Read Black Dance Online

Authors: Nancy Huston

Black Dance (8 page)

Dissolve to a winter evening on the farm. Marie-Thérèse has summoned Milo to help her with the job of pickling cucumbers. The kitchen air is opaque with steam.

(The telephone plays a role in this scene, so we'll have to go back and establish its presence during Milo's first dinner at the farm: a black Bakelite contraption on the wall above the table. Maybe Marie-Thérèse could mention it, proud of having a telephone at last. Or maybe it could ring during the meal, causing everyone to jump because they're not used to it yet . . . We'll see . . .)

Seated next to the wall, at the farthest end of the long maple wood table, Milo carefully pours vinegar into jars as his aunt peels and chops garlic across from him. Suddenly she looks up at him.

“You're a little infidel, aren't you?”


“You lived with a Protestant family and they put a bunch of lies in your head?”

“I dunno.”

“Do you believe, at least?”

“Believe what?”

“In everything the preacher says at Sunday Mass. In God the Father and the Holy Virgin and Our Lord who died on the Cross for our sins, and all the rest, and that if you don't believe you'll go to Hell?”

“. . .”

“You don't listen at all in church, do you?”

“. . .”

“Don't think I don't notice it. I watch you and I can tell you're not paying attention. You don't sing with the rest of us and you don't pray with the rest of us, you just sit there. You go off somwhere else in your head.”

“. . .”

“That's what you do, isn't it, Milo? I've seen you, there's no point in denyng it.”

“I don't deny it.”

“Well, believe me, Milo, this won't do at all. Because in two or three years you'll have to go to catechism classes, and prepare for your confirmation, and prove that you've grasped the essence of the True Religion!”

“. . .”

“That you're not a heretic Protestant like the family your grandad found you in!”

“I'm not anything.”

Marie-Thérèse's voice begins to rise.

“What do you mean, you're not anything? You live with the rest of us, don't you? Your name's Noirlac, isn't it? Like it or not, you're part of this family, and I'm gonna teach you to be a good Catholic!”

The child's stubborn silence makes her see red.

“You hear me, Milo? Otherwise you'll land up at Bordeaux like your good-for-nothing of a father . . . A lazybones delinquent! A parasite! Hey, are you listening to me? Hey, I'm talking to you! All right . . .”

Taking the receiver off its hook on the wall, she clobbers him over the head with it.

Involuntary tears start to Milo's eyes but he turns his head, looks out the window and concentrates on the falling snow. Joins up with the lion, the witch and the wardrobe, the little match girl, the ruby-eyed nightingale, the ugly duckling. Will not give his aunt the pleasure of making him cry . . . (I can just see you, Milo, sitting way at the end of that table, scrunched up against the wall. I can
you . . .) She hits him again.
She's acquiring a taste for that

“You're proud, aren't you? A boy from the big city, hey? Too good for us country bumpkins, hey? Is that it? Is that it, hey, you whore-son?”
“Hey! Answer when you're spoken to!”
“Do you at least know you're a whoreson? Well, if you didn't know it before, you know it now. Oh, the bitch and the boozer, your parents were made for each other! Two losers! Two nothings! Son of nothing, son of less than nothing, that's what you are—you hear me?”
(Bong, bong!)
“Son of absence!”

Milo's head is on the table amidst the pickle jars. Since his arms are crossed over it for protection, Marie-Thérèse sometimes smashes his hands with the receiver. She's out of control.

“Your slut of a mother didn't want you. Minute you came out, she tossed you into the trash bin!”
“That's the way savages behave: mothers flick their babies away like gobs of snot.”
“They don't give a hoot in hell about their children's souls!”

Just then the door bursts open and Régis stomps into the house, his boots covered in snow. A freezing gust of wind enters the room with him.

“Christ it's cold out there! . . . Hey! What's going on?”

Seeing herself as he must see her, sweating, shouting and disheveled, towering over the cowering child, Marie-Thérèse freezes.

“Gotta teach him a lesson,” she mutters, hanging up the phone. “He's bad seed. I gotta knock some sense into him.”

“Well, stop clobbering him over the head!” says Régis in an uncharacteristic display of marital authority. “Whip his ass, if you gotta whip something!”

“Yeah, a lot of good your discipline has done our boys. You never wanted to hit them, and look how they turned out! Two big brutes with no ambition. All they care about is getting drunk and chasing skirts. Those two'll never be able to take over the farm.”

“At least find something else to hit him with. That phone's brand new! You'll damage it.”

“So . . . I won't let you spoil Milo the way you spoiled the other two, you hear me? I'll take care of Milo. Listen, Régis” (she lowers her voice), “that boy is smart.”

“Okay, do as you please. I could care less about Milo, anyway. He's your nephew, not mine. Do as you please.”

“You bet I will!”

Régis treads out of the room, exhausted, and Marie-Thérèse sits down next to Milo on the bench.

“Come on, little one,” she says, cajoling and kissing him. “Let's make up. I like you a lot, you know. The two of us are going to get along just fine, you'll see. Come on, relax, sit down beside me . . . I'm your mom now. You know that, don't you? Your other mom's probably no longer of this world . . . The gutter kills . . . She
prob'ly shot up, too . . . Hey, come on, Milo, darling, give Auntie Thérèse a little kiss . . .”

She pulls him close, but he goes so rag-doll limp that all she can do with his body is release it.

“Okay, well . . . It's getting late. Go ahead, run off to bed. I'll finish up the job by myself, as usual. No hard feelings, hey? No hard feelings, Milo?”


write a book about passivity someday. I hope you'll forgive me for having put my own words in Thom's mouth, in the scene at Saint Stephen's Green:
Passivity! The greatest force in human history!
Also one of the most cruelly underestimated, since people prefer to see themselves as courageous, in charge of their own lives . . . and, especially, free! Freedom is described in contemporary novels and newspapers as that without which human beings cannot survive—oh, but we can, we can, and we do! Freedom is anything but an irresistible impulse, an overwhelming urge, the smallest common denominator of humankind. On the contrary, it's a rarity. A luxury, like gilt hummingbirds' eggs. The vast majority of human beings don't give a hoot in hell about freedom. They care about two
things—doubtless wired together in our reptilian brains—survival and group acceptance.

No, love, I'm not talking about you—I know you're no more passive than a possum. But you're the one who got me interested in the subject, and . . . Okay, Astuto, okay, I'll stop speechifying. No need to rub it in. I know I'm in no state to write a book.

•    •    •    •    •

Neil, September 1917

our young hero hunched over his desk in a corner of his bedroom. Sun streams through the frilly white curtains to his left, making the blankness of his pages painfully bright. Behind him, the maid is loudly plumping up the pillows on the bed.

“Shall I make you a cup of tea, sir?”

“No. Please. Please, Daisy, how often must I ask you not to speak to me when I'm writing? Can you see that I'm writing, yes or no?”

“No, sir.”

“Oh! Even when his pen isn't dashing madly across the page and being dipped into fresh ink every few seconds, a man seated at a writing desk in front of a sheet of paper is writing, Daisy.”

“Yes, sir.”

“An important part of writing, indeed the
most important
part, takes place before the pen gets set to paper, inside the brain. The mysterious, burning furnace of the brain, wherein spiritual metals are molten and smolten. Through a series of chemical reactions, these cause floating, inchoate forms to appear, then thrust them into reality, where they miraculously crystallize into works of art that seem to us as immutable and inevitable as if they had always existed.”

“Yes, sir,” repeats Daisy. And she beats a retreat with a false obsequiousness that verges on insolence, moving backward, curtsying and waving her feather duster, finally pulling the door to behind her.

dare she
?” fumes Neil, swerving angrily back to the blank page on the table in front of him.

He scrawls a sentence on it, and we hear him think it as he writes:
There were numerous truths of the Easter Rising, depending upon one's vantage point.
He crosses out
one's vantage point
and writes, instead,
who and where one was
. Crosses out
and replaces it with
happened to be
. Crosses out everything, crumples the page and tosses it into the wastebasket.

No, no, no, no,
we hear him say to himself.
Though a thousand things were indeed occurring simultaneously in different parts of the city, we have no choice but to recount them successively. No blah blah, no holding forth. We must be in the action. In, for instance, the body of the young Sinn Féiner shot to death by the sniper on the roof of Trinity College. No, that's no good . . . He died on Tuesday; his chapter would be far too short. Well, how about a seagull, then, watching events unfold from above? No, ridiculous. Gulls cannot fathom human behavior, let alone human speech. Thom, I want to do this for you. You lost your life and I did not, so it's serious now. I need to do it. All right, let's just start somewhere, anywhere, it doesn't matter where; we can correct it later.

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, his sister pops her head through the door.

“So you're staying at home again today, are you?”

Neil doesn't deign to turn toward her.

“You're not going out to look for work today then, Neil?”

working, Dorothy.”

“Are you, then? Sure and it looks like hard labor you're doing, too! And a great lot of money I'm sure it will bring in to help with the family finances, justifying the lengthy and expensive education you were given. Don't wear yourself out too much, now, will you? When your fingers tire of holding the pen, be sure to take a nice long bath to relax them.”

“Dorothy, have I not ordered you on several occasions to refrain from bursting into my room without knocking?”

“Oh, sorry. Simply wanted to wish you a good day, brother. You've grown more and more irritable since you decided art was your true calling in life—d'you know that, Neil Kerrigan?”

“Might I prevail upon you to leave my room at once?”

“I liked you little enough as a lawyer, but as a novelist you're insufferable. Ta, then. I hope you'll at least make yourself useful by helping Daisy peel the potatoes for our supper!”

And, with a peal of laughter as intolerably bright as the sunlight, Dorothy vanishes.

His nerves at snapping point, Neil grips his pen tightly and we hear his inner voice . . .

The question is not only how to be in different places at the same time, but how to be in the same place at different times. The place, assuredly, is Dublin City. But we cannot talk about the Easter Rising of 1916 if we do not understand the strikes of 1913–1914 . . . the rise and fall of Parnell in the 1890s . . . or the six-hundred-year history of the British occupation. And we must go not only backward but forward in time as well. Show how the people of Dublin, though not supportive of the rebellion during Easter Week itself, gradually came to espouse the rebels' cause as, day after day, early in May, their leaders were cruelly and systematically executed by British firing squads. Pearse, Plunkett, MacDonagh, Connolly . . . sixteen in all, including the one whom I personally denounced, Major John MacBride. A swaggerer to the end: boasting that he'd faced British fire before, he met his death without the customary blindfold. And then I was denounced. By whom? Must have been that blond kid in the bushes. To whom? I'm still not sure—both ways? To the government and the rebels? A two-way traitor, I became. Traitor to my class—the bar defrocked me. Traitor to my cause—the Sinn Féin cast me out. But it's not my own tale I want to tell, it's the tale of my city. The upheaval of Easter 1916 left dear dark Dublin ruined and ravished but renewed. Ripe for revolution.

Neil's knuckles are white from squeezing the pen too tightly.

Three loud, swift knocks at the door.

“What now? Who is it?” he shouts, leaping to his feet.

“Your mother,” comes the icy answer.

Yanking the door open, he sees fear in his mother's eyes and realizes he must be a sight: hair on end, rumpled shirttails, wrinkled trousers, suspenders awry; he hasn't slept a wink.

“Your father would like to have a word with you,” says Mrs. Kerrigan stiffly, advancing not so much as the pointed toe of her pink velvet mule beyond his threshhold.

CUT to Judge Kerrigan's den, replete with all the symbols of virile wealth and power: leather-bound books serried on bookshelves, framed diplomas, green lampshades, polished oak desk, gilt leather blotters and paperweights . . . you get the picture. The man's success is ostentatious not to say ferocious, and any one of our potential spectators could probably write the ensuing dialogue as well as we can, Milo.

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