Halloween 2018 — The Danse

1 Nov

Halloween is once-again upon us, and this year, I dug back in the archives to find a creepy Halloween ditty to share.  I originally wrote this story when I was in 7th grade, and going through my dalliance with horror fiction.  I subsequently lost the manuscript, but the idea stuck around in my imagination, bouncing around every once in awhile.  I rewrote the story in adulthood… it has a bit of a fairy tale feel to it.  And before you ask, no, the title is not a typo.  It’s a reference… Enjoy, and Happy Halloween!

-Jay


The Danse

By: Jason Butkowski

full-moon-crow.png

The ragged, hunched-over figure moved with impossible speed and agility as it leapt and bounded its way over crag and crevice in the eerie blue light of the early winter moon.

The diminutive man was a sight to behold. A foul little elf in tatters, his flowing grey beard spilled out in a mangled rat’s nest over top of a round belly. A large red, bulbous nose, an unkempt, unclean tangle of long, stringy hair and sunken, dark eyes were all hidden beneath a floppy, filthy, wide-brimmed cavalier hat. A hooded cape, a torn dull tunic, patched baggy pants, and scuffed bucket-top boots completed the ensemble. With his slight stature and odd attire, he looked like half a buccaneer, stranded far, far away from the ocean.

The bitter winter breeze and the man’s own forward momentum caused his dusty, shredded cloak to billow out behind him like some sort of spectral shadow. Over his left shoulder, he carried an empty cloth sack. A dinged, chipped and faded violin and frayed bow were tucked away underneath his right armpit.

On this frigid winter’s night, the odd little man seemed alone in the world, cast adrift in a desolate, lonesome landscape, forever separated from the good, honest people who at this very hour were fast asleep in warm, cozy beds. None of that outside world mattered; everything beyond the present state of being was a far-off dream. In his estimation all that existed on this night was the mountain, the man, and the sky.

The mysterious old traveler appeared to be at ease traversing this nearly impassable mountain pass, each step finding footing where none seemingly existed a moment before his boot-clad foot touched ground. The only evidence that he was exerting any effort at all was the shallow, rank bursts of breath which originated from aged lungs and burst forth through cracked lips as puffs of wispy, white, malodorous steam in the cold night air. He stopped briefly to catch his breath, and peered heaven-wards towards the position of the moon hanging in the night sky.

He cursed under his breath with a voice like dry gravel. Despite his unnatural and uncanny pace, he was late.

He continued on in his journey at breakneck speed, hoping that his tardiness would be forgiven by tonight’s audience, once bow set to string, and the evening’s revelry commenced.

Somewhere in the night, a crow cawed its familiar greeting – a lamentation for the dead and despairing. He studied his surroundings and peered through the darkness. He was close to his destination.

Scanning the horizon, he spotted what he was searching for. Two ancient stone pillars rose from the earth, topped with grey, fierce-looking gargoyles, carved by forgotten hands to ward off forgotten, unwanted intruders. The cold, moss-covered obelisks framed an entryway through dilapidated, unlocked black- and rust-colored iron gates into whatever lay beyond. Inside the fenced-in perimeter, cracked stone memorials and neglected grave markers sprung up from the fog-coated ground like crops in a dismal, untilled field. This was a place for the dead.

This, he thought as he approached the loose-hanging gates, clanging together in the wind, would make for an excellent performance venue.

The withered, haggard musician passed through the rusted gates, made his way to the center of the cemetery, dropped the empty sack at his feet, and raised the mangled violin into position just below his chin. He held the frayed bow aloft in a grand, magical gesture, like a wizard about to intone an ancient incantation. After a moment of eternal stillness, he dragged the bow across the instrument’s strings, unleashing a wretched screech that was more akin to an injured animal’s howl of pain than it was to a practiced musician’s virtuosity.

The old man paused, his beady, sunken eyes darting back and forth across the graveyard. The night air was calm and peaceful, as would be expected in a cemetery at near midnight. The man raised an eyebrow and lent an ear for anything out of the ordinary. The scene was as it was, and as it would always be – quiet, still, lifeless. The eternity of the grave was as unmoved by the man’s presence as it was by his off-key opening chord.

Undaunted, the maestro tapped the bow against a nearby gravestone three times, and again, placed instrument beneath chin, and held bow towards the heavens. He again dragged the horsehair bow against the delicate, tenuous strings, this time moving thin, bony fingers against the instrument’s neck with an expert level of skill and precision, producing a quick, jaunty riff as opposed to the cacophonous clamor which had previously echoed through the otherwise silent winter night. He again paused, listening intently, expecting some kind of response to his fiddling.

Again, the thick blanket of fog and earth seemed unimpressed.

The violinist let out a harrumph of frustration, and once more assumed the position, this time with more resolve than before. He tapped five times and began his song. The old bow moved frantically across ethereal strings, fingers flashing up and down the neck, notes mixing and mingling to form chords, chords mixing to produce phrases and refrains, refrains mixing to produce movements, movements mixing to form a grand sonata. The unspoken language of music flowed through the fiddler’s dilapidated instrument and into the frigid night air. The tune was at once otherworldly and altogether familiar, ancient and forgotten and yet embedded in the collective social unconsciousness of all of humankind.

It was a waltz – macabre and bizarre as it was, even without considering the locale for this particular performance. And yet, the song was filled with a perverse sense of joy and playfulness which belied the strange and dark undertones which the musician weaved effortlessly and expertly into his music.
And this time, the graveyard responded.

As the musical dynamics ebbed and swelled, the ground beneath the violinist seemed to quake and tremble in time. A low, powerful rumble emanated from an unknown source. The music had begun to awaken something primal and supernatural, and there was no turning back.

Suddenly, the ground shifted and split. Something rose slowly and effortlessly from the subterranean depths into a fixed place in the sky. The musician played on, unaffected.

Hovering three feet above the ground a corpse, dressed in grimy, mildewed evening apparel, stared blankly with sullen, empty sockets at the fiddle player – or more accurately, through the fiddle player. The skin was grey and lifeless, peeled back and stretched across bony, meatless cheeks to reveal decayed yellowish-green teeth, shaped in a horrible rictus – a death grin. The bugs and vermin which had claimed residence in the dead man’s head scurried beneath the taut, deteriorated skin, appearing only briefly in the gaps between flesh in the hideous being’s rotted-away visage.

The thing from the grave peered curiously at the strange old man, transfixed by the tune and frozen in place. The ground continued to shake, as the pace and tempo of the man’s playing sped up.

Soon, the undead corpse was not alone. A veritable ballroom of deceased, decomposed revenants floated above the ground, mesmerized by the old man’s fiddle, each a masterpiece of horror, an undead reminder of what awaits us beyond the veil of the living, necrotic flesh and exposed bone barely hidden by tattered, dirty clothes, skin peeling and flaking off, crawling with the various subterranean dwellers which frequent gravesites to find sustenance.

Then, the dead began to dance.

The monstrous beings paired off and began to swirl around their locus: the old, fiddle-playing man. They circled and spun, a dervish of death, decay and decrepitude, a cyclone of putrification. The undead abominations performed their mad waltz, in defiance of the natural order of things, spurred on by the musician’s song.

As they danced, chunks of rotten flesh slid from the dancers’ frames and fell to the ground beneath them, and then, as if granted life themselves, the moldering meat chunks slunk their way back into the ground from whence they came. Yellowed, ancient bones began to crackle and pop in time with the music, before the forcefulness of the dance caused the withered bones to snap and splinter, joints jutting out at unnatural angles and giving the dancers an even more fearful appearance.

The musician played on as the sky grew dark and menacing, blotting out the faint glow of moonlight. Soot-colored snow – embers and ash – floated down from the heavens onto the ghastly scene, and was caught up in the cyclone of activity as the dancers moved faster, faster. The man himself was in a seeming trance, fingers flying over his instrument faster than what should have been humanly possible, faster and faster still, notes building upon notes upon notes until the sonata reached a moment of transcendent climax, a peak of horrific and fearful magnitude.

And as quickly as the entire strange episode had begun, the performance was over, and the dead prepared to return to the peace of the grave.

The undead dancers bowed in appreciation to their maestro before shambling back to return to their gravesites, once more at peace after a brief respite from the cold grasp of death. The night’s revelry ended, the clouds parted, and the moon retreated below the horizon line. Once more, sanity had been restored to the world, and the rules of life and death had again taken hold.

The old musician was left alone in the graveyard, just the man and his fiddle. He gathered his instrument and his wits, and prepared to leave. Just then, a glimmer of yellow, a spark of luster, caught his eye from atop one of the ancient gravestones.

His fingers stretched out, and he lifted the item to eye-level for inspection. It was a gold tooth.

The old man bellowed out a deep belly laugh, revealing his own toothless maw. He collected his empty sack, and went from gravesite to gravesite, collecting the many rings, watches and pieces of jewelry which had been left behind as payment for a night’s work.

Tonight was a good night indeed, he thought to himself, as he set out on the long journey home, his sack stuffed to overfilling with an evening’s collection of well-earned loot. He chuckled as the fog of memory dispersed, and he remembered his mother’s admonitions, so long ago, when he was but a boy. She told him then, as he practiced his violin for hours at a time, that there was no living to be found in making music. She never knew how right she was.

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