‘Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, can I have your attention, please? The act you are about to witness is no mere folly. Before you will stand the world’s greatest aerialists. Their dazzling stunts will have you on the edge of your seat. There are no ropes. There is no safety net. Do not be afraid. The people involved are practised professionals. They live for their purpose, and their purpose is to entertain you. Tonight, they will bring you a show. Tonight, you will see a war between beauty and science. Tonight, all will behold the impossible.’
Mel yawns and fidgets.
She’s tired. She’s bored. She has a lot on her mind and work is rough. Her name has come up for promotion at the firm. She’s been with them for years and she’s one of their best secretaries. If she keeps her inbox empty, Mel knows, she’ll be running her department by the end of the month. It’ll mean more responsibility, but also more money and freedom. The rent on her apartment will be easier to pay. The loan on her car will disappear. Mel is mentally reviewing her workload for the week as lengths of coloured silk descend from the rigging above the stage. The stalls are crowded. Mel looks around at her friends. They’re watching the show intently. They invited her because she’d once been a gymnast. They thought she might enjoy reminiscing.
As a cello and a flute croon mournfully together, Mel forces herself to look up. Aerialists wearing masks, their bodies painted white, begin to move. They use their hands and feet to grip the lengths of silk, and propel themselves up and down using nothing else. She studies them for a while. There’re at least two dozen of them, and they’re impressive, but Mel becomes distracted.
She needs to call her mother when the show’s finished. Her father’s birthday’s coming up, and she wants to go shopping for his gift with the woman who knows him best. Mel needs to get her phone upgraded, too. Hers is nearly two years old, and most of the apps she uses are starting to lock up because it doesn’t have enough memory. Mel glances at the stage. The acrobats are thrashing at the silks, using them to contort and position themselves. It’s a strange display, but their coordination is astounding.
A break and Mel is outside with a cigarette and her friends. She joins in the conversation about the show, movies, partners, clothes. She checks her shoes, straightens her jacket. She goes to the bathroom and reapplies her makeup; relines her lashes, massages foundation into her cheeks. Mel goes through her phone, sends a message or two before returning to her seat. Her mother often tells her that she’s a bright young woman with a good future. She’s clever, dresses sharp, networks. Mel loves her mother.
The theatre dims. Music announces the beginning of the second half, this time in a darker, more urgent tone. She can hear timpani competing with trumpets. The fierceness it incites in the aerialists fascinates her. The instruments become the inconsequential sources of inconsequential noise as she focuses on the painted bodies. She tries to comprehend the story behind their actions, but all she can see are aerialists practising their craft.
It doesn’t matter; Mel recalls her time on the beam and bars. She smiles. Her phone vibrates, but she lets it go. She watches instead the aerialists breaking formation. They become a mesmerising assembly of chaos. They bend and weave around each another, a cacophony of movement, seemingly without organisation, and yet their passion is exquisite, almost ceremonial. Her mind begins to settle and, for a brief moment, she forgets her hectic schedule, her busy routine. She forgets herself.
Mel does not return until the curtain falls.
* * *
‘Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, can I have your attention, please? The act you are about to witness is no mere folly. Before you will stand the world’s greatest performers. Their talents will have you on the edge of reason. There are no ropes. There is no safety net. Do not be afraid. The people involved are skilled virtuosos. They live for their purpose, and their purpose is to educate you. Tonight, they will bring you a spectacle. Tonight, you will see a struggle between beauty and science. Tonight, all will behold the extraordinary.’
Mel shuffles in her seat.
She checks her phone. Missed calls from her mother. Mel keeps forgetting to call her back. The dialling app doesn’t work the same as it did on her last phone, and she’s having difficulty remembering how to access it. She’ll do it later. She watches as lengths of silk descend from the rigging above the stage, a masked performer clinging to each. She tries to remember if they’d entered the stage like that last time, if there’d been more or less of them, but she can’t recall clearly. The stalls are still crowded, but her friends aren’t with her. They weren’t interested in seeing the show again.
A frugal tune fills the theatre and the performers begin to move. They’re slow but nimble, twisting the silks with ease as if they were extensions of their own bodies, dancing to the music like it came from within them. Mel had taken up gymnastics again, started practising on the silks every morning and every night. Those who knew her best were disappointed that they saw her less often, but they were supportive, of course. They thought it was great Mel had taken up an old interest again.
Mel’s phone vibrates. Reluctantly, she looks away from the stage. Work’s calling. Management had approved Mel’s promotion, but she was finding it difficult. The basics kept alluding her; things she had no trouble dealing with before. Using the photocopier or filing a requisition order was a challenge. Mel blames stress. She knows better. She pockets the phone, realises she’s wearing the same pants she wore yesterday and the day before. It doesn’t worry her. Details are pointless, and the performers are swinging between the silks, now, their athletic harmonisation a wonder to observe. Mel ignores the call.
During the break, Mel grudgingly leaves her seat. She fumbles her way through a message. She seems to be misspelling words lately. She sends it to the garage. Mel’s car hasn’t been working. The steering’s stiff, and the transmission sticks all the time. She had to take the train to get into the city, which was bad enough. The fact that Mel’s car was almost new just made it that little bit worse. Mel searches herself for a cigarette, but discovers she left them in her apartment. She grumbles, goes to the bathroom. Her eyeliner’s beginning to run. Mel pulls out a tip and tries to run a smooth line below her lashes, but her hand’s shaking.
Mel returns to her seat. She focuses on the furious music. Percussion recklessly interrupts, drawing the ire of the brass and causing the woodwinds to skulk. The reignited bodies of the performers travel quickly now, and she loses herself in their movements. She hadn’t noticed last time, but their routines are synchronised to the tempo. She counts, and sure enough, they match flawlessly. How ashamed she felt for the skills she had so casually disregarded. She would make up for it. She would never be so dismissive again.
The act comes to its penultimate scene, its coordination forgotten. It’s a mass of silk and motion. Mel relaxes, her concerns withering before the exhibition of skill and talent. She looks up at the painted bodies with envy. She wants to be just as good as the performers on the stage. She needs to be as good. They’re the pinnacle of expression, the apex of liberty, and she’s forgotten what it’s like to be free.
Mel does not return until soon after the curtain falls.
* * *
‘Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, can I have your attention, please? The act you are about to witness is no mere folly. Before you will stand the world’s greatest artists. Their creativity will have you on the precipice of disbelief. There are no ropes. There is no safety net. Do not be afraid. The people involved are akin to celestial beings. They live for their purpose, and their purpose is to enlighten you. Tonight, they will bring you a masterpiece. Tonight, you will see the union of beauty and science. Tonight, all will behold the inevitable.’
She watches intently.
Lengths of coloured silk descend from the rigging above the stage. A mask and a painted body wear each one like a cocoon. There are so few of them now. Mel tries to guess which are men and which are women, but it’s difficult to see. A soothing melody caresses the theatre, and she forgets to care. She forgets that she’s wearing an old sweater and broken flats. She forgets that her rent is due. She forgets that her phone is missing. She forgets about her father’s birthday.
The artists begin to move slowly. They’re reborn upon the silk, prying their forms from within. They’re graceful as they climb and fall; sinuous kinesis, moving like the fingers of a violinist upon the delicate strings of an instrument. They’re one with the music. She follows every contraction, every stretch of the arm, every thrust of the hip. The artists free themselves and, with a gentle fury, turn on their protectors.
Mel’s own aerial abilities had improved exponentially. She no longer sees bodies hanging from silk. They are instead two ceaselessly interacting organisms, fighting, manipulating, coercing one another. She counts the arabesque, the candy roll, the triple fallen angel, and the bungee in a single routine, achieved in unison, achieved without error. She is hypnotised. When the music stops, she does not leave her seat.
She sits very still. Thoughts, vague memories of a distant life, interrupt her. Mel must make money somehow. The firm has let her go. She takes too long to do anything. Reading is so much effort, writing even more so. Her friends ask Mel if she’s all right. She can’t call the right words to mind, so she ignores them. Mel’s car is impossible. The dashboard displays only gibberish. She walks everywhere. She shakes the thoughts off. She hates them. She hates all of them. They are meaningless.
When the artists return, the silks become weapons. Bodies reach between them, coil them, lash out with them. She gazes at the story of triumph unfolding before her. The music becomes forceful. Mel wonders if anyone else understands what is happening. They are no longer at the mercy of the silk. The silk is at theirs. They move faster now, and their belligerence astonishes her. The very theatre heats up until there is no direction anymore, just masks flying wildly from one end of the stage to the other.
The people around her begin to yawn and fidget. They are tired. They are bored. The artists have abandoned the shallow aesthetics of the first half. They have not been following the story. They do not understand the frenzy of the artists’ emotions released as one. They do not understand the timeless wisdom of the opus. They are pitiful. She’s captivated.
Mel does not return until long after the curtain falls.
* * *
‘Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, can I have your attention, please? The act you are about to witness is no mere folly. Before you will stand an artisan of the finest calibre. Her brilliance will have you doubting your very existence. There are no ropes. There is no safety net. Do not be afraid. She is transcendent. She lives for a single purpose, and her purpose is to enthral you. Tonight, she will bring you rapture. Tonight, you will see her divinity revered by beauty and science. Tonight, all will behold the perfect synthesis.’
She is illuminated.
She is alone. The silks descend, painted body, painted mask. There are no others, not on the stage, not in the audience. She has not seen a familiar face for as long as she can remember, because there are no familiar faces to see. She has no friends. She has no family. There is no apartment, no car, no work. Nothing exists beyond the light, and she has never needed things she cannot see. There is only the stage. There is only the silk. There is only the act.
She is in a womb. She stretches her fingers, curls her toes. It is her home, her sanctuary. Tender, loving. It cannot hold her, however. She is destined for greater things. There is a sound, distant but thrilling. She moves her arms to its cry, kicks her legs to its wail. It is a dirge for everything that is not and a herald for everything that is. She twists, and her refuge releases her. Its tendrils remain, wrapped around ankles and wrists, but she twists again and is free.
There are no meaningless intrusions this time, no idle thoughts of false memories. The future does not exist; the past is the present without expression. There is no need for either. In a moment, she takes control. The tools of her birth are now the tools of her rise. She thrusts, she pouts, she writhes, she bends. She is in control. She is dancing in stillness, and she is beautiful. She is transcendent. The music stops. She is in darkness.
She feels the floor beneath her feet, but it is just an illusion. She cannot move. She cannot speak. Fear overwhelms her. She waits, without time, without purpose. Violence, pain. She must endure. The music returns, fast, cutting deep. The light finds her, and she is once again in motion. She punishes herself, punishes the darkness. It wants her, but it cannot have her. It has hurt her before, hurts her whenever the music fades. There is no life without light, no life without sound. She thrashes wildly, willing them to persist. She cannot lose them. She will not lose them.
She becomes frantic. She abandons everything that birthed her, everything that held her. She turns on it all like a rabid animal. She is cornered, desperate. The lights are dwindling. She cannot see. She is blind. The music is quietening. She cannot hear. She is deaf. She is no longer beautiful. She is not transcendent. She is the shadow of a phantom.
The light finds new eyes. The music sings to new ears. Her heart stops. Her lungs are empty. Her muscles seize upon one another. She becomes a shell, an empty vessel for the world to ignore and forget. She has no purpose. She is a façade, a lost spirit, a marionette with no strings. She says no word, thinks no thought. She is meaningless.
She is meaningless, and Mel does not return.