by drawing a part of their body,” Sanctus said severely. “Any more than an actor would pretend to be representing a human being. Think about it, Emma. The map isn’t the object it denotes. With nonhuman objects, that’s pretty easy to remember, and when one confuses the map with a nonhuman object, one generally makes a fool of oneself. With persons, though, it’s the other way around. When one maps a human, he or she almost instantly conforms to the map, for it becomes what you and others notice about that person. Which is why most people in the world have long since concluded that drawing a map of someone is disrespectful.”
Emma thought ruefully of the subtleties of the play she had seen and the group’s discussion of it. It had been all evocation, which was trickier in drama than in fiction or sculpture or painting, precisely because of the difficulty of making sense while avoiding mapping personalities. The actor’s and dramatist’s arts were the trickiest. The entire group agreed about that. Emma said, “I suppose you’re right, Sanctus. But I’m so… obsessed. I keep seeing her hand in my mind. And so my fingers just keep wanting to draw it. As though it’s imprinted on my brain.”
Sanctus pursed his full, shapely lips. “Sexual love is so uncivilized,” he said. “We never see the object of our love except in really skewed, perverse ways. I suppose one could say that falling in love is like inscribing a map on one’s vision. There’s just the map, and everything that isn’t on it is meaningless.” Sanctus sighed. “Have a care for what you’re doing, Emma. If you start one little bit of human mapping, before you know it you’ll be mapping everything, in your mind if not actually on-screen.” He tugged his boyishly purple and flame sleeve down over his lanky, ungainly wrist and gave her a knowing look. “It really is a slippery slope. And at the bottom lies not only alienation from civilization, but insanity.”
Emma pictured herself on a steep, treeless hill slicked with mud and oil, struggling to keep her footing.
Sanctus said, “Wouldn’t it be more honest to get her out of your system with an affair, rather than simply obsessing about her all the time?”
Emma felt too foolish to do more than mumble a noncommittal reply and beat a hasty retreat. Even if she could map out her feelings, he still wouldn’t understand. That she knew.
Emma’s pleasure-pain became the nausea of confused bad feelings. Walking through campus to town and then to the very outskirts, Emma Persimmon reviewed moment after moment from her past in which she or another child had been castigated for “characterizing” herself or someone else. One does not say that Alan Farnseworth is a tattletale. One says that Alan Farnseworth tattled again to the teacher. There’s a difference, Emma, a big difference. Only certain kinds of generalizations are honest and respectful, namely those that identify a person in terms of guild affiliation, status, age, and village. But a characterization is a generalization pretending to say everything that’s important about a person, when it says only something very partial and is a violation of their integrity. A statement of fact is just that. It’s something that allows others to draw their own conclusions, depending on context and history. Remember how terrible you felt when that little girl in your class said you were “moony”?
But was drawing the hand of one’s beloved the same thing? No, Emma decided, it was not. Her drawings of that hand were signs she made for herself alone, not maps that others could read. And if her drawings mapped anything, they mapped her desire for Viola, not Viola herself. The distinction was crucial! Emma recalled what Montrose Beckoner had had to say about art, maps, and the gaze just the other day. The gaze was the common way of looking at a thing, what some people might call the correct way. If you read the map correctly, you took from it the same information everyone else did. The correct information. If you looked at a piece of architecture with what Montrose called “the aesthetic gaze,” you saw what the architect intended you to see, what any careful, aesthetically acute observer would see. The look was something else. It was private. It wasn’t shared. It was perverse — and maybe profane.
And the look usually focused on signs, rather than on maps. Who but Emma Persimmon could know what that wrist bone and out-of-proportion third knuckle were supposed to mean?
Emma rushed back to campus, ecstatic. Sanctus Geloso had been wrong to chastise her for dissing the woman of her dreams. He had mistaken her look for the gaze. He had mistaken her desire for an object desired. He’d been, in short, presumptuous: which made it all his problem, not hers.
A few nights later when Emma arrived home from a recital given by Pelagia Compton, the principal master with whom Letitia Shadows studied, she was surprised to find Viola Knight in the bathroom — staring at a narrow patch of Edge that had manifested in the small open space bordered by the walls of basins and stalls. It looked very strange to her there, and for a moment she didn’t know why. It seemed to be a green stew of seaweed, heaving with irregular tidal swells over sharp crude craggy bits of rock showing the sheen of pink, violet, and green slime wherever they were exposed. As an Edge, it was, Emma supposed, fairly typical. And yet something about it struck her as not quite right.
“Reminds me of birthing,” Viola said. “If we could smell it, I imagine it would be damned rank.”
Emma had trouble tearing her eyes away from it — even to look on Viola’s freshly scrubbed face. “There’s something strange about it,” she said.
“Yes,” Viola said. “We don’t expect to find a Seam appearing in the middle of a room, especially one so small as this.”
One usually got thin strips along walls free of shelves or furniture. But a solid — albeit small — block, right out in the middle? Of course, if either of them moved into that area, it would be bound to disappear. But…Viola, as though musing aloud, said, “Makes me wonder if the conventional wisdom — that the only place major fields can appear are on the ice at the poles and in desert or tundra, might not be correct. Imagine building an enormous empty space enclosed by four walls and just waiting to see if a field appeared.” Apparently recalling that Emma was totally ignorant about tachyon fields except for what she’d told her on the walk back to the bus, Viola smiled condescendingly. “You see, it’s always been assumed they’re random and cannot be systematically studied,” she said.
Full of wonder, Emma said, “Do you think the engineering guild would build such a place, if they knew about this appearance?”
Viola, still favoring Emma with that same smile, shrugged. “That’s doubtful. They’d have to be able to justify the expenditure. I suppose they could simply say they wanted to study tachyons. But it would be risky. Certainly it would put all engineers involved in danger of breaking their oaths.”
“Don’t you see,” Emma said passionately — but had to stop when Eudora Fromm and Gilda Pershing came in, so absorbed in a conversation about avian ethology that they never noticed the odd way Emma and Viola were positioned.
The women crossed into the Edge, causing it to vanish. Presumably it would come back. But since the small bit of Edge that had been in her room at the beginning of the term had vanished the previous week without being replaced by another, Emma felt bereft, anyway.
The Edge in the bathroom did not reappear. Or was it that it had gone and would not return? Thinking, for the first time, about some of the possible implications of the little that Viola had told her about “Seams,” Emma Persimmon realized she didn’t know whether there was a difference between the perception of an Edge and its actually being there. When one stopped perceiving an Edge — say, when one moved into it, forcing it to retreat, did the field itself — as Viola called it — vanish because it was utterly disrupted, or did it just seem to disappear? Though she had long since lost her infantile delight in playing fort/da, she had never stopped testing Edges. Usually the Edge did return when one had moved out of it.
As Emma thought up a whole new set of questions about the Edge, she grew disturbed about the loss of that particular Edge in the bathroom — and with Viola Knight, whose attitude she irrationally began to associate with the loss. Viola’s apparent obliviousness to her feelings, Viola’s certainty in the wisdom of her guild’s secrecy, irked her. A sense of grievance swept over her. She took up her old habit of following Viola, but now with a doggedness that was almost angry.
Emma dreamed of bees swarming busily around their hive, lapping up honey almost as fast as they made it. Swooping and buzzing indoors, loaded with nectar she could not deliver, night after night Emma flew into the bright odorless meadow of an Edge, only to smash into the wall, thwarted each time she sought to escape, destined to kill herself trying.
At meals Emma picked desultorily at her food and often lost track of conversations. Her friends thought it a simple case of unconsummated love. But to Emma, there was nothing simple about it, though what wasn’t simple she dared not say aloud.
One evening Ledora Fairly drew Emma into her room, to offer her advice and instruction. “Embolden yourself, Emma!” she said. “When you know what you want, you must take it.”
Ledora had no furniture except for a drafting table and matching high stool. The walls and ceiling were covered with mirrors and lights. Flinching from her own reflection, Emma thought that only the physical perfection that dancers necessarily embodied would make it possible to live in such an environment, where one could never escape the reality of one’s appearance.
Ledora Fairly positioned the stool near the small window. She said, “Please, Emma, sit.” Every movement the dancer made suggested extravagance. Even the simplest gesture of arm evoked grace and… immediacy. As though nothing mattered so much as the moment. Emma got a little excited. Dancers were such unpredictable creatures.
Perched on the stool, Emma found her eyes about level with Ledora’s. “I’m going to put a personal question to you, Emma,” the dancer said. “Answer it or not, but do tell the truth. Are you feeling frustrated in getting Viola Knight’s attention?”
Emma almost slid off the stool in embarrassment. She pressed her trembling fingers to her burning cheeks.
“Trailing her like a dog in search of a master is not going to work with a Viola Knight,” Ledora said sternly. “Nor will going up to her, tapping her on the shoulder, and telling her you’re hot for her bod.”
Emma lowered her eyes, wishing she could, like the Edge, vanish on penetration.
“But if you want her, you can get her, and I can show you how.”
Ledora made it simple, when it wasn’t. But tired of smashing into walls keeping her from the heavenly honey of the hive, Emma took Simple, and went for it.
Haunted with desire and verging on anger with the object of that desire, the shy and retiring Ms. Persimmon now flagrantly flaunted it. If she had thought she was being obvious wearing a red scarf, she now added red gloves, stockings, and broad-brimmed hat to her person. And instead of following Viola Knight, Emma anticipated her — popping up several times a day just where Viola was about to be. Though she could not be as immediate as a dancer, Emma became more immediate than she would ever have imagined possible. Emma buzzed furiously in pursuit of The Moment.
Viola noticed. Oh yes. But swept up in the dry elegance of partial differential equations, she found it easy to procrastinate anything that was a distraction from her own agenda. It was only on the Saturday afternoon when she found the reddest of red Emmas awaiting her as she got off the bus at the edge of town that she understood she would not be able to ignore such passion so much as a split-second longer.
“Emma, let’s walk,” she said, prepared to be stern and firm with her pursuer. But the Moment positively ambushed her as she perceived through all her senses the vivid, intense, now-ness of Emma Persimmon’s desire. The brilliance of Emma’s gaze drove scalding waves of sensation through her bones and sinews, and the radiance of Emma’s expression dazzled her, damping her awareness of the rest of the world. In that moment only Emma and Emma’s passion existed. Viola’s nerves sang. Her belly and thighs grew heated and heavy. Now visible in all its splendor, Emma’s desire threatened to possess her whole.
When they had gotten well into the woods, out of sight of the bus, they stopped, and Viola touched Emma’s cheek. “Emma, all this beauty. I’m overwhelmed! But — for me?”
Emma closed her eyes at the thrill of that touch. She perceived that her beloved was moved, rendered almost too breathless to speak. And yet the warning in Viola’s voice, the tone that told Emma that Viola, though excited, was grudging, did not escape her notice. Emma laid her hand over Viola’s; her lips addressed the hard, callused palm, her tongue the sharp little knob of bone on the wrist, with her answer.
Viola murmured pleasure, piquing Emma’s pricked ears. But — “Emma,” she said. “You must understand, my passion is physics. Which demands all I’ve got. I’ve sworn off romance and will marry only engineers. Physics is my life, it owns me!”
Feeling her power, Emma grew bold, yes, and let her desire soar and carry her where it would. They might no longer have been in the stark winter forest, they might be aflutter in the hot desert Edge, like shimmering hummingbirds dipping their long pointed beaks into the soft mauve bells of willows, sipping nectar, dripping pollen, shifting only for another beakfull. Their palms and fingers and lips laid trails, cunning and lingual. The Moment was all Emma had ever hoped for.
“You can have us both,” Emma said when she had breath to speak, breath all full of the scent of Viola.
Viola’s body had loosened, sensation all slipping and sliding in an abandon that set her wanting wanting wanting all that Emma’s hands and lips were promising. “I can’t, I can’t,” she whispered — even as she was discovering the fine-haired neck so eager and responsive under Emma’s scarlet silk scarf.
The Moment was bliss, but yielded to struggle. Emma’s passion equaled Viola’s will. Their pleasure was so outrageous and breathless Emma knew they must be Fated Lovers. But Viola swore it was a once-and-only-once kind of thing. She had been tempted to infidelity and had been weak. It would not, she said, ever happen again.
Emma could not believe it. It made her numb, hearing passion put into the past tense, even as the tingle was still receding from her thighs and buttocks. It defied nature! Could Physics, she wondered, be so perverse? Suddenly she saw the forest around her — gray, damp, and stark. The chill bit at her skin as she pulled herself up to glare down at Viola. This is what it feels like to be a woman, she thought. For after the Moment comes knowledge.
She said, “Listen to me, listen to me, Viola Knight. If it weren’t for passion, I would be hating you. You are wrong to try to keep yourself cold for your work, and you are wrong, wrong, wrong to conceal the existence of the Edge. Your attitude sucks, big-time. And pretending to be above feeling is sick.”
Viola sat up, too. She leaned close to brush bits of twigs and leaves from Emma’s hair with an attitude of intimacy that nearly melted Emma’s insistence. She handed Emma the bright fleecy hat that had come off in their wildest and sweetest of moments, then leaned close again, meaning, Emma was sure, to kiss her. But Viola suddenly reared back. Her breath hissed in sharply; her eyelashes fluttered. She scooted back a few inches, snatched up her sweater, and pulled it quickly over her head. “What silly things are you saying, Emma? You talk like an irresponsible child!”
Viola’s voice was taunting. She took her cloak from the ground and wrapped it tightly around herself. “Until we have exact knowledge of what the fields are and how to map them it’s a certainty that people will behave stupidly and make up every sort of nonsense about them on which to base religions and start wars all over again. Must we have war again, just to make the rare individuals like yourself secure in their sense of reality?”
The tone of Viola’s voice nicked Emma’s heart like a knife so cold it felt hot in her breast. Bitterly she pulled on her pants and wished her hat were any color but red. “Why must there always be a common gaze for perceiving anything that’s represented?” She tugged her flame red socks into place. “Why must the existence of something inexplicable and ineffably different make people want to claim they know what it is?” She felt so angry with Viola she had to bury her fists in her cloak to keep from hitting her. “And why can’t we tolerate private, individual looking, instead of insisting always on The Gaze?”
Viola had no idea what Emma was talking about. Her friends never discussed such things. Maps, to her, were constructs for understanding physical reality. They certainly weren’t territories to be fought over. She said, “I want to be an engineer. More than anything. And yes, more than being a lover, Emma. And keeping quiet about something that is of concern to you — but maybe to no one else in the world — is a price I’m willing to pay.”
Angry, sad, crying, Emma watched Viola finish dressing. When Viola stood quickly, without warning, Emma clutched Viola’s legs in a panic. “Don’t go yet,” she said, openly pleading. “Don’t go. I understand, really I do. But don’t you think it’s at all… wrong?”
Viola looked down at her. It seemed to Emma that she had already, in her heart, gone. “Would it matter, Emma, if I did?”
Emma rushed into her sweater and scrambled to her feet. “Of course it would,” she said. “Of course it would matter.” She blinked to clear her eyes of tears. “Couldn’t you at least think about trying — later, when you’re a master — changing the rules of your guild? Couldn’t you at least think about the negative consequences of your silence?”
Viola kissed Emma’s nose lightly. “Of course I can. And I will. But you just remember, too, that without my guild, I don’t exist. And if I spoke openly about Seams, the rest of the world would say I was crazy, and what good would that do anyone?”
“There’s got to be a way,” Emma said fiercely. “I know there has!”
A silence sprang up between them. It grew charged and heavy. Viola swallowed and cleared her throat. “Before I go back to town, I want to check to see if there’s a Seam in that place now.” Her voice was hoarse and shaky.
Defiantly, Emma took Viola’s arm, making it clear she intended to accompany her.
Viola’s face flamed. She backed hastily away. She was back in the Moment, whatever she might say.
Emma smiled lovingly, in utter sureness of her power. A woman now, she knew her own strength.
Arms linked, breaths steaming in the cold, they set out together — lovers of the Moment — for the Edge.
“Dance at the Edge” first appeared in Bending the Landscape: Science Fiction (1998), edited by Nicola Griffith and Stephen Pagel, and is collected in Love’s Body, Dancing in Time (Aqueduct Press, 2004).
Copyright © 1998 by L. Timmel Duchamp.