Waltz of the Bone King
I first observed them on one of those chill, humid nights that live in the verge between deathly still Winter and life’s violent rebirth in Spring. I had not been down to the graveyard where my grandfather was buried in some weeks – though in the past it had been my tendency to visit him a few times each week – because of this, I stayed longer than I might have, and found myself still sat in the grass by his marker a fair bit later than I should have been, past twilight and into the early hours of night.
I have described my grandfather as the last of the deep thinkers – a man more prone to unspoken speculation than vocal expression. He was a laconic, perhaps severe man, but the wisdom of his life seemed to overflow from those few words he did speak. From him, I learned the necessarily unsung art of silent observation. So, when I chanced to find myself at night in the graveyard, preparing to return home from another wordless reunion, it seemed natural that I should remain crouched and hidden in the shadows near his grave and observe the curiosity that played out before me – what I now understand to be a ritual very much like those visits of my own, a conversation in dance amid the headstone-lined halls.
I saw her first, even before I noticed the tendrils of mist which had already clawed over the weathered cemetery walls, wended between listed markers and around slumped mausoleums. The whole graveyard seemed to take on a cohesive quality of oppressive dreadful melancholy which was in excess of the normal sombre nature of such places. She was hard to see through the mist; I caught flashes of fire that must have been her hair, which played around her shoulders like dancing corpse-light; black fabric that stood out in the moonlit grey mist, glimpses of a shadowed dress that was altogether out of place in the now-a-days, but might have been at home in a ballroom or funerary gathering. She drifted in profile through fog, which seemed to part before her and gather beside her, a misty crowd moving aside out of respect or nervousness and gathering to watch in tense silence.
There was a cobbled patio attached to one of the tombs, at the center of which was a weathered dais where sat a weeping angel that had cracked over the years and had the cracks fill in with moss. One of of her wings had long-ago come off at the base, and her right arm from the wrist up just past the elbow had also been lost. It was apparent that the lady in the mist was moving towards this angel, and I found myself admiring the statuary at a distance with such intensity that I very nearly missed the flash of movement beneath her.
This new figure was even harder to make out than the lady, but he was tall, and though gaunt beyond reason or health, decidedly masculine in build. His great stature thrust his head up over the mist, but I could not discern his features because he wore a heavy hood and shawl that obscured his face and ran down over his broad shoulders – I thought at first he had a great head of flowing black hair, but careful observation disabused me of the notion. I can only described his posture and bearing as regal; and as if punctuating my thought, he pulled one hand up from the mist and placed an ivory crown with five white prongs on his head. The oddity of that, however, was lost on me as I tumbled back into the close-clipped grass, his hand seemed entirely to be made from bones, skeletal.
I cannot say whether I was paralyzed by fear, or by morbid fascination, but though my breath caught and a chill ran down my spine, I could no more run than I could look away. Surreptitiously, I retook my position crouched behind my grandfather’s gravestone. I observed in silence as the man with the bony hand looked up the path and waited, and the lady in the mist approached him, her steps sure and full wit intent, but dreadfully slow, belying an aura of grim tension. I barely noticed when the music started, it seemed so natural to the events unfolding before my eyes. At first a lonely flute played splintered notes, the space between punctuated by suddenly shifting tendrils of fog. Then a xylophone set out a hollow rhythm. As more instruments joined, their sounds seeming to come from all around me so that I looked in vain to find where they might be hiding in the cemetery, the beginnings of a lively waltz took shape. It’s arrival seemed as mysterious – it’s presence as ephemeral – as either the bone-handed man or the woman who approached him; or even the mist, which began to move in languid time with the music, as though they would be dancing partners.
In this way, the woman crossed the cemetery, seeming to glide over the earth as I could not see her feet through the forest of markers between us. She stopped in the shadow of the bone-handed man, and looked up to lock eyes with him, or they might have – her eyes I could not see, as she was faced away from me, but he faced towards me, and though I could see the shadowy outline of his white face, his eyes seemed to be missing, reflecting none of the sparse moonlight or the warmer light that struggled to reach from the lamps over the street across the cemetery. There was then a lull in the music, and the movements of the mist slowed as well, and the mist settled down to the ground so that I could see the fire-haired lady from her waist up.
I could see her dress in greater detail then, it was in the Empire style of France, black, and made from some dull, textured cloth that hung heavily and moved in waves with its wearer, as though resisting her. Her skin was a light beige, like aged paper. Her hair was titian red and hung straight all around her head. And I could see more of the man as well. I could see his bare spine and exposed ribs, through and out the other side to his shawl, which hung down past his knees as a cloak. The mist tickled the weathered yellow bones of his hips and legs. A few rings of shining gold and tarnished silver adorned his skeletal fingers. That immobilizing fear gripped me again like cold, iron-hard hands clasped on my shoulders; I inched forward to better observe.
They stared at eachother, and the silence settled until everything was deadly still, and I thought for a moment that perhaps time had stopped in this dream and I was about to wake. Then, suddenly, the man put out his bony hand, and the woman took it in hers without hesitation, and the music surged again, and they began to dance. At first it was fast, almost rushed, a fervent rejection of the still and silence that preceded it, but soon the music took on a more measured quality, equal parts playful and dreary, and so did the dance. They spun circles around the weeping angel, who gazed down from overhead. A few times, the man lifted the woman into the air, or spun her around like a top. Throughout it all was an undercurrent of friendly gaiety, the dance a counterpoint to the solemnity of its venue.
Eventually the unseen band fell silent again, drawing their waltz to a natural conclusion, and the mist calmed along with it; but the two dancers kept up their dance for a half a minute or more. I do not know when I had begun to hold my breath, but I realized then I was starved for air,and exhaled quite loudly. For a dread moment I feared one of them would have heard, but neither seemed to. Instead they embraced, the woman resting her head on a shock of his shawl which hung over his bony breast; and he wrapping his arms full around her shoulders. It was a familiar embrace, familial perhaps, and I became then conscious of my own clammy skin, chilled and wetted by the mist. I leaned against my grandfather’s gravestone for support and gripped my arms around myself for warmth and comfort.
It is hard to say how long the whole observation went on, from the time I first saw the woman, to that moment when I was huddled behind my grandfather’s grave, watching their silent embrace, and the mist began to sink and recede. I can say that that last bit, after the music and the dancing had stopped and the whole cemetery had the stillness of death except the slight chattering of my own teeth, seemed the longest part of the whole affair. Crouched there, too afraid to move, perhaps for fear of being discovered, perhaps for fear of disturbing whatever bizarre ritual I had seen before its natural conclusion, my observation took on an uncomfortable, voyeuristic quality. I felt an intruder. A creeping guilt rose up in me, I had seen something private, secret; as my discomfort grew, so did the feeling that time was dragging itself out, lengthening, making what must have been a fairly short time into an interminable torture specifically to punish me for my infraction. I was a child again who had stolen a cigarette and been made by my mother to smoke the pack.
Whatever enchantment or glamour had enthralled me before had passed entirely, leaving behind only a soreness in my legs from crouching too long, a stiffness in my fingers from gripping my grandfather’s gravestone too tightly, and the cold fear of the impossible which held me dumbfounded. Then the skeleton turned his head, a minute gesture which did not disturb the lady he held, and looked directly at me. I had not been wrong before, he seemed to have no eyes, only deep black cavities that defied the prospect of life or intelligence, and yet… he looked at me. My paralysis was dispelled immediately, I shrunk. I put my grandfather’s gravestone between his not-eyes and my own, and I hid. It was a vain gesture, he had seen me, but I did not have the courage for flight.
I must have stayed there for the rest of the night. At some point I turned around and sat with my back against the gravestone, curled as tightly into myself as possible, my arms wrapped around my knees and my face buried in my legs. But then a warmth tickled on my scalp, and I looked up, and saw the sky turned blue with dawnlight, and the sun peaking up over the wall of the cemetery to cast its light on me. I inched out from my hiding place then, sure that I would find him waiting to snatch me up or strike me down, but the cemetery was empty, and I was alone.