The Show Must Go On
Written by: Norco
Illustrated by: Thomas Tran
"I want two doses of whatever Thomas is smoking to come up with this picture."
Across amber sands, she dances. She dances to steps that are no longer her own. She dances, with thoughts no longer given voice but hopes given form. She dances under the watchful gaze of her patrons. She danced and danced and danced while the seconds and days followed in her timeless march onward.
When she doesn’t dance, she remembers. She remembers an oasis among the dunes – a bustling town, where drink and coin flowed as free as the trade, where food and ore was plentiful. She remembers another life, one where she danced as well. That life, her feet glid across lacquered oak and neath the finest drapery instead of coarse sands and relentless sun. Under the blanket of dusk, her stage was the brightest light in their quaint town and she its shimmering star.
But as the sands shift without a moment’s notice, so too did prosperity turn to poverty. The rivers sunk low; the land ran barren. Trade dried up, which meant coin dried up, which meant her lifeblood dried up. The people had no need of her pirouettes or twirls, not while their throats cried for succor and their bellies roared with famine.
Still, she danced. In front of empty seats, she danced. With memories of a better past, daring to hope for a better future, she danced. Her body would break before her spirit.
And it did.
During her curtain call, her mortal coils unraveling by the second, she pleaded. “One more dance,” as the stage lights dimmed. “One last encore,” she begged to legs that could no longer listen, to an invisible crowd.
‘The show must go on,’ a final fleeting thought before the world grew dark and the last light of the desert extinguished.
“Hot, hot!” Her reminiscing was interrupted by a grating voice belonging to one half of her troupe. A wretch, no more than a malformed balloon with a spike jutting from its bottom, wailed as it orbited her. “Are you not, not?” The spike came dangerously close to piercing her.
It’s when she’s prepared to make her thoughts reality that the other half deigns to speak. “Enough,” her patron admonished, before turning its attention to her. “Nearly there.” Her head turns as the bar in her throat does the same under her patron’s steering. Casting her gaze across the expanse, there’s nothing but the familiar sight of rolling dunes, each identical to the last, and the occasional cactus.
Her patron doesn’t acknowledge the brow she quirks. “Onward.”
“Onward, onward!” The wretch echoed between giggling fits.
Silently sighing, she went onward – toward an end nowhere in sight.
“Here.” This time, it’s her patron that snaps her back to the present. The first thing she realizes is the welcome respite from the sun’s rays, courtesy of the shadow cast by a tall, lush tree.
But she knows it’s not the tree that holds her patron’s interest. Rather, it’s the withered husk propped against its base. Their skin looks more akin to tanned leather, eyes sunken and gaunt. Their flaccid hand clenched a waterskin, open and empty as their resting place.
She frowned. Judging from their apparel, they appeared to be a traveler of some sort. A traveler who hadn’t prepared adequately for the unforgiving sands and paid the ultimate price.
“A body, a body!” The wretch twirls giddily. The vultures did not miss the bloated stench of death, circling overhead and waiting and watching.
It’s then that her patron speaks again. “Dance,” it drawls.
It’s an unnecessary command. She’s long since accustomed to her duty, yet the order is accompanied by an equally unnecessary tug at her collar. She grimaces as the spikes wedge itself deeper into her throat, the thin skin tearing and reforming simultaneously. The pain of being her patron’s puppet is something she doesn’t think she’ll ever get used to.
Deciding she’s had enough of the treatment, she obeys – and she dances.
The seconds and minutes bleed away as she does so. With aplomb refined over many a sand of time, practiced step follows practiced step, a routine perfected by an abundance of time. There’s only the howl of the empty wind, so she makes do by imagining the gentle cadence of drum and strum of string. Despite the uneven burdens in her grip and the shearing against her throat with every weave, she does not falter.
She tries to imagine the life they could have once lived. She envisions a land of towering spires and gilded walkways, one where there is no famine or thirst or poverty or war. Every step, every move takes her closer to there, across the vast ocean they crossed and to a faraway land she’s never seen and never would see.
Approaching the end of her routine, she closes her performance with a final flourish, kicking up a shower of sand that buffets the burdens clutched in her hands. She throws her head back, her eyes boring a hole into the blue cloudless sky.
“Bravo, bravo!” The wretch laughs in its infernal tone, bouncing in place. Her patron remains silent, waiting for the result of her performance.
For a moment, the winds are still. Then, wispy smoke climbs from the body, curling and coiling around the skewers in her hands. With a piercing scream from the wretch, the vapor is given form, hardening into a waxy gloss that adheres to the burdens already bore by the skewers.
And then she feels it: the weight – the burden of carrying the hopes and dreams of the departed. Bearing memories of a past life and visions of a future unwritten, her arms tremble. She grits her teeth, sinking to her knees and shutting her eyes. Her head throbs with unlived events that she remembers unfolding; her vision floods with unrecognizable faces that look familiar enough that she could call them by name. The burdens start to melt, dripping and sloughing as her arms – her resolve – wavers.
She doesn’t even attempt to rise – just kneeling is already taxing enough for her. All she can do is weather the storm roiling in her soul, holding fast to hope – her hope, no one else’s. She blocks out the imagery of sky-scraping spires and marble pavements, focusing on what she does know: the bazaar stalls that lined all sides of the market square, sandstone abodes, a tavern whose patrons huddled around a circular stage to behold the shining star in the sands.
When she finds the strength to wrench her eyes open again, she’s greeted by a ghost of a mirage in the blinding sunlight. It’s no longer a corpse that lays before her but a person, hale and hearty and flush with life. With skin no longer pallid and eyes bright and unreadable, their lips start to move but no sound escapes.
Thank you. Then, just as quickly as they appeared, the specter scattered into the sunlight, leaving only the husk in its place once more.
“Cleansed, cleansed! Delivered, delivered!” The wretch chirps, further aggravating her continued migraine. It nods its whole body, its malformed nose slapping noisily on its face. “Good work, good work!!”
Her patron does not share the wretch’s enthusiasm, its only response being a pointed “Are you done?” When she doesn’t respond, she’s snapped back by another tug of the collar. “Are you done?” It repeats in its languid tone.
Her answer is a steely gaze forward, staggering to unsteady legs before managing to stand upright.
“I see.” Her patron relaxes its hold around her neck, letting her regain control of her body. “Onward.” Thankfully, this time it doesn’t shear her throat any further with the collar.
“Where to, where to!” The wretch chimes in between shrill giggles.
“Onward,” her patron rumbles again before falling silent once more. Her legs are her own again, and though there’s nothing around her but endless sand and the occasional cactus and the weathered corpse, she welcomes the illusion of choice. With no indicator on where to go, she marches onward, to capture her next audience.
For the show must go on.
“My travels took me to a desert town, the only one I saw for miles. The only people I passed by were other traders, their caravans full of goods going into town and coin going out. The few townsfolk I met mostly kept to themselves, but were polite enough to point me to the local tavern for a bite. While I was eating, I noticed there looked like a stage smack dab in the front of the joint – but no dancin’ or singing.
When I asked about it, the barkeep said that ain’t no one took to it in decades ‘fore he clammed up. It took a bit of prodding (and a few more coins from my purse), but the barkeep finally spilled the beans: No one took to it since the last dancer they had died. ‘Her flowing moves, her easy smiles – every night, they lit up the town brighter than any number of lanterns could,’ he remembered with a smile. The more he talked about her, the sadder his smile got. “But no light lasts forever, ‘specially after the famine that swept through here back then,” he told me. He clammed up after that, polishing that glass up of his and ignoring me.
Turning back to my food, I didn’t even realize there was a crowd ‘round me til other folk started chiming in their two cents. Some people say they’ve come across bodies with two sets of footsteps leading up to it: one of ‘em dragging, the other balanced. Others say they’ve seen her silhouette on top of a dune at night, watching their camp quietly. Heck, a few even say they’ve seen her themselves, dancing before them when they’re at death’s door. When they came to, they found themselves at the gate to town and steps in the sand they don’t remember taking.
Gosh! Would that I could see her myself…Don’t really fancy dancin’ with death to dance with her though.
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