The Master came into my life like the dusk. Slowly, until all the city was covered in night. And I, a star waiting to burn.
It was winter, or nearly so, the cold before the snow when the air goes still around you and inside of you. The radiator in my little room in the boardinghouse was shaky at best and I shivered getting dressed, frost in the corners of the window. With the heel of my hand I wiped away the condensation, an unchanging view of the brick alley beyond. Though it was early I had eaten already—eggs and toast with margarine—but still my belly rumbled because it was not enough and never would be.
My breath quickly misted the glass again; I stepped away. Nine years into the economic depression and my basic needs were met, even if this was the coldest of rooms in the creakiest boardinghouse on the North Side of Chicago. Granted, the matron, Mrs. O’Donnell, served us more than most for dinner: baked beans with cornbread and Hoover stew. Dandelion salad, and potato pancakes, and potato soup. Boiled carrots and spaghetti, cabbage and dumplings—all of it fine, though none of it appealing. I knew I was fortunate, I did; and yet, even the guilt of ingratitude was not enough to banish my growing discontent.
This can’t be all there is.
I was thinking of running away forever when there was a knock on my bedroom door.
I had made it part of my routine every morning, imagining how I would manage it: out the window, down the alley, through the park. Hurrying, but not so fast as to appear suspicious, or as if I were going anywhere in particular. Hair up, no wind, a half-melted moon in the dim afternoon guiding me toward the open water, the lake like one long shadow. There I would wade into the water and the waves would carry me to another world entirely—to a place I had never been, and from which I would not be able to find my way back again. Or, at the very least, to a crack in this world, a place where magic coats everything like a layer of dust, where the wind smells sweet and night never comes. A place that has no edges and no end, where there is always more. More life, more light, more to see, and more to explore.
It was the fantasy of a little girl. A girl I had not been for some time and of course never would be again. One that still had a mother who would stop her if she tried to leave; one that still had the whole world open to her, and dwelled in that sacred place before a perfect, cherished dream became a less than satisfying reality. For years in the company of Near North Ballet, I’d been another girl in a row of perfect girls, another face, another body in a line of similar faces and bodies. Symmetry and seamlessness, every step and angle of the chin; every curve of the arm and lift of the leg, precisely the same as the girls in front and behind. After a while I’d begun to feel as if I’d run eagerly, wildly into a labyrinth of possibility only to find that it was instead a straight aisle, pressed among a crowd of equally eager girls all trying to unlock the same door at the end of this infinite corridor.
And so, stuck in one place, growing stagnant and unsure, a new dream had been born: If I couldn’t dance the way I wanted to—ecstatically, with all eyes on me—I would run. As long as I was still in motion, my heart would keep beating, and nothing, not even death, could touch me.
More. There has to be more.
“Coming!” I called, as another knock came at the door, louder and more insistent. I turned from the window and hurried to pull on my favorite pale pink dress for church: the last dress my mother had ever made for me, a gift on the day I turned thirteen. A little worn around the seams, and tight across the chest, but seven years later it still fit, and I would wear it for seven years more as long as it didn’t fall apart. I tugged on my stockings, hoping the tiny rip near the hip wouldn’t reach my knees and become visible to judging eyes. Sunday was the only day of the week I wore my hair down, shadow-black and falling in bouncy spirals well past my shoulders, much longer than Mamma ever used to let me keep it. Finally I slipped on my brown penny loafers and went to the door.
“Mistress is here.” It was Emilia, slightly breathless even though she stood absolutely still, her dark hair set in pins to curl. It was still half an hour before we would leave for church and she was never early for anything without a pressing reason. “She asked to see you right away. She’s waiting in the parlor.”
My heart gave a vicious kick.
“What do you think she wants?” It was barely a whisper. We looked at each other, and both of us knew, but neither wanted to say it in case it didn’t come true. The prima position—Emilia’s position—would be open soon, and though it was all anyone in the corps could talk about, I had refused even to think of it, as if my own hope was a monster that would turn me to stone if I slipped and looked it directly in the eye. I wanted the position; I burned with the wanting, the sun in my throat, and maybe that was the true reason I had not run away yet: There was still something to wish for. Prima ballerina of Near North Ballet. It was utterly impossible—and right within reach.
“To demand that you dance for her morning, noon, and night,” Emilia said in that way she had of teasing while also being perfectly serious. “So that she’ll never have to live for even one second without gazing upon your unparalleled grace and beauty.”
I smiled, but it was more for her sake than for mine. Was it the touch of destiny I felt then, or was it simply nerves pinching in? Of late Mistress reprimanded me more than anyone else in the corps, barking my name as she clapped her hands once, sharply, so that we stopped in a flurry, the music cutting out. She ordered us back to the beginning of the phrase each time I strayed even slightly out of formation, each time I smiled a little more widely than the others, or spun just a smidgen too quickly. It was a failure, she’d admonished, to stand out from the corps. Weakness, not strength, to draw the eye to only one part of the whole.
But, if I were a soloist, I would be a whole unto myself. Never again would I need to blend in.
And so I could think of no other reason for her visit but that she was about to promote me—or to fire me for my mistakes. There was, after all, another, perhaps more obvious choice, than me: Beatrice Lang, whose upper middle class family had enrolled her in ballet lessons practically the moment she’d learned to walk. Despite the war and the depression, she’d never known a day of wanting or weeping, of hunting for dandelion greens in the park to cook into a sauce, or watching her veteran father gamble away his meager savings. Sometimes I wondered if we lived in the same city at the same time at all, or if she had crossed from some other reality into our own, so far removed was she from the life I had known. Tall, and with hair so fair it shone almost white in the stage light, she was delicate in demeanor but powerful in execution, possessed of that elusive gravity we called presence. An ability that had never come easily to me, the radiation of an undeniable energy that turned eyes toward her as soon as she entered a room. She was very much like Emilia in that way, and so seemed Emilia’s natural successor. As I thought of this my smile slipped, a short-lived thing, and Emilia must have seen. She took my hand, as gently as lifting a sculpted angel made of glass, and said, “Come, Grace. I’ll walk with you.”
The hallway was narrow and there wasn’t much light, an electric bulb protruding from the ceiling every few feet. The stairwell was even darker, and though we were forced to descend single file, I never let go of Emilia’s hand. Between the thick walls of exposed brick our footsteps echoed like the whispers of a growing crowd around a crime scene. Halfway down, I squeezed her hand and stopped. She stopped too, turning toward me with a question posed on her lips, but before she could ask it I threw my arms around her, hugging her tightly.
“What was that for?” she said, laughing, as I released her. I stood one stair above her, and she seemed so small as I looked down, even though on level ground we were precisely the same height.
“I’m going to miss you,” I said. “That’s all.”
Emilia was leaving in the spring to get married, to make a home and start a family. Though I’d had plenty of time now to get used to the idea, my throat still burned the way it had the day she’d told me, as if I were inhaling shadows instead of air. Emilia was the only family I had now, the only family I’d had for the last seven years. Was there a place for me in her new life, or would I linger like a splinter stuck deep into her palm, and it was only a matter of time before her protective skin pushed me out, the thing that didn’t belong? I began to miss her, even while she was still right there in front of me.
“Not so fast,” Emilia said as we stood in the stairwell, the ache of her imminent absence even more pronounced. “You’re not rid of me yet.”
Copyright © 2023 by Alyssa Wees. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.