A Reed Shaken by the Wind

A Reed Shaken by the Wind by Gavin Maxwell

Book: A Reed Shaken by the Wind by Gavin Maxwell Read Free Book Online
Authors: Gavin Maxwell
facing astern. Therewere two paddlers behind me, and two in the bows beyond him, but he was the only man who faced backward over the ground we had covered. We were passing through a narrow waterway with tall reeds pressing close at each side when my glance came quite by chance to rest on Thesiger’s face. Just as it did so I saw his own gaze freeze with an expression of unbelieving horror on a point that seemed to me to be my own right elbow. His expression was so totally unfamiliar, so shockingly unlike his normal impassivity, that my head flicked round without a thought of asking him what he saw. About two feet from the side of the canoe, and a very little behind me, the last few feet of a great snake were slithering from the reeds into the water. From the character of the movements alone it was clearly the very end of the snake’s body, yet the part that I was looking at was as thick as my forearm—which must, incidentally, have passed within touching distance of the head a second or two earlier. Thesiger had seen little more of the snake than I had, for it had not caught his eye until a fraction of a second before I had turned my head to see those last disappearing coils.
    We were entertained that night by a dancer whose name I can no longer remember; it must, I think, have been a difficult name, for I referred to him then, and think of him now, as the Performing Flea. He must have been about eight years old. When at rest he looked a very small dreamy child with preternaturally large and luminous eyes like a lemur, and a face of gentle sadness. His appearance gave no more suggestion of his weird potentialities than does a stick of high explosive, yet when I think now of dancing in the marshlands it is that tiny whirlwind scrap of humanity that comes to my mind first.
    Starlight and star-reflecting water through the slit doorway; inside, the focus of firelight, pale high-thrusting flames from a long column of reeds, and fifty-four people huddledround it in a space of four yards by four. The heads of those farthest from the fire were dim in the shadows. “Dance,” said someone to the boy, and he made no half-hearted excuses. The centre of the circle shuffled back a little from the fire, leaving him a space which I judged to be no more than three feet by four.
    The drums started, in slow rhythm at first, as the child began, two paces forward, two paces backward, without turning. Ti-tumti-túm, ti-tumti-túm. The child looked solemn, graceful, and controlled; his limbs moved with the sure precision of an adult, but there was as yet no hint of violence in the dance. Slowly the drums gathered speed and urgency and his feet kept pace with them quicker and quicker, ti-tumti-túm, ti-tumti-túm, ti-tumti-túm. His body lunged forward as though he would invade the crowd, and shot back from them again as though catapulted from their faces. The tempo grew faster and faster, and suddenly his shoulders began to keep time with his feet, each moving independently as though they were part of a machine driven by the same pounding crankshaft. Back and forth flew the feet, up and down shot the shoulders, and the huddled figures beyond the firelight roared out a chant in time with the drums while their clicking fingers smashed out the quickening rhythm. As the flames flickered down, the squatting holder of the reed bundle too absorbed to remember his task, the silhouette of the dancer was lost in his whirling dish-dasha ; then, abruptly, as the reeds were thrust up again into the smouldering ash and the flame shot up, the outline of the dancer’s body was thrown into sharp relief behind its thin covering, childish and slight as a tadpole. The boy brought another group of muscles into play, and his hips leapt and thrust in time with the flying feet and jerking shoulders, so that every part of the wildly capering figure was in separate and intricate movement. The dance was now frankly erotic. As the rhythm became faster still the boy

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