Fifteen eyeless dancers fret on the stage in a perfectly stuttered syncopation. The men are indistinguishable from the women, and they all wear the same white, flowing garb, asserting it to their audience of one. I am waiting for the right moment to clap, but I have been watching them for two days and they have yet to pause for even a moment. The dance seemed rehearsed at first, but this can be nothing except a language they speak together, and one they have spoken for a long time. Finally, on the second evening, a large man walking by tells me that I will not see the performance end – that he has not, and he has walked by for years. I leave the plaza’s stage, and walk down the hill to the lights in the small town below.
The town has a summer affliction – every few nights another child goes missing. The season is stale and half the houses are heavy with mourning. Sisters and fathers sit outside their houses staring blankly ahead and despite their best efforts, mothers and brothers have not found the thief who is thinning their village. They have taken me aside more than once, spoken to me of the issues, presented very few leads, asked my opinion, for any advice. I have bought myself time as I wander the town and the forest around it, looking for anything that might help the desperate families. Then I was drawn to the plaza, and the dancers and the dance, and time slipped away from me. Now they are demanding some wisdom from me, some insight from an outsider, before they blame me for the curse.
There is a fox in the forest, they tell me. It has hunted around the town for generations and has never been a problem. However, they wonder if something in this wicked summer season has turned it, has given it a new appetite, and is the cause of all of their loss. So I wander in the forest for some time, familiarize myself with the glades and the ponds, the tempo of the cicadas and the impatience of the swans. I see no fox, no signs of a fox, no sense that a fox has ever inhabited these woods. Every night as I leave the forest for the town, an alligator in the deepest pond watches me carefully. The townsfolk watch me walk into the town, into the room I am renting, listen to hear me sleep.
On the ninth day of searching I find the bear. She is hardly hidden. She is enormous, slouched against a rock wall on the tallest hill overlooking the city, eyes open and steady, unmoving. They are fixed on the town. She is aware of my presence, but doesn’t move. Her stillness is profound. I sit in front of her, waiting for her to kill me or give me audience. She does neither. When night comes on, I walk back down the hill and gather a few people and ask them about the bear. They say nothing, but look towards the hill, genuflect and leave me to my thoughts. Clearly she is not the thief.
I start passing the dancers late at night, before bed, every night. Some nights they hold my attention for a few minutes. Others I am transfixed until dawn. Something in their rhythm heals my frustration, the tempo undoes my inadequacy. They become a habit I cannot break, a needed end to each day. One night very late, after weeks of watching them move interminably, indefatigable, I see one fall. It isn’t a dramatic fall, I don’t even hear a grunt. He simply spills onto the floor gracefully and stops moving. The others seem to mourn without stopping, pick him up, raise him to the sky, caress him as they flock around him. They then gingerly carry him to the edge of the stage and place him in the darkness.
On the threshold for a pregnant moment, a young man enters the stage, clearly the youngest by many years, and enters the movement. It takes him but a few awkward moments to insert himself in the space where his fallen friend or father danced out his days. He is now of the company. They welcome him with a dance, and seem to teach him a few basic moves without ever stopping. He illustrates his grace with a dance, and soon it is as if he has always been with them, as if there was never a time when he was a separate entity from this sublime mass of bodies.
As I watch the transformation, I feel the alligator from the deep pond slinking by behind me. I follow at a distance as it scuttles down the hill and wanders the shadows of the town. It is the hour of night when no one is awake – even those who vow to take watch unknowingly surrender to sleep. The reptile makes its purposeful way to a specific window and then stops and in the stillness inhales deeply to confirm the existence of its victim on the other side. Then the beast raises itself on its hind legs – or appears to – the impossible movement asserting itself until I realize it is a very old woman with brittle grey hair wearing the body of an alligator. She steals the boy in a single movement, the child never awakening. Balancing him on her back she slinks towards the forest an alligator again, the sleeping boy riding her unknowingly.
I know better than to face her alone. I know to call on the bear. She answers my howl with her own, and I can hear her lumbering down the hill and crashing through the trees. The three of us meet face to face in the plaza, right in front of the stage and the dancers. The bear and the old woman are clearly acquainted, have clearly known each other beyond lifetimes. This is an ancient enmity.
The bear plans her strike, but the moment before she attacks the old woman leaps onto the stage, tackling two dancers and pinning them to the ground. The bear lurches and falls on its haunches and the dancers attempt to extricate their brothers without stopping the dance. She takes a third down as well, huddling on top of them, an immovable mass. Some of the dancers must stop the dance as they try to pry them loose, or shake her off. At this the bear falls completely to the ground, her breathing ragged and slowing. Her eyes close and I can see the life escaping out of her. I wonder if I can do something to affect the old woman.
At this arrives the fox, bathed in light. She leaps to the stage, grabs the old woman in her jaws and wrests her away from the dancers, flinging her off the stage. The felled dancers resume their dance without a pause – in fact, the entire troupe moves faster and more fierce, their movements violent and pronounced. They are building momentum until they are dancing faster than possible, at a tempo humans cannot digest.
All at once the bear leaps back to life, an anger long-dormant frothing. In one terrible movement she has leapt onto the old woman and swallowed her whole. The sky cracks above us, awakening the sleeping child, who seems barely startled seeing the bear looming above him. The forest around us crackles, the cicadas crescendo, and then all become silent again. Below I can hear the townsfolk stirring, flocking towards the plaza. I instead follow the silent fox as it walks behind the stage to a patch of forest I’d never seen before. In the forest is a glade, and in that glade a nest. The fox returns and circles it a few times before settling back behind her litter of changelings, eyeless and weeping until their mother returns, at which point they fall back asleep, content.
Illustration by Alexandra Dvornikova