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Inspiration Gets You Nowhere
When Death Dancesby Deborah J. Brannon
The dancer dances, and she dances all alone.
A shadow-play spins around her, her studio empty but for bare wooden floors and hundreds of candles laid out in a mysterious pattern: a snake eating its own tail, the figure eight, two circles intertwining, or perhaps only chance splayed out like infinity. Gauzy skirts the color of an autumn sky skirl dangerously close to open flame, a manifestation of wind and motion and gravity. Her shining black hair is interwoven with marigolds, the heavy tresses swaying as she leaps and spins. The dusky flesh around a bodice accented by red-beaded roses is dewy with perspiration.
The shadows weave crazily across the floor and walls and time. A senseless parade of dark figures, of demons cavorting and contorting, splits, reorganizes itself, and forms into the wavering image of a boy running through a field of tall grasses across the floor and walls--
Once upon a time, there was a boy who loved only his family more than he loved the color red. His favorite plaything was a secondhand red wagon, though he coveted a red-sailed sailboat that his most-hated adversary plied on the open sea of a rain-filled gutter. He always wore a crimson bandanna and played at pirates in the scarlet-tinged air of a childhood sunset.
One day, the little pirate-boy in the crimson bandanna was pillaging on the seven seas of rippling grass near his small white house. He stole flowers from the grasses and frogs from the ponds and tossed them all into the hold of his trusty red wagon. When he tired of pillaging, he ran through the fields with a paper kite inexpertly dyed scarlet at home. It wasn’t long before he happened on an orchard kept by one of his neighbors and saw the red fruit hanging heavy from the trees. Who could doubt what such a pirate-boy would do when he saw the succulent fruit, that red apple of earthly delight? As he shimmied over the fence and up the tree, too eager in his wanting, who could have predicted that the apple would cause his fall? Most piteous of all, who could guess that it would be his sister who found his red bandanna waving from the fence post and, looking over it, find his broken frame? She carried him home on weary feet.
--yet then the shadow-boy and shadow-grasses dash apart, a dark sailboat smashed on some unknown shore. The dancer twirls, leaning over and arching her back in a convex curve. She cradles the empty air to her breast. She straightens up with difficulty, swinging her arms free once more to drift through light and shadow. Her eyes are closed, yet the dance and the flames and the shadows continue, breaking apart now into snaking torrents, into black rivers climbing the walls--
Once upon a time, a close family lived in a small white house. It was a clapboard house and poorly made, but it was warm with light and laughter and love. The father was a luthier by trade and his workshop was a poorly-constructed addition onto the back of the house. Although it was a most rickety shack, the workshop was full of wealth beyond measure; however, few were buying golden strings and honeyed notes in a country made poor by the discordant strains of war. Yet rather than let them go to waste, the father played what he wrought: he played to lighten the feet of the mother, a dark woman with light eyes, her back early bent by toil. He played to gladden the heart of his son, who clasped a length of red cloth to his shoulders like a cloak and strutted to the music like a hero of old. And when the son fell, he played to sweeten his way through death. He played most of all for the daughter, a slip of dusky light with shining ebon hair, whose graceful steps could awaken the dead to dreams and the living to life. He played for them through poverty and windfall, until a candle overturned turned all the life and light and music into silent, bitter ashes, drifting on the wind.
--into columns of shadow-smoke against the creamy wood of a studio far removed in space and time. The dancer leaps over flame, the fires bending and smoking in the fury of her passing. She hits the floor and goes down, knees buckling, one hand brushing the ground, her whole body silently screaming. She crouches, pulled into herself, her whole body trembling in the face of tightly-clenched despair, before she's found her center again and leapt back into a whirling dance. Her heart beats a pulsing tattoo from the fear and loss and the burning of childhood dreams. She drums her heels along the floor as if trying to disentangle herself from her emotions. Her fingers tighten around a mask once clasped loosely in lithe hands, a mask which she draws up to her face in a crescendo of passion: pale white bones, ink-black incisions, trailing ghostly ribbons fanning around her face amid her feverishly flying hair. Ever entwined with her dance, the coupling of light and shadow continue their obscene cabaret. The candles flicker, the shadows separate once more to writhe in a violent procession of gaunt and gruesome men--
Once upon a time, there was a dancer who always wore something red and carried with her a slightly singed guitar. Although she was skilled in song as well as dance, she always refused to play the honeyed strings no matter how nicely one entreated her. She hailed from a far away land (a land, she said, of broken dreams), though she spoke little of her past and never had anyone to write letters to or anyone to write letters to her. When on holiday from the dance school where she taught, she merely practiced her art. No one ever knew her to go home for these holidays. After all, she said she didn’t have a home anywhere: she never let anyone see the picture of a small, white clapboard house she kept tucked inside the body of the guitar.
One autumn, this girl took sick with a feverish malaise, a fire that spread in her blood and burned throughout her womb. As there was no kin to tend her, lost to fire long ago, she found herself a ward of public health care. The city took her, cared for her, put her in a cold and sterile room with neither warm light nor laughter nor dancing. The white walls closed her in, lit by lifeless white and blue light. She grasped her crimson bandanna and hummed a tune her father used to play on one of his guitars. A string of gaunt and humorless men examined her, prodded her, nodded and hemmed and hawed, yet found no cause or cure. They simply declared that it was a fire to let burn, and one that would likely leave her barren if it left her live at all. Terror lurched in her heart, but the dancing girl was never certain whether it was fear of dying or fear of living that consumed her. Death was a great mystery, but it felt an old companion in her life. How could she spurn one who’d already taken her most beloved as guests? Life was more the mystery, stretching on unwritten and with no defining course. She fretted as the fever burned and waltzed its way out of her blood. And so she lived, and so she danced once more.
--who take the hope of life away. Half of her candles have guttered now and still the dancer dances all alone. One half of the glowing infinity snake has died, leaving but one spiraling circle of flame for her dancing steps to flirt around. She kicks through shadow, lashing out as she sweeps a moth-like path back to the light. She has no past and no future to cradle her through dark nights. Her hands clench on the mask, and she spins, head thrown back in ecstatic realization. She has no light except that which flutters all about her, guttering and all alone. Her lithe limbs slow and she twirls in circles grown somber, until at last she comes before the mirror just within range of the flickering light: within its frame, a youthful dancer, clad in the blue of an autumn sky, with red-beaded roses around her bosom and golden marigolds in her shining ebon hair. She draws closer to the candlelit mirror, shadows twisting before her and one hand a dusky claw against the solid mask. She sees the face upon her face, La Muerta, bone-white and skeleton-grinning.
A single hand held out in entreaty, at last the dancer stills.
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