Salt Dancersby Ursula Hegi
Salt Dancers is at once a brilliant portrait of an American family, a story of the secrets families guard, and a moving account of one woman's journey back to a past filled with elusive memories and suppressed rage. Why did Julia's mother disappear one day without so much as a word? How did a loving father who taught her such a beautiful thing as the salt/i>… See more details below
Salt Dancers is at once a brilliant portrait of an American family, a story of the secrets families guard, and a moving account of one woman's journey back to a past filled with elusive memories and suppressed rage. Why did Julia's mother disappear one day without so much as a word? How did a loving father who taught her such a beautiful thing as the salt dance become such a terrifying and abusive presence? These are the questions which Julia must confront when she returns to Spokane, Washington, after an absence of twenty-three years.
Salt Dancers, a superbly written novel, is a poignant and truthful chronicle of self-discovery and the power of resurrection.
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When I turned four, my father taught me the salt dance: he sprinkled a line of salt on the living room floor, positioned my bare feet on top of his shoes, and told me to leave everything I feared or no longer wanted behind that line. His gold-flecked eyes high above me, he walked me across that salt border into my brand-new year he backward, I forward my chin tilted against the buttons of his silk vest.
I would like to believe that the salt dance was a ritual he and my mother had seen on one of their journeys in a mountain village in South America, say, or in Sicily but my father simply made it up the day I turned four, and from then on it became a tradition in our family on birthdays as if backed by generations. Though I no longer recall what I left behind the salt line that day or chose to take with me, I can still evoke the tingling in my arms as they encircled my father's lanky waist. Below his right eyebrow curved the moon-sliver scar where a dog had bitten him when he was a boy. Rooted to his feet, I didn't slip off as we danced, careful at first "Two steps to the right, Julia, one to the left" then spinning through the rooms, past the radiant faces of my mother and brother.
When I was nine years old, I stopped loving my father. Of course it didn't happen all at once: it was rather a waning of trust until it became safer to believe that I ceased loving him altogether that one summer evening when he brought me chocolate with hazelnuts and lifted me from the windowsill and forced me to say I loved him.
Somewhere between those two images that continue to haunt me, things twisted, turned on themselves, and when I finally crossed the country and returned home to Spokane forty-one, pregnant, and unmarried it was because I was afraid I'd mess up my child's life if I didn't sort out before her birth why things had gone so terribly wrong with my family.
I still hadn't told my father I was pregnant when I walked with him down the path that led to our lake cottage. Old tracks had settled into deep, overgrown ruts; I walked barefoot in the furrow, my father above me on the wide band of grass that grew on the right. From time to time his bare elbow rubbed against me. I had to hold back to match his shuffle. He was slighter than I remembered him as if, as a girl, I had painted his younger version on a balloon and, in the years since, had let out some air, shrinking his likeness just enough to shift the edges of his body inward, render him harmless. It was ironic now that the edges of my body were being pushed out, though not enough yet to proclaim my secret. My breasts were fuller I felt their weight when I walked and my clothes had grown tight, but the choice to tell was still mine.
Until two summers ago I'd known for certain that I didn't want a child, but a few months before I'd turned forty, an absurd yearning for a baby had attached itself to me. I could banish it as long as I didn't swim, but whenever I did my laps in the pool at the Y or floated in one of the lakes near my house in Vermont, the water rocked me into images of myself holding an infant. A girl child. What made it even more absurd was that I didn't have a lover at the time and felt content without one. My friend Claudia and I laughed about it: I didn't long for a man I wanted a child.
Claudia, who also was my dentist, speculated on biological urges, internal time clocks, and finally resorted to the prescription: "Just stay out of the water, for Christ's sakes, before you trap yourself into having a midlife baby."
But her Aunt Edith, who'd recently moved in with Claudia and her family, eagerly offered to take care of any midlife baby I'd trap myself into having. A girdle fitter by profession, Aunt Edith had retired from Alexander's department store in the Bronx, where as she liked to put it she "used to stuff fat tochises into girdles for forty-five years." Taking care of a baby, she said, would be a vacation.
"A daughter" the doctor had told me during the ultrasound, and I'd nodded because I already knew. "Everything looks fine."
Until I'd seen the landscape of my child delicate threads of shadow and light racing across the cone-shaped field on the gray computer screen I had thought of my pregnancy as a condition, surprising and unsettling, but when the sound waves traveled through my flesh and bounced off the fetus, I saw translucent bubbles, stalactites and stalagmites, a harp even. My child initiated me into a world that existed already within me, oddly familiar yet foreign, as though I were looking through a kaleidoscope that didn't detain shapes but, in the shifting of threads, created a fluid impression, movement.
Claudia was with me, one of her large hands on my arm as the technician guided the transducer across the warm gel she'd squirted on my belly. "They didn't do this when I was pregnant." Her round face leaned closer to the screen. "So tiny" she whispered. In her family everyone, including Claudia, was exactly six feet tall. Both of her sons were already in college, young men with wide wrists and shoulders like their parents'.
I felt awed that the intricacy of what filled the screen would come together to form my child. Sometimes the landscape seemed surreal until the technician would point to the stomach, the labia, the femur. The heart pulsed like a tiny dark mouth opening and closing. A circle with a slender gap at the top turned out to be my child's thumb and fingers, about to touch. As I recognized the contour of my daughter's chin and mouth, she yawned. Her tongue stretched. And that's when she became real to me.
Though her shape was immediately lost to me in the overplay of swift threads, I waited for her to emerge from that canvas, a prelude to her birth. I wanted to see her in color not just in gray through the practiced eyes of the technician wanted to recognize the sum of her lines and movements as they merged, wanted to guide my hand along the elaborate bridge of her spine that arched across the screen a far more complex structure than I or any other architect could possibly design.
My father's leather shoes loosened fragments of dried weeds that drifted around our legs like new mosquitoes. The rich scent of sun-warmed grass filled my head. High above us soared a redtail hawk; through its tail feathers the sun broke in splinters of fire. The sky was vast and streaked with salmon-colored clouds the western sky of my childhood so different from the fragments of sky among the mountains and trees where I'd lived since college.
When my father stumbled across a root, I caught his arm, and he sagged against me. "Thank you, Julia" he wheezed. Creases gathered themselves around his lips and below his ears; his full hair had turned bone-white in the years I'd been away.
I'm stronger than my father. I used to take his strength for granted the kind of strength that flings you across the room, knocks you to the floor, burns imprints of his hand on your face. If I want to, I can shove him aside. Beat him. Abandon him to rot on this path like a deer shot out of season...his legs at odd angles in his chinos...his shirt stained with blood My heart raced as if I'd walked for hours. Those pictures I saw inside my head they couldn't be mine; yet, I kept staring, wishing, right to the details of him lying twisted among decaying pine needles and new moss, shielding his face from my blows. The sky tightened around me, tilted, swerved, snaring me there on that hillside in an orange-red haze of rage, both hands on my father's arm.
I let go of him, dazed that such cruelty was within me. How would it come out against my child? As a girl I'd promised myself that I'd never slap my children, and from there another promise had grown that I'd never have children. Too many chances to botch things up. I'd lost my husband, Andreas, over that. "We're not like your parents, Julia" he'd say, but I knew more reasons for not having a child than he could name for having one.
My father stood looking at me as if waiting for something, and I jammed my hands into the pockets of my shorts. "Are you all right?"
He nodded. Slowly, he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his throat, his forehead. As he climbed back out of the furrow, the binoculars he'd brought along for bird-watching swung against his chest on their leather strap. Though we were the same height, he seemed taller than I as he ambled along the strip of grass above me. Anyone watching us from a distance too far to make out our features could mistake us for a man and a small child.
The path to the lake coiled downhill for nearly half a mile from the road where we'd parked my rental car. A long time ago my parents had considered graveling the path, but the estimate had been higher than the cost of the cottage on six acres of lakefront. On weekends we used to make several trips back to our car, lugging toys and clothes and books and food and, occasionally, one of those trashy tabloids from the grocery store which my family only read at the cottage and burned in the fireplace after we took turns reciting them to each other, laughing over headlines like, Nun Kills Herself in Convent's Washing Machine...Three-headed Cow Saves Boy Scout from Drowning...New Jersey Dentist Does Root Canal on Space Alien....
Since my father and I were only staying overnight, we brought what we needed in one trip: he carried a plastic shopping bag with fresh fruit, two cotton blankets, and his TV guide; I carried a large backpack with food, oil for the lamps, towels, swimsuits, and my canvas shoes. Even with my thin arms, I was stronger than my father. I felt that seed of cruelty ripening inside me along with my child.
"Julia, look." My father pointed ahead. His short sleeve fell back, exposing the pasty skin on the underside of his arm. "The lake. You can see it from here." His voice was excited, and he raised the binoculars to his eyes.
Below us Lake Coeur d'Alene spread like blue ice. This was where I'd learned to swim when I was four, where my mother had taken me out into the bay in her inflatable yellow raft, each time a little further, staying next to me while I swam back, calling me her brave swimmer; this was where Travis and I had hauled the picnic table to the end of the dock when my father was at his office where we'd practiced somersaults and reckless leaps into the deepest water that summer my brother caught up with me in height; this was where I had taken a razor blade into the woods late one night when I was eleven and set it against the inside of my wrist, but as soon as the cold metal had touched my skin, I'd known I didn't have to die to get away from my father.
"Isn't it beautiful?" My father's right hand swept across the view of the lake as if presenting it to me as a gift.
He'd always been a generous man, buying orchids for my mother, stuffed animals and comic books for Travis and me. And when we'd thanked and hugged him, he'd sometimes held on a little too tight. He was the one who'd given Travis the stuffed bear that would come to be named One-eyed Teddy because its left glass eye fell out a week after Travis got it; he also was the one who'd pulled the hole together with brown yarn and embroidered an eye with long lashes.
Or was it my mother who'd sewn the new eye? As I tried to sort out that which had happened from that which could have happened, I was lured into the maze of memories that tricks us with distorted reflections of what we commit to its safekeeping; and what we wrest from it changes each time we hold it against the light, depending on the slant of the light and its intensity. And so we embellish our stories. Protect ourselves with gaps. And take all of that for truth. All of it. Until it might as well have been observed through the eye that someone embroidered on the face of a stuffed animal.
But I did remember that it was my father who'd brought me the wooden box with the trouble people from a trip to Guatemala. I still have it at my house in Vermont: it's oval, decorated with red dots surrounded by green rings, and the trouble people are sealed within, together, safe. The box is small enough to close my fingers around; but when my father gave it to me, I was five, and it filled my palm as though it had been made for it. Inside lay eleven tiny fairy dolls with painted smiles, their wire limbs wrapped with wax-coated, orange threads; scraps of colorful fabric were tied around them to simulate clothes.
"If you take out one of the trouble people," my father told me, "and whisper your problems to it, it will solve them while you sleep. That's what the Maya Quiché Indians of Totonicapán believe."
Six of the trouble people were men, five women. I was scared they'd grow at night and burst through the lid, just as I was scared of the dark because wicked spirits waited till the sun was down before they came out. Light turned them to dust. That's why I always slept with the closet bulb on. When I asked my father to keep the trouble people in his desk at the office, he took the box with him.
The following night my mother woke me up, whispered for me to get dressed, and brought me along on her moon-walk which she usually took alone when the moon was at its brightest. Our house was halfway between two ponds Manito and Cannon Hill and we circled both that night as if following the pattern of a figure eight that held our house at the intersection of the two loops. We hiked up the South Hill behind our stucco house to Manito Park, where my father had asked my mother to marry him, and when my legs grew tired, my mother swirled me into the air and propped me on her shoulders in one fluid motion; her hands spanned my ankles light, yet secure and as she took steps longer than any I could have managed, I was rocked by the motion of her body.
"Someday" she said, "you'll be tall too."
My hands in her hair, I smiled to myself, knowing better than to believe that old story which most adults seemed compelled to tell children. I'd figured out a long time ago that children didn't grow up they stayed children, just as adults stayed adults.
In the gauzy clouds that spun across the moonlit sky like cotton batting, we divined shapes of castles and trees and rivers no monsters. When my mother told me that while we slept, we lived another life someplace else, I imagined a different existence for myself on the other side of the earth and envisioned a girl with my features sleeping there while I was awake in Spokane, stirring through the girl's dreams.
It started that night, my awareness that each time we come up against choices the unlived strands of our lives trail behind us, splitting again and again, likely to become tangled, and that we can will ourselves into those strands and experience the lives we could have chosen. There, time does not limit us to the familiar sequence of hours and days: we can soar through years in one instant, propel ourselves from the future into the past, grow old beyond our years, and return to the moment before that original strand separated as we seized our first breath.
And though I was far too young that night to name these words, I felt the strands of my mother's and my lives, splendid and intricate, touching yet separate as they stirred and settled into each other on the empty sidewalks. In Cannon Hill Park we stopped below one of the old weeping willows that dug its half-exposed roots into the earth where it sloped into the pond, and we searched for the ivory silhouettes of the swans.
"Where do you go when you sleep?" I asked my mother.
She laughed a warm, throaty laugh I could feel as it vibrated from her skull into my hands. On the hazy skin of water, the reflection of the tree shivered as the swans passed through it. "To the Gypsies;" my mother said. Enraptured by their legends and customs, she collected books with pictures of snake charmers and fortune-tellers, gaudy street dancers and wise crones, gilded caravans and fiery horses. One of her treasures was a rolled-up parchment map of the world with ocher veins that traced the wanderings of Gypsies over a thousand years, veins that originated in India and curved through Afghanistan and Africa and Hungary and France, even America.
When we got back to Shoshone Street, the porch light of the brick house next door illuminated the For Sale sign. In the last year, it had been bought and sold by three different families.
Inside my room the monsters had vanished, and my mother tucked me in. As she bent to kiss me, I asked, "Can I come with you tomorrow night?"
"Maybe some other time."
But I wanted to look forward to our next moon-walk. "When?" I probed, though I knew she didn't like to plan ahead.
She started for the door. "I don't know yet."
"You didn't say 'Pleasant dreams'" I called after her.
"I'm sorry. I forgot." She turned. With a small, impatient frown she touched her nose to mine four times once for each word: "Pleasant dreams my Julia." Her hair, straight and brown like mine, fell around my face. "Okay now?"
"Pleasant dreams." I tried to think up something to keep her with me, but I already knew she wouldn't stay. It was easier to get my father to do things he didn't feel like doing like tell me stories though it was past my bedtime or buy me ice cream half an hour before dinner.
"I don't need the closet light on tonight," I told her.
For a moment there when she closed the door and the dark curved itself around me my tongue filled my mouth. Taking deep breaths through my nose, I pretended: I'm still riding on my mother's shoulders, her hands warm braces around my ankles, linking me to her, to the ground, to the moon....And in my dream my sleep-self joins my mother's sleep-self, wherever she is Yet, in the morning I couldn't remember where I had traveled in my sleep, and though I couldn't recall a reality beyond the one I knew with my family, I felt certain that I'd touched colors far more vivid than any I'd encountered before.
I told my father I was ready to have the trouble people box in my room. After keeping a fairy doll on top of the closed lid overnight, I found my favorite pen, which had been lost for weeks, and when I had a scratchy throat one evening and left one doll out, my throat felt fine in the morning. Sometimes I thought of the dolls all living together inside the people box just as my parents and Travis and I lived together inside our house and I wondered if the other dolls missed the one I took out. But I always replaced it in the morning.
It wasn't as though it was gone forever.
"We are almost there, Julia." My father shifted the blankets to his other arm.
Ever since I'd arrived three days ago, we hadn't talked beyond words that kept us safe. He acted as if this were just another family visit, though I hadn't seen him since I'd left for college twenty-three years ago. We'd sent Christmas presents to each other as if we were like other fathers and daughters. But I couldn't pretend any longer because last week my pregnancy had turned into a child, prodding me to take my questions out of the silence where they'd kept growing. I'd struggled against the sudden urgency that pressed me to visit my father terrified to return, terrified not to return.
It was far more natural to run away from him: I had done it a hundred times, a hundred different ways, and for many years I'd thought I could choose to forget. I'd believed I could leave my pain behind and be rid of it, but instead it had rooted itself inside me, a vine with countless runners.
What I had wanted was to take myself from the hour I'd seen my father for the last time and start my life anew from there like a salt dancer, inventing myself, counting only on myself. And it seemed to work: I graduated at the top of my class; liked my work as an architect; traveled to the Far East and Europe; involved myself in a mentor network for women entering architecture, where our numbers though still low had increased fivefold since I'd graduated. And even if sometimes I felt furious that I wasn't happier, I figured it had to be like that for most people. But with this pregnancy my old memories had begun to swell within me, rising through the fabric of my adult life which I'd woven so soundly, and I had no idea what would be left of me once all those memories broke through.
"Almost there," my father mumbled.
I adjusted my step to his slowing pace. His cheeks looked drawn, and the cleft in his chin had blurred with age. I didn't have any pictures of him looking like this. Only those from years ago which showed him in control of the body that now had betrayed him, slowing him down.
He used to wear tailored suits with white shirts. Italian leather shoes. Silk vests and ties. His hair had been a weave of silver and golden strands, the same shade of blond, he'd told me, as his Norwegian grandmother's who had immigrated as a bride. He'd grown up on Cape Cod but had moved to the Northwest as a young man. Though he was a banker, he acted in the plays at the Spokane Theatre Ensemble. He'd reserve front row seats for my mother, Travis, and me, and I'd watch his agile face, mesmerized by the imagined lives he inhabited so convincingly as vibrant and passionate on stage as he was with us, who knew how to block our moves within the boundaries of his love.
After the performance he'd take the four of us that's how he used to talk about our family: "the four of us" to the Rooftop Restaurant, where he'd order butterscotch sundaes for Travis and me, Singapore slings for my mother and himself.
My mother's friends talked about him as flamboyant and, in hushed voices, as beautiful, as if embarrassed to assign that word to a man. Yet, it was a word that suited him better than my mother, though she was stunning and had a way of moving that was different from anyone else's: her tall body was either perfectly still or moved very quickly not abruptly but with a sudden grace. When my parents danced, it was as if she enfolded him into that grace, and others would recede from the center of the floor, unwilling to disturb their pattern. He'd draw her close, real close, one hand pressed flat on the small of her back. Together, they'd generate a magic that neither of them could sustain alone. His eyes at the same level with hers, he'd look at her as they danced as if she were the only woman on earth.
At my Uncle Jake and Aunt Marlene's second wedding they were divorced the winter I was six and remarried each other the following spring in our house I ran from the edge of the dance floor and did what I'd been aching to do for a long time break into my parents' dancing embrace to remind them of my existence. Their bodies parted to let me in as they both reached down to lift me, my father balancing a glass of champagne.
Feet dangling high above the floor, I whirled with them across the parquet of the living room, through the kitchen and sunroom, and onto the stone veranda, where Japanese paper lanterns bobbed in the April breeze. For several glorious minutes I danced with my parents, one side of my face against my mother's hair, the other against my father's smooth-shaven cheek, giddy with the scent of champagne and my mother's perfume. Had I known that I'd only have her with me for a few more years, I would have held on to her no, to both of them in that dance with all the power I could have invoked.
Beautiful, they called my father, beautiful and elegant. "Calven, you have elegant toes," my Aunt Marlene declared at one of our lake parties. "If I had toes like you, I'd wear sandals even in winter." Her thick braid hung past the sash of her swimsuit, and I caught it and made it swing like a pendulum toward my brother, who caught it and tossed it back to me.
My father, who'd spent all morning preparing his famous barbecue, sat with us on the dock, his tanned legs stretched out in front of him, the hairs on his shins and thighs bleached white from the sun. "I thank you, Marlene" he said gravely and studied his long toes as if they were the map to a buried treasure.
"She's right." Nancy Berger, who taught with my mother at Lewis & Clark High School, shielded her eyes against the sun. "Calven's toes are elegant."
One of my father's toes twitched, then another, and soon they were wiggling like wild. He tilted his face toward my mother and grinned. "I'll never be able to look at my feet the same way again."
She held her floppy hat with one hand and bent to kiss him; when she raised her head, the sun was in his eyes and the amber flecks around his pupils seemed even brighter than usual. I felt their love inside me as if I'd blotted it, so hot and sudden it was too much for me to contain an odd, sharp rapture that makes you want to cry but you don't because it would be sappy.
I leapt up. "Come on" I shouted and hoisted my brother onto my back. His chest warm against my back, his wiry legs slung across my bent arms, I gave him a mad piggyback ride down the sandy slope of the beach.
"Not so fast, Julia." He screamed and giggled and held on tight.
With only ten months between us, we were more alike than different, both of us with long, wiry bodies and limbs, with skin that didn't burn but turned nut-brown, with straight, dark hair that had a way of retaining flecks of sun after it dried; except that Travis flickered between moods, and that the soles of my feet were tougher than his since I stayed barefoot until late every fall and had trained myself to walk on rocks and twigs, hot sand even.
As we galloped into the lake like one tall body, I couldn't tell any longer where his arms and legs ended and where mine began, and I felt that fierce jolt of my parents' love, felt it for Travis for both of us but then the water closed above our heads and rushed between us, leaving my body cold and separate.
When I climbed onto the dock, I flopped down on the hot planks, my hair on the edge of my father's towel, my limbs heavy as if I'd run all day.
"Listen, Marlene" he said and pointed to the wind chimes I'd assembled from twigs, green yarn, and chicken bones. They hung in the trees between the dock and the cottage, and their hollow wail sounded like the ghosts of a thousand chickens. "Julia can build anything. Last Christmas she made us a deer feeder."
I grimaced at Travis, who sat on the far end of the dock, but his eyes had turned sullen.
"Look what the sea brought in." My father squeezed the water from the ends of my hair. "One thing I can always count on with Julia..." he was telling Uncle Jake, "is that she knows about people."
"She has good instincts" Uncle Jake agreed.
Travis was pulling at his fingers, making the joints snap. His hands seemed too big for his wrists because his thumbs grew at a wide angle from the sides of his hands and allowed him to pick up things far larger than I could get my fingers around.
My father's face was right above mine. "I often take my clues from Julia." The scar above his right eye stretched shiny-silver, the only evidence from the long-ago attack of a sleek, gray dog. As though the dog had been searching for him, it had singled him out among hundreds of other children who'd played at the Provincetown beach, lunging for his face, toppling him over and biting into the salty waves as if devouring him.
In the blurred sheen of the water fusing above him, my father must have felt the dark shape converging upon him and receding in a pink wash of blood that rose from his face in the shape of a paper fan. Three times he surfaced to screams that were not his own, surfaced to a searing pain on his face and a sun blinding him through a veil of red, so that he welcomed the sinewy paw that guided him back under the waves to the silence and the velvet-pink absence of pain.
His mother, who pulled the dog from him, had teeth marks on both arms and a chunk of flesh torn from her left thigh when the dog finally ran off into the dunes, never to be captured though the police hunted for it, as if it had materialized for that one feat and had vanished after marking my father with only one external scar, while the real injury was the fear of dogs that nested itself within him and the hunch that, somewhere, that gray shape was still waiting to claim him.
Copyright © 1995 by Ursula Hegi
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