Halloween, when everyone tries hard to be something other than who they are. Or succeeds in becoming who they may have been already, I mused, and slouched into the sofa. I sleepily watched “Key Largo” when Daedalus’ husky-German shepherd ears pricked and he came to attention.
Thundering feet hammering the earth roused me. Dae growled ominously, barked at the front door like the wild beast he wished to be. I swung it open, pushing Dae behind the door before it shut, his protestations increasing. Whoever was out there rustled the bushes, their voices a staccato of noise that fell quiet at my appearance. I sensed others lurking about my old chapel-house and fear flashed through me.
There it lay in hideous glory, flung upon the porch: a large effigy, an imaginative rendering of a witch that, on closer inspection, might have been meant to resemble me. I picked it up amid snickering from dark foliage. I saw not a soul. I brought it inside, took off its rumpled pointy hat, examined the stuffed body, partly clothed in a black swath of cheap shiny fabric. Dae sniffed every inch, snarled, pounced at it. I signaled him to sit; he did so with head erect, watching. On the stuffed pillow case noggin was a garish red wig. The white squashed dumpling of a face was marked with dramatic black eyes, single line of nose, purple mouth gaping to reveal drawn jagged teeth. It’s body was overstuffed with damp leaves and rags; it wore a black cape safety pinned together and bloomers of grey and white ticking. But no pretend feet with ridiculous shoes. My stomach clenched.
I’m a dancer, after all.
I had learned to let whiffs of gossip and little digs roll off. I was overall accepted–as perhaps mentally unfit or at the least a sad, peculiar person. Most were not unkind while some stayed their distance. The villagers knew I fell mute the day of Thomas’ death, drowning on stormy Ring Lake. Mia, beloved daughter now thirteen, was recovering–father gone, mother, too, in vital ways–at her aunt’s in Vermont. It was going as well as could be expected. There was not a day or night I didn’t feel her absence like a thorn embedded that could only be excised by the sight and energy of her restored to our home. But I believed she’d be saner, safer there. Away from the rocky pit into which I’d tumbled.
Friends and neighbors recalled my life before such losses. Sophia, they said, remember when you swam and boated with us, danced spontaneously and entertained us with adventures of your dance troupe and more? We loved to hear you tell stories. We want to hear your voice. But I barely could recall it all. And I hadn’t tried to dance again in the airy loft space that echoed with bitter denouncement. Those sudden puncturings of illusion, revealing the frailty of my hope, the faulty design of expectations. My body and spirit were marred by a dense darkness that had transformed me. Set me apart from much that mattered. Still, I owned an unyielding will to stay alive. It was less certain I’d find a way back from a creeping madness that could steal clarity of mind, resilience of heart. I waffled.
But I was filled with a desire to take action now.
I pulled the hag-witch close, twirled once about the living room as Dae nipped at its straw nubbins of feet, his blue husky eyes lit by candlelight that warmed the rooms. I yanked the wig from the creature woman, placed it over my own, nearly waist-length sandy hair. Positioned the ratty hat at an angle.
I opened the door. Descended the porch steps with deliberate effort.
Bushes shook, whispers rifled brisk fall air. A rock was tossed over my head and hit the door, setting Dae off. Laughter, hard laughter. Was I an idiot to be out there? I lifted my hands skyward and began to dance in place, then galloped and lunged across the yard, legs loosening, arms flung out, about. Zigzagging, I felt almost lifted off my feet despite heavy hiking boots. I lurched and spun more than danced but I was moving, that was the thing. The intention was to give them what they wanted: a mad woman. My greying hair flew out from my head as wig and hat slipped away. I would not be put off. Let them think what they would; I was not bowing to their meanness.
A flurry of footsteps from the road–were there more coming?
“Did you kill him, crazy lady?” a girl shrieked.
“Did you do your ole man in, did ya?” a boy bellowed.
I went cold as brittle ice, went blind as well as deaf for brief seconds.
Then someone else hooted, another yelled words I couldn’t interpret, one more whistled, and it pierced me.
A roll of toilet paper then another were thrown in my direction. I grabbed and wrapped the end of tissue around my neck, walked back across the yard with head up, the roll unwinding behind. Laughter, more whistles, stamping feet followed as I disappeared around the back of my house. I pried open the sliders, ran indoors. Locked all doors, shaking. Ripped apart the ugly effigy and stuffed it into the garbage. Dae guarded me, pacing back and forth to check on doors.
I thought to leave the first floor. Climbing stairs that led to the loft, I at last sat on thetop step until breath slowed and diaphragm felt less quivery. A killer! That had been some talk, I knew, despite the circumstances and what was known. But it was the unknown that rattled people, the what ifs, the unanswered whys. Why hadn’t I done something to stop him from taking the boat out, what had happened before he left, had I suspected he might be reckless?
I could not say, that was the problem. And kids with mischief on their minds made it clear they had their opinions, even if stoked by the night’s wildness. It scratched at my recently found courage.
This space, a room full of unforgiving. I had tried to remake it over the months, change its character by painting huge canvases, playing great music on the stereo. But it had remained empty of what bone and sinew knew best.
Now I stood, took off shoes and socks, wandered over the wooden floor in bare feet, its smooth coolness greeting my skin. Familiar comfort to reaching arches and toes. I found and put a CD of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” on high volume. And then I began to move into an unspooling span of timelessness. Past the bruised and brightening colors, the defined yet forlorn shapes in my paintings; they leaned against wall-length mirrors like preternatural beings, waiting.
I located a center of balance and it rocked, then righted itself. I picked up speed, limbs lengthening, muscles contracting and releasing, skin stinging, my neck weary of holding a head weighted with need. I danced in a fury until the metallic taste of fear and sea-taste of sorrow dissolved on my tongue. Breathing harder, working up sweat, letting go more of what Thomas had left behind. As the musical movement resolved, I stopped, panting, frightened by what coursed through me. Coils of energy given access to my limbs, deep cave of my mind.
It was all of a few minutes and yet I was spent. Was I attempting to dance for life or back at death? In faith or in fear? What was this stirring me, taking charge of my blood and breath? How could rage align with mercy?
Suddenly I recalled words my female dancers and I had chanted on a stage. It was on a Boston stage, a performance before Halloween. After we’d woven ever-changing circles inside circles, we formed a “v”, myself at the point in front, their hands on my shoulders and one by one on all other shoulders. And we spoke in unison as we, dressed in silver chemises, slipped through blue shadows:
May all women seek their magic
in ways light will seek the dark
May our souls be deeper, stronger
in the center of life’s spark
May we transform every anger
May we fight with powers of love
Whether midnight or the morning
Let your life become reborn
I looked through the old glass of a skylight high above, near roof’s peak. It opened onto a complex, sensuous natural world, one I had long believed in. Once long ago a church choirmaster had opened or closed it to circulate air or to protect earnest singers from the elements. I found it reasurring to imagine people vocalizing as birds and bugs flew in and out. Inside that rectangle a new moon and faraway stars beamed. Beyond that realm, as well, were my accusers, supporters and those undecided. But I had danced a few secret moments on Halloween Eve. I was closer to embracing the reawakening of my long-dormant power. And that revealed a modicum of freedom, if I could follow its call.
The night fell into itself. Dae rested his wooly head on big paws at an edge of my loft. Beyond my doors ran sugar-stunned children; teenagers found mischief and left their marks. But there was one timid group trying to be bold who’d pass around news: Sophia Swanson has gone freaking nuts, we saw her do a crazy zombie dance…she is seriously strange! We won’t go back to her place.
One day, I may find the will to speak and they will no longer brand me someone they suspect I am. They will no longer wonder, at all.
(Readers, this story arose from a novel’s chapter, the novel in ongoing revision. Other posts featuring Sophie as well as a male protagonist named Cal may additionally be found here: https://talesforlife.wordpress.com/2016/07/18/life-in-pieces/