Four Lives

Dawn Raffel

The Fan Dancer

In the beginning, the dancer used fans. The fans were made of feathers. The feathers were ostrich. So skilled was the dancer in moving the fans back and forth in front of her body that people believed she was naked beneath them.

This was an illusion, a trick of the eye. In the beginning, the dancer was a classical performer who failed to earn a living. In the beginning, the dancer was a girl. In the beginning, the dancer was an egg. In the beginning, the dancer was a seed. In the beginning, the dancer was weightless, unseeable, and boundless.

Never mind. The beginning makes no difference for the purpose of this story. The stage where this story takes place, where the dancer performed with her fans, was in The Streets of Paris. The dancer was not French — not at the time of the story, nor in the beginning. The stage where this dance was performed was not in Paris, nor in France, nor in the streets, nor in Berlin with its famously risqué cabarets, nor in Brussels, or Vienna, or Warsaw, nor anywhere in Europe. In fact, the Streets of Paris could be found across an ocean, at the great world’s fair called The Century of Progress. Over the course of a summer, millions of citizens crowded into temporary structures — which, in the beginning, had been nothing — to celebrate a vision of the future, and also to enjoy a bit of naughty entertainment.

Night after night, the dancer was arrested. Her ostrich-feather act was deemed indecent.

The following summer, The Century of Progress re-opened for its second and final season in Chicago. It was 1934. The feather-fans were gone but not the dancer. She had changed her act and was dancing in a bubble.

The Balloonist

There once was a man who lived in a county of a kingdom that no longer exists. At the center of the county was a castle which was ruined several centuries before the man was born.

The man was a painter, and also an astronomer, photographer, enjoyer of women, collector of weapons, traveler of continents. His thirst for the world. It was a thirst that was unquenchable by land or by sea.

One day the man went up in a balloon, an envelope of air like a missive to the heavens. No one had seen such a thing in the kingdom where he lived. High above the earth in his opulent basket, he waved in exhilaration and farewell.

Gravity, of course, is inescapable. In time, the man exhausted his fortune. Rather than be grounded, he shot himself to death.

The remains of the castle, which now belongs to another country, continues to be a tourist destination.

The Aviator

First, he was required to learn how to fly. This was not an easy task, but his leader insisted. He was young and he could do it. The sky was the future. Lacking any singular gift for navigation or flight, the aviator studied and sweated and soon he was given command of the Air Force. The world was at peace, so the aviator gathered celestial flotillas, great expeditions of dozens of seaplanes, placing himself at the center, the better to be guided by reliable pilots.

Soon, he was mastering the hemispheres, the heavens, soaring over oceans of ice for the glory of the leader who was now a dictator. Soon, in every city with a port where the aviator, flanked by his seaplanes, completed a mission, thousands of citizens, regardless of nation, would come out to cheer.

The flight of his life was in an airborne flotilla across the spinning earth, across the great wheel of time. Up the aviator flew from Orbetello, stopping in cities with names in many languages: Amsterdam and Londonderry, Reykjavík, where skies raged and spat, to Cartwright and Shediac and quaint Montreal, through fog and threat of death. In Amsterdam, a plane had been destroyed, a man killed. The aviator persisted, all the while smoking and sipping draughts of cognac in the cockpit to steady his nerves. At each and every landing, the aviator heard a cordial warning from his leader, by telegraph and telephone.


The aviator reached his destination on the fifteenth day. Hundreds of thousands of citizens awaited in Chicago at the Century of Progress. He and his pilots were feted with parties and feasts and parades. There were commemorative stamps. His leader was gratified and jealous.

Soon it would happen that the world was at war. The aviator dared to disagree with his leader. The aviator died in the air, in an unfortunate instance of friendly fire.

The Lover

Her lover built a castle, but only of words. Her lover was her lover in spirit, on paper, in mind, in heart, but not in the flesh.

Her lover coughed. Her lover turned one thing into another, fantastical, contorted, tortured. He was endlessly creating impossible scenarios, horrifying rules. Her lover died at 40, in a sanatorium outside of Vienna. The cause was consumption. By then they’d been estranged, although their love appeared to linger.

Twenty years later, in a setting with a beautiful name, not far from Berlin, in a town until then most noted for its palace, she quietly expired. The cause was the kidneys. The cause was starvation, exhaustion, the penetrating cold, the lack of medical attention. The cause was words. She was guilty of those, and her name had been replaced with a number. The cause was deeds, smuggling out the living, in defiance of the ruling regime. The cause was sticking out her neck. The cause was that she loved. The cause was that the body, made of flesh, had ceased to breathe.

Notes: The Fan Dancer (Sally Rand, 1904-1975); The Balloonist (Bela Probstner (nineteenth century, exact dates unknown); The Aviator (Italo Balbo, 1896-1940, the only member of Benito Mussolini’s inner circle to oppose an alliance with Hitler); The Lover (Milena Jesenská, 1896-1944, Franz Kafka’s lover and Ravensbrück prisoner number 4714. She was sentenced for criticizing Hitler and for smuggling Jews and political refugees out of Czechoslovakia.

Dawn Raffel is the author of five books, most recently The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies. Her stories have appeared in BOMB; O, The Oprah Magazine; NOON; Conjunctions; The Mississippi Review; The Iowa Review; New Letters; Big Other, and in the anthologies Best Small Fictions, New American Short Stories, New Micro, XO Orpheus, and Short, among others.