Laura Rock's fiction has appeared in Canadian journals including The New Quarterly, The Antigonish Review, The Dalhousie Review and U of T Magazine online, winning several awards. She has also published essays and poetry. A graduate of the University of Toronto (BA) and Syracuse University (MA), Rock was born and raised in the United States and later immigrated to Canada. She lives with her husband and four children in Lakefield, Ontario, where she teaches college communications and is finishing her first short story collection.
Second Prize: Seán Ó Faoláin Competition
The spells began as Dale was preparing for her breakthrough performance and also worrying about running into that man. For almost a year he’d been surprising her with pretty trifles left at the door—French soaps in the form of shooting stars; Belgian chocolate trapeze artists swinging across an edible tableau; a German doll that would dance with a few turns of the key in her back. As the company’s prima contortionist, Dale was accustomed to receiving flowers, of course – on average, half a dozen men ordered roses in the afterglow of her intimate, impossible shows, each thinking himself a romantic genius – but the rabid fan sent African violets, one pot at a time.
Every delivery claimed space on the windowsill and added new colour to the white apartment, where nothing had lived with Dale and Derek before now. The plants reminded Dale of her mother. She had filled their house with greenery, mostly big-leaf tropicals, light-hogs vying for the windows. As a young girl, Dale observed the outside world through perpetually dewy glass; it was like growing up inside a terrarium. Cradling an offering of Saintpaulia inconspicua, she inhaled the smell of dank earth and was home.
About the special performance, Dale had been told two nights ago that recruiters from the Cirque – that Cirque, top of the top – would be coming to watch her. Insiders, people who no longer took calls from Derek but still liked her, whispered this news in her ear while she sat for dress-rehearsal makeup. Dale turned her head in surprise, and the bustling stage-set tilted. Sound crews, spotlights, ropes slung in braids, and the costume lady pushing her rack of clothes all slipped sideways. Dale’s vision cleared almost immediately, but her nervous system had been whirring and beeping ever since.
Derek made soothing teas and drew bubble-baths, but she refused to relax. There was so much to do. It wasn’t enough that she could fold herself like origami and squeeze into a clear acrylic cube not much bigger than carry-on luggage. She couldn’t rely on her storied ability to dislocate shoulders and hips at will. A snake unhinges its jaw in order to consume larger prey, but that doesn’t make it anything more than a mildly interesting freak. No, she needed to rebuild her act completely, starting with the brand.
Dale ran through new stage names as if testing ring-tones. 'Clarissa LaRose', the persona she’d adopted when Derek discovered her as a teenaged gymnast, was so over.
“Mi-mi-mi Mirandella, Mirella,” Dale sang, trilling her r’s. She stood on one foot and pulled the other over her head. In her flesh-coloured unitard, she was a living anatomy lesson. Not one centimetre of her body was soft, yet she had the gift of making bones dissolve. Her malleability was a kind of softness.
“La-la-la Lacrimosa, Milagrosa—no, that sounds fat.”
Derek scribbled on a notepad. His graying shoulder-length curls bobbed as he jiggled his crossed leg.
“What’s wrong with the status quo?” he said. “Ditch Clarissa, you’ve got zero name recognition. I’m fond of Clarissa.”
“Just fond? Not in love with?” Dale shook her ponytail at him, which caused the room to wobble. She dropped her foot and everything settled, but it felt temporary. Could the problem be the azure-tinted contacts she’d just purchased? She was tired of plain brown eyes and much preferred the startling intensity of her new irises. “This is the last possible moment to change. Once I’m in the big leagues, it’s too late. Sorpresa, Spiritessa,” she said, “La Vida, La Viva, La Veda—”
“Dale,” Derek murmured. He moved behind her, rubbing her shoulders.
“What?” Dale leaned into his teddy-bear torso and tipped her head back, then wished she hadn’t. She gripped his arms around her waist until the dizziness passed.
“Dale. What about Dale?”
“Totally inappropriate.” She stepped clear of him. “Even you can see that.” Dale didn’t mean to snap—so unlike the early days, when she was Derek’s adoring puppet-in-a-box. But what a pain he’d been lately, arguing about every clause in her contracts, alienating executives who only wanted more of her. He said, “I’m protecting your interests,” as if the company was some kind of enemy. “Trust me,” he always said.
Derek pointed both index fingers at her, thumbs up. “It’s the name your mother gave you. I’m just saying.”
Dale touched the vial that dangled from her necklace. She wore it at all times except during shows, when the relic ashes of her mother posed a lethal hazard. She strived for a case-closed tone. “Mama understands that I have to change my name. An artist knows, in here,” she said, tapping her chest.
“Oh, artists. The artists I’ve dealt with.” Derek shrugged. “Okay, you win. You and Mama Grow-op.”
“Please. Like your mother can be tolerated for a single hour.” Dale moved to the window and watered each pot, taking her time.
“Let’s not start that again,” Derek said. “Mother didn’t mean to insult you by bringing her own dinner—”
“I just think you should count your blessings. Lots of men would appreciate a dead mother-in-law.”
“If only she’d stay out of our creative decisions.” Derek cleared his throat. “Something else. Your friend again.”
“My number one fan?” Dale spun around and regretted her haste. She clutched her neck.
“I’ve informed the cops. Once more, they do nothing.”
“Is devotion such a crime?”
When the notes first started coming, Derek reported a stalker to the authorities, and they proposed a sting. Law enforcement would catch the guy in the act, some act of adoration.
“If you people think that I’d allow my wife, a performer of the highest calibre who will soon be famous worldwide, to be used as bait ... forget it,” Derek had said. “What happened to old-fashioned police work? Ever hear of that?” He threw the phone on the floor.
Dale had been stretching, preparing to enter her practice cube. She jackknifed into a fluid pike-press headstand. At times like this, Derek made more sense upside-down. “Do you think it’s wise,” she said, bicycling her legs, “to hang up on the cops? They also know where we live.”
Now, spread out on the floor again, Dale wished she could just rehearse. The cube was in the corner of the bedroom, empty and gleaming. Calling her to come inside and disappear. Sometimes Dale had the sensation of splitting into facets: the single-jointed woman whose body took up the usual amount of space; the compressed woman imprinting the cube with her skin cells; and the spirit-woman floating above the spectacle, formless and free, able to see what the audience sees and report back. All three simultaneously. Not always, but at the best, highest moments of her art, it happened.
“What did he say this time?” Dale pushed her spine into the floorboards.
“Read it.” She visualized the performance she’d need to win the Cirque: transcendent, personal best.
“Nope. No way.”
“Read, Derek.” Triumphant. Her star discovered again, but bigger. “Darling.”
“I’ve thrown it away. It’s gone.” Derek waved his hand in the air. He tied an apron around his middle, picked up a dust cloth and began to wipe the windowsill, rattling pots as he moved them.
“Careful with my violets! Come on, you keep ten-year old gas receipts.”
Derek pulled a page of cream vellum from his pocket and unfolded it, sighing. “I offer the answers you seek.”
“Your latest problem is a sign, he says. Sign of what, exactly? Such crap.”
“Undying love.” Derek reddened. “The mystery man confesses love, how original.”
“See, some people appreciate artists. Give me,” she said, holding out her hand.
“No, I don’t think—”
“I want it.”
“What’s the attraction here? You have trainers. You have a manager, me.”
“Don’t forget husband,” Dale said.
“Funny. Stay away from this guy—I mean it.”
“It’s not like I’m meeting him secretly. I don’t even know who he is.” Dale’s words turned cartwheels around her cranium, rapid revolutions of light.
“Freaking nutcase,” Derek said, dusting the coffee table. “He shows up here, I’m throwing him down the stairs.”
Dale puffed her cheeks, panting. “Never mind. What’s wrong with me?”
Hours later, Dale lay in bed fighting nausea as Derek phoned the company doctor, physiotherapist, chiropractor, and psychic in turn. How unfair: her big moment finally here, and she couldn’t imagine slithering through a tight maze of pipe, making crowds gasp, nor hanging by her hair from a chain as children screamed. All she could do was stay still, suffering the bed spins of a common drunk.
Without even examining her, the doctor diagnosed benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. “There’s nothing benign about it,” Dale said to the ceiling. Paroxysmal was a mystery, but positional she understood. Who knew positions better? And vertigo—a balance disorder, causes murky. No one could explain why nerve-dwelling crystals of the inner ear would suddenly decide to migrate into the semicircular canals, leaving Dale reeling as they fled their ancestral homeland. Derek sat by her bedside and briefed her on uncertain cures: drugs, acupuncture, spinal adjustments, yogic manipulations of the head and more.
“The doctor called in a prescription. You’ll be normal in no time.”
“Will that work? What did the psychic say? The show’s the day after tomorrow.” Dale yelled, “I should be practising.”
“The truth? You’re not performing. It pains me – huge opportunity, don’t think I don’t know what this means to you – to us. But.” He patted the quilt around her. “I’ll speak to the honchos-that-be about getting another audition. I’ve still got connections at the Cirque. I can make that happen.”
Dale moaned. “There has to be something. Herbs, crystals, homeowhatever.” She reached for his hand, hitting it. “Go. Out. And. Find. Me. Something.”
Dale drifted into thin sleep, recalling everything the fan had ever written to her. At first she found it creepy that he knew so much, like future performances that hadn’t been announced yet. But the gifts piled up, no harm done. Over time, the guy began to seem benign. Like a super-active guardian angel. When she made some small change to her act, she found herself waiting for his reaction. He always noticed; his letters critiqued every new move.
Once he wrote, "Stagecraft is a calling to destroy limitations. Hold your position five beats longer than you think you can. Subject the audience to your will. Release them with reluctance."
“Hocus-pocus,” Derek had said, adding that note to his collection.
At the time, Dale was coiled in her own limbs. Her voice began to waver as she entered the floating stage of practice. “I did try that one thing he suggested, craning my neck a degree counterintuitively, and you know what?” She beamed in Derek’s direction. “It worked.”
Dale moved through the splits before entering the cube.
“Dale? Don’t listen to him. Hear me?”
She stared through the clear wall, nose smushed, lips distended.
At dusk, still in bed and waiting for Derek to return with the treatments, Dale’s mother blew into her head. Since Mama’s death, these fleeting appearances were all Dale had. It was a chance to ask questions, such as, Why the blah name? Were you depressed when I was born? What did you imagine my future would be? Dale wondered if she was living up to maternal expectations. Specifically, whether Mama was pleased with contortions as a line of work, and what she thought of Derek. Mama might appreciate Derek’s nurturing side, but she was also quick to see a man’s faults and prescribe harsh treatment, much as she might tackle an aphid infestation. Vertiginous, immobile, Dale heard Mama’s pronouncements all too clearly: he’s too old for you, his best days in the business are behind him, and he’s no joy to look at—move on. “After the big show,” Dale promised, half asleep. “Soon.”
Dale woke not knowing the day or time. The doorbell had rung, she remembered. She thought that the physio who made house calls must have let himself in, but the man standing before her – tall, forbidding, angular – was a stranger. He took off his black fedora. His eyes fixed her in a cat-like green beam—real or contacts? She smiled, dazed. When he spoke, she heard bubbles in liquid. He might have said, “Your mother sent me.” She hoped so.
The man helped Dale into her favourite position. He rolled her over so she was face down, then coached her into a backfold: legs curled up and over the head, feet planted in front of ears; pelvis stacked on head; chin in hands. Her abdominal muscles pulled taut, grounding her. She was a spider on the web, contemplative and wise. She could stay like this forever.
Heavy footsteps trudged up the stairs. Derek flung the door open. His voice barely reached her.
“I’ve got your medicine,” he called from the hallway. He entered the bedroom and stopped. “What the—? What’s he—?”
The man ignored Derek, bending down to whisper in Dale’s ear. He showed her a sprinkling of lavender pills, tiny pellets in his palm. “Extract of saintpaulia and other necessaries. Highly potent ingredients,” he said.
Dale didn’t move; she was stable and relaxed.
Derek rattled a paper bag. “This is your prescription. I’ve got it here.”
The man stood up and stared at Derek, who retreated to the hallway.
“Snap out of it Dale. Don’t take anything from him.” Derek backed away further.
The man stroked Dale’s throat. “Now,” he said. She opened her mouth. He fed her the pills and closed her jaw. “Good girl.”
“You were nothing before I found you,” Derek shouted from somewhere in the apartment. “Your mother raised plants, and dick-all for you; I was the one who honed your talent.”
The man gently helped Dale untangle and walked her to the cube. He held her hand as she slid inside.
“It’s over,” Derek yelled. He picked up a violet and threw it. The pot smashed, dirt exploding on white wall. “You’re finished. Who ever heard of a dizzy contortionist?”
Dale moulded herself to the cube’s surface, angling her head downward. She felt fine. No spins, no spells.
Another pot crashed, then silence.
“Float on the surface of skewed perception,” the man said. “Don’t succumb to distraction’s undertow.”
Peace. Dale was the space available, no more, no less. The strictures of the cube fit perfectly.
“Give the performance of your life,” the man said, tracing her face lovingly. He put his hat on and walked to the door, then turned back. “One more thing. From now on, you are La Reina Anguila.”
“Queen Something,” Dale said, or tried to say—her lips were stuck to the cube, yet he heard.
“Eel.” The man tipped his brim and walked out, leaving her alone.
“Yes, La Reina Anguila,” she breathed. “Just right.”
©2012 Laura Rock
'Transit': story by Laura Rock in The Antigonish Review
'Maquila Bird': Rock in U of T Magazine
Purchase The New Quarterly (#117) with a story by Rock