To the memory of Manuel Ignacio
It was in spring, with the jacarandás in full bloom spreading their symphony of blue flowers onto the streets, that the beat began.
It spread slowly from a warm, irresistible yearning in the middle of Manuel's chest, urging him to dance, dance, dance and never stop. He looked at his hands and felt the energy trying to reach the world from the centre of his being through his fingers and toes and head. And he gave the first leap. A guitar had been left momentarily on the sidewalk by a lover courting his lady in the nearby house. Ignacio saw his brother Manuel springing to a life of smooth, rhythmic dance, and he picked up the guitar, not thinking of any permission to be asked- just triggered by the sheer force and beauty of Manuel's street choreography.
Passers-by stopped to watch. One threw a coin on top of Manuel's coat, which was lying by Ignacio. The trance continued, a frenzy of notes and rhythm, blending with the pure blue sky of that Saturday afternoon in Los Quirquinchos, a lost rural town in the middle of the Pampas.
Manuel danced until he dropped with exhaustion. By then Ignacio had long ceased playing, the guitar owner having come to its rescue, back from his dreamy visit to his beloved. But Manuel could neither see nor hear, except in an automatic mode like deep sleep. He was the music, the rhythm, his body connected to the whole universe through this dance that had possessed him, was dancing him, was placing him in the centre of creation's beat.
That night, in the little shack Manuel and Ignacio shared with their mother, Ignacio tried to explain to her what it had been like.
Doña Elisa, a frail but determined woman who washed clothes in the river for a living, exclaimed:
-¡Ave Maria Purísima! ¡A case of possession by the devil!
She buried her head in her hands and wailed the lament of those with no hope, her lifetime of hardships and frustration distilling into one discernible, demonic cause.
- ¡No, mamá!- protested Manuel. And he described the joy, the golden impulse that grew and grew and controlled him with kindness, with life and splendour, not evil.
Elisa was unconvinced. Her belief of the devil's power had been confirmed all too often by everyday happenings. She thought of calling the town priest, but he was not well-versed in exorcisms. Moreover, his well-known scandals involving several women of the nearby town had eroded his credibility. Yet how could one let the devil take possession of one's own son, and what were the alternatives? Manuel's godfather would have to be consulted.
Don Armando was sipping mate on the sidewalk, watching the sun go down, when the trio appeared at his door. Many years before, he had been Elisa's lover. Their short, passionate romance had evolved into a quiet, comfortable friendship. When Manuel's father had been killed on a confused night of drunken riot, Don Armando had to become the boy's godfather and protector. He was a placid and equitable man, and soon found a magic formula to dispel Elisa's worries for a while.
- Why don't we watch him for a week and we will see, if it happens again, whether this is the work of the devil or of God?
And so they waited. Don Armando was called immediately when the next frenzy of "possession" occurred. He screamed with delight at Manuel's rapturous movements, the pirouetic pulsating madness of joy transformed into motion, a sight too pure and wondrous to describe in this world's words.
His verdict was final: the work of God.
Manuel was sent to his uncle's house in Buenos Aires, to study dance and make a living out of his extraordinary gift.
But the gift would not yield to discipline. It was not an ability that could be shaped into conscious, premeditated action. In front of his teachers, Manuel was gauche and graceless, until the next hypnotic seizure of dance occurred. But when it did, it was like the heavens had split open and given us one of their angels on loan to express through dance the essence of divinity.
So Manuel went back home. With a hat always at hand, he waited, roaming the most populated streets until the delirium started, then he barely had time to throw the hat down before being snatched into oblivion by the magic God of Dance; and when it left, he always found something in his hat.
He hired a musician to accompany him and headed for the Big City again. Doña Elisa started receiving from him monthly the old age pension she could never have dreamt of receiving from the military government. Life seemed at last to approach fairness and decency.
It was also in spring that Manuel's body was found in a ditch, pierced by many bullets. One of the senseless deaths of the dictatorship, intent upon spreading the message: "If it randomly happened to him, it can happen to you too. Everyone beware."
Or perhaps it wasn't as random as that. Perhaps Manuel was killed because
he was a living monument to life, to movement and freedom in their irrepressible
beauty, at a time and place in which the possession of such things could simply
not be tolerated.
Acknowledgement: The title for this story was suggested to me
by my friend and critic Dan Fass.
This small, intensely poetic piece is very much in the style of the Latin American magical realists. Whether or not it's a true story (and I suspect it is) I read it not as fiction, but as creative documentary --an essay on the strength of the human spirit in the face of oppression. The author seduces us with the sheer beauty of the language, so that Manuel's senseless death has an even greater impact.Jury's comment First Prize: "A Case of Possession":