Author’s Note: Penelope Thloloe is a very real, very incredible individual. This short story is nothing more than a fictionalized version of her life based off a prompt (the first picture shown) I was given in English Class. This was written based on the facts solely given from the prompt and is merely an attempt to show my appreciation to a woman who I found inspiration in.
She stands on a precipice. On a point somewhere between balance and a fall in slow motion, almost as if she were moving through water rather than air.The lights of the stage catch and glitter in her eyes; the ballerina holds every breath in the room in the palm of her slender hand.
However, she sees none of this. Nor does she feel the awe the theatre holds for her. Instead she is only aware of the fact her feet and back ache in such a way that she had not thought possible. Instead she is acutely aware of the drops of sweat pooling on her forehead and how this might distract from her painted on smile. After all, people go to watch ballet to see dancers walk on air, not drown in their own perspiration. Of course, the sweat can’t be helped; the bright lights of the theatre are scorching and the unnatural positions she must hold herself in only manages to burn her insides as well. But despite all this, the ballerina remains poised. She does not move to wipe her brow and instead only smiles wider.
This is her one and only chance, and she will not lose it to something as trivial as physical discomfort. Not when the outcome of this audition will determine whether or not she holds a spot at the National Performing Arts School of London, a place she has dreamed of attending since her first proper plié.
With both delicacy and deliberation, the ballerina maneuvers her body and spins. She has long since disciplined the dizziness away and the confusion it can bring, but as she does so, she swears she hears her mother’s voice from long ago whispering in her ear…
“That’s my good girl. You are as graceful as a bird. You make me proud.”
She was ten and living on the opposite side of the equator when her mother first said this. And as her mother spoke these words with a smile as big and bright as the South African sun, Penelope Thloloe knew she wanted to be a dancer. She didn’t care that she had taken to the sport far later in life than most who grow to dance professionally. She felt nothing but drive and lightning sparking in her toes, all which pressed her onwards and upwards without fear.
She stands on a precipice. The outcome of her feathery movements carries the weight of her entire future. One wrong move, one joint or muscle out of place, and everything she will have worked for will be over. At the age of 21, Penelope feels as though she has spent infinite lifetimes on this stage, both dancing with and dueling the unspeakable horrors conjured by her doubts. She feels fear snapping at her heels and its breath, hot and heavy, on the nape of her neck.
Penelope knows at first her mother never truly understood why her daughter wanted to be a dancer. The field was competitive amongst women who trained for this their entire lives by the finest of instructors, let alone a girl who learned from community classes she had taken up on a whim. But how that whim had grown. Of course, not everyone could see that. She knows that when she stayed at the studio after hours, dancing with only her reflection in the mirror for company, her mother would have been sweeping the floor and shaking her head. Wondering why her daughter put more work into dancing than helping keep house. And yet, every day her mother would come to meet her at the community dance hall, and it would be her mother’s silhouette burned into a red sky that would greet her as she swung the doors of the studio wide open.
But what Penelope didn’t know is that even though her mother never understood the dancing, she did speak the universal language of hard work. And so, she took her daughter’s smooth hand into her own callused ones and whispered…
“You must fight for what you want, and for what you deserve. Nothing in this life is given for free Penelope. God’s reward system is measured in water. If you are unwilling to sweat you will spend your life walking through a desert. But if you are willing to put in the work, He will lead you to an oasis to drink from. And if you wish to be a dancer, a dancer you will be, but you must never let fear overtake you.”
And she never had. Until now.
Penelope can feel the seconds she has left on stage. Time seems to be melting around her, turning the air thick as honey. She can practically feel it sticking to her skin.
The last time she had felt anything remotely close to this, she was twelve and caught in the path of a bushfire. The deadly inferno devoured the world around her, leaving her in the eye of that hurricane of smoke and heat.
She can recall with distinction the startled caws of birds, all of whom soared far and high above the wall of crackling orange and into a sky of blue so clear that Penelope swore she could see her reflection in it. Just before her mother’s desperate voice and hands would pull her from the flames, she had had a moment where she swore she could follow the birds on their pilgrimage to the heavens. The fire did not seem half as real as that patch of blue that grew fainter and fainter as it was strangled by smoke. The world of the pastm seemed to freeze for that moment .
The world of now seemed to be on fire. The blackness of the empty theatre seats like smoke, choking her and weakening her knees. The eyes of the judges at the panel hot and burning into her soul. The sweat was running down her face now. Penelope can feel her muscles tensing, refusing to obey in the midst of the silent roaring of the theatre.
She swears she can hear the scribbling of pens above it all; a muffled sound accompanied by a voice she could only just detect but not distinguish.
And just as she is about burst with fear and shame, the words of her mother come back to whisper in her ear once more…
“You are as graceful as a bird.”
Birds which did not just flee from smoke, but rather rise above it. Birds that sail high to the clear blue of the sky.
Penelope is a bird.
The heat from the theatre is nothing more than a thermal updraft for her to rise upon.
This dance is nothing more than her first flight.
Penelope bends her legs and springs upwards into the ending of her dance. She leaps then lands, silently and gazes out to all the world before her. Instead of fire, she sees all three judges on their feet, clapping vigorously.
She stands on a precipice. Before her lays a future unclouded, beyond the reaches of any kind of smoke, and now it is hers for the taking. She has seen this place since she was a child, has always seen it, and its presence drives every step she takes. Though her mother remains on the other side of the earth, she can already feel the warmth of her smile at the words she will soon tell her.
Penelope Thloloe has found her way out of the fire and taken her place among the birds in the sky.