Le Th? Dansant
Men lie on cushions in the sunken room, dipping their hands in silver dishes. The other room is not yet full. Ganymede runs from table to table in the shape of an Arab boy, wearing wide pantaloons tied at the ankles. Smoke from men's cigarettes swirls around his shoulders and neck, caressing his still-smooth cheek. If he knew what favors the very air steals from him, wouldn't he be angry? But he skips barefoot over the tiled floor, all unconscious, happy as a goat.
"Fetch us the dancer, when will she dance?" "Patience," says the boy, and sets a glass on the board. Grasping both handles of the samovar, he tips it, spilling amber tea. Higher and higher he lifts his hands, over his head, till the stream falls five feet. The glass is almost full. Tea splashes on the men. They laugh. He lowers his hands. A coin strikes the floor at his feet.
When he returns it is with a pipe. Putting it to his lips, he fills the room with the voice of women wailing. High, shrill, the keening dips and wavers. Finger cymbals clashing, the dancer whirls in.
Her skin is the color of tea, of honey, of oil-rubbed sandalwood velvet to touch. The fringe of her skirt twitches like a thing alive, and she charms the men by sight, not by sound. Her arms rise in the shape of a lyre over her head, which slides level from side to side, as if there were no real connection between her neck and her shoulders.
The man in the center watches her. As the music accelerates she sways toward him, dancing as if for a king. Her bare arms weave like cat's tails, cymbals snapping over the arch of her back. Her belly is a drum skin stretched over muscles tightly controlled. They shiver and undulate, each by itself.
Dancing before him, inches away, her body gleams in a golden sweat. Slowly he lifts a closed fist and touches the curve of her neck. Then his fingers unfold, and he tucks a rolled-up bill between her breasts.
She recoils as if the cylinder of paper were an adder. In the corner the boy is angry. His brown cheeks burn. He almost stops playing, but checks himself. It's not his dance. No matter. Later he means to spill scalding tea in the man's lap.
The dancer struggles to regain her lost step. Movements that before were fluidly random now seem disjointed. Her limbs have stiffened, as if some hand had pulled a string and tightened them. The pipe shrieks in her ears, and the cymbals jar. She gives up and skips out of the room, trappings dangling.
In her dressing room she stands, watching her eye-paint run in the mirror. It drops in dirty spots on the tabletop, one, two. She lifts a hand, touches her breast. The violence with which she snatches the bill and hurls it away is undercut when the paper merely flutters and doesn't crash. It lands in the full water basin, where it floats like a witch. Skating on the tense surface, the folded bill turns and turns.
She wets a thick white cloth and wipes the kohl from her cheeks. With a raven's feather she lines her eyes, black and bold as a hieroglyph. Her face looks back at her like that of a broken statue newly restored. She tugs at her beaded halter. Leaving the brush in the paint jar, she steps into the next room to dance.