Flight of the Swanns

By Diane Stevens

Delia Swann turned fifty and became a dancer. Married in Boise, at seventeen, to a sheep rancher named Harry, she’d rarely danced a step. Only the odd waltz or polka as a child in the kitchen. She’d always been a clumsy girl, solid, fit for bearing children, which she did quickly and proudly.

Only the youngest child gleamed; the rest sank back into the bog of mediocrity and sheep dung. All but Genevieve, born in December with pointed toes and a singular grace that transformed the landscape. As though Boise had sprouted bird of paradise in winter.

*

Delia Swann gave up canning and sewing to drive Genevieve to ballet class, in spite of blizzards and snowdrifts clear to the roof that required Harry Swann to plow the mile long drive for Delia’s truck to pass. Genevieve sat tall and straight, her dark hair twisted into a tiny bun, the nonchalance of one born to excel. Delia could only imagine.

When Genevieve turned sixteen, her teacher encouraged her to audition for the American Ballet Theatre’s summer program.

“I’m going with her to New York,” Delia announced.

“No!” Harry shouted. “Stay home and help me with the shearing!”

Delia refused.  She was through with sheep.

When Harry came in from the barn, hungry for pot roast, barley soup and rhubarb pie, the stove remained cold as Delia’s body.  Perhaps she was through with Harry. She purchased two airline tickets and wore her best perfume but feared she smelled of sheep.

At the audition her pride was tinged with envy. Oh, to be hipless, leggy and gifted. It was too much for a prairie mother to bear. Genevieve executed twenty two fouettes in a row: those lightning bolt turns she’d been spinning since she was six.  Delia’s feet moved in unison beneath her chair, making small circles on the floor. She closed her eyes, spinning her own fouettes. One, two, three, thirty, forty, fifty. How could she ever return to sheep dung?

When Genevieve was asked to join American Ballet Theatre as the youngest dancer in the Corps de ballet, Delia found a tiny apartment for the two of them. Then one gray Monday she enrolled herself at the Dance Academy overlooking Times Square.

“I need to learn the fouette,” she announced to the lithe instructor, who flashed a weary smile.

“A fifty year-old body is a grand piano. Out of tune. You need to start slowly. First learn the five basic positions.”

The studio on the second floor allowed pedestrians on the sidewalk to peer up through the huge plate glass windows. What they saw were stiff, awkward amateurs executing graceless plies and releves. All were younger and slimmer than Delia, but none felt more passion to succeed.

Each evening, before bed, she practiced. She placed one foot on the kitchen counter, stretched out her leg, and attempted to bend her chest toward her thigh, as she’d seen Genevieve do many times, effortlessly. Oh, the pain! The infinite distance between chin and knee.

Delia persevered, even though Genevieve seemed dubious about her mother’s late foray into the arts. “It’s risky,” she said, twisting her silky dark hair around her fingers. “You could hurt yourself, Mother. Maybe you could help out with the costumes. You have a gift for sewing.”

Delia snapped. “I’m here to dance, not to hem your tutu.”  She found a job at the Capezio shop, selling ballet slippers and leotards. When no one was around she tried on the toe shoes, placing wads of cotton over her stubby toes, winding the long pink ribbons around her thick ankles.

In spite of the icy sidewalks, she walked to work, walked to class, walked everywhere. Her legs grew supple. Even her arms took on definition. She no longer ate roast beef and potatoes but shared Genevieve’s yogurt and fruit. Her waist appeared from nowhere. She had not the slightest memory of it, yet there it was, just above her broad hips where it belonged.

Still, after three months, the teacher did not mention the fouette. Delia continued to practice the impossible turns on her own. She fell and bruised her backside.

Harry called and demanded his wife return to the farm. Delia refused. “It has nothing to do with you. Perhaps when I can do a hundred fouettes without falling, I’ll return. Perhaps.”  She felt no remorse. For years she’d been finished with Harry but didn’t know till now. The world was larger than she’d imagined.

Genevieve and her father spoke on the phone in low tones. “She wants to be you!” He said. “She’s lost her senses. She’s an old woman.”

“She’s improving,” Genevieve said. “I even saw her practicing at the subway stop while she waited for the A train.  She’s no longer the worst in her class.  I find it touching.”

Her father shouted, “Pitiful, you mean! She’s too proud to give up. I know my Delia. She’s like an old ewe that refuses to go back to the barn. One day she’ll be eighty, in a nursing home, spinning about like some looney.”

Delia knew her husband and daughter whispered about her, but she knew her decision had nothing to do with craziness. She’d never be a ballerina. At first she’d imagined applause, but now it was a purer passion than fame. She wanted to be as good as she could be at the most beautiful thing she knew.

*

Harry’s calls dwindled. He’d bought a new flock of sheep and hired a cook.

“He’s replacing you, Mother.”

Delia stretched her strong arms high in the air and yawned. “Who has replaced me? The cook or the sheep?”

Genevieve laughed. “I’m glad you’re here, not there.”

“Me, too.”

*

August arrived, and Manhattan went on vacation. Delia loved having the city to herself.  Then she met Sam Wainer who owned the 50h Street Deli. Sam bragged to his friends that he’d seen the most intriguing woman in all of his years at the deli. She was shapely in her black tights but far from young. At first he thought she was a churchy type because she gave off a certain glow, as though she had a mission. The woman did strange things at the frozen food bin, bracing herself, as she kicked and did elaborate turns. Over and Over. Kick. Turn. Pause. Kick. Turn. An exercise of some type, he supposed, perhaps for arthritis.

Then one day she slipped, gripping the edge of the yogurt bin to keep from falling.  She showed no embarrassment. Just started over again. It wasn’t her strange actions that fascinated him. In all his years at the deli he’d seen plenty of odd folks come and go. No, it was something in her face. Something that put him in mind of his twin brother, Sal, long gone, who played in the minors, third base. When Sal talked baseball, his features no longer appeared identical to Sam’s own. Even the shy dimples flattened, eyes fixed on a point no one else could see. Just as the woman focused on some invisible point each time she did one of her turns.

*

Sam couldn’t stop thinking about the enchanting creature in black tights. The mysterious dancer. He imagined her name was Victoria or Isabelle or Gabriella. Something exotic and untouchable. He wouldn’t ask. She might become fearful and stop coming in. He attempted small talk, the only kind he knew anymore. “Hope you brought your umbrella. Need a lottery ticket? Bagels are still warm.”

She flashed a vague smile. He longed to hear her voice and thought about her each night as he climbed the stairs to his apartment above the deli. She wore her gray curly hair pulled back with a colorful ribbon. It was quite becoming, youthful. She hadn’t given up on life like most of the older women who came into the deli. Perhaps she was a theater person. An actress who plays some ingenue’s mother and wins awards for saying wise things in a throaty voice.

One day when she was choosing frozen yogurt, she paused and stretched her head almost down to one knee, as limber as a cat. He left his station behind the counter and approached her. “Do you mind if I ask what you’re doing?” He hadn’t meant to sound so sharp.

She sprang up. “Stretching. Am I bothering someone?”

“No. Is it for your health?” He noted her blue gray eyes were like his brother’s, flecked with life.

She laughed. “I suppose it’s for my health in a way. I’m learning the fouette.”

“You’re French?” he said.

She laughed again, even though he hadn’t meant to be funny.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Go ahead. I won’t bother you.”

“A fouette is like this.” She stretched out one leg in front, her full breasts jutting out at him. He stepped back. Then she somehow propelled herself around magically, spinning a perfect turn on one foot. She looked stunned. “I did it!”

A shout came from the front of the store “Got bagels in here or what?”

Sam hurried back to make the sale. Delia stood still, astonished. Maybe what she’d needed, all along, was a witness. Harry used to say he could only shear when Delia was around to watch. Maybe that was the all-important difference.

She invited Sam over to her apartment after work.  He brought along sesame bagels, still warm in the bag. “With lox and cream cheese and red onions,” he said.  She’d never eaten such things in Boise.

“Cold things aren’t for dinner,” Harry would say.

She and Sam drank beer out of Genevieve’s steins. Harry always said beer was for ranch hands, not women. Still, it tasted good at the end of a hot day. The briny taste went straight to the bottom of her feet.

Sam talked about his business: the threat of losing his rent-controlled space, the Yankees upset, then he asked about her.

She did not mention the sheep, poor Harry, nor her rash decision to leave Boise behind. Instead she put on Sleeping Beauty and asked Sam if he’d mind watching her dance.  She felt no hesitation, just the opposite. An impatience to move, to spin.

She swung her arms in time to the waltz tempo, dipping and sliding into an arabesque, pirouette, glissade tour jete. She loved the sound of the French words in her head.  She even forgot Sam., sitting there on the worn sofa, watching. She closed her eyes to feel the precise moment when the music caught hold and took her body wherever it chose.

Then she heard clapping and opened her eyes. Sam stood, applauding. “Bravo!” he said. “Bravo, Delia!”

“But I’m not through yet.”

He shook his head. “Come here.  Come here.” He held out both hands, tears in his eyes.

“I didn’t even attempt the fouette,” she said.

“It’s too much for me, Delia.” he said, closing his eyes. “Too much!”

She could see he meant it. She sat down beside him. He smelled of onions. They fell silent, listening to the music soar. Once he tried to speak but said nothing. Their beer turned warm, but it didn’t matter. They didn’t switch on a single light as the sun made changing patterns on the bare wood floor. The room finally gave into the dark.

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About Diane Stevens

Diane Stevens lives in California. She has published poetry, short stories and two novels.

5 Comments

  1. Gary Hacker
    Posted February 2009 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    Excellent reading. Fun story. Great author. I would love to see more of her stories.

  2. SUE KATZ
    Posted February 2009 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    A GRANDE JETE! I KNOW HOW SHE FEELS…..

  3. Rosemary Ryan
    Posted February 2009 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for your wonderful story .. I’ve been smiling for days!

    Rosemary Ryan
    Portland, Oregon

  4. Posted February 2009 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    ahhhh the passion!

  5. Paul Oratofsky
    Posted March 2009 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Delightful. Tender, warm, with a tucked away passion that still bubbles up to the surface. The story almost unfolds more by what’s not said than by what is.

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