It’s a revue, they say, when they hand out the invites. Drag but not drag. Horns covered with beehive wigs, fangs tucked back, hooves stuffed in boots or gloves. Dance, song, jokes.
Come as you want to be, or as you are, they say, as they move on to the next mark. Please yourself, for once. They don’t wait to see if their words land, rote repetition giving their voices the quality of song already. There’s emotion behind it, though, weight, a priest saying mass or giving last rites, the words falling into a pattern that’s meaning and not-meaning at once.
I come as I want to be, ticket clutched in hand, dress hem twitching at my thighs. My shoes are sea-glass that will never break, the same as my eyes, my teeth. My fingers are the knives that separated my legs, that didn’t separate my prince from his heart, from his breath. No soul means you can’t die, it turns out. Funny the witch never mentioned.
Or not funny, I suppose.
It was a long walk between the lot and the theater. I startled a man on the way, his eyes gone blank and unseeing when I rounded the corner and almost collided with him. He heard my footsteps, had to have, loud as they are, a blade on a whetstone with every step. He expected something else, or maybe someone else, starting back when he saw me instead and deciding it was easier that way, easier for everyone. It makes me itch from jaw to spine, the way he doesn’t see, and I don’t relax until I’m where I’m going.
I take a seat across from a friend, next to another friend. The one I’ve met, the other only just. The one I know smiles, orders drinks for both of us. They’re on fire when they arrive, and everyone at the table blinks, heads tilting, tapeta lucida lighting. We’re our own world for a moment, clustered in our little circle around a fire finally meant for us. I exile us when I lean forward and blow them out, unsure if it’s right but sure I’m not swallowing flames after everything else I’ve choked down.
We drink, toasting the rest of the table, until one of the waiters drops my neighbor’s fish on me by accident. It wriggles and flops, and I feel sorry for it even as I break its skull between my jaws. It’s for the girl on my right, last one on the table so she has plenty of room, her eyes double-blinking at the fuss and the waiter apologizing and promising a round on the house to make up for it. She takes her meal from my mouth with one of her tentacles, dainty for all that it’s fast as a whip, too fast to track for eyes not used to the dark of the ocean floor.
The play begins after a moment of crass huckstering from the assistants. Everyone has to eat, after all, and the box office take is split with the venue.
It’s a maudlin thing, for all they try to make it a comedy. Sondheim would be proud.
Half the characters are dead by the end, but in a funny way, and no one can take it to heart because the actors were needed for other roles anyway. If the seemingly unfaithful lover isn’t murdered by his jealous girlfriend in the first act, how can the actor play the detective investigating the crime in the second?
(We pretend not to notice his wings stuffed under the policeman’s coat when he’s playing the detective. It seems only polite.)
My friend pauses at a few of the jokes, laughs without laughing, uneasy. I start and stare at her at one of the not-jokes, my mouth shaping laughter but my mind disbelieving. It’s too gruesome for a joke—what if the Huntsman brought back the wrong girl’s heart?—but there’s the punchline all the same, and everyone else is laughing. I know how she felt a minute, ninety seconds, ago, but we’re out of sync, her not-laughing hitting different beats than my not-laughing, and I wish we were at least confederates in this, of one mind about it. Our quicks are in different places, different depths, and this reminds me of it, that we don’t all bleed from the same cuts.
Intermission comes too soon, and there’s the clatter of bone and antler and metal at the exodus, toward the terrace for a smoke or the lobby for another drink or the restroom to fix lipstick or wash hands or admit we’re animals after all.
We two stay put, our eyes meeting.
“Did you think?” she says, and I shrug.
“Product of the times,” I offer. It’s a weak, cold-blooded defense. I’m good at those. They come naturally, for all I hate them. You can net the fish, haul it out of the ocean, but you can’t give it a warm heart.
“Still,” she murmurs. She crunches a snail-shell between her teeth, finishing the last of her dinner. Mine is hitting room-temperature on the table, and I wish I’d ordered what the woman next to me had, the thing that landed in my lap but I still couldn’t keep.
I can’t disagree with her, but there’s an arctic puff of disjointment now, and I order another round and excuse myself, give the fire time to warm the table.
The friend we’ve only just met sees my shoes and gushes, kindly ignores the stocking-seam scars running over the skin inside them, doesn’t ask what happened, doesn’t have to. They’re ice, glass, diamond, just like the shawl covering her shoulders and the arm she doesn’t have is cobwebs, lace, swan feathers.
I pretend not to see that arm no longer there with the same tenderness she calls on to pretend not to see the feet cut from native flesh and made to walk upright on foreign land, light her cigarette and look away instead of meeting her eyes. The man who didn’t see me earlier is panhandling outside a bar across the street, now not seeing any of us.
Last call brings us back inside, where the entire cast plus the accompanying band lie on the stage, pretending to be dead, victim of a killer too big for the plot to contain who’s now turned on the actors and the musicians. The manager, dressed as a policewoman, comes onstage and warns everyone not to leave town, that we’re wanted for questioning. We applaud stiffly, pleased at the play’s adherence to form and uncomfortable because of the same, until she winks at us and tips her cap to reveal her flopping donkey’s ears. An usher pressed into service yanks on a monofilament attached to her hat as she touches it, and a cunning crepe-paper wrap flies off to reveal the shiny gold satin underneath.
The applause is real after that, a false note forgiven in the wake of cunning artistry, a deliberate bit of frisson discharged at precisely the right moment.
The cast gets to their feet for a bow and, afterwards, poses for pictures with the audience. My friend and I and my new friend all walk home together in the rain, us on the outside because the cold and the wet can’t hurt us, her under the umbrella just in case, too many drinks to make hooves and claws and missing arms work against pedals and gears and ignitions, teeth too sharp and bare to make the bus a good idea. Our laughter is raucous, and the sound of our footsteps unforgettable. The man begging on the corner turns his face away, and I can’t mind it now, tonight, with them.
It feels good to not be seen in company.
T.R. North was born and raised in Florida and has never been featured in a News of the Weird column run in another state.