A. Elizabeth Herting

Blood Waltz

The skeletons were dancing. 

Their bleached appendages clacked and scraped together in a jumble of ulnas and tibias. They moved gracefully, in as much as skeletons could move at all, in perfect synchronicity. Harold Freeman stared at them in open-mouthed astonishment, a vague recollection of his schoolboy days dancing around the corners of his memory. 

There are 206 bones in the human body. 270 at birth, that is, until the extra bones fuse together into the final number of 206. Harold, write this down, please! 

Harold had never been much of an academic, but that random fact from Sister Mary Bernard’s third-grade science class lingered in his mind as he watched the animated bones glide across the polished floor. This simply had to be some sort of dark dream, a wispy figment of his excellent dinner come back to torment him. 

***

Harold was an elegant man of large appetites, the author of his own destiny who believed that moderation was for imbeciles. The way he saw it, you were either a victim or a predator and Harold had no desire to be someone else’s lunch. He dined on the weak of mind, a first-class con man and thief. Dealing mainly with the old and infirm, the force of his larger-than-life personality always drew them into his various schemes and elaborate plans. That last old bird had given him $52,000, the entirety of her life savings for his once-in-a-lifetime land deal before shuffling off this mortal coil. Although, she was helped along to paradise by a healthy regimen of poisoned herbal tea, served with tiny little finger sandwiches by none other than Harold himself. No one was ever the wiser–they never were. He had lost count of how many had met a similar fate, preferring not to dwell on the unpleasantness of his chosen occupation. 

He had a refined palate, voraciously inhaling life’s pleasures where and when he found them and needed a healthy income to keep them coming. Food was usually the first item on his list, followed by a taste for fine wines. At six-foot-five and tipping the scales at a hearty 377 pounds, Harold barreled through life eating up every second he possibly could. He wondered darkly if his own skeleton would dance on its own, buried as it was in layers upon layers of Harold, itching to shed him like a corpulent cocoon.

***

He was so engrossed with the skeletal couple, that he failed to take in the music that served as the backdrop for their ghoulish swaying. He chastised himself for the oversight. Harold was also quite the connoisseur of music, the classical pieces of yore tickling his fancy. He’d played the French horn in his school orchestra and could always pick out its plaintive, haunting sound in any performance. His ears perked up as he closed his eyes, feeling the crest and swell of the music. When he opened them again, he rubbed at his sockets furiously, not wanting to believe that what he was seeing was even remotely possible. An entire demented orchestra loomed before him, rotting, decaying corpses with instruments that appeared to be made of bone, muscle, and gore.

The conductor was something ripped from the pages of a Gothic novel, his left eye dangling down his desiccated face, wild brittle hair framing a countenance that would have been welcome at the very gates of hell. Over seven feet tall with his tuxedo moldering off of his half-rotted frame, the conductor held a large, razor-sharp femur bone in his right hand while keeping tempo with his left. He was very passionate about the music as pieces of him flew off in every direction, plopping softly onto the floor.

Harold knew that he had heard this music before, was trying to identify it as he also gazed in disbelief upon the orchestra. They ranged from skeletal to fresh, and every stage in between. The violinists were raw and angrily red, splashes of blood and carnage flying in their wake as they sawed away at their strings of sinew. 

The flutists were delicate, mummified creatures, which Harold found endlessly amusing, for every flute player he had ever met in his band playing days was exactly that way in real life. Their brittle fingers worked upon the keys and he wondered how they could blow so well into their flutes, without a lip or nose to be found in the entire section. 

He noticed that the trumpet players were a thing of macabre beauty. Black as pitch, they appeared horribly burned and disfigured. Hunks of charred flesh oozed off of their faces as they played, smoke billowing from red-hot instruments. Harold experienced a moment of ghoulish fancy, imagining the entire brass section engulfed in flames. There were many occasions when he’d wished fire and brimstone upon trumpeters, for they were a notoriously arrogant lot.

The rumbling of percussionists briefly caught his attention. A Lovecraftian vision, enormous slug-like apparitions with countless eyes were gripping their mallets in slimy tentacles, pounding away in fury. In between movements, they would reach out in their horrific grasp and snatch away pieces from the half-decayed woodwind players seated directly in front of them. Harold watched in disgust as one of the supernatural slugs gobbled down a mangled ear, slurping and smacking away in gruesome ecstasy without ever missing a beat.

The skeletons doubled back again, surprisingly nimble on fossilized feet as the waltz played on and on behind them. Harold had a moment of clarity, finally placing the name of the piece. Of course! It was the “Wiener Blut,” the Viennese Blood Waltz by Johann Strauss II. We played this many times in my orchestra, I should have recognized it immediately. 

In a display of pure fancy, Harold closed his eyes and began to move along with the hypnotic music. For such a portly man, he was incredibly light on his feet, twirling around the floor amongst the ghastly ensemble. The waltz moved along to its stirring conclusion, a timpani drumroll with a full brass section that Harold was just itching to play again. He hadn’t touched the French horn in years, but somehow he knew that he could do it, pick up right where he left off. 

Faster and faster he spun, one-two-three, one-two-three, waltzing his imaginary partner around the floor as the skeletons struggled to keep pace with him. He was free, filled with glorious abandon as the music carried him along. As the very last notes washed over him, Harold paused and noted an empty chair in the brass section, exactly where he used to sit all those years ago. An enormous, blood-red French horn sat on the chair, glistening in bits of gore and huge, wriggling worms. One of the tiny creatures managed to extricate itself and began climbing up the leg of the player in the next chair. Harold took in the fact that his fellow horn player appeared to be half skeletonized already, the worms apparently doing their work all too well. Pieces of flesh still lingered (upon him? Her? Harold really had no idea) except for a full set of pulsating lungs that inflated and deflated like a balloon. It finished the final movement and gently placed the horn, bell down on its non-existent lap, turning to Harold expectantly.

He could hear the last notes of the piece still floating through the air, the hellish orchestra observing him, awaiting his reaction. The skeleton dancers stopped moving and stood completely still in anticipation. Always one to give credit where credit is due, even in the most distressing of situations, Harold began to applaud. At first tentatively and then with gusto. He cheered their efforts, for it truly was a masterful performance. 

The conductor turned and took a final bow, his red eyes piercing Harold with malevolence. “Bravo! Bravo!” he said over and over as they basked in his admiration. The conductor stepped down off the dais and came face to face with him, close enough for Harold to detect an earthy, rotten smell with just a faint hint of sulfur. Harold could see, hidden in his unruly thatch of hair something he hadn’t noticed before. Suddenly, everything clicked into place as he finally identified the knotted horns on the conductor’s horrific head.

Harold had a sudden vision of a restaurant, an entire Chateaubriand all to himself with an impeccable bottle of a full bodied, 1985 Medoc Rouge. He raised a toast high into the air to celebrate the death of his latest mark, followed by a sudden, eye-watering chest pain. After that everything was a blur. Or was it? Harold quickly took stock of his life and knew that his prospects at the moment were greatly diminished, to say the very least.

He had only the briefest of moments to ponder his many sins before the conductor lashed out with his femur shiv and sliced cleanly through Harold’s windpipe. Raising the bloody bone high into the air, Hell’s orchestra rushed forward and slowly began to tear Harold apart.

It took them quite an age, for there was a lot of Harold to digest. They fell upon him in waves, feeding by each instrumental section until the entirety of the ballroom was covered in blood and discarded offal. The flutes and oboes each daintily gnawed upon a limb, pairing them down to the bone quite nicely in seconds as the bassoonists and trombones started in on Harold’s ponderous stomach. The string section went in to liberate his well-worn liver while the slimy percussionists looped his large intestines around and around their hideous forms like shiny pink coats. The remainder of the string and brass sections fought over the scraps and Harold thought it only appropriate, since they were always jockeying for position within any ensemble. 

Their grim task nearly at an end, the worms were unleashed to do their duty as they pruned Harold’s considerable form down to the bone, leaving only his lungs untouched and in their proper place. He was grateful that he had never smoked a day in his life for his lungs appeared pink and full–ready to play for an eternity. The orchestra moved back into position as the skeleton dancers considered this updated version of Harold, unencumbered as he was by gobs and gobs of superfluous flesh. They held out their hands to him as he rose from the floor, reborn into his true self at long last. He carefully made his way over to his new chair on bony feet, swaying wildly as he found his balance. He joined the dancers as they moved across the floor and back to their starting point. 

Harold picked up his new French horn, the worms falling to the ground as he lifted it up to his freshly made skull and got into ready position. The conductor tapped his grisly baton onto his music stand, then raised it high into the air, signaling that they were ready to begin. Once again. 

They would play the Blood Waltz. The creature that had once been Harold Freeman knew that it would always be the Blood Waltz. On and on in an eternal loop, as the orchestra played and the skeletons danced around them. As he took his rightful spot in the ensemble and began to play, Harold could feel the first pangs of gnawing, insatiable hunger as Hell’s orchestra anxiously awaited its next inductee. 

Harold might not dine well this night, but he knew that he would never dine alone again.

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