Vesalius

In the long hours of the evening, the voices droned on. Oliver's was nasal and deepening toward the lower registers he clearly associated with the gravitas of his position, that is, a voice issuing from the undiscovered country, although the tone was often less Dad Hamlet than whiny tourist. Or maybe he was just struggling to meet Charles with equal depth, drawn not by gravitas but by gravity toward those baritones shaped by a vastness impossibly contained in Charles' old man's body which was slumped in the chair, the military spine and barrel chest melted like wax to paunch, shrunk, shrunk shank. While those voices droned on, Oliver's and Charles' in conversation like the storms of summer that hesitate all night on the horizon, rumbling and flashing diffusely and giving no relief of rain, Geoffrey sat at the edge of the lamplight, washed by the sound and carefully deaf to the sense. It wasn't his conversation. Not yet, anyway. He concentrated on settling his fingers carefully into the gaps and ridges of a cut-glass tumbler, thinking of Ellen's hand, the spaces between her knuckles where his fingers could almost fit as though, at some point in the designing, god or time or chance had determined that humans were meant to fit together. Forked, naked, crawling all in the same direction in the narrow band of navigable space between earth and Heaven, they were granted this consolation. "We were meant for each other," Geoffrey murmured to the lambent scotch in the tumbler while Charles nodded sagely and proclaimed death a bastard and a whore and a lover and a lost child and a shill and a consummation devoutly to be wished, and Oliver's thinner voice gleamed along the dark surface of Charles' ponderous declamations like the unsteady reflection of a dim and far-off moon.

It seemed only natural that they should fall at last to rhyming.

"That sir which serves and seeks for gain / And follows but for form," Charles intoned gravely, a pale eye finding Geoffrey in the corner holding his tumbler of scotch between two hands. "Will pack when it begins to rain / And leave thee in a storm."

Oliver pushed himself up to peer over the back of the couch. "But I will tarry," he prompted. Outside, sheet lightning flashed distantly. "But I will tarry."

"The fool will stay," Geoffrey finished obediently.

Geoffrey couldn't carry his books and Charles, too. But Charles would not be carried, not in public in any case, although he was ready enough to lean the weight of ages—he chuckled low at that, the weight of ages—on Geoffrey's shoulder to get himself to bed, called Geoffrey Chiron, offered him a penny for the service and fell asleep on top of the covers cursing the bathtub as a demon to old age and demanding someone be indicted for slippery porcelain and hollow bones. But he would not shamble into the theatre on a crutch. So, after a brief detour to the church basement to sit in the small chair, Geoffrey arrived at the theatre with his books under his arm, and Charles was there before him, a brooding presence in his chair of state, glowering at the assembled cast.

All heads turned to watch Geoffrey make his way down the aisle while he avoided looking at their expectant faces. Having wept himself to a delicate translucency in the small chair, Geoffrey felt considerably less substantial than Oliver, who sat with his ankles crossed on the edge of the stage like a softening confection in his lemon-curd-yellow suit and patent leather shoes. As Geoffrey passed Ellen, his fingers tightened around the spines of his books because, more than anything at all just then, he needed to hold her hand, but her arms were crossed and she was sitting on her hip in her seat, angled away from him so that watching him take the long walk toward the stage forced her to crane her neck over her shoulder in a painful posture of rejection and obligated attention that made Geoffrey wince.

He climbed the steps and turned toward them. They all looked up at him from their rows of seats and suddenly he felt that he was facing the wrong way, striving against the momentum of things. There was a metaphor there, he thought, about theatre and a breakwater against the inevitable onward rushing of time, but Charles grunted and said something about not having forever, for Christ's sake, and the analogy sluiced off and left Geoffrey there on the stage gripping his books, still in charge, everything teetering forward, waiting for his cue to fall.

"All right!" he said briskly, with a slap of his free hand against the side of his thigh. "Good. You're all here, so we'll just get started. I know that last night's cancellation was a disappointment, believe me, and I know that it's hard to find momentum again when it's lost—"

He almost missed Cyril's, "Momentum, ducky? Is that another name for going nowhere, then?"

"—but we just have to—we have to—get back on the—oh, fuck it. Act one, scene one. Maria? Places if you please."

He tried to not to stomp off the stage, but his boots were heavy, and the books were heavy, and Charles and his weight of ages were goddamn heavy, so if he did stomp it was more an effect of circumstance than a commentary on any of it.

Half-way along the row to his spot in front of Maria's table, he realized that nobody was moving. Instead, they were all twisted around in their seats looking at him with expressions ranging from blank astonishment to timid confusion, according to rank, old-time queens and divas at the one end to ingénues at the other. He looked at them askance. They looked back, more than one or two showing the whites of their eyes.

"Yes?" he asked reluctantly. "You're not moving why?"

A door opened at the back of the auditorium. The light from the lobby—that world outside where regular people were having regular days—cast Anna's shadow along the aisle.

On the stage, Charles made fists on the arms of his throne and muttered, "Oh for Christ's sake, Geoffrey!"

At her table, Maria, who did not have her headset on or her promptbook open, cleared her throat.

"Maria?"

Her chin disappeared as she shrank in her chair. "But—what about Charles?"

"What about—" Geoffrey laughed a sort of waterlogged laugh and, tucking his hand inside his sleeve, pulled it up to wipe his brow. "There was an accident," he began, sotto voce.

"We know," Ellen said from right behind him, making him want to tuck his head into his collar to protect the exposed vertebrae of his neck. "There was an accident. We know that."

The smile he faced her with was closer to a grimace. "It's fine."

"It's not—" She bit off the shout and dropped her voice to a vehement whisper. "It's not fine, Geoffrey. It's not at all anything like fine."

There were patches of livid colour on her cheeks, and she spoke with her teeth clenched together in a way that made Geoffrey's own jaw lock shut. He resisted pressing his sleeve to his ear, since he only had one hand because he couldn't put down the damn books, and really, to be effective, he needed both hands, one for each ear. And also, maybe, more scotch or at least a croquet mallet.

"The problem with the theatre," Charles observed acidly, "is that there's too much fucking drama!"

"You know what?" Geoffrey said, the smile going a little more conciliatory as he looked up at the stage. "We're going to try something a little more Canadian today. We're all going to be painfully, ridiculously polite."

"Polite!" Charles harrumphed and rolled his eyes. "I'll settle for competent. Actually, since that appears to be unlikely, I'll settle for conscious and vertical. If our resident prima donna can manage it."

Ellen ignored him. "Geoffrey, what is going on with you?" Her eyes flicked sideways to indicate the cast who were still sitting backward in their seats, nearly all of them looking like they were watching something terrible bearing down on them.

He unlocked his jaw and tried the smile again. He spoke in a low, steady voice, spacing his words out in a way that was meant to be reasonable but which came out a bit more like someone reciting the multiplication table so he wouldn't start shrieking. "What is going on is that I am trying to stage Lear because if we don't make this work, you're going to be playing Annie Oakley next season and I will have to use the last of my savings to buy a car and a rubber hose so I can end it all and leave a rosy corpse."

A shadow passed across Ellen's face, and he felt bad about that last part, but the books were breaking his fucking arm and Charles was looking up into the flies with an expression of long-suffering martyrdom, and time was heaving them forward toward another opening night and if he didn't make it through this play one time he was sure he was going to be stuck in this place forever like some hapless figure imagined by one of the more sadistic Absurdists. But then, out of the corner of his eye, he could see Oliver swinging his legs and inspecting his fingernails and glowing gently with the light of his higher purpose, so he felt bad about the Absurdist thing, too. But, dear God, please. Please. Really.

Ellen was looking at him now like she was gone all soft-focus, concern taking the edge off of anger. "Look, I'm sorry, Geoffrey." Her hand on his wrist kept him from throwing the books. "Anna told us about the bathtub, how she found him this morning. It's horrible."

Anna was there, beyond Ellen, looking like it was horrible, whatever it was.

"Found who?"

"Charles."

Over Ellen's shoulder, Anna nodded, her mouth turned down and her eyes gleaming.

Breaking Ellen's grip, Geoffrey stepped back. As his foot hit the floor, the theatre started to tilt on its axis. "No," he said with the exaggerated calm he'd grown used to hearing from people who were edging up to him with needles hidden behind their backs. It was novel to be on the other end of that. Not novel in a fun way, of course. "I found Charles, last night."

"Last night? Why didn't you call someone?"

"I did call someone! I called Anna this morning, which is why you're all here so that we can get this play on its feet." He leaned forward a little against the increasingly acute angle of the floor.

Incredulous, Ellen looked at Anna, and then back at him, her expression hollow, like she was waiting to be filled up with something. "You were there all night?" She whispered it, but the cast couldn't help but hear it in a space designed to amplify and focus everything.

It wasn't at all odd, given their not-quite-avaricious attention, that he remembered suddenly that the first indoor playhouses looked like anatomy theatres.

Dropping the books with an explosive crack, Geoffrey spread his arms in the properly decorous gestures of one of the self-revealing corpses of the anatomy books. Look on, friends. This is my heart. These, my guts.

"Yes, I was there all night. Where else would I be, Ellen? There's no room in our bed. There's a lizard queen in our house. The theatre store room is full of Chileans."

"Bolivians," Anna corrected.

"I'm sorry. Forgive me. Bolivians. And I've been gently encouraged by the local constabulary not to go into the park without supervision in case I feel the urge to strangle the wildlife. So yes, I was there. All night. And now I'm here, and you're here, and Charles is here—"

Someone in the seats stifled a high-pitched laugh. He darted them a look, but it could've been anyone, man or woman; they all looked equally capable of minor hysteria. Panic does that to a voice. Shortens the vocal cords. These are the muscles of my throat. Their action strangles the voice, thus.

"What? For the love of the little baby Jesus and all his angels, what?"

Leaning around Ellen, Anna smiled briefly and said, "I found Charles, Geoffrey, this morning. In the bathtub." She tried to go on but there were tears and she waved her hands in front of her face in apology.

Geoffrey blinked and chewed the inside of his lip for a moment before turning his head slowly to look over the upturned faces of the cast at the stage where Oliver was staring at Charles.

"Do not abuse me," Charles warned, but in his eyes there was a strange light, a brightness Geoffrey hadn't seen before.

When Oliver turned back, his mouth was hanging open like a visual demonstration of the very concept of agape. "Oh," he drawled, shrinking inward as the realization settled wherever realizations settle in the non-corporeal.

There was nothing for Geoffrey to hang on to but Ellen, but her eyes were wide enough to swallow him and her bones were too frail to take the strain as the theatre canted upward like a steamer taking on water.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Geoffrey roared. If there had been birds, they'd have scattered in an agitation of beating wings.

"I didn't know!" Oliver shouted back in a thin, aggrieved voice. He flung his arm backward at Charles, who was standing now, smiling. "He looks the same as anyone! I can't tell the difference!"

Geoffrey started to step toward them, but couldn't because of the row of seats in front of him, so he changed direction, driving Ellen ahead of him into the aisle. "How can you not tell the difference? You talked to him all night!"

"It's not like they give us convention badges or something. Although, this answers the question of why he could see me. And why wouldn't he know? Why do I have to be in charge of the roster all of a sudden?"

"I don't know!" Geoffrey stabbed a finger at Charles. "Ask him!"

All heads turned as one to look at the stage. Then they all turned back toward him. He was dimly aware of retreating footsteps and the sound of the auditorium door opening and closing again. Beside him, Ellen hovered, a density of worry, a hand on his elbow. He shook her off.

Charles had no answer. From somewhere far off, far away inside him, came a sound, a low and ponderous and wordless sound, something suspiciously like laughter.

Geoffrey put his hands over his ears. "I saw him." These are my eyes. This, the crystalline humour that carries vision to the seat of judgement. He let go of his head and looked at his hands. "I carried him to bed. I remember the weight." These are my hands, the instruments of instruments.

"Honestly, Geoffrey," Oliver was saying accusingly, "You all look the same. For all I know you're dead!"

This is my brain, a subtle engine in a brittle shell. Thus it makes infinite worlds.

The theatre was tipping and he couldn't keep his footing.

Thus it unmakes them.

He rolled onto his back on the worn carpet and looked up at the ceiling. One of the pot lights was burned out.

Far off and getting farther, Charles was shouting, "Howl! Howl! Howl! Howl!" with pauses in between for laughter.

"What on earth is he laughing about?" Oliver was squinting as if into a misty distance. "Charles!"

"Vex not his ghost," Geoffrey said.

"Oh, that's just fine. Vex not his ghost, but my vexation, never mind." He bent to loom over Geoffrey like a waning moon. "He's a showman, I'll give you that."

"Not a bad exit."

"At least you didn't fall into the trap this time." The serrated irony in Ellen's voice was blurred by tears. "Maybe you could take a course on crisis management or something."

"Maybe," Geoffrey conceded. "I'm busy having a psychotic break right now."

Ellen and Oliver spoke at the same time, in precisely the same chiding, indulgent tone. "Grandstander."

Foreshortened by perspective, Oliver paced in the narrow band of space between the floor and the ceiling. With each pass across Geoffrey's field of vision, he grew fainter until there was just enough of him to notice he was going and raise a hand to wave. Geoffrey kept his eyes on the empty space and waited for heaven's vault to crack. On cue came the thunder, and he imagined that even in the insulated space of the theatre he could hear the sound of rain. He slipped his hand over Ellen's, settling his fingers into the valleys between her knuckles.



--end--


Notes:  In 1543, Andreas Vesalius published De humani corporis fabrica, an elaborately illustrated book demonstrating the new science of anatomy—human dissection. The text featured the famous Muscle men, self-revealing corpses represented in living poses who invited the reader to study their revealed inner spaces.

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