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Salt Dancersby Ursula Hegi
When I turned four, my father taught me the salt dance: he sprinkled a line of salt on the living room floor, positioned my bare feet on top of his shoes, and told me to leave everything I feared or no longer wanted behind that line. His gold-flecked eyes high above me, he walked me across that salt border into my brand-new year — he backward, I forward — my chin tilted against the buttons of his silk vest.
I would like to believe that the salt dance was a ritual he and my mother had seen on one of their journeys — in a mountain village in South America, say, or in Sicily — but my father simply made it up the day I turned four, and from then on it became a tradition in our family on birthdays as if backed by generations. Though I no longer recall what I left behind the salt line that day or chose to take with me, I can still evoke the tingling in my arms as they encircled my father's lanky waist. Below his right eyebrow curved the moon-sliver scar where a dog had bitten him when he was a boy. Rooted to his feet, I didn't slip off as we danced, careful at first — "Two steps to the right, Julia, one to the left" — then spinning through the rooms, past the radiant faces of my mother and brother.
When I was nine years old, I stopped loving my father. Of course it didn't happen all at once: it was rather a waning of trust until it became safer to believe that I ceased loving him altogether that one summer evening when he brought me chocolate with hazelnuts and lifted me from the windowsill and forced me to say I loved him.
Somewhere between those two images that continue to haunt me, things twisted, turned on themselves, and when I finally crossed the country and returned home to Spokane — forty-one, pregnant, and unmarried — it was because I was afraid I'd mess up my child's life if I didn't sort out before her birth why things had gone so terribly wrong with my family.
I still hadn't told my father I was pregnant when I walked with him down the path that led to our lake cottage. Old tracks had settled into deep, overgrown ruts; I walked barefoot in the furrow, my father above me on the wide band of grass that grew on the right. From time to time his bare elbow rubbed against me. I had to hold back to match his shuffle. He was slighter than I remembered him as if, as a girl, I had painted his younger version on a balloon and, in the years since, had let out some air, shrinking his likeness just enough to shift the edges of his body inward, render him harmless. It was ironic — now that the edges of my body were being pushed out, though not enough yet to proclaim my secret. My breasts were fuller — I felt their weight when I walked — and my clothes had grown tight, but the choice to tell was still mine.
Until two summers ago I'd known for certain that I didn't want a child, but a few months before I'd turned forty, an absurd yearning for a baby had attached itself to me. I could banish it as long as I didn't swim, but whenever I did my laps in the pool at the Y or floated in one of the lakes near my house in Vermont, the water rocked me into images of myself holding an infant. A girl child. What made it even more absurd was that I didn't have a lover at the time and felt content without one. My friend Claudia and I laughed about it: I didn't long for a man — I wanted a child.
Claudia, who also was my dentist, speculated on biological urges, internal time clocks, and finally resorted to the prescription: "Just stay out of the water, for Christ's sakes, before you trap yourself into having a midlife baby."
But her Aunt Edith, who'd recently moved in with Claudia and her family, eagerly offered to take care of any midlife baby I'd trap myself into having. A girdle fitter by profession, Aunt Edith had retired from Alexander's department store in the Bronx, where — as she liked to put it — she "used to stuff fat tochises into girdles for forty-five years." Taking care of a baby, she said, would be a vacation.
"A daughter" the doctor had told me during the ultrasound, and I'd nodded because I already knew. "Everything looks fine."
Until I'd seen the landscape of my child — delicate threads of shadow and light racing across the cone-shaped field on the gray computer screen — I had thought of my pregnancy as a condition, surprising and unsettling, but when the sound waves traveled through my flesh and bounced off the fetus, I saw translucent bubbles, stalactites and stalagmites, a harp even. My child initiated me into a world that existed already within me, oddly familiar yet foreign, as though I were looking through a kaleidoscope that didn't detain shapes but, in the shifting of threads, created a fluid impression, movement.
Claudia was with me, one of her large hands on my arm as the technician guided the transducer across the warm gel she'd squirted on my belly. "They didn't do this when I was pregnant." Her round face leaned closer to the screen. "So tiny" she whispered. In her family everyone, including Claudia, was exactly six feet tall. Both of her sons were already in college, young men with wide wrists and shoulders like their parents'.
I felt awed that the intricacy of what filled the screen would come together to form my child. Sometimes the landscape seemed surreal until the technician would point to the stomach, the labia, the femur. The heart pulsed like a tiny dark mouth opening and closing. A circle with a slender gap at the top turned out to be my child's thumb and fingers, about to touch. As I recognized the contour of my daughter's chin and mouth, she yawned. Her tongue stretched. And that's when she became real to me.
Though her shape was immediately lost to me in the overplay of swift threads, I waited for her to emerge from that canvas, a prelude to her birth. I wanted to see her in color — not just in gray through the practiced eyes of the technician — wanted to recognize the sum of her lines and movements as they merged, wanted to guide my hand along the elaborate bridge of her spine that arched across the screen — a far more complex structure than I or any other architect could possibly design.
My father's leather shoes loosened fragments of dried weeds that drifted around our legs like new mosquitoes. The rich scent of sun-warmed grass filled my head. High above us soared a redtail hawk; through its tail feathers the sun broke in splinters of fire. The sky was vast and streaked with salmon-colored clouds — the western sky of my childhood — so different from the fragments of sky among the mountains and trees where I'd lived since college.
When my father stumbled across a root, I caught his arm, and he sagged against me. "Thank you, Julia" he wheezed. Creases gathered themselves around his lips and below his ears; his full hair had turned bone-white in the years I'd been away.
I'm stronger than my father. I used to take his strength for granted — the kind of strength that flings you across the room, knocks you to the floor, burns imprints of his hand on your face. If I want to, I can shove him aside. Beat him. Abandon him to rot on this path like a deer shot out of season...his legs at odd angles in his chinos...his shirt stained with blood — My heart raced as if I'd walked for hours. Those pictures I saw inside my head — they couldn't be mine; yet, I kept staring, wishing, right to the details of him lying twisted among decaying pine needles and new moss, shielding his face from my blows. The sky tightened around me, tilted, swerved, snaring me there on that hillside in an orange-red haze of rage, both hands on my father's arm.
I let go of him, dazed that such cruelty was within me. How would it come out — against my child? As a girl I'd promised myself that I'd never slap my children, and from there another promise had grown — that I'd never have children. Too many chances to
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