The Dancer and Her Body

At eleven, it was decided that she would become a dancer. With her peculiar disposition and a flair for grimacing and contorting her limbs, she seemed well suited to this profession. Previously careless in her every step, she now learned how to master her elastic ligaments, her too-flat joints. She infiltrated—cautiously and patiently, again and again—her toes, her ankles, her knees; rapaciously descended upon her narrow shoulders and the curve in her slender arms; and—lurking—oversaw how her taut body performed. Her iciness chilled the most sensual of dances.

At eighteen, she was small of stature, slight as silk, with exceptionally large black eyes. Her face was almost as long as a boy's and sharply chiseled, her voice light and choppy, without coquettishness or music; a brisk, impatient way of speaking. She was cold-hearted: gazed unmoved at her incompetent colleagues and was bored by their complaints.

At nineteen, she fell ill. Her sallow face glistened strangely against the blue-black knot of hair. Though her limbs weighed upon her, she continued to perform. When she was alone, she stamped her feet, threatened her body and struggled with it. She spoke to no one about her weakness. She gritted her teeth over this stupidity, this childishness which she thought she had conquered.

But then Ella bit her lips in pain, and her mother, noticing, threw herself onto the settee and cried for hours on end. After a week, the old woman came to a decision. Looking at the floor, she told her daughter that she needed to put an end to all this: she had to go to the hospital. Ella gave no reply, casting a hateful glance at the wrinkled and hopeless face.

The next day she rode to the hospital. In the carriage she cried angrily under her blanket. She scorned her suffering body bitterly enough to spit at it. She was disgusted by the rotten flesh to which she was bound. In quiet fear she opened her eyes and looked at the limbs no longer in her possession. How powerless she was, O, how powerless! They rattled over the stones in the courtyard. The hospital gates closed behind her. The dancer was horrified when she caught sight of the doctors and patients. The sisters lifted her gently onto the bed.

Now the dancer forgot how to speak. She could no longer hear the commanding tone in her voice. They never asked for her permission or her opinion, but they treated every declaration from her body with excessive seriousness. Daily, almost hourly, they asked the dancer about her body's affairs and meticulously transcribed her answers in her folder. At first she was indignant, but then proceeded to astonish herself even more fully. She drove herself into a state of dark fear and unsteadiness; she was overcome with horror at her body. She did not dare touch or clean it; she stared at her arms, her breasts, shuddered as she surveyed herself at length in the mirror. Her mouth swallowed the medicine that she gave it to drink. She followed the bitter drops as they trickled down her throat and mused over what it made of them, it—the body—this childish, O, this masterful, dark thing. She became small as a fly; at night the fear of death hung behind her bed. Her eyes gazed into the Uncanny and froze. Her mocking, boyish face became devout, and she prayed at nightfall with the sisters. The mother was horrified when she visited her daughter. Her child had never been so despondent, so needy. "We are all in God's hands," said the mother, comforting the deteriorated girl who clutched at her. "Yes," whispered the dancer, "we are all in God's hands."

The constant activity around the girl calmed her and her horror disappeared as quickly as it had broken out. Her dislike of the other patients in the ward flared up. And outrage lingered in her sharp features over the fact that it—this deteriorated, deteriorating thing—was granted reverence while she was overlooked as if she were dead. This offended the imperious girl. So she locked up her body, set it in chains. It was now her body, her property, over which she had command. She lived in this house, and it needed to be left in peace. Every day they hit against her breast with hammers and eavesdropped on her heart's conversations. They painted her heart on her chest for all to see: they ripped it apart to find the light hiding inside. Oh, she was dispossessed. With every question they carried a piece of her away. She was invaded with poisons more subtle than needles and probes. They came at her with all possible tricks, drove her into retreat in her fox den. The thieves took everything from her, and so she was not surprised to become weaker each day, to lie there deathly pale. But then she became exasperated and defended herself. She lied to the doctors, refused to answer their questions, even kept her pains secret. And when she was to be interrogated again, she made herself rigid in bed, poked the sisters away, even laughed in sudden blazing hatred at the doctors, making taunting faces at them while they shook their heads.

But she could not hold out for very long, could not maintain this frantic bravery. Daily, incessantly, the white coats went through the halls, thumped on the patients, wrote everything down. Daily, hourly, the sisters brought her food and medicinal drinks: these wearied the dancer. She submitted to everything with dull disdain. She was unconcerned with what happened to her. A childish creature lay there; it made her miserable, so why should she fight for it, what part of its dignity could she envy? She lay languidly in her bed. The body, a piece of carrion, was still lying underneath her; she did not tend to its pains. When it stung and plagued her at night, she said to it: "Stay calm until the doctors make their rounds tomorrow; tell the doctors, your doctors, but leave me in peace." They ran separate businesses; the body was left to his own devices in dealing with the physicians. "Don't worry; it will all be noted." And so the burden of explanation was no longer hers.

She often felt a smiling pity for the dumb and sick little child lying in her bed. Then she quietly and accurately explained the root of its pains. Apathetic and ironic, she observed the doctors, sardonically confirming that their efforts were failing. An excitement and merriness overcame her, and with this a wild and shaking Schadenfreude at the physicians' misfortunes and the decomposition of her body. Laughing while pressing her mouth into the pillows, she reclaimed her old derision and coldness.

One afternoon, soldiers accompanied by twanging band music marched past the hospital. As they passed, the dancer sat up with fiery eyes and pressed lips, and then bent over completely. A few moments later, a quiet but sharp voice called the sister to the bed. The dancer wanted to sew and needed silk and linen. With a pencil she quickly sketched a strange picture onto the white cloth. Three standing figures: a round, misshapen body on two legs, armless and headless, nothing more than a fat, two-legged ball. A large, gentle man with giant spectacles towered over this body and caressed it with a thermometer. But while he earnestly occupied himself with the body, on his other side a small, barefoot girl hopped around thumbing her nose at him. With her other hand she stabbed a pair of sharp scissors into the body; it leaked in thick spurts like a punctured barrel.

The dancer laughed merrily to herself as she embroidered the picture roughly with red thread. She wanted to dance, to dance!

She wanted it to be like before: when her tight body had waved like a flame; when perfect, icy mastery chilled the most sensual dances. She wanted a waltz, wonderfully sweet, so that she could dance with the one who had become her master and husband: her body. With a determined motion, she seized him once more by his hands—the body—this lethargic animal, and threw him down, threw him around. He ceased to be her master. A triumphant hatred churned within her; he did not go right and she to the left, but they, they sprang together. She wanted to roll the barrel-like, lame, little man along the floor; she wanted to spin him head over heels, to stuff sand in his mouth.

She called for the doctor with a voice that had suddenly become hoarse. Bent over herself, she looked up at his face, at how he examined the embroidery in astonishment; then she quietly recited to him: "You, you monkey, you monkey, you impotent prick." And throwing the covers off, she thrust the scissors into her left breast. A piercing cry rose up from somewhere in the corner of the hall. Even in death, the dancer's mouth kept its traces of coldness and contempt.

By arrangement with S. Fischer Verlag. Translation copyright 2008 by Rosamund Looney. All rights reserved.