The Magpie Dance

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There were Morris dancers in the town square. Not in the classic costumes of green dungarees and big white hankies, but black tailcoats with ragged strips of cloth hanging from the sleeves. Their clothes were liberally dotted with tiny mirrors and silver beads that glittered as they caught the sun. They stood with sticks raised, pointed caps facing inwards in a circle like the beaks of conspiratorial magpies.

‘Creepy birds,’ Alex said.

I smiled down at him and squeezed his hand. He in turn kept glancing between the static dancers and the fifty pence coin clutched in his tiny fingers, a special treat for the market fair. It was the first time he’d had spending money of his own, and he was treating the occasion with an infant’s practised gravity.

With a crack of wood on wood, the Morris dancers started their set, staves beating a steady rhythm. They twirled and skipped, following each other in a circle. Then they formed two rows, prancing in to meet each other with a whirl of black limbs and a cry like the call of ravens. Their mirrors and beads sketched shining arcs of light, drawing my eye along with their back-and-forth flow.

I stood entranced. In the moment of the dance, these scruffy men and women became something more, something ancient and majestic that I had yearned to be a part of without ever knowing it.

The dance became faster, more exuberant. Each line in turn would bound forward, leaping into the air as they reached their partners, rag-coats flapping like wide feathered wings. On the third approach, the dancers leapt not just into the air, but over the heads of those opposite, fluttering to the far side of the circle. I felt a gasp run through me, heard it rise from others in the audience. No-one applauded, too afraid off breaking the moment, the perfect rhythm playing out before us.

The other line of dancers leapt, and it seemed to me that they didn’t land, but soared into the air, stretching out to catch the breeze, white shirts becoming the breasts of magpies. They circled above our heads, still glittering from a thousand shining points, then darted down into the crowd, rushing past and round each person in turn, feathers brushing against us in the tight twirl of flight. No-one stood in the circle any more, but I could hear the clattering chorus of wood on wood, an ancient rhythm that made my head sway. Glittering wings spiralled before my eyes. The world faded around me, became a sea of shining points against the black of an ancient night sky.

And then the rhythm stopped.

I stood, blinking in the midday sun of a modern market town, my son’s hand squeezing my own. The crowd looked around in bewildered silence, melancholy flitting through their eyes as they saw the empty space where the dancers had been.

‘Lost fifty pee,’ Alex said, staring mournfully at his empty hand. Tears welled in his eyes.

‘That’s alright,’ I said, preparing to head off a tantrum. ‘You can have a new one.’

I reached into my pocket and found it empty. No wallet, no cash, no keys. I patted my other pockets in growing alarm, and looking up saw the rest of the crowd going through the same routine. As we stared at each other in anger and confusion, I heard the mocking cry of a distant magpie, vanishing on the breeze.


This story was originally published in Flash Me magazine, October 2008.