A Performance by M Gerald Ellis
The atonic screechings of several violas broke through the ambient hum of people finding their seats, general kafuffle, and a group of large, gaudily dressed, white haired women complaining to a hapless young usher about their view being semi-obscured by a wine coloured carven pillar. As a noise which might be understood as the rudiment parts of music, but without having been given form or meaning, erupted from the orchestral pit; the prosaics of conversation ceased. And a more senior usher than the hapless young man showed the ladies to a private box, with a superb view, to prevent their causing any more of a disturbance.
Men in black uniforms, different from those of the ushers in their ember-red tunics, dimmed each and every house light.
Fitzpatrick the reviewer sat in the fourth row from the front, and six seats left of centre. As the lights died the defined, perceivable, shapes of seats and persons around him died too, and gave way to dim spectres of those fully formed things. His deep green irises fled the terror and uncertainty that the spectres brought and crowded as close as they could manage to the relative safety of the whites of his eyeballs.
Attention turned to the lit stage.
They relaxed again and finely adjusted themselves as if recovering from the embarrassment of their sudden flight. The stage was empty, yet some movement could be discerned from behind the curtain. A girl of about seventeen years emerged from the right hand side of the stage as the orchestra began to play a dark and mournful ballad. An enormous wind instrument, made from the root of some long-ago slaughtered giant of a tree, added an almost inaudibly low counter to the weeping of the violas and seemed to add body to the purring of the woodwind instruments. Fitzpatrick noted the tearful beauty of the song and watched the girl glide across the stage as if spurred along in periodical motions by her very grief. She looked sad indeed, he thought, and weary beyond her years; and had put this down to an admirable natural talent. She twirled, as if falling, as a singer, unseen, began a lament of a girl whose lover had been brutally murdered by a jealous suitor. The lovers remains, it became apparent, had been devoured by the suitor in the hope that the girl could love him because her lover was now a part of him. Fitzpatrick gave a wry, invisible, smile; pleased that the writer had lived up to his reputation for imaginative narrative. But just as Fitzpatricks mind drifted, momentarily, on this tangent something happened on stage which dragged him back to reality. As the girl had given a swooning motion toward the edge of the stage one of the footlights had passed a small, bright, flame to the hem of her dress. It flickered. And for a brief moment it seemed as if it would go out, but it did not, and as the fire grew upon the terraces of her great garment, she suddenly noticed it and gave forth a dramatic and chilling scream. Shudders ran through the hearts of the audience as they realised, row by row, gallery by plush-seated gallery, what was happening. Yet no one appeared on stage to assist her and, presently at least, the orchestra and the unseen soprano continued their grief stricken outpourings, if somewhat drowned by the girls fearful shrieks. Surely it could not be that this was a part of the play. The playwright, Morenoff, was known, for better or worse, for his macabre performances, even in modern terms, but it was evident from her movement that she was in genuine distress, although she shifted little from centre stage.
But why thought Fitzpatrick does no one come to her aid. Maybe water was being fetched, he reasoned. By now many men in the galleries were standing and some were clambering over their fellow spectators in an effort to go and aid the girl, from whose dress now issued forth a billow of black smoke, and the heat was almost tangible to those in the first few rows of seating. But as Fitzpatrick knew, it was not possible, due to the unseen fissure in which were housed the musicians, to reach the stage from the gallery.
The girl was still standing, but looking very much smaller on the stage which she had once occupied alone and now shared with a great roaring mass of flame. All the front of her skirts were now ablaze and she made futile flailing motions through the tips of the flames, but lacked the determination to beat their base, and source, with her delicate hands and arms. She twisted her torso this way and that in attempts to escape their heat and at one point seemed to make a gesture as if she would remove the dress, reaching to the top and back of her neck to release the first of fifteen ornate fastenings. Still no one came to her aid.
As she grappled with the third fastening, in that point between the shoulder blades which is so tiresome to reach, the flames appeared to have engulfed her entirely and she could do little but writhe awkwardly as her delicately styled hair began to singe and her flesh began to boil, her elegant young face becoming dark with burns and the incinerated stuff of her dress.
At this point, and to the relief of the horrified audience, three of the men in black uniforms, who had extinguished the house lights earlier, came out onto the stage with sections of a dark red carpet which had the appearance of having been ripped from dressing rooms or some such chamber in the effort to find something with which to beat at the flames. They approached the fire-for it was now more fire than girl-and attempted to smother the flames with the squares of red that they held. The red soon turned to black and the flames, though inhibited by their makeshift adversaries, swarmed and billowed still in the hollow places of the girls dress, and by now also, the girl. The fire, now enraged by the attempt being made to snub it out in its moment of fame, seemed to roar with new intensity as if it had been given access to some new and inexhaustible source of fuel. For a moment it seemed to Fitzpatrick that the men in the black uniforms were now in danger too as the fire reached, angrily, for their squinting yet strangely expressionless faces. But as quickly as he had watched them take hold, the flames faltered, guttered, and died.
A deal of smoke, thick and noxious, rose from the great black pile of the girls dress, and at first indistinguishable from that mass, and then painfully clear in the renewed house lights was her charred, motionless corpse.