The curtain rises, and her world is filled with light.
She looks up, not at the sea of faces but searches for one face, one pair of eyes, soft brown that never failed to light with humor and freckled gold when they saw her or the sun –
The chair is empty. The music does not wait. Her body moves on cue and now she is Clara, waiting for the Christmas party to begin and for the gifts to be given. She accepts the Nutcracker with awe and love, her emotions beaming through her movements. This time, the heartbreak she echoes when the toy is broken is easier to portray.
This is not her first opening night. This is not her first time as Clara. This is not the first time he does not come.
This is not the first time he promised, either.
The children go to sleep and Clara is left alone on the stage, tending to the broken toy. The clock strikes twelve, and –
“Fire!” a woman runs in, screaming, “Fire!”
Clara frowns. Fire? No, the mice are about to enter –
“Fire! Get to the exit doors, quickly!” shouts a man, a dark shape against the flutter of fancy dresses and pales faces. “Odette! Leave the stage, now!”
Auguste? But –
The smell suddenly hits her – smoke and charred wood that bite her throat – she is choking –
The tapestry behind her bursts into flames that flare and consume the ropes behind the scenes. She covers her face and tries desperately to breathe. Be the mistress of your dizziness, her mind whispers, focus on one spot. But the world is spinning and the grandfather clock, the one that struck midnight, collapses on her leg. Her left leg. Her leap leg. How will she dance?
“Help me…” she whispers, trying – frantically, digging till her fingers bleed – to tear the heavy piece of burning wood from her body. The pain and panic beat rhythmically in her ears. Help me.
The fire roars around her and the smoke – her vision blurs and her heart beats so loudly – can they not hear her? Will no one come to help? Help me, Lou, help me. Help me!
She can’t breathe. Her lungs are on fire but she cannot breathe. And the clock won’t move not an inch not even less and she is trapped. She is trapped and she wasn’t given a chance to see him, one last time. She is trapped.
Odette woke up, shivering. Pain spasmed from her leg, tearing into her stomach and her spine. Her skin was wet and clammy, but her voice was steady when she replied, “Yes, Madame Le Haut?”
The woman knocking on her front door was not appeased by the polite reply. “The cook has decided she’s sick, again. Go to the kitchen, now!” A pause. The shadow on the wall was thinking. “After you had cooked breakfast and tended to your usual duties, do find the time to sack the lazy pig and find a… less damaged cook, if you will.” She scoffed to herself. “One might think I am running a charity, employing a limping housemaid and a sickly cook!”
“Yes, Madame,” Odette responded, voice quiet and dutiful. That was what she had become, a quiet and dutiful cleaner. She worked her leg slowly, patiently, trying to massage the pain from the ankle that never fully healed.
“Yes, madame,” she whispered to the empty room. She slowly curled on herself, stretching and touching her forehead to the broken bone. Her lips. “Yes.” Her lips formed the words with ease. Almost an instinct, after ten years.
Cleaning Le Haut’s mansion, despite what the Madame might have thought, was a mental challenge rather than physical. Cleaning the Opera, on the other hand, was both.
Odette braced herself against the cold autumn wind and entered the grand building. A few ballerinas still graced the entrance, but the older ones ignored her, and the younger moved away, sometimes while suppressing a giggle. Not out of respect, obviously. A cleaner works with dirty items, thereby becoming dirty herself. One could not remove stains without becoming a stain herself.
The poor children were tolerable, but they were rare. The rest were wealthy, and if they cared to dignify her with a glance, it was usually a haughty one.
I hate kids.
“Odette! Yo-hoo! How wonderful to see you!” A singing, booming voice and a coat that could not be ignored. Perfect.
“Director,” she muttered. “Good evening. How are the rehearsals?”
Auguste’s smile did not waver. He wrapped his hand around her shoulder and stirred her, while still humming and smiling, toward his office. “Fantastic! Lovely! Couldn’t be better! Rosita is a sight to behold!” he sang as he closed the door and gestured toward a grand chair. “Do sit, my dear!”
Odette clutched her cane and stood taller. “I have work to do, Monsieur, and little time to spare. What is it?”
Auguste’s eyes flickered. The expression resembled pity. Odette looked away.
“You can still call me Auguste, Odette.” He smiled. For such a large man, his smile was uncommonly kind.
“I know. You told me before.” Her voice was flat. Her eyes focused on the floor. If she closed them and stood very still, perhaps she could hear the music coming from the stage. If she closed her eyes strongly enough, perhaps she could wish this entire life away.
He released a huff of air that could have been mistaken for a laugh. “I know you know. I asked you one hundred times already, and I will ask you one hundred times more. I am not giving up on you, Odette.”
Her fingers tightened their hold of the cane. “Are we still talking about manners, or about the teaching position? Because my answer isn’t going to change to either.” Her voice was too sharp. Unkind.
Auguste, despite his massive form, was a sensitive soul. He flinched. “Eh, well, both. Louis complained to me again about the workload – “
“I find that hard to believe.”
“ – and about lost opportunities – “
“ – like a chance to go to America – “
“He hates travel.”
Auguste sighed, then smiled. “You know him better than I do. But he did have to turn down a collaboration with the Russian ballet, recently. His career as a ballet dancer might have ended, but that’s not the end of the road, as you well know,” he hinted, adding an unecessary wink.
Her knuckles turned white. “Auguste, I don’t want to have this conversation. We’ve had it before. The board won’t have a sweeper’s daughter teaching their genteel spawns.” Her voice was still flat. Lifeless. “And they won’t have me now, in either case. I spent the last ten years cleaning, not dancing.”
“Pah!” Auguste responded eloquently. “The board will hire a donkey if I dress it in enough velvet. Money does not produce talent, nor nurture it. Only talent nurtures talent, and only talent produces money. You, my dear, are the best money can buy, and a thousand years of sweeping won’t change that.”
Odette looked down. It was easier, these days, to look down. Her back was hunched. “Is that all?”
The man sighed. He gestured, but she did not look at him to see what the movement meant. “He has been watching you since he was a teen, but I have been watching you from the moment you stepped into these halls.” He paused. “That came out wrong. But my point still stands! The ballet is an art of passion – above all else, a dancer is measured by the passion of her heart. I know you still have the heart of a dancer, Odette,” he reached out to her, touching her shoulder, “you still come here.”
“Exactly. The girls already know my face,” she snapped, her voice like whiplash, “as a cleaner. Tell Mérante I don’t want his help.”
She exited, her movements sharp but graceful. Her pain sucked in – brushed aside – ignored. Forgotten. Gone.
Damn Mérante and his meddling.
She scrubbed the floors, anger seeping and flaming with every movement. Damn him. Damn him and the opera and Auguste with his silly ideas –
She packed her clothes and her scarf and limped down the stairs. Her mind, tired and vacant, suddenly snapped alive when she saw the janitor dragging a child – a young girl, poor and dirty – from the Opera.
“I wasn't stealing!” the girl begged, “I was looking at the dancer!” Her voice was desperate. She was small and skinny and unremarkable, if not for her flaming orange hair.
“Liar! Empty your pockets!” the Janitor yelled. When the girl struggled, he raised his hand – the threat of violence evident –
“Leave her alone,” Odette commanded. She hit the stair with her cane for emphasis.
The janitor grumbled, but the girl beamed up at her – why? Why bother? Odette sent her away. The Opera was not a place for poor, broken souls.
She remembered being young. She remembered how hard her mother worked to afford the yearly tuition. She remembered her promise to her, to earn every penny back and double it. A promise of a life of comfort. Ha, how the gods of fate must be laughing.
She left the Opera and walked back to Le Haut's mansion. The night was cold, and the streets were empty, yet one persistent sound did not fade. Footsteps. She was being followed.
She turned, far quicker than the thief might have expected a woman with a limp to move, and pressed her cane against a throat. A child’s throat. Not exactly what she expected.
“I have nothing to steal,” she told the girl, the scrawny redhead from before.
The child had kind, wide eyes, large and trusting. The light did not fade, even when Odette pushed her cane deeper for emphasis.
“I-I can't sp… I can't speak!” She struggled and breathed in relief when Odette relented and dropped the cane. “I just wanted to say thank you for saving me.”
“You've said it. Have a nice life.” She limped away from the girl, wishing she could walk faster. Did it matter? The girl was young, after all. She probably could have kept up even if Odette’s limp didn’t exist.
The girl kept talking. Odette kept her answers short. Go away, her body whispered. Leave me. Go home.
The girl, apparently, was deaf. “Are you a dancer?”
“I'm a cleaner, and you are an irritation. Go away.” Go away. Go away. Go away.
But the girl did not give up. She pouted, “But you're the first person to show me any kindness in this city. I've been separated from my best friend. I have nowhere to go, and I'm an orphan.” She looked up from underneath her lashes and curled her lips into a pitiful pout.
Odette’s lip curled. Another burden. Hadn’t she had enough? “Nice try, but I hate kids, especially orphans. Go find another idiot.”
The girl gasped but followed. She followed even after the Madame showed up with another form of torment. She followed even after Odette told her to go away. Disappear. Leave.
And I am so tired. I am so, so tired.
“You need me. I can clean. In fact, 'Squeaky Clean' is my middle name. I'm young. My legs work. Yours don't.” She paused, realizing she was rude. “Uh, it's gonna feel so much easier with me helping,” she added, then gave her what she probably thought to be a winning smile.
Odette sank to her knees because standing up hurt. The girl had broken eyes and skinny legs, and under the cheerful demeanor, she hid a trembling lip and a hungry gleam. Dear lord, the girl was hungry.
Odette couldn’t turn her away. “Are you coming?” she asked.
The girl smiled – no, beamed, again – and rushed to join her.
Despite the cold house and the cold floors and the frozen cold water with which she cleaned, Odette felt – or perhaps imagined – a tinge of warmth.
He waited, his hand tightening around his pocket watch. He flicked it open with an irritated frown to find that – yes, she was late. Which was unlikely, so she must have changed her route. Again. So, she probably refused the job offer. Again.
And she knew he was waiting for her. And she did not want to see him. That also was nothing new.
Louis sighed. He slipped the watch back to his pocket. Should he find her later or leave her be? The woman clearly did not want to be found. At least not by him. His hand tightened its hold of his cane. Perhaps –
His eyes caught a flash of red and a white dress as a girl – probably one of his new students – crashed in front of him. As elegant as a drunk dog. Dear lord.
“How’s the view from down there?” he asked, a slight note of taunting in his voice.
And yet he crouched to offer her his hand and help her up. “You’re not a dancer, are you?” he asked. Her hand felt odd – rough skin and dusty texture – but the girl pulled away before he could understand what was so unusual about it.
“Yes, I am,” she protested, eyes ready for battle.
“Who would've thought? Return to your class,” he commanded, then rubbed his fingers together as the girl dashed away. Were the cuts and blisters the result of her clumsiness? Or –
A loud stomp and boisterous singing announced more trouble was heading his way.
“Oh, greatest ballet master of all time! Oh, most talented choreographer in the universe and beyond! He is handsome! He is elegant! He is strong! He is powerful! He is the man!” Auguste sang at the top of his lungs.
Louis suppressed the desire to sigh. “You want something from me?” Tell me it’s about Odette. Tell me something good. Tell me what I want to hear.
“How did you know?” Beamed the singing giant. “Yes! I have enrolled Camille Le Haut in your class.”
Louis closed his eyes for a brief second, locking his disappointment and anger and frustration deep inside his chest. Great. Another spoiled brat. No doubt the clumsy airhead from before.
Once, one had to work hard to enter the academy. Once, owning a restaurant that employed a good cook was not enough. “Why, thank you,” he said flatly. He remembered Odette, working night shifts so she could afford –
“You’re welcome!” Auguste glowed right back. “Oh, and another thing. You remember the ball we are holding? You are showing up, yes?” He waved his finger too close to Louis’ face. “It’s mandatory!”
“Yes, I will be there,” he promised, edging away from unwanted digits.
“Fantastic! A lot of lovely ladies will be there, too.” He winked, then sighed. “Perhaps it’s better you focused your attention on them? Or go to Russia and find a danseuse etoile – “
“That’s enough of you,” he commanded and hit the cane against the floor. Funny how he could silence a group of eleven-year-old girls and a grown, giant man using the same tool. “I have class,” he snarled and turned away.
Auguste, wisely, kept his silence. The girls in his class, however, did not. They muttered quickly and quietly, graceful and poised.
All but the rich girl, who stood awkwardly with her legs spread apart and spoke loudly, like a baboon at a zoo.
She also danced like one – moving and gesturing wildly with no grace or poise or rhythm whatsoever. Her landing was hideous and loud and her legs all but spasmed as she leaped toward the ceiling – as if her limbs were on fire. She spun like a dizzy drunkard and could not balance on her toes. She was a disaster, and her only saving grace – if one could call it grace – was her wild, unadulterated enthusiasm.
If only she wouldn’t squeal whenever her feet left the ground.
Her second class wasn’t much better.
Louis remembered the first time he saw Odette. He left the boys’ classroom, legs aching and toes burning, to see her pirouette. Her grace and poise made the move look effortless, and the swanlike lifting of her hand, rising above her head… she looked like a doll, perfect and preserved in a movement permanently programmed into her form.
She was mesmerizing.
Then she opened her eyes – the color of the sky on a cloudy day – and stopped.
Miss Le Haut, however, was a violent, clumsy disaster.
The Opera endured one fire that demanded too heavy a price. It shouldn’t entertain yet another one.
Odette's stomach burned when the memory flashed through her eyes – Felicie, dressed in a Ballerina attire, walking around the academy as if she were one of its students. She must have stolen the letter for Camille Le Haut, the Madame’s daughter. Stolen the letter and enrolled in her place. And the Madame was not a kind woman.
How dare Felicie lie to her, after all she’d given to her? A place to sleep and food and a warm blanket…
He also lied, didn’t he? He promised he’d be there. He promised they’d go to that new restaurant to celebrate. He promised her flowers. He wasn’t there to watch her perform. He wasn’t there to watch her burn. To save her.
Would he have saved her?
I don’t need your pity. Go to Russia. Go to America. I don’t care. It’s been ten years.
She stopped chopping the carrot, then continued. The same color as Felicie’s hair.
That girl… Odette’s hold of the knife tightened. Seeing her in that tutu and those shoes… Odette did not relish the memory of the color draining from the child’s face and the light fading from her eyes. She looked like she withered under her glance.
Odette pushed the guilt away. The child’s own shame was the source, not she. How dare she. How dare she lie. How dare she go to the academy and dance, despite the fact she clearly wasn’t enrolled.
It was hard to push away the memories of herself as a child, wearing the worn cloth of the tutu with pride unaffected by the complaints of the richer girls. It was the best dress she had ever worn, and the smooth, formfitting fabric felt like a luxury. She hated to take it off and return to her own, weathered clothes. Hiding in the training rooms, she waited until they left to change back. And while she waited, she trained.
When the girls returned the morning after, she was already a step ahead. Two steps. Three. Until she was alone at her level. Until there was no one else as good as she was. No one else, but Lou.
It wasn’t long before she wore a costume tailored specifically for her, with jewels and ribbons and fresh flowers.
Mother said she looked like a queen.
When I needed you, you weren’t there. Go away and leave me be. Leave me the Opera and the memories. Don’t pity me.
The door opened meekly, and her hand faltered. The motion, once smooth, had to be started again.
“I'm sorry. Triple sorry. If there was a bigger word for 'sorry', I'd say it.”
You weren’t sorry when you wore the tutu. You weren’t sorry when you danced. You weren’t sorry when you lied. You are only sorry now because you were found out.
She cut the carrot with more force than necessary. For whom was she cutting all these carrots? “I let you into my life, and you lied to me. I don't like lies.” Did she use me? The girl looked too innocent for such a complicated plan. But girls grow up. “I could lose my job because of you,” she added, trying to quiet the emotional turmoil and make her anger rational.
She was just a girl, and she lived with her for two days. She did not matter – how could she? She wasn’t different from the rest of the girls at the academy.
Except that she wasn’t a girl at the academy, was she?
Felicie’s voice faltered, but she braved through it. “I get it. I messed up. But you don't understand. Since I can remember, I've wanted to dance. And when I saw Rosita Mauri and she did those amazing moves, I knew that's what I wanted to be. I knew my dream could come true! I know it's hard to understand. You hate dancing.” The words prickled, delved under her skin. “But I just want you to know I'm truly sorry.”
The girl closed the door behind her.
Odette put the knife down.
She looked up, up at the shoe box she did not dare to throw away or open. But suddenly, the urge to look at the shoes – her pointe shoes – the debut shoes that she received as a gift from her mother – she limped toward the box and grabbed it, then breathed in relief and memories and pain when she saw them.
The shoes were still there, as red as she remembered. This was not a dream, a part of her whispered. You really were a ballerina.
And you don’t hate dancing.
Holding them in her hands, feeling the familiar weight, she could almost hear Auguste urging her, “You, my dear, are the best money can buy, and a thousand years of sweeping won’t change that.”
And Lou, young and shivering with adrenaline and ecstasy, holding her hands seconds before the curtain rose and opened his mouth to say something that might have been important…
The familiar clicking sound that haunted her nightmares knocked her out of her daydreaming. She put the shoes away and rushed to the door.
The devil couldn’t have sounded more sinister. Odette placed her hand in front of Felicie, urging her to hide the incriminating letter. “There is no mail,” she lied.
Luckily, Regine Le Haut did not deign it necessary to look upon her servants or the lie would have failed. Very reliable, this plan. Pretending to be the Madam’s daughter… how long will it last? A day? A week? This would result in the loss of both her jobs and her home for the past ten years. This was a disaster. This –
“As soon as there is, fetch it,” the Madame snarled, then entered the house.
This, perhaps, was not the worst idea after all.
But it could certainly be improved.
“Can you dance?” she whispered to the child, who appeared ready to bounce up and down in excitement. An instinct she, wisely, chose not to act upon.
“Yes,” she declared, then faltered. “At least, I think I can.”
She had large, starry eyes and dreams more grandiose than her scrawny frame. She thought that if she’d jump far enough, she’d reach for the stars. She was a child, and Odette remembered that once, she was one too.
She remembered feeling too poor and dirty to enter the Opera. Avoiding looks and dainty dresses, she snuck to the changing rooms, trying to hide her clothes with her thin limbs. She had to be taught to be proud. And the person to teach that her then still believed in her now.
He thought she should be a teacher. Perhaps she should.
“Training starts at five am tomorrow,” she ordered, feeling new life – no, purpose – flowing through her. This was a stupid plan, but maybe, just maybe, it was brazened enough to work.
The girl, unaware of her warlike musings, frowned at her. “Are you a teacher?”
“Do you have another option?” she shot back, then returned to her lodging. No, Felicie. I am not a teacher; I am your teacher. If you listen, I will teach you everything I know.
Outside, Felicie groaned. “Five am? Can’t we push it to after lunch?”