Giselle was frightened when she awoke on the cold stone, almost able to feel it frigid and burning through the white cloth crumpled around her body. Shadows stretched through the trees and as she blinked around her, they began to bloom with pale forms that drifted toward her. She shrank against the headstone, wishing she could shiver. Her head was still spinning.
The shape heading up the flock of ghosts approached her, gliding nearly to her grave, and nodded. Giselle stared up at her, and the woman sighed. The group around them settled like feathers dropping from the grasp of the wind. The woman before Giselle was tall and willowy, with sharp features and hair bound back, her shroud billowing around her frame with eerie grace.
She said, “Welcome, child. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Wilis. Perhaps you have heard the legends. If not, you had better learn.”
The word was familiar but Giselle was so clouded and numb that she could only shake her head, and shuddered as the hair hanging about her face brushed her shoulders with a touch she could not feel.
The woman turned to wave a hand at the others, who began to wander away. Some turned mournful faces to Giselle before leaving, their eyes shadowed and sad. Some grinned, looking as if they would snap at her with wicked teeth. Most bent their heads and did not look at her at all.
Giselle tipped her head up to gaze again at the pale lady, who began to speak again. She said, “To dance, only to dance. I remember you. At least, I remember Bet over there speaking of you when she got here, poor girl, only a few months back. You’re a dancer. This death will at least match your life. I’m Myrtha – queen of these silly geese here.” She jerked her head at the last meandering ghosts.
The night seemed to close in on Giselle like black pressure crushing her. When she gasped for breath, she could not feel the air in her lungs. Her shoulders heaved and her body ached with flesh that could not feel. She crumpled against her headstone, burying her head in her arms and trying to sob.
Hilarion was in the wood. Giselle lifted her head slowly at the crackle of twigs under his feet, and when she saw his face lit by the flicker of candlelight from his lantern, her ghostly heart tried to pound. She tried to shout to him, to say that he should leave. Her voice sailed through the air, she was sure, she could nearly feel it leap from her lips. She could hear herself scream, but he did not see her. He looked through her to the stone pressed against her back, and he leaned in close. His face nearly touched hers, and the heat of his lantern was burning her from its place in her shoulder. His cheeks were wet with tears and he was grimacing, as though in pain. She reached out to touch his face with a hesitant finger, and brushed against the tear beading at the corner of his eye. Hilarion jerked back, fear passing through his eyes. It seemed nearly a miracle, that he had felt something. Giselle leaned toward him, and felt herself pushed to her feet. The wind at her back was Myrtha, who nodded to her.
The moon gleamed between the trees and the sounds of the night played a soft and deadly music. Dance, Myrtha had said. Giselle took a tentative step and straightened her back. Hilarion backed away, looking confused. He stumbled and nearly fell, and then took several careful steps through the trees, keeping the grave in sight. Myrtha’s nod glinted in the corner of Giselle’s vision, but she was already moving. Her muscles could not warm and stretch, and her feet could not bend on solid ground, but still she could dance. She stepped, twirled, dragged her arms around. Hilarion took a step, and she danced to him. She watched her own white body curve toward him, saw her feet flashing. She saw him beginning to dance with her, and she paused. Myrtha called out, “No, child, dance. You have to dance, you must.” Giselle’s restless bones were ready to obey, and she leaped toward the man again. She had never liked dancing with him in life.
She heard another rustle between the trees, and she spun in dance and peered around. Albrecht was pacing toward the grave, his candle guttering and his face contorted in grief. He glanced toward Hilarion, tripping in the clearing ten steps away, and turned toward the grave again. The moonlight slid down the bow of his back and the drape of his cloak, the velvet she had never seen him wear and never known he had. He looked every inch the grieving nobleman, a knight mourning his lady love while the ghost of a peasant girl danced and watched him. Hilarion moaned and the sound sawed against the night, his unsteady steps speeding with her own. She moved under the timid light of the moon, her shroud whirling about her legs and her hair flying. As Hilarion choked with exhaustion her heart was glad, for her feet were moving and she could dance again. The other ghosts began to gather at the edges of the clearing like a quiet audience, and she saw several of them begin to step closer, to move with the rhythm of the night. Giselle ignored them and spun around Hilarion again. She missed the twinge in her muscles and the beating of her heart, but if she could not make her heart beat she could at least remember that it had. When she had danced, she had felt her blood thrumming through her and heat flushing over her skin. When she danced now, she could almost imagine that she felt heat. Almost, she could pretend that sweat was prickling on her skin and that each step pushed weight again onto her feet as her ankles bent. That was gone, but still her feet streaked over the ground in well-remembered steps, still her body moved with the grace and agility that had been the envy of the town. Still she could dance.
Myrtha was smiling, slow steps taking her toward Hilarion, the ghosts around her beginning to fly through spins and dips. Giselle lifted her arms toward the sky, fingertips reaching toward the sky. The queen of the Wilis motioned with one languid hand, and pointed at Albrecht. “Him, darling. Go and dance with your love, and we will dance with this one. Only for a moment longer, but you can dance with the Duke there all by yourself for as long as he holds out.”
Giselle slowed as the words registered, and she flitted over to Albrecht without a thought. She had danced with him in life once, one short time, and the memory was sweet and sharp. The candle was dim, flame clinging to the wick, and Albrecht seemed frozen leaning over the headstone. Giselle whirled to face him, and laid her hands over his shoulders. His face was calm now, eyes gleaming with sorrow but mouth set. How lovely he was, she thought. How beautiful. It seemed very silly now, all the posturing and the confusion. What did his wealth matter to her now? What did her worn fingers and plain clothes mean to him, once she was buried with them? She stepped closer and reached up, lifting herself on pointed feet to bring her face to his, and with her dead lips she kissed him. His face did not change, and his eyes might have showed shock. He was looking at her – nearly. The longing pulled at his face, and Giselle settled back onto her heels, and then she began to lift again. One step, and another, and she pulled at Albrecht.
Slowly they turned, revolving once, long enough for her to see Hilarion fall. Albrecht did not blink at that – he may not have seen. Giselle barely noticed, and then she could not see anything but the duke. Myrtha’s voice nudged at her, “Dance then, child.”
With each of his breaths she took a step, listening to the beat that sounded from his heart. His feet were beginning to move back and forth, from one side to the other, tracing the geometry of a dance she had never learned. It did not matter. She spun, bent, swayed around him as he picked up the rhythm. He had a certain grace, she thought as her turn flung her skirt in a wide circle around her. The Wilis were gathering again, but this time they hung back in a ring that surrounded the two dancers. In the glance of one spin Giselle could see Myrtha, arms folded and face serious. She closed her eyes and danced closer, thinking she could almost feel the heat of his body as his movements mirrored hers.
She opened her eyes again to watch him, his eyes unfocused but his feet sure. She savored the pain as it spread through her, the ache of dancing with her love, following his breaths. She was close enough to touch him, to wind her arms around his neck, and she never would. It hurt, it pierced at her, and she clung to the dream of his warmth on her skin and she danced.
Giselle wondered if he knew she was there. He was not looking at her, and his face was locked in the same grief as before. He was nobility – she had to remind herself of that – so he would not have heard the legends of the Wilis, though she speculated on the possibility of a peasant nursemaid and her stories. The longing twisting his mouth down was for her, but she thought it probably wasn’t for the ghost dancing with him. Probably it was for the body beneath his feet, and he was as unconscious as he seemed to be of his legs’ moving. Nevertheless, they danced. Giselle stared at his eyes looking through her and dreamed that they were dancing. She dreamed she was wearing the white of a wedding and not of death, that the watchers around them were breathing, that he was smiling at her. If she concentrated she could almost believe it for a minute as she danced.
He was slowing now. His steps began to slur, and his head to droop. Her hands on his shoulders shook as she tried to hold him upright, but his body pushed her incorporeal arms aside as he faltered. She tried to stop, forcing her feet to calm, jerking back from her dreaming as she realized that she was killing him.
She shouted to Myrtha, “He’s weak, I have to stop. He could be hurt.”
Myrtha nodded, “Yes, darling. That’s why you’re dancing. He could die. They must, you know.”
The truth was choking her. “He’s supposed to die, you mean. I can’t do that. I can’t. I must stop, he must live.”
Myrtha frowned at her, taking a step forward. “No. Certainly not.”
Giselle could not shiver, could not gasp. Her throat could not swallow past his, and her feet kept moving. She cried out, pain and frustration in her scream. None of the Wilis moved. Their pallid shapes were still against the trees and the shadows that were lightening now as the moon faded into the blanching sky.
The queen spoke again. “Sweetheart, none of us like this,” she gestured to the pale circle waiting. “None of us take real pleasure in dancing our men to death. We have all watched our loves wilt and fall, we’ve all felt this. There’s nothing you can do. Never. All you can do is dance.”
Giselle shook her head, wanting to scream again. It hurt to be unable to cry, and she struggled with her unruly feet. She clasped her white skirts in her arms and bent over, knees folded and head bent toward the ground.
The duke was still dancing around her as she rocked, trying not to move. His footfalls were slow but they had not stopped, and she shrieked at him, “Stop dancing, you fool! Don’t kill yourself with me.”
He stumbled, his expression dissolving into bewilderment. Giselle threw herself down, wrapping her arms around her legs, collapsed at his feet. Albrecht took another unsteady step, and then he stopped. He fell abruptly to his knees and sat back on his heels, putting his hands over his face and breathing in gasps through his fingers.
Myrtha walked forward, irritated, but stopped to glance at the sky. It was shot through with light, the clouds beginning to brighten and faded color filtering through. The moon was brushing the horizon now, and the ghosts drew back into the shadows remaining. Giselle pulled herself up and staggered to her grave, slumping over the headstone. The light was falling through her, making her feel dizzy. Albrecht stood cautiously. He dusted off his trousers – nobleman, she thought wryly, only a noble would think of the dirt on his knees after meeting a ghost. He walked after her, steps steady, and he knelt again before her grave. She tried to reach for him, wanting to feel again the heat of his life. Her limbs would barely move. The first light of the sun was peering through the tangle of trees. Myrtha called, “Our time is the night. Wilis only dance in the dark.”
Giselle stretched still toward Albrecht, straining to reach him. She was still draped over her grave and straining when the sun surged into the sky. Still, when he picked himself up from the ground and began to walk away. Still, when he paused at the clearing and bent over Hilarion’s body. Still, when he was gone and she was frozen in the cold sunlight.
Giselle waited under the sun, unable to feel its touch on her skin. She waited patiently, in dread. That night, she knew, her love would come again. He could not stay away. He would come to her grave, and they would dance once more.