I wait and watch for her.
The cotton-grass fights the wind, bending its tresses to tangle with the heather. The cold is pitiless as the night rises: it swells my fingers. There’s the blue-grey dash of a wheatear in the grass; one flick of his tail and he vanishes as if he was never there. If I had been one of the Nine Dancers, villagers turned to blocks of stone for their sin, I could have watched the moor change from brown to purple to silver-frost until Judgement Day and I would never have caught her eye.
But instead I wait for her and I pray she doesn’t come… and I pray harder that she does.
I first saw her shoe: grey kid with a pinked trim. The girls I know wear bulled leather on their feet, proofed against farmyard muck and bog water. I glimpsed her skirt next; a pale blue ground sprigged with red roses, like a garden growing in a clear sky. I believed myself already in love.
Then her face appeared from behind the Priest- the broadest of the Dancers. One look from her grey eyes and I was lost. She was hiding from my sister Anne, the two of them playing hide-and-seek like they were children again. The girl with the sky-blue dress caught my eye. She smiled; she shook her head and held a finger to her lips to seal a promise. I nodded, blushing with pleasure to be her accomplice.
She had me then, with one look, one finger, her lips curled in a smile.
She watched me over the edge of the box pew. Even though my back was turned I felt her eyes burn through my collar stud, heating the skin beneath until I flushed and my neck grew damp. I didn’t hear a word of the sermon.
In the churchyard afterwards she stooped to tie her lace, leaning against a headstone cracked by frost and rain. Shaded by a bough of yew she sank into a tangle of ivy, crunching fallen epitaphs underfoot. She was blinkered by the wings of her bonnet and couldn’t see me. I thought to speak, but my tongue felt swollen, trapped behind my teeth, so instead I passed by, her skirts brushing against my legs. A sudden wind tangled me in petticoats; I stumbled free, leaving her to stand alone.
I thought of that moment often; the brush of her poplin dress on the back of my hand and the smell of lilac and skin.
I knew she was not human the first day she took my hand.
It was May Day. The sun was so hot that we tied wet kerchiefs round our necks to cool us. The fiddler stood beneath the market cross, his foot keeping time. I do not dance, but she took my hand anyway. I followed like a sheep follows the lead ewe even though it can hear a blade on the whetstone. Her bones were so slight that I daren’t close my fingers around her hand in case I crushed her. Her skin felt cool but my palm burned. She smiled. I couldn’t.
The music ended and the fiddler sank to the grass to drink his ale. I was left gasping. She walked away, stealing one backward glance.
There were other times: her hair twisted around my fingers: the touch of her lips on my neck: her smell that lingered on my shirt. There was a time in the darkness, the scratch of hay against my arms. That day her skin burned me again and on coming away I felt scarred down to the bone.
There were other times: watching her turn away when I tried to catch her eye: her cheek flushing under another man’s gaze: waiting alone in the dark, not knowing if she would come, my fists bruised on the wall.
By the time my skin turned cold under her touch it was too late for us both. A worm had burrowed inside me, leaving me hollow; each wink she threw made me shiver, every stroke of her finger was like the scratch of a nail. I would check myself for wounds and was surprised when I found none.
I was cruel. But that was when she loved me best.
Last night we were together by the Dancers. It was dark when we arrived. It grew darker still; the only light the moon and its reflection in a blade.
Now I can feel myself growing solid again, the hollows in my body filled. My toes are planted in the shallow soil and soon bog moss and sundew will grow around my ankles. I am turning to rock, but the change from flesh to stone doesn’t hurt me. All my pain has vanished and the burning of my skin has eased. My heart slows; I can feel the pulse through my arms, in my head, but soon it will stop. My skin will turn grey-green like the other Dancers and I will swell their ranks: the Priest, the Surgeon, the Midwife, the Blacksmith, the Brewer, the Thatcher, the Dame, the Fiddler and the Hound. And beside them, us: the Lovers. We are drawn, one to the other, the damned to the damned.
Something moves, like the sun has risen from behind the moor… like a garden of roses planted in a blue sky.
She takes my hand.
Lynn Love is a short story and novel writer based in Bristol, England. She is a founding member of the All Write Then writing group and her short stories have appeared in the anthology ‘Still Me’, with all profits going to the Alzheimer’s Society. As well as continuing to write short fiction, she is currently working on a time-travel novel for young adults and is developing a supernatural thriller.
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