August 2008 Volume Two Issue Five
Dancing the Bones - Michelle Muenzler
Nyah forced a chunk of cassava bread into her mouth and chewed. The resulting mush set her stomach to heaving in protest, but she swallowed anyway.
"More," Zurani said, a fresh-torn piece already in hand.
"No, no more."
"Mama Yewande will whip you again."
Nyah pushed her wooden plate away. "Finish it for me. Please?" If she ate another bite, her belly would burst.
Zurani glanced over the other four girls at their long table and shoved the chunk into her mouth. Nyah pretended it was her swallowing the bread, adding its bulk to her arms and legs. Oh, to be fat like Zurani! None of the other girls would tease her then, or call her "Little Twig" and throw sticks in her hair.
"Do you think I'll wake one tonight?"
"Of course," Zurani said between chews. "You've practiced so hard."
"Not with the armor, though."
Zurani picked at the crumbs scattered on the table. "I heard it isn't that heavy."
Maybe not for Zurani. But for Nyah, dancing in the armor would be like swimming through mud with a bag of stones tied around her neck, like climbing a tamarind tree upside down.
Outside the palm-leaf pavilion, a pair of bee-eaters trilled, and a warm afternoon breeze drifted through the open sides. Nyah forced a grin.
"You're right, I shouldn't worry so much. I bet I'll wake two elephants for every one of yours."
"Of course you will."
Zurani smiled, but worry shadowed her eyes. Nyah's stomach churned again, and her grin faded. She stared at what little bread remained on her plate, pulled a piece free, and began to chew.
Dusk painted the sky with swirls of purple and burnt orange, and night birds heralded the darkness from the jungle canopy. Nyah stepped closely behind Mama Yewande, clinging to the protective light of the matron's torch; bitter smoke curled down her throat. Zurani's skirts rustled behind Nyah, and the skirts of two more girls behind her. Using a variation of the bone dance, Mama Yewande progressed down the trail, the trunks of her legs tapping the earth. The girls matched her, tap for tap.
It was a light dance, one in which the other girls' weights were no advantage. Nyah inhaled its simplicity. Beyond the torchlight, a high-pitched squeal sounded, followed by a leopard's cry and the crashing of brush. Her rhythm faltered. Bush pigs, one of them probably dead now. Feeling very small, she shuffled back into the beat.
With a final tap turned stomp, Mama Yewande halted the dancers. She slipped into the whisper dance, and the jungle hushed. Zurani clutched Nyah's hand; their sweat mingled in the silence.
"Enter as girls, leave as women." Mama Yewande's eyes demanded nothing less.
Nyah slipped past first, twisting to avoid Mama Yewande's bulk. She had seen the boneyard in the daylight many times, but it was a different creature at night with the torchlight flickering across the huge piles of ivory bones and tusks. Twelve elephants in total formed a circle. In their center, enough room remained for one girl to dance.
Nyah slipped along the outer edge, followed by the other girls, and held her breath. Surely Mama Yewande wouldn't pick her first.
"Zurani." Mama Yewande dropped a large pack to the ground. "Dance the bones."
Nyah exhaled and gave Zurani a quick squeeze. Zurani kneeled by the pack, pulled out the vest of elephant bone, and strapped it to her chest. The bones could easily turn a well-flung spear. Next, she grabbed a pair of small tusks and tied them to her forearms. With those, she could strike at her enemies. Lastly, she lashed the preserved elephant's feet to her own--so the elephants would know her as their child--and staggered to the center of the circle.
At Zurani's first nervous stomp, Nyah winced, but each movement grew successively smoother. Twenty steps into the dance, the first bone shivered; Nyah shivered with it. Ten more steps. An elephant raised its head and swayed to Zurani's rhythm. Caught in the dance, Nyah swayed also. Zurani continued the dance until one of the elephants had completely risen to its feet and stomped in step beside her. The urge to join them drummed against Nyah's bones.
"Well done," Mama Yewande said.
Zurani yelped and lost her footing, and the elephant clattered back into a pile of bones. Again, the jungle was silent. Carefully, Zurani removed the armor and scuttled over to Nyah while Mama Yewande pointed to another girl and commanded her to dance.
Sweat soaked Zurani, and grooves indented her skin where the armor had hung. Nyah could dance the bones better, she knew it, but Zurani's ragged breath turned Nyah's chest cold. How would she fare with the armor dragging her to the earth?
Nyah snapped her gaze to Mama Yewande. The other girl had finished already.
"Dance the bones."
She wiped her hands on her skirt and approached the pile of discarded armor. Piece by piece, she lashed it to her body. The straps dug into her flesh.
"It's too heavy."
One of the girls tittered, but Mama Yewande silenced her with a glare.
"It is as heavy as it needs to be."
Of course Mama Yewande would say that. Nyah trudged to the center of the bones and focused. She counted the opening beats in her head and lifted a foot to begin.
Stomp. Step, slide, stomp. She raised her arms to stab an imaginary enemy and gasped at the outstretched weight. She tried to slip it into a forward slide, but the rhythm scattered, and she tumbled to her knees.
A tear squeezed free, and she lifted her head. Zurani's eyes were wide and bright, and her lip bled where it was caught between her teeth.
Mama Yewande had no expression at all.
Nyah wanted to run away but stood and faced her audience instead. This time, she made it past the first stab, but her third slide fell short, and the next stomp was off-beat. The tusks on her arms kept dragging her too far forward while her legs refused to lift.
Halfway through the dance, Mama Yewande held up her hand. "Stop."
Nyah's arms dropped to her side. Sweat dripped into her eyes.
"You are finished."
Nyah nodded and removed the armor. She rejoined Zurani at the circle's edge, and Mama Yewande called the final girl to dance. Zurani's fingers sought Nyah's, but Nyah drew her hand away. Zurani was an elephant woman now; she had danced the bones and set the earth to shaking. In four days, Nyah would be given a final chance to prove herself Zurani's equal. But until then, she was just a girl.
For four days, Nyah danced in the jungle. Wooden blocks pounded beneath her feet, and stones dragged her arms to the earth. Over and over, she spun and stomped and slid. Over and over, she failed.
Struggling for breath, she kneeled in the dirt.
"Maybe you should give up."
Zurani. Nyah looked up. Zurani leaned into a leadwood tree, her cheek pressed against its pale gray trunk, hugging it as though it were a sister. Nyah had avoided her since the failed dance.
"No. Listen to me."
Listening was a waste of time. Nyah needed to dance.
"I was wrong to take your food." Zurani's voice was quiet, tired. "I should have let Mama Yewande whip you until rivers ran from your back. Then you would have learned, you would have been able to bear the weight of the elephant woman. It is my fault you have failed."
Nyah clenched her jaw. "I still have until tonight."
What did she mean, "no"? Every girl had a second chance.
"I told Mama Yewande everything. You are going home."
"Home . . . ?"
Zurani nodded, the movement barely discernible, and her shoulders slumped. "I'm sorry. For everything."
Nyah looked to the earth, but there were no patterns in the dirt to make sense of Zurani's words. When she looked up again, Zurani was gone.
Home. The Woman Village was home. Mama Yewande was home.
Zurani was home.
Nyah remembered the palm-woven roof, her mother's voice, and the play screams of nameless sisters the word "home" once stirred up, but the memories were like stars--distant and untouchable. Did they dance at home? Did they learn the steps to call the owl from his burrow, to lure the tiger to other hunts? She doubted it.
She untied the stones from her arms, the blocks from her feet, and flung them into the leadwood tree. They fell to the ground with an unsatisfying clunk.
A faint scream sliced through the jungle.
Nyah bolted up. Another scream, louder than the last and from the direction of the village. Something crashed through the jungle toward Nyah.
"Nyah!" Zurani's voice shot through foliage followed by Zurani herself. Her eyes were wide, her nostrils flared. "We have to run. Now!"
She grabbed Nyah's arm and dragged her toward the opposite end of the clearing.
Zurani halted. "There are men in the village. With spears. They've already taken Mama Yewande."
Not Mama Yewande, the greatest elephant woman in history, able to dance the bones from the village itself. That Mama Yewande could not be taken by men.
Zurani shook Nyah. "She cannot dance. They have rope."
"But--but what about you?"
"You are an elephant woman now. You can dance the bones."
"No." She shook her head. "They would kill me. The armor is at the village. Spears, Nyah, spears!"
Nyah could almost touch the thick haze of fear clouded around Zurani. Its tendrils snaked along Nyah's arm.
"No!" Nyah pulled her arm away. "If you cannot bear your responsibility, then I will."
"I will dance the bones."
Nyah plunged into the jungle. Birds flashed their brightly colored wings and scattered at her passing. At the boneyard, she slid into the center of the elephant ring and began to dance.
Stomp. Step, slide, stomp. Stab. Stomp, stomp, slide. The rhythm throbbed in her chest, down her arms, down her legs. Her feet were the elephant's, to crush her foes. Her hands, their tusks, spearing the enemy. Her ribs nearly burst with the beating of her elephant heart.
Slide, step, slide, stomp. The bones shifted.
Stab, step, slide, step, stab, stomp. The elephants raised their heads and swayed.
Stab, stomp. Stab, stomp. As one, the twelve sets of bones rose to their full height and stomped their memory-laden feet against the earth. The ground shook.
Nyah danced toward the village now, the elephants surrounding her. Before them, the jungle hushed. The elephants trumpeted their battle cries, and Nyah joined them. With a stomp, they broke into the Woman Village. Men barely past boyhood, bodies too lean, faces ashen, trembled before the elephants. They threw their spears, but the elephants stood fast against the snapping of wood and empty clattering through their bones.
Nyah stomped and spun and danced the elephants into an attack. The men screamed and scattered; the girls they had wrestled to the ground cheered.
Only one man refused to run, though his hands shook. Nyah saw him flash by as she spun and stomped about, but the dance had her in its grip. She could no more stop than she could fail to breathe. He raised his spear, aimed not at an elephant, but at her. Her gaze fixed on his arm at the end of every spin. The spear sailed through the air. She stomped. A searing pain sent her rhythm tumbling.
The elephants paused. The fleeing men paused.
Nyah looked at the spear jutting from her right shoulder and at the man, arm still out-flung, staring at her with frightened mud-river eyes. And she stomped. And slid. And stabbed with her left arm as her right hung useless. The spear was nothing compared to the stones she had draped over her arms; the fear of death was nothing against the weight of responsibility. The elephants returned to the attack, and all the men fled but the one.
An elephant knocked the spear-thrower down and pinned him beneath its foot. Another foot hovered over his chest, matched by Nyah's own.
She held the position. Sweat trickled down his brow.
"Why did you attack the Woman Village?"
"Our fathers sent us afar to find wives. Our own women have been stolen from us by neighboring tribes."
The elephant strained against Nyah's control, and the man shuddered as the foot dropped closer.
"We heard there was a village of only women in these lands. We did not know you were magic women. Nobody told us."
"They should not have had to."
He was dangerous. And brave. Mama Yewande would smash his chest beneath her elephant feet as an example to any others who thought to steal from the Woman Village.
Nyah stepped back, pulling the elephants with her, and released them. They tumbled and clattered into piles of bones.
"You are free to go."
The girls gasped, and Nyah caught the disapproving glare of Mama Yewande, her hands and feet coiled in rope. The man pushed up from the earth and loped north. Before disappearing into the jungle, he looked over his shoulder and bowed his head.
Nyah turned to Mama Yewande. "I have danced the bones, and they have answered."
"True," said Mama Yewande. Even bound, her voice demanded authority.
"Then I am an elephant woman now. I can stay."
"An elephant woman needs two good arms to wield her weapons"--her gaze flicked over Nyah's right arm--"and two strong legs to bear her weight. An elephant woman who cannot wear her armor is a dead elephant woman, and with her dies the village she protects."
They stared at each other. An aching emptiness settled behind Nyah's eyes, but no tears came. The more she stared, the emptier she became.
Zurani stumbled into the village, and Nyah broke free of Mama Yewande's gaze.
"Nyah, you're alive! I saw the elephants. You were--" Zurani stopped short a few paces and her gaze fell on the spear. "Oh, no. No, no..."
"Break it for me. Please?"
Zurani's lip quivered, and she nodded. With a snap, the spear shaft broke in her hands, and Nyah cried out in pain. Only a stub remained in her shoulder now. The wound would need much care, and she might never regain the use of her right arm, but there would be time for those worries later.
Nyah lightly tapped her way to the north edge of the village, the same variation Mama Yewande had used four short days ago. There, she stopped and memorized the faces of the girls, of Mama Yewande, and of Zurani whose eyes streamed long tears. She smiled, inhaled one last scent of home, and danced into the jungle.
Somewhere north was a village of men who could use an elephant woman's protection.
- END -