The leap, p.16
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       The Leap, p.16
 

           Jonathan Stroud
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  Think, James, think.

  Where would she go, trailing Max’s memory? Where would Max be?

  v.

  I had left the stalls behind me, following the line of trees uphill, across the black landscape and under the starry sky. The sounds of the Fair were drowned in the great cloaking immensity of the night; all I could hear were my feet scuffing on the short tussocky grass.

  The hill became very steep, but still the line of trees with their pools of light continued on unbroken. I found I was following a series of shallow steps cut in the grass to make the going easier.

  I do not know how long it took me to reach the top of the hill. I was desperately aware of every step, of the grinding boundaries of every wrenching breath, and by the time I reached the top, my legs were shaking with exhaustion. At the brow of the hill I almost stopped, but tottered onwards three more steps until I came to the last illuminated tree. Then I stopped dead.

  A man and a woman stepped out from the darkness on either side and blocked the path. They both carried thin silver staffs in their hands.

  ‘This way is barred,’ the woman said. She was very tall.

  ‘The Dance is about to begin,’ the man added.

  ‘Please, I am looking for my friend,’ I said. ‘I think he has come this way.’

  ‘Too late,’ the woman said. ‘The way is barred to all save those who will dance.’

  ‘Turn back to the Fair,’ said the man.

  ‘But that is what I am here for!’ I said. ‘I am here to dance too! Let me pass.’

  Neither answered, but only gazed down at me from where they stood, half in and half out of the coloured pool of light conjured by the final tree.

  ‘Please,’ I said again. ‘Let me pass. I am here to dance.’

  There was a long silence, then both smiled.

  ‘Then welcome,’ said the woman. ‘You are expected. But you must lose no more time.’

  I felt a desperate joy. They drew apart and I started forth between them.

  ‘Hurry,’ the man said. ‘The music is about to begin.’

  vi.

  I leaned against the caravan trying to shut it all out, thinking back to the notes I’d read in her book.

  She’d even written down some of the places she was going to try. Where were they? One was Max’s house. One was the scrap yard. But there were more too. I couldn’t remember them.

  I should have paid more attention to where she went with him . . . the steelworks, that was one. They’d gone there a lot but that was on the other side of town from here. Not right. Somewhere else.

  There were other places written in her book, I knew it. What were they? Think!

  I walked along the side of the caravan and found myself on the edge of the fête. It was quieter here, easier to think.

  Somewhere near here.

  I spun round slowly where I stood, under the night sky, seeing the fair, the upstairs lights of the nearest houses, then the darkness of the park and the black hill outlined by the stars beyond. It was a clear, cold night.

  And then suddenly I remembered. It hit me like a blow. I remembered where they used to go, up on the hill above the town.

  I turned away from the lights and the crowds and the fair, and set off across the black grass towards the far edge of the park, towards the hill where the quarries are.

  vii.

  A track led over the brow of the hill. I followed.

  Behind me and below, lit by a hundred thousand lanterns, was the marvellous tapestry of the Fair. I never looked its way. My eyes were only for what lay ahead, suspended in a well of artificial light between two higher humps of ground.

  The site of the Great Dance.

  The path worked its way down the contours of the hill in a series of graceful curves. It ended at a trellis arch covered with vines, where six carved stone steps led down to the lip of a dance floor, open to the sky.

  The dance floor was a vast circle of polished wood set into the side of the hill, lit by a hundred lanterns hanging from trees around its perimeter and most of all by a huge orb sat atop a giant pole planted at its very centre. All around the edge beneath the trees stood a throng of people, a beautiful host of men and women with garlands in their hair. At the very far end, opposite the steps, rose a dais on which a group of musicians were sitting. They sat so far away that I could not make out their number nor the exact instruments they played, but the music that now struck up, which seemed a lilting melody of pipe and string, was beautiful enough to pierce the soul.

  And as I stood there, transfixed, the Dance began.

  Out from the watching host, right around the circle, the dancers leaped. Men and women, and children too among them, with garlands of meadow flowers wound around their heads, they stepped forward down on to the shining floor, linked hands with their nearest neighbours and began to dance. First it was a stately progress with every move and gesture elegantly timed. Each spun their partner, stepped back, turned to the next dancer, bowed low or curtsied and resumed the dance with them. Anticlockwise round the rim they went, weaving complex loops and bows with every turn and spin. The watching crowd clapped and cheered and the music rose to a new crescendo with a sweet and melancholy joy.

  It was all so beautiful, it took me a moment to remember myself and why I was there. Then I was running down the slope, along the curving path, until I came to the trellis arch and the fringes of the crowd. But the cheering throng had kept the six steps clear for me and I passed down them step by step to the very lip of the dance floor. Here the music was louder, sweeter than ever, and a perfume drifting from the vines above my head bathed me in a delicious embrace. I stood on the last step and shielding my eyes against the central light, looked out across the great expanse.

  Max, Max, are you there?

  Men, women, children, faces radiant with the joy of the dance, spinning past me, in and out, hair flying, skirts billowing, jackets lifting upwards, mouths laughing, hands being held then dropped, grips being exchanged.

  Max, I’m here.

  A sea of whirling faces, eyes blank to everything but the music, racing towards me, past and away. All were beautiful, but it seemed to me that two types were on display. Some – long haired and golden – were the people of the forest and the Fair, tall, elegant and radiant. Others were shorter and darker, more like the people of that other place, from which I had come, but which had long since faded from my mind. They were less beautiful than the people of the Fair, but were still infused with the glory of the Dance. Their eyes were wide, their mouths smiled. I looked, looked . . .

  Max . . .

  Then, some way off, several couples distant, I caught sight of a face. It was for an instant only, blocked quickly by the head and hair of a laughing girl. But I needed only that single instant to know.

  I cried out and craned my head, but the musicians raised the tempo, the dancers looped in upon themselves and a new set of couples spun themselves forward. He was swept away from me again, somewhere out of view.

  My heart hammered in my chest. All around the edge of the dance floor the crowd had fallen silent now, watching the spectacle unfold. I stood on the step, under the vines, waiting for the dancers’ patterns to weave Max back to me.

  He was there. I’d almost caught him. Max was almost within my grasp.

  viii.

  It isn’t easy running full pelt over grass at night. I found that out soon enough. By the time I got to the fence at the edge of the park, I’d fallen over twice. The second time I fell I gashed my hand on a stone when I went over. But I got to the fence somehow, climbed it, and set off up the steep slope, across the bumpy, bouldery ground that marks the fringes of the reclaimed land.

  This was worse than the park grass by a long way. There were lots of sharp rocks sticking out, and some of the earth was pretty loose. It took a lot of scrambling and a bit of swearing before I broke out on to the asphalt road that winds up the side of the hill to the old quarry site.

  I’d been up here a
couple of times on my bike. It was good to cycle down. But I’d never been beyond the fencing at the top. Only Max and Charlie had done that.

  My body wanted me to stop. I was really out of shape. But I knew I couldn’t stop, not now.

  I stumbled off along the road, following the hill.

  ix.

  The scent of the vine drowsed down through the music-charmed air and infected me with a quickening delight. I had him now: I was so close, I would be able to reach out and touch him. Any instant now. There he was again! Further off this time, but longer in my view. The joy of it! My eyes fell hungrily upon him. How did he look? His hair was longer than before – two months’ longer. It fell and rose about his beautiful pale face as he danced with a golden-haired young man. His face was clear and radiant, almost impassive, but with the hint of a smile notched into the corners of his mouth. The light of the lanterns fell fully upon him. He was very handsome.

  Then he swapped partners, the young man giving way to a woman with brilliant red hair. Max took her hand, spun her round, and then the dance rotated and he was lost to me again.

  Beside myself with agitation I stood on the stone lip, feeling my heart swell so full that I thought it might break. How soon would the dance end? When could I walk the final few steps to join with him at last? Could I yet catch his eye?

  Then, without warning, a great weight fell upon me from within. I was a fool. The music and dancing had turned my head and I had forgotten the key thing.

  Max had joined the Dance. It was too late. He was lost to me. The beauty and grace of the dancers had overwhelmed me, but I knew – I could see with my own eyes – that Max was now at one with them. He would not remember me.

  Suddenly I felt very small and tired and quite alone.

  There was a movement in the crowd to my right, and a man pushed apart the hanging vines and stepped towards me. He wore a circlet of peonies in his hair.

  ‘You are not too late, Charlie,’ Kit said. ‘All you need to do is step forward, and you will join him.’

  x.

  Up the hill, along the road, weary now, very weary.

  And I came to the brow of the hill and the lorries’ old turning circle. And there were the two padlocked wire gates, beside the bleached DANGER signs.

  The lock was still in place, but one of the metal frames hung gaping and empty.

  xi.

  ‘But he is in the Dance,’ I said. ‘I could not get here before it started. I tried . . .’ My voice trailed off, I wanted to cry.

  ‘That’s all right. You’ve done very well. You only just failed. But listen, you’re not too late – even now – to catch him. He has not forgotten you yet, not quite, though the Dance is working its magic upon him. Look out there—’

  I looked: the dancing seemed to have reached a new level of speed and intensity. Each partner whirled and spun so fast that my eyes hurt to watch them. Max was nowhere to be seen.

  ‘He is in the music’s power,’ Kit said. ‘It weaves its way among his memories, disentangles them, combs them out, and lastly unwinds them behind him as he goes. When the Dance is over he will be lost to you.’ Spoken so bluntly, this dug into my ribs as if it were a knife. I clenched my hair hard with agonised fingers.

  ‘But you have one last chance,’ he went on. ‘You can join the Dance too. Soon the tune will slow, the pattern will change and Max will be drawn near you, right here where you stand. Wait your moment well, then simply step in to join him.’

  ‘I do not know how to dance,’ I said.

  ‘No need to. Everything here is given freely, you will fall into it easily enough. Here—’ He raised his hands and carefully took the circlet of flowers from his head. This he placed gently on mine, smoothing down my hair so that it sat easily on top. I could feel the stalks prickling my brow.

  ‘You need that,’ Kit said. ‘Everyone who dances here must wear one.’

  ‘I don’t know . . . Will you dance?’

  ‘No. My dance was long ago. Now watch and wait for your chance.’

  So we stood together on the stone lip, watching and waiting.

  xii.

  I was still a long way off when I saw her. I had followed the road past the concrete huts with their boarded-up doors, round a bend and down towards the workings. The moonlight spilled down upon the exposed hillsides and illuminated the edges of the great black hole of the quarry pit cradled between them. It was a gaping emptiness. Moonlight didn’t enter it. You could see nothing inside.

  My sister was silhouetted in silver at the very edge of the hole, standing bolt upright, looking out across the void.

  I knew exactly what she planned to do.

  From where I was, up on the curve of the road, I called to her, but my voice was dry. I had no spit. Her name came out in a tattered croak.

  I ran as fast as I could down the uneven road and I never took my eyes off her. Her figure jerked and juddered in my gaze as I careered down the slope.

  Fifty metres away, as I opened my mouth to call to her again, my foot hit a rock in the middle of the road and I was falling. My foot was caught under the rock, my ankle twisted as I fell. I struck the ground, smashing my left arm hard against the road.

  I probably screamed. I know when I raised my head, my face was covered in blood and dirt.

  Spasms of pain throbbed in my ankle. It felt like it was going to burst with every pulse. I tried to raise myself, but a different pain lanced through my arm. My ankle dragged in the dust. Craning my head above the ground, I gasped out my sister’s name.

  Fifty metres away on the edge of the quarry, she was looking into emptiness.

  xiii.

  ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ Kit said. His arm rested on my shoulder.

  Now the music slowed, as Kit had said it would, and the frenzied stepping of the dancers became smoother, more exaggerated, with arms out-flung and heads thrown back as if expressing a great sorrow. Their movements exerted an almost hypnotic effect. I could not take my eyes off them. By small degrees they rotated their positions and I readied myself for the first sign of Max. A drum sounded under the plaintive pipes and strings. I felt as if my heart beat, only in reply.

  Then, somewhere amid the music, I heard my name called. My heart leaped with joy, I craned my neck forward – and then at last, three or four couples distant, I saw him, Max, with his head swinging to and fro and his eyes serenely closed. I did not look to see who his partner was now – I had eyes only for him, sensing the great rotation of the Dance as it drew my friend towards me.

  The Dance swung round one notch, and Max was now only three couples away. The music rose and fell. I could see the lights reflecting off the sweat in his hair. He tossed his head back and forth in time to the rhythm, his eyes quite closed. How peaceful he was, his sweet face unlined, expressionless. To me he was the still heart of this endless whirring spectacle of energy and light.

  My name was called again. It came to me only faintly, almost submerged beneath the music. How could he sense me as he danced eyes shut? I was about to call in answer, when Kit squeezed my shoulder gently.

  ‘Concentrate,’ he said. ‘You must wait your chance.’

  The music completed another repetition. Once more the dancers shifted round. Max was two couples from me now, so close I could see the embroidered collar on the silken jacket he was wearing. The ring of white flowers on his head seemed to sparkle as he moved. Tears studded my cheeks.

  I readied myself to step forward. I was right on the lip of the dance floor, which was polished almost to a mirror by hundreds of quicksilver feet.

  There was my name again. There was something discordant about it – it jarred against the music. Max’s lips didn’t move. He was holding the hand of a dark-haired woman, his face expressionless, serene.

  Kit spoke close against my ear. ‘Remember the fruit? You lost him then because you were distracted. You mustn’t let that happen now.’

  The music switched, the dancers moved on. He was one couple distant, smilin
g now, his feet measuring elegant patterns as they drifted across the floor.

  He spun the dark-haired woman round. I caught a flash of her pale face, her green eyes.

  A flash of memory. A dull pain throbbed in my calf. I frowned.

  They spun together, coming closer.

  How pale he was, how strange his smile. He did not look at me, nor open his eyes. So how did he know to call my name, now for the fourth time? Why did it sound so harsh, so strident against the lilting music?

  ‘Max.’ I whispered it, under my breath.

  ‘Get ready.’ Kit’s fingertips pressed into the nape of my neck.

  Now the music shifted for the final time. The couple in front of me spun apart and moved away. And here was Max, dancing into the gap, his head held high.

  The woman loosed his hand and danced back towards the centre of the floor. But Max came towards me.

  As he came, he did not look up but kept his eyes downcast towards his feet.

  I stood ready, on the last step.

  Everything slowed. I felt myself swallowed by the music; it rose up on all sides, engulfing me like a cocoon.

  I looked at him. He was taller than I remembered, thinner too. His white shirt sparkled, his polished shoes and wet hair glistened in the dance-light. His face and hands were ivory-smooth and white.

  So beautiful; and so unlike the Max I knew –

  – except for his paleness. I’d seen him look like that somewhere before.

  Now, almost close enough to touch, he raised his hand. It was pale as faded paper. Another memory. Something shambling among dark trees. Still Max did not look at me.

  I lifted my own hand up, stretched it out.

  ‘Go join him, Charlie,’ Kit said. ‘Now.’

  The waiting hand was palm out, ready to help me down.

  ‘Dance with him, Charlie,’ Kit said. ‘This is what you desire.’

  I began to move forwards. Then Max raised his head and his eyes met mine.

  And I saw them, the living eyes I never thought I’d see again, and a thrill of victory stabbed me through. But the living eyes I saw were joyless, they looked on me with a sorrow that turned to ashes the smile their own face wore. And I seemed to look right past them too, see them also white and sightless, drifting in the murk.

 
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