Size / / /

Five for the symbols at your door.

Chains rattled as bare feet shuffled in the moonless night. Hard stars glittered over children staggering around a great oaken post. Nearby, the nearly grown pair chosen to honor the May huddled in the chill, earlier gropings forgotten.

"Dance 'round the pole, unwind and dance again," said Guidry the headman, secure in his rowan garland and his clothing seamside-out. He led a goat dressed in homespun, one of last year's barleycorns tucked above its ear. Like the symbols at their doors, the May dance was a ward for the entire village, painted in young flesh. "Soon the needfire will be lit and you can all go home."

The chains coiled together like iron snakes as the children slowly danced. No blessed rowan or inverted garments hid them from distant, pitiless eyes peering from hidden doors in the surrounding flinty hills.

That round of the dance ended. The children hung their heads, breathing silver fog. The boy consort stood. "Headman Guidry, finish this. Nothing comes."

"Quiet, Ad-- boy." Guidry fumed at his only son. "You don't see everything."

The children untangled their chains and began the next dance. The starlight dimmed as if a veil had been drawn across the sky. Guidry's goat bleated.

"Quick, Eleanor, the bannock cakes," Guidry whispered. The baker's wife pressed oatmeal cakes into each child's hand, then rushed to Guidry with the last. He took it and tried to feed the goat, which turned its head.

The darkness grew heavier, old wool settling over the village. Guidry squatted, shoving the cake at the goat. The goat butted him over; Guidry's rowan garland tumbled loose. A booted foot stepped on his hand.

"I see you have the unlucky cake." The newcomer was taller than any man in the village, slim as a willow whip, dressed in cloth woven of moonlight. His smile was narrower than he was, and just as sharp.

Guidry shuddered. "I was only passing it along."

The sharp man turned his smile on the goat. "Ah. Should I have been fooled by this travesty?"

"'Tis how we make the year come round," Guidry said. "Without an offering, the needfire will not light and crops will blight. But there are too few children to give away."

The boy consort approached. He picked up Guidry's bannock cake, the unlucky one with the burn across the bottom. "His Honor was holding my cake."

The sharp man laid a finger on the boy's chin, turning his head from side to side. "A much better offering than this simpering fart, though you have less meat upon you."

"I crave a boon."

"A boon?" The sharp man seemed amused.

"As I am a sacrifice freely given, let me be your last. Forever."

"Forever is overlong for such as I," said the sharp man. "For a generation, I might bargain."

"For a generation, then," said the consort.

Guidry watched Adamh follow the sharp man into the flinty hills as dawn stained the east. Women released the children while the needfire crackled to life. Men would spend the day repainting the symbols at their doors.

Efa, the May queen, came to Guidry. "Adamh left us something," she said, one hand on her belly. Guidry covered Efa's hand with his to touch the next generation by the pale light of a May morning.


Copyright © 2003 Joseph E. Lake, Jr.

Reader Comments

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, with his family and their books. In 2003, his work is appearing in diverse markets such as Realms of Fantasy, Writers of the Future XIX, and The Thackeray T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. For more about him and his work, see his website. To contact him, send him email at

Gospel Truth
Proud Walkers

Bio to come.
Current Issue
7 Oct 2019

Aboard the ghost ship Nine Lives there are the living, the dead, and a great many cats.
By: Charles Payseur
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
In this episode of the Strange Horizons podcast, editor Anaea Lay presents Charles Payseur's “The Sloppy Mathematics of Half-Ghosts.”
the myriad flavours of ancient childhoods burst on our tongues in virtual experience
By: Davian Aw
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
In this episode of the Strange Horizons podcast, editor Ciro Faienza presents Davian Aw's “Those Who Tell the Stories.”
Issue 30 Sep 2019
Podcast: High Hopes 
By: Kali de los Santos
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
Podcast: Progression 
By: Heitor Zen
Podcast read by: Julia Quandt
Podcast: Spider 
By: Sérgio Motta
Podcast read by: Sérgio Motta
Podcast: Replacement 
By: Isa Prospero
Podcast read by: Solaine Chioro
Monday: 3% 
Issue 23 Sep 2019
By: August Huerta
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 16 Sep 2019
By: Marie Brennan
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Hester J. Rook
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Hester J. Rook
Issue 9 Sep 2019
By: Shiv Ramdas
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Sarah Shirley
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
31 Aug 2019
Brazil Special Issue call for fiction submissions!
Issue 26 Aug 2019
By: Cynthia So
Podcast read by: Cynthia So
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 19 Aug 2019
By: S. R. Mandel
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
Issue 12 Aug 2019
By: Niyah Morris
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Dante Luiz
Art by: Em Allen
By: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Rasha Abdulhadi
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 5 Aug 2019
By: Aisha Phoenix
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Alexandra Seidel
Podcast read by: Alexandra Seidel
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
31 Jul 2019
We're all so very excited to put your funds and good faith to use, providing a platform for voices⁠ new and international, creative and resisting.
Load More
%d bloggers like this: