On a silent stage, she stood. She felt a trickle of sweat slither down her spine, pooling between her shoulder blades. Her posture upright, and her chin slightly elevated. Raven black hair wound tight in a taut bun. She wore a short dress with a weaved pattern of lavender silk, garnished with an ornate cobalt blue bow on her left hip. Black stockings were held in place by not only a garter belt, but tape and glue. Hundreds of hungry eyes devoured her. She needed to be perfect. In this world, only those who are perfect deserve to be something, and those who are not, deserve to be nothing.
Hot light painted her silhouette onto a blood red velvet curtain behind her. Finally the music commenced. Beneath her at the base of the stage, an orchestra began to strum. Their music rose like a tide, filling the air with somber bars. Her heartbeat raced beside the growing tune. Her queue was approaching. She arched her back and raised her arms over her head. Each movement or her arms had been rehearsed a thousand times with her strict tutor, and ten thousand times more, alone.
Slender legs flew through the air whenever the music swelled. She spun and lunged across the stage, matching the rhythm of the music. Silent judging eyes looked on her from the darkness as she performed. The movements were instinct to her, however a familiar feeling of fatigue crept. It nagged at her, attempting to pull her attention away from perfection. With each step, and lunge, and jump, the feeling grew more. Until her mind was stolen away from the natural rhythm and plunged against a wall of reality. She felt it, her ankles were creaking, her lower back was stone, and her thighs were whining with pain. She ignored it all. All for perfection.
The finish was approaching, with the music as her guide, she thrust herself on to her pointes. Her calves fluttered along with the orchestra’s tune, until she reached the edge of the stage. She bent over, lowering her torso with a refined posture. While on her pointes she lifted her left leg. The music reached its zenith as she lifted her arms, and stretched past her shoulders to catch her left foot. She held her pose. Struggling against her body’s pleas to quiver. Searing pain rose from her right foot. Her toes being crushed into the hardwood of her toe-box. With masochistic glee, she pushed the pain into the stage.
I am perfect.
A final note hung in the air. After a moment silence crept back. She lowered her leg to the floor, her limbs slicing through the air like sharp knives through fresh meat. She bowed, as she had been taught. She heard her heart beating against her inner ear. A bead of sweat hung from the tip of her nose. Her nostrils flared, holding herself back from gulping at fresh air.
“Thank you Rosalina.” A deep monotone voice rang out, a voice which could only belong to the Chief Judge. Four other judges sat beside him, staring at her from the darkness.
Rosalina held out the edges of her fine dress. With her chin up, and a strict posture she exited the stage with grace. She had done it. She walked past two girls, who had performed before her. Both girls carried an exhausted fear in their eyes. Past her hard to disguise smugness, Rosalina relished in their despair. She knew they were aware of their defeat. She sat in a padded chair beside her escort, and crossed her legs. All four performers sat in front of a red bricked wall which snagged on their fine costumes. Seated next to each slender girl was a large man. Escorts were common practice after all. Rosalina thought about her time with her tutor, Esmeralda.
Esmeralda loved to remind Rosalina of the cost of failure. Slender bamboo rods had been her favorite tool to discipline her body. ‘Pain for perfection’, Esmeralda would often say when striking her thighs and stomach, forcing her to maintain postures for hours upon hours. It always stung, but never as much as failure. The Judges were tight lipped about the fate of failures, but rumors still spread. Rosalina preferred to ignore gossip. Only a distraction from perfection. Finally one performance remained between her and perfection.
Rosalina glanced at the next girl to perform. She wore a cobalt blue dress, cut off at her thighs, with white stockings, and blonde hair, cut short and fastened in a frayed ponytail. Rich blue eyes stared off into the distance, as if she were lost in a haze. Her age was indefinite, but she could guess teenage. A fat woman wearing a grim face and a simple black dress approached her.
“Catarina, you may enter.” she said, gesturing to the stage.
“Thank you, Miss. Kobold.” Catarina said in a meek tone.
With the same mannerisms as Rosalina. She walked out past a velvet curtain, and onto the stage. She bowed, as all the girls before her had done. Once the formalities had ended, her score began. Rosalina watched, her eyes as hungry as the audience’s. Each of Catarina’s gentle strides put a sour taste in Rosalina’s mouth. Doubt had rarely occurred to her, especially after the first two girls shambled across the stage in their shabby dresses. Catarina could impress the judges. When the thought crossed her mind, she shivered.
“Thank you Catarina.” The Judge’s voice rang out of the dark auditorium and into Rosalina’s mind. She watched Catarina return from the stage, staring like a starved feline. Catarina sat and placed her small hands in her lap, and returned to her hollow gazing. Rosalina’s brow furrowed, her expression tugged on her scalp. Silence droned on. Each girl spent their remaining moments before judgement differently.
Catarina glanced at Rosalina once. Rosalina’s sharp eyes burned holes through her, while her top leg bounced. When Rosalina shifted legs, it startled another girl named Olivia. She turned herself to Rosalina, wide eyed and panicked. She only became calm when her escort put his hand on her thigh. The final girl had her head in her hands, and ignored everything. After an hour of waiting, Miss Kobold.
“You are all required back on stage.” Miss Kobold said.
Each of the men rose from their chairs. Towering creatures, who dwarfed the more feminine performers. Each man held their large hand out, their corresponding performer took it, and stood. The girls returned to the stage beside their escorts. The dancers stood in a neat line, with their escorts behind them. After arriving at their designated mark, the girls bowed. Some are more nervous than others. A tall dark figure stood engulfed in darkness, the light of the stage only revealing his red arms with gold trim and white gloves.
“Thank you all for your lovely performances." He held out a sheet of brownish yellow paper. "I will now read your name, and inform you if you have failed or passed.” He said. “Patricia Evergreen ... Fail.”
Patricia had been first to perform that evening, and was the first to fail. Tears suddenly streamed down her cheeks. Black lines of mascara streaked along her pale cheeks, and fell onto her dark green dress. her escort put his large hand on the back of her neck. She hung her head low, offered no resistance, and disappeared off stage.
“Olivia Stone … Fail.”
Olivia had dark skin, with rosy cheeks. She fell to her knees and begged.
“Please! Please! Let me go again, I can do better!” Her whimpers for mercy were cut off by her escort, as he clamped his left hand around her neck. His right hand hooked around her slender arm, forcing her to her feet. He violently tugged her away. For a few moments, Olivia's voice whimpered from behind the curtain. After her whimpers had faded, and silence returned, the Judge spoke again.
“Rosalina Finewater … Pass” the judge said, in a deep monotone.
A burning urge to smile shot up from Rosalina’s heart, but she effortlessly buried it, remaining stoic. The judge cleared his throat, and spoke.
“Catarina Beaujardin … Pass.”
Rosalina fought against a new urge, this time, to scream.
“We understand this is not what you expected. Only one of you beautiful young girls may pass. However, both Rosalina and Catarina gave such stunning performances.” He gestured to each girl as he said each name. “All of us judges, simply must have another performance. As to provide a more accurate measurement of your skills.” The judge made a dismissive gesture, and his arms returned to darkness. Both escorts took the remaining girls backstage.
Rosalina followed behind Catarina closely. Moments later Rosalina sat, staring at the floorboards. Utter disbelief had grasped her mind. From the corner of her eye, Rosaline noticed a slender man approach the two escorts. All of the men spoke in hushed voices. She narrowed her eyes when she heard a familiar monotone voice. The man had a sharp, trimmed white beard, which matched his slicked back white hair. Her eyes traced along the gold trimming of his scarlet and white suit, complete with white gloves. As she examined the man, a delicate sullen voice stole her attention.
“The tutors were cruel, but we don't have to be." Rosalina turned her head. Catarina had been staring at the men while they talked as well. Rosalina tilted her head.
“We should not be talking to each other.” Rosalina responded, ice in her words.
“I understand, but...”
“Then stop talking to me.” Rosalina’s words cut like shards of glass.
"I refuse to be like them." Catarina whispered, loud enough to reach Rosalina's ears. She turned her body to face Rosalina. Her deep blue eyes met Rosalina’s fiery amber. Her eyes were wide, as if she was revealing some great truth.
“I don’t care who or what you want to be like.” Her voice cracked like a rod striking a child. “What you did out there was a fluke. I am perfect, and I am going to remind you and the judges of that fact.”
Catarina parted her lips to argue more, but her escort had returned to her. His large hand rested on her shoulder, he put his finger to his lips. He leaned in and spoke into her ear. Hot wet air brushed against her, and her expression changed. Her brows drooped, and her shoulders sagged. Rosalina turned away, but could still feel her gaze on her. Refuse to be like them? Rosalina thought. Then you will be nothing, like the other girls. Cruelty had made her perfect. Every time her tutor beat her, Rosalina became stronger. Every beating, every bruise, every scar made her perfect. Without them, she would be nothing. She couldn't be nothing, not in this world.
“It is time, have you selected a score?” Miss Kobold inquired. Rosalina glared at her through the corner of her eye.
“Yes.” Rosalina responded promptly. Rosalina closed her eyes. She had selected a triumphant score, with brass. It was her strongest performance, but risk held her back. Not anymore. Now she had to declare victory, she had to seize it. With her eyes shut, she stood, and prepared her posture. Now refreshed, she opened her eyes. Again she walked onto the stage. Again, hundreds of eyes fell on her. Their gaze felt heavy, but Rosalina was strong.
She put her hands behind her neck in an elegant pose and prepared for the thunder of the band. The score took off, loud and strong. Her finale needed to be explosive. It needed to be mighty. It needed to be perfect. She hopped onto her pointes, and performed. When the brass roared, she soared. Landing on her pointes had always been the most painful part. Pain for perfection, raddled in her mind. Perfection has no patience for pain. She led the score with her nimble repose. Unleashing a fury of defiant confidence on the audience.
Finally it was time for her to make her gamble. She balanced herself on her left leg, and spun. She kicked her right leg over and over again, carrying the momentum through to her spins. Percussionists beat their drums in unison with her pirouette. More and more she spun, her mind losing focus. Her toe nails cracked as she spun. It felt as if dozens of needles were being driven under her nails. Still she persisted. Perfection demanded her to persist.
Each spin felt faster than the last. In an instant, Rosalina realized she was spinning too fast. Rosalina pushed herself into the air, in an attempt to decelerate. She slowed, but the force of her return impact had shattered her toes. She felt the pain, but continued her pirouette. Once the score sang its final triumphant note. She flexed her standing leg, bringing herself to a sudden stop. Her elegant dress stopped after she had. It gently swayed in the air as she lowered herself, and bowed.
“Thank you Rosalina.” The judge said, monotone.
She hung her head low, to conceal her sharp smile. She stood and turned, the pain in her foot crept back into her mind, but she pushed through it. She fell to her knees after she could no longer feel their stares. Only now did she realize the extent of the damage. Not only were her toes shattered, but her ankle writhed in pain. Despite it all, she gripped the velvet curtain, her knuckles turned white. With a fiendish grin, she stared at Catarina. Without a word, she silently screamed ‘beat that!’. She expected the girl to be frightened like the other sheep, but what she saw in Catarina’s eyes was pity.
Rosalina’s escort propped her to her feet. As she rose, Catarina had been called back to the stage. The two girls crossed paths, before she took the stage. As Catarina took her pose, Rosalina heard a familiar score. It was not uncommon for dancers to use each other’s scores and routines, upstaging in such a way proved a performer’s superiority. Rosalina gritted her teeth as she watched Catarina frolic around the stage. Only her movements seemed distracted, even lazy, as if she had no interest in her performance. Rosalina’s cutting smile returned.
Catarina finished her routine. The judges thanked her, she bowed, and finally she returned behind the curtain. There both girls sat in silence, beside their escorts. Rosalina could not contain her smile and stared at Catarina, who only looked at her feet. Wide eyed, Rosalina counted the seconds. Once more Miss Kobold appeared.
“Their final decision has been made.” she said. She glanced at Rosalina’s injury, then starred at Catarina.
The escorts rose, and so did Catarina, but Rosalina struggled. Her adrenaline was dying off, and the pain in her ankle was intolerable. She fought back tears. Her unsympathetic escort hoisted her to her feet, and she let out a humble shriek. She limped beside him as he forced her toward the stage. She fought to regain her posture, but her energy was spent. Limping onto the stage, her escort placed her beside Catarina, and stepped back. Rosalina again struggled to stay upright, but fought nonetheless.
“Welcome back young ladies! Once again, you delivered spectacular performances, however we have finally reached a proper verdict.” the Judge said. Rosalina could make out the outline of his head. His arms were exposed by a lender beam of light.
Catarina reached out to help Rosalina stand, but Rosalina slapped her hand away. Catarina’s brow furrowed, she forced her shoulder under Rosalina’s armpit, helping her stand. Again their eyes met, they fought a silent war with their glares. However Rosalina did not have the strength to win.
“Rosalina Finewater … Fail.”
“What?” Rosalina turned her head without hesitation. The world fell away from her.
Suddenly, the warm grip of her escort clutched her neck. Rosalina looked back to Catarina, her deep pools staring back. The pain in her foot surged as her escort ripped her from Catarina’s grip. He dragged her mercilessly across the stage. This time, Catarina made no move toward her. Rosalina saw her lips move, in an attempt to communicate one final thought.
Why are you sorry? Rosalina thought.
The lights of the stage disappeared. Why are you sorry? she thought again, stunned. She passed by Miss Kobold. Rosalina made a feeble attempt to reach out, but she ignored her. After a few moments of being dragged, she forced down a long flight of stone steps. Each violent bump sent a surge of pain through her body. At the bottom, a large steel door awaited her. Her escort leaned her against a cold concrete wall. He struggled to drag it open. When Rosalina noticed, she turned, and put weight on her foot. Pain shot up from her ankle. She hit the ground hard, tearing her lavender gown. Her escort forced her onto her feet, and pushed her inside.
She limped inside a dark room, and heard whimpering. Rosalina looked to her left. Patricia and Olivia were sat on a dirt floor. Both girls were shivering, with their elegant clothing torn and muddied. She examined her new quarters, and saw a dim light glowing from the ceiling, she turned back over her shoulder, to see her escort staring at her. In the distance, she could hear applause.
“I don’t understand. I was perfect. I don’t belong here, not with them.” she said, her voice exasperated. He glanced down the hallway, and turned back.
"The other judges picked you, but… he told us he preferred blondes." he said as he pushed the door with all his strength.
Rosalina closed her eyes, all of her suffering flashed in her mind. All of her confidence had been for not. Her strength caved into pain. She collapsed, her knees slammed onto cold dirt. She forced her chin up, and cried out. Her wail was muffled, when the steel door shut with a metal clang.