Read Black Dance Online

Authors: Nancy Huston

Black Dance (3 page)

“. . .”

“Hey . . . you’re not underage, are you?”

“. . .”

“Jesus.”

“Jesus got notin’ to do wid it. I been in de trade tree years already, help my moder out to feed de family. Your sister, she respectable and put her own broder in jail. How Jesus s’pose to figure dat out?”

Again they laugh, inebriated. Euphoria seeps into them. Declan knocks back his drink.

“Ever since she got her poor lumberjack of a fiancé to buy her a three-carat diamond, Marie-Thérèse thinks she’s better than the rest of us. Poor Régis . . . He went into debt to pay for that ring . . .”

Billie Holiday sings “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do” and the two of them dance close, Awinita leaning into Declan’s shoulder with her eyes pressed shut.

A white woman, her face a blur, has fastened a sparkling diamond brooch to her throat. Bright red blood trickles down in two lines on either side of her jugular vein . . .

CUT.

•    •    •    •    •

II

GINGA

From
gingare,
to lollop from side to side. The basic capoeira movement, which keeps the body in a perpetual state of swing.

Milo, 1952–56

A BABY.
In these scenes, we can alternate between objective and subjective camera, be now inside, now outside the baby’s head, the baby’s eyes. A screaming, skinny, jittery, seizure-prone baby, brought to this publicly-owned Catholic hospital at age three weeks and left there. Abandoned with relief by a man whose hands were shaking.

The world is fuzzy. Moving shapes, lots of white. Women’s voices, shrill or harsh. Clipped syllables. Snippets of language—but that, too, is fuzzy, tone rather than words. The sisters all speak French.

“Garbage . . . A little piece of human garbage.”

“Human? Are you sure?”

“Now, now, sister. Jesus loves us all.”

“Hard to believe sometimes. Born in withdrawal . . .”

The kid’s in a cot, surrounded by other kids in cots. Large, white female shapes move jerkily up and down the rows of cots. Close-ups on female hands. Reddish fingers emerging from starched white sleeves. Swiftly and unceremoniously, they change
the infant’s clothes and diapers, bathe it, feed it from a glass baby bottle, set it back in its cot.

Footsteps fading. Lights switched off.

In the half-darkness, the infant drifts into a brief sleep—then starts awake and clutches out wildly for contact. There is none. It’s just spent nine months surrounded by total touch, liquid warmth, gentle rocking rhythm and suddenly—nothing. Dry air, echoing void. Heels clacking in the distance. The baby squirms and flails, wrings its hands, grabs at its face and at the air around it. Its diminutive arms and legs wave in the empty cosmos. Its high-pitched crying wakes other babies, who also start to cry. Neon lights flick on. Footsteps move in. Voices whisper annoyance:
It’s that Indian whoreson.
Arms reach down, flip the baby onto its stomach. Tone of reprimand and threat. Footsteps fade. Lights flick off. Other cries fade.

Smothering, its nose and mouth jammed against the sheet, the child twists its head and gasps for air. Yelps. Wrinkles its forehead . . .

(Hmm. Excuse me, Milo, but . . . think we’ll be able to find an
actor
for this role? Won’t we get sued for cruelty to dumb animals? Maybe we should do these images numerically, you know? Cost a fortune, but . . . yeah, sure, sure, we need them, we absolutely need them. Okay. We’ll see . . .)

Here we could accelerate to give the impression of endless repetition. Empty ceiling. Empty air. Darkness. A huge, fearful darkness. Other babies crying. Rustling sounds and footsteps in the dark. Lights flicking on, off. Neon flickering. A woman’s claw-like hands snatching up the screaming, blue-faced baby, holding it high in the air and shaking it, then dropping it in its cot—
thawump
. Petrified with fear, it stops screaming. Footsteps move off.

Fade to a different quality of darkness—one that indicates time passing, a page being turned. A few months later . . . same
white ceiling, same thrum and hum of French voices, but: exit the regulation hospital linen. The baby is being trussed and trundled, wrapped sausage-like in the cruddy blue blanket it first arrived in. New faces, not as blurry as the old ones—the boy’s eyes are beginning to focus. Voices, not only in French now but also in German (even scrambled, the difference between the two languages is clear). Strong lights, long hallways. Shoulder camera to convey the jerks and jolts—he’s being carried out of the hospital. Wham. Dazzling sunlight smack in the face. Whoosh. Blue skies, fresh air, high green waving branches. Slam of car door. Moved, held, jostled, slam slam, revving of motor.

Everything is a shock to Milo’s system after six months in the humdrum hospital routine, but he no longer cries. Already he has learned that crying serves no purpose, learned to block out, black out, sink deep within himself, into the dark cave of silence that will be his refuge all his life long. From within his silence, beneath the impenetrable banter of his new German foster parents, we can hear the drumbeat of his mother’s heart, his mother’s people.
Ta, ta-da DA, ta, ta-da DA, ta, ta-da DA
. . . Milo’s throbbing silence will be the background music for the entire film.

MILO IS TWO.
These scenes will be shot from the vantage point of a two-year-old, amidst the feet and legs of giants. German is now more or less right-side up.

Lying flat on the kitchen floor, the little boy plays with a couple of potatoes that are fancy racing cars. Propels himself forward on his tummy with low vrooming noises. Is suddenly grabbed by the arm—
What are you doing? Milo! What are you doing?
—yanked up off the floor and into the air.

An angry woman has again taken hold of his entire being with one hand. Her other hand swats at his shirt and pants to dust him
off, batting his penis on the way down. Still he doesn’t cry, but his pedaling legs strike the woman’s thigh—she cries out and releases him. He falls in a heap on the floor.

Milo is locked into a little closet under the staircase, in total blackness. We’re in there with him—listening. Straining with all our might to hear sounds on the far side of the door. Hearing only our own breathing. We breathe in unevenly. Hold back our sobs. However long this lasts, it’s an eternity.

Daily life in this household—quick flashes, not all bad: little Milo being spoon-fed . . . sung to in German at bedtime . . . dressed by his foster mother in a navy-blue snowsuit, boots, scarf and mittens, and taken out by his foster father to horse around in the snow . . . trying to pet the neighbor’s cute little cocker spaniel through the slats of the fence between their yards and being reprimanded by his foster mother
No! No, Milo! Dogs are too dirty!
. . .

He’s sitting alone on the pot, doing nothing. His foster mother checks, rechecks, finally gives up and roughly pulls up his pants. Later, furious to see he’s shat himself, she disgustedly shakes out his underpants above the toilet, all the while berating him in German. Then she pins a diaper back onto his bottom, too tightly—the toddler’s frown reflects his shame and discomfort—and shoves him back into the closet. Turn of the lock,
clack
. The blackness. Little Milo breathes in and out; a faint whine of fear is now audible in his breathing. His heart beats; time beats.

Suddenly the door swings open and Milo’s world is flooded with light.

Who is this woman?
Blond and young and beautiful, she drops to her knees so that her face is on a level with his, laughing in her low voice:
What ya doin’ in de dark, little one?

Question of your life, Milo. What ya doin’ in de dark?

The kneeling woman holds her arms out to Milo as no one ever has. Tentatively he moves forward and is grasped and gently clasped to her welcoming flesh. She presses his face to her neck, not too tightly. Dizzy, he breathes in the commingling of perfume and sweat beneath her blouse. At last she draws back, smiles at the stunned child and murmurs,
Come wit me? Come wit your mom?

Taking him by the hand, she leads him out of the closet, down the hallway, out the front door and down the steps . . .

Here we’ll need music, Astuto, for it’s a June day of insane felicity. The two of them go to a fair and ride on a merry-go-round together, laugh and lick ice cream cones as their horses go up, go down, yes, the laughter, the splendid music and the woman’s flashing smile, her arms that lift him to set him on the high horse, the licking, the laughing, the going round, her dark eyes so tender gazing at him, her arms that lift him down to set him on the ground, in fact it was probably then that she bought him the ice cream cone, for he would have needed both hands to hang on to the pole, his impressions are all mixed in child chronology, the woman waving good-bye to him, sunlight dancing on his mother’s blond hair, how could he know its real color was black, how could a three-year-old ever imagine that the most beautiful woman in the world would damage her own hair to make it blond?
Be good now, son, be strong, little one. You’re gonna have to be strong, you know that? A resistant
—whispering into his ear the Cree name that means
resistant . . . Dat’s your real name,
she said, and repeated it.
Don’t forget it. It’ll help you.
Opening the closet door . . .
Come wit me, come wit your mom! What ya doin’ in de dark, little one?
Shutting the closet door . . .

Then
sccccrrrratch
—BLACKOUT.

•    •    •    •    •

Neil, May 1914

A MEETING OF
the Irish Volunteers, somewhere in Dublin. Men’s voices speaking in loud tones of urgency and anger. In the audience, Neil Kerrigan, at twenty-two, seems a different man. His features are graver, and he listens with all his might as gaunt, earnest poet and school director Padraic Pearse takes the floor.

“May I read you a poem I’ve just written?”

I have turned my face

To this road before me

To the deed that I see

And the death I shall die . . .

“Even the Daughters of Erin are arming themselves!” Thom McDonagh chimes in. “Arms, discipline and tactics, they say, should be the one thought, the one work, the one play of Irish men and women.”

Never before has a revolution been led by poets,
marvels Neil’s inner voice.
All the brightest and most brilliant men—yes, and women, too.

His cousin Thom had taken him to Monto and now he has brought him to Sinn Féin. Thom wants to make a man of him, and Neil is grateful: occasionally he even feels his blood stir with something akin to genuine indignation.

Thom has been drilling, Neil has not. Thom has been marching up and down, running, hiding, taking rifles apart and putting them back together, aiming, doing target practice . . . Neil has been reading for his final examinations.


Sinn Féin!
” Thom shouts, leaping to his feet along with the others (and this Gaelic expression will be translated as a subtitle:
Ourselves alone!
).

“Well, perhaps not quite entirely alone?” Neil whispers. “It does seem we’ve been seeking and receiving a fair amount of help from the Germans.”

“Hasn’t politics always been the art of intelligent compromise?”

“I s’pose so.”

“No struggle is pure, Neil. The Germans have the same enemy as we do, and they’ve promised to argue for Irish independence at the peace conference after the war, if there is a war, and there will be a war. They have arms and ammunition and we do not, so we need and shall take their help. We shall do what must be done in order to win, conquer, establish and impose ourselves.”

Neil’s right foot bounces impatiently on his left knee. Again we hear his thoughts in voice-over . . .

I know as much, sweet cousin, about our people’s moral strength as about their military weakness, and have no difficulty grasping that it is in Ireland’s interest, if there is a war, and there will be a war, to aid and abet the German military in every way, generously sharing our coastline and coastal waters with German submarines and accepting German weapons in return . . . But none of this dying stuff, Pearse. Nor shall I follow in the diverging footsteps of poor Willie Yeats, torn between political activism and the inane theosophical ramblings of Madame Blavatsky! Yeats will get lost and I shall go on, for I have a job to do on this earth.

The bard now aspires, as he avows, to be
Colder and dumber and deafer than a fish
. As for me, my soul is at white heat. I shall write of the fine determination in these meetings, the men and women in revolt from the mud and blood of their childhood, with official British history pounded into their brains at school but body memories of revolting injustice at the hands of the British occupier. Peasants dispossessed by the thousands, their land reclaimed, their villages burned, their cottages toppled with battering rams, their children screaming in the cold and
rain—yes, Irish children trembling and dizzy at school, trying to think and to study on an empty stomach. I shall describe how today’s young heroines and heroes of Erin scramble to find meaning in old tales, in the claim to roots, grunting as they snuffle like pigs in Celtic drivel, shoving their snouts into the soil of Ireland, seeking to unearth true meaning, old meaning, deep dark smelly truffle meaning. As if the Celts had not themselves invaded this island! They were invaders as much as the Brits were, merely a few centuries earlier! Our culture is not in the past; it is in the future! Our heroes are not the puffed-up Cúchulainns of yesteryore, but the amazing men and women who,
hic et nunc
, devote their lives to shaking off the shackles of the shite-eating Brits.

“Yes, we are prepared to die,” thunders Pearse, “but for
our
country, not for another! If war breaks out, my friends, you can be sure that the British will use us again as they have used us always. They’ll turn us into cannon fodder, as they did in the Boer War fifteen years ago.”

“I was there!” pipes up a haggard, gravelly-voiced man whose hair is streaked with gray. “Saw it with my own eyes, I did! Spent ten years o’ my life fighting the Brits in South Africa. Raised the Irish Transvaal Brigade against them! Became a Boer citizen, I did!”

“That’s MacBride,” Thom murmurs.

Neil takes a closer look at the orator. Bad posture, bad complexion, red wine in his veins, Major John MacBride is an unpleasant man, whose bushy mustache no doubt conceals a weakness of the upper lip.

“There were five hundred of us battling the Brits down there, and
who
did we end up shooting, I ask you?” MacBride shouts. “Our own Irish brothers, our flesh and blood, the Dublin Fusiliers and the Inniskillings! It broke my heart, boys. The British prance about on tiptoe like sissy ballerinas, protected behind a great thick
wall of Irish flesh. They wait till we’ve been mowed down, then take credit for the victory.”

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