GNOSSIENNE | MAX HAWKINS
This was her career: four broken toes. A ruptured hamstring. Torn knee ligament. Torn ankle ligament. In her seven years as a student, there had been only four Showings. Twice she had been too young, and twice she had been too injured to perform well. How she wailed, that last time, when she learned she was not Selected. How clear it was, in her childish moments, that the world had affixed its misfortune to her, like a spotlight.
Her feet were adequate. Slim - enough. Two knotted street birds, tucked into battered slippers. The yellow fabric beaten pale.
“Again,” Premya said. “Slower. Watch your lines.”
Lesya studied the floor, nodded, and took two small paces to her left. She inhaled. Lifted her arms. Planted her right foot behind her left. Against the empty space of the studio, she was a small thing. When the girl was lost in thought, which she often was, she bunched her lips to the side, as if she were trying to kiss her own cheek. Her plain face somehow made plainer. In stillness, she had the charm of a sewing needle.
The magic of the world was hidden at rest. Take the great violinist, Paganini. Leave his violin in the forest, and what would you have? Firewood. Only in motion did his fingers animate the universe. Years ago, Lesya’s father took her to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. Trapped on that stale canvas, the old madam looked bored out of her skull.
Premya tapped her foot four times, and Lesya sprang to her toes. She bounced, then perched on one foot. Her arms drifted to the left, then reached right. Three powerful, effortless strides. The wooden floor stopped creaking. The buzzing lightbulb went mute. Lesya lifted into the air, or perhaps it is truer to say the world lowered itself from her. Her eyes betrayed a divine secret: humans were never meant to touch the ground.
“Lesya,” Premya said.
Lesya’s feet slammed into the floor. She stumbled forward. She was a girl again. Her chest rose and fell. Her ankles were purple.
Premya’s first year as an Instructor had been her proudest. Although she had never been Selected, receiving the opportunity to develop young Eligibles was a great honor. This is what her Counselor had told her. She was assigned to a brown box on the twelfth floor of a gray highrise, and she called it a studio. Here, she would tend to her saplings. She strung a garland of white light bulbs above the thin floor mirror that guarded the wall. The wooden floor was chilly and pockmarked. Dangerous for dancers. Over the first few months, she filled in the worst dents with chewed gum.
Less than a year into her instruction, her first Showing was called. She prepared her students for fourteen days. On the day of the Showing, a man named Radimov met her at the studio. He was tall and young, with a thin nose and gray eyes. He dressed in Official Blue and Official White. She pushed the floor mirror into a corner and turned its face toward the wall. In its place she set down two black folding chairs, and she and Radimov sat below the string of white lights. One by one, her students came in and performed their piece: Mille, Alenna, Ciely, Rosya, Lauryl. After each girl completed her routine, she stood against the back wall and watched the remaining dancers.
They danced magnificently. Premya had identified each girl’s distinct talent and selected routines that complemented, magnified, elevated their nature: Ciely’s weightless pirouettes, Mille’s aggressive precision. Each girl now waited along the brown brick wall. Radimov stood from his seat and Premya watched him nod slowly in each girl’s direction as if he was considering each in turn. Pure theatricality on his part; he knew as well as she did that the winner was clear. Finally, Radimov said, “You honor your fathers. It is said that God created a wise man and a beautiful woman, and the wise man lamented, for he knew that all wisdom served beauty, and he would forever be in thrall.”
Radimov approached the girls. He took Alenna by the hand. Her chest swelled. She met his eyes. He led her out of the room. When the door had been shut, her remaining students rushed to her side and kissed her hands. Premya wept with joy. To have a student Selected in one’s first year was a great honor.
Months later, Premya’s phone rang in the middle of the night. Premya couldn’t think of anybody she knew with Authorization to make calls at night. The number was from an Official Corporate account. It seemed best to answer. She sat up in bed and, even though the caller wouldn’t see her, matted her hair down with her palms.
“This is Premya,” she croaked.
Silence on the end of the line. Not silence, but the hollow hum of air on a receiver.
“Hello,” Premya said. “Premya here.”
A sniff. A choked swallow. Someone was on the other end. Premya’s breath quickened. “Hello, who is this? I am here,” said Premya.
Three rapid, muffled sobs. A sharp inhalation, a lightness to it, a girl’s breath. A click. The call disconnected.
In the dark and vicious hush, Premya listened to the snap of her pulse.
Despite an early spring, the lady standing in front of her studio door wore a heavy brown winter coat. She held a phone in one hand, a set of keys in the other, despite this not being her apartment. The woman was plainly handsome, but pallid. Her eyes hung on the door’s black lettering: Premya OEP Studio 1291.
“You are here for?” asked Premya. The woman turned to her.
“You are Premya?” the woman said. She opened her mouth again, then hesitated. “I am looking to find Alenna.”
“You are her mother,” Premya realized. A surge of heat prickled her skin. “Alenna was Selected. In the fall. That was her last day here. Does she tell you where she stays?”
The woman flinched. “Alenna has not returned since the day of her Showing. She does not call or write. Not once. I don’t believe it. They must let me speak with her. What is the name of the man who took her?”
Premya thought back to the call she received in the middle of the night. A girl’s breath.
“I don’t remember his name,” said Premya. “Perhaps go to Local Corporate and they will have his name.” The woman shook her head before Premya finished her sentence.
“You must remember something. Has she talked to you? Do they talk to you?”
“Go to Local Corporate, they will know something. If you return tomorrow, then I will check my Transmissions, but I am sure they did not send a name.”
“Anything,” the woman said.
“I will check,” said Premya. The woman met her eyes for a moment. Premya saw a mother’s anger: unbreakable as diamond. The woman rushed past her to the staircase.
The woman did not appear at the door of her studio the next day, nor the day after. Premya never saw the woman again.
It was only a week later that her next Showing was called. Premya prepared her girls for fourteen days. On the day of the Showing, a man met her at the studio. He was young and tall, and wore Official Blue and Official White. Radimov, his name was. His name was Radimov.
Pas de chat, pas de chat, grand jeté. Lesya pressed her ear to the studio door. The thumps, taps, and slides told a story. In her head she saw the routine that Gia was performing beyond the door. It sounded like a basic piece: flashy in its sweeping movements to hide a lack of the small bones of technique that took years to perfect. As Premya’s youngest Eligible, Gia would have plenty of years to work on them. Premya must have prepared her for this Showing to give her a bit of experience under pressure.
In recent years, Premya had prepared fewer and fewer of her students for Showings. The last Client hadn’t even Selected an Eligible. Lesya wasn’t sure how long Premya could continue as an Instructor if her dancers weren’t getting Selected. This time, she prepared Lesya and Gia alone: her most experienced student, and her least. Premya must have wanted to stack the deck in her favor, Lesya decided.
Even so, Premya had made some strange decisions in Lesya’s preparation. The piece Premya had selected for her was a gnossienne, a free-form dance without a time signature. Lesya was a master of form, precision, and timing; her Instructor had given her something clumsy and ethereal. Instead of practicing the routine, they spent each day on basic, brutal form drills. Hours elevated on her right leg, the same twice torn. How confident Premya was in her, to challenge Lesya even after a failed Showing.
Lesya rolled her foot in a wide circle. Her ankle crackled like wax paper. It would hold, at least for one performance. She had been right to hold back in practice, to feign weariness, to stumble through drills. She knew Premya meant well, but she couldn’t chance another torn, broken, ruptured something. She couldn’t bear to see another girl Selected.
Footsteps toward the studio door. Lesya stepped back to hide that she’d been listening to Gia’s performance. The door sucked inward. Premya looked down at her and nodded. Her eyes were grim. Gia must have bungled her routine. Lesya entered the studio. Gia stood along the back wall, eyes down, one arm tucked behind her back. Below the line of white light bulbs, a man sat with his hands in his lap. He looked younger than she expected. He had a thin nose. His gray eyes followed her to the center of the room. Premya took the seat beside him.
Lesya felt her heart click below her leotard. She inhaled slowly. Set her right foot behind her left. Lifted her arms. In stillness, there was nothing. Premya tapped her foot four times, and then the world began.
You are marionnettes, Premya would tell her class. Do not strain and push - allow the strings pull you where they will. She had it backward, though. In motion, Lesya was not the puppet, but the puppeteer. She danced, and pulled the world exactly where she needed it to be.
As Lesya bowed, she took a moment to scan the gummed-up studio floor, to cram its familiar nicks and dents into her head for the last time. She straightened, walked to the back of the studio, and stood beside Gia. Across the room, Premya fidgeted in her seat. Lesya tried to read an evaluation on her face, but her Instructor’s eyes flit around the room.
The man rose from his chair. Nodded to Lesya, then to Gia. He had a knack for the dramatic. Finally, he announced: “You honor your fathers. It is said that God created a wise man and a beautiful woman, and the wise man lamented, for he knew that all wisdom served beauty, and he would forever be in thrall.”
The man crossed the room and stood before Lesya. He was taller than he seemed from the chair. His suit was Official Blue and Official White. He took her hand. His skin was soft. His grip was firm. Her hand tingled. She raised her eyes, met his. Her mouth dropped into a plain smile, despite Premya’s guidance to remain neutral. The word rang in her head: Selected.
First Mille, then Semyra, then Szia. Now Lesya. She wondered what their lives were like now. After they’d been Selected, she’d not heard from them again. Evidently, rich girls didn’t write home.
The man led her by the hand across the the room. Lesya peeked back. Gia snuck a grin and a small wave back at her. Gia was a wonderful dancer. Maybe she’d even be Selected at the next Showing, whenever that would be.
And Premya! How grateful Lesya was to have an Instructor that knew exactly how to challenge her to her best work. She turned and spotted Premya, still in the black folding chair beneath the white lights. Her eyes were wet. Tears! Her performance had brought Premya to tears. Lesya beamed back at her Instructor. And to think, she told her students she didn’t cry in happy moments!