My mother often said, “Never marry a man who can’t dance.”
I feel that this advice would have been easier for me to take if I had not had the 6-foot frame of a South Sea Islander. Latinos, and those drawn to salsa dancing in Australia, tend not to be anywhere near my height. I had previously spent many demoralising nights as a wallflower, and I didn’t think I could ask a man to dance. Those were the patriarchal rules of the salsa dance floor.
If I did get a dance, I might come across some Aussie muppet who’d been to a couple of dance classes and who knew a sequence of moves, but couldn’t lead. We would invariably come a-cropper when he decided to put me into a double or triple spin with his 5 foot 9 body. The specific laws of physics around this – which I know without needing a degree – simply don’t allow a man who is shorter than a woman to do that. I was often frustrated enough after one dance like this to call it an early night.
Then I danced with Joe.
Joe and I are quite a sight on the dance floor. Joe is no triple-turn fool. He is 5 foot 6 and knows how to dance with women taller than him, possibly because many women are. More importantly, he is a funster. There are no rules, only the joy of moving to great music.
“It flicks a switch on the inside.” It certainly does so. Joe is lit when he dances.
Gemma and Joe in Brazil.
We both gravitated towards Cuban salsa, which has fewer flashy spins than the salsa that developed in LA and New York. Cuban salsa is more fun, and many of the dance steps ‘belong’ to different Yoruba gods and goddesses – the African religion that the slaves took with them to the New World. We learned songs and dances that Cubans associated with Oshun, Yemaya, the goddesses of love and mothers respectively, and Changô, the god of thunder and drums.
So far, so culturally interesting. And then, a goddess appeared to me.
I was standing in the shower while a thunderstorm raged outside. It was late at night and I was alone in my Sydney flat. A voice spoke to me.
You are mine, the voice said.
I am yours.
At the time, I thought I had all the spirituality of a sock. But I knew a goddess when one was talking to me.
I am beauty. I am love. I am sex. I was not sure which of us was speaking in my head, but I think we were claiming each other. Was it really the Yoruba goddess of love talking to me?
I thought nothing of it. I had been drinking champagne after all, which was Oshun’s favourite beverage. But a few months later, Joe and I were travelling north from our Sydney flat to Byron Bay, stopping in at Dorrigo. We walked to the waterfall.
It’s a huge tumble of water, and there’s a large pool where people swim in its wake. It is magical or, depending on your religious bent, spiritual. It evokes something deep in the memory, or in the subconscious. It is a need for prayer.
Standing dwarfed by this huge waterfall, as inspiring as any cathedral, a sudden inspiration told me to stand apart from Joe and the others – visitors and locals – with my palms facing the wall of water.
I whispered a greeting because something in me knew she was there – Oshun.
You will have a child.
I leaped back as if I had been shot, and Joe came over to see if I was okay. I was too surprised to tell him about Oshun, and instead said something about the waterfall being too powerful, and that I shouldn’t have opened myself up to it like that.
Why was she talking to me like this? Had I called to her by singing her songs and dancing her dances? I had never wanted children – I was the product of an unhappy childhood. I had already told Joe that I didn’t want a family, even though I knew he did. What was going on?
I meditated on her words for years.
I’d had lots of practice at the arguments against having children: Who wants to be a brood mare? I used to think. Was it really what I thought of it, or was it a way of deflecting fear?
I certainly was afraid. Afraid of the discomfort of pregnancy, the danger of childbirth, the pain of breastfeeding. The fear of being abandoned and joining the single mother’s brigade. I had no judgment on single mothers, but I didn’t want to be forced to parent alone. And then there was the deep terror of having an impaired child who might struggle to survive, or even the catastrophe of one or both of us dying. There was, to my mind, a complete encyclopedia of things that could go wrong.
I found it hard to balance these very real fears with the joys of motherhood because I simply had no experience of them. I had no contact with babies or young children. I would occasionally play with other people’s kids, but that doesn’t prepare you for anything. I was good at it, and I loved talking to and working with children. I especially loved, as the truism went, giving them back at the end of the day.
I didn’t talk about this with Joe. I stewed on it by myself, trying to decide if I could make myself want children. Was it okay to have a child for Joe because he wanted one? When I said that out loud I knew it wasn’t right, but it was kind of how I felt about it. Joe would be a great father, and I believed he’d never leave us. Perhaps that was enough.
And I had an absurd hope – that I could be a good mother. What I did know beyond a shadow of a doubt is that I wanted Joe to have a baby. I would have to trust in the universe, and I prayed to Oshun, that I could want a child, too.
I was still trying to decide whether I wanted children or not when Joe and I went to Cuba with a group of salsa dance enthusiasts. There were 14 of us on a dance tour, and we spent the first week in Havana, sweating in a magnificent, crumbling colonial building that seemed to be otherwise unused.
Our first morning in magical Cuba, we danced everywhere – on the street corner at breakfast, outside the famous little bar La Bodeguita del Medio, in the foyer of a restaurant, in Parque Central. We danced so much I was chafing and couldn’t do another turn. We found ourselves in Hemingway’s favourite bar, La Floridita, drinking G&Ts as big as our heads, smoking a cigarillo we had scored off an American tourist and dancing to the all-girl band. I looked at the clock. It was 11am. What a country!
At the end of the week, we learned that one of the local dancers we had met was a priest from the Santería religion of Cuba’s slave descendants. The followers of Oshun and the other gods and goddesses.
Joe turned to me with a grin and said, “Ask him if he can marry us.”
The priest said in Spanish, “Come back tomorrow: wear white.”
The next morning, the priest picked us up in a bicycle-taxi and we were met by six women at a house in an inner suburb of Havana. There were flowers, perfume and rings – a lush offering in a Spartan little apartment. We sat on two high stools in the room that doubled as a kitchen and living area, facing two of the women. One had the bible and the other wielded candles, perfume and the floral garland. The ceremony was in Spanish, which I rendered into English as best I could, with the translation aids of rum and cigarettes. By the end, we were tied by a garland, surrounded by all six women and a halo of perfume.
Joe and Gemma on their wedding day.
“You will have a child,” one of them said. I was very quiet. Another prophecy? “You must throw the garland into the ocean. A gift to Yemaya. She is the goddess of seas and oceans, and she is the mother of mothers. Women who want a child ask for her blessing.”
Where were we going to be able to throw flowers into the waves? Maybe we could organise a trip to the beach before we left Havana in two days’ time?
At a ruined fort in Santiago de Cuba, we snuck off from the group we were travelling with and walked down many flights of steps until we reached the sea. We asked the goddess for her blessing, and together we threw the garland of white flowers into her churning waves.
Five years after Oshun’s prophecy, I was eight months pregnant. I was steeling myself for the final month, when the thing I was most afraid of came into view – the birth itself. But I had less time than I anticipated to prepare because our son wasn’t growing well.
A scan showed that he was in the 4th percentile of growth. The obstetrician told us that my placenta was no longer giving enough nutrition, and that he wanted to induce the baby three weeks before the due date. I freaked out.
I got in the car by myself and drove, needing to think. Barefoot on Maroubra Beach, I stared at the waves in the growing dusk and asked for guidance. I mouthed the words of a prayer.
“Help me, Yemaya.” I heard nothing and feared I was just a woman standing at the ocean’s edge, alone.
Then I looked up, and I saw the vastness of the entire ocean, rather than just the waves directly in front of me. I marvelled at the wide ocean before me.
“Your power is just awesome.” Was it my voice or hers?
Before I could decide, the Goddess of the Seas said, Surrender is your strength.
So I surrendered, and late on the morning of the induction, the doctors began a sterile, medicalised process that took away any control that I might have had over the birth.
Nothing had happened by the early evening. They broke my waters and after 12 more fruitless hours, the doctors told me that if I didn’t go into labour in another four, I’d need a caesarean.
I flew off the handle, and when I calmed down, I apologised to Joe. Perhaps my fear had chased the contractions away.
“The baby is coming one way or another, Gem,” he said. “Do what you need to do.”
I stood in the middle of a white-painted room, surrounded by machines, fluorescent lights and procedure-driven nurses. A surgical birth I didn’t want was imminent. If my power was awesome, as Yemaya had said, what could I do to wrest some agency back?
I started to sing. I remembered the words of the goddesses’ songs and then the steps of their dances. Joe and I danced together for most of the next four hours. Oshun and Yemaya lent us their strength.
Finally, before the surgical team arrived, our son was born singing. Perhaps it was one of the songs that he heard me singing to the goddesses that helped me become his mother.
Did I call to them, first in longing and then in fear? Or was the voice in my head my intuition or subconscious all along? Either way, I’m grateful for the little chats.
And Joe and I will teach our boy to dance, in the hope it will bring him the same amount of joy that he has brought us.
Three entrants’ stories were joint highly commended prize-winners of the 2022 SBS Emerging Writers’ Competition. This story is by Gemma Tamock.