Salome Was a Dancer

A celebrated author recasts the story of the girl who asked for John the Baptist’s head.

By Margaret Atwood

Salome went after the Religious Studies teacher. It was really mean of her, he wasn’t up to her at all, no more sense of self-protection than a zucchini, always droning on about morality and so forth, but he’d finger the grapefruits in the supermarket in this creepy way, a grapefruit in each hand, he’d stand there practically drooling, one of those gaunt-looking men who’d fall on his knees if a woman ever looked at him seriously, but so far none of them had. As I say it was really mean of her, but he’d failed her on her mid-term and she was under pressure at home, they wanted her to perform as they put it, so I guess she thought this would be a shortcut.

Anyway, with a mother like hers what could you expect? Divorced, remarried, bracelets all up her arms and fake eyelashes out to here, and pushy as hell. Started entering Salome in those frilly-panty beauty contests when she was five, tap-dance lessons, the lot, they’d slather the makeup on those poor tots and teach them to wiggle their little behinds, what a display. And then her stepdad ran the biggest bank in town so I guess she thought she could get away with anything. I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t some hanky-panky going on in that direction too, the way she’d bat her baby blues at him and wheedle, sickening to watch her rubbing up against him and cooing, he’d promised her a Porsche when she turned 16.

She was Tinker Bell in the school play when she was 12, I certainly remember that. Seven layers of cheesecloth was all she wore, there was supposed to be a body stocking underneath but whether there was or not, your guess is as good as mine. And all those middle-aged dads sitting with their legs crossed. Oh, she knew what she was doing!

Anyway, when she got the rotten mark in Religious Studies she went to work on the guy, who knows how it started but when they were caught together in the stockroom she had her shirt off. The teacher was growling away at her bra, having trouble with the hooks, or so the story goes, you have to laugh. If you want what’s in the package you should at least know how to get the string off, is what I say. Anyway, big scandal, and then he started badmouthing her, said she was a little slut and she’d led him on, did some innuendo on the mother just for good measure. Everyone believed him of course, but you always knew with Salome that if anyone’s head was going to roll it wouldn’t be hers. She accused the poor jerk of sexual assault, and since she was technically a minor—and of course her banker stepdad threw his weight around—she made it stick. Last seen, the guy was panhandling in the subway stations, down there in Toronto; grown a beard, looks like Jesus, crazy as a bedbug. Lost his head completely.

Salome didn’t come to a good end either. Tried out for ballet school, Modern Dance was what she thought would suit her, show a lot of skin, centre your thoughts on the pelvis, bare feet, fling yourself about, but she didn’t get in. Left home after some sort of blowup between mom and the stepdad, midnight yelling about Miss Princess and her goings-on, furniture was thrown. After that she took to stripping in bars, just to annoy them I bet. Got whacked in her dressing room one night, right before the show, too bad for Management, someone clobbered her over the head with a vase, nothing on but her black leather macramé bikini and that steel-studded choke collar, used to get the clients all worked up, not that I’d know personally. Saw two guys running out the stage door in bicycle-courier outfits, some sort of uniform anyway, never caught them though. Hit men set on by the stepdad is one rumor, wild with jealousy. Guys get like that when their hair falls out. It was all the mother’s fault, if you ask me.


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Margaret Atwood’s books have been published in more than 35 countries. Her novels “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Cat’s Eye” were shortlisted for the Booker Prize; “The Blind Assassin” was awarded the Booker Prize in 2000; “Alias Grace” won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy; her most recent novel, “Oryx and Crake” was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and the Orange Prize. She lives in Toronto with writer Graeme Gibson.

Excerpted from The Tent, by Margaret Atwood. Published by Nan A. Talese, an imprint of Doubleday. Copyright 2006. Reprinted with permission of the author.


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