By Woof Achoo
My family used to sit together and recall past times. On many such occasions, my parents brought up a childhood fascination of mine: a movie called The Forgotten Folk.
“When you were, like, four,” my mother would say, snorting. “You watched that movie every day for—I don’t know—six months? You took it with you to your grandparents’, your friends’ houses, on car rides. You were obsessed with it!”
“I tried blocking it from my mind,” my father would add, shaking his head. “After you made me watch it the hundredth time. I mean, dude, we all got sick of it. We used to avoid the living room when you turned it on.”
Their mea culpa: they “gently pulled the movie from circulation.”
“Well, we couldn’t just stop—you wouldn’t have let that fly,” said my mother.
“But we started switching it up. You’d ask for that movie and we’d put in something else on accident,” my father added. “I might’ve said the TV was broke one day.”
“It took a few weeks, but you finally snapped out of your fascination,” my mother said. “You started watching other things, and that was the end of that.”
These conversations stirred vague memories in me. I felt a flash of recognition when I heard the title. If I wasn’t mistaken, the story involved a seaside town and a funny little man shouting and shaking his fists.
Curiosity once spurred me to search the title online. I found an entry for it on a movie database that listed its release year, director, writers, and some unknown voice actors. Yet, no matter how I itched to see personal revelations in them, these details provided no compelling insights. They remained bare facts in a torrent of experience—flotsam risen to the surface of dark waters.
* * *
So the state of affairs remained until my wife became pregnant. This revelation initially stunned us, as we had no plans for children. But once we grew accustomed to the idea, we were ecstatic. In keeping with the baby’s surprise appearance, we decided to forego learning their sex before delivery.
In the months that followed, my family sent us packages of standard baby necessities. My brother and sister passed along clothes and toys that my nieces and nephews had outgrown. Meanwhile, my mother either bought or scrounged up infant cutlery and bottles, assorted picture books, and suchlike.
However, one of these boxes arrived with a curio. Packed within a padding of garments as if to secret its passage was a videotape, clad in aged cardstock. This package included a note proclaiming: “Found your movie! Now you can watch with your little prince or princess. Can’t wait to meet them! Love, Mom + Dad.”
The tape itself stirred no latent memories or feelings—yet it held me in thrall. Here, perhaps, was the source of midnight reveries or unconscious behavior. The sculptor of early chinks on my tabula rasa.
My wife snorted when I showed it to her. “Your parents are a trip,” she said, sorting through the clothes that arrived in the same box. “I mean, they think I’ll send our child out in this?” She held up a lime green infant’s T-shirt on which a clown smiled—far too large a smile.
I shrugged. “Well, they’re little behind the times. But I agree that their obsession with this movie is kinda bizarre.” Then a thought struck me. “Hey, what are the odds your brother is busy this weekend?”
* * *
Now, in bright, hot morning light, I drive my car out of the driveway, down our busy street, and out of the city.
If my parents are a trip, my wife’s brother is an all-inclusive cruise. Younger than she and I, he has already married, had a child with, and divorced a woman. He holds no single full-time job but rather an assortment of odd ones, all internet-based or adjacent. And these shift each time I hear about or speak with him—website development, computer repairs, coding, and so on. He has also informed me, with no lack of conceit, that he runs a popular video blog.
After two hours of driving, I reach the end of a rotting street. Turning onto a gravel driveway, I pass through a dense forest into a clearing then park in front of his small house. I step from my car’s cool interior into dense humidity, the air buzzing with cicada song. Knocking on the door conjures no reply, so I walk around back to a scattering of buildings out there. The closest is a detached garage with its door open, where my brother-in-law sits at a work bench, tinkering. He looks up as I approach.
“Howdy,” he says, squinting through maladjusted glasses. “Heard you were coming. What can I do ya for?”
I hold up my videotape. “You’re the only person I could think of with a functioning VCR. Think we can check this out?”
He smirks and stands. “Right this way.”
We pick our way back into the garage’s depths, which extend much further than I’d guessed. The sunlight coming from the garage door illuminates a path through the junk. Disemboweled speakers, TVs, and computer towers spill across one another, with woodworking and handyman tools cropping up among them. Stacks of lumber, half-covered by a tarp, lurk by the far wall, coated in dust and cobwebs. The shadows of this rummage project onto the corrugated back wall, our movements obstructing these shapes at times.
In a back corner, an ancient TV set—a great black box with a dusty screen—and an equally old VCR sit on a table. We stop before it, and my brother-in-law mucks around the table for a minute, mumbling to himself and hooking up cables. I look back behind us—the light from the open door, beyond this cluttered space, has shrunk to a distant star.
There’s a static-bound cough and I turn back. The TV screen, briefly busy with snow, turns blue as my brother-in-law awakens the VCR. He holds out his hand and I pass over the videotape—he removes the cassette from the box and feeds it into the slot. The VCR whirs.
“So what is this, anyhow?” he asks, moving next to me with a remote in his hand.
“Just… a movie I liked as a kid. Haven’t seen it in a while.” The VCR’s whir dies away, and he shrugs then hits play.
The blue screen goes black, on which lines of staticky noise scrabble up and down. A buzz of interference emanates from the black box, which modulates into the opening bars of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The screen fades into a panorama of a town’s rooftops, interspersed with trees, looking out at an azure sea and a cloudless, pale-blue sky. Static continues to run along the screen—the image bounces and re-aligns.
“Your tape has some age to it,” my brother-in-law remarks. “The Forgotten Folk” fades in over the panorama then out again. A montage of the town begins: A clattering market square. Fishmongers announcing the daily catch. Creaking ships manned by shouting men on their ropes. Children laughing in the streets. Recognition dawns on me, though I couldn’t have recalled these images a moment ago. The score’s notes remain sharp and uneasy, clashing with the halcyon images.
The picture finally holds on two children—a girl with pigtails and a boy wearing overalls who walk down a street together. When they speak, the image bounces and static garbles their words into nonsense. My brother-in-law snorts, but I shush him.
Pigtails girl and overalls boy approach a street corner. There, a small crowd is gathered around a figure. A funny little man built like Popeye with overlarge forearms, short legs, a thin neck, and squinting eyes. He’s waving his arms, shouting, and while his speech doesn’t break the image up, his phrases are nonsense: “How cannot you deny? Wax my shoes! This room is filled of bugs, and this wood is filled of thieves! Tell me, one to know.”
“I can’t tell if he’s using too many words, too few, or just mixing them up,” I say.
“It’s intentional—the tape isn’t fritzing out here,” my brother-in-law adds.
The townspeople start booing, but the man continues preaching: “He do the devil at four, and he do want to fall. Dry this wine! I have a mind to vomit, and I will not sleep a street.”
The crowd starts pelting the man with food and stones. Overalls boy picks up a stone, but Pigtails stops him from throwing it. They take each other’s hand and run up the street, starting another dialogue that disturbs the on-screen image—its colors and lines separate. My eyes ache and I look away as the black box emits another jarring buzz.
When I look back, the kids have left the town. Now they skip along a woodland road, surrounded by scenes of bucolic bliss: Farmers till fields. Livestock are out to pasture. Country folk pass along the road. I recognize these images dimly, like I might recognize classmates in an elementary class picture.
Yet the road leads into eldritch woods and swamp. The score’s strings and woodwinds thrum. Among the trees, men with axes and great saws are chopping away foliage and felling great trunks. These workers have dark skin and chains around their ankles, and they’re watched by lighter-skinned men astride horses and carrying weapons. Red-uniformed soldiers also mill about, guarding other chained men sitting on the ground. All faces are grim and heavy except the children’s, who gaze around wide-eyed and fearful.
With an orchestral blast, a soldier jumps out on the road. He shakes his rifle and shouts at the children, splintering the image into noise and disjointed lines again. The children’s screams are bursts of buzzing interference—they flee from the soldier into staticky, transmogrifying woods. There, the screaming strings give way to a softer horn and flute. Pigtails and Overalls have escaped the soldier but are running into the dense forest. They scamper over great roots, under grasping limbs, through tangled thickets, and into a company of dark-skinned men with weapons and torches.
“It’s like Pocahontas with teeth,” my brother-in-law observes.
With wolfish smiles, the men leer and grab hold of the children, binding them at the wrists. It seems they have lain in wait to attack the soldiers and save their brethren-in-chains. Several group members now shout and gesticulate toward the worksite.
As drums beat and horns blare, these men push the children back through the dark woods. Pigtails is crying, and Overalls looks on the verge of tears. As the group emerges from the trees, onto the road from which the children ran, the music quiets to a few woodwinds and horns. The soldiers turn—their shouts shake the image—and line up along the opposite side of the road. The workers throw down their tools and hail their comrades, but their grim-faced overseers draw weapons and urge their charges into a huddled group.
The antagonist forces gaze at one another. Men on each side start shouting to one another, though interference makes their words impossible to discern.
“It’s funny,” I say. “This all seems familiar—I mean, it’s more than just déjà vu. But I don’t remember it being so . . .”
“Heavy?” my brother-in-law offers. “Morally ambiguous?”
The woodsmen and the soldiers bring their prisoners forward, unfastening their respective bonds. Guns still ready, each side urges its charges to the other. The children arrive safely to the soldiers, the workers to the woodsmen, and the two forces begin retreating from one another. Yet a soldier, whose eyes are cast fixedly at his opponents, sets his boot down onto a snake. With cartoonishly villainous eyes, the creature whips up and bites the soldier’s leg. The man yelps in shock and fires his rifle.
As the soundtrack’s horns and drums blast, the images turn to violence, disjointed colors, and jerking images. Even through the noise, I see men falling, blood sprouting from their wounds. Those who remain standing charge their opponents, swinging swords or rifles with bayonets—their clashing and screams of pain ring through the black box’s buzz. The grim-faced men on horses charge their recently-liberated laborers, who remain weaponless.
“Holy cow,” my brother-in-law says, “this is supposed to be a kids’ movie?”
Carnage reigns. The children, protected by the soldiers from the initial volley of gunfire, run under clashing swords and dive behind trees as their protectors fall, dismembered and screaming.
The image cuts to the seaside town. All faces therein look up towards the wooded hills where crashing gunfire sounds. The sky has darkened, and smoke rises from the trees. Men start running and shouting, going into their homes and retrieving weapons. Women and children run and take cover where they can. Bells clang, horses are saddled, soldiers line up in formation, and torches light up. Within this activity, the funny little man continues his oration: “Here is a horse who has a bad look. He is pursy, he is foundered, he is unshoed! Give me another—I will not that. Your pistols are loaded? Go down, I shall make march! No—I forgot to buy gunpowder and balls.”
A large company, with soldiers in front and the townsmen following them, marches out from the town and towards the forest. They are led by a man on a dark horse with a plume in his hat: proud, upright, sword drawn and pointing forward. Yet the company only reaches the farms outside of town, as woodsmen have emerged from the forests and overrun the fields and pastures. The opponents clash among the crops and battle between barns.
“I don’t . . . I can’t remember any of this,” I say in horror. “This can’t be the right movie.”
The screen pans across a burning countryside, shot through with noise and disjointed frames. From overhead, we watch clashes between dark shapes, the ground around them littered with corpses. The conflagration eats the town too—woodsmen run down the main street and burst into houses, setting fires. Soldiers engage them in the market and alleys. The sky has gone full black with smoke, the ground beneath alight in oranges and yellows.
Then, the screaming strings, blaring horns, and great drums ease to a low pulse. The fighting appears to fall away. In its place, shapes emerge from the smoke and ruins, resolving into dark, hooded figures who spread throughout the town. Each one stops among a slew of slain bodies, where they reach down and clasp dead hands. Despite wounds or spattered blood, the corpses rise up and, still holding the hands of the hooded figures, reach down to raise their counterparts.
The tape’s noise and interference have eased, and the soundtrack softens to a gentle, plucking harp and light strings. Fires that once raged have dimmed to a soft glow. Woodsmen, townspeople, soldiers, grim-faced overseers, washerwomen, and children now stand hand-in-hand in a long line. Then, a lone violin bursts into urgent, dissonant chords. I recognize this new composition, yet my brain cannot connect it to a name. When I turn to ask my brother-in-law, he’s staring open-mouthed at the screen.
The hooded figures, interspersed in the line of corpses, begin a rhythmic step in time to the new song. And as a screeching but sustained melody starts up, figures and corpses alike hop and step into a proper dance. The hoods and the cloaks fall back from the newcomers, revealing skeletons as upright and animated as maids at May Dance. They lead the people through the town market in an ambulatory waltz, weaving through abandoned stalls and wares then dancing up the streets and among the houses. While the wraiths traipse over other corpses, the more recent revenants grab dead hands and pull their owners up. The line of dancers passes easily into houses, burnt and whole, and retrieve any occupants still within.
Now, the overseers who charged their defenseless workers follow them in the dance. Soldiers caper, nobler than ever they appeared in formation. Their proud leader retains his plumed hat, yet—placed between two phantoms—has dropped the earnest deportment he once held in every ligament. Each face is beatific, even the funny little man’s—he who was scorned in the market and streets. Yet his homily now is wordless, his movements in sync with the same folk who pelted him with refuse.
The screen cuts to a shot of the town overhead, and the music fades as the image pulls away to a view of the town from a nearby hill. Two small heads and backs enter the frame: Pigtails and Overalls. They watch the dance through the streets and exchange words, their dialogue jerking the screen out of alignment and producing a buzz of interference. Then, two skeletal hands appear, each of which clasps a shoulder of one child. Pigtails and Overalls turn and gaze up at a great skeleton behind them, cloaked but with its hood pushed back. In its forehead, a great jewel is set.
The children and the wraith stare at each other a moment, then the latter releases their shoulders and holds out its bony hands to them. Each child takes one, and as the score swells to full volume again, the figure leads them to the town and its dancing inhabitants. The screen fades to black, credits roll, and my brain finally furnishes the composition’s title: the Danse Macabre.
While my brother-in-law sputters and stammers, “What the fuck was that!?” I picture the clown on that lime green T-shirt, its grin is now sinister and barbaric. I hear my wife laugh and say, “Your parents are a trip,” her words now derisive and cold. And then my mother’s note that came with the tape returns to me: Now you can watch with your little prince or princess. Can’t wait to meet them!
Woof Achoo writes dark fiction, poetry, and marketing copy. Read his other work at woofachoo.com or find him on Twitter at @AchooWoof.
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