The Last Dancer
I waited, watching the flames and the dancers circling around them. The people crowding the dance and the fire were shadowed shapes, moving and humming under their breath, beating out a tune for the dancers on their thighs, stamping feet, clapping hands. The fire snapped and sparked, seeming to grow higher with every girl who joined the dance. The air smelt of spice and ash, of excitement and fear, or so it seemed to me. There were bells sewn into the hem of my skirt and every time I moved, I jingled. My mother squeezed my shoulder, but she did not speak.
Another girl joined the dancers, the bells in her skirt adding to the cacophony. I took a breath. She moved so beautifully, they all did. Circling the fire perfectly in time, raising their arms up, twisting their hips and leaping and crossing and twining around each other in perfect symmetry. Another girl joined. There were only two places left.
There was only one place left.
I gently removed my mother's hand and entered the dance. It had started slow, but with each girl who had entered, the tempo had increased. Now it was whirlwind fast. My feet kicked against the ground, my hands circled. I moved about the other dancers, my body remembering the movements even if I did not. The music made by the crowd grew louder and wilder. My body seemed taken over with the music, with the fire. I twirled past the other girls, matched their steps, kept in time. The dance I had spent so long learning was finally out in the open, for all to see.
The fire grew stronger, the smoke thicker. The whole world seemed blurred and insubstantial, and I a mere flash of colour moving about the bright flames and the other girls.
Finally, the music reached a crescendo and we, the dancers, stopped, perfectly poised and in position about the fire. My chest heaved and sweat beaded on my forehead. I felt dizzy, close to exhaustion. I could only imagine how the first dancers were feeling.
The crowd started to disperse. I looked for my mother, but the bright flames blinded me and I could not crane my neck to see her. I felt tears in my eyes, from the smoke perhaps. I wished she was with me, if only to brush away my fear.
Finally the crowd had all gone. I stood straighter, tenser. My knees trembled and I felt almost cold, despite the exercise and the heat from the fire.
The fire grew a little dimmer and then a flame separated itself from the rest. As I looked, I realised the flame was a woman, tall and bright with hair that sparked and burning embers for eyes.
I looked away from her face, her glory too brilliant, too bright. Her image seemed burnt to my vision and I blinked rapidly, my eyes watering.
The woman began walking about the circle. Stopping only to press her flaming thumb against each girl's forehead. When it was my turn, my mouth was dry, my body rigid, but her touch was pleasantly warm, nothing more. I let my breath out and all the fear and terror I'd been carrying with it. I was a dancer now, like my mother and my mother's mother. I was Blessed.
When the woman had finished, she returned to the fire and the magic of the night seemed to dissipate a little. I looked at the other girls.
Tomorrow we would go about our work again. We would tend the maize crops, herd the goats, care for the babies and children. But now we would do so with her mark and with her blessing, as Dancers. We would never Dance around her circle again, but always her touch would be with us, bright on our foreheads for the world to see.