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Authors: Anaïs Nin

Tags: #Arts, #Man-Woman Relationships, #Ballet dancers, #General, #Fiction, #Women

Children of the Albatross

BOOK: Children of the Albatross
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STEPPING OFF THE BUS at Montmartre Djuna
arrived in the center of the ambulant Fair and precisely at the moment when she
set her right foot down on the cobblestones the music of the merry-go-round was
unleashed from its mechanical box and she felt the whole scene, her mood, her
body, transformed by its gaiety exactly as in her childhood her life in the
orphan asylum had been suddenly transformed from a heavy nightmare to freedom
by her winning of a dance scholarship.

As if, because of so many obstacles her
childhood and adolescence had been painful, heavy walking on crutches and had
suddenly changed overnight into a dance in which she discovered the air, space
and the lightness of her own nature.

Her life was thus divided into two parts: the
bare, the pedestrian one of her childhood, with poverty weighing her feet, and
then the day when her interior monologue set to music led her feet into the

Pointing her toe towards the floor she would
always think: I danced my way out of the asylum, out of poverty, out of my

She remembered her feet on the bare floor of
their first apartment. She remembered her feet on the linoleum of the orphan
asylum. She remembered her feet going up and down the stairs of the home where
she had been “adopted” and had suffered her jealousy of the affection bestowed
on the legitimate children. She remembered her feet running away from that

She remembered her square-toed lusterless
shoes, her mended stockings, and her hunger for new and shining shoes in shop

She remembered the calluses on her feet from
house work, from posing for painters, from working as a manneuin, from cold,
from clumsy mendings and from ill-fitting shoes.

She remembered the day that her dreaming broke
into singing, and became a monologue set to music, the day when the dreams
became a miniature opera shutting out the harsh or dissonant sounds of the

She remembered the day when her feet became
restless in their prison of lusterless leather and they began to vibrate in
obedience to inner harmonizations, when she kicked off her shoes and as she
moved her worn dress cracked under her arms and her skirt slit at the knees.

The flow of images set to music had descended
from her head to her feet and she ceased to feel as one who had been split into
two pieces by some great invisible saber cut.

In the external world she was the woman who had
submitted to mysterious outer fatalities beyond her power to alter; and in her
interior world she was a woman who had built many tunnels deeper down where no
one could reach her, in which she deposited her treasures safe from destruction
and in which she built a world exactly the opposite of the one she knew.

But at the moment of dancing a fusion took
place, a welding, a wholeness. The cut in the middle of her body healed, and
she was all one woman moving.

Lifted and impelled by an inner rhythm, with a
music box playing inside her head, her foot lifted from drabness and
immobility, from the swamps and miasmas of poverty, carried her across
continents and oceans, depositing her on the cobblestone of a Paris square on
the day of the Fair, among shimmering colored tents, the flags of pleasure at
full mast, the merry-go-rounds turning like dervish dancers.

She walked to a side street, knocked on a dark
doorway opened by a disheveled concierge and ran down the stairway to a vast
underground room.

As she came down the stairway she could already
hear the piano, feet stamping, and the ballet master’s voice. When the piano
stopped there was always his voice scolding, and the whispering of smaller

Sometimes as she entered the class was
dissolving, and a flurry of little girls brushed by her in their moth ballet
costumes, the little girls from the Opera, laughing and whispering, fluttering
like moths on their dusty ballet slippers, flurries of snow in the darkness of
the vast room, with drops of dew from exertion.

Djuna went down with them along the corridors
to the dressing rooms which at first looked like a garden, with the puffed
white giant daisies of ballet skirts, the nasturtiums and poppies of Spanish
skirts, the roses of cotton, the sunflowers, the spider webs of hair nets.

The small dressing room overflowed with the
smell of cold cream, face powder, and cheap cologne, with the wild confusion of
laughter, confessions from the girls, with old dancing slippers, faded flowers
and withering tulle.

As soon as Djuna cast off her city clothes it
was the trepidating moment of metamorphosis.

The piano slightly out of tune, the floor’s
vibrations, the odor of perspiration swelled the mood of excitement born in
this garden of costumes to the accompaniment of whisperings and laughter.

When she extended her leg at the bar, the
ballet master placed his hand on it as if to guide the accuracy of her pointed

He was a slender, erect, stylized man of forty,
not handsome in face; only in attitudes and gestures. His face was undefined,
his features blurred. It was as if the dance were a sculptor who had taken hold
of him and had carved style, form, elegance out of all his movements, but left
the face unimportant.

She always felt his hand exceptionally warm
whenever he placed it on her to guide, to correct, improve or change a gesture.

When he placed his hand on her ankle she became
intensely aware of her ankle, as if he were the magician who caused the blood
to flow through it; when he placed his hand on her waist she became intensely
aware of her waist as if he were the sculptor who indented it.

When his hand gave the signal to dance then it
was not only as if he had carved the form of her body and released the course
of her blood but as if his hand had made the coordination between blood and
gestures and form, and the
lecon de danse
became a lesson in living.

So she obeyed, she danced, she was flexible and
yielding in his hands, plying her body, disciplining it, awakening it.

It became gradually apparent that she was the
favorite. She was the only one at whom he did not shout while she was dressing.
He was more elated at her progress, and less harsh about her faults.

She obeyed his hands, but he found it more
imperative than with other pupils to guide her by touch or by tender
inflections of his voice.

He gave of his own movements as if he knew her
movements would be better if he made them with her.

The dance gained in perfection, a perfection
born of an accord between their gestures; born of her submission and his

When he was tired she danced less well. When
his attention was fixed on her she danced magnificently.

The little girls of the ballet troupe, mature
in this experience, whispered and giggled: you are the favorite!

Yet not for a moment did he become for her a
man. He was the ballet master. If he ruled her body with this magnetic
rulership, a physical prestige, it was as a master of her dancing for the
purpose of the dance.

But one day after the lessons, when the little
girls from the Opera had left and there still hung in the air only an echo of
the silk, flurry, snow and patter of activities, he followed her into the
dressing room.

She had not yet taken off the voluminous skirt
of the dance, the full-blown petticoat, the tight-fitting panties, so that when
he entered the dressing room it seemed like a continuation of the dance. A
continuation of the dance when he approached her and bent one knee in gallant
salutation, and put his arms around her skirt that swelled like a huge flower.
She laid her hand on his head like a queen acknowledging his worship. He
remained on one knee while the skirt like a full-blown flower opened to allow a
kiss to be placed at the core.

A kiss enclosed in the corolla of the skirt and
hidden away, then he returned to the studio to speak with the pianist, to tell
her at what time to come the next day, and to pay her, while Djuna dressed,
covering warmth, covering her tremor, covering her fears.

He was waiting for her at the door, neat and

He said: “Why don’t you come and sit at the
cafe with me?” She followed him. Not far from there was the Place Clichy,
always animated but more so now as the site of the Fair.

The merry-go-rounds were turning swiftly. The
gypsies were reading fortunes in little booths hung with Arabian rugs.

Workmen were shooting clay pigeons and winning
cut-glass dishes for their wives.

The prostitutes were enjoying their watchful
promenades, and the men their loitering.

The ballet master was talking to her: “Djuna
(and suddenly as he said her name, she felt again where he had deposited his
tribute), I am a simple man. My parents were shoemakers in a little village
down south. I was put to work as a boy in an iron factory where I handled heavy
things and was on the way to becoming deformed by big muscles. But during my
lunch hour I danced. I wanted to be a ballet dancer, and I practiced at one of
the iron bars in front of a big furnace. And today—look!” He handed her a
cigarette case all engraved with names of famous ballet dancers. “Today,” he
said proudly, “I have been the partner of all these women. If you would come
with me, we could be happy. I am a simple man, but we could dance in all the
cities of Europe. I am no longer young but I have a lot of dancing in me still.
We could be happy…”

The merry-go-round turned and her feelings with
it, riding again the wooden horses of her childhood in the park, which was so
much like flying, riding around from city to city reaching eagerly for the
prizes, for bouquets, for clippings, for fame, flinging all of one’s secret
desires for pleasure on the outside like a red shawl, with this joyous music at
the center always, the body recovered, the body dancing. (Hadn’t she been the
woman in quest of her body once lost by a shattering blow—submerged, and now
floating again on the surface where uncrippled human beings lived in a world of
pleasure like the Fair?)

How to explain to this simple man, how to
There is something broken inside of me.
I cannot dance, live,
love as easily as others. Surely enough, if we traveled around the world, I
would break my leg somewhere. Because this inner break is invisible and
unconvincing to others, I would not rest until I had broken something for
everyone to see, to understand. How to explain to this simple man, I could
dance continuously with success, without breaking.
I am the dancer who falls
into traps of depression, breaking my heart and my body almost at every turn,
losing my tempo and my lightness, falling out of groups, out of grace, out of
perfection. There is too often something wrong. Something you cannot help me
with… Supposing we found ourselves in a strange country, in a strange hotel.
You are alone in a hotel room. Well, what of that? You can talk to the bar man,
or you can sit before your glass of beer and read the papers. Everything is
simple. But when I am alone in a hotel room something happens to me at times
which must be what happens to children when the lights are turned out. Animals
and children. But the animals howl their solitude, and children can call for
their parents and for lights. But I…

“What a long time it takes you to answer me,”
said the ballet master.

“I’m not strong enough,” said Djuna.

“That’s what I thought when I first saw you. I
thought you couldn’t take the discipline of a dancer’s life. But it isn’t so.
You look fragile and all that, but you’re healthy. I can tell healthy women by
their skin. Yours is shining and clear. No, I don’t think you have the strength
of a horse, you’re what we call ‘
une petite nature.
‘But you have energy
and guts. And we’ll take it easy on the road.”

In the middle of a piece of music the
merry-go-round suddenly stopped. Something had gone wrong with the motor! The
horses slowed down their pace. The children lost their hilarity. The boss
looked troubled, and the mechanic was called and like a doctor came with his bag.

The Fair lost its spinning frenzy.

When the music stopped, one could hear the dry
shots of the amateur hunters and the clay pigeons falling behind the cardboard

BOOK: Children of the Albatross
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