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The Dance of the Queens of Heaven

Chapter 1

By Hannah MoorePublished 3 months ago 11 min read

Every night at midnight, the purple clouds came out to dance with the blushing sky. The women slipped silently from their front doors and danced under pinks and reds and blues, their arms high, or wide, or stretched out in front of them, their skirts rippling as their hips swayed, and their eyes reflecting the myriad shades of the sky. They danced for the parts of themselves they had lost, tear laden, bruised souls, vaporising the embarrassment of wanting with those fires that had burned in their girlhood, whose embers still flared under that midnight sky. They danced so that in the morning, heaving simmering kettles from the stove, or pulling weeds from between neat rows of beans, they would feel whole enough to hold together. They danced so their husbands would recognise them, so that their children would listen when they spoke, so that their voices would find the songs that carried morning into noon, and noon into afternoon, and afternoon on towards night.

Maria did not dance. Throughout summer, she would wake, and see her sister leave the house across the street, her dark form swaying down the street towards the open hillside beyond, or her grandmother, her undulations stiffened by age, making her way unafraid towards the gathering at the edge of the village. But she did not follow. Maria could not follow. Maria, at 26, could still lay claim to all of her desires.


The village of Regina Caeli, for which Maria had been named, sat on the sunny side of the hill, facing, for eight or nine hours a day, the shadowed rocks across the valley, a perpetual reminder to the inhabitants of their good fortune. The terraced land surrounding the plateaux was planted with bananas and citrus, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, corn and squash, and the village rambled in merry haphazardment up and down the slopes, and away towards the high, marshy plains that kept the crops and houses, by way of a network of stone channels, flush for clear, fresh water.

When the first settlers had arrived they had found an almond tree with the face of the Virgin Mary standing alone on the grassy plateaux, and had this not been sign enough, that night, camped beneath its leafy branches, the water in their pots boiled before they were placed over the fire. Deciding that this place, blessed by God, was the place they had been seeking, they had set to work building just five small houses, in which 42 men and women, each alone without family, had lived comfortably enough, focusing their energies on re-carving the hillsides to shape a farmable Garden of Eden. It suited them to make bread and stew together, cooking in big ovens and over one fire in the large kitchen room. But as time wore on and the terraces settled into the land, an appetite for more commodious living grew, and people moved in ones and twos and sometimes threes into newly built homes, where they made bread and stew and babies in separate kitchens, and became distinct families once more. Soon 42 became 100 became 300 and then 500. Well-trodden routes between homes became streets, and those less frequented became lanes. Specialisms became businesses of a sort – Clara, who was so good at lace work, stopped tending tomatoes and began making table clothes for her neighbours, who provided her with enough tomatoes to make up the deficit, and medicines, too, made by Sara, who gave up weaving to save her fingers for the pestle and mortar. A market day was convened, so that people could get on with their work every other day without the constant interruptions of neighbours seeking to trade, and soon the market stalls evolved to become shop fronts, and the children were put to work attending to customers while their parents laboured. When the mothers and fathers recognised though, that the children could sew or grind or weave well but could not add up or subtract, they decided to build a school.

It was when the school was built that Maria’s grandfather, Abilio, took on the mapping of the village. Abilio, too old now to work the terraces, was in need of occupation and having always been a scholarly man, he was suggested and accepted for the position of school teacher. Abilio came late to his vocation in teaching, but his talents had long been sought as a maker of all forms of documentation and drawing. As an architect, plans he drew up, however improbable, gave rise to sound and welcoming houses, as if the walls knew what was expected of them. Disputes between neighbours settled into amicable accord on the production, at Abilio’s worn wooden desk, of a written agreement. Contracts he wrote bound each party to keep his or her end of the bargain, and it became the fashion for every new mother to seek from him a birth certificate on which the names of her children, chosen for the strength of their meanings, would be written like a prophecy in brief. Abilio himself, aware of his gift, put pen to paper judiciously, and only after considerable consultation with his wife and his God. As such, he never kept a diary and he seldom wrote any correspondence. The stories he told his children were spoken and never written, and he refused to write anything he did not feel in his heart would be blessed by God. This, of course, led to long hours on his knees in attempted communion with the Heavenly Father, and he carried with him the perpetual anxiety that God might one day grow tired of questions and leave him to judge without guidance whether Antonio should keep the oranges which grew on his side of the wall, or if Fatima was an appropriate name for a child.

Abilio, excited to begin furnishing young minds with the riches of numeracy, literacy, science and art, had designed a school house awash with an ambiance of calm elevation, a space so intrinsically inspiring that its builders were themselves moved to compose serenades for their lovers and write poetry for their wives. The effect was not lost on Abilio either, and when he first entered his freshly white washed classroom, he was struck by the revelation that with the final roof tile of the school house in place, the evolution of Regina Caeli was complete. The village was ready to be mapped.

Abilio worked for two months on his map, delaying the first day of school by several weeks while he strode purposefully around with drawing paper and yard stick, sketching and measuring and muttering all the while. On the day of the great unveiling, his wife, his two daughters, and their sons and daughters, gathered in the school room, where Abilio had spent much of the past fortnight. The hubbub of women and children much used to one another’s company, and sure of each other’s love, was undimmed by the gravity with which Abilio had summoned them. Yet as he turned the easel to face them, a hush cloaked even the children. The map was beautiful. The village was rendered in minute and precise detail. Shopfronts reproduced in miniature marked their worldly counterparts’ locations along streets that bumped and dipped towards blurred formlessness as they neared the edge of the page, tiny corn grew on terraces tracing the contours of the hill, and water looked to flow through stone irrigation channels beside weed lined lanes which petered out into soft edged clouds where the village ended. This first glimpse of the map was to form Maria’s first memory, and as she gazed, entranced, at the pencilled curtain hanging in her own window, she felt a deep contentment, a rightness, that things were just as they should be.


Abilio’s masterpiece went on display the next day, protected by a pane of glass and its own small roof at the head of the market square, and it was the next day that the trouble began, though no one noticed at first. The nearest neighbour to Regina Caeli was exactly the distance that could be walked between sunrise and sunset, regardless of who was doing the walking. Travelling by horse was no faster, and the old arrived at exactly the same time as the young. As a consequence, visits between the villages to exchange goods, news and maladies was not a daily occurrence, and still more rare were exchanges with the larger towns another day beyond, but visitors did come. Foggy weather and a lack of goods to trade in that early spring season meant that it was nearly three weeks between the children at last sitting at their school desks, and a trader of any sort arriving in the village. He brought with him a cart full of laying hens in small cages, and a story about a man who had learnt how see through walls after he hit his head on the lintel of the church. He slept the night beneath his cart and in the morning, set out his stall. By lunch time, all the hens were traded, and the story had been embellished and the man was known to be able to pass straight through any wall he chose. The stranger’s cart was loaded with grain and goats cheese, and the woven wool blankets Maria’s own mother made on a loom in their kitchen, and he passed the rest of the day collecting new stories to take back with him.

The next morning, as the sky brightened above the mountain across the valley, the trader began his day’s march back the way he had come. He had eaten well and slept soundly the night before, and felt invigorated by the pleasure of a trade fairly made behind him, and of a day to sing and hum and think his own thoughts on the road ahead, and he set out with an eager energy. Even the main road of Regina Caeli was poorly made and the wagon bumped and dipped along it, creaking as it went, but his stride was unbroken and his head held high as he waved to the villagers who had fed and entertained him through a most enjoyable evening, calling his good byes and invoking jokes they had shared over wine like mementos of longstanding friendship.

The second time he passed, he waved again, and a new joke followed him door to door. “Couldn’t bear to leave us I see?” “Missed you so much I’m back already”. The third time, people walked with him a few slowed paces, pointing the way and describing landmarks to look for. The fourth, whispers began to pass from house to house that the fellow was up to no good, and on his fifth passage, head drooped and back bent, he was watched from under lowered brows. For his part, the stranger’s confusion had initially been perturbing, but by late afternoon, it was disabling. The route out of the village was clear, and yet each time, as he left the last wall behind him, a soothing disorientation seeped through his mind. Unsure what he was seeing, but confident still that he must be on the right path, he walked on until, each time, he found himself between the houses of the village once more. Recognising he must have taken a branching path, the trader tried again, and then again, each time finding himself walking back towards the market square at the centre of the settlement. By nightfall he conceded defeat and making a bed for himself between his cheeses and his blankets, went to sleep.

The sound of the wagon creaking purposefully down the streets of Regina Caeli intensified in those first few days. Others joined him, certain the man was an idiot despite appearances. They tried other routes. They set out at night. They walked backwards, but all with the same effect. Over days and weeks though, the wagon set out less and less, until eventually, the man, no longer a stranger, simply accepted that he must stay.

And so it was with every visitor who came thereafter, and indeed with every resident who set out to visit an old friend or bring back new books or whitewash. Each journey ended where it started, with a measure of confusion thrown in. In this way, life in Regina Caeli continued. Though the population grew, it grew slowly as visitors became residents and new babies arrived, and no one seemed to trouble themselves to build new houses. The women tended children and hearths and gardens, as they had done for generations, and the men made barren plans and philosophised, as they had done for generations. This did not trouble Maria, for she had everything that she needed, and prayed nightly not for a change in her circumstances, but for all to remain just as it was. Certain that God was smiling upon her, Maria barely noticed her own puberty, and was surprised, though not unhappy, when her sister married and set up home across the street. But Maria was not oblivious to the yearning that pulled the women nightly out to dance with the purple clouds, and though she was named for the Queen of Heaven, her birth certificate foretold a rebellious soul.


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