This story by Natalie Lawrence is a runner-up in the 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Natalie Lawrence is a sophomore at DePaul University. She grew up in the Chicago suburbs and has loved writing since she was five years old. She works to tell important stories through writing as well as theatre. After graduation, she hopes to work at a nonprofit theatre company.
Cora warmed herself by the embers of the fireplace in the foyer. She watched bits of paper, engulfed in flames, float up into the chimney. They reminded her of moths, flying too close to the fire. Her debut with the corps de ballet was tomorrow, and the thought of performing on the stage, surrounded by the orange glow of the gas lamps filled her with avidity.
The plaster molding of the ceiling in the Paris Garnier was so different from her mother’s home. Cora laid down on the marble floor and admired the frescoes and gold leaf in the same place she once saw rotting wood and dripping water. She welcomed the serenity of the cold, vacant space after a day of repetitions, soreness, and exhaustion. Her time for leisure was over; she needed to prepare her mind for tomorrow night. She took her lamp and ventured down to one of the gilt-edged mirrors. She examined her movements as she chasséd across the floor. Monsieur Moreau told the girls they must be charming, indicating intrigue in their movement. “You must inspire the love of every seat holder!” he exclaimed. As she repeated her steps, the chandeliers glowed fiercely, and the halls transformed into a palace. Her hair transformed into curls; her night dress, into a fine gown. The reflection of light from the chandeliers bounced off her skin, and she too glowed. She felt the light of the heavens shine down upon her. Her world was not of a sublunary nature, but something divine.
Footsteps clicked against the marble floors.
And the palace vanished.
Cora abruptly stopped dancing, and she saw Celeste.
“Don’t let me stop you.”
Cora clutched her hands in front of her. Celeste was adored by every opera attendee for her grace and lightness.
“Will tomorrow be your first performance?”
“Yes. I’m excited, but I haven’t anything to wear afterward. You all look so beautiful in your jewels and clothes. I wish I could be that glamorous.”
“Don’t fret. You just have to connect with a gentleman in the foyer, and the gifts will come. You just have to play along with their silly games. You must attract some affections to survive here.”
“I suppose. Your dress looks lovely in rehearsals. Yours is whiter than the others’ skirts.”
Celeste smiled. “They put nasty chemicals on theirs. I won’t let them touch mine. I couldn’t dance that way.”
Cora examined Celeste’s face. It was plain, but she had an enchanting air about her. She almost resembled a nymph. There was something mysterious about her.
“I am nervous about tomorrow’s performance. Important members are attending. This could be my chance to truly make a name for myself.”
“I only wish I could dance that wonderfully someday. It must be nice to have everyone adore you.”
“You’re too kind. I will tell you this. You mustn’t let anyone dictate your art. You know yourself best. I’ve got to attend to something now. Get some sleep before tomorrow’s performance. You’ll always remember your first.”
Celeste walked to the door of the foyer. Cora went up to bed. Morpheus visited her with dreams from his ivory box. Cora’s mind filled with cities in clouds and tricky sprites. But Morpheus’s horn soon took its place. Cora saw her Mother screeching at her. Her mother lay in bed with a man, sick and screaming. Her mother’s pale cheeks hollowed with every wrenching scream. Cora ran out of the house and saw the rotting wood deteriorate. The curtains caught on fire and flew up into the sky.
Cora woke up in a sweat and awaited the morning sun.
In the evening, Cora got into her costume. She dusted her cheeks with powder as she leaned over the vanity. She overheard a woman yelling.
“You must be charming! Please them. You must not be so coarse.”
“They’re nasty! The lot of them! I won’t let them touch me.”
Cora saw a glimpse of Louise, a dancer no more than a year older than Cora. The woman grasped Louise’s arm. Her jaw tensed, and she glared at quivering Louise.
“This is the difference between the streets and living. You will please them, and you will send money back to your sisters.”
Louise’s mother released her arm and sighed.
“Good. Now make yourself look nice.”
Louise scurried to the vanity next to Cora. Her eyes welled with tears as she applied her powder. Cora looked in the mirror, straightened her back, tucked in a strand of her hair and left.
Bearded men in suits stood around the foyer. Most talked to the other dancers. Cora lifted her chin up high and did her best to look like a lady. Her eyes darted around the room, trying to decide where to stand, whom to talk to. Her heart raced. She held her eyes shut for a moment, and she imagined the foyer was her palace’s ballroom. She simply had to find someone to dance with. She glided across the marble floors until she reached the fireplace. An old gentleman approached her.
“I have not seen you here before.” He kissed her hand.
“Tonight is my first performance.”
The man grabbed Cora’s shoulder, “I love seeing the new girls. Meet me in your dressing room after you perform. I have some gifts.”
Cora’s neck strained. She remembered what Louise’s mother said. What Celeste said.
Cora waited backstage. She saw the lights of the stage glowing, and she smiled. Celeste entered the stage, and there was something ethereal about her. Her skirt was white, whiter than all the others’ skirts. She glowed, and her movements were light and buoyant. She danced as if she was a feather floating up and around the stage. Cora entered with the rest of the dancers, and they joined Celeste. The energy of the stage was intoxicating. The orchestra created an enchanting atmosphere. Cora did not need fantasies of a palace, this was far more magical. The aching of her bruised feet moved her to dance with more grace. The warmth of the fiery lights was all she needed.
The audience broke into screams. Celeste’s white skirts caught on one of the lanterns, and they went up in flames. The dancers cried out, running upstage. Celeste, engulfed in the vicious fire, ran around the stage, screaming. A stagehand covered her with a blanket. Her body collapsed on the ground. Her once white skirts, legs, and torso were charred in black. Her corset melted into her body.
As the smoke cleared, some of the stagehands carried Celeste away. The smell of burnt tulle and flesh lingered. Scorch marks lined the edge of the stage.
The dancers went in the dressing room. Cora sat in the corner, unable to undress or move. Panicked conversations broke out.
“She didn’t have her skirts treated. She said it wasn’t becoming of her since the chemicals made them stiff and yellowed.”
The dressing room began to empty. Girls left together or greeted a man at the door. Soon Cora sat alone in the candlelit room. She watched the dancing flame of the lamp.
Cora jumped. A dark figure stood in the doorway.
“Well, that gave us all a fright. Don’t fret, she is alive and well.”
The man Cora met earlier walked toward her corner with a smile on his face and a bottle in his hand.
Cora looked down and pulled back toward the wall.
“I think I should like to be by myself tonight, sir.”
The man leaned against the wall, looking down at Cora.
“You think you should like that? You certainly are new here.”
“I mean no offense. I’m upset, the fire—”
“The fire? That accident could have been prevented. The little princess didn’t want to fireproof her skirts,” he laughed. “You could say she was an Icarus, flying high in ambition, but got too close to the fire. Vanity’s what destroyed her.”
Cora stood up and looked the man in the eye, “Don’t speak of her that way.”
“You won’t speak to me that way if you know what’s good for you.”
“You can keep your charity, I don’t want your gifts. I don’t need them anymore.”
The man gripped Cora’s forearm and brought her in close to him. She smelled the spirits on his breath. He spoke in an intense whisper
“This isn’t about gifts or charity, love. I can make sure you never dance again. Now you can be a lady and come with me, or you can be a rat and we’ll stay right here. I’ll get what I’m looking for either way.”
Cora’s eyes glared at the fiery lantern. She stopped resisting. She followed the man up to a chamber. She laid down on the bed, staring at the ornamental ceiling. The rich colors provoked no royal fantasies. The warm light of the gas lamps grew dull. Cora closed her eyes, and she imagined the ceiling over her was of rotted wood, water dripping from above.