Tuesday, 3 January 2012
Tabulae mundi mihi, The Island
The Boy Who Danced with the Sea
No one in Munfrees knows when the boy lived, but everyone agrees that it was long ago. The oldest people in the village say that their grandparents told them that the boy lived many years before even they were born. Nor does anyone know the boy’s name. Some of the Aherns say that he must have been an Ahern because half the villagers are Aherns and it is more than likely that he was an Ahern too. Kevin Garrighty was drunk one night at the pub and tried to claim that the boy was one of his ancestors. His brother Conor set him right by pointing out that the boy was only a lad when he disappeared and could not have fathered any children and that Kevin should look elsewhere to account for his stupidity.
But everyone agrees that the boy was mad and that the music caused his madness. ‘It captured his soul as soon as he heard it and he was never right after that’ is how old Mrs Ahern put it when she told me the story. That was the first time I heard about the boy. I had been wandering by the ocean, peering into the small pools of water left by the receding tide in the clefts of the black shale rock that lines the shore. They were filled with activity—snails crawling on bits of seaweed, barnacles topped by waving fronds. Occasionally a tiny fish startled by my appearance above its world would dart towards a haven within a pool and lie motionless. I was following the movements of a minuscule blue crab when Mrs Ahern saw me and stopped to tell me the story of the boy who danced with the sea and what happened to him.
‘The priest was away to see the bishop and the villagers decided to hold a dance. The priest had warned them against the fires that music feeds and forbidden dancing but no priest has ever been able to quiet the blood of the young or the desire of the old to relive their youth. Everyone in the village took an unholy oath not to tell the priest.
‘They gathered down by that open flat space at the lower end of the village, next to where the pier is now. That was before they built the stone wall to moor the boats. There was just a sand beach surrounded by the black rock. They had only small boats, small enough for one man to row, and they pulled them up on the shore beyond the reach of the waves and turned them over when they had finished for the day. The musicians sat on one of the boats. There was a fiddler and a drummer. It was St John’s Eve and the light was still high in the sky. Even so they built a fire to mark the night as we have always done in Munfrees, priest or no priest.
‘The young ones gathered in a ring around the fire and the old ones sat in a circle about them. The boy was thought too young to dance, and his grandmother held him on her lap. The girls wore their best dresses and shoes and bound their hair with bright ribbons bought from the peddler. The young men wore knee breeches and covered their calves with stockings and put shoes with bright brass buckles on their feet.
‘When the fire shone red on their faces, the music started and the dancing began. The young men capered. One brave one was the first to jump over the fire and that started the rest of them. Each of them tried to leap higher than the others. The young women lifted their skirts so that their feet in their slippers and the ribbons tied round their ankles could be seen as they danced on their toes. The fiddler played faster and faster and the drummer beat louder and louder. The old folks began to clap and shout to encourage the dancers.
‘Then the boy slipped off his grandmother’s lap and began to dance. Dance like no one in Munfrees had ever seen. Later they said that he had the Devil in him. He spun faster and faster. His feet moved so fast that no one could see them or trace his movements. He leaped higher and higher until he was soaring in the air above them. The fiddler and the drummer couldn’t stop. The faster the boy moved, the faster they played. The boy drove the other dancers into a frenzy. Their faces grew red, redder than ever fire was. Their breath tore at their lungs. The blood burned hot in their bodies. Their feet blurred. Even the old people rose to their feet and began dancing. They clapped until their hands blistered and their throats grew hoarse with the shouting. Even stranger, the fire burned brighter and brighter and higher and higher, though no one was feeding it. But no matter how high the flames, the dancers, man and woman alike, leaped even higher.
‘They danced throughout the night, never tiring. It was like Munfrees had been cursed by the music. When the first light came over the hills, the fire died, the musicians stopped, and the dancers fell to the ground. Those pretty slippers the women wore to attract the men and show off their slender strong ankles and hint at their legs were danced to rags. The horsehair on the fiddler’s bow was tattered and fluttered in the wind. The skin on the drummer’s drum was thin, so thin that one more beat would have broken it. The men’s jackets and trousers were split at the seams. Aye, it was a sore-looking and tired group that greeted the dawn that morning in Munfrees. They were too stunned to speak or wonder at what they had done. They dragged their weary bodies home and fell into their beds to sleep throughout that day and the next night too.
‘All except the boy. He watched the villagers stumbling home. “Come back, come back,” he cried. “Keep dancing. Dance with me.” But the villagers ignored him. One by one they entered their houses and closed their doors, leaving the boy alone in the open space by the boats.
‘When the boy saw that no one would dance with him, he turned his back on the village and walked between the boats down to the sea. It was one of those mornings when the waves are ripples on the surface of the sea, barely lifting the water. It was more like the sea was whispering against the land, breathing quietly, each incoming wave little more than a foam hissing for a foot or two across the sand. The music was still loud in the boy’s ears. He hummed a bit of a tune and danced a step and then another. A line of footprints formed in the wet sand by the water’s edge, some shallow where he had put his whole foot down, others deeper where he had capered on his toes. It was like he had written a record of the dance on the sand.
‘The prints filled with water that gleamed in the light. A wave surged higher up the sand than the others and tugged at the sand, softening the footprints that the boy had left. The boy danced back across the sand. A second wave erased the new footprints. The boy laughed. He danced back and forth between the waves. He moved so quickly that the sea never caught him. As one wave ebbed back into the sea, the boy would streak across the shore, leaping and turning to the music in his head, and jumping onto the rocks at the edge of the sand before the next wave came in.
‘ “Dance with me,” he cried to the sea. And the sea laughed and began to dance with the boy. Caper for caper, turn for turn, step for step, they moved as if they were one, now drawing apart and inviting the other to follow, now coming together and smiling flirtatiously at each other. No pair of lovers have ever danced so joyfully as did the boy and the sea. The boy’s ears filled with the music of the dance, the beats of the bodhrán sounding from within the waves, the fiddle’s tune in the wind.
‘It was early morning when their dance began, while Munfrees lay in the shadow of the hills to the west. Far out at sea the sun shone on the water, making a great pool of light. As the sun rose over the hills, the light rushed toward the shore. It was like a golden path on the surface of the water. But the boy had no thought for anything but the music and the dance. The waves leaped higher and higher and moved faster and faster. “Dance with me,” the sea cried. The lover called to the beloved. The path of light bedazzled the boy’s eyes and befuddled his senses. He danced along the golden path, leaping with the waves, until he was far out to sea. And still the music gripped him.
‘That was the last the villagers saw of him. When they awoke the second day after the dance, the area between the boats and the sea was filled with small footprints, but that was all that remained of the boy.
‘Still, sometimes, when the sea rages towards the shore and the wind catches at the waves and blows the water off the top of them, if you look closely, you can see the boy dancing along the waves as they curl. The men who go out to fish say that when the sunlight shimmers on the water far out at sea, they can see someone dancing there. And there are those who swear that on quiet nights they have heard voices coming from the sea, one deep and full and one high and thin like a child’s, saying “Come dance with us. Dance with us.” Those who have lived to tell the tale say it is hard to resist that call. Their feet begin to twitch as if the music were beckoning them to take to the floor. They need all their will to turn their backs on the sea and close their ears to the music. But there are some who cannot resist, who dance away with the sea and are never seen alive again.’
Mrs Ahern turned her gaze away from the sea and looked down at me. ‘So, young Patrick Brennan, it is wise to be careful around the sea. It can take you away if you are foolish enough to listen to it.’ She held out one of the pails she was carrying. ‘Here. Take this. You can help me milk the cow. I hear you are good at it. Your hands aren’t rough from work yet, and the cow likes you.’