Dark and Lilac Fairies
a short story by Danila Botha
When I turned twelve, my parents, who weren’t all that religious, decided I needed to have an over the top, lavish bat mitzvah. All the other Jewish girls were having functions and banquets, practically every other weekend, but I wanted nothing to do with it. It was my Nagymama, who as a little kid I just called Mama, who convinced me. She lived with us and raised me while my parents worked, so if there was one opinion I listened to, it was hers.
“In this life,” she said, in her soft Hungarian accent, “you never know what could happen. If you have an opportunity to celebrate, you must take it.”
We chose ballet as the theme. We convinced my parents to rent the performance space from the dance studio I practiced in. Instead of a fancy sit-down dinner, there would be hors d’oeuvres and music, culminating in a dance performance where I would be the star.
It took a lot of arm twisting, but I convinced her to participate too.
Before the war, Nagymama was in training to be a ballerina. Her older sister, Perla Markovics, had danced with the Hungarian National Ballet. There were photos of her in frames on Nagymama’s bedside table, looking impossibly elegant and self possessed, the kind of person everyone wants to be. She died heroically in the war, but it was the discipline and training she taught her, Nagymama insisted, that kept her alive.
She still had the slight build and gently sculpted muscles of a ballerina. She always sat perfectly straight, like she had a rod propping up her spine. When we had a barre installed in our basement so I could practice, she practiced with me. When she came to pick me up from dance school, she wore eyeliner, mascara, and blush. My teacher Oksana loved her the most. “She’s so elegant,” she said to me one day while she finished her cigarette before class. “Classic European beauty.”
My mom, by contrast, was zaftig to use Nagymama’s word. She had stubby fingers that were always greasy with eucalyptus hand cream, because she insisted they were dry, even in the summer. Nagymama said they looked sausages about to burst in a frying pan.
We decided to do Sleeping Beauty, because it had always been my favourite. I always found it hard to get out of bed in the mornings, and I often woke up with Nagymama siting beside me, stroking my hair, saying “Jó reggelt, Sleeping Beauty,” or if she was feeling extra affectionate, “Gut Morgen, Shayna Maidel.”
Nagymama didn’t speak Yiddish very often. She was the only person left in her family left after the war, and she trained and landed a place in the National Ballet. She lived on her own in Budapest for a few years before she met my grandfather and came to Canada. She didn’t want me to call her Bubbe because she was superstitious.
Between Oxana and me, we convinced her to play the Lilac Fairy.
They projected baby photos of me while my lawyer parents, gamely dressed as the king and queen, stood beside the huge screen.
My friends from dance school played all the different Fairies: Tenderness, Playfulness, Generosity, Serenity, and Courage. Five beautiful twirling fairies, in Jordan almond pastel colours, baby pink, light blue, mint green, light yellow, and dark pink.
Days before the party, Sandra, who was supposed to play the Fairy of Darkness, got Mono.
After a lot of convincing, Nagymama agreed to play both parts.
“You know, it sort of makes sense,” I said to her, the night before the party. “That you could be both fairies, darkness and light.”
Splotches of red appeared on her cheeks. “You think I like the darkness?”
I thought about stories she’d told me about the games she’d played with other Jewish kids during the war. “Jews and Gestapo,” she’d said. “Two of us were Gestapo, the rest were Jews. We had to catch them and arrest them. Tie them up and hit them.”
“Who were you?” I’d asked her, and she’d flinched.
“The Gestapo. I was always the Gestapo.”
Another one was called Klepsi-Klepsi. One kid was blindfolded “with whatever shmatte we could find,” and the other kids took turns hitting them in the face as hard as they could. When the blindfold came off, the kid had to guess who’d hit them.
Nagymama had the best poker face. She shrugged when I looked horrified. “If someone has to hit you, better it should be your friend.”
I thought about the storage room downstairs, all the extra food and clothes she kept, “just to make sure.”
My dad would tell her to stop hoarding, and she’d fix him with her most withering stare and mutter “Es art mikh vi di kats fun mitvokh.” I care like a cat cares that it’s Wednesday.
“I don’t think you like the darkness,” I said carefully. “I think you like to be prepared for anything.”
She smiled. “I think you’re right,” she said.
As the Dark Fairy, she moved with heavy limbs, her black and gold robes shaking. She cursed me to prick my finger on a spindle and die, cringing as she spoke.
As the Lilac Fairy, in her lavender dress and shoes, she moved with ease, lessening the curse, saying she wished she could take it on herself, take it away all together. Her hair was twisted up with tortoise shell clips her mother had bought in Paris in the old days. They’d sat in her drawer, along with a yellowing article about her sister for as long as I could remember.
The rest of the dance moved quickly. I did all the moves I’d worked so hard on, including all the jetes, and two minutes of the Rose Adagio. People clapped.
A handsome male ballerina was the prince who kissed me and woke me up.
Everyone talked about a unique and amazing experience it was.
For my gift, Nagymama gave me a pair of rose gold stud earrings.
I waited until I was in bed that night to read her card.
Penny, Mayne Hartzeleh,
You are my Oytser, my greatest treasure. These earrings used to belong to Perla. One of her ballerina friends gave them back to me after the war.
I know you know the story, of how Perla danced to entertain the soldiers at Auschwitz. How they gave her extra food, cigarettes, and squares of chocolate that kept me alive. You know the famous part of the story, how when she was selected, how she flirted with the Nazi guard, got his gun and shot him. You know that she injured some other Nazi too, and all the women started fighting back, but they were all gassed in the end. I was changed forever that day, and not just because she was a hero. That day, it finally registered that the thick smoke that turned the sky red was more than just chemicals. I understood I was never going to see my mama, or sisters or father again. The smell of skin melting is like the smell of burning feathers. I wanted to grip her hand and never let go. But I lived. I danced. And I helped raise you.
I know you have her talent and her bravery. I hope you also have my will to survive, to be prepared for anything, no matter what happens.
I wiped away the tears with the back of my hand and hid the card in the corner of my bookshelf where I knew my parents would never look. They really wanted us to be normal, to pretend that the world was safe, that if we were good, and happy, we had control over what happened to us.
We all have both Dark and Lilac Fairies in us, I wanted to tell them, but I knew they wouldn’t understand. Nagymamawould. I tried to remember all my thoughts so I could tell her in the morning.
Danila Botha is a Jewish fiction writer based in Toronto, Canada. She has had two collections of short stories published, Got No Secrets, and For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I've Known, which was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award, the Vine Award for Canadian Jewish Literature, and the ReLit Award. Her new collection, Things that Cause Inappropriate Happiness, is forthcoming from Guernica Editions. Her novel Too Much on the Inside won a Book Excellence Award for contemporary fiction and was recently optioned for film, and her novel A Place for People Like Us will be published in 2025. She teaches creative writing at the Humber School for Writers and at University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies.
Fiction Attic Press is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our, consider becoming a subscriber.