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Waiting and Watching

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"There's a bit of magic in everything, and some loss to even things out." Lou Reed, 'Magic And Loss'

The before is nothing but a cloud of hazy memories now. Who she was, the life she lived nothing but an echo in the corner of their shared soul. When she was a girl, an individual, not lost to stone, only one small part of the whole. The sun on her skin, the grass beneath her feet, the music that seemed to catch their souls as they'd lost themselves to dance. Then the priests came, hateful and bitter and they went from girls to stone, frozen forever in that one moment.

There'd been familiar faces at first, the ones called Mother and Sister, who'd come with every season. They'd wrap her in flowers, leave offerings at her feet, and every time they left Mother would press her lips to the rock, and remind her of her name. The seasons turned and the years passed, and first mother then sister grew bent and grey, and one summer she realised they'd stopped coming to her. Mother is one of those things she's lost, she thinks it a title not a name, but she remembers the love she felt. And she treasures the tiny hollow in her stone that's the exact shape of Mother's lips.

The priests came too, bringing children to show them what happens to those who sin. "Look," they'd say, "Look how God will punish you if you don't obey us!" She remembers the anger, the way she'd wanted to rail against their lies. It wasn't God that cursed them, but petty men, with too much power and too little grace. But sometimes the children came back without the priests, alone or in small groups. They'd run their hands over her, asking if it was true. Sometimes they'd sit at her feet and weep, their tears making the grass grow just a little thicker there. She'd tried so hard to comfort them, to love them and she can still feel the little nooks and crannies their curious fingers left in her roughening skin.

Eventually even the priests are gone, lost and forgotten by everyone but the Maids. As each year passes they come closer to losing their individual selves, they try to keep their memories alive, but as the distance to their past grows ever longer, their stories get shared and twisted into the story of all. There's a power in naming, and as all those who remembered their names pass from the world they lose pieces of themselves, become The Maids in truth.

The pain of their loss is muted by the bond they share, as they come together they know a sense of peace they'd never had in life. Their world becomes the grass and the sky, the trees and hedgerows that grow and shape the boundaries of their home. Animals and humans visit their grove, but their lives are so fleeting the Maids barely notice when each one fades. Time itself becomes nothing more than a fleeting notion, the centuries flashing by with little notice.

Their new bodies stand stronger than the frail human forms they left behind, weathered by sun and storm, they endure. But they are not unbreakable, some of them fall, their stone forms worn down, but when the rocks break and disappear into the earth, their soul remains for all time. The outer ring is left almost bare, each fallen stone sending their spirit to the inner circle, letting go of their earthly form for good. Humans bring new stones to stand in their place, but they're lifeless, roughly hewn imitations, with no stories to share and nothing to add to their song. The humans try to make them fit, bringing metal rope and carts, pulling some of the Maids into new postions, rearranging them like they were nothing more than a child's toy. Their origin has been forgotten, passed into ancient legend, and none of the humans in this time remember who they were.

With each passing season, their human lives drift further from their hearts, and they become stone in truth. They watch as the world shifts and change, the visitors they get all that keeps them connected to the human world. They try to reach out to them, to make them welcome to their grove. They still have hope that one day their punishment will end, that a human will finally break their curse and free them, but for that to come to pass they must be remembered. Children play amongst them, lovers embrace at their feet, poets and painters come to them and share their art; beautiful words and pictures, moments as frozen in time as they are. Some bring little boxes full of music, more intricate than anything the pipers could have dreamed of, and sometimes they kick off their shoes and dance. Bodies twisting and turning round the Maids, the joy they bring fills the Maids with power anew. They fold the stories and the music into their own song, treasured additions to the Maids' new soul.

The before is nothing but a cloud of hazy memories, but once a year, when the days grow short and the nights are long; the magic falters. And as the curse falls away, the spirits of the girls they were break free from the stone. The pipers call down, their cowardice long since forgiven, the girls welcome them to their circle. And as the pipers play the new songs they've learnt, the Maids dance once more. For one night they are split apart, their names and memories returned. She is a girl again, and she revels in it, in the freedom to dance and to see her beloved sisters as they once were. They call out their names to the sky, as if to remind the world they exist, but nobody outside their grove can hear them. It doesn't matter, they leave footprints in the grass, pluck flowers to decorate their shells, and pick the brambles clean of berries. Little tokens to show they were here, mysteries to confound the humans and restore a little wonder to their world. As the dawn approaches, the curse returns, and one by one they drift back into the stone. She's always last, hanging onto herself til the first rays of sun pass the edge of their circle, but eventually even she gives in. They are the Merry Maidens, and for one more year they'll watch and wait for the chance to be free to dance once more.