Closing Night

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Andrea Eaker


I was the only human onstage, and at times, the only way for me to remember that was to look at the burn on my hand. I’d been burned by the oven rack in my apartment back in San Diego. And now, I had no idea how far I was from San Diego. Maybe a thousand miles? Five hundred thousand? Or a distance simultaneously so far and near that it could not be measured?

Before I arrived here, Sybil had told me in her working voice, a voice too deep and manly to emanate from her tiny white throat: You will return home only if they wish it.

The idea, of course, was that I would make friends, and play nice. That they would always want me to stay. But things rarely work out the way we plan.

Friends back in San Diego made fun of me for going to Sybil’s office: just a cardboard sign in the window of a small strip mall unit. Psychic. Readings and transmogrifications. Auras diagnosed. Reasonable rates. But Sybil wasn’t a fortune teller for me as much as she was entertainment. Sometimes she spoke for an hour in the eerily deep voice. Sometimes I only got one sentence out of her. And other times, the spirit never took her at all, and we sat in silence for my session, staring at each other over her scarf-covered card table. She was entertainment, that was all. I didn’t really expect her to be right.

It happened after I’d opened my oven, just after I’d been burned by the oven rack. Was there a gas leak? Maybe a residue of chemicals from the oven cleaner still inside the oven had reacted with the heat? But none of my theories made sense. I had been taking two cookie sheets out of the oven. In removing the first one, I burned my hand. I turned back to the oven to take out the second. Then it happened, and I was here.

I arrived naked and covered in clear goo that kept me comfortably warm although it didn’t do anything to hide my body. Of everyone who might have come along the road, I was lucky to meet Trill first. She was tiny, maybe Sybil’s height, with pale hair. She told me later that she was part fairy, but not fairy enough for her wings to fully develop. As she passed me, I saw her beat them so hard they vanished, but she only cleared enough ground to carry her over a large puddle. She rested on the other side, her pink wings filmy and drooping.

“Excuse me,” I called from the brush at the side of the road. “Excuse me, I—”

She approached, disinterested, but spreading her wings to the side of her body as if to intimidate me. When she was close enough to see my humanity covered in the warm goo, she took off her cloak and handed it to me and said: “I haven’t seen one like you in years.” As I wrapped the cloak around me, the warmth from the gel vanished. There were two holes cut in the back for her wings, and they let in a draft over my spine, but I knew I was in no position to complain.

As I stepped out of the bushes, Trill turned back down the road the direction she’d come and called: “We may have found our replacement for Dog. Come and take a look.”

They were a traveling group of three until Dog left, Trill told me over dinner. We sat around the fire which had been built by the other performer, who was a huge troll with skin the color of grease and tiny curled horns that twisted so stubbornly, she appeared in danger of them growing straight back into her skull. “We do farce, mostly. Lovers triangles. Things like that.” Trill gestured with a piece of roasted vegetable at the troll. “Griet here does the cuckold, perfect because of her horns, you see? I play the wife. Dog was the lover. He usually went as a man, although sometimes he dressed as a woman. Griet passes for a man quite well. And the wronged husband is more effective when you’re as big as her.” Griet grunted, and it was hard to tell if she spoke with assent or discomfit.

Trill looked me over, flexed her wings. “You’ll have to be a woman, obviously.” She looked at Griet. “Maybe the Crossover? Where we plot to kill the husband?”

Griet grunted with the exact same tone as before. Trill seemed to hear something different in it though, because she nodded, clapped once, and looked back at where I was twisting inside her cloak, trying to hold closed the slits against the night chill. “The Crossover it is. You’ll catch on quick enough. We just have to find you some clothes.”

Clothes were easy to find. After a night shivering in Trill’s cloak, we traveled to the next village, Trill and I leading, Griet heaving the cart behind us. Trill purchased a shift for me and once I’d put it on, she studied my bare feet, my red hair, my freckles. “They will love it,” she said. “I bet they’ve never seen one like you.”

That day they showed me how to do the Crossover, the premise of which was simple. Two women friends agree to abscond with the fortune of a rich husband. At the last minute, the wife has an attack of conscience. Angry about being cheated from her half of the fortune, the friend tries to kill the wife. The play ends with the murder attempt unsuccessful, and the friend (played by Dog, and now me) ends up in an impotent rage at one corner of the stage while the husband and wife reconcile.

“Aren’t you worried?” I said when Trill handed me the crossbow. “I fire over your head, right? But what if I miss?”

She shrugged. “They’re weak arrows. Hollow. Even if you hit me, they’ll only sting.”

Griet and Trill walked me through the Crossover with a dull lack of character and flair I thought would disappear for the performance. But the first performance was just as stodgy as rehearsal, perhaps even more so. The audience members did not notice. They were a huge group of tall, pale-skinned folk who seemed to possess no shoulders or decent senses of humor. They were shaped like fence posts, and they laughed constantly at the dull delivery and the predictable double entendres.

And after the first performance, when my stagefright was gone, I kept thinking of Sybil’s voice. You will return home only if they wish it. But our audiences did not want us to leave. I’d hoped the wooden delivery would cause us to get shouted off the stage, the audience’s animosity so strong it would push me back into my life where—the thought made me smile—I had probably left the oven on.

But no matter how poorly I fumbled my lines, paused awkwardly before delivery, the audience was patient, waiting for me to speak, laughing at anything: even lines that were more painful than amusing.

And the longer I was with them, the more miles I trudged, barefoot, Trill flapping beside me and Griet moaning behind with the weight of the cart, the more I forgot San Diego and Sybil and the taste of cookies. I lifted my hair to the sun sometimes to remind myself of its color, and I rubbed the burn on my hand, tearing free again and again the thin membrane that capped the blister, keeping the wound as fresh as I could. In the sting of pain, I tried to remember my life. But despite my best efforts, it was healing.

It was the middle of a performance when I realized how I could get back.

The audience, their necks white as Sybil’s but indistinguishable by width from their bodies, screamed with laughter. Griet, dressed in a shapeless dress that hid her lumpy breasts and hips, caught us in the act of plotting. “What is going on here?” It was meant to be a question, but Griet never raised her inflection, the line always came out as a statement.

“Oh dear,” Trill stood, wrapping her tiny wings around the front of her body as if they would protect her from Griet, who was twice her height. “We speak only of women’s things.” She turned to me and delivered an ostentatious wink that made the audience fairly weep with laughter. “We certainly do not plot and plan.”

“Oh no,” I said, sweeping to the far side of the stage. The torn and dirty hem of my shift swept behind me. “Certainly, no.”

Griet growled something about being lucky to have the loveliest wife in the village. Trill unfolded her wings. “Really?” Her voice was saccharine. A transformation that should have been subtle, gradual, was instead instantaneous. The boorish aspects of the husband were forgotten, Trill was once again a wife in love. She reached for Griet, her wings unfurled: pale and insubstantial. “Oh my husband, my love.”

I spoke over applause. “This is not the plan.”

Trill looked back at me. The stage stretched between us. “I have learned that I would rather live with a live husband than a pile of coin.” She caressed Griet’s arm, the audience cooed.

“This is not the plan,” I cry out with more ardor than I felt in the months I had been traveling with them. Had it been months? Was it possible? My feet were thick with calluses and dirt, my hand healing stubbornly.

I reach for the poorly concealed crossbow. Griet steps forward in front of Trill. But Trill moves to the front. “No, love. She is my problem.”

Now is the time for the comical misfire above Trill’s head. The audience will love this because they love everything. They will love my impotent cries, my foot stamping, the childish hurling of the crossbow to the stage. It is then that I think of what they will not like. What will make them want me to return.

Trill appears to be thinking ahead to the meal at the inn. Cheese melting onto toasted bread. Roasting vegetables. When the misfire does not come, she looks at me. Her pale eyebrows lower. What is it? her eyes say.

I am sorry, I try to tell her silently. I think of her giving me her cloak on that first day, then sharing her dinner. But the need to return home drowns out the loud clamor of conscience. I take aim.

I never see if the arrow hits its mark. I am pushed back too soon.

But I imagine the aftermath of my actions: Trill falling backwards, not having time to move her wings even to break her fall. The total silence from the audience, until someone notices the iridescent blood on the stage. Then they will keen with pain and confusion, their farce suddenly turned tragic. And Griet, crying with the size of a thousand voices, coming for me, charging with her huge body and her tiny horns at the place where, until seconds before, I was standing.

Before any of this happens, I am home, just as Sybil told me I would be. When I open my eyes again, I see the open door of my oven. Heat is still rolling out, and I can smell cookies. I see my feet, callused and stained. And then I hear Sybil’s voice, her real voice, from the living room. “Well?” she says. “I thought you were going to wait there for me. Why did you return?”

I am naked again, covered in the warming goo. I curl against the cupboard closest to the oven, uncomfortable in the extra warmth, welcoming the burning as a penance. “I didn’t wait,” I say. “I decided I’d rather come home.”

Sybil appears at the door of my kitchen. She shakes her head. She lifts something. An object fitted with hollow arrows that will, I tell myself, only sting. “No.” Her voice deepens. “That is not acceptable, because that was not the plan.”

pencil

Andrea works in Portland, Oregon as a research consultant for a market research firm. In her spare time she enjoys theatre, Thai food, travel, and English tea. She is currently writing a novel. E-mail: aveaker[at]yahoo.com.

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