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A Performance for Painted Bones

Fade in.

The street is ermined in thick fog. The corner of a building solidifies through the mist, all filigree balconies and tall, winking windows. Hibiscus and hydrangea droop over the ledges like spent revellers.

Figures begin to appear through the fog, most in pairs, some alone and others part of clamourous crowds. They are dressed in sables and silks, in top hats and tails. Excess and excitement converge on a single point.

The door to a theatre; the backs of the theatregoers’ heads, the ticket-taker’s face in shadows.

Inside the theatre, chandeliers glitter with guttering flames and drip with jet and finger bones. The theatregoers are seated around tables. Servers are generous with drink. A spotlight hits the curtain. Chatter goes quiet. The on-stage pianist bangs out a roisterous ragtime tune. Viewed closely, the pianist’s fingers are old, cracked bone. The audience is a garden of painted skulls, corsages and flowered hats. A city of skeletons.

The young man who glides out on stage, however, is fully human. Lustily human. His body glitters with gold chains, and, after a few fevered minutes of dancing under the hot lights, with perspiration as well. It’s a wonder he has the air to belt the too-fast lyrics at the same time he dances, but stamina comes with practice. The shimmering fabric pleated around his legs is a token gesture of modesty. He’s grown his hair out since coming here. It wings and bobs around his face like licorice candy with every toss and twirl. His smile feels genuine. The playful rolling of his eyes, of his hips, is charming and nonthreatening. He begs captivation, possessiveness.

Glimpses of the audience reveal gleaming teeth in permanent grins, knucklebones clapping and ladies swooning in their chairs, their hats and wigs sliding off their smooth heads. They love the man with skin who dances for their pleasure.

Backstage, in a dressing room, THE DANCER sits on a sofa with his knees drawn up to his chin, wrapped in a warm, deer-coloured duffle coat. The room is dark except for the lights ringing the vanity mirror, where the MISTRESS OF CEREMONIES, sits and applies cosmetics to the bony contours of her face.

“Another marvellous set,” coos the mistress. She addresses the dancer’s reflection in the mirror. “You’ll go far. Mark my words, young man, one day you’ll go far.”

The dancer looks up, startled. Without the stage lights, the creaminess of his skin looks more like pallor. What seemed like the shadows of deep-set eyes are really dark circles. “There’s somewhere else to go?”

“Probably,” says the mistress. “We would hate for you to leave, though. It would be so lovely if you stayed here and played for us every night, forever. But we must be realistic, mustn’t we, dear?” She appraises the flowered hat on her golden curls, and then tosses the hat away, curls and all.

“Y-es,” the dancer falters.

The mistress leans back in her chair and regards the dancer with hollow eyes. “It really is heartening how you have carved out a niche for yourself here. It can be so difficult for people who arrive with their luggage, as the expression goes. Not a lot of room on the train for luggage.”

“It was very crowded,” the dancer admits.

“Come now,” and the mistress picks herself up and tugs a set of short, dark brown curls around her ears—or she would, if she’d had ears. “I’m for luncheon.”

Dressed for the weather, the dancer and the mistress of ceremonies step outside arm-in-arm. The mist is not as thick as it was the night before, but it looks cold, and drizzles miserably. The street appears empty—until the dancer looks over his shoulder.

On the opposite street corner, another man with skin leans against the rusty brickwork of the building. THE HUNTER wears a dark brimmed hat and a dark trench coat. The strap across his shoulder insinuates a rifle. Two skeleton dogs are with him. One sits alert by his side. The other snuffles around in the mud, but looks up when the dancer appears.

The mistress bows to see around the dancer and gives a little start. “Pay him no mind, dear. He tries to look scary, but he won’t bother you as long as you keep doing what you’re doing.”

The mistress pulls the dancer along with her down the street.

After a moment, the dancer asks, “What does he do?” He doesn’t sound very curious. He must have an inkling of the answer.

“Oh, you know,” says the mistress. “He does help. He helps us. He deals with upstarts.” She places the cold bones of her hand over the warm skin of the dancer’s. “Not like you.”

The way to the mistress’s favourite restaurant passes by an arm of the graveyard, a sprawling thing, X-shaped, smack-dab in the middle of the city. The dancer looks over the mistress’s head, over the black wrought-iron fence. The graveyard is a toothy jungle, tombstones of varying shapes, sizes and grandeur crowded and cluttered with hasty burials and no planning, overgrown with tangled vines and bushes, and memorial flowers that liked the place so much they put down roots.

A TRAIN WHISTLE moans long and low at the train station on the other side of town.

The mistress pats the dancer’s hand and again remarks, “Not like you.”

Inside the train station, the dancer inches his way toward the wicket in a line-up of well-to-do skeletons. The dancer keeps his head down and his hood up. When his turn comes at the wicket, the CONDUCTOR lifts his peaked cap and glares down at him through the window.

“Help you?” the conductor drones.

“I’d like a ticket east, please.”

“What’s that? Speak up, son.”

The dancer lifts his head. “I’d like a ticket east, please.”

Gasps behind him.

To make matters worse, the conductor leans down on his elbow and echoes, “A ticket east?!”

The station goes silent. The dancer lowers his head again, his eyes wide, his jaw set.

“Whatsa matter?” growls the conductor. “We not good enough for ya?”

“That’s not it, sir—” begins the dancer, but the conductor cuts him off.

“We don’t give tickets east. The train only carries passengers one way. You can go west or you can get lost.”

“Thank you for the information.” The dancer breaks out of the line and strides away. He clutches his collar close to his chin, guarding himself against the muttering and tsking and head-shaking that follow him out the door and into the overcast streets.

He does a double-take. The hunter leans against a neighbouring building with his arms crossed over his chest. Eyes buried in shadow watch the dancer. The hunting hounds are growling, or maybe their bones are grinding.

The dancer slows, like he’s moving through water, but he never quite stops. He keeps moving, moves faster, until the hunter is out of sight.

The rain is hard and steady over the graveyard. The rainclouds are drooping and heavy, like they might fall and smother the city. Water runs down the dancer’s shoulders and down his back. A lopsided GRAVEDIGGER shuffles past with one shoulder burdened by a shovel.

“Any skinbags buried lately?” asks the dancer. He keeps his face submerged deep in his hood.

The gravedigger stops and turns. “What’s it to ya?”

“Keeps the town orderly, doesn’t it?” says the dancer.

The gravedigger pauses and scratches his chin. “A few. It was a while back, mind. Up in the mausoleum. Seems like more n’ more are ridin’ in with luggage.”

“Why do you suppose that is?”

“Beats the hell out of me.” The gravedigger tosses his head like he would spit if he could. “Disinclined to leave it at the boarding station. Forgot to leave it, maybe. Think they can take it with them.” The gravedigger’s hollow gaze is piercing, like an abyss that stares back. “Think they can go back with it.”

“Fools’ dreams,” says the dancer.

“I heard one fellow made it back.”

The dancer slips out of character and turns too sharply. “Who? How?”

“Fellow got a hold of some trinket or another, some keepsake a body couldn’t bear to part with. Part of their luggage. Story goes the fellow tricked the stationmaster into letting him head east. Told him he had to return the trinket to someone at the first station on the line. Can’t keep things here what belong at the other end of the line. Against the rules.”

“Why didn’t the stationmaster or the conductor take it back?”

“Nobody rides the train ’cept for passengers goin’ west,” says the gravedigger. “Train is alive. Well, no . . . Conscious. Drives itself. Upshot is, the fellow had ownership of the trinket and was obliged to take it back.”

“And when he got there, he ran off.”

The gravedigger shrugs. “Folks never saw the fellow again. Or maybe he just plain never existed. I take my tales with a palmful of salt. Makes ’em easier to swaller.”

The dancer chuckles. “Even if it did happen, no point in people like us trying to get back. The skinbags at the other end would never recognize us.”

The gravedigger shuffles on, but pauses to look over his shoulder. “No need to put on airs or hide your face. I know you got skin. I can feel the warmth rollin’ off ya. Like a bad stink.” He motions like he would spit again. “Remember that palmful of salt.”

The dancer traces a winding path through the graveyard while the TRAIN WHISTLE moans in the distance. Out on the street, the hunter sits on a step beneath the shelter of a balcony. He waves a bone in front of his dogs. The more aggressive of the two snatches it in its jaws. It worries the bone as much as it worries the dancer. The meeker hound begins gnawing on the other’s left femur. The aggressive hound yelps and snaps at its companion. They have a tense stand-off before they lose interest and wander off to roll in puddles or sniff at ficus trunks.

The hunter looks up to see the dancer staring at him. The watcher has become the watched. The hunter is clean-shaven. Dark hair feathers his cheekbones. His eyes are the same colour as the puddles.

The dancer is not cowed by the hunter’s eyes this time. Instead, he steps closer. Talks to him.

“All of us with skin have to make ourselves useful somehow. But why did you choose this?”

The hunter opens his mouth and speaks. His voice is smooth and so deep as to spread a frisson through the scalps of the more sensitive.

“You have your luggage and I have mine.”

“Traitor.”

The hunter’s placid expression doesn’t change. “In a place like this, you do what you have to do to save your own skin.”

The dancer shrugs. “Suit yourself.”

He starts to walk away, but the hunter’s stone-drop tones stop him.

“What do you think would happen if you did go back?”

The dancer stands with his eyes downturned. Rain drips off his hood. It seems he will not break the silence, so the hunter does it for him.

“Do yourself a favour. Toe the line. There’s no way out.”

It’s a full house of noise, dining and drink. The mistress of ceremonies requires that the dancer wait tables between performances. He moves from table to table, smiling, laughing, pouring wine from a jug.

The dancer fills a couple’s glasses, the GENTLEMAN’s and the LADY’s. He moves on, but the gentleman calls him back.

“Come sit for a moment.” The gentleman frees a banknote from his billfold and slides it across the table.

The dancer slips into a chair across from the couple. He glances at the lily-wreathed skull adorning the ivory banknote before folding it and tucking it into his waistband.

“Tell me about yourself,” says the gentleman. “Could you always move like that? The dancing and whatnot?”

The gentleman has slick black hair and a slick moustache, held on with an aromatic ointment. The lady, his wife, has lashes attached above her eye sockets, gold, to match her blonde bob. She has dabbed bright red paint above and below her teeth, like a heart split in two. She grins at the dancer with her head in her hands. (Her head is still attached to her neck.)

“You mean, did I dance before I came here?” the dancer stammers, then, “Yes,” in reply to the gentleman’s nod, “I did, although the choreography is . . . new.”

“Exquisite,” sighs the lady.

“It’s what I love doing.” For a mayfly moment, the dancer’s smile is real.

The gentleman wags a bony finger. “You’ll catch some folks saying that when a fellow rides into town with luggage, it’s sure to be trouble. I say those folks are ignorant. Ignorant, I say! You seem like a very well-behaved fellow, even for all the hot blood still in you. You do a fine service, entertaining us the way you do.”

“Thank you,” says the dancer. He glances at the lady. She tilts her head. She would have fluttered her lashes if they’d been attached to lids.

“And, well, even those who do come here looking to cause trouble,” the gentleman continues, wine sloshing dangerously close to the rim of his glass, “all they need is a little time in the ground. Takes the hot blood out of them.” He tilts back his head and pours some wine down his throat. It disappears behind his collar and the dancer doesn’t know what’s become of it.

The dancer nods. His smile is warm. His eyes are afraid.

“Butchew,” slurs the gentleman. “You are a very well-behaved fellow. Very well-behaved.” He leans forward and says, “Do you do private shows? My wife is a bug for fellows with skin. You must understand, there’s only so much a gentleman like myself can do for a lady. Nostalgia, you know.”

The dancer purses his lips, perhaps to say “what,” but his mouth falls open soundlessly.

“I’ll speak to your manager,” says the gentleman, patting his wife’s arm. “Won’t say no to a little extra earnings, will you?”

The dancer is rescued by a WOLF WHISTLE and a wine glass swaying in the air.

He rises and excuses himself. “I really must get back to work.”

Backstage, the dancer is a golden whirlwind in his coat and chains. The mistress of ceremonies trails after him.

“I’ve taken ill,” says the dancer.

“But the money!” cries the mistress. “Our distinguished patrons!”

But the dancer has already left her behind, and the hiccup of the back door’s hinges drowns out her last words. He is out in the drizzle, plashing through puddles of rain mixed with filth in the alley behind the theatre. The streets have been vacated by the theatregoers. The dancer darts from shadow to shadow.

The gate to the graveyard gives a shriek. The dancer holds it, coaxing it into silence before letting it whimper shut behind him.

The dancer can see the mausoleum’s rain-soaked stone from afar, but his progress is confused and confounded by the clusters of haphazard headstones and briars.

The dancer rounds a tall stone figure on a plinth and there, finally, is the mausoleum, with a portal like a gaping mouth and a gargoyle perched upon its brow, tongue lolling.

There is no door. The residents are free to leave whenever they please. The dancer steps into the mausoleum, feeling his way along the wall. The stone is cold, and slippery with mildew. He discovers a niche in the wall and inches his fingertips along until he feels the waxen shafts of candlesticks.

He reaches into his coat for a book of matches, strikes one and touches the flame to the wicks. Pools of light ripple softly in the niche. The body laid to rest there is only partially decayed. The dancer sees the tattered linens of a dress, newly trimmed with spiders’ lace. Insects trundle away from the candlelight and hide under the matted remains of long hair.

The WOMAN’s skin is thin and grey, stretched across her bones. Her eyes are gone, but she turns her head when the light falls upon her.

“I don’t think I’m ready to come out yet,” she rasps. “My skin still hurts.”

“I’m sorry to bother you,” says the dancer. His nose twitches, but it seems he is too polite to guard his mouth and nose from the stench of rot. “You arrived here with some luggage, I see.”

The woman’s neck creaks as she nods. “We left children behind. First they lost my husband, then they lost me. I wanted to find my Claude here. My husband. I kicked up such a fuss. It sure took a lot of them to catch me.” Her laugh rattles like dice in a cup. “They said I should lie down for a few months to cool off, and I’ve been in here ever since. I must confess, it’s almost . . . peaceful. I’m calm in the knowledge that I will find my husband. He’ll be here somewhere.”

“I have no doubt you’ll find him,” says the dancer.

“They haven’t gotten to you yet, I see,” says the woman. “Lucky you get to keep such a handsome face. My husband loved mine. And his opinion was the only one I minded, really.”

The dancer can hear the smile in her voice, softer than the grin etched permanently on her skull.

The woman asks, “Why have you come to a place like this?”

“I only wanted to ask a favour,” says the dancer. “Whether or not you can grant it, I’ll soon leave you be.

“Rumour has it there’s a way to go back on the train. I can’t say if it will work, but I intend to try it.”

“You’ll need fare,” says the woman. “The currency here won’t buy you a ticket back. You need something much more valuable.”

“All I need is something from the other end of the line. Did you happen to bring anything with you besides your skin? Any mementos?”

“Just one,” says the woman. “I hid it from them so they couldn’t take it away.”

She lifts her right hand. On the left hand beneath it glints a gold band with a tiny emerald. The ring is loose, no longer held fast by flesh. She slides it free, pulling up spiderwebs with it.

“I can’t take something like that,” says the dancer.

“It’s only a symbol,” says the woman. “If it’s some use to you, please take it.”

The dancer rubs the spiderwebs away with his thumb and drops the ring into his coat pocket.

“Thank you,” he says.

The woman tilts her head. “Be careful. If they catch you trying to trick them, you’ll end up like me.”

The dancer’s Adam’s apple jumps. “I know.”

“Were you followed here?”

The dancer falls silent. Rain taps impatiently on the stone walkways outside.

“I can almost feel something,” says the woman, barely above a whisper. “Through the ground.”

The dancer’s eyes switch back and forth. His rapid breathing buffets the spiderwebs like sails catching the wind at sea.

“Don’t let them catch you,” whispers the woman. “Go.”

“Rest well,” says the dancer. “Thank you.”

He licks his finger and thumb and snuffs the candles one by one. The crypt seems even darker than before. He waits at the mausoleum doorway. Daylight is pushing through the clouds. The dancer strains to hear even the slightest noise through the perennial hiss of the rain.

He runs.

The dancer splashes through wet grass and mud. A heartbeat later, the skeleton dogs gallop after him, throwing up mud all over their clean white bones, panting and growling, mad with the hunt. They knock over tin cans-cum-vases and send them clattering over a gravestone. The dogs are swallowed by mist.

The graveyard exhales into silence. Suddenly, the pillar of shadow that is the hunter flicks his rifle upright in his hand. The graveyard remembers to breathe with a start.

The hunter cocks the rifle, tucks it against his shoulder and sights down the barrel. The dancer must be a long way off by now, the tombstones provide ample cover, and it’s dark. It’s almost like a shooting gallery. A game. The hunter empties his mind and his lungs.

A shot fires.

The deer-coloured coat is easy to see in the gloom of a cloudy dawn. The dogs circle and bark at the corpse lying at the edge of the path.

Except dogs don’t bark at corpses.

The hunter silences them with a sharp hiss. He shifts his rifle to his other hand and kneels next to the dancer’s body. He peels back the damp woollen coat.

Blood seeps from a wound in the dancer’s side. A scratch.

The hunter’s eyes scan all along the dancer’s unmoving body, finally landing on his face. The dancer’s eyes are wide open.

The dancer springs like a cornered cat. He wraps himself around the rifle and rolls like an alligator to wrest it free of the hunter’s grip. The hunter underestimates the dancer’s strength and takes a knee to the nose as punishment.

One dog’s bones crackle under the butt of the gun. Both men jump to their feet. The dancer jabs the rifle barrel into the hunter’s stomach, even as the other dog sinks its fangs deeper into the dancer’s ankle.

“Call them off,” the dancer commands through his teeth. His hood lies crumpled around his neck. His eyes are wild, rain and dirt streaking his face and dewing his lashes. “Call them off!”

The hunter gives a sharp hiss. The dog releases the dancer’s bloodied ankle, but continues to circle, bones clucking.

The hunter holds one hand in the air and the other under his nose. “Now you’ve gone and got yourself hurt.”

“I’m leaving!” the dancer howls. “I can’t stay here!”

“There’s no way back,” says the hunter, enunciating each word as though speaking to a child.

“Yes there is!” the dancer triumphs. “If I take a memento to the station, I can trick them into taking me back. It’s just a rumour, but it’s all I’ve got left.” His desperate laughter sounds like a sob, or the other way around.

“What memento?”

The dancer reaches into his coat and brandishes the gold band with the emerald stone. The hunter’s eyes widen.

“Give me that.” He reaches for it, but the jab of the gun barrel makes him freeze.

“I’ll kill you!”

“I just want to see it!” barks the hunter. “I doubt if your plan will work anyway. What difference is it to me whether you make a fool of yourself or not?”

The hunter takes out a book of matches and lights one, protecting it from the rain with his body. The dancer holds the ring to the light, never letting it out of his grasp.

The hunter’s breath comes in tatters and makes the precious flame shiver. He reaches for the ring, seeking permission. The dancer considers, then slowly, reluctantly, places the ring in the hunter’s palm.

The longer the hunter looks at the ring, the softer his legs seem to become. He sinks down onto a flat gravestone. The match falls out of his fingertips and fizzles, forgotten.

The dancer sinks with him and shoulders the rifle. His fury has fled like an exorcised ghost. “It’s yours, isn’t it, Claude?”

Claude covers his mouth and inhales and exhales through his fingers. “Why did she give this to you?”

“She said it was only a symbol. You’re more important to her. She’ll be looking for you. She’s . . . here. In the graveyard. I’m sorry.”

Claude turns the ring over and over, lets it sit in his palm. “Take me to her and I’ll leave you alone.”

The dancer helps Claude to his feet and then limps ahead, negotiating the labyrinthine path back to the mausoleum. Claude walks into the mausoleum alone. His dogs whine and pace in his absence. The dancer stands with his back against the wall.

He sees the wandering flames before he hears the voices. Torches. Bones clattering. The dogs have been silent for a while. Their noses are pointed toward town.

The dancer holds a gasp in his throat. He clutches the rifle across his chest. He has held one before. An old panic stings his brain.

He darts into the mausoleum doorway. Claude is bowed over the niche. He lifts his head, his brows a dark line.

The dancer releases his gasp in one word: “Mob.”

Claude turns and whispers to the woman in the niche. Then he strides out the door, taking the rifle from the dancer and pressing the ring into the dancer’s palm.

“We could lose them in this maze,” says the dancer.

“No,” says Claude. “Running would just look like we’d done something wrong. If you’re so confident in your plan, then let them know exactly what you’re doing.”

A skeleton rounds the stone figure on the plinth, points and shouts, “There they are!”

The rest of the mob gathers in a crescent in front of the mausoleum. The torchlight burns through the mist and gilds their grins. Sundry sharp instruments glint like malevolent eyes.

“You never came back to dance,” one skeleton accuses the dancer. “These folks paid good money to see you dance!”

A shout of consensus.

“And you!” cries another skeleton, looking Claude up and down. “I hope for your sake you were just about to bring him back! We expect you to keep order in this town! What good are you if you don’t?”

The consensus rumbles like thunder.

The dancer steps forward and holds up the ring, baring it to the light.

“There is something here that does not belong here,” the dancer proclaims. “It must go back east.”

Eye sockets gape in tilting heads.

“Is that . . . ?”

“It’s a ring.”

“Where on earth . . . ?”

A skeleton at the head of the mob demands, “Is that your ring?”

The dancer lowers the ring to his chest. He stares down at the gold band, his licorice-hair dangling in his eyes.

“Well?” says the same skeleton. “Who has ownership of the ring? It must belong to one or the other of you. Who will return it to the east?”

Murmurs. The dancer wets his lips.

“We love to see you dance!” comes a hopeful voice from the mob. “We’ll forgive you if you come back!”

“Yes, come back and dance, and we’ll forgive you!”

“We’d hate to have to put you underground!”

“Come back and dance!”

The dancer staggers back and stands with Claude.

“It’s yours,” the dancer whispers. “Take it and go. They seem inclined to let me keep my skin if I do as they wish. It’s rightfully yours.”

He begins to reach for Claude, but Claude clutches the dancer’s fist shut, squeezes it white-knuckle tight.

“Don’t be a fool,” says Claude. “They’ll get tired of you like they get tired of everything else. One of us should get out of this with his skin, at least. You take it and you go back, because if you lose that ring, I’ll finish the job I started.”

He raises the dancer’s fist into the air, like the dancer is a prizefighter.

“He has ownership of this ring.” Claude doesn’t shout, but his voice carries. “He’s taking it to the train station. Immediately.”

Claude releases the dancer’s fist, and shoves the dancer hard in the back. The dancer stumbles on his savaged ankle. His knees arrow into the mud. Blood seeps from the wound under his coat.

The dancer stares over his shoulder at the dark pillar that is Claude. The hunter yanks the ball-tipped lever on his rifle and drops one more stone at the dancer’s feet: “Git.”

The dancer clambers out of the mud, and stands. Pain forks up from his ankle and he clenches it between his teeth. He moulds his eyebrows and mouth into smooth lines as he looks at Claude, at the mob. Painted skulls gleam like eggshells in the torchlight.

“The train heads east at five-thirty every morning.”

The dancer scans the crowd of unmoving and unmoved faces. He spots the mistress of ceremonies, leaning out of the mob to cup him in her hollow eyes. He sees her teeth chatter as she speaks again: “I know you’ll go far.”

The dancer nods and holds his head high even as he limps away, making a show of marching confidently, not fleeing in terror. Voices rise back at the mausoleum. The hunting hounds growl—or are their bones grinding? The horizon bleeds daylight.

The dancer slips the ring onto his right little finger, jewel facing his palm. He clenches his fist so tightly the tiny emerald imprints itself in his skin. He walks, runs, faster, faster, until he is sure they cannot see him lashing through mud, racing out of the gaping jaw of the graveyard, following the low keening of the TRAIN WHISTLE toward the station.

Cut to black.

About the Author

Kelly Stewart lives, writes, draws and games in Ontario, Canada. Her fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and recompose, while her poetry has appeared in Contemporary Verse 2 and is forthcoming in Prairie Fire. She haunts the Interwebs at kellyastewart.wordpress.com and on Twitter @rarebitdream.