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The Wild Cat's Dance

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From the time I was perhaps six, I did my best to live at the practice grounds - give me a moment’s freedom, or just take your eyes off me when I should have been doing something useful, and I’d be off, gone like a bird into the mist, or a frog into the pond. I doubt I cared much for the dancing at first, just that it was a place the older children went, and where they were always doing something, something intricate and without immediate use, something I could sit and watch and never quite understand.

It made a difference, when it came to learning myself. Not just that I was familiar with the steps of the dances, or that I’d seen spears thrown again and again, knew even as they were thrown whether they would fly true, but that something in my hungered for that place, so that I had endless patience to repeat a step again and again, to train myself until the I moved just so, perfectly balanced, body and arm and spear, or hand and knife, all flowing as one, and no patience at all with my own shortcomings, with the unpracticed clumsiness and lack of skill that stood between me and the perfect grace of the older girls.

I expect if I’d had any of that determination for other tasks, my mother would have liked it better.

One of my brothers was near to me in age, no more than a year older, and when we were very young we were always together. He would show me things he had made, for he was always clever with his hands, or tell me story after story - warriors and kings and hunters, battles and victories - while I drank it in with wide, admiring eyes, and my mother smiled indulgently. Whatever else she was impatient over, I could always be spared a little while to follow after my brother.

Only once, when he’d made himself a pipe, and was trying to teach himself to play it, was she angry with me for wasting time watching him when I should have been at some household task. She was angry with him too, which she almost never was, and said no son of our father should make such an ugly racket, although in truth he had some talent for it, and could imitate the crying of the birds and the whistling of the wind. But it upset him to anger her, so he set the pipe aside and I think never played it again, although later when I heard the young men play who hoped to be chosen as priests, I thought none of them could echo the cry of the gulls or the twittering call of the plover as well as he.

But I cared less than he for my mother’s moods, and I would not keep away from the practice grounds. Some of the other girls laughed at me, years older and cruel with their ready mastery of that which I clumsily copied. They said I should go home and tend my father’s fire, for surely I would never tend the sacred fires, that I did not have the ground on which we stood truly in my blood and in my heart, and a hundred other casual slights, which came, all of them, to the same thing - that I would never understand that mystery I glimpsed in the steady ritual beat of the dances, the darting swiftness of the fight.

I was very young, and sometimes I cried over it when they teased me, but I knew better than to say anything at home. Even my brother would have bristled in my defence, saying I was better than those other girls, and had I not listened to his catalogue of victories our ancestors had won. I knew him so well I could practically hear him say it. But he did not know me so well as to see why that would not serve, that though his forefathers were important to him, even if we were one people now, to me what mattered was the speed and skill of a girl with a knife, not what had befallen her mother’s mother.

Later we saw less of each other, for he went to the Men’s side and I to the Women’s. I missed him, although by then I had friends of my own and was teased no longer. I was a little angry, I think, with my mother, when I remembered how well he had played his pipe, and thought that if she had not put him off it, he might still be within in my reach. And it would have been nice to share something with him, and have him understand, rather than it being always him he knew and I who followed. But he had his own life, and it was enough for him to be a warrior; he had no desire to be a priest. He died many years ago, in the fighting against the Caledones, and perhaps that fit with the stories he used to tell, although it seemed to me a waste.

I will not speak to you of when I became a woman, for that is a thing you will learn for yourself, and it at least remains unchanged and eternal, no matter what the men do, for that is one ritual to which they dare not come, one part of our lives that remains completely ours. But afterwards all things went well for a while, and I danced as fleet footed as any, and the pattern of my life seemed good to me. I would have a home of my own, and even the things that had seemed unending and dreary to me as a child, the cleaning and the spinning and the cooking, had now a spark of glory running through them, for they were part of my appointed task, as necessary to the future of our people as the speed of my knife, as much part of our history as my feet beating the rhythm of the dance.

Those were good years, when we followed the old ways, but they did not last. And I wonder, now, as I watch you singing quietly, sweetly, distaff in hand (and you are good with it, far better than I at your age) - so did my mother watch me running off to fight, to seek out the Great Mother’s mysteries, and wish for me a different life, one where my husband would be master. And see, she had her own way in the end, for she was on the winning side, and I crept repentant back to her hearth. Will it fall so again? I try to mold you as I would want you, but I cannot read what is behind your eyes, and I find myself at last truly in her place.