We're delighted to support Specul8 Publishing's 13 Days of Halloween, bringing you a series of fiction, true stories and interviews from Specul8's team of authors specialising in the fantastic, the gothic, and the macabre. For more horror-themed goodnesss, visit Specul8 on Facebook for 13 days of spooktacular giveaways, competitions, author interviews and more.
Today, our series concludes with a dark dance:
By LJ McLeod
Every evening a black parade goes by my house. Papa Alegba, the Shadow Man himself, leads it - one last march of freedom for the souls of the damned before they go on to receive their eternal punishment. You would think it a kindness, this last taste of life, free of pain and suffering. A final glimpse of the ephemeral beauty of the living. It’s no kindness. It’s a torment that will be used against them for the rest of eternity, a reminder of all the things they’ll never experience again.
Papa Alegba tips his top hat at me as he goes by and I nod in return. It is a habit we’ve developed, this acknowledgement of each other. He has become a part of my life, and I like to think I am a part of his. Every evening as the sun sinks below the horizon, I seat myself on my porch and wait. As the world turns soft and grey, the dying light of the sun barely enough to keep the night at bay, the sound of jazz music drifts through the air. Quietly at first, but growing in strength and exuberance as the parade draws closer.
Papa Alegba always appears first, dressed in his black suit with ebony cane in hand. Orange flame flickers in his eyes as he dances forward in his odd shuffling way. White paint outlines the shape of a skull on the dark skin of his face and dreadlocks swing freely around his shoulders. His shadow band comes next, their bodies jagged black caricatures of the human form. Brass notes and rolling drum beats echo from the instruments they carry as they dance along behind their master.
Their music stirs a dark joy in my soul, for isn’t jazz both devilish and divine? There are nights when my pulse beats in time to their music and I would love nothing more than to leave my porch and join them in their dance. But the line between our world and the Other Side only allows passage one way for the living; if I were to cross over there would be no return.
The souls of the proud are always the first of the damned in the parade. They march with their backs straight and their heads held high. They do not look around at the life they are leaving behind, only stare resolutely ahead as if Hell is just one more obstacle for them to overcome. It will be hardest on these proud souls when the demons finally break them. The resigned come next, their weary tread inadvertently keeping beat with the music that swirls around them. They gaze wistfully about and longing floods their faces, but they do not struggle. They take their place in the parade with the inevitability that only the dead can manage.
The next part is always the hardest to watch. Reluctant souls, struggling to break free, are dragged along by gleeful shadow men who ignore their kicking and flailing as they push them forward. Tears run down their faces and their mouths stretch in silent screams, the sound never reaching me even though their pain does. I always feel pity for these poor souls who know the suffering that awaits them, and would do anything to avoid it. It is difficult to remind myself that there is a reason they are a part of this black parade. It is worth enduring their pain for what comes next.
Joyful souls form the end of the parade, and their carefree frolicking is my favourite part. Leaping and dancing, they cavort to the music, making the most of their very last moments. Shadow men dance amongst them, twirling them around and lifting them high into the air. It is hard to believe they go to their doom so cheerfully. I contemplated this strange phenomenon for a very long time before the answer came to me. For some life is nothing but pain, and for these damned souls eternity will also hold nothing but pain. This one last parade is the only time they get to be free from their pain and they seem determined to make the most of it.
I often think Papa Alegba holds these parades just for them, for he is not an overly cruel man for everything else that he is. He will whisper temptations and barter deals and punish the wicked, for that is who he is. But he never inflicts on them any more than they truly deserve.
As true darkness falls the parade disappears down the street, the music fading away into the night. I hold my breath and wait. Sometimes, when the mood strikes him, Papa Alegba will appear on the footpath outside my house. His flaming eyes stare into mine and he holds out his hand towards me. Patiently, he will wait for my response. Patience comes easily when you have all eternity. It is a tempting offer, to be free from this life and all of its suffering. Inevitably, I shake my head. No matter how miserable living is, I’m not quite done with it yet.
My mother is the reason why Papa Alegba has taken such an interest in me. She needed a reason to give up the drugs. For the small price of her slightly damaged soul, Papa Alegba gave her that reason. Nine months later I was born, and for a while she stayed clean. But a reason to give up an addiction is not the same as a cure from one, which is why one should always be careful when bargaining with Papa Alegba.
Her love for the drugs turned out to be stronger than her love for me, and I grew up with an addict for a mother. Back then I never knew my father, so it was just her and I and the drugs.
It wasn’t so bad in the beginning. The neighbours made sure I had clean clothes to wear and enough food to eat. Then my mother discovered crystal meth and everything changed. Where she had once been placid and harmless, she now became aggressive and violent. She started bringing strange men home and the neighbours stopped visiting. If I complained because there was no food, or because these men scared me, she would hit me. Sometimes she would hit me even if I didn’t complain.
The meth became her entire life, and I a mere annoyance. I took to avoiding her when I could, especially when she had men over.
One day I barricaded myself in my room for eight hours straight to avoid a particularly mean-looking individual. Hunger finally drove me out. I crept from my room to check the living room and found my mother and her visitor both passed out on the couch. Relieved, I went to the kitchen and began rummaging for something to eat. Money had been tight lately and there was very little food to be found. I was searching the fridge when a heavy hand clamped down on my shoulder.
“Aren’t you a pretty thing?” a deep voice rumbled into my ear. I froze, fear slowing my thoughts and paralysing my body. “Wanna help your mamma pay off some of the money she owes me?” the man said and his hand tightened on my shoulder.
Panic freed me from my paralysis. I grabbed the mayonnaise jar from the fridge and smashed it into his face. I tried to run while he clutched at his bleeding cheek, but he grabbed me and threw me into the kitchen cabinet. Before I could get up, he kicked me in the stomach. Then he kicked me again. And again. I curled into a ball and tried to protect my head as the blows kept coming.
When he finally stopped it wasn’t out of mercy but from thirst. He grabbed a beer from the still open fridge, kicked the door shut and went back into the living room. I struggled to breath and every gasp of air was like a knife in my chest.
I was ten.
My mother never even woke up. My eyes fluttered closed and when I managed to drag them open again, he was there. The flames in his eyes were mesmerising.
“Look what has been done to you, Cher,” he crooned. His big warm hand, covered in silver rings, reached out to smooth back my hair. I knew who he was. Everybody around here knew about Papa Alegba, the Shadow Man. “I can make the pain stop. Say the word, Cher, and I will take you away from all of this.”
His offer was seductive. I hurt so badly, and even at such a young age I couldn’t think of a single thing in my future worth living for. It was said amongst those that knew such things that Papa Alegba took good care of children who died before their time.
I sucked in a painful breath and gave the only answer I could. “No.”
A slow smile spread across his face. “You are brave, little one.” His hand came to rest on my forehead and everything went black. When I woke up all of my wounds were gone and my attacker was swinging from a noose in the living room.
The next day I saw the black parade for the first time.
Tonight I sit on my porch and I wait for the black parade, as I have every night for many years now. Tonight will be different though. My mother lies dead inside, a needle in her arm. I found her that way an hour ago and the inexorableness of it all has left me numb.
I wait now because I need to know. I need to know where she will march in the parade. Will she fight and scream or go resignedly to her doom? Will she dance? Will she even know I’m here?
In all of my life I never really knew who my mother was as a person – I only knew the addiction. This is my final chance. The sun sinks below the horizon and the first strains of music start up. Papa Alegba appears out of the twilight, his shadow band marching behind him. For once I pay him no attention and lean forward in my chair to see who comes behind. I search the ranks of the proud and am not surprised when she isn’t there. My mother chose drugs over pride long ago.
The resigned follow and she is not there either. I steel myself for what comes next, and peer intently at each of the reluctant souls in turn as they get dragged by. I study each tortured face, but none of them belong to her. I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. And then, there she is. Dancing and twirling with the shadow men, happier than I have ever seen her. She catches my eye and stops mid-spin.
I have never seen a soul leave the parade, but she comes towards me now. Her soul stops at the bottom of my porch steps and a sad smile settles over her face. Before I know what I am doing, I am standing on the last step. One step further and I would find myself joining her on the Other Side.
“Just say the word, Cher, and I will release her from our bargain. If you want it, her soul will be free.” Papa Alegba is suddenly there and I wonder if maybe my mother had meant more to him than just another bartered soul. He stares at me with those burning eyes, giving me all the time I need to decide. I study this woman who gave me life, then made it not worth living.
My mother. My tormentor.
Hope shines from her eyes and I know there is only one answer I can give.
Papa Alegba starts to laugh, the sound rich and warm. My mother’s face twists into a silent scream as shadow men appear and drag her away into darkness. I look at him then, really look at the lines of his face and I can see the familiarity there now. He also gave me life, and continues to give it to me for so long as I choose.
My saviour. My father.
“You make me so proud, Cher,” he says and then he too is gone. I take a deep 13 breath of the warm night air and it has never tasted sweeter. My mother is gone and finally my soul is free.
LJ McLeod is a scientist by day, but at night she amuses herself by scribbling stories. When not writing, she enjoys diving, travelling, reading and spending time with her husband and two dogs.