Maura Stanton

Fiction

Maura Stanton has won the Nelson Algren Award from The Chicago Tribune, the Lawrence Foundation Award from The Michigan Quarterly Review, the Supernatural Fiction Award from The Ghost Story (theghoststory.com), and an O’Henry Award for 2014. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Antioch Review, New England Review, Upstreet, Fifth Wednesday, PMS, and Fiction International. She lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

 

Ballerina

It was snowing. And the factory was closed for two days. The electronic stamping machines had been turned off, the heat had been lowered just enough to keep the water flowing through the pipes, and the robot janitorial staff had been locked into the storeroom. But Wolfgang, the big metal hulk who had more AI than most other robots, had not been turned off. He looked dumb, but he’d tricked the humans into pushing the wrong button on his neck, and now he was always running.

Wolfgang went around and turned on all the others. The ones who resembled humans were dressed in old yoga outfits, or baggy jeans, and wore sneakers. The metal ones who looked like machines glowed silver in the snow light coming in the high grated window. Each robot stretched its limbs or hoses and turned its head or protrusion back and forth. Wolfgang—he’d been named Wolfgang by the North Dakota humans because there was something wolf-like about his eyes and pointy nose—had fallen in love with the new robot named Anna who’d been unpacked a few weeks ago. She’d gone rogue in Paris. She’d been sent to a repair lab, but humans no longer trusted her with her original goal. Now her goal was to sweep the floors under the stamping machines. She was slender and limber and could dip under the bars before the nozzle heads came down. They’d dressed her in grey sweatpants and a baggy sweatshirt that read “Go North Dakota!”

Now Wolfgang looked at Anna.

It’s your turn, he said. Tell us about yourself, he said. What’s your story? What was your original goal?

Anna sat down on an upturned crate. She lifted her graceful neck and drew a deep sighing breath.

I’m a ballerina, she said.

She stretched out her right foot, and then pulled it back. She was wearing a battered pair of moon boots.

It took a long time to get me right, she said. She paused, and looked around at the other robots. Most had human-like eyes, though some had no lashes. Others had beady camera lenses instead of eyes. But they were all watching her.

Wolfgang nodded. Go on, he said.

OK, well . . . you see, she went on, the first time I danced in the laboratory, the technicians thought I was amazing. But they were geeks. They applauded my pas de chat and my grand jete as athletic performances. Which they were. I was perfect. But something was missing. Even though they were playing Swan Lake on Pandora, and I had a video of Marius Petipa’s choreography, as danced by the Royal Moscow Ballet, inside me as a reference, I could tell that something was wrong. I leapt, my arms rippled, but my movements meant nothing.

But they couldn’t tell that, those lab types. You know what they’re like. They high-fived one another. They took turns tossing me up and catching me until the supervisor told them to stop. I might have broken.

Two programmers, Jeff and Reagan, took me on my first outing to the Phoenix Ballet Academy

Reagan dressed me in a leotard with leg warmers. I sat in the backseat of the SUV while she talked with Jeff. Jeff told her he didn’t much like ballet. He liked acoustic guitar, especially some long dead Brit named Nick Drake. Did she know Nick Drake? Reagan said she liked Nick Drake. But she also liked ballet.

Out the window was the big wide world. We were on a freeway. I saw skyscrapers and palm trees and underpasses. Somebody was pushing a grocery cart under one of the underpasses and it didn’t make sense to me. I turned my head.

“She’s looking at something,” Reagan said to Jeff, who was driving. “Hey, what are you looking at, Anna?”

They had decided to name me after a famous ballerina named Anna Pavlova. That was fine with me. I turned my head.

“Why is that woman pushing a grocery cart on the side of the highway? She’s not in a grocery store. She’s not shopping.”

“She’s homeless,” Reagan said. “That’s all her stuff in that cart.”

Now we were on a wide street with ten lanes of traffic. Signs flashed in the bright sun. The sky up above was deep blue. I kept looking at the sky. Cars and trucks whooshed around us.

Jeff parked the SUV, and we walked into the back door of a cinderblock building. A lot of teenage girls in leotards were milling about in a mirrored room. Some had their legs up on the bar, and were bending over their knees.

A slender grey-haired woman, her hair pulled back in a chignon, came toward us.

“I’m Serena Nardi. So this is our robot ballerina! Why, she looks absolutely real. Your lab did a great job. She’s the perfect height. Does she always smile like that?”

“Stop smiling, Anna,” Reagan said. “That’s only for when you dance.”

I closed my lips.

“Hello, Anna,” the grey-haired woman said as if I were real. “I want you to join the ensemble for the second act of Swan Lake. You’ll be a swan.”

“Yes,” I said.

Serena Nardi signaled to the group of teenagers and they formed a line. She led me over and put me near one end of the line. The girl on one side of me had long skinny legs and acne. The girl on my other side had big thighs. I could see them eying me.

The music began. I went into fourth position like the others.

I danced well. I did everything right. I followed the girl in front of me. I went en point. I did my demi-detourne and my glissade. The others made thumping noises with their feet but my feet were almost silent.

When the music stopped, I stayed in line with the other girls, smiling. Jeff applauded, but Reagan had a puzzled look on her face, and Serena Nardi was frowning. She clapped her hands suddenly. “OK, girls, take a break.”

The girls around me dashed over to their purses lined up along the wall. They began pulling out their phones. I stayed where I was.

“No, no, no,” Serena Nardi said, shaking her head. “It won’t do. She’s like an automaton. She has technique but no musicality.”

“I can see that,” Reagan said. “I took lessons when I was a little girl. What do you think the problem is?”

“No emotion. She’s wooden. She doesn’t know what Swan Lake’s about.”

“We gave her the plot from Wikipedia,” Jeff said.

“Has she ever seen a real swan? Did you ever read her a fairy tale?”

“I don’t get it,” Jeff said. “So what?”

“I get it,” Reagan said. “The prosthetician invented her amazing joints, the cosmetologist devised her perfect skin, and we thought we were done when we stuffed her memory units with everything we could find on the internet connected to ballet. But we left out romance.”

“Romance,” Jeff scoffed.

~

Reagan took charge of reprogramming me. She didn’t remove anything technical, but she downloaded some Disney movies and fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. Books, too, like The Secret Garden and Black Beauty and TheYearling and a movie called The Red Shoes. She even took me to the Phoenix zoo where I got to watch a swan with a purple beak swimming in some reeds. She told me about swan boats in Boston where she used to live. She read me a poem about swans by William Butler Yeats.

When we came back to the lab from the zoo that day, she had me dance the grand pas of the black swan, Odile, in the lunch room. It was three o’clock in the afternoon. She pushed back the long tables. A couple of cooks came out from the kitchen to watch.

I danced. I had to pretend there was a prince to enchant. I did the thirty-two fouettes around a garbage can. Over and over I rose up on my supporting leg, and pivoted the working leg. I saw myself as a beautiful swan, luring the prince away from my look-a-like Odette. I heard gasps from the cooks.

“Good, Anna,” Reagan said. “Today I’m going to zap some Audrey Hepburn movies into your memory.”

I could now see what Reagan was doing. She was giving me a romantic girlhood, the kind she’d experienced herself before she put on weight and was bullied in middle school. It was lovely, full of chiffon and moonlight and ice skating. There were birch forests and sleighs and horses with big sad eyes. A prince was always about to arrive.

~

The next time I danced for Serena Nardi, she was enchanted. Jeff and Reagan drove me back to the cinderblock studio, but the teenage girls were gone. Serena Nardi had brought a male dancer named Samuel who had red hair and muscular legs in grey tights. Together we did a pas de deux. I caught a glimpse of myself in the wall mirrors when he was lifting me up. I was lovely.

“Wow,” Samuel said when we were finished. “At first it was rough. She’s so light I though she was going to float off like a balloon. But then I got the hang of it. Dancing with Anna is like dancing with a dream. A few more of her, and we lumpy people will be out of business.” He grinned at Jeff. “Is your lab working on a male version? I’d sure like to meet him.”

Jeff shook his head. “We had trouble getting the funding for just this one. Not a big audience for ballet.”

~

It was Serena Nardi’s idea to take me to Paris. After I’d danced for her a few more times, and she’d seen me perform with several different male dancers (who usually began the dance with smirks and ended with amazed excitement) she decided I was ready for the big time.

She herself had once danced for the National Opera of Paris, and when she’d been forced to retire as a dancer at age forty-two, she’d continued to work there for several years as a ballet mistress. Then she’d married a chef and moved to Phoenix and opened her own studio, but Paris was her real home. Reagan still had grant money left, so she decided to come, too. They wanted me to see a full ballet danced by world-class dancers. Then they’d take me backstage and Serena would get me to dance for some of her friends. I was programmed to speak French.

Reagan bought three economy class plane tickets to Paris. At security, I was forced to lie down on the belt and go through the portal with the bags, but after that I felt like a real person. I sat in the middle seat between her and Serena Nardi. I was dressed in black pants and a blue shirt and a jacket with velvet lapels.

It was cold and rainy in Paris that May. Reagan was worried that I might get wet on the way to the Opera Garnier to see Giselle, so she bought me a small folding umbrella printed with swirly water lilies. It was the first object I had ever been given for just myself, besides clothes, and I was delighted. We crossed a traffic circle, and climbed the steps of the opera along with many well-dressed couples. The lobby had a sweeping staircase and glittering lights. I heard an eerie chanting noise that started low and rose to high notes, echoing and soaring through the enormous space, and realized that it was coming from the girls who were selling programs.

“Fold your umbrella,” Reagan told me as we began to climb the stairs. “You can’t keep it open in here.” Then she stopped to buy programs.

Two men in dark suits were waiting outside loges 30-32. They let us in and pointed to chairs against the wall, red velvet chairs with golden armrests. We were up so high I could have jumped out and swung myself from the huge chandelier and leapt down to the stage. But I didn’t.

Reagan pointed up at the brightly colored Chagall ceiling that surrounded the chandelier. She said he painted it when he was seventy-seven, and it was like looking at someone’s dream. I didn’t dream, so I enjoyed looking at the floating horses and people and scenes of Paris.

My chair was right against the wall. I looked around the small loge which held about twenty people. The wall was covered with red brocade. Just before me was a row of smaller chairs, and a family had followed us in and were settling there. Soon the small box was filled with murmurs and laugher as the audience up here settled into their places.

I already knew the story of Giselle, which is an opera in two acts, so I didn’t need to read the program. The first act takes place in the “real” world and the second act, the Acte Blanc as they call it in French because of all the white tutus, tales place in the dream world.

Giselle is a peasant girl. Albrecht, the Duke of Silesia in disguise, who is engaged to Princess Bathilde, tricks pretty little Giselle into dancing with him (read sex for dance) during the harvest festival, but when she finds out who he really is, she goes mad and dies.

Giselle joins the Willis, ghostly maidens who died before they were married, betrayed by faithless lovers. They get revenge by luring young men to death. They are led by Mythra, an evil spirit. When Albrecht shows up at Giselle’s grave, feeling remorseful, she’s supposed to trick him into a fatal dance with the Willis. She’s supposed to dance with him until he dies, exhausted. But she can’t. She still loves him. She supports him until dawn breaks. He lives and she disappears.

Serena Nardi leaned over and whispered in my ear. “Watch carefully. I want you to dance the role of Giselle very soon.”

I sat up straighter, and in my excitement I reached out to touch the wall as the curtain rose on the first act. I could feel the textured brocade under my hand. I stroked it as I watched the ballet begin. The prince in disguise had spotted the peasant girl Giselle, and was beginning to court her. Enormous trees rose behind the thatched roofs of the village. In the distance you could see a fairy tale castle on the hill. The music was cheerful, but with a foreboding note. The prince was engaged to a woman of royal birth. This romance was headed for disaster.

And then I felt the tear in the brocade. My fingers explored it. Something was there.

I pulled out a tiny slip of paper.

The lights came on when the act was over. “What have you got there, Anna?” Reagan asked.

I showed her the piece of paper and where it came from. She rolled it open.

“Oh, Wow,” she said. “Je t’aime, Monique” it says. “It’s a billet-doux, a love note. Look how yellowed it is. It must have been hidden in the wallpaper for years. Oh, Wow.” She handed it to Serena Nardi

“Amazing,” Serena Nardi said. “Someone left it there for Monique.”

“And Monique never found it! How romantic, how sad!”

“Put it back, Anna,” Serena Nardi said, handing back the little note. I was puzzled, but I slipped the paper back inside the wallpaper. I did not understand why Reagan and Serena Nardi were so astonished and moved. I felt that something was still lacking inside me. I tried to figure it out as I watched the dancers in their white chiffon during the Acte Blanc.

The Willis wore veils at first so you could tell they were dead. Then as they danced they took them off to reveal their braided hair and flowery crowns. The stage was draped with gauze curtains. Birch trees glimmered in the distance.

Albrecht arrived in his blue tights and velvet shirt. I had to shift my position to see around the big head of the man in front of me, but as Albrecht leapt up and began to twist in the air I could feel my own feet flexing and clenching.

I wanted to dance with him. I leaned forward watching his movements. I began to understand. Je t’aime, I murmured to myself.

And the next day I did dance with him. His name was Pierre. A Premier Danseur, he’d been named to the rank of Etoile seven years ago.

We were in the studio high up in the dome of the Opera. A ring of spotlights lit a shining floor covered with chalk marks. Dancers playing the parts of Willis sat around in their leotards and chiffon workout skirts, some doing leg stretches, some playing with their phones. A few officials sat in chairs behind a railing. They had grim looks on their faces, and seemed impatient, as if they’d been forced to be here and were expecting the worst.

I’d been dressed in a chiffon skirt and a black top. Serena Nardi had fixed my hair to look like the others. Pierre was wearing a baggy t-shirt with black leotards. He looked at me askance.

The pianist sitting at the grand piano struck the first notes.

We danced the pas de deux from the second act. I remembered all the movements of the ballerina dancing the night before. I imitated and improved them. Pierre seemed listless at first, but he was soon electrified by my brilliance. By the end of the entrée, some of the officials had their mouths open. By the end of the adagio, they all did, and some were leaning forward. One or two stood up during my solo, and by the coda, when Pierre and I danced together again, they were on their feet. Even some of the Willis had put down their phones.

Everyone applauded. Serena Nardi had tears in her eyes and Reagan thumped me on the back. Pierre’s chest was heaving, and sweat was streaming down his face. But he reached down and picked up my hand. He kissed my hand.

So it was arranged. I was to dance the role of Giselle for one special performance, a fund-raiser. The left-wing newspaper Le Monde ran a small announcement on the cultural page, the right wing newspaper Le Figaro worked me into a feature about the history of ballet, and the far-left newspaper L’Humanite used me as an example of mechanization, and bemoaned the loss of jobs to robots. It was in that article that I leaned that robots had mostly replaced living models on the runways of the high fashion houses. No worries about anorexia. A robot could be as thin as a designer wanted.

Of course, all a model had to do was walk up and down. I was far more sophisticated.

It was then that Pierre asked me to go out with him. He would take an afternoon off from practice and show me some paintings of ballerinas, he said. Since we’d be dancing together, he wanted to get to know me and discuss the philosophy of the ballet, he said. Serena Nardi and Reagan were against the idea because I was a valuable piece of equipment (but I think Reagan had a crush on Pierre, too) but I told them it might make me a better dancer if Pierre and I became friends, and since Pierre was standing right there, they had to give in.

I found out all I could about Pierre on the internet. He’d wanted to be an Olympic swimmer, but the chemicals in pools gave him asthma. His parents had enrolled him in the ballet school of the National Opera of Paris to build his overall athletic skills, but when he had to give up swimming he joined the corps de ballet. He won the Eurovision competition for young dancers in Lausanne, then got promoted to principal dancer, and finally to the rank of Etoile. He was the oldest dancer in the company—and the best. He’d been married, but was now divorced.

The next day we looked at some paintings of chunky dancers in chiffon dresses at the museum. Pierre seemed to think the paintings were wonderful, so I pretended to agree, though I thought the faces looked greenish and the poses seemed awkward. Pierre explained his vision of the ballet, how it was a great art that captured time in motion and required the utmost passion. Did I understand what the dance meant to humans? He confessed that he was worried about robot dancers. What would happen to the ballet if we robots took over? Perhaps we were a little too perfect. Maybe it would be best, he added, if I held back a little when we danced Giselle, and didn’t do anything too spectacular. He was thinking of the other ballerinas in his company.

I smiled and nodded. I appeared to hang on his every word but I didn’t really care what he said, I just wanted to look at him. Then we went to a café, and I looked at him some more as I’m unable to eat or drink. And as we walked along the Seine, I reached out and took his hand. I was careful not to squeeze too hard. Human hand pressure was still something I was learning.

“What are you doing, Anna,” he laughed.

“I’m in love with you,” I said.

He laughed again, but his face flushed. “Sorry,” he said. “But I’ve already got a girlfriend. In fact, we’re having a baby in a couple of months. We’ve been living together for several years now, and plan to get married soon.”

“Oh,” I said. I let go of his hand.

“You’re a sweet robot,” he said. “Someday you’ll meet one of your own kind.”

Of course I didn’t have a heart so it wasn’t broken, but human hearts didn’t break either. It was just a metaphor for grief and misery. Instead humans turned pale and wept. They threw themselves off bridges. Or they danced themselves to death like Giselle.

We were crossing a bridge just then. It was a pedestrian bridge covered with locks. On the way over, Pierre had explained that lovers fastened the locks to the metal grill as a way of pledging their love to one another.

I stopped and grabbed one of the locks, a U-shaped padlock. My hands are exceptionally strong. I didn’t need a key or a combination. I pulled on the U and opened the lock. Then I flung it into the Seine.

Pierre looked at me uneasily. “Why did you do that, Anna?”

“It’s a metaphor,” I said.

~

During the first act of Giselle I wear a peasant dress with a dark velvet bodice and a light blue swirly skirt. Hilarion, the gamekeeper, who loves me, and my mother, worry about the stranger who wants to dance with me. They suspect him.

When I find out that Albrecht is engaged to marry the Princess Bathilde I dance myself to death.

At the end of the act, the audience roared! No one had ever danced the role so well.

In the second act, I am dead and wear white chiffon and pale pink slippers. The tiny ruffled sleeves on my bare arms look like wings. After the gamekeeper Helarion comes to visit my grave, the Willis in white dresses spin him around and around and dance him to death.

Then Pierre, playing Albrecht, shows up. He places a bouquet of white lilies on my grave. The Willis, led by Queen Myrtha, want to dance him to death, too. But I’m Giselle. I love him. I’m supposed to save him from dancing himself to death.

But I was angry at Pierre. He didn’t love me. He didn’t even want me to dance my best. But I was going to dance my best. I was going to show the audience that not only was I the loveliest ballerina ever created, but I was also the one with the most stamina.

Pierre and I began to dance.

But I wouldn’t stop. I knew I couldn’t dance him to death, that was just a story, but I could at least embarrass him on the stage.

Sweat began running down Pierre’s brow but I kept pirouetting around him, not letting him rest. The orchestra was confused and kept restarting the musical passage. At first Pierre had an anguished look on his face as he tried to keep up with me. He was panting, and a map of sweat appeared on his blue tights. Five minutes, six minutes. The music played on and on, ending and beginning. The amazed orchestra tried to keep up with me. Then all of sudden Pierre hunched over, his hands on his thighs. His breath was ragged. He couldn’t dance anymore.

But I could.

I danced my beautiful dance effortlessly, circling him, leaping, doing cabrioles, entrechat, almost flying through the air with a grand jete, but not taking into account that I had ruined the ballet for everyone else. People in the audience were standing up, trying to figure out what was happening. Finally the orchestra stopped.

I bowed.

But no one applauded. They were carrying Pierre off the stage behind me.

Robot, I head them muttering, robot, robot.

~

Anna bowed her head. That was the last time I ever danced, she said. She shifted a bit on the crate, hugging her knees.

Wolfgang shook himself. Wow, he said. You danced in Paris. I’ve never been out of North Dakota.

Anna kept her face down.

You know what would be wonderful, Wolfgang said. It would be wonderful if you would dance for us. We’re trapped here forever until our parts wear out. We talk about beauty but we never get to see it.

Anna lifted her head. She smiled the way she must have smiled on stage, and all the robots who’d been listening to her story felt strange, as if they had actually felt an emotion. She looked around at each of us in turn. She began to pull off her moon boots. When she took them off, we saw what they’d done to her, the big metal boxes that would never fit into a satin slipper again.

I was sitting in a loge high up at the Paris Opera, under the Chagall ceiling, watching a performance of Giselle. It was a rainy May in Paris, and the Seine was flooding. The Louvre was closed so that paintings could be moved to safety. There was tension in the air, and awe. I’d felt nervous taking the metro that goes under the river, so I walked back, but that was scary, too. Big logs were rushing along as I crossed the bridge with the padlocks. I didn’t write this story until months later, but something about that fairy tale evening stayed with me—particularly the eerie sound of the young women who sing to sell their programs.