THE MAD HAPPENINGS OF THE MONA LUKA
The Mona Luka was a dancer. She was a dancer and the island rejoiced in this skill, fueled it as bees fuel flora with filmy mouths and stingers. She was conceived beneath swaying boughs, and mangoes that throbbed with an internal gravity, after all, so it wasn’t a surprise that she grew up mimicking that tantalizing swoop! of nature, with figure-eights through fields of maize, upon the island with its pools that winked.
To reiterate: the Mona Luka was a thing of imitation, molded by the swish of fin and whooping weeeees of the larks that lined her sill. But perhaps this skill may be credited to the fact that her name so resembles that of another work of art, which sits to this day, hairless round the eyes, as if anyone may have the liberty to insert themselves into her hollow face, with their own furrowed brows and vast range of expressions. See, the Mona Lisa is a thing of party masks; anyone may climb in and try a sip of it, the mural-bound life. Maneuver your way around these tourists now, try not to stare into their flash-machines or you’ll see spots, careful, don't trip on her frame, it is bulky and gilded and adored.
Perhaps with this in mind, one can claim it was, for certain, the parents that triggered the skill, for her name, her strategically placed namesake, had suggested a profound artistry since birth, as the rest of the islanders groomed the craft in her through calculated expectancy. The Mona Luka is going to France, they said. The Mona Luka is a gift from the gods. Bundles of friends filled up her living room, her mother kicked them out, they came back, giggling, stripped naked in her garden fountain. They offered her presents wrapped in wax. They slipped cozy notes under her doormat, laced with dizzy-wicked ballads of love. They whistled when she walked by, which whittled the air in her throat, because oh there was never enough air in times like this, when their fluid words left her slitting her wrist upon an anchor’s fluke as it soared up to greet her, dripping silt— and she’d cry out, the whys and the how did we get heres, yowling thick yowls at God!
And sometimes God would reach down his pretty hand and pat her on the head, easing her gloom. He’d tell her that her burden would be lifted soon. He’d tell her the story of how, at one point in time, strange men had raided the land, picking its plums as a child picks scabs, stamping its beach with their red-eyed horses so that the sand billowed into the air, and the islanders feared they’d stamp-stamp-stamp their merry ways to hell if they did not stop stamping with their hooves that singed holes deep into the ground.
This was the story of the West, and their invasion of the land some years ago, which left its native inhabitants scant of resource and prickling for a lick of cash.
But it was okay, God said, because at least they had the Mona Luka. The Mona Luka, with her twisting flesh and great heave of the spine. Her performances were by far the greatest source of revenue for the financially strapped land. Belgians, Greeks, Malaysians, they came on battered boats, on jets discreetly fueled. They slipped money into her mother’s purse. They left.
This had been the fulfillment of the Mona Luka since the day she was born (which occurred at the purfles of sea, of course, where all great things are born). Her mother and father had witnessed her potential the very instant she had exited the womb, for, as the legend goes, she had been dancing, even then— baby arms whizzing madly, cloaked in blood, her eyes gagging on sunlight. She danced and she danced, in the mulchy slues of the shore so beautifully her father and her mother could not bear to watch it stop. And with a mind so impressionable, it was easy to instill the fabled line: the Mona Luka is a dancer!
Her father wrote it on her wallpaper in a fine, permed cursive. Every night, her mother stood in her bedroom doorframe with a knife to ensure she would not escape.
And here, a star was born. Profit stuttered in, slowly.
In her youth, the Mona Luka loved that spotlight, she’d bask in its pearly-gold-gutted glow, she’d bring cookies and shortcake so hunger wouldn’t lure her out of it. But as the years grew by, she grew tired. Their applause was molasses to the joints. Her bones felt heavy always, except in privacy, unvexed by prying eyes. They left knock-knocks on her window as she slept. At school, the other students stole her pens to write love notes. There goes Dear Mona, as she dove into a locker. Shy Mona, there she goes, they’d follow her as she hid thronged beneath a table in the cafeteria, dripping, dripping, ketchup smeared on her knees. Do a little dance, just the one.
And one time, she did.
Typically, she’d spend her lunches huddled stubbornly in shadowed places, but this time, she had had enough; she just wanted them to stop. Slithering out of the table, she had leapt atop of it and danced her curdled heart away, her black hair wafting and wafting, her hips rocking like a pendulum in the noontime humidity. “Yes!” she cried. “I am the Mona Luka!” And she uncoiled her form so gracefully, her schoolmates forgot their own names; they forgot the lunch trays like wreaths in their hands, the hand-me-down denim smothering their thighs. Aye! yelped those watchers at her feet, and they passed starched crescents of bread between them, jumping and slapping their knees. Nothing could pacify the kids that day. School was let out early. And from that point forward, the Mona Luka ate lunch in the math room, isolated, under administrative suggestion.
For, oh, it wasn't atypical for one to lose oneself in the Mona Luka’s movements, to become muted to the horrors of the world (when she passed, sailors crashed their ships into the harbor, and birds flew tickle-whizzing into trees).
Yet she continued to put them in her trance, again and again, because they begged and begged for the opportunity to just forget, to rest their napes back on gelid cushions; to forget how long ago, those pinched men had arrived and tore the island apart. They had thrown every man in jail, at night they screamed Shakespeare at donkeys, they sent letters in hot-balloon-bottles aimed towards stark lands which according to the men were all powerful, and would grant profit to these sun-bleached goons. “Tourists are a great deal,” they’d bark, passing apples to the imprisoned men, “we’ll build water slides, we’ll build tracks that’ll loop-de-loop, we’ll build hot dog stands and puckered carousels and shops.” But those queens and kings never did come, so one day, the pale men had trekked solemnly to the jailhouse, shoulders slack, unhinging each cell with dim eyes. “Our apologies,” they had cooed simply, and with that, they sailed away on godforsaken rafts, with their horses and everything, leaving nothing but a pit which lay scantily frosted with the seeds of foreign flora.
As is the Mona Lisa, the Mona Luka was a mocking thing: she mirrored these images with swift, galloping strokes, then she stared back, blankly.
And when she wasn’t twirling in a sequined dress, or spooning marmalade in the creases of some older man’s bedroom, she could often be seen wandering the patchy roads of the island, darting wildly to avoid staying in one place for too long a time. She hated the catcalls and the hollers, that mutual greed, the way men’s buttons would hum ever so slightly as she flickered by.
But she couldn’t help venturing out, at least once in awhile. The island was quite beautiful, after all—they had built roomy, slouchy bungalows whose windows sat gaped as lips; they slathered the walls in all sorts of petalled things so the chimneys spit magnolia and when one opened their front door, the flowers could be seen, cascading past one’s doormat to fringe the streets. It’s so beautiful, they would chime. The tourists will come. Gold coins will adorn us. But often, gold coins were none, and this brought ever more burden to the Mona Luka. Spin faster, they’d call. The Mona Lisa is bound to the boxes, as are you.
She dreamt often of running away, nurturing that muse with daily walks to the sea’s perimeters where she was born, letting her toes soak in its chilled, foamy broth. She imagined herself splayed out across the deck of some rusty ship, the sun like fish bait, luring her towards a bustling civilization.
Once in awhile, she could see cruise ships in the dewy-blue distance, sauntering nearer and nearer in the most tantalizing way, as if their captains, bored senseless with the same old routes, had ventured into no-man’s lands to test the naivety of their passengers (who, of course, sat oblivious behind winded walls, wrinkled in chlorinated pools with martinis in their hands, lips poised on the rims). But few ships ever ended up docking. And even when they did, the visits were brief, the tourists imbeciles who tucked wads of money deep into her cleavage and asked her to do a little shimmy, just a quick one, for a hundred bucks.
Perhaps one day, when the right ship arrived, she’d find herself a man — a real man — one who’d stroke her as she lay cradled in his mattress, undancing, still beneath a stratum of quilts. Perhaps she’d wander cities great and tall, where headlights blink pellucid between the bookstores and the juice shops, all sky-high and buckled up on each other, the fine kinds of establishments which will forever remain untainted by salt.
But deep down, she knew her daydreams were a hopeless cause.
Perhaps to the island she was a messiah of sorts, but to the rest of this sullen world, she knew she was nothing.
So she braided kelp in her hair, she attached clams to the ends of her fingers, she danced like a baboon, her stamina blunted, her limbs unwavering, clumsy— an intentional feat. The neighbors clapped. She wished they hadn’t.
The clams turned her fingertips to pulpy knots of blood.
So in the mornings, she liked to wake early and nod down the road that led to the harbor, careful as if trekking rum bottles, and here, in the sand, amidst the thoroughly-elbowed crabs and the bloated tide, she’d dance, softly, when no one could coo at her or throw toothpicks or applaud. And one day, she danced until the salt laced her thighs and the sun had risen fully, sucking the sea back to reveal the milky clots of jellyfish that the Mona Luka must have treaded as she danced but had not noticed in her bliss, letting the shocks of their barbs join her ever-hefted accumulation of ecstasy.
The villagers found her at noon, her belly rising and falling in wracked breaths, blisters blooming on her feet and her ankles. “Dear God!” they shrieked, they flung themselves into the sand, they threw their arms up into the sky, towards the fog— “The Mona Luka must never die, oh no!”
And it was true. Hours later, as she lay writhing on a cot at the hospital, pulse barely drafted, eyes pulled into her head, that line thrummed along her barely-flexed conscious: The Mona Luka must never die. And with that, she dazzled the saddest of grins, eyes yellowed and grief unchanged, reminiscent of the grins of long-finished paintings, and the villagers cheered, for oh she smiled the great grin of life! The Mona Luka, her heart purrs tender, they said, the Mona Luka is a blessed thing of God!
They left chocolate and plums on her bedspread, their daisy chain of bodies winding up out of the hospital, into the sea. The nurses kicked them out, they came back.
They always came back.
Angelica La Marca