Sorrow Brings a Dancer
Charlotte stood watch as the darkness gathered itself to her husband. His fingers uncurled, the light left his eyes, and his lungs gave up the last of their air. She drew the sheet to cover his face. It fell, a curtain separating her from everything familiar, leaving her huddled in the footlights at the front of the stage, naked and without a script. In an instant their time, their memories, their love—all of it had collapsed into nothing.
Charlotte mustered her courage and turned to face an audience made up of family and friends. Their eyes, glittery and wet, pricked at her heart. They offered to stay, but she declined their uncomfortable kindness.
“It won’t be long,” she said. “And I’d rather you not be here when he arrives.”
They nodded, they touched her face, her hands, and with tears and sad words they went off into the night. Charlotte was alone for the first time since the day she and Joseph had married. But she would not remain alone. Any moment now her dancer would arrive.
Charlotte was sorting through old photographs when her dancer drifted into the room. He was tall, thin, and wore a mantle the color of night. His footsteps were as silent as smoke, his breath was a heavy mist falling on the back of Charlotte’s neck.
“So you’ve come for me,” she said.
“Yes,” said the dancer.
He offered his hand to Charlotte and she accepted. His fingers closed over hers. She felt his poison course through her veins, numbing her and draining her world of its color.
At first Charlotte and the dark figure danced in her cottage around the empty dinner table. There was no music but her dancer was patient, counting off steps as steadily as a clock. Mourners came and went, filling her home with letters and flowers. They moved gingerly, avoiding the track of Charlotte’s waltz as she clung to the cloak of her partner.
Most of Charlotte’s visitors had spent time with a dancer already. It was a custom predating even the eldest. Those who had yet to take a dancer’s hand thought of themselves as fortunate, though even the youngest knew it was only a matter of time. They spoke to Charlotte but their words were boggy and distant, and though she understood them individually, they made no sense when collected. Instead they doddered about in her mind, aimless and without meaning.
“One, two, three. One, two, three.”
Charlotte and the dancer turned in small circles, following an invisible path around the freshly dug grave. She could not distinguish the mourners surrounding her; it was as if their faces were set behind soap-frosted windows.
“One, two, three. One, two, three.”
The pallbearers took their places. The priest recited words from a language no one could understand. Women dabbed at their eyes. Men cleared their throats. The attendants lowered her husband’s body into the ground, unwinding the ropes with great care as if the coffin held a colicky baby.
“One, two, three. One, two, three.”
Afterwards the mourners crowded into a sweltering chamber where they ate with solemn expressions. They spoke consoling words to one another through sugar-speckled lips. All the while Charlotte and her dancer went through their paces, gliding about at the center of the room.
“She was always my most graceful girl,” said her mother.
The priest nodded his head.
“I knew she would dance well,” he agreed.
Her mother had died of a wasting disease when Charlotte was still a child. Her father’s dance lasted several months. Once it was through he’d sat with Charlotte in her bedroom souring the air, his clothing drenched with perspiration. He tried to help her make sense of the ritual of the dancers.
“When we enter the world we bring a dancer with us,” he said. “They slip away like a shadow, going off into the woods. Our sorrow is their food. It brings them the same way a wound summons flies. Dancers are a gift made to heal the living of misery.”
After the dance, Charlotte’s father never spoke about her mother again. Her presence faded from the house like a wisp of smoke from an extinguished candle. Charlotte could not picture her mother’s face anymore, but she would never forget the sight of her father drifting around the yard, dancing with his nightmarish attendant.
Charlotte and her dancer continued together through sleepless nights and listless days. All her bodily concerns faded–she existed only to dance. A gray cast stretched over the sky making the sun a hazy circle of copper. Nightfall brought boiling clouds of black that swallowed the moon and all her blinking children.
Charlotte mustered the nerve to address her shadowy partner. She hoped that conversation would hasten the passage of time.
“What did you do before this?” asked Charlotte.
“I sang,” said her dancer.
“Yes. I sat by a lake of poison in the woods. My song was a lure to bring the creatures out of hiding. They would drink and grow weary. Their falling sated my hunger. It fed me while I waited for you to call.”
“So you enjoy watching things die?”
“There is no joy,” said the dancer. “Rot does not rejoice. Decay does not celebrate.”
“You’re an abysmal creature,” said Charlotte.
“In a sense,” said the dancer.
Charlotte and the dancer moved through places she’d been many times–places which now felt unfamiliar. The marketplace was obscured in a thick blanket of fog. They sailed down the center of the street. They ignored the vendors and their wares. Autumn’s leaves fell without fanfare, clumping themselves together to rot in dejected heaps of umber. When Charlotte danced past strangers out for a stroll in the cool of evening, they would hurry their pace and move past her. When she danced past acquaintances they would step quickly, pretending not to see her.
Charlotte moved with her dancer like a figurehead at the prow of an unyielding vessel. She tried to warm herself with reminiscence.
“I was a child the first time I looked in Joseph’s eyes. He leapt into my path and handed me a flower. I was flabbergasted. I asked who he was and he fled down the lane. He’d risked his life to steal the flower. He’d gone into the field we’d all been warned of, the field with the great white ox.”
“Impetuous,” said the dancer. “You must not have known.”
“I must not have known what?”
“That you were starting a fire. That it would bring smoke. If you knew this dance would follow, would you have done the same? Would you have taken the flower?”
His questions were like claws gouging their way through Charlotte’s chest.
“What does it matter to you?”
“If you wish,” said the dancer. “I can make the pain go away.”
“And how do you propose to do that?” asked Charlotte.
“I could put my finger to your head. My touch would douse the ember. You would forget. You would heal.”
“I would forget Joseph?”
“Yes,” said the dancer. “This sacrifice would sate us both. You could go on. I could go on. Our dance would be over.”
She scowled into the empty hood. “You’re a cancer. You can’t understand. If I did that I’d be hollow and cold. I’d be the same as you.”
The dancer was silent.
“Well, I refuse, you wicked devil. I’d sooner dance with you until the sun turns black. I’d sooner dance with you until I die.”
“As you wish,” said the dancer, and he whirled back, sweeping her up like a leaf in the midst of a maelstrom.
By the third winter her posture had loosened and her feet moved without the call of her mind. An unending spiral of dance steps trailed Charlotte and her partner through the snow. The dancer drew her through covered bridges set over trickling rivers and beneath bare, twisting trees. She no longer noticed the iciness of the hand pressed against her back. She no longer searched for a face beneath the dancer’s cowl of shadow.
A blotch appeared on the horizon. It grew until it became a pair of great black mares towing a carriage. Charlotte’s sister leaned from a window and called to her, waving a pink bit of silk.
“Charlotte, dear? Hasn’t it been long enough?”
Charlotte tried to speak to her sister, but her words stuck in her throat. She could only address the dancer.
“They want you back,” said the dancer.
“At what cost?” asked Charlotte.
“Your memories are a millstone,” said the dancer. “They are a small price to pay.”
“Charlotte?” called her sister.
Charlotte ignored her sister and clung to the dancer.
Seasons came and went, siphoning away Charlotte’s spirit and leaving her hollow and pale. Now, whenever her heels met the earth, she felt needles push up through her legs. Her head tilted sideways even when she thought it was straight. Her vision had grown as dim as the dusk.
“I need to rest,” said Charlotte.
“Are you ready for my touch?”
Charlotte shook her head. The dancer floated back, a mass of billowing black, guiding her deeper into the mist-covered moor.
That night Charlotte wondered aloud as she danced. She thought of the other dancers she’d seen. Some kept their partners twirling for many months, others a handful of years, but never had she witnessed a dance as long as her own.
She set her head against his shoulder and wept. She recalled the last time she’d had her head against Joseph’s shoulder on their fifth anniversary–their last anniversary.
“I couldn’t give Joseph a child. I asked him if he regretted choosing me. I’d ended his name, ended his house. Do you know what he said, dancer?”
The dancer was silent.
“He touched my forehead and said, ‘This is all the eternity I require.'”
“But your mind holds only an echo,” said the dancer, “Your husband no longer exists. Why surrender life for a sentimental remembrance?”
Charlotte gripped the nightmare and danced with all her might.
The last of Charlotte’s strength had trickled away. Her eyelids grew heavy like petals covered with dew. Often her head would loll, she would slip into dreams, but even there she was with her hooded partner, endlessly dancing in a pitch black void. When she woke it was to the nightmare of her dancer’s vacant cowl.
She had no energy left to keep pace. He was propping her up now, dragging her along as though a child dancing with an empty dress. Charlotte lifted her face from his shoulder and saw another pair slowly twirling, coming nearer and nearer through the mist. The second dancer wore a black flowing gown and pulled a masculine figure along behind her. She couldn’t be sure that they were real, or if they were only a fantasy concocted by delirium.
“Who are they?” she asked.
“Another dancer. Another stubborn fool.”
It felt better not to be alone. She gave herself over to a vision where the man was her Joseph, imagining him out here dancing all this time, waiting for her. She tried to will her dancer closer, tried to steal a glance at the man’s face.
Without warning, the other dancer lifted her arms to the sky. She let her partner drop. He disappeared completely, tumbling out of sight, and free of her tether, she drifted up into the sky.
“What’s happened?” asked Charlotte.
The dancer did not reply.
Charlotte watched as the freed dancer grew small like a balloon loosed from the wrist of a child. It was then that she noticed the angular slant of the ground–she was dancing atop a craggy, mist-covered mountain.
“Is that what happens when we are too strong for your bribes? Are you devoured into the sky?”
“Yes,” said the dancer.
“How many of us have there been?” she persisted. “How many of us have refused your bargain?”
“Look down,” said the dancer.
Charlotte could see through the dancer’s cloak. Parts of it were gossamer–as thin as cobwebs. She could see the tips of her toes bumping over unsteady ground. The earth was carpeted with bones. Among them were staring skulls with rent open jaws and broken ribcages tattered with torn shreds of cloth. Charlotte quailed. For the very first time, since the night the dance began, she was afraid.
“It is time,” said the dancer. “You’ve outlasted me, Charlotte.”
His hand unclenched from hers and with a flourish he released her. Bowing, he drifted backward until the wind caught his thinning robes and lifted him into the sky. Charlotte tumbled down the mountain, her body limp and unresponsive, kicking up chalky clouds of dust as she went. She slammed against a desiccated heap. Straining, she attempted to right herself, but her body was through taking orders. She collapsed, searching the heavens for her dancer. Her vision blurred. The gloom gathered. Somewhere near her came a hollow knocking, a scraping and scratching. She imagined waves of rats rushing up, covering her, thousands of pairs of tiny bucked teeth greedily nibbling her flesh, leaving her to crumble among a field of fallen strangers.
Instead there was the sound of someone wheezing, struggling toward her, pulling their body over the hummock of bones.
“Who’s there?” asked Charlotte.
A broken silhouette dragged itself from the mist. His face was lined with wrinkles and patchy wisps of white stuck out from under a lopsided derby. As he came closer Charlotte could see a pale fire–one she hadn’t seen for years–flickering in his eyes.
“Is that you?” asked Charlotte. “Joseph?”
“My lady,” said the old man. But the voice was not the same as the one she remembered.
“I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else.” Charlotte reddened.
“I’m sorry that I’m not someone else,” said the old man.
“It isn’t your fault,” she said, studying her pitiful companion. “My eyes can’t do their job anymore. They ought to have retired a long time ago.”
He dragged himself a bit closer.
“Would you mind if I joined you? It would be nice to have some company after all these years.”
It was strange to converse with someone other than her dancer. She’d grown unused to consideration.
“How long did you dance for?” she asked.
“Far too long,” he said. “Besides, my fiend hadn’t any grace. She was too busy negotiating. She kept stepping on my toes.”
Charlotte laughed and was surprised to hear how creaky her throat had grown. It sounded like the rocking horse she’d had as a child.
“So,” she asked, “did you refuse your dancer also?”
“Of course,” said the old man. He lifted his chin and straightened his tie. “She wanted me to pay for amnesia.” The old man’s chin was wobbling. His bony fingers were curled into fists.
With all her strength, Charlotte pushed herself up and onto her feet, balancing awkwardly on the bleached remains of her fellow insurgents.
“This may seem a strange request,” said Charlotte, bowing. “But would you like to dance?”
She offered the stranger her hand.
Douglas Sterling is an associate member of the SFWA, and a member of the Codex Writers’ Group. His work has appeared at Daily Science Fiction, Fiction On The Web, [untitled], Isotropic Fiction, The Story Shack, The Hidden Chapter, The Speculative Edge, The Rusty Nail and others.