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Daydreams of angels, p.4
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       Daydreams of Angels, p.4

           Heather O'Neill

  In order to re-create the harsh poverty in which Nureyev had been raised, the boys were only allowed to eat gruel. They couldn’t find the recipe in The Joy of Cooking, but one of the town’s cooks improvised with some watered-down Quaker Oats. Under strict instructions from the top, the groundskeepers air-conditioned the Nureyevs’ bedrooms all the time. In summer, the foster parents were told to keep the lights on in their rooms while they slept—in order to re-create the white nights in Russia, when the sun never sets. All the little Nureyevs had dark rings under their eyes from trying to get some sleep under eight lamps with one-hundred-watt bulbs glowing around their beds.

  They weren’t allowed to go to church and they had to tear the story of Noah and his ark out of their French textbooks. Their reading primer was called See Citizen Spot Run. All Monopoly boards were burned. They were given classes in Marxism and told to hate the bourgeoisie. When they asked who the bourgeoisie were, they were told they were property owners. One group of Nureyevs smashed the window of a hardware store with rocks, thinking that the owner was an Enemy of the People.

  They walked home in their oversized men’s boots and scratchy cable turtleneck sweaters. They curled up on their hay-filled mattresses, kissed their pet rock good night and then went to sleep. They fantasized about one day washing their hair with shampoo. They were a cantankerous group of little boys.

  Indeed the citizens of Pas-Grand-Chose began to complain as loudly as the Nureyevs about some of the implementations of Project Siberia. All the inhabitants of the town were having their comforts curtailed, which was natural given the fact that they were supposed to be living in Ufa in the 1940s. The post office was shut down, as there was to be no communication with the outside world. Some of the town children wept bitterly. One girl had a subscription to Canadian Geographic, which she would never be able to get. Another boy was awaiting a shipment of sea monkeys that he had sent away for.

  A row of new buildings was shoddily constructed. They had roofs that made them look like soft ice cream cones, like those of the Kremlin. This part of town became affectionately known as Little Moscow. This area became the closest thing that Pas-Grand-Chose had to a red-light district. Villagers, including the Nureyevs, would buy modern Western music in some of the shops in Little Moscow. The shop owners served hot dogs inside to regular citizens under the table, although they were supposed to be only serving borscht. Citizens squeezed in there to watch Eddie Murphy films and drink Coca-Cola at an underground theatre. They watched Rocky IV, in which Rocky defeats the Russian. They didn’t know which side to root for. They didn’t know what side they were on. The citizens didn’t even know where exactly they were.

  Speaking today with some of the town’s residents about the past, however, you will note a marked nostalgia for life in the make-believe Soviet Union. Indeed, some aspects of life in Project Siberia seem quite lovely. There was a snow machine blowing snow year-round, and it was apparently wonderful to lie out on a beach towel on warm summer nights and watch the flakes falling like blossoms off a cherry tree. A reindeer would sometimes stroll by, the antlers on its head looking like the arms of a skinny diva, supplicating the heavens.

  Almost every resident you speak to will mention the wolves. A scientist had read that Nureyev’s mother had to trudge for miles through the snow to bring back potatoes and she was surrounded by wolves one terrifying night. A group of three hundred large grey wolves was rounded up from rural Quebec and set loose in the town in the middle of the night. They lurked around town, behind trash cans and telephone booths. The villagers were all terrified of the wolves and regularly petitioned for their removal, but the Nureyevs seemed to take to the animals. One witness described seeing an eight-year-old Nureyev walking the most terrifying-looking wolf down the street on a leash, calling her Susie. The skinny wolf had a rib cage that resembled a xylophone.

  The Nureyevs left out bowls of Kibbles ’n Bits for the wolves. They tried to teach them to sit. None of the other children were allowed near the wolves. Their mothers put little cans of pepper spray in their lunch boxes, in case they encountered a wolf on their way home from school.

  Then, in a move that seems strange even in light of all the other extraordinary occurrences, the scientists decided they couldn’t re-create a distinctly Siberian awakening without a Siberian tiger. It took quite a bit of paperwork to have one of these endangered tigers delivered. They wrote a three-hundred-page grant proposal detailing their need for the animal. Nobody in Moscow wanted to read the ridiculously long proposal, so they put a tiger on a plane and sent it over.

  The townspeople had to build a cage that seemed to be the size of a castle just to be able to contain the measurements of the beast that was coming.

  There was great excitement the day the tiger arrived. For some reason everyone thought that the Nureyevs would finally feel the grandeur of their original’s past and begin performing. Everybody cited the day when the tiger came as being a happy one. The cage was taken off the plane, loaded onto a truck and driven through town to where they had built the makeshift zoo. Everyone who lived there had come outside onto the street to watch the procession. The children had written signs on pieces of paper that said the French version of things like “Go Tiger Go!” and “Welcome Home!” It was as if the tiger were a victorious football team returning home.

  The hype surrounding the arrival of the Siberian tiger was almost religious. Everything else about Siberia seemed to entail some sort of deprivation. In this case, they would be granted something amazing. They were entitled to this tiger. It was their birthright.

  Whenever a young Nureyev was feeling low or uncooperative, the school psychiatrist would send him home with a note saying that he should spend thirty minutes with the tiger. The Nureyevs would whisper things to the tiger through the bars of the cage. Or they would go and sit on one of the little chairs positioned in front of the tiger’s cage and cry in frustration. The bright-orange tiger looked like it had been covered in gasoline and set on fire, always in flames.

  The Siberian tiger seemed to always be escaping. One witness saw a dozen young Nureyevs running down the street, being chased by the tiger. They were all laughing hysterically and clapping their hands and leaping off the ground, almost making sautés.

  “They all had a dark, wicked little streak,” the witness said. “They were always plotting to let the tiger escape.”

  This statement reveals the growing strain that the citizens were feeling toward the clones. How much of a burden it was to live in a place filled with so many Nureyevs began to be apparent to everyone. Many of the clones didn’t work. Some living off disability cheques they’d received after a class lawsuit was launched against the Russian government by the generation of Rudolf Nureyevs who had been forced at gunpoint to dance. Although they didn’t share the real Nureyev’s desire to dance, they did seem to share his temperamental and tempestuous nature.

  Since there was no work for them in the town, many of the Nureyevs turned to crime and the jails were filled with them. There was some confusion over the matter of sentencing them, for identifying them in a lineup proved hopeless. They were forced for a while to carry passports and papers everywhere. This seemed to fit in with the aesthetic of Pas-Grand-Chose. But once again, they were indignant, and they all flushed their papers down the toilet.

  After a while, the police tried their best to simply ignore the Nureyevs and their antics. It simply wasn’t worth the hassle. So the Nureyevs basically got away with all manner of things and terrible behaviour. Sometimes they acted like children provoking their parents, trying to see how far they could go. They would walk into a store, take a bottle of vodka off the shelf, hold it up to the clerk and say something like, “Mind if I take this? No, I didn’t think so,” and then walk out the door, laughing. One got on a bus, and when the conductor asked him to pay the fare, he simply told him to bugger off.

  There was graffiti all over the town, which the Nureyevs had written. They would walk their wolves off
the leash, although this was clearly against the law. They all seemed to engage in all manner of inappropriate conduct and public displays of indecency.

  You can still see the graffiti today: “Even the birds are free.” “Will we be charged to take a shit next?” “I am not what I could have been.” “Are you going to measure how much my shit weighs, Mister Scientist?” “BEWARE OF FREE WILL!”

  The little girls in Pas-Grand-Chose proved to be terrible dance partners for the Nureyevs. The Nureyevs would insult their dance steps, yelling that, furthermore, the local girls were too fat to hold up in the air. They had no intention of lifting peasants up toward the heavens. The little girls spun awkwardly above their heads as though they were satellites that had fallen out of orbit. The boys decided that they were going to go on strike from dancing until suitable partners were found. Female dancers were brought in from Montreal to be their partners. The scientists looked for older partners because the real Nureyev’s favourite had been Margot Fonteyn, who was nineteen years his senior. A whole airplane filled with retired ballerinas arrived and settled in Little Moscow. They were underweight, self-centred and chain smokers.

  They hung around drinking coffee and complaining about their arthritis. Their skin seemed as thin as rolling paper. Applying layers and layers of pancake makeup and staring into a hand mirror, they’d say, “What happened to me?” One read detective novels. One would not stop talking about her recent divorce and how if she hadn’t had such a lousy alimony cheque, she wouldn’t be here. They loved gossiping about one another. There wasn’t a lot of chemistry between these dancers and the young Nureyevs.

  In life, Nureyev, with his mop of blond hair, his steelyblue eyes and pouty lips, was considered quite magnificent-looking, but in this town he wasn’t considered beautiful at all. Beauty is supposed to be rare and unequalled. For them, looking like Nureyev was commonplace.

  The Nureyevs didn’t enjoy one another’s company much either. There’s nothing worse when you’re experiencing self-loathing than looking around and literally seeing yourself sitting at the other end of the bar. They were only able to feel like individuals when they were somewhere alone with the doors closed. Whereas the original Rudolf Nureyev had an amour fou with the dancer Erik Bruhn, the clones all remained single.

  * * *

  The project was not abandoned because of the unhappy Nureyevs crowding the streets and bars. Oddly enough, the project was abandoned because of a little Québécois boy named Michel who lived in the town. He was the son of one of the caretakers at the zoo. He and his father had previously lived in a tiny town where virtually everyone was employed by the local underwear factory. Michel had never seen ballet before he had arrived.

  Michel had dark hair and brown eyes and a welcoming, sweet face. He was an ordinary boy. He collected hockey cards, he had a German shepherd named Samuel and his mother had died of cancer.

  Shortly after his arrival, Michel was walking down the street when he saw a Nureyev who was dancing Swan Lake in the middle of the road. He had on an Adidas headband that he had Krazy Glued some seagull feathers onto. He was inebriated and was dancing in a farcical manner. Some of the workers and a couple of scientists were shaking their heads sadly at the spectacle. But Michel, on the other hand, stood transfixed. He thought it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

  Afterwards, Michel often expressed his interest in learning dance, but he was never given any classes. Nobody bothered to encourage any of the other children in the town to dance. What would be the point? The trainers didn’t want to waste time on children with regular physiques. Michel learned all his dance moves from television. He was able to exactly re-create the audition scene in Flashdance, which he’d seen at a secret viewing. Michel went on to master routines from Star Search and Dr Pepper commercials.

  Michel’s dancing began to be a common sight in the town. His neighbours found themselves dragging over milk crates to sit on in his yard and watching him dance for hours. Word would spread down the street that Michel was performing and the other children would stop their games of kickball and come to watch. Mothers would stop hanging up their laundry and old men stopped playing cards. There was something new about his dancing. Something that nobody had been able to imagine before. It opened up their minds in a way that only art can.

  His father made a contraband videotape of Michel dancing and they sent it to the National Ballet School in Toronto. After Michel got accepted, his father quit his job. They piled all their things into the back of his truck, and they rattled off into a future that was completely unknown and bewildering to them. And it was as much to their surprise as it was to anyone’s that there was glory on the road ahead for them.

  When Michel was interviewed later on television, he was asked the unanswerable questions people always ask artists: How does it feel to be you? When did you realize that you were you? How is it that you do what you do? What makes an artist an artist?

  Only individuals, all on their own, can decide to dedicate their lives to expression. Art comes from some mysterious place that cannot be located by science. Scientists could make a human, but they could not make an artist. The scientists themselves decided to end their project.

  * * *

  After the project was abandoned, the town suffered a major recession. Almost every citizen had worked for the Nureyev project at some point in their lives. Many of the residents left, having to sign strict confidentiality agreements before departing. The Nureyevs, en masse, wanted to get as far away from the town as possible. Their visa applications, however, continued to be rejected.

  The Nureyevs were always trying to disguise themselves as travelling salesmen and get aboard charter planes that were departing from Little Moscow. They would try and get neighbouring farm girls to fall in love with them to help them escape. One Nureyev dressed up as a woman and tried to escape past customs that way. At night you could always hear voices coming out of the sewers, because they were always down there, trying to find a path out of the town. If you were leaving the town, you would have to pop the hood of your car to prove that there wasn’t a Nureyev hiding in there. One was even found crouched in a box of leaf-shaped bottles of maple syrup that was being exported to the United States. That’s something that they had in common with the original Nureyev: the desire to defect from a place that suffocated them and impeded their civil liberties.

  When the Berlin Wall fell, the Nureyevs were finally permitted to leave, and leave they did, moving to all sorts of places. They never went public with their stories, however. They were actually terrified of anyone finding out that they were genetically identical to Rudolf Nureyev, as they would be subjected to relentless experiments by Western scientists this time. And quite frankly, they were exhausted of the constant scrutiny and limelight they had experienced in Pas-Grand-Chose. They led simple lives, trying not to draw any attention to themselves.

  Their childhoods had been public. There were rooms filled with file cabinets detailing every aspect of their lives: how many times they had peed, their caloric intake, their nightmares, the crayon drawings they had made in elementary school. If there was anything at all that you needed to know about the Nureyevs, it was right there. But they argued that no one knew them. They wanted privacy and a sense of solitude where they could figure out who exactly they wanted to be. When the original Nureyev passed away, they watched the five-minute segment on the news, impressed by the accomplishments of that extraordinary man who thought that real life only happened when he was dancing, but then they turned off the television, knowing he was a stranger to them.

  If you ever see anyone on a subway who looks incredibly like Rudolf Nureyev, you’re probably actually looking at one of his clones, but just don’t say so to his face.

  * * *

  As for Latska, he still lives in Pas-Grand-Chose. Lately he has been working on something on a much smaller scale: making phosphorescent snails. He can be spotted at sunset, wearing a long sort of kimono that goes down to his feet,
wandering around in a melancholic trance. He will ignore you when you call out to him, as he has become a recluse, like his clones, eschewing the public gaze. As the sun goes down in Pas-Grand-Chose, the lights of all the snails begin to glow. They are like the lights on top of taxicabs stuck in traffic in Times Square. They are like the little TVs lit up at night in the hospital rooms of terminal patients. They are like the Indiglo of watches being checked in a movie theatre during a really long film. You feel as though you are standing in the Milky Way and you could scoop up the stars with a butterfly net. It is so utterly charming and wonderful that you will never feel quite the same after looking at it. Does it have any great goal? No, it is a strange miracle. It is art for art’s sake. It proves that the universe is full of surprises.

  And as for the Siberian tiger, it is known to creep up fire escapes, slip into bedroom windows and crawl into the single beds of children. Snuggling up to the youngsters under their blankets, with its mouth next to their ears, it tells them not to be afraid of their revolutionary dreams. It lets the children know that it has their backs.


  Dear Piglet,

  The thing that bothers me the most about all the newspaper stories is that you are reading them. And it worries me that you don’t ever get to hear our side of the story. I have so much time on my hands these days that I want to just tell you about how things happened, baby step by baby step.

  I met Edward when I was seventeen years old, outside the grocery store. He had just gotten out of the juvenile detention facility that was on the other side of town. It was his eighteenth birthday. He had a jacket tied around his waist, and a plastic bag with some paperback books in it. I took one look at him and I thought, Hallelujah. We drove my parents’ car to Montreal and I did not see them again until the trial.

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