By Sheldon Costa
In the morning the dancer brings us the sun. We gather together on the rusted bleachers to watch her walk across the football field, her feet invisible beneath the overgrown grass. We never know what dance she will choose. Lacking any classical training, she is not very graceful. Luckily, grace has never been the point.
For a moment she stands perfectly still, head turned down in the dark, arms pressed tightly to her sides. Nearby torches contort her face into mysterious and frightening shapes. Then, as though some mechanism inside her chest has sprung, she thrusts her arms upwards. She whips her body like a tree caught in a storm. She scrunches her face and spins herself in circles around the field. Her fists and feet swing in all directions, fighting off hidden phantoms. In the silence of what we hope is another morning, all we can hear is the crush of cold grass beneath her sneakers and her frantic breathing. Sometimes she shouts.
The rest of us must wait, hearts wound tight in our chests, afraid that today will be the day that the sun doesn’t come. The fear makes us move closer together, the bleachers creaking beneath us as we try to find warmth in each other’s shoulders.
But then, like a great eye opening, the sun’s red rim breaches the horizon. The dancer never seems to notice—she is caught up in the fervor of her own movements, sweat already drenched through her cotton blouse or silk jacket. The light makes the grass sparkle like so many discarded diamonds. The heat reaches our faces and we take deep, grateful breathes. We cheer and cheer for the dancer. She doesn’t look at us, but we clap and shout anyway. We are so thankful. You wouldn’t believe it.
Once the sun has fully appeared, the dancer stops, and for a moment we are quiet. Her chest flutters like a hummingbird’s. She collapses to the grass. Old women rush to her sides, draping her in our finest furs, spooning her warm soup and helping her drink from clay cups of lavender tea.
At these moments we could cry. We cannot believe her sacrifice. The sun makes all of us golden versions of ourselves, warm and overwhelmed. We head to our duties and vow that we will not waste the day. We will make the dancer proud.
What would we be without her? Dead, most likely. Forgotten. Once when she was still a child, the dancer became very ill, and for three weeks the sun hid from us. It was a living horror. A bitter wind blew through our windows and into our homes, fringing our eyelids and the tips of our ears with frost. By the end of the first week, there was so much snow on the streets that we had to crawl across ropes strung between our houses to get around. The crops froze in the ground and we boiled our boots for soup, sprinkling in wood chips for filling. Eventually some of us died from exposure or starvation. With shame, the living ate what we could of the bodies and burned the rest in great raging fires. In those weeks of uninterrupted night, we gathered around those same flames to warm ourselves and wept.
We longed for the sun then, as though it were a limb torn away from us and tossed into a dark, hidden place. When our dancer returned to health and danced again, her eyes and cheeks sunken, we were too weak to cheer. We spent half a day huddled on the grass like squirming larvae, shirts and pants removed, our bodies soaking up vitamins while our eyes suffered in the light.
Now we are careful with our dancer. We have given her our best room at the top of an old skyscraper. We have scoured the deserted shopping malls and department stores for the finest clothes. We have ransacked our own jewelry boxes to bring her pearl necklaces and diamond earrings. She is given first choice of the food we prepare. If we find treats around the city—Twinkies and Hostess cupcakes and small bags of Cheetos—they go straight to her cupboard.
And yet, unhappiness still coils its way around her heart. Though we give her a warm home full of food, we often find her listless and silent. She stares out the windows of her apartment at the ruined city below and sighs longingly. She glares at the guards we post at her doors as if they were prison wardens and not her sworn defenders. Sometimes she shouts at us when we come to gather her in the morning, as though we were forcing her to do something terrible, as though the whole world didn’t rest on her sloping shoulders.
One night she runs away. She sneaks past the guards and disappears into the dark. When we come to her room to gather her we find her sheets in disarray, a few of her favorite jackets gone from her wardrobe. Her dinner—so carefully and lovingly prepared—sits cold on a coffee table.
We raise alarms and gather into search parties. Our torches fan out across the city, fireflies glimmering in the fast falling snow. We try to keep our eyes away from the darkness overhead. In our minds we remember the frozen days when the dancer was sick—the cold that turned our bones to glass; how fervently and hungrily we ate our dead neighbors and relatives. Never again, we say quietly to ourselves.
We find her easily enough. She’s spent most of her life in the old skyscraper and doesn’t know the city like we do. She has never learned to hide. When she sees a row of us walking down the aisles of the derelict supermarket towards her, she slumps to the floor. She doesn’t try to fight.
We are happy, at least, that she has not been hurt. But we are angry, too—and who can blame us? How could she put herself at risk like this? Wandering off into the ruins this way, with no knowledge of the pitfalls and dangers lurking in those rotting steel structures? What if something should happen to her? Perhaps this thought—this fear for her safety—is why we drag her back to her home through the cold streets, shouting and cursing, being rough with her in a way we never would have imagined. Perhaps it is the fear, too, that drives us to clamp rusted shackles around her ankles when she is alone in her room.
Now when she emerges each morning to perform her dance, we accompany her to the field. We form a circle around her body to protect her from herself. When she dances, we clap extra loud to show her how much we still love her. We feel deep pain when we see the raw wounds around her ankles where the shackles have rubbed away the skin. When she gets tired, when she momentarily stops dancing and halts the progress of dawn, we groan for her sake as a nearby guard lightly pierces her side with a spear, drawing just a little blood. We make it clear: we see her sacrifice. We admire her in ways we cannot say.
But one day, we know, despite our care and dedication, our dancer will likely die. We are not naïve. No human life is inextinguishable. We know this better than most. And though we are not proud—we are never proud—we have devised our alternative. It sits in a warehouse by the water, covered in a plastic tarp. We began building it when our dancer first got sick, when we were nothing more than frost-covered ghosts haunting our crumbling city.
It’s a large structure of wood and rope, much like the bare framework of a stage. From its roof, a dozen hooks hang, each one attached to a complicated series of gears and pulleys. It is not a machine we wish to look at—to think of, even. It fills us with shame to see it.
But if our dancer should die, we will move our machine to the center of the football field. We will attach her pale body to the hooks and ropes and suspend her beneath the machine’s wooden beams. One of us—we don’t know who—will control the levers and knobs. With a few cranks of these devices, the person at the controls will make our dancer’s body move again, jerking and swinging her arms in the same way she did while she was alive. With our efforts, we will bring the sun back to our skies.
It’s not a thing we admire, this terrible machine. When we are finished with her each day, we will make sure our dancer’s body is well cared for. We will anoint her in perfumed oil and place her in a glass coffin, so that she can see the good things her sacrifice has reaped. We will paint her nails and comb her thinning hair and tell her, in no uncertain terms, just how much we love her.
Sheldon Costa is a writer from Seattle, Washington. His fiction has appeared in The First Line, apt, Literary Orphans, Driftwood Press, and The Atticus Review. His story, “The Matinee,” was a finalist for New Millennium Writing’s 41st Fiction Award. This fall, he will be attending Ohio State University’s MFA program. More of his work can be found at www.sheldoncosta.com.