Stephanie T. Vaillant, Cataloguing and Digitization Archivist, Stratford Festival 2016-01-20 10:30:48
The boxes here are the same powder blue as the dress I wore on my last day. It had little paper flowers sewn into the hemline. I remember swirling in it backstage, the tulle fanning out below my knees. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever worn. The Pine Island Ballet Company offered us other versions—stiff, heavy things that were fireproof, but none of the girls wore them. Who wanted something so ugly when you could wear a garden of powder blue? There were seventeen fouetté turns in that scene. We had done it several times. It was our second week after previews and I knew the steps by heart. The layers of tulle billowed out farther and farther. I could feel the air rushing past my ears, drowning out all sounds of the orchestra save for the constant, heavy crash of the cymbals. My leg turned the circle seven times, eight times, and then I smelled it: a hot, thick stench, like fat near the fire. My vision blurred with a streak of light and the pain seared up my legs. The joy of dancing gave way to agony. Ethel was screaming. At least, I think it was Ethel. I couldn’t see her because of the smoke. It might have been me. The gas lamps. I found out later that I had danced too close to the gas lamps. There are shelves here full of newspapers. I hate going near them. They tell the story so differently. I’ve had time to read them all since, and I know Mr. Bader, our manager, must have refused to give the press my name, for they never mention me. They tell the story of a poor little ballerina girl who was mercifully whisked away by a stagehand so that Lady Beatrice Figg would not see a dancer burn to death on stage. That’s all they care about—that I didn’t die in front of Lady Beatrice Figg. I never liked her anyway. She didn’t even care about me. She was only there to see Ethel. It’s a good thing I liked Ethel. She was such an easy girl to hate. Of course, she’s gone now. They all are, but not me. I am forever frozen at eighteen, just as I was that last week—trapped in a void of eternal youth, forbidden to ever grow up. For many years, I danced in Ethel’s dreams, though she was doomed to change, to move on without me, to live as I never could, as if I never had. At first, I was only vaguely aware that time was passing. I would go to the rehearsal halls and sit on the benches, watching the other girls—my friends—glide across the floor and be corrected by the dance master. I never spent time in the actual theatre anymore. I was eager to avoid it: all the corners were crammed with memories, waiting to remind me of that day I’d rather forget. One by one, they stopped coming. Sometimes I would hear Ethel’s laugh, but then it turned out to be some new dancer, smiling over things Ethel wouldn’t have found funny. Sometimes I can hear her giving me advice, but it’s all in my head, or just some patron whose voice sounded like Ethel’s for the briefest of moments. Little by little, my world faded away. The rose wallpaper in the lobby and the hair of my favourite patrons turned to grey with time. But I was still there, still hoping. For many years I lingered by the picture board outside the ticket booth. They made a trading card of Ethel and me, dressed in scratchy red gowns I hated for Coppélia, but it was the only photograph of me that was ever taken. We are standing side by side in it, my head cocked slightly to the left, our arms around each other. I sat by it for years, watching the patrons walk in with shorter and shorter hair and hemlines, while new photographs of dancers slowly crowded out the wall. Then one day a woman came and took the photos down. “No,” I pleaded. “Don’t take me away. Don’t let them forget me.” She didn’t hear me, of course. They never do. But I felt somehow that this woman understood. She didn’t touch my photograph like others did—with greasy, prying fingers. She wore gloves. She handled my photo as it was meant to be handled: like my last remaining memory, my last remaining link to the world I loved. She took it to this building at the back of the theatre and I came with it. I couldn’t leave it behind. What was left for me at the theatre? Everything had changed. Even the curtain is different now—some gaudy purple thing lit to the nines by bright electric lights (I don’t mind the new lights so much). I like it better here, surrounded by the objects from my time. It is comfortable, and familiar. Someone has labelled the photograph of Ethel and me. It reads Two Ballerinas, c. 1880. They still don’t know my name. I will be forever known as the little girl who burned to death on stage, and they will never know what I look like, for they cannot connect the photograph with me. I am merely a horror story that they tell on Halloween tours. I heard the tour guide raving about it when he came in to dig up some old tales to scare the visitors. I was so angry, I shut the lights off on him. You should have seen him jump. Ethel wouldn’t have approved of that trick. I have learned so much about her since I came here. The papers say she got married and stopped dancing. But before that, she was prima ballerina. It says so in the many programmes they have stacked on the shelf, in neat little coloured rows, and they have a poster for a Life Achievement Award they gave her when she was eighty-seven (it is hard to imagine Ethel at eighty-seven). I have found other things while rifling through the boxes at night: a cushion from the theatre chairs we used to sit on backstage; Mr. Bader’s account books (nobody forgot him—his photo is labelled); letters from patrons applauding or complaining about the dances; audition sheets (I even found mine! Mr. Bader said I had potential); and a fragment of the velvet curtains I used to run my hands over before every dance. There is one box I hate more than the newspapers. I have hidden it under one of the mobile shelves. The woman with the gloves, who is called Margaret, has been driving herself mad trying to find it, but I don’t care. I don’t want her to find it. I don’t want anyone to find it. The powder blue cloth still smells of death. The celluloid skirt frame has melted into the tulle. It is not beautiful anymore. I don’t want to be remembered like that. I want them to get rid of it. I know they won’t. They don’t get rid of anything here. I didn’t understand that until today. She held a bag under one arm, and her skirt was to the floor. Her modesty put me at ease. Margaret welcomed her and led her to a table. She smiled kindly—a smile that felt familiar to me, though I couldn’t place it. I felt like I had seen it long ago, in another world. She took a seat, brushed her white bangs out of her eyes and placed the bag on the table. “You said your great-grandmother used to be a dancer, Mrs. Every?” Margaret asked. “Oh yes,” the woman replied. “One of the best. My grandmother kept everything, and my father after that. Of course, we never throw things out. It’s a habit that makes our house a bit stuffy.” She laughed. Even her laugh was familiar. “But this lot is such wonderful stuff,” Mrs. Every continued, “I thought it would be better cared for here.” She pulled a red leather book out of the bag. I gasped. It had black flowers on it. I knew those flowers. “You said your great-grandmother’s name was . . . ?” Margaret prodded. “Mrs. Ethel Williamson,” Mrs. Every replied, inclining her head with pride. “And this is her diary.” I clenched my fists as Mrs. Every opened the cover. I wanted to rush towards the book, but I knew that would be foolish. The pair of them would shiver with the cold, and then Mrs. Every might leave and everything would be ruined. The hope within my heart was threatening to drown me. “The entries start when Ethel was but twelve,” Mrs. Every explained, flipping through the pages, “training to be one of the girls in the corps de ballet at that time. See this entry here? She was such a clumsy thing offstage—writes about burning her hair off by accident with the curling papers.” “On her birthday,” I told them, though they couldn’t hear me. “That was her thirteenth birthday.” Margaret leaned over, enthralled. “Ethel Williamson . . . Was her maiden name Twill?” “No, her stage name was Twill,” I whispered, only to have the line repeated by Mrs. Every. There was an excited glint in Margaret’s eyes. She clutched a fist to her mouth and I knew she was restraining herself from grabbing the book or shouting with joy. Her elation matched mine. I, too, was unable to show it. Sudden movements on my part can frighten people. “Mrs. Every,” Margaret addressed, “I cannot tell you what an important addition this would be to our collection. Ethel Twill was one of the most celebrated dancers in the history of our company.” “Yes,” agreed Mrs. Every, beaming, “which is why the family was so reluctant to part with these things for so long. We have a few items from her sister as well. You know, if it weren’t for the accident, she would have been just as good as Ethel.” Margaret pulled back. “Her sister?” My heart was beating so fast I could feel it. It was an odd sensation, after having it sit quiet for so long. Mrs. Every smiled fondly and pulled a trading card out of the diary. It was my trading card. Not just the one with me on it, but my very own copy of it. There we were in those itchy red dresses, and there was me, standing next to Ethel, labelled in my own cramped writing: Elspeth and Ethel. Coppélia, 1882. Margaret started gushing over how they have a copy of the very same card, but I wasn’t listening. I wanted to hug Mrs. Every—this beautiful woman who was part of me, and who remembered me. I felt lighter than ever, as though I had just soared into the clouds in a weightless grand jeté. “She met a tragic end, though. Very unfortunate,” Mrs. Every sighed. My elation abated with her breath. “The family forbade anyone to talk about it. Ethel writes about it extensively.” She flipped a few pages in the diary. “Their mother went to the manager and demanded he withhold Elspeth’s name from the press. They wanted to grieve in private, you see. It’s all on the dog-eared pages, right here.” She knew the story and she told it. About the fouetté turns. About the gas lamps. About me. She showed Margaret an entry in the dairy that broke my heart: May 12 1883. Elspeth badly burned. Horrid. Praying to St. John. Later Rest in Peace Elspeth Penner, May 14 1883. I have lost my dearest friend. I shall dance for us both. I shall aspire to achieve what you have lost. I love you. I love you. I will never forget you. Margaret asked Mrs. Every questions and had her fill out papers, and then they sat and talked for hours about everything I ever held dear—about our black cat, Pine, whom we named after the theatre; about Jeff Ross, who worked as a stage hand and was dead set on marrying me, though I wouldn’t have him—and she tells me things I didn’t know; things I couldn’t know. How Ethel had three children. How she named her only daughter Elspeth. I don’t remember Mrs. Every leaving, or watching Margaret finish the paperwork and take the diary away. I sat alone until nightfall, as quiet and as still as my body had laid in that hospital bed so long ago. Ethel danced for me. And I know, because the archives has told me, that she danced to perfection. I was never forgotten. I never will be now. There is a tiny tag hanging from the diary—a silent promise that it will be kept, that my memory will always be safe. Before I leave, I enter the room with the mobile shelves, and reach beneath it for the powder blue box. Though I loathe to touch it, I leave the corner sticking out, so it will be impossible to miss. I haven’t felt peace in one hundred and forty years. The moon is bright tonight. I close the door of the archives behind me, and finally say goodnight. About SAA’s First Fiction Contest Sponsored by the Publications Board, the Archives Short Fiction Contest, which ran from August 3 through October 30, 2015, garnered thirty-four entries. Stories had to feature an archives, an archivist, or archival materials, and could be up to 3,000 words in length. Submissions went through a blind review by a jury of three archivists— Scott Cline, Caryn Radick, and Arlene Schmuland—who rated the stories based on the writing, plot, and “archivalness.” The jury was impressed by the overall caliber of the submissions. Radick said that what set apart Stephanie T. Vaillant’s winning entry, “A Silent Promise,” was that in addition to being “very well-written and moving, it gave a different perspective of archives—while demonstrating their value—both in narrative point of view and how the story unfolds.” Honorable Mentions The jury also selected two honorable mentions: “Principles of Provenance” by Laura Millar and “Coco Mío” by JoyEllen Freeman. Read Millar’s and Freeman’s stories online at http://www2.archivists.org/news/2015/winner-of-the-archives-short-fiction-contest.
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.