Summer of the Dancing Bear, Guernica Editions 2012, is a novel about the “rite of passage” of a fourteen year old girl befriended by a gypsy clan. It is set in the countryside near Belgrade, still reeling from the horrors of the Second World War.
“Bianca Lakoseljac’s debut novel, Summer of the Dancing Bear, is a mesmerizing melange of love story and mystery, as young protagonist Kata explores the unfamiliar world of the gypsy tribe that has befriended her and embarks on a quest to discover the fate of a neighbour’s missing child. Memory and magic play their roles until the shocking denouement that reveals Kata’s own family secrets and forever alters her perceptions of life as she once knew it. Engaging and original, the novel fuses history, myth, and tradition in a whimsical literary voice that reminds us that the complex and innocent humanity in us is too often haunted by human tragedy.”–Elizabeth Abbott–shortlisted for the Governor Genearl’s Award 2010 for A History of Marriage.
For more information about Summer of the Dancing Bear please visit the Guernica Editions website.
Check out an interview with Bianca Lakoseljac on OPEN BOOK TORONTO, At the Desk: Bianca Lakoseljac At the Desk interviews in our archives.
SAMPLE FROM CHAPTER 1:
Searching the Wells
my dress in rags
jewels of stardust
my home gypsy carts
i sing and dance
for copper coins
and i sell cookie hearts
Perched high up in the crown of an old cherry tree, eight-year-old Kata sat in her hideaway, humming a tune. The melody repeated itself in her thoughts, gathering resonance from voices in the past until it reached hypnotic proportions and she felt that she could touch it – touch the voice if she kept her eyes closed and carefully extended her hand out into the summer breeze.
For the last two nights, she had been listening to music drifting over from the distant gypsy caravan. She could identify the sorrowful duet of violins, the deep echo of the gigantic double bass, and the imposing rumble of the accordion that, to her dismay, drowned out other instruments. And then, well into the night, when the caravan seemed to be sleeping, she discerned a gentle singing voice she thought must belong to a beautiful gypsy fairy. It was carried aloft by the sweet, melancholy notes of a violin, but not like violins she’d heard played from house to house earlier in the night. Sitting on the window ledge in the moonlight, hidden from her sleeping Grandma and the world, she watched the long shadows swaying over the courtyard’s flower garden and wished the crickets would stop the incessant chirping that muffled the gentle melody. She hoped the voice would return every summer, and that someday she might steal out into the night and find the singing fairy.
But now, from her post in the cherry tree, she wished the mystique of the previous night had not dissipated in the haze of afternoon heat. Below, the fruit orchard sprawled on her right, and the two-storey yellow brick barn loomed on her left. The main house, glaring in whitewash, stood behind her, the guesthouse in front. The courtyard between the houses seemed overstuffed with the two linden crowns towering over the exuberant flower beds down in the shade and a blazing rose garden in the sun-drenched circle in the middle – all enchained by the rusty iron fence and gate.
Kata revelled in her seclusion under the cool canopy of boughs, as she inhaled the familiar bittersweet greenness of the foliage. Spotting a bead of leaching cherry sap, she scraped it off the bark and nibbled on the tart, gummy substance. She found the odd shrivelled cherry the robins had missed, hidden beneath drooping clumps of leaves. She gazed through the branches at the fields. Then, through the sluggish sway of the wheat, a cloud of dust twisted up like a small tornado, staying close to the well-trod path. Finally it popped out of the field, the dust dissipating to unveil her friend and classmate, eight-year-old Miladin.
He was riding his horse – a long broom fashioned from twigs. He held the broom-handle between his legs, the branches trailing behind. Head cocked to one side, neighing loudly, whipping the branches behind him with a stick and shouting “giddy-up,” he sprinted to the gate. As she watched his thin arms and legs flail out of sync with his body and his slightly oversized head wobble on his thin neck, she felt a twinge of guilt for secretly naming her new string puppet after him.
The large iron gate squeaked as he pushed it open and galloped through.
Hoping to remain unnoticed, Kata carefully climbed to a higher row of branches. But Miladin headed straight for the tree.
“Whoa!” He commanded his horse to stop next to the rope swing suspended on a branch below her, and continuously jogged in place while hitting the broomstick behind him and shouting: “Whoaaa! Whoaaa boy!”
He finally dismounted and tied the rope he used as reins to the wooden seat of the swing.
“Your horse better not rip my swing off!” Kata shouted.
“I was gonna tell you something, but now I’m not.” Miladin struggled up the smooth bark of the tree. Eventually, he reached the fork of three thick branches and sat across from her, separated by the tree trunk.
She scowled: “You’re sitting in Maja’s chair.”
“Well, she isn’t here, is she?” He widened his eyes and puckered his lips wryly and Kata marvelled at the soft dots of mauve bordering his pupils.
Rolling her flute between her palms, she raised it to her lips and blew a low ominous note.
“Ha! You think I care? I’m not afraid! There is no magic in that flute.”
They staged their usual ritual of spiteful remarks. Then Miladin began to climb down.
She stuffed the flute into the bodice of her faded flowery dress, retied her long dark hair into a high ponytali and followed, careful not to step on his pale knuckles gripping the branches below her.
“So aren’t you gonna ask me?” Miladin blurted as they faced each other at the base of the tree.
“What news do you bring now, Hermes?” she snapped, imitating the wobble of his head and rolling her eyes, feigning boredom.
“That’s name-calling. You broke the rule!”
“It’s not! My grandma said you’re just like Hermes! He was a god, you know! Flying around, bringing news! It’s not name-calling!”
Violet eyes lit with excitement, his thin face crinkled in mischief. He hunched his back, chin jutting, and clasped his left fist with the palm of his right hand. She thought he looked like a barnyard rooster, ready to take on any and all comers.
“Everybody’s searching,” he whispered, with a devilish grin.
“Searching for what?” she asked.
“I’m not gonna tell you.”
He mounted his broomstick horse and rode off.
“That’s just like you!” she shouted into the cloud of dust billowing behind him.
She returned to her perch in the cherry tree and watched him vanish into the path in the wheat field, until all she could see was the shimmer of hot air above the expanse of yellow.
And then, to her astonishment, the field transformed into the Wheatfield with a Reaper, a painting she had recently seen at the Vincent van Gogh exhibit during a class excursion.
The exhibit surfaced in her memory – she, face to face with Van Gogh’s masterpieces, heart pounding, hot air rising to her throat. Her classmates pushed and played silly games, obstructing her view, oblivious to her need to bask in the vibrant colours and the frenzied curves and the warmth of the swirling sun and the swaying wheat. She needed to immerse herself in the landscapes blazing under the summer heat, penetrating her vision, her whole being.
Back home, she had gone to the well-thumbed picture book of Dutch painters Grandma had given her. Gazing into the paintings, she had realized she was a new person. For her, blossoming orchards, sunflowers, irises, wheat fields, the sunshine, the clouds, the well-trod path leading to her friend Maja’s house would never again be the same. Van Gogh’s icy-blue stare had pierced her own vision and opened a breach through which all life took on a new meaning. All things, animate and inanimate, were infused with new light and shadow, and with the swirl of a brushstroke were instilled with a mystical power. For the next little while she existed in a frenzied state. Her body dwelled on a farm in her little village Ratari, but her mind drifted amongst the paintings in the National Art Gallery in Belgrade, 40 kilometres away, absorbing the aura of a genius whose hands had painted… no… created… breathed life into the images that now possessed her.
The wheat field below began to sway, and the Wheatfield with a Reaper came to life. She closed her eyes and the inscription under the painting appeared on the canvas of her vision: Van Gogh described the ‘all yellow, terribly thickly painted’ figure as Death, who reaps humanity like a wheat field. The yellow symbolically derives its power from the sun, which is the painting’s source of light.
That is precisely how the field before her now appeared. Complete, with reaper – except that this reaper was swinging his scythe back and forth, back and forth – harvesting the wheat.
She slid down the tree, ran across the yard to her grandmother, who was sitting in the deep shade of a linden, and asked who was the reaper harvesting the wheat. Grandma looked at her curiously. She paused, removed her spectacles, set aside a bouquet of herbs she was carefully tying with a string, and finally answered: “Today is Sunday, my little swallow. No one harvests wheat on a Sunday.”
“But there is a reaper in the field behind the barn,” Kata whispered. She ran – cutting across the rose garden, barely missing the razor-sharp thorns, oblivious to the rosy hues of rumpled petals she usually collected – back to her perch in the tree.
But now the reaper was nowhere to be seen – just the oscillating mirage in countless shades of gold.
She slid down again, ran to her grandma’s room, and retrieved the book on Dutch painters. She flipped back to the painting to ensure there was a reaper in the canvas. And yes, there he was – about to swing the scythe, and as always – frozen in his stride.
“Did you see him swinging his scythe, Deda Mihailo?” she heard her own timid voice. Warily, she peered into her grandfather’s black-and-white photograph, still hung above Grandma’s headboard fifteen years after his death. If his all-seeing eyes, if his all-knowing presence could not reassure her, who could? Didn’t Grandma say that he had built this large estate, planted almost every tree with his own hands, and that he watched from above all that transpired on his land? Didn’t Grandma ask him to give her a sign each time she was, in her words, in dire need of his guidance?
Kata considered asking her mother about the reaper in the painting, but quickly dismissed the thought. It was easier to talk to the ever-calm face of her grandfather. Although he had died before she was born, through her grandma’s recollections she felt she’d known him for as long as she’d been aware of her own existence. She’d been heedful of his dreams and aspirations, his successes and even his failures, his ultimate folly, in Grandma’s words – of allowing himself to be killed. In fact, she felt she knew him better than her own aloof father, even better than her unpredictable mother. Her parents taught grade school in the nearby town Obrenovac and spent their weekends and school breaks on the farm. Living with her grandmother, she was accustomed to their absence. During the summer, she dealt with their presence by keeping out of their way. This was easier than she first thought. They existed in their own worlds, separate from each other and separate from hers, as if they were all complete strangers.
She waited patiently, flipping through the pictures of paintings, recalling the canvasses from the gallery, glancing at her grandfather’s image on the wall. But he gave no sign. He continued overseeing with those serene eyes, a likeness of which she would sometimes glimpse in her mother’s when she was unaware of being observed. His portrait remained steadfast in its role of family timekeeper, stamped in the corner with an imprint, 1945, Belgrade Photo Studio, reminding everyone of the time no one could ever forget – the end of the war, and the year of her grandfather’s disappearance.
Clutching the book against her chest, she ran back out. As she stood on the high verandah unsure where to turn next, whom to ask, her gaze drifted again to the wheat field in the distance, beyond the barn.
She stood motionless, sweat flooding her forehead. In the distance, where the reaper had been, now a dozen people or more were holding hands, linked in a human chain, sweeping the field. They shifted and swayed, flattening the sea of yellow below them, hollering, undistinguishable sounds floating on still air.