The music insists that you dance; if it tells the troubles of a brother, the music says dance. Dance to the hurt! Dance! If you catching hell, dance, and the government don’t care, dance! Your woman take your money and run away with another man, dance. Dance! Dance! Dance! It is in dancing you ward off evil. Dancing is a chant that cuts off the power from the devil. Dance! Dance! Dance! Carnival brings this dancing to every crevice on this hill.
—Earl Lovelace, The Dragon Can’t Dance
Now, when Rita Rahming son, Stan, did get shoot down dead by police walking home, everybody did know two things: they kill a innocent boy and Stan funeral was going to have one of the biggest Junkanoo rush out Hillview Cemetery every see.
Everybody did know Rita son was a good boy. Rita gave everything she had to see that boy straight, and then for him just to get shoot down by police, took the last bit of life she had left in her. And now, police fixing they mouth to tell her that they going to lock up anybody that come to rush and play Junkanoo at the graveside.
It was about five days after Stan did get kill and the night of the wake. All kind a people did come to the house to view the body, sing songs, and drink rum. I done set the house up for the night; the windows and doors was open, the mirrors was turn around and all the clocks get stop. I was going to kitchen to stir the pot of souse; I could of tell the souse was ready by the unique smell of bay leaves and cloves, tenderizing the wings and potatoes. Going to the kitchen, that’s when I see Rita standing over the body, talking soft soft to she son.
It was a shame for a woman to have to bury her husband, and then seventeen years later, have to bury the only thing he leave her in the world with. Looking at her there, I thought to myself, Just look at Dragon, hey.
I remember when she first get that name. Before she start dancing with the Lions Junkanoo group, she use to be a fire dancer in the hotels. Anyway, that year Lions did come with “The Orient.” Lions had all kind a Chinee, Asian, karate costume, and thing on Bay Street, and Rita did play a dragon. She plait her long black hair in one braid down her back and as she move it was whipping through the air. Then the crowd gone crazy when she start spitting fire and running it cross she skin; the Dragon was born. Boy, that woman could a dance, hey. Is like the music use to possess her. The girl would just come to practice, talk fool, drink some rum and work on she costume, but when it was time to start, she just zone out the world. Once that first drum bass lick across the air like lightning bolt, her waist was gone. Is like the Father make she out a wire. And she would dance, for forty minutes straight, that girl looking up to the heavens and just dancing. If I wasn’t a save woman, I would say she was picturing she lover face, cause of the way she would wrap around the air and then her back would sink in and pop back out like she was making love.
That’s what really get all the fellas in the Junkanoo group hot after her so. Couple fellas well too, about nine or ten try. Couple fellas who is lift costume, some bellers, some free dancers, even one or two a them fellas who is blow horn, try talk to her. But that girl ain’t even give them the time a day.
Only one fella ever get her attention, and it ain’t surprise me one bit that he is beat drum. Hiram was the lead bass drummer for Lions. He been beating drum from king hatchet was a hammer. When other fellas was switching drum every two years or so, Hiram did know one trick to keep he goat skin drum tight-tight, so every year he would bring back he big brown drum with “Lion’s Paw” paint across the goatskin.
I remember when them two actually meet, I was right there selling my little beers and peanuts out by practice. It did just end; but is something about this music, it hard to silent. Even though they did reach the end of the practice route, and did already mix up they self, horn was still blowing, drum was still beating, bell was still ringing, and dancers was still shaking up they self. Everything start to ease down, but Hiram was still beating and Rita was still dancing, until it was only them two in their own parade. The harder Hiram beat, the more Rita would slither through the air, and closer to him. Is like she could of feel that man through he beat. They went on for about five minutes before Hiram stopped.
Watching her now, as she look down at she dead son, I was trying to guess what I gone say to her. I walk and stand by her side.
“The boy real look nice, Rita.”
“Lord, I wish I could feel him. I wish I could feel them both,” she say. I ain’t know what to say to her. I do all a this before with her. I stand in that same spot before with her, only that time she was looking down at she husband.
When Hiram did dead, it suck that woman dry. I thought when they was gone call me to deliver her baby, it would have come out dead. She really did love Hiram, boy. Them two stole the show at every Junkanoo parade; she was the lead dancer and he was the lead drummer. Although the brass, horns, bellers, and tenor drum separated them in the parade, is like she still hear his beat as it jump into the air, found her and dart toward her, and she receive him. Everybody did come to see Dragon and Lion’s Paw. All type a fellas would beg Rita for a whine.
“Hey, mango-skin, give me dance, gal?” one fella beg.
“You ain’t ready for the Dragon, boy,” she would say before she go find Hiram and whine up on him, just to show the fellas what they ain’t ready for.
That day Hiram drop down dead in the middle of the parade, I know she feel it. His beat stop, her waist stop. She push through the crowd to get to him, but by the time real help did reach, he was done dead. His beat stop, her waist stop. She never dance in Junkanoo parade again. Even when they bury him in Hillview, and they had big rush out, she ain’t even tap she feet. She only stare at the grey stones that make up she husband tomb.
It not only the Lions that miss Dragon, Junkanoo did miss Dragon too. These young gals ain’t had no rhythm like Rita. Half of the gals was already smoke out and they body all mash like they been through hard times. As much as they beg her, and people saying things like, “The Dragon can’t dance no more,” she ain’t care; she just come out to practice with she big belly and listen to the drums.
She birth Stan right there at practice when the fellas had one sweet piece a beat going. We hear Rita screaming, so I tell the other woman put she on the back of one truck, and we bring that boy in the world right there at practice. Is like he come out the womb crying with the beat of the drum, claiming it, like is his, swallowing it, his first breath, screaming to the world, “Look is me, I come to beat drum. I come to wake the dead, free the slave. I gone beat drum for rich and poor, black and white; with a beat that say hello, goodbye, well done, I love you, I miss you, welcome and fuck off, at the same time. This my music. This my drum.”
After that, is like Junkanoo claim the boy from the Father. He spend more time in the shack pasting costume and learning to beat drum than at home. I could a see Rita ain’t mind too much. She was to every parade he rush in, and when he saw her, just like he pa, he would beat one special rhythm for her. She would just thank him with a kiss through the air.
“I can’t hear them, I can’t feel them. They really gone,” she say again as she fix the tie on he body. While she was fixing he tie, I really see how frail Rita did get over the years. Before Hiram dead she was a plump, solid, red-skin gal. Now, all that hair she use to let down, been tie up in one bun for years and a beat cant find no more meat in them thighs to jiggle through like it used to. Before I could a pull her away to the kitchen for some food, there was all kind a noise and cussing outside. As soon as we turn round we see about seven fellas in police uniform coming through the door, with a dray load of the mourners following behind them.
“Mrs. Rahming, may we speak to you for a second please,” the crown sergeant say.
“Ya’ll know better than coming round here now. Ya’ll done kill the woman son, what else ya’ll want,” I tell the crown sergeant.
“Mrs. Rahming, may we speak to you alone, please,” he say again.
“You ain’t got nothing to say to me in private. You take my boy, you take my life too. Ain’t nothing you could say or do to me that worse than that,” Rita say turning back to she son.
“Mrs. Rahming,” the sergeant say, “the Royal Bahamas Police Force sympathizes with you and your family during your time of bereavement. However, we still believe that our officer acted in accordance with the law when he ki—, when he discharged his weapon. Therefore—”
“Accordance with the law?” Rita interrupt. “Walking home from the shop is against the law?”
“Mrs. Rahming, you need to understand that he fitted the description of a suspect, and, well, I am not here to discuss the parameters of this matter.”
“Why the fuck you here then?” someone asked and continue cussing before I raise my hand.
“Mrs. Rahming, I am here to advise you, that due to the nature of this matter, and the backlash it may have— That is, we don’t wish to agitate a very touchy subject. The police and the community have just fostered a working relationship, and any unnecessary attention your son may attract may influence a few bad apples to, you know, stir up trouble. Therefore, we will not allow any rushing in the graveyard tomorrow.”
When that policeman say that, is like all hell break loose. No matter how much I try stop them fellas from cussing and breaking bottle, they ain’t check for me.
I was shock myself to hear the officer say such a thing. I looking at these people and I see we ain’t had nothing to give this woman. We couldn’t help she bury she son, we couldn’t bring him back, half a we couldn’t even find a few sober words to tell Rita. All we had was Junkanoo. All we could of do is hope the thump of the base drum shake of any evil that trying to hold she son spirit down from getting up on that good redemption morning. This was the only way we know how to say goodbye. They don’t understand, Junkanoo is the language of people who ain’t got nothing else left.
Them officers hurry and leave, but not before they warn Rita again. I see it was getting dark, so I close the windows and door to prevent the spirit from coming back in the house. More mourners did come so we start the singing. Rita sang quietly as she stare at her son. I gone outside to check on the fellas to make sure they did eat, and they was talking about what they gone do. One Rasta fella, Jay, was leading the talk.
“We can’t let Babylon hold I and I down. This our music, they can’t stop us from rushing,” he say. When some of them fellas hear that, they get boasty-boasty and start making all kind of noise, about how nobody going to stop them from rushing.
“They could do that, though? They could stop we from rushing?” one fella ask.
“These police could do what they want. This Nassau, this how things go in this country. What you mean if they could stop us from rushing? They shoot Rita boy, they ain’t find no gun on him, and he ain’t look nothing like what the manager of the store tell the papers the robbers look like. All that happen and that officer still on the force to work, and you asking if they could stop us from rushing? They could do what they want.”
Jay stand up. “That’s how it is, like a foreigner in we own land. We is broke people, we ain’t got a dollar to we name. Ain’t nobody gone check for us. All we got is this music. They would have to tote I and I away in shackles before I silence my drum. The drum is my weapon.”
The man them start all kind a noise and drinking rum. You could a see these fellas wasn’t going to sleep tonight. They had a look in their eyes, like this was they last drink, like they know tomorrow they was gone wake up dead.
I went back inside to prepare Rita for what might happen tomorrow. “Rita, you know them boys from the group ain’t paying the police no mind, right? They going to rush. You know what gone happen right?” I ask, pulling her away from the singing and into the kitchen. Rita nod she head yes. “You know you can stop them right, if you want. They going to listen to you.” Rita look at me and ain’t say nothing and went back to the singing. Is really scary when a woman loose all she had in the world and ain’t cry yet.
Day clean and it was a nice funeral service. Stan was lay out nice in a pine box the Lion’s sponsor did donate. Just as I say, when we reach the bottom of Hillview, we could of see all the police car and riot squad up top. Anybody who look like they was going to rush, they turn away from the main gate up on the hill. But them fellas didn’t care, we could a hear them heating up and testing the drum as the pastor gave last rights. Is like you know war coming and can’t do nothing about it.
We could a hear, just outside the main gate, the sound of musicians testing the air get louder and louder, with more bells and horns joining in. Fellas start blowing they horns, the sound of whistles pinch the passing wind. I hear the group leader shouting, “Fellas, ya’ll get in line; drummers gone to the back, bellers move to the front, and horns, ya’ll jam in the middle, so, come now fellas.
Behind the main gate, the riot squad was fastening they belts, testing they sticks in the palm of they hand and practicing they swing. One officer voice was over everything thing, telling his men to get ready and move forward. A strange piece a silence fall, and as soon as Rita rest that single rose on her son coffin and the undertaker slide it inside the tomb, a bass drum crack the silence. The officers move forward. The bells join in. The officer them boots try make they own beat. Left, right, left, right, them soldiers marching toward the gate. The horns start. The police lift up they shields.
The music was full fledge now. The brass horns was playing, “It’s Alright Now.”
“Do not come any closer,” the officer shout through he bullhorn. “If you breach the main gate, you will be arrested.” He voice get mash right up by them bass drum and cowbell and horn and whistle and men high on gin ’n’ juice and revenge, shouting, “Music! Music! It over! It over!”
Jay signal for more bass from the backline. We could a feel the music in the ground. I did look over to one other tomb, and I see the rock them vibrating and moving an inch with every beat. Good Lord, I tell ya’ll that’s the dead trying to get out and dance even. That’s what this music is do. Is raise the dead and heal the sick and cause you forget about hard times.
As soon as the first beller reach in the graveyard, police was on him. But that ain’t stop them fellas; they beat and play on with more passion than before. Everybody was now looking at the gate to see who police carrying to jail and who fighting back. The music was getting weak. Police carrying fellas two by two, until only couple bass drummers was left; and they was beating the hell out of them goatskin drum. In all my years round Junkanoo, I never hear bass drum powerful like that so. The last few drummers continue to march. They was walking over some other rushers who did get spray with mace and on the ground trying to catch they self. Couple police had to run too; they trying to stop blood from pouring where they get lick with cowbell across they head.
All this going on, nobody did see when Rita climb on top of the stone tomb. Her black hat and veil was gone, and her shoes was where I had left her standing. She loose she hair and it was all over she back. She throw she suit top off and after all them years of hiding, her skin shine like scales when the sun spank across she body. In all that bacchanal, Rita had her hands spread looking up to the sky. The dragon was back. This time she wasn’t spitting fire, but water from her mouth and eyes.
“Thank you, Father! Father, Lord, I thank you!” She was crying and praising and laughing and she do something we ain’t see her do for seventeen years—she dance. With her head cock high and arms spread, the bass of them drum run through the tomb, swallow she feet, feel up she legs and wrap itself round she spine; she could feel the beat. The Dragon was dancing again.
Émille Hunt is a young writer from the Bahamas whose passions are focused on the issues of identity, politics, and culture. He is currently completing his manuscript as an MFA candidate at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. His fiction has been shortlisted in the Small Axe Literary Competition 2009 and 2010 and published in the online journal Tongues of the Ocean.