In a little village in the north of Russia, there once lived a girl called Katya Ivanovich. She was the only daughter of hard working parents and sometimes felt like she’d been born in the wrong place.
For although she knew there must be a world beyond her village, at times it didn’t feel like there was. In a place so small and isolated everyone knew everyone else’s business and no one ever bothered to lock their doors. Television had yet to arrive and the local children spent their time after school playing in the woods, gathering mushrooms and drinking hot tea in the kitchens of each other’s houses.
But though the children were pretty much left to their own devices, there was one place they never dared step foot – the lake on the other side of the hill. It was a place of bad omen and on several occasions over the years when young women went missing, their bodies were found washed up on the shore. Many believed the lake to be inhabited by evil spirits who lured girls there and then drowned them.
“Foolish superstition!” Katya’s father would say, slamming his fist on the table after one too many vodkas but all the same he warned her to stay away.
Late one night in the autumn, Katya lay awake in bed unable to sleep. She twisted and turned but the full moon shone in her window and wouldn’t let her be. She sat up and stared at it irritably and just as she moved to draw the curtain a little further, she heard a faraway music on the breeze. She opened the window and heard the distant sound of.. birdsong coming from the direction of the lake.
As if in a dream, she put on her fur boots and heavy overcoat and crept down the stairs and out of the house, knowing that if she was caught she risked a beating. The stories she had heard fleeted through her mind but her curiosity was overpowering. She simply had to know.
She found the path through the forest to the crest of the hill without too much trouble, the moonlight shining through the branches and illuminating her way, and as she walked the birds and insects around her sang in harmony, the voices of nature all lifted in a grand orchestra. When she reached the top and looked down upon the lake, she saw why.
Across the surface of the water danced angelic beings, each as tall as a tree, their bodies made up of glittering shards of moonlight and they glided and span across the water, raising their arms in devotion to the moon high above them. They danced with an unimaginable grace, one movement melting into the next and Katya watched, spellbound, crouched down on her belly, unable to quite believe what she saw.
The moonlight dancers glided across the lake the whole night through in their private ballet, silent and elegant and it was only as Venus rose above the forest that Katya realised how long she had been there and that morning was near. She hurried home, let herself in quietly and buried herself under her blankets, trembling with excitement at what she had just seen.
When her mother shook her awake the next morning, Katya imagined that she had slept in but she was told with a smile that heavy snow had fallen overnight and there would be no school until the roads were cleared. Such news would normally have been cause for celebration but the only thing Katya could think of was that it might be a long time before she could make her way to the lake again to watch the moonlight dancers.
It turned out to be a heavy winter with temperatures dropping to -40, harsh winds blowing in from Siberia and the snow piled high and heavy on the forest paths. Katya’s teachers noticed that she seemed distracted in class and though she replied to their questions, it seemed as though her mind was somewhere else entirely. She watched the snow fall outside sadly and felt quite alone – in some way her secret isolated her from the others and she began to wonder whether the whole thing had been a dream or whether she might be losing her mind.
So when at long last the first thaw of spring came and the paths were clear, it was with trepidation that Katya waited for her parents to begin snoring at night before she put on her boots and coat and walked to the top of the hill under a crescent moon. The birds seemed quieter this time and as she reached the top and looked down over the water, her spirits fell as the giant dancing angels were nowhere to be seen. But wait! There they were, skimming across the surface of the lake but now they seemed like tiny figurines, tracing their ballet in delicate ripples, gleaming like distant fireflies against the dreamy,dark water. Katya wondered if it would be possible to scoop them up in an empty beer bottle though she knew she would never have the courage to approach the lake.
But when she returned the next night she saw that the dancers had grown as tall as she was and with each following night, as the moon waxed so, too, the dancers grew in size until they were once again as tall as trees gliding beneath the full moon to a rapturous orchestra of birds and crickets. Then, as the moon began to wane, the dancers shrank each night until they were but twinkling sparks on the gloomy lake’s surface.
Katya returned almost every night that the moon was out for the next few months, watching the dancers with fascination and awe. They were quite the most beautiful sight she had ever come across and the performance was all the more special for the fact that she was the only one in the audience. She doubted anyone would have believed her had she told them what she had seen and besides, there was something quite delicious in possessing such an amazing secret.
It was on a full moon night in August that disaster struck. Katya watched the moonlight dancers perform their ballet in honour of the silver orb passing overhead when, quite without warning, she felt the unstoppable urge to sneeze and it came flying out before she could so much as clap her hands over her mouth. The forest fell silent in an instant and the dancers stopped dead in their tracks. Moving as one, their heads turned to stare directly at Katya and she was utterly paralysed by fear as they marched across the lake towards her, their spiky arms reaching out until their fingers as cold as icicles gripped her around the shoulders and hoisted her high up into the air. Katya screamed but her cry was drowned as they suddenly dove down into the lake and she was plunged into the cold, dark water. Down, down, they dragged her, into the freezing darkness, her hair trailing behind her and the terrible fingers of the dancers maintaining a steely grip.
To Katya’s surprise, she found that she could still breathe and her fear gave way just a little to curiosity as she saw something shining at the bottom of the lake. As they drew closer, she saw that it was a luminous palace constructed out of gleaming moonlight. They landed in the main courtyard where, between two towering pinnacles, sat a moonlight queen on a silver throne.
‘She was watching.’ one of the dancers declared highhandedly.
‘She saw us dance,’ another agreed in a high-pitched tingling voice, ‘She must suffer the fate of the others.’
‘She cannot be left to live and tell what she has seen.’ a third dancer cried.
The queen listened impassively and then gave a slight nod. The dancers surrounded Katya on the bed of the lake and drew closer, their fingers outstretched towards her neck and in but a moment they would have squeezed the life out of her, leaving the girl to float up to the surface and be found dead among the reeds. But before they could reach her, Katya did something that shocked herself as much as the others and stopped her executioners in their tracks.
She began to dance.
Her limbs moved as though drawn on strings and whether it was because she moved slower underwater or she fell into a trance, Katya lost all track of time as she performed in the luminous palace. All these months she had watched the moonlight dance so eagerly that the movements had poured in through her eyes and down through every part of her body, waiting only for the chance to come alive within her. Katya allowed all the awe, all the raw emotion she had felt watching the moonlight ballet to flow through her as she danced until there was very little left of her at all.
When she finished, she grew still and opened her eyes to see the moonlight beings staring at her in astonishment. They turned dumbly to their queen who observed Katya with a cool respect.
‘She cannot die. She is one of us. The same grace runs through her body as does ours. But we cannot stay. It is time for us to find new skies under which to dance.’
The queen raised her arms and began to twirl on the spot, becoming a pillar of silver light and the other dancers did the same until Katya had to shield her eyes. Then there was a sudden flash and she awoke to find herself lying beside the lake, her clothes and hair damp and her body trembling with the cold. The moon was about to dip over the hill and the dancers were nowhere in sight. She sat up and ran all the way back home and the chill she caught kept her in bed for the whole of the week.
Katya never told anyone what had happened to her and when she recovered from her cold she applied herself to school and to everyone’s surprise won a ballet scholarship to study in Moscow though she had never taken a lesson in her life. She went on to become one of Russia’s most famous dancers bringing such lightness and elegance to the stage that critics declared it was as if she was dancing on the surface of a lake.
But when Katya was asked from where she drew her inspiration and how she had ever learned to dance out in the wilderness of Northern Russia, she would just smile and go quiet. Every now and then, though, someone would lean in close and swear that just for a moment, in the placid stillness of her watery eyes, they could see a tiny flicker of silver light, dancing.