Sunday Fiction: Theater of Cruelty

By

A balcony, a bed, a windswept curtain parting and falling, a white hand, candles reflected in distant mirrors – my actress’s eyes are suddenly lit as if by fire. She stumbles across the tiered stage.  Rising illumination brings her arms back into focus.  Footlights peel away shadows that conceal her face and body.  Motion stops.  The orchestra next to the stage plays a sad melody when my actress confronts the child actor who is supposed to be a younger me.  As she looks back across her shoulder, in this play, the audience never realizes that she is my sister, or rather, that she is performing the part of my deceased sister, and the child is playing the part of the boy I once was.  Therefore, my actress’s shoulder is my sister’s shoulder, and her eyes are my sister’s eyes, glazed as if awakening from a dream.  Haze rises from the smog machines blasting under the floor.  That haze is the fog outside the apartment windows on that evening long ago, hours before my sister was attacked and blinded in my childhood home.

She, who had raised me as if she were my mother, was raped when I was only seven years of age, shortly after I began dreaming of Shakespearean tragedies she had once read to me.  The reality of what she had gone through was too painful for me to accept.  Perhaps this is why I began to cultivate the notion that the world was a theater and everyone but me was merely an actor.  Truly, I imagined a creative god who was putting on a performance just for me, the only real thinking being in the world.  I began to believe that my sister, like the man who attacked her, was only acting.

I was living in my own Theater of Cruelty long before, as a teenager, I discovered the writings of Antonin Artaud and immediately felt a kinship with the misunderstood genius whose theories struck a chord with me because of what I had seen at a young age.

I witnessed the entire attack.  Later, even though I blamed myself for not being able to save my sister, I could only identify with the attacker.  Because I could not forgive myself, I forgave the evil man, and then became obsessed with reliving what I could not avenge.

The man was never found, leaving a void in my life that became the shadow side of me.  Justice was never served.  In order to keep my sanity, I found ways to recreate the act of violence, ways to allow me to take control over the senselessness of what changed us forever.  Secretly, I’ve always believed this is why I became a director, why I started my own theater and became a devotee of Artaud.

*

My sister was a woman who loved to sing lullabies and to draw pictures of the characters in the lullabies.  She was endlessly eating pistachios in the evenings before she sang to me.  She planted red and violet tulips in the narrow garden walkways of our apartment complex.

She had such a high and clear voice, and such strong and capable hands that could easily locate and separate bulbs clustered in the dark earth.

Long before she died, I found a way to replace her, just as I found a way to replace myself while I became the evil man in my mind.  Somehow one of my sister’s hands had been broken, shattered.  Later, I dreamed I was the one who blinded her and I was the one who broke her hand.  In dreams, I was no longer me but the man who had hurt her.

Every spring after the attack, I had to describe for her the brightness and the quality of the tulips she could no longer see.  She was not the same woman, even though she had survived.  She would never be the same.  Neither would I.  That’s why the lullabies, the drawings, the tulips, and the pistachios will never appear in any of my plays.

*

Tonight, on stage, when my actress reaches her hand through the bars of the kitchen window to touch the boy’s face, the boy takes hold of her hand and won’t let go.  He ties it into the vice; she cries out, and the audience feels her bones grinding against each other merely because of the authenticity of her screams.  Some of the men in the audience rise from their seats, entranced by her performance.  Just before she loses consciousness, the curtain falls, concealing her and the boy.

I run to her.  When she wakes, her hand is twisted and curled like a dead spider, and she can’t move her fingers, three of which are tilted backwards to her wrist.

She falls into the props, and the hollow walls slide away to reveal the rest of the cast and crew, who have to pry us apart.

“It was your finest performance,” I tell her.

“Don’t touch me,” she says, but I hold her tightly and refuse to let go.  On the way to the emergency room, she is silent in the back of the car, convulsing, collapsed against the window.

*

On August 21, 1963, my actress broke her hand, for the first time, on the stage above the sunset orchestra.  When the scene went bad on the blue terrace, she cried, setting the audience of travelers free to embark on more personal journeys.  Through the dim streets of summer, the women’s faces were obscured like the high leaves of the distant park trees nearest the black sky.  I once asked her what came over her, why she did everything I told her to do, even though she must have known that it would hurt her, that it was wrong.

“It’s a presence, a mood,” she once said backstage in the little dressing room with the bare bulb swinging on its chain, the arc of light illuminating her pale face as she rose from her disintegrating chair.  Months later, after her cast had been removed, the bones remained in a fragile arrangement and never quite healed properly as she had used the cheapest doctor she could find.

In truth, it might not have been the doctor’s fault.  I do not know whether or not he was a capable, competent, or trustworthy man, although I assume he wasn’t yet a charlatan.  Furthermore, he did warn her that certain bones never heal, not after certain types of breaks.  In the years to come, beneath crates of old dresses, her disfigured hand twists and breaks again, the delicate bones hollow like a songbird’s made to last through only three summers carrying the branches to nests made of simple hair and long grasses woven into song.

On sunny mornings, sparrows mate in strange patterns near my upstairs windows.  Falling after rain, the wet eggs later break in the gutter, a stream of fractured limbs on the concrete ground of the theater alley.  In the violet room this evening, the room with its crumbling wallpaper that leaves blue-gray dust like powder, a moonlit mist of pollen on our palms, I hear the birds calling to each other and forget where I am, why I am here – with her.  Her hair is buried on the white sheets, burned into my eyes.  Bruised, she is calling my name.

*

We were here, in this room.  Here.  Together.

Near the low cabinet stocked with red wine, the cabernet gleamed in its green bottles.  I fell asleep gazing at that gleam and knowing the merlot was taken.

When I woke, my actress was snarling in her sleep beside the gray dog, Badger.  Badger had been dead for twenty-seven years, his corpse perfectly preserved by a talented taxidermist who matched the dog’s exact shade of blue-green eyes in glass.  I hated to stare at those glass eyes.  But I had to stare.  They reminded me of my sister.  My actress still loved Badger, the pet of her lost childhood.

“My first and only pet, the only one who will continue to love me unconditionally even after death,” she said while stroking the preserved corpse.

“But what about all these cats?” I asked her.

“What about them?  Cats aren’t really pets because they have no souls.  They’re not like dogs.”

“I like the cats,” I said, reaching out to stroke the tabby and then the ebony tom.

“If only you were as good as Badger,” she used to tell me, “if only you were as good as a dead dog, then I might love you.”

I tried – oh, how I tried to be as good as Badger!  I never was.  No matter how I willed it to happen, I could never live up to the legacy of her dead dog.

But that was long ago.  The dead dog was still alive in her for many years, along with the rest of her childhood, which is mostly gone now, even in her memory.  She has no sense of self.  Once the child in her had died, even Badger’s ghost was lost.  I felt it moving through the room, fading like smoke from an extinguished candle.

Through my actress, merlot coursed like a transfusion racing through a child’s veins.  As she emptied another bottle, I said, “This can’t be happening, not to us.”

“It happens to everyone,” she whispered before tossing the bottle onto the carpet.

“The wine,” I said, “the wine,” and she halfway rose from the bed, looking up at me as I struck the match to light her cigarette.  She refused my match and leaned into the candle flame instead, her breath raspy so that the flame danced beneath the cradle of her hair.

After taking a few drags, she gazed at me in a more personal manner, as if she suddenly recalled who I was, or rather, who I used to be.  There was that hint in her eye, that strange glint.  Now it seems odd to say she was afraid of me, but not as afraid as I was of myself.

“Collin,” she said.

“What?” I answered back.  It was the first time she had spoken my name in over three years.

“I can’t.  I just can’t.”

The balcony doors were wide open for anyone to see what we weren’t doing.  The torn curtains shuttered in the night air that smelled of gasoline and steaks burning on a giant charcoal grill near the highway.

“Are you hungry?” I asked because I was.  I wanted a huge steak, burnt to a crisp, even though the blackened meat sizzling on the big white plate seemed obscene.  As I was still languidly contemplating the steak, she took off her gown, and wanted me to touch her.  I was desperate for affection, but it had been a long time since I had sunk that low.  I knew her too well, we had too much history, and the doors were still wide open.

“I’m falling,” she said.  “I feel myself falling when I close my eyes, then I’m spinning and falling, even though I’m still down.”

I felt the need to state the obvious.  “You drank too much,” I said as I handed her a bunch of stale crackers to chew.

A siren wailed in the distance, and the sound grew louder before I finally saw the blue lights in the curtains, cutting into the room only to fall on the yellowed walls like ghosts in a cage.

She blew out the candles, finally, as the ambulance sped away.  She closed the balcony doors, drew the curtains tight.  “Dark enough for you?” she asked.  I didn’t answer.  Why should I have?  She knew my estranged and reclusive sister had been blind.  She despised my dead sister more than she had ever despised any other woman and for no known reason.

I heard my actress drawing nearer, slowly, so slowly, making her way around the room, as I kept moving backward to keep distance between us.  When she walked to me, calling my name, her normally soft voice took on deeper tones.  Playfully, she threw her voice and changed it to a husky masculine groan and then to something more feminine, higher pitched, squealing like a girl and then oinking like a pig, howling like a wolf.  I wasn’t amused.  The whole charade was creepy, not funny, and not at all appealing.

Yet in the dark room, I was fascinated with the concept of keeping away, remaining as silent as possible as I moved while the sounds of her voice alone let me know where she was, the changing inflections the only clue to her state of mind.

Don’t let her catch me, I thought.  I don’t know why.  Suddenly, I thought of my sister, a woman without eyes.  When she had regained consciousness and tried to escape that night, the man with the mask was still chasing her around the bathroom even though he had put out her eyes and was no longer wearing his mask.  I felt like her, or rather the way I always assumed she must have felt later, years later, when she claimed he came back for her.  When she was eighteen, that man broke into our apartment and blinded her so she couldn’t see his face after he took off the mask.  In the years that followed, every time I went to visit her in the hospital or the nursing home, she touched my mouth as I spoke, just to make sure I was who I said I was.  I suppose it was just to make sure my voice matched my face.  I was just a child when it happened, hiding in the shower behind the curtain but I would never reveal what his face looked like, even now.  I said I didn’t know.  I told the police that.  But I did know.

I never knew what she was thinking, even before she was attacked.  Once she was blind, at least I knew what she saw.  There were patches of time, days and months, as well as seasons I couldn’t remember.

Since then, I have willed myself into selective amnesia, and one day I hope to forget her, what happened to her, just before I forget myself, who I am, who I used to be.  Sometimes I am taken off guard by the way the light falls on a woman’s hair, the city lights, the actresses’ faces in the photos at the old theater where even as a young man I failed miserably.  And the actresses ran to me, practically ran into me, thinking I was a genius and could make or break their careers, asking what they should do – not just on stage – but with their lives, long after the play was over.  “Can my sister have your eyes?” I wanted to say because they had shut their eyes to everything except themselves, and therefore no longer needed to see.  Even before my sister was blinded, she seemed to perceive everyone but her.

“The man in the mask?” she used to ask me.  “Why did he do it?  Why do you think he chose me?  What could he have been thinking when he did that?”

*

When I first saw the x-rays of my actress’s broken hand, in my mind, the stage grew dark.  Then, when the light returned, it matched the color of the sky outside of the hospital windows – a gray blue so pale it was almost white.  Upon waking, just before she realized we were not in the theater anymore, her stifled cries were as real as the new plaster cast resting in its sling.  After she refused to file a police report, the nurses helped her down from the bed and into the wheel chair to escort her out of the hospital.  Shortly after, I helped her up the flight of steps leading to the rooms above the theater stage where old set designs were pinned against crumbling walls.

That night while she slept I moved the props across the theater floor, attempting to erase the boundaries of the old stage.  After creating a lighting machine to cast a blue flame, using a red light and orange cloth, I tacked a faded silk sky high above the lights where the ceiling once was.  I wanted to make the sun rise and set above my audience, who would now be a part of the stage.  Sometimes I asked actors and members of the chorus to sing amongst the audience, and the chorus would suddenly burst into song among startled people.  Mechanical gulls suspended on fine wire soared beneath the silk sky just before real doves were released into the theater.  I changed the light to violet, casting strange angular shadows on upturned noses, spotlights suddenly focusing upon certain faces in the crowd, the colored light making painted lips seem black or gray.

In my mind, I saw it all – every scene I was creating – the play I had produced so long ago.

In the fan’s wake, beneath the massive blades, the splendid white banners rippled like waves across the ocean.  Parallel to the footlights, my actress bowed as the teal backdrops fell away, revealing a garden in front of a distant painted ocean, fake roses of yellow and red and blue fading on their trellis.  The painted ocean background was wheeled away to reveal a hidden stage within the stage so that behind the garden was a pastel washroom beside a red kitchen where prison bars cast shadows across my actress’s luminous face.

Lights blazed harshly.  Shadows streamed the stage, the light flattening the large painted gray men in the garden, the human statues who now opened their eyes, blinking at the audience in wide-eyed wonder.  In the reflection of the large mirror, candles cluttered tables heavy with giant irises in silver or lead-crystal vases.  I wanted to dazzle the audience.  It was one of the few things I knew how to do – to put on a huge spectacle of romance – to take them up high before I tore them down with the opposite of romance.  The crystal vases fractured the spotlight, making dazzling prisms reflected in the mirror that faced my actress as she undressed for bed as if no one was watching her gown falling, her bra coming undone, the delicate straps tangling slightly around the agile fingers of her unbroken hand.

Even the women grew silent.  The men forgot to breathe.

Silence – this silence I created – disarmed the audience in the rose light that faded from blue to black before my actress, who still played the part of my sister, stumbled across the room just before all the lights went out – on stage and off.  A woman screamed, and then the silence returned, haunting the darkness.  The male statues in the garden kissed like lovers before my actress and my sister traded identities that night.

However, my sister did not yet know that play was about her – not until weeks later when the nurses turned on the radio at the hospital and she heard details of the nonexistent plot rehashed in a scathing review.

“You robbed me of me,” she later said, weeks before she took her own life.  “You took me from me,” she whispered, as if I were the one who blinded her, not the masked man who was so quick and so skillful with his knife.

Would it kill me to kill her on stage, night after night?

Part of my conscience was already gone, beyond any metaphoric death.  Besides, although I did not believe in art as therapy when traditional narratives and dialogues and happy endings were involved, I knew it could only heal me and make me feel more alive to find ways to face the truth of irrational violence.  The illogical nature of animalistic destruction was the demon inside all man, the demon that had invaded my childhood home.

 

 


Aimee Parkison is the author of two books of fiction: The Innocent Party (BOA) and Woman with Dark Horses (winner of the first annual Starcherone Fiction Prize). She has an MFA from Cornell University and is an Associate Professor of English at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she teaches creative writing. Parkison’s work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in numerous magazines, including Feminist Studies, Mississippi Review, North American Review, Cimarron Review, Quarterly West, Santa Monica Review, Other Voices, Lake Effect, Tarpaulin Sky, PMS, 5AM, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, So to Speak, Nimrod, The Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, Fiction International, Seattle Review, and Denver Quarterly. More from this author →