The Dangers of Exhibitionism

    The next day I woke up with her on my mind again, my first desire was to seek her out.  I wanted to know if I had imagined how rich her eyes were, how brown her skin. If I had only fantasised the strange loveliness of  her voice and the avian beauty of her movements. I wanted to find out about her. I think I wanted her to be my friend.
      As I got dressed I started laughing at myself. Never, never had I been so interested in another woman. Most of the women about me I considered silly, spiteful things, with uninteresting minds and boring ideas.  I had a dear friend in Colombine, but she was out of town now, with her gentlemen friend, Frederick, and even she had never so intrigued me.  I'd had a glimpse of Francoise the night before. A tantalising glimpse of color and humor, and I wanted  to know what was beneath the mask beneath the mask. And I wanted her to be so interested in me.
      I sought her out at the Center, looking among her kumpania and their vurdons, but not daring enough to ask anyone if they had seen her. I could not find her, and dejected, I sat down on one of the benches and drummed my feet on the stone floor.
     "The sound one makes in their death throes." came the once-heard never-forgotten voice from behind me. I jumped a little and turned to face her. She was leaning on the back of the bench and smiling down at me, her hair pulled out of her face with a red scarf, her hands dangling in front of her in red gloves. Red was my favourite color. And I noticed my mind had not exaggerated the colors of her, the vibrancy and strength.
       "You are familiar with the sounds of death?" I asked her with a raised eyebrow, masking the surprise she'd given me. She did not answer that but moved around the bench. I saw she was in a green dress,  tattered and simple, unlike my own. I took scrupulous care of my clothes,and I loved decoration. I was a cat through and through.
       "I don't think your husband wanted the two of us to become acquainted last night." she said with a  teasing grin I returned readily as she sat down beside me, pulling her long legs up on the bench.
      I waved a hand. "Clopin is greedy, he likes to keep me all to myself. He is even annoyed when I spend  too much time with my friend, Colombine."
     She smiled with her lips pressed together again. "I'm sure he can't be blamed for that." I shot her a look.  "He is a man, after all."
     Ah, alright. "How long do you plan on staying in Paris?"
     She tapped her lip thoughtfully with a gloved hand. "A week, but no more."
     I felt strangely dissapointed. "You would not consider staying longer?"
    A brief shake of her shaggy head. "No. Paris is not my favourite place to be. Besides," and here she smiled wryly. "I doubt your husband would like it."
     I sniffed. "Clopin could deal with it. He would have to."
     Her eyes twinkled with amusement at me. "He would if you told him so?"
     I tossed my hair back over my shoulder. "Of course!"
      She laughed, a sound like the calling of a thrush, a sound I reveled to hear. "For some reason I never  saw Trouillefou as one to be told what to do by a woman."
       "I have him wrapped around my little finger!" and I mimed wrapping something around that self same  object, pleased at her smile. I was not speaking the entire truth, of course, but Clopin was not around to deny it.
   "Why don't you like Paris?" I asked her suddenly, and her eyes glimmered over me before she replied,
   "Summer in Paris is always unbearable. The people choke the streets and the air is rank."
    I narrowed my eyes at her. I hadn't mentioned anything about summer. But I held my tongue. With  anyone else I would of snorted and asked the question again, but there had been something in that glimmer which told me not to press the subject.
    "Perhaps all you need is someone to show you the beauty of Paris in the summer," I stressed the last  three words.
     Her eyes were thoughtful and her smile was unreadable as she again tapped her lip and looked me over. "Perhaps."
    "I hated Paris when I first came here" I told her. "I love it now, though I do not love the gajo. Stupid gajo with their white skin and christian churches!"
     I threw a hand up dramatically and tossed my skirts over my legs, revealing them to the knee, folding them over one another. If Clopin passed by he'd yank my skirts down and glare at any men who were  looking. But there were no men, only Francoise.
     The grin again spread over her face. "You yourself are quite the dove among pigeons."
     What a pretty metaphor! But I pouted. "I am pale, yes, but I'm still brown." there was insistence in my voice and she nodded curtly.
   "You're brown enough to not be mistaken for a gajo." and I was placated.
    She was growing restless from sitting still, I could see it. The last thing I wanted was for her to become  bored with me. I realised I was drumming my feet again and knew I was getting bored also. Would she come with me if I asked her? But I didn't need to ask.
     She leapt suddenly to her feet, breaking her stillness so fast I was almost dizzy. She stood up in front of  me, looking down with that wide, shining grin. I noticed her breasts were small and stood out against the fabric of her dress, just a slight push, unlike my own big ones. Her waist and hips were narrow. She was so tall. A wonderful specimen of woman.
   "You'll pardon me, Herli. I cannot stand to stagnate when an audience is ever near."
     She whirled on her heel, her skirts revealing a well-turned calf, and began to stride away.    No invitation to  me, and slightly miffed I waved a hand and dropped it lightly to chew upon a nail.
    I looked up in surprise. She was waiting for me with her hands upon her hips, emphasising her strong torso.
   "You expect me to leave without my audience?"
     And even though I knew she was playing with me I couldn't help my satisfied grin, and I got up deliberately slowly, letting my skirts slip back down around my ankles as I did so, and shaking out my hair in triumph, my bangles jangling, as I went to join her.

     It was almost like a chase as I followed her up onto the streets of Paris. Her legs were long and strong, and it seemed she was eager to get out of the Court. Francoise. Free One. What an apt name. I found the Court stifling at times, but I thought this one would probably find it excrutiating.
    As we leapt out onto the cobblestoned streets, she turned around to me with her grin, her hair flipping around her face like cloth flapping on the wind. The air was hot and had that strange stillness to it common with summer, despite the breeze. I skipped about on the cobblestones, they were hot and dusty to my bare feet, and shielded my eyes with one hand to block out the yellow glare. Francoise, as she had been yesterday, was unpreturbed. She ran a naked toe through the dust on the road and looked about her with a seeking keeness, her head swivelling on her long neck. The streets of Paris were easily as busy as they had been the day previous and I almost regretted declining Clopin's invitation to perform with him today, the pickings would of been good, and the audience enraptured.
   But one glance at my brown,fascinating companion and I did not regret. A warm breeze idled by us, blowing her perfume to me, a scent I couldn't place. She shot me a sidewards glance through narrowed eyes as we began our way. I thought she was questioning why I hadn't questioned our destination. I only smiled at her quietely and brushed back my hair. A moment later she confirmed my suspicions.
   "Precious few follow me without asking where we're going." she said in soft amusement.
    "But then, where would the surprise be?" I answered smoothly, and she laughed, eyes glinting.
    "The surprise might be an unpleasant one." with something secret in her smile.
     I paused a moment.
    "Does the cat question the danger of following a pretty bird into a tree? A bird can fly, it is true, but cats are every bit as agile."
   She inclined her head downwards and looked at me intensely, a grin hovering on her lips.
   "But I doubt the cat is overjoyed when the bird turns around and pecks her in the eyes."
    I stood back a little and crinkled my eyes at her. Was she trying to frighten me? Make a point? If she thought I hadn't seen the danger potential within her, she was wrong. Francoise was strong, stronger than most, but I still had the ability to see deep within a person. I could barely scrape her thick brown skin, but it was enough to see a volatile temper, like the sea just before a storm.
   I could stand in front of a stormy sea for hours. All that power, all that beauty, as the waves crashed into one another and roared at being freed from beneath the surface. I was still interested in Francoise.
   With that same dazzling swiftness she'd displayed in the Court she suddenly flipped onto hands and cartwheeled down the streets, her skirts flying up and revealing muscular brown thighs, before twisting up and around in the air to land back down easily into a sweeping bow, one leg bent behind her. Everywhere around her, parisians turned to look, while I stayed where I was and watched her with my head bent down and my gaze intense. She was by far the better acrobat, and as an explosion of colored silks burst out from the palm of her hand, it seemed, a better illusionist. The audience oohed and ahhed and drew closer to see what came next.
   And still I stood where I was, smiling to myself. Was she trying to entice me into competition? I did not like competition, a division of attention. When I performed I was the only performer. Or did she merely want an audience, did she want my admiration and my respect? Surely she knew she already had that from me. I had no idea if I had the same from her.
   I was aware as I followed the rippling movements of her body, like a ribbon being bent on the air, of a loss of power on my part. I'd come looking for her, I'd waited for her, I'd followed her.
   I laughed, and lifting my hand blew her a kiss before turning on my heel and going around the corner.

     But my heart was still eager that night and I did not wait for Clopin before making my way to the Center. I wondered if she'd be angry I'd left her, and I doubted it. I was proud of how I looked that night---I'd taken pains with my appearance. I'd dressed in red with gold trim, a skirt that came to mid-shin and was slung low on my waist, revealing my pierced navel. My bodice came to just below my ribcage, for Clopin wouldn't allow it any higher. My shoulders were bare. My hair was loose. My heart was beating hard. It was nothing unusual, I liked the other women to look and envy. But I knew I didn't want her to envy me. I wanted Francoise to look at me and I wanted her to like what she saw.
     The looks I got as I strode towards the Center were enough to tell me I was - eye catching - tonight. I was pleased. I caught sight of her straight away. Like a piece of bronze sparkling in the sun, she stood out from all those around her. Again sitting with the women. Still (or, I reminded, again) in the green dress. I smiled smugly to myself and tossed my hair out of my eyes before walking over to the barrels for a drink, casting her a look from lowered lashes.
     She didn't look at me.
     I stood up straighter and shook my hair out, but I may as have not been there though she was only eight feet away from me. Her attention was fixed on three colored balls she held in one hand, circling them around on her palm, at intervals flipping one up whilst still circling the other two, and then catching it again. But she couldn't have missed me. Everyone noticed me. I brooded over my tankard of wine, still standing and peering over the rim of it at her as she continued with her tricks, maybe listening to the conversation around her, maybe not.
     When Christophe picked up his lute and Jean began beating on the drums, a thought struck me then. Perhaps I couldn't force her to look at me, but I could do my best - and even if she didn't, my compensation would be that everyone else would.
     With that thought in mind I lost no time in slinking over to where the musicians played and started to dance in time to the music. My feet were scarred and sometimes hard to dance upon from injuries years past, and besides that I was no wonderful dancer anyway. But there seemed to be a little magik in the air that night, let loose in the multicolored powder I threw from its pouch when I stood up, getting all the attention over to me---for I danced better than I had ever done before. Twirls and twists were now effortless, and my body bent where I wanted it to, my hair stayed out of my eyes and my arms were expressively elegant. I deliberately didn't look at her for several minutes, losing myself instead in the dance, closing my eyes and swinging my hips to the beat. If I let myself go like that, I stopped caring how I looked and what people thought, and as a result I usually danced better.
     When I opened my eyes and took a look, I was intensely satisfied to see her dark eyes fixed hard on me, unreadable, but still fixed. She remained motionless, her eyes being the only thing displaying life as they followed my movement. I allowed a little smile and a wink, before closing my eyes once more, spinning so my skirts flew up above my knees.
     When I opened my eyes once more, she was gone. Startled, I stumbled a little, but determinedly continued. Bitch, I thought harshly.
     It wasn't long, though, a matter of a few seconds, before an excited murmur rose from the crowd and a strange gibberish tickled its way into my ears. Opening my eyes and whirling around I saw none other than the Rouen Bird itself, perched up on the stage and leaning over to me. I pushed my hair back and laughed breathlessly, not sure where things were going, taking the outstretched gloved hand and being pulled up onto the stage next to it by a pair of impossibly strong arms. Only one other's embrace had caused such a thrill in me as I landed beside it and stared into the crazy eyes beyond the color of the mask. Such shimmering,shining colors. Almost hypnotic.
     The Bird began to dance, pulling me along with it, a rhythm I was glad to let guide me as I was spun and thrown from one arm to the other and dipped and whirled. I'd never been caught up in such a wild performance before, and I loved it. It didn't pause once long enough for me to catch mmy surroundings, and not once did its eyes leave my face as we bent and swayed with the kind of body contact forbidden on the streets above. I was dipped with dizzying speed, my hair flying over on itself, my head nearly scraping the ground and my back supported only by one strong arm. My hands clung to the Bird's shoulders as we paused for several long, heavy seconds, before I was suddenly pulled up and onto the other arm and it ran to the end of the stage and flipped off it, turning in mid air and taking me along with it. We landed on our feet, and my waist was encircled by its two brown arms, and my hands were clasped behind its neck and I was staring dumbstruck into its eyes. My heart was racing at three times its normal speed as the rom around us broke into thunderous applause. The Bird lifted me back onto the platform and leapt up behind, bowing to the crowd.
     The noise was distant in my ears. Because I knew, suddenly, why I hadn't been able to get Francoise off my mind, and having the Bird pressed so closely to me only drove this fact home.
     The Bird's beak inclined forward slightly to tap me on the nose and it asked me something in its sweet, strange language. I was about to answer when I was grabbed by the back of the skirt and pulled out of its embrace by arms stronger than those which had just held me.
     It was Clopin, and his face was an evil brick red as he stared angrily at the Bird who squawked and bobbed its head curiously from side to side in a mocking fashion as it observed the newcomer. A possessive arm was tight around my waist and my husband's eyes were glowing. But suddenly he seemed to let out all his anger in a long breath, and with a distinctly nasty laugh he turned to go, throwing back over his shoulder to my beautiful Bird -
     "Well, where else would one as masculine as you turn? No man would have you."
     I was stung on its behalf, but it just let out a twirling laugh, casting its hand to its brow in a mock tragedic manner. The sound was nothing like the thrush cry of its Francoise. Then it feigned being impaled by the dagger of a jealous lover, swooning and cooing loopily.
     Clopin's frown deepened.
     The bird glanced up from its corpse-like position and tsk-ed at Clopin. It sprang up and bounded over to us, its beak a hair's width from Clopin's nose. Then, to my shock, it began to romance him. It sighed, a golden noise, and a red finger caressed his jawline. Clopin shook it off, but the rom giggled and hooted. The bird turned its head towards them and raised its shoulders---miming "should I go on?" The response was unanimous, of course. If it had been another girl than me on that stage, I would've cheered, too. Maybe.
     The bird swung its hips into Clopin's own, fluttering its eyelashes. The red fingers cascaded down his collarbone flirtingly, and it began to sing a low, lilting tune. I remember the words to that old song, that of course the bird did not sing.

Evening falls - night devours day
Babies cry - mother's on her way
Summer nears - June will follow May
Cloth grows old - threads begin to fray
Lovers sigh - who knows what Fate will say?
Love's the thing
in which there's no fair play
     Clopin kept throwing off her hands. I could feel the heat rise to my face. By the end line of the melody, though, he gave up and stood still. The bird slowly ran a hand to the back of his neck, and then as the last note died, it kissed him deeply.
     The noise was tremendous. It's a marvel that all of Paris didn't hear us. Clopin stood frozen, and I winced as his grip on my waist tightened. I could feel my ribs contract. Then the bird drew back and looked up into his eyes, and there was a malicious light in them. With a painful, mocking trill, it leaped backwards away from him, hand over hand. As it hit the edge of the platform, it righted itself. With one hand placed jauntily on its hip, it gave us an impertinent little wave. Then it flipped off, and was engulfed in the crowd.
     Where it could've gone to without being obvious is beyond me. The whole experience was beyond me. The entire core of my feeling had gone dead with fear, humiliation, fury, and---damn it all, arousal. I didn't dare turn my head to look at my husband. His grip loosened, but I could feel his joints tremble.
     Then he shook it off abruptly, turned to the crowd, grinned, and made a gruesome face as if he had just kissed a leper. He smoothly drew me forward, and gave me an exaggerated, romantic kiss. But I could feel the hardness of his mouth, and the way he gripped me stung. I was hustled off to our tent and shoved inside, still dizzy from the dance, my heart still thudding. My knees were weak, like the first time Clopin and I had made love, and I was barely aware when he shoved me down on the bed and kissed me viciously.
     "Why were you so mean to her?" I asked him, and he looked at me dazedly for a few seconds.
     "Why did you dance with her?"
     "The Bird asked me too. She would want me to."
     "Good god." he muttered angrily and began kissing me again, pulling at my skirt. I knew right then that I should of stopped him, that was about to happen was not happening in love. It was an assertion of his possession of me, a reminder of who I was married to. My silly husband, of course I never stopped loving him as much for a second - but Francoise was so - new.
     She was powerful.


(c) Covielle and Harley Quinn 2000