A short story by Lisa Jackson
Gold satin vestments, my grace and my sail, cupped in sweat and perfume laden air, the yellow room is our stage as we dance, all memory gone; sucked into this moment, this now, our bodies vibrate and swing, now synchronised as one. For a moment we are immortal, and if this moment should last, if we could make it, we would be gods. But the magic fades, as all magic does, and I laugh, then he does – still connected, but that’s fading too. After we’re paid for entertaining someone else’s guests we go home, go our separate ways, he to his wife and his furniture, me to my child and my bare room.
Little Mare is already asleep, and Peni leaves, taking her small babe with her – a child that never cries, an unnatural thing, but we all hope for her. I undress in the dark; this slick gown with simple stitching I’ll hang on the wall, on that nail there that threatens to tear it, over my little girl’s head, over Little Mare so she can see its brightness when she wakes. I lie beside her on the blanket. The summer’s not yet set; it’ll be a while before we need to be under the blanket. Little Mare calls out in her sleep, a cry like a whiney. Oh, my Little Mare, be quiet now, I’m here.
I could cry too; my body is sore, blows I didn’t notice during the dance have come alive in their effect. Past tears into the present, there’s no escaping it. If I could escape would I still have Little Mare? Of course, I say, but if I had the choice before I knew her, then no, probably not. I stare at the walls waiting for sleep; it comes belated, after the dawn is threatening.
When I’m up again, it’s late out, and the children are already down on the street, shrill and tireless and tiresome. Little Mare isn’t beside me. I roll over and see her at the window. She’s looking out, she wants to play, but she’s too young and they’re too old. They would be rough with her, so I only ever let her out when I’m with her. I’m too tired and too sore to go out and play. Little Mare, be quiet now. But she’s making babbly talk at the children down on the street, she’ll learn to be like them soon enough, then maybe it’ll be Peni who will worry about Little Mare being rough with her silent child.
I close my eyes and try to remember the magic of the dance, but all that’s there are the aches of old injuries.
Come here Little Mare, give your Big Mare a hug, comfort me Little Mare, we’re all the other really has. But her eyes are on the street outside, bathed in light, and us in darkness, of course she wants to go.
For breakfast we have eggs cooked in stock – the three eggs Peni left. The stock is from the butcher who ‘likes the dancing girl to be well fed.’ One egg for Little Mare and two for me. She reaches for the opal globs as they oat in the pot; I pull her hand back before she’s burnt. It’s not too hot, but her skin will be left red raw. I cook them slow till the yolk is vanished in the white case, then spoon them out into bowls and add the stock. Then sit and thwart all Little Mare’s attempts to eat straight away, to teach her valuable lessons of patience and time; I plead and persuade, then push her back when that doesn’t work.
Little Mare looks at me like I’m a criminal. No Little Mare, just your mother. Sit still and watch. But I give in, and she huffs down the egg, wincing with pain and delight. She was hungry, very hungry. I am too, my belly tells me so. I give in and eat the hot eggs; the yolk, bright orange, spills forth and swims round the bowl. Little Mare’s yolk is spread across her face. Her smile puts little apples in her cheeks.
I wash her face before taking down the satin skirts and wrapping her in them. First she pats them with her hand like she’s pleased with the weight of them, then she sways in a little dance of her own design, just a little shake, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, all the while looking down at the gold satin she’s swaddled in. Then she stops, looks up at me. Night-night?
Yes, tonight, I say, another night of dance. She knows this, but asks it every time, like a ritual. Tonight I dance. I’ll meet my partner out by the old temple, and we’ll nd the grand house together, or the café; tonight it’s a café, tomorrow, we’ll see. Here, drink your stock, I say, it will help you grow.
We go down to the market, Little Mare and me, and I buy her a little dough mouse lled with curd to keep her quiet. There’s enough money for today and that little extra. I should save that little extra, save up, but her peace is more valuable. We walk between the sellers down the middle of the street, the orange awnings protecting them from an all-day face full of sun; we pass between them, in the bright light, a procession of customers. That’s when I see him, standing straight and waiting by a fruit stall. He’s not interested, not looking, so why is he even here? Then the woman beside him, bent over so she’s merged with the produce, stands up, and I see it’s his wife. They turn to come our way, and I brace myself for the moment he’ll notice me. It’s different when it’s not the dance. We stream towards each other, water running inexorably down into a pool. They see us, smile.
Little Mare has nished her mouse, and there’s a point of interest beyond the destined meeting: children playing, down on their knees in a circle in the way of all the owing shoppers. Little Mare is drawn that direction as I ow towards my dancing partner and his other life.
It’s strange to see you in the light, he says.
Yes, it is.
His wife’s eyes consume all things; her clear, dark eyes follow Little Mare to where she meets the other children. She stares for longer than I’m comfortable with, with a hunger I’m not sure I understand. Then her eyes are on me, small mouths in her skull, sucking everything in.
He smiles, I’ll see you tonight.
Of course, I say. Let’s take it a little easy, last night was hard on my bones. Don’t worry, we’ll go slow.
She frowns at me. I smile at her. Then they move on, are gone eventually in the crowd of warm bodies. I go to Little Mare and pull her sticking body away. My hand is tight on her wrist, but my mind is on my partner and his wife. It’s ne, I’d say to anyone who’d ask: we meet at the temple every night.
Lisa Jackson’s work has previously been longlisted for BBC’s Opening Lines.