Read Black Dance Online

Authors: Nancy Huston

Black Dance (5 page)

, seen through the window of the cruddy little bedroom above the bar.

Awinita’s stomach is rounder than before, and she wears a floaty blue shirt to make this less apparent. We’re in her eyes again, currently looking down. A man’s hands come in under the shirt. Gently, she pushes him away.

“Aren’t you forgettin sometin’, sweetheart?”

We see the man’s hands dig a wad of bills from his jeans pocket. A heavyset man in his forties. Unpleasant body: rigid, rilled with
fat. Turning, he licks his thumb and counts ten singles onto the little Formica table near the window.

“Would you mind maybe,” says Awinita in a husky whisper as he comes at her undoing his belt (close loud sound of the belt buckle, one of the Pavlovian signals that warns the woman’s brain it will soon be time to waft her elsewhere), “from de side or from behind?”

“Yeah, I’d mind,” the man says, pushing her toward the bed and grabbing at her blue shirt to tear it off (but, being inside of it, we’ll never see her body in these scenes). “Damn right I’d mind. I pay good money to fuck you and I’ll fuck you however I bloody well feel like fucking you, ain’t no squaw gonna tell me what position I gotta fuck her in, for the luva Christ! No skin off my back if you lose your bastard! Make one less Injun on welfare, guzzlin’ down my tax money!”

A spot of pink. It grows, shivers and shimmers into a carnation . . . The flower grows a long green stem and dances gaily for a couple of seconds . . . Then the stem splits in two and its ends rise up to meet above its head. Meanwhile it goes on dancing. Watching it is painful—like watching a ballerina dancing on her crotch.

The rain hurls itself against the windowpanes. Fleetingly, in the shadows, we see the man heaving with his full weight on top of us.

“Don’t you know what condoms are for?” he says. “Don’t they teach you that up on the res? They sure should! Only useful education for Injuns. Well, no point in usin’ one now, eh? Can’t get pregnant twice, can you? No matter how two-faced you Injuns are, not even you can conceive two bastards on top of the other. Huh . . . uh! Uh!”

In slow motion, in black and white, pelted by unrelenting rain, Awinita lets herself into a tin-roofed shack. One room. No electricity, only candlelight. Packed dirt floor. Fireplace made of clay or mud
and willow sticks. Her floaty blue shirt is the only touch of color in the scene. Gathered in silence around the table are her mother and several siblings, their faces drawn and still with hunger. Smiling, Awinita sets her purse on the table, opens it and proudly withdraws a huge roll of dollar bills. But far from lighting up, her family’s faces only grow sadder. Tears roll down their cheeks. Awinita stands there, money in hand, not knowing what to do. The dim light grows dimmer.

Back on Saint Catherine Street, we hear the door slam as the john departs.

CUT to Awinita seated at the bar. People milling around her, music. When the barman brings her a Coke, we see that the stool next to hers is empty.

“Thanks, Irwin.”

Awinita sips her Coke. A blond man in his thirties (glasses, attaché case, suit and tie) perches his straight businessman’s ass on the stool next to hers. Close-up on his face: close-shaven, thin-lipped, a faint air of nastiness around the mouth . . .

(Yeah, you’re right, Milo—it’s important to get the johns’ faces, show how frighteningly diverse they are. All, though, are weighed down by their stories, and desperate to shake off some of the weight . . .)

Irwin brings Awinita a Coke, takes a banknote from the blond man, rings up two rum and Cokes . . .

“Tanks,” says Awinita, nodding vaguely at the drink. “Pleasure. What’s your name?”“Nita.” “Hey, Nita, I’m John.” “Good to meet you, John.” “Good to meet
, Nita. Had no idea I’d be meeting somethin’ so good when I ducked in here.” “You jus’ wanted in out of de rain, eh?” “Right.” “Well. Cheers, John.” “Cheers, Nita . . .” (Problem, Milo. Familiar problem: what to do with boring dialogue . . . Nah, skip it. Maybe shoot the scene from the far side of the room, over by the jukebox, now playing Nat King Cole’s “Too Young.” Just their lips moving . . .)

The blond man looks at Awinita and she looks back at him. His eyes say, “Are you . . .?,” and hers, “Long as you’re not a cop, baby,” and his, “Here, upstairs?,” and hers, “You got it all figured out, smart boy.” Leaning forward, his lips form the words, “How much for the back entrance?: and hers, “Fifteen.” The businessman winces. “Hey, that’s steep,” he says, making as if to bolt, but already Awinita’s hand is on his thigh, already his blood is racing and they both know the moment for mind-changing has been left behind.

Three five-dollar bills on the Formica table.

He hadn’t noticed. Only when he puts his arms around her from behind does the fact of Awinita’s pregnancy register on his brain. His hands freeze on her belly.

“Jesus,” he says.

“Kinda doubt it,” says she. This makes him laugh, which relaxes him.

Awinita’s eyes are closed. On the pale pink screen of her eyelids . . .

A whole forest of cartoon trees shoots up at once. Multicolored birds flit swiftly in and out of their branches—their singing, too, is sped up. Shrill trills and twitters, jerky flutters. In the space of a few seconds, the sun rises and sets several times. The seasons rush past: the trees shed their leaves, look dark and wintry for a moment, then sprout new leaves again.

Meanwhile, we hear the sound of a belt buckle—a different belt buckle. A zipper being undone. Clothes rustling. The sound of a key turning in a lock. A mattress creaking. A door being pulled to. A key turning in a lock. A door being slammed.
Ta, ta-da DA . . .
Yes, we can bring in the capoeira beat here—but faintly, as a hint, a way of breathing, a vestige.
Ta, ta-da DA . . .
A key turning in a lock. Pants being zipped up. A belt buckle. Pants being zipped
down. A man pissing into a toilet. Loose change jingling.
Ta, ta-da DA . . .
A man guzzling beer, then burping. Key in lock. Snore. Door slam. Fart. Quarrel in next room. Doors. Mattress creaks. Zippers. Buckles. A man groaning as he reaches climax. This sound track gradually dies out. FADE TO BLACK. Howling wind . . . CUT.

Awinita sits smoking at the bar, looking tired.

“Want a coffee?” the barman asks her.

“Sure. Tanks, Irwin.”

Another man comes to sit on the stool next to her. Tall and youngish, with filthy long black hair and a phony leather cap. He has a lisp.

“You alone, mith?”

“Not anymore!”

“Mind if I thit with you for a while?”

“Make yourself at home.”

Just then the door to the bar opens and Declan walks in, hatless. Though wet, his red hair is longer than when we saw him last; he hasn’t returned to jail. Close-up on his green eyes as, catching sight of Awinita, they light up in a hazel blaze.

We move toward him: Awinita has left her lisper in the lurch.

“Well, if it ain’t Mister Cleaning-Fluid.”

They’re in each other’s arms.

“I missed you, Nita.”

“I missed you, too, baby.”


•    •    •    •    •



Kid, urchin. Originally simply meant child. Today designates street kids, juvenile delinquents.

Milo, 1956–58

is a nervous, bristling hedgehog of a child who speaks mostly German with a smattering of French and English, but he especially speaks silence. Silence is the tongue he shares with dogs and cats and trees and flowers, stones and lakes and rivers and skies, turtles and fish, birds and beds, tables and chairs and ceilings and curtains. When you think about it, most things in the world don’t talk and would never do anything to hurt you. Telephones are in between. They look like objects, but in fact they’re nearly people. They talk. His foster mother listened to the telephone talking, then came and told him he’d be leaving. The telephone told her he had to. He doesn’t know why, that’s just the way it is. If you take it as your starting point that everything is unfathomable, and stick to it, you’ll never be disappointed.

Strangers came and took him to a building he’d never seen before. For three days he lived there in a large dorm room with other little children; then other strangers came to fetch him and now he’s living in their house.

He’s not really
there, he’s just pretending. His plan is to string them along for a while, let them believe he’s settled in with them in this house in the suburbs, take a few days to get his bearings, then run away. Though these people call him Milo, he knows he has another name—the one the blond woman gave him after they rode on the merry-go-round together. A cocoon-like name he felt safe inside. For the time being he’s forgotten it, because he was so small when she told it to him—but it’s in his memory somewhere and will come back to him someday, he’s sure of it.

The new family are the Manderses. There’s the father, Jan, handsome and bald with glasses; the mother, Sara, with big, soft breasts and a lilting voice; a boy, ten, Norbert, with spiky blond hair; and a girl, seven, Ana, whose nose is covered in freckles. The parents are Dutch, which sounds like
, which means German, only they don’t speak German, they speak Dutch, but since they now live in Canada they’ve resolved to speak nothing but English, only sometimes they forget and lapse into Dutch which sounds like Deutsch which means German.

As Norbert can’t help boasting to Milo right off the bat, Jan built the swing set in the backyard with his own two hands . . .

(Don’t cry, Astuto. I know, your eyes are as dry as ever but you can’t fool me, I can tell you’re crying, so c’mon, stop it. Don’t forget that snippet of wisdom we gleaned after years of talking and drinking and fucking together—to grow up is to admit that pretty much everything you believed as a child is false. You believed that the sun rose and set, that your soul was immortal, that adults were strong. Wisdom is rough . . . )

Jan Manders takes Milo over to the swing set, plunks him into the huge black tire that dangles there, and starts pushing . . . Gently at first, until the boy gets used to it, then
Want to go a little higher?
Milo nods.
A little higher?
Milo nods, excited.
A little higher?
Milo nods.
Okay, that’s high enough . . .

He feels safe, surrounded on all sides by the hard warm ring of black rubber, watching the trees swing back and forth above his head, his whole self given up to sheer, pleasurable sensation.

Sara Manders is rolling out dough for a piecrust. A radio is playing in the background (what year are we? ‘57—yeah, okay, Ella Fitzgerald, Sara could be humming along with Ella) . . . Milo comes over to watch her and she hoists him onto a chair and helps him help her, tying an apron on him, dusting the rolling pin with flour, then gently guiding his hands on the pin to flatten out the ball of dough.

At bath time she splashes warm water on his back and neck and rubs him gently everywhere with a sudsy washcloth.

At bedtime she reads to the two older children on the living room couch and he creeps up in his pajamas, presses his back to the back of the couch, sticks his thumb in his mouth, closes his eyes and listens. At first, because there are so many words he doesn’t know, it’s just the lilting, the rhythm and melody of her voice that hypnotize him, but after a while the images of the stories start to crystallize and he looks forward to the moment when, picking up where she left off the night before, Sara will thrill them again with her imitations of the sulky donkey and the Queen of Hearts and the parrot that squawks
Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!

“What does that mean, Mama?” Ana asks, and Sara admits she doesn’t know, her English isn’t good enough . . . but her imitation of the squawking parrot has them in stitches.

(Was it your grandfather, Milo, who finally told you about pieces of eight? Helping you think it through.
Why do we call a quarter two bits, my boy? Because British pounds were divided into eight pieces or bits . . .

When she comes to kiss him good night, Sara runs her fingers through Milo’s hair. Her own children’s hair, like the little that remains of Jan’s, is thin and blond; hers is light brown but Milo’s is thick wavy brown with auburn glints in it.
What beautiful hair you have, Milo!

It had never occurred to the boy that something about him could be beautiful.

the cycle of a year.

Autumn: little Ana teaching him the rudiments of reading as she learns them at school.

Winter: the skating rink. Milo inherits Ana’s pink-and-white skates from the year before and is relieved when no one teases him for wearing pink. By afternoon’s end, cheeks red, eyes flashing in silent pride, he skates around the rink all by himself and the Manders family applauds him. At the drink stand where Jan buys them hot chocolate afterward, they get jostled by a noisy group of preteens yelling at one another in French. Though he can’t quite understand the language, it stirs memories in his brain (transient images of neon lights and white-clad arms) that make him want to die.

Spring: Norbert shows him that if you cut an earthworm in two, both halves of it will wiggle on miserably for a while. On the front porch, Jan takes Milo in his arms and points up to the sky—hugely white and alive, vibrating, screaming, with the return of the Canadian geese.

Summer: a barbecue in the backyard. The five of them gobble down spareribs, fingers and lips scarlet with sauce. Point at one another and laugh. Tell jokes. Play pranks. Ana pours a glass of water down her father’s back, provoking a roar. When night falls, they go out hunting for fireflies in the grass.

And then . . . at some point during the second fall . . . a strange young woman in the kitchen, making dinner. Jan standing by the closed door to his and Sara’s bedroom, talking to a doctor. Another day, a glimpse into that room—Jan emerging from it in tears—reveals a motionless mound barely visible among the bedclothes.

A hearse parked in front of the house. Taking his little sister in his arms to comfort her, Norbert himself bursts into sobs. Jan helps Milo pack. Hugs him long and hard. Stacks his luggage in the trunk of a strange car. Sitting up straight and stiff in the backseat, Milo doesn’t respond when the Manderses, gathered in the driveway, wave him good-bye.

He’s furious with Sara for dying. But it’s taught him an important lesson—people can’t belong to each other. Never again will he wholly entrust himself to anyone.

Blows raining down on the child’s head. Shouts. Voices calling his name, “
Milo . . . Milo . . . Milo . . . Where is that boy? Milo . . . Milo . . . Milo . . . Where
are you
? I’ll teach you to hide when it’s time to go to school!”
Women’s legs banging up around him. Women’s arms thrashing out at him. He’s rolled up in a ball, not crying, not sobbing. His body limp and passive, his mind a blank.

Sometimes, from the dark and secret heart of the blackout, images well up (perhaps use animation here?). A cat without a smile . . . a smile without a cat . . . Tinker Bell touching something with her magic wand and turning it into something else . . . John, Michael and Wendy Darling soaring through the air . . .
I can fly, I can fly, I can fly!
. . . Canadian geese screaming as they cross the sky . . . Legs without bodies, bodies without legs . . . Captain Hook screaming as the crocodile bites off his leg . . . Long John Silver also losing a leg . . . both pirates limping about on wooden
legs . . . wooden arms, wooden noses . . . Pinocchio’s nose lengthening with every lie . . . Alice growing so tall she fills the whole room, her head scrunched up against the ceiling . . . then shrinking swiftly until she can drown in a bottle of ink . . . We dive into the ink bottle with her.


•    •    •    •    •

Neil, 1916

the front steps of the Kerrigan house in Dublin’s genteel suburbs, early on a lovely April morning. Briefcase in hand, Neil plants a perfunctory kiss on his mother’s cheek. The way they embrace indicates that the balance of power in the household has shifted over the past two years. Mrs. Kerrigan now clearly respects her son, admires him, even. And he, having matured, can contemplate her fears and foibles with something approaching benevolence. As he turns to go, she protests mildly.

“I can’t understand what work there is to be done on a holiday! Surely none of your colleagues will be in the office today.”

“I’ve told you before, Mother. A lawyer’s work, like a woman’s, is never done. I always have numerous cases to prepare, and since I’m the youngest partner in the firm I need to be sure that every file is watertight. What happened on Easter Monday, anyway? Was Jesus so exhausted by the Resurrection that he needed a day off?”


“Joking, Mother. Joking.”

CUT to Neil meeting up with his cousin Thom (also carrying a briefcase) on the docks at Victoria Quay. Fast camera work translates their excitement. Ducking into an abandoned warehouse next to Saint James’s Gate Brewery, they swiftly exchange their suits and ties for Volunteer garb. Thom assembles a rifle, Neil pockets a revolver and they join other young Sinn Féiners converging in combat gear on the Sackville Street General Post Office. Among them are a surprising number of women. Close-up on beautiful Countess Constance Markiewicz, her arms crossed, her features calm and determined.

Padraic Pearse and James Connolly begin to harangue the rebels.

“Again our boys are dying in droves,” Pearse thunders. “Right at the present moment,
a quarter of a million
Irishmen are risking their lives for the sake of the Union Jack. And why do they sign up? We all know the answer: because they’re hungry!”

“The submarine
was due to land at Tralee on Good Friday,” Connolly goes on, “bringing us arms and ammunition from Europe. Well, the Brits scuttled it! All our precious weapons are at the bottom of the sea! Men, the time is ripe, we must seize the day! Wrench our city of Dublin and our land of Eire back from the hands of the enemy!”

Thom is ready. Proud. Bursting with impatience to prove himself. As for Neil, he’s scared. Never has he known hunger, misery, or loss; he hasn’t the
for courageous revolt. Gradually, the voice in his head effaces the loud voices of the rebel leaders.

Though the rhetoric repels me, though I regret that we should need to appeal to the masses through their guts instead of their brains, though I wish we could kick the Brits out without clinging like Padraic Pearse to ridiculous propaganda about the Celts, or like John MacBride to reactionary Catholicism, or like James Connolly to dogmatic Marxist
theory—I’m willing to do battle on the rebels’ side. But in my briefcase, in that briefcase now stashed away in the abandoned brewery, is a weapon far more powerful than the gun in my pocket: the manuscript of my first book of poems. Well, prose poems, actually. A revolutionary form—a joyous mixture of English and Gaelic which, by its accurate reflection of our mongrel history, will shock all. The new Ireland will need new writers, and I shall be first among them. As soon as I find a publisher, my words will set fire to my countrymen’s hearts.

Maps are being perused, lists of names handed out. Of the sixteen thousand rebels nominally available in Dublin, only a thousand have shown up.

What happened to the others?
our hero wonders.
Are they cowards? Or is their reasoning more logical than ours? . . .

images of Neil’s perceptions over the ensuing days and nights. The tricolor, then the green flag with its golden harp are run up onto the roof of the General Post Office and the Volunteers burst into cheers. Pearse, his voice shaking with emotion, reads out the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Hailed and heckled, jostled and shoved by overexcited young men, passersby respond with dismay and anger. The gates of Trinity College swing to, clang shut, are locked.

Neil’s inner voice:
This is what I must write about. Scrap those Anglo-Gaelic poems and write the great novel of the Easter Rising in Dublin. Find language, the rhythm of words, that will plunge the reader into the state we’re in right now—make him feel the erratic beating of our hearts,
Ta, ta-da DA, ta, ta-da DA . . .
the thrill of fear in our balls, the simultaneous tension and suppleness of our muscles. Never have we been more alive than we are now, so close to death.

The next day, as they take up their assigned post at the entrance to Saint Stephen’s Green, Neil and Thom speak together in whispers.

“The Brits will have a hard time finding men to send over today, Neil.” “Why’s that?” “Krauts just made a zeppelin raid on East Anglia.” “I see . . . Quite the coincidence, hey?” “Problem with that, Neil?” “Don’t know how to fit it into my novel.” “Good novels should be full of contradictions, shouldn’t they?”

Hearing a cascade of bullet reports from close by, they drop to the ground. Just then, who should come strolling down Grafton Street in their direction, clad in civilian dress, nose in the air, but Major John MacBride? He brings up short upon reaching the entrance to Saint Stephen’s Green.

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