By John Thomas Tuft

I guess Peter Pan was right

Growing up’s a waste of time

So I think I’ll fly away

Set a course for brighter days…*

It is dark by the time we reach the gate. We got on the bus in downtown Pittsburgh at dusk and then rode for hours. All the windows are blacked out so we can’t see where we are being taken. We had all heard of The Dancing Ground and the mysterious Dancer, but it’s one of those things you are not sure if it’s real or you just want it to be real. Now in the dark, at the gate to The Dancing Ground, we catch the scent of Lake Erie on the breezes; wet moss, dust, pine needles and rotting seaweed. A dirt lane leads through the opening, and into the darker shadows of the trees crowding close. A faint yellow glow in the sky beyond the trees casts weird shadows that underscore how far off the beaten path we have traveled.

Staying close together, we step through the entrance and take our first steps into this realm, tentative at first, then more surely. Margie, 83, on my right is a retired nurse. To my left, Ted, 49, a politician from some level of government that requires lots of talk and hand shaking, the great hope of his party. Behind us are other curious souls, drawn toward a question we all believe that we want answered. The faint glow in the sky and the mists rising off the dew laden grass is like a bride’s veil separating us from this secret realm of hope and elation and fear and trembling. Suddenly a dark shadow appears, striding toward us, arms outstretched, the smoky mist swirling around him as he moves through it. “Welcome,” his voice booms. “I am the Guide.”

He is tall, his skin is dark, there are crumbs in his salt and pepper beard, and when his gaze rests on me I feel seen. Totally and completely seen. He is wearing an army surplus great coat, and there are many, many stains upon it. Some of them look fresh, even wet still. He sees me looking. “Yes, we have some new arrivals. But that’s why you’re here, isn’t it? To see them dance?” “It looks like blood,” I say dumbly. He rests his eyes on me and I’m suddenly feeling like crying but I don’t know why. “She is almost ready,” says the Guide. “Who?” asks Margie. “The Dancer, of course,” replies the one in the big, bloody coat. “Who is she?” wonders Ted.

“She is nine years old, a child who can neither see, speak or hear. She is the Dancer.” As the Guide says this, we come around the last bend and see the wonder of the Dancing Ground laid out before us. A field of grass deep in a bowl of the earth, surrounded by trees and cabins. On the floor of the Dancing Ground are hundreds and hundreds of candles in small, clear containers. “If she cannot see, or hear, or speak, how does she dance?” I ask. In answer the drums start up. Large drums in a circle in the middle, anchored to the ground. I can feel the vibrations through my feet and legs. The next thing I know we are in the sea of candles. In their light, I make out a large sword, balanced on its hilt, exactly in the middle of the light.

A small figure steps from the shadows and makes her way with delicate steps to the middle. As the drums fill our bodies, she begins to dance. The Guide murmurs so softly that I wonder if I’m the only one to hear it, “Adults don’t like to talk about what is real. “ The Dancer leads with her heart, lost in the beat of her soul seeking out the release that is offered to all. Faster and faster the drums pound and faster and faster she dips and twirls until, right before our eyes, the sword bursts into flame. At this signal, a procession starts down through the middle of the Dancing Ground. One by one, they step up to the sword, touch a candle to its flame, and pass right in front of us. I count nineteen, nineteen children. Then two adults, women who seem filled with anguish and pain. Just when I think it’s finished, a lone figure appears. He makes hesitant steps through the candles and pauses for a long moment at the sword. His eyes dart about, and I wonder what he is seeking here. Finally, he lights his candle and follows the rest through the glow of the Dancing Ground.

I turn to the Guide with questions. He wordlessly points to the horizon. I see the outline of a magnificent old schooner, all of its sails unfurled to the wind, making its way to shore. “For them?” I ask. He nods. “Who was that last one?” I can still feel the ground tremble. Or maybe it is my own heart, as I hear him answer, “He’s the shooter.” A look passes across his face that I have no words to describe. “The children insisted…”

Find the second star, I’m soaring

Then straight on to the morning

And I know that I’ll be fine

Cause I know Peter Pan was right

Words are magic and writers are wizards.

*Peter Pan Was Right, 2022,  Song by Anson Seabra/Jeremy Fedryk, performed by Anson Seabra.