I check my costume for wrinkles or for any unflattering mistakes and dusted it off for the hundredth time. I must be sure I am perfect. I check my hair that it is tied back right, for I don’t want to slip on it again. I check my shoes that their binds aren’t loose, for I don’t want them to fly off again. I don my cloak and fasten it lightly, for I hope to throw it aside easily in one stroke and not entangle…again. I can hear Mama Po’s voice: “A Dance must be like the celestials in the night; Eye-fetching, awe inspiring, untouchable, unreachable, and humbler of men. Make them feel small, and the world feel big, child.” I have yet to do any of these things. There is always something that falls behind. Not tonight though, for tonight everything will go just perfect, and perhaps the money I make will be enough for more than just bread. Perhaps I can travel eastward too.
I check my mask, tonight it is the mask of Yal-wah The Laughing One. With a face always crackling with a great smile I am sure to infect everyone else with a spiritual grin. I smile again as I look over it, it’s magic infecting me already. I remember the day I was given this mask. A day both bright and shadowy…
“Hear me! All ye drinkers and merry folk! Settle down! I’ve something special tonight for ye!” I hear the Inn keeper break out of the cacophony. It is time.
“Sumthin special? Drinks on da house??” A slurry voice stands out and it is met approvingly with cheers and laughter.
“Shut it, Gopper! No! No free drinks come on now, lads.” A chorus of booing that makes me giggle. “Come to town here, for your entertainment is a special guest. She will have for us tonight, music, dance, and mystics that will leave us in wonder! Or so she says.” Some cheer and some don’t, but those who don’t turn about to see all the same.
Behind the curtains I can feel the eyes at attention now. I can hear the Inn Keeper shuffling to the stage.
“Lads, I give you the beautiful, the mystical, the ever joyful, Zaza!” I feel my heart jump again and wonder why it is still so weak after so much failure. Truly things can only go right from here. I place my Yal-wah mask in my cloak, and with a deep breath place my false mask upon my face. My eyes adjust slowly as I scan the ground in front of me. I hear the claps and cheers but closely mark the sounds of the Inn keepers labored steps as he clumsily pulls the curtains open by hand. It isn’t the best way to open, but I cannot be angry at a man who gives me room for free. I feel the glow of torch light on me but I do not look up.
The cheers fade and the howling of drunks die away, and I feel nothing but the silence for a moment. No one speaks, and all gaze on me. But I am not there, I can’t explain but in that moment I had drifted. I was with the troupe again. I remember them so clearly. I remember what Mama Po said to me in that quiet morning. The same quiet with the cackling of fire. I remember her words exactly, “My child. A dancer is not a bard. She is not a loremaster. Now, the bard sings. The loremaster weaves. But the dancer, she moves.”
I step onto the stage, the calm so complete that my steps echo in the beams above.
“She tells stories like the rest. Yes. But unlike the others, who use meaningless words and empty ballads, she feels and moves with the feeling.”
I lift my hand and the fire light begins to wither and the tavern dims. Shadows sprout like summer daisies in corners. My hand waves across the room and lights bow before me, but they do not die. I don’t want them to die.
“It is action, dear child. She must act.”
With the hearth light upon me I unclip my cloak and hurl it away, its cloth like the spreading of white wings with the sound of powerful winds. I reveal my costume, black as night with my red skin to compliment. Metal rings line my waist belt and I feel my silvery ponytail land heavy upon my back. I turn to my audience and tilt my head curious as some of them gasp.
“Now my child. Move.”
I first hear the drum beating like a steady heart. The zither plucks its melody slowly. I feel myself move. My hands move up and around as my dance slowly begins. My muscles do not tense, for it constricts my movement. I flow like a trickling stream running silently and patiently forwards. My fingers curl and my arms wrap and the movement takes me entirely. In that moment I do not know if I was eye-fetching, or awe-inspiring. In that moment I forgot the audience and felt lost. I wasn’t truly there still. I was remembering.
I remembered that it was not Mama Po who taught me to flow like water. It was not her troupe that gave me such grace. I remember that it was in darkness I learned this. A voice telling me to “Flow like water”. It was on cold nights when I was thrown into pits of snakes to be tested. I remember here I met for the first time Dek-wah, The Silent One. This is when he first offered to take me away, to save me. I remember rejecting the stranger’s kindness. I remember being bitten again and again until I learned what it was to be relaxed so that the snakes would not feel me. I remember crying then and hoping to go home.
The beats begin to quicken and so do my steps. I feel my feet begin to unanchor and my body begin to fly. As I watched my world flip around and around, again I hear gasps in the distance. They see it and know I am here. They see me moving and dancing and leaping. I somersault and spin and my feet always find the ground again. But I feel a wicked urge to abscond away from prying eyes. An old urge.
I remember a foul voice telling me, “Be like shadows”. I remember others like me, young and scared, being eaten by trolls. I remember they would cry silently in dark hiding places, but not silent enough and the trolls would come and find them. I remember crying too, but holding my hands over my mouth so hard that I couldn’t breathe. My nails digging into my face and piercing the skin. Shaking and waiting for the beast to finish their meal, I remember Dek-Wah tapping my shoulder and showing me a way out behind the troll’s fire pit, and I turn away from him again. I remember hiding and running so much in the night, my eyes saw better in shadows and my body felt at home in its embrace. I remember fleeing that dreadful hole, and the voice saying, “Good… you are almost ready.” I remember being tied up, and promised I was going home.
I leapt off the stage and into the crowd. My feet like leaves landing and I scanned the room. I burst forward and slid across the floor. People cheered as I passed them. I found my place under the shadowy curtains of a table and vanished. Sitting in the dark I felt the urge gone, my skin shivered no more. I moved again, within the shadows behind the crowd, their eyes like a tail following only where I have been and not where I am. The drunk bent down astonished to find that I was no longer underneath, but instead above. The beams were easy to climb and I was enthusiastic with my heart beating as swift as the drummer rhythm. Atop the beams I rested for a moment, high above the bewildered mass. I watched them all carefully, as a hawk does his prey. I felt foolish in thinking that, because they were not prey. I don’t know why I was always looking for the weakest.
Upon the raft I remember how the cruel voice said to me, “Death is our friend. And we should give gifts to our friends, shouldn’t we?” He hands me something wrapped in cloth. It is heavy and small. I unwrap it at his gesture and see its metal glint in moon light. It is cold to my touch and bitter as well. I remember cutting my hand on it and bleeding, watching the blood run down my hand and drip to the floor. “This here will help us give gifts to our friend. Go and give him a kingly gift.” I remember with a cackle and then he is gone, leaving me with the moon, and cold metal.
I hadn’t realized that I had pulled out my daggers. Looking over them, the beats of the drum took me again. The crowd must have heard me for their eyes were up. But they could not see me for they did not know the shadows like me. I began spinning my daggers. Twirling them and flicking them. These special daggers were made to whistle as they are swung or thrown for either fear or performance. They could hear it now, as I walked slowly along the beam I can see their heads trailing me again. Then I let my eyes glow bright and red and I can see the awe in their faces, or perhaps it was terror. My whistling daggers began to glint in the red light flickering as I whirled them around.
I stood up a little and leapt across beams. As I leapt, my daggers caught my metal rings and fiery sparks lit the ceiling for an enchanting moment. I flipped across beams over and over, sparking my rings and changing the color of my eyes from red to blue, then to green. The light flashing often made me flinch.
I still felt the burning on my back. I remember when I was chained to the wall like we all were after the tests. I remember watching the smith hammer a piece of iron for hours in front of us. His hammer sparked brightly. The furnace so hot it made us sweat. I remember that afterward he would let the metal sizzle in water and steam, his iron grip caused my arms to bruise and showed his command over us. I remember him putting the metal rod back into the furnace then turning to us with glowing devilish red eyes and whistling a tune. His smile curled over his face in such an asymmetrical way it made the others shiver and whimper.
When the rod was white hot, I remember him pulling one of us over and pinning him down. The child didn’t fight, he simply obeyed. I remember the screaming piercing our ears as the rod sizzled on his back. I remember the mark it made, the sigil of Dek-Wah. The boy was let up and led out, but the other’s didn’t sit still and obey. They fought and screamed but the smith with the devilish red eyes had command of them. All left with the burn on their backs. I fought last. I fought hardest I guess, for I was beaten afterward. The smith cursed me through broken teeth and bleeding lips as I felt something crack inside my body for each of his kicks. As the sharp pains overwhelmed me, my screaming halted. I couldn’t breathe and Dek-Wah lifted my head to say that he can help take the sharp pains away. He said I wouldn’t need breathe. I simply turned my head away. He would visit me every time I was beaten like this. His voice always soothing, beckoning me to his side.
I remember being at the side of a bed. With no lights but that of the half-moon from the window. I remember looking over the face of the sleeping “gifts” that I was to send to my friend. I saw that they rested without worries, without fear. I remember raising the blade with a violent and shaky hand. I felt the surge of words from darker masters who have groomed me into the shadowy vessel I was. I let my hand drop down, but stopped short when I felt Dek-Wah gleaming over me again. His ever compassionate eyes glazing over as I hesitate. “What’s wrong? Go on then. I accept your gift, my friend.”
I let the moment take control of the silence after the last spark diminishes. Along with it went all the claps and cheers. Again everyone looks upon the rafters, searching. I gaze over them and remember one face that didn’t clap. He did not have in his eyes some form of wonder or fascination. He was not even looking up. In that moment I had found the weakest, the easiest mark. From the darkness I fell upon his table swift and furiously. Those who were watching quickly fell away like splashing water. Some fell too surprised to speak and others spitting out their honey mead. I landed in front of him, upon his table. My feet made little sound and the room inhaled deeply before silence.
I remember saying no. I remember turning away from Dek-Wah, away from those dark masters and running. I felt their fury as I ran, though the night was noiseless and they were noiseless, I could feel their lust for blood. Their want for the kill. Dek-Wah said nothing, only shaking his head in disappointment.
I ran and hid, but the masters knew me. They bit at my heels, and slashed at my neck. I felt an arrow strike me but was too afraid to feel pain. If I stopped, Dek-Wah would catch me. I ran, my vision blurring, the hard branches of thickets cutting my skin. I told my feet it didn’t matter, that I must keep forward. I concentrated on it, having one foot move after another feeling the ground. Then suddenly there was no ground to feel. I felt myself falling, something cold wrapped around me and then my world went black. I remember no more of those days.
The man who was set upon by me threw himself back in shock and alarm. Spilling food and drink everywhere he fell over in his chair and kicked away a few feet before looking into my mask. I turned my head curiously again. Always a curious thing to see how they would react. My blades would have been at his throat, I was so close. He looked at me panting a moment and the room was still silent.
I have always acted and faked the howl of Yal-Wah, but tonight it was truly an embrace of spirit. I laughed hard and wildly and couldn’t stop. Genuine and free, I flipped under the cover of a small magic trick and revealed at last the Mask of Yal-Wah. I bent over laughing, and my knees weakened. The room roared with me. Mugs shot in the air, and faces warmed again as I let the light brighten once more. The shadows crawled away and all shared in the spirit of The Laughing One.
I danced, flipping across tables and playing the dances of the old troupe. The music came alive once more and the room sang as they recognized each song. My smile didn’t fall until the night had ended. I bowed low and heard applaud, whistling and howls. Some threw gold, and I was thankful for that. Others threw flowers, which I picked up and held close.
“Now that was something wasn’t it Lads? Spectacular! Joyful Zaza!” The Innkeeper roared as the performance ended.
In my room I counted my bounty. My heart sank a little when I found it wasn’t much more from my normal performance. With I sigh I sacked the coins and tucked them in my bag. Flopping upon my bed I simply shrugged. It didn’t matter much, I was perfect. Knew that this night everything had gone right! It made me smile. I remembered Mama Po again.
“Child, why have I not seen your dance?”
“Mama Po You have seen all of my dances. What do you mean?”
“I meant YOUR dance. What have I said about dancers?”
“That we are storytellers.”
“Yes, the dancer is a storyteller. The stories she tells can make people laugh or roar or cry because they feel it from the dancer, from her movements. Now you have learned all the dances of my troupe, child. Mastered every one of them. No one can dance as well as you, my child. But on this day, and ever since I found you and pulled you out of that river half gone, you have never spoken about your past. You pause and grow silent always, and it isn’t my place child, to know. But I should have felt it. Do you know why you can’t get the feeling right in the dance?”
I shrugged and rolled my eyes at the time. If I had known the answer I would have fixed the problem, that silly old goat.
“You must find a way to tell your story, my child.”
The door of my room swung open loud and violent. I jumped at the sound and leapt up to see three figures come in. The two in front were big and muscular, with their cloaks pushed back and their hands on their sheathed blades. The one in the middle stood shorter and leaner but with an air more proud. His back was straight and structured and his nose always up. While the two wore leather armor, he wore fine cotton robes with fur wrapped around and purple velvet. His neck glittered with gold and his fingers too.
There was a moment where nobody moved, then the short man came forward and cleared his throat. He looked over the room and over my bag and indeed over me. I shivered a bit uncomfortably as I felt his eyes on me. I was wearing quite plain peasantry garbs compared to this man. I shuffled slightly closer to where my bag was, where my daggers were.
“Good Evening.” I said in a stroppy tone.
“You are the dancer?” The short man spoke with a nasally whistle.
“I am, can I help you?”
“Yes you can. You see, I believe you have taken something from me.” I began to rack my mind over my day. I couldn’t recall him nor stealing at all. Not on that particular day anyways.
“I think maybe you are mistaken. I don’t steal things.” I shuffled again closer to my bag. I shivered a bit and eyed the two men. Had I been caught? I don’t remember stealing.
“Oh but I am not. You stole my pride tonight. I want it back.” He hissed through his teeth and his hand went white at the knuckles as he tighten it. As I went over my day again I must have stung him with my poor recollection for he barked loudly after a moment of silence. “I WAS HUMILIATED BACK THERE! DURING YOUR CHILDISH PERFORMANCE!”
I recognized him then as the man who didn’t clap. I fought back a smile trying to build on my face as I said, “Oh! I remember! I…I am sorry for that. I meant nothing by it. I was simply landing from the rafters. I didn’t intent to scare you so.” His face went redder than before, for I was not good at holding back laughter.
“Do you know who I am?”
“I said I was sorry.”
“That’s not good enough girl. I am Lord Baraketh! I own half the damned city and I will not let a talentless gypsy make a fool of me! I demand recompense!”
“You want what?”
“As a token of your sincerity I want payment.”
“I haven’t any money”
“Then we shall get payment…in other ways.” My smile fell off me at this. I felt the blood begin to rush in me. I saw that two men inching closer.
“You’ll get nothing from me. And if you value life you will leave my room now.” He said nothing, only stepping back to allow his men room for their devious work.
I saw my moment and took it. Falling upon the closest one like lightning I struck his throat and felt the apple choke. I then struck his “children” as his hands lifted to service the neck. The strike was loud against his leather loins and the wood underneath him shook as he lifted off a few inches and landed again before collapsing.
The other one only got half his blade out before my hand found his arm and pushed it back in. With my other arm I struck his temple with my palm, knowing the ringing bells in his head would stop him from letting me hold his head while letting my body drop, taking him with me. A dull thud was heard and he moved no more.
With the two out of the way I drew my daggers and pinned the short man against the far wall. My blade whistled in the air and halted just at his throat. His purple robe reflected brightly upon my knife.He gulped and whimpered and began to beg. Offering me gold to spare his life. I looked him closely and felt the familiar tap on my shoulder. The whispers from an old “friend” still awaiting a kingly gift. I looked over him and laughed. He shuttered in confusion.
“No, I’m not going to kill you. You’re truly not worth it.” I went to get my bag, it was time to leave now. “There are worse people out there who are worth it, but not you. You just need to learn a laugh is all.” I left him with that and out the window I went. Where I would go I wouldn’t know for sure, but with the golden necklaces I took off his neck I had room to travel. I thought upon that foolish man in his purple robe. The velvet so smooth.
“Mama Po please. Do not ask me to stay.”
“Make your own path, child. I cannot tell you to stay.”
My stomach twisted when I heard her say that. I thought of ways I could stay, but knew that it was not to be. I choked back tears as I packed and said nothing. She reached into her cloak and took out something. She handed it to me with both hands. It was silk, smooth and bright purple folded up and wrapping something inside. As I unfolded it I saw how carefully it was caress, how important it must be. The dull brown and red of a mask left me confused. Its face smiled at me cheerily.
“Mama Po, I have a mask.”
“This is Yal-wah, the Spirit of life. This isn’t just a mask Zaza. This is a friend. Learn from him and he will help you carry your burdens. You have so many.”
I looked over the mask and saw its smile wide. A glow came about this mask, and a warmth cushioned inside me.“Go, and find your way child. Three years you have been with us, and when we meet again I hope to finally see your dance.”
I began to cry then. And she laughed, how I would miss her laugh. Her kindness took me by the hand away from such dark places, but it was her laugh that made me feel the warmth of home again. I bowed low and left her.
The dew in the morning burned away in the afternoon sun. With the mask in my hands I walked the lonely road with a smirk on my face at the last gift Mama Po gave me. Behind me the troupe and their kindness, and ahead of me the world.