an excerpt of “The Perfect Shoes”
by Jody Lynn Nye
from Gaslight and Grimm: Steampunk Faerie Tales, edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Diana Bastine, funding now on Kickstarter.
The ballet company stood poised on the stage that smelled of chalk and sweat, awaiting the ballet master’s command to dance. Monique Dortmond hovered on tiptoe in her taped pink toe shoes, her hands above her head in fifth position, her body stretched into the perfect attitude of ethereal majesty. Her wavy, dark hair had been scraped fiercely back into a tight bun at the nape of her neck to show off the slenderness of her neck and the scalloped hollows underneath her cheekbones. Her slim but muscular body displayed utter grace, unlike Nedra, to her left, whose heavy hips and thick ankles made her look more like a tree trunk than a sylph. Then, the twitching began. Monique felt her left foot wobbling ever so slightly. She had exercised her arches again and again. Her legs were as strong as steel cables. Her stamina was excellent. Why, then, the trembling?
Because she was not concentrating on her performance. All the ballerinas of the Paris Opera Ballet had their eyes not on the middle distance, but on Mademoiselle Henriette Malinois, the prima ballerina of the company, who was dancing the part of Giselle. Her posture was ideal. Her arms seemed as though they were two reeds swaying in the wind. Her long, slender neck suggested the blossom of an arum lily. But her body, however it may seemed to have come from the very sketches of the artists and sculptors who sat in the darkened theater, did not excite the jealousy of the rest of the company. No, Monique and the others coveted her shoes.
Ballet dancers wore out pair after pair of toe shoes, almost one a week, rehearsing and performing. It was the greatest single expense that the Ballet de Paris had. The slippers on Monique’s feet were on their fifth day. As such, the wooden toe-boxes had begun to rub hard against her skin as their meager padding wore away. She wouldn’t have been surprised when she took them off later to discover blood among her toes. No dancer showed her unshod feet in polite company. Their toes became misshapen, and the scarred, ridged flesh seemed at odds with the beauty and grace of the dancer above. But Henriette’s perfect shoes of bright red silk never hurt her. They never wore out. She could depend upon them to bear her up through the longest and most complicated recitals. While the others sat in the wings and importuned the shoemakers to hurry and fit them next, Henriette was able to continue flitting, leaping and spinning.
As the principal female danceuse, naturally Henriette would be given the most beautiful costumes, shimmering silk sewn with priceless Bruges lace and studded with jewels, crystals, pearls and gold. Her partner, Jean-Marie, with his sweep of dark, wavy hair and deep-set dark blue eyes, was so handsome that Monique’s breath caught in her chest whenever she saw him. But those shoes! Monique knew that if she had them, she could dance across the very stars.
It was almost impossible to concentrate with those beautiful shoes twinkling before her. As the tallest of the junior dancers, she performed in the center of the tableau behind Henriette, so it was unavoidable that the principal ballerina would not constantly be in her eyeline. Monique did her best to ignore the shoes, pretending that they were made of hot coals or burning pitch, or a network of poisonous red spiders, and that every step Henriette took brought her closer and closer to painful death. The brilliant smile Henriette wore wasn’t a smile at all, but a rictus, a grimace, a stifled scream. But, no. It was a smile of supreme satisfaction in her work, and not a little because of the knowledge that the rest of the company envied her so much they would bleed pea green if poked with a pin.
In contrast to the illusion of perfection that it appeared to be from the audience, the ethereal images of Fairyland were no thicker than a piece of wood. Only Henriette was the untouchable fairy princess she seemed to be. People from across Paris and beyond came to sit in the darkness and watch her spin and soar. The music died away and the company came to a halt. Monique could hardly contain her jealousy as the watchers in the darkness were moved to applause. The ballet master dismissed the company with a sharp clap of his hands.
“Return at three, without fail!” he commanded.
The dancers didn’t hesitate, lest they be called back individually for criticism. Monique and the others retreated down the stairs into the crowded dressing room and sat down to undo their shoes. The cafés to the north and south of the theater awaited, with meals that were nourishing but not too heavy, nor too expensive for a junior dancer’s purse. The cobblers and costumiers rushed to the benches to measure the dancers for new shoes and costumes. Monique was at the far end of the line nearest the door. The cobblers would not reach her for an hour. She watched out of the door as a cluster of reporters and admirers surrounded Henriette, standing before her solo dressing room. The prima ballerina nodded and smiled, responding to their compliments and accepting bouquets of red and pink roses.
“I saw the way you stared at Mlle. Henriette’s shoes,” a low and raspy voice said. “What would you give for them?”
Monique looked up in alarm. Before her stood a gray man. His suit was gray, as was his hair. Holding fast to the bridge of his pale nose was a pair of pince nez with silver rims. His upright collar of pure white was tied with a silver ribbon. His boots, too, were silver gray, and shimmered as though no speck of dust or mud would dare to adhere to them. He looked like a ghost in the backstage shadows.
“Who are you to care?” Monique asked, tossing her head in defiance.
“I am one who might be able to grant your wish,” the man said. He pursed his thin, pale lips in a tiny smile. She noticed then that behind his spectacles, his eyes were of two different colors. One was as gray as his hair. The other was almost golden bronze. “If you will permit me to introduce myself, mademoiselle, I am Monsieur Thierry de Raymond.” He handed her a small square of pristine white pasteboard. On it was the single word, “Inventor.”
Monique regarded it curiously.
“What do you invent, monsieur?” she asked.
“Wonders. I have been commissioned to create a dancing doll after the image of Mademoiselle Henriette. One cannot doubt the marvel that she is, but I have been more captivated by you.”
“Answer my first question, then I will answer some of yours, perhaps. Those shoes. What would you do for them?”
Monique stared as Henriette’s feet clad in the exquisite red silk pumps disappeared behind the dressing room door, and it felt as though a part of her heart was torn away.
“Anything!” she burst out.
“What would you give for them?” the gray man asked.
Monique glared up at him.
“What is my soul worth compared with those shoes? They will make me the perfect dancer!”
“But that is in the wrong order, mademoiselle. You will never have those shoes until you can outdance Henriette, and that will never happen in your lifetime. Her every move is already perfection.” The man’s eyes widened behind his curious glasses. “But I can assist you. If you will become my mistress, I will ensure that you will become the principal ballerina of the company. Your dancing will be flawless, and the red shoes will be yours.”
Monique peered at him. Men of means, and women, too, often sought lovers from among the ballet company. The dancers’ bodies provoked great interest in the public, sometimes seeing them as goods on display for purchase. Bargains had been struck, to good results on both sides, but she had also heard of dreams that were shattered the morning after. Still, she had risen as high as she could in her present circumstances. What harm could it do? He was far from her ideal, being too old and too homely, with his narrow shoulders, protuberant front teeth, weak chin and receding hairline, but if he could help her to achieve her dream, he was good enough. The kindness in his eyes appealed to her. But she held her head high.
“I will not trade myself for an illusion,” she said. “I’ll agree to your terms, but you may only have me once I have become the principal ballerina of this company.”
The man’s small mouth pursed again.
“Agreed, Mademoiselle Monique. After tonight’s performance, then?”
Jody Lynn Nye lists her main career activity as ‘spoiling cats.’ When not engaged upon this worthy occupation, she writes fantasy and science fiction books and short stories.
Since 1987 she has published over 45 books and more than 140 short stories. Her newest books are Rhythm of the Imperium, third in the Lord Thomas Kinago series; an e-collection of cat stories, Cats Triumphant! (Event Horizon), Wishing on a Star, part of the Stellar Guild series,with Angelina Adams, (Arc Manor Press) and a collection of holiday stories, A Circle of Celebrations (WordFire Press) , and her novella in the second in the Clan of the Claw series,Tooth and Claw.
Coming next in the pipeline is the next Myth-Adventures novel, Myth-Fits, scheduled for June 2016.
Over the last twenty or so years, Jody has taught in numerous writing workshops and participated on hundreds of panels covering the subjects of writing and being published at science-fiction conventions. She has also spoken in schools and libraries around the north and northwest suburbs. In 2007 she taught fantasy writing at Columbia College Chicago. She also runs the two-day writers workshop at DragonCon.
Jody lives in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, with her husband Bill Fawcett, a writer, game designer, military historian and book packager, and a black cat, Jeremy. Check out her websites at www.jodynye.com and mythadventures.net. She is on Facebook as Jody Lynn Nye and Twitter @JodyLynnNye.