Love #20: The Dance
The dance floor was small; just big enough for couples dancing awkward, slow and tight.
Only the firelight danced without restraint, throwing herself high up to the Dance Floor Cave roof to fall sparkling through the veil of water cascading along the overhang.
The firelight also played with the dancers, casting their shadows onto distant walls.
Hanora caught her breath, and in a world of dark and light saw colors.
The sound of the bullock drover's fiddle and the sawyer's tin whistle filled the cave. Locals clapped encouragement and stamped their feet, their dust joining the haze stirred up by the dancers, the smoke of the bullock drover's new tobacco in their clay pipes, and mist from the creek below. The rising clouds softly brought other sounds into the cave: the music of the bush.
Hanora heard the noise of the veil hitting the rocks below, the wind breathing through the casuarinas, the lowing of cattle and snickering of horses in the dell below and the final call of the kookaburras as the last rays of sun burned in the sky.
She thought about the long trail she and the bullock drover had taken to this place. He usually trod these paths alone with just the howls of the wild dogs for company. He took wool, cattle and sometimes pigs to Picton, a two-week trip through the wilderness. Then, after a week's rest, he faced the passage home to the Burragorang with the loading: a collection of letters, implements, salt, sugar, spices and tobacco. His path took his steps away from the quiet, safe farmhouses on the Picton plains, up into the mountains full of wild cattle and brumbies. Until finally, on the last day of the trail, he would reach the high plateau above the Dance Floor Cave and send smoke high into the air. Then folk from all around would gather to meet him at the cave.
This time, he had brought her with him to the Burragorang.
That last day on the trail had been the hardest for Hanora. Footsore, her world was full of pain and hurt. She remembered that most of all, she had been frightened: full of doubt about a new life and a husband she had never met. She had cried silent tears.
The old man said gruffly, "Keep away from the edge." The warning was unnecessary. Her world was now full of cliffs, rocky beds, hardtack, and flies. The edges were all around her, they came unexpectedly out of nowhere, threatening death at every turn.
"We will be there soon," he promised, "Tis a place of rare beauty, seen by few."
She thought, "What would you know of beauty?"
He continued unbidden, "It would bring a tear to the coldest of hearts."
She said silently, "Old man, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I see no beauty in this cursed place."
The old bullock drover led his pack horse over the flat granite rock of the plateau, picking his way through pools of water. He stopped at the edge of the world and sat to drink from one of the pools and light his pipe.
"How far to my new home," she complained. She waited for his response, looking at the dark clouds chasing the afternoon sun and dipped her cupped hand to drink from the nearby pool. The water was cold and crystal clear. She watched as the ripples faded across the water. She remembered, with a sudden chill, that for the first few days they had walked soaked in incessant rain, never completely dry.
He passed her his pipe, and she took a long draught. He cut his tobacco with dry grasses on the mountains to help it go further, and it burnt warm and dry down her throat. For a moment the pain flowed out of her, into the hot rock, on which she perched.
He said, "What do you see?"
"A lonely desolate place," she said, without looking, "Tell me that this misery will end soon."
A lyrebird called from the path in front of them, and they stopped to listen. The sun was warm, and the wind dropped. For a moment, the surface of the pool of water became still. The lyrebird appeared a little way in front of them, his tail high in the air. The old man reached for his gun. A female lyrebird appeared nearby, scratching for food, and catching Hanora's eye, the old man paused and whispered, "Have you ever seen such beauty?"
Hanora dropped her eyes and shrugged. She searched her mind on what she had learned about beauty back home. Instead, a picture of her mother came to mind: teaching her to draw with charcoal and working on needlepoint. The lessons had been gentle; about regular forms, of tamed farmland and quiet certainties. Her mother had taught her the three rules of beauty: "Integrity and perfection are first. Proportion and Harmony follow. And to complete the mix, Brightness and, above all, Clarity. All three combine to build real beauty, whether it is in dress, or face, or cake. Only when you learn to see the beauty around you, will you be able to see the divine."
As a young girl, she had laughed at this attempt at science, probably garnered from some churchman's book. Back then, Hanora saw beauty in different places. She saw it in the tilt of a face, the fall of hair, the feeling of freedom, of the potential of a full, kind life.
Anger boiled in her belly; beauty was behind her, just toil and uncertainty ahead. Weariness returned with a vengeance, as the pack horse caught a whiff of wild dog and stamped a hoof. The two lyrebirds took to the wing, and in a burst of song, they flew in an arc, over the pool, and down the cliffs to the west.
But that moment on the plateau now seemed a lifetime ago. All around her the companionship of the Dance Hall Cave.
Hanora caught the old bullock drover's eyes, staring at her above the fiddle, a kind smile on his face. She turned away from him to the new man who held her body on the Dance Floor Cave. A new man she had met when finally they had descended to the cave. He was a man of different smells. A younger man of likewise soft and rough hands. A man who lacked the confidence of the bullock drover; a man who stuttered when he first came to greet her. Her new husband.
For a moment her mind returned to the plateau high above the Dance Floor Cave, She remembered standing next to the pool and looking at the ground. All around her, in the shallow pools of the plateau, the dark blue sky with clouds were reflected. She took a step among these clouds, suddenly unsure of her footing.
Around her bruised feet, the clouds had come to Earth, perfect in the still water. For a moment she touched a different type of harmony. And clarity and brightness were suddenly all around.
When she had first stumbled through the waterfall into the Dance Floor Cave, Hanora heard a murmur of voices and saw shy searching glances directed at her. The bullock drover had told her that the bush community would be welcoming. There was something else unspoken in his voice, but he had dropped his eyes and would not be drawn.
She heard a rush of small feet and, then, the sound of the bullock drover laughingly caution the young children who were mobbing him in search of boiled lollies. In turn, the gaunt sun-browned women of the Burrogorang separated from their men-folk and came to greet her.
A gust of the sunset wind blew bush kitchen smoke back into the cave. Hanora tasted the fine mist from the overhang waterfall mixed with the slow cooked mutton and onions. Then the sound of voices rose, in anticipation and concern.
She followed their eyes to the dim outlines of the last arrivals as they hobbled their horses on the meadow below. As she watched, the last rays of sunset caught the waterfall along the overhang that made the cave and turned it into a cathedral wall of sparkling stained glass. One of the mountain girls laughingly placed a garland of native flowers on her hair as the wall took on different colors. Then she leaned into Hanora and pointed to a man coming through the veil of water. Hanora stood open-eyed, catching a glint of fire in his shadowed face as he looked back at her. Then he turned to greet the bullock drover. She took a breath of air but then tensed as she watched her husband to be limp into the cave.
Bush dances are crowded affairs with scarce room to swing a cat. Every rock shelf in the Dance Floor Cave was crowded with the young and younger. The bullock drover carefully unpacked his fiddle, and everyone started to speak. At a bush dance, sometimes the best you can do is to surrender to the night and clap or stamp your feet. The nights can be loud and long, with musicians bashing out a steady rhythm to drown out talk of potato blight and straying cattle and the hurried making of wedding vows. But casual talk flickered and died as the evening shadows lengthened. Unfinished drinks rested unloved in the fading light when even the old folk join in the dance. And then the world starts to become fast and blur: the young seem old and old feel young.
Later. In the glow of the coals from the fire, Hanora and her husband sat. He did not say much, but it did not matter as Hanora was suddenly full of words. He listened, nodding and smiling. Their faces were partly in shadow, as the voices of others slowly faded into the deep night and became silent. Her voice became quieter and finally stopped. Then she reached out to his face, and with a finger traced a scar up his right cheek and to a nose that still showed the signs of an old break. She touched the wound gently, asking with her eyes if her pressure was too great.
He smiled and then grimaced, trying to stutter an explanation.
Deeper still within the Dance Floor Cave, from where he watched, the old drover shook his head slowly and turned away.
Hanora's new husband creased his face in remembered pain, and he clenched his fists white. Hanora watched a single tear form and fall to the sand upon the ground.
She took his hand and smoothed the ground. She wrote her name in the sand and silently turned to him. He looked at her intensely and then stared at the sand. He smoothed the sand around her name, and she watched him start to write.
They had been rounding up brumbies, the wild horses, in the valley below. Almost at the yards, the horses had been spooked and turned and fled. He turned to chase them but fell onto rocks, and he lay there still and broken for an age. In time, the scars had knitted awkwardly. In time, he got back on his horse. Finally, half a year later he brought the brumbies safely into the yard.
She watched patiently, encouraging him with smiles and written questions about a thousand unimportant details.
Towards dawn, the bush folk slipped quietly away into the night. Last, the old drover bid his farewell, and they were left alone.
Hanora looked at him. Everyone had gone, but she could still hear the music from the night before.
He climbed to his knees and held out his hand. He said, "C c c c c...". Then he dropped his eyes, embarrassed. On the ground, he saw the words and drawings of their conversation, in the sand. He looked back up at her and tried again, "C c c come." She turned to reach her pack, but he pulled her away, towards the cave entrance lit dimly in the early morning light.
She hesitated for a moment. Then she stood and followed him up the track leading to the plateau above.
He took her to the edge of the cliff, next to a waterfall cascading over the edge. He threw his legs over the cliff face and held his arms out to help her sit next to him. Together, they watched the dawn slowly color the sky. On the edge of the world, they looked out and saw a landscape so wild and vast, and it took their breath away.
Hanora thought, "I am small. So insignificant. If I fell now, no one would every know, nor care." Then she found his eyes and knew he would not share that thought. The light of the sun suddenly burst into the world, and detail and color lit the scene. He put his arm around her.
Hanora said, "This is beyond my understanding, I am just a speck in the world. It is vast."
He turned to her, his eyes full of the sun and said, "Sublime."
Her heart soared, and she surrendered to the moment, "I want something just like this."
Her life was hard as might be imagined. Full of floods, fires, miscarriage, heartbreak and ill health. But it was also full of his quiet silence and the cycle of the old drover's passage, the music of the cave, and the sound of her daughter's laugh.
Copyright Dark Aelf, 2021
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