Pippa Slattery is currently studying on the M.A. for Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. She has recently been shortlisted by New Irish Writing and was long-listed for the 2021 Fish Short Story Award. She has short stories published in The Galway Review, The Blue Nib, and The Tiny Seed Journal. Her flash fiction piece Rag Doll was shortlisted for the Kanturk International Arts Festival. She has short stories and poems in the anthologies Vessel of Voices and Opening Doors. Pippa lives overlooking Lough Derg, in Co Tipperary and she is currently working on her first novel.

The Dance

By Pippa Slattery

She was cooking for the coming retreat. A weekend for women who needed space in which to heal and rest. Holding space for women to heal and rest was her forte. But she was getting tired and had to push it away. There was no time for it. She had to finish preparing the food.. The house was cleaned, the beds made. She had written the meditations. Chosen the music. She listened to some of the music as she cooked. It was soothing. She sang, but stopped working for a moment to rub at her eyes.

Soup simmered in the pot and aromas of field mushrooms and winter chestnuts evoked memories of the years’ ending. Chestnuts always did that. The smell of woods and winter warmed her. Her homemade bread sat cooling on the racks beside her. The shape of it pleased her and reminded her of school mornings when her children were young. Still living at home. The familiar chaos of school bags and packed lunches and homework assignments being scribbled while the bread baked, ties straightened, shoelaces tied. She’d loved those mornings. Even the ones where she’d had to shout or the ones when they’d had tears and arguments. But the ones she’d loved the best were the ones when everyone was ready long before they had to leave. Where the bread was being eaten, butter, warmed from the still hot bread, dripping down their chins. And she’d read to them as they ate. Harry Potter. That was their favourite. And she remembered the morning they had all cried when Sirius died, and she gave them the day off school so they could read on. How Harry coped with the death of his godfather seemed much more important to them all than their ABC’s and their 123’s. They were the memories that homemade bread evoked. She wondered if the children, now grown, remembered Sirius when they ate bread in their own homes. God, how she missed them.

            She showered then, once everything was ready. Just in time for the first woman to arrive at her door. The woman looked more tired than she was. She’d hidden her own tiredness beneath a layer of foundation and powder. And concealer. She was good at applying concealer. It veiled so much. And she welcomed the woman with open arms. The woman said very little. She was nervous and somewhat shut down. Maybe she was just shy. She showed her to her room, made her a cup of tea and offered her a chocolate biscuit. She noticed how the woman’s hand shook when she took it. The kettle was still hot as the three other women knocked at the door. More tea. More warm welcomes. She loved their hugs and their gratitude. Recognised their relief of arrival. Letting go so much as they walked through her door. Just the process of the journey and of the welcome was enough to let their shoulders relax. Their breath ease. The first woman just needed more time.

And she forgot about her exhaustion. Forgot about her children. These women needed what she had to offer. She threw herself to the caring of them. The supper was soon steaming on the table and the women, one by one, voiced their appreciation of not having to cook for their families for a whole weekend. At the end of the meal, while finishing rhubarb and ginger crumble, she asked them to share a little about themselves and why they had booked the retreat. Three chatted of tiredness, their worries and tribulations, difficult relationships at home, old hurts. The need to withdraw from their worlds for a few days. To recharge. Heal from whatever hurt them. The woman who had arrived first remained still and silent, unable to share anything. Unshed tears forced inward. Whatever troubled her had gnawed too deep, for too long. The other three recognised her silence, knowing that the reflection she held was an echo of an ancient memory they all understood. One held by women who were still fighting the shadow. She kept a professional distance herself. The pain she saw in the woman was too absolute to get too close. Too risky. She squeezed her hand and turned away to clear the table. There was something about this woman that unsettled her.

The weekend went as planned. She nurtured and held space, keeping her own vulnerability at bay as the women bonded. They shared stories. Walked in the woods. Sung to the cold winter moon down by the lake. And they watched the stars play with the speeding clouds in the blackening night sky, as they journeyed to the shamanic drum. The one woman remained silent throughout. She didn’t run away. Bravery or terror kept the woman by her side. But she was drawn into an ever-increasing vortex of fascination toward her as she watched her continue the fight with her shadow, wondering if it was her own shadow she saw in replication of the other. Keeping a professional distance was proving difficult. She recognised how adept she was at keeping that same distance from the deepest part of herself that she saw reflected in those haunted eyes. How so different we all are; but how so indistinguishable. She saw so much of herself in this woman yet rationalised it to seeing the archetypal woundings of the sacred feminine. Something she knew and taught so well. The succumbing of personal power that women have endured since the birth of Eve. She refused to take it personally.

And then, the dance happened. It was the final day of retreat and she invited the women to participate in a powerful therapy of sound and authentic movement. Where the body becomes the choreographer, moving to its own rhythm. A place to sit in witness to oneself.

As I reach my arms high above my head, I feel the strength and endurance of the tree come inside and claim me.

 She didn’t think of the consequences this might have on herself. It had been the final part of her retreat for years. She understood the work and knew what she was asking them to do. The music began to play. She had the women stand with eyes closed, asking them to feel the beat and the rhythm. To allow their bodies to sway; to feel the joy of it. Move wherever the music chose to take them. One by one they began to realign. Listening to their inner child. Awaking to emotions yet denied. Feeling the intelligence of their bodies begin to stir.

One went to the floor, sweeping her arms around her in perfect embrace; her knees in genuflection of all she knew herself to be.

As I kneel and encompass all I am, I reveal the reverence and the beauty of my life.

Another stood and drummed the empty space around her as if it were solid; as if it had a face. Tears coursed down from her gentle eyes, giving countenance to the sadness of her lost love and to her broken place in life.

As I beat the space and feel my tears, I honour the grief in every part of me. As I observe the pain, so I can honour it and send it on its way.

The third woman held the melody in her hands, caressing every part of her. Her face, her eyes, her neck, her breasts; her belly too. With a gentleness that was challenging to see.

As I stroke my body with tender care, I embrace the love that was denied to me.

The fourth woman, the silent one, stood like stone upon the floor. She had not closed her eyes. At all. All fortress walls were rigid. Tight. No breath came from her – no tears – no cries. The three other women danced their dance around her, but she stayed unseeing and unmoved. She was in terror of the thing she had been asked to do.

As I keep my body strong, unyielding in its stance, I am protected from the world and from all the violators who come to invade my dance.

            So frozen, she couldn’t speak, or move. But the pain and fear held in the woman broke down her own barriers of protection and professional distancing. She could not bear the other’s anguish, so petrified was she, as if it were her own. Standing behind the terrified woman, she took her hands in hers. She whispered to her to close her eyes and asked her to trust her. Her body began to move. Guiding the shadow of this woman with her. Dancing her body. Holding her close. Their arms began to rise above their heads, still holding tight to the other’s hands. She knew what to do, for it was what she yearned for, for herself. It was not because she knew it to be good for her. It happened out of love. She moved the other’s body and held her hands. Moved her arms, her shoulders, back and neck. Their bodies two, dissolving in acquiescence, to became one dance.

Like the roots of a tree, they fed into each other’s requests. One human being knowing the needs of the other. They were both women, frozen in pain. Both fighting their shadows of hurt and grief. Unarmed from the exhaustion of pain, the silent woman then gave way.

And she began to dance, alone.

First her movements were erratic, somewhat disturbed. But all the women gathered round her offering her affirmation as well as love. She closed her eyes and allowed the dance to take her.

As she and the other women watched, the once broken woman opened her arms wide within her dance. And gathered too her the invisible child that was by her side. The wounded inner child ran straight to her mother’s arms.

I’m here. Come dance the sky with me, the child cried. No one will ever hurt you. Not now.

It was the child that spoke. Not the dancing woman, who was laughing now.

As I watch the wind in her invisible cloak, gather around them, I feel at peace. A reconciliation with the shadows of my past. In perfect tranquillity.

The retreat was over and the women had all left. Evening was drawing in as she walked down the woodland path to the edge of the lake and lit a small fire in a clearing. The ghost-like trees were silhouetted in welcome familiarity.

It was as she was putting the final branches on the fire that she saw her. In the fading light. Walking towards her through the drifting smoke. Her own little girl, her inner child. That part of herself she believed long dead. She held out her hands and pulled her in to the warmth of the fire. They danced together, just the two of them. She had yearned so long for someone to come dance her body and now she was here, twirling with her through the leaves and dancing beside the gentle waters of the lake. Holding hands, their bodies moving as one.

Without warning she began to laugh. And then she cried and laughed again. She danced like the wild woman she had always known herself to be. Danced until the stars, together with the moon, tumbled from the night’s sky. And as they fell, her breath eased and she knew that she was free. She waited while the fire burnt down to ash, her spirit slipping into peace. As a faint light glowed from the East, she walked back along the path, holding tight to her child’s hand, the wild woman beside them, guiding them home.