The curvature of his back delineated a life of lost love and carefree morals. A slouch designed to confuse the innocent. Shoes made for waltzing over carefully polished surfaces. Hair strands falling awkwardly around his head, like beloved trees caught in an unavoidable storm.
He had been a debonair, a pseudo-intellectual, a suave master of quick romantic interludes between music halls and dance halls, street lights and stage lights. Until, that is, the Lady of the Night had flitted daintily across his path on a moonlit sidewalk: a small woman of such graceful moves and breathy voice that for a moment he had floated off the ground a bit.
Two inches of air, a feeling of powerful joy, and none the wiser to his own fate, the slouchy dancer had lowered himself to her side with a sigh and an invitation.
“Madam, the night is young and I am an excellent waltz partner. Would you permit me to escort you to the nearest ballroom for a dance or two, before denying me the pleasure of your beauty this evening?”
Unbeknownst to him, she had already gently embedded her claws into his heart. At a moment’s glance, gone were his flower-hopping days of ladymanship.
:: :: ::
“Flying should be left for the birds,” he slurred to the bartender. “Never dance at the edge of a cliff.”
“I’ll make sure not to,” the bald and tall and beautiful foreigner sang back at him while wiping a shot glass dry.
“Only fools can fly,” the slushy old dancer muttered to himself.
He swigged the remainder of his brew – a local, bitter ale with an unpronounceable name – a drink that matched his temperament drop for drop: every gulp an attempt to forget her sparkling eyes and coquettish demeanor as she had twirled in his arms, oh so long ago.
“And ravens, darling… ravens can fly too,” she had said.
If only he had listened.
:: :: ::
“Look,” she flicked a piece of paper at him, “registration is open!”
He peered out from underneath his slouch, lazily stirring some milk into his tea and scratching his toes against the eroded oriental carpet.
“Where have you been, my love? It’s too early to go anywhere.”
“Read! Read, read!” She bounced off her feet in a quick double-step and glided through an arm’s length of air before landing softly on the parlor couch next to him. He had gotten used to her flights of fancy. “See… we are eligible to participate!”
“Darling! You are an excellent waltz partner, and I can’t imagine entering this competition with anyone else.”
“You promised me! You said you would fly with me!”
He emitted a sigh of resignation into his tea and smiled indulgingly at her pouty expression.
“Yes, dear. I’ll fly across the dance floor with you, to the ends of the earth.”
:: :: ::
“How many contestants?” the spindly man asked whilst gazing down through his mustache, waiting to write the all-important information onto his all-important notebook.
The question seemed silly to the two love birds, who giggled and chuckled at each other before answering in unison, “Two!”
“Amateur or professional category?”
“Does it matter?” she quipped with a seductive smile and a slight flick of the top of her head.
“Yes, ma’am, it most certainly does,” mustache replied into its own ink and paper.
“Well, then,” she said to no one in particular, scanning the space above the registrar’s bowed head, “We are… professional amateurs!”
A scratch of the pen cut through the ensuing silence, as skeletal fingers methodically wrote a new letter on paper.
“Age bracket?” he asked next.
Suave as always, the debonair dancer slouched forward even further and addressed the sour man at the desk with a full dose of street-wise charm. “She’s in her prime and I’m the birthday boy,” he said, with an arm that swung around her shoulders, squeezing her frame against his side in apparent celebration.
At this, and with great shortage of amusement, the mustache finally revealed a set of eyes that proceeded to stare at the happy couple. Unwilling to engage them any further than absolutely necessary, the registrar studied them each head to toe, one at a time, and then gravely buried himself back into his notebook.
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
“I’m Raven,” she volunteered, “and this is my excellent waltz partner Alfie!”
:: :: ::
On the night of the ball, they both walked on air.
Her black taffeta dress, abundant in folds and shiny under moonlight, complemented his opaque white tuxedo. Black feathers adorned her hair, fell in cascades from her wrists, and flaunted a low neckline which exposed her strong collarbone and sinewy arms. He loved every inch of her petite presence.
Dinner had been exquisite, set up inside the hall and served by buxom ladies who eyed the dancers with a bit of awe.
After dessert, the hundred or so participants were ushered outside, to a beautiful dance floor built especially for the occasion. Edged by a variety of willow trees on one side, the flowering courtyard on the other, and bordering a breathtaking view of the countryside, the pine wood floor easily accommodated a dozen dancing couples at a time.
Between the estate wall and the dance floor, a band of musicians stood on a raised platform – and right in front of them, with the best sightlines possible, sat the judges at their modern chairs with built-in desks.
Every dancing couple wore matching, numbered sashes. Electric footlights surrounded the slick new floor in its entire perimeter. Even the normally low-hanging clouds parted way that night, in order to bathe the whole event in starlight.
The floating couple glided all around the outskirts of the crowd, before the competition started, pausing only to take in the world at the edge of its long downward slope. Raven brushed the soles of her high-heeled shoes against the earth there, while brushing her breathy voice against Alfie’s ear.
“This is it, darling,” she cooed, “This is the night we fly to the heavens.”
:: :: ::
A twirl, a turn, a heady piece of music and sweat, forgotten and slipped, a few fingers gripping tightly then letting go.
She flew off his arms into the abyss, into the night where she had come from.
“Come with me, darling,” she had whispered repeatedly into his ear. And he had waltzed with greater abandon each time, losing himself to the magic of her voice and their intertwined flight over the dance floor.
When finally she slipped through his fingers, he lost his balance and fell down, off the dance floor, onto the ground. Only one small rock, kicked over by his fall, rolled down the steep hill one click at a time.
:: :: ::
Alfie motioned hazily to the man behind the bar for a refill.
Then he dug through his pockets and wallet for another bill, finding instead the single black feather, the one left in his hand as he had clutched at thin air that evening… clutched at his Raven… back when his slouch was just a social pretense.
“You know, they never found her body,” he mumbled to the bartender as his glass filled up anew, “but they found her dress at the bottom of the ravine… not a scratch on it.”
:: :: ::
by Sandra Mendes
~ written for the Marius de Zayas award ~