“Remember… You’ll never be one of them,” Miss Gellner said, repositioning each of us on our divans in the sitting room so our gowns draped elegantly around our crossed ankles.
She stepped back and gazed at the group of us, her face pinched and stern like always, but I spotted a tiny glimmer of pride behind her rheumy eyes. Twenty girls: lovely, demure, quiet. She was pleased with us, even if she wouldn’t say it out loud.
Miss Gellner blinked, as if bringing herself back to the moment. “Things won’t change once you leave here,” she went on. “Simply because you’ll be pampered and spoiled, your life’s mission won’t suddenly be any different. Remember that. Your sole purpose is to enrich the lives of your new owners.”
As she said this, she lightly tapped her bamboo training stick against my back, not a hard whack the way she had done relentlessly when we first transferred from the Greenwich Kennel to the training center, where she and her staff could cultivate us into the sort of girls we were bred to be. This was just a warning tap, reminding me to sit so that my spine was a stem, and I was the flower resting atop it.
It was a pose we’d practiced daily for the past four years; during music and etiquette and dining, even during our nightly baths. But the fluttering in my stomach distracted me, drawing me down into myself. My whole body felt fluttery: my hands, my feet, even my eyes. I worried that the moment the two grand doors leading to the reception room swung open, I might flap away; a feather caught on the wind.
Next to me, Seven bit nervously at her bottom lip. It was weird to think that by tonight she’d have a new name, a real one. The breeders at Greenwich assigned us numbers as names at conception: One through Twenty, since twenty was the maximum number of girls they were allowed to have each year. I was Eight, but not for much longer. By tonight, I could be anything.
Across the room, Miss Gellner took a few steps towards the grand wooden doors, resting her hand lightly on the knob before she turned to face us one last time.
“I want you to keep your composure when they come in. I’ve spent four years preparing you for this moment.” She thumped her training stick on the ground for emphasis. “Four years. Don’t waste them. Each move that you make, every turn of your head and pout of your lip speaks to my effectiveness as a trainer and I won’t have that work tarnished. When I open these doors, I expect you to remember all the things I’ve taught you.”
The stiff lining of my dress rubbed against my rib cage and I ached to shift to a more comfortable position, but I held still, staring straight ahead at Miss Gellner with a soft smile placed carefully on my lips.
“Be sure to hold your tongues,” she went on. “You are not doing the selecting. Do not ask questions. Speak if spoken to, but keep your answers brief. We don’t want to scare away a potential buyer with a girl who has too forward a notion of who’s in charge.”
Beside me, the other girls were sitting silently. We were perfectly trained, all of us. And lovely, too. In our new dresses, we looked like royalty. Miss Gellner had picked out a different shade of gown for each of us, our first piece of clothing that was distinctly ours. She’d deliberated long and hard on the color choices. She wanted us each to look different. It wouldn’t do for the customers to think they were getting cloned girls even though there were plenty of differences between us to set us apart. Yes, we all had large eyes, spaced perfectly on our heart shaped faces. We all had small noses, long, thin necks, and rose petal lips. But we each had distinct coloring. Seven’s hair was nearly black. Sixteen’s eyes were green, the color of fresh summer grass, and Twenty’s skin was the same warm brown of the toasted bread that we were rewarded with on Sunday mornings. We were unique. One of a kind.
I was happy with the dress Miss Gellner had chosen for me. It was the palest shade of blue, hardly a color at all. These dresses would be the only item that would accompany us to our new homes. Our new owners would provide everything else.
“We’re lucky to have a number of congressmen and senators here today,” Miss Gellner went on. “Power, prestige, wealth, you’ll be surrounded by the best, which is why it is important that you be the best.” Miss Gellner sighed, nodding her head once. “All right girls. It’s time.”
She turned and threw open the doors. “Ladies… Gentlemen…” her voice boomed as she glided into the next room. “If you’ll kindly follow me, I’ll show you to the sitting room. You’ll have a chance to look over each of the girls before you make your decision. As I told each of you over the phone, the number on your tag will determine the order of selection.”
A moment later a stream of bodies and voices flowed into the room. I drew a breath and held it, trying to compose myself, but the fluttering inside me only grew worse. My vision blurred as the men and women pressed closer, talking loudly to one another.
“Oh my! They’re so little,” a woman cooed “They look like twelve-year-olds.”
“I can assure you, they’re sixteen,” Miss Gellner said. “They’re fully grown; all measuring in at exactly five feet.”
An older man grabbed a lock of my hair and rubbed it between his fingers. “Like corn silk,” he said to the woman next to him. “Did you say you were hoping for a blond or a red head? This one almost seems like a mix of the two.”
“And it does have beautiful eyes. Look, they’re practically turquoise,” she crooned. “But, I was hoping for a real red head. There’s an auburn one over there we should look at.”
I didn’t dare turn my head to watch them walk across the room to look at Ten.
A middle-aged couple finished looking at Seven and circled around me. I blinked a few times, finally bringing my eyes back into focus as the man’s dark eyes skated over me. He was obviously quite a bit older than me, but his jaw was much stronger than the other men I’d seen so far and his eyes were bright. A sprinkling of gray hairs dusted the dark hair at his temples. The woman beside him had probably been a beauty when she was younger, but now she was a different sort of beautiful: regal and refined. She was tall, even taller than Miss Gellner, with high cheekbones, a strong jaw, and long arched brows perched overtop piercing blue eyes. Even though she had lines around her eyes and mouth, her hair was almost as dark as Seven’s, without a hint of gray. Everything about her intimidated me.
“Now this has some promise,” the man said, looking into my eyes. “Do you like this one?”
“Oh, John, do we really need to do this?” The woman sighed, her eyes drifting around the room.
“Do what, Darling?”
“You can cut it with the ‘Darling’, too. It’s not like anyone’s listening. They’re busy choosing their own pets,” she said, gesturing towards the rest of the people in the room with an elegant sweep of her arm. “And you can stop pretending I have any say in your precious little project. You know I couldn’t care less about getting her.”
Her husband stepped forward, so close their bodies almost touched. “You know how it looks for us not to have one, don’t you? After all the time I spent getting this bill to pass. People are saying things. You don’t want them to think—”
She took a step away from him, eyeing an old man who had turned his attention to their conversation. “Whatever you say, Dear,” she interrupted. “I’m merely along for the ride.”
“You can’t argue that Ruby needs this,” the man said. “We agreed.”
Her face softened. “I know.”
He took a deep breath, and when he turned back to me, it was as if he’d flipped a switch, changing his face back to the same well-groomed look of prominence and stature I’d seen on it to begin with.
“Stand up and give us a little whirl, Love,” he said to me.
I hadn’t anticipated the weakness in my legs, but I stood and turned slowly, the way I learned in my Poise lessons. I kept my chin up, neck elongated, my arms held out ever so slightly from my sides as if my hands were brushing the skirt of a tutu.
The man smiled once I faced him again. “And what are your talents? The Kennel Trainer said that you each specialized in two.”
“My talents are piano, dance, and singing. Although my vocal range is not as diverse as some.”
His forehead creased, his eyes narrowing, and my stomach flipped. If Miss Gellner had been standing next to me, she would have lashed me with her stick. We’d practiced our lines over and over and still I said it wrong. There hadn’t been any need for me to point out my faults so blatantly. I should have only mentioned the piano and dance and not said anything about the singing. I was trying too hard to impress.
“Three talents?” he asked. “Marvelous. I suppose We’d be getting a little bit more bang for the buck if we go with you then, isn’t that right?”
The man’s phrasing confused me and I lowered my eyes to the ground and smiled softly the way we’d been taught to do if we ever didn’t know how to answer a question.
“So which is your favorite?”
“Favorite?” I asked.
“Which one do you like the most?”
“I’m quite good at all three as long as the song I’m singing is written for a mezzo soprano.”
“But certainly you have a favorite?”
My mind raced, trying to think over all the scenarios we’d spoken about like this one in our Conversation class, but I drew a blank. Those classes were meant to help us understand our new owner better, not to help them understand us. I couldn’t come right out and tell him that I had a favorite. Miss Gellner would be outraged. Maybe I could try to change the subject? But then he might realize I was doing it to avoid his question, and he would know that I really did have a favorite.
It was too complicated an interaction.
The woman smiled slyly. “Maybe she doesn’t understand your question John. Sure, she’s pretty, but they weren’t bred for brains.”
“I thought you said you wanted to stay out of this.”
She raised her hands and took a step back without saying another word.
The man tried again. “What I mean to say is: which one of your talents do you prefer? Is there one that makes you particularly happy?”
I swallowed, hoping to push down the rock that had lodged itself in my throat. “Well sir, if there’s one that you prefer, I’m sure I’d be delighted to perform for you.”
The man sighed and shook his head. “Never mind. Why don’t you sit back down?”
I smiled once more and sank back onto the divan, trying to hold my head high even though my eyes burned.
For the next hour, the groups of men and women circled around the room. They were all so much bigger than I’d imagined they’d be, not only in their physical stature, but their presence, as if the room couldn’t contain them. They gobbled up the air.
Finally Miss Gellner moved us into the concert room. We’d each been assigned one talent to demonstrate to give the clients a better taste of what they’d be buying. Four and Five would each be performing an adagio en pointe, a few girls were playing the flute and the cello, but the majority of us would be playing the piano or singing.
Maybe it should have bothered me that I wouldn’t stand out, but all I could think about as we sat down in the velvet seats arranged along the edges of the room was Debussy’s First Arabesque in E major, the song Miss Gellner had chosen for me to play. It wasn’t an elaborate song. I could play solos that were so much more difficult like the piece by Prokofiev that I learned last year, but I was glad she hadn’t chosen that one. Sure, I wouldn’t be able to show off my finger work playing the First Arabesque, but that didn’t matter. I could already feel the notes of the song moving up through my fingers and arms, a soft vibration that settled somewhere at the base of my neck like the warm hand of a friend.
We moved in order: One, Two, Three, Four, on and on until finally it was my turn. As I climbed the stairs to the small stage at the front of the room and sat on the tufted cushion of the piano bench, it was as if a white curtain had been drawn down between the crowd and me. I took a deep breath, savoring the moment before I placed my hands on the keys and started to play.
My fingers floated over the ivories for only a short four minutes, but my heart and mind quieted. I didn’t know if the other girls felt this way when they were playing, as if they were all alone and the rest of the world melted away leaving the air awash in soft color. I’d always been too embarrassed to ask. What if it meant that I had something wrong with me?
Those four minutes didn’t last long enough and before I knew it my fingers had stopped, hovering over the keys as the last notes died away. A polite spattering of applause brought me back to the room full of strangers. As I stood, I glanced out into the audience, allowing myself to imagine which of these people might be my future owner. Toward the back of the room I spotted the man with the salt and pepper hair and his wife. Neither of them was clapping, but for just a second he held my gaze and nodded ever so slightly.
That small gesture made my face burn with shame. He knew that I lied to him before when he’d asked me which one of my talents was my favorite. Of course it was piano, but I could never say it out loud. I was supposed to bring pleasure to my new masters, not to find pleasure for myself.
A cold sweat broke out across my back and I shivered, sitting back down on my chair to watch the remainder of the performances. If he could read me so easily, maybe everyone else could, too.