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The Dancer Upstairs (Nicholas Shakespeare)


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I got to our farm in the late afternoon.


It stood at the end of a subdued avenue of eucalyptus. The view of the house held no surprises, but I was not prepared for the emotion it aroused. I hastened toward the buildings as if the river would drag them away before I reached them.

The trees opened into the yard where we would heap the dispulped berries. I stood by the concrete water tank. Faintly on the air came something I hadn't smelled for twenty years: the scent of the rotting honey which coated the beans.

The buildings were deserted. All I heard was my breathing. Lack of sound in these valleys meant lack of life, another reason my mother made me learn the pinkullo. Music and dance for her were practical necessities, the melodies she urged me to collect as vital in their way as my father's crops. Silence spoke only of blight.

Now, up close, I saw the devastated fields around the house. The earth had separated into fissures wider than my outstretched arms. Shrubs poked into the air, unprotected against the sun, strangled by vines. My father had not been a successful farmer, yet those who replaced him had understood his crops less.

I walked through the rooms, not taking much in. Broken glass on the kitchen floor. In my bedroom, a cardboard box spilling over with magazines. A drawer chinking with dead light bulbs. The farm had been seized in the people's name, and the people had not known what to do with it.

I crossed the yard to the old depot. Beside the door, on its side, crouched the rusted carcass of the English-built generator. My father boasted that it had pumped in the same peevish rhythm since 1912. It had powered the dryer for the berries and the transmitter in his library and the lamp by which he read.

The door had been torn away. The floor was a mess of empty sacks and gasoline drums. Termites had crumbled the pillars, and the roof in listing had shed most of its panels to the floor. I approached a heap lying at the end of a beam of sunlight: the blackened remains of a gut-shot dog, the floor showing through its eye sockets. I heard my father's voice: "Wherever you see the military, you see stray dogs."

Something smelled; the dog, I thought--but it was me. I had worn the same clothes for three days.

I washed everything in the river, including myself. On the opposite bank a thin mare was eating a mouthful of yellow grass. Like a ballerina, she rubbed her head against an outstretched leg. When I fell backward, naked, into the water, she cantered off, kicking against the flies.

The sun was hidden by the mountains, but the air was warm and when I got out of the river my skin dried quickly.

I was hungry. Tucked under the bank, in a pool where we often trapped trout, I noticed two dark shadows and a lazy bubble trail. I went back to the house, mended a net I found hanging in the library, and in a short time landed two small fish.

I gathered firewood, built a fire in the yard and cooked the trout. But I could barely keep awake to eat. I had spent the previous night rolling and bumping in the back of the pickup from Pachuca. The night before, I had sat unsleeping in the truck. I changed into a fresh shirt, rested my head against my bag and fell asleep beside the fire.

A penetrating cry dissolved into stillness. The cry rose again. It became part of my dream, a dream in which I saw the eye whites of terrified animals, hooves kicking against a stenchy load, teeth tearing at their own necks. I heard the whinnies of those creatures as they picked their way, or were dragged or beaten, across the stream. And, again, the cry.

I scrambled to my feet. The road above jittered with orange lights. Tall shadows flared on the cliff. The sides of the gorge magnified the clamor. I heard animals howling, men shouting, a clashing of steel like the sound of my mother beating her kettle.

The flames jerked down the bank. A line of upright shapes stumbled into the avenue. Dogs barked. Back and forth, torchlight flashed on the eucalyptus, shooting up the trunks to a great height. Then the lights were snatched away to kindle another patch of darkness.

The shouts were distinct now, male and female, but mostly female, older rather than younger; after so many years of frugality and silence, a hysterical release of pent-up rage, despair and grief.

"Pishtaco! Pishtaco!"

I leapt back from the fire, ran across the yard, took refuge inside the library. The blood seethed through my head. Who were these people? Whom were they chasing? Did I know the person? Half-asleep, exhausted, I asked myself these questions. I believed they had pursued their quarry all this way from the village. They had frightened him into the fields and now were flushing him out with their pan lids and burning brands.

I peered down the avenue, expecting to see a figure flitting like an exhausted bat between the trees. Nobody. Nothing moved toward me, save for those flames.

Now I could make out the forerunners. As well as their torches, they held sticks. The dogs tossed their heads, teeth flashing in the lights.

Then from that swarm of shadows I heard a woman's scream. It was a sound from which all the flesh had been removed and only the raw bone showed. A voice ecstatic with hatred.

"Pishtaco! There he is!"

I ran to the river, wading into the fast-running water, the bag with Lazo's jug in it poised over my head. In midstream I slipped on a stone, but the current buoyed me up and I allowed it to bob me along. A short distance away the river broke into rapids. I floated on--not far--to the next bend and found my feet, splashing to the bank. As soon as I reached the level of the field, I doubled back through the shrubs until I knelt about fifty yards from the crowd. Slowly I raised my head.

They hadn't followed me. They trained their attention on my fire. To a frightened people looking for what they needed to find, these flames in a deserted farm signaled one thing. Pishtaco.

An old woman--perhaps the one who had screamed--danced toward the fire. She stamped her feet, sending up scuffs of earth, twisting her body in an untidy sway. Once, livid with my father over something, my mother had shuffled the same steps.

Spread out around the flames were other shriveled figures. Chanting together, they urged her on. Light played over their quivering throats, their downturned mouths, their brainwashed faces. They looked like creatures made of earth. "Pishtaco, pishtaco, pishtaco," they sang tonelessly.

The woman was dancing away the alien, the flesh-eater.

She finished. A man's voice said, "He's not here. Where is he?"

The faces disappeared. Dogs were called and the lights doddered through the house. Sparks drifted up through the library roof. A fierce beam of torchlight investigated the rafters.

"Over there! Something moved!" But it was another's shadow.

From the river, in a voice I thought I knew, an old man shouted, "He's in the water!" My shirt and trousers--which I had spread on the rocks to dry--were brought for inspection, then cast into the fire. The thrower knelt down, puffing at the embers. The flames illuminated a face that could have been Lazo's--but from that distance, in that glow, I was not certain of anything.

If it was Lazo and he caught me, would I be able to reassure him, make him call them off? Or would he tear out my eyes?

An old woman, her back framed by the fire, suddenly turned and scrutinized the darkness that engulfed me. She held up a lantern, and its light slanted across a ravined cheek. I heard her say to two other women, "Come on, let's check this field." One of them whistled. A dog lifted its nose from the fish bones. Swiftly--very swiftly, given their age--the three of them struck out in my direction.

I scrambled through the undergrowth. Brambles tore at my face. I wasn't sobbing yet, but I felt a stab of terror. I crawled on hands and knees, feeling a way between the roots and over ditches. After twenty yards or so the ground suddenly gave way and I fell through black air. My arm flailed, striking a bush--which I grabbed. Rigid with dread, I hauled myself back to the surface and lay on the lip of the crevice, hugging the bag to my chest, panting and trembling. Branches snapped. A dog barked. Daggers of light converged toward me. I had no time left.

How wide the crevice was, I couldn't tell. I kicked out and touched earth a yard away. But how deep? There are cracks so wide you can't see the bottom. To measure the depth, I gripped the bush and lowered myself, feeling for the bottom with one foot. The sides started to narrow almost immediately. I let myself down a little farther. The crevice seemed to shrink to the width of a man's waist. But I could not feel the bottom. The ground reverberated with trampling feet. What if Lazo was right? What if this plunged into the heart of the earth? I twisted my head. The tips of branches glinted twenty yards away. I could hear a hungry snuffling. A bush shuddered.

I released my grip and slithered down until I was wedged. Above me was the vast indifference of the night. Then sparks drifted among the stars. They had set fire to the house.

At that moment I wanted to kill Ezequiel. Had he been sandwiched in the earth and I had appeared on the lip, I would have stamped him into that bitter-smelling oblivion.

 
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Excerpted from The Dancer Upstairs by Nicholas Shakespeare. Copyright © 2003 by Nicholas Shakespeare. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.