Saturday Story: Spanish Dancer

Something I wrote many years ago.

Spanish Dancer


Somewhere in the brushy twilight a lone coyote howled, and the sweeper cocked her head to listen before calling back in reply. A late puff of wind rolled down the hills and rattled the budding mesquite and chaparral surrounding the compound before chasing powdery red dirt ahead of her broom. One last pass before the guests would arrive, she thought, to clear the worst of the dust from the open square. She leaned the broom against one of the low walls surrounding the little plaza, then checked that the house servants and vaqueros had stacked enough wood in the center of the courtyard for the evening’s entertainment. Pleased with the neat pile, Señora Micaela nodded, then climbed the two yellow stone steps onto the patio and retreated into the house.

Once inside, the thick adobe walls held the heat of the early spring day. Sharp scents of chile and onions, and the warm presence of fresh tortillas beckoned her into the kitchen, for a quick nibble. ‘Lupe, the cook, nodded at her, then returned to the critical task of beating the dough for bizcuchitos, the anise-flavored short cookies of the region. After dipping a hot tortilla in the simmering chile, the lady hurried down the hall, to change into her dancing clothes.

Off dropped the heavy every-day apron and work-shirt of sturdy wool. She quickly rinsed hands and face, pulling down her long hair from its tight braid. Out of a wooden chest, dark with age, she pulled three fine, white petticoats, edged with hand-made lace. Another corner of the trunk produced delicate dark-blue stockings and a pair of flat leather cases. The tall wardrobe opened to reveal yards of cobalt blue fabric that hissed and rustled as she slid the full skirt and bodice over her head. A bit of tugging and shifting settled the soft fabric smoothly over the under-skirts. Short, gathered sleeves revealed fair skin and delicate wrists. She slid her feet into black, square-heeled shoes, then eased over to the mirror once more. Deft hands pulled thick, silver streaked hair away from her oval face, twisting and looping it into an elaborate knot at the top of her neck. She locked the bun into place with three carved ivory combs taken from the leather cases.

Dolores, one of the house servants, tapped on the door frame. “Pardon Señora, but Pedro says the first carriage is coming into the drive.”

“Thank you Dolores. I shall be there shortly,” the lady replied.

The weaving woman lingered for a moment. “Seña Micaela, will Ramon Nolasco come tonight?”

Micaela turned, surprised. “I invited all of the ranchers and their men.”

Dolores pursed her lips, then nodded. “In that case, I think perhaps Teodoro should stay with the cattle.”

The lady’s eyebrows rose, as she suddenly remembered the fight at the roundup. “An excellent idea, Dolores! Will you ask Pedro to see to it? And remind him that Lupe will send the best of the meat to those working tonight.” She winked. The old weaver smiled and curtsied out of the room.

After one last glance in the glass, Micaela tossed a black lace shawl over her shoulders and glided up the hall as Dolores opened the door for the first of her guests. Don Miguel and his wife Carolina climbed down from the light, single horse carriage. “Buenos tardes Good evening!” The lady of the house smiled. As servants led the first vehicle around to the stables, Micaela offered cool drinks and light refreshment to the arriving guests. Soon the courtyard rang with laughter and greetings, as the men shook the hands and the women exchanged embraces and compliments.

When the evening sun vanished into the western hills behind the hacienda, Pedro lit the bonfire in the center of the courtyard. Flaming pine and piñon threw hot, dancing sparks into the sky, breaking the chill of the early spring air. Off to one side of the raised patio, three of the top ranch hands tuned guitars, pipes and called greetings to the servant girls that had accompanied their mistresses. Micaela circled the plaza, welcoming friends and pointing out the refreshments laid off to one side – coffee, cakes, tortillas, stew, cider and other good things.

Just as the rising moon touched the horizon, a flurry of ringing notes signaled the start of the night’s dancing. As tradition demanded, the trio began with a waltz, the hostess gracefully partnering Don Gaspar de la Vaca, an old ranchero from over the creek and the senior guest. Couples turned to the flowing rhythm, full skirts swirling and polished boots tapping. Custom satisfied, the musicians began a quick two-step to please the younger dancers. As married couples took their places, young men paid their compliments to mothers and chaperones, asking for “but a moment” of the young ladies’ time. Soon dancers rotated on and off the central plaza, while the musicians mixed fast reels and almost flamenco-like sets with the slower boleros and waltzes. When the moon had been up for an hour, the hostess clapped briskly, summoning everyone to the table for refreshments, serving the music-makers herself with the best of the feast. A separate table near the stable, equally heavy with food, waited for the servants.

As she chatted with her guests and checked on things with he servants, Micaela made a mental list of which neighbors and associates had come to the small fiesta. Señor de la Vaca and his family. The Gutierrez-y-Alba clan from around the hill, with three of their marriageable daughters. Only one of whom, sad to say, showed any manners or breeding. Of her own extended family, the Torreons and de la Garzas discussed business at the end of the table. A few of the traders from town saluted as she passed. She paused in her mingling long enough to ask Father Montevideo if he had enough to eat.

“Yes, yes Señora de Vivar. It is so generous of you to host this festive gathering.”

“Thank you, Father. It is such a pleasure to be able to see friends, now that winter is over.” The unanswered question remained, as she left the guests to make sure the visitors’ servants had been seen to.

Late into the evening the fire began to burn low, and more and more couples remained near the low walls surrounding the plaza, chatting and enjoying the night. Micaela herself began to feel the length of the evening, an unwanted reminder of her forty years. The young men and women mingled more freely than in her youth, but still under the watchful eyes of parents and chaperones. Were she alive, her mother would be scandalized that an unmarried woman, even of forty, went alone to town or roundups. The lady smiled to herself, nodding to the excellent music, and complimenting Don Gaspar on his son’s courtly manners. The young man dipped his head in appreciation, then returned his attention to one of the Torreon cousins.

After the long waltz finished, an older vaquero rose smoothly to his feet, tugged his old-fashioned embroidered jacket straight, and crossed to stand before the hostess. He bowed deeply to her, offering his hand for a dance. She smiled up at the lean, silver-haired figure, then dropped into a low curtsy before accepting his hand, as the assembly watched. He led her near to the fire, then turned to the waiting trio. “El baile de la zorra, por favor.” He requested. The other guests murmured, drawing closer to the center of the court. The Vixen’s dance! One hand on hip holding a flow of fabric, the other raised gracefully into the night air, the now-young Micaela turned to face her partner, a knowing half-smile on her lips. The vaquero pulled his black hat low over his eyes, then reached out towards the blue-clad figure.

Fiery music exploded into the still night, as the lithe dancer spun and circled the tall rancher. He stamped in time to the music, drawing near to the Vixen. She flashed her skirts and slid from his grasp, taunting and drawing ever closer before swiftly spinning away, pretending to ignore him. The dying fire cast deep red light on the twirling, flashing pair. His boots tapped the rhythm, her fast heels countered, drawing complicated patterns from the stones below as they circled. The guests stared in awe, amazed by this new side of the quiet cowboy and withdrawn lady. Slowly, the hunter eased closer and closer to the fox, all at once striking out, capturing her slim hand as fast as lightning, drawing her close. The rhythm spun them faster and faster, vixen turning in the hunter’s grasp, hunter holding, moving with her. The music rose to a fiery crescendo, then stopped, dancers frozen.

The vaquero’s head bent down to the conquered Vixen draped bonelessly over his boots, a pool of blue fabric surrounding them. After long moments, the watchers awoke from the spell, applauding, calling “Bravo! Bueno!” and tossing coins to the exhausted musicians. The rancher raised the quietly panting señora to her feet, and she gratefully leaned on his arm.

It had been many years since they had danced so. Before her father died, leaving the large estancia to her care, before honor forced him to give his attentions only to his employer. But the visitors did not know this, seeing only an unlikely pair dancing steps from their parents’ youth. As the group said their good-byes, preparing to return to ranch and town, everyone agreed that such nights should come more often. After the last carriage rolled down the road away from the house, the sliver-haired vaquero led his horse up to where Micaela stood.

They watched the full moon together for a long moment, then he looked down at her, questioning. She offered her hand, just as she had long ago, and he raised it to his lips in the old, courtly manner. Strong, callused fingers reached out and lightly touched one of the ivory combs he had given her, in times now fled. Reluctantly he released her, and she slid back into her shadows as he mounted and turned alone onto the moonlit road.