By Savana Lee
The canvas was a slick, clean white. A 20×20 square. No ugly staples marred the back, not for Madame Katerina. She paid extra for the corners to be impeccably tucked in and covered like bedsheets. A safe place for her dancers to rest. Her brushes stood at attention. Delicately tipped, they waited.
She could picture the form already, coming to life in gray and silver lines. The soft slant to the eyes, the tilt of a wrist, and two perfectly pointed toe shoes, made to look like silk. The question was always where to start. The first stroke determined everything.
The shape began with the waistline, barely a curve as she lengthened the stroke down to the sudden flare of a tutu. Katerina continued, angling the crown of the dancer’s bun, just so, above a long, graceful neck. Then, with total concentration, arranging the delicate arches of each separate fingertip, breathing poise into every brushstroke. Finally, strong, lithe legs that would never tire, never fail.
When Katerina was finished, she mixed fine white glitter into a clear liquid and then brushed her dancer till she shone.
“I shall call you Anna.”
Adjusting her thick frame glasses, Katerina carried Anna gently into the next room and set her on a white sheet to dry.
Hours later, as the sun went down, she returned, adjusting the multitude of paintings so they faced a reclining chair on the opposite side of the room. It sat there, bold: blue stain against the pale walls. And beside it, a tall, thin lamp curved over the chair, casting shadows on each canvas.
Katerina sat down slowly. Her left knee popped and she felt every one of her sixty-four years as the pain travelled down her leg, sharp and red-hot.
“Ladies, shall we?”
The paintings perked up, their edges sharpening in the shadows. Elbows and ankle joints adjusted inside their frames. One by one, each girl rose jerkily from her frame, pulling her painted skin until she stood upright and steady. As they ripped themselves free, they became larger, embodying the curves of a grown woman.
“There is a lovely new lady among you, please help Anna to feel right at home.”
Anna was slower than the rest, unaccustomed to her form, blinking new eyes in the lamplight and rolling gray flesh into first position. She tilted her head when she heard her name, trying to place the sound.
“Now, then.” Katerina continued. She leaned around and pulled out a portable record player from behind the oversized chair. Her eyes closed as the first notes began to play. Coppelia’s prelude moved softly through the air and each dancer took her place. Anna closed her eyes, too, and felt the pull of the music, as though she were made from song and had discovered her purpose.
The ballerinas danced on shining colored feet, some built entirely of shadows and others of pure, painted light. They moved on the hardwood floor dancing for Madame Katerina. Her eyes followed them wistfully, fingertips and wrists moving softly as ghosts, mirroring the dancers. Her feet never left the floor, but each muscle ached with memory.
As the final notes of the finale closed, each ballerina stood in complete silence. Only one chest rose and fell in the room, only one heartbeat. In the silence, Katarina pictured the stage lights on her face, the pull of the dance. For a moment, she was lost to the joy. A blissful night, her body bending and flying until the fall. Her mouth turned down as she remembered. A black stage. Pain. Unbelievable pain. Worse still was the knowledge that she would never dance again.
Katerina started the record over. Arms rising in ready lines again, delicate ankle bones fluttering in perfect succession, the ballerinas danced for her until the first lines of dawn appeared pink and promising.
As the record ended, one last time, each dancer moved towards her own canvas, grace seeping from her as though bleeding into the sunrise and giving it color. With jerky, awkward movements, each girl pulled herself down and smashed her way inside, sudden contortions and convulsions consuming them until they could stand upright and small again, painted in silence. Katerina looked away in distaste until it was over, she could never get that right. All smoothness lost. Rising, she thought of the empty canvas that awaited her after just a few hours of sleep. The door closed softly behind her.
Anna’s mouth formed no words, no sound escaped her perfect, parted lips. She watched the sun rise through the window and found only agony in the sight. From around the room, eyes met hers in silent sympathy. She knew now that the days would wither her. She would lose count, coming alive only at night when she was free to dance.