Read Black Dance Online

Authors: Nancy Huston

Black Dance (13 page)



In capoeira, any exercise involving dexterity or trickery;
jogo floreio.

Milo, 1965–67

love is turning into the man I love.

At thirteen, his body begins to explode with hormones. He can feel it in his muscles, throat and loins. His voice changes, and so does the way he looks at girls. Edith’s breasts are enormous now, and she actually lets him pull up her sweater or blouse and struggle with her bra (undoing it is off-limits) until one of them flops out and he can kiss it and suck on its nipple to his heart’s content. Edith isn’t beautiful in any conventional sense of the word; she’s freckled and dumpy and lumpy—but oh, the feeling in his balls when she smiles knowingly at him from across the classroom, or slips her tongue into his mouth as they kiss! During his nocturnal sessions of watching TV with the sound off (they have a color TV now, and, thanks to Milo’s inventiveness, Cary Grant, Montgomery Clift and Lucille Ball all speak fluent, funny French), he can joy himself on the chesterfield by concentrating simultaneously on Sophia Loren’s cleavage, the memory of Edith’s nipples and the fantasy of another girl at school—one who has a lovely face but is too stuck-up to talk to him.

We won’t necessarily use all this material, Astuto—we just need to be aware of it. It will be conveyed to our spectators by the confident way the boy now walks, the pugnacious set of his shoulders, the proud carriage of his head. Following his mother’s advice, he trusts few human beings (especially not his cousins, and super especially not his aunt)—but it’s evident at a glance that he trusts himself . . .

autumn Sunday afternoon, Grandpa Neil has invited him up to his study to talk. Both the wilting, faltering old man and the budding young one take pleasure in their exchanges. Neil’s natural gift for the gab is reinforced by his aching, impatient hunger to speak English. He sees Milo as an unhoped-for reincarnation of his younger self, and because his own writing path has grown dark and twisty over the years, running into one wall after another, his fondest hope is to help his grandson carve out a destiny that will lead him straight to literary fame.

“So did you manage to read
since last week?”



“There’s a lot I don’t get. Why can some folks see his fader’s ghost and oders not? How does he tink he can venge his fader’s murder by pretending to be crazy? Why’s he so nasty to Ophelia?”

Neil wasn’t expecting these thorny questions, so he goes ahead with the short lecture he’d prepared.

“Well, you see, Milo, generally speaking, people don’t want to be told the truth, they want to be reassured. Often, if you tell them the truth, they’ll get angry and punish you. They prefer dogma to science. Science tends to be depressing, because it shows us we’re not as important as we think. Nowadays, everyone learns in school
that our Earth is one of nine planets that revolve around the sun, right? But four hundred years ago, Copernicus shocked all of Europe by suggesting that this might be the case. People were certain that God had made the universe just for us, with the Earth at its center and the sun, moon and stars revolving around it. The Italian astronomer Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for confirming Copernicus’s theory, and a mere two years later, Shakespeare wrote
! You recall that Prince Hamlet attended the University of Wittenberg? Well, a student of Copernicus’s named Georg Joachim was teaching there at the time, so naturally Hamlet would have been obsessed with all these new theories. Indeed, he describes the Earth as
a sterile promontory
, the sky as
a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours
, and man . . . yes, Milo, man himself . . . as a
quintessence of dust
. Never had anyone dared express so dark a view of humankind.”

“It’s not dat different from what de preacher says,” Milo objects. “Dat we’re made of dust.
Ashes to ashes and dust to dust


Again unsettled by his grandson’s sharpness of mind, Neil takes refuge in free association.

“You know, when I was a boy growing up in Dublin, all the church services were in Latin, and on Ash Wednesday the priest would dip his right thumb into an urn of ashes, go along the altar where we choirboys were kneeling and make the sign of the cross on our foreheads, intoning the words
Memento homo quia pulvis est
. Know what that means, Milo?”

Neil writes it down for his grandson.

“Uh . . . is it about men who like other men?”

“. . . because of the word

Neil laughs until tears roll out of the corners of his eyes and down his cheeks, losing themselves in his long gray beard.

“You’re right. In Greek
, as in
homogenized milk
. But in Latin it means
, as in . . . er . . .
. Quite a mishmash, eh? So the priest’s words mean, not
Don’t forget to move your pelvis, you little queer
, but
Man, forget not that thou art dust

Milo nods a bit uncertainly.

“Remember that book I showed you by the great James Joyce?” Neil plunges on, forgetting to pursue his demonstration of how Hamlet’s nihilism arose from Copernicus’s heliocentric theory. “The one in which he inscribed my name?”

,” says Milo, who forgets nothing.

“Exactly. Well, there’s a funny story about that book. You’ll see the connection in a minute.”

Settling back in his armchair, Neil takes a minute to light his pipe, delighting in the ease of their exchange.

“You see, Jimmy Joyce had one devil of a time getting that book published; it took him all of seven years! He wrote it in 1907–1908, and it was two whole years before he found a publisher for it. Finally, in 1910, he signed with a certain Mr. Roberts. But then he went off to live in Europe, and due to all the real names of businesses and all the dirty words he used in the book, Roberts started worrying about libel suits. So he hemmed and hawed and postponed and delayed, and Joyce threatened to sue him for breach of contract. Believe it or not, Milo, the case was handled by my own father, a magistrate of the Dublin courts!”

(Did Neil really tell you lies as flagrant as that, Astuto? Or are you stretching the truth of his stretching of the truth? Anyway, let’s keep it in—
se non è vero, è ben trovato . . .)

“Court cases take time . . . But finally, when Jimmy returned to Dublin for his mother’s funeral in 1912, everything was set to go: the printer, a man by the name of Falconer, had already churned
out the broadsheets for a thousand copies of the book. Do you know what a broadsheet is, Milo?”

“One big page that’ll later be folded and cut up into lots of smaller pages?”

“On the nose. But on the very verge of publication, getting cold feet in turn, Falconer decided to shred the broadsheets. Well, when Jimmy learned of that, Milo, he went berserk. He told everyone his book had been
, not shredded. That way he could compare himself to the great Giordano Bruno. Yes! James Joyce had been burned at the stake for having told the truth, not about the rotation of heavenly bodies, but about the everyday life of ordinary Irishmen. A bit of an exaggeration, wouldn’t you say? As if Rome and Dublin were the same city, Pope and publisher the same authority, Bruno and Joyce the same man.”

“Homo homo
,” Milo says, and again Neil rewards him with a roar of laughter.

“So what did Joyce do to punish Roberts? He wrote a cruel, castigating poem called “Gas from a Burner.” I have a copy of it here somewhere . . . ah, here it is.
, in the present case, refers not to your usual gas ring on a kitchen stove but to Roberts himself, because he burned Joyce’s book. As for
, well . . . it’s like when you have gas after eating pork ‘n’ beans. You understand? Roberts’s promises, in other words, were nothing but a lot of stenchy farts! Jimmy had the poem printed in Trieste and insisted that his younger brother Charles distribute it in Dublin. Charles did so against his better judgment, and my cousin Thom, who as you recall was a former schoolmate of Jimmy’s, got his hands on a copy and brought it to my place. Ah, Milo, that’s a day I’ll never forget! We weren’t wee lads anymore, I was twenty and Thom a decade older, but we fell to the floor in stitches when we reached the final lines of poem:

My Irish foreman from Bannockburn

Shall dip his right hand in the urn

And sign crisscross with reverent thumb

Memento homo
upon my bum.


Marie-Thérèse’s angry voice soars up to our hero from downstairs.

“Where are you, for the luva . . .? It’s goin’ on four and you haven’t even started your homework yet! That’s enough English! Get down here right this minute! Lickety-split!”

As he goes downstairs to do math under his aunt’s maniacal supervision, Milo breathes a faint sigh of relief. He worships his grandfather, so it disturbs him when Neil talks to him as an equal . . .

, Milo. I love you. I want to make love to you here and now. I want to take off all my clothes and your hospital pajamas and gently unhook the tubes from your body and kiss you all over as you grab my hair and pull it—kiss your eyelids, your face and lips, kiss your neck as you offer it up to me, kiss your hairless chest and feel your beautiful penis rise in my hands and harden in my mouth, turn you over and kiss the smooth brown skin of your muscular back, wet you with my fingers as you moan, and enter you . . . Oh, Milo! If only we could join our bodies again, as we’ve done so often in the past—in New York, arriving you from Toronto and me from Buenos Aires, or in San Salvador, arriving you from Paris and me from L.A.—pleasuring each other’s throbbing, searching cocks with our mouths and hands and anuses, whetting each other’s appetites, whipping each other’s desires, rising together to a violent frenzy, and oh, your shout
when you came, Milo, unforgettable, a punch of joy that hit me right in the chest . . .
How can it be over?
How can this be
, you know what I mean? Two old fogies whispering a screenplay at each other through an endless November night in a public hospital in Montreal’s city center . . . and you, my love, in the throes of the dreaded illness?

I don’t understand how you managed to catch it in Rio, given that we’d both been fervently faithful to condoms since the late 1980s . . . Whatever happened, Astuto, darling? Maybe you shot up again—and somehow, despite the forty new needle exchange programs recently implemented by the Brazilian government, despite the millions of free needles distributed throughout the country over the preceding year, you happened to use an old, dirty one and get infected by it? Tell me, Milo . . . No, I know you can’t. You’re right, I’ll shut up. Let’s get back to work . . .


“I’ve found you a boarding school,” announces Marie-Thérèse. “Way better than any of the schools around here. You don’t even have to wait till September; they’ll let you start in at Easter. They made an exception for you because of your good marks.”

“Wha . . . what do you . . .?” stammers Neil, but Régis’s voice drowns him out.

“Hey, good for you, little runt! You’re gonna do better than your cousins, or even your uncle!”

“Eh! I should think so!” says Marie-Thérèse. “I should hope so!”

“What about Oscar?” Milo says. “Can he come to the school with me?”

“Don’t be silly, Milo,” says Marie-Thérèse. “You can’t organize your whole life around a dog! We’ll take care of him while you’re gone, and you’ll see him during your semester breaks.”

So you go off to that boarding school and find yourself surrounded by a dozen horny Jesuit priests, a score of frigid nuns and a hundred boys in the first randy rush of puberty. Aware that
is one of the forms of hell on earth your mother warned you about, you cross the days off the calendar as they inch by, slow and slobbery as snails.

The other boys go home on weekends; you don’t. (Why not? Was the school too far away from your home or what?) You find yourself alone in the empty building, bored and anxious, anxious and bored, left to your own resources: reading, playing billiards, fending off the perpetually wandering hands of the priests—and, especially, worrying about Oscar. You can almost hear him whimpering as he waits at the door, nose aquiver, searching for your smell that never comes.

June rolls around at last and you come home to the farm. The reunion between boy and dog: mutual relief and all-engulfing euphoria. Sure, you’re glad to see your grandfather, too, and the cows, and even, in a small way, the kitchen. But there’s no comparison: Oscar is king of your heart. With Oscar at your side you can handle anything . . .

(At this point in the film, every spectator will have guessed that Oscar is going to die; the only question is how. Oh, Milo . . .)

When you go back to school that fall . . . Oscar simply can’t understand your having abandoned him
He waits for you, refusing to budge from his post at the door. He grows depressed and thin. Though she sees perfectly well what’s happening, Marie-Thérèse refrains from telling you about it; she doesn’t want you to have a less-than-sterling report card at semester’s end. The dog ceases eating completely. He whines and strains at his leash, thins and whines and strains and mopes and sleeps . . . and then he dies. He isn’t yet thin enough to have died of hunger; he dies of a broken heart.

Régis insists that Milo be informed at once.

“Okay,” says Marie-Thérèse, “but we’ll tell him he got hit by a car.”

“No, we won’t. We’re not going to lie about it.”

“It’s not really a lie, it’s just to protect him. One way or another the dog’s dead; there’s no changing that.”

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