The Troupeby Robert Jackson Bennett
Vaudeville: mad, mercenary, dreamy, and absurd, a world of clashing cultures and ferocious showmanship and wickedly delightful deceptions.
But sixteen-year-old pianist George Carole has joined vaudeville for one reason only: to find the man he suspects to be his father, the great Heironomo Silenus. Yet as he chases down his father's troupe, he begins to
Vaudeville: mad, mercenary, dreamy, and absurd, a world of clashing cultures and ferocious showmanship and wickedly delightful deceptions.
But sixteen-year-old pianist George Carole has joined vaudeville for one reason only: to find the man he suspects to be his father, the great Heironomo Silenus. Yet as he chases down his father's troupe, he begins to understand that their performances are strange even for vaudeville: for wherever they happen to tour, the very nature of the world seems to change.
Because there is a secret within Silenus's show so ancient and dangerous that it has won him many powerful enemies. And it's not until after he joins them that George realizes the troupe is not simply touring: they are running for their lives.
And soon...he is as well.
This is the kind of book that will find its ways into one's hands again and again over the years."Booklist"
...a melancholy coming-of-age tale with a moody atmosphere... The Troupe is a genuinely powerful piece of work."SFX"
The Troupe is true magic: a gripping tale that reminds the audience why we fell in love with reading. This book enchants, leaving the audience on their feet, yelling for an encore."Mat Johnson, author of Pym"
Thought-provoking, beautifully written, and highly recommended"Sci Fi Bulletin
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Read an Excerpt
By Bennett, Robert Jackson
OrbitCopyright © 2012 Bennett, Robert Jackson
All right reserved.
Had it been within his power, the vaudeville performer would have been a timeless wanderer, spanning the generations using the bridge of his talents.
—Fred Allen, Much Ado About Me
Friday mornings at Otterman’s Vaudeville Theater generally had a very relaxed pace to them, and so far this one was no exception. Four acts in the bill would be moving on to other theaters over the weekend, and four more would be coming in to take their place, among them Gretta Mayfield, minor star of the Chicago opera. The general atmosphere among the musicians was one of carefree satisfaction, as all of the acts had gone well and the next serious rehearsals were an entire weekend away. Which, to the overworked musicians, might as well have been an eternity.
But then Tofty Thresinger, first chair house violinist and unofficial gossip maven of the theater, came sprinting into the orchestra pit with terror in his eyes. He stood there panting for a moment, hands on his knees, and picked his head up to make a ghastly announcement: “George has quit!”
“What?” said Victor, the second chair cellist. “George? Our George?”
“George the pianist?” asked Catherine, their flautist.
“The very same,” said Tofty.
“What kind of quit?” asked Victor. “As in quitting the theater?”
“Yes, of course quitting the theater!” said Tofty. “What other kind of quit is there?”
“There must be some mistake,” said Catherine. “Who did you hear it from?”
“From George himself!” said Tofty.
“Well, how did he phrase it?” asked Victor.
“He looked at me,” said Tofty, “and he said, ‘I quit.’ ”
Everyone stopped to consider this. There was little room for alternate interpretation in that.
“But why would he quit?” asked Catherine.
“I don’t know!” cried Tofty, and he collapsed into his chair, accidentally crushing his rosin and leaving a large white stain on the seat of his pants.
The news spread quickly throughout the theater: George Carole, their most dependable house pianist and veritable wunderkind (or enfant terrible, depending on who you asked), was throwing in the towel without even a by-your-leave. Stagehands shook their heads in dismay. Performers immediately launched into complaints. Even the coat-check girls, usually exiled to the very periphery of theater gossip, were made aware of this ominous development.
But not everyone was shaken by this news. “Good riddance,” said Chet, their bassist. “I’m tired of tolerating that little lordling, always acting as if he was better than us.” But several muttered he was better than them. It had been seven months since the sixteen-year-old had walked through their doors on audition day and positively dumbfounded the staff with his playing. Everyone had been astonished to hear that he was not auditioning for an act, but for house pianist, a lowly job if ever there was one. Van Hoever, the manager of Otterman’s, had questioned him extensively on this point, but George had stood firm: he was there to be house pianist at their little Ohio theater, and nothing more.
“What are we going to do now?” said Archie, their trombonist. “Like it or not, it was George who put us on the map.” Which was more or less true. It was the general rule that in vaudeville, a trade filled with indignities of all kinds, no one was shat upon more than the house pianist. He accompanied nearly every act, and every ego that crossed the stage got thoroughly massaged by abusing him. If a joke went sour, it was because the pianist was too late and spoiled the delivery. If a dramatic bit was flat, it was because the pianist was too lively. If an acrobat stumbled, it was because the pianist distracted him.
But in his time at Otterman’s George had accomplished the impossible: he’d given them no room for complaints. After playing through the first rehearsal he would know the act better than the actors did, which was saying something as every actor had fine-tuned their performance with almost lapidary attention. He hit every beat, wrung every laugh out of every delivery, and knew when to speed things up or slow them down. He seemed to have the uncanny ability to augment every performance he accompanied. Word spread, and many acts became more amenable to performing at Otterman’s, which occupied a rather obscure spot on the Keith-Albee circuit.
Yet now he was leaving, almost as abruptly as he’d arrived. It put them in a pretty tight spot: Gretta Mayfield was coming specifically because she had agreed to have George accompany her, but that was just the start; after a moment’s review, the orchestra came to the horrifying conclusion that at least a quarter of the acts of the next week had agreed to visit Otterman’s only because George met their high standards.
After Tofty frantically spread the word, wild speculation followed. Did anyone know the reason behind the departure? Could anyone guess? Perhaps, Victor suggested, he was finally going to tour with an act of his own, or maybe he was heading straight to the legitimate (meaning well-respected orchestras and symphonies, rather than lowly vaudeville). But Tofty said he’d heard nothing about George making those sorts of movements, and he would know, wouldn’t he?
Maybe he’d been lured away by another theater, someone said. But Van Hoever would definitely ante up to keep George, Catherine pointed out, and the only theaters that could outbid him were very far away, and would never send scouts out here. What could the boy possibly be thinking? They wasted the whole morning debating the subject, yet they never reached an answer.
George did his best to ignore the flurry of gossip as he gathered his belongings, but it was difficult; as he’d not yet made a formal resignation to Van Hoever, everyone tried to find the reason behind his desertion in hopes that they could fix it.
“Is it the money, George?” Tofty asked. “Did Van Hoever turn you down for a raise?”
No, answered George. No, it was not the money.
“Is it the acts, George?” asked Archie. “Did one of the acts insult you? You’ve got to ignore those bastards, Georgie, they can be so ornery sometimes!”
But George scoffed haughtily, and said that no, it was certainly not any of the acts. The other musicians cursed Archie for such a silly question; of course it wasn’t any of the performers, as George never gave them reason for objection.
“Is it a girl, George?” asked Victor. “You can tell me. I can keep a secret. It’s a girl, isn’t it?”
At this George turned a brilliant red, and sputtered angrily for a moment. No, he eventually said. No, thank you very much, it was not a girl.
“Then was it something Tofty said?” asked Catherine. “After all, he was who you were talking to just before you said you quit.”
“What!” cried Tofty. “What a horrendous accusation! We were only talking theater hearsay, I tell you! I simply mentioned how Van Hoever was angry that an act had skipped us on the circuit!”
At that, George’s face became strangely still. He stopped gathering up his sheet music and looked away for a minute. But finally he said no, Tofty had nothing to do with it. “And would you all please leave me alone?” he asked. “This decision has nothing to do with you, and furthermore there’s nothing that will change it.”
The other musicians, seeing how serious he was, grumbled and shuffled away. Once they were gone George scratched his head and tried not to smile. Despite his solemn demeanor, he had enjoyed watching them clamor to please him.
The smile vanished as he returned to his packing and the decision he’d made. The orchestra did not matter, he told himself. Otterman’s did not matter anymore. The only thing that mattered now was getting out the door and on the road as soon as possible.
After he’d collected the last of his belongings he headed for his final stop: Van Hoever’s office. The theater manager had surely heard the news and was in the midst of composing a fine tirade, but if George left now he’d be denied payment for this week’s worth of performances. And though he could not predict the consequences of what he was about to do, he thought it wise to have every penny possible.
But when George arrived at the office hall there was someone seated in the row of chairs before Van Hoever’s door: a short, elderly woman who watched him with a sharp eye as if she’d been expecting him. Her wrists and hands were wrapped tight in cloth, and a poorly rolled cigarette was bleeding smoke from between two of her fingers. “Leaving without a goodbye?” she asked him.
George smiled a little. “Ah,” he said. “Hello, Irina.”
The old woman did not answer, but patted the empty chair next to her. George walked over, but did not sit. The old woman raised her eyebrows at him. “Too good to give me company?”
“This is an ambush, isn’t it?” he asked. “You’ve been waiting for me.”
“You assume the whole world waits on you. Come. Sit.”
“I’ll give you company,” he said. “But I won’t sit. I know you’re looking to delay me, Irina.”
“So impatient, child,” she said. “I’m just an old woman who wishes to talk.”
“To talk about why I’m leaving.”
“No. To give you advice.”
“I don’t need advice. And I’m not changing my mind.”
“I’m not telling you to. I just wish to make a suggestion before you go.”
George gave her the sort of impatient look that can only be given by the very young to the very old, and raised a fist to knock at Van Hoever’s door. But before his knuckles ever made contact, the old woman’s cloth-bound hand snatched his fist out of the air. “You will want to listen to me, George,” she said. “Because I know exactly why you’re leaving.”
George looked her over. If it had been anyone else, he would not have given them another minute, but Irina was one of the few people at Otterman’s who could command George’s attention. She was the orchestra’s only violist, and like most violists (who after all devoted their lives to an ignored or much-ridiculed instrument) she had acquired a very sour sort of wisdom. It was also rumored she’d witnessed terrible hardships in her home in Russia before fleeing to America, and this, combined with her great age, gave her a mysterious esteem at Otterman’s.
“Do you think so?” asked George.
“I do,” she said. “And aren’t you interested to hear my guess?” She released him and patted the seat next to her once more. George sighed, but reluctantly sat.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Why such a hurry, child?” Irina said. “It seems like it was only yesterday that you arrived.”
“It wasn’t,” said George. “I’ve spent over half a year here, which is far too long.”
“Too long for what?” asked Irina.
George did not answer. Irina smiled, amused by this terribly serious boy in his too-large suit. “Time moves so much slower for the young. To me, it is as a day. I can still remember when you walked through that door, child, and three things struck me about you.” She held up three spindly fingers. “First was that you were talented. Very talented. But you knew that, didn’t you? You probably knew it too well, for such a little boy.”
“A little boy?” asked George.
“Oh, yes. A naïve little lamb, really.”
“Maybe then,” said George, his nose high in the air. He reached into his pocket, took out a pouch of tobacco, and began rolling his own cigarette. He made sure to appear as nonchalant as possible, having practiced the motions at home in the mirror.
“If you say so,” said Irina. One finger curled down, leaving two standing. “Second was that you were proud, and reckless. This did not surprise me. I’ve seen it in many young performers. And I’ve seen many throw careers away as a result. Much like you’re probably doing now.”
George cocked an eyebrow, and lit his cigarette and puffed at it. His stomach spasmed as he tried to suppress a cough.
Irina wrinkled her nose. “What is that you’re smoking?”
“Some of Virginia’s finest, of course,” he said, though he wheezed a bit.
“That doesn’t smell like anything fine at all.” She took his pouch and peered into it. “I don’t know what that is, but it isn’t Virginia’s finest.”
George looked crestfallen. “It… it isn’t?” he asked.
“No. What did you do, buy this from someone in the orchestra?”
“Well, yes, but they seemed very trustworthy!”
She shook her head. “You’ve been snookered, my child. This is trash. Next time go to a tobacconist, like a normal person.”
George grumbled something about how it had to be a mistake, but he hurriedly put out his cigarette and began to stow the pouch away.
“Anyway,” she said, “I remember one final third thing about you when you first came here.” Another trembling blue finger curled down. She used the remaining one to poke him in the arm. “You did not seem all that interested in what you were playing, which was peculiar. No—what you were mostly interested in was a certain act that was traveling the circuit.”
George froze where he was, slightly bent as he stuffed the tobacco pouch into his pocket. He slowly turned to look at the old woman.
“Still in a hurry, child?” asked Irina. “Or have I hit upon it?”
He did not answer.
“I see,” she said. “Well, I recall you asked about this one act all the time, nearly every day. Did anyone know when this act would play here? It had played here once, hadn’t it? Did they think this act would play nearby, at least? I think I can still remember the name of it… Ah, yes. It was the Silenus Troupe, wasn’t it?”
George’s face had gone very closed now. He nodded, very slightly.
“Yes,” said the old woman. She began rubbing at her wrists, trying to ease her arthritis. “That was it. You wanted to know nothing but news about Silenus, asking all the time. But we would always say no, no, we don’t know nothing about this act. And we didn’t. He’d played here once, this Silenus, many, many months ago. The man had terribly angered Van Hoever then with his many demands, but we had not seen him since, and no one knew where he was playing next. Does any of that sound familiar to you, boy?”
George did not nod this time, but he did not need to.
“Yes,” said Irina. “I think it does. And then this morning, you know, I hear news that Van Hoever is very angry. He’s angry because an act has skipped us on the circuit, and is playing Parma, west of here. And the minute I hear this news about Van Hoever today, I get a second piece of news, but this one is about our young, marvelous pianist. He’s leaving. Just suddenly decided to go. Isn’t that strange? How one piece of news follows the other?”
George was silent. Irina nodded and took a long drag from her cigarette. “I wasn’t terribly surprised to find that the act that’s skipped us is Silenus,” she said. “And unless I’m mistaken, you’re going to go chasing him. Am I right?”
George cleared his throat. “Yes,” he said hoarsely.
“Yes. In fact, now that I think about it, that act might be the only reason you signed on to be house pianist here. After all, you could’ve found somewhere better. But Silenus played here once, so perhaps he might do so again, and when he did you wished to be here to see it, no?”
Irina smiled, satisfied with her deductions. “The famous Silenus,” she said. “I’ve heard many rumors about him in my day. I’ve heard his troupe is full of gypsies, traveled here from abroad. I’ve heard he tours the circuit at his choosing. That he was touring vaudeville before it was vaudeville.”
“Have you heard that every hotel saves a private room for him?” asked George. “That’s a popular one.”
“No, I’d not heard that one. Why are you so interested in this man, I wonder?”
George thought about it. Then he slowly reached into his front pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. Though its corners were soft and blunt with age, it was very well cared for: it had been cleanly folded into quarters and tied up with string, like a precious message. George plucked at the bow and untied the string, and then, with the gravity of a priest unscrolling a holy document, he unfolded the paper.
It was—or had once been—a theater bill. Judging by the few acts printed on it and the simple, sloppy printing job, it was from a very small-time theater, one even smaller than Otterman’s. But half of one page was taken up by a large, impressive illustration: though the ink had cracked and faded in parts, one could see that it depicted a short, stout man in a top hat standing in the middle of a stage, bathed in the clean illumination of the spotlight. His hands were outstretched to the audience in a pose of extreme theatricality, as if he was in the middle of telling them the most enthralling story in the world. Written across the bottom of the illustration, in a curling font that must have passed for fancy for that little theater, were three words: THE SILENUS TROUPE.
George reverently touched the illustration, as if he wished to fall inside it and hear the tale the man was telling. “I got this in my hometown,” he said. “He visited there, once. But I didn’t get to see.” Then he looked at Irina with a strange shine in his eyes, and asked, “What do you remember from when he was here?”
“What do I remember?”
“Yes. You had to have rehearsed with him when he played here, didn’t you? You must have seen his show. So what do you remember?”
“Don’t you know the act yourself? Why ask me?”
But George did not answer, but only watched her closely.
She grunted. “Well. Let me think. It seems so long ago…” She took a contemplative puff from her cigarette. “There were four acts, I remember that. It was odd, no one travels with more than one act these days. That was what angered Van Hoever so much.”
George leaned forward. “What else?”
“I remember… I remember there was a man with puppets, at the start. But they weren’t very funny, these puppets. And then there was a dancer, and a… a strongwoman. Wait, no. She was another puppet, wasn’t she? I think she might have been. And then there was a fourth act, and it… it…” She trailed off, confused, and she was not at all used to being confused.
“You don’t remember,” said George.
“I do!” said Irina. “At least, I think I do… I can remember every act I’ve played for, I promise, but this one… Maybe I’m wrong. I could’ve sworn I played for this one. But did I?”
“You did,” said George.
“Oh? How are you so certain?”
“I’ve found other people who’ve seen his show, Irina,” he said. “Dozens of them. And they always say the same thing. They remember a bit about the first three acts—the puppets, the dancing girl in white, and the strongwoman—but nothing about the fourth. And when they try and remember it, they always wonder if they ever saw the show at all. It’s so strange. Everyone’s heard of the show, and many have seen it, but no one can remember what they saw.”
Irina rubbed the side of her head as if trying to massage the memory out of some crevice in her skull, but it would not come. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that when people go to see Silenus’s show… something happens. I’m not sure what. But they can never remember it. They can hardly describe what they’ve seen. It’s like it happened in a dream.”
“That can’t be,” said Irina. “It seems unlikely that a performance could do that to a person.”
“And yet you can’t remember it at all,” said George. “No one else here can remember, either. They just know Silenus was here, but what he did up on that stage is a mystery to them, even though they played alongside it.”
“And you want to witness this for yourself? Is that it?”
George hesitated. “Well. There’s a bit more to it than that, of course. But yes. I want to see him.”
“But why, child? What you’re telling me is very curious, that I admit, but you have a very good thing going on here. You’re making money. You are living by yourself, dressing yourself”—she cast a leery eye over his cream-colored suit—“with some success. It is a lot to risk.”
“Why do you care? Why are you interested in me at all?”
Irina sighed. “Well. Let me just say that once, I was your age. And I was just about as talented as you were, boy. And some decisions I made were… unwise. I paid many prices for those decisions. I am still paying them.” She trailed off, rubbing the side of her neck. George did not speak; Irina very rarely spoke about her past. Finally she coughed, and said, “I would hate to see the same happen to you. You have been lucky so far, George. To abandon what you have to go chasing Silenus will test what luck you have.”
“I don’t need luck,” said George. “As you said, I can find better places to play. Everyone says so.”
“You’ve been coddled here,” she said sternly. “You have lived with constant praise, and it’s made you foolish.”
George sat up straight, affronted, and carefully refolded the theater bill and put it in his pocket. “Maybe. But I’d risk everything in the world to see him, Irina. You’ve no idea how far I’ve come just to get this chance.”
“And what do you expect will happen when you see this Silenus?” she asked.
George was quiet as he thought about his answer. But before he could speak, the office door was flung open and Van Hoever came stalking out.
Van Hoever came to a halt when he saw George sitting there. A cold glint came into his eye, and he said, “You.”
“Me,” said George mildly.
Van Hoever pointed into his office. “Inside. Now.”
George stood up, gathered all of his belongings, and walked into Van Hoever’s office with one last look back at Irina. She watched him go, and shook her head and said, “Still a boy. Remember that.” Then the door closed behind him and she was gone.
Less than a half an hour later George walked out the theater doors and into the hostile February weather. Van Hoever’s tirade had been surprisingly short; the man had been desperate to keep George on until they could find a decent replacement, and he’d been willing to pay accordingly, but George would not budge. He’d only just gotten news about Silenus’s performance today, on Friday, and the man and his troupe would be leaving Parma tomorrow. This would be his only chance, and it’d be very close, as the train ride to Parma would take nearly all day.
Once he’d been paid for his final week, he returned to his lodgings, packed (which took some time, as George was quite the clotheshorse), paid the remainder of his rent, and took a streetcar to the train station. There he waited for the train, trying not to shiver in the winter air and checking the time every minute. It had been a great while since he’d felt this vulnerable. For too long he’d kept to the cloistered world of the orchestra pit, crouched in the dark before the row of footlights. But now all that was gone, and if anything happened before he made it to Parma, the months at Otterman’s would have been in vain.
It wasn’t until George was aboard the train and it began pulling away that he started to breathe easy. Then he began to grin in disbelief. It was really happening: after scrounging for news for over half a year, he was finally going to see the legendary Heironomo Silenus, leader of wondrous players, legendary impresario, and the most elusive and mysterious performer to ever tour the circuits. And also, perhaps most unbelievably, the man George Carole suspected to be his father.
The Men in Gray
Parma, like any other northern Ohio town, was well accustomed to winter weather, yet as the sun went down its residents began to feel unnerved. They hurried through the streets, eager to duck into any open door for shelter, and were reluctant to venture out, even if they had business or errands to run. Even the cabbies and buggy drivers were affected, refusing fares and passengers and returning to their stables instead, where they huddled and smoked and stamped their feet, and occasionally glanced out and shook their heads.
It was difficult to say exactly what it was. Perhaps it was the wind, the people said: it seemed unusually cold and bitter, never letting up for a minute, and it did not bring in any storms, as one would expect from such weather. But it was not just the wind, they admitted. There was also something wrong with the sky, though they had trouble deciding the nature of it: as preposterous as it sounded, people were not sure if the curious arrangements of clouds made the sky feel too large, or perhaps too small. Others disagreed, saying that it was not the size at all, but the time: it was as if the sky had forgotten what hour it was and was now on the wrong schedule. The moon and the stars were far too bright for six o’clock, and the sky much too dark. If you were to look up, you’d surely think it was midnight.
The question of the time came close to the real issue in Parma that evening, one that was so strange and perplexing that no one was willing to speak about it: there was something wrong with the light. It was a very subtle change, one the people could not easily fathom, but it was as if the shadows had doubled as night fell, often appearing in places that did not warrant shadows at all. When wayfarers glanced up at the curiously bright moon and stars, they’d wonder how, in such an abundance of light, the street ahead managed to look so dark and forbidding. (And some wanderers found themselves thinking that the number of streets in Parma had mysteriously increased in the past hours: there seemed to be far more darkly lit alleys and passageways now than in the afternoon, leading to places they could not recall seeing before.) The phenomenon was not just confined to the outdoors: families seated together in their dining rooms felt compelled to light twice as many candles and lamps as they normally did, though each flame was a miserable lick of light in an overwhelming sea of darkness. And though each room naturally had four walls, and so should have only four corners, some homeowners experienced the crawling suspicion that their residences were stuffed full of dark corners, sometimes with sixteen or seventeen to a room, as if the very nature of geometry had changed when the sun went down.
No one in the town had ever felt anything like it. No one, that was, until George Carole’s train pulled into the station and he leaped off, humming with excitement, and came to a stop when he dashed out the station doors.
George took one look at the dark streets and the star-strewn sky and identified the feeling immediately. As strange as it was, he’d experienced the exact same thing once before, in his hometown of Rinton: there’d been a series of evenings when the air seemed full of darkness, and everything felt thin, as if you could lick your finger and rub at the horizon and it would smear.
This pervasive feeling had coincided with another event in town: the performances of the Silenus Troupe. And it had vanished when the troupe moved to the next stop on the circuit, and no one had been sure what it’d all been about. Most had tried to forget about it, but George treasured every memory of when Silenus’s show had come so near, so he still remembered the odd sensation as if it’d been only yesterday.
On that occasion he’d been prevented from seeing the man he thought to be his father. Yet now that he’d gotten close once more, he was struck with wonder. Was it possible there was a connection between this strange feeling and the performances of the troupe? He felt sure that was the case… but who were these players, if their mere arrival could affect the moon and stars? Could it be possible that some of the stories—not all, surely, but some—about Silenus and his troupe were true?
George shook himself. That was ridiculous. He was just anxious about meeting his father, he said to himself, and it was making him imagine things. And, really, why should he be anxious? He was George Carole, unspoken star of the Freightly theaters (even if he was just an accompanist). He wasn’t some country rube, or at least not anymore. In his time at Otterman’s he had played for lines of glamorous chorus girls, for armies of parading mice, and for a group of clowns who performed Lebanese ladder tricks. He’d played for magicians, for tumblers, for statue acts and female impersonators, the fatter the better. He’d played for dancing children dressed like lobsters, for dwarfs and freaks and ballerinas. He’d played for regurgitators, who would swallow items whole and produce them in the order the audience requested. He’d played for opera singers. He’d played for gun shows. He’d played anything and everything.
Any father would be glad to have him as a son. Now that he thought about it, Silenus should be impressed, or even grateful. So George shrugged off his needling fear, clapped his hat to his head, and ran on into the streets, briefcase swinging by his side.
He had figured that Silenus, no matter the nature of his show or performers, would travel and make arrangements like any other vaudevillian, which would mean he’d have booked the hotel closest to his theater. Hoping this was true, George had asked the conductor on his train exactly which hotel this was, and since it was a question a lot of conductors heard he had gotten the directions immediately.
To his surprise, the hotel was a fairly fancy place, with red brick and white-bordered windows. It was a change of pace from most theater and circuit hotels, which were ramshackle flophouses: the owners knew performers could not afford to be far away from their stage, so since their clientele had no choice, it was not necessary to bother with such trivialities as comfort, appearance, or general functionality.
George decided he would get a room, and then try to figure out the best way to approach Silenus. If the man happened to be staying there, as was likely, would George arrange a chance meeting in the lobby? Or maybe the theater? Would he try to impress him with his piano playing? Despite his self-assurances, he began to feel anxious again to the point that he was almost sick.
Then, for the second time that night, he stopped where he stood.
He stared at the hotel. All the excitement and agitation drained out of him.
George cocked his head, listening, and cupped a hand behind his ear. As he listened, a deep dread bloomed inside him. “No,” he whispered to himself. “No, no, no. It can’t be. Not here.”
He backpedaled down the street and listened again. He then took several slow steps forward, head cocked toward the hotel all the way. Then he finally stopped in the middle of the street and looked around, and shook his head.
Somewhere about halfway through the block all sound began to fade from the world. Every noise died until it was a hollow echo of its former self, and the colors past the halfway point seemed drab and muted, like the light was being sucked out of them. George watched the other people on the street. They did not seem to notice anything, yet when they neared the hotel they pulled their coats tight about them, as though they’d been touched with a deep chill.
This, too, was a sensation familiar to George. But he dreaded it far more than the surreal darkness throughout Parma.
It could only mean one thing: he was not the only one who had tracked Silenus here.
George walked to the end of the block, and the queer silence increased with each step. He kept his eye on the hotel, making sure to mark the windows and the doors. It wasn’t until he was right in front of it that he saw a curtain on the second story twitch aside, and he caught a flash of a black-gloved hand and a gray sleeve, and a blank face surveying the street.
George jumped back. He found cover behind some bushes in front of an office building, and there he squatted down to watch and think. “They’re here?” he said to himself. “How could they be here?”
As George had searched for Silenus over the past half year, he had gradually become aware that he was not the only one doing so: there were other agents, ones of a far stranger sort, who were asking nearly the same questions he was.
He had first realized this at the start of fall, when he had traveled across Freightly to a different theater to inquire about Silenus. As always, there’d been no news, and he’d left the theater disappointed. But it was as George had passed a little alley beside the theater that he’d realized something was wrong: he heard something. Or maybe, he thought, he didn’t hear something. After a while he realized he actually couldn’t hear anything at all.
At first George thought he’d somehow gone deaf, but when he heard the carriages clattering through the streets he realized it was something else: on some level the world had fallen quiet to him. But this was a new type of quiet to George, who had very keen senses. If silence could have a frequency, with some silences soft and others harsh, then this one’s was overpowering and fierce, and he could hear it, like a needle in his ear. It rendered the sounds in the street hollow and lifeless, like they barely existed at all. And no one else on the street paused or looked up; it seemed as if only George could hear it.
Then a cheerful voice said, “I take it you’re a Silenus fan, too?”
George turned to look. Standing a far ways down the alley under one of the streetlamps was a man. Or was it? George thought. Somehow the man seemed too perfect: his collar was too starched and sharp, his bowler too black and clean, the knot in his tie too straight, and there wasn’t a speck of dirt anywhere on his shoes, which gleamed hungrily in the lamplight. George wondered if he was maybe just a picture of a man, like someone had made a painting of a gentleman in a gray suit and stood it up in the middle of the lane.
“I’m sorry?” George asked.
“You’re another Silenus fan,” the man called in that same cheery voice. “I heard you asking about him inside.”
“Oh. Well. Yes, I suppose you could say that.”
The man did nothing, as if thinking. Then he walked toward George with a bizarrely mechanical gait, arms stiff at his sides. As the man neared the queer silence grew, and George’s impression of a picture of a man increased as well: his face was blankly handsome, his eyes a gray a shade lighter than his suit, and all of his features were clean and smooth and symmetrical. But though he seemed perfect, the man also seemed strangely indistinct, like your eyes would pass over him unless you were looking for him. He looked, George thought, like a man out of an advertisement, like one for shoe polish.
“I doubt if you heard anything new in there,” the man said. His small smile did not leave his face. “I would know. I’ve been desperate for him to come back to town ever since I saw him last.”
“You saw Silenus?” George asked, excited. “What was his show like? Do you remember it?”
There was a pause, as if the man had not expected this question. “Well, it was a very long time ago,” he said. “I can’t really remember it now, I’m afraid. I suppose I wish to see him so that I can get a refresher.”
“Oh,” George said, disappointed even more.
“I’ll tell you what,” said the man in gray. “Why don’t we pool our resources? I’m eager to hear any news of my favorite performer, as I’m sure you are. If you find anything, would you please come and let me know about it? And when you do, I’ll tell you all I know.”
“I suppose I could.”
There was a pause, the man’s smooth gray eyes flicking up into the distance as he considered his reply, and then back. “Well, that’s excellent,” the man said. “Really, it’s very good of you. I’m in town for a long while, and I can be reached at the Liddell Hotel, on Maynor. I’m so eager to see Silenus again, why, I’d be willing to pay you for it. Would this be acceptable?”
George was not sure what to say. There was something unnatural about the man that he found disturbing. He only nodded.
“Good,” the man said. Then he stared at George, not moving or saying anything more.
“Is there… anything else I can do for you?” George asked.
“Have we met before?” the man asked.
“I don’t believe so.”
“Are you sure? You seem somewhat familiar.”
“I believe I’d remember someone like you,” George said.
“Do you,” said the man. “Well, please remember, the Liddell Hotel. Any news at all would be welcome.”
“All right,” George said.
“Good evening,” the man said, and he turned and walked back down the lane in that same stiff, jerky stride with his hands by his sides. The silence subsided, like a fog following him down the lane. And then, almost thoughtlessly, the man reached out with one hand as he passed the streetlamp and brushed his knuckles against its pole. The light winked out, and the man continued into the dark.
George watched him go before hurrying back across town to his lodgings. It took him several hours to realize the man had not given him his room number; in fact, when he thought about it, George realized he’d never even gotten the man’s name. Either way, he did not want to see the man again, and he certainly did not wish to give him any news concerning his father.
But it was after this that George had begun noticing strange members of Otterman’s audiences: men in gray suits, with clean black hats and blank gray eyes. He’d catch glimpses of them among the patrons, watching the show and never laughing or applauding. At first George had thought he was seeing the gentleman who’d made the odd request of him, but he’d never been sure. And each time he’d spotted them he had heard that awful silence slowly pervading the room along with them, as though wherever these men walked all noise faded.
George now heard that same awful silence there in the street before the hotel. The men in gray had to be inside. But he had never heard the silence they projected be so utterly overpowering, nor had he ever witnessed the very colors draining out of everything. There must have been a great deal of them inside, waiting, yet only he was able to notice anything.
He was not at all sure what was happening tonight. He only knew two things: Silenus was almost certainly staying here, and the men in gray had found the hotel first, and were now lying in wait. George could not bring himself to trust them; whatever interest they had in Silenus, he did not think they meant him well.
George spotted a clock in a nearby diner. If the Parma theater was like any other, the evening performance would be going on right now. Then Silenus and his company would close out the show, and come back to the hotel…
He knew he had to tell them. He carefully slipped out from behind the bushes and walked away.
“A man of mechanism and wit, of ingenuity never before seen…”
When George finally got to the theater he saw the thick folding sign out front with the words WEEKLONG PERFORMANCE—SILENUS and 5 CENTS ENTRY blaring up and down its sides, and all thoughts of the men in gray faded from his mind. He wandered up as if in a dream, took a bill of acts from the ticket box, and read:
THE PANTHEON THEATER
Entrance on Gabe and Henley Streets
PROGRAMME FOR THIS EVENING,
And Matinees, Wednesday and Friday
For the accommodation of LADIES and FAMILIES, the entire Evening Performance will be given. No VULGARITY or OBJECTIONABLE SAYINGS are allowed within our theater. SMOKING and TOBACCO will only be allowed outside the premises.
MILLIE SWANSON’S CORNISH PUPS
A delightful display of canine clowns
The ingenious songstress
Miss Lenora Howell
Featuring such time-honored melodies as WHERE IS MY WANDERING BOY TONIGHT and THE BOWERY
THE CARDWELL COMPANY
THE LITTLE LORD’S INHERITANCE
TOM MUMFREY .......... THE EARL
ELIZA VON DUINEN .......... MOTHER BURTON
And JOSEPH DEWEY .......... LITTLE ERIC BURTON
BIBLEY AND GEORGIANA
A farcical sketch of romance
THE FAMOUS SILENUS TROUPE
Mgr. Heironomo Silenus
FOR ONE WEEK ONLY
The first time in Parma—a MUST-SEE PERFORMANCE
1. PROFESSOR KINGSLEY TYBURN and his astounding PUPPETS
Through his mechanical WIZARDRY and SHOWMANSHIP, they will speak for us
2. HER HIGHNESS COLETTE DE VERDICERE
A beautiful songbird of Persian royalty
3. FRANCES BEATTY’S STRONGWOMAN FEATS
4. THE SILENUS CHORALE
Melodies sure to melt the heart
WEBB AND TORANEY
Humor and Pantomime
And there, on the opposite page, was an illustration of a man in a top hat standing in the middle of a stage, telling a story. With trembling fingers, George pulled out his theater bill from Rinton, unfolded it, and held the two bills side by side. Though the Pantheon’s bill was by far the superior, and the Rinton bill was old and faded, the two illustrations matched exactly.
His trembling increased. He had never been this close before. He’d dreamed of this moment so many times, yet he’d never really believed it could happen.
Then, to his surprise, the doors of the theater were pushed open, and a crowd of people came striding out. George went white, and almost fainted. “Oh, no!” he said. “I’ve missed it! How could I have missed it?” He nearly sat down in the street in shock, but stopped himself as three members of the crowd stood in the street to smoke:
“I shouldn’t have come so early,” one man said. “I mean, I only came for the Silenus bits. I’ve no interest in these Little Lord Fauntleroy plays at all. They’re just maudlin.”
“Oh, come now,” said a friend. “The kid was trying. He wasn’t that bad. One lady actually cried.”
“That was Maudie Gray,” said a woman with them. “She cries at everything, especially when little boys are involved. You should have seen her when they did East Lynne. She came to every show and bawled her eyes out.”
“I believe it,” said the first man. “But still, I should have come in after the halfway. I’m really only curious to see what all the talk is about.”
“Or what it isn’t about,” said the second. “Does anyone really know what Silenus is going to do?”
“Do you think it has to do with why they got started so late?” asked the woman.
“Is it late?” said the first man. “I suppose it does feel late.” He peered up into the sky as though there were something wrong with the moon, and shivered and lapsed into silence.
“It’s intermission,” George said softly. He rechecked the bill of acts. “It’s only intermission! I haven’t missed it!” Then he stuffed the bill in his pocket, picked up his suitcase, and dashed inside.
The coat-check girl wouldn’t take his suitcase, so after some negotiating with the usher George was allowed to take it in with him, provided he sat at the back. George found that the Pantheon was a much, much nicer theater than what he was used to: it had velvet curtains of a very rich red (which he found more tasteful than the ratty green ones used at Otterman’s), footlights of crenellated gold, and a pristine white spotlight that stayed fixed on the center of the stage. George felt an irrational pang of jealousy at this; even though he’d dissolved all his bonds with Otterman’s, he still felt bitter that the Panthon had a spotlight, while his old place of employment did not.
More people filed in to sit around him, and it felt like hours went by. George found he wasn’t alone: several people began checking their watches, and one nearby lady said, “I hope he gets started soon. I thought I was late getting here.”
“Did you?” said her friend.
“Yes. When I left the house I thought for sure that it was very late.”
“How odd. You know, I think I might’ve felt something similar. I’ve never had an evening pass as slow as this one. Though once the show begins, I expect things will go faster. It shouldn’t be long.”
George hoped so. His stomach had gone numb, and he felt like he couldn’t open his eyes wide enough. He knew it was unwise to pin all his hopes on one man, yet this was almost exactly what he had done: he hoped that Silenus could take him away from these small country theaters, and school him in the finer arts of the stage; he hoped his father would greet his newfound son with open arms, and rejoice in their meeting; and George’s last, most desperate hope was that Silenus would be such an astounding and wonderful man that finding him could somehow make up for the loss of George’s mother. She had died giving birth to him, and as the identity of his father had been unknown he’d been left to be raised by his grandmother. The fallout from the ensuing scandal had dealt their family name an irreparable blow, and as a bastard child George had been exiled to a lowly, unspoken caste in Rinton. Perhaps, he hoped, Silenus would make all those unhappy years worthwhile.
It would not be long now. He kept sitting up to peer down into the orchestra pit to see when they were going to start playing. That would be when the action would begin.
After a while the lights in the theater faded and the mutter of talk died down. Some signal came from offstage, and the pianist sat down and began arthritically tinkling out a breezy waltz. George thought the man’s playing stilted and pat, but he was far more excited about whatever was going to happen onstage than what was going on in the orchestra pit. “Here we go,” he whispered aloud.
The pianist played the first movement of whatever piece it was, and as he geared up to repeat it a man walked—no, erupted—from the side of the stage, charging for the center of the boards with a palpable confidence. He wore a red coat, checked pants, and a black top hat, and his white-gloved hands were bunched into fists. George got the impression that he would have walked through a brick wall, if one barred his way. When he came to the center of the stage he stopped short and wheeled to face the audience, swooping his hat off his head as he turned. He surveyed them for a bit, like a man inspecting a horse for sale, and people were not sure whether or not to applaud.
Time seemed to stand still for George as he stared at the man on the stage. Except for his pose, it was the theater bill’s illustration come to life. The man was short and mustachioed and had a slight potbelly, and he wore his thick, black hair combed back over his head. It shone in the light like oil. But what George was most astonished by was the man’s face. Though he wore the whiteface makeup commonly used in vaudeville, George could see that the man’s cheeks and mouth were heavily lined, and his cold blue eyes were very deep-set. It was not a lovely face; it was hard and austere, a face much used to scowls and glares. But the most astonishing thing was that it looked a little like the person George saw each time he glanced in the mirror.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” called the man in a fruity, tobacco-tinged voice. “I come to you today bearing wonders from afar. If you were to inspect my shoes, you would find on their soles the soil of a thousand countries. My many coats have soaked up the salty air of all the seven seas. Were you to see my dustbin you would find a dozen hats, all drained of color by distant suns. These are the lengths I have gone to to procure our world’s greatest treasure, our most precious resource, our most secret and unpredictable wonder.” He paused, and smiled both cunningly and a little cruelly as the audience waited for his finish. “Entertainment,” he said, and bowed. “I am Heironomo Silenus.”
The audience smiled and clapped, but George was too thunderstruck to move, trying to drink in every moment. Silenus snapped back up and advanced on the edge of the stage. He leaned out over them, looking furious in the lights of the gas jets along the stage, and several people in the front row recoiled. “For what better gift did the Creator give us than that ability to release, and relax, and allow ourselves to be taken to lands unseen and undreamt of simply with the crude components of performance?” he said. “A dab of face paint, a tinkling of a chord, a well-crafted costume and a few choice words, and we are given a vision of things that are not, were not, nor will ever be. We are given visions of the Other. These I bring to you in the palm of my hand, eager to send them tumbling into your laps. We are constrained by one thing only: time, and yours I shall no longer waste.”
He whipped around and withdrew, gesturing toward the curtain, and said, “See now the genius I found overseas in the hallowed halls of ancient Europe! A man of mechanism and wit, of ingenuity never before seen, a professor in his own lands, but here, something even greater: a performer, waiting to serve at your whim. I give you the redoubtable Professor Kingsley Tyburn, and his companions!” Silenus then replaced his hat with a flourish, sank into the darkness, and was gone. The curtain began to rise, and George nearly moaned in disappointment; it was the first time he’d ever glimpsed his father, and he did not want him to leave. But he quieted once he saw what was behind the curtain.
On the stage was the painted backdrop of the interior of an old farmhouse, but it seemed a strange and forbidding scene. The wood of the farmhouse was gray and old-looking, and the landscape outside the window was filled with twisting trees and a sickly moon. A long, high table was set up in front of the backdrop, and a man in a black tuxedo was seated at the middle. His skin was painted white, his lips bright red, and his copper-red hair was closely cropped. His legs were crossed, and he appeared to be reading a book, completely unaware of the audience, with one hand holding the book and the other hidden below the table. Placed along the table were three boxes, each of them shut. They looked a little like tiny coffins. The man licked a finger and turned the page of his book, but otherwise did nothing.
“Have we started yet?” said a small, tinny voice. “It sure sounded like we did…” It spoke with a distinctive New York twang, and seemed to come from one of the boxes.
The man, presumably the professor, cocked an eyebrow, and glanced at the box on the far right. The audience chuckled.
“Don’t think so,” said another, this one deeper and with a Cockney accent. “He’d have opened us up, wouldn’t he?” This one came from the box in the middle. George squinted to see if the professor’s lips were moving at all. He was far away, but they didn’t seem to even twitch.
“Unless he was still angry with us,” said a third voice from the box on the left. This one was Southern and was meant to be a woman’s, though it had a bass resonance that suggested a man behind it. “Do you think he is?”
“Yes!” said the professor, and slammed down his book. “I am, in fact.”
There was a gasp from one of the far boxes, and it shook a little as though someone inside had recoiled. The audience laughed again.
“What are you still mad at us for, Doc?” said the first voice.
“You know very well what I’m mad about, Denny,” said the professor.
“Aw,” said the voice. “Is this about the party?” The top of the box on the far right opened, and a wooden face with large, blank eyes, a pug nose, and a moth-eaten old hat rose out and leaned against the top. The audience laughed and clapped at the puppet’s appearance.
“Yes, Denny, this is about the party,” said the professor. “You embarrassed me greatly. You walked right up to the hostess and said… You said…”
The box on the far left opened and another puppet emerged, this one with the blond hair, hoop-skirted dress, and sultry blue eyes of a Southern belle. “He asked if she believed in love at first sight,” she said, her wooden mouth matching the words. The audience clapped appreciatively.
“Yes!” said the professor, flustered.
The middle box opened, and a third puppet emerged, this one fat, bald, and with one large eyebrow. “I don’t see what’s so bad about that,” he said in a thick Cockney accent.
“There’s nothing bad about that,” said the professor. “Well, nothing that bad about that. It’s what he said after that gets my goat. She replied no, she didn’t, and then he said—”
“I said, in that case I’d have to keep coming back here,” said Denny, and though his face was unmistakably wooden George got the impression that it had smirked at them.
The drummer in the orchestra rattled off a syncopated beat after the punch line, and the audience laughed as the professor sputtered to respond to his puppet. They were all crude-looking things, like they had each been carved out of a single log, but somehow their crudeness lent them a believable air of expression.
“You all get more and more out of control every day!” said the professor. “Berry, you even insulted my actor friend!” he told the fat puppet.
“What? I said he was great in his death scene in the play,” said Berry.
“Yes, but you said it should have come several acts earlier!”
Another beat from the drummer (this one a little late, George noted), and the audience roared laughter. Berry mugged for the crowd, even though his face did not seem to move.
“I guess we did sort of ruin things,” said Denny. “They all got a little down when I told them about my friend Frank.”
“Frank?” said Berry. “Why, what happened to him?”
“Well, he passed on.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that, Denny!” said the professor.
“Yeah,” said Denny. “He fell through some scaffolding.”
“How horrible!” said the Professor. “Was he fixing his roof?”
“No, he was being hung,” said the puppet, and again there was the snarl of a snare drum.
“Oh, Denny!” said the professor. The crowd clapped and cawed laughter.
“He’s rigging them up underneath the table,” whispered a woman in the row before George.
“Hush,” said her friend, but George had thought the same thing. Yet even so, how was the professor manipulating three puppets at once?
“I didn’t do anything wrong, did I, Doc?” said the Southern belle puppet.
“No,” said the professor to her kindly. “No, you didn’t, Mary-Ann.”
“Good,” she said. “Though I did meet the most delightful man at the party.”
“Did you?” said the professor.
“Oh, yes. He’s very well respected, a Southern planter.”
“Ah, very good.”
“Yes,” she said, “he’s an undertaker from New Orleans, you see.”
“Oh!” cried the professor, anguished at having been made a fool of again. The bass drum belched down in the orchestra pit, and the audience hooted and clapped. “What can I do to get you all to behave!”
“Well, why don’t you let us out, Doc?” said Denny.
“Let you out?” said the professor.
“Yes! Let us stretch our legs.” He wiggled in his box as though straining to move his limbs. “Let us out of the boxes, Doc, and set us loose!”
“Oh, Denny,” said the professor, “I don’t think that would be a very good idea.”
“Why not?” said Berry. “We could be real people for you!”
“Yes!” said Mary-Ann. “Real people, for you, for everyone! For this one last performance here!” She turned to beam out at the audience.
“We could own houses, ride trains, and even vote!” said Denny. “Several times, if we wanted to!” Again the puppet seemed to smile coyly.
“But why would you want that?” said the professor.
“Everyone wants that, Doc,” said Denny.
“We’d be no longer wooden,” said Mary-Ann. “No longer so stiff, so hard, so cold.”
“Yes,” said Berry. “Everyone wants to be real. You’re one or the other. You are or you aren’t. And here we are, stuck in between.”
The audience members laughed a little, but glanced at one another, unsure. Usually every exchange was a joke, but this one didn’t seem to be heading toward a specific punch line. The drummer was searching through his sheet music, confused as to where the next beat fell. Onstage the puppets all gained a hungry look to them, but it could have just been the shifting of the light. And was it George’s imagination, or was the light on the stage now coming through the window on the backdrop, as though projected by the painted moon?
“But children,” said the professor, “you’re not real. You’re not real people at all. See?” He reached out with one hand and knocked on Berry’s head, producing a comical, hollow sound. The drummer in the pit rattled out a line on the snare drum along with it.
“That hurts,” said Berry softly.
“We’re real enough,” said Mary-Ann. “Real as anyone else. Take us and chop us up and grind us to pieces, and you’ll find naught a thing alive.”
“But do that to any other folk, and you’d find the same,” said Denny slyly.
“Yes,” Berry said. “We speak and we want. We see and we hear. We’re real enough, Father, just enough.” The puppets turned to the professor eagerly, and George felt unsettled. He was reminded of piglets voraciously suckling at the teats of a hog, squirming to get a better spot. He could tell now that all the puppets were being voiced by one performer, but somehow he did not think it was the professor. And there was something wrong with the stage… The backdrop seemed noticeably less painted on. George could swear the slats in the farmhouse walls were casting shadows.
“That backdrop is very odd,” whispered the woman in the row before George.
“I know,” said her friend. “It doesn’t suit the act. Why would he be performing beside a lake?”
“What?” said the woman. “What lake? There’s only the circus.”
“A circus? What are you talking about?” asked her friend. “There’s no circus, just the field and the lake. Look at those odd, bendy shrubs, and glowy beetles, and those people playing at the shores of the lake. But the people don’t look right to me. Their arms and legs are too long and bent. Do they look right to you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said the woman. “There’s only the circus behind him. But there’s something wrong with the animals… some of them don’t look like any type of animal I’ve ever seen before. And I don’t like the clowns at all. Their eyes do not seem right to me…”
George was completely perplexed by what the two women were describing, and peered at the backdrop again. But he could only see the old farmhouse, with its moonlit windows and its crooked trees outside. But how could they be so mistaken?
“You see and hear and speak,” said the professor to his puppets, “and you do want. But you do not eat or sleep, or live, or dream.”
“No,” admitted Denny. “No dreams. No dreams for the dark. Just waiting, waiting.”
“Waiting for the light to crack through again,” said Mary-Ann. “For the top of the world to open up, and to find all these lovely people waiting for us!”
“Laughing!” said Berry.
“Clapping!” said Denny.
“Waiting for us, all of them!” said Mary-Ann.
“We do the same,” said Denny, “the same as them: waiting, laughing, clapping, but you say we are not real?”
The professor gathered himself. “I do say you are not real. And not-real things belong in boxes, and the dark. Where you came from, and where you shall return.”
“But Father!” cried Mary-Ann.
“Oh, no,” said Berry.
“You are not getting out of the boxes,” the professor said. “You must stay in the boxes, for me.”
“For you, Father?” said Denny.
“Yes. That is final.”
All three of the puppets seemed to droop slightly, as though depressed by his proclamation.
“I would not mind it so much,” said Mary-Ann, “if we could sleep. Or dream. But we cannot, and stay awake. We stay awake in the long dark.”
“I tire of this,” said the professor. “Now, Denny. Why don’t you tell us that delightful joke you told me just the other day?”
“Which one, Father?” said Denny, but he now sounded morose.
“The one about the medicine,” said the professor, and he stood up and ripped off the drape around the table. The audience gasped when he did: there was nothing below the table at all: no mechanisms that they could see, and no strings or levers. The boxes sat on what looked like solid wood, unless there were mirrors involved, but there couldn’t have been because when the professor sat back down his legs were clearly visible, hands in his lap.
“The one about the medicine, Doc?” said Denny.
The professor’s hands did nothing. They were clearly visible above the table. People along George’s row stared at one another in astonishment.
“Yes,” said the professor, and he crossed his arms. “The one about the medicine.”
Denny sighed. “All right, then. There was once a man I knew just down the street from me who was loath to ever take his medicine,” he began. “Yet then one day he went to the doctor, and that very afternoon he was seen sprinting down the street, pouring some potion into a spoon and swallowing it as he ran.”
“He didn’t!” said Berry.
“He certainly did. Then the next afternoon the same thing happened: he bolted out of his house and tore down the street, pouring his medicine and gulping it down.”
“How very strange!” said Mary-Ann.
“And then the next day, the same thing, and everyone came out to watch him run down the street,” said Denny. “Yet on the fourth day he skipped down the street, just like a little boy, and he took no medicine at all.
“Finally a policeman stopped him. ‘What’s the big idea?’ said the cop. ‘Why, I’m just following my doctor’s orders!’ said the man. ‘Orders?’ said the cop. ‘What orders?’ ‘He said to take my medicine for three days running, and then to skip a day, which is exactly what I’ve been doing!’ ”
The drummer bashed a cymbal and the audience laughed at the joke, but it was more than a little uncertain. The puppets did not sound like they were in a humorous mood at all. And then there was the backdrop again… Were the trees in the window moving, as though brushed by the wind?
But the professor smiled, stood up, and took a bow. The puppets did likewise, saying, “Good night,” though they sounded terribly sad. Then they sank into their boxes and shut their lids with a sigh. The professor walked to each box and picked it up off the table, taking care to show the audience that there were no holes or false bottoms or any other mechanism. Several people gasped. He stacked the boxes in his arms and said over the top, “And with that, ladies and gentlemen, good night! Why don’t you say goodbye one more time, Denny?”
Denny’s head poked up from the top box once more. And then, though George swore it couldn’t have, the puppet winked at them, and said, “To sleep, to dream, and awake anew. Good night!” and sank down below again. The professor tipped an imaginary hat and walked toward the side of the stage as people applauded. The curtain dropped before he reached the edge, concealing him from view.
“That was very weird,” said the woman in front of George.
George was inclined to agree. The act had been very funny until the light on the stage changed. Then things had gone strange. It had felt like the backdrop was a window into another world, and the professor and his companions had been fabricated versions of people on the other side, staring back at them through the glass. He was about to say something when Silenus mounted the corner of the stage again, hat nestled in the crook of his elbow. George’s heart leaped at the very sight of him, and he suddenly felt torn: he wanted the show to be over so he might have a chance to meet his father, but he also wanted to see the rest of the acts; he’d heard so much about them, and the first one had been so odd, that his curiosity was almost overwhelming.
“What an odd little family they are!” Silenus said. “But so are all families, are they not? Especially the family of our next performer. Royalty they were once, ages and ages ago, in far away barbaric places of sun and sand and scimitars. Her family had been wronged, dislodged from their rightful throne, and so fell to dissolution. I found her in the deepest parts of Persia, fallen from grace, performing her eloquent arts for mere coppers and coins, and begging for a moment of charity. Yet I rescued her, and taught her to rule her new domain of the stage. And now you, my fine ladies and gentlemen, have one of the rare chances to hear the songs of none other than her majesty, Colette de Verdicere!”
The curtain stayed lowered so George figured this would be an olio act, performed at the front of the stage before the curtain while they readied for the next full-stage act. He saw someone approaching from backstage, about to enter into the light. George ignored them and squinted into the shadows, trying to see where Silenus had gone.
Then the performer finally came out on the stage, and the woman in front said, “Oh, my goodness! How pretty!”
George absently glanced back, but stopped, eyes wide, and gaped at the stage. And for the first time since that morning he forgot entirely about Silenus and his long quest to see his father’s show.
Because George Carole had seen the girl, and now could see nothing else.
The first two things that struck George were her size and her brownness, both of which were accentuated by the glowing white of her gown and tights. She seemed very tall as she danced across the stage, tall enough to topple over should she misstep, yet she never did. In her hands she carried a small concertina, and though it must have been difficult to play while twirling about she still pumped out a chirpy, happy song and grinned as if all of this were the easiest thing in the world. As he watched the curl of a white-tighted calf as it flashed over the footlights, George began to grin as well.
But the color of her skin was what his eyes hunted for the most, smooth and creamy like coffee and milk, brown and gleaming where light found the rippled muscles in her back. Sometimes she nearly blended in with the dark red of the curtain, making it difficult to see each twist and curve of her arms, upon which, he noted with interest, was the slight suggestion of amber down. And floating above her white-clad body was a jeweled, feathered mask which hid all but her mouth and chin. George strained to find some hint of wickedly happy eyes within the holes of that mask, and could not; yet each time she did some movement which she found particularly pleasing, her copper lips would part and reveal a set of perfect white kitten’s teeth, and he knew somewhere behind that mask were two eyes crinkled with delight.
“Hot damn,” said the man sitting beside him. George felt the fleeting desire to sock him in the jaw.
He dimly became aware that the girl was singing. He tried to focus on the words, but it seemed to be in another language, perhaps French or something exotic enough to match her strange beauty. Then he realized he was wrong, and it was in English, and he caught a few lines between the hums and toots of her little concertina:
Mothers, please hold tight to your children
Maidens, don’t hold back your sweet songs
For the sun finds its sleep in the far hills
And the time of this world won’t be long
Dance in the meadows, wander down roads
Sing in the forests and glades
Follow the stars to their far-flung cradles
Drink your sweet wines in the shade
Make sure your partings are happy and true
Await the sun’s sparkling and happy debut
Drink in the sky and the scent and the view
For the day of this world shall soon fade
Then the song would seem to drift back into another language again. It was dreamy and peculiar, describing worlds and lives George didn’t know but wished he could lead. He watched the girl flex and sway as she moved to the bleating of her concertina, and studied the angular swirl of a tricep, or a deltoid, or a trapezius, and thought she surely had to be carven. A creature this beautiful could not be naturally created.
Then the girl danced to the edge of the stage and began pumping her concertina. With a series of sharp pops, little jets of colored ribbon and glitter shot up from within the instrument to rain upon the audience, who laughed in delight. George remembered he hadn’t thought to breathe in some time, and let out a deep gasp. Then he swallowed and shifted in his seat, surreptitiously trying to maneuver the staggering erection that’d suddenly appeared into a less prominent position, while the girl kept twirling back and forth across the stage, pumping the concertina and sending the colored paper arcing out over the people until he was mesmerized.
Then everyone began clapping. George jumped, startled, and looked around for the reason. He saw the girl smile and bow, her thick black hair falling about her face. The song must have ended and he’d never noticed. She turned away to leave.
“No! No!” said George.
The man sitting beside him jumped a little, and the two women turned and gave him glares. “What’s wrong?” asked the man.
“No! Can’t we… Can’t we clap more to bring her back on?”
The man chuckled. “You got the itch something terrible, is that it?”
George did not know what “the itch” referred to, but he had a pretty good idea. It felt nothing like an itch, though. He moaned a little and leaned forward as a dull ache blossomed somewhere near his loins, and watched as the girl treaded off the stage, blowing kisses.
George sighed a little. He had never felt like this before. It was as though he’d been stabbed somewhere hidden, and was bleeding out, helpless to stanch it. He became so lost in his reverie that he almost didn’t notice Silenus mount the stage again.
“Truly, some are diamonds, and the rest of us simply coal,” he said. “Only occasionally are we allowed to bask in the radiance of those precious few and understand how beautiful we can be. Let’s have another round of applause for Her Majesty, Colette de Verdicere.”
Silenus politely tapped the white-gloved fingertips of one hand against an open palm while the rest of the crowd made a storm of applause. There were more than a few wolf whistles, and at these the icy ache inside of George flared hot. But he pushed these thoughts from his mind and returned to watching Silenus, who seemed to be in a better mood now.
“But not all are slender beauties like Her Majesty,” said Silenus. “Others have a more functional dimension, but are no less wondrous. On the contrary, they may be even more astounding in their capabilities. My next performer, Miss Frances Beatty, is possibly known to you. I found her in a foundry, if you can believe it. There she was employed by the factory men for the purpose of bending girders and repairing damaged machinery with her bare hands,” he said, and displayed his own to the crowd.
There were a few scornful laughs from the audience. Silenus smiled a little and raised a prim eyebrow. “Some of you may laugh, yes,” he said. “I did myself, when I first heard the tales. Yet when I saw her and witnessed what she could do, my laughter died in my throat, as yours may do yet. I advise you to observe closely, and try not to miss a moment, for few are the things that could possibly compare to the abilities of Miss Frances Beatty!” He flung out one hand and faded from the stage again as the curtain lifted once more.
George felt that nothing could compare to the last act, or pierce the sickness that seemed to have overcome him. But when he saw the woman (was it a woman?) standing on the stage, he reluctantly sat up and paid attention, curious to see what she was about to do.
She was a skinny creature of medium build, not muscular in any way, and she stood in the center of the boards with a slumping posture that was a far cry from the showmanship of the other two performers, or Silenus. She had frazzled, reddish hair, and her face was painted white and her lips red, much as the professor’s had been; but whereas for him this had highlighted his comical reactions, for her it emphasized her stillness. George did not think he had ever seen anyone so still as she, frozen in place with her head turned backstage, barely breathing. And then there was her clothing… He had expected to see the strongwoman in tights of some kind, but she seemed to be wearing tightly wrapped colored bandages that concealed every inch of her body below the neck. It rendered her strangely sexless and artificial. Only her hands remained uncovered, and these hung limp by her side. He could not think of anyone less likely to perform feats of strength, yet surrounding her on the stage were a host of huge and intimidating props: iron safes, thin steel girders, train car wheels, stone statues, and steel bands. The woman seemed tiny in comparison to them, yet she did not pay them any attention. In fact, she seemed utterly unaware that there was a performance going on at all.
“Do something!” someone called from the back, and there was a smattering of laughter throughout the crowd.
As if in answer, the orchestra started up and the strongwoman snapped her head up to stare out at them. The crowd shrank back a little. It was an unnatural movement, as though her skull had been pulled by a string, and George understood Irina’s confusion: he was no longer sure if this was a puppet or a person. He watched as she stiffly walked to the steel bands and picked them up, and agreed that something was missing in the way she moved or stood. She could have been an automaton.
The strongwoman tilted her head back and forth as she examined the bands. Then she stared out at the crowd and thumped the bands down on the stage, proving their density, and lifted them up, grasped them in different sections, and pulled.
From the way she moved it looked like she exerted nearly no force at all, but the steel bands snapped apart and bent to form a large O, which she displayed to them. Then she grasped different segments of the bands and twisted and curled them, using her elbow to make the angles, until they formed an H, which she also displayed to the crowd, who now applauded politely. Then she bent them in half and pulled them through one hand, straightening them out, and held up what appeared to be an I. She pulled the bands apart again, forcing them into the first shape she’d made, and the crowd began chuckling in disbelief as they realized what she was spelling out. When she held up the final O, completing her gesture of honor for their state, the crowd had already begun to clap, completely won over by her. But she did not acknowledge their applause at all, and tossed the bands aside to continue on to the next feat.
She went to the girders, and stood one up on its end. It came with a large, flat base, which allowed it to balance easily. Then she went to the iron safe. She pulled at its door, but found it locked. The audience laughed, sensing that this was a gag for the show, but the strongwoman did not mug for them as they expected. Instead she sleepily went through the motions of listening to the click of the dial as she tried to crack the safe, but then shrugged, giving up, and took hold of the handle of the door and gave it a tug.
The door fell open with a loud squawk, and part of the now-damaged lock fell clanking to the floor. The crowd laughed and clapped and hooted at this. The strongwoman situated herself over the safe, positioned her feet, and pulled at the door. There was a moment of silence, and then the hinges gave way, twisting off the safe completely. She held up the amputated door to show the crowd, and bent it in half over one knee as though it were paper. Then she tossed it aside, and it landed on the stage with a loud clunk that reverberated through the theater. George could even see where it had dented the boards.
But it was odd. Whereas in the Persian’s act he could see every flex and bend of her musculature, for the strongwoman he could see none. It was as though she was not straining to do any of this.
“Part of that’s got to be rubber or something,” muttered the man sitting next to him.
“Yeah,” said George.
He forgot about it when the strongwoman picked up the safe, felt its heft, and tossed it up in the air, twirling end over end. The audience gasped in horror. George thought for sure that it would come down and crush her, but instead its open side came down on the end of the steel girder with a deep, resonant bong, and it hung there, spinning slightly. Everyone applauded madly at this. Then she bent the steel girder down piece by piece, folding it up in segments with the safe still dangling on its top, until finally the safe was at eye level with her. She took it off and set it on the floor, picked up the train car wheel, slowly folded it in half, and stuffed it in. She grabbed the safe door, unfolded it (rubbing it along her forearms to remove the larger dents), and replaced it on the safe’s hinges, attempting to lock the wheel in. But the door fell off, clanking to the floor. She tried to replace it, but it again fell off, so she leaned the door against the front of the safe, picked up the second steel girder, and wrapped it around the safe bit by bit, leveraging it with her foot until she had tied the door on. The crowd erupted in laughter and applause, but again she did not seem to notice, or care. It was as though she was sleepwalking through her performance.
Her placid expression did not change once throughout the rest of the act. Not when she tossed the statues in the air and flipped forward to catch them, nor when she picked them up, one in each hand, and stacked them on the safe. George wondered if her face could move at all.
After she’d completed her big finish (balancing the statues on her shoulders while she imitated their poses), she bowed to the crowd’s wild applause, and turned and walked away backstage without looking back once. It was an extremely impressive but bizarre performance, George felt. The strongwoman had seemed to neither know nor care who was watching.
As the curtain went down for the second time George wondered why no one could remember any of the acts of the Silenus Troupe. He’d never seen anything more amazing and amusing in his life, and was determined to never forget a detail. But then, he reminded himself, they still had one more act to go.
Silenus hopped back up to the corner of the stage. “That, my friends, was the wonderful Miss Frances Beatty. One wonders what husband she shall find in this world of ours,” he said, and smiled. The crowd laughed, now in good spirits.
“And now is the moment when I myself join these wondrous performers on the boards,” said Silenus. He walked out to the center of the stage and tugged off his gloves. He took off his hat, put his gloves in, and tossed the hat into the wings. “Hopefully I’ll impress and entertain just as much as they have tonight,” he said. “But then, my role is minimal—all I must do is lead them in a song.”
Two other performers came out from backstage. One, George noticed with a thrill, was the girl in white and diamonds. She was no longer wearing her mask, and he saw her face was smooth and angular, and her eyes a curious green. She smiled as she walked to join Silenus on the stage, and he took her hand and kissed it.
The other performer was a very tall, thin, and very well-dressed man with bright blond hair. He carried a cello and a bow in one hand, and in the other he held a light chair. He was slightly stooped, as though he’d recently borne a great weight and overstrained himself, and there was a hitch in his step as his right hip dipped in and out. He set the chair on the floor and extended the endpin of the cello, and sat. Then he settled into his position and lightly whipped the bow across each string to listen to the pitch and tune it accordingly.
But then the man did something George thought was odd: the cellist crinkled his brow as though he’d heard something strange, and looked up to find its source. His eyes searched through the crowd, trailing over the balconies and the stage seats, until finally they sought out the very section that George was sitting in, and even seemed to rest upon his seat. George got the strong impression that, though the man had lights shining directly in his face and was surely blind to the rest of the theater, the cellist was looking for him, and could even see him.
“The song we will play tonight,” said Silenus, “is one of our own devising. Or, rather, our own orchestration. The melody is a far, far older one than any you’ve heard this evening, an ancient folk melody passed down, in one form or another, from generation to generation. It has no name, as far as I know. But we here simply refer to it as the Chorale, if you please. Surely its age speaks of quality, and should we play it well enough you will hear it, and agree.”
Then he turned to the two performers and raised his hands. The man with the cello looked away from George and snapped to attention, and the girl in white settled her shoulders back, preparing to sing. There was a pause, and Silenus dropped his hands.
The cellist leaped into the prelude of the song. He played in perfect synchrony with Silenus’s conducting, his eyes fixed on every movement. It was an extraordinarily high and difficult piece, and his left hand had to crawl all the way up the strings of the instrument almost to the bridge to produce the clear, clean tones the song required. George knew only a little about the cello, but from the flurry of shifts and rapid slurring of the bow he knew he was seeing a formidable display of skill. The song itself was achingly, painfully beautiful, and put George in mind of green, rolling hills that ended in black cliffs as they were eaten away by the sea. It was desolate and forlorn, and yet always hinted of a key change to come, when the song would shift from minor to major, from mourning to gratification. As it was, it felt torn between an elegy and a celebration.
Then the girl began to sing. Her voice was husky and honey-sweet, and as before the song was not in English, but George could not identify which language it was. It certainly didn’t sound like French, as her previous song had. It was difficult to tell one syllable from the other, and sometimes George could not understand how her mouth made the sounds it did.
George lost himself in the song, basking in its trills and turns. But he eventually found himself distracted. There was something making a sound in the theater, very quietly.
After a while, he realized what it was: a second song.
He glanced down the aisles, but could see no one whistling or humming to themselves. It was a very soft song, different from the Chorale yet played alongside. The two matched notes occasionally so that no one noticed, like hiding a noise in a clap of thunder. George somehow felt that he’d heard this second song before, but could not say where. It was too faint to hear clearly. It must have been somewhere long, long ago, he thought as he tried to listen to it.
George studied the cellist and the singer, but they didn’t seem to be the ones playing it. Yet as he watched them he noticed that they had changed a little: their colors seemed brighter than before. The blond hair of the cellist was now a piercing gold, and Silenus was lit up like a flame. George wondered if he was imagining things and looked around, but saw that no one else seemed disturbed in any way. But then he peered closer at the people nearby.
None of them were moving at all. They all seemed catatonic, their eyes wide and glassy, some with their mouths hanging open. Even the orchestra had gone still as stones, staring up at Silenus and his performers.
George turned to the man sitting next to him and whispered, “Pardon me, sir—do you hear that?”
But the man did not respond. He was transfixed as well, his unfocused eyes set on the air above the stage.
George reached out and poked him. “Sir? Are you all right? What is going on with everyone?” But neither he nor anyone else moved.
The second song, the hidden one, seemed to get louder, and George felt something prickling on his skin. He glanced at the backs of his hands and saw the hair there standing on end. He looked up at the others around him. The stray hairs of the women in front were beginning to lift, and a nearly bald gentleman next to them now had a small, stiff forest sticking out above his ears, though they were all too hypnotized to notice. The air began to hum with an invisible energy as the second song grew louder, and George somehow grew aware that something was happening on a level he couldn’t see: it was as if there was an umbilical point being established within the theater, two separate and very distant powers twisting toward one another to kiss, like planets brushing against each other in orbit.
George was not sure why he was the only one unaffected by the song, but he didn’t know what he should do. Should he stand up and shout? Rush the stage and stop the performance?
“Hello?” he said, and tapped the shoulder of the lady in front of him. “Hello, ma’am? Ma’am, can you… can you help me?”
A groan rumbled through the theater, yet George could not feel it in his feet or in his back; it seemed as though he could hear it only in his mind. And then something in the theater changed: it was as though everything, the stage and the curtains and the rows and rows of seats, had flickered, blinking out of existence for one second, and once everything returned the shadows and edges of light throughout the theater were sharpened, and all the colors had gone blindingly bright. The theater took on a flimsy and insubstantial feel to George, like it was a little toy puppet show and all the people and players little cutouts made from wax paper, and someone had just lifted off the roof and let the whole world spill in from above…
George stood up in his seat, terrified, and was determined to run. He’d have to stumble through the knees of the people along the row, he thought. But he couldn’t just leave everyone here to await whatever was happening. He stooped and shook the man next to him, saying, “Sir? Sir! For God’s sake, you’ve got to get up! You’ve got to get—”
George trailed off. Now there were voices in the second song, high and sweet, though he could not see any new singers in the theater. But he recognized the melody they sang. He had heard it before.
And then he remembered.
Old fragments of memories flooded into him. He saw a field lined with deep ravines next to a small forest. Faces made of roots stood along the ravines on sticks, and they all faced a hill in the center of the forest as though waiting for something. He saw a barrow, wet and quiet, the gray sunlight dribbling down into its hollow to glance across glistening stones. There were cracks in the walls of the barrow, and from one of them came a voice, quietly chanting to itself in the dark. And somewhere inside was a wriggle of light where there should be none, dancing across the dark stone walls, and waiting for someone to touch it, and listen, and see…
The splinter of memory released him, and George fell back in his seat, gasping. Silenus kept conducting the two performers, who sang and played as though none of this were happening. The second song grew stronger around them, the voices from the invisible singers intensifying, and then it was like there was a split in the world and George could see out of it, and glimpse the endless machinery that kept the world running. And then, for one moment, he could see even more…
There was a rumble, and the lights in the theater quivered. The echoes of the song washed over them, faded, and then were gone. Silenus, the cellist, and the girl stood still on the stage, letting the sound reverberate on, the cellist’s bow hovering inches away from the strings.
George took a breath, still stunned, and looked around. No one clapped. The rest of the audience sat frozen.
Silenus and the two performers stood up, walked to the edge of the stage, and bowed. The cellist and the girl in white gathered up their things and departed while Silenus ambled after them, digging in the inside pocket of his coat. He paused at the edge of the stage and produced a short, thin cigar, which he stuffed into the side of his mouth. He lit a match with the nail of one thumb, held the flame to the cigar, sucked at it, and breathed out a cloud of smoke. Then he glanced out at the audience one last time, a sardonic and bitter look, said, “Fucking smoking rules. Pah,” and left.
No one moved for several minutes. George still felt dazed and slightly sick. Then a few people began to shift in their seats, glancing around as if awoken from a dream. The conductor jumped when he heard the seats creaking, and reached out and poked the first chair violinist. The violinist sniffed and blinked at him, puzzled for a moment, but then hurried into position. The rest of the orchestra followed suit, and halfheartedly started another waltz. A pair of mimes in blue overalls and broad hats stepped out on the stage, looked around as though surprised to find themselves there, and began going through their performance, one pretending to share apples from a basket with the other. They were obviously terrified.
“Excuse me,” said a voice. George looked up, and saw that the man beside him had stood and was trying to get past. The rest of the audience was standing up as well.
George, still confused, moved his knees to let the man by. “They put the shabby acts last,” the man confided as he passed. “To get the audience to clear out, you see.”
Even though George was utterly bewildered, he still managed, “Well, of course I know that. And they’re called chaser acts, for your information.”
The man shrugged, and joined the rest of the audience members lining up to leave. They all had mystified looks on their faces like they’d left something behind, but couldn’t remember what it was.
The pair of mimes onstage abandoned their act, and the orchestra wound down to a halt. None of them seemed upset by this development. Rather, they stared into the air with wistful looks on their faces, and the two mimes eventually shuffled offstage, smiling emptily. After a confused moment George followed the audience out.
Once outside he stood in the street with the rest of the crowd and took a deep breath. The night air seemed much fresher than the air in the theater, and George and the other patrons were desperate to get as much of it into their lungs as they could. But he noticed that there was something different about everything now. The night no longer seemed so thin, or so unreal. The moon did not feel so ponderously close and heavy. And unless he was mistaken, there was something different about the other patrons: they seemed to have more color in them, whether it was the deep grayness along a man’s trousers, or the rich navy blue of a lady’s purse. It was as if the song had put a light in them, one that made their skin and clothing shine much brighter than before.
“It is a beautiful evening,” said one lady with an enormous white hat. “A simply beautiful night.”
“Yes,” said a man. “It certainly is. Just like when I was a boy.”
“That’s it,” said the woman. “That’s it exactly. It’s like a Christmas evening from when I was just a girl.”
They smiled and milled about as if they were sleepwalking. George wondered what had happened to them all. It was as if they’d been hypnotized, though he did not think any hypnotist’s trick could ever make a person’s very color seem brighter.
But then George remembered that the fourth act had not left him untouched: that song had opened up a memory within him, but it felt totally unfamiliar. His mind was still bursting with scattered images of barrows, and root faces, and a squiggle of light in the dark, and the fleeting impression of summer days and green leaves and a secret corner of the world that only he could find. It was like remembering he’d once been a different person entirely. He felt nearly as dizzy and disoriented as the other patrons.
But the most concerning thing about that memory was the song. Unless he was mistaken, tonight was not the first time he’d heard the Silenus Chorale: he’d heard it once before, long ago, when he was but a child, yet he’d never remembered it until now. He couldn’t understand how this could be.
It took him a moment to realize that the one man who might know was currently packing up in the theater, readying to leave. George turned and hurried down a side alley to the back of the theater.
Though the Pantheon was a superior theater to Otterman’s, the layout was the same, and George slipped in through the loading door for the props. He looked around at the passageways stuffed with ropes and pulleys and curtains and backdrops, wondering which way to go. At first he thought the backstage was deserted, but then he saw he was wrong: there were two stagehands standing in a corner, but they were so still he hadn’t noticed them. They had small, confused smiles on their faces, and were clearly as stupefied as the patrons out front.
Then George heard voices coming his way. He walked to a drape of curtain and pushed it aside to see Silenus, the cellist, and the girl in white making their way toward him. His heart almost stopped, and he dropped the curtain a little and listened.
“Not bad, not bad at all, fellas,” Silenus said as he led them. In the quiet theater it was easy to hear him. He had shed the Shakespearean lilt he’d used in his performance, and instead spoke in a drawling growl. “Could have been a lot fucking worse, in my oh-so-unasked-for opinion. Ain’t as good as we done it before, that’s the damn truth, but it’s better than we were doing recently.” He puffed at his cigar and began wiping his face paint away with a handkerchief. “Hallelujah, a-fucking-men. Glory and grace and fortune abounds, or am I wrong?”
George was not sure what he should do. This seemed very different from the performer he’d seen not more than five minutes ago. He wondered: should he call Silenus’s name? Step in front of him? The man would surely say something then, and what could George say back?
“Who are you?” said a soft voice behind him. A hand took his shoulder, and though it was soft and small its grasp was iron-hard.
George cried out and leaped in surprise, and his suitcase clattered to the floor, spilling open. Silenus and the other two players stopped where they were. Before George could see any more the hand on his shoulder turned him around until he was looking into a tired, lined face whose many wrinkles were caked with the remains of white paint. It was the strongwoman, though now she was wearing an immense overcoat and a bulky sweater rather than her colorful bandages. She was joined by the professor puppeteer, who looked cold and aloof in his tuxedo.
“Yes,” he said snidely. “And what are you doing here?”
“What’s that?” said Silenus’s voice. “What do you have there?”
The strongwoman turned him around and Silenus approached, his face barely lit by the glow of his cigar. He was now nothing like the impresario from the show: in the dark of the backstage he was ferociously intimidating, his hooded eyes boring into George but betraying nothing.
“A boy,” said the strongwoman.
“A boy?” said Silenus.
“We found him backstage. And he’s awake.”
“Awake, you say?” said Silenus.
“Yes,” said the professor. He looked out the loading door and down the alley. “The rest are all out front, as usual.”
“Hm,” said Silenus, and he moved to examine George closer.
George had often wondered what his father would say when they first met. He had fantasized that perhaps Silenus would know him immediately, and he’d fall to his knees and throw his arms open and cry something about how he’d finally found his lost child. Or possibly Silenus would only slightly recognize him, and peer into George’s face, murmuring about how this young man seemed familiar. Or maybe Silenus would take a liking to George for reasons he couldn’t understand, and, should their relationship progress enough, sometimes profess that you know what, this here kid reminds me of me.
What he’d never expected was for Silenus to say, “Ah, geez. What the fuck are you doing back here, kid?” He looked George up and down. “And why aren’t you sleepwalking?”
There was a pause as George took this in. “S-sleepwalking?” he said. “I don’t… I’m afraid I don’t really understand…”
Silenus sucked his teeth and peered at him. His leathery face crinkled up around the eyes, and he tutted and pulled up the waist of his pants with one hand. “You don’t have any idea of what’s going on, do you?” he said. “This isn’t a good sign. I can’t remember the last time someone stayed awake. We’ll have to look into that later.” He nodded to the woman. “Franny, dispose of this young man. If he’s a thief, beat his ass if you’d like, but be discreet about it. Then we’ll hightail it back to the hotel.”
“No!” shouted George. “No, you can’t!”
“And keep him quiet, too,” added Silenus.
“No!” said George again, and he lunged out and grabbed ahold of Silenus’s sleeve. “You can’t go back to your hotel!”
The strongwoman pulled him back. Silenus ripped his sleeve free of George’s hand and looked up at the strongwoman, indignant. “Are you seriously going to let some fucking kid take a grab at me?”
“He’s just a boy,” she said sullenly.
“Are boys so incapable of carrying knives?” said Silenus. “I’ve seen many a ten-year-old admirably wield a pigsticker, and I ain’t keen on getting cut on by somebody who can’t even fucking vote.”
“He’s just a boy,” she said again. “Please don’t be angry with me.”
“I’m not angry. Don’t get upset, girl.” Silenus turned his attention back to George. “What’s that you said to me? What about my hotel?”
“You… you can’t go back there,” said George.
“And why is that?”
“There are men waiting there for you. Men in… in gray suits. They’re looking for you. Or at least, I think they are.”
That disturbed them. Silenus cast a dark glance around at the rest of his troupe as they all began speaking.
“What is that he said?” said the professor. “Men in gray suits?”
“At the hotel?” said the girl in white and diamonds. “Our hotel? You said they’d never get that close to us!”
“Enough,” said Silenus. They all fell silent. He sucked on his cigar for a moment, then said, “What’s your name, kid?”
George badly wanted to say something about who he was and why he was there, but he could not muster the will to say anything beyond “George.”
“George, huh?” said Silenus. “Well, George, I’m going to grab your neck real tight right now. Are you ready for that?”
Silenus’s hand shot out and took George underneath the chin, his thumb painfully pressing up against the corner of his jawbone. George choked and tried to pull back, but the strongwoman held him still. Silenus’s blue eyes thinned into narrow slits, and he tilted his head up and down as he tried to get a better look at George.
“Hold still,” he said. “Just hold still, why don’t you?”
George tried, but Silenus’s hold was so strong and painful he couldn’t help but attempt to pull away. As the man examined him George got the queer feeling of being looked through, like Silenus could see all of his lies and memories in the recesses of his mind, or perhaps feel the shape of them through the skin on his neck.
“Now, George, tell me the truth,” said Silenus. His voice was very low and soft. “Did those men in gray send you to gut any of my company? Or me?”
George coughed and shook his head.
“You here to sabotage us? To spy on us?”
He shook his head again.
“You’re not coming at us in any way at all?”
Again, he shook his head.
“Why are you awake, George? Why aren’t you sleepwalking like the others?”
Excerpted from The Troupe by Bennett, Robert Jackson Copyright © 2012 by Bennett, Robert Jackson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Robert Jackson Bennett was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Winner of the Shirley Jackson Award, the Sydney J. Bounds Award, and an Edgar Award, he is the author of the novels Mr. Shivers, The Company Man, The Troupe, and American Elsewhere. Find out more about the author at www.robertjacksonbennett.com.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This was a good read. The first half of the book is kind of slow going, but once the plot starts twisting and turning it's so hard to put down. This is easily one of the best fantasy novels I've read.
I found this title on a top 25 best fantasy novels and took a chance. I was happy i did so. I will read other novels by this author.
C'est fantastique! There is something here for everyone, whether you like fantasy, metaphysics, coming-of-age stories, Americana or just dang well-written prose. Masterfully crafted, Bennett has an impressive command of his gift for such a young author, and I would encourage anyone with a pulse to pick up this novel. I'm certainly glad that I did. :)