She was scared to dance, afraid to feel that familiar slam of bone against the hollow stage. Something had changed that night, something inside of her had stilled at the sight of those bodies, that blood. It had been such a long time- years really, but still, the fear weighed her down, and a cold had settled in her bones.
Once though, she had soared. A child, free, alone on the stage for hours, practicing for her own perfection. The one place she felt whole, the one place she felt like herself. Not a strange amalgamation of those things that her parents wanted, her teachers, her friends. Not a list of labels bestowed upon her by society. Nothing mattered except the rhythm; ever leap, ever spin, her world spiraling in an orbit that swung the planets around her, brought the world into line with her dreams, her desires.
Now the music called again, pulling her into the theater from across campus. The steady beat of others’ seeking order in the chaos, in lines and practiced rhythm across a hollow stage.
She sat high in the corner, the house lights dim, her seat in shadow. There she watched rehearsal after rehearsal, and remembered the thunder that roared inside of her when she owned the dance. Her heels slamming, hands clapping, hair wild, heart free.
Most of those girls were down there, they were tiny, delicate things. Spider-limbed, pale as the Sunday wash hung out to dry in the cold Michigan air. But there was one, one who danced like her own memories. Pure energy, pure joy. She was so envious at first. How had this girl, this women, kept her fire burning? How had the world not extinguished it, drowned it in blood and poison and fetid ocean swells.
She did not sleep much, not when the nightmares came too often, not when her nights were full of remembered horrors. Sometimes she slept in the theater, lulled by the distant comfort of dancers, the Madam clapping and shouting, the music tinny and faded, blasted through an old CD player that someone had plugged their phone into.
She slept too long one night, woke to find the theater darker, quieter, a single dancer gracing the stage. Her sleep-heavy mind saw herself upon the stage for a dizzy moment, before the vision resolved itself, and she saw the women with the fire dancing on the stage below. She stayed, entranced, watching that power, that poise, feeling almost voyeuristic, yet unable to tear her eyes away.
She began to stay longer every night, watching her secret show, feeling her spirit rise with every leap and twist, every stomp and clap. But then she began to feel guilty, imagining what it would be like if she had found someone watching her private performance. She would feel wronged, violated. She did not want the fire woman to feel that way. She did not want anything to threaten that flame.
So she stopped sitting in her dark corner, stopped letting the pull of the theater with it’s half opened door call her in. She felt hollow, slept less, but at least she didn’t have that guilt, that creeping sadness, the chasing melancholy.
Autumn stole the warmth from the air with little warning, leaving steel skies and birds racing south. The winds rose, threatening snow and hail and frost and floods. She raced from class to class, face buried into the collar of her jacket, lips and nose too cold to feel. Final period found her in front of a closed door, a note from their professor taped to it, canceling class for the day.
She retreated across campus towards her car, closing her ears to the sound of music drifting from the theater and it’s perpetually open door. The cold winter air would feel wonderful against the sweat on the dancers skin; she remembered that feeling, the delighted shivers, the cold relief. It was almost time for the first performance of the semester, the dancers working tirelessly at their craft, hours of practice pushing them towards perfection.
“Wait!” A voice called to her, almost carried away by the angry wind. She turned, seeing the flame, the fire, the dancer, racing across the pavement, running with that delicate, sure footed grace.
Fear- irrational, consuming, grabbed her, almost pushed her on, telling her to pretend she did not hear, she was almost at her car, she could make it. But there was something in her that stilled her stride, that caused her to turn, lift her face to wind, wait for the dancer to stop before her.
“You never watch us anymore, why not?”
She stopped, caught off guard, blinking up at the other as though she spoke a foreign language. Say something!
“I… I didn’t know you knew I was there.”
The fire women smiled, tilted her head to the side, stared at her with big brown eyes that she felt sure she would drown in if she stared too long, “I always hoped you’d join me.”
The world stopped, exploded, burst at the seams with light and music and fear, fear, fear, “I haven’t danced… I don’t dance.”
She looked her up and down, a smile still pulling at the edges of her lips, “I know a dancer when I see one, rehearsal ends at nine, I’ll wait till nine twenty for you.”
She had three hours to decide not to arrive. She had three hours to talk herself out of it. She had three hours to convince herself that what she saw in the other women’s eyes were not the things she thought she saw.
She found her courage at nine pm, speeding across town, flying through the cold to take that chance, to feed that fire. She pushed open the door at nine nineteen, the stage still lit, the flame girl reaching down to push stop on the music.
She let the door slam shut, it’s echo racing across the suddenly silent theater. They stared at one another for an eternity, a moment. Then the women smiled, the fire flared, and the music started once again.
“It’s cold out there,” She said, “Let’s get warmed up.”