‘When Dessa Danced’, Donyae Coles

Illustrations © 2018 Saleha Chowdhury



 [ Dessa, © 2018, Saleha Chowdhury ] When Dessa moved, her hair, dark and heavier than the water-logged air, danced around her. The braids, smooth as silk, twisted and turned to their own rhythm while framing her face and tumbling down her back. Her sparkling, coal black eyes seemed to laugh from within the safety of the vines that grew from her head, complimenting her deep brown skin that glimmered like bronze in the pale, yellow sun. Every part of Midworld-3 loved Dessa from the wet air to the weak sun.

When Dessa danced, her hair in its seemingly endless braids was like magic. It whipped around her body, hiding her breasts, tracing a line along her smooth hips, smacking the hands of the men who reached for her. They would pull their paws back as if bit. Some say the tips of some of the braids had barbs that she and her sister twisted into the hair while they sang strange songs. Some said they were poisoned, the barbs and the girls.

Still, they came to see her dance. To watch her hips, her glimmering eyes, to see the weak sun kiss something on the planet that was so cold and so cruel.

They said that she and her sisters rose from the swamp and that’s why they were all so dark, all varying shades of that same muddy earth that they trod upon day after day. The same earth they mined, pulling up wet sludge before hitting the resources they were looking for so they could leave, finally, and go someplace where they sun was brighter and the air dryer. But the girls, they said, pulled their bodies from the muck, using the strange ruins to balance while they wiped themselves off. They said the rain fell clean that day and the sun grew hot and bright just that one time to help dry them. They say the mud loved them so much it stuck to them. That the sun and rain and earth loved Dessa the best. They say a lot of things.

They would never leave, Dessa and her sisters, that’s not something they said, that was the truth. The rest of the truth was that the woman they watched dance was born on Midworld-3, not from the mud but from her mother, just as everyone, save the strongmen who sometimes came through, running from their fates at the front lines of the War. The strongmen came from birth tubes. but liked to watch Dessa dance just the same. Her hair bit them like it did anyone but she always smiled at them special. They say the strongmen carry pictures of her when they get caught and taken back to the front. They all know what she looks like, what she’d done. They talked through that strange link their type has, told her story. They carried her for protection, for luck. To dream of a day when they would be on Midworld-3 and she could give them peace too.

She was beautiful even if they called her ugly for her dark skin and her snake hair that bit them. Her sisters were beautiful too but they couldn’t dance like Dessa. The sun didn’t kiss their faces like it did Dessa. There was no one like Dessa.

The truth is that Dessa was the sixth child born to two immigrants, three boys, three girls, but all anyone talks about are the girls, during that brief time where people thought making a life on Midworld-3 was thing that could be done. Back when they were splattering the airwaves with all those films Earthside of how lovely Midworld-3 was. It was a lie mostly but there was some truth there too.

Midworld-3 was lovely in those moments when the sun was setting and the air was purple and pinks before full dark. It was lovely when the lantern bugs came out twinkling in the darkness and the wetlands started to sing with life. Dessa and her sisters could show you lots of lovely things. They’d been born there, came out as squealing babies, no magic to it but those girls knew where to look for magic. They knew Midworld-3 because it was theirs and maybe that’s why when it all came to pass it went so bad for them. Maybe it’s because they couldn’t think they weren’t safe. Maybe it’s because Midworld-3 loved Dessa so much that it just couldn’t let her go. Not even when it went bad.

This is the truth of it. This is about all of them, but it’s about Dessa the most because she’s the one we remember the most.


“Oh Miss Dessa where you going?” Mister Robert shouted from the shop stall, the fruits precut and covered they shone wetly in the sun, like candy. His skin was dark, like hers, but dusty and dry. Close cropped gray hair covered his head. He’d been a friend of her daddy. Behind him in the dark doorway his wife swept out their home, glancing only for a moment at the younger woman her husband called to.

She stopped smiling at the older man, “Same place as always, to the square.”

He shook his head, “Your pa hates it, I know he’s up there, shaking his head.”

She rolled her eyes, “Give one of us a job in your shop and we’ll stop dancing then.”

“Get me more business then I’ll hire one of you!” he called back.

“I’ll send you a couple of customers,” she winked.

He shook his head and tossed a pack of fruit towards her. She caught it in midair and waving her thanks continued on. She walked slower, eating the sticky fruit Robert had tossed her, careful not to get any on her dress, a light-yellow frock with full skirts that lifted to show her thighs when she moved just right. She licked the juice from her palm and fingertips like cat, an animal she had never seen. Steph and Erica were there already, collecting green for their fortunes. The miners humored them because it was nice to have a pretty girl hold your hand, even if she was mud colored. The silver wouldn’t flow until she came. The miners wanted to see the pretty girl dance. They wanted more than that but the sisters said no. Not the miners. They knew what they were about.

Men who would take what they wanted and leave for something they thought was better. Men who couldn’t understand the beauty of this place, wouldn’t understand them. No. The girls were Midworld-3’s and Midworld-3 was theirs. They hated miners but they smiled just the same.

Dessa weaved through the streets, her soft soles taping on the concrete, the bells on her ankles and wrists singing to the four eyed birds above. They cocked their heads towards her and followed her from rooftop to rooftop calling back as she passed.

The sounds from the square met her as she came closer, filling the air with laughter. It was a holiday, the miners from Earth said. The ones from other places played along, the company that hired them was Earth based and gave them the day. They came to the square to spend their money and drink the liquor the old people of Midworld-3 brewed in tubs and fermented in glass jars. Distilled marsh water and flowers, fruits and grains that grew nowhere else. It all tasted like earth but there was something sweet to it.

And it got you drunk quick which is what the miners cared most about.

Dessa and her sister wove the same flowers in their hair. They said just the scent was enough to make a man lose his senses. They say the pure honey that dripped from the cut petals was enough to make you go mad. Maybe that’s what happened to Paul, the man who came from Earth for the mining company. Maybe he got too close and one of those snakes bit him while Dessa spun. That’s what some people say but people say a lot of things.

Here’s the truth. Paul was the man from Earth. He was there that day, the holiday, and saw Dessa dance with her sisters, the petals in their hair. He handed silver credits to Erica while Dessa spun and clapped when Steph called for the crowd to. Dessa was who he looked at, but she barely saw him. He was a miner and all miners were the same to her.

She saved her smiles for the strongmen in the crowd with their giant bodies and eyes like children. She could see their desperation, their desire to find a home. If they asked she told them how to go through the swamps to find the dry ruins past where she lived. Strongmen don’t need food, they live on the land, not moving unless they need. The strongmen that came to Midworld-3 just wanted peace. Sometimes they stayed and found it. Sometimes they moved on.

Paul, the man from Earth, was sent to act as foreman for a couple of turns around the sun. A good assignment if you could handle the stench they said because everything on Midworld-3 smelled like a swamp but that meant different things at different times of the year. Paul didn’t think it stank. Paul didn’t think much of Midworld-3 at all but a paycheck to send back to his wife who lived besides a cool ocean.

That day as she spun, the flowers in hair catching the sun as the braids whipped and danced around her, the bells she wore enticing the birds to sing back. Her sisters clapped and called with her shaking their hips as they shook their baskets around the crowd. Whether Paul had been enchanted by swamp flower wine or the scent from the ones she wore, whether he been bitten or not, this was true: Paul saw Dessa and wanted her.

When Dessa was done she did a little bow and her sisters scrambled to pick up the money the miners tossed on the ground at her feet. She held her lips in such a way that the drunk miners thought she was smiling but Paul saw she wasn’t and that made him want her even more.

Dessa, of no mind about it, turned with her sisters and arm and arm walked home.

Erica was the tallest of them and Steph was about Dessa’s height. “Let’s get some treats,” Erica chirped, “We got a lot of silver today.”

“Let’s count it before we spend it,” Steph cautioned, her voice low and smooth like smoke.

“We should get some groceries at least. Mister Robert had good fruit today,” Dessa said.

Steph nodded, “He did, we tasted some on the way to square.”

“Good harvest,” Erica agreed.

So they shopped in the little market area, the shop keeps happy for their business and behind them Paul watched as they moved from stall to stall between the few miner’s wives that came with their husbands and the poor souls who had come before them hoping to make the planet a home.

He didn’t follow them home, not that day.

They walked happy out of the small town and down the paths where nothing would hurt them. There were giant lizards and beasts that were all teeth and claws in the swamp. Less now then there had been when their mama was pushing them into the world but there still there, wary and hungry. The girls didn’t need to worry about that though. Midworld-3 loved them.

Their home was a shack, that’s what anyone would call it. The walls were cheap biobuild, the type supplied to settlers who were too poor to buy the good stuff. One floor but there were many bedrooms, enough for all of them but too many now that the boys were gone to other worlds to find their own fortunes and their parents were dead and ash sitting on the mantle. You couldn’t bury anyone on Midworld-3. The ground is too wet, the planet sucked whatever you put on it back into it’s core if you let it but that wasn’t the same as burying.

The sisters chattered and told jokes to one another while they prepared food and pulled wilting flowers from their hair. Outside the sun began to set and the lights flickered to life. Erica checked the traps for small animals to add some meat to dinner while Steph counted and hid the money around the house, “for a rainy day.” There were a lot of those but none that had rained enough. Dessa wanted to fix up the house, put in better build. Erica wanted to buy nicer clothes. Steph said no. She was the oldest.

“We got some critters,” Erica said holding up the traps. Inside there were three small rodent like creatures with green fur and long bodies, their sides rising and falling, eyes wide.

Dessa wrinkled her nose, broom in hand, over the table at her sister. “I hate dandans,” she said pouting a little for show.

“We eat what the water gives us. I’ll season them up nice,” Erica smiled knowing it didn’t matter. The sisters would eat them raw if they had to. That’s how it was on Midworld-3 but they didn’t have to so in the pot went herbs and seasonings. It smelled lovely.

Erica cooked, they bathed, and sang. They ate their meals and went to bed. They dreamed separate dreams and things were good.


Dessa sang to herself as she walked alone to market. Steph announced that there was enough to get a better roof and she sent Dessa to order it from the dealer. Singing she went early, her feet nearly dancing, her hair bereft of flowers catching the light of the sun turning the black to purple and dark reds in the light. The birds followed her, calling back her song.

“Hey there Dessa,” Mister Robert called her, motioning her over. He was cutting his fruits for sale, it was still early but the miners would be there for lunch and again around dinner. Once more in the middle of the night. They came in shifts and Robert sold them all. Behind him, his wife sat in the house, rocking in her chair, watching them.

She turned and met him at his stand. “Hmm,” she asked plucking a piece of fruit from the cutting board and shoving it in her mouth, sucking the juices.

“That man from the mines was looking for you,” he said pausing in his job.

“What man?” she asked grabbing another slice.

“You know him, the new foreman, come up just a few months ago,” Robert explained cutting another slice.

She shook her head, “I don’t know. You know I don’t deal with them folks.”

He laughed, a deep rumble that reminded her of her father, “Your daddy and mama taught you that much at least. But he said he was looking for you.”

She frowned, “Probably wants me to dance at a party or something. I’m not interested.”

Robert nodded, “You better tell him then. Name’s Paul something. Just ask anyone, they should know him.”

She picked up another piece of fruit and shook her head, “Thanks for the message. And breakfast!”

Then she was off, the message forgotten replaced by thoughts of a new roof filling her head.

He found her the next time she danced.

He waited. They only danced on rest days, that was the only day there was any money to be made. The sisters spent time in the square reading fortunes some weeks when credits were lower than Steph wanted them to be. But this week they were fine so they stayed away, watching the new roof grow over the old one. Erica worked on her traps and her garden. Steph did book work for people in the market. Dessa visited the strongmen, climbed through the ruins and wondered what type of people had built them. They washed their hair, brushed it, and rebraided it, sitting in a circle and singing. The sisters sang like birds.

And still Paul waited. Waited for her to come back imagining the curve of her hips. The way the sun played on her skin. The way her lips didn’t smile. Her odd beauty. He was rewarded for his patience. They came back.

Dessa danced and they cheered and clapped. This time Paul certainly reached for her and was bitten by her long braids. He gave them more silver than they had ever seen at once, he shoved it in the hands of Erica and Steph and his eyes stayed on Dessa.

The sisters threw each other sidelong glances that said watch out, this one is dangerous. But they took the credits all the same because silver was silver. They thought, he’s tipping the dance like everyone else.

He thought, I’m buying that girl.

When it was over, he approached her, pulling her shoulder to turn her back as she tried to leave with her sisters. He smiled. If you asked Dessa about it later, she would tell you that she remembered his teeth were white and his hands weren’t the hands of a miner.

“I asked after you, what’s your name?” he asked dropping his hand to her elbow.

She frowned at the hand on her and pulled her arm back, remembering the message from Mister Robert, “You’re Paul.”

He nodded, “So you did get it then? Why didn’t you come and see me?”

She shook her head, “I’m sorry but we don’t do private showings. Just here in the square.”

She turned and ran back to her sisters who frowned at the man as they took their sister’s hand. Ah, what could have changed in that moment? Maybe if they had told Mister Robert he could have done something. Maybe if Dessa had asked for the strongmen’s protection, the ones that waited at the ruins, they would have helped. But she didn’t. They didn’t. Midworld-3 loved the sisters but on its soil still marched the boots of men and was ran by the rules of men. Those rules say that dark girls who were too free must be punished. And what happens next happens fast.

The sisters didn’t think of it. Didn’t think of Paul. He was just another miner that wanted more than they were giving. They laughed in the market and Steph gave Erica some money for new dresses. They were happy.

Paul followed them home. He moved down the path, blending with the other passersby or maybe they just didn’t notice, so wrapped up in their own joy. It doesn’t matter the why, only that it happened.

Home, Erica still at market looking at clothes and Steph gone to help a neighbor make sense of a letter. They say that Dessa was alone in the swamp, that he only meant to help but that’s not true. She was at home, her sisters were away and he followed her.

He knocked but when she opened the door he didn’t bother to say anything. He just pushed her down kicking the door closed behind him. There was a knife, there is always a knife, a cruel joke to have to decide which way you’ll be penetrated. They say he was driven mad by the swamp flower wine he liked, a bad batch. They say that her beauty was such that no man could resist it. They say that he was covered with bites from the barbs in her hair but that’s not true.

Why Paul did it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that he did. He didn’t have the hands of a miner but he was a miner after all. So focused was he on his own desire he lost track of the weapon. Dessa snatched it up as he was finishing and plunged it into his throat. Everything that made his life let loose in and on her at the same moment.

When her sisters returned wet from the unseasonable rain she was done crying. His body was still on top of hers. She stared at the ceiling as they gasped and pulled him off. There were no words that needed to pass between them.

The two older sisters pulled Dessa up and together the dragged Paul out through the back. The rain pounded from the sky, thick as swamp mud. There would be no one out in it. Together they pushed and pulled his body out to the water’s edge and kicked it in.

Something large and reptilian rose from the water and snapped him up. This is true. One of those lizards that roamed the water ways but not so much in the inhabited spaces anymore came to the surface for the sisters. This was what Midworld-3 could do for the girls it loved so dearly. It wept that it couldn’t do more.

They didn’t return to the square. Dessa stayed in the house closed off in her room. People talked.

Two things didn’t take long. One, for Dessa to realize that she was pregnant and two, for the stories of Paul’s disappearance to spread. All the miners knew he was after the dancing girl. That he wanted that sister with snakes for hair. The girls that were too good to spread their legs for them when they asked.

It didn’t take long for the rumbling to turn to something more violent and bloodthirsty. For it to change from speculation to the belief that the sisters had bewitched and murdered Paul, good man that he was, good family man that he was. It didn’t take long to turn the beautiful, dark sisters into monsters.

Mister Robert’s wife came knocking on the door. A small woman. Her name was Thien. Erica opened it but Dessa stood at the hallway, only half hidden by the wall. The woman could see her swollen middle but didn’t say anything but what she came to say.

“They’re coming for you,” Thien said.

The sisters didn’t need an explanation. They had already been packing, knowing this day would come. They gathered their things. Clothing, traps, supplies and together they left walking quickly down the path that lead to strongmen and the ruins above the swamp.

The strongmen didn’t move as they walked past them. They had found a peace and because Midworld-3 loved the sisters, they fed the men. Long vines grew there with heavy fruits. Leaves made way to filter sunlight down on the giants that half slumbered under them. The four eyed birds landed on them, built nests in their laps. They were happy there and Dessa had given them that happiness.

 [ Strongmen, © 2018, Saleha Chowdhury ] The sisters hid in the ruins and when the mob followed them shouting slurs and holding weapons the strongmen stood up dropping the nests and vines that grew around them. They grumbled and roared at the intruders who dared come so close to the land Dessa had given them.

And the miners, who were not warriors like the strongmen, only drunk fools who wanted something and were so used to taking without asking, stepped back. They went back to their barracks and sobered up. They laughed at the idea of the mob they had been. They claimed the strongmen in the ruins were just a dream made from too much drink.

But the sisters were gone. There were no more pretty girls in the square and they were sad for it. This isn’t their story though.

The sisters made a life for themselves in the ruins. They trapped and ate what Midworld-3 gave them. They laughed and tried to forget what had happened but how could they? There was Dessa, growing larger every day.

She sang to the baby and tried not to blame it. She told it of Midworld-3 and its secrets. When it moved in her the strongmen sometimes put their big hands on her belly and smiled, pleased to feel life. They protected the sisters from the animals, the ones that walked on two legs and more when they came. Like Midworld-3, they loved the sisters but it was Dessa they loved the most.

Then it was time.

It happened on a sunny day when the air was not so hot and wet. The baby came as quickly as he had been made. In Dessa’s blood he was born, screaming from her womb just like any other child. He was not like the sisters though. His skin was pale, paler than the sun above them. His eyes were gray, and his head was crowned with a golden fluff of curls.

Dessa smiled at him while she nursed him and he ate greedily pulling milk into his mouth, taking from her what she gave. They both slept after a time.

The boy grew taller and bolder but never darker. His skin stayed pale, his hair was tight coils of gold when its real texture developed. He laughed and climbed up the strongmen who let him treat them like rocks.

In time, Erica and Steph moved back to the shack. It was much the same. Biobuild kept well on its own and no one in town would touch it. They boy would come to visit but he would return to his mama, who never left the ruins.

The miners whispered about Paul who had disappeared or told stories of bodies that were his but the truth is they never found a body. They never suspected that the boy with the golden hair was his, just that some miner had finally gotten a baby on one of the sisters. They spoke of Dessa in hushed tones, the madwoman of the ruins, the witch that turned men to stone with snakes in her hair who had killed good Paul. That’s what they said anyway. They still dreamed of her dancing.

The boy, they called him Gus, but he called himself Des, after his mother who loved him even though. It didn’t surprise them when he said he was leaving, going to the stars. That’s where the men went. He was wide, tall, and strong and they knew he would be fine.

They kissed his face and Steph gave him the credits she had saved, the rainy day was here but the storm fell only from the sisters’ eyes. And then he was gone and we won’t speak anymore of him because this is not his story.

But before this ends there is one more thing for telling. Dessa never left the ruins. She stayed with her strongmen and her birds. Her sisters visited her and they laughed and clapped and sang and Dessa danced. Her hair flew and the sun kissed her face.

They say if you go to Midworld-3 you can still find the sisters. That the planet loved them so much it refused to let them go. That the strongmen are still there, hands folded in their peace but the miners are gone. The earth became so disgusted with them that it finally swallowed them up.

That may not be the truth but it is true that Dessa is still there. That she still dances. If you find her ruins and her strongmen maybe you can see her. Maybe her braids will catch the sun for you. That’s what I say anyway. And my word is as true as anyone’s.


© 2018, Donyae Coles

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