A PERFECT CAGE
Synopsis: What if Christine Daaé wasn't a beautiful, perfect ingénue? What if she had a physical flaw from birth? Not a beautiful chorus girl any longer, she is now a lonely, disabled backstage seamstress. Will this change spark a love between two aching souls trapped in imperfect cages? A retelling of ALW!STAGE canon, E/C, no Raoul-bashing.
Disclaimer: Phantom of the Opera and all its various incarnations (Leroux, Kay, ALW, Yeston/Kopit, various film adaptations, etc…) are not mine. I'm just borrowing them, and I shall put them back when I'm finished. You will also see many allusions to other musicals I have enjoyed, such as the works of Stephen Sondheim, Rent, Wicked, and others. The lullaby at the end of this chapter is from the charming 1943 film adaptation.
I remember my mother.
She was a dancer. I can recall watching her move, like in a dream. When she turned in a swift pirouette, her hair—as fine and pale as corn silk—swirled, and her long legs were informed by the rhythm of pure grace. Lissome arms arched, reaching for Heaven... It's only a brief, vague flash, a hazy image of beauty and light, a fleeting cloud, buried under heaps of memory. She had danced to Papa's music. That sound, those harmonies, I am grateful to have more ample memories of. But I had always wanted to dance to Papa's music, as well. I wanted to be the one twirling in time with the melody.
That was never to be.
I was born half lame. It took a very long time for me to learn how to crawl as an infant, and even longer to walk as a toddler. As a child, I found that there were times when my legs would weaken until I could no longer stand. My knees and ankles would simply give out, and Papa had to pick me up and carry me. Each time it happened in public, utter humiliation washed over me, and I would cry into Papa's warm, comforting shoulder.
The doctors gave me braces.
Ugly, cold metal things they were, that wrapped around my ankle and my lower legs. I can always feel their ghosts digging into my skin, sharp and cold as ice. Doctor Saint-Pierre also gave me my first cane, a short little staff of sturdy wood with a worn brass handle, just the right size for a girl of four winters. It helped with my limp, and my steps were easier. But the braces were glaring as they sat mockingly over my black stockings. I earned plenty of unabashed stares wherever Papa and I travelled. I could pretend to ignore them, and they need not know that the sting of humiliation never ameliorated.
Three years after Mama died, Papa and I lived for one season at a little house by the sea in Perros-Guirec, on the northwest tip of France. The simple white frame house itself was a palace to my childish senses. It was very small, merely a summer cabin, but after years of life as a nomad, sleeping in hay-filled barns and beneath the stars, we loved it. There was a stark loft beneath the peaked roof that was warm and dark, save for a tiny semicircular storm window. That attic crawl-space was the site of many a tea party and picnic I shared with my only doll, Angélique.
One afternoon I sat contentedly on Papa's shoulders as he walked the length of the sandy beach. We were singing together merrily. Despite my condition and the loss of Mama, my life at that point was relatively happy; though we were destitute together, my father was my constant protector and friend. Papa had told me my voice was a divine gift, and gave me persistent, gentle lessons, teaching me songs of his own composition—songs from his fantastic stories. He began to hum and bounce me playfully where I sat behind his neck, clutching his hands with my small ones. This song I knew well; it was the beginning of the tale of Little Lotte:
Little Lotte let her mind wander... She thought of everything and nothing...
She missed her mama and loved her father ... He always thought that she was something;
Little Lotte wore her best red shoes ... and yet she couldn't dance—
So Papa said, One day, my dear, you'll be the diva of all France!
I giggled and stretched out my arms in the soft evening air. I knew the rest of the story well; I was about to ask him to sing the verse where Petite Lotte first heard the Angel of Music, my favourite part.
My scarlet silk-wool scarf flapped in the gusty sea breeze. It was Mama's, the only thing beside her plain gold wedding ring that we had not pawned to rent the house we lived in. The gulls overhead were calling and wheeling in the glowing orange sky. The sun was idly sliding off to the west. I opened my lips to sing the next verse—
—And the fair-weather beach wind snatched at Mama's scarf and carried it to the sea.
I squeezed fistfuls of Papa's longish wavy dark hair and let out a choked cry of dismay. But before he could pacify me, put me down, and go in after it, there was a flash of movement, just down the beach.
A fair boy, about my own age, skipped off down the sand and into the waves. An older lady, his black-clad governess, was shouting and wringing her hands. As I watched, he swam out with effort, fetched the scarf floating lazily on a swell, and made his way back, dripping unceremoniously.
"Here you are, mademoiselle," he said, offering a charming smile and my soaked scarf. Then, his bright blue eyes, bright as the summer sky, dropped down and focused on my braces. His mouth sagged open. Insensitively as only a child can be, he asked, "What's wrong with your legs?"
I answered with a bitter scowl and by sticking my tongue out at him.
And from that day forward, for those few months under the Breton sun, Raoul de Chagny was my only playmate and dearest friend.
Alas that those idyllic days could not last. Around the time Raoul entered my life, Papa grew ill. Looking back now, I realise that Raoul had just returned from a long trip to the New World; he had not contracted anything, but he may have been carrying a strain of disease that Papa's health could not have tolerated. I don't blame my old friend. Not at all.
My father passed away in a charity hospital in a banlieue of Paris. It was a terrible blow to my spirit, which sank like lead into a dark pool of mourning. I can still see the single candle that illuminated Papa's ashen and painfully-thin face as he offered me a weak smile. He gave me his treasured violin, Mama's scarf and wedding ring, and the promise that I would hear the Angel of Music one day. An hour, then a day, then nearly a week had passed in a blur, and I was suddenly standing at the gate of a poor Parisian orphanage, my one small suitcase in hand.
"Christine Daaé, daughter of Gustave and Charlotte Daaé," read the Mother Superior of Notre Dame des Fleuves Orphanage and Infirmary. She eyed the registration forms, no doubt scrutinizing my parents' artistic occupations and poor stations in life.
I was given a cot in a room lined with identical cots. There were about a dozen other orphans that lived at Notre Dame while I was there. The other half of the building functioned as a small children's hospital, tended by solemn nurses dressed in white. Soeur Vallier, who was taking me for a fitting of new braces, led me down the corridor. All the doors were open and dimly-lit, save one. It was firmly shut, with a brass plaque that read unfeelingly, "Quarantine."
"Who lives in that room?" I asked curiously. I shrunk back when my question was met with dark glares from some children in the hall, and fearful twitters from others.
Nurse Vallier answered me quietly. "Sophie Lachance lives there, Christine. She's ... very ill, my child." The other children backed away in herds as she opened the door to tend the sick ward.
"Go on, look at her!" urged a boy in jeering tone.
I looked. God help me, I looked. My breath caught in my chest and my mouth dropped open. I was thankful that she was asleep; unable to see the expression of horror that swept over my face. Mon Dieu...
"How bad is it?" asked a wide-eyed girl in a whisper.
I shook my head vehemently, muted by emotions.
"She's a monster!" said a boy matter-of-factly.
I whirled on him, wobbling a bit to maintain my balance. A five-year-old disease-ravaged little girl was no monster! She was as human he was, who brandished a broken arm in a splint. I gasped, and wanted very badly to tell him so, but my will to speak up for myself vanished in a cold realization.
I was a hypocrite; she was just like me, an imperfect person. Yet I had gawked with the rest. That moment, I promised myself I would never treat another person like that.
Time passed quietly. I remained in the orphanage, withering under the confinement of the sisters like a stifled bud. I found myself a niche in the small library, my mind devouring the literature voraciously, like a starving wretch. Most were religious texts, but I found several nearly-hidden volumes from the outside world, novels, collections of tales, essays, and poetry. I treasured them all. During lessons, while instructed to copy a passage from the Bible, I would draw faces, figures, and flowers instead. If I found a blank scrap of paper and a stub of charcoal, I drew. However, the cruel children often found my tiny portfolio and hid or destroyed it.
Every year, I prayed fervently in the chapel for the Angel of Music to manifest to me. I beseeched God and my father humbly. Every year, neither unearthly voice nor celestial vision visited me. Every year, I sang less and less. I hid my father's old violin, and shut away his fantasy tales, our lullabies… By my teenage years, I was silent and gloomy, one without hope.
At the age of fifteen, all orphans at Notre Dame des Fleuves were evicted. Some were adopted into families by the by, but the majority of us received a rudimentary education, and training for a lifetime of hard servitude. With little physical strength or coordination to recommend me, I utilized my finer crafting skills in sewing. I was quiet, unobtrusive, and exacting in my work. And due to that (or perhaps out of pity), the sisters let me stay beneath their humble roof for four more years, working in the kitchen, taking the mending in, and tending the laundry.
At nineteen, I was informed that they could no longer support me, despite my fine services and hard work. But in recognition of this, they found a post for me in a bourgeoisie home near the epicentre of Paris. I was instinctively frightened at the thought of being turned out of the gates, utterly alone and unprepared in the world. I swallowed hard, and went to the trunk that lay at the foot of my cot. I packed my few belongings¾plain clothing, Mama's wedding ring and scarf, Papa's violin, my aged rag doll, and little else. I did not look back at the orphanage as I boarded the cabriolet. Once in motion, I peered around the edge of the calash as the core of Paris opened to my wondering eyes. There was such a magnificent beauty to the orderly architecture that I could simply not believe the citizens went to and fro with barely an upward glance.
My destination was a wealthy town-house not far from the Madeleine. The light carriage rolled easily down the Boulevard des Italiens as the warm midmorning sun shimmered in the air.
"Driver," I said suddenly and shyly, "What is that establishment to our right?"
"That?" He briefly turned in to the direction I had indicated. "That is the Opéra, mademoiselle."
"Will you stop, please, sir?" My voice was quivering. An idea had rapidly sprung to life and was now running wild; with such costumes and clothing to maintain, surely such a grand theatre could use one more seamstress…
Bearing my one suitcase, I approached the imposing, colonnaded baroque façade of the Palais Garnier. It looked golden and promising, opulent and yet somehow fatuous. I felt a stab of fear, the familiar uncomfortable rush of anxiety. The rational part of my mind protested indignantly; it insisted that there was no chance a position was open, nor that my skills were nearly refined enough for a post there.
But my feet were stubbornly guiding me towards the entrance of the building. I diffidently approached the red-uniformed, moustachioed man stationed at the box office, forcing what I hoped was a confident smile onto my lips.
"May I speak to the management, please?"
"Are you looking for a refund, mam'selle?" he replied neutrally.
"No," I said, taken aback.
"Then I'm afraid the management is quite busy. Perhaps you could try contacting them at a later date for an appointment."
"Oh …" I prayed that I could swallow the lump of unshed tears in my throat and maintain a semblance of dignity. "Thank you."
"Would you care to leave your name and address?"
I leaped for the opportunity like a drowning woman reaching for a hand. "My name is Christine Charlotte Daaé, and I will be residing at—"
"Mademoiselle!" a stern woman's voice called from an ajar door. I started, and turned.
It was a slender, upright woman; not young, but not old, with a tight coil of plaited black hair and a severe black dress. As she drew nearer, I could make out the sharp features defined in pale, powdered skin. She also bore a cane, but she did not use it as I did, as evidenced by her fluid, graceful gait.
"Mademoiselle," she greeted with a cool graciousness marked by a certain suppressed excitement. "You are Christine Daaé?"
"Oui, Madame," I said deferentially, lowering my glance with respect. "Do you know of me …?"
"I am Marie-Louise Giry, the ballet mistress. But years ago, I was merely another young ballerina—and the leader of my row was a Mademoiselle Charlotte Landry."
"You knew my mother!" I gasped.
"Yes, I knew her. She and I were great friends, even unto our parting when she abandoned the stage for street musician." There was unspoken warmth in this last phase that instantly made me feel more at ease. I gave a tentative smile just as she asked me suddenly, "What do you do? Are you here to audition for the chorus?"
"Singing?" I echoed uneasily. "No, Madame, I am a seamstress."
If she was surprised, she concealed it well. "Alors, Mademoiselle, I myself can attest to the need of a new pair of hands around the opera house, especially those skilled with the needle. Come, and I'll show you around."
It took roughly a week to sort out my situation. The Leblanc family was informed that their new maid had found a different workplace; the opera house management, Messieurs Poligny and Lefevre, were notified of a new name on their payroll. I was given to the guidance of Madame Valérius, and immediately took up work on costume development and refurbishing.
I made a few work acquaintances at the opera house, but in the end, my monumental shyness prevented any semblance of real friendship. All save one …
Madame Giry's effervescent daughter, Marguax—dubbed Meg—immediately attached herself to me. Between practise, rehearsals, fittings, outings, and all other activities of the corps de ballet, she visited me in the sewing rooms, speaking kindly and eagerly to me.
"Salut, Christine!" she would sing out as she burst through the door, out of breath, eyes bright. "What are you working on? Oh, it's so pretty! What opera is it from? Who shall wear it?" And, as the days passed, we grew close as real sisters.
"Sing a song for me, Christine," Meg urged playfully one morning at the very end of March. "Please?"
"How did you know I—" I paused, blushing.
"Maman told me this morning. Oh, please? I bet you have a good voice."
"I haven't sung in years, Meg," I sighed regretfully, barely glancing up from mending my favourite black cotton skirt. "I suspect I never could."
Meg persisted ruthlessly and innocently. Finally, I relented, "What would you like to hear?"
Meg jumped up from her seat and grinned. "Come on!"
"What?" Terror seized me by the chest when she began to lead me to the stage. She pulled me gently by the wrist to the orchestra pit.
"Meg!" I protested feebly. "Surely we shall be caught!"
"Christine," she responded patiently, "No one is here at this hour. No one will hear you but I. Come, let's find a song for you."
I doubtfully examined the opera scores that littered the orchestra pit. Meyerbeer, Mozart, Puccini … Then, I spotted a worn copy of one of my favourites, Charles Gounod's Faust. I searched the pages for the jubilant Jewel Song, but this was Act Five only. I settled on Marguerite's climactic supplication to the angels.
"Are you ready?" Meg asked me excitedly.
I drew a deep breath and nodded slowly. As Meg found the guiding chords, I found myself thinking back to my father, buried beneath the despair and the years of silence …
Then … I found my voice.
Mon Dieu, protégez-moi,
Mon Dieu, je vous implore:
Anges purs, anges radieux!
Portez mon âme au sein des cieux!
Dieu juste, à toi, je m'abandonne,
Dieu bon, je suis à toi, pardonne!
Anges purs, anges radieux!
Portez mon âme au sein des cieux!
Anges purs, anges radieux!
Portez mon âme au sein des cieux!
I gasped for breath after the final high note, my throat raw. The effort was draining, but at the same time, I felt lighter, like a spun-glass ornament.
"Christine Daaé, your voice … is so … beautiful," Meg said haltingly, her face astonished. "Why aren't you a prima donna?"
I struggled to think of a witty, self-deprecating scoff. But as my bitterness rose, I could only shrug helplessly.
"I must go, Meg; I'm sorry," I muttered as I pushed past her and limped away. Down in the chapel, I bowed my head, and pressed my palms together.
"Our Father, who art in Heaven …" I began dutifully, then abruptly turned my prayers in another direction, speaking candidly as if my father's spirit could hear me. "Papa, I sang tonight for the first time since …" Well over a decade's worth of grief swelled up in my chest, and I wept like a lost child. "Oh, Papa, why? Why did you have to leave me? I've never felt so alone … even with all these people around me. You promised me I wouldn't be alone, that you would send the Angel of Music to me … but you lied, didn't you? Why did you have to lie to me?"
But there was no reply, of course; and I buried my face in my hands, and bent until my wrists rested on my knees.
At first, I thought it was simply my imagination, a faint echo of memory and pointless wishing. Yet I found that as I listened, there was music softly streaming in around me from everywhere. I sat up and turned my head this way and that. The painted walls, the stained-glass window, the floor, the ceiling, even the candles and portraits in front of me issued incredible music. It was a solo violin played with all the tenderness and brilliance I had always connected directly to my father. The music gripped my soul like two strong hands, and I began to sway gently to the rhythm. Then, an ethereal voice accompanied the next movement, singing softly:
Hear those bells ringing, soft and low,
Ringing each through the twilight glow,
Calling to everyone,
Night has begun
To rend from your weary toil,
Day's work is done.
Hear them ring, while my love and I
Drift and dream to the lullaby...
The wonderful song faded into heartbreaking silence, and all I heard for several minutes was my own ragged breathing. Then, the voice spoke to me for the first time.
I hear you, my child. The voice resonated deep within my heart.
"Papa? Is that you?" I asked quaveringly.
"Then wh-who are you?"
You know who I am.
My heart pounded. It couldn't be true. I could barely murmur one tiny word: "Angel..."