Before she wakes, Scaramouche will break each ankle with careful precision. This must be done first, he assures me, otherwise it will ruin the dance.
Taking the foot in hand he will lift the leg—the muscle has already begun to rot, but most of the weight is still there. The toes and top joint will be pushed down, while the heel is pulled up simultaneously. The rip of cartilage is piercing; it pops and echoes down my spine. The bone usually snaps, though that depends on the girl, and the condition of the foot.
Scaramouche has never recovered a male, they are always females.
When she awakens it's my job to break her ribs. "My name is Cinzia, girl." I am always older than they are, and I say this first. Their bloodshot eyes stare back at me, their silence pleading. In their eyes I am as a mother in those first moments. "What is your name, girl?" I need a sound to call them by. I have seen girls recovered after half a year in the bygone, everything else lost to them but their names, and the meaning of that sound, so akin to their souls, remains. If she does not recall her name she will be too far gone and useless to Scara and I. Your name is the last thing to go.
Her lips quiver, "—Pehhh," she swallows, the taste of death and her many days in the bygone stain her words, "—Pia."
"Close your eyes," I instruct. She obeys, no doubt praying that this is all some terrible dream. Her skin is translucent like watery milk. Veins have broken or rotted and red plumes across her cheekbones and the naked balls of her shoulders. She is no longer the weightless girl skipping around the maypole, she is weak; she will never be strong in the same ways again.
She does not remember to struggle. It is not difficult to break the bones that I have to.
The next day Scaramouche pulls her wobbly frame onto the makeshift stage. Pia is willowy. Her face is skin pulled tight over bones; a leathery path where her eyes bulge out and dart across the room wildly. I cannot tell if she has always been sickly like this, or if the rot had gotten to her quicker than most. Her hair has not been washed since her people laid her in the ground, and now it hangs dirty and tangled across her back. Red clay still marks her limbs, the powdery dirt clings to the tiny hairs standing rigid on her arms.
Scaramouche was initially excited that her neck had already been broken, but when Pia shows signs of having difficulty keeping it up he frowns, unsure if it will aid her in the dance, or be a hindrance.
He paces the stage, his black mask stretching across his forehead and the top part of his face. "Commedia dell'arte," he begins, speaking slowly as if to a child. I can see that Pia strains to understand. "Comedy of the craft, you see—" he places both hands on her waist, holding her concentration in the moment. "I am at once both Scaramouche—the clown—" a wild mischievous grin spills across his face. "Or the fool," he goes on. "Devious Servant," his body takes the shape of what he describes. "An officer—my bravado only lies." Pia's eyes dart across the room, incapable of concentration. "Or mayhap I am Pantalone..." When her eyes continue to travel the length of the ceiling Scaramouche slaps the base of his walking stick against the stage floor. The sound is dull, but it echoes, snapping her forward as though he were a puppeteer and she his marionette doll.
It will always be the staff that collects her into the dance. It is Scaramouche's way of guiding and controlling her. "You are shadow," he tells her slowly. "You are the means of control, the damsel, the killer, the dancer of death. You will unravel it all."
"Yes." Pia agrees. She is already hypnotized.
Scaramouche snaps his staff down again, the sound causing Pia to jump. When he does it a third time she assumes the first position of the dance. As he continues I watch as she lifts herself up onto her toes. The feet, when laid flat are ungainly but now as she rises they move powerfully. All pain forgotten. Pia lifts her arms, elbows slightly bent, fingers extended into a relaxed grip, always reaching for something forever far away from her grasp. She twirls to the rhythm of Scaramouche's tapping, long hair fanning out around her. Her spine bends back but her legs and feet remain straight underneath her. As I watch she tilts all the way back. Base of the skull flush to the back of the ankle. For a moment I do not breathe.
"Did you have a lover once, Pia…? Someone who frolicked around the maypole with you?"
Pia rises as he continues to create the rhythm of her dance. I can tell from her eyes that she is frightened. Her mouth parts slightly, suggestively, a stance that she no longer has control over. "Yes." She has to force the sound out.
"…And what was his name?"
Pia bites her lip. Her arms glide back like broken wings in accordance with the dance. I can hear the scratch of sockets popping.
A bead of sweat roll down the back of Scara's neck. "Pia?" She grunts from the strain of disobeying his command. "What is his name?" He slammed his staff harder against the stage, the rhythm faster. Pia struggles to keep up.
"Abramo," she finally sputters.
When he stops tapping the rhythm her body caves in on itself, falling like a burst raincloud across the stage.
I had to dress and prepare her for her first test before the sun went down. Holding her hand I walked her down to the stream and bathed her. The sunlight found her strange, and it clung to her skin far longer than was natural. The tips of her garish cheekbones were clammy and her fingers were ashen. Her knuckles had all cracked; she had difficulty gripping my fingers.
"What will happen to me, Cinzia?"
I cupped cold water in my hand and let it trickle down her back; her bones sloshed and swam underneath my palm. "You will dance as Scara wishes you too. Even if you could disobey, it would be better for yourself if you did not."
Her fear quickened, I saw the way her ribs quaked. "...Abramo?"
"You will dance with him, and then you will forget about him."
The dance is best performed when a girl can be bathed in moonlight, but the glower of the sun was still on Pia's skin as the moonlight fell across her form like fine satin. We had taken the horse and cart across the long roads, following Pia's instructions on how to find her lover, Abramo.
We stopped on a hill, overlooking the little house. "Call to him," Scaramouche told her, his grip tightening on his staff.
Pia clutched her heart, her voice cracked into a desperate whisper. The wind carried her call, and it did not take long before Abramo appeared in the doorway.
He was running to her, and Pia was struggling to go to him but Scara held her back. "Can you not see the desperation? The beautiful agony…" He was speaking to both of us.
Abramo ran faster, his mouth opened, forming words—Pia's name—but no sound came out.
When Scara released her she did not hesitate before she ran to him. "The lovers! Do you see, Cinzia?"
I envied her, and in that moment I approved of the agony of it. "I see."
Scara flicks his wrist and Abramo fell backward like a tossed toy. I could feel the indent of his body hitting the earth even though the ground was hard as stone. Scara beat the base of his staff against the wood of the cart thrusting Pia into her dance.
She rose onto her toes again, fluttering her feet and legs into tiny movements until she was at Abramo's side. Pia's lover was paralyzed and could only watch her helplessly from the ground. She lifted her leg up, pointing the foot aggressively, and slowly positioned it on top of Abramo's chest. After that she mimicked her action with the other foot until she was standing on top of him.
I watched her back break from my position in the cart as her dance continued. Bones pushed forward along her vertebrae like the coils of a rope pulled too tightly back. Blood vessels snapped, sending wild patterns of red and blue across her translucent skin. The moonlight adored her. When she began to twirl the softest of moans spilt from her thin lips—the dance had taken her, she was in the bygone again; she had forgotten.
Abramo coughed blood, and his neck lolled to the side. Scara slowed the rhythm that his staff set. He pushed himself down from the cart and went towards her. Pia continued to spin but she was slower now, her movements graceful. A ghostly proclamation. A strange pantomime of her former self. The only part of her body that touched Abramo was the tip of her first toe but she bore down on him like a wild tempest.
Scara took Abramo's hand into his own, gripping it tenderly. "The ill fated lover," he observed tilting his head up to Pia as she let the last movements of the dance unfold from her. "The vixen. The coquette." Scara pushed his mouth down onto Abramo's and sucked the last lick of life from him.
I watched the youth from the boy's body enter Scara. I watched it stretch out across his skin and travel into the lightness of his voice.
Gazing back up to Pia I heard him whisper. "Petite Mort. My queen of death."
Pia's eyes had gone cold. I hobbled down from the cart and gently eased her off of her dead lover's chest. Scara embraced me. His arms circled wide across my hips. His mouth met mine and I breathed in the momentum of Abramo's life force. It filled my lungs like sandpaper and water but when I breathed it out I could feel my face soften, and my mind cleared.
Pia clung to the night, as only truly dead things can. She roamed across the open field like an animal on the hunt.
When I called to her no spark flickered from her eyes. Names are always the last to go.
a/n: written for the may wcc