Whirl, Dervish, Whirl

Melissa Wiley

Whirling dervishes do not whirl. They spin slowly as spores, in no hurry to reproduce into another unflowering fern sprouting yet more sex cysts down its spine. Carried from one mosaic tile to the next by no wind and no breath, they rotate like languid ballerinas atop a music box whose melody is just beginning to unravel into the strum of fingernails on a broken pane of glass. Their conical hats look overtall, their faces needlessly smooth and nacreous, with sprigs of beards just dark enough to remind you these are men beneath their billowing skirts. The play of the lute behind them gradually extinguishes the body of desire, a body that is turned more than turning, palms thrust up like platters, weighted with only apples of air.

Like the planet itself, whirling dervishes have nothing in particular to do, nothing beyond revolving round an axis reaching down their rib cage, tickling their genitals, and groping the space binding their feet. Yet, they are wise enough to spiral slowly so as not to grow dizzy. And this, as everyone who has ever spun on an island of sparse green grass knows, is not easy to do. Because sooner or later, you fall on our head, where your body is hardest, but also houses the most holes. You escape, for a time, within your own small wind tunnel among a dune of decaying leaves, but you do not still the pulsing between your legs. Your vision blurs, you no longer see the line where firmament meets land, where the sun retires behind a harrowing silence, but that is all. Your head hurts for nothing.

But dervishes are seekers, not runaways. They twist themselves slowly as any reasonably round, blue-eyed planet would while pursuing the divine, though they wisely name no names. For my part, I don't much care who spins the spheres or why. My only concern is this longing that refuses to abate, that forces me to turn fast as a dying orb of light, into an eddy dark enough to conceal the silhouettes walking shoals sinuous as alligator tails on the other side of the window.

But the music was slow, slow enough for us to smell the aniseed vapors the lute exhaled in between strains. The most beautiful man of the five was the only one who did not open his eyes when he turned, though his eyelashes were long and he may have done so as clandestinely as the rest, because I closed my eyes at times, too, sitting stationary, legs crossed, on a folding chair with uneven legs.

Earlier that afternoon, my husband had bought me an evil eye tied to a rope so short I could see the pendant, smaller than a ladybug, only through a mirror the salesman held to my chest. Wearing it now, I still have to feel for its pupil, raised like a nipple I know is black and lightless, because I have never bought a longer rope. I joked with two Australian brothers taking our same three-day tour that this was my way of reminding friends back home I'd been to Turkey, but that wasn't true. Few would notice, those few who noticed wouldn't ask, and beyond that, I liked the idea of an eye that never blinked. That would keep watch for the parade of beautiful bodies while I blindfolded myself to their neck's silken scythe.

Turks, to their credit, believe in evil, only the kind you can stare down with a hard enough gaze. But before there is evil, there is pain. And before pain, love. And before love, sometimes there are letters, hundreds of letters filling splintered shoeboxes lining the back of your bedroom closet, written to no one with any face to put any name to and never sent. Letters you wrote during summer thunderstorms wearing your mother's rose satin nightgown, falling past your feet and to her knees. When you loved no one of identifiable form or feature, as the dervish loves the divine. When the ache for love as yet unmet alone was enough to assure you there was a divine because one person or two or even three or four, you knew even then, would never absorb the longing that continued, like light, traveling beyond any face irradiated in an otherwise empty corridor. They are, you know now, letters to yourself, your attempt to keep from careening outside your orbit while your rotation accelerates.

Passing each other as if by chance around the sun, planets exchange their share of sidelong glances. This you see clearly now, after you've fallen to the ground from another spin, long past writing love letters to no one as you are. It is so hard to be a world unto yourself after all, forever traveling your own lone orbit. Forbidden all collision. Something unsatisfying in the wholeness of heavenly bodies. Something strange in the estrangement from all touch.

But then planets are nothing but fire at their core, stars enshrouded in sand. Pacing the galaxy, pulsing with light, they feel burning at their navels, but cannot see; they divert themselves waiting for stray asteroids' abrasion, looking on at evil from farther a distance than they quite like. Because whatever carnage it wreaks, evil smells of petrichor, of air after a storm. Coming and going as it does, leaving you aching for further flaying. The ache that outlasts the fleeting violence being its own kind of pleasure, the scar the only consolation for no further scarring. Better an unhealed wound here and there, after all, than skin always smooth as an olive.

Running water over my hands in the restroom outside the mosque after the dervishes had done with their dance, I looked at the eyelids of the woman beside me in the mirror, eyelids once smoothened by fire. Eyelids that coruscated more than the soap that had since run out of the dispenser. Turning off the faucet, she shook her head, saying there was never any soap in holy places, when I looked into her eyes, misshapen into oblong pools of black honey, and agreed—God made good hygiene impossible—and laughed without quite knowing why. I said I had some lotion in my purse and held the tube high above her hands, letting it fall like viscous rain, because I did not know if she would want me to touch her. The fire had burnt all the lines off her palms as well as ironed the skin encircling her eyes, and I wondered, for the first time, if you could have enough touch. If I would look for no more stray asteroids myself at that point. But as it was, I left the bathroom, confronted the face of the dervish with whom I would have liked to spin into a hot, dark wind, and realized that until my own fire came, I would keep waiting for another crash.

A sophomore in college, I met Tom on the train traveling back to my apartment from the Greek diner where I worked nights as a waitress. He was tall and 28, with brown-green eyes that stared off in two slightly different directions, the left looking always just beyond me and above my shoulder. He had a girlfriend named Paula I never met living in a near suburb and seven siblings I never met either. As an undergrad, he had majored in philosophy, but was now in medical school where I was, reading literature and starting to smoke cigarettes in bed. He was rereading Kafka and fantasized about committing suicide by way of asphyxiating himself with screes of books on a near nightly basis, and we talked on the phone more than we saw each other in person. Occasionally, however, we would meet in the dining hall or library foyer, standing together in line for the coffee machine, when he would smile, look down toward my chin, and tell me he had never seen such pretty lips. Though my top lip has always been overly thin. Though he saw my mouth clearly with only one eye.

One autumn evening, he began walking me home when I told him I was going to make bread and that I needed to buy more flour along the way. He interrupted me, correcting my pronunciation and telling me to say "floor," not "flower," when I started laughing so much I didn't bother stopping at the grocery store, but made us two green pepper omelets instead, which we ate on plates we balanced on our knees sitting on the raspberry couch I'd found in the alleyway the month before. Then, after scraping the uncooked albumen into the sink, I sat back down beside him, when he began pressing his hands into my lower back and whispered he'd like to give me a massage.

A few months earlier, my roommate had painted our living room walls a matte mustard with maroon trim on the molding. Casting one eye over our north wall and another over our east while I lay prone across the couch, Tom asked why we had painted the room the colors of McDonald's when I shrugged, asking him to ply his hands deeper into my shoulder blades. But a few minutes later, he asked again about the walls' color. Still lying with eyes closed, with my shirt dangling from the lampshade and my back relaxed into a lazy river, I mumbled that I'd had no choice, that my roommate was an autocrat, when he suggested we use the leftover maroon propped beside the litterbox to paint smiling arches across the sliding closet doors, long since fallen off their hinges.

So I sat up, opened the can of maroon with a rusted screwdriver, and watched Tom paint twin parabolas wide across both doors, letting streams of paint drip like blood from a fresh laceration onto the fawn carpeting. Then he unhooked my bra, shoved me against the refrigerator, and painted my nipples the same color as our molding before washing me clean in the shower, leaving the porcelain around the drain stained a lurid, pink penumbra.

Later that evening, my roommate switched on the living room light, demanding I buy another can of mustard and cover over the arches before the weekend came. But no matter how many coats I applied later, their ghost refused to vanish, though Tom since all but had, almost killing himself each night without me now. And as I read late into the evening on the couch while staring up into the sea anemone limbs of a decaying dogwood, his arches reappeared like a revenant, straddling their legs too wide to resemble any corporate logo. If we saw each other on campus, one or the other of us would now change direction.

The easiest thing in the world, a dervish knows as well as anyone, is not being loved by another person. Best to keep spinning, eyes all but closed with empty palms upturned.

I did not love Tom, not as I had the faceless men who had once filled my shoeboxes to bursting. But I had loved someone telling me I had pretty lips. When he rubbed the sponge like a pumice stone across my breasts in the shower, my nipples felt as if he had set them on fire. And for weeks afterward as the sensitivity dulled, I missed the pain, stabbing and sharp, like a phantom limb. Whereas the ache that took its place swelled like a storm cloud inside me, the rain refusing to break.

When my roommate moved back to Minneapolis in the middle of spring semester, I threw our TV in the dumpster and made nine loaves of bread I let harden into stone and never ate. Then I sat so still on the end of the raspberry couch I could feel my pulse inside my toes and fingertips, because I did not yet know how to spin without becoming dizzy. I sat watching my chest rise and fall, rise and fall, my lungs collapsing and refilling themselves, with something close to wonder. Then I bent over a blank canvas on my coffee table and painted a portrait of my grandmother.

During the French Revolution, weather vanes with cockerels at their crown displaced all the crucifixes in all the churches, a process known as desanctification, though I can't help regarding it as a holy transformation. Because, though I have left off praying for this life, I have spun slowly in the dry August grass, asking the wind at my fingertips for the cockerels' return. For the priests to leave the doors open, on either side of the nave and in all seasons, so the breeze will turn the cockerel continually around, so it will point in no one direction for long. So that inside every house of God there will be a body always at dance, wind blowing it which direction it will. A painted metal bird atop an altar with nothing but moving air for a lover. The wind's breath the closest to the scrape of a falling asteroid the cockerel will come.

The photograph of my grandmother, as a bride at 27, stood luminous and sepia and fading for three weeks on my windowsill, framed against a dogwood tree just beginning to flower. When I handed her my portrait at Easter, she held the canvas loosely from one corner with two fingers, letting it dangle in the air like a tasteless fly caught in a derelict spider web. She never framed or hung it, just dropped it in the back of her closet beside a mountain of moth ball boxes. Poor with color, I had painted her skin too dark an umber, but the likeness was apt; I had replicated her face's stern ovoid structure and some of her eyes' hazel rage. Her chin, I realized while staring into her three-quarter-turned face, was large in proportion to her narrow cheek bones, her upper lip too thin.

But her lovers would have forgiven these things. And in later years I knew she had them, one her older sister's husband for a time. And the more I studied her face and body to render it as accurately as I could, the more I realized they would have had much to forgive, small breasts and wide hips and flaccid mouse-colored hair that, nevertheless, sportively kept its curl.

In the end, when her husband took his own mistress and divorced her, she was asked to do the larger share of forgiving, a feat she delayed for decades, until all such strength she may have once had to do so atrophied like the muscles of her arms, into reticulated flesh wings that lifted her no higher off the ground. Until she did little more than spend whole days in bed smoking cigarettes while reading novels with scrolling gold titles on their covers, hero and heroine locked in agonized embrace. Had she forgiven him, she would not have consigned my portrait to the bowels of her closet, I do not believe. Savoring the petrichor of asteroids she had once tempted near, she would have seen some beauty there, however darkly I painted it.

If you whirl yourself with sufficient speed on the dewy summer grass, you can forget for a moment that you have not been loved enough. You can shed the erotic film that clings to you like sap to tree bark, making you sticky with desire, unable to brush against a strange man in an elevator without adhering to his elbow, making him tear himself forcibly from your side rather than slide silently through the door closing tightly as a tulip at dusk at the sound of an electronic bell.

But if you spin slowly as thought itself, your skin breathes through a layer of nectar too sweet with longing for anyone to suck overlong. And you understand why the most beautiful dervish is the only one to keep his eyes closed. You no longer wonder about the shape of your lips or who will be the next person to kiss them. You listen to the lute's silence and are, for a moment, comforted.


About the Author

Melissa Wiley is a freelance culture and food writer living in Chicago who seizes every opportunity to walk barefoot with half-painted toenails through airport security and stammer in pidgin tongues. Invoking the memory of her parents, her mid-century craftsman on the Island of Misfit Toys, and the beauty of caterpillars, her creative nonfiction has been published in a number of literary magazines.