Shiva Dancing

By Poe Ballantine

Thackeray Fulbright gets lost and his colleagues try to help him, return him, point him in the right direction. Can you remember, Professor? Can you remember, Thackeray? Thackeray, you don’t have to teach for another year; you’re on sabbatical, remember? Gently they return him to his comfy little New Mexican bungalow. There is a woman, Maria, who comes in and fixes his meals and straightens the place, washes his clothes, makes sure he doesn’t get run over by a car. Thackeray stays down in the basement running strings of figures, rubbing out a symbol, adding two more, changing line sixteen, spectral synthesis in the ultraviolet, radio continuum and X-ray properties of the corona of RS Canum Venaticorum, helium gravitational settling; he is on the verge of a breakthrough. Maria comes down the stairs and scares the life out of him: who are YOU? She has an egg-salad sandwich. I am Maria, she says, your housekeeper for seven years. And this is your lunch. She is perhaps the most attractive woman in all of New Mexico. You haven’t eaten all day, Professor Fulbright. Remember?

…the last of the sun’s light skims across the earth like the diluted milk of an absent-minded cow…

At night Thackeray paces his living room with the busts of Newton and Leibnitz glowering down at him. He will put a cup of water in the microwave, set it for 40 minutes, then wander down into his basement to run figures. Like anybody in astrophysics, Thackeray is interested in unifying field theories and string theories and extension of high-resolution millimeter and sub-millimeter-wave spectrum and high angular momentum quantum numbers and 26-D fiddlehead theories, but he might be a little closer to the ultimate answer because he has discovered a sliding temporal axiom of variable applied topology: there are an infinite set of physical systems, but they appear to join in one great merry loop like the Mobius strip or the ouroboros or the notion of Brahman or a big round sugar-speckled donut rolling into a rabbit hole, except recently he has begun to notice Maria’s legs; she has very shapely legs, shiny dark and muscled smooth; they are long and brown and they whisk back and forth in front of him as he reads Models of Gas-Grain Chemistry, and they come down the stairs to bring him sandwiches when he is working at the photometer or the spectroscope. That’s when the calculations go blank on him, bog dangerously, threaten to invert; there are different sets of physics for different dimensions and singularities and temporal flows, but there is no decent set of physics for a woman’s legs.

One day Thackeray has to leave the house; he is overcome by a feeling that is not familiar to him seeing Maria’s legs, and he’s on the brink of discovering the mathematical secret of the universe, and he must think, by God, clearly now, women’s legs of all the absurd things, so he walks out the door and along the streets up to the college, across the millstream, losing himself in thought, out past the observatory and up an old mining trail and finally into the wilderness as the light among the great trees thins to dust. He sits at last on a flat step of granite to rest, his gaze fixed on an aspen leaf round as a dollar. Soon the little tree begins to shiver all over like a naked child in an icy stream. There is no breeze; the other trees remain still. Thackeray bolts up suddenly. The tree is speaking. “Choose between your desires,” it says.


“Take your pick. Make your choice. One shot.”

“I have no desires,” sputters Thackeray. “Except to know the secret of the universe.”

“So be it,” says the tree, shimmering in the dusk. “But go and fetch me some water.”

Thackeray staggers up into the mountains looking for a brook and soon he is lost. It is growing dark and he is foundering among the leaning bearded gray trees. He falls and falls again. If it were not for the talking tree he would stop and rest, try and sort this out, get back to school somehow. His jacket is torn and he has lost his handkerchief and a shoe and there are pine needles in his hair. The burble of running water comes to his ears and through the chrome-blue glow of the forest he makes out a little cottage with one warm light burning in the window.

The little cottage is high up on the opposite bank; it is a fairy-tale cottage out of proportion in the ancient starlight filtering down through the trees; the brook below is dark-yellow and shiny as a trickle of iodine. He calls out. A young woman opens the door. “Professor,” she calls, laughter in her voice. “What are you doing up here? Are you lost?”

Thackeray struggles down the bank to the running water and looks up at her, panting. “Yes,” he says. “I think I am. Do you have a bucket I can use?”

The woman comes down out of her cabin and shows him the way across the stream, rocks like islands gleaming in the moss-trimmed twilight. She is dressed in tight red long Johns rolled to the knees; the round calves are copper-faceted and the muscle firmness of her buttocks ticks side to side like the pendulum of a clock. She looks over her shoulder at him, lowering her eyelids. “Don’t you recognize me, Professor?”

“Oh, dear, my, yes,” he says, pressing his hand to his chest. “You are Maria. What are you doing up here?”

“I live here, Professor. This is my cottage.” She climbs the stairs and opens the door and gestures him in. “You have walked a long way,” she says, closing the door behind him.

Thackeray looks around. There is a fire burning in the grate of a stove in the corner. A long wooden bench with a needlepoint back sits along the wall. In the middle of the room is a big feather bed with brass posts. There are books stacked everywhere, and on the rough log walls are pictures of clowns in curious poses, one considering a noose, another holding a gun to its lugubrious head.

Maria’s long neck is downy and fine and her hair is pulled into a chignon and the buttons all down the front of her long johns have come undone. “You live here alone?” says Thackeray.

“Yes. Would you like a hot chocolate?”

“All right,” he says, sitting on the bench and folding his hands in his lap.

“I’m afraid it is too dark for you to walk home tonight,” she says. “Wolves and demons. You will have to stay here.” She gestures sorrowfully at the bed. “I have only the one room.”

“That’s all right,” he says, swallowing.

Thackeray sleeps in her thick feather bed and looks up through the chinks in the ceiling; the moonbeams wriggle and shine like a netfull of fish; her young legs brush up against his and he does not sleep; the electricity coils in the hairs of his legs; she nestles into him and he stares up confusedly and honorably at the parabolic glitter of morning sun. His feet stick out from under the blankets. She gives him breakfast and he borrows a bucket and hurries out the door like a child off to school to find the talking tree.

But Thackeray cannot find the talking tree, and, afraid that he will get himself lost forever, he turns for home down into the foothills through the forest, then the college, but the buildings of the college are different; they have changed overnight on him: there is no observatory, no administration building, no familiar campanile, no Mr. Pibbs machine outside the arboretum, no arboretum; instead there are minarets and long polished pale blue and green mosaics and clusters of shiny gold onion-shaped domes topped with crosses. He walks dazed along a stretch of cement flat as a dead salt lake with a fountain in the middle, the bronze statue of Shiva dancing, two palms up, one palm down. The sun is low and golden and slow. The people pass him; he doesn’t recognize a soul; they are dressed oddly, scented queerly, flapping pantaloons and fruity blouses and buttered hair and humming nasal chants. The building where his lab once stood is gone; in its place is a long arcade at the end of which stands a kiosk where a calendar is pinned.

Thackeray stares at the calendar, lips moving silently; he rubs the numbers, then whirls and marches back across the expanse of concrete where the last of the sun’s light skims across the earth like the diluted milk of an absent-minded cow. Somewhere along the way he has lost 200 years.

Thackeray climbs back up into the mountains looking for the tree; he would like to have a word with that tree, but it is dark and when he finds the cottage again he is afraid to call out, afraid that he has been tricked again, that an ogre will have taken the place of the fair Maria, but as he edges along he trips on a root and tumbles down the hill and crashes into the stream with a cry.

Maria opens the door and laughs. “Professor!” she cries, running down and falling to her knees to succor him. “Where have you been?”

Thackeray grins and grabs the pine needles out of his eyebrows. He is wet and embarrassed and confused.

“Don’t laugh,” he says. “But I am looking for a talking tree.”

“Oh,” she says nodding. “The Tree of Desires.”

“You know it?”

“It is a legend,” she says. “A legend of the forest.”

“Do you know where it is?”

“How would I know where the tree is?” she says. “It is only a legend.”

“I must find it,” he says. “I must bring it water.”

She shakes her head. “It’s too late for that, Professor,” she says. “Come inside.”

Thackeray tries to get up, but he has sprained his ankle. She helps him up the hill and into the cottage and sits him on the bed. She pries off his shoes and helps him off with his shirt, tickles his feet; he chuckles helplessly; her brown breasts spill from her vest; she smells of garden: of heliotrope and horehound and snappy radish leaves. Thackeray feels he may faint; she is all that is left of knowledge in the world; he lunges for her like a lion, takes her growling: the garden, the earth, the beasts, the animal darkness where language ceases to flow, the seasons which turn like a wheel; the bed posts shiver, the cottage walls quake; his eyes cross, his neck strains back; he bellows at the ceiling like a yak; little stars float across his eyes and he calculates their distance from the sun.

Thackeray stays for a month, then two months. In the mornings he searches for the tree. When he returns in the evening with his bucket of water, Maria smiles at him; she has dinner; he has forgotten hard X-ray luminosity and active galactic nuclei and evolution of main-sequence A&F stars. Maria is swollen out front; she can barely fit into her clothes; breasts are sloped up, pointed ceilingward left and right, and gorged with milk. He tastes the leaking milk and it throws him down a long tunnel toward an aperture; the numbers crystallize in his head, freeze and overlap, then magically begin to weave backward. In the middle of all is the cipher. “You will have to help me deliver the baby, Thackeray,” she says.

The winter is close; there is a long violent electrical storm; the sky is on fire with green and blue lightning; the vast flow of annihilating particles exchange: the sum total energy of the violence is zero: in the morning there is nothing, only the stillness of trees. Thackeray sits in his chair, thinking; Maria sits on the wooden bench, knitting a sweater for her child. An old bronze Buick Riviera, chipped and beaten, appears around the bend through the trees and sloshes up the road, tires parting the mud. The windshield is cracked; a faded paper American flag flaps from the radio antenna. The car stops with a shudder and the pair of cock-eyed headlamps snap off and dissolve. Two figures climb out, one tall and gray, the other compact and muscular. They appear to be men but they are not men. Maria stands and peers out the window.

“Who is it?” says Thackeray.

“Strangers,” says Maria.

The figures hurry up the steps, the clump of boots, a hard series of raps against the door. “Let us in….”

“Don’t let them in, Thackeray….”

The women push through the door. The door sticks and quivers. The gold dust swirls. The strangers are wearing light plaid autumn jackets and orange hunting caps with the ear flaps down. Thick fake black mustaches curl up in pointed waxed tips under their noses; they might be the Mario brothers or an Italian moving van team.

“I told you somebody was home, Dana,” says the stocky one, swaggering in with a thumb hooked into her belt, a long shimmering curved knife like a scimitar dangling at her side. She nods and rolls the sleeve of her plaid jacket back from her left wrist exposing the tattoo of a Coney Island bathing beauty. “Hi folks,” she says. “Know who I am?” Her hair is cropped short and her eyes are a deep aluminum gray; one pupil is larger than the other and seems to be spinning. She smirks on that side of her face as well, the left side, as if she might be two different people sandwiched together against the will of both.

“I’m TX Tullie,” she says. “Maybe you heard of me.”

Maria crouches in the corner by the stove. Thackeray stands in the middle of the room and slides his hands into his back pockets.

“And this here is Dana Blue, ” says TX, gesturing behind her at the tall woman dressed in hospital whites with a large brown blood stain on her knee. Dana Blue is in her forties and gaunt from sleeplessness and 26 straight cups of coffee and being on the thrilling jag of her first criminal love affair. Her white shoes are caked with mud. There is no hand in one sleeve of her jacket, no arm either. She holds a sleek, black Walther P38 luger at waist level and her eyes jiggle in her head.

“Take it easy, Dana,” says TX. “These are nice folks here. They ain’t gonna give us no trouble.”

Thackeray says, “There’ll be no need for that gun….”

Dana Blue backs across the room and lowers her stork frame into the wooden bench. TX takes a tour of the cottage, examines all the clown posters, twitching her mustache and tapping the tip of the long gleaming knife against her knee.

Thackeray tries to sit but TX rams the long knife up through the back of his chair.

Thackeray leaps in the air.

“Boy, this thing is sharp!” she marvels with a grin. “You’re pretty light on your feet there, four-eyes.”

“My name’s Thackeray,” he says, touching the warm puncture above his tailbone.

Maria pushes away from the wall and waddles across the room. “Are you all right, Thackeray?”

“I’m fine,” he says.

“You’re bleeding.”

The mustache is glued crookedly above TX’s lip and she attacks her nose suddenly with a series of vicious swipes. “These your clown posters?”


“How come this one’s cutting its wrist?”

“It’s art,” says Maria.

“Here’s art,” says TX, fluttering the picture in half with a flick of the long blade.

Maria presses her hand against Thackeray’s back; the blood trickles between her fingers.

“My wife is pregnant,” says Thackeray. TX looks Maria over. “Is it kicking yet?” Maria’s lip curls. “What do you want from us?”

TX shrubs. “Well, coffee’d be nice. Then we’re gonna kill you.”

Maria scowls. Thackeray’s blood is thick and sticky on her fingers.

“Dana ain’t never killed nobody before,” says TX. “She’s the one sprung me from Ben County. She’s the floor nurse there. Maybe you heard on the radio. They say I’m crazy. Hell, stir crazy. Dana’s in love with me, ain’t that right, Dana?”

The one-armed woman looks nervously away.

TX holds up the foot-and-a-half-long blade, squints and tests the honed edge with her thumb, nods hard with her tongue poked out. “We been driving a whole day, ain’t stopped. They almost got us in Raton. I ain’t killed nobody for seven weeks. What’s your name, honey?”


“You’re pretty, Maria. I like to kill pretty. Pretty and pregnant, too. We got lucky, Dana.”

Maria goes to the sink and rinses her hands. She finds a towel and brings it back to hold against Thackeray’s wound.

“You make some coffee, Maria,” says TX. “I’ll get the candles. Tell me where the candles are at. Thacker-ee, where the candles at? We gotta have us a ceremony.”

“We don’t have any candles,” he says.

“Oh, sure you do,” says TX, crossing the room and swatting her companion across the knee. “Everybody lives out in the woods got candles. Ain’t that right, Dana?”

“We have no candles,” says Maria.

“In that case,” says TX with a glance at her watch, the one eye spinning and throbbing in her head. “We’d better get this over with. You nervous, Dana?”

“I’m all right,” says Dana.

“Well, get up then and take Thacker-ee out there into the woods and find a nice spot for him. Remember, put the gun close, right in here.” She ducks and points at the soft part of her skull behind the ear. “I’ll take care of the two in here—”

“God, please, no,” pleads Maria.

“Go on now, Dana,” says TX. “We told your mother we wouldn’t be late for dinner.”

The one-armed nurse comes up slowly out of the bench, jaws clenched, her crane-legs bent stiffly at the knees. She waves the gun at Thackeray. “Do like she says, move it now, out the door.”

Thackeray frowns and glances at the luger, then turns and pushes out the door. He looks back once. The sun peeks through the trees, then disappears behind a cloud.

“Thackeray!” calls Maria.

The door slams shut. Thackeray walks down the stairs, the death-row walk, head lowered, arms limp. The cut burns up his spine. He kicks at a pine cone and misses. A squirrel chatters at him from a branch. A dusty rain drop condensed from a needle hits him cold on the bridge of the nose. He hears his wife scream, sees in his mind the long knife plunging down.

“If you’re going to shoot me you better do it now,” he says, closing his eyes.

“My child,” whispers the voice of the wind.

Thackeray turns and almost falls. The one-armed woman is vanished. He stares, looks up where the cottage should be. The cottage is gone too. He makes a circle, staring straight up. The dead needles crackle under his feet. The moon is bright.

“My child,” whispers the voice again.

“What is it?” says Thackeray, spinning desperately. “Where are you?” At last he turns to face the shimmering tree.

“Where is the water?” says the tree. “I have been waiting for more than an hour.”

— Remarks by the author —

This is your typical mathematical secret of the universe three-armed serial killin’ Hindu fable, but I hope I have made it slightly different from all the others with the inclusion of suicidal clowns and models of gas-grain chemistry. Shiva is the multi-armed Hindu god of destruction, the most popular and widely worshiped of the Hindu triad on earth. We Western monotheists do not generally provide for a mode of divine destruction, hence the popularity of occult worship and dark figures growling out of Venom and Metallica records.

I am fascinated by the idea propounded by Hawking that the sum total energy in the universe is zero. Positive energy is canceled by negative energy, matter is canceled by antimatter, creation by destruction, Laurel by Hardy, et cetera. The concept of zero was first “discovered” in the third century A.D. by the Mayans, but then later, independently, by the Hindus of the Indus Valley. Zero is not only the last essential arithmetical piece upon which Western science is based, it is also the cosmological symbol of the final balance, the origin and destination, the absolute nature of nonexistence, illusion, the void and the lonely late-night light that flickers in a U-Totem sign on a dark highway in rural New Mexico.

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About Poe Ballantine

Poe Ballantine is headed for Odessa, Texas, looking for a hotel with fat black waitresses, electric fans in the windows, heaps of iced shrimps, bored blondes reading oversized fashion magazines, cool, cotton tablecloths, a gin rickey with just the right amount of sugar, and a job washing dishing where the cooks never burn the oatmeal.

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