Danza de los Muertos

The first flash fiction challenge I ever did was a Random Song Title challenge set by Chuck Wendig at Terrible Minds. Now, here’s another 1,000 word random song title flash fiction for a new challenge.

I always thought life was boring when I was alive. There were ways to spice it up, of course—music, sex and drugs come to mind—but one of those killed me, so that might say something about my judgment. That was the thing, though. I wasn’t alive, but I was still walking around and seeing what I was missing, and it wasn’t boring. I found out the hard way, by dying on my bathroom floor with a needle in my arm, that chipping a little for old time’s sake was the worst idea ever. By the time anyone noticed the papers stacking up at my door and found me I was already out walking.

I wondered if I was supposed to go somewhere. Heaven? Hell? Purgatory? The Summerlands? The frickin’ Rainbow Bridge? Nobody ever offered me an option, so I walked around the city. For twenty years. Twenty. Fricking. Years. Was I a ghost? I certainly wasn’t able to haunt anybody, rattle chains or make scary sounds. I just walked around every night in the same Dinosaur Jr. t-shirt and red flannel I had on when I died.

I always gravitated back to the East End. I had history there, with school, with bands. I used to sit in my apartment at Hastings and Main and peg biscuits at the people five stories down. The rest of the city, what I could see, was interesting, but the East Side was home. In some neighbourhoods, like Strathcona or Commercial Drive, I saw people I’d known in college or from garage bands. They’d grown up and moved on with life, most of them. They still had the tattoos, but most had traded guitars and student politics for strollers and cargo shorts.

“Look at me!” I thought. “I haven’t changed! I haven’t grown up!” But they never saw me. Nobody ever saw me. I saw a few of those guys tonight as I passed a festival spilling out of Grandview Park. Some carried lanterns, some led around little kids dressed as dinosaurs and skeletons. It looked like a good party, and why wouldn’t a dead guy enjoy the Parade of Lost Souls?

I just wasn’t into it, though, and thought I’d wander down to Trout Lake. If everyone was partying up here I could probably get some quiet down there. There was a little jetty there, not much more than a platform, that extended into the tall reeds at the edge of the lake. Sometimes I would just sit there and look at the stars, wondering what came next. Tonight, though, it looked like there was yet another festival happening. It wasn’t big or crowded, but the park seemed filled with dancers. There were lines of dancers, circles of dancers and musicians of every type winding their way through the trees and trails surrounding the lake. The music of one circle dance drew me towards it, and as I approached a woman broke from the dance and came toward me. She was tall, dressed in a formal ball gown, and wore a wide hat perched over a Bettie Page haircut. Her dark eyes shone out of a face painted to look like a skull, but adorned with bright tropical flower motifs.

“Hello,” she said, taking my hand in both of hers. “You must be Johnny! I’ve been waiting for you!” She seemed excited to meet me.

“How do you know my name,” I asked, “and…geez, you can see me.” It took me that long to realize that this woman could see me and talk to me. I haven’t talked with anyone for twenty years and she just walks up to me.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “We heard you’d be coming down. You can call me Catrina. Now come dance with me!” She grabbed my hand and pulled me into the circle.

Snare drums signalled the start of another dance, sticks beat and clicked with the rhythmic precision of a military tattoo. A bass drum was the heartbeat driving us forward. Nasal high-pitched pipes alternated skirling verses, working slowly to a fever pitch.

I didn’t know the dance, but it wasn’t difficult to learn. We spun to the right eight times, did a little hop, then spun back to the left. Then we did that again. Then men spun into the middle, then women, or really anybody who feels like spinning into the middle, and there was some ritual flirtation. I found that if I watched Catrina I picked up the footwork, and the dance flowed through me. She caught me watching her and smiled brightly.

Then the music got slow and somber. We did the same steps, spinning around the circle to first one pipe, then two, then all three droning in morose harmony. Moving that slowly I got a better look at the people around me, and saw that they came from all backgrounds. It was like everyone had a sign around their neck saying ‘This is what I used to be. I am not that now.” Bankers, construction workers, artists and librarians stepped hand in hand to music that swirled through the night. As the music built to its former intensity I saw a hawk-faced man with a grey beard and flowing hair spin a tiny woman, her gentle eyes shining a love that transcended life. A solid-looking bald man with a goatee dipped a reverence toward an intense redhead with paint spatters on her white t-shirt and a rapier at her hip. In the middle of the circle a man in a green plush Cthulhu costume danced to a drummer only he could hear.

The music, and the dance, were back to full speed and I could tell the troupe wouldn’t stay here long. Catrina turned to me and reached out her hand.

“Come with us,” she said, and I could tell that she would brook no argument. I grasped her hand, which felt warm and soft, though I could see both of our hands were simply pearlescent bones, and we danced into the night.


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4 responses to “Danza de los Muertos

  1. Evocative story. The descriptions of the dancers in the third paragraph from the end were painted in simple, wonderful detail. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I hope you didn’t mean friends of yours that aren’t with us any more, but I rather suspect you did. I really like this story; the randomness, the groups of people. Death is always the great equaliser…

    • Thank you! Yeah, those are all friends who left within the last few years, except the protagonist/narrator who died 20ish years ago. Death being the great equalizer seems to be the whole theme of Danza de los Muertes/Totentanz/Danse Macabre, etc.

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