[Shorts][Bartender Stories] Dancers for the Dead

TW: Death, Grief

Grieving the loss of a loved one is hard for anyone. Even if I’m just watching and sharing grief, it can get tough.

Mocktails help me get over these times. So I went to visit my favourite bartender. He stood quietly by as I downed two of his concoctions in a row. I didn’t ask if there was alcohol, but something burned its way nicely down my throat, bringing tears to my eyes.

At least that must be the reason for my wet cheeks. I have no good reason to cry. I don’t have enough reasons to grieve.

While I nursed my third almost certainly alcohol free mocktail, my bartender quietly took up a tale.

Have you heard of the Dancers for the Dead (he asked)?

Many people enter and leave through the doors of my pub. Oftentimes, they come once, and never return. Sometimes, they become regulars, and their habits are pretty much set in stone. For those, I know their preferences, their moods and their orders.

(He placed another mocktail in front of me.)

And sometimes… They don’t return.

I’ve never really thought about those who don’t return. People change locations or change tastes. I seldom think of them outside that mild curiosity that we humans have. The gentle wondering of why a person who entered our lives had to leave, or chose to leave. Where they’re at. What they’re doing. How they are now.

Death… Seldom enters that equation.

The day I met a Dancer, I was spending time with my fairy friend, watching the garden together. It’s a peaceful experience, an excellent reward for owning this piece of land that crosses so many boundaries.

As he snacked noisily on his beef that day, the wind started to pick up. As sometimes happens, a little whorl of air started to spin on the path before us, picking up dried leaves and small twigs. Round and round it spun.

I suddenly recalled one of my patrons. A little old lady, with a love for flair. I’d always made a show of pulling out her chair. I’d wipe the table with extravagant movements, and serve her drinks and food with a flourish. She always had the sweetest smiles and giggles for me, and would show her concern for me in little ways. One time she brought in a packet of popping rocks, because she wanted me to feel like a child again. We shared that pack of popping rocks, an unspoken crackly secret in the midst of the hectic world.

Another young lad came to mind. He was quiet, surly, curt. But he seemed to know this about himself, for while he kept to himself for the most part, he’d leave an extra bill on the table and exit unobtrusively. Almost apologetically.

Both of these patrons had stopped returning for a couple of months by that time. As I wondered why they’d suddenly surfaced in my memories, the air started to crystallize around us. My fairy toadfriender audibly swallowed the rest of his beef, and seemed to come to attention.

It became apparent that there was someone – or something – in the middle of the whorl that had been floating past us. She was small and slender, about as tall as a standing squirrel. I couldn’t see her features clearly, as she never stood still. She spun around, one foot on tiptoe, the other lifted to her knee, arms arched over her head. Her face was uplifted, and as she spun, she never seemed to face a single direction for long.

A web of water droplets seemed to flicker outwards from her dance. Little shiny gems that flared, catching whatever light was present, glittering, shining. They would be swallowed up by the vortex generated by her dance, vanishing in little sparkles. Her feet twinkled as she pushed her foot off the ground again and again, a perpetual pirouette, a ballerina caught in a cycle. The droplets spread out, up, and then fell.

Then the sense of loss hit me.

It was almost tangible, a sense that something, someone was gone. A hole was left where a space had once been occupied. But not just a hole, a lack-of-presence. Perhaps there was a sense that this should not have been. Ideally loss should never have occurred. Things should not have changed. But they had, they did, and now grief was present in the place of who once was.

As the Dancer danced on, my friendly toadfairy and I could only watch, spellbound. Tears streamed down our faces. Suddenly, with a lingering smell of sunlight, lilac and lavender, she was gone.

We sat there, my fairy friendtoadster and me, gulping like fish fresh out of water. Sobs were wracking my body, but my fairy friendlytoad reached out a webbed foot to my hand. He must have done something for me, for I was able to calm down and breathe better. He looked a mess (for a toad), but he appeared calmer too.

“You weren’t supposed to see that.” he sniffed.

“What was it?”

“That… was a Dancer for the Dead.”

“Death comes for us all, even the fae. Along with loss, and change. But many a times, humans pretend that death and loss do not affect you. Your kind don’t seem to like facing up to grief and pain. Tears that should be shed are withheld, like little plugs that stopper up the drainpipes of grief. You cover up your tears with work, with distraction upon distraction, entertainment, with drugs and addictions.”

“But drains must do what they do. Or they will overflow. The grief and tears must go somewhere. And for every man or fae that tries to stop the flow of grief that comes with Death, a Dancer is born.”

“The Dancers of the Dead dance unseen. They carry the unspoken losses, the unmourned dead. They weep for those for whom tears have been restricted, lingering at the edge of someone’s eye, but never shed. They dance to share in the burden of grief that the world creaks with, to release it like little sprinklers, so that the world continues to spin. Grief, carried and stopped for too long, can break the world with its weight.”

“For some of you humans, the grief will never be looked at. It is too raw, too painful, too much to handle, too unreal to be real. For other humans who have died, truly alone, no one is around to mourn them. No one grieves what should be grieved. And yet for some others, they need to survive. Their Grief needs a bitter pint, a friendly shoulder, a listening ear and the comfort of a warm bed after. They don’t have the luxury of those things, not yet. Not now.”

For all these reasons, the Dancers dance. In the midst of a spinneret of wind, in the breath of a passing breeze. In the middle of a thunderstorm, pelting down hard in the heart of a city, a little Dancer might spin, crying, expelling grief into the uncaring night. In the middle of the ocean, where the darkest smear might exist at the bottom of a deep trench, a little whirlpool would spin up, circle for a while, and then dissolve, to reappear at another time of need. Sometimes, in the darkest of hearts, a little Dancer might turn up, for a split second, attempting to release the hurt of hurts, and possibly failing. But they will still dance. On and on, they dance.

I, a human, was not supposed to see one. But for that moment, I grieved my patrons who I now knew had passed, for some reason or another. I grieved that I would never see them again. Their stories had ended, and I would never experience them again in my life.

“But the fae welcome the Dancers. Do you know why?”

I shook my head.

“When the grief has been released, it means that there is hope for moving on. Life continues despite loss and change. What is lost may never be regained, but there is always something and someone new in this world. A new memory is made with every loss. The day must end before the new day can dawn.”

“The fae know this too well, for the number of years we stay on this plane. But the Dancers remind even me, that for every loss I sustain, there is something I will gain. For every loss to have happened, I must have experienced. A life lost to me, is a life that once was with me. You, my friend, have been kind to me in a way few have been kind. I will lose you one day too, as I have lost almost all my human friends.”

He smiled at me. As only a toad with teeth can, but today his smile was a lot warmer.

“For you, I will grieve. But I will also be thankful that I once had a supply of good beef. And beer.”

“And a human companion who never asked for more than my company.”

I slept like a child that night. For I dreamt of a Dancer, who caressed my cheeks with her tears, and enfolded me into dreamland with a warm embrace.

She smelt like my mum.

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