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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