The hard men of the barrios and their cold-eyed womenfolk called it a freak show, but that didn’t prevent them from putting their money into the animator’s cold bluish hands.
He and his dancers performed in a dark, smoke-filled bodega down one of the meanest alleys in the city. Even now, when the show had earned him sufficient to buy a theatre in the entertainment quarter, it suited his purposes to stay right where he was—with his ballerinas stored in an old tea chest in the corner of a store room, cheek by jowl with bottles of bootleg whisky and bathtub gin.
The jumbled heap of bones and desiccated papillae lay silent and unregarded until it was time.
When the drinking den was full of sweating, slobbering humanity, he lifted his gold and ivory baton and called his servants to the dance.
The dancers assembled themselves, while the orchestra tuned its unfamiliar instruments and the fluting voices of a thousand captive songbird souls sang counterpoint to the breathless musicality. The animator drew his cloak about him like the feathers of a bony bird and ascended the rostrum—as he spread his arms the music came together and his creatures danced.
Such was the mesmeric quality of the music and the bird-bone ballerinas that even the drunken stevedores from the docks would stop their brawling and stand quiet until the unearthly music stopped.
Strangest of all, nobody could ever remember precisely what dances the bone ballerinas performed, any more than they could whistle the tunes that turned the smoke-filled air they breathed cold and pitiless, and painful on the lungs.
And still they came, filling the club with their sweat and stench, even as they filled the coffers of the animator and his business partner with gold.
As word spread it became the fashion among the scions of wealth and privilege to brave the foetid alleys of the barrio and see with their own eyes now the bare bones took life from the musics of darkness.
If a few wealthy young men awoke to find their purses unaccountably absent, who was to care. The city watch had enough to do without venturing into places where an officer of the law was likely to wind up with his throat cut in a ditch.
But still they came, intrigued by the promise of something new and uncaring about how such novelty might have been achieved.
The wealthy and important city fathers were accompanied by hard-nosed, heavy-handed bodyguards—and by and large they were safe, unless they got too close to the women who sold their bodies and their diseases with little discrimination.
So matters stood on the night when the Count Himself descended from his high place to see with his own eyes. His councillors begged him to command a performance in the safety of his own palace, but he laughed in their faces.
“This is a thing of the barrios,” he said, “and cannot be experienced anywhere but the place of its birth.”
Knowing themselves beaten, the old men quieted, although the Count’s security detail was armed to the teeth and every one walked with the casual menace of a seasoned killer.
Deeming the entertainment too elemental for the eyes and ears of his lady wife, the Count brought with him the most beautiful and expensive puta the city had to offer. She was exquisite, gowned in silk and velvet, and with her proud, pale face covered by a mask of the finest lace.
They walked the mean street side by side, but she did not seek the support of his arm, and neither did she waste energy peering into the darkness of doorways and alleyways. He laughed and she looked up at him.
“It is a surprise to find one so beautiful so unafraid.”
“There is little here to fear. I have always found the greed of the sons and daughters of wealth and privilege more problematic than those who do what they must to survive.”
He nodded, but made no comment.
Inside the stuffy bodega she seemed as much at ease as if she was attending a banquet high on the city hills where the air would be scented with almond blossom and citrus trees, not human effluvia and fear. The Count’s bodyguard cleared space for them and she sat down at the cracked and stained table careless of her silken clothing.
Such magnificent disregard of danger and discomfort called to some wildness in her escort and he bent his handsome head to place his lips on the white skin of her wrist where the veins showed blue in the fitful light.
He opened his mouth to say who knew what, but his voice was frozen in his throat by the first sounds of what he was later to call not music.
Before anyone’s ears had chance to become accustomed to the strange cacophony a tall, cadaverous figure, wearing a frock coat and top hat jumped onto a small table and raised its arms.
It was not possible to say from where the ballerinas came, but they filled the stage with their jarringly compelling dance.
When the Count managed to drag his gaze away from the birds, or beasts, or whatever they may once have been, it was to find his companion staring fixedly at her own hands. As he watched her he saw a tear fall from beneath her mask.
“Do you not wish to see this dance?”
“No. I do not. The dancers are too naked.”
He was nonplused for a moment. How could a woman who earned her not inconsiderable fee by being mostly naked be so affected by dancing bones? But he wasn’t without empathy and he quickly understood that it wasn’t prudery, but pity, that brought tears to his fair companion’s eyes.
“You feel sorry for them?”
“I do maestre. Are they not animated nightly and made to dance, without even the covering of flesh to protect their modesty? Of course I feel sorry for them. If you listen beneath the music you can even hear their cries.”
Beauty lifted her head and looked at the stage where half a hundred frail butterflies adorned the wings of the prima ballerina who danced as if her life story was in the steps she took. The bone dancer turned her head to one side and for a moment something glowed in the empty eye socket of her skull.
Beauty said something that the Count didn’t catch and the dancers began to whirl widdershins. Faster and faster they spun and the wild music grew wilder in its efforts to keep pace. But it was to no avail and the sound of a hundred instruments screaming in their death throes brought almost every human in the room to their knees.
As the music faltered and failed, the scrawny figure of the animator screamed. Just once. Before he began melting into his dark robes. The wind, which came from every direction blew through the dancing bones before picking up the desiccated animator and sucking him upwards through the roof to who knew where.
On stage, the bones fell into untidy heaps and as they touched the floor they became no more than dust.
For a brief moment the prima ballerina stood alone, still gowned in butterflies but with the animator’s top hat added to the ensemble.
She bowed, with an irony not lost on The Count, before falling to dust among her sisters.
As the wind blew the last dust away a voice like the rustling of dead leaves filled the room.
“Liberado por piedad,” it whispered.
Then it was gone.
This story was inspired by the image created by Paul Biddle