On a beach by the sea stands a gutted stone tower. A man is climbing up the remains of a staircase that spirals up the tower’s interior. Vivi sits on the roof, oblivious, counting coins that have spilled from her breast pocket: one fiver, three ones, one golden ten. She’s only wearing a worn pair of pajamas, and the damp breeze from the sea is making her shiver. She has no memory of how she arrived, but is vaguely aware of the sound of footsteps.
Eventually the footsteps arrive at the top, and stop. The man who has appeared on the roof is dressed in khakis and worn boots. Dark locks tumble down the left side of his face, which is beautiful in that ruddy way that belongs to adolescence.
Vivi looks up, startled. “Who are you?”
“I should ask you the same.” The man’s barely winded. “You’re trespassing. We’ve claimed this place.”
“I don’t understand,” says Vivi. “Who are you? And who are ‘we’?”
“Exploratory actors, of course.” He makes a mock bow. “We’re the Documentary Theatre Troupe. And you, as I said, are trespassing on our territory. I must ask you to come with me.”
Vivi follows him down the stairs, down the beach, and into a lush forest where the Documentary Theatre Troupe have made camp and eagerly greet their new audience.
The play is called The Tragedy of King Vallonius. Contrary to the title’s promise, the story is about a girl named Rosella, famed for her beauty and especially her lovely head of hair, so striking that she must wear a headscarf outside lest she attract unwanted attention. One day Rosella forgets to put her scarf on and goes for a walk with her head uncovered. A pedestrian passing by on the other side of the street sees her bright red hair and runs into a lamppost. The shopping bag he was carrying spills its contents in the street: vegetables, a bottle of milk, and a packet of soft butter. A man riding by on his bicycle slips in the patch of butter and falls over, cracking his head open on the stones. And this is where the Tragedy of King Vallonius comes in. The man on the bicycle was in fact the beloved monarch who liked to disguise himself as a commoner to see how his subjects were faring. Now that the king is dead, the country is plunged into a war with its neighboring nation. Rosella, in terror, shaves her head and never leaves her home again.
When the play is done, the troupe lines up and bows for applause. They look bewildered when Vivi doesn’t clap her hands.
“What did we do wrong?” says the Pedestrian.
“Nothing,” says Vivi. “I just don’t like it. Maybe the setting is wrong.”
“How about winter?” says Rosella, pulling off her skin-coloured rubber cap, letting her luxurious hair spill out.
Vivi wrinkles her nose. “I don’t like winter. And I don’t like Rosella. Also this would never happen in real life.”
“It would,” says the dead king from the floor, twirling his thick grey moustache. “This is based on real events. King Vallonius I died just this way, and that is how the kingdom of Pavalona fell to the Fedrans. We only enact stories that are true.”
“Absolutely, one hundred percent true,” Rosella agrees.
“There was never a king named Vallonius,” says Vivi.
“Of course there was,” replies the Pedestrian. “But not in your world.”
Apprentice hates playing Vivi, the sniveling girl from a boring dayworld that “encounters” strangeness and through that strangeness tells the story of a “documentary theatre troupe.” There are too many meta levels, too much self-referencing. Why would you set up a play about setting up a play? And the casting is always the same. Apprentice never gets to play the actor who does Rosella, or King Vallonius, or the Pedestrian; she has to be boring old Vivi, and Vivi’s grey tedium is sinking into her bones.
“You have to feel her to play her,” says Director, the third time she interrupts the play to correct Vivi. “Let her emotions bleed into yours.”
“She doesn’t have any,” Apprentice replies. “She’s a protagonist. She’s an empty vessel waiting to be filled by the audience.”
“That,” Director replies, “is what you read in some book. Now go back to your seat, be Vivi, watch the play. Do whatever Vivi would do.”
“She’d do exactly what I’m doing,” says Apprentice. “She’d be yawning and not liking it.”
“But only in the beginning,” says Director, “and you know it. She’ll become dazzled and intrigued by the strangeness of it all.”
“All right, all right. But I want to play someone else after this.”
“We’ll see,” says Director, and steps onto the stage, slipping back into the actor who plays Rosella.
Apprentice returns to her seat and to Vivi. It’s such a tedious, washed-out mind.
Vivi claps, mesmerized. The actors take her up onto the stage and put a red wig on her, almost as red as the one the other actress wears.
“You are now Rosella,” the old Rosella intones, “and this is what happened inside the Pedestrian’s head.”
The Pedestrian steps forward and touches Vivi’s—no, Rosella’s—breast. Rosella is less experienced than Vivi; Vivi frowns at her terror of this other man grasping at her body, but she must play along. Rosella’s fear and disgust bleeds into her, mingling with the unbearable excitement that comes from weeks of no sex, no touching. Vivi wants it. Rosella does not. Rosella screams, a short, high-pitched yelp as the Pedestrian starts tearing at her clothes. It is what he must do, as the Pedestrian, and Rosella must squeal and weep and eventually succumb to the desire his rough hands awaken in her, because deep down every woman hides a dream of being ravished by strange men.
King Vallonius, still dead in a pool of his own blood and brains, leers from the cobblestones. They chant in unison as Rosella passes through the stages of fear, terror, despair, surrender, and ecstasy. She rises up, naked and bleeding, a complete woman. The others clap their hands and cheer.
Vivi takes her wig off and thanks the Pedestrian, who is now just the actor shyly hunched over his own naked form.
“Now that was a good play,” says Vivi. “Well done! I feel refreshed.” She puts her pajamas back on.
“Excellent,” says the King, and sits up. “Let us have lunch and then push our stage out of Pavalona and to another place.”
“The Arctic?” asks the Pedestrian hopefully.
“I was rather hoping the Cyclades,” says Rosella.
“You think too small.” The King rips off his moustache. “But do let’s have lunch first.”
Everyone laughs. The Pedestrian claps his hands, and they all fall silent. As one, they turn outward, take each others’ hands, and make a slow bow. The trees respond with a compact silence.
“You have been watching Vivi and the Documentary Theatre Troupe!” Rosella bellows at the trees. “I present to you, in order of appearance: Apprentice, as Vivi!”
Apprentice takes a step forward and curtseys, pinching her pajama legs as if they were a skirt.
“Journeyman, as The Mysterious Guide and the Pedestrian!”
Journeyman—who, unlike the actor in the play, is unbothered by his nudity—makes an elegant court bow.
“The Eccentric Owner and the King, played by our beloved Nestor!”
Nestor hops forward, grace belying his aged face.
“And finally,” Rosella steps forward, “Nameless Actress and Rosella, played by myself. I am Director, and I hope you have enjoyed our show this evening, whoever you are and wherever you may be.”
They bow again. The trees whisper.
Apprentice goes to bed with a stomachache. Vivi’s character clings to her like grime. All Vivi wants is another rough fuck from that Pedestrian. She’s such a nasty cluster of control fantasies and boredom.
“Is anyone even watching?” Apprentice asks as they lie in their sleeping bags.
“Of course,” says Nestor. He scratches his upper lip with a dry noise. The King’s moustache gives him a rash.
“How do you know that?”
“Oh, I hear them sometimes, rustling their confectionery bags.”
Apprentice peers out into the darkness, the trees, the pinprick stars between their branches.
The next day, they are at the bottom of the sea. Director has decided on a straightforward play: The Prince and the Abyssal Queen. Journeyman is the Prince of Yr, and Director the Queen of the Abyssal Plain; Apprentice is The Sly Fish and Nestor the God of the Abyss.
The play begins as the fish has lured the fair Prince into an enchanted boat, which dives down into the ocean depths, the Sly Fish gleefully pulling it along on a string. The Prince is distraught, of course: He’s been abducted, he’s afraid of water and the dark. Three little anglerfish keep pace with the boat, lighting it with their lanterns. One of the smaller anglerfish tries to attach itself to the biggest one. It must be mating season.
The Prince reaches the bottom, treads onto the Abyssal Plain, and becomes the Queen’s consort. He’s snared by her spells and stays there for a year before the spell is broken. He begs the Sly Fish to help him flee to the surface; the fish agrees, in exchange for the Prince’s promise of the first living thing he loves. In a very striking scene, the Queen appeals to the God of the Abyss for aid, and he grants her the Harp of the Deep. The Queen sits on her throne, playing her harp to lure the Prince back.
Of course, there are twists. Quickly rising to the surface, the Prince’s ears are so damaged by the pressure changes that he is rendered deaf. He returns to the kingdom of Yr, where he enters into an arranged and unhappy marriage, but has a son he loves dearly. Over the years, he forgets about his promise to the Sly Fish, and one day brings his family to the beach. When the boy takes his first steps into the ocean, the Sly Fish pulls him under. But as soon as the boy’s head comes under the surface, the Harp of the Deep claims him; it’s in his blood to return to the Abyssal Plain. Thus the Sly Fish loses as it always must, and the Queen receives something but not what she asked for, and the Prince of Yr pays for his idiocy in blood.
They make camp under the boat, which is much more roomy when turned upside down. Two of the anglerfish have disappeared off to somewhere, leaving the third one to float alone under the ceiling. Director and Journeyman embrace in the fore, both moved to tears by the story’s unbearably sad conclusion. Nestor is sound asleep at the aft, chin reduced to a rashy mess from the ocean god’s beard. Apprentice lies in the middle, still in her fish costume, listlessly flopping her ventral fins. The Sly Fish’s dreams of love, just a little love, insist on crowding her thoughts. It’s the loneliest creature in the ocean. She eventually falls asleep, lulled by the sound of blood rushing in her ears and the rhythmic rasp of the anglerfish’s lantern scraping the hull.
Apprentice wakes with flailing arms. Her hand hits something soft, and Nestor mutters irritably in his sleep. Disturbed by the motion, silt tickles her arms. It’s crept up on her while she slept. In the pale light of the anglerfish’s lantern, everyone else seems to be asleep. Apprentice is wide awake. She gently catches the anglerfish in her hand and crawls out from under the upended boat.
The water outside is crushingly cold, pressing down with the weight of the world. Outside of the tiny sphere of light the weakly struggling anglerfish gives off, darkness is absolute. Apprentice slowly steps out onto the abyssal plain, back bent under kilometers of sea. She can just about see her own feet shuffling through the silt, sometimes disturbing the odd object: a Roman coin, a blackened silver fork. Blind and transparent fish appear in the gloom. Some of them follow, the wanderers between the depths, those who still have eyes; they flash arcane patterns at her in fluorescent blue and green. In the utter silence, Apprentice thinks she hears the sound of flutes far away, a discordant piping.
Eventually something winks in the distance, like a star, or another swinging lantern. Apprentice strides toward it.
It’s a bathyscaphe, round like a fruit, with a porthole out of which spills a warm yellow light. The winking light comes from a small headlight at the top. There’s a face in the porthole that doesn’t belong to anyone in the company. It’s a stranger. A woman. She motions for Apprentice to walk around to the other side of the bathyscaphe, to where a little airlock protrudes from the sphere. Apprentice turns the wheel, stops inside, closes the door and watches the water drain out. The inner door opens, releasing a puff of warm air.
The woman is in her fifties. She’s dressed in dungarees and a knitted sweater, one of those sweaters with a pattern that stops at the waist, because the rest is for tucking inside the dungarees. She’s barefoot. Apprentice wonders if the pattern belongs to a particular family.
“Hello,” says the woman and peers at Apprentice. Her eyes are a little glassy and unfocused.
“Hello,” says Apprentice.
They look at each other in silence.
“You’re dressed like a fish,” the woman remarks.
“I play the Sly Fish.” Apprentice flaps a ventral fin.
The woman nods slowly. “All right. I’m Ada.” She extends a hand.
Apprentice shakes it. “Apprentice. Are you the audience?”
“I see. And what are you doing here? It’s the bottom of the ocean.” Ada tilts her head. “I expect you’re a hallucination. I must be suffocating already.”
“You’re very pink,” says Apprentice. “People who suffocate are blue. Anyway I’m here with the troupe. Are you the audience?”
“Yes, the troupe! We’re here!”
Ada shakes her head. “What do you do exactly?”
“We . . .” Apprentice falters. “It’s we who play the stories.”
“Never heard of you.”
“So you’re not here to watch?”
“I wasn’t supposed to be here in the first place.” She extends a hand to caress a cluster of tubes running down the inside of the wall. “This is the Laika. I thought it was a fitting name. Small, round, and lonely, you know?” Ada chuckles to herself. “Anyway, I was taking her for a test drive. Checking the systems and such. We were going into the Mariana Trench, eventually. Not the Challenger Deep, mind. Not yet. Anyway, I knew there was a risk. Should have known better than to christen her Laika. I’m Laika, really.”
“Uh,” says Apprentice. “Who’s Laika?”
“She was a dog that . . . oh never mind. The point is, the cable snapped and so did the oxygen line.” Ada pauses. “Actually I’m not sure. I think maybe something chewed on it. It’s gone, anyway. I’m done for.”
“Oh,” says Apprentice absently. She swallows at the knot that’s suddenly formed in her throat.
“I’m just waiting for the oxygen to run out.” Ada sighs. “Didn’t expect to meet anyone down here, though. Nothing like you. So I’m probably hallucinating already. I should be grateful, I suppose.”
Wet warmth spills down Apprentice’s face.
“Oh, come on,” says Ada. “You don’t have to feel sorry for me.”
Apprentice wipes her face with her fin, her stupid fish fin. “I . . .” The word drowns in a sob. She tries again. “I thought you were here to watch.” She pulls snot back into her nose. “I keep telling Nestor, what if there’s no one who’s watching, and he says of course they are, but I was always unsure, and now that you were here I thought . . . but you’re not. You’re just here to die.”
Ada’s expression goes from surprise to faint disgust to a sad smile. She pats Apprentice on the shoulder.
“You know, I’d love to watch a play.”
Apprentice returns to the boat, waking the rest of the troupe up with her shouts: “We have an audience! We have an audience! A real one!”
“We always have an audience,” mumbles Nestor.
“Not like this. I promise.”
They walk the boat over to Ada’s bathyscaphe, and there’s Ada in the window, smiling and waving. Under the cover of the boat, Director slips into the Queen’s regalia, Nestor fastens his beard and Journeyman combs his long hair.
In variation number two of The Prince and the Abyssal Queen, the Prince regrets his return to the surface. Deafened from his journey upward, he can hear nothing but the whisper of the ocean, which fills him with longing. The daylight is too bright, the air too dry, the servants too clumsy. One moonlit night, he wades out into the sea where the Sly Fish comes to fetch him.
“Where is my present?” says the Sly Fish in the silent language spoken on the ocean floor. “You must keep your part of our agreement.”
“You will have it soon,” says the Prince.
Of course he has no present for the Fish; he has not yet fallen in love, but he is trying to buy time, so that the Fish will at least deliver him to the Abyssal Plain.
The moment his feet touch the silt, the Queen appears.
“I miss the sea,” says the Prince, “but I will not be your slave. I will stay here as your courtier.”
“Very well,” says the Queen. “I have treated you unfairly. As compensation, you may stay in my court for a year.”
As the Prince takes the Queen’s pale hand and looks into her transparent eyes, he finally realizes the truth. “I love you,” he says. “You need no spell but your own self.”
The Sly Fish collapses in horror. Of all the living things the Prince loved first, it had to be the Queen. And as the Queen created the Sly Fish out of her own flesh, it would be like promising the Fish to itself, which is impossible. The bargain is null and void, and the Fish once again thwarted. Apprentice lives out the Sly Fish’s misery in an exquisite dance.
Ada watches through her porthole the whole time. As the ensemble take their bows, she claps her hands soundlessly. She is beginning to look a little tired, but nods with a smile when Director mimes her an offer of another variation.
When the God of the Abyss has deus ex machinaed, and the Sly Fish’s devilish attempt at toppling the Queen has been averted, and the Queen and the Prince live happily ever after, Ada has slumped forward with her forehead against the glass. Her broken eyes stare blindly into the ocean gloom. The Company takes one last bow.
“We had a spectator,” says Apprentice.
“We always have spectators,” says Nestor. “But this time we had a spectator up close.”
“Can we do it again?” says Journeyman.
They perform all the varieties of the Abyssal Plain stories, including some where the Sly Fish also gets to live happily ever after, until they have no more and Journeyman is so suffused with the Prince’s feelings he cannot speak his lines and Director must hold him while he cries. By then most of the anglerfish have left.
“I think it’s time to move on,” states Director.
They bring the bathyscaphe, Apprentice tugging it along on a string. Ada is such a good and appreciative audience, and they have many more plays for her to enjoy. Transporting the bathyscape on land will be a problem for later.
© 2013 Karin Tidbeck.