The World That Forgot How to Dance
“You stabbed someone in a bar fight,” Ellsie decided with calm assertion as she addressed the man in the prison cell across from hers.
“And you cast a spell to make your pet capable of human speech,” Lester answered, keeping his eyes on the ceiling.
“So are you.”
They both sighed as their game continued to be at a standstill. Random guessing had uncovered a few pieces of information about each other, but no thrilling discoveries had been made for the last three days, and they were both succumbing to boredom.
It had been easier in the beginning. They guessed correctly that Lester had been incarcerated for at least a decade, and that Ellsie was being punished for crimes as a dancer. Neither of these had been difficult to guess. Lester was so scraggly and dismally comfortable in his cell that it would be embarrassing to assume he’d spent the last ten years in real society. And Ellsie was too well-postured and polite to have been arrested for anything other than dancing.
This was common. Dancers rolled through prisons like drops of rainwater off a sheet of waxed paper: never mixing with their surroundings and gone before their lack of assimilation could really be a problem. Ellsie supposed—and confirmed through the questions game—that Lester had seen many dancers pass through here.
“You blew up a building,” she tried next.
“You used magic to blow up a building,” he said around a yawn.
Ellsie frowned, silently taking points away for unoriginality. “No.”
Earlier in the game they had focused on uncovering little snips of information from the other’s life. Ellsie feared thunderstorms, loved cats, and never had a cavity. Lester hated his name, had an older brother, and gave up on brushing his hair four years ago. These, among many other fun but useless bits of trivia, had eventually failed to hold either of their attentions.
Their questions had become rather one-tracked lately. Ellsie was trying to guess the crime for which Lester had been convicted. Lester wanted to know what spell Ellsie had cast through her dancing.
They made little progress except to know many things that the other had not done. Ellsie was starting to run out of crimes. She’d been relieved to learn that Lester hadn’t murdered anyone, nor had he committed the other standard crimes that came to mind when one warranted a long sentence.
She had been unable to deduce the actual length of the sentence, except that it was very long, and wouldn’t eventually end in execution. She’d been relieved to hear this as well.
“You threatened to assassinate the President,” she tried.
“You used magic to divert that hurricane a while back.”
“That hurricane wasn’t diverted,” Ellsie pointed out, remembering the event clearly because the rain had kept her from dancing for nearly a week. She didn’t risk dancing inside.
“I never said your spell succeeded.”
“Well, either way, you’re wrong.”
“You too.” Lester rolled over onto his side, propping his elbow on the thin cot and giving her a look that she couldn’t quite read in the indecisive shadows of evening, though she could feel how interested his words became. “Your spell succeeded.”
Ellsie opened her mouth to answer and then realized how unexpectedly difficult the question was. “I don’t know.”
Lester swung his legs over the side of the cot, sitting on the very edge of the mattress. “That’s not how the game works,” he said, voice soft and curious rather than chastising. “Yes or No?”
Ellsie retreated a little further into her cell, sifting her fingertips through her short, brown curls. “It’s complicated.”
Lester apparently wasn’t going to accept this either, and continued his silence.
Blowing out a short breath, Ellsie said, “I guess not, then. The spell didn’t do exactly what I wanted it to do.”
Lester purred a small victorious noise into the darkness and stretched out on the cot again.
Ellsie felt a small rise of frustration at this, and needed to remind herself that this was only a game to keep her mind off the reality of being in prison. Even so, Lester had made more progress than she had and he was always rather smug about it.
“Your turn,” he reminded her.
She pressed her lips together, trying to think of something more intelligent than yet another blind guess. Because he seemed to have a vague obsession with dancers, she tried, “You made a dancer unable to dance.”
His hesitation rivaled and then surpassed her own until he answered. “Yes. But that’s not why I’m here.”
That paused the game for a while. Ellsie hoped that it might be their ending question for the night, though she doubted she would sleep productively now that she knew that the man several paces away had fulfilled her greatest nightmare for another dancer.
Dancing hadn’t become illegal due to a vendetta for the art itself. If there had been some way to ensure that people weren’t casting spells with the steps and spins, it would have continued.
Over 300 years ago, spells had been used where today technology and machinery were a necessity, and Ellsie imagined that it had been beautiful. Instead of cell phones, you would dance to send a message to your friend. Houses were assembled by groups of dancers, letting the magic flow from their movements and piece together the raw materials. Sick children were cured by the spell dance of their parents. And there must have been people who just danced, letting the only magic be the happiness they felt.
Then came Laenin: the village destroyed by dance, a tragedy no one could forgive. Details were vague. Either no one knew exactly what happened, or else it had been purposefully withheld from the history books. Either way, Laenin remained a dark mystery and a stain on the idea of dance. It was decided that something capable of such trauma couldn’t possibly be worth the benefits, and dance was strictly outlawed.
“You’re afraid of me.” There was no hurt in Lester’s voice, no remorse for what he’d done. There was maybe a touch of smugness, like he might have predicted this outcome from their first conversation.
Ellsie smoothed her skirt over her legs, keeping her back straight even if she couldn’t bring herself to look at him. “You already asked that once.”
“Yeah. And now I’m asking it again.” There was the creaking of his cot; he must be watching her. “Are you?”
“No.” Ellsie said. The next words were as out of place in her voice as she was in the prison cell. “I hate you.”
The door at the end of the hall opened. “Ellsie Ranquist? You have a visitor,” the guard announced in a gruff, end-of-shift voice, and was gone before she had properly turned around, leaving a young woman approaching the other side of the bars.
The visitor didn’t speak immediately, which gave Ellsie the time to figure out where she had seen her before. She was only a little taller than Ellsie, with dark skin and hypnotically fearless eyes. Her hair was braided back from her face, revealing relaxed but alert facial features, and her posture spoke of a keen awareness of her own body and the space around it. It was exactly this that had convinced Ellsie originally that she must be a dancer.
“Oh…you were there,” Ellsie realized, blood rushing to her cheeks as she remembered the few well-placed laughs that were tattooed on her mind. Know what you can’t do. She swallowed and tried to think beyond the memory to the person in front of her. “Denise, right?”
She nodded, refusing to let her gaze fall as she did so. “I’m surprised you remember. There were dozens of us there.” She had the softest voice Ellsie had ever heard.
“Eighty-six,” Ellsie confirmed. “Why are you here?”
Denise unclasped her hands from behind her back, curling her fingers loosely around the bars as if she were the one confined by them. “Did you design the spell you used to identify us?”
“What was the original purpose of the spell?”
Ellsie wanted to step back, but didn’t. “Why?”
“Because I was trying to figure out why it didn’t work.” One of her hands slipped into her pocket and she withdrew the round, white stone Ellsie had enchanted.
Lowering her voice, Denise said, “I’m not trying to get you into more trouble. I just want to know. What did you design the spell to do?”
Ellsie glanced towards Lester, who was lying on his cot feigning sleep. She would never be able to speak quietly enough that he wouldn’t hear her. Discussing it would mean revealing everything to him, but she was so starved for someone to understand without judging that she didn’t care. “I thought I could locate other dancers. People like me: dancing in secret. I figured there had to be more of us.
“I’d learned about a spell once used by healers. If you could align a rock with a type of sickness, the rock would glow when it was close to a similar sickness. I thought if I could define the qualities about me that made me a dancer, I could find the other dancers.”
Denise watched her carefully as she spoke, accepting and processing the information as rapidly as Ellsie gave it. “So that time I saw you in the library, you were testing me?”
“Not in the library, no. Outside, when you helped me pick up the books I dropped. I have to be touching the other person to activate the spell.”
“Show me?” Denise loosened her hold on the rock, offering it.
Holding it so that only Denise could see it, Ellsie placed her other hand over the darker fingers. A pale blue light settled on the rock. It didn’t come from within; the smoky tendrils of light seemed to adhere to the surface. She waited for Denise to observe it properly, feeling quiet pride for how impressed the girl looked, and then released her. The rock returned to normal.
Denise tucked the fascination away beneath more serious emotions, though she seemed slightly different now. Softer. “So all the people that you called: the rock lit up for them?”
“Right. I thought if they were all together… if we all shared the same secret, then people would be able to talk about it.” Ellsie lowered her eyes, feeling childish and naïve for imagining such a happy ending to her endeavor. That’s the Rebel? That girl? “But it didn’t happen.”
“It identified some people as dancers who weren’t.” Denise said.
“No, they were.” Ellsie said. “They just didn’t want to admit it.”
“I’m not a dancer.” There was no hint of a lie in her calm features. Regret, possibly, like she wished she were a dancer because that would provide a tidy solution to the problem.
“You have to be,” Ellsie insisted at a whisper, noting the body type that was so similar to her own.
“Then…” Ellsie looked down at the rock in her palm. “Then the spell doesn’t work.”
“But it does,” Denise said, resting her thin forearms on the horizontal crossbar and leaning forward. “Whether or not it can find other dancers, it obviously identified something. All of those people you gathered have something in common with each other and with you, and I want to find out what that is.”
“Why?” Ellsie brought her own eyes back to Denise’s fearless ones, coming around to a question she should have asked a long time ago. “Who are you?”
“Just a grad student,” she said, though Ellsie felt sure there was more to her than that. “You have three days left on your sentence, right?”
“When you get out, you can find me at that same library.” She dropped her arms from the bars, replacing them behind her back with a note of finality. “I’ll help you figure out what your spell really found.” She didn’t wait for the formalities of parting, and either forgot to take the stone back or else left it there on purpose.
Once she was gone, Lester stopped his pretense of napping and approached the bars of his cell, shortening the distance between them. He draped one arm casually around the bars, leaning his head against the metal with a knowing smile ebbing on and off of his lips. “You cast a spell to identify other dancers,” he said, though not within the context of the game. “And it didn’t even work.”
“Congratulations,” she sneered lightly at him. “I don’t suppose you’d tell me what your crime was out of fairness.”
He laughed softly without parting his lips. He didn’t look nearly as old from this distance as she originally assumed. “What do you think it identified?” The words were drawn from his mouth with a different kind of interest; a more genuine kind that extended beyond the need to fill the long hours of the day.
“I don’t know.” Ellsie tucked the stone into a pocket. “Could be anything.”
“But it wasn’t just anything,” he said. “You aligned it with something within yourself that you thought was your identity as a dancer. How?”
“I’m not telling you,” she said, trying not to sound like a pouty child. “You already know an unfair amount about me. I’m not giving you anything else.”
Lester hesitated, but didn’t retreat to his cot. “I’ll tell you what my crime was.”
Ellsie, more invested in knowing than she cared to admit, considered the offer and then nodded stiffly.
Lester shoved a few matted tangles of hair away from his face, his mouth twitching towards an unclear facial expression to which he wouldn’t yield. “Dancing.”
Ellsie’s initial reaction of shock was devoured by resentment so quickly the original emotion barely existed. “I can’t believe you would lie to me after all this.” She glared at him, embarrassed for putting herself in a position to be betrayed. “Is anything you’ve said true? You’re just a lonely criminal getting some kind of twisted pleasure out of making me—”
“I’m not playing your stupid game anymore!”
“Neither am I.” His voice was calm. Steady.
It was so steady that it infuriated her, because it made it harder to deny that he’d been telling the truth. But he couldn’t be a dancer. No dancer would ever take away another’s ability to dance. No dancer would do something so horrible as to justify a sentence spanning multiple decades.
Unless he was the type of dancer who had first made it illegal to dance. Ellsie’s mind poked curiously around various possibilities for violent, unforgivable crimes Lester could have danced into existence, but she wouldn’t pursue these thoughts. If she did, she wouldn’t be able to bear the proximity.
She silently backed away from the bars, wanting to put as much distance between the two of them as possible. She curled up on her cot, facing the wall, determined to stay there until she was released.
“You could test it, couldn’t you?” Lester called to her, not in the mysterious, manipulative way he normally talked. “Your spell would tell you whether I’m really a dancer or not.”
Ellsie wanted not to answer, but did anyway. “The spell doesn’t work.”
“But you still think it does,” he said, and she successfully bit back her comment this time. “When you leave in a few days, would you work the spell on me? I’ll stand close to the bars so you can brush my hand or something.” Another victoriously silent pause. “I want you to believe me, Ellsie.”
“I won’t use my spell on you,” she said. “I don’t want us to have anything in common.”
The silence was filled only by the sounds of Lester retreating to his cot. Then, “For what it’s worth: that dancer? I did everything I could to get his dancing ability back for him.”
Ellsie hugged the pillow as if doing so could transform it into the stuffed animal she wanted it to be. “Please stop,” she begged, and he did.
She was roused early in the morning by a low argument coming from the other cell. At first, the voice she heard was so frightened that she didn’t realize it belonged to Lester.
“I haven’t made any problems!”
“There have been inquiries,” the deeply disinterested voice of the guard told him.
“So, just lie to them.”
“We can’t take the risk. Come on.”
Ellsie heard the guttural clanking of metal as the cell’s door opened. Her heart thudded in her chest as she tried to pull meaning out of the conversation. Then Lester called her name with such unconcealed panic that she rushed to the edge of her cell before she gave herself the order to do so.
One of the three guards put a firm, gloved hand on Lester’s head, forcing it downward and forbidding him to make eye contact with her. His wrists were shackled together, as were his ankles: an extra precaution used mostly for dancers.
“Ellsie, they’re going to make me disappear again!” He called to her, struggling fitfully against their grasps.
“Don’t talk to her,” the guard demanded, and then ordered Ellsie to step back.
She moved closer, fingers gripping the bars. “Why are you moving him?”
“Miss, this man is dangerous. You should really step—” To properly deliver his warning, he needed to turn slightly towards her, giving Lester whatever opening he’d been waiting for.
In a whirlwind of movement, Lester stomped one man’s foot, elbowed another in the gut, and head butted the third. Then before Ellsie could follow the guard’s wise advice, Lester leapt towards her cell, thrusting his chained wrists between the bars and looping them over Ellsie’s head.
Hot, ugly terror seized her as she realized her error in trusting him. She screamed and tried to duck out of his hold before he could snap her neck, but he yanked her closer, pinning her head against the bars. She felt his mouth move close to her ear and expected some kind of threat or disturbing last words to carry with her into the afterlife, but what he said was a pleading request.
“What does the spell say?”
The guards had recovered from the short assault, and Ellsie felt jostled and helpless as they tried to pry Lester away from her.
“Please, tell me,” he begged, close enough to her ear that the guards couldn’t hear it. “You have no idea how important it is.”
She didn’t know if she reached for the stone in her pocket out of mercy or fear, but when she looked down at it, it was just a stone as common and ordinary as the day she’d lifted it from the river. “You’re not a dancer,” she said, honestly surprised.
Lester wasn’t. With more frantic urgency than ever, he struggled to remain anchored to her and said, “I know what your spell does.”
Thanks for reading this excerpt from my Fantasy Novelette, “The World That Forgot How to Dance.” If you’re feeling intrigued and want to read to rest of the story, you can find it as a $0.99 ebook Here, or in paperback Here. Happy Reading!