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The Dancer and the Dance.
 

It must have been over fifty years ago that it happened. I was a young man then, and was the best man at a friend’s wedding one Midsummer Eve. It was a great party, plenty of food and dancing. Good booze too, but that was the trouble. People were drinking so much that the wine ran out.

As best man, I had to be sure the party didn’t fizzle out, so I and another man went down the road to get some more to drink. It wasn’t far, just down the road past the green hillock.

We were bringing the drink back, when I heard some music. It seemed to come from the hillock, and sure enough when we got close to it there turned out to be a door open in the hillside, and crowds of people dancing.

I saw at the entrance a young woman with golden hair, which seemed to have a green tinge to it that matched the light green of her dress. She invited me in to join the dance.

Well, you know me. Even now I try to dance when fiddles or flutes are playing fast music. In those days I was a dancing fool and could never resist a dance. Once I danced with such fervour that the musicians said that I had danced till they had no energy left for playing.

So I accepted the invitation, and left my companion to carry all the drink himself, though he urged me to remember the party we had come from. I danced with that young woman, both as a couple and in sets. And then I danced with a tall red-haired woman wearing dark green, who seemed to be the centre of the gathering, the ruler of those people, and the heart of the dance.

Suddenly I noticed an old woman sitting by the fire. I could see her fingers and feet tapping to the music, and thought she would have loved to dance if she had been younger. So when the music changed to a very slow tune, I went over and asked her to be my partner. As I had thought, she was a wonderful dancer, moving slowly but performing intricate steps that were almost too much for me to respond to.

Shortly after, the lady of the dance offered me some food. The food and the drink looked wonderful, but I had eaten and drunk so much at my friend’s wedding that I refused. She asked me several times, but my stomach could take no more, and I continued to refuse. I thought she looked a little annoyed, perhaps also disappointed, but she finally said, “Well, as you’re so sure, I won’t offer again tonight.”

I continued dancing, first with one then another. My head was in such a whirl that at times I couldn’t tell if I was dancing with the young woman, or the old one, or with the great red-haired hostess.

Suddenly I felt a pull at my sleeve. My companion had taken the drinks to the wedding party and had come back for me. “Come away” he said. “Come away quickly”. “What’s the hurry” I replied “Another few minutes dancing won’t harm me.” As he continued to pull me away I wondered why he had stuck his penknife into the door-frame, and why he was looking anxiously at it.

Finally he pulled me out of the dance and through the door, and I was angry with him for doing so. “You could have let me dance longer,” I said, looking at the hillock in which no door was now visible. “I’ld have come back in a short while.” “A short while” he said scornfully, “It is a year and a day since you left the wedding, and no-one had any idea how to find you. It’s lucky you didn’t eat or drink anything. If you had, then you would have had to stay there for ever and I wouldn’t have been able to rescue you.” But to me it seemed that his action had not been a rescue.

I’m old now, and my memory keeps going back to that night when I danced better than I had done ever before or since. My mind sometimes dwells on the young woman who first invited me to dance, at other times on the great stately woman who was ruler of that land, and at yet others on the old woman whose feet knew every dance step there ever was and ever would be. The words of the lady of the dance resonate in my mind. She did not say that she would not offer me food again, but that she “would not offer it again tonight.” You can be sure that I will not refuse when she next offers me food and keeps the promise she made me so long ago.

Wood and Water
83, Summer 2003
© Daniel Cohen

Notes

This is based on a traditional story, told in the ‘Fairylore’ workshop at the Society for Storytelling’s annual meeting in 2003. There are many tales of those who were abducted to the Otherworld or chose to go there, and it can be a less pleasant and more dangerous place than I showed it. The best-known are the two ballads of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin. Good fantasy novels based on these themes are Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner and Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones. Nancy Springer beautifully describes that world as the land of “Fair Peril” in a fantasy novel of that name (about a storyteller!) and Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies is an essential warning to those whose only view of the Folk is through a glamour. A brilliant children’s book on the theme of abduction to the Otherworld is Catkin by Antonia Barber, illustrated by P. J. Lynch, who I feel sure has seen the Folk.

I avoid the five-letter word beginning with ‘f’ to describe those beings, as they don’t like it. Many people call them “The Good Neighbours”, “The Gentry”, or by the Irish name of Sidhe or the Welsh name of “Tylwyth Teg” (“People of Peace”). I’m even more cautious, and usually just say “Them” or “Those Folk”.

It is said of them (as quoted in An Encyclopedia of Fairies by Katherine Briggs):

Gin ye ca’ me imp or elf
I rede ye look weel to yourself;
Gin ye ca’ me fairy
I’ll work ye muckle tarrie;
Gin guid neibour ye ca’ me
Then guid neibour I will be;
But gin ye ca’ me seelie wicht
I’ll be your freend both day and nicht.

 

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Picture - artist unknown.