Ballerinas were particularly vulnerable, the tarlatan
and gauze. But all girls could light like chimney fires—
the bells of their hollow hoop skirts funneling air
up the legs. In the days of fireplaces and gas
stage lamps, don’t dance so close. Three thousand
women burned that year catching a hem, tipping a candle.
The fabrics were spiderwebs and angels’ gowns.
The women—dried-out Christmas trees, needles
dropping. Before household electricity,
but mass-produced fabric meant every girl
could leap like Emma Livry. See them
at their mirrors, pretending, making
pouty expressions with eyelashes spread—
the slightest mis-gesture led to death.
Ballerina skirts were longer then, and light—
made to look like seraphs. Everything was white
or lavender or buttercup and paid for by old male patrons
championing his girl to the top of a playbill. Once,
a whole row lit in formation. The one on the end—too close
to the lamp. The others—too close to the girl beside her.
A new dance began.
The same dance when one sister rushed to the fireplace
to put the other out. The trouble with hoop skirts
was that women could move their legs.
They burned down brownstones,
apartment buildings, theaters, lost
icons, lead dancers, soft faces, those long-carved limbs.
She was waiting for a casting call, stressed, sneaking
a cigarette—had just gotten the tobacco lit when he approached.
She’d insisted on warming the house with her husband
gone to work and the children away.
She needed the candle to find her bedchambers,
brought it right into the room. It cast light
on her smile, her bodice, her undone button.
She was facing the wall, about to breathe in—turned
and tucked the flame quickly behind her back
so he wouldn’t see. You could almost hear the suck of air
pulling inside and up.
She brought the candle to her own bedside,
insisted on doing things alone
had the audacity to dance
was trying to help her sister.
From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.
Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.
Lizzy Fox is a poet and educator with an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she now works as Associate Director for the MFA in Writing & Publishing program. Her poetry appears in The Greensboro Review and has received the Laura J. Spooner Prize and the Corrine Eastman Davis Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of Vermont. In addition to her own writing, she teaches poetry and recitation in partnership with schools and arts nonprofits across the northeast, as well as online.