Across Uberwald it is well known that on a certain night of the year Death himself will take up a magic violin for the ‘danse macabre’ when the dead leave their graves to dance through the streets.
Vampires find the superstition a little ‘volky’ and werewolves were banned a long time ago for running off with bones. This is a night for humans to remember their ties to mortality and worry about their souls.
For Death must be there. He must play the dance macabre. In fact, it really helps if he can play the violin…
‘THIS IS NOT A TIME OF YEAR I ENJOY,’ said Death, tersely. If he could have rolled his eyes he would, but glowing balls of blue lose a lot of their ability to translate meaning when hovering inside the orbits of an ancient, well used skull.
Albert flicked away his cigarette end, massaging his temples. ‘You say this every year.’
‘I MEAN, ARE YOU SURE A YEAR HAS GONE BY?’
Albert looked at Death, trying to see if there was a trick in the question. For Death, who could shave time from a life as finely as an engraver prepared a piece of boxwood for a woodcut fit for a royally embellished wedding invite, there was an incredible reluctance to admit time had caught him up.
‘It’s not that bad. I’ll get the case.’
‘NO!’ Death inadvertently took a step, then straighten up and pretended to gaze across the infinite horizon of glass timers on shelves. ‘I MEAN, NOT YET.’
Albert nodded, ‘How about I get Binky harnessed?’ he suggested quietly.
Death tapped a bony digit on his cheekbone. There was a tone to Albert’s voice that he did not quite trust. ‘WE-LL…’
‘In the special harness? It is traditional, it is expected and Binky does look good in it...’ Albert began a sidle that would have taken him out of Death’s sight, which was a talent that king’s and viziers had promised him mountains of fist sized jewels with thousands of shallow minded girls who found such meaningless wealth attractive just to learn.
He was gone before Death could stop him.
‘BUGGER IT.’ There was no escaping this night. Death drew his black robe about his sparse frame and began to pace his room, trying to think of an excuse.
Several hours later, amongst the cold crags which thrust through canopies of pine forest which still covered Lancre, there was noticed a sudden change in the wind. Trees whipped around, throwing out startled crows who complained bitterly then, as if remembering a prior corpse to pick at, made themselves scarce.
Nanny Ogg was watching one of her daughter-in-laws hang out the laundry. She was a pretty girl with a strong back for carrying but she did have her place amongst the treasured pictures and would work hard to ensure she stayed there. Nanny Ogg marked the wind from the north and pulled her pipe from her grinning mouth. She sniffed the wind. The grin fell away as the pipe was tapped out on a fence post.
‘Gal, be a love and run up to our Jason’s forge. He has a visitor who need not be kept waiting.’
The young lady nodded and left quickly, though not after Nanny Ogg reminded her that left laundry that sat in baskets on the ground for too long couldn’t be hung out. It would need washing all over again.
Dusk often arrives at different times in Lancre. It depends on the mountains and the weather. Light being such a lazy commodity, it was not unknown for it to altogether give up on trying to ascend the misty mountains and instead just head for the rim and hope no-one had noticed.
Jason was several long minutes into looking at the page of the day in the almanac. The words and numbers danced at him, teasing his thick thumb to join in. Screwing his eyebrows and focusing hard he checked the day and the time for sunset.
‘S’not dusk for a while yet,’ he murmured. But his mam knew what she was doing. If she said he would have a visitor at dusk, any minute now, then he knew he would. He sat in the forge and waited, his tools laid out on the work top, the forge heaving and spitting like a dragon about to give birth.
There was a long drawn out ‘knock knock knock’ on the heavy forge door.
Jason slipped on his blindfold, crossed the familiar workshop in a few steps and opened the door. Dusk pushed its way in, an hour early. Death had brought the night with him a bit earlier, shooing the sluggish light of day ahead of Binky’s resounding, sepulchral hooves. A wet nose slapped against the side of Jasons face, nuzzling him.
‘ello, old girl,’ he said kindly.
‘Oh, not you, sir. No, I meant-‘
He silenced as the rider dismounted, walking across the lime floor of the forge with his funny staccato stride as though he had ball bearings in his soles.
‘ONE OF HER SHOES FEELS… A LITTLE… LOOSE.’
Death felt a little pang of guilt as he said this. The blacksmith looked horrified, mumbling apologies as he lifted a fetlock to feel the shoe. Binky let him check, she knew he was a good smith and he always had a red apple for her.
‘They all feel fine, sir.’ Jason let out a sigh of relief as he spoke. Special shoes should never be loose, he had a reputation to uphold- even if it were only between two people and a horse.
‘OH, GOOD. GOOD...’ Death leant forward on his chair, taking a second to stare intently about the forge. This man looked as though he could make an exceptional scythe, there were some part beaten blades in a willow basket near the forge itself, ready for the next stage of tempering the iron. This could be an ideal opportunity to- Death paused. What was it called when he needed to replace something that was indestructible and crafted so well it could even cut through bonds of octarine or narrativium?
A spare! That was it. Now was the ideal time to have a spare scythe made. In case of emergencies or accidents. That would take a while, getting the blade right. It could take hours of swinging and then balancing, then swinging and working the chine or toe of the blade or even shaving the snath and grip to his own, peculiar grip which was not as meaty as most labourers.
Death looked over to the blacksmith and shuddered when he noticed that Jason was running a heavy hand across the ornately crafted harness she was wearing. Albert had taken the time to rub some leather grease into the tooled designed and curly edges. The entire harness oozed the type of gothique macabre admired by sulky teenagers who thought that old graveyards were cool and not places to upset your piles or rheumatism.
‘Are you off to Uberwald, sir?’ Jason asked, holding Binky and rolling an apple from his pocket to her mouth.
There was, after all, no escape. ‘YES, I GO THERE NEXT ON UNAVOIDABLE BUSINESS,’ he said with a heavier than usual voice.
Jason smiled. ‘Very good- oh, I just remembered. They’ve got a special dance tonight. Practically ‘eathen it is. When the-‘
‘YES, I AM AWARE. THANK YOU, GOOD SMITH, BUT I MUST AWAY.’
‘Of course.’ Jason heard the clunk of a heavy coin cast onto the workbench then the fast gallop of the horse. He cocked his head. Now that he could hear it moving, albeit briefly across the cobbles set outside his forge he could tell that the offside hind shoe might have had a bit of looseness about it. He would see it to next time.
Above Uberwald, amongst a sky whose clouds had long ago learnt to either swirl in menacing eddies or whisk past to hide the dark flights of creatures of the night, Death reigned in Binky and looked about. Through shredded gaps in skidding clouds, moonlight glanced off the land below which now had an expectant air about it. Cold mist had settled across graveyards, hugged close to mausoleums and crypts then practically cascaded over precipices where rickety shrines perched.
Death sensed the silence of the wolf on this night.
The leather saddle, tooled with skulls and bones amongst heavy Uberwald scripts, glistened with the cold light of the moon, making the work of unlashing the violin case much easier. On the front of the black leather was a painted skull, it looked very mournful. Death considered it a self-portrait.
‘THIS REALLY IS AN AWFUL NIGHT.’ He said to no one. Binky flicked an ear. The case locks snapped open, loudly. Death paused before opening. ‘ALL THIS THROWS EVERYTHING OUT OF KILTER… THE DANCE…’
He had tried to avoid this moment. He tried every year but Uberwald had a tradition which was now so stolidly seeped into the living of the country that their Momento Mori, their wood carvings, their strange steins with pewter lids, their lives were now entwined. This was not a tradition which Death understood or was happy with. It had started with some asthmatic musician who had composed a tune. Well, it was a bit more than a tune, he admitted on reflection, it was a Symphonie Fantastique. Written to impress a lady, soaked with the emotion of unrequited, spurned love that had eventually driven the composer to the darkness madness and a deathbed. Only then had she noticed him. This still, centuries later, made no sense to Death,
In Uberwald the symphony had been an instant success.
And one particular tune in the symphony had begun a tradition. So strongly was this observed that even Death himself could not resist his role in the ritual.
Beneath the chill moonlight the violin case creaked loudly, swinging open beneath a single touch of his skeletal hand.
Four strings of silver shone brilliantly from the black wood of the musical instrument in the case. Ivory pegs were perfectly turned. A white horse hair bow nestled in the lid of the case. Binky hadn’t been happy about that, as he recalled. A little pot of rosin waited behind the neck of the violin.
‘Oh no,’ hissed a passing bat, ‘not zis bluty nacht alveady…’
Death lifted the violin from its case, slightly affronted. His ability was not that bad considering he had never taken a lesson in his existence. Death did not enjoy playing this maudlin tune that much either, he had begun to wonder if he could spice it up a little.
Clouds were whipped away from the moon in expectation. The land below shone in a silver light.
‘AND A ONE, A TWO, A ONE-TWO-THREE,’ Death tried to whisper between his teeth. If he had a tongue it too would have been thrust through his lips in concentration. Well, that was if he had lips as well.
A long, clear note claimed the night over Uberwald as his own. Distantly, wolves howled and left, they’d been told long ago. Vampires withdrew, slamming windows and pushing wool into their ears. The people of Uberwald who had been looking into the sky, closed their doors and shuttered their windows but only after leaving gifts of choice sweets and clothes, like hats and scarves, on the steps of their homes.
Tonight was the ‘Danse Macabre’ of the Symphonie Fantastique, it was the dance of the dead were the graves of those who had died in the last year were pushed opened by skeletons or cadavers from below. Hard fingers of bone clawed away the soil to drag out charnel bodies packed with earth and worms. With jigs and stiff steps the dead moved away from their graves. Skeletal faces looked up at Death, high above, his violin held to his chin as he played their tune and they felt the stir of love in the music, a love from beyond madness, a love from beyond the grave.
The dance macabre had started as woodcuts in old books to remind the living that mortality is fleeting, it has to be used wisely with hard work, not asking difficult questions of religion or kings, but ultimately all levels of society would eventually dance to the same tune in death. Until the Symphony that is. Then the Danse Macabre became a song heard by the living all year round as they grieved or mourned. The music came from beyond the grave and for one night only it brought back their lost ones.
Tonight the dead would dance wildly through the streets of hamlets, across cobbles of town squares and under the lichgates of cemeteries, all heading back to their old homes in a swirling dance and gifts waited them and families waved from the windows. This was a celebration of their passing. In giddy, jerking motions the dead of Uberwald danced. Those from the older families waltzed, of course.
Overhead, Death was oblivious to it all. His eyes shrunk to concentrating twinkles, watching his fingers dance across the silver strings against the white horse hair bow. In his mind, he kept repeating, ‘ONE TWO THREE- ONE TWO THREE’.
As the night passed and the dead danced, they would pause to look up at the dark sky and the silver lit violinist who captured the night. From their old homes the dancing dead would collect their gifts, knowing they were cherished and remembered by their families. Then as dawn sluggishly raised itself over the mountains with the apathy of a sloth, the skeletons slowed, staggering backwards as the music quietened. The droves of brightly knitted and lurching skeletons followed an instinct to find their place in the earth, the dancers returned to their graves, where they climbed back into the cold hard ground to lay at their final rest.
Some souls, whose belief in the power of a love symphony over the reality of mortality, were quickly brought up to speed by Death, who after hours of playing the same tune over and over again was everso grateful to pack away the Violin Macabre.
Often the dead thanked him for his playing. Many carried a coin for the ferryman and a coin for the fiddler. Death took these modestly, always with the same words, ‘THANK YOU, REALLY, NEXT YEAR I’LL GET LESSONS.’
Death no longer wondered where the music came from. He knew what to do. It was expected, his fingers knew where to be on the strings and frets as the dead danced and the living listened below. It was, after all, an exceptional tune and he really did not know why he got so anxious every year.
Reining Binky about, staring over the misty morning of Uberwald, Death wondered if he should try a little Bluegrass next year. Yes, next time he really would fit in a few lessons first.
(With grateful thanks to Camille Saint-Saens.)