I’m teaching earthworms how to dance ballet when the Grand Duke comes to steal me from Petrograd.
Earthworms are slow learners, but we speak the same slippery languages. I’m instructing them on how to pas de deux when stone scrapes on stone and the lid lifts off my new home. The Grand Duke’s long eyelashes and thin lips appear above me—thin lips I last saw telling me I couldn’t dance Swan Lake, saying he preferred to see his dancer in a comic ballet like Coppélia.
He scoops me out of my crushed velvet, clasps me against his chest as though I am a religious icon he has searched for his whole life. The brass buttons on his uniform stab into my ribs.
Then he spirits me through the Petrograd streets to Finland Station. I cringe at the touch of fragile summer light on parts of my body that have never before felt the sun. He installs me in his private train car and I watch the pearly sky over Lake Lagoda as the train steams west.
“Where, precisely, are you taking me?” I say. “I was starting an earthworm dance company. I was settling into my new home. I don’t want to be your dancer anymore, Sergei. I want . . . ”
His eyelashes brush his cheeks as he blinks at me, studying my femurs and the spread of my scapula.
And I realize he can’t hear me, because I no longer speak French or Russian, and he has yet to learn my language.
Although he rarely heard me even when I still spoke the languages of the living.
I didn’t always dance for the Grand Duke. Ballet was once my own, the burning light in my chest when I was a girl living among the smokestacks and tenements on the northern edge of Petrograd. In those years, I danced through dirty snow, pirouetting over pigeon-bones and practicing first through fifth position. I imagined I was twirling on the stage of Marinsky Theatre, that pastel-green puff of a building on the bank of a canal only a few miles away, but in another, glittering world.
After I graduated from academy on scholarship and stepped onto the theatre’s stage for the first time, I discovered nothing could make me happier than leaping across a resin-covered floor through hot lights.
But when I drew my last breath in the sanitarium, I found the dead no longer have the urge to dance, that as ropy muscle disintegrates and leaves only bone, we are quite content to lie in the quiet earth and instruct earthworms in the art of pas de deux.
That is my only desire now, to return to that hushed world, and as our train snakes west away from Petrograd, I resolve: I will take a different path this time. I won’t let the Grand Duke own me again.
I will find a way to tell him: return to your world and let me return to mine.
In late July we arrive in London, city of brick tenements and prim parks. The Grand Duke drags me to a townhouse that stands across a lane from a cemetery of yew trees and cracked headstones and small white flowers. In the house, a medium presides over a gold and silver Ouija board.
The Grand Duke lays me on a chaise-lounge and begins to pace the Oriental carpet.
“I want her back,” he says. “I’ll pay you any sum to resurrect her.”
“My lord, I am but a medium. I can speak to the lady, perhaps, but—”
“She wasn’t a lady. She was my dancer.” He clenches his tapered fingers around my footbone. “She died this winter while I was on a tour of the Orient. You can imagine how Petrograd winters are. But I need her back. I can’t have seen her dance for the last time.”
The medium croons, pats the Grand Duke’s hand, then closes her eyes and chants, her silver moon-studded planchette hovering over the Ouija board.
I do not know if this medium is a fraud or if she can truly communicate with the dead, but I must try. I lift from my skeleton, peeling myself off my ribs and sternum and femurs, and I curl around the planchette.
“Tell him to leave me alone.” Dragging the planchette from letter to raised gilded letter is excruciating. As I move I feel as though pieces of myself are flaking off, like dried skin peeling from the feet of a ballet dancer. “Tell him I don’t want to dance for him anymore. I’m dead now. He must let me go.”
“She says she misses you and loves you.” The medium smiles around the lie.
I shake the planchette as quickly and furiously as I can, but the Grand Duke’s face spreads in fragile hope and his fingers clench tighter around my footbone. “You’re speaking to her? Truly?”
“She longs to pirouette across the stage for you,” the medium intones.
I slam the planchette on the word no and the board vibrates beneath the medium’s hands. A teacup on the table rattles off its saucer and thunks onto the carpet.
“I do not want to pirouette across the stage for him, ever again,” I shout, as the medium smiles nervously at the spilled tea staining the carpet.
“So she’s here, she’s still here.” The Grand Duke paces the stuffy parlor, stepping over the teacup as though it doesn’t exist. “I wondered, you see, because spiritualism is so very new, but now I know . . . scientific advances all over the continent. I’ll have her back yet. I will.” The Grand Duke kisses the medium’s hands, drops a sheaf of pounds onto her Ouija board, and that night he drags me to a ship bound for Stockholm.
I loved the Grand Duke, once. After I caught his eye during my first season dancing at Marinsky Theatre, he paid for my suite on Nevskii Prospekt, for my gowns and gilded fans and ballet shoes in gold and mauve and turquoise. He kissed me backstage over an armload of white roses, and yes, he spent those short summer nights in my suite, until the sun paled the eastern horizon and he would slip from my bed, squeezing my callused foot before he left.
That first summer, I waited eagerly for the roses, for the feel of his hand on my foot, but then winter descended on the city and by the next summer I no longer wanted to plié or brisé for him as he leaned forward in his gilded box at the theatre.
We quarreled, but he never listened. Before he was posted to the Orient—he was an officer, and duty called—he told my ballet master to cast me only in comic French operas, nothing Russian, nothing dark.
He didn’t care that I wanted to dance Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky, to choreograph a ballet, to dance for the faceless crowds and for the beating of my own heart.
Just as he doesn’t care that I want to stay dead with my earthworms.
In a brick building near the shipbuilders’ mansions lining Stockholm Harbor, men of science buzz around telescopes and test tubes. Three men strap me into a brass machine, blue electricity thrumming between two glass orbs at its apex.
“It’s the finest, the newest technology,” the machine’s inventor says through his whiskers. “It will animate her again. She’ll be dancing for you in no time.”
“No, I won’t,” I shout, but of course none of them hear or understand. I have no faith in these smug scientists and their brass-and-electric machine that they claim can reunite soul and skeleton. The machine looks like a lifesized child’s toy, and the scientists have named an exorbitant price.
They tighten the leather straps around my carpal bones and tibias. I avoid the Grand Duke’s gaze and concentrate on the window, where a cadre of hot air balloons, the color of circuses, drifts over the harbor.
The inventor snaps the lever. The machine whirs and electricity hums along the brass bars flanking me.
The Grand Duke drums his fingers.
And then my bones tingle as though millions of hatpins prick me, as though I still have pores and skin. A wave courses through my chest and my phalanges straighten and bend. My toes rake the air.
The Grand Duke shouts my name. The itch of desired movement flares in my thighs and shoulderblades: the heady desire to plié and brisé, to raise my arms en haut and flex my calves.
For the first time since my last breath, I want to be a ballet dancer again, to bloody my feet on a resin-covered stage.
The whirring fades, the electricity retreats and the scientists unstrap me. I fall forward, but my knees bend, and I extend my arms to catch myself.
He catches me before I hit the ground. The inventor and the scientists murmur and nod, and the Grand Duke searches my face.
“Why are you doing this?” I say.
I expect the words to come out in one of the many dialects of the dead. I don’t expect them to come out in the thick vowels of Russian.
The Grand Duke leans back, still clenching me. “You’re here.” He presses his thin lips against my cheekbone.
“I died, Sergei, and you’re still . . . “ My feet itch against the floor. I want to run, to dance, to fly away from him.
“You’ve returned, you’re back. It worked.” He embraces me again, and I shove him.
“I’m dead. I’m not your dancer anymore.” Dead is a slippery language and the round Russian words chafe oddly in my mouth. “Why won’t you let me return to my crypt? I was teaching the earthworms . . . I had a dance company there, which is more than you would . . . “
But I know, with all my twitching bones, that I can’t return to my crypt, that now that I’ve remembered what it is to dance Tchaikovsky, I can’t lie still anymore.
“What is this nonsense?” the Grand Duke says.
“Sometimes they awake confused, sir. I’m sure it will wear off.” The inventor polishes his monocle.
“Can you restore her flesh to her?”
“I’m afraid not, sir, we haven’t yet—”
The Grand Duke sighs and drums his fingers. “I suppose there are other ways, another place I heard of from some influential courtiers . . . I had hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but . . . ”
“Why can’t you just let me go?”
The Grand Duke ignores me. He pays the scientists and grips my shoulders and drags me outside.
“I don’t want to be your dancer anymore,” I howl at him, and he shouts back at me to stop being a child, an echo of hundreds of quarrels we had about choreography and Coppélia on our short summer nights in Petrograd.
The Grand Duke tells me we’re going to Munich, where I’ll get my body back, and then home, where I can pirouette across the stage for him as I always did.
As he leads me up the gangplank onto the ship to Copenhagen, I wonder: should I give in, become his dancer again, take up residence in my suite and accept his white roses and jewels?
But no. I can escape him, and I can find a way to become a ballerina again, on my own terms.
He leaves me on the rose-patterned cushions of an upper deck chair when he goes to tend to our luggage. I stand and run my fingerbones along the cherrywood deck rail, watching the balloons drift over the harbor.
What if I leapt overboard, disturbed minnows and shipwrecks as I swam through the harbor, then emerged on dry land, stole dyes from the textile factories I can see from the ship’s deck? I could dye my bones red and yellow, blue and chartreuse, then leap into a hot air balloon and rise above the harbor, floating far, far away from the Grand Duke, off to another life where I could slip my feet into satin shoes and twirl across a stage, ribbons trailing from my ankles?
The deck is empty behind me. The ship idles in the harbor.
I wrap my hands around the railing, slip one foot between its bars.
“There you are.” The Grand Duke emerges from a glassed-in patio. “Whatever are you doing?”
“I—” I keep my back to him, watching the hot air balloons. “I told you. I don’t want to be your dancer anymore.”
I smell his pipe-smoke, and feel his breath on my neck. He whirls me around, takes my hand in his tapered fingers and kisses it.
“I do apologize for our quarrel earlier,” he says. “You simply must become reaccustomed to life, darling. When we return to Petrograd, you’ll remember, you’ll remember what we had.”
Even though I speak Russian again, he still doesn’t know my language.
He herds me onto a cherrywood staircase leading below deck just as the ship’s whistle bellows. I cast one long look back at the hot air balloons, floating free above the harbor.
He’s clenching my hand, and I know escape will be difficult. But not impossible. I will become a dancer again, but not the Grand Duke’s.
In the church in Munich, all incense and shadows, he leads me up the aisle to a cowled line of monks. They stand before a set of footprints in the stone.
“I understand you are interested in resurrection,” one of the monks says.
“I heard at the Russian court that this church was founded by a man who struck a deal with, ah, with someone with dark powers,” the Grand Duke says, touching his moustache.
“With the devil,” the monk says.
“Well, yes, and they say . . . they told me if you stand a skeleton in the footprints, the devil will build the bones back up, restore flesh and skin to them, the way he built this church.”
The monks are silent.
The Grand Duke drums his fingers on my wrist, twists his thin lips. He’s a man of pocketwatches and train schedules, not a man who strikes deals with the devil in smoky churches.
But he nods curtly at the monks.
They scoop me up and set me down on the footprints. My feet wobble in the indentations.
The monks chant, and wave their censers. I sway in the footprints as the church hisses cold breath onto me, colder even than the moment I died, and I open my eyes and the Grand Duke and the monks are dulled by the light of the devil before me.
He’s white, so luminescent I can’t discern his features. He wears an icicle crown and I think feathers might limn his arms.
He extends his long fingers towards my heart.
“No,” I say, in Russian. The devil pauses, white light trailing from his fingertips.
The Grand Duke shouts my name, but I face the devil.
“My name is Marina,” I say, “and I want you to take me with you to the Underworld. I don’t want my body back. I’m not the Grand Duke’s dancer.”
I feel, not see, that the devil smiles. The fog from his fingertips snakes out, curls around my fingerbones, my wrists.
“Sergei, please forget me. Go back to your world, the world of the living.”
The Grand Duke is shouting, but I close my eyes and let the devil take me.
The Underworld is an endless network of caverns, blue caves filled with honey, with stacks of Marseille cards, with hunched skeletons whose white bones reflect the blue lights dancing overhead.
“You are a dancer, you say?” the devil asks as we hurry through these caverns. He speaks in a strange dialect of the dead, with a stilted accent I’ve never heard before.
“I was prima ballerina of . . . ”
I trail off as we step into the largest cavern I’ve seen yet, a space whose ceiling reaches into infinity, where rows of granite-and-velvet ottomans stretch to a raised stone platform hemmed in by leathery curtains. Skeletons on their hands and knees polish the floor with live birds that shriek and howl as their feathers smush on stone, and other skeletons bend over the leathery curtains with curved bone needles, inspecting a hem.
The cavern is even larger than Marinsky Theater.
“Here is where we conduct our folk reels and our fire dances,” the devil says, flicking his feather-lined tongue. “You will play a role in the folk reel company, and if your dancing proves compelling, perhaps we will place you in one of the fire dances.”
“But . . . Perhaps I could teach some of the others ballet, and we could—”
“No.” The devil’s white light pulses around his icicle crown. “You will dance in the folk reels, which we hold every third night when the wolfsbane blooms. Other nights you will be one of my chambermaids. Now come with me, and Leonora will instruct you in your duties.”
The devil turns his back on the theatre, strides towards the passage to the other caverns.
I did not journey to the Underworld to become the devil’s dancer.
I lunge towards him, grinding my teeth as his white light floods against my bones, then reach my fingerbones up, up, standing on my tiptoes to snatch his icicle-crown from his head.
I stumble backwards from the weight of the crown, but I stay on my feet. The skeletons behind me gasp and one of them shouts, “A coup, another coup after only a century,” and the devil shrieks. His feathers molt from his arms and tongue and fall like snow, and he shrinks away from me, smaller, timid.
I balance the crown on my head and it clamps against my cranium. Then I turn to the hushed skeletons in the hall. One by one, they fall to bended knee and bow their skulls.
“I am the Queen of the Underworld,” I announce. “And I’m going to start a dance company.”
I spend weeks training my dancers, instructing them on the arabesque and the battement. It’s more difficult than I expected to teach my pupils how to land properly on metatarsals and talus-bones, how to hold the femur and humerus so as to evoke the elegance of swans. The Underworld has seen countless kings and queens, my pupils tell me, and none of them have ever attempted to start a dance company here.
But I am determined to stage Tchaikovsky in the Underworld’s theatre, and so we practice for long hours behind the rawhide curtain, until my skeletons are as graceful as my former colleagues in the Ballet Russes.
On opening night, I stand in the wings wearing blue tulle and my icicle crown, watching my company of skeletons move in perfect harmony across the stage. The orchestra swells and I pas de chat from the wings. My rawhide ballet shoes squeak over powdered bone as I turn, slowly, arms spread above my skull. Blue lights play over the enraptured faces of the thousands before me.
I am the Queen of the Underworld. I am a dancer. I am no longer, never again, the Grand Duke’s.
But as I pirouette, then leap across the stage, my eyes rove the audience and I only wish to see one face there.
Perhaps the dead cannot change.
Perhaps neither can the living. Perhaps I spent so long watching for the Grand Duke in the audience, smelling his roses and feeling his fingers squeeze my foot, that I am his dancer after all, now and forevermore.
As I leap across the stage of the Underworld I feel as though I’ll always be lonely, as though without the love of the Grand Duke none of it truly matters.
I will never see him again, and I wish as I execute a perfect landing that my skeleton would snap in two.
I find that if I clench my eyes tight, I can pretend that my rawhide shoes are satin, that the powdered bone is resin and that I am back at Marinsky Theater, that I brisé and plié across its stage on one of Petrograd’s too-short summer nights.