i. Danse Macabre (Tales from the Deadlands)

This is the story of two travelers, Gabe Valentine and Violetta Talbot, who ride out into the untamed wilderness of the Old West. Their stories are many, and at times they come across strange ghosts, haunts, and sinister beings that even they cannot explain. In this tale, Gabe and Violetta have been traveling through the desert for a long time and come across a small, abandoned town, with a grave decorated in flowers.

A small town sat alone at the edge of the desert. It was a welcome sight after so many days of travel. Dusk was settling down on the hard dirt, turning the sky a brilliant red as the sun set. The travelers looked around the settlement. Possibly it’d been built as a refuge so many years ago and had died away. The stick thin buildings were empty, doors falling off hinges and porches cracked by some unknown weight. A few feet away were stones. They were not well crafted, and the irregular shapes made odd teeth in the landscape, but their purpose was clear. A door banged somewhere in the distance. It was steady, like a heartbeat.

“Damn,” Gabe said as he dug his heel into the dirt. “I was hoping there’d be something here.”

“Looks like there’s been nothing left for ages.” Violetta hopped up onto the porch of one of the buildings. They were all slightly raised on wood bleached by the sun. “A ghost town,” she added, pleased with her own joke.

It’d been a long week of traveling and longer still to their next destination. They had water and food, but the desert was doing its hardest to drain that from them. Violetta had kept her hair down to protect her neck, and it clung in tendrils to her face and skin. Gabe’s hat had helped, but he was pleased to remove it under the shade of one of the rickety buildings and let his head breathe.

“There’s nothing here at all,” Violetta said as she walked from house to house.

Gabe walked over to the graves. No names on any of them. They were rolled stone, left to mark a place. “Not even a date,” he murmured.

“Maybe someone has been here.” Violetta pointed to one of the stones.

The grave was the only spot of color in the whole landscape. Someone had placed flowers on it. More than that, it looked as if someone had placed a whole garden on it. Red roses made a bed for the white lilies to lay delicated on, and large pink snapdragons settled on those. Around the display was food, mostly bread and dried meats, and around those were candles that had already been burned down to the end of their wicks. None of it was fresh. The flowers had started to wilt, littering petals around the ground, and the bread was like a brick. But someone had left it here, in the center of the stones, on a grave.

“There’s no one around for miles,” Gabe said.

“Maybe they’ll come back.” Violetta glanced around uncertainly. The sun had nearly set, and the last few red rays streaked out across the clear sky.

“Come on.” He gestured to the buildings. “We shouldn’t touchit.”

They took the building furthest from the stones. Night descended without a sound, and it felt stranger for it. It was as if the air had been sucked away, replaced by darkness. There was little discussion as they laid out in the small building. All the buildings were just big empty rooms, no furniture, no hint at all that anyone had lived there. It was eerie. It was as if the place had been built and abandoned.

The thought of sleep had occurred to neither of them, and they sat up together. Something in Gabe’s bones said they weren’t supposed to be here. Violetta considered what would happen if someone did return. The kind of person who stayed here wasn’t likely to take kindly to strangers. Finally they’d started to doze off, and they were rewarded for their vigil with a sound.

Violetta bolted up. It wasn’t a loud sound. It was barely any sound at all. It was like a finger scratching against the dirt. Any old animal could make that noise, she told herself, but they probably wouldn’t make it like this, ten fold. Along with the slamming door, it became a beat, an odd foray into music.

She moved to the door. It hadn’t even closed properly, and she could see through the two inch wide slit it made. She could see all the way to the graveyard. She could see something moving.

Violetta reached for Gabe, but he was already up, as a sound broke through the night air like lightning. A fiddle string vibrated through the air with a note so sharp it caused her to trip. Something clattered, like a lot of sticks falling down continuously, a jolly click-clack. The fiddle continued, slowly at first, as though the player was getting used to the instrument. Together Gabe and Violetta pushed open the door and then both drew back.

The first thing they saw was the tall figure standing on the large stone in the center of the graveyard. It wore a long robe, tattered at the edges, perhaps once but now dusty and faded. Its fingers moved quickly along the fiddle as the music came faster. Obscured as it was in its large cloak, it was still easy to make out the white fingers that clacked together, and the white skull that was its face. As soon as the shock of such a grim figure passed, their eyes moved to the dancers, who wore no clothes at all. They also wore no muscle or skin, but that didn’t slow them. Their bone arms waved wildly to the quick pace of the song, feet clicking together as they leapt and turned. They had no expression on their face except one, the manic grin of the dead.

The travelers had both seen many strange things. They had both witnessed the undead rising from an untimely grave. They had both stared death in the eye. None of it quite compared to the skeleton’s dance.

They shared a look.

There was a suggestion in Gabe’s expression that this was perhaps a natural sort of ceremony out there. Afte rall, there’d been an altar of some kind, and the dance seemed choreographed, in a wild sort of way. There’s no use stamping around and mucking it up. Violetta agreed, but she was still deathly curious. A large number of skeletons had just pulled themselves out of their graves to do a jig, and why? Who had left those flowers? Who was the figure in the center? And what would happen if the skeletons noticed the travelers there?

The last question was the most concerning one.

The skeletons had taken partners now, and the music was–it changed. The skeletons didn’t sing. They couldn’t, though stranger things have happened, but the sound wasn’t coming from the empty throats of the specters. The bow waxed furiously on the strings, and the words didn’t come from that either. It was as if tey were appearing freely in the minds of any listener. They didn’t carry through the air. They just were. Like remembering the words to a song you’d forgotten.

It went:

The lady once in splendor is naked now in bone

A baroness used to jewels makes the dirt her home

She takes the farmer’s hand and dances in the night

Not rich or poor but dancing as their feet take flight

Watch them sway and spin, hear how their bones clack

A king and peasant hand-in-hand in the night so black

All Hallow’s Eve upon us, midnight in the sky

Death will dance for just one night, and then again we die.

The fiddler kept playing as the dance turned to a frenzy. The partners crossed and dipped and made the sound like a hundred loose teeth chattering in the wind. The bow was a blur in the fiddler’s deft fingers, and slowly a long leg came up from the robe, stepping down into the circle. The fiddler moved in a jerky fashion, the tattered robe swaying with its movements, and its limbs seemed longer, its grin wider, and it never lost time as it stepped among the dancers. It moved within them . The dancers cross and it looked as though they should’ve hit the specter, but the robed figure waltzed through them. It danced a circle of its own, winding around the skeletons. The song continued:

Death is a willing partner, waiting for its dance

Rich or poor in health or no, all will get their chance

It’s a dance we all must make, child, young or old

Nothing at all can stop it, spirit or wealth or gold

The dance of death is waiting, your partner takes his bow

The final dance, a lasting dance, you’ll wonder, oh and how

Every man must face the day he’s buried in the earth

A promise that he keeps from the moment of his birth

They crept forward. This was not a sight they were going to see twice. Violetta placed her hand on the door, which creaked, and they both froze. The fiddle stopped with a raw screech. The dance was froze. Slowly, the fiddler turned its head. Then, so did the dancers.

And then, slowly, it struck another tune. The melody crept along, like a fog rolling in on a cold night, and the dancers parted, separating out so they were all staring straight at the travelers. The fiddler stepped forward in its awkward gait. The travelers stepped out. When the figure came forward, its arms dipped back within the cloak. The song still played as the robe moved, and two skeleton dancers reached forward, pulling it away in a deft movement, and all that was left was a woman. She moved jerkily, her pale skin too white under the moonlight, her dark hair pulled back. Two strands fell over her eyes, which were black and empty. Her face was passive as she moved forward, red dress a slap of color in the dark night. In her hair were flowers: lilies and snapdragons. She looked out to each of them and curtsied so deep it looked as though she’d fall over, and then she came up, holding an arm out to Violetta. The music still played all the while. Gabe noticed the dancers had passed around the robe and included their own instruments. They were, at this point, a band.

Violetta hesitated, looking to the dancers, and then to Gabe. He gave her a look that suggested as much bewilderment as she said. Finally, she stepped forward, curtseying as well, and took the hand.

With a chord struck, the music pitched forward, and so did the. The woman twirled, Violetta with her, skirt flaring out, and at once the skeleton crew gathered close. Violetta had learned her waltz, gavotte, and quadrille, but she had never moved like this. Like before, the ghostly figure turned and circled and raised her thin limbs, and Violetta was caught in a storm, flung and swung and carried in the circle the skeletons made. The figure’s grip was strong, the bony limbs gripped tightly to her waist and hip, dragging her across the dirt. It was a miracle that Violetta’s feet could keep up, and she prayed tey would, because one more interruption would certainly break the merry mood. the music got louder, faster. They were moving, and in their turn she glimpsed Gabe shouting as two skeletons held im there, and the graves moving closer, and the woman’s face, smiling oddly, empty eyes staring into her. She felt the music reach its pitch as they turned again, and then th ewoman let go. Violetta was tipping back, caught in a twirl, and her foot found an edge, and then it was empty space, and then she was falling–

Violetta thudded into the grave, and Gabe tried to rush forward, but the skeletons held on. The skeleton woman looked down into the open grave, empty eyes unblinking, and then she carefully plucked a lily from her hair and let it fall into the dirt below. She turned slowly, skirt lifting with the movement, and walked forward to Gabe. From her bouquet, she pulled a snapdragon and presented it to Gabe. The skeletons let go of his arms.

He considered for a moment rushing them all, pulling Violetta from the grave, and getting the hell out. But there were a lot of steps to that plan that involved not being overpowered by the dancers, who had already proven their strength. Instead he took the flower, and again she curtseyed. Gabe had not been taught any proper ballroom dancing, but he suspected the correct response was to bow, and he was rewarded with her proffered hand. He took it.

The music started again, slower. It was not the frenzied performance Violetta had been drawn through. One hand on the woman’s waist, the other hand out, they stepped slowly. Gabe realized he was leading, even if he didn’t know the steps. His feet moved on their own, and his body knew when to turn, like the song before, as though he was remembering it from a long time ago. The woman looked up at him, a strange smile on her face. She might’ve been beautiful, if there wasn’t something so ethereal about her, like her skin was paper and the moonligh shone through. They spun across the circle of onlookers, slowly, sweetly. The woman reached up, pressing her cold lips to his cheek, and then he dipped her low. When she came back up, she let him go, stepping away with a sweep. He stood at the edge of the grave, one eye remaining on the woman as he glanced down. Violetta was crumbled below.

The skeletons moved forward, draping the long black cloth over the woman. She was disappearing beneath it, and when the figure raised again, a skeleton head stretched out, its arms moving from within. Its fiddle appeared, waxing faster and faster. The skeleton dancers trotted back, those with instruments joining into the song, and those without dancing gleefully in circles. The words returned.

Those that witness us are sure to know their fate

Death knows its time to dance and never is it late

The dance of death follows you where’er it is you go

No man walks alone, never without a partner, no

But our time has passed, and the dancers fled

It’s now that we return to our earthly bed

Not gone, not forgotten, always waiting here

Til autumn’s time, til next eve, til next year

When the dead do dance and Death does play

Until the sun comes out to chase the stars away

They moved back among the graves, and Gabe jumped down, taking Violetta by the arms. She looked blearily at him and struggled to her feet. The music faded, but they became aware of the robed figure standing over the grave, looking down with its hollow eyes. It opened its bony fingers, and flower petals rained down: violets, poppies, and nettles. Then it drew back, and the music disappeared completely.

It took some time to climb out of the grave, and when they had the dancers were gone. Violetta and Gabe looked at each other and, with no words spoken, took their bags and their horses and drove away.

It took another week before they hit civilization again, where they took up in an inn. After a few beers and a lot of chatter, Violetta let slip the town they had found in the middle of the desert. A hush fell over the men and women who occupied the small tavern with them.

“No one’s gone there for years,” the innkeep told them. “Only the dead go there now.”

“Do you know who left those flowers?” Violetta asked. They’d left out the strange dance they’d witnessed, and mention of the town alone had shut up just about everyone.

“We all do,” he said. “Once a year. In case.”

He didn’t say in case what. They didn’t have to wonder. It’d be a bad night to be woken to the sound of the fiddler’s string. They slept uneasily that night, and didn’t look back as they followed the rising sun.

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One thought on “i. Danse Macabre (Tales from the Deadlands)

  1. Pingback: On a Black Horse – Black Cat Fiction

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