To inaugurate our Icons section, which will appear from time to time, we have chosen a story by E.M. Broner, our Esther. When we started Persimmon Tree, Esther was our greatest ally and through her we gained the work and the support of many other wonderful writers. E.M. Broner, the author of ten books, including The Women’s Haggadah; Weave of Women; and The Telling: The Story of a Group of Jewish Women Who Journey to Spirituality through Community and Ceremony, died on June 21, 2011. Here is her short story, “The Dancers,” our Winter present to you.
She knits for extra money besides her disability payments.
“This is a muff,” she says.
It looks like a catcher’s mitt.
“This is an animal pillow.”
But which animal?
“This is a hat for you.”
Not for me. For a small child.
“The hat is for winter warmth.”
But it’s not double thickness.
“I must occupy my time, you see. The days are unoccupied.” She smiles as she says this. Her teeth need fixing. She holds her jaw in pain. But she will see no one in white, not the dentist, doctor, psychiatrist, pharmacist, barber, or florist.
Her hair is matted, uncombed.
She will see no one in suits, not professors or businessmen.
But she is comfortable with some uniforms: the guards at the art institute, policemen, waitresses.
Most of us don’t have to see ourselves. She had to see the extension of leg at the barre. She had to see the bend at the waist. She had to carefully study the position of the pale, heart-shaped face, the flip of her dark hair in its ponytail.
Her mother held her waist and bent her. Her mother placed her arms in the correct position.
They move together, Shiva or a crab, two pale faces, luminous in the early morning light of the studio. Straight dark hair escapes from rubber bands and whips their faces.
The mother choreographs; the daughter performs.
When they exercise together, they time their movements to the beat of the goatskin drum. The drummer holds it between her legs and watches the pair. They are a double-shelled creature, long arms swimming, legs kicking across the ocean floor of the dance studio.
They are always partners, leaping across the room in a pair. They exercise on the floor, hands clutching one another, a rocking boat, a circumference of mother and daughter.
They picnic at the sea.
“I was born by the sea,” writes Isadora Duncan, “and . . . all the great events of my life have taken place by the sea.”
Duncan writes in My Life that dance comes from the rhythm of the waves.
Every May 27, the mother and daughter have gone to the seashore of their city or a summer resort. They have worn togas -the mother is a gifted seamster- and they walk into the water while the togas drop from their bodies.
The mother is full-bosomed. When the sheets unwind from her body, she emerges like a sea goddess.
“Isadora says the body is our greatest architecture,” says the mother to the assembled photographers.
The daughter is more modest, and so is her body.
“She is my Isadorabelle,” the mother tells the press about her daughter.
They plan to follow the map of Isadora’s life, giving dance performances to pay their way. It’s easy enough to scan out in San Francisco, walking into the sea. They must then find the means to travel to London, to visit the British Museum and sketch the Greek vases, as Isadora did. They must continue on the pilgrimage, to Paris, there to visit the Rodin Museum and the Louvre. They will be the Victories of Samothrace, the bodies of Venus.
Mother and daughter hope to dance in Vienna and Berlin. They must make arrangements to meet the great artists of Europe, the German writers and actors, the Russian musicians and the dancers, as Isadora did.
When you speak with the mother and daughter, you will see that they are somewhat practical. They will not relive Isadora’s South American tour, with the political disturbances now in that continent. On the other hand, now that democracy has returned to Greece, they must visit Athens and be photographed at the Parthenon.
They speak of traveling in the month of May, when Isadora was born and when she birthed her son.
But in May the daughter travels out of her head.
“What are you doing?”
“On the sidewalk, crossing the street, in the court of the museum, in the university parking structure, at Melvin’s Finer Delicatessen.”
“Who are your students?”
“Passengers, drivers, pedestrians, streetwalkers, cops on comers, grocery-store owners, museum guards, movie ticket takers, parking attendants, waiters and countermen.”
The mother is leaping across the room. Her long hair is chiaroscuro, changing from dark to white. The mother has her private key to the dance studio and rehearses before classes begin or after they end. There is no drum accompaniment. A vein throbs in the mother’s forehead.
“How can we write the truth about ourselves’ ” asks Isadora. “Do we even know it?”
The mother knows her daughter is a gazelle, a frightened forest creature. Her daughter is a racehorse . The daughter is as stretched as a drum skin. Her daughter has a musical ear and can learn languages by speaking to a passerby, to a shopkeeper, a fruit-stand owner. The daughter’s tongue is athletic. “Rs” trill, are swallowed, are rolled. The daughter’s throat is a bird’s – sounds vibrate deep within it; notes sing out.
The bird has flown into a high branch. Sunspots blind the mother’s eyes when she looks upward for a sight of plumage among the foliage.
“I have made up this song. Listen to it.”
“I can’t hear the words.”
“They are made-up words.”
“What are you carrying?”
“But the strings are missing, and the sounding board is cracked.”
“That’s the way I like my music.”
The daughter has a bag lady’s body. Her breasts hang with memory of the sucking of a litter, never born or given away. Her stomach is a melon, pregnant or delivered. Her legs do not extend on the barre. The movement of her arms is posturing. Her eyes cannot spot. If she turns, she careens and crashes into the other dancers. She accompanies herself on what she thinks is the beat of a drum.
She is denied entrance into the dance studio.
The daughter awakens at night and startles. Her bed is empty. Where did that other person go, and who was he? Where had she met him? Were they comrades at the mental institution, doing art therapy together? Was he the musician on the street comer when she danced and lifted her skirt high, saying,
“Whoo! Whoo! What have we here?”
He came to find out what was there.
Was he the cop who gave her the ride when she was hitching?
There are coo many mysteries to unravel.
But sleep is the biggest mystery of all.
It drives her out of bed. It is a stake in her forehead. It fits splinters under her fingernails.
Sometimes she tries to outwit sleep and dozes in the daytime. Something catches on her window and will not let go. It is a leaf, a praying mantis, a cricket, a leafy spirit that means to cover her with others of its tribe until she can never be found under the leaf mound. There are scratchings everywhere. Someone had a duplicate key made to her door and stole her Bedouin drum. Someone came through the window and took her stringless instrument with its cracked sounding board.
Someone came in and made off with her knitted caps, animal sweater, and muff.
Someone came in and stole her thoughts. It could have been her clever mother.
What has the mother tried?
Being dry-eyed or crying her eyes out. She studies the stars and constellations.
She asks, “What happened to my beautiful child?” Were the planets in retrograde? Were the gods angry?
These are the questions Isadora would have asked at the edge of the sea on that terrible day when her babies were drowned.
“Only twice comes that cry of the mother which one hears as without one’s self -at birth and at death,” wrote Isadora.
Isadora was thirty-five when she saw the coffins of her children with “the golden heads, the clinging, flower-like hands.”
The mother is forty-five when she sees her daughter’s arms flop, her bosom stretch pendulously, her feet swell, and gain sizes and widths. The mother sees her daughter’s eyes vacate their original site.
“Where are you?”
“In the sea?”
“In my tears.”
“In a lake?”
“In a teacup.”
“Down a well?”
“In a bowl of consomme.”
One day I said to my daughter:
Which twin has the Toni?
One day I said to my daughter:
Whose hands are the younger?
One day I said to my daughter:
Whose hair is natural and whose naturally tinted?
What did your daughter answer?
Her hair answered by becoming gray.
Her hands answered by becoming chapped and sore.
Her legs answered by losing their muscle tone.
Her head answered by going back ten years.
She has an old address in the old neighborhood. She has never graduated from intermediate school. She giggles or cries or shrieks with laughter. She asks passersby to help her. She asks taxicab drivers to take her hundreds of miles. She asks college professors to hire her to teach their classes. She asks publishers to publish her unwritten memoirs. She asks strange men to father her children. She asks newborns to fend for themselves.
Mother, what did you dream?
I dreamt that my daughter performed those dances that were beyond my powers.
Mother, what did you dream?
I dreamt of my daughter’s face on a poster at Carnegie Hall.
Mother, what do you dream now?
I dream that my daughter is sane.
Mother, what are your dreams for yourself?
I want to dance without a partner.
I want to eat at a table with a single plate.
I want co sleep with only one pillow dented in the double bed.
What happens when a thought is completed by another person? When a laugh is echoed by another’s? When shadow and substance are one?
The mother flees. It doesn’t matter where: the Connecticut College of Dance to learn new techniques; Martha Graham’s Dance Studio in New York, Dance Therapy in Santa Cruz.
Good friends offer advice.
One knows a psychologist of behavioral modification in Denver, Colorado.
One knows a psychiatrist who does chemotherapy at a clinic in Ann Arbor.
One knows a psychosurgeon.
One knows an old friend, a social worker, who will talk to the daughter.
The daughter knits her ill-fitting hats, sweaters with uneven length sleeves, pillows of animal species not yet born.
Will you knit me a scarf? I’m cold.
She knits a scarf you can see through.
Will you knit me a hat for my head of thick curls?
She knits a cap that ties under the chin and fits a six-month-old.
Will you knit me gloves? My hands are freezing.
She knits a muff with large open spaces.
Will you make a sweater of soft blue?
The sweater is brown.
Will you make the hat to match?
The hat is blue.
Will you make the gloves a similar color?
Each finger of the gloves is a different color.
The mother sends in her application to participate in the dance program. She drives her VW bug, loaded with leotards and tights. She takes her favorite herbal tea, her herbal shampoo and henna tint, her cracked-wheat cereal.
She expects at any minute, during the class hour, her daughter will enter and disturb the lesson.
She expects, at lunchtime, that her daughter will pour milk from the carton onto her tray.
She expects, at bedtime, that there will be a soft knock on the window. Her daughter will be perched on the ledge.
At the end of three weeks, she knows no one can interrupt the dance lesson. No one will enter the lunchroom uninvited. No one will scale the brick wall of her dormitory.
The mother drives home singing. The leotards are stiff with sweat. The tights have worn knees. She has a bruise on her toe. Her legs have muscle tone. Her breasts ride higher. She looks in the mirror and smiles at the driver.
As she approaches her city, the mother breathes shallowly. At the expressway near her exit, the mother pants.
Her front door is broken. Pictures of Isadora, lsadora’s lover, Gordon Craig, and photos of Isadora’s children have been yanked off their picture hooks. The mother walks on the shards of Isadora’s life.
She calls the police. She takes out a warrant against the daughter. The daughter is charged with trespassing.
The daughter has walked on the mother’s eyes until they swell with tears.
The daughter has walked on her mother’s feet, scraping her instep.
The daughter has walked on the mother’s heart, injuring the pumping action.
The daughter steals the mother’s credit cards. She buys wonderful presents like cosmetics, wallets, handkerchiefs of lrish lace for the garage attendant, the professor whose class she asked to teach, the museum guard, the fruit-stand owner.
Saks Fifth Avenue bills the mother.
The daughter has taken the mother’s favorite clothes and stuffed them down the clothes chute.
The daughter would place the mother in a house without Isadora’s photos, in a house without dance costumes or formal dresses.
The daughter wants a house like an institution with bare walls and floors and assigned clothing.
The daughter no longer looks like the mother.
The mother stops looking for her daughter.
The daughter is not to be found in the usual places or the ordinary memories.
The daughter has said farewell to herself. and yet keeps breaking open her mother’s front door.
The mother has several choices.
“How could I go on after losing my children?” asked Isadora.
The mother can cut herself open with the can opener and spill out the beans. She can empty herself into the garbage disposal.
The mother can become the daughter’s twin. She can wiggle her fingers adieu to herself; she can let tickles of giggles escape her unsmiling mouth. She can drive her VW, with her practice clothes, to the local institution.
The daughter does not give the mother time to make decisions.
The mother must appear before the credit department at Saks.
The mother must appear at her local police precinct.
The mother must speak to the college professor whose class is being disrupted.
To the museum guards whom the daughter distracts.
To the shopkeeper and fruit-stand owner where the daughter filches small items.
To the garage attendant whom she follows to all the levels of the parking structure.
It is May, years of May are passing.
The daughter is graying and her forehead is lined.
The mother’s long hair hurts her head. She is always with migraine.
The mother goes camping. She spreads her tent by the sea, as Isadora did. The mother swims in the early morning. She begins to look at the children. She sees families at the seashore, little children with sturdy arms and legs. She dances with them by the water’s edge.
When the air turns cool and the daylight is shorter, the mother unpegs her tent. She walks to the shore. In her hands are shears. She cuts off the heavy hair that binds her head and throws it into the sea, as had Isadora.
The mother will train other Isadorabelles. The mother will look down rows of extended legs at the barre, at heads held high. at the tunics that give her children freedom of movement.
The mother knows that she will never bear her own again. It is unbearable.
As it was for her to see the daughter’s babies taken away, one after the other. The daughter had forgotten about her milk-filled breasts. The daughter had forgotten the hospital formula. The daughter tries to feed her babies raisins.
“A raisin-bred baby,” she laughs.
The mother can never raise another daughter.
In the city, the front door is fixed. Mail is waiting in the mailbox. Photos are pyramided on the wall. There is Isadora as a caryatid at the Acropolis. The mother has been a caryatid for too long.
Her short hair rests lightly, like moss, like a laurel crown on her head.
There is a soft rapping at the door. The mother hesitates. There is a gentle scratching at the window. The mother stands frozen. There is a calling from outdoors.
The mother thinks it might be coming from the clothes chute or from a closet of clothes that had been ripped from their hangers and trampled upon.
But the mother’s home is undisturbed.
The mother thinks she recognizes the voice. Someone once called her by that name.
She thinks of phoning the neighbors . She begins to phone the police.
The doorbell rings.
The mother has ordered nothing from the pizza parlor, and her news route has not started in the fall. No one should be ringing her bell.
The footsteps on the porch descend.
The mother sits up all night.
Near every city is a lake. The next morning the mother drives to water. She walks through the woods. The beach is difficult to find. The paths are not clearly marked.
The water is cold, and sand blows and stings her eyes. Leaves drop and stick damply to stones.
The mother stands at the shore. She hears rustling in the trees. Autumn rain falls in large, wet drops and separates leaves from trees.
Her daughter has traveled here. Has traveled back to her own mind. Her daughter’s young body is hunting for itself. The daughter’s face is not her mother ‘s. It is both older and younger.
“I’ve come to say good-bye,” says the daughter.
Their lips touch.
“Where are you going in the great world, O?”
I’m going to London and Paris, to Athens and Moscow. I’m going to find the children who drowned.”
“Will you return to me.”
“Not ’til our eyes are different colors, our laughs different melodies, and our maps have different continents.”
“And after your eyes are their true color, and after your laugh is free, and after you’ve sailed the whole world over, will you return to me, O?”
“Only then, only then will I return to you.” They part at the sea.
Thank you for publishing this haunting short story by our dear dear Esther who I still miss and will always miss. Where was this story hiding? I just read it and I hear her voice now reading it. I will return to it over and over. What a mitzvah you just performed.