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The Fairy Dance
The night was coming over Henri’s village, soft and feathery like a bird’s wing. Children laughed and ran in the dusty streets, their brightly colored toys flung merrily through the twilight. It was a peaceful time of day. The cows had been put in the barn, the cat was slinking back home. But Henri was still busy.
“Clara!” he shouted, marching down the road. “Where are you? If you’re not back here in five minutes, there’ll be no supper for you!”
His own stomach was growling. But Henri was used to the sensation now. After his parents had died in the fever of last winter, he and his sister Clara had become orphans, and poverty had set in.
They had once lived happily, and well. Mother would cook and clean and garden, and there’d be fresh basil for the meat Papa brought home from hunting. Now, there was no basil, no meat. There was barely any food at all.
Henri had been twelve when his parents had died. His little sister had been only seven. And though the villagers in the small hamlet of Clear Springs were generous and kind, they did not have the extra resources to feed two growing children.
So Henri had gone to work. Every morning now, he woke before dawn. He would go to the little garden in the back of the cottage he and Clara shared, and weed until the sun came up. Then he would hurry back inside, tidying up the house and fixing his sister her breakfast. After Clara had eaten and left for school, Henri would trek down to the blacksmith’s shop where he was employed. He’d stay by the blazing fire all day, working without rest, and stopping only as the night drew in. Now, his arms aching from pumping the bellows and his lungs full of smoke, he called out for Clara.
She appeared a few minutes later, wandering lazily down the street towards him. Her white dress was smeared with dirt, and hay stuck up in her hair.
Henri sighed. He would have to wash everything when they got home. Dinner would be late, and Henri couldn’t remember if they had any bread left. For even with all the work he did, they never seemed to have enough food. He frowned to himself, feeling exhausted.
“Why are you so gloomy?” Clara pouted. She hugged a filthy doll to her chest.
“It’s nothing.” Henri promised. He hated to worry her. “Did you have a good day?”
“I got homework.” Clara said dramatically. “Lots and lots of it. And George shoved me after school ‘cause I said he had too many freckles.”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t have said that.” Henri said absentmindedly. He wasn’t paying much attention to her, thinking instead about the food they had left at home. Maybe there’d be enough carrots left for a thin soup.
“What did you do today?” Clara called, skipping down the road. She paused, plucking a dandelion from the ground.
“Nothing exciting.” Henri said. “Put that flower down Clara. We have to get home.”
Clara looked up at him. “You’re no fun Henri.” she said, defiantly blowing at the dandelion until its seeds flew off.
“Fun doesn’t put food on the table.” Henri muttered in reply, not paying attention to her.
That night, as Henri lay in bed, a tattered blanket around him, the fairies came. They flitted from door to door along the quiet road, trailing sparkling dust behind them. Some doors they passed without pause, but at others, they would stop, tapping on the wood with tiny knuckles.
The chosen door would open immediately, as though the fairy had been expected. A child, neatly dressed in their best outfit, their hair freshly brushed, would smile in welcome, and slip outside, creeping away from their home. More and more children came, until a parade of them began to walk through the sleeping village, out past the cow pastures and fields of wheat, the fairies lighting the way like torches. Laughing and singing could be heard, in the high, crystalline voices of young children.
They went down into the forest, through ferns and over streams, until the procession reached a clearing. It was a large clearing, and full of sweet grass that shone under the moon. The children and fairies streamed into it, and stood there, waiting.
Then, softly, a song began. In the center of the clearing, a small band of fairies had appeared, playing on elegant, honey-colored violins. They were performing a springy, graceful waltz.
At once, the children began to dance, whirling around, flying, their arms linked. The fairies swirled among them, lighting up the dark in beautiful shades of pink and blue. The dance had begun.
Back in Clear Springs, Henri woke up suddenly. His heart was racing, his breathing fast, and he knew, somehow, that something was happening. His eyes could not see much in the dark of the cottage, but he could tell that on the bed next to him, where Clara should have been sleeping, there was nothing.
He got up, panicking, and immediately tripped over a lump on the floor. He looked down. It was Clara’s nightgown, balled up carelessly. Henri stared at it, confused. He went to her wardrobe and peeked in. Her best dress, the one their mother had sewn last year, was gone, as were her hair ribbons and leather slippers.
Henri ran to the window, glancing out at the silent village, wondering where Clara could have gone. And all of a sudden, he heard something in the air. It sounded like… like music!
Henri dashed down the stairs and threw open the door. Yes, he was sure of it, someone was playing a song! And who could that be? For this song did not sound like something his neighbors could play. It was fast and complicated, and otherworldly. And somehow Henri knew that Clara was at its source.
He ran through the town, not even bothering to put on his boots. The gravel bit into his feet, but he continued on bravely. Past the fields he went, towards the dark forest where his father had once hunted. Henri paused as he reached the wood, slightly afraid of what might be hiding among its trees. But, he reminded himself, Clara was in there. He must find her.
Henri hurried through the forest, and the music was growing louder and louder. “Clara!” he began to call. “Clara, Clara! I’m coming!”
He nearly blundered right into the party. Henri only managed to stop at the last moment, right at the edge of the clearing where the children were dancing. He froze, staring at the village children as they spun and leapt like ballerinas, laughing with each other, eating sweet pastries from platters carried by short, stout waiters.
And then Henri saw the fairies, soaring through the air. He could not believe his eyes. Fairies? He had thought they were imaginary, the best friends of young children before they knew better. But there was nothing else those tiny, glowing people could be. And the waiters… Why, they looked like dwarves!
Henri was too stunned, too focused on watching the dancers, to notice as Clara snuck up from behind him.
“Henri!” she called.
Henri whipped around, eyes wide. Clara was glaring at him. Her hair had been elegantly curled and tied back with satin ribbons, but it was tousled now. Her pale blue dress was wrinkled, and her cheeks were pink. “Clara!” Henri cried. He rushed towards her. “How could you have run away!” he scolded.
Clara sighed, shaking her head impatiently. “You can’t be here Henri.” she said. “You’ve got to go home. I’ll be back by breakfast, I promise.”
“Clara, I’m taking you home right now. You can’t be sneaking off into the woods. It’s so dangerous! What if you were eaten by wolves?”
She laughed. “The fairies protect us, silly! Don’t worry.”
“So those are fairies?” Henri asked, distracted from his concern.
Clara seemed to be getting bored now, shifting from foot to foot. “Henri, I want to go back to the party.” she whined.
“But… those are fairies then?”
“Of course.” she smiled. “They’ve been taking us dancing for years.”
Henri’s mouth hung open. He looked at the party again. On one hand, he was furious that this had been happening under his nose, without his knowledge. But on the other, it was such a happy scene. Everyone was so energetic, so merry… and Henri felt the strange urge to join in. “Is it- is it fun?” he asked.
Clara nodded, beaming. “The most fun I’ve ever had.”
Henri bit his lip. “Could I come with you?” he asked shyly.
Clara shook her head. “No, no. It’s not allowed.”
“Why not?” Henri asked, feeling hurt.
“You used to dance with us.” Clara said. “Every night we would come, and you were the best dancer of us all. But then you grew up.” she sighed. “The fairies took away all your memories of us, and you couldn’t come anymore.”
As Henri stood there, feeling overwhelmed and slightly disbelieving, she looked at him pityingly. “It was very sad.” she said. “And tonight’s the last night for Annmarie as well.”
Annmarie was a girl a year younger than Henri. She was outgoing and cheerful, and always laughing. He imagined she would not want to leave the fairy dance. But then, had he?
“Why did I grow up?” he asked quietly. Why had he ever chosen to leave the fairies?
Clara shrugged. “Maybe you didn’t have a choice.” she said. “That’s what the fairies say, anyways.”
Henri nodded silently. He felt like crying. Clara frowned at him. “If you’re so upset,” she said, “then I suppose you could join us, just for tonight. For one more time.”
Henri paused, staring at her in indecision. Then he smiled at her, and they walked into the clearing together. The music swept around them, and Henri began to dance.
He had never had so much fun. His body flowed naturally with the music. And as he danced, he could feel all his worries, the aches in muscles worked too hard, the exhaustion from long days and short nights, floating away, replaced by the wild song. Again and again, he jumped, he laughed. He scooped Clara up in his arms, twirling her in a circle. She shouted with joy, arms spread wide, her dress flying around her.
But then the sun began to rise, and the music ended. The children stopped dancing slowly. The fairies gathered them together, and they began to walk reluctantly home. Henri was the most reluctant, and had to tear himself from the beautiful clearing, from the sweet grass and the fairy orchestra.
When they reached the edge of the forest, the birds were already chirping. By the time Henri and Clara were nearing their cottage, the cows were mooing. But when he walked towards the gate to let them back in, Clara stopped him.
“Not yet.” she said sadly. “Don’t you remember? Grown-ups can’t know about our dances, or the fairies. They have to forget all the fun they’ve had, or they’ll never want to leave.”
And before Henri could protest, the fairies swooped around him, forming a multi-colored cloud of sparkles. They lifted him into the air, spinning him around, before laying him back to the ground. And the memory of the fairy dance was wiped away.
Henri woke up in bed later that morning. As he stretched, he thought he could detect a strange feeling in his mind. It was almost a… a longing. But for what? Though he tried, Henri could not remember.
He got up, and went downstairs. Clara was sitting at the kitchen table, swinging her legs back and forth. She looked up in surprise as he came in.
“Henri!” she cried. “Can we have pancakes for breakfast?”
“It’s may we have pancakes.” Henri corrected. He bent down to grab the frying pan, thinking. “I’ve got this strange feeling.” he told Clara. “It’s like I’ve lost something. Except I haven’t, have I? I just don’t understand it.”
Clara shrugged at him, sipping her milk. Henri blushed. “It’s a silly feeling though.” he said. But he still felt that something important was gone. Henri would have liked to stop and think about it properly. But Clara spilled her milk, and he had to rush to clean it up. Henri did not get a free moment for the rest of the day, and though the strange longing was strong and urgent, by that night he had forgotten it completely.