When Half-Gent was alive he used to come sit on the edge of the seat and watch Vallerina dance. She still danced, even after dying, and he still came to see her, but now there were cobwebs and dry corpses against the velvet and the curtains gnawed by dust and bat-flight.
She still danced, so light as if hollow, as if bird-boned, but after she died they had tied her up with crisscrossed strings and put a light on her and she couldn’t leave there, ever, and only he came to visit. Him, who had never even got to be a full gent, and never would be because you can’t become anything after death.
And so he came, to try and clean the cobwebs and the dust off the seats, and sometimes he had to push a body a little bit to the side so he could catch one of the stubborn mice who made their way into an eye socket. He didn’t have blood or veins, so he couldn’t be blushing, but that was always how he felt when he saw her undulating on the stage, between the strings. More than once he told himself he would talk to her. After all, he was already dead, you can’t lose anything when you’re dead. And always an insistent voice would ask him, what would he say? He was only a half-gent, with half-words.
He would always leave before the second night fell, and he would always come back at the rise of the first.
Many of the dead still went to work after everything fell to night, in all places. They always went out on the first night, the one tinted as if seen through a frozen twilight.
You would never go out on the second night, the dead who knew the most would say. Some were strong, still leather-tough. After death some had grown taller, carried sharp things or clubs, and walked around with their chest bones puffed up, puffed up with nothing. Half-Gent didn’t walk like that. He walked half bent. He didn’t rise against the second night, even if more than once he had almost failed to come home before the bells started to sing. Once he lost his bowtie and doubled back tripping, and on the horizon he saw the second night peer, almost heard the high snarl, the thousand voices who screamed backwards.
It was a fright, it was. It reminded him you could still fear, even after you died. His only friend Vergo—a man who’d lost his eyes and had his skin become taut, like a dry plum—told him best:
“You don’t want to go through another, no. We’ve been through one night, friend. You don’t want to go through another.”
“What is there on the second night?”
In life Vergo had been Half-Gent’s boss. He had given him friendship and bread and a roof over his head in the theatre. Half-Gent couldn’t remember any faces with skin any more, but he remembered they would smile at Vergo. He must have been a good live man, with flesh smiles. But now he strained the bony line of his lips, wrinkled his parched skin, and said with fear and disquiet:
“Does it matter? There’s worse than in the first. And look at us. Look at you, after the first.”
Half-Gent shrugged, felt a spider escape from the scarf around his neck.
“Dying wasn’t that bad.”
“That’s because you didn’t live whole,” Vergo said. His eyes didn’t well up with tears because he didn’t have eyes, but Half-Gent thought that’s how he must have felt. “Oh … I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It sounds like such a foolish thing, to say it like this. Sounds like one of those sayings of the living, the ones for children.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right,” said Half-Gent, who couldn’t remember what offense felt like. “But you didn’t answer me, Mister Vergo.”
“Do not insist, do not insist. Go home, friend.”
And so they would sleep, on the second nights. They would hear screams of all, all backwards. They wouldn’t know if the screamers were children or women or men or beasts or all or what they screamed about, because outside the windows they would only see a dark as dense as a bottomless well in a moonless sky.
At the rise of the first night, Half-Gent went to the theatre. As always there she was, with the light on her, with the remains of people and the filth he so tried to clean and those strings that looked so sharp, so thin, so stained, like twine of bone.
And he didn’t look, no. Not fully. His were half-looks. Glances, fleeting, sneaking.
Half-Gent almost really looked. She was the one who spoke. To him? To him. There was no one else. Only dust and spiders.
“I know, madam.”
“How do you know? You never look straight ahead.” The dryness in her voice was still thick with her past life. Life was worth a lot. When they found it, it was always sucked dry. Sometimes Half-Gent would happen upon it and would spread it on some field and hope it buried itself on the cold ground, or found water and left for far away, but he would always end up seeing it waste away, and later the second night would come and nothing, nothing, nothing was left.
“Why? At least someone sees me. Someone half sees me. Who am I dancing for, for this light? For these walls?”
Half-Gent dared to raise his eyes a little bit more. Some didn’t even have them. He did. He could say that about himself, a lucky someone who had only gone through the first night, with eyes and voice and still clad in his butler’s clothes and still with some skin and flesh clinging to his burnt bones.
She danced like a bottled soul, with the grace of surrender. How much more beautiful she would be, free of strings.
“No one dances for no one,” Half-Gent heard himself say. “No one reads for no one. No one sings for no one.”
“No one’s nights for no one,” she said, as if giving him words. The porcelain of her face was dirty. And he could climb there, veer from the blade-strings, wipe her with some tepid water. “Maybe someday the third night will come. Take everything.”
If his arms would move, if his legs didn’t freeze him in place. Always with a half-fear.
“I have to go, madam.”
“Please … Call me Vallerina. Give me that. Give me a whole name.”
Half-Gent nodded and turned away, whispering her name almost loud enough for her to hear.
After he woke in the next first night, Half-Gent went to the café where the dead would sit and pretend to drink from cups or read faded newspapers. And Mister Vergo was behind the counter looking from beneath his top hat.
“What can I get you, Half-Gent?” he asked, wiping a broken glass with the back of his hand.
Half-Gent asked for the usual, which was nothing. And Vergo slid an empty glass to him. Half-Gent took it in both hands.
Vergo laid a long-dead look around. “They say,” he murmured, his breath empty, the dark in his eye sockets whirling. “The third night comes.”
“They always say it, Mister.”
“No.” Vergo clutched his hands. “No, friend. They say it well, now. I feel it. You’ll feel it. The second night is only calling for the third, yes? It’s looking for us. Look around.” Around: a woman with pins in her face, a man with no arms and no legs, half-a-child who played with the skeleton of a dog. “They call for us, at night. They scream. Those who died and didn’t come back, they are imprisoned there.”
“You don’t have to answer.”
“Ah, but we do. When we sleep. We all talk, when we sleep. You don’t. You and your half-sleep, and your half-words, they can’t hear you, Half-Gent. You’re not whole.”
“How do you know the third night comes?”
“I hear the whispers in the screams.”
“I don’t hear anything.”
Vergo shook his head energetically, crackling the ossicles inside his skull.
“You hear half and they hear half of you. It’s bad, and it’s good. You’ll be the last one to be taken.”
“When is that, the third night?”
“At dawn,” a voice said, and it wasn’t Mister Vergo. “There will be no more first nights.” It was a woman who spoke. A woman who must have been old when she died, who had hair like oiled snow pasted to the spots of her transparent skin.
“And does it listen to music, the third night?” Half-Gent asked. He spoke loudly, and loudly he never spoke. They all looked at him, as if they could see the beating of his empty heart, thumping against the stalactites in his hollow chest.
“It listens to all,” Vergo said, and he left his mouth dark, like where he lacked eyes. “Wait, don’t—”
But Half-Gent was running outside, stumbling in the wind and thrashing against the walls and leaving dents in the limestone and cracks in his own bones. The theatre was ahead in the distance, and behind, in the café, with Vergo and the lady and all, it wasn’t a place for anything. Who would wait for the third night, like that? He was a man of half measures, and not even he was like that.
He should be sleeping, yes. He should be somewhere within four walls. Four walls with curtains would keep the second night outside, and the walls of the theatre were the safest of all, but for the third night? For all the screams of all lives? He couldn’t trust it, he couldn’t trust they would leave her like that, dancing with the strings and the ghost waltz and the light that never left her.
How could he have been like that, so selfish, so obsessed with the halves he had left?
He got there at the fall of the second night, closed the door just in time to block out the backward screams. He walked towards the spotlight, staring at Vallerina, dancing and porcelain.
“You're looking right at me, Half-Gent,” she said, surprised and hesitant, fleeting away from the strings.
“The third night is coming.”
“I know. Didn’t you hear it before?”
Half-Gent shook his head. “You’re not safe.”
“Oh, my sweet fool …” She danced through tear-slicing strings.
“Let me help you!”
“It is late, my sweet. Go. Sleep. Sleep deaf. Sleep mute.”
Half-Gent was close to the stage. He was climbing up, he was up. The strings were piano strings, thrumming with the music and she wasn’t dancing, no, she moved away from them as they demanded. Was it always like this? He had never looked directly at her, he had never seen that she didn’t dance, she was made to dance.
“I’ll get you out, just … let me—” He looked around, to nothing. Nothing that could help him. The screams pressed on the theatre. “Something—”
“There is nothing, my love.” The blue winter in her eyes, falling to her porcelain cheeks. “Go, leave. Sleep without me.”
“I—” Half-Gent reached out his hand. The strings crackled, danced in fury. The screams outside seeped through the wood. “No, I’ll stay.”
He touched a string, he saw his thin skin open, the bone cut underneath. He filled his lungs with air and dust and drew nearer, nearer.
“I’ll stay with you,” he said, loud so she could hear him over the crying and the screams and the dark that thickened until it cracked the spotlight and put it out like on the night when all died.
The strings cut him and he advanced. She had stopped dancing. She just walked, glided across the stage and came to him, faster than the dark behind, than the screams. She caught him in her arms, spun away from a whipping string.
Everything reeled, the music and the dark and she that was holding his face and he that was holding hers and pulled her to him, bonding, dissolving.
“Do you remember?” Vallerina cried, warm on top of him. “I thought you would never remember me, never—”
He tried to nod with his chin sliced and his neck hanging.
“Oh, no, not now—not in the third night. If we could go back,” she pleaded. “Just one more—Please—”
The backward screams. The night that fell on the fallen spotlight. The thousand pins and thousand hands who seemed to touch him, the mouths that seethed and everyone, everyone from so far and so close, who tore away from the milky dark and came to the two of them.
He was afraid. He was afraid in full, of never seeing her ever again.
Go back, if he could go back. Before the nights.
If they would listen.
“Oh no, please. Sleep, sleep, please—”
“No,” Half-Gent said, his voice a broken croak. Her porcelain face, united to his of bent bone. “No. I stay.”
In the penumbra that crumbled and screamed backwards and plunged and plunged like a sea of oil roving on top of them and … it receded, it was receding, the voices seemed to speak, half-words, full words.
The third night went back, swallowed the screams. Back, always back. Until the unnumbered nights where he stayed to clean after they all left, when he took longer so he could see her stretch, see her hopping to what was left of the snacks, when he didn’t say anything but he did now, he did, he would always and he would speak of everything wholly, spend all the words of all the voices until they forgot everything, so he could say it again. He would speak for all the voices of the third night, who came for the second, who went to the first, who passed him by, her by, bone and porcelain.
“It’s closed, silly, what are you still doing here?” the ballerina asked, impish, in the emptiness of the dawning theatre.
“I came to see you,” the young gent said. “Tell you things.”
“Oh, you can speak now?” She laughed. “I had noticed you before, you know. Were you waiting for the end of the world to come talk to me?”
“I didn’t have the courage. I didn’t know the words.”
“And now, you come full of words?”
She laughed, and he smiled. Fully. Wholly.