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Sand Dance
by K.D. Wentworth

The sand was singing again.

Joramny braced his back against the weathered wood of the cottage door, resisting with every muscle in his body as the music vibrated along the edges of his mind, summoning him to the edge of the seaside cliff like a moth called to the flame.

Just this time, he prayed silently to the powers above, let me find the strength to stay behind! But he expected no answer. If the powers above had known such a things as pity, they would have prevented his birth on a night of singing, seventeen years ago.

Over in the corner, his mother looked up from her spinning and said nothing.

He understood. There was, of course, nothing to say. She had known from the night of his birth that it would be like this for him. Everyone had known.

A drop of sweat trickled down his neck into the coarse fabric of his tunic, but he didn't wipe at it. He knew that if he moved at all, he would lose control and be off to the shore. Then the sand would steal another night from him and perhaps this would be the time that he would never come back -- like Aelina.

The singing grew louder, throbbing its eerie harmonies along each never until he thought that he would scream. He closed his eyes and tried to swallow over his dry throat, feeling that if he didn't go soon, the music would tear his heart out. His fingernails dug into the rough wood. Just hold on for one more second, he told himself, and then another and another. It can't go all night. It never does.

Of course, it didn't have to. Sooner or later, he would go. Still, he could hold out longer than Aelina ever had; Aelina with her long ash-gold hair, his only friend, born on the same night of sandsinging as he had been. Unlike him, though, she had always gone to the shore joyfully as soon as the first few notes quivered into her mind. Then one night, only a week ago, Aelina had gone to the sand without him, never to come back: the inevitable fate of all who were born sand-cursed.

That was why, even though he was nearly grown, no girl of the village would have him for a husband, and why his parents had refused to waste their hard-earned money apprenticing him into a decent trade. Eventually, the sand would claim him, so why bother?

Why bother? The sweet notes teased at him through the crisp evening air. Sooner or later, tonight, you'll come. Come now.

Joramny felt his control slipping. His tunic was soaked through with sweat and the singing had barely begun. Suddenly he clamped his teeth down on his tongue hard; then leaned his head back against the unpainted wood, concentrating on the pain, trying to block everything else out. Once, when he'd had a broken leg, he'd resisted the call for a whole month. But with the lessening of the pain, its hold over him had come back, more demanding than ever.

It seemed now that the music changed, became sweeter, higher in register, more intense. Joramny groaned; his head felt like it would burst. Somewhere in the village, he heard a door slam. Even though normal people didn't hear sandmusic, it made them restless and sullen.

Suddenly he could stand it no more. Throwing the door open, he rushed into the cool, salt-tanged air. A few doors down, old Barrett glanced up from mending his nets, then stood up and went inside.

Joramny's breath came sharp and hard as he turned and ran clumsily down the dirt-packed street. As he ran, with the air rasping in his chest, the singing softened. His feet slipped in the sandy soil and he fell several times, but each time he was up again and following the well-worn track before he'd even noticed that he was down.

At the edge of the cliff, his heart pounded with fear as he stopped and looked down into the sand pit formed in the hollow between the curving stone cliffs and the restless green sea. Even though the sun had nearly set, the sand pit was clearly visible, glowing with a blue luminescence of its own. Ten feet below, the flat patterns were already there . . . shifting . . . swirling . . . changing . . .

Soon would come three-dimensional shapes, stubby pillars and elongated faces and others that he could never more than half-remember in the daylight. Unable to turn away, Joramny knelt down on the still-warm soil at the cliff's edge, snared by the music and the dancing sand below.

The dark lines in the sand flowed in time to the song that had always been as much a part of him as his own blood, weaving a story of timelessness and power and relentless joy. He leaned out far over the edge, unable to take his eyes off the shapes as they formed, melted, then formed again. First, a flower, then a circle, and after that, something that he could not name, disturbing and strange.

The rhythm picked up, moving faster and faster. The glowing surface shifted, blue and seductive, picturing tiny fishing boats at sea, then the ocean floor, full of strange plants and animals, followed by a face, sweet and sad.

Joramny stared as the human features lingered, familiar and yet unknown. Then the lips curved up in a way that he remembered. He stretched his hand out and the sand formed a hand in response. The music held for a breath as the two hands, one of flesh and the other of sand, reached toward each other with no hope of touching, then shifted into a new phase, reshaping the face into something which was no longer Aelina.

The music's rhythm pulsed faster still, weaving patterns of strangeness through his mind until the night closed over him.

He opened his eyes and looked up at the first gray edges of dawn just creeping through the sky. He was lying on his back, so close to the brink of the cliff that one careless movement in his sleep would have taken him over.

As always, he felt spent and used, worthless. Every muscle in his body ached and his eyes were dry as though they had been open all night. Once again, try as he might, he could not remember the exact moment when the music had ended.

Sitting up, he set his teeth against the fierce ache behind his eyes that was always the price of a night down here. He felt a grittiness and found a patch of sand dried upon his cheek as though someone had touched him there.

Below, the dull-gray sand was still. He could go down there now and walk around all day; nothing would happen. Quiet would reign for days or even weeks, but when the sand wanted him again, it would call.

And he would come.

Walking back to the village, he met his father and the rest of the fishermen on their way to take the boats out. Their weather-lined faces were cold and hard like the long rock breakwater that ran out into the bay. He dropped his eyes to the sandy track, and as always, they passed him without speaking.

In the middle of the small town, he stopped by the well to draw a dipper of water. The women gathered to fetch the day's water grew silent as they saw him approach, then backed aay.

As he lowered the metal cup down into the cool clear water, he saw Mina O'Len's frightened, dark-hollowed eyes reflected over his shoulder. He pulled the dipper up, hand over hand, then turned around and offered it to her. She paled and turned away, her pregnant body trembling.

Joramny put the dipper to his own cracked dry lips instead and drank. He'd always liked Mina when they were growing up, but she had been married to Bern O'Len last year. Now he only saw fear in her eyes when she looked at him. He made her afraid, he thought, afraid that her child would be born on a night of singing, afraid that it would belong to the sand for all of its short life.

Like him.

Tossing the dipper back into the well, he watched it sink down in the cool water to the end of its rope, then he walked on toward his house. Behind him, the women's voices broke out again, chattering away like birds in the crisp morning air about weaving and children and cooking and all the other things that Aelina would never need to know now.

That night, Joramny found himself back at the beach again. The sane never sang two nights in a row, and he hated sitting in the cottage with nothing more to do than watch while his family went about the business of living and he was nor more to them than an empty place to look through.

He sat on the cliff side and looked down, watching the water's foamy white fingers clutch at the dark land, then hiss back into the ocean. It was the same way with people, he thought, they came from somewhere and then they went back. He wondered if Aelina was happy wherever she was now. He missed her more than he had thought it was possible to miss anyone. She had been the only person who ever cared about him, and now she was gone.

"What's it like?"

Joramny was so startled that he almost slipped over the cliff. His foot dislodged a shower of pebbles which skittered and jumped all the way down the cliffside to thump in the sand below. His heart skipped a beat, then settled down like a piece of lead in his chest. He stared up into Mina O'Len's white face as she stood over him in the darkness. "Lor, Mina! You scared me half to death!"

The night breeze stirred a strand of dull-brown hair around her face. "Sometimes I can hear it a bit, you know, just snatches here and there."

Joramny turned his face back to the sea and let the salt breeze flow over his face.

"The music." The breeze picked up, whistling in his ears and almost drowning out her thin voice. "I hear a bit of it sometimes."

"How could you, Mina? You weren't born on a night of singing."

"No." She gathered her long patched skirts in one hand and leaned back to ease her swollen body onto the ground beside him. "But I was born just at dawn after a sand-night. My mum fair killed herself trying to make it that way. Still, I can hear it a little sometimes when the wind is right, all wild, like, and scary." She stared at him. "But it don't tug on me the way it do you. I always wondered why you don't just pick up and go inland."

As if there weren't sand everywhere. His hands clenched. "Mina, it's late. Hadn't you better get on home?" He looked back to the sea. "Bern will most likely beat you if he catches you out here in the middle of the night talking to me like this."

"Bern's dead." She huddled deeper into the worn fringes of her shawl. "Drowned out at sea last week -- but I don't care. He did beat me--" Her voice wavered. "--all the time."

"Then your father will be looking for you."

"Bern's family means to take the baby and raise it." She rested one hand on her protruding stomach. "If it's not born on a night of the singing."

Joramny looked at her thin, pale face, profiled dimly against the star-pierced blackness. "You want it to be born sand-cursed?"

"No." She raised her small chin. "What I want is to go away from here and I want to take me."

"Me?"

"Better'n waiting around this place to get eat up by the sand."

Joramny shook his head. "Don't be silly, Mina. You're not strong enough to walk anywhere."

"Got here, didn't I?" She reached deep into her patched skirts. "Got this too." She pressed something cold and round into his fingers. "It was part of my dowry. Now that Bern's dead, no one else knows that I still got it. Just you."

Fingering the gold coin, he remembered how he'd always wanted to leave -- with Aelina, but he had never been able to talk her into going. Like most sandchildren, she'd loved the sand. And after she had gone, he coudln't seem to find the will to leave the only home he'd ever known. He leaned over and studied the silent grayness below, but if it knew what he was thinking, it gave no sign.

His hand closed over the cool disk. "When?"

"Tomorrow night." Mina stood up, struggling with her enlarged body. "Meet me out here where no one can see. Then we'll go far away where they don't have no sand."

If there was such a place, Joramny thought as he watched her disappear down the path.

The next night was wild and rough, the wind thrumming in his ears and the waves dashing themselves to frothy splinters against the shore. Joramny hunched his jacket high around his neck, his face wet with spray as he stood on the wind-whipped cliff overlooking the sand. He held the yellow eye of his lantern high in case Mina should come after all.

For a moment, he thought that he heard a faint stirring behind him and whirled around to look, but below the sand was silent and gray. A huge wave crashed against the beach and the wind carried the spray on up the cliff to drench him again. The lantern flame flickered, then held.

"Joramny!" A small dark figure formed out of the night and hurried toward him. Raising her face, Mina smiled. "I knowed you would come! I just knowed it!"

Setting the lantern down, he reached out and caught her before she stepped over the cliff in the darkness, feeling how thin and cold her arm was.

"I had to wait until they was all asleep." She glanced around the cliff side, her face happy. "But it's gonna be all right! I feel it!" Then she cocked her head and listened for a second, as though someone were talking.

"Come on!" Joramny shook his head as the wind tried to tear his words away. "We'd better get started."

She closed her eyes. "Don't you hear it?"

"Hear what?" He glanced around.

"The music." Mina hummed a few notes. "Like that. It's so -- different, strange, like." Her body swayed.

Joramny shook her until she opened her eyes and looked up at him. "Mina, there's nothing there!" Another gust of spray wet him from head to toe and he began to shiver. "If the sand were singing, then I'd hear it too!"

"No, listen." She clutched at him as the lantern shone up at them from the ground, casting deep shadows on her face. "I never heard it this clear before."

A strange coldness seized Joramny, like a vein of ice running all the way down inside. Could it sing to her and shut him out? "Don't listen to it, Mina! It'll take you like it did Aelina and you'll never come back!"

Then he heard it too, faint wild strains of melody that quivered into his blood and kept time with his heartbeat. He groaned and pulled at her arm.

Mina turned her face up to him, her gentle smile made garish in the lantern's yellow light. "They want me, Joramny. Even after what my mum did, they still want me." He heard a new softness in her voice, like the touch of a velvet sleeve.

His hands dropped to his side and curled into fists. "Not me!" he shouted into the wind. "I won't go! You can't have me!" Down at the bottom of the cliff, he could see the sand stirring now, a faint blue glow shifting itself into lines and whirls and . . .

He tore his gaze away. "Don't look, Mina!"

"But it's so beautiful!"

He winced at the joy in her voice.

"It's better than them colored pictures in a book I seen once." She was climbing down the side of the cliff now, catching hold of the thin wisps of grass that sprang up amidst the rocks.

He sank to his knees, watching her run toward the place he had always feared to go, down among the dancing sand-lines in the very heart of the singing. "Mina, think of the baby!"

The sand was sorting itself into faces now, huge stylized faces that reminded him of something. Aelina's face formed and held for a second, then melted into a design of circles and whirls. All those faces that came and went, he thought, those must be the children it had taken over the years, all the sand-cursed that had come before him, and Aelina was the last.

Until tonight.

"Mina, no!" He jumped up as Mina paused at the bottom of the cliff to remove her shoes, then ventured out barefoot on the moving sand. Leaving the lantern, he followed her through the sand rocks, picking his way down while below Mina danced in time to the sand's song.

It kept the rhythm slow for her, and even the wind slackened off and the waves subsided to a softer beat. he slipped once and smashed his hand between two boulders, bending over against the pain. Then he saw bulges forming in the glowing blueness and remembered the hand made of sand that had reached for him. He amde himself go on.

The music beat in his ears like the roar of a waterfall. He called out to Mina again, but could not even hear his own words when they came out of his mouth.

Throwing her dark shawl away, Mina danced with the moving lines as though they were her partners and this was just another village festival. He stood at the edge and tried to make himself put one foot, just one foot, on the sand. He took a step, then the sand shifted under his foot and he sprawled there with blue crystals spinning and dancing in front of his nose.

The music changed and he heard his name. Shivering uncontrollably, he looked up and saw the form that leapt and turned beside Mina now . . . a tall girl with long dark-gold hair that swirled around her shoulders.

"So you've finally come, Joramny."

It was her voice, Aelina's voice. He hunched to his knees and stared hungrily at her, the only person to whom he had ever felt close. She wove her dance closer to the edge and smiled at him. He could see now that she was sand and yet she was not. Dressed as she had been on that last night, every inch of her was outlined in the darkness with a shimmering blue light.

"Come and dance with us, Joramny." Aelina beckoned him as other figures began to rise from the sand beside her. "I stayed to be with you long past the time that I should have been here. Come and be with us now forever. You belong to us. You'll never be happy in their world."

"Aelina, come back!" he called. A faint look of sadness crossed her glowing face and she shook her head. "Please, Aelina, at least send Mina back!"

The tall graceful form that he remembered so well danced closer and closer until he would have sworn that he felt her breath in his face, warm and sweet.

Reaching out, she grazed her fingers across his cheek, leaving a trace of sand. "Joramny, don't you understand? She doesn't want to come back because she understands. Mina will be happy with us." Then she whirled back to the center with the others, boys and girls of all ages, each one smiling and lost in the wild throbbing music.

Joramny watched the dancing children until his eyes burned and watered and the music overrode his thoughts. Finally, he caught a glimpse of Mina again, the lines of her swollen body softened and her thin face almost beautiful now in the blue glow.

The baby, he thought angrily, just like him, it would never even have a chance for a normal life! How could it take the baby too? Scrambling to his feet again, he was suddenly out on the sand without realizing it. Beneath his shoes, the sand was vibrant, alive. He could feel the wildness singing up through his body, a strange joy that transcended everything he'd ever known.

Mina's face appeared again between two young dancers and he squeezed past the rasp of their sandy skin.

"Dance with me, Joramny!" Mina caught him by the shoulders and whirled him around. "Don't you feel it too? I could dance like this forever!"

"Mina, we have to get off the sand!" Clutching at her small hands, he tried to pull her toward the edge, but she slipped away, laughing. He turned to follow, but, wild and sweet, the music beat at him, shattering his thoughts into tiny pieces that would not fit back together.

Aelina swept by him again. "Poor Joramny!" Her fingers spun above her head in a graceful arc as she turned and turned. "Always so afraid." Then she lost herself in the dancing crowd of children once more.

Without warning, the music turned harsh and discordant. He put his hands to his ears and struggled toward Mina's dancing form as the figures around her began to melt back into the sand with the slowing rhythm.

"Mina, we have to--" A loop of sand suddenly reached up and tripped him, sending him to his knees. Beneath him, the blue sand felt loose now, sagging. A few feet away, Mina danced on as the sand crept slowly over her ankles, then her knees.

Joramny threw himself forward and stretched for her hand. "Mina, look down! Look at the sand!"

The music roared on in an ugly minor key, a distorted parody of its melody of a few minutes before as Mina opened her eyes and glanced around her. Disbelief crept over her face as she stopped.

Half absorbed intot he sand, Aelina caught his eye and frowned. Her face, surrounded with shining blue, regarded him coldly.

"Joramny!" Mina, her eyes panicky now and sunk up to her swollen waist in the loose sand, leaned toward him, flailing for his hand.

"Let her go!" Trapped just out of reach, Joramny pounded the sand with his fists. "Take me, if you want, but let her go!"

"We don't want you." Her chin just above the sand now, Aelina narrowed her beautiful eyes at him. "We don't want anyone who is--" Her voice twisted disdainfully. "--afraid." Then she disappeared back into the glowing edge!"

Her fingers locked desperately in his, she struggled through the waist-deep sand, slipping back almost as much ground as she gained every time they moved. Terrible now, the music wailed in his ears, setting his teeth on edge, making it impossible to think.

One step at a time, Joramny told himself, pulling Mina's awkward weight with him toward the safety of the rocks, and all around them, the rhythm slowed and slowed and...

The sun was hot on his face when he finally opened his eyes the next morning. Mina's worn shoes lay close by, discarded like butterfly cocoons among the gray rocks. Sitting up, he winced at the pain in his head, then looked down at Mina's sleeping face.

She lay curled up on her side, her brown hair half-covering her exhausted face, her arms curved protectively around the unborn child she carried.

Farther down the beach, the waves whispered against the sand, then retreated back into the sea. He squinted into the sun and calculated. They probably had another hour before the tide was fully in.

Leaning over, he smoothed the hair out of her face and waited for her to wake. There would be enough time for her to sleep a little longer, he thought.

Then they would walk far inland to see if there really was a place with no sand and no singing, a place where they could have a tomorrow after all.

 
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