Dance – a short story inspired by a photograph

5935 Hahnemuhle rag copy
Photographer: © Robert Downes    @robertjfdownes

Saturday evening, riverside. A short-handled axe with a double head forged in the shape of eagle wings. The hand that wields it, is near invisible. The axe is a crowd surfer bobbing through the multitude of unseeing heads. Levi alerts his mother by tugging at her clothes. Look at that man, he says.
Levi’s mother looks up from her thoughts. She sees several men – teens, twenty somethings – dotted in groups along the riverbank path, doing largely unremarkable things; rolling fingers in the necks of their t-shirts to make room for the air and adjusting the angles of their caps to shield their eyes from the glare of the sun or perhaps from the scrutiny of other young men doing equally unremarkable things.
What man?
He has an axe, and red trousers.
Well I don’t see him, she says. Her snippiness comes from having essays to mark and lecture notes to prepare and from wearing closed toe shoes when it’s thirty degrees and forgetting that the person she’s with is six years old. Remembering this, she suggests that they get ice cream.

Elegba, divine keeper of the roads, has hitched a lift on a cart. The cart belongs to the man whose job it is to sweep the streets whose name is Joseph. Joseph can’t see Elegba because Elegba is a small god, also because Joseph’s business is discarded things he rarely lifts his eyes from the pavement. He has a collection of discarded things – fallen rings, lost banknotes, hastily ditched bags of weed – in the pockets of his blue overalls. Elegba’s eyes are not on Joseph, but on Oshun who is taking her time to come up from the riverbank. She has barely arrived when he starts to speak.
Have you seen that Shango? he says, storming around with his tempers like that? Not caring where he flings them or what he’s stirring up?
Oshun coughs and wrings out her hair. Yes, she says, the trousers are a bit much, and then she coughs some more.
Likely there’ll be a fight, says Elegba.
You look a bit gleeful, says Oshun, you need to work on your disapproving face. She draws a well of phlegm to the back of her throat. When she spits, it skims the front of the cart and Elegba draws in his dangling feet. His disapproving face makes progress.
A bit trashy no? he says, for the Goddess of the river?
Oshun has lived in the river for millennia. She’s seen lots of trash – is hard to offend.
It’s the raw sewage, she says, and the cigarettes.

Levi is sitting on the scarf that his mother has laid out picnic blanket style on the grass. He’s not keeping pace with his ice cream and is wearing it across his face and shirt.
Has that woman been swimming? he asks and as he points, the last of the ice cream slips from the cone into his lap.
Nobody swims here, says Levi’s mother, the water’s too dirty. She doesn’t see Oshun because she is hunting in her bag. I think I forgot the wet wipes, she says.

Ogun, the God of metals, who has never yet succeeded in persuading Shango to cool down his temper, has decided to keep his distance from today’s fracas. He is watching from a fifth-floor roof terrace café where he has laid down his own weapon – a square headed hammer – so as to get a better grip on the iron railings, which have given him a bit of an appetite. The narcotic effect of the rust in his mouth has him dreaming of his ex, Oya, Goddess of the winds.

I’ve changed my ways, he says, to the dream.
Liar, it answers. He looks up to where Oya is hovering overhead – the actual as opposed to the dream version. Today she has two mouths on each of her three faces, and an assembly of furrowed brows. She’s exuding the air bending, breeze kicking kind of mood that he’s seen many times before.
You best go and talk to your friend, she says and the word friend is unwelcome in her mouth, sour as a lemon. The sourness is for Shango, who she’s always considered vulgar and who is still down below, stomping the riverside and wielding his axe, whipping up, for no good reason at all as far as she can see, a surfeit of ill feeling. Bad vibes are brewing where not long before there was simply idling and unremarkable activity. Oya’s train of thought is broken by the sound of Ogun weeping, which makes her sigh, which in turn causes every tree along the river to lean and sway, and random strands of hair to fly up into faces, and a man with no hair curse as he loses his hat to the river. Ogun, fired up on grief and heartbreak, and a leaning toward dramatic gestures, grabs his hammer and throws himself off of the roof.

Levi is holding his mother’s hand, trying to keep pace with her as she searches for somewhere to get cleaned up. His sense of balance is compromised by his pointing up to the sky.
It’s the London Eye, says his mother.
But they’re flying, says Levi.
Thank goodness, says his mother. She says this because she’s seen a toilet sign which is, in this particular moment, what she most wants to see.

Elegba, trickster, keeper of the gateways, has turned his attentions to a young woman whose piercings are dotted in a constellation across her face. As she adjusts the height of her microphone stand Elegba copies her stance – pelvis forward, legs wide – and when she bends to connect guitar to amp, he bends too. The woman, whose name is Malawi, is in her final year of music college and has made this exact connection hundreds of times. This is why the thunderclap of feedback that hits the air, making people yelp and screw up their faces and cover their ears, lights a fire of shame in her cheeks. Malawi sees her own mistake, not the red trousers or the man wearing them or the sparks of red dust firing out from the stacked soles of his gold Huaraches and whispering; fight, fight, fight. Neither does Malawi see, as she throws out apologies to her scattered audience, the axe. It shines with a particular shade of murderous intent and passes within a hair of the industrial piercing on her right ear. Levi, face glistening fresh from the bathroom facilities, sees it all.

Levi sees Ogun and his hammer plunge to earth within a metre of each other. They both narrowly miss the head of a skateboarder named Carlos. It’s a long time since Carlos has had a basic heel flip end like this, with his body skidding the concrete, graceless as a bowled skittle. His skateboard races ahead for tricks of its own – banging shins and scuffing shoes, including the shoes of strangers who are already rattled by the heat, and agitated by the whispers of the red fire dust that they can’t see. Those closest find themselves filled with a sudden need to be seen and heard, and rated, and respected, or else. Shoulders square up, lips mutter and curl, agitated eyes bug and look for other eyes to lock on to. They are all too busy to see the skateboard, or the quiet foot that brings it to rest. Even Carlos, who is looking in the right direction, sees only that one of his trucks is bent and will need money to fix. The quiet foot is one of a pair, both of which have high arches and are tucked inside turquoise jelly sandals sewn with cowrie shells. They smell of the ocean. Levi thinks they are quite lovely.

As a general rule, Yemaja doesn’t get involved. Age upon age of minding the oceans, dispersing shipwrecks and tolerating the wailing of sirens has left her both sage and hard of hearing. She is at peace with the sagging of things, personal and historical – the slump of her own belly and breasts as much as the gutter bound trajectory of world affairs in general. She’s long ago ceased to harangue the wrinkles on her face, and now tends each one like a child, thanking them for the work they have done. It’s all very quiet in Yemaja’s world, no matter the weather or time of day, even in a hullaballoo like this, fraught with high chins and thunder and fists at the ready and people saying ‘let’s go then yeah? Let’s go!’ Yemaja stands with one finger on her lips, and Levi has learned at school that this means no talking, so he doesn’t talk. He watches as Yemaja moves an arm – a vaguely perceptible movement, slow as an hour hand on a clock, the tiniest friction in the depths of an ocean as water curls and a wave is conceived.

Riverside; a darkness slips in and all eyes are up, looking for rain, puzzled by the cloudless sky. The water comes up, not down – great arcs of it, sprayed from the ground – and makes them jump, literally. For a second – a long enough second – the people forget themselves. The mechanics – the magic of the thing – are unseen and unsought. To be thrown water on a hot day is to care nothing for who may have flicked the switch, whether a person inside a building doing a job or a Goddess hushing the world. Levi’s mother, whose name is Veronique, is not thinking about which. She is letting her bag slide from her shoulder and focusing her lens to catch the shot. She sees him clearly – her son – in his shirtless, shoeless, artless, oblivion in the mists of the fountain. He takes a bow. The water blesses his naked back, also the backs of other shadows dancing alongside. In the blessing dance, all thirsts are quenched; mortal and immortal, living and dead.

© Foluke Taylor 2017



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