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Larks and Ravens

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Gideon leaned against the doorway, arms folded, facing her housemate who was seemingly disappearing into the sofa from sheer willpower. “C’mon, Harrow. It will be fun!”

“No.”

“How… contra-rian of you!”

For this effort: a flat, “No. Not today.”

Yes, today! Just the other day you said, ‘It’s almost winter, there’s nothing to do, I’m so bored. Wah, after all day staring at screens, I need something else. I need my eyeballs intact in order to do science and better the world. Woe.’ Well, here’s something we can do, and this group only meets up once every couple of weeks. It will be indoors, plenty warm, and there’s live music. Not the untz untz kind, but something more up your alley. Your alley’s a lot creepier and probably full of criminals, though.”

Harrow ignored this digression and mulled Gideon’s argument over.

“Come onnnnnn. Don’t you want to support Sex Pal? He’ll be there. Cam, too.”

Harrow closed her eyes against the inexhaustible force that was Gideon. “Ugh. Fine. But I’m not dancing.”

“That’s fine,” said Gideon. She hauled herself out of the doorway, grinning, and started making dinner for the two of them. Any time she could pry Harrow away from her books and computer and out of the house was a victory.

-

That evening, they both emerged from their respective rooms and were dismayed to find that their outfits matched perfectly. Both wore black button-down shirts (Gideon’s had the sleeves rolled up, because of course), black trousers, and black shoes.

Before Gideon could respond, Harrow said, “Stop. I’ll just put on a jacket for contrast. Then let’s go.”

And so she did, and so they did. They arrived at the town’s community center fifteen minutes later and didn’t have much trouble finding the right room. It helped that there was a steady stream of people in floofy skirts or dance shoes or nice shirts and pants (or tank tops and gym shorts, in a few cases as well) headed to the same place they were.

They entered the space, and it wasn’t very large or very small- just a room that was filling up with people. But Gideon’s heart skipped with- excitement? Comfort? A sense of belonging? Somehow, the vibes in here were very gay. Something about people’s clothing, piercings, a prevalence of exciting hair dye, and the ways people were speaking came together to make Gideon feel at home and in her zone. Sex Pal had told her as much beforehand, but it was something else to experience.

The crowd was also younger than she’d expected. Wasn’t any dance with like, fiddles and guitars mostly an older person thing? Sure, there were some older folks, but in general the main demographic seemed to be college/grad student/young professional. One exception was an older dude with a beard who seemed to be having a grand old time. He stood by a microphone- the caller, presumably. Gideon didn’t know much about contra dance, but she knew there was at least a person who told everyone what to do when, so she shouldn’t make too much of a fool out of herself. But reassuringly, there was a duo of undergrads, probably, who looked awkward, vaguely lost, and as if they'd been attacked by a mascara brush. She heard a snippet of their conversation and found that they were here as part of a class assignment, but they had no idea what they were doing. At least Gideon wouldn't be alone in cluelessness.

They hung up their coats and came to a table where people were filling out name tags with names and pronouns. Gideon filled out her name tag with “James Bond.” After thinking a moment, she took a second name tag, wrote “kick me” upon it, and shoved it into her pocket. You know, in case of emergencies. She donned her “James Bond” name tag, quite pleased with herself.

“That’s disrespectful, you know. Defeats the whole purpose,” Harrow said, now wearing a perfectly appropriately filled out name tag.

Gideon ignored her and pulled out her phone. After a few beats, Harrow went up on her tiptoes to scowl at Gideon’s phone screen. Gideon had her to-do list open and was adding to the very top of it:

Aliases:

  1. Fun Gus
  2. Bill Nye
  3. Updog
  4. myyy wiiiiiiiiife

Underneath this was, unrelatedly and with no explanation, in all caps: “NO ASS WEDNESDAY

Harrow tore the phone out of Gideon’s hands, fiddled with it and did something Gideon couldn’t see, and then shoved it back into Gideon’s hands and walked off. Gideon unlocked the phone to see her “To Buy” list open, and at the top of it: A sense of dignity. She let out a choked snort.

-

Harrow made her way to the far side of the room, where the band was setting up and tuning. There were a few fiddles, guitars, an upright bass, and Palamedes on the piano. He looked up and waved at her.

“Harrowhark! I’m glad you could make it. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised to see you here.”

“Oh, you know. Gideon can be—persuasive. But either way, it’s good to see you.”

She lingered long enough to make it clear that this area and this alone was her comfort zone at the moment. Palamedes graciously picked up on this and gestured for her to sit near him. Harrow opened a book of sheet music that was resting on the piano and flipped through it as Palamedes talked. Before long, he turned his attention to the instrument as the band began to play. Harrow found herself tapping her foot, alternately looking over the sheet music and gazing out at the swirls and lines of people.

-

Gideon was picking this up all right- not badly enough to disgrace herself, not so well that she was a shining beacon of coordination and social grace. That honor fell to another.

As Gideon became more comfortable with the names of the different steps and movements, she was able to better pay attention to the people around her. One person in particular grabbed this attention and held it tight: a tall young woman with blond hair and a contagious glowing smile. Gideon found herself partnered with her for one dance, and she—Coronabeth, according to her name tag—started playing around once it was clear Gideon was getting more comfortable. Gideon found herself swept into a state of goofiness– the two of them did some things purposely backwards, they moved their arms through the macarena as they waited for their next move, and for a spell they did whatever that squat-then-jump-on-your-heels dance thing was called. Gideon found her soul floating to new heights, buffeted by the laughter of this floofy woman.

The next match-up was less enjoyable. Gideon found herself with a human cologne and hairspray advertisement (disservicement, was more like it) named Naberius. He was arguably a great dancer, but. He really pissed her off. He clearly had been doing this for a while and knew how good he was, but he was less helpful than controlling, and a few suggestions for improvement he definitely could have phrased less rudely. He was a dancing pompadour with a stick up its ass.

Gideon’s good mood was rapidly being replaced by irritation despite the cheerful music and people around her. But there was a way she could turn this around. She rested her hand between his shoulders for a turn, and when she removed it, the “kick me” name tag remained, stuck on his back. Would anything come of that? Probably not, this was a pretty sweet group of people. But she’d at least have a chuckle.

The song ended and everyone clapped, separated from the tangle to grab a sip of water, or remained where they were to continue their conversations.

Coronabeth strode to them from behind Naberius, turned her front foot outwards, wound up, and landed an excellent roundhouse kick on his rear with a satisfying smack. She was holding back, certainly, as Naberius didn’t pitch over from this unexpected assault, but merely let out a “wEEUUOOGHHh” and whipped around, eyes wide and offended.

“What was that for?!”

Coronabeth smiled and said, “Oh, no reason. Just because it’s you, Babs.” She patted his back, surreptitiously removed the incriminating sticker, winked at Gideon, and stepped away.

For several long seconds, all Gideon could do was stare in her general direction, blink slowly, and thank whatever greater power was responsible for this sequence of events.

-

Another song finished, his fingers still resting on the keys, Palamedes turned toward the room’s entryway and his face lit up upon seeing that Cam had just arrived and was hanging her coat up. Palamedes turned to Harrow.

“You know, I really would like to dance right now. Cam hasn’t been able to make it for a while- could you fill in for me? You’ve only remarked about six times how simple some of these songs are and how easy they must be to play. Why not give it a go?”

He was rising to stand even as she began composing a response. Harrow stared a moment, nodded once, and sat at the piano. The caller announced the next song, and Harrow flipped to the right page in the songbook.

The nearest fiddler- Ianthe, unless she had a similar sense of humor as Gideon when given a tag and sharpie- looked down at Harrow through a curtain of thin, pale hair. She was both quite tall and standing, while Harrow was “fun-sized,” as Gideon put it, and seated at the piano bench. Gaze unwavering, she said, “Don’t drag us down.”

Harrow didn’t.

The permutated band came together just fine. This was one of the songs she had pored over earlier, and it had no new surprises for her. The patterns emerged in a straightforward fashion and then just kept repeating. The most important thing was to just keep the bass chugging along, and whatever her right hand did was nice but secondary. She made a stumble here and there and could swear Ianthe made an audible smirk, but they all made it through the piece. When they finished, the caller announced that they’d reached break time, and half the band members lunged for water, or snacks, or the toilet.

Ianthe turned toward Harrow and without preamble demanded, “What, you have perfect pitch too?”

Harrowhark did indeed have perfect pitch, but that didn’t seem to be the thing to say here. And this seemed to be the closest thing to a complement Ianthe was willing to produce. Summoning all of her experience of social interactions with crabby patties (again, as Gideon would put it. When had Gideon claimed a quarter of her lexicon?), she took the strategy of redirection: “How long have you been playing?”

“Oh, forever,” said Ianthe with the air of someone who's told a joke so many times they no longer find it funny, fretting the bowstring with a finger. “My parents wanted my sister and me to be extremely cultured, so we’ve been having lessons since we could hold one. Though she prefers to occupy her time in other ways.” She nodded out to the crowd, pointing with her chin at another tall blonde, who was surrounded by people and clearly the center of attention.

Harrow was digesting this when Palamedes, Camilla, and Gideon returned to the band. 

-

As Gideon and company approached, Harrow greeted them with: “Cam, it’s good to see you. How are you finding all this?”

“Delightful,” came the deadpan response. But she looked as relaxed as she ever did, which was to say like a wrought iron fence. She nodded in greeting: “Harrow. James Bond.”

Gideon cracked up, Harrow rolled her eyes, and the four of them just talked for the next few minutes. Palamedes and Harrow, part of the same lab group, speculated about the postdoc’s personal life and what could be going on to make him sign off with a winky emoticon on his last message. Gideon proclaimed proudly how many unread messages her inbox had and Palamedes visibly cringed. A muscle in Camilla’s face twitched which was basically the same thing. Camilla recited a recipe that Palamedes seemed to enjoy and would actually take seconds of- thank god, that boy really needed to eat more. When Gideon wasn’t speaking, she just looked around the room and took in this strange, wonderful atmosphere. At one point she found the tall fiddler’s gaze lingering too long, too intently, on Harrow, and she heroically restrained the urge to hiss like a cat. But she stared back, long enough for the musician to make eye contact and then turn away in defeat.

Before long, the break was over. The caller announced what was next.

Gideon turned to Harrow and said, “They’re about to teach another one- this would be a great time to jump in if you wanted to. No pressure."

“I’m not a dancer,” said Harrow.

“I know, and I don’t imagine that’s changed since the last time you told me. But all you have to do is walk. One, two, three, four. You just sight-read one of these things, you can walk around in a circle to them.”

Gideon held out a hand, and ignoring the fiddler’s smirk (her face had to be stuck that way by now, certainly), Harrow took it. Palamedes sat down at the piano once more and gave the two of them a wave.

Gideon and Harrow walked toward the middle of the floor and settled in line with other groups of two.  (“Would you like to be a lark or a raven? It’s just who stands on the right or the left-” “Raven.” “Of course you want to be the raven.”) The caller began walking them through this dance’s instructions, and Gideon was glad that Harrow was actually taking part, but wished she had asked sooner. The earlier dances had been easier, and more movements were being introduced throughout the night. She didn’t doubt Harrow’s ability to do them- she was bonkers smart- but knew that Harrow prided herself in being able to do things excellently, and struggling in a large group must not be easy or pleasant for her. She hoped she’d made the right call and hadn’t pushed Harrow too hard.

-

Harrow had heard the teaching earlier, but it was one thing to hear something in theory and another to do it. She didn’t feel great at first, but she was with Gideon, and Gideon wouldn’t let her flail. She focused on the things she could remember and control: raven, on the right, and we’re 2s, not 1s. Go to the end of the line, and now we’re 1s.

After a few rounds, Harrow was feeling much more comfortable with the dance. The patterns were predictable, as patterns should be, and she was guided by Gideon’s gentle but steady hand as it moved from her shoulder to her hand and back. Her mind was free to catch snippets of conversation around her and to wander. She found herself musing on the merits of this kind of social activity: it was something that people could focus on, excel at and show off. There were specific kinds of customary physical contact, with frequent breaks in which people could switch partners as they did or didn't enjoy their current setups. There were ample opportunities to talk, teach others, and laugh at one's own mistakes. Honestly, this was a great way to engage in the arts and, if one was so inclined, get hot with the thots (as Gideon might put it. God, why were so many of these abominable phrases in her head).

Before she knew it, the dance had come to an end. Harrow thanked Gideon for the dance and promptly fled. She spent the rest of the night by Palamedes and the piano, or at the opposite wall talking to Camilla, or, if it could be believed, chatting with people she didn’t know. Too early, it felt, the event was over. The musicians were packing up instruments and sound equipment, the undergrads were searching frantically for a favorite water bottle, and the attendees began to exit the community center. Gideon and Harrow followed suit.

They stepped out into the cold night. Sunset had been hours ago, the air was crisp, and the sky was a deep black. Their breath streamed visibly from them, and Harrow huddled in her coat while Gideon refused to put hers on just yet.

Bright street lamps illuminated tall pine trees on the far side of the parking lot that they hadn’t seen on the way in. Harrow stopped in her tracks and stared at them. She found herself saying, “I’ve never really been this way before. I’d love to see those trees when they’re covered in snow.”

Gideon listened and paused, presumably weighing this in her mind. “So… you’ll come back? For next time?” She couldn’t keep the grin from her voice.

“Next time.”