One night a year, she comes to them as a seal, shimmering over the waves. As she hauls out onto the rocky shore, she raises her muzzle to give a cry, a cry that some say sounds like a barking dog, and others a sobbing violin, a crying child, a shrieking wind.
It is the signal for the bonfire, the harps, the drums. They move rapidly, almost dancing in their haste, dragging out tables and rich coverings and chairs, pulling on their best shirts and gowns, hauling the hired musicians from their beds. They load the tables with the finest food the village can afford. This finest is something, indeed, for a poor village and outsiders marvel at the delicacies this town somehow provides, the excellence of the musicians and the entertainment. Even in desperate years, where the sea has yielded few fish, and the land nothing at all, the tables groan with the food piled there by half-starved hands, and jugglers and fire-eaters and musicians stand ready.
The seal watches this with unblinking eyes, until the tables are laden and the fire is blazing. At this, she cries out again, sliding from her pelt, allowing it to fall to the ground. They rush to bring her clothing as she stands in the dust, radiant, lovely. She dresses herself without words.
And then she dances.
They do not have words for this dance; they do not try to have words. They only watch as she dances in and out of the fire, until she cries out a third time. This is their signal: they rush to join her, to leap over and around the flames, to dance, to eat. To laugh.
They leave her pelt on the sands, shimmering in the firelight. They have seldom told tales of what has happened to those who have touched or taken that pelt: of the girl who wrapped it around her shoulders and drowned in the sea; of the man who hoped to win the dancer for his wife, but who died with his mouth and eyes caked with salt; of empty nets and barren fields and a maiden crouched beneath a mortal roof. They have tales of what might happen, and what cannot happen, if she does not dance. They have a mound of unburied bones.
They say nothing in the morning as she shimmers into her pelt, and slides into the sea. They say nothing when, inevitably, they find that one or two people are…missing. A little girl one year, a grown man the next. Or a widow with a young son, the weaver renowned for his skill.
And they say little when they find the pearls, bright and glimmering upon the sands.
They could, they know, use these pearls for many things: foods, medicines, comfort for the family with the missing child, the vanished father, new roofs for their homes, warm blankets against the winter’s chill, when the silence presses against them. They could, they know, throw the pearls back into the sea.
They hold the pearls for the summer months, for the merchants that never fail to make their way to this village, so far on the distant edge of a distant sea. And they pay, they pay, for the richest foods, the headiest wines, the best of musicians, the most luxurious of gowns, all for that one night when she comes. For the one night a year they know they will laugh.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida, near a shallow lake infested by alligators. Her work has previously appeared in numerous print and online publications, including Fantasy Magazine and Shine: The Anthology of Optimistic Science Fiction. She keeps a disorganized blog at mariness.livejournal.com.
Image: Lewes Bonfire Night. Andrew Dunn, 2005. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.