Dance up the Sun
I got out of bed, and shivered. Edith said it was the middle of April, and even I remembered April being warmer than this. The clock had run down in the night, even though I'd wound it up at bedtime. Another thing, worn out and broken, that we wouldn't be able to fix.
It's easier for me, of course. I can't remember Before, when wind-up clocks were old-fashioned and if something broke, you brought a new one.
When I was a little girl, planes still went overhead sometimes, and we thought that if only we could get them a message, they'd rescue us. You can still see the L and part of the P where we spent a summer piling up stones to spell out HELP in letters as tall as ten people. No one came, and the stones got washed away in a flood a few years back. I think we left the rest to remind us that sometimes it used to be summer.
We haven't seen a plane in five years, according to Edith. She keeps track of the days and writes things down. A couple of years ago someone thought they heard an engine, but Grandpa said it was just the wind.
I'm the youngest, and we've had no babies born since before the last plane. Janie had a baby just before that, but it didn't live very long.
By the time I'd built the fire up, a few others were moving around. We mostly live in the old school building now. At first, people stayed in their own homes. They liked sitting on their own sofas and looking at the stuff they loved even though it didn't work anymore. But as the numbers dropped, everyone moved closer together.
Anna came in and started measuring out porridge. We've had a bit of success growing oats, but not really enough.
Janie stopped her. "Breakfast for nine."
We looked at her, questions in our faces.
"Henry died in the night."
We can't afford even one extra portion; it's one of Grandpa's strictest rules. Anna nodded, and scooped oats back into the barrel.
She hurried over and put an arm around Janie, who shook her head. "He... he did it himself. I guess he knew."
We'd all know. We've seen so many people die that we know when the right time is to give up. Even Rev Miller stopped preaching hope. While we still had bullets, the Rev would do it himself if people wanted. I hadn't even known Henry was ill.
Breakfast for nine. Some had set out looking for help and never come back. Some had returned, sick and dying. Most had just stayed here, dropping in ones and twos and tens. Soon it would be eight for breakfast, then seven, and eventually one. We didn't talk about it.
Janie didn't look sad, she just looked thin, and worn, and tired. Living was such hard work we had nothing to spare for the dead. While we ate - slowly, slowly - our morning porridge, Grandpa suddenly asked Edith what day it was.
We're never sure whether she's right, but whatever she says is the official date.
"I think," said Grandpa slowly, "that it's time to resurrect an old tradition. We should dance up the sun."
"Do what?" Tom paused, spoon halfway to mouth.
"Dance up the sun. When I was young, people still went out to dance on May morning. They brought back the sun after winter, chased away the darkness and the evil spirits, and made sure of a year of warmth and prosperity for all."
"How?" Tom wanted to know.
"Who knows? Most people laughed at those who danced at dawn. But back then, the sun returned every year." He gestured at the sky, still black though the big clock said after ten. "It's got to be worth a try."
Grandpa - he wasn't my grandpa, though he really was Tom's - had a storyteller's voice and an infectious grin. Tom returned it. "All right, then. Let's dance."
"Superstitious rubbish..." began Janie, but Grandpa glared at her. She shut up and began collecting plates together.
"And me! I want to dance, too!"
Grandpa looked uncertainly at me. "The dancing's for young men, really. But I'll teach you along with Tom."
We should have been doing chores, of course, but we went into the school's old gym with Grandpa. Soon we were laughing and jumping about, waving our arms around and falling over. Even Janie didn't come and remind us about the wood-chopping. We laughed even more when Grandpa put down his stick and tried to show us.
"Look, right toe behind, bend your left leg, right knee touches the floor, jump up..."
We had to help him back to his feet again.
Anna came in almost shyly, a weird-shaped bag in her arms. "I thought you might want this."
I thought Grandpa was about to burst into tears, then he unzipped the bag and took out something that was clearly from Before.
I stared at it. "I wish I remembered Before, when machines made beautiful things."
"Not machines, love," he corrected. "This was made by my father. He was a very talented man."
The wood was shiny, and looked so fragile in Grandpa's rough hands. He made strange, painful noises dragging a thin stick across it and twiddling bits at the end. Then suddenly a shining thread of a song came from nowhere, bouncing out between his fingers.
He half-sang his instructions. "Arms out, now back, back, together, jump! And forward, forward..."
Tom and I tried to fit the patterns to the tune. He seemed to fall over his own feet a lot. I was better balanced, but kept forgetting about my arms. Anna watched for a while, until even with the jumping around I noticed tears on her cheeks.
"I've missed you playing, Uncle Keith."
"So have I, Anna, so have I."
She smiled. "Janie and I will forage for a white shirt."
"Thank you, Anna."
As long as I can remember we've gone foraging. Looking through abandoned houses, rummaging in cupboards and prowling across ruined attics. It can be fun, but you can also find really horrible things. In the last couple of years, a few people got really sick going out foraging, so we've pretty much stopped doing it.
Tom and I danced all afternoon, until Anna fetched us for dinner. Root vegetables, lots of them, with wild garlic. Tom and I probably ate more than our fair share, but no one mentioned it.
When dinner was cleared away, we settled down round the fire, and Anna showed us what she'd found. A white shirt, about Tom's size, and a box of shiny strips of material. Ribbons, she called them. She'd made bunches of them and sewn them on the shirt.
"You remember!" Grandpa looked surprised and pleased.
"Of course! There were all those photos of you around the house when I was a kid. And look!"
She spread out two small squares that looked like they were cut from a sheet.
"What are they?" asked Tom.
"When you dance..." Anna held them by the corners, and flicked her arms up above her head.
"All we're missing," mused Grandpa, "is bells".
"Bells?" Tom and I looked at each other. "Like in the church?"
"Rings on his fingers and bells on his toes?" I asked, remembering a rhyme my mother sang.
"Not toes, legs." Grandpa beckoned me and Tom over, heading outside to the stores.
Back when we still foraged for food from Before, we kept all the empties. Just in case. But we never used them for anything.
We loaded up with old tins and dumped them inside, then Grandpa sent Tom off to find tin openers.
He was gone a long time. It was ages since we'd finished the food from Before. We'd spun it out as long as we could, but eventually we shared the last tin of peaches; a tiny taste each. Apparently peaches never grew here, not even when it was warm. Tom came back with a rusty tin opener held high in triumph, but Janie struggled to her feet.
"Enough!" She stared at Grandpa. "You've wasted a whole day of work on your stupid idea, and now you're going to waste all the tins for nothing. Nothing!"
Her voice was getting screamy, and she staggered as she swiped at the tins. "There's no way your stupid dancing will change anything. You're just..." She sagged to her knees, and Anna led her away.
Tom and I looked at each other uncertainly. Janie looked pretty ill, and the idea of dancing up the sun was a bit crazy. We'd been caught up with it all day, not really stopping to think. If anyone thought this would make a difference, we'd have done it years ago.
Our silent exchange was interrupted by a dull rattle. Grandpa was shaking a lid, removed from its tin and bent into a rough ball.
"See?" He tossed it to Edith. "Can you sew that on his trousers, a bit below the knee?" Edith was clearly tired, but she reached for Anna's sewing things.
"Look, like this..."
Grandpa took a tin lid, punching a couple of holes near the centre, then showing us how he sheared cuts in the lid and wrapped it into a ball round a little stone.
Tom and I started in, finding it fun and competing to make the best noise. Tom managed to make one that almost sounded nice. Anna had come back and was stitching them onto the rough denim. Edith smiled in the firelight as we urged each other on. We had a triple row of bells on each leg when Grandpa declared us done, and everyone shuffled to bed.
Tom and I didn't go to bed at all, just lay down close to each other by the fire. When everyone else was quiet, I spoke to Tom very softly.
"Do you think it will work?"
He thought for a long time before answering.
"Do you remember the year I told you Santa didn't exist?"
I nodded. I had been five.
"And do you remember how the next year we decided to pretend that he did, because it made Christmas better?"
I nodded again.
"Tomorrow, we can dance up the sun."
I understood, and went to sleep on his shoulder.
It was very dark when Grandpa shook us awake.
"Come on, it's nearly dawn!"
"How do you know?" It seemed like the middle of the night.
"Edith said so. Come on!"
Tom was hastily pulling on the trousers with bells, and the ribboned shirt.
Grandpa was carrying his wooden musical thing again and we stumbled through the black to an open patch of grass. Getting up so early in the cold made me feel sick and dizzy, but I followed along.
Tom nodded, and faced the way Grandpa pointed as the tune started. He began to dance, rattling and flapping the sheet-squares with the music. He obviously felt the early chill as well, his jumps were poor efforts compared to the day before. As he danced the sky paled and he leapt a little higher.
A tiny crack appeared in the cloud and he stumbled, the squares floating to the floor. I ran forward, catching them as he fell, jumping up as high as I could; anything to bring a little more light through the sky.
By the end of the dance I was shaking, and I realised Tom wasn't breathing any more.
Grandpa was sitting on the floor, swaying slightly. I blundered across to him, grey explosions at the edges of my eyes, and laid my head on his knees.
"Tom's dead, Grandpa."
"I know, darling."
I realised, then, why no one else had come with us. "Everyone else is dead, aren't they?"
"Did you know this would happen?"
"Yes. Every once in a while, we get a strong wind from that direction." He pointed the way we never go. "And then a lot of people die. You'd be too young to remember last time. Two nights ago, Henry and I saw ash blowing across the sky."
"So you knew the dancing wouldn't work."
I felt him chuckle. "Oh, I don't know. For the last day or so, we've had fun and we've all done something together. I'd say it worked."
"And the sky did get brighter." I stretched, feeling warm and comfortable. "Maybe the sun is coming back."
His voice sounded faint. "You danced so beautifully. You chased away the winter."
Very far away, I heard the ghost of a song.
Summer is a-comin', and winter's gone away-o.
About the Author
Elizabeth Guilt reads and writes stories to make her daily commute on the London Underground more enjoyable.
She has been involved in England's ritual dance and bizarre traditions all her life, and hopes some of them will survive the apocalypse.
She has recently had her first pieces of fiction accepted for publication by Straylight literary magazine and Luna Station Quarterly.