The Littlest Ballerina

lilballerina

It was Swan Lake. Of course. Everyone’s first ballet, the one that set them all on this mad career course. Oh sure, a few claimed it was Giselle, but she knew better. Giselle, with its ghosts in white, was cute, but Swan Lake is the one that ropes everyone into thinking they can someday dance Odette or Siegfried or maybe even the Evil Genius who creates Odille to confuse Siegfried into leaving Odette. Her first Swan Lake was a birthday present, when she turned six. Her parents laughed when she said she wanted to be a ballet dancer — after all, last week she wanted to be an astronaut and the week before that a librarian. Convinced she would quit after a few days, they registered her in a class. Three years later she was performing her first recital solo, something she still vividly remembered. It was one she choreographed herself, set to a short piece by Offenbach. The applause set her career path in granite.

She looked at her reflection; had it really been twenty years ago? Was that even possible? Easing into the relentless routine of stretches (forward, back, side, forward, back, side), she tried to wrap her head around the fact that her fellow members of the corps werent even born when she danced that little piece. She began dancing professionally at sixteen, in the corps de ballet. She was a snowflake. A Spanish villager. An anonymous emerald, set third from the left. It wasnt Odette, but at the very least she was dancing, and that was all that mattered. Her attention to technique was flawless. She had the remarkable ability to set her arms and legs in exactly the same position every single time, a guide for every member of the corp to follow.

It was a closing night party for a successful production of Rite of Spring, in which she was Second Russian Village Girl from the Right. The choreographer (for whom she had developed more than a professional admiration) had imbibed a few too many. Through a gin-laden mist, he told her she was stunning to watch, that her body was built for dance, but he couldnt even fathom the possibility of taking her to bed.

“Why not?” she asked, half from curiosity, half from the sting of rejection.

“Love, you have no passion. You know the moves, you dance them brilliantly. But you are a machine, my dear. Not a dancer. I will not bed a machine.”

She left the party moments later and drove to the rehearsal hall. By the time she’d arrived, she’d stopped crying. She stared at her reflection for a moment… and danced. She critically assessed every move, every gesture, every step. And she realized he was right: she was a beautiful, perfect dancing machine… but a machine nevertheless.

Enraged, she tore her eyes from the mirror and crumpled to the hardwood floor. She would never be Odette. She would never be the Sacrificial Bridesmaid. She would never be the Nutcracker’s Queen. Instead, she would forever be the Snowflake. Or the Spanish Villager. Or the Third Anonymous Emerald. And if she wanted to continue as a dancer, she would have to settle for that.

She looked once more at the mirror and, to her amazement, saw herself dancing.

But at the same time it wasnt her. Her reflection was technically perfect, of course, but it danced as though on fire, literally throwing itself from move to gesture to step. It danced with a near righteous fury that sailed across the glass.

Then the reflection stopped. It looked at her. And waited.

She got to uncertain feet. The reflection smiled, tapped a four count, and raised one arm. She followed the gesture. The reflection followed with a small step; she followed in suit. Within moments, the two were dancing the length of the rehearsal hall, she struggling to keep up and yet feeling — knowing! — that something inside had been… unleashed. Fifteen exhausting minutes later, they sat on the floor, laughing at the sheer mad delight of it all. The reflection then stopped, smiled, nodded… and disappeared. What gazed back from the mirror now was… just her.

The following week, the company announced it was adding Swan Lake to the repertory. Emboldened, she auditioned for the role of Odette. The choreographer, smiling uneasily, shook his head, and she retreated to the security of the rehearsal hall…

… where her reflection stood. Waiting. Tapping a four count as it raised one arm…

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The Littlest Island

lilisland

I found the island maybe six or seven years ago. Or maybe it found me, I’m not sure.

I discovered it while camping one weekend. I headed to the big lake outside town and had just started to set up the tent on the shore when I saw it. This might be interesting, I thought, so I put my supplies in a rented boat and rowed over.

It’s not a very big island: I could walk around the entire thing in well under half an hour. There’s a small rise in the middle, with a copse of trees. I made a small fire on the tiny beach. It was so peaceful and quiet, and I slept that night like I hadnt slept in a very long time. I woke rested and surprisingly focused, and I drove home with a new sense of mission in my life.

But mission statements are frail at the best of times, and it wasnt long before I found myself returning to what I now considered my island. The first time, I brought supplies for a long weekend and spent three delicious days in happy solitude. The next, it was three weeks. Before long, I’d decided to buy the island. The county records office had no file on any island in the middle of that lake, so we wrote it off as a cartographer’s error. I registered a claim, a deed was prepared, and now the island… was mine. I built a small house and a deck. I cleared a small area behind for a garden. And when I was finished with all of it, I quit my job and moved there permanently.

For the first few months, I was deliriously happy. I loved my island. It fulfilled my every need and met my every want… save one. I suppose it was the sound of other campers on the other shore, but I discovered I actually missed… people. Somewhat shocked at this moment of self-realization, I decided a day trip to the city was in order.

The following morning, I noticed my rowboat was a feet lower on the wharf. I shrugged it off as the water level dropping: we’d not seen much rain. As I drove the truck into town, all the things I hated about city life — noise, traffic, pollution — were still there… but there were also… people. On impulse, I struck up a conversation with a complete stranger; by the end of the night, I was pocketing his phone number. I returned to my beloved island a torn man.

The next morning, I decided to call him… which meant another trip across. But the rowboat was now even lower in the water, so much so that I only barely got into it without losing my balance. As I rowed away, I looked at how much of the island’s base was now visible — and yet, the water level all around appeared the same as it’d always been. On shore, I phoned him, and we made plans to get together for dinner that night. I returned to the island almost giddy with excitement.

I took a short nap and woke sensing something… different. The air? The light? Something. I opened the drapes and looked at the far shore. It seemed… changed somehow. Maybe it was a trick of the afternoon sunlight, but it looked… lower. Curious, I went downstairs, opened the front door… and suddenly realized the island was now fifty feet over the water. I edged my way out onto the wharf and looked under: the island stretched into a long, tall, thin column of rock that disappeared into the lake. I carefully backed onto the grass, afraid now to even stand. Then, with a lurch, I was thrown to the ground as the island suddenly rose. It was now… two hundred, maybe three hundred feet in the air. The rocky tether was gone. We simply floated. I knew that if I dove off to swim to safety, the fall would kill me. And even as I thought my escape, the island bolted once more, taking me higher and higher and…

It’s been… six months? A year? The island stopped rising, about four hundred feet up. Never moving, it just floats over the lake. Planes and helicopters fly by. I shout and wave my arms, but none appear to see me. The island continues to meet my every need: food, water, even — despite the height — warmth. It even somehow shelters me from the elements: it never rains or snows here…

… unless I ask it to, and then it’s a gentle rain. Or a light snow.

The Littlest Stand Up Comedian

lilcomedian

So I’m getting ready to go on, and the club owner runs backstage and tells me, “Look, dont get weirded out, but there’s a Big Time Agent in the audience tonight. She’s out scouting.” Now, I can handle stress with the best of them. An agent? Yeah, like that’s going to go anywhere at all, right? I’ve seen more agents, both in person and hiding behind a veil of beer-soaked haze, than I care to admit. So one more isnt enough to weird me out, not by a long shot.

So they call my name and I go out onstage to some better-than-perfunctory applause… and within fifteen seconds I can tell the audience just aint there. Same material that got howls and applause last week is just dying: the laughs are minimal and polite at best. I know that I’m probably looking at a couple of hecklers before too much longer.

Then I see her. The Agent. Doesnt take much to figure out: she’s got her little note pad and she’s writing stuff down while watching me, which means either she’s looking to rip off my routine or she’s making notes. Considering the routine is dead in the water, that leaves Option B. So I start playing right to her, like no one else is in the room. The set-ups, the punch lines, the transitions, all of it… aimed right in her face.

Audiences, even drunk ones, arent stupid: after a while, someone looked at me and then at her and then before long the whole house is wondering who this woman is that’s cornered my attention. I guess it is a little surreal — normally, you’d play the entire room, looking at everyone as much as you can. But all I do is look at her and rattle the jokes off.

I guess it must have looked a little surreal, me just standing there, having a one-sided, private conversation out in public and on a mike. I abandon the set routine and go freestyle, total stream of consciousness, a scenic trip and a half for anyone who wants to know what I find funny. Now she’s obviously getting embarrassed, and the whole place thinks this is hysterical. All of a sudden, I cant get the punch lines out fast enough; people are laughing during delivery just because they want to see what her reaction will be… and if she doesnt do anything except maybe smile, they laugh even harder. I’m not trying to embarrass her, mind you. Or maybe I am. Maybe this is karma kicking in for every comedian she discarded and every act she dismissed. Maybe this is me getting back at every agent and every producer and every club owner who told me I wasnt good enough. But whatever it is, I am on fire. The audience is so with me, it’s not funny. I see the club owner outa the corner of my eye, laughing his head off and giving me the signal that I got ten more minutes if I want it. And I grab those ten minutes and run hog wild with them, the jokes getting more and more elaborate, more and more absurdist, finally building to a killer one-hundred-and-twenty-second monologue that ends with the biggest shaggy dog line in stand up history.

The audience went nuts. I’ve never had applause like that, never. And I soaked it like a heat-treated sponge. Feeling magnanimous, I gestured to the Agent, and they went even more whacked, giving her a standing ovation for doing nothing more than just sitting there and getting embarrassed at being the one in the spotlight for a change.

Afterwards, she came backstage and, all smiles, introduced herself… but before she could ask the question, I cut her off. I couldnt work with her, I said. Not now.

I think she understood.

The Littlest Violinist

second

It looks like he’s going to be late. Again.

And he’ll no doubt show up drunk as well. As usual.

And somewhere around the middle of the first act, he’ll quietly shove his sheet music onto my stand and mutter, “You take it, okay? I’m not feeling well.” And I’ll dutifully play, just like a good littler member of the orchestra should, as he quietly lurches his way out of the pit. And then he’ll stagger back in somewhere around the middle of Act Four, just before the conclusion, so that when the audience is applauding, it’ll be he who suddenly becomes the concertmaster again, standing and beaming and shaking the conductor’s hand on another performance well done.

Oh. Wait. Tonight’s Boheme, which means he’ll stagger back in in the middle of Act Three.

He’s pulled this stunt for… well, at least the last three seasons, I know that much for certain. Prior to that as well — at least that’s what the last second chair told me. Not as consistently as he does now — at least back then he actually gave the occasional performance. Now? The orchestra is lucky if his eau de winery doesnt travel any further than the first five rows.

I just dont understand. If the conductor is to be believed, he was once an outstanding musician, with a near flawless technique. From the age of sixteen, he was in almost constant demand, with contracts to virtually every major orchestra in North America. Rumour has it that he himself played second chair with all the truly great violinists of the twentieth century, that there are bootleg recordings of a house party on Long Island in which he, Oistrakh, Heifitz, and Perlman amused the crowd with improvisations of “What if Mozart composed The Farmer in the Dell”. I dont doubt the recording exists. He knew them all. The man was tantamount to a legend in music circles.

Or at least, he used to be. Now his technique is sloppy and graceless: he hits the notes, but not with enthusiasm so much as resignation. it’s a remarkable feat for him to even show up. One night, during a particularly grueling performance of Billy Budd, he never even appeared. The first chair was empty all night, and at the conclusion the conductor looked at me in no small confusion, as though uncertain whether he should shake my hand — the second chair’s hand — or not. I shook my head; there are some traditions you do not change just because your first chair is out on a bender. He wasnt fired, of course — no one would dare fire an institution — and the next night he was sitting there, all jolly smiles, all “So how’d it go last night?”

He never recorded, which always struck me as odd. A man this talented should have released six or seven solo albums at the very least, maybe another dozen with his famous friends. But he never did. He would laugh, “Honestly, how many recordings of Bach’s Air on a G String does the world need?” Now, I doubt anyone would touch him.

The conductor just motioned for me to move into first chair. It’s about time.

The Littlest Yard Sale

yardsale

I used to come out here by the road, ev’ry Saturday, just like Daddy tol’ me t’do. And I’d sit right here and hold this sign.

We had this yard sale runnin’ for… oh, I don’ know… a year maybe? ‘N’ it was my job to sit here by this here road and wave this here sign so when people come down the road, they’ll see it and they’ll stop and they’ll buy somethin’. ‘N’ while I’m out here, Daddy’s setting up the tables ‘n’ puttin’ stuff out there for folks t’buy. I don’ know what he puts out there — he sets them up after I’ve come down here. ‘N’ long about midday, when I hear the garage door close, that means it’s time f’me to come in for lunch ‘fore I go back out here for the afternoon.

We don’ get many folks drivin’ this road. It’s way off the freeway. But when folks did drive by, I’d smile ‘n’ I wave like Daddy tol’ me t’do. Sometimes they turned in the long driveway up t’the house. Then I usually see them a few minutes later comin’ back down and back on the road again. Sometimes they give me kinda a funny look, like maybe they’re upset or angry ’bout somethin’. When I asked Daddy about it, he just shrugged his shoulders and says “City folk”.

That’s pretty much his answer for ev’rything, tell the God’s truth. The well goes low — it’s ’cause of city folk. The mail is late — city folk. I get a bad grade on my report card — city folk. I think maybe it’s ’cause Mom ran off with a city guy, but I dunno. We don’ talk about her much. One night, Daddy put me in the truck, ‘n’ we drove to the city. We stopped outside this big house, ‘n’ Daddy took me up to the front door. I didn’ know Mom lived there, but she sure seemed to be surprised. She told me to wait in the kitchen, and then I hear her ‘n’ Daddy ‘n’ Mom’s new boyfriend havin’ this hor-ren-dous yellin’ match. I didnt understand a lot of what they said, just that Daddy wanted to know if Mom wanted her “stuff”. Then he came in the kitchen, grabbed me, and we drove back home. He didn’ say a word all the way, nor for maybe three or four days after.

It was shortly after that that we started the Yard Sale. I guess he wanted to get rid of Mom’s stuff. But seemed no one else wants it either: like I said, they drive up there, then they pretty well turn around and leave. ‘N’ they sometimes give me the most awfulest look as they do.

One day, when I was out there with my sign, this car took up the driveway, but when it came back, the driver, this old guy with, like, three teeth and no hair and wrinkled like an apple left in the sun too long, rolled down his window ‘n’ looked at me like… well, somethin’ not fit for sayin’. Then he yells, “Well, you ready to go?”

“Go where?” I ask.

“With me!” he says with this evil, evil laugh. “I done bought you, girl! Now c’mon!”

Now that didn’ make a lick o’ sense, but he got real angry about it, and I got scared, and he was just gettin’ out of his car when all o’ a sudden Daddy comes runnin’ across the lawn, right past me, and shoves the guy back in his car, then throws some money at him, and tells him to git. The guy started to say somethin’, but Daddy just sent him on his way. Then he ran back over to me, and hugged me, and he started cryin’, and then I started cryin’ even though I don’ know why I was. And we went into the house ‘n’ had dinner ‘n’ I watched FROZEN ’cause Daddy said I could even though he hates that movie.

We dont do the Yard Sale any more. I guess Daddy sold off everything he wanted to.

The Littlest Artist

lilartist

His hands shaking, he put the brush down…

… and stared.

There were no… he couldnt…

It was… extraordinary.

And it was his.

Still unable to believe the vision before him, he looked away, almost in embarrassment, his eyes darting about the dim light of the studio, taking in the piles of still unfinished works: the landscapes, the still lifes, the abstracts, the… oh god, the portraits… They were all… He dared look at the canvas, still wet, on the easel. They were… while this… this was…

His mind raced: he had to call the gallery, make an appointment, take it to them and — no! They had to come here to see it. They had to! It was only in the sad, grey environment of his studio could they truly appreciate the Herculean work now resting before him. It was so… different, so…

How would he explain it?

Then he realized: they would never believe this was his. Never. Too many times, they had quietly taken on his work, sold it for whatever they could get, then — out of pity (he knew it!) simply gave him whatever funds were made from the sale. He was their charity case, the artist they kept around to assuage the pangs of guilt they had to feel at the outrageous prices they charged for other people’s work: huge, gaping studies in shades of red that would fill the entire wall of a boardroom or perhaps some post modern lobby… while his were consigned to the occasional decorator’s showroom as a prop.

But not this. Not this one.

Almost daring, he looked at it again. This was… a masterpiece. There. He’d said it. The culmination of a lifetime of disappointment and failure. This was the work that would make his name… as an artist, as a creative, as… a human being. The form, the structure, the play of the light, the colour, all of it magically fell into place, a magnificent whole that so superseded its individual parts, while never neglecting them individually. It…

Suddenly, fear washed over him like fresh linseed oil: what if he never painted anything like this, ever again? What if…

Suddenly, he was looking at it his creation in absolute terror. He’d never be able to rise to this level, ever again. The structure was too complex, too subtle. The colours elusively danced away, laughing in tantalizing, mocking merriment at his increasing frustration. His fingers reached out to claw through the still wet oils: he would destroy it. Now. He would…

But his hand stopped, a mere inch from the canvas. I cant do this, he wept. I just cant

The next morning, he rose from his cot and, before even having his meager breakfast, looked at the painting again. Its awe had not diminished during the night. With a sigh, he took it off the easel and leaned it against the wall, then set a freshly blocked canvas in its place. Picking up the brush, he steeled himself…

The Littlest Viking

lilviking

The old man took a deep draught of bitter beer, then set the empty flagon on the plank table with a bemused smile. “So,” he began, “you think you know the story? You know nothin’, Jack..”

————————————————————————————

He hated the cold. Truly, madly, deeply, without question or reservation. It was always snowing. He hated snow. Why couldnt be have been born in some warm, sunny land like… well, he couldnt think of any offhand. Anyone who left his valley in search of them never returned. Now he knew why.

And if the snow and the cold wasnt bad enough… every day it was the same thing. Kill a dragon, save a princess. Every. Single. Day. He often wondered if there was nothing else in this valley but dragons and princesses. Of course he knew better than that… but at the same time, it seemed like this place had way more than its fair share of the things.

He trudged on, wishing he could wear something slightly warmer than the standard issue warrior’s uniform, when — right on cue — he could hear frenzied screams and earth-shattering roars from just the other side of the snowy hillside. He hoisted his club and sword and, with a sigh of resignation, made his way over the hill to find…

Yep, a dragon. And a princess. In distress.

How do they get themselves into these things? he wondered as he kicked through the snow. Fine. Just get it over with, and maybe get home in time to hit the gym…

But now the dragon had caught scent of him and jerked its head in his direction. It raised one scaly eyebrow and started to roar in defiance… when the warrior put his hand up. The dragon cocked its head to one side. “Giving up so easily, warrior?” the beast grinned in delight.

“Save me!” the princess screamed. She’d been chained to a giant rock. Honestly, what is the story here? How dumb do you have to be to have this happen to you?

“No, no,” the warrior replied. “I still have to kill you and save… well, her. But before I do, can I ask a favour?”

“You ask a favour of me??” the dragon replied indignantly.

“Just hear me out, okay?” the warrior snapped. “It’s not a terribly big favour, so dont get all huffy about it, all right? Fine. Look, here’s the deal: I am freaking cold. Chilled to the proverbial bone. And I’m sick of it. I hear you guys can warm up rocks by just sneezing on them or whatever it is you do. So do me a favour, huh? Just hit one of these rocks with some of that Odin-loving fire and let me warm up a bit before I chop your head off.”

The dragon looked at him incredulously. “… Okay, wait a sec. You want me to heat up some rocks.”

“Yup.”

“So you can get all toasty warm.”

“Uh huh.”

“Before you kill me and save her.”

“You got it.”

“… And just what do I get out of this deal?”

The warrior pondered. He hadnt considered that part of things. True, it didnt seem fair to just ask the dragon to do something and then kill it. “Well, what would you like?”

“SAVE ME!” the princess wailed.

“I’m getting to you. Dont worry. So, dragon, whatcha want?”

“How about letting me kill you?”

The warrior shook his head. “That’s not how it works. remember? We fight. You lose. She gets saved. That’s how it’s always been.”

“Hmm…” the dragon finally said. “Well, doesnt seem very fair, but I guess I have no choice.” And so saying, he threw a small blast of flame at a medium sized rock, which suddenly glowed red and yellow and orange. The warrior dropped his club and sword and put out his hands, rubbing them in the delicious warmth. “Oh man… you have no idea how good that feels.”

“SAVE ME!” the princess wailed again.

“In a minute! Okay?” The warrior grinned at the dragon. “I swear, I do not understand. I mean, is this the Valley of the Really Dumb Princesses Who Dont Know How to Avoid Getting Chained to Rocks?” He laughed.

Surprisingly, so did the dragon. “I never understood that either. I mean, I dont even like princesses.”

“Yeah?”

“All that aerobics and dieting — they’re nothing but gristle and bone. Good for a snack, maybe, but that’s about it.”

“I know exactly what you mean!” the warrior replied. “I mean, everyday I go out and save one of these bimbos, and what does she do? Just run off to her castle. No thank you, no maybe you should stop by for a reward or perhaps even a hot meal. Just take off the chains and then run.” He looked at the princess. “You know, I think I’ve saved her before.”

“Ya think?”

“Oh, I’m sure of it. In fact, now that I really look at her, this is maybe the fifth or sixth time. Hey, could you heat up this rock a bit more?”

“WONT ANYONE SAVE ME?”

The warrior rolled his eyes. “WILL YOU SHUT THE HELL UP? Man, nag, nag, nag. So, dragon, tell me: you know of a place around here that’s, you know, warm? Like this?”

“Of course,” the dragon beamed. “The lands south of here. You’d love it. Warn sunny beaches and no one anywhere tied to rocks for you to save for the fifth or sixth time.”

“Wow. That sounds… you really mean it? Places like that really exist?”

“Of course. The whole world isnt covered with snow, you know.”

“It’s not?”

The dragon laughed. “Of course not. I dont even know why I stick around here. I hate the cold too. Gets under your scales, and…” He shivered mightily.

“SAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAVE MEEEEEEEE!”

The warrior looked at the princess, then at the dragon, then at the princess again. Ya know, I think it’s the seventh time…

————————————————————————————

“So did he go?” the listeners asked excitedly.

The old man smiled. “He did indeed.”

“And what happened to the princess?”

The old man’s smile grew wider as he winked at the dragon sitting contentedly next to him. “I have no idea…”