On the third beat, Neva bent her hip bones.
It was more than a shimmy, although she’d become as adept at the danse du ventre as the other belly dancers in the Algerian Theatre. No, Neva was manipulating her marrow, accentuating her curves by picturing a spring breeze persuading bamboo shoots to suppleness. The alteration hurt. It always hurt. She wasn’t made of rubber, and bones were still bones: they had to fracture before she could form them anew. But she barely noticed the pain. She was twenty-one now—almost twenty-two—and she’d been bending since childhood. It was a simple thing to enhance her movements without distorting them.
Simple and freeing.
“Colored trollop,” a female voice muttered to the left of the stage. The white women who came to the performances often made a show of disapproving. But the white men Neva could see in that morning’s audience were either grinning in anticipation or straining not to do so. And today’s first crowd was large. Not enough to fill the theatre’s 1,500 seats, but close to it. The last weeks of the Columbian Exposition—the World’s Fair to end all World’s Fairs—were drawing huge numbers to every exhibit as people scrambled from across the globe to make sure they didn’t miss the event of the century.
And every day, she dared them to go home disappointed.
“Wiggling whore!” snarled a matron in the fourth row as Neva slipped into a sequence of bouncing hip circles and rolled her head from side to side.
She smiled at the Southern sounding “lady.” Each customer in the theatre—be they man or woman—had come to the Algerian Dancers of Morocco expecting to see naked, jiggling flesh. And while Neva’s clothing was less revealing than the skimpy outfits Little Egypt gyrated beneath at the nearby Street in Cairo display, her jewel-toned skirt and veils weren’t exactly modest. But the matron in the fourth row had bought her ticket knowing full well she’d likely be exposed to “indecency.” Maybe she, like other protestors before her, felt her ten cents entitled her to make a scene out of principle. Neva didn’t mind. It just made her dance harder.
The price of admission didn’t cover whipping pennies at her, however.
“Dark temptress!” the matron hissed, her first coin hitting Neva squarely on her belly button—a surprisingly good shot. “Black beguiler!” The matron stood to launch her next missile, but Neva raised her head in time to see the second penny coming, catch it, and pocket it. She even incorporated the motion into a hip drop.
“Go back to Africa!” shrieked the matron, reaching for another coin. “Go back to the jungle and sully the White City no more!”
This time Neva hid her smile. The rest of the troupe was authentically Algerian, but she’d been born in Chicago. She was probably more American than this old biddy.
“Here, now!” called a bearded Columbian Guard, leaping from his seat to intercept the third penny. “Neva’s done you no harm. Let her finish what you’ve paid for her to do.”
She wasn’t surprised he knew her name. He’d timed his breaks to coincide with her performances for weeks now.
“What she’s doing is little better than prostitution!” the matron protested, scrabbling in her purse for more ammunition.
“And you paid her,” the guard noted again, eliciting chuckles from nearby audience members. Even in his ridiculous uniform—light-blue sackcloth, white gloves, and a yellow-lined black cape—he was handsome. And Neva liked his accent, whatever it was. Dutch, maybe?
But she didn’t give the time of day to men who stared at her.
He didn’t know that, though. “Sit down, madam,” he said to the matron in a low voice, “or I will escort you to an exhibit that better suits your refined sensibilities.”
“No need,” she huffed, turning to the elderly man on her left, who’d sunk several inches in his seat by this point. “Stanley, take me away from here. At once.”
Stanley sank another inch, then collected himself and stood to offer his arm, only a smidge of resignation evident on his face. “My dear.”
Much of the audience watched the pair until they left the theatre. But as soon as the door closed and the guard retook his seat, Neva signaled for Mohammed, her flutist, to blow faster into his bamboo reed pipe, and Islem, her percussionist, to accelerate the tempo he pounded on his goatskin drum. Once everyone’s eyes returned to her, she transitioned into an undulating flamenco shimmy, expanding and contracting her hips a hint with each beat.
“Scandalous,” whispered a middle-aged man to her left, his eyes rapt as he shifted in his seat—no doubt to ease his erection. Neva smirked at him. Which only made him shift again and her stifle a laugh. Later in the day, there would probably be another “proposition” for her to consider. She’d lost track of how many she’d turned down over the past six months.
Leaning back, she lowered her head to the height of her knees and let her arms rise and fall as if they were being buoyed by onrushing waves. More men murmured; another woman left. No matter. There were still plenty in the crowd to please. And the next part of her act always—
Something small and hard bounced off her forehead.
At first, she thought the deadeye matron had returned to hurl more pennies. Or that another member of the audience had taken up her cause. But as Neva raised her head to its normal level, a smile affixed to her face, she saw what had struck her: a cockroach. Upended on the stage floor, legs flailing in an attempt to right itself.
She suppressed a shudder. The “White City” of the Fair was far cleaner than the “Black City” of Chicago to the north, but the hundreds of thousands of daily visitors left an avalanche of trash in their wake. And despite the best efforts of the (mostly colored) custodial staff, pests abounded.
But not with such strange markings. As she raised the edges of her skirt to emphasize a series of languorous belly rolls, the cockroach managed to flip itself over, and she saw that its upper shell was festooned with two sickle shapes joined at the outermost part of their curves, as if a pair of crescent moons stood back-to-back. Their coloring was purple, and they … gleamed.
So did the sickles on the next bug to fall, a millipede that bounced off the cockroach’s carapace, upending it again. The millipede landed on its many legs and crawled towards Neva, prompting her to use a Hagala walk to slide a few steps to her left.
No one in the audience seemed to have noticed the insects yet. Almost everyone’s focus remained on her, even when another bug—a fat worm?—dropped next to the first two. Was there a hole in the roof? Or were they congregating because last week a white woman had thrown rotten fruit at Meriem as she’d bowed at the end of her performance? Maybe one of the juicier pieces had splattered the rafters. The resulting mold might explain the purple markings.
Neva extended into another backbend, actively looking up this time to see if she could locate the source—there. Directly above where she’d been dancing a few moments ago: a score of insects clustered on a beam. All sporting glittering sickles and crawling over something pale. Only a portion of the object was visible, the rest obscured either by the bugs or the beam it rested on. But what she could see looked like … the carefully manicured fingertips of a human hand.
“God preserve me,” Neva breathed, instinctively elevating out of the backbend and stepping into a set of Tunisian twists. Surely Augie, her twin brother, fellow performer, and dedicated prankster, was playing a trick on her by painting bugs and planting props. Or perhaps she was hallucinating. But on the stage, the cockroach still scrabbled madly to right itself, and the millipede had begun chewing on the worm. Which, now that she looked closer, wasn’t a worm at all.
It was a thumb.
Neva wasn’t sure how she stifled her scream or maintained her steps. Yet no sound escaped her lips as she resumed her Hagala walk and edged to the left. Outwardly, she remained perfectly calm: unruffled, wholly engaged in her dance, giving no cause for alarm.
Until she rolled her head back and saw that the beam was alive now, glistening and pulsing with a thick coating of sickle-marked insects—praying mantises, slugs, dung beetles, hornets, moths, ants, and more—swarming over each other in their frenzy to form a writhing stalactite whose tip, at its current rate of growth, would reach her in seconds.
None of the winged bugs had taken flight yet. But several fell on her as she dove to the stage’s floor and rolled further left. And although Islem’s reed pipe faltered, and the Columbian Guard had a troubled look on his face, no one seemed to have registered anything other than the abrupt change to her movements. Was she hallucinating? Or was the hem of the raised curtain shielding the bugs from the audience’s view?
“A moment’s respite!” Neva called out as she ripped off one of her veils, flicked the insects on it to her right, and fled offstage to her left.
But the stalactite of bugs streamed across the rafter in pursuit. And as the music died and the crowd burbled with discontent, the insects descended on her in a chittering, biting shower.