High above the lofty rowan trees the wind swayed, lifting fallen pink petals and blue streamers and corpses of lightning bugs. The sky was heavy blue, threads of thin clouds wavering uncertainly across, and beneath, hidden among the marigolds and loamy moss of early spring, lines and crossing pathways of flickering globes lay in a patterned dance.
Crowds of people gathered under every tree, every globe, around every burdened table and streaming maypole. The tables overflowed with bursting red fruits and dripping meats and steaming mulled wine.
Ladies in tilled bluebell-colored dresses and slim strands of sea-pearls hanging on their brows held bubbling glasses of tomato hued liquid and tilted their heads up and laughed to the sky. Men in white shirts with blue lace around the collar pulled boughs of grapes off the nearby climbing vines and threw them high into the air and caught them in their mouths.
Old huge moths flitted from globe to glowing globe, around the ladies’ hair and men’s flying grapes. The rectangle swath of trees decorated with the globes was a deep, mature forest, thick with moss and shy deer in the spring and myriads of colors in the autumn.
Morne closed her eyes and leaned her head back at the sky, still pale blue with hues of new pink. The clanging music and laughter ached in her ears.
“Anywhere but here.” The words came as a gasp, out her mouth and whipped into the air by the wind.
The rowan and silver oak trees were hanging with Spanish moss, paper globes tied with twine dangling from each branch, brushing against each other in every breeze. Creeping phlox and high, arching loosestrife flooded the ground with color, while careless children and other partygoers trampled them underfoot, smashing the rich dewy blossoms into the dirt.
At the center of the rowan trees was a pole, a maypole, standing high into the heavy clouds above, painted pink and gold with streamers flowing from the top, long and wide, heavy cotton streamers. As the afternoon died in a crescendo of gold and red, a line of ladies and men holding hands snaked from the edges of the trees toward the maypole.
The evening rose, the moon full and heavy, china roses falling from every star’s lips.
They held hands, a lady, then a man, then a lady, all in order, eyes bright and head thrown back in laughter up to the yellowhammer singing full-throated at the moon. Those not holding hands formed a circle around the dancers and started clapping, three quick, one slow. The ladies flashed bright teeth and glowing eyes and the men bowed down to the ground, holding out a hand.
In quick succession, everyone took partners, greeting them with a smile, and everyone in unison began to dance. Stomping, twirling, under, over, clapping once your turn had come to rest.
The Imbolc Woman that year was Morne, and she stood on the edge of the circle, not watching the beautiful, beautiful mad dancers, sweeping in and out in separated circles. The waiting ladies had dressed her in a light, bubbly dress of yellow, with overlaying and underlapping folds of silk and cotton and lace. In the corners and forgotten tucks of the fabric a flower had been sewn, picked the morning before, blooming meadowsweet, dolled-up azalea, floods and lines of witch-hazel lining the hem like piping.
Crawling lovage was her collar, and a circle of dogwood flowers crowned her pale bowing head. Between her fingers were red snapdragons, and around her bare feet were cut irises, still dripping dew from the plant from which they’d been taken.
The ladies stood behind her, whispering.
“Why doesn’t she dance? Imbolc is for her.”
“Dance, Lady Morne,”
She turned her head, delicate snowdrops dangling from her ears. Her red hair curled elegantly around her neck.
Morne silenced them. “I don’t dance.”
Gaby, a short woman in a gaudy orange dress bigger and better than any other, save Morne’s, stepped forward. Her eyelids were painted and curled all the way to her temples. Her voice was sickly sweet and soft, dancing lies colored red in her irises. She walked with a graceful swagger, and the other ladies, dressed in cottony white or pale blue, stepped backward.
“But my lady Morne, Imbolc is for you. How horrible to your waiting ladies and gentlemen and those who chose you if you neglected your duty to the celebration of Imbolc by not dancing or participating.”
Morne could not listen. Her ears were burning. Goosebumps rose on her arms when Gaby brushed her wrist with a single finger.
“Step back, Gaby,” Rosthlyn said.
Morne let out a gasp. “Rosthlyn!” she said. “Oh thank God you’re here.”
Rosthlyn took her by the arm and walked grandly in a circle round the bright-faced dancers, still singing and clapping. “Of course I’d be here, idiot, on this special day. Imbolc Woman! What an honor!”
Morne groaned, un-linking her elbow from her friend’s. She was overheated. “I’m sure it is. I have no idea why I was chosen.”
Rosthlyn laughed. A trail of lupines fell from her golden braided hair, and Morne bent to pick it up. Rosthlyn threaded it back through a braid and replied, “Yes you do. A fine lady of deportment, dressed gaily always, with a bright spirit and leader of dancing and truth… You know why.”
“It ought to be Gaby, not me. I’m none of those things. She dances and laughs and…”
They both stopped and watched as Gaby, laughing, accepted the hand of a man with hellebore poking out of every buttonhole. He swept her into the center of the dance, closest to the maypole, smiles as big as supernovas.
Morne groaned again. “I can’t do that. It should be her.”
“But it’s not.” Rosthlyn said, taking a cube of blue cheese and popping it into her mouth. “You’ll have to accept that. It’s only for one night. Tomorrow it will be normal again, and next year it’ll probably be Gaby.”
“Can I leave?” Morne whispered.
Rosthlyn laughed. She passed a man with a monkey on his shoulder and chucked the creature under the chin.
“Sure,” she said. “It’s your Imbolc. Whatever you want to do.”
Morne smiled and ripped the crown from her head and the snapdragons from her fingers. “Thanks. I want to get out of this dress. Will you come with me? Yesterday Mr. Phrenneapsis told me he’s got a new copy of Last Essays of Elia and I wanted to check it out.”
“Sure,” Rosthlyn said. “It’s evening, your duties are over, no one will notice you’re gone.”
“Will they?” Morne rubbed her arm uncomfortably where the witch hazel had broken through the lace and brushed her skin.
“They’re so drunk now they wouldn’t notice anything.”
Morne sighed and looked around at the bouncing globes in the trees. “You’re right.”
“I’m always right.”
Morne turned. Her friend had a smug but delighted look on her face, like she was barely holding in a laugh.
“Okay then. Okay.”
Morne took Rosthlyn’s hand and they stepped quietly around the cheering drunken dancers, tipsy with light and bubbles and laughter and alcohol. Through the dim silver oak and rowan trees without globes, past magnolias filled with sleeping birds and bedraggled nests, out towards the dark and quiet sweetgrass fields surrounding the Imbolc festival.
The air was cool and uncrowded. Amid the celebration the air was hot and cluttered and claustrophobic, but out on the sweetgrass plains with the stars shining down, the air was free and the moon bright. Morne let her shoulders relax.
“You know Mr. Phrenneapsis won’t be open at this time of night.”
“What do you want to do instead?”
Rosthlyn put her hand to her chin as they struggled through the thick grass.
“Ooh, I know, let’s get ice cream.”
“You know, Helma’s, on the square.”
The girls linked arms again and made their way towards the road, two girls in gaudy, awkward dresses, a path of fallen and broken dogwoods and snapdragons littering the path behind them, illuminated in the misty moon.