THE TIGHTROPE • by Helen de Búrca

He dreamed of his fairy child just before waking. She was dancing with otherworldly grace on a tightrope high above his head. He was not afraid that she would fall, but was frustrated that he could not see her better, for he was convinced that nobody had ever danced so beautifully. The harder he tried to peer at her, the more troubled and vague his vision became.

He forgot the dream immediately upon waking, and rose in great excitement. Today — this evening — he would see her. He would board the train in Geneva, jostled by elbows and ignoring the uninteresting conversations of strangers. He would pretend to work; he would probably just think about his daughter.

He would remember how, as a baby, she used to smile her gummy smile as soon as she saw him. He would remember her twig-like arms and legs the day she went to her very first ballet class, and her long hair in a plait down her back.

He would not think about the day his wife, already ex, had taken Daisy’s hand and led her onto the train, with her little pink suitcase — already containing tiny ballet slippers — trailing behind. He would not think about how Daisy had pressed her little button nose to the glass, her mouth a square of heartbreak. He would not think about how he had tried not to let her see him cry as the train pulled out.

That had been a long time ago; there was no need to think about any of that now.

He had not seen her for almost six months, since she had come to visit him in February for her school holiday. They had gone skiing, and she had taken to the snow far more easily than he, gliding like a swan over the sunlit slopes. Now, six months taller and older, she would be moving inexorably toward adolescence: already eleven years old! He yearned toward his vanishing little girl, racing too swiftly toward unfamiliarity.

She would have plenty to tell him after a week of ballet school at the Opéra de Paris. Would they have danced amidst the set of some great show? Would they have used the professional dressing rooms, those iconic mirrors with the light bulbs around them? He imagined a bustle of little girls, with their feathery tutus and birdlike chatter.

An email from his ex-wife beeped on his screen.

He had already planned that he would go straight to the Opéra upon arrival, and surprise Daisy with the biggest box of chocolates and the most exuberant bouquet of flowers he could find — they would have to be yellow, her favorite color. He would call her his ‘prima ballerina’, and he knew that she would accept the pet name perfectly naturally, as her due.

He opened the email.

“Hi Carl, Sorry to break this to you at the last minute. Daisy’s friend Sarah invited her to go this evening with her family to their house outside Florence for a month. I’m afraid she accepted immediately.  Sarah said she’ll have a private dance tutor every day. I know this is a disappointment to you, but Daisy is so excited that I couldn’t say no. Could you come to Paris in August instead? Best, Helga.”

He squinted at his screen, his eyes fuzzy. He seemed to be on the point of focusing on a tiny shape far above, but the more he tried, the more indistinct it appeared.


Helen de Búrca was born in Ireland and moved to Geneva almost 12 years ago. She travels and writes as often as her day job will allow her.


Rate this story:
 average 3.4 stars • 5 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Paul A. Freeman

    I was reminded of the family dynamics in the film ‘Taken’. I found it very skillful the way Helen kept the reader hoping against hope that the MC would not be disappointed in the end. A poignant piece of writing.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    I was reminded of the family dynamics in the film ‘Taken’. I found it very skillful the way Helen kept the reader hoping against hope that the MC would not be disappointed in the end. A poignant piece of writing.

  • I loved the voice, the tone, the mood, and the skill of the writing – until the opening of the e-mail. The ending was a bummer, although well written.

  • I loved the voice, the tone, the mood, and the skill of the writing – until the opening of the e-mail. The ending was a bummer, although well written.

  • Frank Schulaner

    “He yearned toward his vanishing little girl, racing too swiftly toward unfamiliarity.”
    Yes.

  • weequahic

    “He yearned toward his vanishing little girl, racing too swiftly toward unfamiliarity.”
    Yes.

  • Frank Schulaner

    Paul, did I erase you? Sorry.

    • Paul A. Freeman

      I don’t think so. My star-rating seemed to have disappeared though, so I re-entered it.

  • weequahic

    Paul, did I erase you? Sorry.

    • Paul A. Freeman

      I don’t think so. My star-rating seemed to have disappeared though, so I re-entered it.

  • The ending, tied to the fitful dream in the beginning, was done well. I liked that a lot.

    The use of ‘probably’ seemed out of place in the second paragraph. I think the author and the MC would know if he intended to think of his daughter and not work. 🙂

    Mixing future and past tense verbs messed with my mind a little. I don’t think that is wrong to use them here. After going back and reading the story a second time, I think that it is because there are so many ‘would’ sentences. It is just my preference to be in the action of a story, the future tense takes that away a bit for me.

    There are some really nice sentences that stand out boldly. I am with FS on the one he pointed out.

  • The ending, tied to the fitful dream in the beginning, was done well. I liked that a lot.

    The use of ‘probably’ seemed out of place in the second paragraph. I think the author and the MC would know if he intended to think of his daughter and not work. 🙂

    Mixing future and past tense verbs messed with my mind a little. I don’t think that is wrong to use them here. After going back and reading the story a second time, I think that it is because there are so many ‘would’ sentences. It is just my preference to be in the action of a story, the future tense takes that away a bit for me.

    There are some really nice sentences that stand out boldly. I am with FS on the one he pointed out.

  • samantha

    Nice theme about a reality many parents are forced to face after a divorce.
    I seemed to have missed something about the time this piece is set and some other technicalities. His visit was planned right? And for them to accept an invitation and leave straight away to Italy seemed “unusual” as they were to be stay for an month….so what was the rush? It seems a touch unrealistic to me…given that its not around the corner (Paris-Florence and the packing for a month needed).
    And last but not least about the time, he last her six months ago….in February…so that brings us to August…so why does she tell him to come in August “instead”?
    Finally, I too think the word would has been overused here.
    Overall, a nice read though.

  • samantha

    Nice theme about a reality many parents are forced to face after a divorce.
    I seemed to have missed something about the time this piece is set and some other technicalities. His visit was planned right? And for them to accept an invitation and leave straight away to Italy seemed “unusual” as they were to be stay for an month….so what was the rush? It seems a touch unrealistic to me…given that its not around the corner (Paris-Florence and the packing for a month needed).
    And last but not least about the time, he last her six months ago….in February…so that brings us to August…so why does she tell him to come in August “instead”?
    Finally, I too think the word would has been overused here.
    Overall, a nice read though.

  • “An email from his ex wife…” Let me know I had no idea of the timeline. I was comfortable in old europe; Dukes and Duchesses and such. Last line too contrived, the rest was beautiful.

    • Samantha

      Europe counts months exactly the same as most other western places, I can assure you. He last saw her in her February school break and that was six months ago. So it is August and the fact that they will be away for a months…..well, the poor dad will have to figure out when that really is….
      Even if the word February is omitted, there is a problem timeline-wise as they will be way for a month…

      • Thank you, Samantha. What I meant was by “timeline” was the era the story took place.

        • samantha

          well, it cant be more than 20 odd years ago since he gets emails from the ex and has a smart phone to check them….

        • MPmcgurty

          Yes, I had the same reaction. “Oh! An email?” Even though I have traveled by train there and understand how common it is, I pictured the old trains!

          • Thank you, MP. I thought maybe I was completely understood. Old trains, old Europe, man oh man.

          • Samantha

            The little girl’s pink suitcase was also another indication of the era. Its maybe a lot easier for those living in Europe to perceive it as a current era story, I guess. Trains are quite fast, modern (in most cases) and a very reliable, popular way of intercity travel here and let me tell you they are not cheap either. But its not a means someone well off would use….

  • “An email from his ex wife…” Let me know I had no idea of the timeline. I was comfortable in old europe; Dukes and Duchesses and such. Last line too contrived, the rest was beautiful.

    • Samantha

      Europe counts months exactly the same as most other western places, I can assure you. He last saw her in her February school break and that was six months ago. So it is August and the fact that they will be away for a months…..well, the poor dad will have to figure out when that really is….
      Even if the word February is omitted, there is a problem timeline-wise as they will be way for a month…

      • Thank you, Samantha. What I meant was by “timeline” was the era the story took place.

        • samantha

          well, it cant be more than 20 odd years ago since he gets emails from the ex and has a smart phone to check them….

        • MPmcgurty

          Yes, I had the same reaction. “Oh! An email?” Even though I have traveled by train there and understand how common it is, I pictured the old trains!

          • Thank you, MP. I thought maybe I was completely understood. Old trains, old Europe, man oh man.

          • Samantha

            The little girl’s pink suitcase was also another indication of the era. Its maybe a lot easier for those living in Europe to perceive it as a current era story, I guess. Trains are quite fast, modern (in most cases) and a very reliable, popular way of intercity travel here and let me tell you they are not cheap either. But its not a means someone well off would use….

  • Sir Light Bright

    So sad. Even at this length, it had the power to move. Beautiful opening.

  • Sir Light Bright

    So sad. Even at this length, it had the power to move. Beautiful opening.

  • Carl Steiger

    Aarrgh! That is NOT how I wanted it to end, although I could see it coming. I’ll come back and vote another day once I’ve gotten over my fury at Helga.

  • Carl Steiger

    Aarrgh! That is NOT how I wanted it to end, although I could see it coming. I’ll come back and vote another day once I’ve gotten over my fury at Helga.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    A really lovely and lyrical description of longing and loss in the beginning, and then it dissolved into “bad ex and heedless child break dad’s heart.” Too bad. A little more subtlety would have made this an outstanding story.

    • S Conroy

      Agree. I was feeling a little heartless for not warming more to the story, though I can say without reserve I loved the opening.

      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

        Well, I think this picture of wealth and privilege is a bit over the top for building real sympathy in the reader. Paris Opera Ballet School? A private dance tutor every day for a month in Florence? Skiiing with dad on holiday? I can hear the piercing tones of that child’s voice anytime someone tries to say “no”–and the skiing with dad doesn’t let us believe in some imbalance in the situation making dad even more poignant. Magic beginning went thud.

        • Samantha

          I get what you mean but lets not forget he is living in Geneva and the Alps so its not a huge luxury in that sense. They possibly live in Paris so again, the Paris Opera not that weird (if daddy is a Swiss banker). Its just that the last part of the story was totally different in tone than the rest. But then again it does show the quality of communication and how they feel about him. Geneva is not that far to visit on a more frequent basis than six months (an hour away, if that, by plane) .

          Interesting how women saw this story and how the gentlemen did.

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            Well, yes–this is the problem–they are living an exalted lifestyle. The cavalier, dismissive treatment of Papa fits right in. If, say, the author had chosen to show dad struggling to pay for that skiing holiday that Daisy accepts as natural–if those chocolates and roses meant he was eating ramen noodles for a month–there’d have been interesting depths here–even to show that his fairy child was a casual little demon of burgeoning obnoxiousness–that’s also of course a cliche-ed situation but this author I think has the talent to explore it.

          • Samantha

            Im so with you on this. I would maybe just add that if the father did all those things, the chances are the kid would have been much different and not a spoiled brat…but the dynamics may well be about a great many broken homes that live this way so yeah, cliche alright.

            For the record, I wasn’t moved by the situation.

            oh, missed your input the past few days!

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            Sometimes the Bad Fairy tries to restrain herself…

          • Samantha

            our loss!

        • S Conroy

          Yep. That would be it alright. Kept my icy heart unthawed.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    A really lovely and lyrical description of longing and loss in the beginning, and then it dissolved into “bad ex and heedless child break dad’s heart.” Too bad. A little more subtlety would have made this an outstanding story.

    • S Conroy

      Agree. I was feeling a little heartless for not warming more to the story, though I can say without reserve I loved the opening.

      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

        Well, I think this picture of wealth and privilege is a bit over the top for building real sympathy in the reader. Paris Opera Ballet School? A private dance tutor every day for a month in Florence? Skiiing with dad on holiday? I can hear the piercing tones of that child’s voice anytime someone tries to say “no”–and the skiing with dad doesn’t let us believe in some imbalance in the situation making dad even more poignant. Magical beginning went thud.

        • Samantha

          I get what you mean but lets not forget he is living in Geneva and the Alps so its not a huge luxury in that sense. They possibly live in Paris so again, the Paris Opera not that weird (if daddy is a Swiss banker). Its just that the last part of the story was totally different in tone than the rest. But then again it does show the quality of communication and how they feel about him. Geneva is not that far to visit on a more frequent basis than six months (an hour away, if that, by plane) .

          Interesting how women saw this story and how the gentlemen did.

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            Well, yes–this is the problem–they are living an exalted lifestyle. The cavalier, dismissive treatment of Papa fits right in. If, say, the author had chosen to show dad struggling to pay for that skiing holiday that Daisy accepts as natural–if those chocolates and roses meant he was eating ramen noodles for a month–there’d have been interesting depths here–even to show that his fairy child was a casual little demon of burgeoning obnoxiousness–that’s also of course a cliche-ed situation but this author I think has the talent to explore it.

          • Samantha

            Im so with you on this. I would maybe just add that if the father did all those things, the chances are the kid would have been much different and not a spoiled brat…but the dynamics may well be about a great many broken homes that live this way so yeah, cliche alright.

            For the record, I wasn’t moved by the situation.

            oh, missed your input the past few days!

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            Sometimes the Bad Fairy tries to restrain herself…

          • Samantha

            our loss!

        • S Conroy

          Yep. That would be it alright. Kept my icy heart unthawed.

  • Cranky Steven

    I loved the story (personal experience helped) but the ending was hard to take. Four stars.

  • Cranky Steven

    I loved the story (personal experience helped) but the ending was hard to take. Four stars.

  • joanna b.

    did no one in this family ever hear about custody arrangements? the courts don’t permit these sudden changes in visitation. i’m glad samantha pointed out that it’s an hour’s flight between geneva and paris. seen in that context, the father’s six years (maybe more if the first ballet shoes were that tiny) of yearning seem overwrought. i did give this story 4 stars for the beauty in the writing. i wanted to know more about everyone, because of the skills of the author, so perhaps this story doesn’t quite fit the flash fiction limits.

  • joanna b.

    did no one in this family ever hear about custody arrangements? the courts don’t permit these sudden changes in visitation. i’m glad samantha pointed out that it’s an hour’s flight between geneva and paris. seen in that context, the father’s six years (maybe more if the first ballet shoes were that tiny) of yearning seem overwrought. i did give this story 4 stars for the beauty in the writing. i wanted to know more about everyone, because of the skills of the author, so perhaps this story doesn’t quite fit the flash fiction limits.