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The Dance of Zalongo

The mirror showed a reflection that wasn't my own...

By GPublished about a year ago 21 min read
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The mirror showed a reflection that wasn’t my own.

I stared at Amma, eager eyed and desperate, waited for her to understand. But she merely cowered, blood draining from her face. “What did you say, Irene,” she demanded shakily, cowering like a hollow boned bird, “say that again.”

I couldn’t help but grin, imagine her counting calories, running furiously down the Seine, slipping into our shared bathroom late at night, thinking we couldn’t hear her. Running water and coughing that kept the twins up, made their eyes puffy for their shoots the next day. How callous and cruel they had been to each other. To me. Circling me yellow eyed and starving, poised with hard won cunning.

——

“So you’re the new girl,” Carmen had chided, more a critique than observation.

“Yes,” I offered, “I was just signed.”

“Who’s representing you?”

“Jean-Luc, I think. I haven’t gone in yet. Not in person.”

Cristina scoffed. Carmen’s perfect twin, save an enlarged beauty mark beneath her right eye that she had a habit of covering with her hand when she spoke. “Good luck with him. He represented the last girl too, drove her mad.”

“I hear he’s handsy is all...” Amma added.

They continued to stare at me blankly, as if waiting for some reaction I had missed in my stage direction. But I could muster little more than an empty gaze and nod back as I turned to examine the room. It was really more of a closet, used to hang the constant influx of models the agency turned through until they were worn enough to be donated and discarded.

“That’s your bed,” Carmen informed me, breaking the silence. She gestured to a top bunk, balancing so precariously over its pair I was certain it would collapse in my sleep.

“How they ensure we make weight,” Cristina joked.

“And you should see Jean-Luc as soon as possible,” Carmen continued, “rent’s expensive, you

need work.”

——

I prepared my bed solemnly for my first night, as one may dress a beloved pet’s grave site. I pulled the ratty sheets my mom had sent me with across the stained mattress. Despite being for

my childhood bed, they fit perfectly. I remembered when my mom had put them away. Insisting I was growing too fast for my own good. That soon I would outgrow the whole of our little, highway side home and she would run out of food to feed me with. I had laughed at it then, proud to stretch out in spite of myself. Proud to tower above the other girls in the storefront ballet class my mom enrolled me in a town over. Proud to look over the boys’ heads from the back row of school pictures, grinning wide and toothless.

By the head of the bed hung a foggy mirror with a chip in the side. Each girl had one. A reminder of why we were here. What we had to do to stay. Somehow, the bed didn’t seem so bad from the mirror. The whole room had a way of blurring together, losing its edges and the rotting smell that seemed to come from a different wall each time you turned your head. Even I looked different somehow. Less like that girl in my old yearbooks. I could feel myself descending and shrinking, looking up at the ballet bar, pitching my feet at odd angles trying to reach it. Something like a chill ran through me. A menacing cool that was almost familiar, but brought with it something more sinister. Something of damp dirt and the space beneath waves crushing a ship. Something final, inevitable and dark.

What do you know about the dance of zalongo? It breathed.

I shot away from the mirror. “Did you guys hear that?”

“Hear what,” moaned Carmen, “I only hear your bed creaking.” They’re all here for you.

“That!” I insisted.

“What? I still only hear you,” Cristina joined.

“Nothing, then, I guess,” I muttered.

“Then can you try to sleep quietly,” Amma whined from just below me.

“Yeah, yeah. Sorry.”

I rolled over, pulling my sheets in around me, and tried to make myself small and warm, as if I were waking up from a nightmare at the foot of my mom’s bed.

——

“Don’t worry,” Jean-Luc assured me in perfectly unaccented English, “The first few month is on us. We’ll just take it out of your paychecks once you start working.”

“And when do you think I’ll be able to start sending money home?” I asked.

“Oh no time at all,” he promised, “a girl like you, you’ll get booked fast. Don’t worry.”

I released a breath I didn’t know I had been holding, but quickly caught it again when I felt his hand slide down my back.

“We just need to get you some digitales and we can send you off to castings. And we should get you in some French lessons. Do you know French?”

I shook my head. He rubbed the small of my back reassuringly.

“Not to worry. We’ll fix that. We have a great school you can go to. Lot’s of girls your age, au pairs and what not.”

“Great,” I smiled, trying not to flinch away from his damp, icey touch. “Now... What are your measurements again?”

He slid his hand away and pulled a notebook and pen from his pocket. “34, 24, 34,” I answered.

“In centimeters?”

“Oh, sorry. 86, 60, 86.”

He eyed me up and down, twisted his pen between his clammy fingers.

“Alright. Let’s see if we can’t get that down, okay? Nathalie here will help you with those digitals.”

Nathalie slithered to his side, materializing somehow from the slim corners of the office’s stark interior. She neither returned my smile or flinched at Jean-Luc’s touch. Just stood there looking drugged out, waterboarded, and chic. Then, like absinthe dripping from wet lips:

“Should we go then?”

——

The room Nathalie took me to was somehow even more blank and sterile than the reception area. The only item of note was a pure white sheet hanging from the wall opposite the door and a tripod gazing at it somberly.

“Okay,” Nathalie instructed, “take down your hair.”

I did as I was told, running my fingers through it a few times for good measure. She studied me thoughtfully then walked over and ruffled the hair gently with her hands, undoing my dutiful efforts.

“There,” she said, “now take off your clothes.”

Nervously I peeled off each cotton blend layer, leaving it to the floor, and self consciously crossed my arms over my chest. She seemed to grin despite herself for just a moment as her eyes traced down my body to my day of the week underwear.

“It’s not even Wednesday,” she scoffed, wrinkling her nose.

“I know,” I answered sheepishly, dropping my eyes to the floor, “I left Tuesday at home.” She rolled her eyes. “Just turn them inside out then I guess. At least they match your bra.”

I turned around and did as I was told, adopting a shameful hunchback through the process. Nathalie’s attention had turned to the tripod, where she was securing a bulky camera with an oversized lens that shot back and forth as she fiddled with it.

“Okay,” she called, “I’m ready. Just go stand right there.”

Again, I obeyed without question, my silhouette creeping over the sheet, staining it. Nathalie sighed again, rolled her eyes, and went to adjust the extensive lighting around the camera. I merely stood, twisting my bear foot into the ground, feeling a great measure of guilt to have brought such an unruly shadow.

Finally, it obediently shrunk down, and I was standing alone again, between the too-white-wall and the unflinching gaze of the too-large-lense. Nathalie grimaced at the image on the camera and looked up at me in disgust.

“Do you have any makeup on,” she asked, “concealer?” “No,” I answered, “they told me to come natural.”

Another sigh. “I think you’re about my shade.” She reached into her blazer’s pocket and pulled out a small beige tube and a cigarette. She lit it callously and slunk over to dab the tacky cream beneath my eyes. “Do you want one?” She asked, breathing excess smoke over my face.

“No thanks,” I responded, suppressing a cough, “I don’t smoke.”

She laughed, taking another drag and moving back behind the camera. “How old are you anyway?” She said with a click.

“Fifteen,” I answered, straightening my back, trying to determine whether I was meant to look at her or the lens.

She laughed, still snapping away. “Good, you still have a few years on you. The last girl started way too late.”

“The last girl?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” she answered. “She was doomed from the start. Pretty thing, but starting at 20... I mean you can get a good year or two tops. Not everyone can be a success story like me,” she laughed, gesturing down her beautiful body, decaying by 27. Her cigarette still swung from her teeth. The camera kept flashing.

“What was the last girl’s name?” I wondered.

“Oh... Mathilde or something like that. Margaux? At least that’s what she said. I mean this girl was certainly not French.”

Flash.

“What happened to her? She went home?”

“You could say that... I mean her body did, sure thing. As for her her. I guess that depends on what you believe.”

“You mean she died.”

Flash.

“Yeah... it was terrible really. Freak thing. Fell outta window.” Flash.

“How’d she fall?”

“Who’s to say? Guess she liked to party. Lotta the girls do.” Flash.

Between the smoke and the lights, everything had started to become rather foggy. I was scared I was going to be sick. Nathalie shifted her gaze from the camera to me: “Hey are you alright?” Her eyes seemed different somehow in the light. I started to feel I could slip right through her.

“Yeah, I’m alright,” I breathed, “so that girl. She was really pretty?”

“Oh yeah,” Nathalie answered, “she was so thin. I guess it made up for her age... and she had these eyes. They were like... like...”

“Glass?” I offered.

“Yeah! Like glass. How did you know?”

I shrugged. Dug my feet into the ground. Tried to keep my gaze straight.

Nathalie didn’t notice anyways. She had returned her attention to the camera and was examining some photo in disgust. “God this concealer is barely working,” she complained as she crept up to smudge more under my eyes, “have you been sleeping at all?”

——

Even with the one barred apartment window open, it was impossible to let any of the evening’s stale air in. The week’s humidity had risen from the cement below, through all four stories of our walk up, and settled in amongst the bubbling wallpaper and mildew that coated our room. I twisted and thrashed and let the bed creek, tangled in my suffocating sheets.

“Irene-” Carmen called.

“Sorry,” I interrupted, anticipating her chagrin at my bed’s groaning, “I’ll try to be more still.” “No,” she continued, “I was just wondering if you want some ice.”

I looked down, and there she was, her willowy figure hardly an inch below me, holding a styrofoam cup filled to the brim with ice. I had forgotten how much I had missed it in the city that scoffed at its request.

“Sure,” I conceded, and took a piece from the cup.

The girls sat on the floor in a claustrophobic coven’s triangle, passing the cup between them. Cristina rubbed the cubes lavishly around her lips before sucking on them, letting them melt slowly into her mouth. Amma simply bit them, tentatively at first, then harder as they softened, letting them fracture into sharp, impatient pieces. Carmen waited, letting her sister take her time with her selection, before taking whichever one she discarded and licking at it with uncharacteristic shyness.

“Where did you get these?” I asked.

“Russian guy on the third floor,” Carmen answered. “He keeps raw meat in his apartment. It stinks but he keeps it in a cooler.”

“And he pulls it from the top,” Cristina added, “so it shouldn’t have any blood on it or anything.”

I examined what was left of mine. It did seem perfectly clean. Glassy even.

“No calories,” Amma agreed, nodding vigorously, “the blood will make you fat.”

Everyone paused and I wasn’t sure whether it was in surprise at Amma or to count the calories they had been chancing themselves. Frankly, I wasn’t even entirely sure which I was doing.

“Well thanks,” I offered.

“No problem,” Cristina answered, “you have your first casting tomorrow, right?”

“Yeah, Jean-Luc hasn’t told me who with. Just gave me an address.”

They all nodded in solemn agreement.

“Just be early and have your headshots,” Cristina advised.

“And your heels,” joined Carmen.

“It’s too bad no one can sleep in this heat,” Cristina ruminated, “not that anyone sleeps much before their first casting anyway.”

——

The address Jean-Luc had given me was an hour and half away by train. All the heat I thought had risen seemed to have sunk down overnight, filling the subway with a steamy congestion, heavy with the smell of cigarette smoke and piss. I clutched my pictures and shoes close to my chest, trying desperately not to sway into one of my nearby neighbors each time the train jerked. I had been steadily muttering a sting of “pardon”, “excusez moi”, “désolée”, for about 45 minutes by the time my stop was finally announced. I continued my apologetic monologue at a stage whisper as I pushed my way through the sliding doors and sprinted up the stairs to the avenue bustling with ambitiously stylish tourists and the French eyeing them up and down. It was the closest I had come to the city center since my arrival, bustling and full of charm. Even the exhaust from chimneys seemed water colored. Everyone was dripping in convenience with nowhere to be.

The mystique continued into the mock baroque office, boasting a disinterred receptionist that bore a striking resemblance to the one from the agency.

“Hello,” I started, “I’m Irene, I’m here for the casting.”

As she glanced up at me, I startled, and her own look of irritation dissolved as if she had been struck. Clear eyes searched me.

“You’re late,” she informed me. “You have five minutes to fix yourself up, then you will go in. The toilets are there,” she said, pointing to the left, “and they are in there.”

I nodded, thanked her, and made my way to the bathroom. Desperately, I rinsed my face, hoping to find some sense at the bottom of the sink bowl, but when I pulled my head back, it was as if it had been from the catacombs or a long unattended sewer. I wasn’t sure how long it had been since I saw such a clear reflection of myself, not a smudge on it, and the revelation cast its own chill through me. My hair had become oily with sweat, my pores gaping and suffocated, and my face, even after its rinse, was beaming an unnatural red. Frantically, I attempted to disguise my disarray in tap water and the foundation I had borrowed from the twins, that was a shade too dark, but Cristina swore covered even her beauty mark.

Telling myself I had done all I could, I pushed my way through the swinging door, and slid with what I hoped took on some semblance of confidence into the casting room, throwing the receptionist a quick, faux assured smile, she returned with, what could only be read, as a look of pity. Sad to see an animal to the slaughter, but glad to live off the meat.

The room was cool and blank, damp earth and purgatorial anonymity. Across from the door sat three equally indistinguishable people, staring at me with expectant clear eyes.

Don’t run. They’re here for you.

They’re gazes remained unflinching, and I was certain their mouths hadn’t moved. Despite my shivering and the feel of cold sweat running down my back, I forced myself to plaster on a smile and make my way over. To hand them my photos and say cooly:

“Hi, I’m Irene. I’m here for the casting.”

“You’re late,” cooed the hydra’s left head.

“I know,” I drawled back, “I’m sorry. Problem with the train.” “You’re our last girl,” sang the right head.

I nodded dreamily. I could feel the chill taking me under, the ship crashing above me, dirt pouring in.

“We would like to finish with you so we can move on,” slurred the center.

“Yes,” I purred, “I would like that too.”

“So, please, get undressed and show us your walk.”

It was as if a pebble, or piece of driftwood, had found its way through the roughage and pierced my neck

It’s almost over, the chill promised

“Okay,” I grimaced, as I made my way to the back of the room, slipping out of my clothes and into my heels. I turned back to the beast anxiously, placed one foot somewhere in front of the other, and wobbled towards them. I got as close as I dared and hesitated awkwardly before turning and making my way back. When I turned to face them once more their glass eyes stayed fixed and unimpressed.

“Were you a dancer?” the left asked, after a beat, in a thick French accent I hadn’t noticed before.

“Ballet when I was little,” I said, holding my arms awkwardly behind my back. “Mm, yes, I can tell.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. It’s your posture.”

He rose, black silks falling around an impossibly tall Nosferatu, and made his way over to me.

“May I?” he asked, placing one hand lightly on the small of my back and reaching with the other. I nodded. He pushed in on my core, “It’s here, you hold your spine as only a dancer would. You don’t dance at all still?”

Dance for me.

I tensed into him, “what?”

“I asked if you were not still a dancer?” “Oh, no”

“Well may I advise you to recommence its study,” he said, pushing me into myself, “Paris expects a smaller waist than yours I’m afraid.” I felt the pressure release as he made his way back to the other heads and his abandoned neck, pulling my arms in around where his had been instinctively. “Not to mention it is a lovely pursuit, a true art,” he continued, turning back to face me. “Thank you, we have seen all we need. You may go.”

Hurriedly I gathered my things, not even bothering to put my clothes back on, rushing for the door before remembering to turn and say, “thank you for your time.”

“How did it go?” Jean-Luc asked.

“Fine, I think.”

——

He cast me a pitying smile. “Are you sure? Did they say anything?”

I thought for a moment, dance for me, “No, nothing really.”

Jean-Luc sighed, “Well, they haven’t said anything to me yet either. I’ll call this afternoon, confirm their casting choice, but I’m afraid it doesn’t look like it was you, my dear.”

“Okay, are there any other castings coming up? I’m sure I’ll be, you know, better prepared for the next one.”

“Unfortunately, this time of year, all the castings are for fashion week. I’m not sure you’re ready for that quite yet.”

“I understand, I just... I do need to start sending money home soon. I mean, as soon as possible at least.”

“Hmm... Well I can’t say that will be possible at this point honey. You see, you haven’t even made your rent this month. I can’t imagine where we could find the money to send home. Maybe if you cut into your food budget?”

I felt what was left of my stomach plunge into itself.

“Have you started your French lessons yet?” Jean-Luc wondered.

“No, Monday.”

“Excellent! There is a great little gym right by the school. Have my secretary give you the name.”

I shuddered at the thought; her eyes had only crystallized further since my last being here. Looking at them upon walking in, I was almost nauseous with the certainty I was gonna tumble through. Get stuck thrashing around in some glittery whirlpool.

“Will do,” I smiled.

“Good,” Jean-Luc cooed, “and listen, Irene. Don’t run yourself so ragged. I’m sorry about the casting. I know adjusting is hard, it just takes time.”

There’s no time.

“Jean-Luc,” I started with a chill.

“Yes?”

“Was there a girl before me? A... Mathilde? Or a Margaux?”

“No? I don’t think so? Of course, many girls come through here... but I can’t remember one by those names-“

“A girl who fell out a window,” I interrupted, frustrated.

He flinched, taken aback, and for a moment, I swear I saw a shard of glass flicker in his eye, but he quickly regained his composure.

“Yes, there was a girl. Marie.”

Marie.

I forced my way through the chill, like sliding through a damp silk robe. “What happened to her?”

“Well... she, like you I suppose...struggled. She was older though, had more to lose. And, I imagine, she just couldn’t handle it. It happens sometimes, tragic as it is.”

“So, you’re saying she jumped?”

Again, maybe at my bluntness as much as the question itself, Jean-Luc flinched. “I’m not saying that, exactly. Of course not. No one can know exactly what happened to her. I do remember, though, her being quite sure on her feet. Very graceful. A bit like you in that way as well, I suppose.”

There it was again, that chill, this time cutting to the bone in thin, scalpel slices, refusing to leave.

“Not to worry,” Jean-Luc assured me. “Her death was a tragedy, to be sure, but a rare one.” He placed his hand around mine. “Just take care of yourself,” he laughed, “it’s good for business.”

——

Amma and the twins were huddled over in a great whisper when I got home, as if they were drawing battle plans. Between them sat a stack of identical headshots they cycled through dutifully, one by one.

“How did it go?” Carmen asked, not lifting her eyes from their tedious work.

“Fine, I guess,” I mumbled, still delirious.

“Yeah? So you got it!”

“Oh, no,” I clarified, looking up to watch their envy dissolve. “Do you know a Marie?” I asked. Something of a startle ran through the girls, I swear I even saw Cristina shiver.

“What do you know about Marie?” Amma asked.

“Jean-Luc mentioned her,” I explained, “so you do know her?”

The girls looked between each other, searching for some hidden answer to my malicious riddle.

“Yes... we knew her,” Carmen began, eyes still fixed on her sister.

“But she’s gone now,” Carmen continued, definitively.

“We don’t speak about her anymore,” Amma added, “It’s bad luck to speak on the dead.”

“I hear it was quite a death,” I prodded.

“Not really,” scoffed Cristina. Carmen cast her a cutting glance, but she continued, “I just mean, she fell from her bed all the time. It’s not like she was known for her... stability.”

“Her bed?” I began, “You mean my bed?”

Carmen scowled at her sister. “Yes,” she growled, “your bed now, but it really has nothing to do with you. I mean you’re nothing alike. She was...off.” She turned to offer me a smile, gaping and glittery, that seemed to curl all the way up past her eyes.

—---

The weeks started to melt together in deliriously hot wax. I dragged myself to the French lessons with the nuns and au pairs. The instructor, who smelled like the back of a cheese shop and smiled at us each time we walked in, as someone welcomes dejected party guests to the patio. I went to the gym, with the fitness tapes that ran on a loop downstairs and the section of pink equipment made for “ladies’ hands”. All the while, I watched my roommates as they dashed between castings, blistered and starved, frantically shuffling headshots and resumes, coming home each day damp and defeated. One by one, however, each secured shows and the ensuing beauty treatments and after parties. And I skipped my classes, to stay in the room, listen to the affairs of the street below, and stare into my mirror.

Occasionally, in the heat of the long, dreary afternoons, I would catch a glimpse of something sharp and glittering in the back of my eye. But the moment I tried to pull it into focus, it was gone. Shattering and slipping away. I would pull my eyelids wider than they should allow, pull until I was sure the eye would simply roll out and permit a proper search and dissection. My roommates would come home to me rolling my eye around helplessly and ask, with something between pity and fear, if I was looking for a fleck of mascara or stray hair. They urged me, pled almost, to join them at their parties or for a run. Promised me what good getting outside would do me.

But I had come to shrink at the sun. It made everything so bright and unflinching, there were little eyes everywhere. In a ray hitting a window or an elderly woman’s hair. In the occasional glint of grass caught between morning dew and afternoon breeze. And of course, in every passerby, who I couldn’t help but stare at despite their cool, at times disgusted, looks in return. Even my phone screen had become too bright and I realized I had amassed many missed calls from home, detailing the many bills I was meant to help pay, followed by messages from Jean-Luc explaining my increasing debt to him and how “living is not free”.

“He’ll be there tonight,” Cristina coaxed, “It will be good for you to get your face out there.”

I began to shake my head, but Carmen jumped in, “she’s right. You’ll never get work just sitting in here.”

I pulled my eyes from the mirror, looked around the room. So much debt for mildew and lead paint. “Ok, fine,” I conceded.

—---

The night hadn’t seemed so threatening at first. Luckily, the stars were impossible to see through the city smog, so I could avoid the little eyes so long as I didn’t watch the Eiffel Tower glitter. It actually became a welcome respite, as the out of town models, designers, and minor celebrities gathered in awe to pose for photos and each other. More than once it pulled a promoter's hand off my leg and around the arms of some anonymous girl with small nations of

devotees in her pocket. They all looked so lovely, with their sparkling dresses and slicked hair, and so close to slipping lightly over the balcony’s side.

I felt someone slide in next to me and looked up to see Jean-Luc. “Some party isn’t it?” he asked.

“Sure,” I answered, imagining him falling with them.

“It’s good they got you out. You’re not doing anybody any good tied up in that tiny room.

I nodded.

“Not that it’s much better in here,” he continued, loosening his tie and undoing his top button, “want to get away for a minute?”

I wasn’t sure if it was the champagne flute full of winking eyes or the small white pill Amma had encouraged me to accompany it with, but without noticing I had found my way into Jean-Luc’s room, filled with ornate mirrors-

“Inspired by Versailles,” he was explaining, “I always stay at this hotel for fashion week. Even living here full time, it's good to be part of the action, you know? The events and things.”

I barely grunted in response, captivated by the infinite reflections watching us. I was sure I caught a transparent gaze in one, as Jean-Luc placed his hand at my back.

What do you know about the dance of Zalongo?

“What?” he asked, startled.

The dance of Zalongo, something echoed as I moved to the reflection. Focusing on the eyes, crystal and finally unchanging, I could have sworn I caught my mouth move.

They’re all here for you.

“Why would you ask about that?” he demanded.

I slipped my shoe off, relieved to release my pinched foot, and took it to the mirror, hacking away until I released a single satisfactory splinter.

It’s almost over.

I smiled. His eyes were clear now. Like untouched water, so still I could slip through without a trace. Without even a ripple.

“What are you doing?” he continued, his voice rising.

He was so lovely standing there, so infinite around me. Light and clear as church as a child.

Dance for me.

I ran at him, hacking away, as he twisted in a poor waltz step. I wrapped all the way around him, watching glass shatter and wine spill.

There’s no time.

I was worrying about the stain when he threw me off, ran out of the room clutching his eyes... “She’s crazy!” he yelled as Amma pushed in the door after him.

“We’ve been looking for you-” she began, falling silent at the sight in front of her. “What happened?” she asked, “did he hurt you?” She swayed gently, fixed to the door. As if she wanted to run to me but was scared I would attack like some wounded animal

The mirror showed a reflection that wasn’t my own, I grinned reassuringly.

But she wasn’t understanding. I could see in her sweet, warm brown eyes, she would never understand. So I decided to show her. I twisted around, flailing upward, watching my reflections join me a beat behind. I turned, kicked and finally I lept.

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