We start training the new Bull today. He is magnificent: His shoulder is higher than I am. His curving horns are wide and sharp, his hide is vivid white.
The hide of the old Bull is pegged out in the back courtyard tanning. Every time I cross the courtyard I feel sad. I grew up with that Bull, the six years I’ve been here, and I feel as though his death has foretold the end of my career. Soon I will be too old; there is something that happens to the body along with bleeding and sprouting breasts that slows the reflexes, something that happens to the mind, that distracts, just enough.
Sometimes I touch his rough brown shoulder, but I know it is not Temi I will feel, just stiff leather and harsh hair, no breath, no muscle, no warmth. I didn’t realise I would miss him.
There are nine of us, training the new Bull. We will decide what to call him when we have a better feel for his character. For now he is The Bull. Of course we don’t practice with him yet, we are just getting him used to us being there. He rolls his eyes and jerks his head if we come too close, and he clearly hates being closed in. Keru has the best relationship with him already, Keru: the eldest, the most experienced; who has survived several younger dancers and two Bulls.
I see the close attention Keru gives this Bull, and know what he is thinking. He is thinking about the end of his dancing career, just as I am. We both look at this Bull, and call him Our Bull in our minds – the one who will finish us.
All the same, I think the Bull is getting used to my voice. When I pass by his pen I say, ‘Hello Bull,’ or comment on the weather, which he cannot see down here, in the dark, although perhaps he can smell the changes in the wind, blowing salt from the sea or honey from the fields or snow from the mountain. Although mostly what we smell is his dung and urine, no matter how quickly we clear it away. He dominates our lives in all things, but he is gracious when I feed him. He is a King in captivity.
Keru is impatient to start the dance, each time he passes him he reached up and touches the great horns or the tuft of hair between his ears.
While we wait for The Bull to accept us we have to make do. This is how Keru’s idea about Temi’s hide takes shape: with nine of us, five can take the role of the Bull and four can dance. We take it in turns. The eldest of us know bulls best, and we have the scars to show for it; which means that we are the most skilled at being the Bull. We work draped in the freshly cured skin, one for each leg and the one for the back, controlling the head.
We have always played at Bull, with the newest dancers, to get them used to how bulls behave; but now, with the hide, it takes on a seriousness, a ritual. Keru is like his father, clever at ideas. His father says that if there is need, we might dance the hide Bull out in the daylight, before the King and the Priestesses; we’ve never needed to do that before, we’ve always had a real Bull ready, and my mind skitters away from what might happen if the Priestesses demand the full dance, with only us dancers beneath an old hide. Whose throat will be cut for that sacrifice?
It is rumoured that the King did not want him sent to us, that he wanted to at least breed from him before he came to be part of the dance. If Keru’s father hears us talking like that he strikes us. He may be an old man, and a captive foreigner and a slave, but Dede is a clever man and has a lot of power, a lot of influence. Sometimes I don’t think Dede is clever at all: if Dede is so clever, why is he a slave and why is his son a bull dancer?
So, the last time we danced it was because the earth shook so much that the sea went away, and came back in a great wave, and broke all the boats. The Priestess insisted we dance the dance to the end; and Temi died, without a replacement Bull trained. I don’t know if that’s true about the King, but this Bull’s age makes it harder to form a bond, and so we practice being the Bull, just in case, like Dede says.
The shaking happens often now, and the Priestesses say that Earthshaker is angry that we do not have a Bull ready for sacrifice, angry that the King delayed the training of The Bull. The shaking gets worse and word comes, we must dance for real – without a trained Bull. I wonder if our false Bull will be enough, whether Earthshaker will be more angry at us for not giving him a real Bull. Keru snorts with angry laughter at my worry.
‘Of course it will be enough,’ he says; ‘Earthshaker will understand that we mean to honour him.’
What do I know of what the Gods understand?
I dance; and Keru is the back and head of the Bull. The ground shakes under us and it takes all my concentration to respond to Keru’s charges and twists. And my heart shakes too. This cannot be what Earthshaker wants of us. Surely we were meant to let loose a half trained Bull, and perhaps we, perhaps I, was meant to be the sacrifice, to die on his horns? And here we are, at some child’s game.
But he inhabits the Bull, Keru does, and he makes us dancers look cleverer, more agile.
I cannot lose myself in the dance, I cannot become one with the earth as my feet strike the dusty stone flags, I cannot become the air as I twist through it, I cannot breathe the sun: this is not the Dance, no matter how much I wish it to be, I feel alone and outside myself and yet, as I flip over his back, even though I know it is Keru under the hide, I feel the muscles of the Bull; I feel the momentary connection with the great heart pounding with confusion and anger. As I hit the ground I dance a few steps away, in case the Bull should turn suddenly, but it is Keru… isn’t it? Rusa somersaults the length of the Bull’s back. I watch the impact of her feet, as she hits the ground, and cannot believe it is just Keru under there, providing her that much spring. Her knees flex and she is gone again, totally committed to the dance.
I glance around. The King is watching, of course, and the Queen and the young Princess, surrounded by Priestesses, all of them in their brightly coloured skirts and formal makeup, they hurt my eyes, in the brilliance of the sun and the reflecting gold of jewellery and body paint. The King and Queen are riveted on the action, he frowning, she expressionless; but Ariadne tosses a small ball up and down, she catches me watching and grins. The tremor is less now, the mere suggestion of shaking, the dust is settling, the dance winding down, I throw myself into a final back flip ending where I should, at the left side of the defeated Bull. I can hear Keru and the rest gasping with the effort. The King nods and turns away immediately, the Queen stands motionless, her eyes on the Bull. Keru lifts the skull forward for Rusa to take, and the others let him down from their shoulders. I put out a quick hand to stop him stepping clear of the hide, but it is too late. He steps into sunlight bright enough to burn him to ash. He is drenched in sweat, his hair sticks up on top and lies in dripping rats-tails down his heaving chest. Sweat and oil leave trails in his dark body paint, making new patterns on his skin. He laughs breathlessly.
Rusa and I try to stop Bansa and Ripi from rolling up the hide. Keru frowns at me, and I frown right back, jerking my head towards the Queen.
He stands motionless, blinking; he had not seen her, had seen nothing, blinded by light after the dark uncertainty and instinctive dance that has nothing to do with sight. He takes the skull back from Rusa and places it over his head. He pulls the hide out of our hands and walks slowly towards the Queen, then kneels and bows the Bull skull at her feet, just as a real Bull would be forced to do at the end of a full Dance. And Keru is the Bull, offering his lifeblood to the Queen-Priestess to assuage the anger of Earthshaker. She is moved; I can see that even through her bright makeup. Her hand goes to her side, reaching for her dagger, and she trembles. I tremble with her. This is, and is not the ritual, and I am afraid to look away, though every muscle in my body screams run. She stands equally frozen, hand on the dagger, chest heaving in the thick noon air, shimmering with reflected light from the discs of gold sewn into her clothes, she is alive with minute movement, but so still… her eyes turned down to Keru, the hand on her knife… Then she shakes her head, and walks quickly away, Ariadne trailing behind her.
Keru stays on his knees until I shake his shoulder. He stands slowly, dazed and unseeing, and will not let anyone take the hide from him. He pulls the great weight of it about him and stalks back down to the bullpen without a word.
I do not say the what-if that squats in my mind.
After that, Keru makes us practice harder, and we start close contact work. Keru pens the Bull tight so he can barely move, hobbles his feet, and lashes his horns to the barrier, It is not an easy task, the Bull fights him every inch, and snorts and bellows in distress, and I feel for his captivity. Keru lets him exhaust himself; a frightened bull is more dangerous than any other, an exhausted bull hasn’t the energy to be afraid, he says. I look at the Bull, and cannot imagine him ever being so cowed.
In turn, we walk along the bull’s back, first on our feet then on our hands, getting him used to the feel of our weight. It is not exactly frightening, the first time I climb up beside his snorting fury. The rock of the pen as he tries to loosen his head and snag my bare leg, is more than I expect, and he jerks the panels almost loose of their moorings, but no worse than I remember Temi managing, and I am older now and more experienced. I crouch beside him, letting him see me, his little red rimmed eye rolls back at me.
‘Hello Bull,’ I say, hoping he recognises me as someone who feeds him. And then I stand upright and step onto his shoulder. He flinches, but there is nowhere for him to go, he is hobbled and confined, he bucks as far as he can. I smile; remembering the great heaves Temi used to give – he’ll need to try harder than that – and I turn a slow cartwheel down the length of his spine, then spring off his haunches, in a neat tuck and roll. We do it over and over, varying the speed and energy, until he barely blinks at the sudden weight of a flying foot or hand.
When we finish, sweating and exhausted we gather around The Bull, all of us breathing hard, including The Bull. I reach out and lay my hand between his horns. This is My Bull, after all.
Keru turns his head to look at me, thinking perhaps that I have usurped his right to name the Bull, but he smiles, a shaft of sunlight in our perpetual gloom, and nods gently. Our Bull, restless Susuru.
Dede watches, and Keru instructs, and he spends even more time alone with the Bull. Once, very early in the morning, I come down to the pen and find Keru lying full length along Susuru’s spine, his chin cushioned on hands resting between the horns, his knees splayed for balance and feet clinging across the Bull’s rump. He doesn’t see me, although Susuru does. As I come closer I hear Keru whispering to the Bull, but I don’t hear what he has to say. I used to think that Keru’s care of the Bull spoke of farming, and imagined him with a herd of cattle up on the pastures at the foot of the mountain, but now I see that isn’t why he studies Susuru. He sleeps beside the Bull; he alone feeds and waters him now. I toy with the idea that Keru is studying how to survive Susuru, but no: I watch his dark serious eyes as he subtly changes the way he turns his head, the way he walks… He starts to watch us girls, a slight sneer of contempt spoiling his pretty face, and he picks fights with the boys, especially Ripi. The rough tumbling of play-dance turns to the rough tumbling of play-fighting, and then to the rough tumbling of brutal earnest. And just as Keru watches Susuru, the Bull watches Keru.
The first time we let Susuru out to dance, Keru will let no one else near. He is the one who guides him into the scorched light of the arena; he is the one who makes the first somersault, the first mounting, the first true contact.
It is insanely dangerous, to dance alone. We line the barriers watching for the slightest slip, but Keru doesn’t slip. I watch the way Susuru’s muscles bunch and ripple, and I measure his stride and imagine my hands springing off his great white shoulders, my hair swinging to graze his back as I fly across him. My eyes ache with watching, my feet tremble with wanting to run out into the arena. I lay my head against my forearm, resting on the barrier, getting my eyes lower, watching Susuru as he plants his hooves and skips sideways away from Keru. He is surprisingly light on his feet for such an enormous creature, and quick too and accurate. There is more than just speed behind his movements. I see Susuru watching, understanding; waiting for a moment when he can strike and gore and trample, but I also see that he is prepared to wait. Just as Keru is not a simple farmer, understanding his cattle; Susuru is not a simple field animal frustrated and lonely and often angry. In each of them, there is more.
Keru returns Susuru to his pen and they gaze across the barrier at each other, as I imagine warriors gaze across the rims of their shields, their spears raised, watching for a vulnerable chink in the armour, or the attention, of their enemy.
Keru takes us back to practicing without Susuru, and what he demands is subtly different. We no longer practice as though we were going to dance with Temi, and it is only now that I realise we were doing so. Now that we have seen him dance, those of us dancing the Bull are recreating Susuru, in our movements, even in our thoughts.
I try to think what it would be like for Susuru to be suddenly free, suddenly back in the clean hard heat of the sun after all those weeks underground, and yet still surrounded by his captors. Does he remember the food and the chatter, and the scent of the mountain? Or does he remember the restrictions: the galls on his shoulder from constant rubbing at the barrier, the way we ignore his bellows for freedom?
When I am being the back of the Bull, held at shoulder and knee by my friends, I try both ways: I am playful and frolicsome, flirting the skull at the dancers, telling my legs which way to dance with pressure from elbow and knee, because I want to believe that there is some joy in Susuru’s life. And then I am angry and brutal; charging at them, intent on bruising and goring. Either way, they are ready for me; I cannot be angry enough, brutal enough, to prepare them for what dancing with Susuru might be like, and I worry that they will not respect his strength. Rusa and Bansa leap high and gentle, I feel their weight twisting the horned skull almost out of my grip with their passing, their light feet barely touching my back as they fly onward. Ripi is less careful and I wince as his feet crash into my hip and he falls awkwardly. I signal a turn almost without thinking and bring the great skull down towards him, trapping him between the long curved horns.
‘You’re dead, Ripi,’ I tell him, between gasps, as Mauros and Pina, my front legs, collapse under the awkward angle and I slither to an ungainly huddle on the floor beside him, ‘dead.’ And suddenly my gasps are sobs and tears are pouring out of me, beyond my control. He grins, leaning back to get a good look at me.
‘You make a good Bull, for a girl.’
Keru yanks the skull out of my hands before I can gouge out Ripi’s eyes. He pulls the skin over his back and leaps away bellowing like The Bull.
His cry dies suddenly and we untangle ourselves to see what has silenced him.
The Queen stands at the entrance. One hand rests against the great wooden column that holds up the roof, the other pulls a light shawl about her shoulders. She seems subdued; out of the sunlight the vivid stripes of her skirt are muddied with dusk, but the thick oiled coils of her hair glisten.
‘How did she find her way down here?’ Ripi whispers. I scramble to my feet, but she has eyes for nothing but the Bull. She walks steadily to the pen, and gazes at him, just as I have seen Keru do. Susuru pulls his head back and rolls his eye at her, disconcerted at her watchfulness. She shakes her head slowly, and turns to survey us. My skin crawls as her eyes pass over me, and I understand Susuru’s unease. This is the Queen in her true Priestess self, the Goddess made flesh, standing in our fetid little courtyard, and she is terrifying. I don’t understand: how can she be this, without her make up and her headdress and her snakes? How can she inhabit the same space as us mortals and look so human and yet be… what she is?
The earth shakes and we all stagger, and the Bull roars in reproach. She turns her head, and her eyes lock on Keru, Temi’s skull still clamped over his head, the hide spreading and dragging on the ground. She smiles, and I am afraid of that smile. Keru walks towards her, slow and dignified, although he should be ridiculous, dwarfed by Temi’s great horns, but somehow he isn’t, he is… he… is.
The Queen raises one hand and touches the tip of the horn that curves above her. Her fingers trace the graceful curve, and dive suddenly beneath the skull jerking Keru’s chin up. And Keru reaches out and pulls her shawl away from her shoulders, and his fingers trace the sinuous curve of the snake painted onto her neck and breast. And he is not Keru, any more than she is the Queen in that moment, he is The Bull, and Earthshaker, and she is what she is, and I do not know whether to hide my eyes, or run away, or to stare until the image of them standing so still and formal and close is burnt into my memory for ever. They each step closer, and Keru drops the shawl, and pulls the Bull hide about them both, and just for a second the awe that keeps us rooted there dissolves, and I slap Ripi hard across the shoulders and with one mind, we all turn to run, out into the sun, to get as far from whatever is happening as we possibly can. As I turn I catch the white flash of a face beyond them, and I do not follow the others. I reach out, beckoning to the child who stands with hands clenched, beyond the woman who is, in all senses her Mother. Ariadne shakes her fierce little head, throws the ball she holds to me and turns to run back up the long corridor of pillars. There is a figure beyond her – I only see him because he steps out of her way, a flicker of light and dark. I fumble the catch, tangling my fingers in the trailing twine. A ball of twine? I let it drop and this time I really do run. And the ground shakes and tiles are shaken from the roof, and the little dangerous warning waves slap against the shore, and I follow the others out onto the hillside.
Everyone is here but Keru – so who was it standing behind Ariadne in the darkness of the corridor?
The mountain heaves and shudders and we fling ourselves to the ground, safe out here… I can hear Susuru bellowing from the courtyard, but Earthshaker will not harm His Bull, and if he does, Susuru is His to claim. All the same I wonder if we should have released him… why does Keru not come?
Darkness comes early, a great cloud blotting the sun from the sky, the air thickens and chills, and without discussion we start a dance: without a Bull, without even Temi’s hide. I take on the Bull’s back and the others dance about me, leaping again and again until we collapse in exhaustion. I cannot begin to describe the futility of that dance, but there is nothing else we know how to do, nowhere else for us to put our dread to use. We sleep the night on the hillside.
In the morning, Keru is sprawled next to me, deeply asleep. I sit up and check, everyone is there, even Keru’s father, Dede, sitting upright and alert, watching the birds arcing above the sea. I go to stand beside him. He glances round at me, then back to the sea, and something about the way the light falls over his cheekbones tells me, this was who was in the corridor when princess Ariadne ran away.
I never see old Temi’s hide again.
Now we dance with Susuru, and it seems that Keru’s method has worked, and although he will always be more savage, more unpredictable, than Temi ever was, Susuru works well. He is taller than Temi and it is harder to clear his great curving horns, but we learn to time our jumps for when he lowers his head. Yisha develops a new move and leaps onto the broad spread of his horns and runs along his neck to his shoulders.
No one else can manage it, she has feet like no one else, and she trusts Susuru in a way I could never consider.
Since the night the Queen came, the ground has been still and quiet, and Mauros says this is because Earthshaker is happy we have a real Bull again. I think it is because of something that the Queen and Keru did, but I do not say so.
There is a celebration dance, when the Queen announces she will bear another child. Susuru dances magnificently, I can almost imagine he strikes poses for the Queen to admire, bellowing, look at me, remember me? It is nonsense of course, Susuru is too short-sighted to know she is there, but there is something about Keru that he seems to pick up, and it seems to me they try to outdo each other, trying to draw her attention. She will not be drawn; but as we shiver from our own sweat cooling on our skin, I see a look pass over Dede’s face. Keru is oblivious. He smiles winningly at the Princess, and Ariadne turns away stony faced, Keru shrugs, and shortly after I see the King’s face mirror Dede’s.
Neither look has anything of celebration.
After that, the intensity goes out of our training; both Dede and Keru are distracted. I watch them, heads together over some new scheme, out in the sun on the cliff top, and I wonder if the time has come for Keru to stop dancing, whether he has become too old, whether he will be permitted to retire? But I must concentrate: on Susuru, and on Yisha who will not listen and continues to invent moves that are not safe and dishonour the Bull.
I keep finding feathers scattered about the courtyard, and twice, I have found part wound balls of twine on the ground, once in the corridor, once in the pen with Susuru.
And then, one day, there is no Keru, no Dede. At first I expect one or other of them to wander in from the cliff, and when we rest I go looking, but they are not there. I do not worry, they are so rarely with us now, but then Mauros comes racing in looking important, and says that the Queen is in labour, and an icy unease steals across my shoulders. Suddenly it becomes important that I find Keru ¬– there will be another dance to welcome the child, and we must be ready. I tell Ripi to get Susuru ready, and I go to check the body paint, as though it needed checking… but it takes me to Dede’s room, the far side of the back courtyard, and I glance in, to find it stripped of all belongings, nothing but a bed frame left. I back away, and walk carefully, as though the ground is shaking, to Keru’s room. It too is empty. I walk up through the palace, out through the bustle of the enormous market square and down to the shore. I should not be here; I have duties to attend to; but I walk around the harbour asking here and there, what ships have left since yesterday? But the auguries have not been favourable; no ship has left the harbour for two days.
I am just heading back up to the market when I hear the commotion. Someone has found a giant bird, battered and drowned at the foot of the cliff. I cannot help myself; I go to see this marvel. And as the bird is dragged out of the water into the bottom of a boat, I see that it is not a bird. It is Keru.
Many claims have been made about how Keru came to die. Nonsense about Dede and he playing at being birds, although for a moment I want to believe it, thinking of Keru observing Susuru, becoming the Bull, and then he and Dede, watching birds from the cliff, watching, watching… I can almost believe that Keru might have convinced himself that he could become a bird too. But Dede? What kind of desperation makes a man push his only child off a cliff, with wings made of an old bull hide, and inadequate numbers of feathers stitched in rows along their lengths? It is just stories to make us feel better. Those of us who found him though, we know, we saw the whiteness of a body washed free of blood, we saw the gaping wound in neck and throat, like a sacrificed animal.
And now, everything has changed.
First, we dance, and the King commands that the Bull dance to the end. For all of us, as we dance, and as the Bull roars and stamps and twists, there is the why, drawn in with every breath, and exhaled with every leap.
Why must the Bull die? The earth is still, the sea smooth, the sky clear, this is meant to be a celebration, a thanksgiving, not a begging for mercy. Perhaps the King feels that the birth of a son warrants great thanks. That’s what we come to think as we dance the Bull to exhaustion and submission. I barely have time to register that Susuru is not My Bull, after all, and then I lead him, to kneel before the Queen.
She has tears in her eyes as she raises the dagger.
Rusa is helping me wash off the blood: great gouts have spattered my legs. She laughs.
‘You look as though you’ve just given birth.’ I shudder, and I am suddenly aware that we aren’t alone. A ball of twine rolls to my feet, unravelling as it comes. Ariadne stands in the doorway, an awkward bundle in her arms.
‘Your new Bull,’ she says, and lays the bundle down. It kicks feebly and yowls. Rusa clutches my arm, holding me back from my involuntary movement. Ariadne runs into the darkness of the corridor.
I peel away Rusa’s hand and go on my knees beside the child, the prince, the…
I want to cry out in horror, but I do not, I place my hand between the budding horns, and whisper the name that rises into my dry mouth.
Whatever he is, this child of a Queen and a dead bull dancer, this child of the Earthshaker, from now on, he is my responsibility.
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