I've been asked about the backstory for this image a few times. I made it for my niece Abi, who has the dancing spirit flowing in her veins, reflecting when I was younger dreaming those same ballerina dreams under different circumstances...and yes, you can now order this print on-line and we'll get it right out to you! yippie!
A Place to Land
- Sarah Pierroz
After school. Another September yellow bus ride. Rain lightly drizzles outside the dirty rectangle window panes, which frame rows of deeply worn leather seats. Pony tails and messy curls and fringes bounce as we bump down along a long stretch of broken asphalt. We pass driveway after driveway, empty of any cars, into the older 'burbs.
In every front yard, garnishing a mid-size, exposed brick bungalow, a captive oak or cedar waves from a patch of dry grass, straining at the well-worn seams of snap peas, with buried carrots and radishes, while rosemary and chamomile pierce through the thick carpet around. Old flavours transplanted into the vegetative New World. A cold snap will come soon but the soil is so fertile here, it would be impious to cultivate it only for decoration.
We are in the last seat, at the very back of the bus, with the tall kids and the aspiring rebels, preparing to catch the building wave of momentum before the colossal speed bump gating the residential zone launches us high. Arms slap into the air, bums jump up. We are air borne.
All is suspended.
Our heads graze the rusted roof, leaving iron freckles on own crowns. A pause of shock, then an conscious inhale, then pure glee. The younger children at the front whoop and giggle for another. Neither can we contain our happiness, but we quickly move our attention to other, more important, prospects.
It’s our stop. The driver pries open the door with his ungracefully thin bicep. Spewed forth, we sprint down the slabs of dampened sidewalk to her house. It's smaller than mine, but she has the pink and white, Care Bear covered plastic boom box. And the best tapes, too. And no unruly big brothers poking into our imaginings.
Garlic greets our faces at the screen door, a pungent wall.
“Remember to drop your shoes outside,” her baka calls to us from the kitchen.
We peel off our soggy shoes and socks, and leave them out on the porch. Without a sound, we tip-toe into her bedroom and change into outrageously mismatched, dance outfits, then to the kitchen to greet our beloved Baka. She is tending to an orchestra of bubbling pots and steaming pans on the stove, her feet beside a small mound of discarded, earthly, spud peels.
“Dobrodošli little ones” she says. The words puncture past her plump limps. She turns and greets each of our cheeks with warm, steamy palms. Her hands are always busy. She moves to the counter to pinch and form and flatten small golden orbs, and slaps them down into a pan of scalding, sizzling oil. We dive into our seats at the table and wait in anticipation. Baka piles each thickened and puffed potato pancake high onto our plates. We rub more salt and more garlic into its soft skin. Any delicate, brittle bubbles burst under our small fingers. We claw onto the next bite, savouring and devouring and munching our collation. I forget her name for them and never bother to ask. Another language lost.
Sated, but with no time to lose, we race to the basement. Its walls are painted carefully in some shade of intentional beige. Chattering, flittering, we skim over the thick carpet to the far corner of the room and onto a brown couch, bursting with a jumble of threads outlining yellow blooms. A relic of nostalgia, or inertia, or perhaps a habit of poverty, but no one has the heart to throw the old thing out.
Dirty Dancing soundtrack crackles on.
Patrick Swayze dance moves begin.
Her baka lets her listen to it; but my mum thinks the music a curse. Perhaps Baka cannot hear it down below, or more likely she does not understand the lyrics at all. There are no Yugoslavian translations for her to grasp, just spits of hankering syllables and low beats busting up the stairs. We are too young for its salacious innuendo anyway.
“What about some Serbian station, Katia?” Baka calls down in her foreign tongue.
“No,” she punctuates back up, in English.
Baka continues cooking with monastic patience, now carefully basting and roasting meat, and pinching the dough thin for spinach pies. Under her thick black skirt, she taps her foot to the complex Motown rhythms and flourishes of brass, and looses the croqueted shawl from her shoulders.
Meanwhile, just after that famous, log-balancing, dancing song, we pause, exhausted, and collapse on the floor. While catching our breath, she places her left hand on her stomach and her right on her chest and tells me that her father said her country doesn’t exist anymore.
“It fell apart yesterday,” she says.
“But it's still here, look.”
Our tiny pink fingernails clumsily trace its black contour on a plastic globe, as we ponder, heads cocked, in doubt. What did it matter anyway? For us, for two small girls, now in matching community park-t-ball shirts, striped socks and hand-stitched, bubblegum-pink tutus, it surely doesn't.
What we care about: uncovering and catching little green frogs and slender preying mantises in the burgeoning tufts of sun-streaked, autumn grass, and calling them Mr. Pudge and Dr. Tibbir; jumping from the highest branches of wild trees, through the scent of English roses and oleander, far from any brambles; Bearing witness to fireflies, toad songs, and shooting stars, at night, and dreaming of all the marvels awaiting us at the end of the dark sky. We want to feel and do everything there is, all at once, right now. This suburban landscape is our kingdom, and we scour its every inch.
“Let's climb,” she says. Fearless, she soars to the highest vantage point around: the top of the big tree behind Mr. Fan's backyard. Lifted, she is struck by wonder. I am much more cautious, and fear being knocked out breathless, so I only venture half way up. I silently hold my regret at staying behind, an omission that is certainly a sign of weakness. Still, she never teases me for it.
Our camaraderie is our natural default at school, given our shared penchants for random, spontaneous wiles, sweet juice boxes and peeling glue off each other's fingertips in one swift rip, in order to preserve and compare their impressions, before tossing them into the nearest bin.
No matter how much we try, we never look quite like the other girls - the well-mannered ones, who sit quietly and eat with nibbles; the ones with long lashes, and petite doll-frames, smoothed curls and confident airs. We are the unruly deviant ones, exploring our edges.
But when that febrile melody comes back on, and that smooth, sonorous voice, everything eating at our guts fades away. Renegade Degas impressions, we are. We rock out our soft, prepubescent hip bones and not-yet-existent breasts. Strike flamboyant poses. Jumping off every stick and branch of furniture in the basement. O, jungle, our clear eyes sparkling.
We can't stop. Soaring off the couch arm, into a moment of thrill. An impervious delight. Our spry, scabbed legs pierce through the layers of pink fluff skirts, and bound down softly onto strategically placed pillow forts below.
Whirling, plummeting, Comrade Pink Pony and Comrade Pig Tails drop down. Little bombs onto an unsuspecting terrain. Like the ones her family escaped, in the middle of the night past the old olive groove, the forgotten path down the mill, bouncing down a long stretch of river, past smelly old fish house, heaving through a darkness of confused whispers, avoiding choppy flares, hiding in shadows, ruffled noises.
All is dissolved.
Whole hands shushing tiny lips. Burrowing into Baka’s plump arms, while the wise cast their identities from over the rocking gunnels. No one could cry for all things lost. It would set off a sonorous ripple that they would never recover from.
She only acknowledges these moments when she mutters in her sleep. Those nights we stay together, after we tire of flying and roost in our basement haven. When we press ourselves together tightly, side-by-side, sewn safely into the one cover. We are cozy under a canopy of carefully pressed, My Little Pony sheets, under a freshly stuccoed swirling ceiling, domed by a dream moulded of her father's insoluble aspirations.
Deeply she drifts, flayed by a raw dream from toe to crown. The place she can't consciously remember, yet always feels the ragged edges of. A place to which she can't go back.
Destroyed places never truly vanish.
She wakes, but does not know where to place her dreams. They shrink back into the dark to wait, small, ticking packages. Neither dares herald their return.