And now for something completely different, a short story I whipped up. Not exactly seasonal, but if Tim Burton can do Nightmare Before Christmas…
Dancing with the Dead
A God-awful siren ripped through the stillness of the House.
“Which is it?” Frederick asked.
“Number twelve. I told you. He was bloated like a dead pig this morning. Knew he would go off. You better grab the bucket.”
“I did it last time. Why do I always have to clean up the mess?”
“How long have you worked here?”
“Two weeks, but…”
“There you go. Get to it. I’ll send a message to the Grundherrshaft’s family; it’ll be a relief to get the stinking oaf out of here.” Grumbling, Frederick grabbed the bucket and mop, stepped down from the observation room.
Below, on the floor of the House, the bodies were lined in rows, resting on white marble tables lit by sunlight descending from overhead windows. Great bouquets of pure, white peonies were laid on and around the corpses, a patina of beauty and peace masking the fetor of decomposition. A cat’s-cradle of alarm wires hung from the ceiling, attached to the limbs of the silent residents.
Erik watched Frederick clean the mess left by number twelve, the man’s last dramatic act on earth. In contrast to the floral opulence below, the observation arena was cold and stark, without chairs or a place to sit or be comfortable. Just a bucket to piss in; four grey walls. A large sheet of plate glass overlooked the Leichenhäus, the House of the Dead.
“How was it?”
“Awful. I was almost sick. The stench!”
“You’ll get used to it.”
“I doubt it.”
“Trust me, you will. I’ve been here almost two years; I’ve seen it all.”
“Two years! Why on earth would anyone want to work in – in such a place for so long?”
“I don’t have much choice. Owe a lot of money to the owner of the place. Gambling debts. It was either work here – or prison.”
Frederick whistled, looked out over the rows.
“You know, the boss was here this morning. I told him you were away arranging a delivery.”
Erik grinned ruefully. “Thanks. I was up late last night. Too much beer. Munich beer is the best in the world.”
“That’s the third time this week. You’re going to get into trouble.”
“Who’s gonna tell? You? I’d beat you senseless. Them…? They’ve got nothing to say. Look at them, Frederick; have you ever seen anything more pathetic? All lined up among the flowers, happily rotting away.”
“I can understand their fear, Erik, when they were alive. After all, who wants to risk being buried alive? What a horror it must be, to awaken in a coffin.”
“You’re a fool, Frederick; you’ve read too much Poe. This whole thing is ridiculous. Put me in a box and stick me in the ground, I say.”
“People have been buried alive, you know; doctors do make mistakes.”
“Leichenhäuses have been around for a hundred years, and I’ve never heard of anyone waking up. That’s why this is the last one in Europe; people got tired of spending money to watch their loved ones rot. Only fanatics get sent here these days.”
“Maybe so, but that alarm sure scared the hell out of me. Thought maybe we had a live one.”
“You’ll get used to that too, though it’s the fresh ones that make most of the racket: they twitch and jump a lot, triggering the mechanism. We get new arrivals, the alarms go off almost every day.
“So what were you up to last night?” Asked Frederick, as Eric walked into the observation room chased by beer fumes.
“Celebrating my last few days of freedom. I’m getting married soon, you know, so I’m making the best of it; I’ve visited just about every bierstube in Munich.”
“And your fiancée, she agrees with this?”
“Hermione? Not on your life. I told her I would be out of town, visiting a sick aunt.”
“You’re clever, that’s for sure.”
“Not clever enough,” said Erik, shaking his head, his vision swimming. “Verdammt! This is the part you never get used to, Frederick: standing all day watching these dead fools, this congregation of the damned. I would gladly shake the Devil’s hand if he were to release me from here.”
“There must be something we can do to break the monotony of this – this still dance of death.”
“Dance of death? By God…Erik approached the nearest table. The sign at the corpse’s foot declared Ernst Bäcker. He looked down at the emaciated figure, the fine, black suit like a beetle’s carapace, hands the colour of boiled fish crossed in prayer over the chest.
Erik swept the mountain of flowers onto the floor with a hideous crash. To Frederick’s horror, he took the corpse in his arms and began a jerking, macabre waltz across the floor, the alarm wires trailing, like a marionette’s strings, the horrible bell announcing with a cold, brassy clatter.
“Come, Frederick! Dance with us! There are many here. Come dance with the dead!” Frederick stood frozen. After a few minutes of maniacal whirling, Erik tripped and fell, sending more vases flying and knocking another body onto the floor.
“You missed a great dance, my friend,” he said with a hiccup, returning to the observation room. “Though the fellow I had was somewhat a clod; just couldn’t get his feet right.”
“How could you do that? Have you no respect for the dead?!”
“Very little, I’m afraid. I’m a pragmatist you know; once you’re gone, it matters little what happens to the leftovers. Besides, you have to have fun or you go mad. The last fellow that worked here went mad. I even caught him doing indignities to the ladies, if you get what I mean.”
“Mein Gott, that’s – that’s horrible. What did you do?”
“Do? I didn’t do anything. Had nothing to do with me, although I agree with you that it was quite disgusting. Can you imagine? Anyway, he threw himself into the Rhine.”
“Please Eric, we must go.“
“Pah, what is this “must? I will tell you what must be, Hermione. And tonight I will stay home.”
“But my love, we rarely entertain and this is important. We should make an entrance, if only for appearances.”
“The back of my hand to appearances.”
Hermione bit her lower lip. “The Count and his wife will surely be there and they have great interest in the city. I’m sure he could find you a position.”
“What kind of position?”
“I do not know, but he has great influence, and my father knows him well. Anything would be better than that wretched Leichenhäus. You cannot stay there, Eric.”
“I don’t know…” Eric said with a frown.
“Please? And it has been so long since we had some fun. It would be so terribly gay to dance. I cannot remember last we attended a ball, you know. I do love a grand dance…”
“Oh, ho, so that’s your game is it? You go on about prospects but it is really the debauchery that is on your mind? Strumpet! I should bend you over my knee!”
“Oh, do not go on so, it is terribly wearying. If you refuse to escort me, I will find another who will! We are not yet married after all…”
“Absolutely not! I forbid it. Ah, Your father comes; I will have word with him and he will lock you in your room for the night. And once we are married, we will hear no more of cotillions!”
“So there you are. I thought you had left already.”
“I was speaking with the supervisor. Schwein! I hate that man.”
“There was somebody here, looking for you. Name of Schmidt.”
“Schmidt? My darling Hermione?”
“A man. Said it was very important you contact him, as soon as you return.”
“Damn. I wonder what he wanted.”
“Here, he left his card.”
“Aha, it is Hermione’s Uncle.”
“If you leave now, you might catch him.”
“I best not, the old man is on a rampage this morning.” Erik paced the floor of the Leichenhäus, the younger man fluttering behind him like a fledgling sparrow chasing after its mother. “Say, what’s all that? Did we get a new one?”
“Yes, a few moments ago. A buggy accident, the undertaker said. I will set him up with the freshest flowers.”
“Not that it’ll do him any good. He’ll be as foul as the rest of them, soon enough. And we get to watch, poor us.”
“What about him? Have you no pity?”
“Pity for the dead? Don’t be a fool. The dead are beyond suffering, and for that we must envy, not pity them. Look around, what pain do you see? These wretches are beyond any concern. This is an abattoir, laid with mute slabs of beef, waiting impatiently for the earth.”
“That sounds so cold.”
“Not to worry, Lucifer’s whips are keeping them warm enough. So, who is this imbecile; perhaps he too would care to dance?” He snatched away the sheet and seeing a woman’s face, he let out a great cry, falling to his knees. Frederick rushed to him.
Hermione Schmidt lay on the table, resting in a bed of pure, white peonies.