"We are all connected to the Earth," she was saying, pushing the bead-adorned braids away from my face, then letting her hands rest on my shoulders. I listened, mostly because her mouth was beautiful, hearing her roll over the words in her native tongue was like music. I listened because the light touch of her fingers on my bare collarbone was somehow intense and exciting, yet at the same time comforting.
I must have been silent too long, because she smiled out of the side of her mouth slightly, and her eyes sparkled. She laughed then, half of a glorious laugh, then spun away slowly letting her fingertips drop from where they had touched me. I was suddenly aware that drums were being played not far away, and Mari was spinning slowly toward them, bare feet in the rocky sand as she moved toward the light. I followed clumsily, thinking of how graceful she was...how graceful they all were, when merely walking.
And when they danced?
I had seen it for the first time in Nayarit, camping somewhere in the middle of a hundred miles of untouched white beach. I followed the sound of drums to a rocky outcropping and looked out over the angry waters that could thrash a person to death against the rocks. The roaring of foam and wave drowned out nearly all sound, except a rhythm that beat behind my temples and in my blood. They stood in water up to their knees, each of them a myriad of woven colors and beads, linked with twine. Their bare brown was skin stained white with the ocean's salt, but their flesh did not quiver, though it was November and windy. Eleven of them in all, seven with drums standing in a line facing the setting sun. Three in front of them, arms outstretched toward that bleeding sunset. And she before them, the water lapping at her thighs, rooted in place as her upper body twisted and writhed in a dance so primal I was rooted in place, watching.
When the sun had completely set, the intensity dropped from their features and bodies. There was a moment of reverence, then laughing and splashing they emerged from the water, strapped their instruments to their backs, and began walking down the beach in my direction. I don't remember what I said, if anything. One carried an extra drum. When he saw me looking, he said that one of their number had gone off to the "warm places."
It made little sense to me then, but then, I wonder if I was as strange to them as they were to me - a vacationing American girl in blue jean shorts and a faded black t-shirt. In any case, they were friendly, and being that I was otherwise alone, I more or less accidentally ended up remaining in their company. I remember the first night we talked of freedom, they finding it remarkable that I could wander so far barely a day over 18 years old - how liberal my parents must be, yet there I was pondering their freedom from society, to come and go as they please, living off the land. We were instant friends.
That night, Mari and I sat up late talking after the fire had burned down to orange embers. She pointed at each of the stars and told me the names they called them. This one, she said, was the wishing star, that guarded children's smiles. And this one guided rains. I showed her what we call the Big Dipper and Orion and she pointed far to the horizon (as dawn was almost breaking) at a few stars almost in a line. I asked her what they were, and she said that they guided people across the waters. I said, I know it as the Southern Cross ..or at least, I thought it was. By the time it rose high enough to see, the sun was too bright in the sky.
And six months pass. The salt water and frontier life quickly ruined my already threadbare cotton shirt, and my jeans - which were never snug, now constantly slid down my thighs. I discarded these clothes for the more practical garb the other women wore. Soon beads and shells adorned my hair and twine was wrapped around my wrists. It was a slow change, a fantastic adventure, with these people, who my mind thought of as 'gypsies', whose nature I didn't truly understand.
Two years I spent among them and not one day of it near any major city. I'd never been much of an outdoor person, but nonetheless I adapted quickly.
Though I always felt a sense of loss. As much as I came to love them, I never felt that I 'fit' into the pattern of their life. This was their world, and my world only on the surface. I had an American Express card and a passport tucked in the bottom of my bag so this wasn't my reality. Yet it felt like somewhat more than a vacation. When I mentioned this to Mari, she just smiled and said, "This is your journey."
"So where am I journeying to?" I had asked.
Before I could respond, she just smiled in her way and left me standing there, clutching at the air.
Monsoon season came and went again, and their camp flooded. Much of the food they had gathered and packed so carefully for the coming winter was lost in the rolling deluge of mud. Then it grew cold in the mountains as we hiked toward the cave that sheltered us the year before, though the weather was much more mild then. Two of the younger boys became sick from the cold, they were lain in the back of the cave near the fire, designs drawn on their skin with a deep blue ink (the making of which they would never tell me). Then all night long the others would chant and play drums, while Mari danced. I knew this to be something of religious or at the very least ritualistic significane, and though they did not ask it of me, I stood outside the cave. This didn't stop me from peeking through the opening, watching flames and shadows dance against the decorated cave walls while the snow settled in my hair.
After a week of watching them suffer, I pulled Mari aside, for it was her that I knew best after these many months. I said, lets get them to the city, to a hospital. I told her I had the money. The look on her face at first, I thought I had offended her gravely. Then she smiled that half smile at me and said that there was no need for me to worry, that their pains would end soon.
Early in the morning the next day, Anrei, the youngest and most fragile boy, was dead. Six hours later his brother Mijo followed. I was hurt and confused and felt betrayed, and at the same time guilty. These were people who exulted at death, at moving on to the next life. They celebrated with music and dance while I huddled in the corner, near the fire, wrapped in my blankets, hating myself.
When winter ended I walked with them back to the shore then said my farewells. I started walking toward the port town Ixtlahuaca where I planned to catch a cab back to the city and back to my old life. It was twenty miles, and though hardened by two years spent in the wilderness, I was weary and stopped to sleep near a rocky outcropping beneath the stars.
They were still bright and glorious even though the faint glimmer of civilization glowed up over a distant horizon. I wrapped the rough shawl around me, staring at the night through a screen of painted and woven patterns, the cold beads of the trim resting on my cheeks like tears. And though it was nearly spring, I was shivering.
I must have slept. I remember awakening warm. The stars were gone when I opened my eyes, the sky erased and replaced by thick layers of woven blankets. I looked down to find Mari there, her body wrapped around mine and both of us cocooned within the blankets. I smelled feathers and hyacinthe and lay my hand on her back, taking in her warmth. She opened her eyes and looked up at me, barely visible here wrapped in the womb of cloth. My fingers crept out across the sand to find branches leaning and tied - she'd made a shelter over where I slept, draping it around me so thickly that the moonlight could barely be seen.
Seeing me awake, she shifted her position until her limber dancer's body was covering mine like a sheathe, pressed tightly against me, knees bent, powerful thighs clasping the outside of mine. Her body was pulled taught like a predator ready to strike, but the gentleness in her eyes dispelled that thought as quickly as it came. I opened my mouth as if to speak, then I felt her breath on my cheek - moving closer as she moved closer. My words disappeared in the charged air as her fingertips covered my lips. She whispered to me in the native tongue words she knew I understood. "This is a gift" her voice fluttered in that strange musical inflection. My lips parted as if to reply but suddenly my mouth is covered by hers.
It was strange to feel the softness of a woman's lips, as her fingertips traced symbols on my cheeks and we breathed, inhaling and exhaling as one single creature, pale and dark, yin and yang, worlds merging into one. Her fingernails lightly played across my collarbones, then down over my breasts, stopping to draw a design lightly, almost playfully around my navel. I closed my eyes and leaned my head back into the soft sand as she planted kisses down the curve of my throat. I felt the fabric of my skirt tighten as her fingers worked free the knot at my hip - loosening only, not removing - then felt her slide her palms across my stomach, the tips of her fingers slipping beneath the cloth, slowly, -so slowly!- like stars crossing the sky, her hands crossed down and turned, a twist of her wrist I'd seen in dance silhouetted against so many fires. As they moved down, down to the place I lost my sense of self. I felt her finger part my lips and slide inside me, and I dug one fist into the sand and the other gripped her hair, first gently then more firmly as she began to move. My world was drowning and all the color was bleeding out, my body had become a column of living fire. She lowered her face and slid her tongue within, and my hand grasped her seashell woven hair so tightly I drew blood. How long it went on I could not say, though I remember seeing it brighten beyond the canopy that held us, before becoming weak and fading into darkness.
I awoke alone but still warm, her scent all over my body. My right hand lay caked and sticky with sand where I had given my blood to the earth. I pulled back the drape and walked outside, it was nearly sunset again. Mari was standing knee-deep in the ocean's spray, her arms at her sides resting almost unnaturally (for she was always in motion). I walked over to where she stood, and though I know she heard me coming she did not move, just kept staring out at the sun, whose bottom curve was about to breach the shimmering water. When she finally looked at me, she said simply, "I do not want you to go."
I thought of a million things. How our worlds were too different, how I did not belong here. It was true. But more than that it was that I didn't understand their ways, I didn't have the same reverence for life. I could have said any of this, and she would have understood. For a moment we played the moment out in our minds. Myself speaking, her embracing me and watching as I walked into the jagged horizon. But I didn't speak. Instead I looked out at the sun, the bottom of the blazing disc already becoming blurred as it melted into the waters.
As if she sensed my thoughts, she said "When I was young, my mother told me a story of a young boy who used to believe that where the sun touched the water, the water would be warm. Every day he would swim out as far as he could, but the waters only grew colder. The boy realized after many months that he was only swimming HALF as far, because she had to save his strength for the swim back to shore. Years went by, the boy grew stronger, and each year he could swim further and further. Before long he knew, he just knew, that when he reached the point where must turn back, that he must be so close to his goal."
She paused, looked at me and then back at the sunset, which by now was half descended into the deep.
"So one day, he swam and swam, and he didn't save anything for the way back.
That night, he did not return home. And he was never seen again." Her voice seemed slightly sorrowful.
I felt that I needed to say something, but I couldn't find the words.
Finally, I said "And you believe that he reached the place where the waters are warm, and found such happiness that he never returned to these shores?"
Her smile faded slightly, and she leaned over and placed her palms against the still surface of the ocean as the waves flowed out. "No," she said. "I believe that boy drowned, and gave his spirit back to the earth. " She turned to me. "We are not so different, you and I."
"I don't understand. I thought the story was about letting go, not looking back, reaching the end of the journey?" I stammered.
"The end of the journey is never important," she said, straightening again, pressing her ocean-wet hands to her cheeks.
And we both stood in silence, watching as the upper tip of the sun finally sank beneath the distant blue, and only the aura of its light remained above the horizon. Eyes closed now, Mari began to dance, that strange and somber dance I had seen on the first day we met, almost three summers ago. She continued to dance until we were in almost complete darkness, the beads of her sweat running down her body to join with the salt of the sea. There they mingled with my tears, witnessing again the beauty of this creature, but now understanding something of her nature. The tide was rising and soon was up to my waist, with each ebb and flow my skirts swirled about me like underwater flowers. I swayed slowly to the rhythm of drums, tilting my head back to let the moonlight caress my face. Behind me there they were, the others - how long had they been there?
Finally the water covered my chest and Mari, not much taller than I, finally stopped moving. I heard myself saying "I wish I could dance like you, Aija." Aija. Priestess. I don't recall where I learned the word.
She smiled, and said "We are all connected to the Earth. My limbs move as the tree branches sway in the breeze, as petals quiver on the vine, as water flows over rocks and bleeds into the sand."
She reached beneath the waters and grasped my wounded hand, and brought it up above the waves. "You too have given blood and your body to the sand and to the sea. "
"And to you," I whispered, though I could barely hear my voice above the roar of the night filling my ears. The saltwater had re opened the wound, and my blood now smeared across the tops of her hands.
"Now you can dance as a limb of the Earth."
And the waves washed over our heads, and she embraced me then, and we spun together as one beneath the dark waters. Only for an instant, then the tide withdrew and the moon, larger than life, was a still and perfect silver sphere in the water all around us. The stars danced and faded as the waves began to move once more. We walked back to the others, walking to the beat of drums until our bare feet reached the dry sand.
A month later Mari became ill, and in a few short days she was gone. Though I was torn with bitterness, even rage at her loss, I was happy that she had not suffered. The others removed the ornaments from her hair and body and placed them in a woven bowl filled with crushed flowers. All around her they danced, and though for these people death was a joyous exultation, their song carried a cadence of sorrow and loss woven within the melody. Though I had seen death come to them before, we had been far from the sea.
They placed her body on a raft, surrounded by flowers and spices. And then they carried her body to the shore. Words were said in that musical language, though I couldn't follow them, grieving as I was, all I could hear was my heartbeat pounding in my brain. Then Dani, Mari's older brother, brought the bowl with her beads and knelt before me, raising it above his head. At first I did nothing, but he gestured again, so I took up the twinings and the beaded leather and shells, and wrapped them around my wrists and into my hair. "Aija," he whispered, then gestured to the fire where the others stood, playing a slow and eerie rhythm on their drums. For the first time, a wooden flute countermelody eased its way between the harsh and slightly sinister drumbeats, again the word "gypsy" entered my mind as I listened, though somehow, it wasn't quite right.
I walked over to the fire and closed my eyes, letting the music fill my body. I was aware of the feeling of each individual grain of sand beneath my feet and between my toes. I could feel the light of each individual star boring into my skin. I could feel the earth enter my body with every breath. Something inside me fell away. I danced.
I danced until my body trembled and my muscles cried out with pain, until my balance became unstable and I felt myself unable to stop spinning for fear of falling. And then I felt arms pushing me up, or smoke, or pillows, or light, rising from the earth like an aura pushing and pulling my body in the directions it was meant to go. As the wind pushs the leaf on the stem. Yes, I breathed, in my native English as my body finally came to rest on the sand.
They waited until highest tide and pushed the raft out to the sea, the orange fire-embers placed around her. Then they all joined hands and watched until it drifted out of sight. In the darkness, and in the firelight, my hands in theirs was no longer the contrast pale and dark, but rather a continuous brown, bound together, like branches. Suddenly the raft came aflame, a fire so distant it was like the stars that crowned it. As if somewhere above a star was dying, creating an empty space for her. Dani tells me, she is going to the warm places, where the sun and the earth joined as one and gave birth to the sea. I nodded slightly, watching her smoke rise to the cloudless expanse of night.
I know that I cannot remain among them, that this is just part of my journey. I wonder if Mari knew her time was coming. She knew so much she didn't say. I do not know if they pray, or who they pray to, but I turn my eyes skyward and say inside my mind a thank you for all I have learned. The others part to make a path for me as I walk back to the shore, pulling Mari's beads from my hair and letting them fall into the sea.
Once I am a great distance away, barely visible in the darkness, I see the Southern Cross blinking faintly above the bier, almost as if it is guiding Mari home. I bow deeply, reverently to sea and sky, and to the distant fire that still kindles way out on the crest of a wave.
Because there will be no fire like hers again. Not for light years.