Today we are featuring Inklings Book Contest 2021 finalist Kara Horne! Kara finished 6th grade this past school year. She shared a story about a ballet dancer called “The First Nutcracker.” Enjoy!
THE FIRST NUTCRACKER
By Kara Horne
Velvety red curtains. Large glass chandeliers. Gold-plated ceilings. This is what you see when you step into the San Francisco Opera House. In the mornings, mist swirls silently, whispering in the wind. In the day, the bright sun seeps into stone grey pillars and the lingering tone of music softens the air.
People walk by, unknowing. They don’t see past the darkened corridors, the intricate carvings and patterns in the building’s pillars. But I did. Long before I first stepped through those glass doors, I could see them: their tights white as snow, the elegant tutus they wore. And when they jumped—they were angels, they were flying, they couldn’t be stopped by any force at all.
Suddenly, they were always following me. It started after the audition, where all of us young girls danced simple steps for the Elders, a group of old principal dancers that cast the child roles. I didn’t know what was in store for me when I received the letter saying I had gotten the part. I just knew the angels would be following me. Every time I stepped out of the San Francisco Ballet School, they would flutter into view: wings like snowflakes, feathers tinted with silver. They were always moving, everchanging. And so was I. By fourth grade, I was in level 2 at SFB. I would get my first chance to audition for The Nutcracker.
The day of the audition started like any other. Of course, I was giddy with excitement, but I never truly thought I would be accepted. It seemed too good to be true.
A group of us were all huddled together, giggling and fantasizing about what it would be like to dance for a sea of strangers: “With all the stage lights pointed at you, and you’re wearing this really fluffy tutu and it’s just so pretty–”
A door opened, interrupting our imaginings. We saw the silhouette of a tall, thin lady. As we hushed each other, the woman strode toward us with swift strides.
“Are you the 2B girls?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
We all nodded, shooting each other sideways glances.
“Come with me. They’re ready for you now.”
As we took the elevator to the fourth floor, I wondered what was in store for me. I felt a nudge in the ribs and turned to see a strawberry blonde girl.
“What do you think we’re gonna do?” she asked with a grin. “By the way, I’m Audrey.”
“I… don’t think we’ve met?”
She laughed. “You’re Kara, right? I remember you from class.”
I smiled and nodded.
The elevator’s consistent movement came to a sudden halt, and I stumbled. As we filed out of the elevator, I crossed my fingers behind my back for luck. Turns out, I was fortunate. One of the Elders sitting at the judges’ table was my ballet teacher, Ms. Kristi. She gave me a sideways smile and a wink.
Most of the audition consisted of steps we’d already learned in class, which was a relief. Audrey and I sat next to each other the whole time. At the end, we all ran over and curtsied to the elders.
As I slipped into the lobby, chatting and laughing with the other girls, I wondered if I would see the angels. My mother called me, so I threw a quick wave over my shoulder to my friends. I hoped desperately that if I got the part, Audrey would as well.
* * *
Two weeks after the audition, late on a Friday night, I came home from a grueling soccer practice. I relaxed with my family in the living room while the TV blared some movie. I wasn’t paying attention. Today was the day I would learn my fate. If I didn’t get the part, I’d have to wait another whole year for the audition to come around again.
The movie came to a close, and Mom stood up to leave. She turned momentarily and flashed me a breezy smile, as if the SFB email didn’t matter. Soon, I heard the clickety-clackety of my mom’s fingers typing away on the keyboard. I wanted to know the results so badly that it felt as if time had stopped, as if the weight of the world had dropped upon my shoulders for a brief moment.
There was a feeling in the pit of my stomach. It pulsed through my body, spreading tingly energy through my fingers. The beat of my heart echoed in my ears, and my muscles tensed. Carefully, I made my way to the doorway.
I stepped from the darkened room into the light. White feathers floated around me, fluttering to the ground. The angels were back. They vibrated with vitality, practically bouncing off the walls.
My mother stood to greet me. She opened her arms and scooped me up in a bear hug. For a moment, doubt flickered in my mind like a candle. Maybe my mom was only hugging me to say it would be okay. But with the feathers floating lazily around us, I just knew I had gotten the part.
It sunk in right before I went to sleep, when I closed my eyes in my darkened bedroom. Most nights, thoughts and memories would flash through my mind like an overflowing waterfall in spring, but at that moment, the waterfall was frozen. My mind just saw the image of an angel, wings spread out in a large V, beating the air vigorously. It turned its head, judging me with dark, silent eyes. Finally, it faded away into nothingness, and the waterfall unfroze, pouring itself into dreams.
* * *
SFB’s Nutcracker is a big deal. It is an important part of many families’ holiday traditions, so there are around fifteen days of performing two shows a day. That many demanding performances means that SFB has two or three casts per part. I was put in the second cast for the clowns, the ones with cute pointed hats that emerge from under Mother Ginger’s giant skirt. Since there was an uneven number of clowns, there would have to be a group of three dancers who would rotate every performance, performing in a smaller number of shows than the other girls.
Finally, the announcement came: I was put in the second cast, with only one alternate to share the thirty performances with. I was glad to perform more, but being in the second cast meant not being part of opening night. My spirits sank.
I looked for feathers, but I couldn’t find a single one. Late that night, I woke up from a nightmare, sweating and breathing heavily. Then, I saw it: a glow outside my window.
I opened the corner of the drapes cautiously, not wanting to hope for something that couldn’t happen. Shyly, I surveyed the porch. I stared at the pale shafts of moonlight, which were creating patterns on the cracked tiles, but I couldn’t spot a single feather floating softly through the cool night air. The flicker of light that I had seen from my bed must have been the streetlamp across the street. It was quavering like it was being possessed.
Slowly, I let go of the curtain and crawled back into bed. I knew I would still perform, but opening night was something special: the bright lights, the murmurs of the crowd, the warmth as the lights dimmed, and the orchestra tuning their instruments for the first performance of the holiday season.
And that wasn’t all. The angels had not visited me for a while. Were they giving up on me? Why was I even still looking for them? A knot slowly wound up in my stomach. I had no idea whether the angels would come back. At some point, I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew I was awake again, a nightmare from the night before still burning in my mind.
* * *
The two clown casts rehearsed together twice a week, in addition to our regular classes. Week after week, I would walk through the glass doors of SFB and up the stairs to the rehearsal room. As the show date drew closer, we began rehearsing at the Opera House as well.
The days went by, and soon, opening night was just a week away. At the dress rehearsal, several of the Elders sat in the audience, noting corrections.
Then, I saw the angels again—or, rather, a sign of the angels. We had just finished our routine. We joined hands, smiling and sweating, and bowed for the audience. Our chests heaved with relief, and we started to run offstage. Just as I turned my head to grin at the Elders one last time, a lone feather descended from the ceiling in the back row. It disappeared with the applause.
It was then that I understood. The angels were not just watching; they were waiting. I didn’t exactly know what they were waiting for, but I would soon find out.
* * *
On opening night, I pulled my furry coat tighter around me. Tonight was going to be chilly—and not just because it was December. I was going to see The Nutcracker. To be in the audience, not on the stage, I reminded myself. Sighing, I headed down the stairs.
Shadows stretched across the walls, prowling where they wished. In pale morning sunshine, they were confined to the corners, but night was their domain. Now, they had no limits.
As I slipped silently into the living room, I flicked on all the lights to keep the shadows away. My mother and brother were waiting for me.
“Are you ready to go?” my mother asked briskly.
“Yes,” I replied, tugging anxiously at the hem of my coat.
My mother’s phone rang, buzzing like an angry bee, and she left the room to take the call. My brother and I pulled on our shoes and trudged out the door to the car, where Dad was waiting.
“Who do you think was calling Mom?” I whispered to my brother, giving him a nudge in the ribs. He gave me a halfhearted shrug and looked out the window.
When Mom finally got into the car, I had almost forgotten about the phone call. The car surged out onto the blackened stretch of road, headlights making bright pathways in the darkness.
My mother turned in her seat to face me. She was holding something black: my ballet bag!
“The office just called,” Mom said, turning to Dad.
“Which office?” he asked.
“Why?” The car swerved sideways, shoving me towards the cold window. Mom smiled and took a deep breath, glancing back at me.
“Kara’s alternate feels sick, so she might not make it. There’s a chance Kara might need to perform.” My throat tightened, and my hands instinctively squeezed into fists. Mom continued, “They’re not sure if you’ll have to perform tonight or not. We have to wait and see.”
After several ragged breaths, I replied, “Ok.”
* * *
From the car, I watched as footsteps slapped against the pavement. A crowd of people bustled across the street. Most of them were dressed up in tailored suits and fluffy dresses. Some tucked in their frilly shirts or patted down their sleek black ties as they quickened their pace. One stubby, shorter lady stood out in the crowd, spotlighted by the plume of feathers sticking out of her dark velvet hat.
The small crowd reached an overflowing line outside the Opera House. When the gleaming glass doors opened, they quickly surged forward into the building. Once inside, they paused, taking it all in, from the polished marble floor to the decorative gold engravings inscribed up the swirling columns that merged into the domed ceiling. A shimmering Christmas tree decorated with glowing, golden candles, strings of bushy, silvery tinsel, and ornate ornaments sat in the center of the lobby. You could glimpse the Sugar Plum Fairy nestled deep in the branches. Hanging above the angel ornament with a caroling book tucked in its delicate hands was Clara, grasping a miniature Nutcracker in her arms.
* * *
Lights rippled through pools of stagnant water, while a flickering streetlamp formed perfect circles. My boot slashed through the puddle like a knife through butter. The impeccable circle of light was ripped apart; however, as I walked towards the Opera House, the light repaired itself. Slowly but surely, the small fragments of rippling luminescence stopped their shivering and came together, forming the perfect circle once again.
Maybe tonight’s performance will come together like that circle, I thought. I knew I was overanalyzing the whole thing, but who wouldn’t? I had just been asked to step in and perform in The Nutcracker because my alternate was sick! Well, maybe sick. I didn’t know for sure. In fact, I could very well not be performing at all tonight. It could just be a big misunderstanding.
Even from across the street, the bright lights of the Opera House bounced off the surrounding gray buildings. Glimmers of radiance, pride, and hope burst from the slanted windows. The building was alive. With each step closer, I could feel the whole Opera House breathing out a sigh of relief. I knew I couldn’t let it down.
My father and my brother left to take their seats, and my mom and I joined hands as we strode down the last stretch of pavement. Finally, we were there. The stage door.
My mother turned to face me. “You got this, all right?”
I nodded, sucking in a large breath of chilly night air. At that moment, the door swung open with such force that I staggered backward. Glancing up, I saw Julia Bernard. The world-famous principal ballet dancer was here, at the Opera House, tonight! She smiled and walked past me. I stepped through the open door into the bright light of hope.
* * *
Someone was waiting for us. I had thought it would be a chaperone, but it was Ms. Kristi. She gave me a slight nod before announcing, “You will perform tonight.” It was a statement, not a question.
I gave her a timid smile before taking a seat on a plastic folding chair perched delicately by the door. I knew I shouldn’t panic, but my stomach was doing flip-flops. I worked hard to pin my hair up in an immaculate bun before a chaperone came to escort me to the makeup station, down the winding passageways and up a steep flight of spiraling stairs.
I sank into the large comfy couch. Once a spot opened up, I walked over and took a seat on an elevated chair.
“What role are you playing, honey?” the makeup artist asked.
“Clown,” I said breathlessly. She got to work, mixing the right off-white color, painting my cheeks with a fluffy brush, and shading my eyebrows to the perfect shape.
After my makeup was done, I was whisked to the hair station. I grabbed an empty seat in front of a counter cluttered with hair curlers, hairbrushes, and lots and lots of hairpins. As my hat was fitted over my bun, I stared at myself in the large paneled mirror. Was this really happening?
I finally made it to the dressing room. Kids were everywhere, stretching, chatting, and playing cards. One girl was playing games on her phone, but everyone else was interacting with their friends before the big performance. I had to take a deep breath before entering the room and another before joining my friends in a game of Tongues.
“Hey, Kara!” Audrey cheerfully called to me.
“Hi, Audrey.” I paused to smile at her.
“Are you nervous for the performance?” she asked, casually motioning for me to sit down beside her. I managed a meek shrug in response. For a while we sat in silence, Audrey occasionally placing a card down in the growing pile in the center of the circle. When the game finally ended, I felt the courage to ask Audrey the question that had been nagging me.
“So,” I began. “Have you ever… seen something, like a person, with wings… or feathers? I mean…” I paused to catch my breath. Audrey tilted her head questioningly, urging me on. “Have you ever seen the angels?” I asked finally.
“Angels?” For a split second, I thought I saw recognition on her face, but it quickly slipped away. “Hmm… I don’t think so. Why?”
I let out the breath I had been holding.
“I just… thought I remembered something,” I replied vaguely.
Audrey shrugged. “Then I hope you remember it,” she said absently, shuffling the deck of cards for a second round. “Are you up for another game?”
“Nah,” I said. “I think I’m good.” Was I the only one who could see the angels? Was I the only one they reached out to? Why did they choose me?
* * *
Soon, it was intermission. Ms. Kristi entered the dressing room with a smile as bright as the sun. “Come along, girls! Quickly now.”
In the tight, dimly-lit dressing room, we rehearsed one more time. We “marked” the steps, because there wasn’t room to go full-out, and we didn’t want to use up all our energy before the actual performance.
Then, it was time. We made our lines. I stood in the back, right next to Audrey. We had met at the audition all those weeks ago, but we had been separated into different casts. Now here we were, together again. I took a heavy breath in, smiling. I was really doing this. I was really here. And yes, I really was going to perform.
Excitement bubbled up inside of me, like a volcano ready to explode. The sweet, spicy music of the Spanish dance drifted down the stairwell. We waited for our cue with Ms. Kristi. Her head tilted upwards as she listened.
I could feel my hands sweating as they anxiously gripped the metal railing. Audrey was beside me, humming a tune. Other girls fiddled with the paint on the wall and scrutinized the folds of their costumes. Some were staring straight ahead, getting into the performance mindset. I never thought I’d need a pep talk, but now I really wanted one.
The announcer’s voice echoed through the hallway: “Clowns you may proceed backstage, right wing. French dancers are on.”
My stomach churned with anticipation. This was it. Suddenly, I felt a heavy force weighing me down. It pulled at my feet; I didn’t know if I would be able to move them.
“That’s us,” Ms. Kristi said with a grin. “Remember, smile. You girls have practiced so hard. You’ve got this!” Then, she looked directly at me and said, “They believe in you.”
They? Could the angels really be watching? How did Ms. Kristi know? I desperately wanted to know, but the other clowns were already heading up the stairs.
“We can do this,” Audrey said. I wished I felt as sure.
We climbed the stairs, turned right, and waited by a large door. It was hot, especially with our heavy costumes. Sweat sprung on the back of my neck. It felt like we were waiting forever, but Ms. Kristi finally announced that it was time for us to head in. We all hushed each other as we slipped into the darkness of backstage.
* * *
The Russian dancers had sprung out of their large eggs. They bowed with a flourish before leaping off the stage. Now that their dance was over, it was our turn. I took a deep breath and turned to Audrey.
“Good luck!” we both whispered as we interlocked our pinkies together.
I clenched and unclenched my fists. This was happening. This was real.
The bright spotlights were pointed in our direction, making it hotter and harder to see. At that moment, someone took my hand. It had to be Audrey.
But it wasn’t. I came face to face with a lady in a white tutu. Her eyes sparkled, and her cheeks were flushed. Time slowed as our fingers touched. Glancing down, I realized that her feet barely touched the ground; she seemed to be floating. She threw her head back and laughed. It tinkled like a waterfall unfreezing, one drop at a time.
Time sped back up. I had to remind myself to breathe. That laugh echoed in my ears as the clown music started. Suddenly, the first row surged forward, and my row caught up.
We were grinning, waving our arms wildly at the audience. We breathed as one, and our movements melded together. My mind was blank, but my muscles knew exactly what to do.
My mind drifted back to the lady in the white tutu. The music signaled that it was time for us to move forward and finish the dance, and suddenly, everything clicked.
She was the angel!
We were twirling, spinning, whipping around in circles back to the circus tent, squeezing together to fit inside.
Then it was over, just as suddenly as it had begun. We pranced out, pride radiating around us. We had done it. I had done it. As I ran off, I locked eyes with the silvery-white figure standing across from me in the wings, smiling. I couldn’t have done it without her. I would remember this special moment forever. It was my very first Nutcracker. I would never forget it.
* * *
The next year, Nutcracker season came around again. As a level 3 dancer, I was cast as a clown again, although I had graduated to the first row. Backstage was dark. The music was bright and sweet. Everyone’s hearts were thumping. It was opening night.
Behind me, a small, level 2 girl named Evelyn stood shyly, fidgeting with the buttons on her costume.
“Nervous?” I smiled. I bet Audrey would have been better at reassuring Evelyn, but Audrey had already performed. This year, she had been cast as one of Clara’s cousins in the party scene.
“Well, yeah,” Evelyn admitted. “A little.”
“You’ve got this,” I responded warmly. She took a heavy breath and looked up at me with big, dark eyes.
“I… have a question.”
“Do you see them, too?”
For a moment, I couldn’t speak. The music of the Arabian dance drifted away. “See who?” I asked absently, struggling to regain my composure while I waited for her answer with bated breath.
“Oh,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s ok if you don’t. I just wanted to know if… you could see the angels, too.”
Slowly, I took her hand in mine. The Russian dancers had just burst out of their eggs, and it was time for us to slip into the wings. I smiled at her, hoping she would get the message. She smiled back.
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