AUTHOR: Aeriel Holman
ACTIVITY: Mid-Semester Short-Short Story
DATE: April 1, 2012 (created)
NOTES: So, a few things before you read this, but feel free to skip if you really want…
What happened was, this short story was the climax of the "story" part of my creative writing class. Everything we were working on was supposed to get us to this point—writing a fully fleshed out short-short story (the maximum page length was something like six pages, double spaced—which you don't have to worry about, this is the edited, extended story XD). The details of the assignment were so opened ended my mind blanked. I had no idea what to do. So, I went on a random word generator. My friend picked out a bunch of words (20-something). In the end I only really responded to three: cinder, sparrow, and ginger.
So I formed this nifty story. I wanted it to be supernatural-y. However, I have this weird quirk about always trying new stuff. I didn't want to show the teacher some of the same things over and over. I asked myself, what was a setting I hadn't used? That was when I remembered the old saying, "Every theatre has a ghost" and I went—OHEMGEE! THEATRE! It was a huge part of my life in high school, so I know that setting very well without having to lie, flub, or remain vague about it (we were given about a week and half to write this short story so I didn't have time to do any research really).
Well, I wrote it and took it to class for a group reading. My story was 12 pages long (double the recommended amount). I knew I had to cut stuff out, but I was still unhappy with several things. Two people took my extra copies and went off, emailing me the night before the assignment was due (I was very unhappy because they promised quick feed back). Both thought the story was very Phantom of the Opera-esque. Indeed, Phantom is one of my all-time favorite stories… but I actually wasn't thinking about it at all when writing the story. If I had more planning, I would have alluded to it in my story, but I let it slide instead because the teacher hadn't covered allusions during classes (WTF, I know).
What surprised me was that the two people who emailed both saw greater implied references to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I paused, because I have yet to read the book, seen the silent film with Lon Chaney and the Disney Version of course… but it never occurred to me at all. Thus I changed the female character's name to Ezra (in subtle reference to Esmerelda) the night before. Her original name I picked on a whim because I needed one quickly, and the outcome just bugged me to no end. Well, I missed one name-drop in the version I turned in. I got a decent amount of points knocked off for being too reminiscent of Phantom (but not Hunchback—she didn't see the connection at all). I still technically passed the short-short story requirements, but it was obvious that my style and love of classics was not shared with my teacher.
Well, all that being said… Here is a spooky fact that will make sense after you read the story: the day after I turned in my paper, my high school theatre caught on fire. I modeled the theatre in the story after my old high school's classically built theatre. Our "ghost" was nicked named Charlie. Gaaah, I just got the willies (and you will too)!
So, I'm done rambling now. PLEASE ENJOY!
A Song of Fire Before the Sparrow
The dawn was just breaking past the icy owl-hole, scattering shadows. In the pallid twilight, there was a figure cloaked in a tattered ruin of black velvet, sitting in one of his favorite spots of the creaky attic. Hunched over a beam, he was staring blankly down, watching dusty costumes revealed with a sickly colored sunlight. There was a chill in the air he vaguely felt, but did not note. Not until he heard a sudden fluttering.
The oversized cloak ruffled enough to show just a bit of his face—just the parts that did not scare him—as he scanned the other beams for the source of the sound. Against the pane of the oval owl-hole, he saw tiny, russet feathers batting the frozen glass. Gasping, he leapt to his feet, and made to the window. He unlocked the metal clasp, and pulled it open, reaching for the poor thing shivering in the slush.
"It is so late in winter! How did you survive all this time?" he whispered to it, clutching it in scarred hands with a gentle, but firm enough grip. He sheltered it in the warmth of his black garb, and hopped down to the floor of the attic. "Let us see if we cannot find a prop for you, shall we?"
The tiny bird made a coo, taking shelter gladly. The cloaked figure then made his way down to the pit, his theatre's storage area.
His name was Charles. At least, that was the name he began to call himself. He lived in a theatre and did not recall much besides this particular theatre. He had always been there, sulking in the dark. Then again, he did not have much of a choice. He had always been here, on the stage, up in the catwalks; lazing about in the attic, otherwise known as the costume room. It brought him solace. Everyone he met had been terrified of him since his accident, so he sought refuge, and hid. Here he disappeared; no one would be frightened of him.
Well, not unless he made himself known.
So, he took after stagehands: he wore black, stayed as silent as the grave, and kept to himself. Some days he thought about announcing his presence, as it seemed polite… but then remembered his face, his hands, all scourged from a fire that had enveloped him. It was an outstanding memory of hellfire red flames leaping into his youthful face, marring it thereafter. But, that was years ago. It was best to forget the past and focus on the present, meaning, it was best to simply watch from the safety of the dark.
Watching was what he was doing at the moment: crouched down on a catwalk, about fifty feet above the stage, Charles was staring at the dots of colors whirling about on the scuffed hardwood, belting out arias. He had heard and seen this musical before—it was a favorite during the winter season. Listening and watching as long as he had, and he could pick out the better actors from the worse, or the new from the seasoned.
Speaking of, the new talent was waiting off stage. Tilting his head to the side, he saw her come out just a second too late. The director stopped rehearsal after that. Everyone was frustrated by it. Charles could have laughed. Did they know that was the way theatre life was? It was never fully polished until closing night. The irony is what made theatre life fantastic.
The cast closed up for the night, the little dots of bright colors rushing about with this prop or that script. Stranglers were starting to disappear after a bit. This made the cloaked man decide to head down and play on the stage. The stage was the best part of the theatre, in his opinion—especially when it was empty of people. If the set was left up, it was like he was in a completely different world. He could be the hero. He could get the girl. He could, if only for the magic of play-acting, no longer be the ugly, fractured mess he was.
It took him what seemed like ages to get down the labyrinth of ladders, and he had to hide in corners as people dashed out doors, eager to get home to a warm bed. Now and then, a person would pause, and stare hard into the pitch-black corner he tried to fade into. He stayed still as stone, and then the actor would leave swiftly, uneasy. Charles was either too good at blending in with the shadows, or they were too tired to continue to stare in the velvety abyss he created.
Eventually, lights were dimming, and he felt safer, more able to flow into the nighttime gloom. The light from the greenroom door flicked off, and the sound of shoes tapping on the hardwood could be heard reverberating around the stage. The sounds were muffled, but Charles caught the director's voice speaking to another.
"If it's alright with you, I'll leave you to lock up."
"Great! Then I'll see you tomorrow!"
Charles waited as the director's arrogant stomp faded off into the aisles. He peered out from the lush curtains. The glittering faux gold enticed him, and with the work lights still on, the opalescent set seemed to be swathed in an otherworldly aura. He began to start forward gladly, but was stopped by a sigh that did not come from him.
With learned stealth, he lingered behind a gilded cherub, posed in classical artistry, and noted the back of a young woman pacing the apron. She was small, probably only coming up to about five feet. Other than that, everything else about her was large—her eyes, her lips, her figure. It made her seem even shorter. Charles felt a flicker of annoyance bubble up at her intrusion. She needed to leave. He wanted to scurry around the set without having to worry about her noticing his presence.
She stopped her pacing, and he could see the tumbling chestnut waves of hair bounce as she did so. The young woman was facing the house and its unfilled chairs, swaying from side to side. Curiously, Charles leaned onto the fake statuary, staring between outstretched feathers.
The woman seemed to be following some unheard tempo. It rose from the very tips of her feet, lifting up from the center of her, and her head came up slowly. Her arms fluidly flowed across the air as she started singing.
The note was soft at first, but gained a hidden strength. It was beautiful in the way he imagined angels might sound. In fact, it was sweeter, he vaguely thought. Her voice burst forth, breathing life to the theatre. Suddenly, the lights were sparkling, illuminating the wonders around them. The cold of winter banished, and inside, there was a blossom of something… something strange. He gasped too loud, covering his mouth.
In an instant, the young woman's note cut off, and she wheeled around. Eyes the color of the pure sky were darting around, trying to locate the unexpected noise. Charles hated himself, biting into his charred palm to keep from making more sounds. Perhaps if he was quiet enough, she would continue singing.
"Hello?" she called, voice wavering, "Is someone there?"
Despite his hiding place, Charles felt himself shaking his head in response. She walked farther into the glorious set, and he slinked back. Luckily, she paused. With a soft slap on her pony-tailed head, she went back to the apron. The young woman jumped down, grabbing a satchel lying on the floor, walking up one of the main aisles toward the doors.
Charles peeked over the statue in time to see her turning around. "Good night then," she murmured.
"Night…" Charles returned after he heard the lock of the main doors bolted shut.
Charles was feeding the little brown bird in the rusted cage. This prop had been painted silver at one point, then blue, then green, and probably bronze. The metal was old, but still sturdy enough to hold his little friend. The bird hopped around the bottom of the cage, picking up seeds that Charles had managed to pilfer from the green room. Actors and their health kicks. It was often convenient.
"It was the most beautiful sound I have ever heard," he whispered, but the bird paid no mind. It was preening after the its afternoon snack. "You would have been jealous, my little friend."
The bird fluttered up to the perch, settling down for a nap, thus ending the one-sided conversation. Charles smiled and copied the restful action, thoughts lingering instead on the strange young woman he had spied the other day. In an effort to hear that lovely voice again, he had been shadowing her for the last few days. He knew more about her than any other cast member in the theatre company.
Her name was Ezra Alloutte, and she was the costume mistress. She was going to school, learning more about theatres, and was on a strict liquid-only diet. Her favorite color was purple. Two weeks ago was her 23rd birthday. Also, for some reason, she detests decorative lawn gnomes. What was intriguing was the other cast members opinions of her. Everyone complimented her on her sense of atheistics in fashion, but other than that, he still hadn't found her alone, which, he deduced, is the only time she sang.
Rather grumpily, he nestled into his cloak, which smelled strongly of smoke and cinders. The scent stayed with him, and he could never figure out why. Smoke and oppressive heat linger in his garb. It upset him, so he turned his head to the side and stared past the racks of worn costumes, looking into the cool, dim light.
There were dust particles wafting in the air so slow they could have been still—like grains on a film; stuck there, frozen for all eternity. So it was startling when the attic door swung open, banging against the adjacent wall with a profound shudder. Serendipitously, it was Ezra, entering the attic sheepishly and checking the wall.
"Oops," she said to no one, though Charles was near enough to overhear. He could not help but chuckle at the way she burst his melancholic ponderings. However, her ears were sharper than he gave her credit for. Her face popped up, looking over the racks of clothes, searching for the source of the small laugh.
Charles slightly cursed himself for being so careless. He tried to blend into the darkening crooks of the attic, but Ezra was steadfastly approaching his secret place. Frantic, he scrambled into a pile of boxes. Unfortunately, he kicked several to the ground. Masks, hats, and jewelry tumbled out. The tiny brown bird awoke at the clamor, squawking. Ezra was quick, her feet stopping at the fallen items, shocked to see the catastrophe. Her sky-colored eyes went from the maddened bird, to the recesses of the stacks of boxes. Carefully, she eyed the shifting shadows.
"It's okay, you don't have to hide," she said, and bent down, hugging her knees. Charles pulled down the hood of his cloak, one scared hand leaving the protective shadows. It—he didn't like to think of it as his own hand—was an angry red, boiled over, with stiff brown ridges.
Ezra gasped, crashing to her backside hard. Charles paused for a second, then grabbed the first thing nearest to him, a white mask, and brought it into his corner. With her hand over her heart, the young woman waited, trembling. Using the mask as a shield, he shuffled out. "D-Do not be scared," was all he said.
"How long have you been here?" Ezra questioned during an uneventful day after most of the cast left. They had spent countless hours together after that fateful day in the costume room. Often, she would question him about his unusual life. Either she was extremely curious, or else this was how people got to know one another. Charles had not spoken to people in such a long time, he had forgotten.
"Um…" came the sound of his scratchy voice, and it made him cringe to internally compare it to Ezra's pleasing tones, "I do not know. I do not keep track of the days." He was kneeling under the stairs in the orchestra pit, not looking at the woman working on a hem. Ezra glanced over at the shrouded figure in response. Charles blinked, shrinking further into his smoke saturated garment. The smell brought distant sounds of screams to his mind. "You do not have to look at me if you do not wish to."
"I wish to," she said, peeking through her needle. Charles felt the urge to smile, but quickly squelched it. Ezra must have noted, because she smiled for him, and went back to work. "I looked up the species of bird for you. It's a common sparrow."
"I had never seen one before," he said, and lifted himself into view.
"It's very lucky you found it," she replied. She sat back, smoothing down the gaudy ruffles of the costume she was fixing. Charles watched the way she handled the cloth. It was artwork, it was beauty—it was something that showed her true inner nature.
"Why do you speak to me?" he asked.
"Aren't you lonely?" she asked back. Charles thought for a moment, hesitantly reaching out to touch the silky fabric. He could see the deformities in his flesh standout like a beacon against such an excellent piece of work.
"I thought it was preferable…"
"To being feared, being shunned. The theatre is all about beauty."
"I'm in the theatre," Ezra stated the obvious, letting her hand rest on his. There was warmth in her touch that was soothing, very much unlike the heat that radiated from his being. "I am not beautiful."
Those words jarred a deep place in his charred heart. Ezra's belief was so opposite the way she sang, the way she worked colors and fabrics, the way she treated him… Charles slid back to cowering under the stairs. The seamstress tried to find him in the receding darkness, but his cloak blended into it like a second skin.
"Yes, you are… You're beautiful."
He did not have words to describe her otherwise.
Charles was in the wings, peering into the green room during the night of final rehearsal. Ezra was checking the costumes of the performers, making sure fabrics hung correctly. Good-naturedly, she was busy talking to one of the ensemble. Hoping to hear more, he shifted closer to the wait by the opened crack of the door.
"You've lost some weight, haven't you?" an older performer inquired. Ezra nodded, safety pins in her mouth. "What's your secret?"
"Ginger," was the muffled reply.
Charles cocked his head to the side to get a better view of the chaos. Next to the door the new talent sashayed past Ezra and the older performer. "Gonna need a lot more ginger," she muttered, delighting in an ill-favored smirk.
Growling low, Charles glared at the shrew, and without much conscious thought, reached out a scarred arm. He grasped at a bottle-colored blonde curl, and yanked. It must have been harder than he thought capable, because chunks of strands came back from under his blackened nails. The girl shrieked. Others started, some moving away from the door, but a few rushed to her side. The green room was a flurry of incoherent babble and skirling costumes. Only Ezra remained motionless, blue eyes gazing through the sliver of the dark opening.
She found him sometime later in the attic, balancing the birdcage on his knees. Their little sparrow friend hopped on the perch, glancing at her, and tweeting. "What happened back in the green room?"
Charles tapped on the painted metal. He could not ignore her, but at the same time, he did not know if he could face her after his rash actions. "She was mean to you," he murmured.
"There're all mean to me."
"No, just her! I only hurt her because—"
"Charles," she addressed him, taking the birdcage into her hands and lifting it up before placing it gently on the grimy floor. "You don't hurt people." He couldn't find his voice, his mouth felt too dry. He was parched, tongue as dry as cotton, crumbling like toast. She had to hate him after such atrocious behavior, and he couldn't stop her. Ezra sighed, offering her hand to the poor figure. "Come with me."
"No, they will come after me!" he panicked.
"No one is here but us," she explained. Charles could feel the blood rush to his face, embarrassed, but he took her hand and let her guide him down to the stage. He felt giddy at their mere touch.
The work lights were on, as well as a spot light, bathing the stage in a glow of the palest pink of the rising sun. Charles marveled as the set twinkled, statues spinning on their trap doors, and a recording was issuing from the walls. The melody reminded him of some long buried emotion. Just when he was going to ask her what was going on, Ezra began to hum along with the tune.
Surprised, he waited as she led him to the center of the stage, and softly sang. His heart could have skipped a beat, but for some reason, it stayed hushed. Her song embraced him, and she soon followed, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. Closing his eye, he found the top of her fluffy chestnut head with his cheek.
Then, they let the somber-sweetness wash over them.
They swayed together in the iridescent light, swaying back and forth in a tender embrace. Her voice lent him a glimpse of pure beauty. Finally, came a broken note, ended a familiar song in a fading crescendo, and instantly he knew he had to let her go. Gulping, he drew back, hiding in his smoldering cloak.
"What was that…?"
"Your swan song," she said, her blue eyes dewy in the dancing light.
"I do not understand," he said. He found his face looking down into hers, searching for answers that went unsaid.
She reached up, her deft hands lowering his hood. Charles flinched, but relaxed as she left her soft hands hovering in the cool air before them. "How long have you been here?" she echoed her questioned from earlier in their meetings.
Charles blinked, staring into her sky blue orbs that emitted perfect patience. "I have been here for so long… I do not remember anything else."
"Where did you get your scars?" there was an underlying urgency to her questions he had never observed before. The way she spoke sounded like she knew the answers, and she knew Charles knew the answers, but would not admit any aloud.
"They're from a fire," Charles was struggling to fit the information together.
Ezra's blue eyes could no longer hold back tears. She helped him, breath coming out wispy. "From this theatre, right? A long time ago?"
He nodded, smoke and heat sinking his heart.
"Then think about it…"
Charles was rooted to the spot, and thought about flames. Thought about his skin, melting and burning. About every vague thought and sound he felt scorched into him. The memories flooded back to him, one by one. Like a silent film, the scenes of his last moments played across the stage.
Before electricity, when candles lit up the stage, Charles was backstage. Someone wasn't paying enough attention. Rigging came loose, crashing into the set. Actors scattered and screams rose. The black curtains were instantly burning. Charles ran over to smother them, ended up staying behind, trying to put out the flames in the curtains. The puzzle pieces of his last moments stood out… the hellfire, the screams, his breath left his body, swallowed whole into nothingness. Yet he could not find the memory of leaving the theatre.
"I am no longer alive, am I?" he realized. Ezra shook her head, wet tears falling. "But, you are alive?"
"I'm afraid so."
"Well, that is good news, at least," he said. She laughed past a sniffle, placing her palm against his cool cheek. The scars melted under the tender touch, smoothing the skin, bringing a healthy peach color. It amazed him when the spotlight grew impossibly bright, creating a halo around them. Warmth that rivaled hers surrounded his body, making it lighter.
"You're beautiful," she whispered. A thumb stroked the edge of his jaw.
"I'm going to be lonely again," he said, holding her hand to him tightly.
"I'm sure we'll meet again another winter," Ezra promised more than suggested. With a sigh, Charles leaned down and pecked her forehead.
"Another winter, then…"
Ezra Allouette shut off the spotlight, stopped the statues on their turns, and locked up the green room and back doors. She was pragmatic about it all. It kept her busy. The opening night was tomorrow—that would keep her even busier.
Just as she slung her satchel over her shoulder, she heard a coo. Starting, she looked back. Placed in the center was that birdcage painted one too many times. Ezra walked over and took it up. "Well, shall we go home? It's nearly springtime now."
She left the theatre to the sound of their sparrow, and into the newly risen sun, still pink and fresh from its long winter's sleep.