Even now, with her bones thinning more every day and her memories leaking out the base of her skull, Lucille’s hands dance. She’s playing along with the music she hears, music that gifted her a career as a virtuoso violinist decades ago when women hardly ever did such things. It’s louder out here in the oak woodland behind her home.
Her hands falter on her imagined Stradivarius as she forgets again. How did she get outside? She doesn’t remember coming outside. Her cotton nightgown is too thin for the night air, and her diaper feels heavy and wet against her skin. Why is she wearing a diaper? And why do her joints ache? She’s a young woman in her early twenties.
She looks at her fingers and is surprised by the crepe-paper skin, the joints thick with arthritis, and the nails yellowed and too long. Panic begins to well up in her. Her heart beatbeat beatbeats in her chest, like her aortic valve might rupture at any moment and bleed out into her chest.
What has happened to her body? Has she been cursed by the faeries her mother used to warn her about? She used to dream about meeting real faeries, wondering what magical gifts they might give her. Is that why she’s out in the woods? Is she here to beg for a gift? For mercy?
The music grows louder, a haunting and driving dance. Almost like a Chopin waltz but with a jazz undercurrent, reminiscent of Gershwin or Cole Porter. She lifts her hands to play along on a violin that isn’t there, the way she always does when one of these compositions pop into her head. She’ll play along to develop muscle memory and write it down when she gets home, and then she’ll release a new vinyl, and it’ll sell spectacularly, and won’t she be adored? She walks as she plays, following the melody deeper into the trees, crushing common violets and bloodroot underfoot.
She trips on her nightgown, forgetting the music for a moment. She looks around herself, confused and cold. How did she get outside? She doesn’t remember coming outside. The music gets louder. She must remember this composition! She lifts her hands and plays. She follows the music deep into the woodlands.
Sharp branches catch her papyrus skin as she walks, and it tears into delicate tatters. Her blood flows too thinly from these wounds, thanks to the aspirin she takes to reduce the stress on her heart. When she stumbles, her fragile veins break, and bruises bloom across her silken flesh. She plays on. It sounds like there are lyrics.
Strange lyrics, these. Lyrics lacking verse or chorus, lyrics she forgets as soon as she hears them. They are like talking with an old friend. She hardly even pays attention. She already knows what they’re going to say.
An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth
A gift for a gift
A noose for a noose
A deal for a dream
A world for a wife
A dance for a song
An end for a life
The moonlight grows stronger. Lucille’s hands grow more certain. Her fingers dance in time with the bodhran drum beat, the goat hide’s oily surface thrumming a driving pulse. She approaches the clearing she’s been returning to all along but can’t quite seem to remember visiting before, and there’s nothing inside other than clover and deep green grass and a ring of tawny mushrooms on the outskirts.
She steps over the mushroom border, and she can see them.
The faeries are tall and sinewy as they dance. They fly, though they don’t have wings. Rather, as their feet strike the soil in time with the bodhran, they lift and float in concentric circles, clasping hands with one another and weaving under and over and in between and outside arms. A handsome fae with knifelike cheekbones, jawbones, and collarbones spins off to invite Lucille to the dance.
She steps backwards, finding an invisible, impenetrable wall has appeared just behind the mushroom ring. The handsome fae laughs. “Come now, human,” they chide with a voice that rings like bluebells, “You made your deal, a dance for a song. The time is nigh.”
“No,” she refuses, and scrabbles at the wall behind her back with her feeble fingernails. They would dance her until she died; that’s what her mother always said.
“No?” the handsome fae stares at her for a moment. Their pupils slowly expand until the entirety of their eyeballs are a yawning abyss. They pull back their lips, flashing mandible teeth that part in six directions to reveal a straw-like maw designed to suck life from mortals.
“I don’t remember making any deal,” she cries out in desperation.
“You don’t remember?” the fae’s pupils shrink back to normal size, and the mandibles and lips close, and they are handsome again. “Listen. Do you remember the song?”
She listens. The music is a waltz, ethereal and rich. She raises her hands to mime playing along on her violin, so she’ll remember it later. How did she get outside?
The handsome fae snaps their fingers, and a violin made of frost and gold leaf materializes in her grip. She plays perfectly, a virtuoso, as was the deal. She dances as she plays, enjoying the rhythm and the company of the other dancers. Even once she grows weary, she dances. Even once her brittle bones snap (first the tibia, then the patella, then the femur, and up, and up), she dances. It’s only when her heart beatbeat beatbeat beatbeats so hard that it bursts, a great wine stain bruise leaking across her chest, that she falls. The faeries close in with clicking mandible mouths to suck the spirit from her corpse.
When they rise, her body has already decomposed. The mushroom ring has spread a little further.
Grace Daly (she/her) is an author with multiple invisible chronic illnesses. In her writing, she often explores the experience of living with disability through horror, romance, and low fantasy. Her work can be found in anthologies by Ghost Orchid Press and Sliced Up Press as well as in JMWW Journal and MIDLVLMAG. She lives near Chicago, Illinois and spends most of her time with her dog, who is a very good boy. She can be found at www.GraceDalyAuthor.com, or @GraceDalyAuthor for Twitter and Instagram.