As We Dance
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The Journal of the Walk, Wednesday, December 4th

In spite of my own loathe toward their crowded, bustling atmosphere, I find myself drawn to cities on rare occasion. It's an inexplicable pull, one I can only attribute to a deeply ingrained demand to witness life in all of its forms. I never stay long, lest my muscles grow stiff and my journal barren. It was during one of these rare flights that I found myself wandering stone pathways in a city whose name I never learned.

As I walked some unnamed rolling hills, I saw the walls of the city creep up over the horizon for the first time and that curiosity took hold, so I altered my course and set for it. I would take what I would learn and compare it to what I'd found elsewhere; it's something I find myself doing when pinned between two parallel memories. However, my curiosity quickly shifted as I continued towards it, never once seeing any cart, nor horse, not even a single person enter or exit the open gate in the couple of hours or so it took to reach it. None passed me on the road either.

Explanations sloughed from my brain: more than likely there were multiple gates, that perhaps I had simply caught the city unawares on a peaceful day, or maybe a special occasion was happening that left their merchants and working folk occupied as they celebrated with their friends and family. There was only one way to find out, and that was to see for myself.

The first thing that struck me upon entering proper was the absolute silence of the city. Scant few citizens roamed the streets, those that did took great care to leave a breadth of space between myself and them, ignoring any questions I posed. Birds rested on places of public recline and commune, no longer driven to fluttering skittishness by the populous. A far cry from the atmosphere of The City. I continued inwards, trying to piece together what could have happened. There were no signs of battle or bloodshed, no decay suggesting a long abandoned city with some stragglers or vagrants still squatting within. The city felt dead nevertheless, the muscles still twitching with errant pulses of life.

It was somewhere near the center of the city that I came upon the first locale of rampant life, the first beat of the monstrosity's heart: a large wooden stage, sat in the middle of a park. The air was filled with the rhythmic thumping of soles on the worn wood as a small crowd danced an intricate number, weaving from person to person, group to group. Yet this was the only synchronous facet of the crowd as each individual was a portrait of some different part of life, from every place one can imagine. Spry youth tapped feet with hobbled elderly, both grinning smiles with different calibers of tooth. Squalid wretches barely hiding beneath tattered rags locked arms with perfumed mannequins draped in elegant silks and cottons, swirling up a miasma of sickly-sweet merriment.

Standing in the middle of the undulating mandala was a young bard, her fiddle pressed to her neck and cheek as she kicked her own dance, twisting this way and that, a beacon of merriment. She smiled brightly at the crowd that surrounded her, goading them on with gleeful cries that spilled out from between the notes of her song, a perpetual outpour of energy. The music she played was lively, bordering on frantic. It seemed as though that at any moment the melody would fall apart, give way to chaotic noise, but it remained teetering at the precipice, putting my nerves on edge.

I studied the dance for a few minutes, attempting to decipher what strange rubric their flow was based upon. The longer that I stared the more sure I became that it was not a matter of highly practiced movement, but an expulsion of passion, each dancer dependent on the others to intuit the next motion, their only guideline the tempo set by their puppet master standing in the middle. It was a whirlwind of musical fervor.

In those minutes I spent gazing, not one participant slowed nor stopped. In fact, the crowd only grew. My curiosity took captive my rationale and I joined the jubilant dancers on the stage, trying to move as dexterously as possible towards the middle. I, of course, was jostled quite a bit, but managed to make my way inwards, nearing the bard.

I'm still not quite sure why I chose to approach the bard of all people. There was a magnetism about her. She had buried a hook in my cheek and was drawing me towards her shore.

I had been too far away in my initial gander, then too focused on the motions when I had approached to notice it, but now as I stood amongst the crowd I found that the happiness was a thin veneer, underlying some common sorrow, their true lithifier. Most were drenched in sweat, their faces pale and their feet blistering and bleeding, leaking from shoes— if they even had shoes. The air was thick with body heat, smelling of something foul. Their eyes gazed forwards towards their fellow dancers, but there seemed to be no familiarity in them. They watched one anothers' movements not so they could share in their dance, but simply to ensure that their own jaunt would not be impeded.

Finally, I reached their conductor as she continued to slide her bow quickly across the strings, perpetuating the fervor. She seemed the worst of the bunch, her eyes and cheeks sunken as sweat poured down her face, a fog laying thick over her eyes. Her worn boots slammed on the wood as she continued to dance some mild version of the crowd's jaunt, one of her soles flapping loosely at the toe. Still she smiled, just as before, her lips pulled tightly back, showing the blood-red ridges of her gums.

Her fiddle, which at one time must have been the beautiful work of a highly skilled artisan, was now just as decrepit as the woman who had it tucked under her cheek, and the crowd that undulated to its siren song. The strings her fingers leapt across were bloodstained, the metal clouded and lackluster from the oils of her fingers. The wood, which was likely once rich and elegantly carved, was now dull, the sheen of a finish long gone, the body discolored where it met her skin.

From mighty tree, to elegant art, to a worn and decaying anathema.

There was a small ring of open space between the dancers and the bard, allowing me to stand still as I spoke to her. "What is the occasion?" I asked, wishing to find a point to begin from as confusion and concern replaced my curiosity.

She turned to me, never stopping her dance nor her song. "You not from here, stranger?"

"No," I said, trying to suss out the story that ran down her skin and onto the wood below, "I'm simply passing through."

"I'm afraid you've come at a grim time, my friend!" she spat, her grin holding steady.

"Is that so?"


She continued to play, seemingly uninterested in elaborating. "You call these grim times, but you're engaged in this…" I had wanted to call it twisted merriment, but felt it would be too rude, "… ecstatic routine?"

"Nothing to do but, especially with what's happening."

What event could be happening? There were no parades, no other sites of celebration, no decorations, nothing. "You say there's something happening, yet the city is nearly barren and silent outside of this congregation."

"Is that not evidence in of itself?"

I stopped for a moment, stunned by the question. Her smile dropped ever-so-slightly. "We're cursed, y'see. We've caught the ire of a god and now we suffer for it."

"What misdeed could an entire city have committed to scorn a god?"

"Do, and haven't the faintest clue. The priests and priestesses simply foretold our doom after the king keeled over in his throne, blood pouring from his mouth as he retched and retched and retched," she trailed off into weak, sad laughter. "Said that we 'will be the sons and daughters of wrath, spawned forth from the brine of a hatred most perverse,' but no one knows what they meant. Suspect that they don't either. We've no enemies, not even a tumultuous relationship. But how can it be denied where here we are: very much cursed.

"It be a plague! One that physicians and alchemists have had no such fortune in curing. They told us that we couldn't leave, lest we spread. So with no cure, what are we to do but dance? Dance until the earth swallows us whole?"

I was struck by her frankness, likewise how she seemed so dismissive of the tragedy. An entire city damned?

"Where're the rest of the people who live here?" I asked, fearful of the answer.

"Either wandering the streets, hiding away in their homes, or piled up somewhere, waiting to take flame." Not a note of distress was in her voice.

I wanted to ask more, discover truth in this water so thick with the mud they'd kicked up to hide themselves away, but she chose instead to drag more over my eyes.

"Look," she said, "Look around you. Isn't it beautiful?"

"These people look as though they're going through hell."

"Look past their skin, into their lives. Never would these people touch one another, let alone dance together. Is it not beautiful?"

There did seem to be a bonding of some kind of peoples who would have, unfortunately, stood diametrically opposed under normal circumstances. Stripped away was status and blood, leaving only fear. And loneliness. Yes, they were brought together, but still they stood alone. Each one isolated in an empty city as they twirled 'round each other, never seeing the one they crossed paths with, the one they hooked arms with.

Were they purposeful in their denial? I wasn't so sure anymore. I'm far less so as I write this.

I stood in still waters between the dancers and the bard, felt the current swirl around me as it threatened to pull me in. She their hypnotist, them her clientele. It must have been so easy for them, stepping into the bog. The fervor was frighteningly infectious, worming its way under my skin.

"We've nothing to do but beat away at this stage and pray that when our times comes, we depart quickly."

I was confined, held tight by the walls of the city and people, forced to contend with what was rooted at the heart.

"As we dance we break down the stones that surround us. We bring forth life once more, whisking away the sorrows of tomorrow. The city's been so quiet as of late," she cried, "we've been wallowing, wallowing, wallowing and for what?"

Her tone shifted, turning to pleading, but still she moved and played and smiled. "We can't leave, we can't move, we can't survive! So what are we to do but?"

The bard's grin dropped as a ruckus was raised behind me. A large, well-dressed duke had tumbled into another dancer, sending a wave of disruption through the crowd, ceasing the entire affair. Two peasants reached down to lift him up, but quickly drew away as he began to shudder, bloody bile leaking from his mouth as his throat convulsed. Everyone near him backed away, knocking unprepared dancers near the edge of the stage to the grass. Silence fell on the park as the bard ceased her tune, broken only by the elderly man's sputtering and coughing.

In spite of the fangs the bard's speech had dug into my wrist, injecting venomous irrationality, I found myself unthinking of empyrean scorn nor spread of vile black and rushed to the man, kneeling down next to him. In truth, I have little knowledge of the healing arts outside of what one may need to mend themselves of injury whilst out in the open world, so I was of little use to him practically. I supplemented this with comfort, holding him close as he shook and cried until his soul had been expelled from his form, trailing away into the thin spaces between the wooden boards, leaching into the soil.

When I looked up, the stage was empty save for a few held captive by fear. The bard, too, stood still, watching the poor soul who now lay lifeless. Those remaining few soon broke free of their chains, hurrying away to some hideaway, ducking into an isolated place in their hearts. Not one cared for what would become of the dead duke. They'd all fled, shattering the facsimiles of blood they'd drawn between one another.

Save for the bard. She didn't run, just stood in the center of the stage, completely still, gazing dead-eyed at the duke.

She watched in silence as I sat with the corpse, deciding what I was to do. In the end, I didn't know what their burial rites were nor did I think I had the strength to move him alone. So there he would remain, lying still on the ground, left to be brought back into nature (an end I see no shame in), eaten by carrion beasts as he decomposes.

Standing up to leave, I heard the bard strike up her music again, tapping her feet on the wooden stage. She drug her bow violently across the strings, closing her eyes so she wouldn't see the world around her, back and forth and back and forth, fingers gliding from string to string on the neck. The jovial tune followed me out of the city on a gentle breeze, fading slowly into nothing with the pace of my walk, which I found only hastened the longer I listened to her demented score.

I'm relieved to say that I remain free of the supposed plague, having shown no signs of illness in the past week and a half since I fled. I don't know if I've been spared the wrath of a god or if it's simply luck. Being back in a forest is a welcome change of pace, the birds around me singing their calm, peaceful melodies. They've no audience they intend to charm besides themselves and, perhaps, a few other birds or a mate. Wind passing through brings the tree limbs to shudder, playing percussion to the birds' music. But it's the silent moments that continue to haunt me, bearing down on me like a blood-crazed hound of hell.

In those moments I swear I can hear the rhythmic beating of their shoes and feet upon that stage, the vestiges of her song filling the air with an energy that can only be described as madness.

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