The Women's Dance

*

Feet sliding through the dust, the rhythmic thump of heels hitting ground. The women's bent forms silhouetted against the evening sky.

May watched from a distance. Her sister-cousins danced tonight. They danced with the senior women, as one. May pulled tiny leaves from the bush she hid behind, sprinkled them slowly onto the sand.

May did not have that connection to the ground. She could not dance without her body ever losing contact. She was too flighty, too floaty. A child might move like that, but a woman's dance should show the weight of her responsibilities, tying her forever to the land. And till she learnt to dance properly, she could not join the ceremony to make her a proper woman.

The rain of tiny leaves continued at her feet.

A woman was the centre of many connections. Family. Land. Spirits. Hunting. Love. May floated free of those connections. Alone. If only she'd been born a bird, she would have been perfect. A swan, floating in the clouds. She sighed. Her dreams were always too high. She was nothing but a finch, hiding in her bush.

She'd tried practicing, behind the camp. But her limbs had a life of their own, leaping her into the air, spinning her round and round. The sound of laughter brought her back to earth.

"No one cares how high you can jump, May." Her sister-cousins sniggered behind brown hands. "No one cares how many times you can spin." They trailed away, a pack she was not a part of. She stood alone in the dust. If she was not connected to all around her, she was no one.

She watched them now, those girls, differing only in height and slenderness from the bodies around them. Concentrating. Painted up. Moving as one. Dancing the steps that connected them forever to the land, the steps their mothers and mothers' mothers had danced, all the way back to the Creator Sisters that danced the land into being in the first place.

May's hand rubbed her chest subconsciously: her body was bare.

Eyes glowing in the gathering dark, the coals of shone. The women danced on. May gave up tormenting her sanctuary bush. Airy tendrils of the smell of roasting kangaroo crept from the ash pit. Lifted of the weight of the days heat, the night hummed with life.

Hands grabbed her from the darkness. She stifled a shriek. The grinning face of her little brother peered into her moonlit face.

"You're not supposed to be here," she whispered, her fright distilling her grumpiness. Boys, no matter how small, were not allowed at women's business.

"Neither are you," Wirri shot straight back, sitting beside her.

"Shut up." She hugged the sting of his words away.

The others knew she was here, no doubt. Though no elder hand had touched her back before dawn, silently inviting her to the ceremony ground, she had followed anyway. No way was she going to be left behind with the babies, the only girl in camp.

She had followed without letting a sound or shadow betray her presence. She had hidden all day behind her bush, keeping to the sanctuary of its shadow. But Maliki looked straight at her bush from time to time, his black nose twitching, and she knew the others would notice his interest. They knew she was here. So far she had been ignored. She tried to convince herself this was a good thing.

The smell of the roasting kangaroo wafted stronger, and brother's and sister's mouths grew wet.

"I'm hungry," Wirri said. "Go get me some."

She shook her head, staring hard at a pebble.

"Go on, go dance proper and they'll give you some."

"I do dance proper, but," she mumbled.

"Nah. You dance like a boy. Jumping. Floating. Flashy and that." His unspoken question, conveyed by a flick of his eyes, was why? She ignored the question, tracing circles into the dune, digging into the cooler sand below.

She remembered Wati bringing that kangaroo back to camp. She remembered as if he were before her now, the muscles in his arms bulging beneath the animal's weight, his smile filled with quiet pride. Her stomach melted in just same way as if he were before her now.

That kangaroo marked his return to camp after weeks away. It marked the end of the ceremonial cycle of a young man. He was a senior man now. Not a young fella to keep silent and follow his elders' orders. A real man, who could hold his head high and court the free women.

And now, the most desirable free women would be her sister-cousins, just as soon as they finished their ceremony and got back to camp. They too would have come of age and be ready to take their place amongst the adults. Ready to choose their husbands, bear their children. Trusted with the power to sing peace to the camp, sing lovers together. No doubt they would sing Wati's attention their way. No doubt Wati would court one, and she would accept him. He would become May's brother, and she would never be able to sing him for herself.

May scrubbed a tear from her cheek before Wirri noticed.

The weaker dancers began to flag, pulling out of the formation, sinking to the sand, keeping time with their clapping. One by one her sister-cousins dropped out and wet to sleep. Soon just a small group of elders danced on by the light of coals.

The stars danced over head to rhythm of their chant. Ants samba'ed a line at May's feet. The leaves waltzed in a crowd above her head, shivering in the breeze. Country was formed and reformed by the dance steps of the living things all around her. Except hers.

She curled deeper into the sand, still warm from the sun's long loving. Like a puppy burrowing into its mother, her brother snuggled into her arms. The stars dance became wilder and blurred, and she slept.

She woke to sounds: a step too hard and too disjointed for the dance of life around it, and the rising thunder of Maliki's growls and yelps.

The swing of a stirrup iron swung overhead. The crunching thud as it contacted a living skull. Maliki's protests silenced.

The screams and crying of the women, the squeal of sand beneath desperate running feet. Curled up in her bush, May held her brother tight. The hand pressed over his mouth felt warm tears dribble over it. Her breath stitched her chest tight.

A breaking sound came to her ears again and again. Muscles tight as rock, she shifted til she could see.

Two enormous horses stood over the camp, their long hairy tails swishing. The dog-men that rode them were walking on the ground – men! On women's sacred ground! - They smashed them their clubs into everything. The bark shelters toppled. Sand paintings kicked into mess. The coolamons cracked. Berries scattered. Seeds rained into the sand. Precious water drained into the sand. Maliki's body lay like a fur discarded on the ground. Empty, drained of life.

"Move on," the dog-men growled at the women. "This isn't your land anymore."

The words had no meaning. May understood each word individually, but it was like saying your mother wasn't yours anymore. It made no sense. Her mind whirled in spirals, a willy-willy made of nothing but wind and dust. The smell of crushed leaves grew sharp in her nose. In the darkness of the bush, she was nothing but a deeper shade.

One of the dog-men picked up Maliki's limp body and heaved him up, tying him onto the horse. That was how the dog-men got their names, from the prey they hunted. The camp dogs knew to run at a signal, but no one had been keeping watch here. It was a sacred place, a safe place. The bad spirits could not enter. The dogs could sleep unafraid.

But now it was destroyed.

The dog-man pulled the last rope tight. The women's weeping passed over him like he was deaf.

"Come, let's get out of here."

"Coming." The second man was carrying her sister-cousins back to the horse, an arm around each smooth waist. He was made of stone: he felt nothing of their punches and kicks.

"Leave them girls alone," the first dog man growled.

"Nah, it's that new law. Mission wants 'em."

"They's just piccaninnies."

The second man shrugged, shoving the girls at him and going back for the last. "That's what they want, the kids."

The first man tied them to the horse, and climbed back onto his. The women's wailing grew louder, they beat at the ground. Beneath the cover of their noise, Aunty crept to the horse to untie her daughters.

"Hey!" The second dog-man jerked his horses away with one arm, the other swinging the club at Aunty. She flattened herself to the ground, just in time.

The air exploded with noise. Wirri's body jerked in her arms. The screams of the women evaporated into a frozen silence.

May watched the first dog-man holster the smoking nose of his club into his saddle. "You gotta watch 'em every bloody minute."

The second dog-man snarled and spat, tying the last girl's wrists to his saddle. His leg swung over his mount. With a kick, the beasts jogged away, the girls tripping and running beside.

May didn't know how long it took her to realise she was holding Wirri too tight, hurting him. The world had stopped, and her mind had stopped working. It was only his whispers and struggles to be free of her that finally broke through.

"Sh," she whispered, so soft she wasn't quite sure it came out, "I'm sorry."

"s'my fault," Wirri was crying, "men aren't allowed here, I shouldna come-"

May pressed his head to her chest to stifle his words. "Shh."

That was all she could manage. Her eyes were staring. Her legs appeared to have died. Her heart beat at her ears.

A hand grabbed her arm, and she shrieked. Its grip was iron, and pulled her out despite her flailing.

"It's May! It's May!" The voice which assaulted her ears was a women's, not the harsh growl of the dog-men. She stopped fighting. Other arms grabbed and held and squeezed her, voices crying her name like it was a miracle thing. She felt the wet of their cheeks pressed to hers, shaking hands stroking her. She felt everyone's touch. The sun, smiling warmly on her head, the sand hugging her feet, the warm air enveloping her. Her breath grew ragged.

The knot of women sank to the ground, a heap of bodies wailing half in grief and half in joy. At the centre of their tangled web, May dug her hands into the sand, and held on tight as tight.

As they walked back to camp, May dragged on Grandmother's hand. Just before they got home she stopped, and Grandmother stopped with her. The ancient eyes bored into hers.

"Grandmother," May whispered, but her words died in her throat. The old, root-like hand squeezed hers. May took a deep breath. "What if they come back? What if they take me?"

Grandmother creaked forward and planted a kiss on her forehead.

"We will protect you, little bird," she whispered.

May stared at the ground, holding on, holding on to Grandmother's hand. The old woman began to sing, a chant deep with power. The land stilled to listen.

May blinked. A silence filled slowly with wind and leaves and birds and insects.

"What did you do?" she asked. Grandmother smiled a knowing, coy smile. She whispered back.

"I sang you into a swan. Them bad men come looking for a piccaninny, they gonna find nothing but a beautiful swan."

The leathery hand cupped her cheek for just a moment. The women smiled at each other, and walked hand in hand into the camp.


AN: Hey ya'll, thanks for reading! This is my entry for the Review Games February WCC, do go and read the others entries by clickin' on the link on my Authors page thingy :