They say the woman came from the ocean when she was still young, and that she came of her own free will. And they said that years later, when she tried to return, she could not. Spending years by the shore, night after night, begging the ocean to take her back. By the time the water stilled like a lake and the moon shone violet, as it had the night she left, she was but an old woman, old and with a family now, with a life full of other lives. She took her coffee on the veranda, and wept at night, and read her books, dreaming of the ocean with no hope of return.
The old ballerina told this story listlessly, only because Alice and the faceless neighbor children requested it. She said the same words each time, with her weathered hands around her china teacup, sometimes pausing to clear her throat or touch her bracelet, seaweed encased in glass. The teacup always held the dregs of morning coffee, and was carried inside at the end of the story to be washed and used again the next morning.
“This story is not about whether it is true, or who the woman is,” said the ballerina, shifting her still-limber body into a more comfortable position. Alice lifted her head from her grandmother’s elbow while this took place, and then settled herself back down after. “It is about the woman finding her way back home. Whether the ocean will ever offer itself up again, and when it does, if the woman will be ready to accept the offer.”
The children tried to process this string of whens and ifs and regret, while Alice, taller than all of them, almost old enough to lose fascination in selkie stories, asked again, “But who is the woman, Grandmère?”
The ballerina closed her eyes as if in pain, though Alice asked this question every time. “My love, that does not matter. Go and play on the ocean. Ask her, beg her, give the woman her gift. Let the woman home.”
Alice believed the ballerina was the woman, and she would not have been wrong in the years between the first opening, when the woman was sixteen, and the second, when the woman was seventy-three. But the ballerina knew the second opening was not an opening at all, but a closing. She had known, looking out of tear-filled eyes on a silent, violet sea, that there would be no lost love climbing out of the waves to hold her and tell her the ocean still loved her. She had made her choice. And yet, knowing this still, she walked to the edge of the waves, even swam to the sandbar if her body allowed her, and rested in the buoyant waves and sobbed for her mother to take her back, to forgive her.
The ballerina was young then, sleeping in the waves, as young as she had been standing outside of La Mer’s Ballet School in Menton, feeling naked without the push and pull of the waves. She watched girls in stiff shoes and lithe, flowy white costumes dance to the music of the heart, and she wanted to be like them, dancing with grace and strength, dancing like the ocean. The secretary looked at her tattered clothing, stolen from the backside of a café, and her seaweed bracelets and desperate expression. But the instructor watched her dance, her limbs strong from the swimming, graceful from the embrace of the waves, and yet purposeless.
“Do you have a place to stay, madam?” he asked.
She shook her head. “My home… is… no, I don’t.”
“We have a boarding school program within the ballet school. For highly talented, highly motivated individuals. Are you one of those?”
The woman closed her eyes. She could not even hear the ocean from here, but the movements of dance, those graceful girls in white clothing and stiff shoes, was as close to the ocean as she had felt in weeks. If the ocean would not take her back, this strange ritual of moving the body to music must be a substitute. She opened her eyes and stared at this man, small and quiet but clearly in complete control over his movements, with a grace she had only seen from the oldest of her kind. He stared back. She knew her eyes were striking—darkest indigo trenches in the ocean staring out of a face that knew both storms and stillness. But she could not help comparing his eyes to the emerald of the water above a sandbar, the image of peace and safety. She nodded in answer to his question. She learned then that, given enough time, she would fall in love with this man. And perhaps find a home in the process.
When he asked her name she did not know how to respond. The name given her by the ocean could only be heard by the wildest of waves, the creatures at the floor of the sea, and her own kind. She pointed to a small brown container on the secretary desk and let the tip of her thumb touch a whiteand-purple blossom.
“This?” she said, not looking at the man.
“The peony? Or do you mean the violet color?”
She liked the word violet better than peony, and said, “Yes. My name is Violet.”
“Violet,” he said. He took her hand and smiled at her. “My name is Cèdric. Good to meet you.”
“Cèdric,” she said. “One who is loved.”
He raised his eyebrows and smiled again. “Yes, that’s what it means. I thought only I knew that.”
“Where I come from,” Violet said to him, “the meaning of names is almost more important than the sound of the name itself. You have a beautiful name.”
She thought back to this encounter often, treasuring it like a small mottled pearl in her darkest and loneliest moments. After a few weeks at the school, she stood out as a natural, and one with deep convictions rather than ambitions. Cèdric, wisely, taught her nothing but the basics and then gave her to Mònique, a very old woman who danced better than any young woman. She was the second teacher on the team of three—Cèdric, Mònique, and Claudia, a woman with bleached hair and a smile that could stun even the King of England.
“Back straight. Arm higher. Fingers outstretched. It is as if you are grasping for something you cannot reach. Do it. Again. Again.”
Violet practiced the motions again and again, Mònique’s voice ringing in her ears each time she tried and failed. It was Mònique who introduced her to cigarettes and a jockey’s diet of lettuce and drugs, but it was also Mònique who gave her the gift of Liszt and Chopin and the Russian ballets. From Mònique she learned how to discipline passion and grace, dancing late into the night, waking early, and dancing as soon as her bleary eyes shook off sleep. From Mònique came the only true compliment—besides Cèdric, not knowing the power of his words, telling her she danced like the ocean—that Violet ever treasured: “They say I dance better than all young women. This is no longer true.”
Four years passed, thousands, millions of tides, and thousands, millions of tears. She had seen little of Cèdric save the first weeks of Position One, Position Two, and pliès, but on a windy May morning, he knocked on the door of her small boarding room as she was stretching for the day.
When she opened the door, the light from the hallway spilled into her room, weaving around both of them and forming a pattern on the floor. Her window, on the other side of the room, was open, and the white morning sun was the only illumination in her bare but familiar home. Thin cotton curtains blew from the sea wind. A white metal bed frame supported a mattress that had begun to adjust around her sleeping form, a real measure of use, and several violet blankets. Then in the corner she had her small record player and a pile of Tchaikovsky, Pärt, and Palestrina. On the window-seat, her stack of History of France, Dickens, Camus, and Brecht. And her notebook of ocean sketches.
Cèdric looked as though someone had magicked him here without his permission and told him to say something. He held something in his hands—Violet wanted to look at it, but was held by his sandbar eyes. She hoped it was flowers, something to brighten the room, and hoped it was not flowers, the usual thing in these circumstances, and she didn’t want the usual thing.
When he held it out she was forced to look at it. It was a book, The Call of the Sirens and Other Myths. She looked at it, and then at him, and smiled.
“For you,” he said. “But I also came to ask you to come to the beach with me. Not that this is bribing you to come, you can always say no, but I thought it would be nice to just walk there, but it’s okay, not an issue…” He turned and began to walk away, still holding the book.
Violet, stunned, watched him go for a split-second before remembering what Claudia had told her to do in such a scenario. “No! Wait! Cèdric, come back.”
He, turning, tripped, caught himself, and almost flung himself back toward her. “Yes, yes?”
She looked at him, his whole earnest face, the golden clump on his head and its weaker reflection on his upper lip, his emerald eyes and his reddening cheeks. “I’ll go to the beach with you, Cèdric.” For some reason, though she knew he was about the same height as her, perhaps taller, she seemed to be looking down at him.
He noticed, too. “You’re tall!”
Violet laughed, tossing the book from his hand onto her bed, and following him into the hallway. “I’m happy. I suppose that’s why.”
“I hope you like the book. I’ve noticed you love the ocean and everything with it, so I thought selkies and sirens would be interesting to read about.”
Violet looked at him thoughtfully. “Do you believe in them?” His eyes smiled up at her, green in a sea of gold and rose. “Are you one of them?”
“I don’t think so.” She tucked her arm into his as they descended the stairs and out into the cloudy morning. From here, she could see and hear the ocean, and the smell of wet salt enveloped her. He began to laugh, but saw that she was serious.
“I sort of wondered where you came from, Violet. When you walked into La Mer’s, what was it, four years ago?”
“From the ocean,” she said carefully. She no longer cared what others thought of her—Claudia taught her confidence and Mònique taught her graceful aloofness—but over the years she had begun to love Cèdric, truly love him for who he was and who he wanted to be and had been. And she wanted him to love her too. She did not want him to disbelieve her. “I walked out of the ocean four years ago, a few weeks before I came to the school. I was young and headstrong and was sick of my mother, the ocean, and my family. I wanted a day away, a day of sights and sounds and perhaps I’d magically find love on land too.”
Violet dearly wanted to look at Cèdric, to see what he thought of that. She wanted to see an encouraging face, a pair of eyes full of love for her, but feared seeing nothing at all. Her stomach was cold. “I went back that night, alone in the darkness, wading into the waves. I thought I would feel my particular love for the water, the waves to pull me along, and my mother to welcome me back. But I had forgotten that the water had been as still as a lake when I left, and the moon was violet.”
Here she looked at him. “This is where your name came from, then,” was all he said, looking at the sand in front of them. She looked ahead once more.
They were nearing the cliffs by the beach entrance. She had begun to ache inside from the cold, knowing this conversation was not going well. “Yes. My true name, explained in long words, signifies the dance that the sand makes at the floor of the ocean.” She said it for him, quietly. “But when I made my choice to leave, it was leaving forever. If I had known that…”
“Why ballet, then?” Cèdric asked. They stopped atop the rugged black cliff, arm in arm, so close their shoulders touched and warmed each other.
“It was as close to the movement of the waves as I could find.”
He looked at her. During the telling of the story, she had shrunk, and was now several inches shorter than he. “Look at that,” he said, beginning to smile. “You’re shorter.”
She laughed. “When the ocean is happy, she rises. So do we.”
“I’m glad you left,” he said. “I grieve for you, all the beauty you had, but I’m glad you are here with me.”
She looked at him, a small coal beginning to burn within her heart. It flooded her insides, warmed her stomach. “You believe me.”
He looked out at the ocean, stirring and sighing as the wind moved it and the sun warmed it. With hidden depths that no man will ever see fully. “I’m no legalist. I read too many fantasies and Greek myths as a boy. I’ve been in love with the sea for decades. I suppose I’ll have to settle for one of her daughters.”
Violet laughed and leaned her head on his shoulder. “I think I’m in love with you,” she said.
The old woman took out her mottled pearls every once in a while and held them up to the light to examine and experience. Memory now was her only way back to Cèdric and her life in the ocean. From the balcony of what was once Mònique’s room and now was hers, as the owner of La Mer’s, the view of the ocean was beyond compare. She could see all three points of the ocean horizon; where it met the land to the right and to the left, and as far out as it stretched toward the sun. It was at times like these, with Alice tucked against her and the children now longing to swim out to the sandbar and pretend to be sirens, that she wondered if Cèdric had been right when he told her, on their wedding day, “You have two homes now.”
“My love,” she told Alice, “take my cup to the kitchen and wash it for me. Then let me see you swim to the sandbar with the others before warmup today. There is a certain gentleman coming from Paris today to look at our best students to take home with him and perform in Russia and all the world.”
Alice smiled at her. “Grandmère,” she said, “I will swim out there to please you. But I don’t want to go to Russia. I want to stay here and dance like the ocean.”
“Dance like the ocean on all the stages of the world,” Violet told her. She did not want Alice to leave. Alice was part of what made Menton home. But Alice would leave and stun the world like Claudia had. Alice would dance like the ocean and bring tears to the eyes of Russian diplomats.
When Alice had left with the man from Paris, after many tears and kisses and promises to write, Violet walked down the creaky steps, down to the shore, the path she had walked when she had married Cèdric on the cliffs, and entered the waves. She swam toward the sun until she had no strength left. She expected to sink, but instead, the ocean took Violet in her arms and carried her gently home.
—August 2022, Tyler