short story: Firedance Fairytale

This story appears in The Firedance Anthology published by Firedance Books and available here: http://amzn.to/1kEoWUw

A lovely review by Lyndsey Davies said: “Janet’s Firedance: A Fairytale drew me into the sadness and left me giggling in the joy of life. Fanciful and endearing, the story explores the lives of each character as they shift from wretched households, suffering silently in their corners, to the shared joy of a bit of seaside splendor at the moment when the sun’s fiery reflection dances on the water offering a rare magic. Janet writes simply, elegantly and moves me to tears, which transition to a Mona Lisa smile over a few pages. I can’t wait for her next volume.”

Thank you, Lyndsey! Here’s the full story.

 

Firedance: A Fairytale

There was no mistake. Out there in the sea, far out, too far for safety, there was a child in the water. She or he — the distances were too great for clarity — appeared to be swimming towards the horizon along the great sparkling path laid down by the setting sun.

‘It can’t be,’ she murmured, shading her eyes with one hand. With the other hand she stroked her chest with the habitual, soothing gesture of a mother to a fractious child.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Ellie had seen children everywhere. Now she wore her detached serenity like a steel girdle.

The child laughed — Ellie heard the sound tinkling on the breeze, and her heart gave a painful leap, despite the soothing hand.

Laughter?

Ellie moved gracefully outside onto the verandah, trying not to rush. But the sun, a perfectly round, orange ball just a moment ago, rested now on the rim of the world; a small arc of its circumference had sunk below the waves. As the sun set, her panic rose; she ran down the wooden steps onto the sand, hurried to the water’s edge and, still shading her eyes against the glare, scanned the water, straining to hear what she thought she had — couldn’t possibly have — heard.

There! That sound again! Laughter, high and tinkling, carrying over the waves.

‘Come back!’ cried Ellie in the cracked voice of a woman twice her age. ‘You’re too far out! Come back!’

The child laughed and turned. Ellie could just make out the pale moon of a girl’s face. And then, without warning, the child rose up out of the water, turned to the horizon, and went dancing away on the waves along the flaming path of the setting sun.

‘Come back!’ screamed Ellie. ‘It’s getting dark! You’re too far out!’

The sun was a semi-circle; it was a sliver; and the child was gone.

* * * *

Ted Baker had been here before; only the fine detail had changed. Once, Ellie had reported a child on a hilltop. Another time, she’d been convinced she heard a baby in the marina, and they’d had to search every boat. Every single boat. But there hadn’t been an incident for over a year now. As local law enforcement, he had to take every case seriously but, well; he couldn’t look Jim in the eye.

‘So,’ he said, aiming to sound business-like. ‘The boats have been out for an hour now. There’ve been no sightings and no one’s reported a missing child.’

Ellie stood wrapped in a blanket, glassy-eyed and still. She’d refused to move from the beach, despite her husband’s best efforts. ‘I saw her,’ she said, without expression. ‘There was a child in the water. No mistake.’

‘In the water? I thought you said on the water.’ Ted pushed back his cap and shifted from one foot to the other. He had calls to make and plans for the evening.

‘Ted,’ said Jim, putting his arm around his wife. ‘Could you just take one more sweep of the bay?’

Officer Baker stood with his arms akimbo and jerked his head towards the water. ‘Now you know there’s no point. We won’t see a thing out there in the dark.’ He caught Jim’s eye at last and changed his tone; he’d known Jim all his life. ‘Don’t worry, Ellie. Everyone sees things in the water sometimes, especially in bright, clear weather conditions like today’s. It could have been a seagull, or a piece of plastic. Hell, it might have been a seal.’

He looked to Jim for confirmation. ‘You’ve lived here as long as I have. You know the drill.’ His voice faltered; he knew he was see-sawing between his two roles, personal and professional. He cleared his throat. ‘When children go dancing out to sea, there are always frantic parents following hot on their heels. I get them waltzing into the office with all kinds of stories. But not this time.’

Dancing out to sea, waltzing into his office; that was a good one. He’d have to write that one down. He’d like to have taken out his pad and pen right now, but it didn’t seem appropriate.

He put a hand on Ellie’s arm. ‘Take it easy, old girl.’

She jerked away from his touch. ‘Don’t patronise me, Ted. I know what I saw.’

He gave up and retreated into his uniform. ‘There’s nothing to be done until daybreak. Jim. Ellie.’ He walked away, murmuring, ‘Danced out to sea, waltzed into my office, danced out to sea…’ so that he wouldn’t forget. One more phone call and he would go home to Sarah. Tuesday night was chicken night.

Damn; it was also maths homework night and Barney, his youngest, always struggled. Still, he could be at his desk by nine, which would give him three straight hours of writing. He’d have to be disciplined tonight and get to bed by midnight. If Ellie persisted with this fairytale of hers, he’d need to launch the boats again at daybreak.

He sighed. It was too bad for Jim. They’d all been jealous when he went away to university and brought home the cracker with the red hair. Lucky Jim; the woman was gorgeous. Even now, after fifteen years in the bay, they all stared when Ellie went by — men, women and children too. Hers was a regal beauty of Biblical proportions, and not the kind that faded with age either. If anything, age enhanced it; each year that passed laid a new depth on her.

Ah, but he’d take his homely Sarah any day of the week. Sarah and the children. He felt bad that he’d been sharp with them that morning. He was lucky to have children.

Damn, what was it again? Something about a waltz. Waltzing on the waves, was that it? Crap. He should have written it down, pretended to be writing case notes. Now he’d never remember.

He glanced back. He could just make out two dark, still figures on the beach, one frozen and fixed on the sea, the other leaning over her protectively, in defiance of whatever this night might bring.

Ted shivered and hurried home.

****

Ellie spent the night on the verandah, wandering down to the shore with a lantern every few minutes, then every half hour, then every hour, calling out, ‘Are you there?’

‘There’s no one there,’ said Jim. ‘Come to bed, sweetheart. You were probably mistaken. And even if — hold it, I didn’t say I didn’t believe you. All I’m saying is that if you are right, Ted’s right too: there’s nothing we can do in the dark. Wait until morning.’

In the end he slept on the verandah too, on the hammock they strung up every spring and had to replace at each summer’s end because the salt air ate away at the strings. He couldn’t count the number of times in his life that he’d fallen through the bottom of a hammock. Ellie had fallen just once; after that, the hammock was replaced, like a seasonal marker, every year without fail.

He woke at a shout from the beach. ‘She’s there! Look, Jim!’

The sun was cresting the hills behind the house, promising another of those exceptionally clear, pure days; you could see for miles. Jim fell out of the hammock, picked himself up and stretched.

‘Come on!’ yelled his wife. ‘Hurry up, lazy bones!’

She sounded happy; didn’t she just say she’d seen the child again? Jim hurdled the verandah railings, landed heavily in the sand — damn, that used to be easy — and ran to his wife’s side.

She stood barefoot, with her toes in the water, pointing out to sea. The sun behind them was kissing the water into a milky shade of aquamarine. Jim looked into Ellie’s face; she glowed. He dutifully followed her outstretched arm and hand, looked out across the water and —

‘Good God.’

At that moment, a path of light sprang to life between Ellie and the horizon. The sea shimmered with early morning haze except in the path cast by the sun; there it flashed a vivid gold and silver and orange. And clear as day, clear as that day’s vaulted sky, a child swam in the new-born sunlight.

Jim stared. He stared and stared, and then he turned to his wife. ‘She’s still there?’ he said incredulously. ‘She’s…what, she’s been swimming all night?’

His wife shook her head and the sun tangled in her red hair, turning it, too, into flames. ‘She’s not still there, she’s there again,’ she said, laughing.

‘She must be exhausted. She’ll drown!’ cried Jim. He turned and ran for the house.

‘No, wait!’ called his wife. ‘Jim, it’s okay. I think I understand now.’

But Jim would not be stopped. He phoned Ted and within twenty minutes the boats were re-launched and a helicopter, too, sent out from the nearby rescue centre. They spent the morning scouring the bay, and the two bays either side, and then further out into the open sea.

There was nothing to be found.

‘Of course there wasn’t,’ said Ellie gently. It was her turn to put her arm around Jim, his turn to pace fretfully between shore and verandah.

‘Damn it, I saw her, Ted,’ he told his friend. ‘Don’t give me that about buoys and seagulls. I know what I saw, and it was a girl.’

‘In the water or on the water?’ said Ted drily.

Jim stopped his pacing. ‘In the water, Ted. What do you think I am, a moron?’ He glanced quickly at his wife; only yesterday evening she had told them the child stood on the water. But now she just laughed.

‘We can’t keep the boats out any longer,’ said Ted. ‘I’m sorry Jim. Call me when you’ve got something more solid.’

‘And you call me when some frantic parents comes waltzing into your office demanding to know why you didn’t rescue their drowning child!’ stormed Jim.

Waltzing — dancing — that was it! That great phrase from yesterday. Officer Baker took out his pen and notebook and hastily scribbled a note. ‘That should do it,’ he said.

‘What are you smiling about?’ demanded Jim. He looked at his wife. ‘What are you both smiling about? Ellie, you were worried sick all night and now you’re smiling?’

Ellie wrapped her arms around her husband’s neck. ‘It’s okay, Jim. It’s okay. Don’t ask me how I know. I just know.’

He didn’t go to work that day. In the afternoon he took a nap, and later Ellie persuaded him to barbecue. He felt in no mood for it, but it had been such a long time since she had asked him for anything — anything he could give her. They ate in the shade of the verandah; holiday-makers might forgo protection in pursuit of a tan, but when you lived here all year round you didn’t mess with the UVs.

The sun hung low in the sky, preparing to set. Jim kept glancing at his wife, and she looked back at him serenely.

‘Shall we?’ she said at last.

He sighed. ‘I don’t know what you’re playing at, Ellie.’

She gave him a look of breathtaking love and compassion. ‘This isn’t about me, darling. It’s about all of us. Come with me. You’ll see.’

She stood up and held out her hand. He hadn’t seen her so hopeful in a long, long time. Not since; he winced. He could smell the clinic. He’d walked with her hand in hand, like this, down a corridor lined with notice boards covered in photographs of babies and toddlers, and cards.

Dear Dr Soud. Here is a picture of our lovely Emily, aged two months. We can’t thank you enough… Dear Dr Soud. Heartfelt thanks to you and your team for our beloved twins, Amy and Joshua … our delightful son … our triplets! Thank you, thank you, for giving us our children. Without you and your team…

They had tripped down the corridor full of hope, and that hope carried them through the daily injections, the little room in which Jim has been required to perform his grim solo task, the harvesting of the eggs, the waiting…

IVF. Three little letters, thrown around like confetti. The first time he watched the enormous needle pierce his wife’s ovaries to suck up the multitude of induced eggs — the first time, he’d thought he was watching a miracle. It got harder each time, as the scar tissue from the last attempt impeded this attempt’s needle, so that it required force to puncture the ovaries and reach the eggs. Ellie, poor lamb, doped up but not unconscious, screaming at the pain she wouldn’t remember afterwards.

IVF. The easy solution…

‘Come on!’ said Ellie, dragging him through the sand. ‘Hurry!’

They reached the water’s edge in time to watch the sea catch fire. They couldn’t see her, at first, but they heard her: a silvery laugh, high and wild and beautiful.

And then they saw her, bobbing around in the water. She waved — did she wave? — yes, she was waving at them! Ellie waved back enthusiastically and Jim, in a daze, began to raise his arm.

‘Look at that,’ said a voice beside them. ‘There’s a girl in the water!’ Barney Baker, Ted’s ten-year-old, squinted into the sun. ‘Dad told me about your girl. I thought I’d come out and take a look.’

Jim stared at Barney. ‘You see her, right?’

Barney reluctantly tore his eyes away from the water and frowned at Jim. ‘Of course, Jim. She’s right there, in the water. What’s she doing?’

‘Dancing, of course,’ gurgled Ellie, still waving. ‘Hello sweetheart! Hello my darling! How are you?’

Did she know the child? Jim strained to see the face clearly, to make out identifying features. He couldn’t, the distance was too great. And yet he had the strongest notion that he knew her…

‘Look!’ breathed Barney. The child, the girl, slowly rose up out of the water. She waved gaily at them, and then she stepped over the gentle waves, gingerly holding the hem of what might have been a little summer dress, as if to keep it dry. She turned away from them, laughing, and skipped and danced over the path of fire towards the setting sun.

‘Good night sweetheart!’ cried Ellie. ‘God bless, my darling!’

It wasn’t right. He should stop it, make it stop, do something. But what could he do? The sun had set, the sea was just the sea, darkening quickly in the fading light, and his wife stood beside him serene and breathtakingly lovely — and happy.

‘What was that?’ demanded Barney, shaking his head. ‘What was that?’

‘That,’ said Ellie, ‘was my daughter. That was our daughter, Jim.’

‘We don’t have a daughter,’ he began, and stopped dead. He had recognised her.

****

In the two weeks of waiting, the time between inserting the dividing cells into Ellie and taking the pregnancy test, they had followed Dr Soud’s advice.

‘Act pregnant,’ he’d said. ‘Believe you’re pregnant. Do the things pregnant couples do.’

‘Will it help?’ Ellie had asked hopefully, ready to believe anything.

‘It won’t hurt,’ he’d said, looking at Jim.

Jim understood. Act pregnant, because then, if it fails, at least you will have had the experience of being pregnant. It will be one less thing denied to you, one small thing to cling to for the rest of your life. Once, I was pregnant; there was life inside me, for a moment.

So they’d pretended. They’d acted pregnant and then, when it failed, it killed them. It made it ten times worse because, each time, a child had died — not some cells that failed to divide, not an idea, but a child, fully conceived in their imagination.

This child, this fire-dancing girl in the sea, was one of their imaginings. She was their daughter.

****

Ellie lay fast asleep in the hammock, a little smile on her face. From time to time she muttered something, but these were peaceful, contented sounds, not the pain-filled cries of earlier times, the times before the girl in the sea.

Jim sat awake staring out at the dark waves. The moon was tiny, a small sickle in the sky, but the stars were voluminous, swirling like a Van Gogh canvas come to life.

No; wrong way round. The sky didn’t represent the picture; the picture represented the sky. Jim wondered why art so often informed his response to nature, and found the answer right there in front of his eyes: because the sky was too vast and the ocean too deep. Nature needed to be tamed, on a canvas or a page or a screen, or no one was really safe

He heard footfalls across the sand. For a moment he froze, genuinely afraid at what might be coming at him from out of the sea; and then he jumped a mile as Ted Baker’s ample figure and gentle, deep voice came out of the soft night.

‘You awake, Jim?’

‘Jesus, Ted. I am now.’

Ted chuckled. ‘I didn’t mean to startle you. Thought you’d see me a mile off, what with this starlight and your extrasensory perception.’

‘Very funny. What’s on your mind?’

Ted sat down heavily beside him. ‘What do you think?’

Jim nodded. ‘Barney told you, huh?’

‘He was surprisingly calm about it. Told me he’d seen your daughter dancing on the water.’

‘On the water or in the water?’ asked Jim, and Ted gave a gentle laugh.

‘Well,’ said Ted. ‘Are you going to tell me about it?’

‘How’s your book coming along?’

‘All right, I suppose. It’s a long time coming, but it’s coming. Some days it just flows right out of my pen. Other days, it’s like pissing kidney stones.’

Jim took his turn to chuckle. ‘When are you planning to finish?’

‘It’ll take as long as it takes.’

‘Sarah’s a patient woman.’

‘Yes she is and you’re changing the subject.’

‘Yes I am,’ said Jim. He nodded towards the gently snoring form of his wife, and the two men got up off the verandah steps and began to walk along the beach.

‘I don’t know what to tell you, Ted. There’s a child in the water, at sunrise and sunset, and she’s my daughter.’

‘You mean like a fantasy thing. A shared fantasy between you and Ellie, the daughter you always wanted.’

‘Is that what Barney said?’ demanded Jim.

Ted sighed. ‘No. He said she was real all right. He just about scared his little sisters half to death. Something about her rising up out of the water and dancing towards the sun.’

Jim raised his eyebrows and nodded slowly. ‘That’s about the long and short of it.’

Ted stopped in his tracks. ‘Really, Jim? Is that really how it was? Because if you ask me, what we’re looking at here is hysteria, a sort of auto-suggestion thing.’

‘Barney — ’

‘Barney’s a child and like all children he’s suggestible. Now don’t get all upset. I don’t think you’re lying or anything. I just — well, listen to yourself, Jim.’

‘Come at daybreak,’ said Jim. ‘I don’t know what to tell you. Just come at sunrise, and see for yourself.’

****

Jim came at sunrise, and he brought Sarah with him. Sarah said that if Jim and Ellie were misguided or, worse still, if they were being haunted, then it was her and Ted’s business, as their closest friends, to be misguided or haunted right alongside them.

She meant it, too. Alone among their friends, Sarah understood the never-closing wound, the humiliation and grief that Ellie suffered every day. As she often told Ted, you could have all the emancipation you liked: female behaviour was as old as the hills and not about to change any time soon. When grown women got together they talked about kids. Schooling them, raising them, cuffing them; having them too young or too late or just plain having them. Children were the tomorrow that justified today.

And Ellie had to stand by and listen, hunting the moment to contribute some small comment to hide the fact that she would not be accompanying them into the future, her story lay in the past.

So Sarah came too, to stand beside her friend while her friend looked across the sea to watch her never-born daughter dance in the sunlight. That’s what friends were for. ‘And if you ever put this in one of your stories,’ Sarah told her husband, ‘I will divorce you and take the children with me.’

They arrived with minutes to spare. Ellie and Jim were already standing on the shore. ‘We brought Barney along,’ said Sarah, squeezing her friend’s arm. ‘He wanted to see the child again.’

Ellie smiled at her, and Sarah drew an astonished breath. She’d grown used to Ellie’s beauty, as used to it as one ever could be. But this was something new. Ellie was vital, more physically present than ever before. The grace and serenity were no longer otherworldly; they were entirely human.

They lined up on the shore, Ted and Jim, Sarah, Ellie and Barney, and waited. The darkness intensified; the stars faded and all was silence and anticipation. And then a milky blue invaded the black, grew paler, lighter, a piercing line of light appeared on the hills behind them, like a shot of metallic thread through a navy scarf, and suddenly it seemed as if the whole of creation shouted out at once. All of them, afterwards, swore that they heard something loud and joyful.

After that it all moved quickly: the sun crested, laid out a path between the little group on the beach and the horizon, and then set fire to the waves.

‘There she is,’ said Ellie in a whisper, taking a little dancing step on the sand. ‘Good morning, beloved.’

‘Dear God,’ breathed Sarah.

The child raised an arm, waved to them. And then there were two children. There was no mistake. Two children rose out of the water and stood, half-way between the shore and the horizon, looking back at the beach, squinting into the sun, laughing.

‘Johnny?’ said Ted, and he sank to his knees in the sand. Tears streamed down his face. ‘Johnny!’ he cried, reaching out towards the dancing figures.

‘Who?’ said Barney.

Sarah pulled him towards her, put her arms around him. ‘Our first child,’ she said, resting her lips on Barney’s head, but still gazing out to sea; she would save her tears for later, when they wouldn’t disturb the view. ‘You would have had an older brother, but I miscarried. We named him anyway. Johnny.’

****

The clear days were over. The clouds gathered all afternoon, and although the small, hopeful party huddled along the shore that evening, the rain pocked the sand around them and watered the sea. No path of fire, no discernible sunset.

It might have been the light. It might have been the clarity. It wasn’t plastic, or buoys, or even seals. First there had been one child, then two, and then a dozen or more. They rose up out of the sea and they danced along the flaming path of the sun to the horizon. But first they waved at the spectators on the shore; and always they laughed.

‘I don’t understand,’ said Ted roughly. ‘Why would God let those kids live in the sea like that? All alone.’ There had been soft bedding in a cot for Johnny, and a room with fluffy clouds painted on the ceiling. Instead, Johnny danced on watery flames forever. And not just Johnny. ‘I don’t know how Ellie and Jim can stand it.’ Ted shook his head and turned his face away from Sarah.

‘That’s because you’re thinking about it all wrong.’ Sarah dropped her hand on his shoulder. ‘The children were happy, Ted. We didn’t give them flesh to wear or a life to live but they were happy. They were safe. I don’t have to worry about Johnny any more. Ellie can sleep nights knowing her girl isn’t lost in some dark forever because her mother never came for her.’

‘You know that makes no sense,’ said Ted, fumbling for his wife’s hand.

Across town, in their house on the beach, Ellie and Jim sat whispering and giggling like children, making plans for the future.

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