One of these days—soon—without word, without warning, I’m going to go up in smoke.
It won’t sputter or smolder. When the blaze finally comes, it will be a conflagration. I’ll explode into flame like a dynamite crate, blackened paper and broken boards going everywhere. One of these days, the weight of the feathers and the silk will be too much. My bones will break like matchsticks, splintering, striking sparks off the edges of my cold steel core.
Two times since rehearsals started, the footlights have gone out during the Pas de trois. Back in November, it was raining all the time. The breakers kept shorting, crackling out in a shower of sparks. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but someone had to answer for it. The new director told the stage crew that if it happened again, heads would roll. We could hear her through the door of her office, screaming into her phone. The pitch of her voice was inhumane, and directors are all crazy. They’re supposed to be temperamental, dramatic. This is different. When Madame de Sevigne raises her voice, it’s like a struck bell that won’t stop ringing. You can almost hear the frequency of her stiff, violent rage, buzzing under her skin.
Three of the corps dancers quit in one week, less than a month into the season. The ones who stayed called it insane, leaving the best company in the state, but those three were done with it and even their little-girl dreams of being pretty ballerinas weren’t strong enough to keep them here in the glowering presence of the Madame. They gathered up their lace and ribbons and disappeared, leaving nothing but a few loose hairpins and sequins, a few scattered feathers.
Four is the count, the steady rhythm repeating on the floor. It’s the plodding song of the metronome. We bend and grow to it, stretching and swaying—up, down, over. We fold and crouch, silent. Low. They treat me like their queen, but that’s a lie. It’s Madame who reigns over us. We are all prostrate before her.
Five nights a week, the company rehearses. And spends those rehearsals wishing it was one of our days off. I’m the girl who never murmurs or complains. The others take my silence as indifference. They make assumptions that I’m cutthroat and hungry. That I take all the good things for myself, but that’s only an illusion. I’m just as caught, as tangled-up as the rest of them.
Six times, the Madame has made an example of someone, calling them to stand apart and take their punishment. Six times, I’ve stood silently in the crowd and wished that it was me. Sometimes, if you have to watch, the humiliation is too much. It’s better to bow your head and take the blame. If you can just save all the scorn and the reproach for yourself, sometimes it means that everyone else is spared.
Seven is the number of pounds that Marianne Porter has to lose if she wants to keep her spot. When Madam de Sevigne told her that, in front of everyone, the rest of the swans turned and angled their faces to the floor while I stood apart, with my back straight and my head up. Marianne didn’t argue or protest. She stared greedily at me, the body that Madame holds sacred. The one they’re all supposed to covet, aspire to and emulate. Later, I found Marianne alone in the dressing room, drawing X’s on her stomach and thighs with a marker. I could see her spine through the taut, uncomplaining veil of her skin.
Eight is when we stop for the evening, if the Madame is pleased and the rehearsal goes well and the stars align. We never stop at eight.
Nine is the number of circles Madame draws in her black choreography notebook before turning the page. I’ve seen her backstage, or else sitting stiffly behind the desk in her office, drawing her vicious little circles, making her little notes. She doesn’t glance up or look around, lost in the magic of her book. I think it’s where she keeps our souls.
Ten is the number of toes I have. It’s an ordinary number, but every night, I wonder. I slide them out of my pointe shoes, and it always seems for a moment that the shank and the toe box have molded them together like the gnarled feet of a bird. The other dancers gasp and wince. They cry noiseless tears until the ache stops and the numbness creeps back in. They bend their heads to hide the pain, until their whole bodies look pale and distorted, like fairytale creatures. I think that she’s bewitched them into swans but left me half a princess—a feathered girl made of skin, muscle, bone.
Eleven is when we stop for the evening, since we never stop at eight. The lights flick out and the music trails off. Everything has to stop sometime.
Twelve o’clock is soft and full of shadows. The building is empty, echoing. Still.
The only one left now is Madame, sitting grimly behind her desk.
She didn’t take my voice. My silence is legendary, but she’s not the reason I don’t speak. The other dancers stare around, craven and wide-eyed like she’s fixed their mouths, filled them up with feathers.
My own voice is still right where it belongs.
The door is cracked, and when I push my way into the office, she doesn’t look surprised. When she asks what I want, I tell her that the corps is frightened of her, that more might leave if she doesn’t start using some compassion, or at least some tact.
“Thank you for bringing it to my attention,” she says. “I appreciate your input, but really, the state of the corps is not your concern. If you’d like something to worry over, you ought to be thinking about your arabesques.”
She says is briskly, like the words are prerecorded, before going back to her nasty little book, listing of our flaws and weaknesses and our faults, recipes for destruction. All the perfect, constant circles.
Alone in the hall, I understand that my visit hasn’t made a difference. I didn’t expect it to.
The swans are useless, mute, and I can’t make them into real girls. They might wish for protection, for rescue, but they don’t love me. They’d burn me like a witch if they could, and maybe the secret to being the best is that you don’t mind too much when your feet hurt or other people want to burn you.
The cavernous space behind the stage is cluttered, all ropes and wires and dangling sandbags. There’s ancient wood paneling peeling up from the floor, water dripping from places the maintenance crew were supposed to patch. I wind my way through the boxes and the pulleys, carrying one of the feathered skirts from the dressing room. The feathers are scratchy and coarse against my arms, much coarser than they look.
This is the one elemental truth of a swan princess. The truth of Madame.
Without ceremony, I toss the skirt over the rickety fuse box, and trip the breaker.
Photo by Skye Suicide
Our prompt this month is The Wild Swans