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LE DANSE MACABRE • by Jens Rushing

The guests gathered at Dismal House. It was time to dance the Macabre. It was a very old dance, and a great favorite among that set.

“I am infinitely grateful to you, my friends, for gathering here on the occasion of my expiration,” said the Marquis. He was properly aged, amply wattled, brandy-complected. Lace overflowed from his cuffs and collar, presaging the upholstery of the coffin. “As you know, fellow Christians, it is in death that we can finally embrace one another in the true spirit of equality and fraternity, as Christ would wish. In life, wealth and breeding may separate us — sad to say, but these are the exigencies by which the world operates. The farmer may not abandon his plow, nor the beggar his lice, nor the bishop his crosier — so the noblesse cling to their oblige.” Applause; the Marquis was a renowned wit. “And, yay, verily, a heavy burden it is. But I have borne it proudly for my threescore and seven, and now I shuffle off.”

“Fuck that,” said the farmer, the one invited representative of his trade. “He can take his obleej to Hell with him.”

“I hear ya,” coughed the beggar. He never spoke; he hacked, or wheezed, or gurgled, the tubercular effects of a life in gutters. “We’ll circle close during the Dance, you and I, and together stick this shiv twixt his ribs.” He displayed a sharpened scrap of iron. “At the final crescendo, before he passes natural-like — a violent, painful death for him. He’ll not escape retribution.”

The Marquis tapped his glass to regain attention. “But, it is also the privilege of my class to see beyond the veil of perception, and now I deign to share a fact or two with you. In tradition, bishop, king, slave, all go shuffling to the grave…”

All go shuffling to the grave!” The guests picked up the refrain.

The Marquis waved his hand. “But, it is not so! I am pleased to announce the première of a new Paradise. It never seemed right that those of us who contributed to civilization so much more than the base villeins should have to rub elbows with you after the grave, so I spoke to God – yes, God, and hie thee to Hell if you don’t believe me. We unrolled the plans and made a few changes. Now, when you die, your eternal reward will more resemble your lot in life; we will go on helming the ship of society, and you serfs can go on in the nobility of your labor, forever and ever, amen. I would not have you face a fearful and unknown territory; what would the working class want with an endless holiday, anyway? They would not know what to do with their leisure and would spend all their time drunk on gin.” Applause. Even the farmer clapped. He admitted to himself that the prospect of eternity at God’s feet terrified him with boredom. The plow was comfortable. To labor for the benefit of someone better than him was all he had ever asked or desired. If work was holy, he could be a saint.

And a further, deeper concern that he scarce dared acknowledge was the howling void within himself that he glimpsed on idle Sundays. After a busy week at the plow, he did not know what to do with himself. He did not care for reading or contemplation, and was weekly paralyzed with shock at the sudden company of this stranger, himself. He regarded with horror his declining years when failing health would enforce idleness, and he knew he would probably die quickly, as his father and his father’s father had, when they could no longer grasp their tools.

Only the beggar withheld his applause, scowling at the Marquis.

“I’m still going to do it, even if you ain’t,” he said. The farmer reached out to stop him, but the virtuoso struck the first note on his viol, and there was no resisting the dance. The beggar pushed his way through the crowd.

The dancers joined hands and circled, singing the first and last song:

Be you bishop, king or slave,
All go shuffling to the grave.
When you hear the call of the crow,
Dust and ash you will know!

Their bones creaked. They spun faster and faster, coming together with lifted hands, and back out again. Their tight harmony unraveled into dissonance. The melody lost its path, dissolving into senseless syllables floating on the tempo like flotsam in the rapids. It was a dark thing, a burgeoning thing out of the antediluvian past, a tune of the monsters outside the little light of the night-fire, a sinuosity of dread, a caustic glowworm that nestled in the mind. The orchestra played faster, faster. As the harpsichord trilled the final notes, the guests raised their cups and cried, “Memento Mori!”

“Memento Mori!”

“Memento Mori!”

A wordless shout shattered the joyous reverie. The beggar stood before the Marquis, shiv pressed to his throat. “In the name of the people, justice will be done!”

But the Marquis made no move to resist him; he was dead.

Realizing this, the beggar dropped his crude weapon. He dipped his fingertip in the Marquis’s goblet and touched it to his tongue.

“Cyanide!” he said.


Jens Rushing is attacking your mind.

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LE DANSE MACABRE • by Jens Rushing, 4.3 out of 5 based on 3 ratings
Posted on February 7, 2010 in Other, Stories
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  • Christopher Floyd

    I can dig it.

  • http://users.beagle.com.au/peterl P.M.Lawrence

    I couldn’t help thinking, there’s more to farming than ploughing – in fact, ploughing only happens in part of the year.

  • http://www.poundingthekeys.blogspot.com Mark Dalligan

    Liked this a lot. Vincent Price meets socio-religious issues.

    Cheers

    Mark

  • Jen

    This was great, I loved the historical setting and the plot of the Marquis killing himself.
    I sppoted a couple typos though:”villiens” and “hie.”

  • Roberta SchulbergGoro

    Unusually interesting story of a gathering of denyers of their faith, Christianity, which, according to the Marquis, “embraces equality and fraternity” and according to everyone also forbids murder. No one celebrates hypocrisy.
    I stumbled a few times at transitions from the writers point of view to dialogue, but that may be only me. Possibly the old-fashioned way of indenting dialogue would smooth the jump. In general beautifully written.

  • Margie

    I couldn.t get into the story. 2 stars.

  • J.C. Towler

    Any story that has me this contemplative a the end is a winner.

    –John

  • http://www.deborahblood.com Debi Blood

    Perhaps if the title had been different, I wouldn’t have automatically compared the story to the poem. There is only *one* “Danse Macabre” and any others necessarily suffer by comparison. The same can be said about the faux-Poe feel to the story.

    This was an interesting story, but perhaps walks too far in the shadow of some great pieces of gothic literature for someone familiar with that genre to appreciate it for its own merits.

  • http://www.theprodigalscribe.com Mickey Mills

    LOL….. Faux-Poe!!

    I love it! Nice comment, Debi.

    I didn’t make the connection to the original poem, but I felt this had an uncanny resemblance to other works I have seen. Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with taking poetry and making it prose. I saw an excellent take on the hickory dickery dock theme.

    Or was that Andrew Dice Clay?

  • http://wwebb3@comcast.net Bill Webb

    I couldn’t get into it? I just lost a wife and son in the past year so I have a different out look!

  • http://www.paulfreeman.weebly.com Paul A. Freeman

    A workmanlike take on Poe’s Masque of the Red Death.

    As for the word ‘villein’, it’s not a typo – it’s an archaic word more or less synonymous to ‘serf’. And for ‘hei’? This word’s used a lot by Shakespeare, meaning to hasten or hurry up.

    My only qualm was the gratuitous use of the word ‘fuck’. It jarred with the language used in the rest of the story.

  • Robins Fury

    I wasn’t a fan of this one. I found it jarring to read “F*** that” right after reading the type of language used in the Marquis’ dialogue of the 2nd paragraph. I felt the F-word didn’t belong.

  • Robins Fury

    Sorry #11. I just realized I echoed almost word for word your last sentence.

  • http://www.paulfreeman.weebly.com Paul A. Freeman

    No problem Robin – reinforced a point!

  • Jen

    Thanks for telling me, Paul. I wondered if it was something like that I didn’t know about. That should teach me to point out “typos.”

  • http://teenangel.netfirms.com Jim Hartley

    Well, that was … what the heck was it? The opening paragraph felt kind of clunky. After that, well, apparently this was a new take, or remake, or something, on an old poem with which I am NOT familiar. As a result, the whole thing made very little sense to me, about one star’s worth! Lots of pretty words, full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing.

    Apparently some liked it, but this one was not for me!

  • http://www.paulfreeman.weebly.com Paul A. Freeman

    lol Jen. Don’t worry, they’re archaic words. And as I recall, ‘villein’ had me stumped first time I came across it.

  • Jen

    Thanks. :)

  • Alvin

    A most excellent adventure. There probably is a better word to use than F**k for the farmers response. It seemed to make the dialogue a little unbelievable. The genre is typically not my thing and yet, in short pieces like this one, it gives me enough of a glimpse. Well done.

  • http://everydayprose vondrakker

    Right down my alley
    Visualized the whole show
    Thought the Marquis was already in the box
    Fooled me , that he was alive and
    Did himself with an audience.
    Loved it, twist of fantasy I thought
    5 *****

  • http://www.frankroger.be Frank Roger

    A grammatical remark: the title should be “La Danse Macabre”. As danse is a feminine noun in French, the article should be feminine as well.

  • fishlovesca

    Overambitious. Pretentious. Badly written.

    I didn’t understand the plot, the motivations of any of the characters, or what was accomplished by the story.

    If a writer is going to attempt something on this scale, they better be deeply familiar with the territory.

  • http://www.jensrushing.com Jens

    M. Fishlovesca – I am fortunate that your failure to understand did not prevent you from withholding your criticisms.

  • http://www.jensrushing.com Jens

    Debi – what’s the original poem that you speak of? This was inspired by the medieval motif of post-Black Death art, not any particular poem. If any one bit of “Macabre” art can be considered definitive, then I would assume it to be Saint-Saens’s orchestral piece – the original version had lyrics, which are somewhat like my lyrics here, but not close enough, or well known enough, to be what you’re referring to as the “only” version. In the 14th and 15th centuries, there was a whole flood of “danse macabre” art, which is the tradition in which I consider this piece to be. However, I think it works as an homage to the lyrics of Saint-Saens’s original, which is loaded with all sorts of nicely nasty political undertones – the equality of death, in the aftermath of the Third Empire – very cheeky and sly. If I may be overambitious and pretentious about it.

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