Your Mothers Must Come

At first Tevi did not understand. “All your mothers must come to the session next Thursday,” said Madame in her sharpest voice. “All your mothers. And tell them to wear tights and something tight-fitting on top. No exceptions.”

Tevi heard anger every time Madame Tixier spoke, and never saw her smile. The other girls in the ballet school whispered that Madame had stopped dancing and left France because she broke her back while performing. But she didn’t seem to Tevi to have a broken back. The woman was as straight as a pencil. And pointed like a pencil, thought Tevi. How Madame Tixier had ended up here in little Ramla, in Israel, none of the other girls knew, or at least Tevi had not heard them say; they usually kept their distance from Tevi, who was straight like half a pencil, and not good with words.

The class had been divided into two groups earlier in the year, and it was obvious that the girls in one group were a little fatter, or had bigger hips. Some were even beginning to look like women, with breasts that seemed enormous to Tevi, who was put into the group of skinnies, the group whose mothers were ordered to come to class in tights the following Thursday.

The trouble was that Tevi had no mother.

Madame Tixier could have known this, but she didn’t. She seemed to care for nothing more than perfect leg extensions and finely arched feet and vertical spines and arms that floated. She didn’t even know the girls’ names. So Madame simply didn’t know—or perhaps she had devised a special form of torture, thought Tevi.

The Thursday of the Mothers was preceded by a week of daily training that left Tevi with soreness in her legs every night, especially in the muscles that ran like rubber bands along the backs of her thighs. Tevi didn’t mind the hard exercises, and she didn’t mind Madame’s snapping criticisms. Sometimes, on purpose, Tevi didn’t fully reach her fingers beyond her toes at the bar, to be sure to receive a correction from Madame. And occasionally, though she knew the position perfectly, she would bend a knee ever so slightly to provoke Madame’s fierce glare. “You! You are not my pupil if you show such a lack of grace! You forget all you know in an instant. Point now!” And Tevi would point with legs as straight as bamboo as she looked in the mirror to see Madame’s harsh regard.

On Thursday the mothers filed in, daughters at their sides. Tevi hid behind the thin wall of the entryway, where street shoes and tote bags were piled up. Then she peeked around the edge of the wall.

Madame told the mothers to stand in rows on the polished wooden floor; she walked among them, looking each mother up and down, telling them to let go of their daughters’ hands and stand straight. Tevi was afraid that Madame would have some list of students in her hands, like the teachers in the morning school for reading and math, checking off who was there. But there was no list. There was only Madame, with her unblinking gaze as she told the mothers to turn around.

“Now the mothers will lie down, on their backs,” said Madame in a voice so commanding that Tevi herself started to lie down in her little hiding place, but she caught herself and stood upright again. Tevi heard murmurs from several of the mothers, as if they were complaining, and she tried hard to understand what they were saying. As the murmurs subsided Tevi peered around the corner of the wall, fearful that Madame would catch a glimpse of her.

Madame stood with straight legs next to each woman in turn and bent forward from the waist, dropping her torso so low that she could reach out and pass a hand along the space between each woman’s back and the floor. There was no “hmm” or “aha” from her as she made her judgments of each mother’s form; the room was silent except for the breathing of the mothers and the nervous shuffling of their bewildered girls. The women lying quietly on the shiny wood floor, all in orderly rows, looked to Tevi like fruits in the market. They had such different shapes and colors and sizes, as if pears and bananas and celery and eggplants had been carefully placed in the same wooden crate.

Madame made another circuit around the room, sometimes looking directly at a mother and daughter, and sometimes looking into the mirrored walls to make her survey. She tipped her head back as she circled, her lean limbs so light that she seemed not to need the floor. Tevi saw her rise on her slippered toes once or twice as she passed row by row. From time to time it seemed to Tevi that Madame was looking at herself in the wide mirror, and once she even lifted an arm into a delicate line that looked to Tevi like a tulip stem. At the end of the stem, her hand took the shape of a bloom opening up, but only for an instant.

The arm fell, and Madame said, “Thank you, ladies. We are done. Now it is time for class.”

The women got to their feet, some rising easily, some rising awkwardly as if they had been in bed for a long time. The whispers began, then timid exclamations. “But we didn’t even get to dance,” said one, whose remark was followed by laughter.

Madame said nothing more until the mothers had left, leaving their daughters in a huddle near the wall where Tevi was hiding.

“Girls, girls!” Madame announced with a clap of her thin hands. “Let us begin.” Tevi slipped into the rear of the group of pupils as they started to fan out to positions across the floor.

The class that followed was unusually strenuous. Tevi did not look at Madame, not even at her image in the mirror, and she reached her legs toward the ceiling as she had never done before. She leaped and rebounded on a toe point with a lightness that surprised her. She extended her arms upward to form her own tulip stems. She ignored the pain running along her thighs, if pain even pierced her consciousness. With ease she performed the double pirouette that left the other girls askew. And all the while she never looked at Madame Tixier.

Madame clapped three times. The class was over. Tevi quickly slid to the back of the crowd of girls chatting and fiddling with their belongings behind the partition. As Tevi was reaching down to pick up a sweater, Madame’s feet appeared. Tevi straightened her back but kept her gaze down; all she could see were two pairs of feet in their worn slippers. Tevi’s classmates departed, but the two pairs of feet remained motionless, toe to toe.

Madame Tixier put her hand on Tevi’s shoulder, just near her neck. It rested there for a moment, no heavier than a handkerchief.

“I don’t need to know your mother,” Madame whispered.

Then one pair of slippered feet disappeared, and Tevi was alone.

* * *

First Published in Serving House Journal of Literary Arts

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© Victor Robert Lee