A Lily in the Light by Kristin Fields
“Ladies.” Amelia clapped, and all ten dancers stopped moving. The air went still. “Find a seat.” Esme found a place on the hardwood floor. A grapefruit candle burned in the corner. The air smelled fresh even though there was fog on the mirror from a room of sweating, heaving dancers. Afternoon light spilled through the windows in angular shards and threw a warm triangle over Esme’s leg. “Let’s talk about pointe, ladies. Slippers off. Tights rolled up. I need to see your toes.”
Esme inched closer to Amelia, close enough that Amelia’s sheer cranberry skirt grazed the top of Esme’s big toe as she moved toward the other side of the room. Pointe was the next step to professional. Esme kicked away her faded pink slippers, the bottoms black with use, and fought the urge to hide her sweaty, stinky feet. She waited, breathing shallowly, hoping. One day when she was famous and had done thirty-seven turns on top of an elephant in China like Anna Pavlova, she’d think back to this day and know everything had started with pointe.
“Some of you are ready,” Amelia said. “Some of you are not. On Monday, this class will officially become a pointe class. If you’re not selected, we’ll make other arrangements for you.” Amelia moved from one girl to the next, lifting a foot for a closer look or walking past them altogether. Esme was at the end of the row, last. The sun was hot on her face now, blinding. She felt like an ant under a magnifying glass. She turned away from the window, blinking until she could see herself in the mirror again, legs splayed, ribs a shadowy outline beneath her black leotard, the youngest in the class. She looked so much smaller in the mirror than she usually felt.
If she didn’t make it this time . . . no. She pushed the thought away, but there was always next year, just like Anna Pavlova. Whoever had thought she’d looked too sickly when she’d auditioned for the Imperial Ballet School must have felt really stupid about it later. Anna Pavlova had been anything but.
“Think about it this way: It doesn’t matter how much you hope it will snow on Christmas. We can’t control the weather, and today, nothing you say will affect the outcome. The decision’s been made. If you’re not selected, it doesn’t mean your career is over. You’ll leave here like a professional, not a little girl. No drama. No crying to your mothers on the way home. You’ll work harder instead. Understood?”
The girls mumbled agreement, but Esme only nodded. She’d tried to say yes, but her voice had caught in her throat. Amelia knelt before Esme, lifting her foot from the floor. Her fingers were cold and sent a chill through Esme’s leg, still warm from dancing. Maybe she was imagining it, but it felt like
Amelia lingered longer with her than she had with the others. She searched Amelia’s face for clues, but her lips were pressed into a line, eyes focused on Esme’s foot. Esme had the strange sensation that Amelia was looking at the bones beneath her skin, unaware that Esme’s foot was connected to her at all.
“Let’s look at Esme’s foot.” She called the other girls closer until they’d made a half circle around her. Esme balled her hands into fists and waited. Amelia ran her finger along the tops of her toes so gently it made her shiver.
“Esme’s toes are boxy and equal in length, which means if she dances en pointe, her weight will be distributed equally. She would not have to compensate and compromise form because one of her toes is longer than the others. And the same goes for her arches.” Amelia balled her fist and fit it under the arch in Esme’s foot to show its curve. “Esme’s feet are just right for pointe work.” Esme’s eyes widened. Did this mean . . . ?
“I’ll see you in class on Monday.” Amelia smiled finally and lowered Esme’s foot to the floor. “Liz, Rebecca, Sophia, and Jenna, I’ll see you on Monday too.”
“Thank you,” Esme whispered, feeling as shaken as a soda bottle. She might have fizzled over if not for the five other girls gathering their bags and sweaters from the back of the room, huffing into the lobby like a swarm of angry wasps, blurring the joy Esme felt for pointe shoes with pink ribbons, custom made for her like a real dancer’s.
Esme waited until Amelia was alone in the studio, sweeping under the wall of framed newspaper articles. Some of them were about Amelia, but most were about her former students. Esme envied the girls who’d traveled to Paris and Italy and danced on old, old stages and who’d already mastered things like the thirty-two fouetté turns and fish dives. She wanted to know what it was like to let her partner catch her when her nose was only inches from the floor. She imagined it would make her cross-eyed, but she’d have to smile because the audience, one big, breathing animal, would clap as wildly as her heartbeat.
“But it’s a little different, isn’t it?” she asked. The unfairness wavered in her chest under those articles. Amelia listened as she swept. “People didn’t make weather, so we didn’t make its rules, but people made ballet and its rules. We could change them.”
The broom handle rested on Amelia’s shoulder. Amelia stretched her arms over her head and yawned. Her arms floated back to her sides. Even yawning looked like dancing for Amelia. Esme promised she’d never yawn again without making it look like dancing. “In Russia,” Amelia said, pushing the little dust pile forward with the broom, “every little girl wants to be a dancer. Every family hopes their daughter will, too, and many of them try, but most don’t make it. That makes it more special for the ones that do. Someone made rules, yes, but it wasn’t you or me. Working toward something that seems impossible makes it more of an accomplishment. Think of it this way: even if we could control weather and make it snow every single Christmas, eventually that wouldn’t feel special. If everyone made pointe, would it feel like such an accomplishment right now? Remember that.”
Everything Amelia said sounded important.
Esme packed the last of her things and stepped into an oversize pair of gray sweatpants, pushing back damp hair wisps before her mother could see what a mess her bun was. Amelia waved goodbye as she put a cassette into the tape deck and hit play. Esme wished she could watch Amelia alone in the studio: Amelia, who’d made NYCB at only sixteen, who’d leaped across the front page of the New York Times in grand jeté as the Firebird, her long hair sweeping behind her like inky wind. People had whispered the word prodigy. But now, Amelia danced in the studio alone. If the lighting was just right,the long, jagged scar down the center of her knee showed through her tights. Amelia never talked about the accident that had ended her career at twenty-one even though everyone knew. Sometimes Esme wondered if Amelia was hiding in Port Washington instead of living and teaching in New York City, if being close to Lincoln Center would be too painful a reminder of what she’d lost.
The first few tinkling notes of “Clair de Lune” eased the empty studio awake. The last thing Esme saw as she closed the door behind her was Amelia’s triangular back at the barre, fingers softly resting on the wood, her long braid hanging behind her like a rope. In the lobby, Esme’s mother, Cerise, wound her measuring tape around her fingers. Her clipboard with measurements was tucked under her arm. Lily was sitting behind a folding chair, her head just beneath the backrest. A crayon sign was taped to the backrest that read Kissing Booth Five Cents. Lily giggled wildly, cheeks scrunched, lips puckered, waiting for Esme. Esme hid her smile. Cerise rolled her eyes. “She’s been waiting.” “Kissing booth? Five cents?” Esme said, taking heavy steps toward