We knew we were in trouble when Macbeth insisted on seeing the witches first.
You know the bit: Banquo and Macbeth enter and Banquo says, ” ‘What are these, so wither’d and so wild in their attire?’ ” That’s his moment, when he points out the three witches to Macbeth and Macbeth sees them for the first time, those three terrible hags who will hail Macbeth as king when of course he isn’t king yet and will only become king by murder most foul.
Have you heard about actors who won’t let any of the other actors have moments on stage that are theirs alone?
“Hey,” said Bax to Yu-Saan, who was playing Banquo in drag, “I’ll see the witches first, and then I’ll tap you on the shoulder and you see them and say the line.”
I propped my feet up on a stool and looked at Octavian and Octavian looked at me, and we both sighed. No doubt you’re asking yourself where the director was, who might correct this little bit of scene-stealing. Well, he was right where he ought to be, sitting at a table staring at the taped-out stage where the five actors walked through the scene. He didn’t say a word. How could he?
So they went on. The witches say their lines and Macbeth and Banquo say a few more, and just before the witches vanish, Bax got in a feel to Emmi’s breast, just grabbed it, and Emmi went all stiff in the face and twisted away from him, and for all you could tell from El Directore’s face, he hadn’t seen a thing. But Emmi did double time off to the side, looking like steam was about to pour out of her ears. Enter Ross and Angus.
I’m Ross, by the way. The big joke is that I always have to play Ross in the Scottish play because my real name is Ross.
By the time rehearsal was over, Bax had managed to grope another witch and twist King Duncan’s arm so hard while offering fealty that it actually brought a tear to old Jon-Jon’s good eye. We retired to nurse our wounds, en masse to the hostel where we were sleeping, and Bax made a grand exit with his three lamias—one in each shade—to wherever it was a star of his stature stays on an alien world with a limited number of oxygen-rich chambers in which humankind can breathe.
“Lady Christ in Heaven,” said Emmi, massaging her bruised breast while Jon-Jon examined his wrenched wrist with bemused interest. “I don’t think I’m going to survive four more weeks of this. Where’d he get you, Cheri?”
Cheri—Second Witch—shrugged. She’d probably endured worse, back when she was a hootch dancer on Tau Ceti Tierce. “Crotch. What a pig.”
“But Cheri, my dear,” said Octavian quietly, “he’s a Star.”
Kostas—who should have been playing the lead but was playing Macduff instead—peered down from his bunk. “Why is it that Stars have to prove their legitimacy by doing theater? Can’t they stay on their holies and interactives and leave us to do what we’ve trained for? I still can’t believe Bax began directing during the damned read-through. And El Directore didn’t say a thing.”
“Oh, well,” said Emmi. “I’m sure it’ll get better. It certainly can’t get worse.”
Emmi, we all had to agree later, would not be auditioning for the role of Cassandra in Troilus and Cressida anytime soon.
We took two days more to block out the rest of the play and Bax behaved himself, except that he ate sandwiches and drank coffee every time he was on stage, walking around with the cup in one hand and his script in the other. When he fought and killed young Siward for the first time, he ate a sandwich during the fight scene and dribbled crumbs onto poor prostrate Ahmed—who was doubling as Donalbain and young Siward—while he said his lines.
At the end of the first week, the diplomat Phan-Yen Caraglio arrived to give us the official tour of the Squat homeworld. Yes, I know, you’re not supposed to call them Squats, but you can’t really help it. They seem to spend an endless amount of time sitting around, and whether they’re sitting or standing, they only reach hip-high.
Caraglio gave us the standard Squat lecture as we trundled along in a big sealed barge down a canal filled with gold coins. Or, at least, they looked like gold coins. Since humans couldn’t breathe the atmosphere, none of us had gotten close enough to check for certain.
“Our hosts are only the second alien group who specifically requested an artistic embassy to their planet, and you will offer them their first glimpse into human art and culture and history. I hope I don’t need to remind you that you were chosen for your professionalism and your skill, and your reputation as a first-rank theater company.”
We all looked at Bax. He sat lounging in the back, listening to whatever Flopsy and Mopsy and Cottontail were whispering in his ears and certainly not listening to M. Caraglio. Bax had short curly black hair and sported the fashionable tricolor face. His lamias matched the colors. Flopsy was pale white and Mopsy was coal black. Cottontail’s skin was a screaming shade of scarlet, which looks okay as a small patch of skin but pretty damned stupid for a whole body. She wore the least clothes—a particolored white and black scarf around her hips and a sheer-silk blouson—and she must have had enviro work done on her skin implants, too; she never looked cold except, of course, her nipples were always erect. I myself can’t believe that happened simply because she found Bax so staggeringly attractive every second of every day.
“May I ask a question?” asked the beautiful Peng-Hsin, who oozed Star out of every pore. She plays Lady Macbeth, and her Star-magnitude is every bit as great as Bax’s, with one vital difference: Peng-Hsin Khatun is a professional. M. Caraglio melted in her general direction.
“Assuredly, M. Khatun. It is by asking questions that we learn, and we hope, of course, to learn as much about our hosts as they learn about us.”
“Are we really sailing down a river of gold coins, as it appears?”
“I’m afraid any answer I give will seem inadequate. Chemically, we don’t know. But as for appearances— certainly they appear as gold coins to us, but we inevitably impress our own biases onto what we see and experience here, and their notion of what these objects are, of what their value is, their notion, even, of how much appearances count at all as opposed to simple reality, we can’t know. Ah.” He broke off and pointed to his left. “There is the building that we believe is their Parliament, or at least, the seat of their governing body.”
Squat Parliament lay on a flat stretch of ground ringed by three circles of flower beds. A simple, regular octagon, it had neither roof nor walls but a plain white foundation marked out by columns and shaded by a perplexing array of what looked like canvas awnings. It was huge, though; four baseball games could have been played simultaneously on that pale surface. The barge ground to a halt, and we crowded over to the left to stare out the view windows.
“You may have noticed,” added M. Caraglio, pitching his voice higher to carry over our murmuring as we pointed out the clusters of Squats who were, of course, squatting on the green lawns between the flower beds and inside the twin rings of columns that bordered the octagon, “that this, our hosts’ capital city, is not large at all by human standards. There’s some debate within the xenodiplomacy team stationed here whether that is because they simply have a small population or whether their population base is more agrarian and spread out over the land.” He went on, explaining about the relative proportion of land mass to ocean and how that affected their climate and thus their agricultural base and the availability of land for habitation, but something far more interesting was going on outside.
A Squat came trundling along the river bank, spotted our barge, and waded with its splay feet right out over the gold coins to press its nose—if that little turnip of a bulb could be called a nose—up against the window next to Peng-Hsin. They regarded each other. We all regarded it, and it swiveled its squat little head topped with ivory fern ears and took us all in.
“It’s curious,” said Peng-Hsin, sounding amused.
M. Caraglio coughed, sounding uncomfortable. “This has never happened before,” he said. “They’ve always kept their distance. Very careful about that.”
“Aww,” said Cheri, who combined the oddest mix of sentimentality and hardheadedness, “maybe it’s just a little baby.”
From the back, Bax burped loudly. “Fuck, it’s ugly,” he said. Mopsy and Flopsy tittered. Cottontail said, “Oh, Bax,” in her breathless knock-me-up voice.
As if in response to his comment, a whole herd of Squats uprooted themselves from their meditations on the lawn and ambled over toward us. Through the windows, we heard a chorus of hoots rising and falling as the herd of Squats formed a semicircle at the bank of the river. Our Squat pricked up its lacy ears, snuffled one last time toward Peng-Hsin, and then turned and trundled back to the shoreline.
“Oh, dear,” murmured M. Caraglio. Bax burped again. The diplomat shot him a look so filled with distaste that it was palpable; then, as quickly, he smoothed over his expression into that bland mask that diplomats and out-of-work actors wear. Caraglio went forward to the lock and made some comment through the translation-screen, and the barge scraped sideways over the coins, following our Squat to the bank. As soon as our alien clambered up onto the sward, it was at once swarmed by other Squats rather like the winning runner is in the last game of the Worlds Series.
“Uh-oh,” said Emmi and Cheri at the same time.
“Looks like trouble,” Octavian muttered, and we all avoided looking back at Bax. The effect was the same, of course. By not looking at him, we made his presence all the more obvious.
Three Squats inched forward and climbed up the ramp that led into the forward lock. The smoked glass barrier pretty-much cut them off from our sight, but I caught a glimpse of a fanned-out fern ear and the trailing end of a bulb nose brushed across the glass from the other side.
Then, like the voice of the gods, the translation-screen boomed out words. “One of our young ones has offended one of your people. We beg your pardon.”
I winced. Octavian covered his ears. On the back bench, Cottontail crossed her arms across her breasts, as if the volume might warp their particularly fine shape. Bax pinched her on the thigh, and she shrieked, giggled, and unwound her arms.
Caraglio had a sick look on his face, like he’d just eaten something rancid. “Not at all,” he said. “I beg… It isn’t… Please don’t…” He sputtered to a stop, flexed his hands in and out, and began again. “We are sorry that this incident has interrupted your deliberations, and we were not at all disturbed by the interest of your young one.”
Muted hooting leaked out through the glass barrier as the Squats consulted.
“What I want to know,” said Kostas in a low voice, “is how, from so far away, the Squats knew Bax was insulting the poor little thing.”
The translation-screen crackled to life, but this time, mercifully, the volume had been lowered. “We consider your words,” it squawked in its tinny intonation, not capturing at all the exuberance of Squat hooting, “and will meditate on them. As time continues to flow, you may continue on your journey, but be assured that to our recollection, this incident has not occurred.”
Caraglio did not even get a chance to reply before they scooted off the barge and we went on our way. I watched Squat Parliament recede and the Squats amble back up the hill to fall into place in scattered groups like flowers being arranged on separate trays.
“What next?” asked Bax. “They got any dancing girls here?” His lamias shrieked with laughter and he reached over and tweaked Cottontail so hard on her hooters without her even losing a beat in her giggling that I had to wonder if she’d had pain desensitizers built into her skin as well. In her line of work, it might not have been a bad idea.
But Caraglio cut the tour short and we returned to the theater instead. Unsure of what we were supposed to do now, we wandered onto the stage and loitered. Bax and the lamias disappeared into his dressing room. Caraglio headed for El Directore’s office. We heard a knock, a voice, and then the door slammed shut.
“Who’s going to go eavesdrop?” asked Emmi, and for some damn reason, they all looked at me.
“Oh, hell,” I said. Ah, well, once a go-between, always a go-between. I exited through one of the doors in the tiring-house wall and snuck down the hallway to stick an ear up against the door. It was a good thing that wood doesn’t transmit emotional heat. I would have been burned.
“The man is a complete asshole,” shouted Caraglio in a most undiplomatic fashion. “Why is he allowed to run roughshod over the rest of you?”
“May I be frank with you, M. Caraglio?” said El Directore in a low voice. He sounded tired, and for the first time, I felt some sympathy for him.
“I wish you would be!”
“His studio is bankrolling this expedition as a showcase for him and for Peng-Hsin. You can’t have thought that a small theatrical company like ourselves could afford this, even with a government grant?”
There was silence. Caraglio cleared his throat. “Well, then,” he said, “he must be confined to quarters and to the theater. We cannot have any more such incidents. Surely you understand that.”
“If he is confined, then so must be everyone else.”
There was a longer silence.
“So be it,” said Caraglio in a resigned tone, and he opened the door so quickly that I had to jerk back to maintain my balance.
“Oh, er, ah,” I said as the diplomat shut the door behind himself.
He set his hands on his hips and glared at me. “Star quality,” he said, and produced a surprisingly robust raspberry. “Then can you explain to me why M. Baxtrusini acts this way while M. Khatun, who presumably has the same conditions attaching to her contract and her life, does not?”
I shrugged. “Why are any of us the way we are? Ask Shakespeare, M. Caraglio. He probably had as good an idea of the answer to that question as anyone.”
He grunted. “Empathic. Don’t you people know how to read? It says so in the packet of orientation materials.”
“Empathic?” I echoed weakly. I did not want to admit that the first paragraph of dry prose set beside the first close-grained and utterly confusing diagrammatic map had put me off the rest. As usual, the government was too cheap to add any decent media values to their official publication.
Caraglio practically snarled. “The Squats—er, the Squanishta—are considered to be empathic by the xenobiological team that identifies psychological and physiological profiles.”
“But how can we tell?”
“I don’t know how they tell! I’m just a goddamned diplomat, and I can tell you, it’s not the aliens I have trouble dealing with! If you’ll excuse me.” He stamped off down the hall, and I can’t say that I blamed him for his bad temper.
El Directore’s door cracked open slightly. “Is he gone?” our fearless leader asked tremulously. “Say, Ross, could you let the others know about the new restrictions—er, never mind. I’ll ring for Patrick.” Lucky Patrick. As the Stage Manager, he always got the dirty jobs.
With the restrictions, we ended up spending a hell of a lot of time in the theater, since our hostel was dreary to the point of sublimity. But it was a nice theater. The Squats had evidently spent some time building a tidy little replica of the Globe with real wood, or what passed for real wood. Since the house wasn’t sealed in with the atmospheric shield yet, we could go out and stretch in the yard or sit in the galleries to watch rehearsal or to read or nap or knit, or whatever. It was a good space, as accurate in many ways as the meticulously reconstructed Fourth Globe in London. Certainly the Squats had done their research, and if the theater was any indication, they seemed to care that they gained the fullest appreciation possible of this alien art form.
So meticulous were they that we had to stop for an entire day when Seton put his foot through the trap in the banqueting scene. We, the lords, were exiting, and Bax had launched into his monologue a bit early, since he liked to rush his big moments, when Sanjar’s foot caught in some loose board and he went through all the way up to his thigh.
He muttered an oath in a language I didn’t recognize. Octavian and I grabbed him by the arms and heaved him up. He was white around the mouth, and he winced and then tried to put weight on the foot. Meanwhile, Peng-Hsin, downstage, saw us struggling and she broke away from Bax and came up to see if Sanjar was all right.
Oblivious, Bax continued. ” ‘For mine own good, all causes shall give way… ‘ “
Sanjar tested the foot. Then he shrugged. Nothing broken, or even sprained. The trap gaped in front of him. El Directore had stood up. He hesitated and then sank down again, and we completed our exit. From off stage I looked back to watch Bax finish his monologue: ” ‘Strange things I have in head that will to hand, Which must be acted ere they may be scann’d’ “
And Peng-Hsin, amazingly, came in right on cue with her line. Exeunt. Bax had barely gotten off stage before he spun around and tromped back on.
“What is this?” he demanded, pointing at the trap lying ajar. “How did this happen? I could hurt myself! Tell those damned Squats to fix it!” He marched off, looking deeply offended.
So we took a day off while the Squats fixed it. We played bridge, hearts, and pinochle in our dreary hostel instead of being able to go out and explore a bit more. Not an edifying way to spend the day. In the morning, we returned to the theater to find silver leaves inscribed with odd little squiggles in all the dressing rooms. M. Caraglio informed us that these were evidently some kind of mark of apology for the disruption, proffered by the Squat carpenters. Peng-Hsin promptly made hers into a necklace, thus gracing both the gift and herself. Bax insisted the lamias use theirs as g-strings. And when Emmi imitated Peng-Hsin and strung hers as a necklace, too, he managed to rip it in half in one of their scenes. Cheri caught Emmi’s arm just before Emmi slugged him, and in thanks got groped again.
“You would think,” said Kostas, “that he gets enough groping in on his entourage that he wouldn’t need to take it out on them.”
I shrugged. Octavian rolled his eyes. “Kost, I don’t think it’s sex that he’s interested in.”
“Take a break,” called Patrick, thus saving Cheri from Bax’s hands and Emmi from doing the deed the rest of us would have liked to do ourselves. “Bax and Kostas in fifteen for their final scene.”
But of course, we all returned in fifteen minutes to watch what was now our favorite scene in the play, the one in which Macduff kills Macbeth on the field of battle. We gathered in the yard, sitting and standing in a casual group so as not to seem too interested.
“Turn, hell-hound, turn!” Macduff cries when he reenters and sees Macbeth. They fight. Macbeth discovers that Macduff is not “of woman born,” and at that moment realizes that he is doomed. We drank it in.
“Lay on, Macduff, And damn’d be him that first cries, ‘Hold, enough!’ “
Now it’s true that in the text Macbeth is killed off stage and Macduff comes back on carrying Macbeth’s head, but it’s rarely played that way. Swordplay is a marvelous thing, and we have plenty of ways these days to make the death look real.
They fought, and Macduff drove him back and back—
“Now, wait,” said Bax, lowering his sword. “I’ll drive Macduff back, and when I have him pinned, then I’ll drop my sword and allow him to kill me.”
“Ah, er,” said El Directore.
Kostas stared at a point ten feet behind and two feet above Bax’s head, his expression mercifully blank.
Yu-Saan, who was doubling as the fight choreographer, came downstage. “I beg your pardon, but we need to follow the swordfight as it was rehearsed.”
They tried it again. Macduff drives Macbeth back and back, and then suddenly and unexpectedly Bax sidestepped and with main force knocked Kostas flat. It took Kost a second, shaking his head, to get his wind back, but then he climbed back to his feet with sword raised. Bax darted away from him, running downstage, and showily impaled himself on the blade. He fell to his knees, paused, got up again, and sheathed the sword. Then he set his hands on his hips, leaving his sword sticking out at an awkward angle. Yu-Saan, coming back downstage, had to dodge the blade as he swung around; it looked like he was trying to trip her with it.
“Or if you don’t like that,” said Bax, “then instead I could drive him back, like I suggested the first time. You see, I have him at my mercy, but I realize that death is upon me so I let him kill me.”
Octavian had his eyes shut, but the rest of us watched in appalled fascination. “Goddess help us,” murmured Cheri, “he’s so damned swellheaded that he can’t let someone else kill him even if it’s in the script. He’s got to control it himself.” She made an obscene little gesture with her left hand.
“Start again,” said El Directore with a put-upon sigh. “Uh, Macduff with ‘I have no words.’ “
Kostas had that look on his face: doubtless he had no words. Luckily, Shakespeare could speak for him. ” ‘My voice is in my sword, thou bloodier villain Than terms can give thee out!’ “
Kostas restrained himself admirably, even when Bax again deviated from Yu-Saan’s blocking and this time slapped Kostas with the flat of his blade hard on the abdomen. We finally gave up watching, because it was too painful, for Kostas personally and for us as artists. Rehearsal is always tedious when an actor refuses to discover his role and instead attempts to cram it into a pre-formed shape.
We had to take off the next day while the Squats put the atmospheric shield in place. At the hostel, Cheri suggested strip poker. We settled on whist.
The shield rose like a clear glass wall from the yard about one meter in front of the proscenium and bound us all the way back to the back galleries, snaking in to seal off the back rooms and the cellar as well. It felt like performing in a fish bowl. It felt, all at once, restrictive. Octavian and Emmi and I went and sat on the edge of the stage and gazed mournfully at the house, lost to us now. A single Squat walked the galleries, vanished, and then reappeared in the yard, pacing out the area with a stately tread.
Emmi smiled. “They seem more even-tempered,” she said. “Don’t you think?”
“How can you tell?” asked Octavian. “It isn’t as if we’ve had any real contact with them.”
Emmi shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know. Just a feeling I get. They feel more serene.”
Octavian lifted one eyebrow, looking skeptical. “Emmi, my dear, you’re becoming positively spiritual these days.”
She laughed, and as if at the sound the Squat lifted its fern ears and wiggled its turnip nose and turned to regard us with the same intent curiosity as we regarded it. Or at least, so we assumed.
Daringly, Emmi lifted a hand and waved to it.
And it lifted one of its legs and copied the gesture.
Emmi broke out into a wide grin. Even Octavian smiled.
“First contact,” I said.
“Only for me,” said Emmi. “The first was that little one that came up to Peng-Hsin.”
The Squat lowered the leg and ambled back into the galleries and disappeared.
“Maybe they’re not standoffish,” said Octavian in a tone trembling with revelation. “Maybe they’re just polite.”
“Octavian,” I said, “they did ask us to come here, after all. Why wouldn’t they be polite?”
“They’re just so—reserved.”
“Maybe they just don’t want to offend us,” said Emmi.
“Or us to offend them,” I added, thinking of Bax. And, like the devil, he appeared stage left and shuffled over to us. He looked hungover.
“Hey you, uh—” He faltered, running a hand through the tangled black frizz of his hair. “—uh, Witch, you. Can you get me something to drink?”
Emmi got that set look on her face. “Sorry,” she said, hunching a shoulder up against him. “I’m working on my lines.”
He began to say something more, but then unlucky Patrick came in stage left. “I need something to drink,” said Bax, and burped loudly, and Patrick spun on his heel and went out again. Mercifully, Bax followed him.
It was a bad day for a run-through. Feeling caged-in got on everybody’s nerves. We either had to stay locked into the warren of rooms behind the stage or watch the action through the one-way curtain in the musician’s gallery, and tempers ran shorter than usual, which is saying something. Bax couldn’t keep his hands off the witches, and he kept ignoring his blocking and getting in front of the king. The ambient emotional temperature went up about fifty degrees. Except Peng-Hsin, who evidently had huge reserves of calm to draw from. She wore her silver leaf necklace like a badge of courage and grace, and even in her love scenes with Bax, managed to steer away from his groping hands without seeming to avoid him.
Watching them act together was a study in contrasts. The true test, we had long since decided, of Peng-Hsin’s professionalism was the way she could play a loving Lady Macbeth to Bax’s Macbeth. ” ‘And I feel now the future in the instant,’ ” she says in Act I Scene V.
“My dearest love,” he saidand bit her.
And I mean really bit her.
Peng-Hsin let out a startled and most unprofessional shriek. She jerked away from him, slapping a hand up over her cheek. A drop of blood leaked out from between her fingers, then another, then a third. She lowered her hand to reveal her cheek; his teeth marks showed clearly, as well as the blood welling up in a rough semicircle, where his bite had broken her skin.
All hell broke loose. Cheri gasped so loudly she might as well have shouted, and we all began talking and shouting at once. Peng-Hsin spun and ran off the stage. Patrick hurriedly called for a break, and Cheri and Emmi ran downstairs to minister to Peng-Hsin. El Directore lay his head down on the edge of the stage. For an instant, I thought he was hiding tears of sheer frustration.
Bax licked his lips. “Hey, what about the rest of my scene?” he demanded.
El Directore lifted his face, dry-eyed, I noted—and lifted a hand to signal to Patrick, sealed into the control booth in the back of the house. “Cast meeting on stage in thirty minutes,” he said. He circled the stage and vanished into his office. Bax left for his dressing room.
In thirty minutes, we gathered like vultures, all of us. Peng-Hsin, flanked by Emmi and a militant looking Cheri, had a patch of skin-meld covering the wound on her cheek. Patrick and El Directore arrived. Then we waited for another five minutes. Bax ambled out finally, looking bored.
“I think,” said El Directore in a low, irresolute voice, “that you owe an apology.”
Bax sighed, looking put-upon. “All right, all right,” he said briskly. “I’m sorry I brought the girls with me. It was a little tasteless, I know, since we’re stuck here and you guys and gals can’t possibly be getting the same quality of sex as I am, but hey, we’re all professionals here, and this is one of the things you have to go through to do this kind of work.”
Struck dumb, we merely stared at him.
El Directore, surprisingly enough, spoke first. “Er, ah,” he said forcefully. “Well, then, I’ll make this short. We have our premiere performance in seven days. Tomorrow we do a full tech run through and the day after we go to dress.”
And so we did. Bax restrained himself to minor and individual acts of cruelty, like twisting arms and hitting people with his sword and the usual groping. And of course we couldn’t say anything. He had apologized, after all, or so El Directore reminded us. And he was a Star.
Bruised and battered we got ready for the premiere.
Still, it was hard not to get excited, especially as the galleries and the yard filled up with hooting Squats. Against all rules, I snuck up to the musician’s gallery to catch a glimpse, and found Emmi and–mark my soul!—Peng-Hsin there, gazing wide-eyed out at our audience.
“Gee,” said Emmi on an exhalation. “Wow.”
The shield was marvelously transparent and gave us a clear view of the house and the two thousand aliens. Ivory fern ears furled and unfurled to some unknown rhythm and the Squats almost seemed to be bobbing, like a swelling sea, as they waited. For an instant, I felt their excitement as much as my own.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Peng-Hsin said, and then covered her mouth with a hand and laughed the kind of laugh a child gives on Christmas Eve when she sees the lit tree and all the presents for the first time.
“Places,” said Patrick through the inner-mike system. As we went down the stairs, we met M. Caraglio coming up, to watch from this hidden vantage point.
“Good luck,” he said, and we all winced in horror, and like a good diplomat he caught our reaction and added, stumbling, “Oh, ah, break a leg.” We retreated in some disorder back to our rightful places.
House lights down. Stage lights up. A desert Heath. Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches.
It went well. Our audience was attentive; even through the shield we heard their taut silence. And we had come together as a cast over the last five weeks, especially since we all felt the same way about one person in particular. There is nothing like shared disgust to bring focus to a play, especially the Scottish play with its bloody villain.
He was the villain, and we made him so.
Birnam Wood did come toward Dunsinane, and Macbeth met, at long last, the man who was of no woman born. They fight.
We watched through the door plackets set up, like the gallery curtain, to be a one-way view port. Was it possible that we would finish as we were meant to, that we wouldn’t be embarrassed in front of these intent aliens, that we, the first human artists they had encountered, could give a command performance and prove ourselves worthy of the title of artists?
Octavian gave a little groan. Of course not. Even here, in the actual performance, Bax had to ruin it. The two men lock swords corps-a-corps; it was supposed to come to naught—they break away from each other and the fight continues to its inevitable end. But Bax, damn him, had to throw it. With Kostas unsuspecting, it was possible for Bax to throw and twist and wrench Macduff’s sword out of his grip. The sword clattered to the stage with awful finality.
There was a terrible pause. Macbeth holds Macduff at his mercy.
Like an animal cornered by a cobra, we were too paralyzed with fear and—yes, with sheer hatred—to close our eyes.
And Bax stepped back, allowing Kostas to pick up his lost sword. Bax opened his arms to receive the death blow. And then he added the crowning insult of adding a line to Shakespeare.
“Oh, my God,” he said. His eyes widened. Kostas, no fool, ran him through between the body and the arm.
Bax fell and lay as still as death. It was the best acting he’d done the whole time. Entering with the other lords, I was impressed despite myself.
Meanwhile, Macduff had, as we staged it, staggered off and collapsed where we could conveniently overlook him until Siward sees him.
The final lines passed smoothly. They had never run quite so strongly before. ” ‘Hail, King of Scotland!’ ” we cry, and Malcolm makes his final speech. Curtain.
The shield dimmed until it was opaque. Through it, we heard the muted hooting of the Squats. We panted, waiting for the rest of the cast to come out for the curtain call. Bax didn’t move.
“Sulking,” muttered Octavian.
Jon-Jon, who’d been too long in the business to let a grudge mar the professionalism of the moment, hurried over to help him up. He bent. He shook Bax. He shook him again. He gave a little cry and straightened up.
“I think he’s dead.”
He was dead.
M. Caraglio burst onto the stage, took one look at the situation, and barked, “No curtain call! Where’s—”
El Directore stumbled out from the back as well. He wrung his hands together. “What will we do? What will we do? What if the studio withdraws their funding? This is terrible. How did this happen? He had no heart condition listed on his health records.”
“We must go apologize at once to the Squanishta,” said Caraglio. “Can you imagine the kind of misunderstandings this could foster?”
All at once I recalled that if the Squats really were empathic, then our audience was absorbing an entire second performance here and now, despite the curtain being nominally closed.
Finally, thank goodness, Patrick appeared and took everything in hand. “Yu-Saan, you and Octavian carry off—ah—” Even his aplomb was shaken by the sight of Bax lying there dead. “Move him back to his dressing room. And for the Goddess’ sake, get the three good-time girls out of there.”
“If you’ll come with me,” said Caraglio to El Directore. “And perhaps a representative from the actors as well.”
They all looked at me. Ah well, once a go-between, always a go-between. I walked in a daze with the other two around front to the communications lock. I was not surprised to find that three Squanishtas had arrived before us, fern ears unfurled, their bodies otherwise motionless as they hunkered down on the other side of the lock wall.
Both sides spoke at the same time. “We beg your pardon—”
Both sides stopped.
After a moment of polite silence, Caraglio began again. “Please, your excellencies, be assured that the tragedy that has happened here today is a complete mystery to us. I must beg your pardon for this terrible disruption. We hope you will forgive us and allow us a suitable length of time to— ah—recover and explain.”
They hooted. The translation crackled through the screen. “It was a wise and well-thought play. Please do not think we did not appreciate it, or think that it failed in any way; although there was this slight mishap. One has only to hear the words to understand their meaning.”
The middle one shifted forward—somewhat rashly, I thought, given what I’d seen of them—and pressed its turnip nose up against the cloudy lock wall as if to make sure we understood how important the next remark was. As if to make sure that we understood that it understood. “My voice is in my sword.”
There was a pause while the three jockeyed for position, and the rash one was shouldered to the back as if the other two were aghast at its rudeness.
“We hope,” continued one of the other two—I couldn’t be sure which—”that in this small way we have spared you the distress of failing to complete your work of art.”
“Oh, my God,” said Caraglio, an eerie echo of Bax’s last words. “I’ve got to get back to the office.”
“I don’t understand,” said El Directore. But I did.
Caraglio made polite farewells, and we exited the lock. We wound our way back through the protected corridor. Caraglio left at once. I went back to the stage.
Bax was still lying there, dead. Through the tiring house doors, thrown open, I could hear shrieking and wailing from the back: the lamias were objecting to being thrown out of the dressing room—I couldn’t tell if they were also mourning for their lost patron, or only their privileges—and Yu-Saan and Octavian didn’t want to touch the body until they had somewhere to take it.
“But what happened?” demanded Cheri. Emmi wiped tears—not, I think, for Bax personally, but for the shock of it all—from her cheeks. Peng-Hsin stood with regal dignity. The others crowded together for comfort.
“The Squats did it,” I said. “I’d guess that they sort of used their empathic powers to make his heart seize up, or something.”
“But why?” asked Peng-Hsin quietly.
“Isn’t it obvious what the outcome of the play is? Isn’t it almost a ritualistic act, the entire thing? And they wouldn’t have built this—” I waved at the theater “—if they didn’t care about us doing well. If they didn’t want us to succeed. And they read, from us, the object of the play was for Macbeth to die. How embarrassing for us if we failed to accomplish that act, in our first performance for them.”
Mercenary Cheri suddenly stifled a giggle behind a hand.
I shrugged. What else was there to say? The real cleanup would be left for the diplomats. And it was funny, in a black kind of way.
I looked over at Bax. The rest of them did, too. It’s hard not to look at a corpse, especially when he’s the one person in the room that everyone was wishing dead just half an hour before.
“They were just trying to be helpful.”