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Dance of the Autumn Women

by Ma Anand Mayuri


Fireflies begin their dance in the wildflowers, grasshoppers sway on the bracken; the sun sets as we light the fire for our dance, our time. Tonight is our night. Guests appear in the thicket one by one as if by magic, as if we have all heard the same voice calling us to this place, this time. You aren't sure how you knew to come, or how you found the path; you almost didn’t come, but now you are here.

Ancient cottonwoods surround us, stretching their boughs, tickling each other in the wind. We are in costume but it is not a costume: a fairy, an imp, a magician, a fool, goddesses all: are we pretending? Or were we pretending before, before we entered this mossy clearing on this sacred September evening?

sunset circle

A dozen friends, old, old friends, we meet in silence. We move around in the circle, greeting each other like lost treasures found once more; we meet in eyes and touch, in deep embraces beyond time. Moments stretch and smile and move us to the fire one by one, where we settle on worn silken pillows and faded rugs.

Twenty paces away from the fire, moving around a low, flat rock, the medicine woman is doing her work, her body softened almost to silhouette by the periwinkle blue blush of dusk; she is so near to the wilderness in nature that you cannot be sure how long she had been there when you became aware of her. You cannot see the mystery surrounding her, the light emanating from her, but you can feel it. She is gone, a hollow bamboo, a deep, still lake reflecting the farthest stars of the night sky… and she is with us, she is preparing tea for us. Her hands float with gentle, deliberate grace over the mortar and pestle, the medicine, the spoons and spices, herbs and plants of dull and vibrant colors… she is doing her work.

Even now the rich aromas of the herbs drift through her fingers all the way to us, mingling with the smoke. The sky is growing violet; the crickets begin their music in the hollows between the cracking of the fire and the yawn of the ancient trees in the wind.

tea on the fire

A dark-haired young man stirs down the fire and hangs the three teapots, blue, red and indigo, on the irons to boil. Everyone is absolutely here, no mind can wander; we watch the pots with complete attention, waiting for the steam to rise and dissolve in the cool lavender air of the darkening forest. We wait and listen to the night. Yes... yes... it comes, you can see it, it’s boiling. Darkness has fallen, and the fire burns in our eyes. We can’t see her now, our hostess, but we know she is there, just twenty paces away from us. The young man stands to call the hostess, and you laugh inside-- she already knows. She is ready.

The medicine woman appears in the firelight as if by magic from the darkness, her skirt drawing delicate trails on the dusty path between the rock table and the fire. Her gaze is soft and piercing at the same time, fixed on the fire ahead of her. She moves with such grace that you wonder if she is walking at all, or if she floats, flies by some unseen power. In her hands is a tarnished silver tray with all the intricate, curling designs of India's ancient blossoming; The dishes are the same, tarnished silver, old yet new. The bowls hold her work, every leaf and powder in perfect proportion, every spice in its place. The tea is not made by the hostess, but allowed by her, guided by her into the recipes she knows in her blood and bones. There is no food on this tray: only the tea, the tea. She has reached the fire.

'Tea drinking in Samarkand' by Irina Ivanovna Getmanskaya

Photo: "Tea drinking in Samarkand" by Irina Ivanovna Getmanskaya [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The medicine woman is ordinary, a middle-aged woman lifting kettles from a fire with a rag. But our eyes are different, we are different in our wings and feathers; our eyes shine with love, enraptured, as the hostess sets the teapots on a new rock. She seems at once old and young: now her actions are swift, lifting the lids, beginning the brew. As the tea steeps she fills the tray with twelve small bowls, and allows herself a moment to enjoy her guests: beautiful they are, so soft, with their drooping eyelids and half-smiles, so gratefully and joyfully meeting her with their eyes. The aroma is reaching them, she knows. Your eyes are closing of their own accord, you are breathing deeply, breathing it in; the smell itself is enough to intoxicate the senses, she knows. The hostess smiles, and returns to her work.

She has lifted out the leaves with sieves; she has poured all the dozen cups. She knows which of the three teas is for whom, and as she moves around the circle, she indicates with her eyes which cup is yours.

There are no words for the tea; when everyone has been served, we drink with both hands and feel the steam on our faces, heads back, eyes closed. We drink with our whole bodies, our whole souls, diving in without looking back.

When you return to time, the cups are empty and we are filled with light. Beyond the glow of the fire, beyond the shadows that play on the trunks of the trees, the darkness has become complete. It is time to dance.

Drums first, the drums have always come first. We are full now, we are ready. It is time to shout, time to laugh, time to sing, time to dance! Someone brought a flute; someone brought a guitar. Someone is banging sticks, and someone is yelling, singing, someone is howling. The music has its own way, and all the silence, all the ceremony erupts into celebration.

fire dance

Photo: Silar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The dance is wild: we dance where the music moves us, with no more plans, no more maps. Barefoot all, we dance beyond and beyond: someone stumbles on a root and keeps dancing; someone steps on a spark and keeps dancing. The hours disappear into the night, and we are gone as well, as the dancers become the dance. All the magnificent costumes fall away on their own; even wings become a burden when you must spin with the flute, stomp with the drums, fall with the melody to the ground before it lifts you up again. We cannot help ourselves, we must be free, we must dance, we must dance!

Until dawn it goes, on and on and on: a dozen naked bodies dancing around the fire, a dozen blazing hearts singing in celebration. The medicine woman is a blur herself, dancing, laughing, singing in strange languages at the top of her lungs; yet every moment she is also the hostess.

It is evening again when you awake; you cannot remember falling asleep. The earth has been spinning in your sleep, and the sun is once again kissing the highest shimmering leaves of the cottonwoods. You are lying by the fire, your naked body covered with a blanket, heavy and soft, your bruised shins and blistered feet treated with cool leaves and salves. The young man is starting the fire, and it seems that everyone is awakening. Our first thought is one: where is she? And the answer is a laugh, a laugh at ourselves-- of course. She is with us, twenty paces away… preparing the tea.

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