"Dancing Lessons"

Originally published in Triangulation: Dark Glass and reprinted at Basement Stories.

A 2009 Recommended Read at Tangent Online
From Tangent Online (Nathan Goldman):
"...keeps the reader engulfed in the story with vivid description, characters to care about, and the sharpest prose in the collection."

The man was dead and the girl was twelve.  He was stitched together and wired to a heart of brass and tin, a tiny dynamo that recharged with each step; she wore summer dresses of faded blue gingham and carried a smooth stone in her pocket.  Each day for a week, she lingered after the carnival matinee and they would talk. 
“You dance well for a dead man,” she offered. 
His grey head bobbed, but the eyes were empty buttons of dark glass.  “I have little choice,” he muttered.
When he was alive, the man lusted for the bottom of a whiskey bottle, and it broke him, forced him to leave his home, his wife, and child to follow any job for food.  With his world wrapped in a bindle, he rode north on a freight car.  His liver gave up in tiny steps, along with his heart.  The Carney found him when he was broken.
The girl came with her mother and the crowds on the first day the carnival was in town.  Bright posters promised shadows of the netherworld, the end of the history in fire and ice, and the dead man who, as a challenge to Lazarus, not only rose but danced.  Her mother brought her that day, worried for her little girl’s happiness.  The sweet curl-headed stick of a child wore her favorite dress, thin as gauze, so lean it almost melted into her skin. 
“Mother, look, a dead man who dances,” she squealed. 
“But dear—wouldn’t you rather,” her mother said, pointing at garish signs promising the wonders of the man with spider’s legs, the living carousel, and a woman with an interchangeable face.  She nodded at a fleshy torso stilting about on shiny copper arms.  “So many other sights to see…”
The girl crossed her arms and shook her head.
“Well, ride the trolley home after the show.”  With a weary shrug, the mother pressed a few coins in her daughter’s hand and shuffled away.
The girl, filled with curiosity and cotton candy, waited until the dead man’s tent emptied.  She cautiously skirted the wooden benches and trampled grass, slipping through shadows at the perimeter of the tent. 
“I’m dead but not blind,” he said in rough tones.
On the second visit he explained: “It was a simple deal…I was dying.  I was face-down in a drift of snow and the Carney pulled me to my feet…”
He signed a contract before the end, a paper promise entrusting money from the carnival to his widow and his daughter.  The ink dried, and his heart imploded with the whimper of a dying rabbit. 
The carnival men played doctor—armed with scalpels and masks—more concerned with “could we” than “should we” they crafted an automaton of metal and flesh.  Copper wires laced through the dead man’s muscles along with delicate lengths of violin string.  A metal stone sank into the heart-hole, and they pickled him each night in a casket of gold.
“You’re dead now.”
“They’re taking care of my wife…my little girl.”  His weary eyes rolled in their sockets.  “They own me, for now, as long as I last.”
“Does it hurt, being dead?” she asked, her timid finger extending to the stitches on his arms.  Her other hand played with two coins in her skirt pocket.
The dead man shook his head.  “Not much.”
The southern sun abused the carnival tents each afternoon.
“You look sad today,” she said on their third visit.
“It’s hotter here.”
“Summer is coming soon.”  The girl smiled, but the smile faded quickly.  The dead man’s face moved, twisted, did a dance of its own.  He looked at the girl and tried to remember—his brain was too much like a sponge in a metal dish. 
“I’ve seen you before.”  His voice scratched like a twig in the dirt.
“For three days now.” She grinned.
After the show, his rotting body would stiffen, sorely abused by the dancing the Carney forced him to do.  He tried to shake his head, but the wires were sleeping; even the brass dynamo was nearly spent.  “No, no.  I’ve seen you before.”  His voice crawled on its belly.  “I’ve seen you before, this.”  His hand slowly fought the mortis and tapped against his chest.  “You remind me of my little girl.  Your eyes, maybe.”
On the fourth visit she brought him a tin cup of water she filled from a trough near the living carousel. 
“For your voice,” she mumbled, eyes toward the ground.  The skin around his cheekbones had started to peel, fraying like loose bits of yarn.   
“Thanks,” he rasped. 
The girl kicked at the dirt between broken strands of grass.  “The smell is worse today,” she said.
A nod.  A sip of water loosened his throat.  “It’s too hot.  I’m not made for the heat.  But the water feels good inside.”
“That’s something, I suppose.”
“Yes.”  He passed her the empty cup.  “Something.  Our last stop—my first with the show, was up north.  Much cooler than here.”  His grey hand waved to the top of the tent.  “The sun is unforgiving.”
The girl pushed her hands into the pocket at the front of her dress and produced the smooth stone.  She turned it in her hands, feeling the polished surface.  “My father brought this home from France, after the war.  He said it was from the Ardennes Forest.  His best friend died there, and Daddy used to say a bit of him was lodged in the rock.”  She squinted at the stone.  “I could never find that bit.”
The dead man’s body creaked and popped as he stood.  “It’s a figure of speech.”
“Oh.”  She slipped the stone inside her pocket again.  “I’ll bring pictures tomorrow. Show you Daddy in his army suit.”
Her mother mocked her choice of friends, but the girl dug out the cigar box under her bed and found a picture of her parents on their wedding day.  Maybe the dead man could see something in the yellowed print; the dead, she heard once, have a wisdom the living cannot know. 
With the stone and the photo tucked together, the girl waited until the carnival tent spilled its crowd, and she slinked inside. 
 “Hard day today?” she asked the slumping grey scarecrow. 
He managed the slightest shoulder tic.  His head rose in a slow arc, showing his face—now checkered with bone under the flesh. 
“Here.”  She ran to this side, skipped onto the low wooden stage, and helped him to the edge.  His skin hummed warmly—too warm for the dead—but she remembered the ball in his chest, the electric dynamo pushing life through his copper veins.   
He didn’t speak at first, but clasped at the picture she pulled from her pocket.  His eyes leaked what tears they had, and the blurred man in the photo made him imagine a mirror.  “I was in the war, too,” he groaned.  His voice faded to a whisper, not much more than a shuffle of brittle paper, as he continued.  “I was in France when the trees disappeared under the rough plow of artillery shells.  Ghosts rose from the mud every night and pointed at me with splinters for hands.” 
His eyes rolled to the top of the tent, lost and black.
The girl rested her chin on her hands.  “This was my father.” She pointed at the groom.
“Oh.”  He pushed the picture away.  “He’s dead?”
“I don’t know.”  Her little fingers picked at a frayed edge of the image.  “He left us two years ago.”  She buried the pictured in her pocket again.  “Mom said he liked whiskey better than us.”
When her mother found the picture in her pocket that night, she tore it in half.
“Your father was a vagrant.  A dirty, selfish vagrant.”
The girl closed her eyes and set her face.  Moments passed in silence.
Her mother touched her cheek with cold fingers.  “What more can you expect of a dead man?  He’ll leave you, too.  Either the carnival will move on, or…”
The girl ran to the bathroom before her mother saw tears.  She tore open her parent’s medicine cabinet and found an old razor, untouched since his departure.  The blade, although choked with rust, was still sharp, and nicked her finger.  She stuffed the sore digit in her mouth and looked into the mirror, the glass darker than it should be in the early evening.  She saw the dead man’s face through her eyes. 
On the sixth day the girl came with a bit of metal pressed in her hand.  She held out the closed fingers, and transferred the blade to the dead man.  “It’s only a little blood,” she said of a fresh scratch.
Flies danced on his rotten fingers, but buzzed away when he closed his hand around the blade.   His eyes, somehow brighter now, shown between limp folds of skin.  “Goodbye,” he rasped as she backed from his tent.
He held the razorblade and sat on the low stage until the sounds of the carnival faded into the love song of frogs and crickets.  Then, with effort, he fished for the violin strings in his legs, dug furrows in his tough flesh to find the brass cords, and severed the work of the carnival doctors.  His wounds were deep and bloodless.  One arm was limp—cut free too—as he brought the other arm to his chest for the brass heart, and hacked it free.  The heavy orb thumped against hollow stage, rumbled across, and tumbled into the grass. 
On the seventh day, his tent was empty, but the girl already knew.  She waded between the tents that housed other grotesqueries for the last time, placed the torn picture of her father in uniform on his low stage, tucked it under the smooth stone from her pocket, and whispered, “goodbye.”

© 2009 Aaron Polson

No comments: