Tonight, is the spring dance in the alder grove. The village maidens are coming dressed in their finest for the path back will be dotted with hopeful men.
The young women arrive in ones and twos, each looking slyly at the others, weighing her own beauty against theirs. In truth, they are all beautiful for they have the energy of youth. Here now, see Sally, her chestnut hair pinned back so the clear, bright skin of her face shines like a miniature moon. Ever practical, she starts to build the fire in the center of the glade.
There is Lucy, teased by the others for the mole on her cheek – a natural mark which happens to be just where the harlots paint their beauty spots. She and her best friend, Annie, giggle their way to the hawthorn tree which sits on the opposite side of the glade from the entrance. They hold hands and curtsy somberly to the Queen of the May, before rushing to help Sally.
There are six maidens now, and seven. The eighth comes breathless into the circle, laughing and red in the face. The men have started to gather.
The young maids chatter in pairs and threes. Huddling around the fire, distractedly throwing twigs on as they wait. They need a ninth. It is the reason that Nessie pleaded with her mother to allow young Betty to come though she is not yet fifteen.
At last the ninth arrives. Angharad’s skin is duskier than the others. Her hair is black as crow feathers. Her eyes as dark as wells. She looks around the circle at the expectant faces and almost flees. She is only here to make the ninth for them and offers no genuflection to the hawthorn.
They organize themselves into a crowded circle around the fire. Each takes from her pocket some trifle from the young man of her dreams –a twist of thread, a lock of hair – and mouth the youth’s name as they toss it into the fire. Angharad names no-one. She believes too much in the magic.
They step back and link hands. Sally goes first, beating out the rhythm with her free hand on the drum around her neck. Annie leads the melody, with her strong clear voice. The women start off slowly, stamping an echo to the drum, joining in the song. When the last maiden passes the marked tree, she shouts out ‘one’ and the others chant it back. This is how they will keep count. Sally increases the speed and weaves them around the alders. The tempo increases and their skirts begin to whirl. By the end of the third round they are all laughing, as their voices sing out through the woodland. The light from the fire flickers across their bodies in its own wild gavotte.
Angharad relaxes into the dance. The stamp and the twirl, the song all around. A breeze rushes up her skirt and she laughs aloud with the others. As the dance picks up speed, her heart races faster. The bodice of her dress rubs across her breasts, the ripples running through her. She is not the only one. All around are the glowing, ecstatic faces of the other girls. It is part of the dance. Angharad closes her eyes for the briefest of moments. Opens them quickly, for it was Nessie who danced naked into her mind, and Nessie is here to find a husband.
On the fifth round, Sally releases a trailing ribbon of green fabric that all the women have helped to sew. It is passed from maiden to maiden at head height, weaving around the trees. In the next round they must duck their heads beneath it.
It is a blue ribbon for the seventh round, when several of the girls are relying on others to keep them moving, especially poor Greta, who has always had trouble breathing. The girls spin away with renewed energy for the final, ninth, round. Weaving red fabric ribbon in a crazy pattern as they get faster and faster. The last girl shrieks ‘nine’ and they all echo her, collapsing to the ground.
The first to regain her breath and energy leaps to her feet before pausing uncertainly. She hovers over her friends for a moment until the young men start to shout. It is part of the ritual. Their voices echo around the grove and each girl peels away to follow her desired one’s voice.
The group of girls gets smaller. Soon there are only four of them, but Greta regains her breath and vanishes into the trees.
Now there are only three.
“Come,” says Nessie to young Betty. “I promised Mam I’d see you home.” But her eyes look yearningly into the trees, where a lone voice continues to call.
Angharad gives her the only heart gift she can.
“I’ll take her,” she says.
Nessie bends to hug her tightly before running off. Angharad sits for a moment, holding her hand to the place Nessie’s cheek pressed hers. A breeze sloughs through the grove and she stands. She offers a hand to young Betty, who is already yawning.