The Devil’s Projector, short story – 1 November 2015

This short is taken from Act II of The Chameleon Mirror, The Thief of Thursday.

A group of men and women in sharp business suits sat in semi-circle round a dusty old computer. All-star black. I sit at the head of the table and a man to my right introduces himself and the rest of the group. There’s a television at the end of the table opposite to me. The eldest man on the left stood beside the AV setup, and ran a clip. Static filled the screen then freckles of white skin appeared then light hair curled, then a white shirt and dress, white socks and shoes. A tennis-racket tea-set popped into view and Willow, sweet Willow, an imaginary friend they said. But kind and her hair was white and stringy. Old Willow miss Willow was with’ring steadfast waving like the others blades of fluff among the mast. She went away, this friend, now renting a spot in my heart and imagination.

 There’s no freak genius just some demons that speak English, target evangelical snakeslingers in four seasons for four reasons snapping snakes stealing souls and they say,

AMEN.

            Hallelujah!

 I pulled out of the tape. That’s what it was. A media device, a recording, a moment at Moncrief, no was it An’mien? And the old man said,  “Accept or take another?”  The others looked at me.

            I looked up and down and the iron frowns returned like stone.

            Monotone,

 “You can make a choice to take one moment into the lord’s paradise, or take all memory, all moments, and entire the world of fire.’  “Another,” the man beside the screen said.

 I felt him say Amen? Ahm-myeen, his name. I’d never heard a name like that.  The screen pans back from the nose of a dog, and my sister is in diapers patting him on the head, old Traveler. A collie with a mane of white, a prize to be sure. And his eyes. The light amber brown touched orange burst into focus like a little sun the size of a ladybug.

            Mama?

            Yes Renny, miss bo, what are you doing?

            She walked through the TV into the room, in that red kimona.

            Let me look at you.

 She turned my eyes to hers those almond browns and looked into mine. She smiled. My Wenny, my Lenny, miss bo! My how you’ve grown! You think your hair is short enough? She smiled and thumped me on the head. Then placed her hand on the side of my cheek. I don’t care what your father says. It looks great. You look wonderful miss Bo, Mrs Brisbois!

 I snapped out of it realizing that somehow I had been into the screen. They let me know, if I didn’t choose one thought or memory or idea that is meant for me could potentially trap me like a genie in a bottle here, inside that screen, stuck in a memory that happened to keep me from slipping out. Each tape they played, it had a song. Bang bang, you shot me all along! My father played the piano, wrote poems and violins. I sat on his lap and he listen here, this is how we’ll us both, Mama too, we’ll sneak off into heaven and take the thief Lain when we do!

 Listen, father said. They may never bring it up. You’re my daughter, a Brisbois like my son. Your mother is difficult, you know. She’s so lovely, so lovely and I love her, but she has a more, strict set of social codes. You know? Don’t keep me here!

 I was back in the seat. The tears swelling in my eyes. Surprisingly, I’d been in the rest of that scene, and how hard it was to stay there as I lived to hear him say it. And it dinged off inside the room, making it impossible to flee.

 Your mother thinks that since we weren’t married proper, that they’d deny you that theatre. Well, we’re not barbarians, and honor can be here won by women and men, bastards and bastard kings. Don’t ever think that since these Greeks couldn’t claim their daughter she’s put as special as you are my bo, Lenny my star. Don’t believe them, not ever that, you’re less because you’re this or that. I tried to strain to pull away but the glass around me kept me in and for the first time in that world I could tell it was a light-show ran by little men, shaped so roundly paper-thin. The words were falling down the screen, through which those who held me must have seen.

 This world is as much yours as mine. Renette, Renette! If you’re ever anyone’s be theirs by your choices. For university to Scottish pubs. Demand and earn respect and it’s yours. Your mother has a different way, you know. Because you’re so so pretty little Bo. But you’re more than pretty. You’re my viking girl. And you’ll be Frey in the Christmas play, and Loki he’ll fall mad for you.

 And there was Lain outside the screen. Hundreds of feet tall so it seemed. Looking at me as the words crawled up the wall in waltzing spirals to the beat of an automatic clock set on repeat. I jumped from one word curious, to another frightened, breathless, overwhelmed and rest.

            Outside the screen again, the people looked to me,

            “Choose,” they said, “One memory. One for heaven, hell for three.”

            I asked by impulse, “What about all?”        “This room, this here?”

            A man with a dignified voice said.

 “This place is between two others, you know by the wrong name. One requires you let go, and so pain goes along. The other lets you keep your pain with your forever alone.”

            “And if I stayed here?”

            The choir gasped, each one except that same man.           “Don’t you know where you are, my Bo?”              She knew as soon as he called her Bo.

            “Brisbois,” he said. “My Joan of Arc. Empress of Arcadia, Queen of the Isles and March.”

 The others had left and with that man, the well-dressed older fellow running these scenes he threw on the screen behind his fingers like playing cards. The thought, I thought, that we’ll all die, it vexes us sometimes in life. For some more so than someone else. It’s still more near a nightmare than a dream to realize you’re in Hell, and getting out requires a choice: To take the anguish and the noise, but every photo ever done, every memory, everyone. Lain and Cammy, Russeau and Jon, my mother, Yes! Mme Nanty… It’s time for you to go on.

            The second tape

I was pulled into the screen. I was dressed up dressed like Cleopatra. I must’ve been 9. In America, it was fun. That’s where I met Lain. He was a big fish in a small pond and we walked around the neighborhood. It must have been 99, maybe. His half-brother Gilbert, four years younger, had been in an accident and he was at that dumb parade. This was a small town, where Lain came from. Every year they had a carnival. Setup like a cheap and temporary fair. A tilt-a-whirl, and gravity pulled him against me on that ride with Maddie. He was in central park I think it was during lunch. I watched him playing chess as I walked up. Nobody was there. So I asked if I could play when he finished. Yes, he said. I’m done. Do you want to go first?

 He looked at me. Lain, god fucking fogasfk. You lose them. We lose them all. What picture do you take then, if to preserve yourself at the expense of all else? Defeat it. Change that. Make them immortal somehow.

 The man smiled in a unique way, seeing her self as her body turned grey. I was behind the scene then, lifted up, drained into the background as I watched them in a cup. “Choose one memory, go up; or take all with you down.”  Another choice, the voice whose owner I had been.

            The man, that demon, that angel, whatever he was, smiled again. He loved her it seemed. And it was unique. He spoke with warmth, while once so cold, distant but now closer.

 “A third choice?” he smiled. “Only for you, my Bo. You can stay here with me, and watch the show. You don’t have to take one, not for heaven, nor purgatory with all, stay in hell where you belong.”

            But I can watch these tapes? I said. Much more confident was I in death.

 “With me, you can watch for eternity. You can go inside that dream machine. I’ll be here by the setup here, as new clients come and finally clear, you can come back into this

little room, I’ll join you in the afternoon. I’ll leave the tapes beside your bed.”

            “I want each scene of me and Dad.”

            “Okay,” the friendly devil said. He’s not as bad as you’d think.

 A moment passed. He saw that then, I wanted to see the screen. My dad again, he threw the card. It stuck to the glassware then a wire brought the sound out of a fiddle. The devil went down to Georgia!”  Did you get his soul?

            The devil said, “You may not know,

            “I may have lost that sole, that one show,     But I met him again fifty years on,         He chose the banjo and moved on.       He took that memory with him,       Into the highest highs of H’en.

            “Do some take all to purgatory?”

 “The poets,” said he, “Romantics that have somehow turned it upside down and made the smiley face a frown. I thought you would, you’d take them all, and suffer with them, forever, just to hold onto a boxful of ghosts.”

 Renette had stopped listening to him talk He’s – he’s I came to myself. The devil has a dark side like everyone else. As for Renette’s, she made a gamble on the bet that the devil, if indeed he were, had thought of no such thing as mirth. Each time he laughed he weakened; Renette didn’t need the treats above, with a digital scrapbook and the world; in her way it was the greatest thing she thought a man or anyone could in the most unlikely dreams: she tricked the devil with the magic word and made him say please. And when he realized the lies, the deceit, he laughed to know that he’d been beat.

 I heard the snap of fingers. He stood before me then. Behind him was a whirling hurricane, hurrying towards a wall of flame. The devil bellowed (yellow!)

            Lane!

 Oh dear, I felt it in my bones. And bones he was and strung along. Whispy, thin as a sheet of paper, and he’d written on it in his blood. Even in hell, misunderstood; he could spell and work but just as good, a suicide floated in the woods and woods he liked; he’d been without them all his life. He floated down and saw me, frowning – more sorrowful than man I’d seen in hell while I’d descend. Leaving the video room again.

 I walked into fire expecting flame but found instead more a cool lake, the embers more like little eddys scribbled in and golden, electric to the touch. I could tell however, despite how heavenly my Hell, Lain looked like Hell in his.

            Lane said, go into the TV, meet me there. I’ll get you out of here and we’ll go South.

            Why not to heaven?

            I know a cooler place.

            “Where is cooler than heaven?”

            “I don’t know, your place?”

            “My place is a mess!”

            “It’s better than hell.”

            The Devil changed the TV channel.

 The props rose behind a cabin, a wooden shed. A boat was in there, and a young boy was washing one side of it. It was filthy; he’d covered it in swaths of paint. Hypnosis, madame butterfly was on. Lain, sweet Lain. He’s about 15 hear, and he has that stupid hair-cut but he’s tall. Thinks he’s the smartest man in the world. He crosses his eyes just to make me laugh and ruins such a good photo of him. I can hear him talk, his voice picking different accents. He chewed on words when he got nervous.

            I’m Renette! I said.

            You are French? He asked. We’d never met.        Yes, I say. I couldn’t help but laugh.

            Before I could respond he’d asked,            ‘What’s your last name, hyphens?’             ‘Renette Brisbois,’ I say.

            “Nice to meet you M Brisbois,” in that accent. Articulate devil, even then.

            “And you Monsieur …?”

            “Lain.”

            “Alain…” I fidgeted. Fuck!

            ‘Yes, I go by Lane. Charles is my first name. Charles Pinon.”

            “Would you rather me call you Lane or Charles?”

            “Whichever you’d like, mademoiselle.”

            “Okay then,” squeak squeak. “What do you do for fun?”

            “I write.”

            “I write too!”

            And we were friends. All writers I think are friends, even when they hate each other.   ‘Where does Brisbois come from?’ he asked. ‘Is it a family name?’

 ‘No,’ I said. ‘It was a chosen name my mother used to hide my parentage from her husband.’ I wanted to cry. No bastard’s happy to be one.

            ‘Did you know your dad?’

            ‘Just from dreams. You?’

            ‘From my stories.”

            “Oh, these stories again…’ I was out of my mind!  ‘Would you like me to tell you a story?’  It’s weird to be intimidated by a child.

            ‘Sure,’ I said. I felt like an idiot.        ‘You’re fine,’ he said. ‘I’d love to.’        ‘Okay,’ so silly.

            ‘What kind of story would you like to hear?’

            ‘A true story!’

            ‘About?’

            ‘Tell me about the last woman you loved.”

 He seemed shocked. Not unawares, but surprised I’d said it. His smile turned into a happier expression. ‘I’d love to,’ he says. ‘Enjoy.’

 ‘Once in Istanbul a mother named Terrha gave birth to a conjoined set of twins. Siamese twins, some call them. The child was unique and beautiful, two girls—two girl heads, that is. Sersia controlled everything, and Lera felt everything, the prick of needles, the warmth of Sersia’s body, but she could not move, not a single hand, and so her head traveled around Sersia’s body, at the whim of what she chose.

 She chose to bash a sailor’s brains in with an old Clam shell. The conjoined head screams for her to stop. The adrenaline shoots through her skin but she can’t make the body stop destroying that sailor’s face. And we were arrested. She asked me to lie, to say he tried to take her by force. But she wouldn’t. So they go to court and Sersia pleaded not guilty, but her sister, though innocent, pleaded guilty. The jury was left to the decide to question: is it worse to let go one murderer to preserve the life of the innocent or punish a crime at the expense of the innocent and by that commit a crime against the innocent?  The jury came back unanimous.   You are the jury. Work this out.”  What a strange child!

            “Is there a right answer?” I asked.               “Yes,” he said.     “Ethically?”

            “Scientifically.”

 He never told me. He said some questions are really answers to an unspoken question posed by the Earth, curious about itself.

            “Tell me one of your stories,” he said.

            “I don’t write stories,” I said. “Just poems.”

            “Can I hear one?”

            “Sure,” confident? Nailed it.

            Nothing lasts forever

Long live the Queen! or not …

Each daughter did their duty

Raising their siblings, all Cindarellas,

No offspring of their own;

At their core, in every child, Was a desire for the throne.

So when the queen was found,

Asleep,

Dead on her satin pillow,

The Royal Guard was pulled apart,

And Regicide! Declared …

Executed were the guardians Each one that wasn’t there.

And so each dreaming Cindarella,

One by one,

Was prepared for the chair.

The peasants and the people of the kingdom weren’t told

That queen Muriel, beloved by young and old,

Had been found without her crown

Her skin already cold, And each day the same parade The same charade portrayed:

A daughter in disguise was taken by The road most taken by the Queen

By the gardens and the markets

She waved from her dark veil

How sweet it was, thought Elanore,

To be so loved, adored;

Each blessing and each tailored

Dressing

Warmed her to the thought:

That the veil may fall, it fell;

And so she took the throne.

Seeing this new Queen, her being, So young and before unseen,

The peasants riot in the streets.

Elanore burned in effigy,

From sea to sea,

From caves and towns, The hecklers in the streets demanded Elanore renounce the crown.

So her retinue of guards

And staff of sycophants,

Prepped an announcement disavowing Any desire to remain:

Though Elanore refused, and more,

Had each traitor slain;

First her guards and then her brothers,

Then her sisters, so becoming, More feared than loved but, It’s enough:

More like her mother she’d become.  Rebellions rose, and frequently
She made examples in the street: Executions, martyrdom;

Baptizing heathens in their blood.

Each shadow she thought had a plan,

Each whispering servant, each stage-hand, All she thought had the desire,
To see her overthrown:
She’d take them with her,
Each advisor:

Would burn like them all
The Fire:

It starts with the smallest town,

And spread without control

Unbound

Through cities and forests like driftwood

Razed

Until Elanore herself went out
Like so many in the flame.

Chapter 1

Last New Year’s Eve

My mother was center stage, right there in the spotlight, dressed as Queen Clytemnestra. It was her first role and her favorite, wife of King Agamemnon from the play by Aeschylus, the first play I ever saw, in a dark, smoke-filled shanty theatre in Paris. She wore that same dress, screaming red. A prop sword in one hand, the other pulling back the cotton head of our mascot Tragos, tragedy my friend, that janitor in drag.

“Troy has fallen!”

The crowd cheered on like Spartan whores, like clapping seals and Sirens, whistling shame.

Mother held the sword aloft to the sound of more applause, then she let it fall; and silent it fell soft along the seams of that poor mascot’s head. And off it came, the crowd roared on, applauding as it ran bloodless down, down, down, down, off the stage into the crowd. A thespian in a black mask scooped it up, hoisted it into the air, and shouted:

“Happy new year!”

“Happy new year!”

The bloodless sacrifice complete, the Gods appeased, the janitor in the buffoonish goat-suit was hurried off the stage. He stumbled into the crowd to retrieve his head. After a brief scuffle with some drunk asshole in the front row, it was returned to him. Mother raised her hand to bring the crowd to silence again, ever the conductor, a virtuoso playing their preferred instrument: a crowd of two hundred at capacity, and more if you didn’t mind standing or sitting in an aisle, or on the floor.

“I’d like to thank you all for coming, first of all,” mother said. “It’s a pleasure and a privilege, truly, to see you all tonight, to have such support from the community and our friends, and our family. So, on behalf of everyone here at the La petite illusion, the Players and the Faces, thank you making this year’s Christmas play such a success. And remember, when you see the stage light come on…” a large, bright light flickered into life above the stage. “When you see that light, it’ll ten minutes until midnight. So, if you’re interested in joining us for the bonfire, make sure to meet us at stage door left when you see the light. Now, until then, enjoy the music! Enjoy the wine! I’ll see you all at midnight!”

More applause. She smiled, and smiling walked away, waving with a rigid, cupped hand like an aged beauty Queen, forever a rose, a rose forever to fade but never wilt; mother would have to be buried alive. The house band, just four college kids on holiday, had gathered in front of the drawn curtains and began to set up. Two young men and two guitars with nylon strings, la-la-la-la-la. A digital grand that clanged for a young lady, about my age or thereabouts, a lovely piano, upright on rolling wheels, one violinist, Chinese and demure, very thin and sexy.

Behind the curtain was a softer symphony, unheard, drowned by the cheerful holiday music mixed with a mumbling crowd of Faces and masked patrons, the soft symphony in silence behind the scenes, , drowned out by this cheerful and familiar holiday music, a chorus of shuffling feet.

And Jack Cade said it best:

I have thought upon it, it shall be so.

Away, burn

all the records of the realm:

my mouth shall be the parliament of England.

“Spare none,” he said.

And none were spared.

Not one chair, nor table cloth, everything had to burn, just painted kindling, a great buffet by poor Camille, a discount muse but worth each Franc.

With our audience and patrons, and anyone who’d wandered in for a drink or a show, everyone who gathered for this show, playing the voyeur, all costumed and masked, to burn those props—that was the show, that was the point. Camille was one of the few staff members I knew personally; a young girl and very pretty, kind of dim and shy, she sat on the flyloft above the stage, suspended from the rafters with her feet dangling off. The rest were kept in costume while at work, as per mother’s instruction.

The workers without masks were Faces in theatre lingo, always behind the stage or in front, never on it, forever locked in one poor role, confined by their own skin. The rest, the actors and performers and staff, save for me and Lain and Camille, they were Abstracts, they were character, like that poor goat Tragedy; they were Players, and as such were never given, nor did they give, real names, and were never to be referred to as such. Referring to them by their character names, mother told me, helped their performances. It probably gave them acute impostor syndrome too, but that didn’t matter, not as long as the reviews were good. Tragedy joined us at the bar.

“Good evening, Tragos,” said Lain.

“Nice to see you, Charles,” said Tragos. They shook hands warmly.

“You know, Robert,” said Lain, “I think you’re the only person I know who dies for a living.”

He smiled.

“I had no idea why Madame Nanty wanted me to dress like this, much less pretend to cut my damn head off. You know how I found out? My mom was born in Athens, not far from where that shit started, an offering to the Gods. What an offering!”

We all laughed.

“Yeah,” I said, looking over to Lain. “You know, when theatre began, it was basically a cult, a boy’s only club, all based around a ritual celebration. It was a cult, a cult of Dionysus, God of fertility and wine.”

“To Dionysus!” said Robert.

“To fertility and wine!” Lain said.

“They sacrificed real animals before the start of every play,” I said. “To honor the Gods, naturally. Theatres were outside back them, you know, you do what you have to do.” And, at the start of each performance, they sacrificed a goat to honor the Gods. Theatres were outside then; you did what you had to do.”

“And we just sacrifice our dignity,” said Lain.

“We’d probably do the same, if we had to,” I said. “Think about what we go through already, sacrificing our dignity to critics, starving ourselves to fit in costumes to be scrutinized and judged by out of shape assholes. Gods are easy, critics are not won so easily, and if sacrificing a goat got us a better write up, a better review in nouvelles de divertissement, we’d have a farm behind the fucking theatre.”

Lain laughed, “No expense, no goat, no mercy!”

“Lance!” I called, turning away. Lain was explaining his new play to Robert.

There were three bartenders on staff, all well dressed; tuxedos and simplistic masks. Lance was the only Face at the bar. He was very prim, very proper, and neat, very neat, and too much so. At least for me. I imagined that his father beat him. He approached the end of the bar where we were sitting:

“Yes, mademoiselle?”

“You see that guy in the goat costume?” I asked.

Lance nodded, “Yes, mademoiselle.”

“I want you to take him the Cote Chalonnaise,” I gestured toward the underside of the opposing cabinet. “And, yeah, that one. And, grab the green—that one, yes! the Macon. And get him a couple of decent glasses, tall.”

“Who am I to say it is from?”

“It’s ‘whom’!” Lain shouted at him. “Fucking idiot!”

“Tell him it is from the Queen,” I said, talking over Lain.

“If the person is the subject of the sentence, you say ‘whom’…”

“Yes, mademoiselle,” Lance said, never breaking character. And he kept on. And on.

After retrieving the bottles and two tall, slender glasses, Lance handed them to Robert.

“And you shouldn’t end a sentence with ‘from.’ Because…”

The Cote Chalonnaise was especially nice, and the dusty bottle was a sure way to tweak the nipples of a connoisseur.

“Prepositions are there to show the relationship between the noun and the pronoun…”

Robert took the bottles one by one, and lovingly, then the glasses. He sat them down and read the dusty labels.

“From whom? Well, to whom shall I say? That sounds bad, whom shall I say? No…”

“Compliments of the Queen,” said Lance.

He was without costume finally, in a comfortable button up shirt. The man looking back at me was a stranger then, somehow less real without his mask.”

“It’s from mother!” I said. “She forgot to give it to you on Christmas.”

“You’re just a noun, you know. You’re a diminutive little noun, unworthy of superlative or adverb…”

“Lain, shut the fuck up!” I said. “English isn’t his first language!”

“It’s not mine either!”

“Merci,” Robert said. “My wife is going to go crazy when she sees the year on this Chalonnaise.”

“Thank you Robert!” I said. “We’re very grateful to have you here!”

“We all know who the Queen is,” he said. He smiled, bid us a very good evening, and walked away, with Tragedy dissolving into just another member of the unnamed supporting cast.

I called for Lance again. He approached after serving to middle-aged ladies dressed like slutty angels.

“Two fingers of bourbon for me,” I said, “and take Lain one of his pussy drinks.”

“Such as?” he asked.

“Something fruity,” I said. “A white Russian, perhaps? Yes, that’ll do. Thanks, Lance.”

He returned a moment later with our orders.

“Two fingers of Jim for mademoiselle,” said Lance, “and a white Russian for Monsieur Pinon.”

“That’s racist,” said Lain.

I sat my glass on a square napkin, pretending not to notice Lance’s number scribbled on it in hurried, purple penstrokes. Painfully obvious and Lain caught a glimpse when I passed him his drink. He didn’t say a word, but I saw it in his eyes, a small defeat. He took a generous sip from his glass.

“Anything else?” asked Lance.

“Not now,” I said. “Now, fuck off.”

“Yes, mademoiselle,” he said. He returned to serving the other costumers. I turned to Lain.

“Cheers, Monsieur Pinon!” I said. He smilled despite himself. I raised my glass.

“Cheers, Mademoiselle Brisbois!” said Lain, raising his The glasses clinked together and we both finished our drinks in one long, profane gulp.

We chatted between shots, taking in the sights and sounds, the live band playing merry music, the smell of liquor and cheap perfume in the air, small clouds of cigarette smoke swirling under low-hanging, red-tinted spiderlamps. The audience was alive with mirth and conversation, the social butterflies buzzing, deaf to the fools with nets behind them. Lain was doing the same: silently judging everyone, trying to guess who those people were, beneath the mask, what kind of animals were they without those feathers? Or was there nothing but feathers, and nothing under the mask but another one, or a smooth face, smooth as a cue ball and just as featureless and memorable.

“Here’s to The Little Illusion,” Lain. He held up his empty shot glass. I raised mine. They clinked together with a hollow clink! as we tossed back the drink that wasn’t there.

“Best of the night!” said Lain.

“Here’s to it,” I said.

The hollow sound the glasses made when they clinked together somehow got through: when you’re 5’4”, don’t match drinks with a guy over 6 feet tall. Especially not a Russian.

“I hope you’re being careful,” a far-off, snobbish voice said. It was her superpower, judgment, arising for the perfect moment from the darkness. I straightened my back and turned my bloodshot eyes back to white. A strange talent, I’d discovered it in drama school.

“Tell her, Lain,” she said, “If she’s going to do Anna again this year at the Medea, she needs to watch her weight.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to kill myself and be fat,” I said.

Lain laughed, and mother turned to him and smiled, a broad and bright smile. It was her way of saying, you’re funny, but not quite funny enough to earn my laughter. A smile, and that’s it, you fucking peasant.

“Bonne soirée, Charles,” she said. “Comment çava?”

“Il est une merveilleuse nuit putain,” he said. “Pardon my French.”

She smiled.

“Such a clever boy,” she said. “You need to talk Renette into growing her hair back out so she can keep getting leading roles.”

“You see,” Lain said. “That’s the problem. You can’t negotiate with fire.”

“But she had such lovely hair.”

“Renette could get any role in Paris if she were bald.”

“I know you love her.”

“Everybody loves Renette,” said Lain. “Except Renette, of course.”

Mother smiled again.

“Take care of her, Lain,” she said. “I’ll see you later. Renette, behave yourself! I don’t want to find you under the bar!”

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“I’m going to meet with a new director,” she said. “A potential director, that is. I saw a really good production of his last week and got his contact information from the Exchange. So, I’m going to show him around, show him how we do things here. Hopefully we can get him on board and do something really, truly new. I’ll see you in a bit.”

She leaned in and kissed Lain and both sides of his cheek, and then me.

“I love you two,” she said.

“See you then,” I said. “Remember: don’t leave your drinks attended around Lianne. Just saying.”

“We love you too, Madame.”

She smiled again. Fucking peasant.

“Make her behave, Lain,” she said. “Don’t let her drink too much.”

“Remember King Lear,” said Lain. “‘Get not between a dragon and its wrath’? It’s like that with her.”

“Good lad,” she said and turned to walk away. “Good evening, Charles.”

He fucking hated being called Charles.

“Good evening, Mme. Nanty!” Lain called.

She thrust a hand into the air and waved without turning round. In mere moments she had disappeared as quickly as she had appeared. Lain followed her through the crowd; excellent vision, somehow keeping track of her. The red, of course. The Russian blood.

“That’s racist.”

He nudged my shoulder.

“Who is that?” he asked. “Look, right over there.”

He nudged my shoulder.

“What?”

“Who’s that?” he asked. “Look, right there. The guy with the mask.” He gestured across the gallery, lit only by sparse dining table candles. I followed his pointed finger, bouncing from one masked face to another.

“Are you fucking with me?” I asked. “Everywhere is over there!”

It didn’t take me long to catch a glimpse of the man. He stood out somehow, my mother very animated, holding his hands in hers and smiling broadly. It was the mask, a damn grotesque but lovely in that twisted way, lovely in the way a flower growing from a boot might be. It was a faded white, an ivory color, the color of Time and dust, snowflakes and cigarette ash. The nose was very prominent, about nine inches give or take, hanging from his face but not too sharp. Grotesque, sure, but not horrific. The rest of his clothes were black, save for his cuffs, both white with a black button in.

“I hope we can get a good director here,” said Lain.

I nodded.

“As fun as it is to do all those Shakespeare plays,” he said. “I didn’t come to France to do the same shit they do off-Broadway in New York.”

“Why the fuck did you come to France, again?”

“For you,” he said. “You know that.”

I smiled, turning to look toward the upper crosswalk again where mother had stood with the strange little man and his Pinocchio mask. They were gone. I scanned the crowd to no avail, the liquor making itself known to us both.

I sat my glass down and Lain followed. Lance hurried over to collect, thanking me profusely for a €50 tip. We walked from the bar, humming together, our heart beats keeping tempo; I was stumbling drunk, my arm around Alain. He smelled like old books, like a fine mahogany desk. He kept me up-right somehow. We weaved in between one patron after another and finally found mother and my little sister Lianne at the exit, precious Lee, and more were gathering as the green light above the stage had come on. Lianne said hello to Lain and he knelt and took her little hand into his and kissed it, saying,

“Madame shook her hand, “Madame.” She smiled a toothy smile, her two front teeth missing.

They began to gather in ever larger groups in front of us, what was left of my family. And Lain, of course. Alain. It was a large crowd. Many were as drunk as we were but all were polite, well poised and surprisingly proper for a French mob in Friday voyeur masks.

“Alright,” mother said. “Hey, hey!”

She whistled, a whistle so loud it hurt. “Listen!”

Get not between a dragon and its wrath.

Everyone went quiet quickly.

“Now, we’re all here to have fun, but be careful and don’t get too close to the fire. And once it gets started, please stay behind the crossguards. One simple rule: if it’s taller than you are, don’t get near it! That goes for you too Lain!”

Everybody laughed.

HAHAHA.

“Okay? Great! Now, follow me.”

She flung the swinging doors open, outward into a cold night, the crowd spilling out in single file behind us. And there we were, scene of the crime. I imagined my grandfather’s ghost still walking through those ruins, never to rest, looking for his satin curtains with the dancing plague and grandma on piano. After everyone had gathered in front of the pile of painted sets and props, the kind we couldn’t use anyway since the matte painting was by then damaged by the stage light’s heat and fading, mother opened the easily negotiable barrier between the scenic kindling, carrying a single candle. She struck a match and lit it. She spoke:

“50 years ago, during the German occupation of France, German soldiers burned this theatre down,” she said.

Print the myth.

“When the war ended, my grandmother raised enough money from the public to rebuild this theatre, with the help of patrons and friends just like you. And over the next half century it has become our home and a part of our culture. As it passed to me when mother died, it will pass to my daughter Renette when I’m gone, and to her children then…”

Everybody looked at me and Lain. Lain put his arms around me and smiled, pulling me closer to him with one hand and holding the other, interlocking our fingers. I hugged him back and smiled. I smiled despite myself, turning a very self conscious shade of red. A chameleon cannot always control its transformations.

“And so, to celebrate our family’s tradition and our friends and patrons, it is our tradition here at La petite illusion, to burn these sets ourselves. We do this to wash away the success and pain of yesterday and start anew. We do this to symbolize our determination and rebirth. We do this because it takes more than fire to kill the French spirit…”

Mother passed the crossguard and knelt, the fire passed into the stream and flared up with a whoosh that made the gathered crowd gasp and then clap enthusiastically. And we followed her, me first, then Lain with Lee, hold her hand. The rest tip-toed near the edge of the mountain of rubbish, snickering as they razed the castle to the ground, Castle of the King, poor Lear, you poor bastard.

Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp.

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.

Thy will be done.

And so went pomp, and physic too, and then the throne and every stone, each and every brick, every single inch unto its ruin. That was our Thanksgiving, uniting us in a heathen’s Sabbath, each patron with a little colored candle, blue or white or red, just for us and not far off, just up there, just up above, was an old Watchtower deserted nowm, once a lighthouse—there were no ships no more, no more below at Le corniche, there were no ships. The fire grew ever larger as the candles fell, one after another, the line moving single file, with great caution, and with greater caution still until no longer approaching; it could feed itself.

The countdown began as “Dix!” rang out in a woman’s voice and the great trois coleur, a descending ball along a track and brightly lit, electroc-neon blue-white-red and falling with each descending number;

“Dix,” echoed back, the ball was falling and all were counting:

Neuf!

Huit!

Sept!

Six!

Sinq!

The fireworks went off in the sky, bursting into those patriotic colors, I pulled Lain close to me and put my head against his shoulder and closed my eyes, the fire calming and warming me.

Quatre!

Trois!

Deux!

The flashing lights of the trois coleur solidified as it came to a rest at the base, a base from which it would not rise for another year, next year’s New Year’s Eve, and all were clapping, hugging one another as the fireworks increased in brightness, so bright I could see the whiter whites with my eyes closed, the New Year ringing out through the French countryside.

And all together:

Un!

“Happy new year!”

And those happy people, young and old, all in great cheer and happy, thrilled by the coming year and its promise. I’d never see them again, most of them, and not without a mask. If anyone who stood there then showed up the year to follow, a year from where we stood that night, Lain and I, watching the fire grow and warm inside. One year from a curtain call for most, and finally they’d get the spotlight, center stage, never to see roses, and a shame it is for all to only get your roses when you fall, nor read the many rave reviews, a two-star epitaph on a five-star grave.

<– Return to Prologue Go to Chapter 2 –>

 

Briefly Available: the first chapter (after prologue) of the Chameleon Mirror “

A NEW YEAR’S EVE

1

“I don’t know what it’s supposed to be. A play, a book? Is it modern?”

Late for our party now, Lain and I, with little fashion to it: we were part of the show. Supposed to be, at least. I imagined Camille, fellow worker, my poor dear. She watched from the skyloft, always moving, pulling ropes. She was pretty and tall and confused, the cute kind you don’t get frustrated with, not the kind that owes you money. I spent a lot of time with her, above that stage, it was unforgiving; unforgiving lights, seemingly asking you the question:

“Shame today, mademoiselle?”

“No, sir Roilet,” I’d say.

Never!

Lying already. Father’d be proud.

It would have been me up there, the horror, in front of the drunks, hanging on the words they knew by-heart and under those lights, those unforgiving lights, the tradition for our family theatre at Rouge Point; just a New Year’s party, really. An excuse to make speeches and reenact the fire of ’68. The new theatre rose out of that dust and rubble.

No one’s sure how it started, that fire. My father maybe, my grandfather? Maybe grandmother, she hated the skin. Of course that doesn’t stop the stories, the myths. The (most common) legend goes:

Three men came in to see the show. Back then, in grandpa’s time, there was no pretense to art or history. It was a high-class brothel, but a brothel nonetheless. Pillars and silk curtains it may have had, but whatever frame you put around it, it was a whorehouse. And these three men came in, in tailored suits and slick hair, nice shoes. They ordered wine and women, not an uncommon order, and were served. They got drunk, but who’s to judge? it was welcomed, encouraged even, by the staff and employees. Drunk customers part with more than sober customers.

Having had their fill of wine and women, they refused to pay, and papa tried to have them tossed. A fight ensued, enlarged by tradition now into an epic struggle, and somewhere in the third act a table caught fire. Then it spread to the curtains, then the termite-infested stage, and within an hour the firefighters were in the parking lot with grandma, who had taken up arms against the flames in her nightgown and curlers, doing battle with the flames.

By the time the sun came up the fire died, but the sun lit only the ruins of grandpa’s theatre, and when it was rebuilt, he left the running of the theatre to grandma, but she had no taste for it. She oversaw its rebuilding, but had little interest in it otherwise. When mother came of age, she rebranded it and tried to make it into something a little more artistic.

I tried mother’s mobile phone again. Because I’m a sadist, apparently.

“Still not answering,” I said.

“It’s after midnight,” said Alain.

“It’s always after midnight,” I said. Always cold.

Twelve-oh-one.

And quiet in the car.

Twelve-oh-one, the clock blinked neon red:

12:01

12:01

12:02

Alain was born Charles-Alain Pinon, a name he hated – so what does one do? what mothers do: call them the name they hate so they’ll know you’re mad. We met at University and lived in Paris, then. A handsome man, Charles. 29 and afraid of turning 30, a cliché to be sure; journalist, critic, on a pedestal of his own design. He worked with me at my family’s theatre La petite illusion (The Little Illusion) – which my mother ran; he was a ‘jack-of-all trades, master of none,’ as he would say: he did the story-boards, set-design, writing, props, arranged the score, the dialogue – all of that fell on him. He stocked the prop store, the character store. I stayed behind the scenes, running backgrounds, pulling props into view for the audience, and generally hiding the frames of Lain’s illusion. We lived in a different time, Lain and I, a romantic past, circling an antique toilet drain, with Madea and Jason, Falstaff and Madame Butterfly. The golden age of tragedy had passed.

We were returning to a canton in Marseille, La Pointe-Rouge – my childhood home, south of an imaginary line someone had to draw to remove. We had driven down the week before, for the Christmas play, and were staying on my mother’s estate. The lines along the road were golden, bright-yellow and blinking as we passed and faster, faster, blurred and then smudged into a long streak, blinking out in the rearview mirror.

It wasn’t a long drive but it got to me. The claustrophobia of that car. It used to be my dad’s, I’m told. I turned on the radio. Static, hissing and scratching between channels; blips of weather forecasts, rain commercials, up-coming shows and local news, announcements.

….From Saint-Roch Mont Fleuri were re–

Lain’s long, twitching, nervous fingers slid an unmarked disk into the rustic, faithful CD player and the static hum ran short, trailing off and in came a moaning violin, a cello, a piano too; a soft voice, somber, Vocalise. Rachmaninoff! soundtrack to suicide, each note a different color, first blue and soft and vulnerable, a symphony of shameful pinks and white, low white, ivory and softer, pouring from the speakers like shy smoke. For Anna, maybe? That coming train; Or was it for Alain?

12:11

12:11

12:12

Alain turned up the heat and turned away, looking from the window into the dark, taking in the sights. The view of the Catalan sea was striking; deep blue. almost black but speckled white like birds’ eggs. A calm sea and a calm sky, still, a perfect mirror where the Earth and Heaven met, where the sky hit the water and turned in upon itself, scattering spare stars across the surface, lighting, if but a touch, that lonely port. Abandoned now. No more war. Not now, at least, just monuments; there will be more. Monuments to monuments, that monolithic road up Le corniche;

La prada first, then not far off, the familiar Le Porte de l’Orient –  a war memorial. And like the war more beautiful at night, in silhouette, exquisite in the dark but dismal in the clearer eye of day, more-so than port Vallan des Auffres, small and popular among d’jeunes; so exclusive in fact no one went.

The coast is famously picaresque; a major tourist attraction in summer months and, as it is with traps, embarrassing out of season, when it’s spoiled. One façade after another, as though a mad God woke from a long nod in a gaudy mood, and decided on a countryside. It met with harsh reviews.

There’s nothing to see but the view.

12:21

“Are you excited?” Lain asked.

12:32

“I suppose,” I said. “Mom enjoys it all. Getting drunk and burning down the stage.”

He laughed.

“Someday, it’ll be all yours,” he said. “You’ll have to burn it all down too, someday. My question is, would you put the fire out?”

I wouldn’t. I remembered a quote, I’d burn the world to the ground if I could be Queen of the Ashes.

“Play Madame Butterfly.”

12:41

Un bel di, vedremo

            Levarsi un fil di fumo…

Such beauty, such colorful and velvet words ,so vibrant and trembling, and red! a red rose… Alive and pulsing, passionate vibrations — the type of music that might lullaby a mad God …

Sull’estremo confin del mare.

            E poi la nave appare…

I put the call through again. No answer. Again, no answer. Again and again and again. Lain hadn’t noticed this errant behavior, listening to the music. I called her private phone.

Poi la nave bianca

            entra nel porto…

“She never answers,” I told Lain. “It makes me wonder. How does she become busy? She never answers the phone. She doesn’t answer the door.”

… romba il suo saluto.

            Vedi? È venuto!

“Don’t you know,” said Lain, “women of her stature and repute have people on hand, you know, to be busy for them in.”

I laughed.

“Have you tried the desk?”

I nodded.

“I’ve never gotten through to anyone at that place,” he said.

“My mother thinks,” I said, “she thinks that if the line is always tied up, the caller will assume the place is busy. If it’s busy, then it’s open. Someone’s there. She leaves it off the hook when we lock up! If it’s always busy, then someone’s there, and if someone’s talking, that means two! Then it’s a great place to be! Exciting! Packed! Phones ringing! If people were able to get information about the hours, the shows, the schedules, they wouldn’t know anything about the place.”

Io non gli scendo incontro. Io no…

            I know.

            Mi metto là sul ciglio del colle e aspetto…

“I’ll give that to her,” I said. “My mother knows how to work the Chinese cheese.”

12:49

“What the hell is ‘Chinese cheese?” Lain asked.

I laughed. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds.

“Mother calls some customers Chinese cheese, the customers who ‘ne peut pas dire un hamburger de bifteck.’”

Translators note: ‘The difference between steak and hamburger meat.’

“So, you don’t have to put any real effort into it?”

“Exactly.”

E aspetto gran temp

            e non mi pesa…

            La lunga attesa

            I tried to call again. Marie Callas in one ear, phone in the other. I hoped she wouldn’t answer. That creepy voice-mail picked up, the automatic voicemail with the passive-aggressive robot voice. I let it finish.

            “Answer your God damn phone woman!”

E uscito dalla folla cittadina,

            un uomo, un picciol punto…

The familiar sights rose out of the darkness. Lain paused the music before the next verse started. The square was dark, lights off at the boutique and the rental stores, for ties and coats, even dresses, ties. My mother ran that too. Poor Camille, so shy. I wondered if my mother noticed it wasn’t me. Camille’s about my height, but a little taller, and skinnier with longer hair, down to her shoulders with bangs. And mine, sigh, says mother, sigh, ‘It’s just too short. Girls your age should have long hair. You don’t want to look like a boy, do you?”

Do you? DO YOU? DO YOU?!

Lain was gathering his things, headphones, pens, that valise, that stinking horrible old valise he wouldn’t throw away, ugh. It smelled. Cabbage and soup and age like a derelict house, stained with ashes and scuffs but he wouldn’t throw it out. I gave him a new one, for his birthday, and it was authentic leather with elegant trim (white and pleated) and it matched the writer/artist character he went for so well. He never used it. Ingrate!

S’avvia per la collina.

            Chi sarà? chi sarà?

“Your mother hasn’t answered?” a kind question. If you see someone quiet, when they’re going to a party, they’re having a situation. Say something.

It was 1 am.

“They’re probably too loud to hear it,” I say. I call again.

“Busy, call me back!”

“We’re about there,” I say. I put the phone in my purse.

“They’ve probably already started. I imagined Tragos, that poor Janitor in his goat costume. It’s an old tradition, and it goes back to the first performances. They sacrifice a goat (Tragos) before a performance, to the Gods. For a good review I assume.

“It’s a tradition, Renette. Like the Romans did.”

We could see smoke over the trees that broke around the corner.

E come sarà giunto

            che dirà?

“I guess they’ve started,” says Alain. He seemed disappointed, adding: “I really wanted to talk to Falstaff. “

We pulled into the parking lot. It was empty. The back part of the theatre was on fire. The theatre production had been big, a deep-space show, lots of moving boards; we had to use pulleys for each measured distance. It was a lot to burn down. I imagined them lined around the drapes, my mother leading the mob. Petrol along the edge of the sets, the sliding boards, and Renée was there, a timid stagehand, to watch each little scene, each background she had painted, each knock-off Turner, but she tried. She had to watch them burn.

Che dirà?

I locked the car doors. Alain slung his bag over his shoulder. The lobby was dark, and I thought everyone must be gathered by the fire in the back. There was a lot of scenery to burn. All of Renée’s little trees, her birds, those pastel skies.

1:11

The parking lot was overflowing, full of familiar cars and colors. But the lights were strangely dim despite the fire in the backlot. A packed house, it seemed, but eerie and quiet. Lain had his headphones on, still listening to Madame Butterfly. His yaourt was spot on.

(Yaourt is French slang, to yogurt, to mumble lyrics you don’t know).

No one was at the desk in the lobby. We went to the worker’s entrance. Locked! Someone I didn’t recognize looked my way then ran. A burst of fire lit the sky. The ground shook, we backed away from the door as the glass shattered in the frame and rained on the walkway in front of us, sparkling and glittering in the light. It was beautiful.

Lain shook me, jarring me back into the moment.

He reached into the empty frame and unlocked the door. We ran in. The carpet was dim but visible, a low red, crimson almost. There were two doors to enter at either end: one to the Director’s box, the other to the gallery (the auditorium, the seats.) The seating gallery was staggered, a raked gallery, rising upward, so two inclined paths led toward the proscenium arch. I looked into the auditorium; the stage was lit, the house-lights were down, but the seats appeared to be filled. And they were; each seat had a dead patron watching a stage of actors, dead as well, on their backs–in full costume and masked, quiet. Lain had to shake me again:

“You have to call your mother,” he said.

No answer.

“I’m trying!”

“What should we do?” he said.

“I’ve got to call Emergency-12,” I said. I didn’t know what else to do.

“Fuck that!” he said. “I’m American. Nobody does violence like this except Americans. Not like this. Nobody does over-the-top violence like Americans.”

We walked up and down the rows of seats, each audience member glued into their seats – literally, glued and not the good way, their hands and arms along their armrests.

“We have to do something?”

“I’ve got priors,” Lain said. “It’s up to you.”

The fire was encroaching the stage and two more thunderous jets of fire let loose. I thought of my mother on stage in that Paris theatre.

“They’re going to blame me,” he said. “I know it. This is fucked up. This is something I’d do for a story.”

I put in a call to Emergency one-12.

“Emergency,” a voice said. A more human passive-aggressive robot. “Police or ambulance?”

“Both,” I said.

And it begins …

“Troy has fallen.”

What?

“Troy has fallen…”

12:59

12:59

1:00
_______________________________________

1

A NEW YEAR’S DAY

1:00

“Troy has fallen!”

MY MOTHER DRESSED AS CLYTEMNESTRA, HEAD of poor Tragos in one hand, a prop-sword in the other.

“Troy has fallen!”

The crowd erupts like Spartan whores, a sea of glittering flammable faces smiling, applauding, whistling.

            Clytemnestra was the wife of King Agamemnon, a queen – my mother loved the role. Queen and executioner,

The plastic sword fell silent along the cotton head of Tragos, our poor Janitor in drag, on hands and knees.

Off it comes and so the head rolls down, down, down, off the stage into the gallery. A thespian scoops it up:

“Happy New Year!”

“Happy New Year!” comes the echo.

The crowd erupts like Spartan whores, a sea of glittering flammable faces smiling, applauding, whistling. The gallery of poorly lit tables on floor-level rose in my imagination. The clapping, smattering politely, died away in my memory. The sirens and lights approached ever faster.

            My mother loved the role, the Queen. Queen and executioner:

And so the plastic sword falls silent along the cotton head of Tragos, our poor Janitor in drag, on hands and knees.

Off it comes and so the head rolls down, down, down, off the stage into the gallery. A thespian scoops it up:

“Happy New Year!”

“Happy New Year!” comes the echo. It echoed in my head. I could hear the sirens coming, then. Lain had put himself in the least suspicious looking spot, and sat on the sidewalk in front of the visitor’s entrance. He tucked in his shirt, combing his hair. He took off his headphones, put his things in the prop-store, his cabbage smelling valise and sketches. He threw away his cigarettes, too. Such subtlety in his guilt. He kept quiet as I tried to explain it to the police, why a burning backlot wasn’t a cause for immediate alarm.

“It’s a tradition,” I said. “After the Christmas play, we celebrate the new season by burning the sets.”

One officer was walking around taking photographs. Another with a flashlight, coordinating with the fire-truck that had arrived to put out the fire. Only the backstage area had been burnt. The stage, for the most part, had survived. The audience, all of them creepily sitting up-straight with their eyes pried open. Row after row, adults and younger members of the audience, men and women. Young boys and girls.

The police officer was polite enough. Lain was questioned separately. I was hoping he told the truth.

“What’s your name, miss?” the officer said. He looked at me keenly, scrutinizing my expression.

“Renette, sir,” I said. “Renette Brisbois.”

“Are you from around here?”

He must have been new.

“I grew up here,” I said. “I went to Lycee Montgrande, the drama-school. I went to University in Paris, with my friend. He works with me here.”

“This is your theatre?”

“My mother’s,” I said. “I just work here. Me and Lain–” he gestured. I nodded. “Yes, him.”

“How can we get in touch with the owner?” he asked.

“My mother,” I said.

“What’s her name?”

“Mme. Nanty,” I said.

His eyebrow rose. He knew her, I assumed. I was surprised he didn’t know where he was. After that it was a much smoother conversation, he was more helpful, less suspicious of my every answer.

“Do you have someone to call?” he asked. “Where’s your dad?”

“I don’t know,” I said. He let the matter rest.

“We’re staying on Mme. Nanty’s estate,” I said. “Is there anything else we can do?”

He handed me a copy of the information he took down and gave me a number to call if I heard from my mother. It hadn’t hit, how surreal it was. A gallery full of up-right patrons, eyes wide an attentive. What a play that’d make! And Lain had the same idea, I saw: he sketched it as we drove back to our apartment. Madame Bovary’s wailing recommenced.

Chiamerà Butterfly dalla lontana.

            Io senza dar risposta…

            And down the peak the scenes ran in reverse. We eased down the monolithic peak at Le corniche and not far off La prada, then the familiar Le Port de l’Orient. Monuments unto monuments. Soon they’ll make all monuments to better monuments, more articulate and perfect in testament to their art, each a better reflection of expression and aesthetic than the last.

Me ne starò nascosta

            un po’ per celia…

            “Your grandfather went to the war, didn’t he?” asked Lain.

E un po’ per non morire

            al primo incontro…

            “He was part of the Resistance,” I said. “What that means to me, to the French, is that he refused to serve good food to the enemies. They didn’t get the true Parisian experience. That whole story, the burning of the theatre, that was blamed on soldiers. I think my father burnt it down.”

He laughed.

“My grandmother, or my grandfather,” I said, “they hated running the place. My grandmother was insulted by it all. Working in a theatre, you really get to see the depravity of people. You think you know?”

“I’m American,” he said.

“Point taken.”

“So your father burnt it down?”

“What?”

“You said your father burnt it down,” he said.

“No, well, my grandfather. I think he burnt it down. For attention.”

“No press is bad press,” he said. He let the matter rest.

Ed egli alquanto in pena

            chiamerà, chiamerà…

            The sun came up behind them, the monuments, each more ghostly in the dark. It looked much better, backlit by the sun, each new light that fell upon it spoiled the view. And the lonely port was getting busy, at least busier, and then where we started along the row of façades, one after the other, Vallan des Auffres. So exclusive, still no one there. How different everything is in different light!

I nomi che mi dava al suo venire.

            Tutto questo avverrà

            te lo prometto…

            “Are you tired?” I asked.

“Not really,” he said. “I hate to say it, but it–wasn’t it–it was inspirational. That whole thing, wasn’t it? Theatre-lens: the audience is forced to watch, like Alex from A Clockwork Orange, with their eyes pride-open with little lid-locks. The whole theatre, crazy. I’ll never forget it.”

I agreed.

“I wish we could hold an audience like that,” I said. Poor taste, but true. “You have to exaggerate the violence just to keep them awake now.”

“‘Too many notes, too many notes.'”

            Tienti la tua paura,

            io con sicura fede l’aspetto…

The sun was up now, and with it the sea its wild hair tussling, breaking at the helms of ships and swimmers, the Catalan, it had been black but blue now, light and clear. Little skiffs were on the water, boats, some modest and quite old. Kids playing along on old wooden piers, dangerous really, and such a drop off. A line of homes and cobblestone. Smoke rising into the air, the birds were up and singing. Lain was asleep, the sun catching the top of his dirty-brown hair, that sleep-crust in his eyes, that big bottom lip. An insane little drunken angel, my Alain. And he timed that song that way, Madame Butterfly…

There was nothing to see but the view.

Chapter 2 – The Face in the Fire

2

The night had crept up on them quietly, bathing the now dim dining hall, its candles blown out and left smoking. That candle light, those flames still seemed so personal, like living things. And she liked to watch them as her father spoke, to relive that moment when she first awoke again.

He led her from the dining hall through winding corridors with torches hanging on the walls. The shadows thrown, such strange patterns, with light and darkness split by lanterns. The castle doors came slowly slowly down and moaned. Everything seemed to make some sound or sounds, as if they spoke, not as a consequence of movement, not for her, but from personality; the doors were old and groaned but did their duty still; they had purpose, as all things did, all personable and alive. Soon they were in the courtyard, and under the canopy of distant lights, the stars! There they were, scattered in that endless ocean, stretching on and on forever, without end. A black ocean full of fire, anglerfish with entranced planets, hypnotized and trapped by its spell.

So much to take in, so very much! So much she knew she’d never know, never could know, never hear of all of them nor their names, and silent all of them, so far away like all of space and quiet, She fell asleep underneath the constellations as her father spoke, imagining those distant fires as candlelights themselves, with the same voice.

“And that is Ariene, and Toros, and Pesci there, and my sign Acquario, your mothers there, Gemelli, and yours..,”

Alissa was fast asleep. Dreaming in color, too; she was a fire like the rest; and spoke to kids as that same flame that managed to light her life, bring her the stars; among them now and uncontained by mirrors or frames unbound by math just change; never stopping endless never still. Breathing and stretching in such freedom with such relish, a longing she had never known and it went on. Sparks struck into flame and swelled orange at first then red, then white and finally blue and bright bright beyond compare it flashed and ebbed away. One after another flaring into flame and life just to subside as had all others growing faint, growing dim each light, each point she had just slept under in such peace. Each point followed in its fashion, some larger and some brighter yet none of them were lasting; finally they were far away, as far as they had been when she had listened to her father. She heard him speaking, voice of the last stars each fading, ever darker, ever gray. She woke in the comfort of her bed. She could hear father talking to someone, a woman; the voice was familiar.

Alissa heard her father say, “Whatever you ask,” he said. “It’s yours.”

The woman walked into the room. Alissa’s father followed close behind, “I have something for you…”

The woman held an object, egg-shaped on one end , straight on the other; cased in black satin, tied at the hilt with a golden tassel.

“This,” said she, “is very special, a magical object. Your father said you wanted the best of all the mirrors, best in the whole wide world, is that right?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Alissa.

“Well,” she said, “look at this!”

The velvet sheet fell to the floor as a glittering object, mostly silver, slid from it into one hand, then to both. The glass was more liquid than solid, unusual and restless; the mirror moved—the mirror moved! Changing shapes and changing colors always shifting restless, so it seemed. The woman said, “This is a very special mirror. This mirror tells only truth, while other mirrors only show what’s real. This will show your true face no matter what, whether you wish to see it or not. It is a camaleonte, alive… Do you know that is?”

“It is a lizard,” said the princess. “A chameleon.”

“Yes,” the lady said. “This is the Chameleon Mirror.”

Continue to Chapter 3 –> The Mirror Moves

Chapter 1 – Curtains Up

My name is Renette, after Madame de Pompadore, famed mistress to the King of France. I went to Lycee Montgrande, a small drama-school by the coast. I work at a theatre, Le petit illusion. It was opened by my grandfather after the Second World War and left to mother in his will. An only child, I had no brothers or sisters but mother tried; and my imaginary friend, poor Wiggle was supportive. Mother was a critically acclaimed cunt and successful stage manager at the theater. Creating depth is the floor plan, the design that is: how large to make the stage, how deep the horseshoe box, how large the auditorium?

We use drop and wing sets like the ladies of Sabo; some backgrounds are lowered down and some recycled and shifted as the stage is rotated, some pulled into focus across a sliding background. I painted some of them. It’s a salon of machines; sets may be changed and rotated as the story demands. There is great effort in hiding the frame around the performance, the frame of the illusion – a chariot and pole system, pulleys and strong ropes. When a set dried we covered it in rabbit-skin glue and mounted them, pushed them into frame, rotated the stage and brought the mockingbirds into focus. Continue reading

Legend of the Chameleon Mirror (2015 – 2nd draft)

1

An Italian princess, noble born, some years before Napoleon, born blind but beautiful; cheerful and sweet and loved. She could not see but wasn’t bothered: as sound and touch were good enough. She had a happy childhood ideal; full of love. One day she woke to find a candle, with a rather large flame on her bedstand, too close; and she watched the dancing fire – a strange dance, almost alive: orange and red and blue and white. Her father was talking but it seemed as though the flame was speaking to her:

“She’s in the country…”

She finally realized she could see and panicked. She screamed. Her father turned round and looked, “Hey!”

She looked at her father’s face. For the first time and, somehow, she knew his voice by heart and habit. And yet each time he spoke, how strange! she could only think about the flame.
She leapt from her bed and fled the room. She didn’t know where she was going but kept on running. Each new corridor rose out of mist, a blackness she didn’t understand. Guards both young and old looked on confused, servants, butlers, cooks; they all moved in and in and out of long hallways through different paths. The story of her flight reached the groundskeepers and the horses were brought round. Her father and the yardworkers and gardeners set out to find her before dark. It got cold in the hills at night.

Everything was frightening to her new eyes, the sun more so than all; so terrific and overwhelming, a spirit made of force and fire, the largest, most beautiful of candlelights.

“She’s in the country…”

Nothing shook the feeling that the world was somehow wrong, the colors off; she tried to squint to take it in, subdue the light, to conquer it, to shut it off, hoping she could tame the sun, make it relent. And she came upon a mirror. It was her, she knew by instinct, as she had known her father’s face, despite never having seen it. But everything was wrong in the reflection: the eyes and hair and her complexion, chestnut colored eyes, a lovely brown, dark hair still curled – as her maid had no chance to have pressed it. She began to think – how strange! her eyes could lie, how strange a thought.

“She’s in the country…”

She heard the distant murmurs of approaching horses, her father calling out:

“Alissa!” he called. And others with him: “Signorina Alissa! Signorina!”

The retinue of men, in strange dress and manner, approached her, slowing down. The horses, what a sight! for new eyes beyond belief, such strange machines, covered in hair, larger than she’d have thought. Her father dismounted and ran up to her, pulled her into his arms and turned to walk away. He saw the mirror and turned around. He said: “So what did you think? Aren’t you the prettiest little girl in the world?”

No, she thought – she didn’t say it – she’d never thought of such a thing, a mirror that is – why would she, how? How could she have been told, and why tell the blind that such a device existed, knowing they’d never see themselves? He told her what it was, a mirror. She was intrigued and asked. “Papa,” she said, “Are there other mirrors? Better mirrors? I don’t believe it worked, the one I saw.”
Such a good man Robert was. “Of course,” he said. He ran his fingers through her hair, dismissed the other men, and he helped her back onto the horse. Settled firmly he hopped on in front of her.

“Hold on!” he said. She wrapped her arms around him as the horse hit its stride. The sky she’d often heard was full of clouds and birds, but it was empty then and barren, an ocean she had thought, an ocean without end. And the moon she knew somehow, hung like a thumbnail above some trees. They rode toward the castle and must have taken a more scenic route: she saw such things beyond belief: birds in flight, rolling hills and vineyards. It was magical though maddening, disorienting not unpleasant. Bright and strange, more than anything. Back in the castle she seemed lost, although she’d made her way around for many years without help. She held her fathers hand and he led her to a washroom and a wash basin, another mirror hung above it. It was wrong as well, and moving along to her father’s bed-chamber for another, a vanity mirror it was wrong and so on, mirror after mirror lying to the princess. They stopped for a moment in their tour to look through a well-appointed gallery in a spacious room, full of comfortable chairs and divans.

Each picture she thought was a mirror, mirrors that she loved. He introduced her to the family; his father then his uncle, distant relatives, the rest, and then her. Among so many, how few with that same hair and eyes, no other was a true brunetta. The painting, Alissa thought, was right, the mirror wrong; the glass imperfect, or it lied, or moved to spite her. She said as much, asking her father, “Could you show me a better mirror?”

“A better mirror?” he asked.

“Yes,” Alissa said. “The best! Only the best. One that is as accurate as this.” She indicated the painting, and she smiled, though something was off, she thought. Something, she couldn’t name it, no words for it. “You promise?” she entreated, walked toward him, took his hand. “Promise?” she smiled, truly friendly, truly loving.

“Yes dear,” he said. “There is someone I can see. I’ll get the best mirror, the best looking-glass in all creation. I promise.”

Roberto’s promises were golden, a promise you could count on, unlike her mother’s which meant little if a thing.

“She’s in the country…” spoke the flame.

They were quiet at the dinner table as they ate. IT was too long, she thought. Too lonely feeling, a new feeling that to feel at dinner, a feeling not felt before. Two men stood on opposite sides of the dining table with white kerchiefs draped over their wrists, on call. She finished her meal, they took it away, and her father finished, and the table was cleared.

“Are you ready for bed?” he asked.

“Not yet,” she said. “Show me the prettiest thing there is to see!”

He smiled and walked toward her, extended his hand. “This,” he said. “You’ll love it.”

2

The night had crept up on them, bathing the now dim dining hall, its candles blown out and left smoking. That candle light, those flames still seemed so personal, like living things. And she liked to watch them as Roberto spoke, to relive that moment when she first awoke again, again, and again.

They walked hand-in-hand and smiled, happiness in every step. The winding corridors, the torch-lit halls, shadows in strange patterns in a strange dance with those lanterns on the walls. Endlessly rotating, the light and shadow’s danced, a perfect dance. The castle doors came slowly slowly down and moaned. The way such things sounded, or rather, as such things spoke, was no consequence of movement, not for her: the groaning doors had personality, and old they did their duty; they had purpose, all things did, all personable. Soon they were in the courtyard, and she was under the canopy of distant lights, an inkblack ocean full of fire, anglerfish with planets entranced, hypnotized and trapped by this spell.

So much, so, so, so very much! That ocean, endless, and she knew she’d never know, she never could know, never hear of all of them, and silent all of them, so far away like all of space was quiet, in its birth and death as all living things. She fell asleep underneath the constellations as her father spoke, imagining those distant fires as candle lights themselves, with the same voice:

“And that is Ariene, and Leone, and Pesci there, and my sign Acquario, your mothers there, Gemelli, and yours…”

Alissa was fast asleep and dreamed, in color, too; she was a fire, like the rest; uncontained by any dishonest mirror or reflection otherwise, changing, evolving, never static-staying still. Breathing and stretching in such freedom with so relish and a longing he had never known as it went on. Sparks struck into flame and swelled orange at first then red, then white and finally blue and bright bright beyond compare it flashed and ebbed away. One after another flaring into flame and life just to subside as had the others, each subsiding, every light, each point she had just slept under in such peace. Each point followed in its fashion, some larger and some brighter yet none of them were lasting; finally they were far away, as far as they had been when she had listened to her father. She heard him speaking, voice of the last stars each fading, ever darker, ever gray. She woke in the comfort of her bed. She could hear father talking to someone, a familiar voice … she couldn’t place it.

“Whatever you ask,” he said. “I’m sure.”

“Very well,” said the woman’s voice.

“But only if it works!”

The woman walked into the room, familiar looking too. Roberto followed her, a forced but genuine excitement, an anxiousness she’d never seen. “I have something for you…”

The woman hushed Roberto. Alissa laughed, reminded of the sort of arguments she had heard so many times. Her face was older and older still as she came closer and closer. She noticed that in the woman’s hands was held an object, egg-shaped on one end, straight at the other; covered in black satin, tied loosely at the hilt with a golden string.

She knelt by the bed and the princess sat up straight and promptly, as expected. The woman unwound the golden string and slid the object from the satin cloth.

“This,” said she, “is a very special mirror. Your father said you wanted the best of mirrors, best in all the world. Is that right?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the princess said, entranced completely.

“Well,” she said, “look at this!”

The velvet sheet fell to the floor as a glittering object, mostly silver, slid from it into one hand, then to both. The glass unusual and changed; the mirror moved—the mirror moved! Changing shapes and changing colors always shifting restless, so it seemed. She said, “This is a very special mirror. This mirror tells only the truth; other mirrors only show what’s real. This will show you what your true face is, no matter what, whether you wish to see it or not. It is a camaleonte, alive… Do you know that is?”

“It is a lizard,” said the princess. “A chameleon.”

“Yes,” the lady said. “This is the Chameleon Mirror.”

3

The young girl nodded.

“But,” she said, “Pardon, ma’am. Could I see it work before I try it?”

“How clever!” said the lady. She had a toothy smile. “Do you still have your dolly?”

The little lady looked around. She hadn’t thought of toys, not since she woke at least. She didn’t know how to find them, not with her eyes. She lay back, shutting her eyes, and pretended to sleep for a moment. She sat up with her eyes closed then felt her way around and out of bed, across the carpet and then wood to the corner where the old chest was, a soft wood with a cold switch. She pulled out a doll, a dairy-made she’d never seen. The shirt was white, the dress was red, and her shoes were black, high socks. She walked across the room and sat down again. The lady smiled again. She took the doll, and said: “My daughter had one of these!”

She placed the doll in front of the mirror and – the mirror moved! The mirror moves … it changed from an amorphous shade of grey and blank and bit by bit became defined; sketchy at first and then color sprang into the face, but it was different. There was more emotion in the face, in its composure sadder now, somehow but it was there. Was it? It was unreal, like a dream almost. She looked at the doll in the mirror, then to the real doll; at a glance they seemed the same, but the mirror gave it personality; it told the truth by some strange voodoo that the real doll for some reason could not manage, would not manage.

“Well?” the lady interrupted. “Would you like to see it work on you?”

The princess thought a moment, wondering truly, wondering what question she wanted answered; none, she thought, had troubled her before she woke up to the fire speaking to her. It had been much simpler then.

“I want you to look!”

The lady’s smile faltered but did not fail. She said, “Of course.”

The mirror shifted from a settled palette, undefined, bursting colors sprung from the surface and hurried into place, each more definitive, putting the face together bit by bit from scratch as she looked. And a lively woman, not as kind but not unkind, so much, began to come together color by color until the surface settled into the stern and wistful countenance. The face was younger, much younger; the eyes were much older, weary, sharp and acute but tired. She was beautiful through that same magic. And the princess took the handle, and the lady stopped her.

“Are you sure you want to see?” she asked. “If you look, you can’t take it back.”

And without thinking she said yes, compelled, egged on by that magic, by that transformative magic. She took the mirror into her hands and held it up to her face. Colors rushed from the lining silver toward the center, dark colors first, the outline forced and new colors, softer browns and beige and more subtle shades all marching towards a growing image. And the face with currents shifting settling, colors barging into one another and merging, settled and she looked into the eyes on the mirror’s face. It was … was it? Was it?

“Take it away!”

The princess pushed the mirror the side and covered her face, holding her eyes shut tightly. Her father sat beside her, the lady – she could tell through each small sound, still at strange heights – began to redress the delicate mirror. She couldn’t shake the image but tried in vain, for hours hoping that when she slept she’d lose the image, the whole thing would go away, like a memory from childhood of something of no importance, small moments no one notices, filling bird-seed, changing the hay for the horses, something routine, something ordinary.

Her father stayed with her until the sun went down sometime later and she calmed down. She felt her father’s heartbeat against her shoulder, tender and supportive. She felt silly and opened her eyes. His eyes were closed, but he seemed calm. Calm enough, at least. And he put his head on her shoulder, looking, she knew, for some sort of support from her.

And she said, “I’m sorry.”

He laughed and asked:

“What did you see?”

“The painting,” the princess said. “Everything was wrong. The eyes were wrong, like a dolls. Like dead eyes.”

“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s okay.”

She’d find out later much to her shame that the cost for such a mirror, even if it granted just one look, had a shameful price, a price she wouldn’t have agreed to, and, perhaps, that was why she wasn’t told until much later, by someone else, as the moment with the mirror was swept away into other currents in an otherwise routine childhood. And when she found that the price for her to see was her father’s sight, she remembered that night with him, leading him outside, under the black blanket of the night full of stars. He got comfortable on his back and she took his hand into hers. She didn’t know what she could say, what she could do; maybe there was nothing. She put her finger on his chest and begin to trace shapes to mimic the constellations he’d described to her.

“I remember,” she pressed into his stomach, “here is Ariete,” she moved to the side, “and Leone here,” she continued drawing the constellation, “Pesci, your sign, Acquario that’s yours, and mother’s there, Gemelli…”

“Wait!” she said. “Where is mother?”

“She’s in the country,” he said. He repeated a few more times and was quiet. She understood and never asked again. She continued with the constellations on his stomach, on his chest. And when she stopped, he said: “You forgot yourself.”

He pulled her hand above his heart and said, “Right here.”

She felt his heartbeat, “There,” he said. His heart beat slowed, his muscles calmed. He murmured in his sleep:

“Toro.”