"Like mother, like daughter, no?" Antoinette says, holding a pretend bottle to her lips.
Maman lifts the absinthe the smallest bit more but only twists the cork back into place. "You'll take your sisters to the dance school at the Opéra in the morning," Maman says to Antoinette; and light comes into Charlotte's face. Three times a week she says how the Paris Opéra is the greatest opera house in all the world.
Sometimes Antoinette shows Charlotte and me the steps she learned at the Opéra dance school, back in the days before she was told not to come back, and we standing with our heels together, our feet turned out, bending our knees.
"Knees over your toes," Antoinette would say. "That's it. A plié."
"What else?" Usually Charlotte asked, but sometimes it was me. The evenings were long and dull, and in the wintertime a few pliés in a bit of candlelight took away the shivering before curling up on our mattress for the night.
Antoinette taught us battements tendus, ronds de jambe, grands battements, on and on. She would stoop to adjust the ankle of Charlotte's outstretched foot. "Such feet," she would say. "Feet of a dancer, pet."
Almost always it was Charlotte she bothered to correct. Maman liked to say how it was time I earned my keep, how even the girls in the Opéra dance school were handed seventy francs each month, but already Papa had slapped his hand down on the table. "Enough," he said. "Marie is to stay put, in Sister Evangeline's classroom, where she belongs." Later, alone, he whispered into my ear that I was clever, my mind meant for studying, that Sister Evangeline had bothered to wait for him outside the porcelain factory and tell him it was so. Still I joined in, and even if Antoinette said my back was supple and my hips were loose, even if I sometimes found myself dancing my own made-up dance when the music of the fiddler down below came up through the planks of the floor, we both knew Papa's word would hold. Her eyes were on tiny Charlotte, extending a leg behind her in an arabesque and then lifting it high above the floor, all the while Antoinette making adjustments and calling out, "Arms soft. Knee straight. Neck long. That's it. You got a neck like Taglioni, pet."
On Antoinette's name day when she was eight, Papa brought out from inside the sleeve of his coat a figurine of Marie Taglioni, hovering barefoot, wings spread, only the toes of one foot upon the earth. Nearly fifty years ago she claimed a place for herself in the heart of every Parisian by dancing La Sylphide, and still her legend lived on. Antoinette kissed the tiny face of the figurine a dozen times and put it high up on the mantelshelf to be adored. Anyone looking there would have seen it, a tiny sylph, beside Maman's old clock. But then Antoinette failed the examination that would have promoted her from the second set of the quadrille to the first and was dismissed from the Paris Opéra Ballet for arguing with Monsieur Pluque, the director of dance. "That mouth of yours," Maman said.
"I only said to him I could make more fouettés en tournant than Martine, that my footwork was superior to that of Carole." I could picture Antoinette standing there, arms crossed, insolence on her face. "I'm ugly and skinny, that's what he says back to me."
The figurine was gone from the mantelshelf the next day, maybe to the pawnbroker, maybe smashed upon the cobblestones.
Adapted from The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2013 by Cathy Marie Buchanan
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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