Here’s a name you don’t hear often. Violette Reign. The words rolled effortlessly off her tongue. Her perfect French scattered a pack of wild chills up my spine. No way I was going to repeat it without practicing—Slav roots and hard R’s be damned.
It suited her. One look at her, shivering in the cold February night air, inside the courtyard where we were all gathered, and I knew she had reinvented herself with it. It was not the fact that she was obviously cold (and that thin leather jacket did not help either), no. She shivered with grace; a delicate tremble of the shoulders, a gentle sway of her hips, all the time standing on the tip of her toes.
The fool that I was, I fell for it. I offered her my coat, which she refused with a smile.
“I am not that cold, really,” she said. “Besides, I hear it is warm down there, like almost 68 degrees.”
Down there were the Portland Shanghai tunnels. An underground network of passageways, holding cells and old opium dens built back in the day when beards were worn by men instead of hipsters and vices were more than just a night of gambling and a buffet at Spirit Mountain Casino. Nowadays, they were home for gutterpunk kids, restaurant pantries and rat colonies. The tour we were on was nothing more than a glorified basement crawl, covering a city block, if that. I was working on a new story and had to get some firsthand experience. It’s not like I could just go to any basement, at least not without fear of getting shot. The long, cold fingers of the NRA were all over Portland, no matter how liberal it tried to look.
“So I hear; lack of air flow and all those heating pipes,” I said.
“Kind of creepy, right? I mean, getting snatched and taken down like all those people back in the day. I’d die before they even get to sell me off.”
“Make sure you stay in the middle of the group, just in case,” I said.
Her eyes clouded over.
The tour guide interrupted our exchange. The courtyard went quiet, some twenty or so faces starring at him in expectation.
He opened up with a history of the Shanghai tunnels, an almost century old network of tunnels underneath downtown Portland. For all of it’s current liberal glory, the city used to be a real world hellhole not even a hundred years ago. Not all the pirates and smugglers preferred Caribbean. Some of them loved cold waters of Pacific Northwest and Columbia river. Finding enough people to crew the ships required a bit more unorthodox approach, though. Snatching being the most popular one. Drop and roll had a different meaning back then.
He followed this with a story of how he had been lost in tunnels as a seven year old, more than once and always in the company of a haggard seaman. He was totally oblivious to how it sounded to the rest of us. Violette shot me a glance, eyes wide open and I responded with a raised eyebrow and shrugging. We both smiled and I put my arm around her shoulders. A jolt of electricity caught us both by surprise. I almost pulled the arm back, but she grabbed it with her hand and pressed it harder into the shoulder. I understood. Her shivers stopped.
Our guide opened the massive trapdoor and led us into the musky darkness.
She drew closer with every nook, every corner we explored. I inhaled her perfume, a faint trace of rose water and something else, much sharper and earthy. Not too strong to be intoxicating, just subtle enough to make me wonder. The tunnels were pitch black, aside from a few holes in the ceiling, so we kept fingers interlocked. Her skin felt smooth and cold, a lake in flesh, so unlike the rough volcanic island surface of mine. From somewhere up above drifted the noise of the rolling bowling balls and pin strikes. The smell of pizzas, baking cheese wafted down through the vents. It was strangely comforting.
There were no hobos or ghosts, though, unless you count those in stories that our guide served with an enthusiasm of an old schoolteacher. That’s exactly what he looked like. He sported a Mr. Rogers sweater, taped glasses and a monotone voice that even Ben Stein would be proud of. He belonged down here, with cobwebs and old sailor boots. His haircut was somewhat of a relic as well.
Not that it was a completely wasted journey. The rope and cans early alarm system worked surprisingly well even nowadays. Especially because our guide did not warn us about it so we got to experience the firsthand how loud and terrifying it is when you walk into it. The room where they broke the young women spirits after being kidnapped was a box with nothing but a chair and aura of despair completing it. It was a pure essence of claustrophobia. Violette and I checked the walls for nail marks and messages, but like most of the tour, the original woodwork had been replaced. In these confined halls, the air was heavy and oppressive.
We were happy to be out of there after an hour. The cool breeze was a blessing. A clear spring night, so rare for Portland , opened up all around us. The city rang alive with laughter. Music blasted as we walked by the open bar doors, mixed with drunk shouts and singing. It was still early in the evening, so we grabbed a table by the fireplace at Hobo’s and ordered drinks.
“So, I have to ask – what’s with walking on your toes? I noticed you do it a few times tonight?”
The shadows of the fire danced upon her face as she played with the straws in the cocktail glass.
“I am a ballerina”.
“ That is awesome. I have never met one.”
“ Been doing it since I was three. It’s in my blood. I live for it,” she said.
“Ballet, or blood?”
A devilish smile flashed across her pale face, as she licked a few drops of runaway Ruby Sparkler cocktail of the edge of the glass.
“Have you ever watched anyone dance by candlelight?” She asked.
“I have not.”
“An erotic ballet virgin then? How quaint. Would you like to?”
I did, and it wasn’t just the snark in her voice that I reacted to. I couldn’t dance. It has always been elusive and abstract to me. Magic, when it really comes down to it. The fire in my belly was more than just the alcohol working .We were out that door before the ice cubes in our glasses even had the chance to melt.
Her ballet studio was off Burnside. A two story building tucked in behind a row of birches, barely visible from the street. She unlocked the front door and we found ourselves in the dark, yet again, only this time the musky smell of the underground had been replaced by something much more appealing. The same rose water fragrance, only that mysterious earthy component much stronger this time. It was not her perfume, I realized, but the studio itself. She must have spent hours there every day. Every night. The sound of traffic came through muffled, nothing but a buzz. This was a temple of the art and I had every intention of becoming a devotee.
“Take off your shoes,” she whispered.
I obeyed without argument.
She produced a chair, from somewhere deep in the room and I sat down, eager for the show and slightly buzzed. “Wait there, I will be right back. I have to change and bring candles.” She disappeared into the darkness.
I sat for what seemed like an eternity. Time is elastic, any junkie can vouch for that. It has a tendency to stretch itself thin when you really need something, when you want something. At that very moment, I wanted to see Violette dance more than I wanted to breathe.
A small flicker of light appeared in the far end of the room, followed by another a few moments later. She lighted candles along the corners, eight of them altogether. I could vaguely see shapes of barre all along the room.
“Shouldn’t there be mirrors on the walls?” I asked.
“Not here”, she said. “They take away from the magic of it all. Besides, when I dance I can’t see myself anyway.” She stepped into the faint light and I could finally see her, dressed up for the occasion.
She wore a black leotard like another skin, muscles shifting under it as she moved, like panther waiting to pounce. The parts it did not cover were covered by a complex mosaic of tattoos, ranging from simple tribals, all the way to a scene from Le Petit Prince, complete with fox and a rose.
“Le Petit Prince?” I asked.
“Always. So sad, yet so poignant. I identify myself with him. I too have a rose, that takes too much of me, it seems,” she said.
“You could say so…”
She walked back to the barre and turned facing away from me. Candlelight made her look ethereal, shadows dancing across the floor like licks of dark flame.
“A basic few steps for the first timer,” she said.
“This is Demi-Plié.” Her knees bent halfway as she executed the move.
“Followed by a Grand-Plié.” This time she bent all the way down, her feet apart. I swallowed hard.
She sped up.
“Elevé, Relevé, Battement Tendu, Rond de Jamb.”
And then she took off, like a comet across the night sky.
It was pure magic. All I could do is sit there, my mouth open as she moved across the floor like a living flame.
Her bleached blonde hair whipped back and forth as she ascended into figures I thought impossible to perform by the human body. Pirouettes so precise, so fast that for moment she was nothing but a blur of color. She snapped out of them in jumps high enough to make me question the laws of gravity. Her back arched to the point of unfolding, as she spun and danced her way from one arabesque into another, fluid like a river.
I swear those tattoos moved as well. Subtle at first, the position of the fox slightly closer to the rose, but as she went on they became a moving tapestry, an animation in flesh unfolding in front of me. The fox ran away and the rose withered, leaving the surface barren, only to be replaced by baobab trees, growing out of it. I did not even get to register surprise when Little Prince himself appeared and started plucking them out, sighing visibly. The snake slithered in soon after and I could see her talking him to him seductively.
I wanted to scream, to warn this new-found miracle she danced into existence for me as I knew very well how the story ends, for now I was sure this was not the work of an ordinary ballerina. Her magic transcended the boundaries of life and death.
What was once a dead painting on the surface of the skin became just as alive and solid as I had been. This was her Piecé de Résistance, this new life she created out her passion. Tears filled my eyes and I glimpsed the bite that would end it all.
“And now for Coup de Grâce!”, she said.
Before I could jump, Violette spun close to me and drew the tip of her ballet shoe to my neck. A sharp pain exploded in my jugular, white heat spreading through my body. I watched, paralyzed, as she pulled a long sliver of a needle, sticking out of her shoe and landed en pointe, finishing her act, glimmering with sweat. The candles began extinguishing, one by one, light dying all around me until there was nothing left but the tunnel vision and a sound of her labored breathing. The darkness came soon after.
I woke up to find myself hanging from the ceiling, hands tied to the massive chandelier which was now lit up.
“It’s a shame, you know.” Violette walked in front of me, wearing the same leather jacket I first saw her in. “I actually liked you. There is certain gravitas about you. You seemed genuinely interested in my dance, rather than just hoping for a quickie in a dance studio. Makes what comes next all that more painful.”
She pulled out a long, curved blade and without flinching cut a big chunk out of my biceps.
The pain burned to the bone. I screamed as she licked the flesh and tossed it into a bowl on the floor nonchalantly.
“This gift of mine did not come without a price. It requires sustenance in order to persist.” She sauntered to the massive doors at the far end of the room. “Come out little ones. Time to drink. Allegro!” She she opened the doors.
The rumble of a dozen small feet drew near. Tiny ballet shoes filled the room with ballerinas in training.
I finally figured out why her studio smelled like earth. She lived for blood.
“He was right, you know? Le Pettit Prince. You become responsible for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.”
The blade cutting into my flesh again and I am left with but a single thought: The stars on her skin will be my home when I wake up anew.