I finally finished The Dark: New Ghost Stories, which is the book that I read for Readers Imbibing Peril‘s Peril The Third. I’ll write that review soon, but I want to do a separate post about the last story in the collection, Glen Hirshberg’s “Dancing Men.” Not only is it a terrific story — it was nominated for the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella in 2004 — but it also fits The Short Story Initiative‘s September theme: “Getting to know each other.”
Actually, I think Nancy just meant that we the participants should get to know each other, but since it fits, hey…
In “Dancing Men”, Seth Gadeuski, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, is leading a group of American teenagers on a tour of Europe called The Legacy of the Holocaust. In Prague, he faints when he sees a Romani street vendor selling marionettes. In his foggy state, he says out loud: “I didn’t kill my grandfather.”
This experience leads him to recall the summer when he was nine years old, the summer that he learned the truth about his grandfather and his history.
Seth hadn’t been close to his grandfather; in fact he hadn’t been close to his own father, either, whom he refers to once as “Zombie-Dad,” because he is so distant. All three of the men in the family — grandfather, father, and Seth — are remote, distant people, who don’t seem to express, or maybe even feel, emotions towards others.
The summer he was nine, Seth’s father brings him to stay with his grandfather, in the desert outside of Albuquerque. His grandfather’s caretaker, a Navaho woman named Lucy, conducts an Enemy Way with Seth. The Enemy Way is a Navaho ceremony for warriors returning from battle. The ceremony is meant to exorcise the chindi, or evil ghosts, that plague a person. Chindi often arise from violence (they are the evil part of a person’s spirit, which cannot move on, as the good part can). I imagine that this is why there is a Way for those who return from war, lest they be haunted by the chindi of those they killed, or those who were killed around them.
That’s really all I know about the Enemy Way. I can’t speak to how accurate Hirshberg’s depiction is, but at any rate, I get the impression that Lucy only conducts it to humor Seth’s grandfather. It’s a precursor to the grandfather telling Seth his story.
I can’t say much more without giving away the plot, except this: Seth’s grandfather is a survivor of the Chelmno concentration camp in Poland. Over 150,000 people were killed in that camp: Jews, Romani, Czechs, and Soviet prisoners of war. There were only a handful of survivors; perhaps as few as two or three.
And this makes “Dancing Men” not only a ghost story, but a genuine horror story (the two are different). The horror, though, is not in this fictional narrative, but from history, in Seth’s grandfather’s recounting of his experience in the camp, including having to bury other murdered prisoners in mass graves. This is Seth’s grandfather’s personal Enemy Way, the ritual of recounting his story, first to his son, and now to his grandson.
“Why does Grandpa call me ‘Ruach’? I snapped. …
“Do you know what ‘ruach’ means?” he said.
I shook my head.
“It’s a Hebrew word. It means ghost.”
Hearing that was like being slammed to the ground. I couldn’t get my lungs to work.
My father went on. “Sometimes, that’s what it means. It depends what you use it with, you see? Sometimes, it means spirit, as in the spirit of God. Spirit of life. What God gave to his creations.” He stubbed his cigarette in the sand, and the orange light winked out like an eye blinking shut. “And sometimes, it just means wind.”
By my sides, I could feel my hands clutch sand as breath returned to my body. The sand felt cool, soft. “You don’t know Hebrew either,” I said.
“I made a point of knowing that.”
“Because that’s what he called me, too,” my father said…
The ghosts in this story are real; the supernatural aspects, only lightly touched upon. I really felt the way the the nine-year-old Seth struggled to understand his cold family, and the regret adult Seth feels at having grown into the same remote human being as his father. “Dancing Men” is a rueful meditation on the way the Holocaust has left its traces across multiple generations. It’s also a meditation on how the way we love, or don’t love, our children ripples on.