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Dance – a short story inspired by a photograph


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

 

 

The Stain

They don’t go to the church with the steeple and the organ chamber any more. At the Free Church there are no stained glass disciples, fonts or baptisteries and no robed choirboys for her to envy. The hall of the Free Church is shaped like a shoebox and open to interpretation. When it’s empty, if not for the thin cross, mounted on the wall at the front, it might not be a place of worship at all. Here, the spirit of praise and prayer is not invoked with architecture but with slideshows of good works in faraway places and hill songs accompanied by guitars. Gone then is the oaken grandeur of All Saints, where she could tune out soporific sermons, dream and be safely invisible. Now she sits alert waiting to be pounced upon.

Here, in the Free Church, they call her by her name. To them, she is not invisible. Here they don’t feel the need to ignore brown people – on the contrary they single them out for special attention. They ply her with soft drinks and bible tracts, and offer to take her to camp. They cast her in the church plays. They have given her the part of Mary Magdalene, because she speaks so well and this is a special honour because today they will perform in front of a visiting preacher. He’s visiting from America, which up to this point in her life is somewhere that only exists on TV. It’s a big occasion.

Mrs Turpin rushes them through breakfast ‘to get there on time and get seats at the front’. In the rush runny egg yolk spills on her white T-shirt. The T-shirt has a thick neckband and a hole cut out over her throat and until this moment it has been her favourite T-shirt. Now dead centre between the faint mounds of her budding breasts, it has an egg-yellow stain. Mrs Turpin rushes her to the car, chiding as she goes

“Stop fussing. It’ll dry out. Who’s going to notice?”

“Me” is what she doesn’t say but she does notice it, all through the opening hymns and the prayers and for each long minute that she waits to be called up to perform. She practices hiding the stain behind her hands and then with one arm slung casually across her chest. The poses aren’t casual but rather awkward and backache inducing. The stain refuses to be cowed and instead it thrives, swelling and deepening before her eyes. By the time the start of the children’s contribution is announced to the assembled church it’s not a dribble of yolk, but the sign of the beast that she can feel splashed in sunset yellow across her chest.

She takes the stage, along with her fellow Sunday schoolers to enthusiastic applause. The part has been easy to learn. Mary Magdalene is despised, shunned by all and then accepted and saved by Jesus. She’s unclear on the reasons for the shunning except that Mary, like all of them was a sinner. The Sunday school teachers have been uncharacteristically vague in their telling of Mary’s story and silent on the specifics of her sins, apparently so dark and dirty that they are unspeakable.

Bradley Reedham opens with his only line, thrusting his arm out in front of her

“Move away woman! A great healer approaches!”

She takes a practiced step back and recites word perfect lines,

“What grace! What light! My eyes have never beheld such a man”

The other children, acting as the crowd, move ahead, pushing her back until she’s almost out of sight. Then, as Lenny Bell who is playing Jesus, spots her and beckons her to approach, they dutifully part to let her through. The precise choreography is the result of weeks of practice. The awkwardness that rises through her as she moves along the human corridor of her peers is unscripted and takes her by surprise. It’s an awkwardness that clings to her and gathers weight with each step. She can feel the prickle of sweat inside the T-shirt that’s suddenly too tight and too imperfectly white. She reaches the front of the stage, comes face to face with Jesus and there instead of the scripted kneeling she falters, trapped in the glare of the gaze from the front row. Jesus speaks, waits, coughs and is then forced to repeat himself

“Woman, what is your name?”

Dragging her gaze away from the audience and down to the varnished pine of the stage she manages to recover enough to speak

“Mary” she says, adding, a few seconds too late, “of Magdalene”

The scene continues, Mary and Jesus centre stage, he reaching out a hand to touch her and her pulling away in shame

“I am not clean Lord,” she says, and her voice shakes

A flicker of a frown appears on Jesus’ face

“What ails you?” he says

“Sickness my Lord” she replies

With each line her voice ebbs further away, like a tide that will soon be out of sight

“What kind of sickness?” demands Jesus, raising the volume of his own voice to compensate for hers,

“The sickness of sinners Lord” she mumbles, “with devils hounding me day and night”

Her final words, the ones that she has been told to ‘bounce off of the furthest walls of the church’, are less than a whisper

“Praise his holy name, I am free”

There’s a moment of confusion in which no one is sure whether or not Mary has spoken and Jesus has to decide whether or not to continue with his lines.

“Weep no more,” he says, eventually.

As Jesus turns his back to the audience to cast out Mary’s demons with seven arcs of his right arm, he shoots dirty looks in her direction. She is engulfed in a wave of embarrassment and relief as the play ends and the children are drowned in applause.

Back in her seat she’s still burning with shame when the guest preacher rocks up to draw all the attention. A toothy wide mouthed man with a precision haircut he has a solid frame packaged in a crisp beige suit and garnished with a bow tie. He sweeps down the aisle that has been formed between the rows of chairs and bounces up to the lectern with a charge that seems to emanate directly from his high polished winkle pickers. Everything about him says pay attention. He holds a sturdy finger up between him and the hushed congregation,

“Already ye are clean,” he says, “because of the word which I have spoken unto you”

She feels the vibration of his voice deep in her chest.

The preacher continues, conducting his voice like a full orchestra as he weaves a symphony in and out of the gospel and through people’s everyday lives. He takes the congregation with him as he navigates the movements. When he drops to a whisper they lean in to hear and when he raises the volume, shoulders pulls back to attention. A hundred eyes follow the dance of his arms as they point down to hell, up to heaven and then out at them, personalising the message to each and every person present. As he reaches the climax, his hand strikes the lectern, evoking drums and the crash of cymbals
“Are you ready?” he asks, “Ready to be cleansed?”

Several members of the congregation say ‘yes’ but he acts as though he hasn’t heard and cranks up the volume again

“Are you ready to let HIM into your life?” the sturdy finger, crooked now, raps on an invisible door, “Ready to accept Jesus Christ as your personal saviour?”

This time several members of the congregation rise to their feet and the assent is more substantial, bolstered with applause and isolated break outs of joyful whooping, or perhaps weeping – it’s hard for her to tell without turning around. The commotion persists, even as the preacher himself, pursued by handshakes and back pats, returns to his seat. The person with the job of reading the notices has to linger at the front for what feels like forever before it’s quiet enough for him to be heard. Fortunately today’s notices are short. The brownie guides will be holding a jumble sale next Saturday afternoon to raise money for African children. Any person who would like to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus please join with others to receive the preacher’s blessings in the side room. Refreshments will be served from the kitchen at the back of the church. She sits for a few crucial minutes, torn between good deeds, orange squash and salvation.

The room at the side of the church is dim and smells of polish. She is the last one to arrive and eases herself inside with her back to the wall so as not to disturb the circle of people, already deep in silent prayer, eyes closed, hands outstretched. Slipping into a gap and aping their stance, she wonders what it is that they are praying for. Since she can’t ask she makes her own prayers. She prays for African children to have food and for there to be no more earthquakes and for the Holy Spirit to come down and speak to her. There are things she needs explained. Why doesn’t Mrs Turpin like her? Why can’t her t-shirt stay white? Why can’t her skin? What is this stain that clings to her wherever she goes? How will she know when like Mary, she has been forgiven? When will Jesus wash her clean? What kind of sinner is she?

Mrs Turpin is pacing the stretch of pavement next to the car, arms folded, bull bars across her stomach

“Where the hell have you been?”
“Nowhere”
“I’ve been looking all over for you! You must have been somewhere!”

She shakes her head and shrugs, picks at her t-shirt. Her mouth is parched, empty of words.

“I’ve been worried sick,” says Mrs Turpin, “Worried sick!”

Neither of them says any more as they get in the car and drive home. In the back seat she keeps her face to the window, watching but not seeing familiar streets, praying that the Holy Spirit knows where they live.

An Act

The love of my life left. My friends said I was better off without him

‘Bad news’

‘Bad mind’

‘Bad breath’

Bad.

I comforted myself with hand made chocolate and Chilean wine and later, with less expensive chocolate and coffee. Later still, ginger beer and M & Ms. Comfort spat me out. My friends said time doesn’t stand still

‘Get over it’

‘Get over him’

‘Get over yourself’

Get.

The love of my life called me.

‘Hi baby’, he said

‘You up?’

And my friends humphed that people don’t change

‘Don’t be fooled’

‘Don’t get weak’

‘Don’t make it easy’

Don’t.

So I didn’t.

‘I ain’t no fool’ I said

‘And I ain’t easy’

‘And no baby, I’m not up’

Not.

The love of my life stopped calling. Maybe he believed me when I said I wasn’t up. Maybe he didn’t care that I was down? And full up and fat

Weighed down with M & Ms and loneliness and shame.

‘Check out the gym’ said the friends,

‘Check out this book’

‘Check out these shoes’

“Check”

They didn’t know that when the love of my life left, he took all my checks. Checked out.

The love of my life came around, snuck up to my door in the middle of the night and the door was easy on its hinges and let him in. Without a squeak.

We mapped each others contours, revisiting familiar haunts, encoutering new cell growth and fresh scars.

I cried on his shoulder, ugly mucus-coated funeral crying

Then I threw up a rainbow on his new jeans

‘Shit! What the_?’

‘Shit babe! what you been eating?’

‘Shit! Look at my clothes’

‘Nasty shit!’

Shit!

I quit M &Ms and changed the locks on love

I listened to his messages on the answer machine in the middle of the night

Three times, then twice, then once

And then I erased them

And didn’t listen

My friends said

‘Did he call?’

‘Do you miss him?’

‘Do you think you’ll go there again?’

Do?

I don’t.

The love of my life left.

While it was away it expired