Modnar si lla

Submitted into Contest #123 in response to: Start your story looking down from a stage.... view prompt

2 comments

Fantasy Speculative

There she was. From center stage--defying all logic and harsh lighting--Shawn could see her, poised on the back of a theater seat mid-audience. She was small, stood stock still, and brilliantly blue. No one else seemed to notice her: not his fellow performers, not the lighting or stage crew, and not even the bald man who sat in the seat on which she stood.

Then even Shawn couldn't see her anymore. She was there, then she was gone.

"Modnar si lla." The director’s voice echoed from the speakers in the back, booming through the room. The small orchestra began their slow crescendo as the performers took stage, one at a time.

"My life is a pillow decaying in bedrock." Each sentence was new and fluid with every performance. On stage, Shawn's hand gripped pommel of plastic sword as he began to step in sync with the rhythm but in broad, sweeping motions that ignored everyone else on stage.

"There once was a man from Timbuktu named Tim." Shawn drew his sword, and began his practiced, ineffectual swings. His armor rattled a hollow cardboard sound he'd gotten used to from their week of performances. 

He made sure not to swing too hard, or too close, to any other performers. The stage was large enough to accommodate all thirty people from his class, but since their movements were as frenetic as his own, he had to keep an eye out as more people came onto stage. "Sigma, Alpha, Epsilon, Ligma, Iota, Omicron, Nutter butter. One of those does not fit. I'll give you a hint: Sea Ion."

Shawn paused on stage to think about that last one. Which was fine, perfectly in line with the directors 'avant guarde' production. He shrugged deciding that it wasn’t worth thinking about. The music had increased in both volume and tempo, and he was working up a sweat to swing his sword and keep pace. "That's what you get for choosing hero." His classmates would say. 

There'd been a list on the board of thirty characters when they'd decided on their production. Each a random job title or descriptor such as: fireman, bodyguard, or sleeper. He'd chosen hero because it had sounded like the lead. Little did he know. He could have played his cards differently and pretended to nap on stage. That was a more popular role anyway.

"Twelve years ago, the sky was ripped open, and through blackened tears poured out screams of insanity, shattering visions of other worlds and mind breaking chaos." The one part of the performance which was scripted. Shawn's role was to 'strike a heroic pose against the Calamity.' The director spoke calmly over the surging music, and everyone on stage stopped. "Tens of thousands died, millions were injured and those there to witness it still bare scars." 

Because he was starting up defiantly against an unexplainable phenomenon, Shawn caught sight of a flash of blue in the rafters. The Director’s speech continued. "Reminding us, of something we already should know."

The rolling timpani thundered as the rest of the music dropped off. Slowly, the woodwinds picked up a new melody, and the brass began to rise. "All is random!" At those last words the music swelled again, and the director sprinted out of the sound booth down the center aisle and towards the stage. Next stage direction: line up and follow him, follow the leader style, through a unique performance. 

One problem. Shawn was too distracted. In the darkened audience, behind the director, the brilliant blue light was back. Light not from lighting, but from a youngish girlish form. 

Everything is random. 

“The theatre is haunted.” His classmates explained his first night amongst them.

"Is that why we have class so late?" He'd smiled through the joke, knowing their answer.

"The professor, our director, is a bit of a night owl, and so are we, most of us anyway. Besides, this way class time coincides with our rehearsals and performances at the end of the year."

"Is that why there's a ghost, because we're still here during the witching hour?" It was an easy joke to make when the sun was still out, but more accurate as the days grew shorter."

"The theater is new, right?" He asked. They nodded confirming what he already knew. 

           "Then why does it moan and groan like an old building?" How could it be haunted? 

"The theater is only eleven years old, but it's built on the ruins of the old theater. Some say those sounds are ghosts themselves. Most say that it's the creaking and hissing of the new boiler heating system." Now they were just playing coy, so he went ahead and asked his question more clearly.

"If it's a new theater, how can it have a ghost?" The first night he'd seen her had been dress rehearsal for their end of year performance which was also their final 'exam.' The director had handed him the plastic sword, while explaining the absurdist nature of the planned performance. She'd been nothing more than shape peeled from shadows watching them from the dressing room.

"Do you know the story of the old theater? Why they had to build this one?"

"There was a fire, right? I read the plaque on the wall." Beside the list of a hundred donor names. How much had a place on that tile cost? Judging by the building constructed from their donations, each name cost more than enough to pay his tuition ten times over.

"Did you read the small plaque beside it?"

"For Melissa?" Beside the engraving of a young girl's face. Shawn just assumed she was the granddaughter of some god-tier donor. 

"That's her."

"The ghost?"

"Yeah. She died here, in that fire. Didn't you wonder why the door to access the traps below stage have such an expensive anti-locking mechanism?" Making it almost impossible to accidentally trap someone downstairs or get trapped themselves. "She was the former director’s daughter. The story is she liked to dance downstairs during her mother’s late classes. The night of the fire, she was trapped down there. They never found her body.

A girl had died in this building. "Why hadn’t I heard this before?"

"That professor still works here. She's the theater department head." Shawn's advisor. "We have to be careful talking about it."

"No wonder. It seems like students are exploiting a personal tragedy for some cheap thrills." It was meant as an accusation.

"Isn't every ghost story a tragedy?" Judgment rejected. "You'll understand when you see her."

"Where?" 

"She likes watching performances. Sometimes she hides in the rafters. Other times, performers see her in the audience, dancing on the backs of theater seats, leaping across aisles in aerial ballet."

"Why don’t more people talk about this?" That first shadowed vision had shaken him. "You’d think the story of such and obvious ghost, would spread.”

“Only performers on stage can see her.”

“Well, you’d at least think that more people would talk about a girl who died here and such a tragic fire."

"Did you see the date on the plaque?"

Shawn checked it later. The date of her memorial, the date of the fire was the same as the date of the catastrophe when the sky had opened up and everything had changed. Everyone said it was a pivotal moment in his generation, a fixed point in time that they would be talking about for centuries, writing books about, inking into history, processing through experimental theatre. "Bigger things were happening than the death of one girl."

           Every ghost story is a tragedy, right?

           Shawn found something heartbreaking about the dismissiveness in the voices of those who talked about her and her potential ghost. He found something even more terrible about the fact that so few people knew her story.

After seeing her for the first time, he’d done his own research. It hadn’t been easy. One of the problems with universe--altering events is that they don't stop for personal tragedies. These can be washed away in the current and all but forgotten by anyone but those involved. Melissa was a precocious girl with lots of friends, her obituary read mourned by her mother and father.

She got a paragraph, one amongst hundreds, in a paper instead dedicated to voices crying out to mourn, explain, quantity, and analyze the Catastrophe. The fire had spread while people stared up at the sky. The fire department occupied with a hundred other calls, and their own existential dread, hadn’t even shown up until there was nothing left but ash. There weren’t even pictures of the burnt-out husk of the old theater.

Is that why she was still here? Was her disappearance connected to the Catastrophe itself? His classmates hadn’t been any help when he’d tried to ask them.

“Shh.” They had whispered. “We don’t like to talk about her. What if we call her too us?” They had giggled. As though it were a joke.

Did anyone else really see her? Was he hallucinating her?

If so, it happened every performance. Each time he stepped onto the stage she was there: sometimes a blue flash on the ceiling, sometimes a proud silhouette in the audience, sometimes a shadow backstage behind the director. It took him a while to figure out why he felt such a connection with her. She was eight when she died.

Eight, the same age he had been during the Catastrophe. The event had shaken his parents so much they had taken him out of school for the year. A common enough occurrence that they were calling his generation the lost year. But, unlike Melissa, he had survived, and not only survived but managed to come out of Catastrophe unscathed. No one he knew or loved had died.

But his grandmother had died a week later. Too afraid to leave their home, they hadn’t even gone to the funeral.

Shawn swung his sword, last in line as his director lead the class around stage, out and around the pit, up through the aisles, and back to stage again. She was among them, watching. A brilliant light only he seemed to see or acknowledge. A personal tragedy forgotten in a wave of random events. He gripped his fake sword helplessly. He’d chosen the role of hero, in a play memorializing an incident said to shape their age. It was a role as meaningless as any other. There was nothing anyone could have done against the Catastrophe. There was nothing he could do for her.

“She likes to watch us perform.” They had told him.

She doesn’t want to be forgotten. He understood.

“Modnar si lla!” The director called out one more time, as the music silenced. All is random. But the theater was haunted by a girl who wanted to be remembered. When their performance was over, Shawn would tell other people what he had seen. Not exactly a heroic role defying a world defining event, but a role he was willing to take. Some who empathized with the audience, at least one member of it anyway, and wasn't that enough?

December 11, 2021 02:06

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

2 comments

Craig Westmore
10:39 Dec 16, 2021

An intriguing ghost story, Nathan. Your description is excellent and really brings out the emotional desire of the young girl to be known and remembered.

Reply

Craig Westmore
10:44 Dec 16, 2021

And you got me with the title. I thought it was Italian for some sort of stage direction for the opera...until I did a search. Clever.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in the Reedsy Book Editor. 100% free.