Stripping the Willow

by Declan Ryan


You have to line up in a row and take the hands of the two people either side of you. If you’re facing towards the door, as we are, you set off in that direction, crossing arms with the people opposite. You move past one group of strangers at a time, with the appropriate amount of revolutions along the way.


It’s called ‘Stripping the Willow’, one of us thinks, but can’t be certain. As you move through the room you find yourself holding hands with a number of others, but the majority of the contact you have involves the first hands you took. The idea is that by the time you get to the far end of the floor, which in this case is a door leading to the hall, you’ll be holding them again.


It’s hard not to think about people who’ve danced like this, in this room, who are no longer bodies that can move, or be held. About how they worked in the fields, instinctive and unthinking, repeating familiar gestures. How they did the same in this room, lifting hay or each other, both requiring the same motions. Of their bare arms. But not only them. As we’re moving towards the door I glimpse us in the mirror. It's obvious we're not here as young relations, or the children of someone. Some of us have children of our own, spinning around our legs. We’re taking this seriously because there are fewer opportunities to hold hands now.


We’re unlikely to stand together like this again, our party of three, making its way through the room. It’s only then, while I’m trying not to think what may be in the corridor, I notice the whole room has filled with wheat. That it becomes impossible for us to do anything but stand still, waist deep among stalks, waiting to be reaped and briefly golden.