Wednesday, April 05, 2006

John, I’m only dancing

“It is important to remember: have fun…back-step, step, side-two, three…are you having fun?”

Our instructor is an intense little Eastern European named Radik, who has the smallest feet I’ve ever seen on a grown man. I suspect that Radik is really some exiled ethic cleanser in hiding. His admonishment to “have fun” wouldn’t have sounded out of context if he’d barked it shrilly through a megaphone.

“For the gentlemen, it is important that you have confidence. How can your woman follow you if you do not have confidence? I have confidence. I could lead any woman here around the floor without problem--even if the steps were wrong.”

I’m dying to say something to him about the fact that he has seven years of intense training and I have seven minutes, but I’m trying to rise above it all for her sake.

I slide my hand under her left armpit and grab her right fingers. She flinches as I try and adjust my positioning—I think I’m tickling her. We lock eyes for a second and an awkward giggle passes between us.

This is ridiculous. We’ve danced together, more or less successfully, on hundreds of occasions. What the hell is wrong with us now? This classroom setting inhibits any natural dancing impulses we both have. Suddenly, we’re both thirteen and at our first school dance. Only this time, instead of a half-baked local DJ doing spotlight dances, we have a wiry little prison guard barking orders at us.

“Back-step, step, side-to-side. Relax! Enjoy!”

Yavolt, I think as I try and get into some kind of rhythm with her. Her gaze is a million miles away. I can almost hear her thoughts: Back-step, step, side-to-side…okay now, which way do I turn? What the hell does he want me to do?

And then, something clicks and we achieve just a few—a precious handful—of graceful steps. Our eyes meet and we’re really looking at each other. She smiles and a warm gaze passes between us.

Then I turn the wrong way and crash into her. I grab her waist to steady myself and we both laugh in a strangled, frustrated way. I have fleeting thoughts about throwing her over my shoulder and running out, but it passes quickly. Deep sigh. Assume the basic stance and…

Back-step, step, side-to-side…relax, it’s only dancing.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Antbear

The sun began to set just as we pulled away from the settlement. That long colour-bar layered effect across the horizon—almost solid lines of purple, red, orange and yellow—sliding down the sky.

The frustration of the days’ exercise began to drift from my mind with the sunset: how could Hans have dragged me all the way out here without a translator? The chief must have thought I was an idiot, but he seemed kindly. Either that or his gentle smile was mocking me—hard to tell really...

I rubbed my stubble-covered head as if I could massage away the bad thoughts contained inside. It had been a fucked-up situation, but was it any more fucked-up than half of this trip? The stumbling journey of the past few weeks seemed to micro the macro of my whole goddamn life up to that point.

These thoughts began to truly drift by as the dark settled in on us. As the Toyota settled into the ruts of the dirt track that would take us back to Hans’ place, calm settled over us.

Hans and I spoke little over the next fifteen minutes…or thirty…or sixty. There was no tension between us, just the quiet that falls over contemplative travelers.

The only light for miles was the beam of our headlights picking out the empty sandy track in front of us. The only sound our engine.

Suddenly, with a shattering squawk and deep bass swoop, the largest flying bird I have ever seen in my life blew across the front of the truck—leaving an impression of whiteness. Hans and I both shouted out loud and with hearts pounding turned to look at each other.

“It’s a…a…”
Hans began before I could even get through: “What the fuck…”
“It’s a…I can not think of the English word…a ________”, the Afrikaans word he provided made no impression on me. Now, I couldn’t even guess what it sounded like.
“That is the biggest bird there is that flies,” he continued, his voice a lot steadier than before.
“Wow…that was incredible.”
“Yes…pretty scary huh”, Hans smiled just as the truck lurched with a loud thud.
“Jesus…!” I started, snapping my gaze back to the front, but seeing nothing but sand and black bushes beyond.

Hans jammed on the brakes.

“I think we have hit something”, he frowned deeply.

We jumped out of the truck simultaneously and looked back. There in the middle of the sandy road, a lump of shadow—larger than I had expected from my experience with road kill; very unlike the raccoons and skunks you see on the highways of North America. My mind immediately flooded with images from some imagined drivers education movie of bloodied pedestrians and severed heads lying in ditches.

But it was clearly an animal—roughly dog-shape and size.

We started towards it very slowly. After a couple of steps I could hear it breathing raggedly. Chills ran down my spine. There was a throaty grating to its breathing—a dying rattle that immediately dragged my mind back to the sick room of my grandmother only a year ago.

“My god…” Hans began in quiet, slow voice, “That is an antbear. I have never seen one in real life before.” He stifled an awkward giggle born of tension.

We stopped very close. It didn’t really move…it couldn’t…but it did seem to look at us with wide, frightened eyes. Its chest heaved up and down with desperate exertion.

It was a mottled pink and grey with almost black patches around its lower legs. Its mostly hairless and mostly pink skin gave it an uncomfortably human-like air. Shivers ran up and down its sides and a twitching tongue flipped in and out of its long snout in erratic licks.

We stood transfixed for an interminably long time.

“Shouldn’t we…” I croaked, “Um…shouldn’t we put it out of its misery?”
Hans shrugged, “How. I have no knife or gun with me.”
“But man…look at it…its fucking suffering.”
“What do you expect me to do?” Hans half-shouted.
“Well…jesus…I don’t know…back the truck over it?”
Hans looked at me with horror. “Shit. I am not doing that!”
I held up my hands in gesture that was somewhere between pleading and exasperation.
“Look”, Hans said quite gently, “This is the bush man. A cheetah or some jackals will be by in very short time…”
He trailed off.

I nodded, resigned and turned back to the truck. Hans followed closely behind.

We started up again and in minutes had settled in to the pace of night-time desert driving. Quiet wrapped around us like a blanket, but it held no comfort. This time, there was tension in our silence.


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