Beauty Unframed author Lisa Elmers writes about life, loveliness, and seeing something where you thought there was nothing.

Aida

Aida

On the twenty-sixth night of November 1876, the new Christine Jones (née Tailor) made her first and last ascent into the prized family box at the Academy of Music. Outside it had been keenly cold, that rare New York night in which the stars themselves are frost, and the downy flakes that fall might be chips of star-stuff. Christine walked up through the gilded lobby and, mounting the velvet stair, fought nausea. She must remember to carry herself as regally as she was dressed. They mustn’t catch her trembling. Up the stars she climbed, through a thicket of paper fans, past women who had shed their mantillas for silk-and-fur trimmed opera cloaks and men with carnation nosegays in the buttonholes of their tuxedos. When she got to the Jones’s box, she dropped gratefully into her chair at the rail, flanked on either side by florid aunts – wives of Ned Jones (land magnate), and Arthur Morgan (of the steelworks). Her new husband Tom, wed last month in a cloud of orange blossoms and lace, had abandoned her to stay home to look over papers and, Christine imagined, nurse a tall snifter of brandy. After all, what was the point of a rich bachelor marrying if not to relieve himself of the personal obligation to see and be seen at The Opera? Christine was being watched. At the rail she could feel two hundred eyes behind lorgnettes trained on her, the daughter of a mediocre shopkeeper tricked out in continental satin. She looked through her own opera glass – obstinately, clutching its tortoise handle – at the stage lit dreamily by gas jets. Around her a murmur rose, a hundred voices whispering something too softly to make out, too loudly to ignore. Christine felt hot. The smell, pleasant before, of gloves scented with neroli and bergamot oil, set her head swimming. One of the aunts asked her if the light was making her faint? The other suggested that some ladies at the Paris Opera had found the heat from the gas désagréable. Christine touched her forehead and said she was quite all right but thank you all the same.

The lights dimmed, the curtain went up, the murmuring ceased. Below a blue pasteboard flecked with fake stars, a Prima Dona strode. With the lights down, Christine allowed herself to relax. She fell into the performance. The woman wore a gown of beads that dripped over her like water and winked darkly in the limelight when she moved. She was muttering in a deadly contralto, something in Italian. Christine didn’t know Italian – her shameful education – but the aunts couldn’t know that. She opened her libretto, pretending to take great interest in the singers’ names before flipping, as if bored, to the translation. “There were so many nights of happiness and passion when we were together,” the Prima Dona sang, “nights under the open sky when he promised always to be mine!”

Across the stage the woman paced, her voice rising in pitch with each step she took. As she flung back her head, her beaded headdress sent light scintillating over the flushed faces of the front-row patrons. Suddenly she stopped, possessed of a poisonous thought. She turned to face the audience but her eyes had gone unseeing. From a fold in her dress she discovered a dagger, gem-crusted and crooked as a ram’s horn. “The little upstart! She took his heart away from me, and now I shall take something even more precious from her.”

Upstage, a stair lowered from the catwalk. It was wide as the terraced stairs of a Mayan temple, clothed in red velvet, narrowing at the top where, at the end of a landing, a heavy brocade curtain hung. The scorned woman began to climb the stairs, cossetting her dagger. As she approached the top she raised the dagger above her head. Moving with quiet deliberation, like a snow fox hunting, she mounted the final step. She drew the curtain aside.

Christine heard a rustle and, too late, saw the shadow of a knife blooming on the open page of her libretto.

Lazarus

Lazarus

Onionskins

Onionskins