Pas de Deux
A Christmas Story Inspired By The Ballets Of Tchaikovsky
Your godfather only came into your life every few years. He always brought with him gifts from around the world, little worlds on their own. You remembered how on your eleventh birthday he brought you marzipan from Germany, alpaca wool mittens from South America, and sesame snaps from China. He had not come to visit since, although you'd heard of him throughout the years.
He'd made the emperor of Japan disappear for ten minutes. Your godfather turned sawdust into wooden planks in America. But, most famously, your godfather mended your feet.
You were born on the night before Christmas Eve. Snowdrifts reached the eaves and your father had spent most of the day shoveling the door while your mother cried out. Her labor had begun in the early hours of the morning, but neither the doctor nor you had arrived by evening.
The doctor arrived after dark and Herr Drosselmeyer appeared just before ten o'clock. Herr Drosselmeyer rarely attended births in the village, but your mother, despite her sweaty brow and exhaustion, cried out when she saw the man.
Herr Drosselmeyer rarely attended births in the village. His abilities were better suited for other matters. Yet, occasionally, a child was born that summoned the magician. Most believed that destiny controlled the man, a truly divine being on Earth. If you asked Drosselmeyer, he would say that he knew all along where he would end up, but there was always a glint in his eye that told otherwise. The man's excitement and surprise astounded even himself.
"I feel your child will dance," your future godfather said. "One of the best dancers in the land. I have no idea why such a thing should concern me." He stood in the corner of the room, his height caused the crown of his head to nearly touch the ceiling.
You were born about a half hour after Herr Drosselmeyer's arrival. Your parents relaxed as you began crying nearly immediately. Their fears that the magician's appearance meant your death or eternal ill health ceased.
"A girl," the doctor said. He cleaned you off and he brought the rag down to your feet and paused. "Herr Drosselmeyer, I believe I understand why this child requires your presence."
Your parents, the doctor, and the magician gathered around you. You already had sprigs of thick hair that stood up on your head and your eyes were wide as if you were trying to memorize the four faces in front of your own.
Your mother gasped when she saw your feet. They curled in on themselves and each toe was crooked at a different angle. You didn't seem to notice. No pain crossed your features as the doctor felt your bone structure.
"The child will certainly never walk," the doctor said. "She's lacking many bones of the foot and I suspect her muscles would never fully develop this way."
Your parents looked to the magician who looked down at you with the same interest he would study characters of an unfamiliar language. His hands replaced the doctor's, except that he placed his palm flat against your heel, the only part of your foot that appeared intact.
"Your observations were astute," he said to the doctor. "But, this child will dance one day, not just walk."
For the first two years of your life, you're told that Herr Drosselmeyer visited you every week. He would place his palms against your heel and close his eyes. You never cried at his touch. Most of the time you simply looked up at him with wide, clear eyes.
For the first few months, he would place his hand against your tiny, slow-growing foot. No magic appeared to take place, but he told your parents he was gaining an understanding of how your bones worked. How they curled in on each other and formed intricate spirals. They were as fragile as a horse's leg, a break of one bone would mean losing all the others.
When you were five months old, it was the middle of spring and you always smiled at Herr Drosselmeyer's appearance. It was most likely because of the chorus of violins that played from the music box he'd gifted you on your first Christmas when you were just two days old. It played music whenever he arrived.
At that visit, what looked like thick, red liquid passed from Drosselmeyer's hands and wrapped around your fragile foot. There were no visible changes until you were one year old when the arch of your foot became visible. You had unusually high arches with the peak of your arch not touching the ground if you laid it flat on the ground.
As expected, you did not start walking at the usual time. You tried, your formed heels and arches allowed you to stand, but your curled toes and balls sent you toppling over whenever you tried to take your first step. Whenever this happened, your mother would rush towards you and make you promise to never try again, yet, you always did.
Just before your second birthday, your parents took you to see the orchestra. As the music started, you sat forward in your chair, your feet kicking outwards. The horns and the flutes and the harp hypnotized you. You hardly realized when your arms swung above your head and you landed on your heels in front of your seat.
Your mother reached for you, but something stopped her as she noticed the natural way you found balance on your heels like a flamingo in water. Surely, balancing on the back of your feet was not the standard form or practice, but there was grace as you brought your left foot up above your shoulder. If you'd had toes, they would've been at a perfect point.
Herr Drosselmeyer came a few days later on your second birthday. As usual, he laid his hands against your arch and heel, the red colored magic encompassing your foot. This time the ball of your foot formed, only your toes remained at odd, crooked angles.
After his treatment, he presented you with the first present you remember receiving. He'd wrapped it in a petite box and it was wrapped in a silk cloth. You opened the box and unwrapped the cloth to reveal a wooden nutcracker.
The nutcracker was about a foot tall. He wore a green colored uniform and black tufts of hair stuck out from beneath his soldier's cap. You looked at his wooden skin and blue eyes, not having the vocabulary to explain how beautiful you thought he was. That night, your mother placed him on your vanity and he stood guard over your bed for the years to come.
Amory's hands touched your waist as he lifted you higher than you could jump during the first lift of the pas de deux. The move was simple. Amory holding your waist and lifting you as you lifted your legs in a flowing motion You'd completed it plenty of times with other dancers. Yet, every time his hands brushed your waist, you landed hard on the heel of your foot, occasionally feeling your knee knock, threatening dislocation.
"Damn it, Clarissa," Amory said, "if we can't do this, how are we going to dance at all." He ran his hand through his hair. "You need to get a hold of yourself. Focus on the landing."
You scoffed. "I am! You're holding me too tightly!" To prove him wrong, you performed the move on your own, leaping in the air with your legs out in front of you. You landed on your right foot and performed a pirouette only to show that it couldn't possibly be you.
"Your shoes don't even fit right," he said, gesturing down to your ill-fitting pointe shoes. "That's probably causing all of this."
You stayed silent, knowing that he brought up a solid point. Every night you soaked your bruised, raw feet in warm water and soothing salts, sometimes falling asleep in the chair. Pointe shoes needed to fit well, if not for the quality of the dance than to spare the dancer's feet. Every ballerina knew the perils of aching feet and blisters, but non-fitting pointe shoes only made them worse.
"I'm working on it," you said, sitting down beside him and doing some stretches. "You know it's not exactly easy finding shoes that fit."
While your godfather mended your feet by the time you turned four and could begin ballet, pointe shoes never fit completely right. Sometimes, when you pushed yourself too far during practice, you'd see your toes curl inward and you'd feel panic rise in your chest until you were able to extend them on your own.
Amory didn't say anything more, but you suspected he didn't quite believe you. All of your fellow dancers knew of Herr Drosselmeyer and how he had fixed your feet. Some believed that he was the one who was responsible for your talent, your grace. That when he mended your feet he'd somehow infused an inherent gift for ballet.
You weren't sure where Amory stood on the rumors. While you were certain that he held some resentment for you, he'd never contested you gaining the lead opposite him in Swan Lake.
"Let's start from the beginning," you said. "We have to get the pas de deux right." You stood up and took the beginning stance, waiting for Amory to join you. This was the moment that the audience realized that Prince Seigfried is being deceived when Odile is introduced, when the true reality of the story begins to unfold. What starts as a love story becomes a tragedy.
He stood across the room from you and the music started. You bounded towards each other as the choreography dictated. Everything went smoothly as you approached the first lift. Amory's hands came to your waist and the move was completed. Yet, you still came down a bit too hard on your feet. While you should vary the technique to play the black swan, hinting to the audience the difference in character. Even so, your technique should still be good. You should still appear graceful and lithe like a swan, not coming down too hard on your feet.
"Fuck," you said, leaning down to massage your feet through your slippers. You tied them tighter and adjusted the fit. "Let's go again."
The music started and you ran towards each other again. The familiar feel of Amory's hands on your waist and the gentle grip as he lifted you in the air. You landed softer this time, albeit not with complete grace.
"Opening night is in two days, Clarissa."
"You don't think I know that?" You sighed and unfurled your hair from its tight bun. "This is the most important dance of the entire ballet. I understand the stakes, Amory."
Ballet was about pushing your body to its limits. Feeling like your entire body would snap back like a rubber band, your vision going fuzzy because you felt dizzy from turning so many times, your knees constantly bruised. You were going to get this right, get over whatever was causing you not to land a simple lift. You tied your hair back up, tighter this time, and glanced over to Amory.
"Let's practice the other lifts," you said. "We need to make sure we have them all." He nodded as the two of you took your places on opposite sides of the room. You still landed a little shaky on the first lift, but it was getting better. The two subsequent lifts were simpler and you and Amory completed them without issue.
Yet, the rest of the lifts were more complicated. As you danced on your own while Amory rounded the room, you dreaded the next one, the one where he lifts you high with his arms completely extended. You needed to have enough force on your jump or else Amory's arms would wobble. While you required his arms to stabilize you, you were responsible for a majority of the lift.
You leaped into the air with Amory's hands on your waist, feeling his grip tighten as you reached the peak of your jump and extended your leg outward. As the descent started, you began to shake and Amory's fingers loosened, sending you tumbling down on top of him.
His chest rose against yours as he huffed and grabbed onto your shoulders and rolled you off of him. Amory sat up and rested his weight against his palms. "You can't be serious," he said. "I don't think you're ready for this. We'll have to bring in the understudy."
You sat up and met his eyes. "No," you said. "I'll get it. Maybe I just need to eat something." Your limbs were still shaking and you had practiced all day, not remembering when you last ate.
"I do believe I can be of assistance then," a voice said. Your eyes lit up as you stood up and ran over to your godfather who stood at the edge of the studio as if he had suddenly materialized in the space without knowing himself.
He carried a bag on his shoulder like he always did and he let it slip off his shoulder as you hugged him. Your godfather always felt a little magical, like touching him would transport you to another world.
"I thought you weren't coming until tomorrow," you said, thinking of the pre-debut/ birthday party you were holding for all the dancers.
"I felt the urge to come a bit early." Herr Drosselmeyer reached into his bag and pulled out a parfait topped with fruits you'd never seen before. "I know it's not my normal treats, but I know you need to eat well before the debut performance."
You nodded and took the lid off the parfait before you felt a gaze on your back. "Oh, Herr Drosselmeyer, this is my partner for the production, Amory Schwarz."
He approached and your godfather held out his hand. Amory reached for it hesitantly and shook it. You could see the way Amory raked his eyes over the other man, having only heard of his myths and never seen the man.
"You two look tired. I won't keep you too long as I'm sure you still have a lot of practicing to do."
"Yes," Amory said. "We do."
You caught the glass shards in his voice and knew Herr Drosselmeyer did as well. His eyebrow arched in curiosity and his fingers twitched.
"I'll take my leave then. I will see you at your birthday party tomorrow and I look forward to the show." Your godfather left with the wind, you and Amory blinked as he faded from your view.
You momentarily forgot about your dance partner as you once again grew used to the nearly empty dance studio. Drosselmeyer could make the dustiest rooms turn into fantastical wonderlands.
"Clarissa? Are you ready to start again?"
You looked back and met Amory’s surprisingly soft eyes. He never normally looked at you like that and it made a spark run down your spine.
"Your guests will be here soon. Are you sure you want to do this now?" your mother asked, pouring the salts and herbs into hot water.
"I have to," you said. "I don't think I'll walk otherwise." Slowly, you lowered your feet into the tub and relaxed as the water stung your red, raw toes.
"Will you be okay for the performance tomorrow?"
"Of course," you said. "And, if I'm not, I'll figure it out. Maybe Herr Drosselmeyer can help."
Part of you didn't want to use Drosselmeyer's magic to ease your pain, only giving into the rumors that he was the only reason for your success.
Your mother nodded. "I'll come get you when everyone's here." She left the room with her frown lines becoming permanently etched in her forehead.
When the door shut, your shoulders relaxed and you allowed yourself to enjoy the pleasant hum of the salts and herbs on your muscles. Your eyes wandered to your vanity which held all of your jewels and trinkets for the performance. White feather hair clips for the white swan and a black diadem with a large diamond that dripped onto your forehead when you became the black swan. Eventually, on the opposite end of the vanity sat your wooden nutcracker.
He turned slightly towards you. He still looked the same as when Herr Drosselmeyer had first given him to you. The green uniform was still the color of evergreen trees in winter and his dark hair hadn't fallen out, even when you'd attempted to brush it when you were five.
"Nutcracker," you said. "Will you bring me good luck?"
As always, the nutcracker didn't respond, but something about the juxtaposition of his rigid stance and soft eyes always made you feel at ease. You failed to notice the small difference. The painted ring around the black pupil was no longer the vibrant blue, but the same shade of brown as the vanity itself.
"I don't know why I can't get the lifts," you said. "Maybe I am a fraud. Maybe I'm only good at this because of Drosselmeyer's magic." Your head came to rest in your hands. "It's too late to give up the part, Nutcracker. What am I going to do?"
The nutcracker watched as you fell asleep with your feet submerged and your head having fallen to rest on your pillow. Inside the tub, your toes curled backward and your heel shifted positions before going back to normal. You seemed to feel no pain as your slumber continued. That, or you were simply used to it.
"Clarissa," your mother said. "Your guests have arrived."
You shot up, not realizing you had fallen asleep. Taking your feet out of the water you attempted to stand up, immediately falling onto the wood floor.
"Clarissa!" Your mother's hands were on your shoulders and pulling you back up. "You know you can't stand right out of the tub." She helped you sit back on your bed as your feet throbbed back to life. Carefully, you slipped your feet into your clunky boots, which you wore when outside of your ballet slippers. They were heavy but provided you the extra support to maintain your feet for the performance.
By the time you got down the stairs, you'd gained control and no one could tell you'd been so unsteady on your feet. Your friends, fellow dancers, and family each wished you a happy birthday and good luck on the performance. Hors d'oeuvres were passed around: chocolate-covered strawberries, peanut brittle, and frothy, fruit drinks. You couldn't stomach any of them.
"Have you seen Amory?" someone asked. You shook your head, realizing you hadn't seen your partner. While the two of you had practiced into the early hours of the morning and he'd seemed somewhat frustrated with you, you hadn't expected him to miss the party. Your brow furrowed in curiosity.
Before you could wonder further, all the room's eyes turned to the doorway as music played. You recognized the familiar sound of violins indicating Drosselmeyer's arrival. You smiled.
The crowd gasped as two life-size dolls walked through the door. They were dressed in the costumes you and Amory would wear during the pas de deux. You watched as they performed the dance that you and Amory could not, executing the lifts without issue.
Halfway through the doll that represented you, disappeared down the hall, just as you would dance backstage. When the doll re-emerged, the costume had shifted from Odile's black, to Odette's white. The partygoers oohed and ahhed, all taken with the two dolls. Your brow furrowed again.
The festivities ended and the exhaustion settled into your limbs. Climbing the stairs to your room, a chill came over you. You sighed, opening the door to your room.
Inside, your things lay ransacked. Clothes strewn around the room, your bed covers lay on the floor, necklaces broken with their pearls spread out across the room. Everything on your vanity was missing, except for the nutcracker. The little soldier had fallen on his side and you grabbed his hat and gently stood him back up.
"Attack!" A shout rang out with the nutcracker still in your grasp. You fell backward, the nutcracker tumbling with you.
When you opened your eyes, you were sprawled on the wood of your bedroom floor. But it was not your bedroom that surrounded you. Tall pine trees erupted from the ground beneath your back and snow seeped through the cloth of your dress. You shuddered as the cold reached your skin, causing you to sit up.
Your back hit the snow.
You turned to see Amory standing above you, a sword at his hip and wearing a soldier's uniform. The uniform was a little big. The sleeves ended just below the wrist and the coat dwarfed his hips, even the hat lay lopsided.
It was then you saw the brightly colored gumdrop come towards you. It landed with a loud bang a few yards away, snow and pine needles flying into the area. The ground shook beneath you and you spotted all the soldiers in the distance. Gingerbread men?
"Clarissa?" Amory's voice was hushed as if the two of you were hidden. "Are you okay?"
"Yes," you said. "Where are we?"
"I don't know."
The gingerbread soldiers drew closer and you spotted another army in the distance. This one was made of rats who stood on two legs. At the back of their convoy, the king sat on a palanquin, looking as if he were sailing on a sea of his soldiers.
Swords clashed. You stood up, ready to run. Only to tumble back down into the snow. You knew your feet were failing you and tears pricked at the corners of your eyes.
"Amory, I can't run."
His dark eyes met yours and it was then you recognized them. They were the eyes of the nutcracker from the night before, looking at you and begging you to notice.
"It's okay," he said, drawing the sword from his belt. He held it awkwardly in his hand and his palm barely wrapped around the girth of the hilt. "It's just like dancing."
A rock sat in your stomach as you watched your dance partner stand in front of you with the tip of the sword pointed diagonally towards the snow.
Before any words of protest could come out of your mouth, the fight began. Amory's sword clashed with a gingerbread soldier's. Another soldier approached you and you kicked at him, knocking it to the ground. Using the strength you had, you brought your feet down on the cookie's chest, breaking it in half.
With your attacker no longer a threat, you turned to find Amory still clashing swords with the gingerbread soldier. The cookie had taken a few hits, frosting leaking from his wounds. Amory's sword swung and sliced off the soldier's right arm. The candy sword falling into the snow, turning it a faint pink. With one final swipe, the soldier crumbled.
Hope swelled in your heart at his first success. You shuffled your legs, trying to stand up. You couldn't feel your feet, as if they were frozen.
Just past Amory, the rat soldiers battled the gingerbread men. The rats devoured the soldiers until they were crumbs in the snow. At first, you believe the rats would provide a reprieve. They decimated the gingerbread soldiers with ease.
Your hopes were dashed as one of the rats swung at Amory, cutting through the fabric of his shirt. His shoulder was stained a deep red. You noticed the small golden crown sitting on the rat's head. The Rat King.
"Amory!" You tried your best to stand, making it to your feet for a few seconds before falling over again. This time you landed on your stomach and you crawled towards the battlefield. While your feet certainly hurt often and caused you to fall, you'd never experienced this.
What did the Rat King want with Amory? The two of you suddenly thrust into the fight. Although, at the call of his name, Amory looked back at you, causing the rat to slice at him again. The slice hit his chest this time, more blood seeping through the deep green uniform. He fell to his knees and the rat raised his sword above his ears.
"No!" You twisted to sit straight in the snow and you unlaced your boot as quickly as you could. Your fingers were stiff and wet, but you managed to untie the lace of your right boot and fling it at the Rat King.
The heavy leather boot hit the King's head, knocking off his crown. It took a few moments, but the Rat King fell back in the snow. Red stained the snow around him, but his whiskers still twitched.
Amory--despite his injured form--took the opportunity and picked up the sword and brought it down swiftly. The Rat King was dead.
The rest of the rats retreated after their king was killed. While the feeling in your feet hadn't returned, you shuffled on your knees to Amory. He'd collapsed on his back and his chest rose and fell quickly.
"Hey," you said. "Steady your breaths. Come on, like you do when you dance. Count." You started counting and following the beat as you examined the cuts. The one on his shoulder was mostly superficial and the bleeding was already slowing. Blood still flowed from the one across his chest and you pulled up his shirt to see it was much deeper than it looked.
You bit your lip, not sure where to start. While you were in a pine forest covered with snow, your bedroom was still beneath you. If it was still in its ransacked state, you knew you could easily find something to stop the bleeding. Digging through the snow, your hand eventually landed on fabric and you pulled it up.
It was the white swan costume. While the outside was covered in beading and feathers, the inside was soft silk. You turned it inside out and held it firmly against your lap, ready to rip the fabric when Amory's hand grabbed your wrist.
"No," he said, his voice labored and sweat sticking to the ends of his hair. "You need that for tomorrow."
"Amory, I need you for tomorrow."
You winced as you heard a ripping sound. You'd managed to remove half the lining. Pressing it down on Amory's wound, it immediately became soaked.
"Clarissa," he said. "I'm sorry."
You paused, meeting his eyes.
"For not believing you."
You shook your head. "Forget it, Amory," you said. "You're going to die if I don't stop the bleeding."
"I don't even think this is real. One minute I'm going to bed and the next I'm your nutcracker. And, then I'm battling gingerbread men and mice. Clarissa, do you think it's him?"
He didn't need to clarify for you to know who he meant. Herr Drosselmeyer. While you hadn't had time to stop and think about how you ended up here, the only explanation was magic. And when there was magic in your life, it always traced back to your godfather.
"I don't know."
The fabric was saturated now and blood covered your hands. Tears pricked at the corners of your eyes, knowing there was nothing more you could do. Even if he didn't say anything, Amory faded fast. His eyelids drooped and sweat mixed with blood.
"Amory, you can't leave me like this," you said. "We're going to debut tomorrow. We're going to get all the lifts right. We'll get a standing ovation. They'll pick up our production for a world tour. You can't die. Amory, please."
"Clarissa, stop." He placed his hands over your own. "It's okay. Everything will be okay. You're going to do great tomorrow." His breaths slowed and yours picked up.
"No, no, Amory. I can't let this happen."
"Shhh." His hand came to your cheek. "It's like the end of the show. Just don't jump in after me, okay?"
His eyes closed. His breathing stopped. And the feeling and your feet came back.
"What is this, child?"
You lifted your head. You'd stayed on your knees by Amory's side, your head resting on his chest. Tear tracks stained your face and your eyes red. A woman stood above you. Her bright red hair contrasted with the purple ball gown she wore.
"What happened, my sweet?"
"The gingerbread soldiers and the rat king and I couldn't run--"
The woman smiled. "You have no reason to cry. Valiant death is always rewarded." She crouched down beside you and Amory. She held out something and you soon noticed it was a small, round plum. "Split it between the two of you."
The woman disappeared when you blinked, much like how Drosselmeyer was prone to do. You looked down at the small fruit and bit into it. The purple juice ran down your chin and it tasted sweeter than any other plum.
Swallowing, you place the other half in Amory's mouth. You weren't sure how it was supposed to work, but after his mouth closed around the fruit. The world spun.
The snow swirled around you and you held onto Amory's shoulders to keep from feeling dizzy. Somehow, you'd ended up on your feet, with the feeling of nothing solid between them. You closed your eyes and felt Amory's hands grip your waist.
The world turned from pine trees and snow to the more familiar setting of a dance studio. It wasn't your usual studio though. The floors were perfectly waxed and there were no dents from when Amory dropped you.
"Amory?" you asked, feeling his grip tighten around you.
Your feet touched down on the floor. It felt odd and you looked down to see black ballet slippers tied around your ankles. You were perfectly dressed as the black swan and you noticed that Amory was in his matching outfit for the pas de deux.
"Dance for me," the woman's voice sounded. The music from the ballet played, no orchestra in sight.
You and Amory exchanged a glance before taking your places and beginning the dance. Hesitance bubbled in your stomach as you ran for the lift, feeling Amory's hands take hold of you immediately. This time he did not let you drop, nor did you lose your focus or form.
When he placed your feet back on the ground, you threw your arms around him. He reciprocated and the music without a source stopped. No more voices sounded, no more soldiers came out of the woodwork, Amory no longer felt rigid.
Your feet lifted off the ground as the world shifted again. Amory's lips connected with yours at the same moment. You weren't sure if the dizziness you felt was from the spinning or the kiss as he pulled away and your feet once again touched solid ground.
You cradled a bouquet of roses in your arm as you came off stage. You couldn't stop smiling, even as the cold air rushed in from where families entered to greet the dancers.
Amory wasn't far behind you and you soon felt his touch on your lower back. His touch had become so familiar now, nearly as much as your own.
"You did well out there," he said. "I don't think you missed a step."
"I think you made the audience cry at the end. Everyone believed you sacrificed yourself for a trick, for love."
Amory's lips perked up at the ends. "It wouldn't be the first time."
"You'd jump into a lake for me? Even if it meant dying?"