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Chapter 1: Ivory
Author’s Note: I first wanted to write a story based on Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake when I went to the BBC Proms performance earlier this year. I listened to the ballet on repeat the whole time whilst writing this and I tried to reflect a lot of the ballet in this piece. If you’re familiar with Swan Lake, you’ll see what parallels are made here; if not, then I urge you to listen or see the ballet. It’s wonderful. Thank you to Rachel for beta-ing this for me and thank you to Leslie and Molly for their encouragement. Oh, and a quick thank you to everyone who nominated Glass and Fade to Grey at the Dobby awards. I’m so thrilled they’re both through to the voting/finals. Thank you!
pas de deux/trois = a dance for two/three; danse de cygnes = swan dance; danse de petits cygnes = cygnet dance; danse de fiançaille = engagement dance; pas d’action = action dance; valse = waltz; scène finale = finale; entr’acte= interval; chasse = hunt
A blemish mottles her skin, a rotten apple amongst tender flesh. She dabs powder onto her cheeks, the mask reapplied and impervious. She waits, primly folded at her dresser, for the sharp rap at her door. Silence envelops her in its bony arms, rendering her uncomfortably poised.
Her reflection is water to thirst, it quells cravings. She desires nothing more, nothing less, than what is expected of her. Imperfections are hunted down and eradicated; the pleasure of the kill thrills her. From her view atop her high pedestal, she sees the crumbling weakness beneath, never tarnished herself. She cleanses herself in purity.
Ugliness is weakness, is contamination; it spreads from the core to the heart and beauty is soiled with every pulse. Infallibility is ingrained into her very skin, it wafts in the air around her and the mask is maintained. She is cold.
Her visitor arrives, the knocking at the door rattling off the bare walls in a haunting harmony. She holds herself daintily still for a count of three, waiting for the interruption.
She rises and turns, back perfectly straight, jaw set, hair coiffed. The door opens, wide and naked, as she greets her sister. Appreciating eyes are welcomed, the mesmerised smile regular. The resemblance between them is uncanny, yet one wears her heart upon her sleeve whilst the other tucks it away where no one will find it. They reek of wealth and class, their perfume heavy with grandeur.
They listen to the silence again as it drags its weary bones away. It is a moment filled with an understanding, a gently envy and the reassurance that all is as it should be.
With measured breaths and regular blinking, she awaits the words she never tires of hearing. Her lips almost move in time with the oft heard compliment, her theme.
"You look beautiful," Astoria sighs, a soft note of pride in her voice, and from her ivory pedestal Daphne cannot agree more.
i. pas de trois
Casual glances summon double takes and lingering looks, eyes locked for moments before bodies are drawn inexplicably together by forces beyond their comprehension. A young man flits from woman to woman, taking their hands, caressing their cheeks and adoring their figures. His gaze roams freely, uncontrollably, feasting on the delights before him. He can have it all with a few well-chosen words, his lines sweeping the young ladies away almost too easily. He leads them along in a fitful dance of toing and froing, of lifts and falls and dramatic finishes. They make music of their own.
He is rarely satiated, growing tired of the same pattern and rhythm, searching for something more accidental. He murmurs sweet nothings that rarely lead to anything and the dance of love is over before it has begun. He repeats, searching and yearning for something more than he has found before. He is looking for perfection, for flawless beauty without compromise and she exists only in his heart, where she is locked away until he finds the key.
A pretty young lady catches his eye and they make acquaintances, soft touches for introductions and breathy kisses for conclusions. Her hand against his chest feels the thumping of his heart as the girl inside desperately tries to break free; she fails.
Another is discarded.
ii. pas de deux
He burrows himself away, alone at last, listening to the silence of his solitude. His heart batters his ribs as he buries his head in his hands.
The nights are long and lonely when the chase is over. Darkness grows thorns that encase his mind, retreating only when daylight's sword brings distraction. He fights to be happy, to quench the desire for someone new.
He often wonders if he will always be alone, forced to scuttle between nameless women and faceless lovers, love coaxed like a dying flame until all that remains are embers, growing cold amongst the coals. Alone, he is reminded that he has not found the key.
She whispers to him some nights, her voice smooth and pure, melodic to his ears. If he closes his eyes, he almost sees her, the perfect beauty. Her voice crescendos more and more, the pain in his heart growing as she continues to hammer against his chest. She is close, if only he can release her.
None will equal her in beauty, for she has enchanted him with blindness. His eyes are purely for her.
Morning sunlight leaves diamonds below the surface of a lake. Shoes slap against dry earth as summer heat caresses the back of Theodore's neck. He wanders through his thoughts having lost his way slightly, a determined brow furrowed on his forehead.
Wisps of fog furl over distant hills, creep up far-away valleys and gently curl around his feet. Isolation sleeps deeply amongst the landscape, resting in long grasses and dreaming in the woods. A murmur of a breeze rustles green leaves. It looks beautiful.
The shore is inviting and he settles himself there. Birds chirp as they spring from their nests. He admires the nature around him, flawless in its natural state. A small daisy rests in his palm, its petals aligned in a perfect circle. The fields around him dance with identical flowers, a sea of white and yellow greeting him from across the lake.
He holds a hand over his eyes, squinting against the harsh sun. A figure silhouettes against the field of daisies; a woman, slender and petite, walks amongst the flowers. He stands, chasing her figure with his eyes as the distance between them grows.
Stumbling, he canters after her, crossbow in hand, ready to shoot, to hunt. The figure is a reflection of himself, familiar, similar, identical. He needs to see her closer, to hold her in his arms. Desire kills.
She is prey and he hunts, stalking in the long grass until he reaches her where she stands, shining in the sunlight.
Their eyes meet briefly as she turns, dazzling. Startled, she flees. He closes his eyes, committing her to memory. She cradles the key in her hand and it is beautiful.
iv. danse de cygnes
His search continues, a circular trail through the hearts of statuesque women. The figure eludes him, hiding at the edge of shadows, face shrouded in black ink. His fingers reach to caress her face; she shrinks away, the ink spilling, cascading, seeping across the stone to his feet until he himself is cowering in the dark, alone.
Turning, his eyes follow a half-familiar form, light hair a hypnotic curtain, only for him to pull the screen aside and discover a stage of disappointment. The dance is finished, the performance over. He exits stage left.
Frustration builds inside him, crumbling into jarring fragments as he chases her in vain, returning from his ventures empty handed. He saves his arrows for her, shooting for no one. Time is wasted, breaths are lost amongst dry air but every effort is harvested until he finds her again.
She has dropped the key amongst the long grasses and he will crawl on his hands and knees, scouring the earth until he finds it.
v. danse de petits cygnes
Second best is unacceptable when he craves perfection. He recoils at crooked noses, snubs harsh laughter and leaves the unpolished for the gutter.
Weary and bruised, he slays the weak until his sword is heavy and his shield dented. But he finds her, finally, momentarily captivated until he and his noble steed begin the chase. She drags the key behind her on silk spun from gold.
vi. pas d'action
She falls into his arms, captured at last, the key nestled between their chests. Theodore blinks slowly, once, twice, three times, painting an image of her into his mind with vivid watercolours. Her soft hair frames her face, encasing her; hanging her on his wall never will suffice when he can devour her in this moment. His rough hands cup her face as he worships her.
"You look beautiful."
She nods, stiffly. Her eyes sparkle, sapphires set in a tiara of ivory and roses. Lips of sugar creep closer to his own, melting and dissolving until they are caramel.
Slipping from his arms, she drifts away, leaving a trail of feathers behind; she is wounded. He has drawn blood from her depths, which she hurriedly tends to, covering the scars with a coy smile. He blinks. She is flawless for she has blinded him again.
He watches her slip away, aiding her briefly as she climbs atop her ivory pedestal.
She tumbles, falling down until she lands facing the sky. The pedestal tumbles with her, casting misshapen shadows across her face. Ugly cracks create gorges in her skin. Fear worms its way between the imperfections, hidden beneath the mask of ivory.
They are tangled, limbs braided as they lie amongst the grasses at the lakeside. He kisses her skin, awakening it as she stirs. He satisfies her lust for admiration, he softens the sharp knife of a cold heart and occasionally she forgets she is beautiful. With him, she is ugly and the cracks widen. Unspoken beauty withers and rots until he dotes upon her with jewels of compliments.
He takes his dagger, wedging it into her heart. "You look beautiful."
He repeats it over and over, an emotionless phrase in an unimaginative chant. He satiates the desire momentarily, his words lingering in her mind as his eyes remind her where his thoughts lie.
He repeats it again, tainted lips forming a jarring note, and she cannot agree less.
viii. scène finale
She looks ugly, half immersed in the lake, half encased in mud. Feathers mark her trail to where she once lay with Theodore, who eyes her warily from a distance. The wounds grow deeper, the weakness showing through the transparency of her skin. He speaks little, compliments threatening extinction as she bitterly dismantles her pedestal.
An hour passes, steps approaching her with every ticking of time. His feet test the shallows.
Diamonds form in her eyes. "Beautiful. I know."
Silence spins webs between them.
"You do," he murmurs, scanning her face as she winces. Water seeps into her skirt and she allows it to cling to her.
Daphne sighs, closing her eyes against the glare of the sun. The lake's water laps at her bare legs. "Why?"
"What do you mean?"
The ivory cracks. "Why do I look beautiful?" she snaps.
She has caught him off-guard, shield lowered. She spies the weak spot.
"You look perfect," he whispers slowly.
He kneels beside her and kisses her, lips pressed openly against her jaw. A grimace mars her features.
She cannot promise to be perfect forever; perfect decays with time and she will decay with it. She is nothing to him without perfection, for she is the illusion of perfect and she lured him with it, deceiving him with a fairy-tale. The idyllic lake cools her burning skin.
A question is born and dies on her lips, for the answer spreads through her veins like poison. She only borrows his love.
ix. danse de fiançaille
She makes love to him bitterly, spitefully, as she baits him with sweet smiles and feathered lashes. He sees nothing, gullibly loving her with her prison, his heart. He buys her ribbons and diamonds and pearls, to decorate her with trinkets. He kisses her softly as though she is glass, fragile and transparent. He sees his reflection in her features, perfectly formed.
When he holds her, she cuts him with jagged edges. He bleeds, over and over, as she asks the same question. "Why do I look beautiful?"
His answers are poisoned apples. Each one leaves a stale taste in her mouth as he fights for her, failing, destroyed. Hopes disfigure in daylight.
"Am I more than beauty?" she wonders aloud, interrupting his naked apology. He stalls, leaving her wilting on the sheets. He sees only her perfections, bare and unapologetic, ignoring the flaws within.
"You are to me."
It is not enough, not when judgements are passed like salt. She cannot be anything but beauty, for the curse is sewn into every pore. It is her very skin that condemns her to live inside his heart, perfect and immutable. She is not beautiful where no one can see her.
She tears the walls down. Their house crumbles into their wild garden, the plants dead and grey. Glass crunches beneath their feet as they leave breadcrumbs of blood behind them.
"What do we have?" she demands of him, beheading dead roses. Their bloom is over, their petals shadows of their former lustre. They thud softly against the earth, limp. "What’s left when beauty withers away?"
"We have love."
"And what if that withers along with it?"
He pulls her gently to him again; she is momentarily flush against him, her ear pressed to his chest. His heart beats erratically. It repulses her and she wants to tear it out and cast it into the bottom of the nearby lake, where it will sink to the bottom and slowly flood.
She washes the blood from her hands, cleansed once more. Hatred flashes in glassy eyes and he glimpses it momentarily, unease creeping into his pores. He brushes away her mistake quickly, head shaking fractionally. Before he can look back, the wall is rebuilt, the pedestal is polished.
Her discontent furrows deep inside, cowering behind the brick wall. His dusty fingers claw at it, removing brick after brick to no avail; she defends her fortress with a depraved need. Insecurities nibble at mortar, but she splays herself in front of her battlements. He is one man with one sword and a dented shield; he will not succeed.
Besotted with blindness, the grotesque and repulsive is ignored. She only looks beautiful to him.
Flames lick at the base of the pedestal and she watches as it chars and smoulders. She laces ash through her fingers, leaving a smoky trail behind her. White residue coddles her clothes, her hair aged. She is grey, withering, weakening.
He stares at the ash as she pours it into his waiting hands, numb. It is still warm.
She is cold; she has never looked less beautiful.
He sees again, eyes sore. Her scars are angry marks of red against translucent skin, her face contorted bitterly. There is no affection in her gaze, no fondness, no love. No beauty.
"You don't love me," she accuses, hands covering her distortion. No matter how hard she tries, she cannot hide the blemishes on her heart. Her feet are buried in the ash, specks of ivory sharp beneath her.
His feet join hers in the ash and he grasps her, sadly. "I think it’s you who doesn’t love me."
She wriggles free, wings beating furiously as she attempts to flee. He releases her, finally, from his obsession.
"How can I?" She turns towards him. "How can I love someone who cares only for my appearance? Do I look beautiful now?" She leans closer, lips almost touching his before she turns away again. She is delicate on her feet, limbs stretching elegantly as they support the monster above.
He catches her hand as she moves away, spinning her into him. His lips press against hers, and he murmurs into them. "Would it matter if you didn't?"
She stalls, lips pressed firmly against his. She pulls away. "Of course it matters," she whispers. "Aren’t I worth more than what I look like?"
Sentences are swallowed before he can speak, for he cannot find the perfect words. They need to be perfect, because she is perfect to him even with all her imperfections. There is no flawless without flaw.
"You’ve always been beautiful to me," he insists, chasing her as she starts to walk away. He lifts her so that her tainted face meets his. He holds her there, inspecting the ugliness prickling at her eyes. "But not because of superficial beauty. Perfection runs deeper than that."
It becomes difficult to separate limb and body, from his hands on her thighs and her arms around his shoulders. Together they are one, two halves of a whole. It is neat, it fits. But she cuts him still with her rough edges and sharp tongue.
Beauty was locked in his heart and she gave him the key. They fit together when beautiful, when perfect. Ugliness changes their shape and they cannot work. Her insecurity rusts the metal.
The key is warped. He has altered her, and in doing so he has betrayed her. The locks have been changed.
She cannot look beautiful with him.
Fog lurks in the bass of the valleys, low and deep. The lake is hidden beneath ribbons of silvery clouds. All is still. A swan sleeps in the reeds on the shore as sunlight staggers over the horizon. Calmly, the day wakes.
She evades him, concealed behind her wall of infallibility. Though he tries, he cannot free her of her curse, for they have both condemned her to be poisoned by it forever. Vanity has rotted her very soul.
He builds himself a ladder, carving rungs from felled trees. It is not strong enough to defeat her defences. His sword and shield are too heavy, he cannot hunt her. Pretence and offence must be discarded if he is to get closer to her; she has manipulated it that way.
Bare, he climbs the ladder, hands stretching up above him as he pulls himself higher. The wall stretches with him, matching his every step and effort, more bricks appearing to thwart him. She is always one step ahead.
He swims upstream, fighting the moat between his land and her fortress. She never lets him in.
She looks beautiful from afar.
She dabs powder onto her cheeks, the mask reapplied and impervious. She waits, primly folded at her dresser, for the sharp rap at her door. Silence envelops her in its bony arms, rendering her uncomfortably poised.
Her reflection is water to thirst, it quells cravings. She desires nothing more, nothing less, than what he expects from her. Imperfections are hunted down and eradicated. From her view atop her pedestal, she sees the crumbling weakness beneath. The ivory is cool against her skin.
Ugliness is weakness, is contamination; it spreads from the core to the heart and beauty is soiled with every pulse.
The knocking at the door rattles off bare walls in a haunting harmony.
She rises and turns, back perfectly straight, jaw set, hair coiffed. She opens the door calmly, greeting her sister. The resemblance between them is uncanny, yet one wears her heart upon her sleeve whilst the other hid hers at the bottom of a cold lake, a lake made from tears of her own.
They listen to the silence again as it drags its weary bones away. All is as it must be.
"You look beautiful," Astoria says regretfully, and from her ivory pedestal Daphne has no choice but to agree. Her sister unfolds the parchment in her hands. “This came for you.”
Dainty fingers clasp the sharp edge; she winces as it tears her skin. She scans the writing she knows so well and nods indifferently. She pulls the silence along with her as she leaves her sister behind.
“Where are you going?” Astoria calls.
Daphne scatters torn fragments of the letter as she walks away. “I’m going to the lake.”
xv. scène finale
Flocks of birds flee from the lakeside, wings drumming, as two figures approach. The sun bleeds gently into the hills beyond as the day peters out.
"So," she says simply as skin meets skin.
He leans into her ear. "You came."
"That was your request, wasn’t it?"
He brushes her hair from her cheek, admiring the face she took away from him. He rediscovers her all over again, touching her ivory skin. "You look beautiful."
Her lips are pressed to his jaw as she mutters bitterly, "and you are ugly."
Leaning back, she tugs herself free of his grip. He sighs, stepping towards her. “Daphne-”
“What is there left to say?” She drifts towards the rippling water. “I didn’t come here for your approval.”
He follows her to the water’s edge, pausing to tear his shoes off. Water covers his toes. “Then why are you here?”
“To prove myself right,” she says softly, immersing her ankles. Her heart is heavy. “You’re still the same.”
“As are you,” he responds sadly. He slides further into the water to block her path, turning to face her. “I want to see you again.”
There is no recognition in her eyes, no sympathy, no feeling. Her eyes are glassy and cold. She takes the key from him, pulling it from its keeping place beside his heart, throwing it as far into the lake as she can muster. He tilts his head to watch it fall, distortedly, until it is lost forever beneath the surface.
Though she cannot escape him, she attempts to look away, shame soaking her clothes like water. It weighs her down.
“So that’s it?” he says heavily after some time.
She digs her hand into her pocket and pulls a picture from it. “Here.” She thrusts it into his hands. “Have this. It’s all you ever wanted from me anyway.” Water swills in strange shapes as she leaves him, bereft, clutching her photo in his ugly hands. “Now I can always look beautiful.”
And, just like that, beauty has won.
AN: I’m really interested to know what readers take from this piece, so please leave me a review if you have time. Thank you!