The Dance of the Drums
Magdalena Razquez-Sampara plucked a ripe orange from a stall in the market square. The hot summer sun gleamed upon its skin and made it glow like a ripe flame. She held it to her nose and inhaled the rich, sweet scent.
"How much for this?" she asked the seller.
"Two cevos," he replied. A slow smile of anticipation cracked his leathery face, raising two large dimples over his mouth. His gray mustache trembled in mirth.
"Two? For this orange? One-fifty."
The seller grunted in amusement and crossed his well-muscled arms. His colorful shawl wrinkled over his portly body at his movement. "One seventy-five, Senhora Magdalena."
Her mouth fell open in mock astonishment, then she drew herself up to her full height. It was difficult, with a belly swollen in pregnancy, but she managed it anyway. "You cheat, Senhor Esteban. One sixty."
"One-sixty five. I haven't cheated my customers in my sixty-eight years, Senhora."
"One-sixty, Senhor Esteban, and you are eighty-six, not sixty-eight."
So the banter passed between them, rapid-fire like a game of bola. She wept that he was emptying her purse. Senhor Esteban claimed she was destroying his profit. In the end, she bought a dozen oranges for a cevo fifty-five each. Senhor Esteban arranged them in a basket for her as she counted out the coins. At the conclusion of the sale, they shook hands and parted as friends.
“Te de Gracio,” Magdalena called out in a cheerful voice.
“De nada,” Senhor Esteban called back. “Enjoy your Festival Day!”
“And you!” She took her basket of oranges and walked deeper into the cluster of stalls.
The vendors in the Santo Tomas marketplace called out their wares, their voices blending in strange harmony. Spicy aromas of fried pastry clashed with the sweet scents of exotic perfumes. A young girl danced to the tune of a drumbeat, her skirts flying around her like the petals of a rainbow rose, and her bangles clashing into each other like cymbals. A crowd had gathered around her, lending their voices to the folk song and clapping to the beat. Magdalena watched with genuine appreciation of the girl’s skill.
There was a time when I could dance like that. I wonder if I still can, as heavy as I am.
As if she had been heard, the girl’s eyes met hers. She extended one arm to Magdalena and the tune changed, as if an invisible baton had been passed. Magdalena put her orange basket down on the ground and swayed to the tempo, then took center stage. Despite her huge belly, she danced with grace and balance, never missing a single beat. Her long black hair hung in two braids that whipped about her body, and her hands made graceful, bird-like motions, each slender finger perfectly positioned. Her red-orange skirt floated around her like the petals of a flower, with the gold hem lining its border. Years melted away; she was fifteen again, and the freedom surged through her, just for this little while.
The audience clapped and murmured their appreciation. “Ay, she shines from within,” said Senhora Casaona. The old doña peered through her thin-rimmed lenses at Magdalena with a look of complete envy. “This child enjoys the dance as much as the mother.”
“Brings back memories, eh, Casaona?” teased Senhor Balan. The jewelry maker was as old as Casaona and Esteban combined; his words drew a chuckle from the bystanders.
Sehnora Casaona snorted. “I once had glossy black hair like little Magdalena here, and oval-shaped eyes that could bewitch every man this side of the Lobos. Not to mention a trim figure and long, graceful limbs like hers...”
“Of course, madrona,” Balan said in a reasonable tone. “Of course, just like hers.”
Magdalena flushed in pleased embarrassment. She was no beauty, but she couldn’t help but smile at Senhora Casaona’s compliment. The tempo began to speed up once more, and she glanced over her shoulder at the young dancer, who stood respectfully at a distance. Their gazes met and a electric thrill passed between them. Magda knew her from somewhere, perhaps as a sister or a friend from a previous life, long forgotten. Her practical side reminded her that she had never seen this girl before; her sentimental side was being fanciful.
Sentiment? Or is it the Sun Lady’s Truth? Magdalena shivered as a cold shadow touched her brow. Her hands automatically cradled her belly in a gesture of protection as it passed over her. The girl’s mouth moved in a chant of protection, then she made a slight gesture of banishment, and the chill left Magda entirely.
Is she an Elemental Novia then? That didn’t sound right; most young girls with the Mystic Talent were taken into the Sun Lady’s Temple and trained as novices. How had this one been overlooked? Magda gazed into the girl’s deep brown eyes, and she understood; the girl didn’t want anyone to know.
It is her choice. Let her keep her secrets. The Sun Lady knows that we all have them. Magdalena heard the key change, and with an abrupt gesture, she returned the baton to the girl, and she seized it with gusto. The drummers pounded their drums for the final stanza and chorus. The villagers of Santo Tomas sang in one voice:
“We praise you, Sun Lady, with heart and hands and voice,
We praise your light and warmth and your choice,
To shine upon our blessed land.
As you bade your servant Tomas to walk the desert sand
To found our town in your shining name.
We praise you, Lady, this beautiful day
And we pledge our lives to the words you say!”
The dancer threw her head and her arms to the sky at the last verse, and struck a pose as the drums thudded into silence. Roars of applause thundered from the onlookers and the dancer curtsied in reply.
“Please, visit my family’s stall in the Artisan’s Quarter,” she said in a soft voice that nevertheless carried over the crowd. “My father makes drums like the ones you have heard, and my mother teaches dance. If you like what you see, then see more!”
After another round of claps, the drummers slung the straps of their jembas over their shoulders and marched into the sunlight. The bells on the cylindrical bases jingled with every step. The dancer waved and followed them, and a good number of visitors took up the rear of the impromptu procession. Among them were several in red-and-gray gowns and robes, who swayed as they walked. Magdalena clapped with the beat as the drums faded into the distance and the impromptu parade disappeared from sight.
I didn’t recognize their town colors. I wonder where they came from. She made a mental reminder to ask her husband, Reynaldo, when he arrived for Festival. Reynaldo knew every town and city’s trade colors as part of his trading group. If anyone would know, he would.
“You dance beautifully,” said Senhora Casaona. She peered at Magdalena as Magdalena retrieved her orange basket. “I used to do the same, when I was younger.”
“So you say,” Magdalena replied with a smile. “I wish I’d been there to see you dance, Senhora.”
Casaona’s smile made the wrinkled skin taut on her skull. “I’m sure you do. Perhaps your little one will be just as good at the dance or the drum, or as good as artisan as you are. Will you accept an old woman’s blessing?”
Magdalena nodded, even though she felt a shiver of foreboding. Senhora Casaona cannot harm my child. Besides, it will make her feel useful, instead of an appendage grafted onto Senhor Balan’s side. “Of course, Senhora.”
Casaona laid a bony hand upon her belly and droned, “May your little one enjoy the warmth of the Sun Lady’s light, and the grace of Her blessings for all time.” Casaona’s tone turned wheedling. “You hear me, little one. You listen to yourmamá in all things and do not disrespect her, for your mamá is a good lady. If I hear that you are naughty, then you will hear from me. Mi sentita?”
The baby kicked hard enough to move Casaona’s hand away. The older woman snorted again. “There, I’ve told the little one to behave, but I have the feeling that this one will be an interesting challenge.”
“We shall see, Senhora, as the years go by,” Magdalena said. “Te de Gracio, Senhora.”
Balan took Casaona’s shoulder and steered her back towards the marketplace. “We will see you at the Festival, Senhora Magdalena. Take care today; don’t overexert yourself.”
“I will not,” Magdalena promised, but Balan was already out of earshot. She found herself rubbing the spot where Casaona had placed her hand and stopped with a frown. “Do not worry, my little one. Senhora Casaona has a good heart, but she israther strange at times.” She patted the bulge of the eighth-month child in her womb, who turned and flipped in protest. "All right, little one, we'll move."
She left that row of stands and headed towards the town square. There were fifty of those stands in all, double the number of a normal market day. Magdalena smiled at the other vendors' attempts at her purse. They had years to practice their routines, and she had heard them all.
"Would the Senhora like a flower to adorn her hair?" Like a magician, Senhora Carmen produced a rose between her fingers. Magdalena laughed and clapped her hands as Carmen spun like a gypsy. Two, then three roses, appeared, then four. Finally, a small bouquet blossomed in Carmen's arms. Magdalena accepted a single rose and wove it into the basket handle. Senhora Carmen waved as she made her way through the stalls.
"This silk scarf adds extra sparkle to the Senhora's beauty..." The scarlet fabric bloomed from the Senhor Raul's sleeve; she tried to return it, but Senhor Raul insisted she keep it. He draped it around her shopping basket "Keep it for the little one you carry," he told her. "See, the colors complement each other."
Magdalena nodded. The blue scarf matched the red rose and contrasted with the oranges. An idea formed within her mind; the colors would make a stunning Festival gown...A smothered cough brought her out of her musings. "Are you ill, Senhor?"
Senhor Raul shrugged in embarrassment. "Ah, just a touch of dust, Senhora. Nothing to be alarmed at. Thank you for indulging an old man."
She squeezed his arm. "Thank you, Senhor Raul. I will bring my little one to visit you often."
He brightened at her words. The warmth of his happiness followed Magdalena as she headed for the chilada stand. The smiling girl greeted her with a bright smile. "Can I tempt the lady into a golden-brown chilada? It melts in your mouth and fills your appetite..."
The child bounced in approval. Magdalena gave in to temptation and ordered two of them. The vendor hummed as her knife bit into the fragrant cheese. She spread the thin slices onto the flatbread, then added strips of dried meat and vegetables. With agile fingers, she wrapped them into a pouch, then drizzled it with sauce.
"Take this as well, Senhora," she said as she gave Magdalena a small carafe of sun-warmed tea. "You must keep up your strength for the child. It will be a hot day."
"You're too kind," Magdalena protested.
"Not at all. Thank you for your business, Senhora."
Magdalena climbed the steps to the fountain in the town square. The cool spray felt invigorating against her skin. As she ate her simple fare, Magdalena watched the activity along the main road. The main boulevard was normally busy with trade and entertainment, but today, the street was filled with color.
People came into the town by the Eastern Crossroads, the major thoroughfare in the land. Wagons were decked in their colors: red and gold for Luzuna City, the Forge of the Heart. Orange, maroon and blue for the Castelmera sailors, the People of the Sea. A handful of traders wore yellow and white for Santo Tomas, the favored city of the Sun Lady’s Warmth. Magda searched the faces of these men with eager anticipation, only to not find for whom she looked.
Here in the town square, the Mayor’s house was decorated with rainbow banners edged in the same yellow and white. The other buildings clustered around the Mayor’s house: one and two-storied homes, temples to the Sun Lady and her faithful servant Tomas, and artisan studios. Signs directed travelers to the inns and wayhouses. Magdalena admired the curved lettering set within stone mosaics; even the road signs looked like precious works of art.
Painters set up easels in front of their shops while musicians practiced their instruments on the street corners. Magda heard another rumble of drums, presumably from the dancer’s family shop. Travelers argued with the innkeepers for cheaper rates. A buzz of conversation rose around Magda like the hum of mosquitoes. The Festival of the Sun Lady drew crowds for miles around, and Santo Tomas prided itself on hospitality.
A familiar figure came into view, and her heart leaped within her chest. The man wore a yellow vest and green riding slacks, both embroidered with golden-white thread. His hat was pulled low over his face. Magdalena watched as he steered his horse towards the main Temple of the Sun Lady.
Reynaldo! He’s come home for the Festival! She started to get to her feet, but her heavy stomach made her slow. The man dismounted from his horse, then began to tie the lead reins to the post in front of the Temple. The sun threw his face into shadow, but Magdalena recognized the shape of his jaw and the strands of black hair under the hat.
“Reynaldo! Husband!” she cried.
The man started, then turned in her direction. He lifted his hat from his brow, and she froze in concern. The well-defined cheekbones were more prominent now, jutting out with bony relief. Gray was sprinkled through his mustache and eyebrows. She gazed deep into his eyes and saw unbearable sadness in their depths.
“Reynaldo, what is wrong? What has happened to you?” Magda trembled as she crept down the granite steps of the plaza. Once her feet touched steady ground, she picked up her pace. She held out her arms as she approached him. “Why are you—“
He smiled at her, her heart broke into pieces. Then he slowly faded from view, his outline erased like an old painting. By the time she reached him, he had disappeared.
“Reynaldo!” she cried again. Her hand touched the post; she swore she could still feel the heat of his hand. Magdalena glanced around her, but no one else had noticed her husband’s presence.
If he’d been there at all.
I must be seeing things. The heat must be affecting me more than I think. But it was so real...I could have sworn he was there. She shook her head to clear it. Her longing was so strong, but she was a practical person by nature. It was time to get out of the sun, and to her clothing shop. Well, then, back to work for me, for I’m sure to have last minute customers in time for Festival. At the very least, I won’t have time so see mirages.
A part of her still insisted it was no mirage, and it wept in silence.
Forward to Chapter Three
Back to Chapter One
All writing and art copyright A. Dameron 2000-2010