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The First and Last Dance

Chapter One

By Matthew PerrinoPublished about a year ago 10 min read
1

Every night at midnight, the purple clouds came out to dance with the blushing sky. And tonight, Nina would dance with them.

Tonight, she would finally become a Dancer.

The sixteen-year-old was lying in bed, nerves tingling in her stomach. Her wavy, blonde hair had purple braids that she had only dyed yesterday, as was custom for all Dancers. Nina stared at the ceiling, imagining the purple clouds drifting toward her. Her bronze skin prickled at the image. Was she afraid of botching the ritual? Embarrassing herself and her family in front of the spectators? Bringing dishonor to the gods that the Dancers gave thanks to each night? Nina couldn't discern the root of her fear exactly. But whenever she considered tonight's performance, the purple clouds in her mind would blacken, filling her head with doubt. It was as if those monstrous clouds were coming to swallow her up, her and everyone she knew.

No, Nina mustn't think such things. As Boppy often said, "Nothing bad has ever happened in Penoke."

Eager for a distraction, Nina hopped out of bed and approached the full-body mirror in her bedroom. She spun in place, watching the frills of her purple dress whirl about her body. This dress, too, was custom. "The Dancers are meant to resemble the clouds," Boppy once told her. "Blurs of purple, leaping and twirling about. The perfect dance partners for the sky."

Nina remembered the midnight that Boppy had said those words. One of her earliest memories was walking through Penoke with her family, past the cottages of their quaint town. On the outskirts of their village, Nina and the townsfolk sat cross-legged on the ground, around a wooden platform. On top of it were twelve female dancers, one for each month of the year. The braids in their hair matched their purple dresses. Their bodies were as still as statues. Their arms and legs were pinned together, their heads lifted toward the red-orange sky.

In the distance, Nina could see the mythical clouds, drifting toward them from the horizon.

They were like wisps of smoke, except denser, larger, and purple. They soared toward Penoke. And when they reached the town and were hovering overhead, the purple clouds began to dance. They swirled round and round, breaking a part and then coming back together like dancers, moving with rapid speed. The sky became a gorgeous medley of color, a canvas of purples, oranges, reds, and pinks. Most of Penoke had their eyes on the sky. But Nina--she watched the Dancers. They leapt and twirled upon the platform, gracefully, elegantly, beautifully. The Dancers and the clouds seemed to move as one, uniting the heavens and earth with the art of dance.

That was the day Nina that decided to become a Dancer.

It was years before she could actually pursue it; one couldn't enroll in the selection process until she reached 13 years-of-age. After that, it was three intense years of practicing, studying, dancing, singing, competing. Dozens of women, both young and old, vied for a spot on the platform. Only twelve Dancers were chosen each year. And this year, Nina was one of them.

Nina had been deemed worthy of performing the ritual for the gods. She had been preparing for this night for the last few years. She knew every hymn in the chant, every step and twirl in the dance. And yet, there was a strange feeling of dread that clung to Nina's mind. A sense of foreboding that she couldn't shake.

"Nina, it's ten o'clock. Are you ready?"

Again, Nina spun in place. A woman was standing in the doorway, watching her with admiration. She was a replica of Nina with the same wavy, blonde hair and smooth, bronze skin. It was Nina's Mother, though anywhere else, she might've passed for her older sister. "The family would like to see you before you go," Mother added.

"Yes, I'm ready," she lied.

Feigning a smile, Nina followed Mother into the common area of their cottage. Her entire family, it seemed, was crammed into the room, waiting for her with smiles and kind words. They cried out excitedly and clapped their hands when they saw Nina with her purple braids and dress. It was a great honor to have a Dancer in the family. They all knew how badly Nina had wanted this, how hard she'd worked to get here. Gathered in the room was Father, her older sisters Margot and Rakel, her aunts and uncles, her older cousins, her grandparents, and Boppy, Nina's maternal grandmother and closest relative.

None of them, not even Boppy, looked a day over thirty.

Nina went around the room with her fake smile, embracing and talking to each person, trying to forget that dreadful feeling at the base of her neck. But she couldn't. Not even when her sisters cracked jokes about her purple hair. Not even when her aunts and uncles annoyingly pinched her cheeks. Not even when Father held Nina against his chest and told her how proud he was. None of it could take away that foreboding itch in Nina's mind.

There was a suspicious glint in Boppy's eye as she watched her granddaughter work the room. For a woman in her seventies, Boppy had a gorgeous and youthful appearance. She didn't have one wrinkle on her bronze skin, not a single gray in her mane of wavy, blonde hair. As Nina went to hug her, Boppy leaned forward and whispered into the girl's ear, "Come with me, child." Then she took Nina's hands into her smooth ones and led her outside, away from the rest of the family.

The two of them stood outside Nina's cottage, side-by-side, beneath the blushing sky. "So you're finally a Dancer," Boppy declared proudly. "All those years of dreaming, all those years of preparation...and now here you are." She offered a warm smile. "How do you feel, child?"

"I feel ready," Nina lied again.

"I see. Now tell me how you really feel." That warm smile was still there, playing on Boppy's lips.

Nina exhaled a sigh that felt as massive as a purple cloud. "I feel...afraid."

"Of what, child?"

"I don't know. I have this...this feeling, a feeling I can't quite describe. Like something terrible is going to happen tonight."

The smile faded from Boppy's face, as she gazed off into the red-orange sky. "Terrible things happen all over the world," she said somberly. "I've heard about people that wither away as they age, losing their appearance and their minds, as well as their youth. I've heard talk of societies riddled with famine, disease, and suffering. I've heard rumors of places that have weather other than sunshine, with harsh weather conditions that force them indoors for hours at a time. I've even heard dreadful tales about men taking women against their will, people murdering their neighbors, and children passing away before they have the chance to grow."

Boppy paused to look at Nina. "None of those terrible things have ever happened in Penoke. Of course, we experience death here, too. But our people only pass after a long, full life. We've never seen murder, never seen disease. Never seen death in anyone under the age of 70. We live in a fortunate and special place, Nina. And it's our people's belief that this fortune comes from the purple clouds, sent to us by the gods. That's why the Dancers dance, why you will dance. To give praise to the heavens. To thank the gods for the blessings they send us every night. Do not heed what's in your head, child. It's only fear, and fear should not be mistaken for truth."

Nina nodded at her grandmother's words. Boppy was right; her fear was irrational, unfounded. She simply had to ignore it and deliver the finest performance she could. And when it was finished, and the purple clouds returned to the horizon, Nina's fear would likely vanish with them.

***

At eleven o'clock, Nina bade a temporary farewell to her family and left the cottage. It was customary for Dancers to congregate on the wooden platform before midnight, to be there before the purple clouds and spectators arrived. It was strange; Nina had always made this walk with her family. Now she was heading to the outskirts of Penoke alone.

Nina was last to reach the platform. The other eleven Dancers were already there, already in their stationary positions. No one even looked at Nina as she scrambled to join them. Nina took her place under the blushing sky. She pinned her arms and legs together and made her body still. She raised her chin toward the heavens. Every now and then, Nina would glance at the adjacent Dancers out of the corner of her eye, curious to see if they ever moved or fidgeted. But they were all as motionless as statues.

Nina stood there, waiting. And the fear waited with her, refusing to abandon her insides. It seemed to be growing stronger, darker, more consuming. Nina did her best to ignore it, trying to remind herself of Boppy's words: "None of those terrible things have ever happened in Penoke."

It must've been about 11:30 when the townspeople began to appear. Nina heard their footsteps and voices in the distance, growing louder and closer, until suddenly, they were all around. Nina couldn't look at them--it would have been shameful to do so--so she had to use her imagination. She envisioned hundreds of people gathering around the platform, sitting cross-legged in the dirt as they looked from the sky to the Dancers. Nina wondered where Boppy and the rest of her family were sitting. She liked to think they were close, watching her with pride. Perhaps Nina would take a moment during the ritual to meet Boppy's eye and smile at her.

When the chatter faded, Nina knew that it must nearly be time.

The entire world seemed to fall silent as the citizens of Penoke waited for the purple clouds. The anticipation gnawed at Nina's insides. She fought the urge to nervously bite her lip. Her heart thundered in the silence, as she searched the horizon. Like everyone else, Nina waited, and waited, and waited. Surely, it must've been midnight by now. Time, it seemed, was moving at a glacially slow pace. Nina assumed that it was the fear, distorting her sense of time.

But then she heard the whispers.

It was only a couple of murmurs at first, so soft you could barely hear it. But the more time passed, the more voices joined in. Anxious whispers, trying to make sense of this perplexing event.

It was past midnight, and the purple clouds had not come.

Nina had no idea what to do. Should she move? Should she speak? She wracked her brain, trying to recall if something like this had happened before, but nothing came to mind. From the corner of her eye, she saw several Dancers break their stationary pose and glance around in confusion. Their faces carried the same terrifying thought: What did this mean? Nina, however, refused to move an inch. She maintained her position and gaped at the empty, blushing sky, as if doing so would will the clouds into existence.

It was the blood-curdling scream that finally made Nina move.

She turned her heard toward the audience. A young girl, probably around Nina's age, was flailing on the ground, foaming at the mouth. Her parents were standing around her, screaming, gaping helplessly at their thrashing child. Nina's heart went still, and a shiver went down her spine. She had never seen anything so terrible. And judging from the expressions in the crowd, no one else had, either.

Nina forced herself to look away. And when she did, her gaze immediately found her grandmother. They stared at each other from a distance, their eyes full of terror. Because in that moment, as the screams filled the blushing sky, they both knew: Nina's fears about tonight had proven true.

FantasyShort Story
1

About the Creator

Matthew Perrino

A dreamer and wannabe-author, who flops back and forth between loving and hating his work. Imagination extraordinaire, who spends far too much time thinking about words.

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