The restaurant exists on a wide field under the shadow of rocky cliffs. It has been nameless as long as anyone can remember, though most of the French villagers in the area know of its existence. It has always been Hettie’s. Wide-hipped and broadly smiling, she is seen sweeping and tidying in the late afternoon with the same faded blue apron, humming the same tribal song. Some wave as they pass the empty road heading home, but most acknowledge her presence with a light nod to themselves, as if noting that their sleeping child is just where they left them the night before.
The dinner crowd trickles in. The restaurant is always on the verge of being empty, though there are usually one or two regulars nursing coffee at a table on the wooden porch or within the wall-less restaurant. Hettie is usually seated, chatting with her guests, laughing at an old joke or whispering advice under her breath. Nobody ever looks into Hettie’s eyes when she speaks. Their gaze points always to the floor.
The regulars stay late. Night falls and the field glows with moonlight. Hettie looks expectantly to the cliffs, brings out her small wooden drum and sits on a seat at the edge of the porch. She begins to play the same song she has been humming all day. The rhythm is hypnotic, lulls the villages around her into a deep sleep, ensures that none will wake up before morning. After many hours, the rhythm begins echoing from the cliffs. Then, one by one, streaming down from the rocks above, her company arrives, humming softly and sweetly.
Delicate, dark, with coarse skin and covered in furs, the First Women collect at the base of the cliff and travel in packs to Hettie’s restaurant. Some are girls, some are women carrying infants, and many are aged, wearing their senescence on their ragged skin. They all carry instruments, playing them solemnly as they approach the restaurant and take their seats. The moon is either full, or partial, or absent, and its presence dictates the rhythm and cadence of the song, and the depth and character of their breathing.
All at once, after hours of song, the First Women stop their playing abruptly, put down their instruments and sit in perfect silence. There is stillness for some time. Hettie’s eyes trace the skyline expectantly, looking for a telltale sign. Then there is the rumble and flash, and one by one, the First Gods alight in the meadow, taking their positions in the dance.
The mood changes at once, from solemnity to euphoria, as the First Women race into the field smiling and laughing, embracing their gods and dancing among them. Some Women stay with their instruments and start playing a very different song – at once joyous, exultant and bottomless. It is the oldest song. A light tremor shakes the grass when it begins. The Women and Gods feel it on their bare feet. It moves them to dance faster, with wider arcs and lighter hops. It gives the Gods energy.
The dance lasts much of the night. To some it would seem like any other dance, though perhaps more primal. But if one were to watch the dance carefully, they would notice that it lacks any spontaneity. It is rehearsed, and it is telling a very old story to an unknown audience. It is a long, complicated story as everything is in it: creation, history, myth, destruction. And to anyone watching, it would be obvious that it ends in sweeping tragedy. The dance finishes with everyone falling to the floor and becoming still. Though some would claim that the music hadn’t yet ended when the Gods stood again, and the Women followed.
The sky turns the shade before dawn and the Gods depart quickly. The Women then gather their instruments solemnly, each hug Hettie and make their way to the cliffs, disappearing into them. Hettie walks the field, picking up any evidence of the dance and discarding it. Then, before she plays the song that will wake up the villages, she kneels on the porch of her restaurant and prays to the First Gods. Not the gods that have been worshipped for a few thousand years, but those that reigned for a million.
Illustration by Alexandra Dvornikova