THE SOUNDS IN THE WOODS • by Jonathan Ruland

“We should find a place to camp,” said Brenda.

Jason looked at the sun setting behind the Rockies. Wisps of cloud streaked red and gold above the peaks. A cold wind swept through the pines and he hugged his pack tight against his back.

“Yeah,” he said. “First good spot we see.”

They continued onward beside the rushing creek, the darkening mountains looming on either side. The remaining light slowly faded, but no clear and even ground presented itself.

“I think w-we should just stop,” said Brenda, chattering. As if on cue another cold gust swept through the valley and whipped black locks of hair past her face.

He was about to agree, but then he noticed a flicker of light through the trees. “Oh!” he said instead.


“Look,” he said, pointing. Relishing the thought of sharing a warm fire with fellow backcountry travelers he started toward it before she could reply.

As they approached he detected the faint sound of music above the wind in the trees.

“Is that an accordion?” asked Brenda, her voice wary.

“Sounds like it. Why? French people make you uncomfortable?”

“Uh, no.”

He grinned.

As they neared the fire, a man’s voice was singing.

Dance now, dance, till your voice is gone to laughter.

Sing with me as I lead you in the jolly dance, the jolly dance of dreams.

As they entered the clearing a single old man looked up at them with a smile and put down the accordion.

“Welcome!” he said. “You look cold. Come sit down.”

Jason grinned and stepped close to the fire, dropping his pack. After a brief hesitation, Brenda did the same.

“How are you two doing this evening?”

“Great,” said Jason, pulling his puffy jacket out of his pack. “Getting as far away from work as we can for a couple days. You?”

“Making my way through the state. Retired. Call me Ol’ Bob.”

“Jason,” he replied. The old man seemed friendly, but weird. His smile was amicable but Jason could never tell if the guy was staring at him or past him.

He looked at his girlfriend. The look she gave him very clearly communicated that she was uncomfortable with the situation. He grinned and motioned encouragingly. Her brows narrowed. “Brenda,” she said at last.

“Glad to meet you both. Hungry?” Ol’ Bob motioned toward a pot filled with what looked like stew.

Jason was about to happily agree but Brenda said quickly, “No thanks, we’ve got our own.” Jason shook his head as she got out their cookware.

“Sorry to cut your music short,” he said.

“No problem,” said Ol’ Bob. “Care for a tune?” The old man’s eyes gleamed in the firelight. Jason still could not be sure if they were focused on him or past him, but he shrugged it off.

“Sure,” he said.

Ol’ Bob took up his accordion and immediately started playing. As the gleeful music hit him, Jason felt a surprisingly wonderful sensation.

He looked at Brenda again. Her mouth twisted like she was fighting a smile.

Ol’ Bob began to sing. His voice was clear and smooth. The song was a fun one about dancing, dancing in the city, dancing in the hills, dancing everywhere, getting people to dance who normally wouldn’t want to. The refrain was what he had heard as they approached and the old man sang it half a dozen times at least:

Dance now, dance, till your voice is gone to laughter.

Sing with me as I lead you in the jolly dance, the jolly dance of dreams.

“You two feel free to dance if the mood strikes you,” said Ol’ Bob, winking, the accordion still playing and that gleam still in his eyes.

Surprised at himself, Jason got to his feet. He grinned at Brenda. She grinned back as she rose. They had both kicked off their shoes but they danced anyway, forgetting the cold, dark woods. Dirt and pine needles crunched under their feet.

“That’s it, dance!” said Ol’ Bob, the music picking up. He sang away, still about dancing everywhere and all the time, but now about dancing until you were tired and dancing still more, dancing even if your feet grew blisters.

The music quickened and Jason and Brenda danced faster, harder. They panted from the effort and their feet thumped on the lumpy ground.

“Dance!” sang Ol’ Bob. “Dance!

The music quickened even more, and though Jason was panting heavily he sped up his dance and worked hard, sweating in the cold night air. Ol Bob sang more about dancing, dancing until your lungs cried out for air and your feet were bruised, dancing until it was all you could do, never stopping.

Brenda sobbed hoarsely but she kept dancing, her eyes teary and wild. She stumbled and thudded to the ground and writhed in the dirt to the music.

Jason’s mouth hung wide as he gulped air, his heart pounding and his whole body aching. He stared with quickly blurring vision at musician and instrument.

The old man’s eyes now clearly stared past them at nothing, a rigid grin fixed on his face. His limbs moved in jerks like a puppet and the gleam in his eyes had become a red glow. It was a glow matched by the accordion itself and as Ol’ Bob’s fingers moved on the keys it seemed more like the instrument was playing him than he the instrument. The old man’s mouth no longer moved and the voice that sang seemed to come from the instrument itself, the voice like the croak of a raven.

Dance now, dance, though your feet are raw and bleeding!

Laugh with me as I lead you in the jolly dance, the jolly dance of death!

Jonathan Ruland writes in Arizona, USA.

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