by Robert Dawson
In the great hall, the dancers are finding their places: fifty couples, a hundred? The two lines, of women and of men, stretch into the distance. Almer has never been in so immense a set. With feigned confidence he leads Maryne to a gap in the lines. They wait, holding hands, silent among the babble of voices and the wail of tuning fiddles. Overhead the candelabra flicker; in the shadows at the edge of the hall the lords and ladies sit waiting, and the commoners stand behind them.
Three mighty knocks echo through the hall, and the dancers hush. The musicians play a four-bar introduction, and the Great Dance begins. Nobody calls the figures: on this night, this night of all the year, they dance from memory. One and two and three and four; forward, backward, spin in the middle. Almer's lips brush Maryne's cheek. Six and seven , back in line. The intricate weaving of the Ivy Vine figure brings a plump brunette with a mischievous grin toward him. He puts his right arm around her pillowy waist, spins her, guides her on toward the next man, and takes Maryne's hands again. Across, back, turn in place, and the wheels of faint candlelight shadows glide at their feet.
The traditional figures continue: Green Man, Fairy-hill, Queen’s Bridge, Snowflake, cunningly ordered and linked so that at the end of every section, Almer and Maryne have changed places with the couple above them. They work steadily up the length of the set, meeting fresh dancers with every section. Most are strangers, though a few are familiar. Where has he met that tall woman with the raven-black hair? There is no time to ask: he passes her on the right, and reaches out once more to Maryne, who squeezes his hand and smiles. They're approaching the top of the set now. The next figure is Moon and Stars, a difficult double figure with eight dancers. They weave, duck under the arched arms of the other six, and emerge at the top.
Almer takes a deep breath. For this section they are the head couple, dancing their own steps, outside the sets, moving neither upward nor downward. He takes Maryne tenderly into his arms and they dance in a world of their own. Too soon, the final cadence of the section approaches and they must rejoin their lines. He glances down the room: by some trick of perspective, the set seems smaller from here, the people lining the sides of the hall fewer.
The music changes and shifts into a minor key. They work back downward; in each figure, their parts are different now. In the Queen's Bridge, Almer and Maryne now form the arch: in the Knot, it is they who weave around the other couple. And the set is getting ragged: sometimes there is a gap in the line, and one of them must go through the motions of dancing with somebody where there is nobody.
The next figure is the difficult Flying Cloud. Almer passes Maryne, turns right, and weaves three places up and down the line. He gets back, swings the next woman, and reaches out—but Maryne is not there: in her place the plump brunette smiles up at him. He looks around for Maryne, sees her further up the set, spinning in the arms of a tall man with a heavy beard. Somebody has lost count or taken the hands of the wrong person. Maybe it was him. He wants to go and rejoin Maryne, to shout for the music to stop, but he knows he must not do it: the Great Dance must continue to the end.
He spins with the brunette. During the next figure maybe he can figure out a way to restore the proper pairing, to get back to Maryne. But no, she has moved further away from him. She's dancing back toward the head of the set while he and the brunette dance down the room. His new partner seizes his hand and pushes him into position to begin the Green Man. He goes clumsily through the figure, reaching out late, sidestepping too early and jostling another dancer. He looks again, trying in vain to see Maryne in the crush of bodies. Though the dancers are still far too many to count, he startles to realize that the once-mighty set is less than half its original length. His partner pulls him roughly into position and glares at him.
Through figure after figure she steps expertly, while his feet have forgotten every dance step they ever knew. The set seems to get smaller almost with every turn; yet the hall beyond is empty, nobody is walking away. It is as if the figures of the dance are leading the dancers away, one by one, to some far place. There are only a few dozen dancers now; Maryne must be at the far end somewhere, hidden behind somebody taller. Mustn’t she?
They form into circles of eight for the Tower. Circle left, circle right, seven and eight. Hands still joined, the dancers step forward, raising their arms straight overhead, until they stand pressed shoulder to shoulder, almost face to face. For four beats they hold the pattern, then turn, all at once, to face outward.
The other circles have vanished, Maryne with them. He cannot stop now: perhaps this sequence will take him too, take him to wherever she has gone. He grasps the brunette's right hand once more, steps awkwardly past her, and reaches for the hand of the next woman, but there is nobody there. Has he made another mistake?
He turns, slowly, alone in the echoing hall.
Robert Dawson writes science fiction, fantasy, and poetry. He teaches mathematics at a Nova Scotian university. In between times, he enjoys hiking and cycling, and plays soprano recorder and EWI. He is an alumnus of the Sage Hill and Viable Paradise writing workshops.