The Mummer's Dance

BROAD STREET IN Philadelphia, New Year’s Day, and this is what you see: Men in over-sized sequined masks float by. Eyes blackened, faces painted white. Tiger stripes line their cheeks. They look over as they pass, smile toothy grins. This is the Mummers Parade. The men’s red headdresses sway in the wind, skulls bob up and down on their marching sticks—African natives who have escaped to Philly for the morning. Others follow: pirates, Chinamen from some forgotten dynasty, clowns. Everything about them is too bright. A pastel dazzle of gaudy costumes—hot pink, lime green, turquoise, vermilion—marches down the street to the cheers of the city. You never see their eyes. My daddy has me on his shoulders, holding my eight year old hands tight so I don’t fall off. He looks up. You having fun?

Of course!  I yell over the band music. Who doesn’t love masks?  The parade momentarily stops, and one set of mummers dressed in scarlet with papier-mâché dragon heads begins to dance. Their movements are somewhat clumsy, like any group of synchronized dragons would be. The head dancer breaks apart from the rest of the troupe and ambles up my father and me. Dad plays along, sways in time to the dragon man’s rhythm.

I must have a heart, the dragon says. The band continues to blare trumpets and drums while the dragon swings its head side to side, teeth and forked tongue bared in a naked, hungry grin. You choose: your heart or your father’s.

“I’m only eight,” I explain, banging on my daddy’s head in hopes that he’ll stop the dragon man from saying such things. But my father continues his strange, slow dance as though he doesn’t hear. It is only a costume, I say to myself, except that there’s a claw instead of a hand at the end of the scaly arm extending towards us. I lean as far back as I can, but my legs are trapped under my father’s hands. “Will it hurt?”  

That depends. The dragon’s breath smells like my grandfather’s, a cross between ash and gin. Give me his heart and you both live, only your daddy’s soul will be gone, but there’ll be no one to protect you, poppet, against those who wish to do you harm, and there are dragons worse than I.

I try not to cry at this, knowing the truth he speaks, of gin and ash, and attic rooms. And if I give you mine?

It chuckles as two skeletons shimmy up on the right and begin leapfrogging towards me. You’ll not feel a thing, lovely—a pleasant gift, that.

I try to imagine a day without living nightmares or keeping a heart that was already broken and am caught between two worlds. But see, now, the delicate bones in the skeleton’s face flying towards me as the dragon thrusts its claw out. In the instant, I make a choice, and point to a heart that will never be mine.

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About Nancy Hightower

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I teach the rhetorics of the grotesque and fantastic in art and literature. So monsters follow me around wherever I go now. I feed them milk bones.
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