Gateways: “The Dancer’s God” by John Keefe read by John Keefe and Jasmin Tomlins

TRANSCRIPT: This story is written by John Keefe. John has written comedy for several years for sites such as, Cracked, and Chicago Literati. He also writes radio serials for Locked Into Vacancy Entertainment. He describes himself as “Excruciatingly imaginative”. This is “An Iteration”. This is The Dancer’s God

The congregation’s eyes were upon the Dancer, and Korin’s eyes were upon theirs.
They traced the arcs of her firesticks with their faces like sunflowers charting the sun, their eyes full of dark circles from the fireglow. The Dancer eddied like a flame herself, and her firesticks drew glowing paths in the air around her that became red symmetries that hung there. At each corner of the plinth was a staff hung with beads, and the top of each staff was a red crystal, which pulsed in time with the Dancer’s movements light great fireflies. She cast her firesticks skyward and every eye followed them, and Korin could see that the stormclouds that had threatened rain since that morning were breaking. Stars peeked between them. The moon was high and red.
The firesticks were then in the Dancer’s hands, swirling in quick orbits. Somehow, she had dexterity enough to speak:
“There are many gods on this earth,” she said, and those assembled pushed forward against the plinth to better hear her. “There are gods in the sky, and in the clouds, and in the moon, and many gods for the sun too. There are gods on mountains and in each sea, and in each river that feeds the sea. There are gods in empty air, and some gods in the spaces between air. And some gods that are dead and some that will never die.”
She traded her spinning firesticks with one sharp motion, and the crystals glowed more fiercely, like rapid heartbeats. The Dancer spun once in the center of four shadows and the shadows spun with her.
“My god is greater than all of them together,” she said, her voice firm and rising, “and that is because my god is real.”
The crowd jolted backwards as the Dancer speared both firesticks into the plinth at her feet, and the flames belched out like minute, short-lived suns. Korin nearly fell backwards off the plinth from the heat of it. The crystals pulsed rapidly, then softly, and then their light was steady, and it dried up every shadow on the plinth and the faces of the crowd. The sky was cloudless now, and the stars were red too, and even the moon had sheen to it, like a drop of blood smeared on silver.
When every eye found the Dancer again, she was unmoving. Her firesticks were dead. The crystals were fading. Before darkness swallowed her, she said: “Speak to this new god, friends. Speak as best you know how. In a week’s time I will be leaving, and when I return, there will be a house for this god on my rock here. One week, and then I leave, and you build.”
She cut the air with her firesticks. The crystals died. The crowd was silent as the shadowy form of the Dancer hopped nimbly off the plinth and strode back up the hillside to the stone hut she’d been given on the outskirts of the village. A moment later, Korin stood, brushed his pants seated, and collected each of the crystal staves from the corners of the plinth. With many eyes upon him, he hopped from the plinth to follow the Dancer.
The Dancer had many needs that night, and Korin attended to each in dumb silence. He fetched her well water, and stoked her fire, and even brushed her hair, mute like a stableboy, while she massaged her wrists and hands by the hearth. When every task was completed he sat cross-legged on the dirt floor while she whispered wordlessly before the hearthfire. And when she was done with that, both of them sat in silence for a long time, and Korin summoned every ounce of willpower to swallow the questions in his throat. His silence was too loud. The Dancer spoke first.
“Tell me about your people,” she said. “Are they simple? Are they industrious? Do they burn witches here, or just scare them off?”
“We have no witches,” said Korin. “None that I know of.”
“I’m sure,” said the Dancer flatly. She raised an arm above her head and Korin heard the shoulder pop.
“We fish,” said Korin. “We fish and sometimes we pick mushrooms in the caves by the seaside. That’s all. We can’t farm here, the ground’s too rocky.”
“I saw goats when I was coming in.”
“Grey ones? Not our goats. Only Tammen keeps goats in the village, and his are all white.”
“Charming,” said the Dancer, and then she yawned. Korin felt deeply uncomfortable seeing this woman at such ease. There was too much familiarity between them, too much smallness in this woman who spun fire faster than the eye could see and spoke to a god that swatted clouds from the sky like cotton puffs. Korin had come every morning for two weeks to tend to her, and for the first time she was not some formal and fierce-eyed alien, too slender and tan to have been born within a hundred miles of the village, whole histories written in the scars on her forearms, the burn mark on her neck, the odd, tight tunic she wore that left her arms bare. Instead she was just a woman, shortish, relaxed in her chair by the fire like a lapcat.
“They’re glowrocks, aren’t they?” said Korin, and the question hung in the air.
“Hmm?” she muttered, her head rolling towards him over one shoulder.
“The crystals. They’re glowrocks, aren’t they? Nighteye, sometimes it’s called I think. A sailor showed me some once. Had a bronze chest full of glowrocks. Taught me all about them. He had a monkey too.”
Korin was babbling. He trailed off and stared at the floor and the only sound was the fire.
“How do you know about glowrocks?” said the Dancer.
“Like I said, a sailor. He let me go on the ship until the captain yelled at him.”
“You don’t have glowrocks around here.”
“Like I said, a sail-”
“Except maybe in those mushroom caves. I should have known that.” Korin blinked and looked up at the Dancer. Her head was a shadow framed by firelight. It was pointed his way.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I won’t speak anymore.”
“It’s good you people aren’t too curious,” she said, giving no sign she’d heard him. “If you push deep enough into those caves you’d probably have your own glowrocks and then I’d be
Korin Winced. His heart was pounding. Every fiber of his being wished he’d sat in awkward silence again, as he had every evening since being granted to the Dancer.
“Come closer to the fire,” she said.
Korin did not want to come closer to the fire.
“I won’t hurt you,” she said. “You’re choking on questions. Breathe, and then ask some.”
Korin did as he was bid.
“Glowrocks have a brother,” he said. “The sailor told me. When you split a glowrock, it dies. Sometimes only half of it dies. It wakes up again when you bring the pieces back together. Sometimes just when you point the pieces at each other. That’s what the sailor did. He showed me the one half and he pointed the broken face at the other half and the one half glowed. He said sailors sometimes use them to talk over the water. They have this language that’s just the lights going. He said he was going to sell the lot but not to us, somewhere further east, one of
the richer cities.” Korin took a breath. He was lightheaded. He couldn’t stop talking.
“He said he’d seen…”
He swallowed his words.
“Go on,” said the Dancer.
“He said he’d seen a dance the priestesses do on an island by Konovo. They weave little glow-pebbles onto their wands and when they wave them at each other they make the lights
“I’ve never been to Konovo,” said the Dancer. Korin fell silent again. The Dancer raised her firesticks up to the light. Little gems were inlaid around the wicks at each end.
“What else did you see tonight?” she said, and her voice was pleasant, almost amused. Every instinct told Korin to stand up and leave. He stayed and spoke instead.
“I saw the clouds part. We’ve been threatening rain all day. I don’t know how you part Clouds.”
The Dancer barked a simple laugh, and it was the strangest moment of Korin’s life.
“I don’t part clouds,” said the Dancer. “But I have a reasoned notion of what they’ll do.
The timing was perfect tonight. Most nights they won’t clear until much later. Sometimes not at all.”
“How do you know that?” said Korin, too loudly and too quickly.
The Dancer gestured at a bauble on the window sill, some tarnished silver candle with a glass tube hanging from it. “Mercury suspended in resin and water. Precise amounts and close observation will tell you what each cloud is thinking a day in advance. That’s the thing about tricks. The simplest ones are the best.”
Trick, thought Korin. The word was loud in his head.
“What about my words tonight,” asked the Dancer. “Did they hear any of it?”
“They were lost to you,” he said. “I could tell.”
“That’s good. It will be your job tomorrow to make sure they don’t go slaughtering those goats out of misplaced zeal. Else there’ll be no more village here come winter, and that means
no temple next year.” The Dancer rose from her chair and spread her arms out. She was muscled and tall, and so light on her feet that her footwraps were barely even dirty. She twirled on one foot, silent but for her words.
“My god IS real, Korin. He’ll be real to these people soon enough, if he isn’t already. You’ll need to speak for him when I’m gone. Can you do that?”
“Why?” asked Korin. He rose to his feet. The Dancer stopped spinning. They looked at each other in the firelight. She laughed again. It was less strange this time.
“My god has many names, Korin. Sometimes he’s called Shelter, and sometimes he’s called Wheat and Barley. Sometimes he’s called Bridges, Roads, Sick Houses. Today, he is called Temple. Because that’s what’s needed here, where there’s only mushrooms and stones and fish. You need a god called Temple, because that temple will have heavy stone walls, and a big hearth with a chimney for the winter, and a cache of glowrocks in the cellar that you mustn’t trade because your god thinks they’re precious. Maybe soon you’ll talk to sailors with them. At first, they’ll speak to god.”
Korin nodded.
“Can you do that, Korin? Can you speak for him while I’m not here?”
Korin said, “What should I call him?”
The Dancer yawned. “Something simple. The simplest tricks are the best.”

Jasmin Tomlins has been making noises with her mouth for 33 years, most recently as a determined vintner on the streets of the Bristol Renaissance Faire and here at Gateways. She is grateful for the opportunity to give voice to these stories, and to receive the meaning that stories give voices.

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