Performing before a judge can be a harrowing experience…


the dance

The Dance

Alarac watches us.  It is impossible to see any expression on his face as it is hidden behind the full mask that protects him from the noxious fumes whirling around.  He is dressed in full regalia, his drag rope looped over his shoulder.  He is seated on the containers that hold our remaining dry rations.

It is hard for me to keep my eyes away from the oil lamp on the case beside him.  He will only place the colored powder on the flame when he makes his choice.

I do a pirouette, rising up on my toes, then I go into a plié.  There is no applause, no cheering – we do not dance to entertain.

My skin is itching; soon, it will start to burn, but we are required to dance in only our threadbare undergarments and bare feet.  We dance on the only patch of ground that does not smoke, but even so, my feet already sting.  Alarac will make his decision before it gets so difficult that we must withdraw into the cave.

I leap and go into a fast run and somersault over Brin, who is down on one knee as part of his routine.  I pray I do not lose my thin respirator, the only breathing apparatus allowed during the dance.  I am beginning to tire, but I must continue.

We know that of the four of us dancing, only three will prevail.  Whoever Alarac decides against will not be given further consideration.

I only succeeded the last time because Sheila lost her balance and fell.  Until then, she had been dancing beautifully, whereas I had sustained two stumbles that were sure to get my color thrown into the lamp.

I try not to notice how well Brin is moving.  He is stronger than I, though none of us are as strong as Alarac, so his leaps are higher, his rhythms purer.

Once, the dance was to determine who acquired a share of the meat Alarac brought in, and who got only dry rations and wild carrots. But as time went on, meat became scarce, and the rations became depleted, the root vegetables were dying out too, and now the dance has a different purpose.

The itch in my skin begins to burn, my legs to shake, and I see Alarac’s gloved hand reaching to sprinkle the powder on the fire. The lamp flares blue.  Shuddering, I drop exhausted to the ground, and watch as Alarac rises and quickly trusses up Simone, who collapsed when she saw her color. She cries out but is too weak to struggle, and as Alarac’s knife flashes, our group goes down to fifteen. Her bones will join Sheila’s on the bare and stony escarp, where I saw them last week when we went out to search for the few, stunted wild carrots that remain on the rocky and poisonous hillside.

Brin, Derick, and I will live to dance again in two weeks.  Tonight, Simone is food.