‘This dance, this dance, this dance is a war dance’
“See it here. This is the house!”
This is the house.
This is really the house.
This is him, Jeremy Howell, parked up by the sidewalk, behind a long line of cars leading up to the house. Sitting behind the steering wheel, dressed-to-puss-backfoot, almost ready to dance. But it not so easy. Him thinking bout the law. The law which just two semesters ago him start to study. And him thinking about long time heroes like Quashie. Him have a drawing of Quashie in his bedroom, cause he been studying that hero from he was young. Quashie stand up to Buckra and break the law. And Jeremy thinking, tonight more than any night, him need to summon that kind of courage. But things is not so easy.
First him have to take in the shock. Breathe in, breathe out. Him not even on the inside of the house yet, but coming just this far could make anyone piss themself. Raaas! Is only a year ago him find out this place even exist, and look on him now. Him is really here. At the house.
Years ago, him used to go to every Saturday night dance in August Town. In a yard surrounded by galvanize, the speaker boxes so loud that the zinc sheets fencing the property would pulse, as if each one had its own lungs and heart and blood vessels. And the zinc would hold on to the riddim - that doop-doop dooop-du-dooooop! A sound that is almost like a heartbeat but not quite. A modified heartbeat - a suped-up heartbeat with spoiler and rims and speakers in the trunk. Almost a heartbeat but not quite - but enough so it can get inside you.
In August Town, Jeremy would find a girl to hold on to. Always the one with the strong back, the wire waist, the foot movements, he could hold on, and wine down low low low low. Take the woman to the ground with him. And people used to say, “Lawwd - that yute can dance eeeeh.”
But that wasn’t his dance.
Almost his dance, but not quite.
The first time he ever paid attention to this house was a year ago when Kevin drove him up here. It was midday on a Saturday and nothing was going on - just a big quiet house surrounded by a concrete wall and tall black gates. Kevin stopped the car, smiled and said, “This is where them things happen. See it here. This is the house.”
Tonight, a year later, Jeremy is almost ready, but it not so easy.Him thinking bout the law. Him thinking about Quashie. Him thinking about this thing his Aunt Patsy keep on telling him, “I not afraid to dance….” But then him also think about his mother. What would his mother say if she knew he was at a place like this? She would hold her head and say “JesasSaviourPilotMe! Is what happen to you bwoy? Is what really happen to you?”
His mother sat him down one day, and told him serious, serious, that he was born with riddim in his bones. It ran in the family - sickle cell, hypertension and riddim in the bones, deep in the marrow where scientists say blood cells are formed. Hereditary. Riddim. Bones. As if by playing the right tune in the centre of the family graveyard, all hell would break loose - generations of skeletons rising up from out of the earth to dance and to shake their fleshless legs.
Well, sickle cell can kill you. Hypertension can kill you. Riddim in the bones can kill as bad as the worst of them. So he tries to be careful. Afraid of dancing in a way that would make him lose himself. It happen before… his Aunt Patsy lose herself dancing. “Lose herself completely! Clean out of her mind she gone. Give up her good good job,” was what his mother said, which was not really fair because Aunt Patsy had a good enough job and even helped his mother out when things were tight. “Mad mad mad! That woman mad. Lef’ her good life a foreign, come kotch up back in Jamaica!” In truth, Patsy wasn’t kotching nowhere. She had her own house. But the real thing about it, as far as his mother saw things, was her return. That she came down to visit, and ended up staying. Mad! Mad as shad.
His mother and Aunt Patsy never really knew each other growing up. Half-sisters. Patsy - the product of a married man’s gallivanting. They grew in different houses, each mother hating the other, and before Patsy was even a teenager, she was packed up and carried off to the States.
Twenty-four years later, when the gallivantingfather died, it was only politeness that made Monica send a telegram to the sister she never knew. Who could have expected Patsy to come? Not even Patsy herself! Is really her husband see the telegram and insisted. “Honey,” he said to her. “You’ve never been back. It’ll be good for you. And for Pascal,” talking abouttheir mulatto child, “She should know where her mother comes from. She should know about that side of her. I insist.” That is how Patsy end up back in Jamaica - and worse than that, one Saturday evening, she ended up on a Jamaican bus.
Is like she did forget, or maybe she just never know, that a Kingston to St. Ann bus is no place for a stuck-up-somebody like her to travel, no place for someone who malice Jamaica to travel. But there she was, she and her daughter, squeezed into a seat on a country bus. All around them market women smelling of pimento and sweat, smelling of mangoes and sweat, lime and sweat, banana and sweat; all these market women on their way home, chatting. Chatting so much that Patsy closed her eyes tight. As if that would block out the sound. But she was swaying on the riddim of their talk, and after a while she really did drift off to sleep.
She woke up half hour later because a Rastaman she never noticed before had started playing his drum. Rubbing his thumb across the goat skin - woooooooooooh, beating a riddim, ka-dap, ka-dap, ka-da-da-da-da-dap! And now the whole bus felt full up of this drumbeat. It was there behind the market women’s talk, there behind the bob of their heads. It had seeped into the torn seats, into the unsold fruits, into the driver’s driving - that riddim, almost like a heartbeat. And now her daughter, Pascal - almost 5 years old and suddenly learning about ‘that’ side of her, the black side - was straining her neck, looking behind with bright eyes on the drummer, clapping her little hands to the beat. It made Patsy’s temper start to boil. She reached over, clasped Pascal’s hands and said dangerously, “Stop.”
In all fairness, the little girl did try to stop. But the riddim was all over the bus. And you can’t just ignore riddim. So now that she was keeping her hands still, her little feet, on their own accord, started to feel out the beat - swinging out then back in against the seat, ka-dap, ka-dap, ka-dap!
Something broke inside Patsy. She stood up in the bus and started one piece of shouting, Stop it! Stop it! Staaap it!! But even as she was shouting, she was shouting in time to the beat. Even as she trying to hold on to something, anything, she felt the walls inside her mashing up and the only thing she ended up holding was the riddim in her feet. Is like she did forget, or maybe she just never know.
You ever seen Revival? Real Zion 69 Hallelujah speak in tongues rabbasetiboshi Jamaican Revival? Patsy started to trump. Right leg forward, right leg back. Her fists clenched, her hands going round in a rolling motion, a digging motion. Getting into spirit. And is she same one, standing up there as if she could have ever gotten the riddim to stop, is she same one who finally raised the chorus:
I want a Revival in my soul
And in the back of her mind she thinking: but look at this, I come back home. Patsy. Singing Revival, dancing Revival. And that’s how she ended up staying. She sent Pascal back, but she herself never returned to the United States.
Mad! Mad as shad! Dance and lose herself. Give up her family. What a disgrace. That’s what Jeremy’s mother kept on saying. But Aunt Patsy, who had the patience of Job and bore the constant neh-neh-neh of her half sister, would lean over to her nephew and explain: “Sometimes you have to lose yourself to find yourself. Sometimes what you most scared of, is what you been needing all along. I not afraid to dance my dance again.”
And is those words exactly which bring Jeremy here. To the house, the place he is most afraid of, and the place where he most wants to be.
He remembers that Saturday a year ago when Kevin drove him up here. In the middle of the day. No whole-heap of cars parked up on the outside. No music pumping. No dancing going on on the inside. No party was keeping. Kevin only point it out to say that whenever party did keep, is here it was kept. Jeremy looking on the house with these big eyes. Him so frighten to see that what he always take as make-up story - rumour, propaganda - was really so. That there was a place in Jamaica where other kinds of people gathered. People he would call nasty. Sodomites. Abomination. Jeremy spit out on the floor and ask, “This is really where them come?”
The question hurt Kevin who had only been trying to help. To show him that a space existed where him could dance his own dance. The question hurt, so Kevin answered bitterly, “Yes. This is where we meet.”
Only then, Jeremy get to thinking about the word ‘Them.’ They. Those. Over There. Trying to separate himself. But tonight, a year later, he was here, at the house. This is really the house. Raaas! He. Himself. Here!
That day, a year ago, when he was looking with his big eyes on this house way up in the hills, a secret kind of a place where people come to dance their unlawful dance, he remembered the history lessons he had done in school. His mind run on every slave, every Nanny and every Quashie who ran up into the mountains -from whence does my help come from- following the ka-doooom ka-di-pa-da-da doooop, following the sound through the darkness and through the trees, following it in order to dance. So they could lose themselves. So they could find themselves.
When he was in high school, he was in the debating club and in the history club and in key club, young and full of the kind of politics that had in it more heart than brains. He used to look up on the hills, on the sudden territories of concrete, all those gigantic houses built on the hillside - and would say to himself mournfully, look how the hills losing their culture. He saw the mountains as a place where rebellions happened - where they were hatched, fought and won. Though, what kind of a rebellion is it when people only fighting to be themselves?
But here him is in the mountains, outside the gate of a house. To go inside is rebellion, and to go inside is to be himself. Him thinking of Quashie who lost four of his toes. For seventeen years Quashie was held as property - lived worse than Buckra dog on Buckra plantation; he got all of three thousand, four hundred and ninety-eight strokes from the whip, sixteen dog bites, three hundred days (when you count it all up) locked in a room without windows. Seventeen years, and all that punishment for insubordination. For uppitiness. For his refusal to speak like a good ignorant nigger, but to speak the first language him ever know. All this punishment because he was a man with his own mind.
The first time Quashie try to run away, the dogs catch him by the heels and he was flogged. The second time, they take up the cutlass and cut off two toes from each foot, and even while him wasbleeding, they leave him with a stern warning: Next time Boy, we’ll cut everything below yer knee!
That could not stop Quashie. A third time, he would try to make it to the mountains - and more than try, he would really make it. Drawn to the ka-doooom ka-di-pa-da-da dooooop! Drawn to the ka-dap, ka-dap, ka-da-da-da-da-dap. Drawn to the doop-doop doooop-du-dooooop! Quashie was a man born inside of Africa. Born with Africa inside of him. Africa in his bones, like a riddim.
This is the house. This is really the house. And inside the house, is his people. Inside is a place where him can dance the dance him did always want to dance. With the kind of people, the kind of man,he has always wanted to dance with. A true true dance this time. From the inside out. It take bravery to do that. Strength.
And right then, even before he was done making his mind up fully, Jeremy’s eyes started to water. Even before he turned on the engine and turned the car around, he had to hold his face tight so as not to make the eye-water spill. Because he knew he wasn’t yet a man like Quashie. Not tonight. Him not ready. Dressed-to-puss-backfoot, his black square shoes shined and a riddim playing in his head. He couldn’t do it.
He would drive home instead. Maybe he would go over to Tia, his girlfriend, and rest his head in her lap. And when she asked “What happen to you?” he would tell her, “nothing.”
“No, is not nothing. You always have these times when you get into this mood. Like I can’t reach you.”
“I know. I sorry. Is just…is just…” And what could he tell her? That sometimes she was all he needed, but another time she was like plantation whips and missing toes and punishment? No man can tell him girl those things, and some men in this island will never dance the way they want to dance.
So even as him driving down the hill, away from the house, away from defiance and rebellion, he had to swallow hard, him face still tight from holding the tears. A riddim playing somewhere in his head, the volume turned down low.