The movement draws at him, the music calls to him, and the light shows the way.
Dancers in the gazebo weave and spin and glide across the floor. Music pours forth, filling the world around him. Starlight reflects off the pond’s surface; lanterns shine, hanging from the bridges connecting the gazebo to the rest of the grounds. And the gazebo blazes like a beacon, light pouring out behind the dancers, turning them into half-shadows framed behind white latticework and columns.
Even at a distance, he feels a current leading to the gazebo’s center. The dance is a whirlpool, and he is caught in it.
The large circular pond is ringed by a stone walkway lined with benches. Men and women, in couples and small groups, dot the walkway, sit on the benches, and stroll around the pond. Just over the swell of music he can hear them talking, but for the most part he can’t understand them. He passes a short blonde woman speaking animated French to a tall Asian woman, who laughs and replies in a language he can’t place. Somewhere to his left he catches a phrase of Spanish, followed by cheerful laughter from a group of men and women gathered around one of the benches. He doesn’t hear anything he recognizes as English.
The music ends, and as it does Matthew feels the pressure in the air abate. He shivers at the sudden change. His skin tingles, as if his arms and legs had fallen asleep. Couples, giddy from dancing, stream out of the gazebo. Soon the bridges and the stone walkway are full of people chatting, strolling, calling out to friends. Some of the groups break away to travel to the front of the manor. Others move off the walkway and onto the grounds, some heading toward the tiny cottages to the north.
If they were magnificent from a distance, they are overpowering up close: men and women of every race, all dressed in the strangely dated formal clothing, talking and laughing and seeming not to notice him as they pass. They are strong and confident, radiant in their exuberance. Without music falling from the sky it’s easier to hear them, now: he recognizes French, German, Spanish, and something he thinks is Portuguese, but there are too many others to track. Occasionally—very rarely—he hears English.
They hardly notice as he passes. Occasionally one of the men or women glance his way, but their gaze slides over him instead of on him, as if he’s part of the setting. This doesn’t reassure him. It makes him feel small.
There is only one exception to this.
She stands at the far end of the south bridge, framed by the archway leading into the gazebo. He crosses, heart pounding with each step, until at last they stand face to face.
“Hello,” he says. His voice is dry and hoarse.
She smiles. “Hello.”
Her voice, by contrast, is clear and strong… and her eyes are a brilliant, bright shade of green that Matthew has never seen before. He will never, he realizes, be able to paint those eyes. He also knows he will never stop trying to paint them.
“I’m… Matthew.” He fights back a surge of panic as he realizes he has no idea what else to say. It’s not the first time he’s ever tried to talk to a girl at a party, but it feels like it.
“Alice,” she replies. “You have sticks in your hair.”
The comment surprises him so much his panic disappears entirely. He frowns, puzzled. “What?”
Alice laughs softly. Those green eyes sparkle with mirth. She reaches up to tug at his hair, pulling free a twig, and holds it out to him.
“You have sticks in your hair.”
Matthew stares at the twig. He takes it from her with one hand, running his fingers through his hair with the other. He can feel bramble, branches, leaves, bits of moss. He laughs.
“There were trees…” He lets the twig fall to the ground, and tries to brush his hair free with his hands. “They were a lot closer together than I thought.”
“Trees?” One of her eyebrows rises. “What were you doing over there? Especially so late—we don’t get many visitors now, closer to dawn than dusk. Are you from the town?”
“Town?” Matthew thinks back to the glow of lights to the south, and shakes his head. “I’m from Stafford. I’m just… passing through.”
“Passing through?” One corner of her mouth twitches up, mirroring the eyebrow. “Now you’re teasing me. Passing through from where? Perhaps you were simply crossing through the trees, from another place entirely, just to watch us dance?”
Richmond tugs at his memory. He forces it away. “I really hate that explanation, but I can’t think of a better one.”
Alice laughs again. Before he can react, she wraps her arm around his and pulls him toward the gazebo. “Have it your way, Matthew.” She is roughly his height, perhaps a hair taller. “If you’re set on teasing me, you’ll have to dance with me as well.”
“I’m not teasing—” His voice trails off as he realizes what she said. “What? Dance?”
“Dance!” She nearly shouts the word, provoking murmurs of approval from the men and women along the path.
Panic returns full force. Matthew stares at the gazebo with dread. “Alice… this isn’t a good idea.”
“It’s a fine plan,” she says.
“No it isn’t!” He wants to run, but he can’t bring himself to pull away. “Alice, I don’t know how to dance.”
Alice stops, turning to stare at him. Her expression is thoughtful.
“Trust me,” she says.
“Trust me,” she says again.
He stares at her for what feels like a very long time. “All right.”
She smiles, twines her arm around his, and leads him to the gazebo.
Matthew thinks the term “gazebo” is insufficient to describe it. It is obviously built to resemble one—octagonal, open to the air, held up by a pillar at each corner—but it’s easily the size of a large ballroom. At the center of the room is an orchestra pit, where he can see dark-suited figures bent over musical instruments. They look considerably older than the rest of the crowd, which intrigues him, but his attention quickly returns to his partner and what they are about to do.
He laughs nervously. “I apologize to your feet in advance.”
“Don’t be afraid,” Alice says. “When the music starts, just do what it tells you to do.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will,” she says. “If you’re willing to try.”
Music fills the air, surrounding him. Without thinking, Matthew moves; Alice moves with him, and to his surprise, so does everyone else. He steps back, and in the same step the other men in the room mirror him perfectly. He guides Alice past him, seeing the other men doing the same with their partners. For their part, the women follow Alice’s motions, completely in step.
They turn, they dance. All the men and women move together, one body reflected by many mirrors. Alice is right: the music urges Matthew onward, telling him what it wants, showing him what to do next. All he has to do is let it. He steps, and turns, and loses himself in motion. He becomes part of the dance itself, and for a moment he forgets his dirty clothing, the twigs in his hair, and the fact that he’s never learned to dance. He is swept up: in music, movement, and in Alice’s radiant smile.
Other people notice him now. Couples smile at him as he passes them on the floor, some even saying “hello” when they’re close enough. He grins like a fool as he dances, lost in the thrill of the music, but also lost in something else: Fellowship. Community. Belonging. They are all part of something larger than themselves.
The music quickens, and they respond. The dancing involves more spinning, and Matthew doesn’t understand how the women are able to stay on their feet. The interaction between dancers becomes more complex: Matthew releases Alice to his right, and she spins into the arms of another dancer. He pivots to his left as he receives a spinning woman in gray silk into his own. The room is a blur of light and color, he feels dizzy as sends his new partner off to his right, receives a third on his left, and again, and again, each time in perfect tandem. It’s not like clockwork—that implies rigid, mechanical timing—this is something fluid. Organic.
The step completes itself, and Alice is once more his partner. The music speeds up even further, and he loses track of what he’s doing. He stops thinking, stops trying to remember where he is, and gives in to the blur of motion, feeling euphoria wash over him. And then, as he exults in the feeling of motion and community, he realizes that all of the complicated steps and weaves of the dance serve a purpose. The dancers are tracing a pattern on the floor, over and over and over again.
The music stops, the pattern ends, and Matthew and Alice lean against each other on the dance floor, laughing. Men and women come over, congratulating him. He shakes hands with some of the men, who grin and slap him on the back, and then they all clear the floor as a new group of dancers take their place. The musicians begin to play again, and the new dancers take their turn.
Matthew follows Alice out to the lip of the gazebo. A railed walkway encircles it, and they lean against the rail, looking across the pond at the people on the benches at the other side.
“You did that very well,” Alice says. Her breath is still quick; her eyes shine with excitement.
“I don’t know why,” Matthew says, brushing back his hair from his damp forehead. “I’ve never danced before. Not… well, not real dancing. And this was…”
His voice trails off as he reaches for the right word.
“Joy,” Alice offers.
Matthew thinks it over. “Yeah. Joy.”
“Most people don’t fall so deeply into it the first time. Very few, in fact. But you could feel it, couldn’t you? You could feel it in your bones.”
“Well.” Alice stares at him thoughtfully. “You are full of surprises, Matthew.”
They lapse into silence, watching the reflections of torchlight shimmering off the pond.
Alice turns to Matthew suddenly. “What were you doing on the hill?”
Matthew shrugs sheepishly. “Watching you. Watching all this. Wondering what it was.”
“It’s funny,” Alice says. “I always watch that hill. Every night. I watch the hill and I wonder what it would be like to climb it, to see what’s on the other side. I never do, of course, but I always wonder…”
“I know that feeling,” Matthew says.
“Imagine my surprise tonight,” she continues. “I looked out and I saw a person. A very strangely dressed person. With sticks in his hair.”
He grins, shaking his head ruefully. “I do feel under-dressed. Do you dress like this all the time?”
“Of course we do,” Alice says. “How else would we?”
Matthew shrugs. “I don’t know. I guess I can’t imagine you in jeans.”
“And now I can’t imagine you without sticks in your hair.”
She grins mischievously. He laughs, then looks around him, taking in the gazebo, the dancers, the pond, finally settling his gaze on the manor house.
“What is this place? Where are we? What are you all doing here? This is very strange.”
“It can seem that way, at first,” Alice says. “At least, that’s what some of us who came from the outside tell me. I’ve lived here my whole life—it’s never seemed strange to me at all.”
“Here?” Matthew gestures to the manor. “In there?”
“Sometimes,” she says. “I prefer the cottages. The manor is… big. You can get lost in it, if you don’t pay attention. The cottages are smaller. Cozier. Some of us live in the manor, some in the cottages. I live in a cottage with a dear friend… I don’t see her right now, or I’d introduce you.”
“How many of you live here?”
“All of us,” Alice says.
“All?” Matthew looks at all the people on the paths and in the gazebo. “There seem to be an awful lot of you.”
“More than you can see,” Alice says. “But there’s plenty of room. The manor has many rooms, and there are plenty of cottages. I’m sure we could even find a place for you to sleep, if you wanted. There’s another party tomorrow night, and Simon will be there. I think you should meet him. After the way you danced, I know he’ll want to meet you.”
“Simon,” Alice repeats. “He’s the… well, I don’t know how to describe it to you properly. The manor is his. He built all the things you see here.”
“I see,” Matthew says. “Impressive, for just one man.”
Alice shakes her head. “Not like that. He had help for that. But he had the… vision for this.”
“The vision for what?”
“For this.” Alice gestures to indicate the manor grounds. “A place. A haven. An oasis where we are protected from the cruelties of the world—where we can shed our own cruelties, and keep everything good. That’s what we do here. We try to become better. Perfect, perhaps, in time.”
“Perfect.” Matthew doesn’t bother to hide his skepticism.
“It sounds strange,” Alice agrees.
“Well, no…” Matthew starts to protest, trying to smooth things over, but he gives up when he sees her right eyebrow rise. “Yes, all right, strange. More than strange. It sounds like a cult.”
Alice laughs again. “I suppose it is. At least, I can see how it would appear to be, to someone who didn’t understand it.”
“You’re right,” Matthew admits. “I don’t understand it. How can I?”
“Talk to Simon,” Alice says. “If you stay for the party tomorrow night you can meet him.”
“What’s wrong?” Alice asks. “Can’t you stay? I’d like it if you could. Is there something calling you away?”
He thinks back to Richmond. He shakes his head.
“No.” He pushes all thoughts of Richmond, and paintings, and old resentments out of his mind. “Nothing immediate. I’d like to stay. This place is amazing.”
He stares directly at Alice as he says it. She blushes slightly.
“Good!” Alice wraps her arm around his once again, pulling him away from the rail. “We’ll need to get you a place to stay for the night, and I think I know where. Would you like to meet some of my friends?”
“Sure,” Matthew says.
“Then let’s go to the picnic.” She tugs his arm again, and they take the path around the gazebo, heading toward the manor.
“Picnic,” Matthew says.
“On the front lawn,” Alice says. “Every night a picnic, every night a dance.”
She lets go of his arm, grasps his hand tightly, and pulls ahead of him.
“Come on. You’ll see.”