I am quicksilver, the fox in the night, emotional about the poetry, love & desire in scent, read me.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Snowblind – A Story of White Love Inspired by Cartier’s ‘Baiser Volé’

I saw him first through the glass panel of a door. Like a lily in water. Upright, slowly turning through the air, lit by morning sun, chalk dust from the floor glittering in the air like pollen. Somehow he seemed crystalline, as fragile as a dream. As he turned a series of petit fouettés, sweat beaded across his face, his legs tensing and flexing into positions, rotating his body in a series of fluid blurs. His dark hair rolled over his face as he turned, his pumps twisting and scraping on the wooden floors I clean each day.

I opened the door softly and moved along the wall, stepping quietly over bags and tumbled personal flotsam. One of the pale, severe creatures draped across the barre lifted her head and looked through me at Ilya. ‘Always so eager Ilya, but your pointe work is dull, and no-one is watching.’ She dropped her head again and started singing quietly to herself.

He stopped very suddenly and then slowly rotated on one foot, the other leg beautifully arched and tensed in the air. I could feel the muscles flexing beneath his skin. The air crackled with tension. He bent so slowly to the floor and then relaxed laughing. The room filled with bustle, foot stamping and hand clapping. Outside, the winter winds were tearing at the walls and throwing snow and ice through the air. The old school building creaked and complained like an elderly woman around us, bending her knees to the fire.

I moved quietly through the room, checking the ancient metal radiators, testing the valves and taps, gently tapping the twisted coils, listening as the water started to bubble through. I could feel the rumble of the furnace through the floor. The dancers warmed up, stretching tired limbs and aching feet and toes. There was chatting and touching, weary heads on shoulders, trailing fingers, hair tucked away and skin soothed. The crack of a bone, groaning as something stretched and eased.

Ilya stood near a window looking out across the snow. He shivered and one of the girls, Olyenka, placed a shawl over his shoulders. He whispered something to her and they laughed easily, the room suddenly echoing with the smooth white sound of it.

Outside the sun flashed gold off the snow, dazzling the eye. His ballon and placement are considered near perfect but for some reason as I travel through rooms I hear the teachers murmuring dislike and dissent. Arrogance and lethargy they say. Distance. I heard one of his teachers describe Ilya as ‘A dancer with secrets, he is opaque, no light gets in.’

This opacity to me is beautiful. It blurs like molten light when he dances. I know he dances for himself and perhaps for abandonment. You can see it the occasional deconstructed battement or reckless tour en l’air.

He will never notice me. I move very silently through spaces. I have perfected the art of being almost invisible. Even if you meet me, you will never remember me. I am no-one.

Both my parents loved the ballet, but my father was the true balletomane, taking me to performances, explaining the complexities of synopses and scores, weaving his enthusiasm and passion into my awakening desires. I remember the scent of his evening coat, cigars and musk mixed with the dust of our house and camphor. When I see velvet I smell camphor and night. The association is overwhelming, sitting with my father waiting for the overture to start and the ethereal powdered creatures to emerge, captivating the child I was.

My father died on a train, his heart going out like a drowned flame. He was found at the end of the line by a tired guard who thought he was asleep. He had a programme for Manon in his pocket and a vial of floral oil wrapped in a silk handkerchief. My mother aged quickly, leaving me behind. I stopped going to the ballet, it wasn’t the same without him and the money was needed to take care of my mother.

Now I clean rooms, polish glass; maintain things, watch and listen. Ilya is my flame. I could not keep away even if I wanted too. As I rearranged the chairs silently in the corner I watched him rise on his toes, passing though demi-pointe. He stood motionless for a moment and then turned carefully through the air, eyes closed, arms held aloft. I held my breath as he turned. He dropped out of position and walked over to the barre, tapping his fingers on the wood. I moved to the window behind the dancers and leaned back against the cold glass, willing it to break and shatter me into the snow. The door opened and Monsieur padded in like a territorial cat. His eyes passed over me. I quickly placed a fresh lily stem in Ilya’s bag and walked the perimeter of the room. At the door, I paused. Ilyas’s face was ivory, bone white and angry, Monsieur was holding his forearm with etiolated fingers. I imagined for a moment his anger, white hot and raging like potassium dropped in water. I’ve seen his rages, his storms. They are shocking in intensity. His whole body pulsates as if to melt the snow for a hundred miles around.

Ilya prefers to practice alone. His favourite studio is an abandoned art room upstairs. I have cleared away all the junk for him and the school put down a temporary floor to help absorb the pressure as he comes down from the sky. The room still has a scented echo of atelier; oils, charcoal and turpentine. Mixed with this is the glassy pungency of newly varnished wood and fresh paint.

For his first practice session I filled a vase to overflowing with lilies and left them for him to find. I know how much he loves them. I imagined him closing his eyes and inhaling the cold, fleshy scent of my dedication. My mother hated lilies. ‘Death blooms’, she would say, ‘never in my house’. The first thing I did when she died was to fill the house with them, days and days of luxuriating in their divine and shocking aromas. Smelling the different stages, inhaling the carnal decay as the petals dropped to the floor around me like skin.         

Virgin and whore; the eternal dilemma of the lily. Purity versus carnality. I like the idea of them side by side, feeding off each other, the constant struggle to find a balance. Surely the struggle is the thing. The aching beauty of the pure white lily line becomes the curve of an arched thigh or forearm. Loving and hating, the struggle within to decide what you truly are, to look directly into the heart of your true nature, no matter what looks back at you.

Watching him warm up, practicing positions at the barre, or just breaking in new shoes, massaging the box and sullying the pastel tones with dust and dirt from the floor is beautiful to me. Small repetitions. I travel through rooms absorbing his days like a camera. He craves the unclean, the damaged. I settle at the edge of his vision like dust dancing in the light. Recently he has been bickering with mentors for dancing consistently en pointe as a ballerina, pushing his body and stamina to its limits, refusing to conform to the role expected of him. Transgression becomes him.   

I move through all of this unseen. I present him with blooms and leave. He wonders of course where they come from, but I think part of him desires the mystery and drama I create, albeit on a small indolic scale. He is my danseur noble. They know he will be great, that he will surpass anything they have ever achieved here. This small industrial snow-blocked town has produced something incandescent. A diamond that burns in the snow. But they fear his potential too. Like stories of ghosts to keep children tamed, they tell him stories of fallen stars, broken bones, arrogance burned. I hear these things tumble from the mouths of dancers, teachers, trailing off into the smog and smoke outside.

Our town sits lost in time, amid polluting smog and blasts of steam from decades old collapsing industries. Mixed with the winter sun, the light is challenging and stylized, rolling over the snowscapes and tired housing with a chilled and poignant desolation.

The ballet school sits on the edge of town, near the frozen lake. A former high school, the building was taken over by Monsieur and his sister, fleeing the strict and unforgiving dictates of over-politicized city life. She now lives in two rooms at the top of the school, wrapped in memories, her present wiped out by age. I sometimes carry wood up for her fire and she asks me if I have danced for the Tsar as she did when she was a child. I look carefully into her eyes, into the emptiness and say ‘yes, I danced for two whole days and a night’. She smiles and sinks back into her chair, pleased she has been of use.

Monsieur sometimes brings her into the practice rooms, where she sits, wrapped in vanilla and ancient musks, swathed in furs, watching the répétition, her fingers or toes occasionally tapping out forgotten rhythms. Her eyes cloud over and she smiles, remembering perhaps her own dance for the Tsar in some distant gilded court. To me she resembles a bird high in a snowy tree, watching prey below; there is something cruel in her gaze, a glint of carrion, a love of bone. Monsieur has the same predatory ambience. I feel a shuddering deep down as he sweeps past, lightly touching the dancers, willfully deconstructing a pose, pulling apart a position as child tears wings of a fly. 

I could smell snow in the air; the blue metallic note of imminent snowfall. The skies were heavy and still. A buzz of dull electricity crackled from time to time through the air. Smoke and dust from the town’s huge industrial chimneys and vents coughed out sporadically, staining the clouds. I was sweeping the silent corridors as the snow started to drop softly outside. Ilya stood at the door, gazing out into the swirling whiteness.

‘Ilya?’ He turned and smiled at another dancer, ‘what are you looking at? Come in. You will freeze, you can’t be ill now.’

Ilya smiled oddly and closed the door. ‘I love the snow; love the white, that just snowed moment. The silence. But it never lasts.’

‘Another lily?’

‘Yes, and it smells remarkable, like snow perhaps, if snow had a smell. I don’t know, just compulsive. Cold and aloof.’

‘Don’t they all smell the same?’

‘I thought so, but no, there are tonal shifts, like music. Some smell high, others low, some sensual, others dark and funereal.’

‘Does it bother you?’

‘What, the leaving of them?  No, not so much, I find it… comforting. Disconcerting sometimes, but oddly reassuring.’

Ilya looked out across the snow. His friend touched his arm and they turned and walked away down the darkening corridor, voices vanishing into shadow. I walked over to the door and laid my face against the glass. Outside in the snow I could see a lily disappearing under a fine layer of white.

They cast the ballet for the end of the season and Ilya was the male principal. He seemed oddly unexcited, was morose in practice and his jumps and placement lacked any life for days. He stumbled one day and spent the afternoon being massaged and cocooned in the basement therapy rooms, overheated and oozing with odours of pine and earth that seeped up through the floor. I was asked to take down clean blankets to his room. On the way the shoemaster stopped me and looked me slowly up and down.

‘You are very silent, but I hear you. You move in the shadows, your colours are the colours of everything. But I see you.’ He looked at me very carefully, almost through me. I stepped back a little, chilled. His hands were very pale, dry from handling glue, chalk and paste. He held out a pair of faded bruise-pink shoes. ‘Take these to Ilya, tell him I’ve mended them, rebuilt the boxes. They will hold his feet like a lover.’ He tucked the ribbons inside the shoes and touched my face with a shockingly warm hand. ‘Be careful what you desire’, he said, turning away.

I could feel the touch of his hand on my cheek as I stood motionless for a moment on the stairs. It had been so long since anyone had reached into my space and actually made contact with my skin. The sensual violation of the gesture had both appalled and moved me.  Like someone who could see ghosts, he had pinned me to myself. I was so used to coming and going, silently moving through rooms it had come as a shock that someone actually noticed my movements and moreover, credited me with thoughts and intent.

Ilya’s shoes felt like glass in my hands. Faded flesh tones and reeking of glue and chalk. I tapped the toes together and listened to the sound echo in the empty stairwell. The lights flickered around me. The wind was picking up. A storm was niggling at the windows, gnawing at the edges to get in. Overhead I could hear the sound of shoes on wood, a piano marking a simple beat, the voice of Monsieur cutting through the air like a knife through snow.

The corridors downstairs were dark. The lights cut out if unused. Ilya was in the farthest recovery room. I could hear the walls breathing, the darkness sighing around me. There was a scent of powdered wood and concrete, sweet and comforting like the smell of brown paper and writing ink.

Ilya was asleep as I opened the door. The room was lit by a small light in the corner. He was lying on an oversized chaise against the wall, a leftover from some theatricals the old school had once staged. He was incredibly pale. His ankle was elevated, strapped in a white bandage. His beautiful face was still, eyes closed, lips slightly open. I had never seen him so peaceful, it was difficult to breathe, my heart fluttered like a trapped bird in a cage.

I touched his hands and leaned over him, wondering why love burned like fire. Then I bowed my head to his and kissed his lips very softly, barely grazing them. Reckless, but I knew I would never see him like that again. As I stood up, Ilya opened his eyes, looked straight at me and said: ‘Thank you for the flowers.’ And smiled.

I turned and stumbled over a chair, desperate to get out. His words hit me with the force of bullets. It was wrong, felt so wrong. I realised my invisibility was nothing, I was a shadow, nothing more. I walked past dancers in the corridors, past Monsieur. I still had Ilya’s shoes in my hands. I opened the doors and walked out into the snowstorm. Walking through the frenzied whiteout, I felt peace descend, I placed his shoes on the ground and watched the snow settle over them. I was shivering and laughing. Behind me the school buildings vanished into the winter maelstrom. The kiss seemed ridiculous now, stolen and thrown away into the storm. The noise of the wind was incredible, whistling and grinding, ripping at the trees around me. The snow was erasing me slowly. I sat under a tree, whiteness lashing at my face, touching my eyes. Don’t let anyone tell you snow has no smell. It does. It smells of love. 

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