Stella’s Last Dance
by Meghann McVey
part 1 of 2
“I will take the part!” Stella Esposito’s eyes shone like embers about to leap into flame. Amazed cries filled the foyer of the Romagio Theater, but silenced as Damiano Romagio, the impresario, raised his hands.
“Marvelous! God Himself could not have appointed a better fire dancer,” the impresario declared.
“Is there no feat you will not attempt?” Marina Santiago whispered. Her large brown eyes widened in half-worshipping awe.
Of any in the Romagio Theater, Stella was easily the most suited for the role of fire dancer. Crowned with curls the hue of flame and imbued with fierce courage, Stella had joined a year ago. In that time, she proved her unrivalled skill in feats of acrobatics, dancing, and impeccable timing. Stella’s myriad roles had one thing in common and one thing alone: danger.
Many actors protested Stella’s undertaking all the risky parts because of her youth and because she was a girl. But they could not stop the impresario or the passionate young performer. Those who did not understand Stella considered her a reckless fool.
Marina, however, knew that Stella underwent the dangers for the sake of her beloved audience. Although Stella was flamboyant and charming, she was often unapproachable, residing in a rapture born of her own inspiration. Marina and she had been together, even as infants, one cooing, the other squawking. Through Marina, the others in the theater were able to connect with Stella.
Marina herself was too grounded to be a very convincing actress. However, when she followed Stella from Milan to Monte di Ton, she found a special role of her own: big sister to everyone in the Romagio Theater. From the youngest servant boy, to the impresario, grizzled veteran of countless shows, no one could help but love Marina. With eyes of softest golden-brown, her voice like a dove’s, and inherent kindness, Marina was the darling of the theater.
The Monte di Ton clergy would have done well to emulate her gentle ways. According to them, the Plague of Milan had migrated here by the will of a vengeful God. They prescribed devotions, confessions, donations, and seeking redemption through suffering.
Stella, as a member of the theater, believed that the people were better aided by utterly distracting them from their problems. The Romagio Theater sought to remind its audience how to smile again, to show that somber, ephemeral life could be funny, even enjoyable. And, as Stella’s dangerous dances exemplified, life could be marvelous.
The day she was anointed fire dancer, Stella practiced long after the others went home. Even Marina, who was usually her shadow, bringing her trays of pastries, water, and anything she asked for, left for the home she shared with Stella and her cousins.
This night, Stella did not yet dance with fire. Instead, two wooden sticks served as the torches she would carry. When she finished the dance, she bowed to the empty chairs in the auditorium. Scarcely had the glamour of her practice worn off did Stella realize the lateness of the hour.
The clergy of Monte di Ton were correct in one aspect of their haughty assessment of the plague. Sinful people, from rapists to murderers, infested Monte di Ton. Before the Plague of Milan, there had been fewer brigands, but even then, a woman walking in the dark was in danger. Now desperation made many otherwise virtuous men turn to evil. And superstition held that in these dark times, Death itself wandered the streets in the guise of an old woman offering blood red carnations to those who would soon perish.
Stella searched the theater for almost an hour and shouted her voice hoarse, but no one remained. Though she had done so before, Stella had no plans for sleeping here tonight. The empty seats, and silence, a dust that would outlast eternity, awoke her thoughts to what could happen if the Romagio Theater failed and the people of Monte di Ton lost heart.
I will think of it no longer, Stella vowed. There must be a way that I can get home, even through harm.
Then the idea came to her. Stella hurried back to the costume room and took a cloak the hue of captured midnight from the rack. I am an actress, Stella thought. It is in my power to appear to be anything.
Her next stop was the dressing room adjacent to the costume closets. Here, the surfaces of mirrors hanging on the walls alternated between radiance and shadow in the light of her candle. Face paints and brushes littered the many tables. Half in the shadows, Stella masked her vibrant skin with sallow white. She painted saggy folds under her eyes and added shadows beneath her cheekbones to make them appear sunken. With her face thus made up in the likeness of Death, Stella wrapped the cloak around her.
Watching herself in the mirror, however, Stella realized it would not be enough. Desperate men would know a healthy traveler, even one who wore the hated hue of decay and secrecy. And so, Stella adopted a hobbling gait, eyeing herself critically in the mirror. The only problem would arise if they chanced to see her lovely tresses. But Stella had no intention of taking off the cowl. Still, there was something missing.
Stella wandered back to the stage, then used the door behind the curtain. In this room, the impresario stored smaller props like tiaras, pillows, and lightweight tables. She sifted through the junk for several minutes before she found what she wanted: silk carnations in blood red.
Before the mirrors, Stella practiced a hiss and a swift lunge; it would be useful if someone came too close. Her ferocious appearance made her stomach jump, and her heart knocked a little harder against her ribs. But the adrenaline would help make this a flawless performance.
As Stella stood in the doorway, at the threshold of the plague-sullied, chill night, she hesitated. Then, blood roaring like the full power of the symphony in her ears, she ventured into the darkness.
The road stretched like a black river into the hills. Stella recognized the silence as the sound of men in wait. Sometimes, even when several actors, men and women, walked together at night, they still were assaulted. Stella recalled one night she had walked home with Tranio. The man who attacked them had died laughing.
Then Stella noticed the shuffle of her gait. It set her teeth on edge. Her cousins’ house in the hills seemed leagues away. She hoped her unease did not show.
At one still, dark house a man sat coughing in the doorway. As Stella approached, he looked up with eyes glassy from fever. Fear as ancient as instinct brought him focus, and he retreated into his tomb-like abode. She passed many other houses and a handful of people, beggars and citizens. None bothered her.
As Stella began the slow climb up the hill, she thought she glimpsed someone following her. It was difficult to be certain because the cowl obscured her vision on both sides.
In her cousins’ courtyard, Stella edged between the bone-pale columns, cold and smooth beneath her fingers. A light burned in the front windows. Curious, Stella drew closer. When she could see who sat in the light, her breath caught in her throat.
“Marina,” she whispered.
Despite the hour, the fair woman sat in a chair. Even with her lips like parted rosebuds in sleep, the trailing blush of dawn on her cheeks, Marina had not dropped the tray of panelle and wine she had stayed up all night to deliver.
Guilt struck Stella like the chord in a deep-chested clock. Forgetting her costume, she took the tray from Marina and gently shook her awake.
The instant Marina’s eyelids fluttered open, she gasped. Her attempts to scramble away knocked her candle to the marble floor. There, the light exploded out of being. Even in the dark, Stella could make out the frantic heaving of her friend’s shoulders, her mouth forming one syllable over and over. “No, no!”
“Marina, it’s me,” Stella said. In her clumsy haste, she let the tray fall. Her hands went to Marina’s cheeks. The shock of finding them wet stung her. Then Stella remembered her ghastly appearance. “Look! It is only paint and a costume that I borrowed from the theater.” When Stella released her hair from the cowl, Marina threw herself into Stella’s arms, weeping.
“Stella, why?” she moaned.
“I had to practice,” Stella said.
“But, so late...”
“The part commands it.”
“I woke for you at midnight. I thought surely you would come home and be hungry.”
Stella ached with shame and could say nothing.
“What time is it now?” Marina said at last.
Stella sighed. Only now had Marina begun to emerge from sleep and fright. She wished she did not have to say these next words. “Nearly dawn.”
“Could you not have remained in the theater for a few hours more? Your dressing room has all you need.”
Stella shook her head. Some fears ran too deep to share, even with best friends.
“Then...why this monstrous disguise?”
“There was no one to bring me home. I sought to protect myself as best as I could.”
“It was cunning of you.” Now, in her friend’s voice, Stella heard Marina’s attempts to smile. “Had you encountered the flower lady, herself, you might have driven her from Monte di Ton with surprise. But after tonight, promise me-“ Marina’s voice trembled, the nearest Stella had ever heard it to cracking. “You will never do this again.” Then Marina took Stella in her arms, an embrace that trembled even as it comforted.
Her head against Marina’s shoulder, Stella almost nodded ‘yes.’ “No. I cannot make you this promise.”
Marina stiffened as though the words had struck part of her dead.
“You have not forgotten how we watch each week for letters from Milan, to hear how family we love fare in these plague-stricken days. Despite the anger and fear we caused when we left, they are still dear to us, and we to them. Every letter brings me hope that we will see one another again and laugh, that all will be forgiven. The people of Monte di Ton need that hope, too.”
Marina stood. “You speak of others. But what would I do if something happened to you?”
Stella had no answer.
“You can practice in the morning, can’t you?” Worry creased Marina’s normally smooth forehead. “When there are people to protect you?”
“How are we to convince anyone that life is worth living, that it means something to defy death, if we cannot even stand up to our own fears?” Stella demanded so loudly that her voice echoed off the columns.
Marina shook her head. Her eyes were like panes of glass, darkened with disbelief. Then she left. Stella needed to hear nothing, see nothing, to know Marina wept as though she were already dead.
For a long time, Stella remained kneeling by the pool of spilled wine.
The next day, Stella told her story in the theater foyer. She embellished each telling, so at the end, she sprang at her audience, rasping “Will you take a flower before you die?” and pretended to hold out a carnation.
The actors’ reactions to her grotesquery differed far from the normal responses to her feats. The men and women who did not know her pretended they had not heard her and whispered prayers with terse faces. Stella’s friends, on the other hand, spoke of superstition and ill tidings, and begged her never to do it again. Even Marina put her hand on Stella’s thin arm and looked at her imploringly.
At this point, the impresario, harried and baggy-eyed, scurried down the stairs. “Stella, Stella,” he said, raising his hands to soothe her. “My starlet, you must understand the way things are now. Frightened men outnumber the courageous. Both kinds face death each day and have enough experience to know what they will lose if they perish. They lack your reckless courage, young one, and you must not agitate their superstitions!”
The impresario wrung his hands together. “I cannot stop you from practicing. This theater is open to its performers at all hours. But I beg you, Stella. Repent of your wild stunt last night, and confine your future ones to the stage. That is the place to dazzle others. Everyone knows there is no one to face gravity, shadow, and flame but you. You are the champion for us all! But the flower lady is one whom no man or woman can fight.”
Stella knew it was useless to explain that when she had danced in the deserted theater, inspiration had burned like fever through her blood, and her body had soared as though lifted by the invisible hands of angels. And only Marina would understand that Stella sought to encourage the people against the plague with her every breath, not just when she performed. So although Stella did not contradict the impresario aloud, she knew she would follow her heart’s command.
Copyright © 2009 by Meghann McVey