A Dance with Death
The dial oscillates wildly, left and right, before ceasing abruptly, only to twitch like a dead thing with firing nerves.
“Reader says none,” he says as he stands up from the grave. “No matter, there are many more,” he murmurs, before getting out a notepad from his back pocket and jotting something down.
“If there’s no reading,” his master yawns, stumbling over to him through the dense fog, “why would you need to write anything down?”
“This isn’t for that,” he admits. “Just a thought I’m continuing from before.”
“Oh? Let me see, then.” He reaches out a heavy hand, all the folds of his overcoats swaying while he does.
James dodges Professor Riddles’ grasp, stowing the notebook in his back pocket again in a blink, before flicking away of lock of hair from his eyes with a flair of rebellion.
Professor Riddles does something of a growl before taking a long pull from his pipe.
James hates the way his instructor smokes. He would always take a long drag, but never exhale, just keep it in his lungs, such that it would seep out in small amounts every time he said something, or just slowly leak. Often, this process would take minutes, and he’d find himself wondering when it would ever stop leaking, distracting him from the point of the conversation to begin with.
Countless, crucial details for his studies were lost just for the sake of wondering when his damned mouth-chimney would stop smoking.
“You shouldn’t be distracting yourself with romantic thoughts, James,” he says to him, ambling to another grave. “Here, check this one.”
James steps to it, crouches down, flips on the mechanism for the reader while effectively ignoring the comment. Masterful work.
“Ah-ah-ah,” Professor Riddles scolds. “Correctly this time. Each. Motion. Is. Necessary! Focus.”
He tries not to crinkle his nose as he smells the scorched tobacco, and pulls out a piece of chalk, marking the grave with a symbol held within a circle to consecrate the area.
“Well done, well done.”
The switch on the device’s side strikes a flint against a stone, igniting a small flame in the heart of the reader. If any spirits are beneath the grave, they’ll be pulled to an identical symbol drawn on the bottom of the reader that connects the one he drew on the grave. The flame will rise in temperature, and the dial will jump to the right.
“Rickety old thing,” James mumbles, “but admirable in its dedication to you.” He eyes the scratches covering its surface as the dial shoots to the right, and small, tiny glowing orbs begin to seep up from the soil.
“Wouldn’t have found these buggers, had ya been writing love notes,” his professor chuckles.
“They weren’t!—” he stops himself, because it’s precisely what they are.
“Weren’t what? Weren’t ramblings of a boy lost his heart to another? Lighten up, won’t you? It’s two past twelve, the sun’s a few hours from up. The fog is thick, the stench is thicker. Graves are ripe for inspecting, and we’ve a writ from the City Watch to tamper all we want! You should be beaming. You’ve been admitted to one of the most prestigious schools for apothecaries, can't you just be content, lad? Take a hint from the undertakers and bury those memories six feet under.”
“I am happy,” he mumbles halfheartedly. James watches the little orbs stretch like worms as they wriggle out of the soil, their tendrils stretching up, writhing, searching. They want a body, too.
He’s wearing a thick trench coat with three sharp cuts in the back which swirl and separate splendidly in the wind. An old, rusted timepiece dangles from his breast pocket, marked by his grandmother’s initials.
He reaches for his other back pocket, for a thin, wooden disk with a metallic opening like an eight-pointed star. Carefully, he puts it above the spirit fragments and puts the detector away.
When corpses are moved to their homes beneath the ground, they are often blessed or given a ritual of passage, encouraging their spirit to move onto the afterward. However, for those who cannot pay for such service, their souls are left to find their own path. Often, this results in ‘fragments’ being committed back to the earth through worms and other small critters.
“Ah-ah-ah!” Riddles catches James’ hand, whose thumb was on the switch. “Wait for all of them to come up, or else you’ll never know what you—”
Master Riddle’s hand slips. James’ thumb flips over the switch. The eight-pointed star snaps open, the sides like teeth pointed outward from their hinges. A violet glow emits briefly, before sucking itself inward.
A low hum issues from the device, and up go the writhing worms and orbs, the color of moonlight, rising steadily as if gravity ceased.
“You are an inspiring instructor. However did you learn to become so precise?” James snaps.
“Years of practice!” Professor Riddles cackles.
At first, everything seems well. The little spirit fragments are absorbed easily into the device, contained within a symbol etched into the wood behind the star.
Then another, bigger worm beings to writhe from the soil.
“James, close it,” his professor orders.
“It won’t … budge,” James grunts. The switch snaps off. “Damnit! It’s getting heavy. I can’t quite … Professor Riddles, why is it so heavy? What is … ?”
But it isn’t a worm at all. It is a finger, and like a ship rising from the depths of a sea, it brings with it a whole hand, rotted and decayed, yet translucent, reaching, searching for a body just like the other much tinier and much less substantial spirits.
“Well, young scholar. What you’ve just stumbled upon is a phenomena in our field known as runic inadequacy, and it is incredibly dangerous! The creator of the rune becomes bound to the spirit that is commanded to be contained within it. Said rune will not shut until the creature decides. Because now it is the spirit’s decision, since its power is far beyond the little symbol you have in there.”
“Wonderful! Remarkably eloquent explanation. Were you always so articulate?” James grunts as he struggles more. The hand pulls him closer. “So what the hell do I do?”
“This is when you …” Professor Riddles takes another pull from his pipe, thinks for a moment, and says, “run.”
He picks himself up and starts off with a surprising speed. “Just listen!” he calls back. “No use talking to the dead. Not in our profession, least of ways! Find a way to get out and run for it!”
But James is trapped. The device becomes too heavy, not just to hold up, but to let go. The spirit has bound it to his hand, as it was being pulled toward the tiny hole not designed for containing such a large entity. It clogged it.
Suffice it to say that Professor Riddles believes in the ‘learn from experience’ methodology of teaching.
Many of his pupils have died. And were, ironically, buried here.
“I-I’m sorry! Please go back,” James says gently, attempting to mask the fear in his voice. “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
A face emerges from the soil, a pale blue eye opening up just as he says this, searching for the source of the noise. She sees him, looks into him, awakened after many years of sleep. “The things we don’t mean to do often have incredible consequences,” a voice, half-demonic, half-angelic, whispers from the ground.
It is a moment she’s been waiting for for literal lifetimes.
“Won’t you join me?” she asks him.
“I …” he stammers.
With a dancer’s grace, the rest of her body springs out from the grave, not bound by body nor soil. Now her silhouette appears renewed. Where an empty socket was peering between peeling flaps of flesh, another eye forms to match the perfection of the other. Symmetries are rediscovered, and where strange details remain, they materialize with a stark confidence.
The seemly sharpened teeth become concealed behind full and luscious lips.
James is struck dumb as he’s tugged to his feet. While she strides around, stretching, he remains stunned. The link between him, the receptor, and her spirit grows light as she controls the burden, lengthens and shortens it as she bids.
“I will,” he manages to say.
Like a puppet, she uses the device that is still attempting to soak her up, and pulls him up to his feet. The allure of her beauty is unmistakable, even if just moments before she was nothing more than a few scraps of flesh on bone. The illusion is too lifelike to see through.
He is helpless to dismay himself.
Like two royal guests at a ball, she takes his hand with a passionate elegance and leads him into a tango, while the putrid mists of the graveyard waft all about them, swirl and twist and curl.
Professor Riddles is out of breath as he watches from afar. He pulls out a flask and takes a swig. Not brandy. Chamomile tea. How dare you make such assumptions. Regardless, he stuffs a pinch of tobacco into his pipe and burns up some of the fog around him as he lights it.
It’s difficult to see beyond his arm’s reach. All he sees is the spirit's glowing silhouette beside James, a walking shadow in billowing, black raiment.
A shadow and a light in a dance.
Professor Riddles feels oddly appreciative, though he knows it may very well cost James’ a few weeks of his sanity, to fall in love once more with something so unattainable. Having seen his pupils endure and survive nightmares far beyond their imagining, he leaves James, quite literally, to his own devices. To his discredit, he watched for only a few minutes before fancying a warm fire and a leather armchair at home.
Hopping here and there, catching their stride, finding their rhythm beneath the rusted moon, the two souls dance and sway. James finds she is not only somewhat material, capable of holding his weight, but that she is leading him. He merely needs to fall into her step, and between his feet and hers, he discovers his own grace.
They become somewhat weightless, effortlessly cascading over graves, dancing atop the larger ones, sprinting in and out of catacombs, leaping over rotted bouquets and roses, while crows peer down in the willow trees surrounding the yard.
Two hours, rather easily, pass this way.
But the boy has long since forgotten of the professor and his studies. He’s transfixed upon something that was merely the part of an experiment meant to be avoided. He came to collect samples of spirit fragments, to toy with their makeup and discover what just an inch of spirit substance can do for an elixir, a concoction or remedy.
Now he is falling deeply, utterly in love with the silence of a ghost, the memories behind her eyes, and the transience of their moments together.
“What is your name?” he asks her after they find two large headstones to rest on, much more elegant than her unmarked grave, looking outward toward the moon.
“Isabelle,” she says. “Yours?”
“James. What did it feel like, to die?” he asks with a foolish quickness.
She responds with an anger just as quick. “Do you really wish for me to relive that, on a night when someone as human as you treats me as if I am still alive? No! Treats me with such utter delight, more than I received when I was alive.”
“I … I’m sorry, I merely worry for it, sometimes. Didn’t you worry for it?”
“About dying?” Her anger subsides. Isabelle gazes at her hands. It melts there, and is forgotten. As a breath of wind sighs between the two of them, it shifts from the image of a youthful hand to that of a skeleton’s. James pretends not to notice, before she’s able to strengthen the illusion again. “Yes, of course I did. I was no different than you are, now. You’ve that same look in your eyes. A mixture of wonder, trepidation, and longing. Some call it youthfulness.”
He still cannot turn off the device. Since her spirit had jammed the receptor, she is the only thing that can unclog it. He settles in nicely with the thought that she could give him an excuse to spend the entire morning with her … then shifts uncomfortably as he realizes she could also keep him there for weeks on end, perhaps even, to drag him under with her.
“I thought about dying, but now that I think of it, I don’t suspect it was worth the worrying. Not beyond the gratitude it gave me for the time I had. Anything beyond that was darkness and wasted musing. Very similar to the darkness I feel now. It is sweet, though, in its own way. A kind of peace, don’t you think?”
“I do think so. Sometimes when I think of dying, I imagine how peaceful it must be if there is a sinking into nothingness. But you are not truly dead, are you?” James dares to raise a finger, and brushes it over her cheek. It isn’t flesh. But it’s warm, and has a sensation familiar to the surface of still water. “Surely, you’re something more.”
“No, James, this is it. This is what it looks like!” she laughs. “Some wander. Some rest. Some fade. But darkness is surrounding all of it. The light beyond is what is frightening. That is why I am still here.”
“You mean to say that there is more?” he cannot help but let his excitement out.
“Oh, there certainly is!” she laughs with a touch of insanity. “But you see, James, it’s comfortable here. The sky, the moon, the sun, the chaos, the peace. Oh, isn’t it just beautiful? Everything is so wonderfully convoluted and yet simplistic, in this realm.
“But there’s something else,” she mumbles, “the light. It’s not really a light. That’s just what I call it, because I don’t know what it is. That’s why it’s terrifying. Very similar to a dream. It dares to let you fade, if you stop looking around, if you stop believing it’s a dream. So you have to keep moving. Have to keep looking. Can’t close your eyes. Can’t let yourself fall out of the dream …”
Her words sink in with a resounding familiarity. They seem to hum like the iridescence of the moon.
Just as he begins to turn his head away, she smothers him and plants countless kisses on his lips. It was the most odd, most impassioned, most unexpected demonstration of affection he’d ever felt.
He sits there, dazed, cheeks smushed in her ethereal hands, as he breaths in her foggy impermanence.
“See?” Something like a tear falls down her cheek. But because the moonlight glows through her, when it catches, it falls like amber. “Your heart is thunder. So is mine. Who would ever want to leave that behind? Who'd ever give up this dream?”
“Who is to say it does not persist? Who is to say the substance of passion must die to begin with? Not even you have the answer to it! Who’s to say the dream beyond this one is not twice as wonderful?”
Isabelle pulls away, her milky-blue eyes searching him. “Perhaps. Perhaps you are right. But do you really believe it?”
Something akin to hope gleams in her. Even her silhouette shimmers with a renewed light, as if his words strengthened her. But he hesitates. If his blind encouragement should provoke her to go beyond this world, and she truly does fade, would he not be to blame for her damnation in another realm, perhaps twice as insufferable, instead of twice as beautiful, as this one?
Yet he continues. Such as passion will do. It pushes us to do things with or without regards to our utterly human, often questionable, judgement. “So many wish to leave, Isabelle. So many neglect, surrender themselves. You’ve not seen the corpses I have. The bodies. The red rivers streaming from wrists. The last words hung from black tongues. I’ve seen death and death is not you. Death is far from your hopefulness. You are timid because you see something beyond this. You are cautious as a traveler is before she steps onto a new path, not because she hasn’t one to step on to begin with. And that fills me with hope. It makes me want to … continue, no matter the end. No matter what awaits. Surely whatever is beyond this is unimaginable. For if it kept you, a beautiful and courageous soul, to linger in a place such as this. Surely it is because you lingered, not out of despair, but of love.”
“Yes, what else?”
Isabelle clutches his hand. It sparks with fervor and feels much hotter than human touch, but he ignores the sting.
“You’ve been alone. You’ve slept in your body for decades. You’ve wandered, embraced silence, snatched up opportunity such as tonight, even with hands that waver from the winds. Can you not see your courage? So many wish to depart from this world, from the loneliness, the sadness of it all. Yet here you are, with strength in your eyes, conviction in your heart, because gods, you see all of it as beautiful.
“If that is not love, Isabelle, I do not wish to discover what is. If it is something lesser than you, I mean.”
Amber flows in streams from the icy orbs of her eyes. Behind James, the sun creeps up over the rolling hills, displacing light through slanting, swaying, strange-looking trees twisting over here and there, seemingly melancholic.
A moon behind a ghost.
A sun behind a boy.
A sky to intertwine the two, to swirl the colors like an artist’s palette, bringing brilliance to the rising dawn, the falling midnight.
“James, I hate for my last words to be a wish, a favor. I truly do, but there is no denying this is a request.”
“No. I don't mind,” he says with a frantic heart, shocked to lose such a strong connection, shocked that it had been made at all, and shocked that he’d actually inspired someone beyond their fear.
Too often are words spoken to no avail. How often do we seek to lend aid to a friend, only for them to take our words with them, deeper into their despair, instead of grasping the hand attempting to pull them up?
She nods, assured. When you are in silence for a lifetime, it teaches you to value the words of anyone with heart and mind to speak them genuinely. She savored each of his syllables.
“Well,” she begins slowly, eyeing the dawn. She wants to time it perfectly. “I don’t want you to tell anyone about this morning. The hours we spent. The words we exchanged. I forbid you to utter them to anyone besides yourself, besides when you are most terribly certain that you are alone, in the dead of a morning like the one we shared. If you must say them, speak them to yourself. But, disobey, and I’ll haunt your grave.”
At the last word, they fail to keep themselves from chuckling, ruining the serious air of the moment.
The sun is rising faster than she anticipates. After the laughter dies, she breathes deeply—an old habit—and continues. “Not directly, I mean. Of course, you should share this. If you felt love tonight, share it. If you felt inspired, share it. If you were at first terrified, share it. If you felt utterly foolish, to dance with a lonely ghost, share it. I don’t care what you felt. Just that if you felt it, have the courage, the grace, to turn it into different words before you do. A different story.
“This world has a way of twisting words before they come from our mouths. I don’t want anyone to turn our memory to anything it wasn’t. I want this, I want you, pure. I will remember it, so long as you do. And if I cannot after I go, I at least wish you to. I’d be damned to find out that anybody got their hands on our memory. Changes it to a story it’s not. Because moments shared alone are precious. But moments shared alone, with only one other you love, they are divine.
“And I think you’ll agree. That, at least briefly, if not as we speak, there was love found somewhere between us.”
James smiles. “I do agree.”
“Yes, to everything. I swear. I won’t whisper a word of it to anyone.” James feels the dawn rising on his back, and with it his heart in his throat.
The light shatters the air, cuts it up with silence and melting rays. Their silhouettes, his shadow and her light, fade in both brilliance and shadow. James regains detail. Isabelle begins to blend into the air, loses hers.
“And this moment, especially,” Isabelle whispers, “because I know, surely, you won’t have another …” She looks past him, at the outermost edge of the sun, down at her dissipating features, then, with just enough reluctance, back to his eyes. “… another quite like it.”
She leans in to kiss him.
Just as her lips should meet his, and his eyelids fluter close, he feels the chill of the morning instead of the warmth of her touch. The hand on his is now winter air. Her frozen orbs, piercing though translucent they were, have left his gaze. Now he has only the sunrise burning on his shoulders, a lingering moon in his hand, a colorful sky spilling all over him, with all the graves jutting out to watch him.
He finds, once more, that solitude persists after everything, leaving him with nothing but thought and memory.
His smile fades. It vanishes the way she did.
He sits for another hour, watching the dawn alone, listening to the crows cawing as they pass overhead.
When he goes home to write down every detail, he describes it with incredible precision, his emotions filling the gaps where details had been muddled.
Nine hours passed dawn, and the device empty of everything he’d tried to collect.
Halfway through his journaling, he'd switched open the receptor with the vain hope that, somehow, Isabelle had slipped into it.
But, of course not.
That’s when he feels it, deep in his chest, not a satisfaction for the experience, but a longing to taste it again. A incurable desire and frustration, a void created to be filled but doomed to be empty. How damnably silly.
Loneliness does a good many things, he writes on one of the last pages of his journal, but above all else, loneliness remembers.
Then the wooden quill slips from his hand, the ink splatters across the floor. Its metallic nib is coated with the parchment it collected on its sharp point. The candles have died, but it’s of small importance, because the sun has long since pierced through his windows, and is now trying to pry through his eyelids.
It cannot. They are far too heavy.