Grace Joy Howarth | fiction | Danse Macabre, Danse

Danse Macabre, Danse                            
                                                                                                                 [cw: death]

It was Death’s annual ball, and a century since he had taken a wife. 

Whispers curled, smokeish, through the land, choking the villages, darkening the skies. Eldest daughters were sent to tailors, to be trussed up like Christmas turkeys. They prayed it would not be this year, and if it were, they prayed it to be someone but them. The prospect of it hung heavy, weightier still with every year that he ended the party alone. 

She dared not say it, but Amaia felt no fear. 

The landscape of her childhood was pockmarked with the spire of his castle in the distance - lingering in the background of her memories. When her invitation unfurled in her fingers, it was an inevitability she had yearned for. 

Now, under that spire’s great eaves, she felt more alive than she ever had before. 

The richest girls in town were decked in crushed, dark velvet, the satin of their skirts pooling like spilled ink, eyes covered, coquettish in lace. The poorest fidgeted in their sole funeral dresses. Some, like lucky Mara Frank, preserved the shop label against their spine, just waiting for misfortune to strike them into use. Others, like Keely Day, were worn threadbare after an adolescence of tragedy. 

But Amaia had decided to wear orange. 

The other girls kept their gazes trained on the floor, stealing glances - more hesitant thieves than saints. 

But when Death walked in, Amaia stared. 

She had heard tales of a beauty so striking it turned lovers to stone, of a smile so bitingly sweet and cruel that his mouth bubbled with blood, of lips so devilishly entrancing that a brush of them turned years of life into minutes. 

But Amaia just saw a man. 

A man whose eyes drifted over the crowd without seeing. A man whose sigh proved the oxygen in his lungs, whose flushed lips and cheeks betrayed that he was merely flesh and blood. 

He danced his way around the room, slipping, silken, between bodies - never grazing fingertips or brushing shoulders, tornadoing through a trance of melodies. Once, when he paused for wine, his dark eyes found Amaia’s, and she was certain he had sapped a handful of heartbeats from the span of her life, but he turned back, losing himself in the twirling mass of girls that shrunk from his touch. 
The night wore on, disrobing from an inferno-blaze of sunset, to a tar-pitch sky. At midnight, Death shook his head and returned up to his spire.

At midnight, the girls sagged in relief - knowing they would see their mothers again, and eat sweet peaches in summer, feel sea-breeze on their cheeks, and love, and settle, and continue their ancestral tradition of growing old. 

It was set to be the hundred and first year that Death left his ball without a wife. 

Amaia, who had not danced nearly enough, did not allow herself to be swept in the tide of departing girls. Before long, she was shrined in silence, her shadow the only companion on the mahogany dancefloor. Her shadow’s skirt flared, and together they span and span, fresh flowers wilting from her temple. She did not need music, for her veins sung with adrenaline. 

Amaia danced until she felt the bone-weary ache of life waltz away for a brief flash of time. Her shadow pulled away - leaving Amaia’s hands cold - and began to ascend the stairs. 

She expected him, but the sight of Death was something that could never be truly prepared for. “The dance is over,” he said, voice softer than she had imagined. 

“And yet, I am still dancing,” she offered. 

“Are you not frightened?” 

“Do you wish me to be?” she span slowly, enjoying the kiss of moonlight on her cheeks. “It is only human nature,” he took a step down. 

As he neared, her pulse slowed, her skin grew cool, her dance wound down like tired clockwork. “I have met you before,” she said. “You sat with me when I was a child. Consumption.” 

“I pass by lots of people,” he circled her, arcing around, leaving metres distance between them. “I had a sister,” Amaia stepped closer, and he drew back. “Why did you not pass by her too?” 

At this, he turned, and set his sight back on the stairs that towered to the spire. She stepped in front of him. “Is this why you stayed? To ask me questions I have heard countless times before, and have no answers for?” 

“Why her?” She pressed, “Why not me?” 

Her hand brushed the cool skin of his forearm as he tried to retreat up to the spire in the heavens. At the touch, his eyelashes fluttered shut, rippling like butterfly wings on his cheeks, before he jolted away. Amaia’s lips curled. “Are you frightened?” 

“Of what?” 

She laughed. “Of life.”

“Life and I are not such fond bedfellows,” he said, feeling the warmth of her heat the room. “Is that why you have not taken a wife for a hundred years?” 

At this, his shoulders tightened, tension threading through his skin. “I do wonder why you humans phrase it like that.” 

“You do not know why we look upon you like a thief?” 

He turned his witching-hour eyes to her, the weight of his gaze constricting around her ribcage, robbing the breath from her throat. 

“I do not steal,” he said. “I simply return. Return fallen fruits to the earth. Return life back to the centrepoint of where it began.” 

“If you are not looking to take a wife,” Amaia said, yearning for the return of the graze of his eyes on her skin, “Why hold these parties?” 

Death turned to observe the empty hall. The wax burned low in the candelabras, the floor still echoing with the sound of footfall leaping, the ghost of laughter and music lingering. “They make me feel alive.” His lips fumbled, before twisting into the wry shadow of a smile. “Which is not a common state for me.” 

He leant down, and for a swollen second, Amaia thought he was bowing to her. Instead, his hand found a chrysanthemum, which until a few moments before, had sat entwined in the spill of her dark curls. He lifted it, holding the buttery, golden petals to the moonlight. It twisted away, reaching stamens desperately towards Amaia, before melting into the sweet-smelling throes of decay. “Quite the curse, no?” he dropped the dead flower, and it sleepily drifted over the bannister. 

“This happens to anything you touch?” 

“After a time.” 

“And it cannot work the other way?” 

His eyes returned, filled with questions and starlight. “I do not think I underst-” 
As bold as she had ever been, she swept her knuckles across his cheeks. He sunk into the touch, and she placed her palm flush against his skin. She swore the pallor of his face burnished bronze beneath her hand. “Can we not meet halfway?” Amaia descended a stair. They stood equal, eyes level, chests a hair width apart. 

“At what cost?” he reached for her hand, shrouding hers in his own.

“I shall be a little more dead, and you a little more alive.” 

His breath was cool on her face. “And do you not fear that?” 

She smiled, iridescent. “I have more life in my veins than a cut flower,” she said, gesturing down to the chrysanthemum corpse. “You tried to take me before, and I would not go. I do not believe that you are strong enough to take me completely.” 

He laughed, but did not draw away. 

“I’m warm, aren’t I?” 

Despite the chill of his touch, he could not refute it. “As warm as fever.” 

“And my eyes are not clouded by you.” 

Not glazed, not milky with cataracts or dull with hopelessness, they blazed like dying stars. “No. Not in the slightest.” 

“I am quite ferociously alive,” Amaia said. “In fact, I think I have a little life to spare.” 

“Oh,” he said softly. Some humans ran from him, some called for him. Some tried to vanquish him, brains fermenting in wine, making foolish decisions that pulled him close, others tried to ignore him as they watched him make night calls at houses on their street. Yet, not one had ever offered to share the warmth of their skin, the brightness of their eyes and the ferocity of their aliveness. “I have little to offer in return.” 

“We humans chase fragments of you for our whole life,” she said. “This breathless sensation…” her exhalation pooled shallowly in her lungs, “Feeling as though my heart has ceased beating,” her pulse was slowed, honey-thick, in his presence. “Does that not sound like desire?” She guided his hand to her collarbone, and they felt the lazy thump below her skin. “Does this not feel like desire?” 

With palms entwined between their chests, she edged closer until lips found lips: sweet meeting wine-bitter, scalding skin lacing with the chill of a winter morning. With his fingers in her hair, Death kissed like she was siren-song, and he was lost at sea. If it was not for their woven hands, 
Amaia was certain she would have drifted to the high ceilings, stranded in the beams, as weightless as a petal caught on the wind. 

He stepped back, lips pinker, lungs more ragged with oxygen, eyes widely drinking her in. “I am still standing, am I not?” she breathed. “Not a fraction less alive than this morning.” “And yet I feel more alive than ever.”

Amaia did not let their fingers break apart as she led them back to the floor. With heavy eyes, she guided his hand to her waist. “By dawn,” she said, starting to spin, “Perhaps I will make you human.” 

“Dawn is not so long away.” 

“Let us not waste time.” As she turned, her skirt flared, flame-like, the fires in the candelabras gasped, and the castle with the spire took an almighty, first breath. “Let us dance until then.”

Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram

Grace Joy Howarth is an author/musician from London, with a First Class degree in Songwriting.

Playwriting credits include Blood on Your Hands (Cockpit Theatre) and Birdie’s Adventures in the Animal Kingdom (Harrow Arts Centre). Her work has been produced on the radio, performed at scratch nights across the UK, and published.

She is currently redrafting her plays, and is halfway through a new novel. Find her at or @gracejoyhowarth on Twitter/Instagram.