[NOTE: any similarity between Michal, and Portunista in this chapter, was entirely not much of a coincidence. What [u]is a coincidence, is that my iTunes was playing the children’s song about Gamera from the 60s movie series while I was formatting this today for posting here. ]
CHAPTER 6 – DANCES
I charged from my tent, already hating a man I hadn’t seen.
I cannot see him now.
But, I remember how I saw him, then.
As Seifas had said: a fair man.
He stands halfway downhill, surrounded by soldiers who seem to be wandering into position as they pass. They watch him, staring, unspeaking; he smiles to them in return, resting upon his flutewood staff, meeting them each with a nod.
Certainly he is fair of coloring. Curly, sandy-yellow hair; a short curly beard; a brief moustache. His skin is paler than any I’ve seen; compared to Seifas, simply snow. He wears a tunic of humble wool, very clean—which raises further suspicions in me: any mere peasant would not have clothes entirely unworn by rain and mud.
I stop at a distance to watch. A boy has pushed to the circle’s edge, unlike the other nearby vendors’ children.
The stranger turns precisely to the boy, squinting in thought a moment.
Then he squats to eye-level with the boy, and says:
“I see you have a sword-jumper!”
He sounds like Seifas, somewhat; though a higher baritone, befitting a smaller man.
“So, can you jump a sword with it yet?” he asks.
The boy is holding a ball, covered in elongrass netting winding into a line of strands.
I haven’t the faintest notion what he means—jump a sword with that?!—and neither does the boy, who had begun to shrink away from the man’s attention. But, his curiosity now has much increased!
I see some soldiers nodding; everyone seems to relax a little, yet grow more alert.
“Did you know your ball can jump a sword?” the stranger gently asks.
The boy is darting his eyes toward his elders.
A soldier mutters, “S’alright, lad. Speak up.”
He gulps, then edges further in.
“What do you mean . . . sword-jumping?”
“Well! Sometimes a fighter must dodge a swipe by jumping something swung at him! Imagine! Here—” the stranger has leaped to the right, facing left in an on-guard stance. “Here is our hero, taunting his foe to a towering rage. ‘Where shall I skewer my peacock again?!’”
The boy’s eyes widen in wonder. Several soldiers are smiling now, but not in mockery.
“So, the villain,” continues the stranger, leaping across to the opposite side, “snarls and savagely swings his axe or halberd, thus!” And with a looping whistle, he brings his pole around in an arc. “Striking here!” he points, and then steps back along his staff to put his legs within the arc. “But!—our hero jumps,” and once again he leaps, inventively whirling the staff beneath him, “clearing the blow—or even pinning it down! Ha-HAAA!”
He flourishes, standing proud and straight upon the staff, flushed with exertion and grinning broadly.
“Well,” he adds with a shrug, “any professional soldier could do it better. But, you have a lead on me,” he points to the boy and his ball, “for you can begin to learn it early!”
The boy now shifts his excited attention, between his ball and the stranger.
“It does work a little bit differently, with a ball,” the man allows. “I would be glad to show you.”
And, he holds out his hand.
The boy is hesitating. “G’wan, lad. Let’im try,” advises another soldier. I ruefully shake my head; to my surprise, I am smiling, too! The man must be a clown . . .
“I understand,” the stranger nods, with a different smile. “You do have every reason to believe me. Yet to act on that belief, even once you have your reasons . . . it can be hard to step out onto a bridge, even when we have built the bridge ourselves.”
I blink so sharply, my eyelids click.
This man is not a clown! He is—! What he is, is a . . . !
Don’t listen to him! I want to shout, through my clenching throat. This is a trick of some sort! Can’t they see?! Why are they all smiling now?!
I don’t know whether the boy understands the man—but, he understands the surrounding smiles.
With only a tremor of hesitation, he gives the man the ball.
I force my muscles to twist into action: enough of this farce!
A hand falls gently on my shoulder.
I whirl, spitting, to face the threat . . .
. . . Seifas is standing calm and tall beside me.
“Watch,” he murmurs.
He isn’t looking at me. He isn’t looking at me!
My fury floods my mind, as I turn back to the gathering crowd—
. . . the stranger is jumping the sword!
Having fastened the end of the twine to his ankle, he is swinging the ball on its leash through the air, near to the ground, jumping in a stuttering step to avoid the slinging cord.
“It works much better with a friend!” he shouts. “Then you can jump both feet! Come on and try!” And in a frolic, the boy and his friends all fling into the circle, leaping to clear the arcing ball.
I cannot move; the sight is incredible. Whenever the children stumble, they and the man all tumble down; and then they bounce right up to try again. The children shrill and giggle; the vendors can hardly wipe the tears from their eyes for laughing so hard; the soldiers regale one another with yarns of war. Now the ring is clapping, and as the cord completes an arc, they raise a counting shout: “Ahoy! Bahoy! Chahoy! Dahoy! Eeoi!” Seifas, his long lean face the perfect picture of dignity, is laughing boisterous roars, his bright white teeth all shining . . .
I didn’t laugh.
I seethed, and was seized with a burning itch to fly down the hill, to rend the joy of those people.
The force of that joy quelled me instead.
I didn’t want to face it.
I was afraid to face it.
So I turned, and skulked to my tent.
As far as I know, no one even watched me.
I told myself I wasn’t retreating. Let them have their fun. I was practical. I was pragmatic. Wasn’t this partly what vendors were for?—to entertain the troops?
I didn’t entirely succeed in ignoring the differences, of joy and fun and pleasure. But I managed not to think of it.
No . . . I managed to think away from it.
I strode into my tent, and poured a mug of mead, and sat and stewed. Even Hud [her staff accountant] had gone to join the escalating party. Fine. Whatever.
. . . and then to my mind, there sprang an image of me, dancing and singing.
How ridiculous! I had never once sung in my life . . . !
—but I remembered now, that I had danced, long ago.
I remembered: how I had danced the dances of little girls who wanted to dance the dances of women; how I enjoyed my play, how I had looked with a clean admiration—that which poisoned turns to envy—upon the girls who were finally ready to dance the very best dances.
I had wanted so badly to dance those dances . . .
I wept unblinking tears; refusing to admit that I was weeping, wanting to murder those memories.
I hated them.
I loved them.
I missed them.
But I refused to close my eyes and cry.