“Sure, back in England Tom would be the wonder of the age and we’d—he’d—be rich and meeting royalty and such like. But what’s a man with a donkey head in a place where wishes come true?”
SPELLMAN MATHERS’ TRAVELING Show & Zoo of Ordinary Creatures was shut up for the night. Tasks completed, Spellman kicked back a chair, lit a smoke and, hands behind his head, stared up at the sky. He breathed out, wreathing the stars with smoke, then, holding the cigarette between thumb and forefinger while inspecting its glowing core, said, “I was like you once, kid.”
In his hiding place, in the deep dark beneath the bales of animal feed, Sadhu, his skin as brown as a nut and his eyes black as the sky, all but cried out. Spellman couldn’t have seen him. Couldn’t have! In the hiding place, dark and deep, he was invisible so long as he did not move and made no sound.
“I had no home, no folks. I snuck into the circus one night, and when the circus left town, I went right along with it.” Apparently satisfied with the cigarette, Spellman drew on it again, then breathed the smoke out, and it billowed and writhed until it became a little smoke boy, hiding behind a cage while peeping out fearfully at a frightening world.
“But that was back then, when I were little, and the world’s moved on. The circus ain’t the right place for a youngster to be growing up no more.”
The smoke boy dissolved slowly away. Sadhu, deep in the dark place, moved only his eyes. He was not coming out.
Spellman drew on his cigarette a third time, and its glowing tip burned down to the butt. Smoke wreathed the circus man and concealed him. For a terrified moment, Sadhu was sure that when the smoke cleared Spellman would be gone. But the smoke dissipated and the circus master was still there, kicked back in the chair, staring up at the stars. Out of the darkness an animal coughed, a guttural, throat-clearing sound that set other beasts answering, and brought a stab of primeval terror to Sadhu.
Spellman looked over in the direction of the sound and spat a thick wad of phlegm that hissed on the dust just beyond the food bales.
“Shut it, Selena,” Spellman said, and the animals grumbled back into night silence. Spellman turned his head, listening for the quiet, then settled back into his chair.
“Like I was saying, the circus ain’t no place for a youngster no more. So come on out, before I comes and gets you, and I’ll give you some tickets for tomorrow for you to give out to your friends. What you say? Deal?”
Despite himself, Sadhu shivered. Spellman knew where he was. He must have seen him worming into the hiding place earlier, but he wouldn’t go back, he couldn’t go back. But, despite everything, Spellman’s voice pulled him, and Sadhu felt his muscles begin to move.
A boggart, barely high enough to reach Spellman’s waist, came out from under the lion’s cage. The lion grumbled in relief, wrinkling its spiky whiskers, and the boggart held out its hand. Spellman handed over two tickets. The boggart’s hand did not move. Spellman sighed and gave him another. The boggart smiled, its little sharp teeth catching the star glitter, and then it vanished with a puff of slightly sulphurous smoke.
Sadhu stifled his sigh of relief.
Then Spellman turned his head and looked into the deep, dark place where Sadhu was hiding, and said, “But you, you’re coming with us.”
As if strings were attached to his limbs and moving them, Sadhu found himself crawling out of his hiding place, standing and walking towards Spellman Mathers. The circus man did not watch him come, but leaned back in his chair. He pulled another smoke from the pack tucked into his hat, touched it alight and then drew deep before sending the smoke spiraling into the night.
“Changeling, lost boy, taken, or fled?” Spellman asked, still not looking at the boy, now standing next to him.
Sadhu shook his head. “I don’t know, sir.”
Spellman took a long drag from his cigarette. The tip glowed a deep, deep red. He turned his head and looked at Sadhu, and the boy saw that his eyes were goat’s eyes.
“Are you a satyr?” Sadhu asked.
Spellman shook his head. “Nope.”
“But your eyes…”
“You taken a look-see at my feet?” Spellman waggled toes that were definitely toes, rather than hooves.
“I…I don’t understand,” said Sadhu. “What are you, then?”
Spellman sat up.
“Human. Mostly. Anyhow, it don’t matter none. Fact is, you’re here, and here ain’t where you ought to be, is it?”
“But we still ain’t sure how you got here, is that right?”
“I…I don’t remember anywhere else but here, sir. But…but there must have been somewhere,” Sadhu continued in a rush. “I mean, I can speak, I’m grown, not a baby, but I can’t remember anything before I came here. I just know I was somewhere else.”
Spellman nodded. “It takes some folk so. Like as not, you won’t remember nothing when we get you back, neither. That’s if we get you back. Now, tell me, who you be beholden to?”
Sadhu ducked his head closer to Spellman and looked around, conscious that a name uttered could summon as well as name. He opened his mouth to speak it, but Spellman held his finger to his lips.
“Scribe it.” He handed Sadhu a board. The boy took the chalk and scratched out the name. Spellman, seeing it, hissed through his teeth, then swiftly wiped the board clean. He turned his yellow goat eyes on Sadhu.
“If I were knowing you to be beholden to the Lady, I guess I’d have told you to scram. More fool me, I’ve invited you in, and that’s as good as sharing salt. Afore we begin, you be sure you want to be getting back? Happen the world you go back to ain’t the one you left. Not by a long chalk.”
Sadhu shook his head. “I don’t care, it can’t be worse than where I am.”
“It can, you know.”
“But if I go back to the Lady, I don’t know what she’d do to me.”
Spellman grimaced. “I do. And it ain’t nice. But I wouldn’t be sending you back to her, no. I just be asking if you is sure ‘bout going back to your home place when it won’t be home no more. It will have moved on. Maybe two hundred years, mayhap ten thousand. There be no telling. What I can tell you is this: everyone you knew, everyone you loved, will be gone. Dead and dust. And you will be alone. You sure ‘bout going back?”
“Where else is there?” asked Sadhu. “Where else could I go?”
Spellman Mathers was about to answer when his eyes swiveled and he looked, senses bristling, out into the dark night beyond the circus.
Sadhu quailed, shrinking in closer to the circus man.
“Is it her?” he asked fearfully, staring wildly out into the dark.
“No, course not. She would not come for you, lad,” said Spellman, but he continued to search in the dark. “You don’t matter to her; it be like asking if the wind is coming to find you. But there be others…”
The night sighed with summer’s heat; and lights, flashing, blinking, pulsing lights, pricked its sable cloth.
“Sprites,” said Spellman. “Drat.” Spellman grabbed the boy’s collar. “Only one place safe.” He unlocked a cage. “With the cats.” And threw Sadhu in. “Don’t move. Don’t make a sound. They won’t eat you. Probably.”
Sadhu landed in straw and, panic stricken, made to scramble back towards the door, then saw the sprite lights flashing through the circus and heard the warning snarl of the dark, lithe cats fishing through the bars for the tiny passing creatures. But the sprites danced just out of reach, while Spellman roared at them to leave the animals be.
“That was where I made my mistake,” said a voice near Sadhu. He turned to see a shape, probably a man, half buried in the straw. “I was walking Londonwards, head stuffed with dreams of the travelling players I’d seen and young enough not to notice my belly was empty, when the Plague shut down the London theatres. On a summer’s eve I saw them dancing, sprite lights, by a woodland walk.” The figure leaned forward and whispered to Sadhu. “And, to cut a long story very short, I now find myself here, hiding in piss-stained straw from those self-same sprites, part of a travelling show rather further from home than I intended to go.”
“Shh,” whispered Sadhu, holding his finger to his lips and desperately glancing out into the night to see if the sprites had heard.
The man, if it was a man, for there seemed something strange about his shape, settled back into the straw with a sigh, while Sadhu shrank back, trying to hide from the swirling sprite lights and the agitated, angry cats, swiping at them.
But then, the lights sparked off and the sprites disappeared. The frustrated beasts snapped at darkness and paced alongside the bars of the cage. Spellman opened the door a crack, leaned in, and said, “If you’re not eaten, come on out.”
Sadhu crawled out of the cage and dropped to the floor, with the man who had spoken to him following.
“Why didn’t they eat us?” Sadhu asked Spellman, when his heart had finally slowed enough for him to speak.
“They’re good beasts. Fish only on Fridays and fast days.”
“What if today weren’t a Friday?” asked the man, from behind Sadhu.
“Then I’d have to be hiding you in my hat, and you don’t want that,” said Spellman, taking the battered, shapeless mound of cloth from his head. He held it up for them to see: within were trees and toilets seats, tents and tackle, all lying ascatter and athwart each other while what appeared to be….
“Is…I know him,” said the man, pointing into the hat. “Isn’t that, no, it can’t be…Will?”
“Oh, it probably is,” said Spellman, jamming the hat back on his head. “Trouble is, once I put something in my hat, it’s the devil’s own job to find it again, particularly if they don’t want to come out. So, let’s be hoping the sprites only come on fast days—at least, if the lions are naughty and break their fast, I know where to find you. Sadhu, allow me to introduce Tom.”
The boy turned to shake hands, then saw that the man had a donkey’s head on a human body. No wonder his outline had seemed strange.
“There, see, I said, didn’t I,” said Tom. “The moment they see me, they shrink away.”
“No, no,” said Sadhu, horrified that his lack of manners had caused upset. “I was just, er, so impressed by the length of your ears that I couldn’t speak.”
Tom ran a hand unconsciously along the length of his right ear, riffling through the thick, silky fur.
“They are impressive, aren’t they? And you know what they say about the size of a man’s ears?” Although Tom had the face of a donkey, he nonetheless contrived to look smug. “It’s true.”
Sadhu nodded, although in truth he had not the faintest idea of what people said about ear size (the bigger the ears, the better the hearing?), but rather than draw attention to this, he decided to put his feet in it.
“I bet they come from miles around to see you.”
Tom stopped. “I beg your pardon.”
“The freak show. I bet you must be the most successful freak show exhibit ever.”
Tom snorted, only it came out as a prolonged bray, while Spellman laughed so much tears trickled from the corner of his eyes. Sadhu tried to ignore the glittering creatures, like flying jewels that gathered on Spellman’s face and siphoned the tears from his cheeks.
Composure returned and, his cheeks sucked dry, Spellman clapped Sadhu across the shoulders. “Lord bless you, kid, but you do make me laugh. Tom ain’t no freak show exhibit, he’s our business manager and advertiser.”
“But, but I thought, oh, I’m so sorry,” Sadhu stammered.
“Sure, back in England Tom would be the wonder of the age and we’d—he’d—be rich and meeting royalty and such like. But what’s a man with a donkey head in a place where wishes come true?”
“My wish didn’t come true.”
“You wished to get home?”
Spellman spread his arms. “Wish granted. I’ll take you back to England. I promised Tom I’d take him back too, only time’s gone a bit funny on us, ain’t it, Tom, and then there’s your head. But I reckon you’ll change back once you go through.”
Tom, still struggling with a tendency to bray, satisfied himself with a snort.
“Not much assurance there.”
Spellman shrugged and spread his arms. “It’s all the assurance you’ll get. Anyway, like I was saying, the Fair Folk and t’other people that live here, they ain’t interested in wonders and stuff; they want to see ordinary things: animals that keep their shape, skills perfected by muscle and repetition rather than by art and cunning. Shows of words and rhyme, written on paper and held in memory. Oh, and clowns. The Fair Folk are the only people anywhere who think clowns are funny.”
“You said you can get me back to England?” said Sadhu.
Spellman nodded. “I can that, son.”
“But I come from India.”
“Ah,” said Spellman. He shrugged. “England, India, close enough. Sides, your English is excellent; you’ll manage.”
“I don’t speak English,” said Sadhu.
“Well, I ain’t no Indian,” said Spellman.
Tom sat forward. “Wait. This is astonishing. Listen. We’re all speaking different languages, but we’re hearing the same words.”
Spellman gave a broad, uproarious laugh, slapping his thighs as he did so. “So, that’s how it works,” he said. “There were times when I done wonder how it were that everyone who comes here, Englishman, Cornishman, American, speaks English and now I know—they never built the Tower to the skies here, so they still speak Adam’s tongue.”
Tom’s doleful dark eyes widened as the implications sank in. “No wonder they can do magic: this is the naming language, the tongue of power where names are what they signify.” And a broad smile spread over his donkey face—or it would have been a smile if a donkey’s jaw and muscles allowed. As it was, it became a general baring of rather yellow but obviously strong teeth.
Spellman held up a finger. “I can see what you’re thinking, Tom, but don’t go expecting to do magic on them that gave you your donkey head—you needs to know their true names and I, for one, think Lord and Lady ain’t their real names.”
The donkey brayed in disappointment, and Spellman tossed him a consolatory carrot, which he caught in his mouth and began to chew.
The circus man turned to the boy. “There’s a gate opening after tomorrow’s show, so long as the Moon shines, and it seems set fair, so we can get you back. It was a hell of a lot easier when I was young—then you could just walk from one world to the other. Any wall, crossroad, gate or ring might take you there—all you had to do was keep walking. But these days it’s all ‘full moon on the sixth night of Lammas’, or ‘shadow of a black cat falling upon still water’. Much more difficult. Tomorrow shouldn’t be too bad, though.”
“Where is the gate tomorrow?” asked Sadhu.
“Right here,” said Spellman. “The light of a new moon on a travelling show.”
“Pray, you never have told me how you know where to find these crossing points between worlds,” said Tom.
But Spellman tapped the side of his nose, raised his eyes skywards and shook his head.
“Some things don’t bear speaking on, Tom. Particularly where everything you see might be alive, and listening.” And the yellows of Spellman’s eyes gleamed as he glanced into the encroaching darkness.
“But if we lost you, we would all be lost,” said Tom.
Spellman laughed. “Where do you think I’m going?” he asked, and disappeared. Without any fuss, sound or warning.
Sadhu, panic rising, got to his feet and ran towards where Spellman had been sitting, but Tom just sighed.
“Very well, sir, you have made your point. Would you return to us?”
And, with as little fuss as his leaving, Spellman was back, exactly where he had been, an innocent expression on his face and his hands ready to deflect Sadhu’s rush. The little boy went sprawling. Spellman looked after the tumble of limbs.
“In a hurry?”
Sadhu picked himself up, pulling straw from his clothes.
“I thought you had gone.”
“You don’t get rid of me that easily,” said Spellman. “Big day tomorrow, so get some sleep now. Better go back under the lion’s cage, no one will find you there. Here.” Spellman reached into his hat and tossed the boy a sheaf of papers. “Your lines. Learn them by tomorrow.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Ten to one, the gate will open on stage, in the middle of the show. The only way to get you through it, is to have you in the play.”
Sadhu went to sleep that night serenaded by the grumbling growls of the big cats, dreaming of blood and prey, his mind a jumble of strange words and confused directions.
SPELLMAN TWITCHED THE curtains back into place and turned to Tom.
“You’ll never guess who’s out there tonight? Only hisself and herself, larger than me and almost as pretty.”
If it was possible for a donkey-headed man to blush, Tom did. His fur stood on end, his nostrils flared, and his lips, pulling back in a grimace, revealed large, yellow and distinctly unsightly teeth. He put his eye to the gap between the curtains, then fell back.
“It is them,” he said. “They must know about the door tonight, we’ll have to call it off, I have to get out of here….” Tom’s growing panic was cut short by Spellman’s sharp slap. His donkey eyes closed, and then slowly reopened, as the asinine part of his nature took over.
“Patience,” said Spellman. “They’re here for the show, not for you. Or maybe they’re here for the boy.” He looked at the cowering Sadhu, hiding behind a rack of clothes. “But most likely it’s the show. Let’s give them a good one, and they won’t even guess what else happens here tonight.”
“When does the gate open?” asked Tom.
“I don’t know for certain,” said Spellman. “But it will be during the performance.”
“And where will it be?”
“That, too, I cannot tell you. Watch for a door, and remember that it opens only one way. Once through it, you cannot return.”
“That is my most fervent wish,” said Tom, and Sadhu nodded his agreement.
“You’d better get out of the way then,” said Spellman, and he pushed Tom to the side, as the players, robed and tense, entered stage left.
“You’re in scene two, Tom,” Spellman hissed into the donkey’s ear. “Listen for your entrance.”
“What? Pardon?” gabbled Tom.
“Oh come on. How many donkey-headed actors do you think I have?” said Spellman. He turned to Sadhu and fixed the little dark boy with his eyes. “I need you now—one of the little idiots has gone and got himself nipped by a lion.”
Sadhu looked out on stage, then up at Spellman, shaking his head in dumb denial.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” said the showman, patting the boy’s hair. “We’re all actors here.” Spellman pointed out on to the stage. “Look at those two—they were all Am Dram before, now they’re Burbage and Bernhardt.”
Sadhu watched the bare boards of the stage from the wings. Some of the players had already exited, leaving only two, staring into each other’s eyes.
“The course of true love never did run smooth….”
Tom placed his hand on Sadhu’s shoulder. “I reckon that’s where the gate’s going to open, kid,” he said. “To go through it, we have to get out there. You understand?”
The boy nodded, his eyes wide.
“I’ve done it before—Spellman’s right, it comes to you when you’re on stage.” Tom looked back. Another had joined the lovers.
“Your man face.” Spellman handed Tom a mask, then turned to Sadhu. “You’re on too—don’t fret, there ain’t much for you to say in this scene.” The showman glanced at the stage. “We’re on,” he said, and giving Sadhu a shove, he marched them out in front of the audience.
They stood upon an unadorned stage, with no stage lights, the audience all too clearly visible. The Lady and the Lord—Sadhu’s Lady and Lord—looked up from their adjacent couches, but there was no sign of recognition in their amber eyes.
“Is all our company here?” asked Spellman.
Silence. Tom and Sadhu stood as glazed statues upon the stage.
A cough drifted up from the audience, and sprayed a bole of sparkling fireflies above the paralyzed players. But that announcement of impatience was enough to galvanize Tom and he began with a gentle—for a donkey—snort.
“You were best to call them generally, man by man, according to the scrip.”
As Tom and Spellman spoke, the air breathed voices, as if there were around them the general hubbub of a city, giving Tom a chance to nod significantly towards stage front where, out of sight of the audience, a scroll with the text wound its way through the play.
Sadhu stared at the scroll uncomprehendingly, then looked at Tom, who managed to simultaneously declaim, “First, good Peter Quince, say what the play treats on,” while looking beseechingly betwixt boy and scroll—no easy feat for a man with a donkey’s head. And, at last, Sadhu understood: he was to read out the next character’s lines. Scanning anxiously ahead, he saw them, then mouthed the lines silently while he waited upon his cue.
“Francis Flute, the bellows-mender.”
“Here, Peter Quince,” answered a relieved Sadhu.
By staring fixedly at his lines, Sadhu stumbled through his first act on stage, while about him, Spellman, Tom, and the other players japed and cavorted, to the laughter of the audience.
Then it was over, and Sadhu was hustled off stage in between Spellman and Tom. But just as he began to relax, Spellman grabbed his shoulders and, yellow eyes fixed on him, said, “You’re on again, boy. Make it good.”
As Sadhu stumbled back on stage, Spellman hissed, “You’ve got the first line.”
The boy mumbled his line, hardly able to gather thought, but there was a pause while the other player, a lithe little naiad, sang in a green voice, allowing Sadhu to gather himself.
“…our queen and all her elves come here anon,” finished the naiad.
Sadhu stared, paralyzed, out into the audience. Trickles of laughter filtered into his silence. From the wings, he heard Spellman whispering, then a theatrical sigh. Spellman capered on stage, doffing his hat, and kicked Sadhu in the bottom, before doffing his hat again and withdrawing, drowning the start of the boy’s speech in laughter.
“…Oberon is passing fell and wrath,
“Because that she as her attendant hath
“A lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king:
“She never had so sweet a changeling….”
Sadhu swallowed. The words were sticking in his throat. He looked down and saw his brown-skinned hands trembling. He peered out, into the audience, and saw the Lady lean towards the Lord and, pointing to the stage, whisper into his ear. The Lord sat up, stared in turn, then nodded and smiled an assent. Sadhu glanced into the wings, where Spellman was gesturing him on.
“They see the story, not you,” Spellman hissed.
“And jealous Oberon would have the child….” Sadhu continued, but his voice faltered as he saw the Lady and the Lord rise from their seats and advance upon the stage.
“Or maybe not,” said Spellman. Leaping from the wings, he bowed before the Lady and the Lord.
“Greatnesses, here, take the stage and receive the worship that is your due.” The showman looked from one pale face to the other. On stage, Sadhu ran on through his lines, speaking with as much animation as a mannequin, while before him, the Lady and the Lord regarded Spellman in silence.
“You have but to take the stage—the lines be there before thee—and the glory be thine, for sure a Lady and a Lord of such beauty can never be portrayed, in truth, by my poor players here assembled.”
The Lady looked to the Lord and raised an eyebrow in question.
“But room, fairy: here comes Oberon.”
And from stage left entered the Lord, and from stage right the Lady, and Sadhu was in between them, trapped, their sweet changeling a dainty awaiting their picking. But, on entering, the king and queen of faerie ignored the boy and stared upon each other.
“Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania.”
In the wings, Sadhu saw Spellman mollifying the distraught players, shoved aside as they were about to make their entrances, but he glanced above their heads to grin at the boy on stage.
“The play’s got them,” he mouthed. The boy understood, and stood back as the lovers clashed. From the audience there came gasps of appreciation at the spectacle laid before them this night, while from backstage, Sadhu heard low grunts of disgust from Tom, as he muttered something about girls playing girls’ parts, and the world ending badly.
“What, jealous Oberon! Fairies, skip hence:
“I have forsworn his bed and company.”
As the Lady turned her back upon the Lord, and stared into the distance, Sadhu saw that where before there had been bare boards, there were now trees, and birds, and the distant prospect of hills. The wood had come to the stage.
“Tarry, rash wanton: am I not thy lord?”
The Lady turned in scorn to answer the Lord, and as she spoke, the air, the very space behind her, twisted and opened.
“The gate.” Sadhu heard Tom whisper the words from the wings. With his back to the audience, Sadhu gestured him to come over. But Tom shook his head.
“It’s not my entrance,” he mouthed, and although Sadhu waved him on, he would not come.
From the wings, Tom stared at the gate, entranced at the vision of his own lost world, and at players playing on a different stage—not the mean boards they trod in Faerie, but the stage of the greatest theatre in the land, the Globe.
But then his brow wrinkled, for he did not know the players. And was that a woman playing Helena? And what of the costumes of the groundlings—uncouth and ugly they were, with women there, too, dressed as men, and men who appeared like nothing on earth, but creatures—demons or damned—tortured and pierced through with metal and iron.
Not only that, but the play was being performed at night. The sky, glimpsed round above, was black. Lights, fierce, unblinking, smokeless lights lit the stage. They were like nothing Tom had ever seen.
Spellman dug Tom in the ribs. “The gate.”
“Yes,” said Tom.
“It ain’t the same, is it?”
“The world’s moved on, see.”
“Yes. I see.”
“You still going back?”
“How can I? But the boy can.”
The two of them looked on stage, where Sadhu waited upon the Faerie lovers, declaiming their lines with all the subtlety of slim and beautiful rhinoceroses.
Spellman grimaced. “Amateurs.”
“Who’s going to play Puck if Sadhu goes?”
Spellman shrugged, and grinned. “The show’ll go on.”
“I’ll put a girdle round the earth/In forty minutes.” Sadhu sidled off stage, making sure to exit to the opposite wing to the Lady.
“They didn’t recognize me,” the boy whispered when he came off. “I thought they were going to grab me when they came on stage, but they didn’t.”
Spellman grinned. “Their magic is caught up in our glamour.” He waved his hand to encompass the tattered curtain, the sun-bleached scenery and the tired props. “In its place—out there—this be magic strong enough to enchant the rulers of Faerie themselves.”
Tom squatted down by the boy, his man mask pushed up over his ears.
“The gate’s open, lad. You can go back.”
Sadhu stared out on stage, where the gate glimmered, invisible to the audience, but clear from the wings and to the players. “Are you coming with me?”
Tom shook his head, and one of his ears flopped free and fell down over his eye. “The world’s moved on, lad. It ain’t what I know, no more. But you go.”
Sadhu looked up past Tom at Spellman. The showman nodded.
“Go,” he said.
“But who will play my part?” asked Sadhu.
“Don’t worry, we’ll do,” said Spellman. “It always comes out right in the end. Somehow.”
Sadhu shook his head. “If I go now, they’ll wake from the play and realize they’ve been tricked. What would they do to you then?”
Spellman made a moue and wobbled his head. “Maybe, maybe.”
“I’ll wait,” said Sadhu, suddenly sure. “Until the curtain. Then I’ll go.”
“There’s no right telling when the gate will close—it might be hours, it might be minutes.”
“But you said it opened for the light of a new moon on a travelling show. The moon is still up.”
Spellman squinted past the lights to the moon hanging low in the sky. “Twon’t be there much longer.”
“I’ll wait,” said Sadhu.
“And we,” said Spellman, “are going to do the short version.” He drew the script from his hat and pulled leaves from it. “I always told Will he wrote too long. Two hours, that’s how long they can keep sitting without needing a piss, but would he listen….” Spellman grinned at the boy. “Now we get to do it my way!”
“WHAT HAPPENED TO Act IV?” Backstage, the Lord jabbed a long, pale finger at the text, while Sadhu hid behind the curtain, waiting for his entrance and watching the new moon sinking lower in the sky.
“Pace,” said Spellman. “We needed to speed things up.”
“But without it, I don’t get my Indian boy,” said the Lord.
“No,” said Spellman, “you don’t.”
“You’re just jealous because I had more lines,” said the Lady. “And they loved me.”
Spellman held up his hands. “Someone said, there are no small parts, only small actors. But you are big actors, with big roles, so you know, of course, this is how we do things, sometimes—it keeps everything fresh and alive, gives it that zing, you know what I mean?”
The Lord and Lady looked at each other, then nodded rapidly.
“We knew that.”
“But,” and here the Lord took Spellman’s arm and drew him aside, “the problem is, like this, the Lady is still in love with an ass.”
Spellman patted the Lord of Faerie’s arm. “Lord, it’s a play. It’s not real.”
“Oh, yes. Of course.” The Lord drew himself up. “What did you think of my performance then?”
“And mine?” chimed in the Lady.
Spellman glanced rapidly from one to the other.
“They were the…bravest performances I have ever seen,” he said.
The Lady clapped, and petals flew from between her hands. “I knew it!” she said. “They loved me!”
“And me!” said the Lord.
“I am sure they loved you both,” Spellman said smoothly, “and soon it will be time for you to take the applause. But first,” he nodded to Sadhu, “the final curtain.”
Sadhu walked on stage. It was empty now. Robin Goodfellow entered last to bid the play farewell.
“If we shadows have offended,
“Think but this (and all is mended)
“That you have but slumber’d here
“While these visions did appear.”
Sadhu, from the corner of his eye, saw Spellman running his finger across his throat. The new moon was setting. It was time to leave.
From the wings, Tom saw Sadhu walk on to a different stage, among strange players only one quarter of the way through the show, and, calmly, as if he were part of the play, exit.
The audience, seeing him only disappear, waited, pregnant with applause but unable to go into labor.
The Lady tapped Spellman on the shoulder.
Spellman put his finger to his lips, then glanced meaningfully out on stage.
“Now,” he said.
“Now?” she asked.
“Now,” he replied.
And the Lady and the Lord walked out on to the rapturous applause of faerie, and sprite, and boggart, and goblin, and all the strange, shifting creatures of this land.
In the wings, Spellman took a deep breath, then poked Tom in the ribs.
“Get out there, too—they loved you.”
The donkey-headed man backed onto the stage, pushed out by Spellman, and the audience cheered even louder for his discomfiture.
Spellman, watching from the shadows, smiled.
“It allus does work out, don’t it just.”
© Edoardo Albert, 2017
From See the Elephant, Issue Three, Slipping Through The Cracks. Click here to purchase the whole magazine (only $2.99 for ebook, 6.99 for print). Every sale supports the future of this magazine!
Oswiu: King of Kings, the third volume of Edoardo Albert’s The Northumbrian Thrones trilogy, is just about to be published by Lion Fiction. Edoardo is online at www.edoardoalbert.com, and on Facebook and Twitter, @EdoardoAlbert, too. He also writes about history and archaeology.