THE DANCE OF THE BELLS
In the hush of the carnival tent Orizana’s golden body swayed the bells to life. Whew! She was beautiful!
ANN MAUDE HENRY
Now that he was nearly at the fair grounds, Osu's courage almost deserted him. What was it Mrs. Oliphant had said?
"You must—come down out of the clouds. Osu! You must not be so serious and go about trying to save the world. Forget your books for a while!" she said. “Have some fun. Go to a movie even. Play tennis, or swim—-or better yet, get yourself a girl.”
A girl. Osu didn’t know any girls. Back home there had been girls, serious young ladies in white cotton dresses, who drank tea with his mother and discussed the new Nigeria. . It was funny he hadn't thought of them as—girls—as something to be admired. He hadn’t thought of love, for instance —or marriage.
There was his mother, a saintly woman. Not many girls could measure up to her. And in her country she was exceptional, for her education, her courage. She was a leader, one to whom people looked for guidance.
She had pointed to the sign and read, “Colored and dogs not allowed.” “My son." she said, “someday you will do something for your country. Someday, when you are grown, you will help to do away with these signs.”
When he went away to go to the Cana-
dian university it was to educate himself so he could help his people. “I will be proud of you,” his mother said. But maybe Mrs. Oliphant was right. He had been tired lately and his head ached.
The Canadians were nice and they did not seem to care about his color, which was very black. But they revealed their feelings in other ways.
"Some ol my best friends are Negroes,” they said. A small flame leaped up in Osu at the words and he became . . . not angry—it was wrong to be angry—but tight and resentful.
They did not know, could not know of his feelings, of the need to wipe out the shame of the signs—“Colored and dogs not allowed.” They do not know what it is like. As a member of the privileged Negro class Osu had a duty, his mother pointed out, to help those less fortunate.
"How would you feel,” Osu questioned Mrs. Oliphant once, “if you walked down Portage Ave. and saw a sign, ‘Dogs and Irish not allowed’?”
"I’d be furious!” Mrs. Oliphant exploded. Mrs. Oliphant was Irish in spite of her name. “The spalpeens! The nerve!” she said, for Mrs. Oliphant had a vivid imagination and she got
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\ Lights danced, people laughed and Osu watched with lonely hunger
fighting mad just thinking about it.
“Well, that's how I feel,” Osu said and looked away, the sadness settling on him.
But Mrs. Oliphant’s temper was dissipated as quickly as it came.
"Ach! To the divil with them!'' she said. “It doesn't make a wink of difference what they think. It's what you think that counts. They're just ignorant.’’ she said and Osu nodded.
Mrs. Oliphant didn't notice color.
“Come on in!" she yelled at the top of her voice the first time he had met her. He had gone to her house for dinner with another Nigerian student. Mrs. Oliphant often invited students from the university to her home and she made a point of inviting students from foreign lands.
When Osu appeared, warm and sweating in his dark-blue suit, his tie and collar done up neatly, she roared at him from her prone position in the back yard.
"Go and take your clothes off and come out and get a sun tan!" she shouted.
Then, startled, and laughing at what she had said, she hooted, “Omigawd!” and Osu, shy, had smiled uncertainly. Half a dozen young people of all colors surrounded Mrs. Oliphant. They all laughed too. They were dressed in shorts or bathing suits or halters, soaking up the sun in Mrs. Oliphant’s back yard.
The idea of Osu. black as the veritable ace of spades, getting a sun tan tickled Mrs. Oliphant and she laughed merrily, with no offense meant whatever, and Osu joined in the laughter. In that moment his awkwardness and loneliness were bridged and he took off his shirt and stretched out in the sun, his glasses striking off lights from the sun, giving him a blinking-owl look, as if he had just come in from the night to the day.
"We’re reading poetry.” Mrs. Oliphant said. “Listen to this! This one is a lulu!” And she read, her laughter chortling up. her eyes filling with tears of laughter till finally she laughed so hard she held her stomach and lay weakly on the grass.
The poem w'as sad and sentimental and secretly Osu thought it was rather beautiful, but Mrs. Oliphant nearly rolled on the grass with laughter. Her laughter blew' away some of his perpetual anxiety. She was like some gay clown, w'ith her w'hite hair all windblown and her aging but firm skin, tanned to a deep browm. making her strangely young and childlike. She wore a sunsuit she had bought in Hawaii, she said. It was gaudily bright and kind of crazy. But Mrs. Oliphant could wear things like that. They suited her. She laughed like a man. hearty and throaty.
It was a wonderful afternoon and Osu relaxed in the sun for the first time in months. He felt vaguely guilty about it as if he shouldn’t be enjoying himself so much with these thoughtless young people.
While there is a soul in prison / am not free, he reminded himself. Somewhere Osu had read this. It was true of him. he thought. All these young people were members of the capitalist class, all young people u'ho didn't worry their heads about the downtrodden, especially in Nigeria.
For all Mrs. Oliphant's hearty ways and wild talk, she was a good woman. She was really something like his own
mother, he thought, with high ideals and a real love for people. She understood w'hen he poured out his feelings. She even understood when he timidly confessed his yearning to help free his people.
“But have a heart man." Mrs. Oliphant said. “You can’t straighten out Nigeria. let alone the world, in a week. Jesus was pretty good at it and even He hasn't succeeded yet. Don't worry so much. Don’t fret about it.“ He was just confused, she said.
For Osu. when he talked about it. got into an almost dreamlike state, and his voice, never strong, fell to a whisper. He couldn’t find the words to express what he felt, the longing to right injustice. the longing for brotherhood. But Mrs. Oliphant didn't laugh. She understood.
"For heaven's sake, lad.” she said, “you're making yourself sick. Put it all out of your head for a bit. Forget everything and get away from those books. Get your feet on the ground. Be more —physical—” Mrs. Oliphant groped for a word.
Maybe she is right. Osu thought, and here he was, determined to carry out Mrs. Oliphant's advice.
THE fair ground was dark when he arrived, and its myriad lights and cacophony of sound were exciting. He stood, blinking behind his glasses, and looked around him.
“Go where there is some life, some movement, Mrs. Oliphant had said, and there was plenty of life and movement here.
Throngs of people moved and jostled each other, talked and laughed and stood in groups to watch the people who stood on platforms in front of tents and shouted about the show inside. Girls, with painted faces and long blond hair or long black hair, stood draped in brilliant blue cloaks streaked with silver and looked with unseeing eyes at the crowd.
A man, wearing a canvas apron and a battered hat, held two big balloons and called. "Last chance to get your giant balloon! Absolutely unbreakable! Only way you can break ’em is with a pin!"
And Osu watched as a father bought a balloon for his excited small son. There was a loud "pop" and the balloon man muttered angrily. “Some smart alec with a lighted cigarette." Osu smiled.
Children, holding balls of cotton candy and candied apples and monkeys on a stick and balloons and windmills on a stick, surged past, laughing, on their way to the bumper cars or the pony rides.
Behind the counters of little open boxes stood blondes wearing canvas aprons. They held wooden balls out to him with tanned veined hands glistening with rings and called in raucous voices, “Everybody wins! Everybody gets a prize!" He did not think he would play any games. Gambling was wrong.
Osu stood and watched the crowd for a long moment with a kind of lonely hunger. He wanted to join them. He wanted to plunge into their midst, into
the sights and the sounds and be caught up in it. He wanted to enjoy himself as
they seemed to be enjoying themselves,
Loudspeakers blared and shouted the at-
tractions to be seen; voices everywhere shouted, to win a prize, to see, to hear, to hurry, to play a game, to eat, to win a kewpie doll, to see The Flame of Trinidad, the dancing girls, the fat lady, the midgets.
It was very lively, very noisy, certainly very physical, Osu thought. Mrs. Oliphant would be pleased with him if she could see him now. Not serious, not brooding or talking about isms for his country, but a part of a great uncaring crowd of people, thinking only of having a good time, thinking only of himself.
“It is true, my education has been neglected. I know nothing of—life—” he had told Mrs. Oliphant, and he confided to her his feelings about love.
They were very sacred feelings and Mrs. Oliphant had looked at him quizzically for a moment under knit brows and shook her head as if she was worried.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” she said. “It’s very nice to feel that way, but one has to—accept the world, after all. The world is here. One cannot whisk it away. One has to live in the world.” For a moment Mrs. Oliphant’s face took on a small sadness. She shrugged and smiled, but she did not say anything about love.
“You need to meet some girls, that’s a fact!” Mrs. Oliphant announced then. And Osu, on the fair ground, felt that almost anything might happen.
I am change my tacteek, he told himself. No longer am I to be shy. 1 will do as Mrs. Oleephant say, for she is a very wise lady, much like my mother.
As he walked slowly about the midway. his brown eyes shining with the sights he saw. Osu’s heart lightened and for the first time the tight feeling, the sadness, the heavy burden of pain he habitually felt about injustice and the fight for brotherhood began to slowly lift. He smiled, experimentally. I am too sad, too solemn. She is right! he said to himself. and he smiled at the happy carefree throng and no longer looked on them sadly with bitterness.
THE girl on the platform was beautiful. Her skin was the color of coffee beans and smooth and warm, with golden lights in it. Her costume was scant and suggested the Orient. Little bangles tinkled around her ankles and her wrists and her small brown hands clutched a silken shawl that covered her breasts. But the shawl thrust out, rounded, voluptuous, and one knew when the small hands removed it she would be beautiful. Her body was vital and sinuous. Her small head was held proudly, on a slim brown neck and her hair towered above her head in the style of Africa before the white man. Her eyes were ringed with black and her lashes swept her cheeks. When she looked up she did not look at the crowd of people, but rather through them and around them and over them, as if they were not there. Her face was secretive and her black eyes were stormy.
She was very beautiful and as he watched, she moved, graceful on the soles of bare feet, toward the steps of the bally stand and disappeared, to the accompaniment of little tinkling bells.
Oh! She was very beautiful! Of course, she was not the sort of a girl he could marry. She was a carnival girl and his mother would never approve of such a girl. But Oh whew! Whew! She was beautiful! Her skin. The way those little bells tinkled. It was very fascinating, indeed it was.
Osu was pressed tight in the crowd of humanity, mostly men. as he struggled up the steps into the tent. A man at a turnstile looked frantically right and left as he checked tickets, took them and
tore them in half and allowed people through the little moving gate, one at a time. The men jostled and pushed in their eagerness to enter the tent. Then, down some more steps and there was a large tent, its doorway gaping open to reveal row upon row of benches, painted blue and at the far end, a stage, with a shabby curtain. An electric organ was playing, something fast and rhythmic, and Osu’s heart beat faster.
With a crowd of hurrying, jostling young men he went forward and found a seat in the front row, almost directly under the stage. He would be able to see the girl with the bells from here very well.
It was very gay and the young men pressed close on both sides of Osu on the seat and laughed and cracked jokes and whistled. Osu looked at them and then back to the stage, where brown girls were gyrating madly to rhumba music. Feathers, all colors of the rainbow, attached to the rear of their costumes, shook madly as they danced, and one small muscled girl, all shining teeth and black eyes and flailing arms and legs, came forward and was greeted with a roaring shout by the crowd.
It was like the roar of the sea. She bent down, her hips swaying and her mouth laughing, her eyes laughing. Faster and faster went the music and faster and faster the dancer rolled and gyrated her hips and louder and louder the men screamed, until the throbbing drum, the screaming sounds in the tent and the madly wiggling girl on the stage were all welded into one gigantic pulse. The whole tent breathed as one animal and the white teeth of the black people on the stage shone in the colored lights— shone and laughed with a kind of triumphant glee.
Cymbals crashed and the young men in the front row leaned forward and screamed, “Yeah!” and “Go!” and “Man!” and the girl, still dancing savagely, began to shout and the men shouted with her. The excitement mounted and Osu, vaguely embarrassed, watched the small thin body of the girl and wondered. She must be a very bad girl, he thought, very very bad. But, she could dance! Whew! could she dance! And despite his misgivings, he felt happy and excited.
It is good to come down out of the clouds and be physical. Mrs. Oliphant said so. he told himself, and watched, fascinated.
There was a pause then and a man went through the aisle in the tent, selling booklets and shouting to the people how they could get wrist watches and pens and pencils absolutely free if they would buy a booklet. Osu listened. He wondered where the beautiful girl with the bells was and if she would make an appearance soon. If she did. would he have enough courage to smile at her?
I will smile at her, he thought. 1 will smile at her and I will even speak to her if I get the opportunity.
He bought a program and quickly thumbed through it, looking for a picture of the girl with the bells.
There she was. Orizana, it said. Her name was Orizana.
Orizana. It suited her. It sounded kind of Mexican, kind of tumultuous and exciting and it suited her. Orizana. What a pretty name. She would, the program said, do the Dance of the Bells, and Osu waited with a great impatience to see her.
Then a stout black man came out on stage and made the announcement. Even he was quieter than before and hushed his voice as if the announcement he made was an important one and there
was a reshuffling on stage of musicians and dancers and the lights went down very low.
A curtain in the back of the musicians parted slowly, lifting itself up at the corners as if picked by invisible hands, and in a reddish glow was a figure.
It was the girl of the bells.
SHE had changed into some kind of a diaphanous yellow-and-white garment and it drifted around her like clouds, as she stood, barely moving, in the centre of the stage and waited for the applause to subside. Her skin shone golden in the lights of the stage and her hair was a proud tower of blue-black ivory. Her brows were blackbird wings, so black, so straight, so intense a curve that they gave her eyes a look of pain, and her face had a small suggestion of pain as if the music and the lights and the mood were too much and she could not quite bear it.
Very slowly she moved forward, the little hands like birds, fluttering about her head and her breasts and her hips, and in the distance, small bells tinkled and blew small sweet notes. Then Osu realized the bells were on her body and as she got closer and he kept his eyes, unmoving as an owl s, on her willowy figure, he saws the bells.
Her hips, rounded, golden brown and satin smooth, were encased in a single girdle of gold, a girdle so thin and so small it had the thickness of a wire hoop that goes around a wooden barrel.
The little bells, so small, all colors, were the size of the bells on a child s play harness or the little bells sometimes seen at Christmas and tinkled for charity’s sake. But they were daintier, and their music was sweet. Golden bells, blue, a faint pink, green, and silver, they tinkled softly, slowly as she moved.
Osu swallowed and clutched his program tighter. Orizana moved toward the footlights and now she was directly above him and he looked up. She was a bronze goddess and his feeling for her was worshipful. Her proud look was contemptuous, even angry, and she looked as if she might spit or claw to show her displeasure. Nobody would want to displease her the way she looked now.
Then she stood a moment, not moving, and all the bells were stilled and in the tent there was only the breathing of the men and the soft muted conversation of a pink palm on a drumhead. Even the drum’s voice was soft now, as if it were waiting too. And Orizana smiled slowly suddenly, as if her mood had changed, and lifted one of the winged eyebrows and looked directly at Osu.
His heart beat loudly. And as she looked at him. her eyes catching fire and mischievous now, her mouth faintly smiling and open, her round hips and buttocks moved slowly out in an arc and
the bells began to tinkle again, first one at a time, and then all together. She moved so slowly that she scarcely seemed to move and if it weren’t for the bells, tinkling faintly, Osu could not have been sure she moved at all.
Her body described an arc and her eyes closed and she looked away from him and into the eyes of another in the front row. Osu was upset. He did not want her to look with that smile into the eyes of the other men. She had looked directly at him and she had smiled and he had blinked, looking up at the beautiful face, and his heart had thumped, hearing the tinkling of the bells.
Whew! She was beautiful! And the dance of the bells was a very beautiful dance!
Osu put a hand to the tight woollen cap that was his hair and thought of his appearance. Small he was, and daintily built, with hands and wrists of the delicacy of a girl's. He was immaculately, even richly dressed, but he was not a man to excite admiration from women.
He was conscious of himself as never before. He seemed to have a new identity. The world of Orizana was beautiful and exciting and he was glad now he had come to the carnival and had determined to come out of the clouds and “be more physical.” Mrs. Oliphant was right. There were other things in the world besides causes and the brotherhood of man. There was beauty—and love. He had never seen a girl like Orizana before.
THEN the show was over and the crowd began to move slowly out. Osu remained in his seat. He looked around him as all the excitement of the performance ended suddenly and the heat of the day that still remained in the tent settled on him. He was warm, and thirsty. He would get a drink. But first he would find Orizana and speak to her. He would tell her how much he enjoyed her performance and how beautiful she was. His heart beat quickly at the thought, and before he could change his mind he was up and had darted under the canvas doorway that led to the back of the stage. No one tried to stop him. No one knew who he was and he walked so directly and with such authority that perhaps they thought he belonged with the show.
There were a great many people backstage, walking back and forth, on the floor of fresh wood shavings, carrying costumes and musical instruments, smoking and eating and talking together. Osu stood uncertainly looking at them, his eyes searching for Orizana.
“Where would — I — find Orizana — please?” he asked politely of a stout white man in a soiled shirt and a wrinkled Panama suit.
The stout white man pointed without speaking and Osu, following his pointing finger, walked with a beating heart out
“It is very nice to kiss, no?” she said. Brown arms twined around Osu’s neck, and he was lost
the back of the tent and found himself among the guy ropes and stakes of the tents in the dark and quieter velvet night of the summer.
A smaller tent was pitched there and from the doorway he saw a light and, through the canvas, a figure moving. He bent down and for want of somewhere to knock, called out, “Can you tell me please . . .?”
It was Orizana who stood looking at him, her face expressionless. She was wrapped in a dark-brown coat or kimono and on her head, around the blue-black crown of hair, she still wore the silver bands that had glittered in the lights of the stage. Sparkling earrings shone beside her golden cheeks and her eyes, darker than the night, shone brighter than the earrings.
“What do you want?" she asked and her voice was not sharp.
“My name is Osu—Osu Epe Otsuola,” Osu said politely. "1 am a student here at the university. I—I am from Nigeria. I—have seen you dance—and—I wish to —to compliment you. You are—very —beautiful.”
She smiled and her eyebrows went up. as if in a little surprise. Her eyes looked him up and down from the soles of his good brown shoes to his flowing striped tie. his shining earnest face, rather handsome now in its pleasure and happiness.
“Osu." she said. “That's a funny name. And you are from Nigeria? My name is Orizana. I am named for a volcano."
"Osu is a very common name in Kaduna. where I am from," said Osu, and smiled uncertainly. He could not think of anything else to say.
“I—I will not keep you,” he said, shy now and realizing his boldness at entering the tent and speaking to her.
“It’s all right,” she said. “Sit down. Have a cigarette. Ell be changed in a minute.”
Osu. who did not smoke, sat down and waited nervously while she changed behind a screen.
“You liked the show, eh?” she called from behind the screen, and Osu nodded, forgetting she could not see him.
“What's the matter? Cat got your tongue. Osu?” she called.
“Oh! What! Oh no! Yes. I said, yes, I liked the show very much. You—it is a—very wonderful dance."
He heard her laughter behind the screen.
“Ell be out in a moment,” she called and then she reappeared, dressed now in a form-fitting street dress. She was as beautiful as before and he was conscious, as she moved to the door of the tent before him, that there were no bells tinkling.
“Take this, will you?” she asked and handed him a small case, which held, she said, her costumes “and my pretty bells. Did you like my bells?"
Osu nodded, wordless. He took the case from her.
“Would you—1 would—be very happy if 1 could escort you—home.” he said, and felt pleased and relieved at her answer.
“You would, eh?” she teased and smiled then, a broad smile that might turn into a laugh at any moment, and she looked up at him with her black eyes looking right through him so that suddenly he wanted to look away.
She took his arm then and they walked away together. Orizana was living in a room, she said. It was cheaper than a
hotel and very nice. Very clean and nice, she said. “You come up. We’ll have a drink,” she offered, and Osu, letting himself be carried along now by the events and not thinking, just letting the new feeling of excitement and freedom course through him, nodded.
THE room was a small bedroom, furnished with a bed and a dresser and one chair, and in the corner an open wardrobe spilled out Orizana’s bright clothes. The light from the street streamed in the window and the night sounds from the street soared up to the room.
He had never had a drink before, but he took the drink eagerly. His hands were shaking and there was fear in his throat and in his stomach. The whisky scalded his throat and warmed his stomach and gave him courage. She leaned forward and kissed him and he became lost and dissipated into a million tiny fragments of light, and then she laughed and threw back her head and walked away from him, across the room.
Whew! She was beautiful! But . . . “It is very nice to kiss, no?” she said, and moved toward him again, her hands on his chest, her lips drawing closer. The brown arms twined around his neck. Gently she removed his glasses and gently, tenderly, she kissed him on his eyes, on his nose, his cheeks, his lips.
Ah whew! She is so beautiful. She is too much for me. His heart beat a tattoo and he held her tightly in his arms and kissed her hard on the mouth.
Orizana held him at arm’s length then and looked into his face.
“My little babee." she said tenderly and opened her arms wide. Osu looked away.
"You—don’t understand.” he said. How could he explain to her? It would not be right.
“You see—you see—” he stumbled. She was so beautiful and so exciting. He did not want to hurt her feelings.
“You—are not—are not—the kind of girl I could take home to my mother. I could never marry you.”
“Marry? What is the matter with you, babee? Who’s talking about marriage? What's the matter? Don’t you like me?” She pouted prettily at him and coaxed him to kiss her, begging him to tell her what was the matter.
“Don’t cry, sweet babee, I will comfort you,” she said and held him in her arms and rocked him.
“I could not take, you—home to my mother,” Osu repeated.
“But don’t you like me?” she asked again, puzzled. “I will make you like me, babee,” she said and she ran to the chair and opened her case and took out the little silver bells on the thin wire hoop.
“Look, babee, I will dance for you,” she said. And she dressed herself in the thin wire hoop with the little bells.
“Just for you, babee, I will dance.” she said and she leaped into the middle of the room, exultant and proud, and her eyes flashed and her mouth curved in a smile.
“Listen, babee!” she said. “Listen! I will dance for you!”
And Osu lay, with his face to the wall, and cried, as the little bells, all golden, and silver and blue and green and red, tinkled their sweet music, first one at a time, and then all together. ★