I was holidaying in France on the night that it occurred.
The summer evenings had faded gradually into a bleak, funereal autumn, and the air was heavy with the smell of wood smoke and leaf mould. Feeling the chill of the evening - and my hosts remarkable lack of affability – I had taken myself to bed early that night and had drifted into slumber with unusual celerity. I am often troubled by insomnia; especially when sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings such as the ramshackle inn that was my home for the night in that alien region of the Loire valley. I must have slept from some time before I was awoken by a relentless, rasping sounds.
Zig, zig, zig.
The rhythmic, recurring cadence of the night.
Rising from my bed, I ventured across my narrow, ill-lit chamber. Pushing open the heavy oak shutters I gazed from my window. All was darkness in the tavern in which I stayed, even the most enthusiastic of revellers having quieted now. The countryside too showed few signs of life, and after a few minutes contemplation I returned to my bed and tried to go back to sleep.
Zig, zig, zig.
The sound scratched at my brain. Although not loud it seemed to bore deeply into my consciousness. It ran like sandpaper over my mind. Rising again, I strode back to the window and flung the shutters wide furiously. This time I had been quicker. On the pathway below, briefly caught in the moonlight between the trees, I perceived a cloaked and hooded figure. He hurried away towards the slumbering town. He did not glance back.
Hastening back across my room, I pulled a shirt over my head and boots onto my clumsy, fumbling feet. Moving swiftly and silently, I crept through the darkened house and let myself out into the yard. Bright moonlight lanced its way across the scene, casting illumination and shadow in equal measure. Within minutes of seeing the apparition I was on the road; racing along the rutted track that wound its way through the village. Not a light showed, nor a breath of wind moved the leafless linden trees. I moved as briskly as I could along that broken road, I dared not move faster for fear of twisting my ankle. There was no other track however, and I continued along my lonely and unsettling pilgrimage. With every step the sound grew louder, and always in the same triplication;
Zig, zig, zig.
I left the village and stumbled on into open country. Before me the road wound away, and in the near distance the spire of the church arose high above me. I shuddered in the chill night air. The noise itself had reached a huge crescendo now and had taken on a beautiful yet sinister melody.
Zig, zig, zig.
As I drew nearer however, I caught a clearer glimpse of my quarry. He flickered in the strips of light and whipped ahead, the hem of his robe flicking around the corner of the church and into the cemetery as I approached. He moved lightly, as if floating over the ground rather than treading it as a man should. The yard itself was hidden behind the bulk of the church, however I hurried around the corner before halting abruptly in amazement, at the very moment that the church tower beat out its mournful midnight toll.
Throughout the churchyard, and with more flocking to join at every moment, were an army of skeletons. It looked as if every corpse in Christendom had been called to participate in that macabre ballet.
These were not however dry heaps of bone, but animated, leaping, twirling, dancing skeletons. Running and spinning, joining together and then springing apart, and all to the morbid song of that deathly dance-tune. Oblivious to my presence, they waltzed and pirouetted in the blackness of the night; marionettes of that most fearful and grotesque of puppet-masters.
For He is there, oh yes. He, with his violin clasped tightly in his skeletal hands, his funeral shroud clinging to the bare bones of his form.
Death stands alone; lord of all that he surveys. His violin sends forth a torrent of notes as his boot heel strikes out the rhythm of the dance upon the tomb stone that he bestrides. At the centre of the swirling mass of cracking bones, he calls the tune that the dead must obey. At the heart of this grim and macabre spectacle stood He – and as I gazed upon him his countenance slowly turned upon me. Not once did he break from his unholy melody, however he inclined his head mockingly, almost as if to say;
“Soon, soon enough. Soon you shall join my dance, like all the others.”
The flashing white of the bones as the skeletons pass. The discordant shriek of the boot upon stone, harmonizing, rhapsodizing with the eerie wail of the violin and the moan of the wind through the trees and tombs. I stood entranced; unable to move. I cast a terrified glance towards the church; the glimmer of salvation in the dark. Nothing stirred in response, no help could be called forth. It were as if Christ and all his angels slept.
Meanwhile the dancers frisked about me until abruptly;
The nightmare draws to its inevitable but temporary close. The cock crows and the servants of death must return once more to their earthy sarcophagi. He stands above it all, defiant to the last. Shaking his fist and rasping out his anger, his frustration, his certainty. He looks once more at me - his knowing smile still haunts my fevered mind – and then he is gone. Slowly, thoughtfully, I quit the dance floor. My mind whirling and swimming, dragged round in a vortex of delirium. Slowly I awake. Slowly I return to the world of the living. The sun has risen on a clear, cold Autumnal day. The 1st November has arrived; signalling a new month, a fresh start, a rebirth. His music is quieted; for now.
I made my way back through the still slumbering town – only now do I notice the heavy bars and bolts that hold doors and windows closed on this most unhallowed of nights. Is it my imagination or do they all look newly-fitted?
I return to my tavern bed, but sleep eludes me. I desire only to put as great a distance between myself and this accursed place as possible, as quickly as possible. I rise and pack my things. Stumbling towards the door to take my leave I come upon my host. He says not a word, but holds the door open for my exit. As I leave he flashes me a brief, knowing smile.
As I move away I seem to hear on the breeze a distant and familiar cry.
Zig, zig, zig.
This short story was inspired by artwork by Remedios Varos, music by Camille Saint-Saëns, and the poem of the same title by Charles Baudelaire. Click here to read it in original French and also in English translation.
Steve Hosking is an emerging UK-based writer. He enjoys a wide variety of literary genres; however
historical fiction, horror, fantasy, science fiction, and gothic are amongst his favourites. His literary
influences include, but are not limited to, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Robert Harris, CJ Sansom,
and Stephen King. Steve has had one story published so far – The Princess and the Tower – in
Aphotic Realm magazine (Apparitions, June/July 2017). Another of his stories – The Writer – will be
appearing in CLA Magazine in August. Aside from short stories, Steve also writes poetry and flash
fiction, and has had a Sestina published online. He is working on his first novel currently and hopes
to have completed the first draft by Christmas 2017. When not writing, Steve enjoys running,
walking, swimming and tennis.
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