Horror & Dark Fantasy

Press Start to Play

Advertisement

Fiction

The Opera Singer

The cold had blown in early on Sunday morning, too early for the fall. People shivered in their purple-and-black sweatshirts; so did Circe. She had taken to pushing her wheelchair, as a form of unofficial rehabilitation. She had managed to get it to the music school’s practice buildings this time.

“You can’t practice here,” the security guard said, after Circe’s wheelchair had gotten stuck in the door. “You’re not a student.”

Circe first stood up and got the chair out of the door jam. She then placed her fists on her hips and faced the woman in a pressed khaki uniform. Time had weathered Circe’s dark skin, so that she had permanent circles under her eyes and creased wrinkles streaking her face.

“I’m an employee here,” she said, indicating the ID around her neck. “I was a professor. In vocal training.”

“Are you on the staff now?”

“I’m retired,” Circe said. “Had a stroke couple of years back.”

“How sad,” the security guard said. “But if you want to practice here, you need to get a sticker on your ID, like everyone else.”

“Come on.” Circe pointed at the empty rooms. “No one is practicing here now. I just wanted to test out my vocal chords. The doctors say I need intellectual stimulation.”

The guard repeated herself and made it a point to help out Circe with her wheelchair. She grabbed the older woman’s arm.

Circe finally sat down, biting her lip. Visions of pigs and flashing, sting-angry red swirled around in her head, and her fingers crackled with energy.

“Could you wheel me to the bus stop?” she asked. “It’s such a long distance from here.”

• • • •

In the old days, sting-angry would turn a foolish mortal into a pig. The lady had flicked her fingers several times, so the colors would fly out and drown men while they were eating, until their skin sagged and hung out to dry off round, stupid faces.

Then rocks crashed onto barren earth and exploded in various shades of orange, indigo and yellow. Sting-angry red concentrated in pink flesh, writhing against wilted bones and helpless eyes. Power trapped within a stupid form.

Wait, vengeance. Wait. Colors released soon.

• • • •

Much later, Circe slipped into the auditorium office, and met with the graduate students there. They remembered her and gave her a sticker for her ID. It was a small, green sticker with the school year listed on it.

“You should practice on Fridays,” her old student Sylvie said. “That’s when the nice security guard Toby comes. He loves hearing people perform. All the newbie guards act more stuckup.”

“Must be part of their training,” Circe joked.

“Oh, yeah. They’re mainly night students who think they can get a degree by doing less work.” Sylvie scowled. “Usually a bunch of ghetto dudes who are compensating for something.”

“I took night classes,” Circe said. “When I first got married. That was the only way that I could get my degree, having to work another job.”

Sylvie immediately backtracked and apologized, but there was nothing to forgive. She had innocent eyes, despite her encounters with harsh reality and having to battle extreme stage fright. Circe had mentored Sylvie for two years.

She straightened up in her wheelchair. Her posture had always been good, even for a singer. She had never had intense back pains, not like her friends who spent their days sitting in front of computers.

“Do you think I could try out my voice on you?” she asked. “It’s been too long and I don’t want to go all the way back to the practice room.”

“Of course.” Sylvie stood back a few paces, to give her old teacher room.

Circe drew in a deep breath. She made sure that her diaphragm expanded and contracted; at least the stroke hadn’t affected that part of her body. Her throat throbbed with anticipation. She heard the accompaniment in her head, a gentle-but-fast piano tune:

 

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion,

shout, O daughter of Jerusalem,

behold, thy King cometh unto thee.

 

She felt the years peel off her as if they were bits of old skin, the deeper that she dug into the tune. Her gray hair seemed to curl at the ends, as if she had just gotten a permanent. Circe hadn’t gone to a stylist since her stroke and kept her hair at a short, curly bob.

 

He is the righteous Saviour,

and He shall speak peace unto the heathen.

 

Sylvie watched as Circe managed to stand, so that she could give her lungs more air, the much-needed air that they deserved for doing a good job. Her voice sounded powerful against the still, stale air in the office, defiance against Grandmother Time and what lay beyond wrinkles and wheelchairs.

“Rejoice, rejoice,” she trilled, letting the notes sail up and down. “Rejoice, greatly.”

As she dived into the repeated phrases, about the King coming to Jerusalem, the linoleum floor seemed to harden into polished wood and the plain white walls fluttered into curtains. Circe was onstage, dressed in a wine-red dress and belting against an orchestra. There was one year when they had done an experimental song cycle based on a novel about ancient Greece and she had volunteered her services when the tenor had fallen ill.

 

Splatter splash, exile in Rome, wailing purple in mourning, the black in the water —

 

Circe stopped. She took a moment, to let her vision return to normal, and then sat back in her wheelchair. There was a heavy thud from that, as if she weighed five hundred pounds.

“I don’t know how you do it,” Sylvie gushed, after a few moments of silence. “How do you do it so effortlessly, remembering to have fun and all?”

“If I didn’t sing, I would die,” Circe responded, breathing in hard. “Making an effort is much less dire than testing my body, so I have to belt out when I can.”

She coughed a bit. Sylvie looked startled and then concerned.

“Are you okay, ma’am? Do you need help?”

“No,” Circe wheezed. She fumbled and found her inhaler. “Bad lungs, from years of smoking.”

“You smoked?” Sylvie sounded horrified. “But you’re a singer!”

“Tell me about it,” Circe wheezed, after she gave herself several puffs. “At the time, my voice wasn’t giving out, so I thought I’d be fine. It was a hard habit to kick, but I had to. I got pregnant.”

“That’s not what I meant. Your voice doesn’t sound strained,” Sylvie said. “I’ve heard smokers and usually, they’re fighting to breathe or sound scratchy. You don’t sound like that at all. You sound perfect.”

Circe gave a crooked smile. She heard the good intentions behind Sylvie’s words and her fingers remained still.

“I guess I was lucky.”

• • • •

Evening faded into a rainbow of pain, of might. Mourning blue, to celebrate the return of a lady.

A certain apartment with yellow walls, peeling paint, and chipped glass. Plants dried into withering husks. Work uniforms rotted into torn threads.

A woman with a husky voice screamed. Her screams became higher-pitched as a beer bottle fell to the ground.

The neighbors heard the crash and ran to the door. Crashes and broken screams echoed against the walls, until the super came with a key. A beeping cellphone, the promise of sirens.

The open door revealed broken glass, spilled beer. A pig squealed within a pile of t-shirt and pajamas, tottering. Its flesh shriveled at one of the neighbors’ touch.

• • • •

Sunday morning. Day of strolling to the park, drinking coffee and eating a slice of whole-wheat toast at a café. The doctors had said that caffeine helped with the aftereffects of stroke, so she made it a point to drink a cup a day.

Circe licked her fingers and turned a page of the newspaper, trying not to notice where she scorched the pages. The local opera company was having financial troubles, plagued by years of debt, a money trap of a theater that housed various pigeons and rats, and budget cuts from the city. Not to mention that sleazy investor who had embezzled funds meant to pay for the new makeup and wardrobe.

 

Buzz buzz, chalky yellow of betrayal, the timbre of sting-angry red against a black backdrop —

 

She closed her eyes. Circe had performed in that opera for about ten years, on and off, putting on makeup and belting out various solos and choirs. Several of her friends in the university orchestra played for the operas well, usually balancing sheet music and practice with crying babies and long commutes.

What’s happening to us? She asked herself. Why are we all getting old, losing our jobs, and having encounters with the Grim Reaper?

The opera didn’t deserve this crap. Everyone who belonged to it worked their butts off to make the shows work and to keep production on time. Now, new people were going to suffer the loss of potential careers.

She remembered one of the singers, an exchange student from Spain. Hector had been heartbroken because his girlfriend back home had attracted another boy’s attention and, to put it in layman’s terms, committed a form of adultery. It was a form of adultery because she and Hector hadn’t married, so she had committed no legal wrong. But in terms of moral wrongs, it had torn him. Circe had introduced Hector to REM in hopes of comforting him. The singer had then asked her out to dinner several weeks later.

That had been a strange year. One of her friends called it “blossoming into awesome.” Circe had been a gawky, myopic teenager with a slight belly, but that year, suddenly, guys looked at her and saw something prettier within it. Except she hadn’t felt prettier on the inside:

 

Go and catch a falling star, get with (misbehaving!) child a mandrake root, tell me where all past years are (in your pocket, milady), or who cleft the devil’s foot —

 

Circe started. The paper turned black beneath her fingertips. She took a deep breath and wiped her hands with a napkin.

That singer, well, she ought to look him up. It had been too long. From what she remembered, he had had a long career in Canada and then toured Europe before settling down with another local girl that had studied law. Why hadn’t she followed up with him?

The meteor. Crash, choke, swirl —

She took another rattling breath. No one could forget the meteor. She certainly hadn’t.

Circe finished her coffee. She left her usual tip for the waitress, who smiled at her and unfolded her wheelchair. Circe settled in, lost in memory.

• • • •

Rock shattering ocean, making frothy white splash, muddying blue and green into a great angry stew.

Old days meant visitors, choices, power. Old days gone with one crash, stars passing uncertainly.

• • • •

That night, they had all performed a children’s version of Romeo and Juliet, the opera. After the performance, the cast and choir had gone out for drinks, in the local city. They had stayed up at that bar with the mirrors on every wall and the harpoons for decoration. Hector had tried to pull one of the harpoons off the wall and chase everyone around with it; Circe had laughed, since the harpoon was superglued to the wall, a glass of cucumber and gin in her hands. She had sat on a wobbly barstool, rocking back and forth, cackling like a young hen.

No one had anticipated the chunk of rock crashing through the roof. They had heard the wood splintering, and the thud as something large and grey collided with Circe’s thigh. Her glass shattered against the floor as she fell and her fingers brushed the rock, hot to the touch.

Later, the paramedics said at worst, she had suffered a huge bruise, but no major injuries. Some newspapers took her photo and the morning papers had stories on “the blessing of God.”

Circe limped that week and had needed a cane. She kept singing, because singing helped deal with the pain and the tingling within her fingers. People marveled that she attended all her classes and kept performing. Hector had drifted away, his dark eyes always gazing at her swollen leg.

Later, she started researching astronomy and even visited an observatory up north. The scientists there had taught her how they measured asteroids, even helped her find one sharing her name: 34-Circe.

“We think it’s gotten smaller,” one of the scientists said. “Infrared will have to confirm it, but it looks like it suffered a minor impact and loss some of its mass.”

Circe turned and smiled at the scientist. The tingling in her fingers became pleasant now.

“Do you think it could’ve been the same asteroid that hit me in the thigh?”

“Highly improbable,” the scientist said. “The odds that an asteroid with your name from the main belt got minor fragmentation, and the odds of that little chunk of rock drifting for dozens of light years only to crash on Earth and into that particular bar, are highly improbable.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Circe had responded. “Math was never my best subject. And a rock one foot long is ‘little’?”

“We measure in meters and yes. Asteroids are usually measured in kilometers.”

Circe had accepted that, even though the aching in her thigh wouldn’t. That bruise had only faded in recent years. Sometimes, it changed colors, depending on her mood.

• • • •

Accept the rainbow, taste every color, power great, once meant for goddesses. Know your true form, the formless demands of life and eternity.

Stir herbs, stir angry, stir love. Brew potions, stroke others’ flesh, embrace in years lost.

• • • •

Back in the practice room on a Friday; Circe had spent her days strolling in the park, calling her daughter just to hear Melody’s voice. Melody lived in New York now, studying liberal arts, and she liked her independence. Circe knew that her daughter had cut off her long hair, settling for a curly crew cut.

Circe showed her ID to the security guard Toby, a smiling young man with beard stubble and dark skin like hers. He escorted her to one of the largest rooms, with a wall-sized mirror and a black piano. Toby brought her a music stand and asked if she wanted water. So different from the first security guard.

 

Pleasant persimmon orange. Light-green bobbing in a soft, gray wind . . .

 

Her fingers remained still as she prepared herself and started warming up. She was even able to press keys on the piano, to go into the simple chords. Her throat lent its power well to the occasion:

 

Thy hand, Belinda, darkness shades me,

On thy bosom let me rest,

 

Toby strolled around the corridors, listening to her and to the regular orchestra students — just like Ulysses, righteous mud-brown armor minty-green swirled together to fight unraveling pink — but Circe ignored him and the thoughts in her head:

 

More I would, but Death invades me;

Death is now a welcome guest.

 

Except Death wasn’t welcome in Circe’s home. She hadn’t welcomed it the day she and Melody had gotten into a nasty fight, the only night Melody had stayed up past midnight to work on a high school project due the next morning. Trouble is olive green rotting in orange autumn —

 

When I am laid, am laid in earth, may my wrongs create

No trouble, no trouble in, in thy breast.

 

Her fingers had twitched terribly, but by then, Circe knew what could happen and so, she held back and screamed, instead. Melody screamed at her to go to bed, and Circe did, holding in all the rage and frustration that Melody was acting stupid. When her fingers wanted to lash out with sting-angry, Circe used a mirror.

 

When I am laid, am laid in earth, may my wrongs create

No trouble, no trouble in, in thy breast.

 

The next evening, when Circe went out to lunch with a friend in the afternoon, the friend had noticed that her face was starting to freeze in odd places and her movements were becoming sluggish. By evening, Circe had ended up in the hospital, in Intensive Care.

 

Remember me, remember me, but ah!

Forget my fate.

 

Late at night, rubbing her eyes and yawning, Melody came into the room. She had thought her mother was asleep and sat beside her.

“I didn’t start earlier because you were talking about not wanting to live anymore, with no husband and a dead-end job as a professor with thankless students,” Melody had spoken to what she thought was a corpse. “How could I focus on myself if I was worried about you swallowing pills or slitting your wrists?”

 

Remember me, but ah!

Forget my fate.

 

As Circe recovered, Melody had started distancing herself, while helping her mother with household chores. She paid for her college application fees and relied on guidance counselors to choose good schools, far from Circe. It was as if she had built a fortress so that schoolwork mattered more than family, so that Melody could please Circe without either of them worrying about each other.

 

Remember me, remember me, but ah!

Forget my fate.

 

Circe looked at herself in the mirror; she had lost weight since her stroke and the kind dimples that always appeared when she thought of Melody. She was wearing dark pants, so that you couldn’t see the scar from where the asteroid had hit her.

Where did I go wrong? She asked herself. How could I get angry at her for getting angry about what I was saying? Why would I want to hurt my own daughter? I love her.

She continued singing, repeating the verses. Colors appeared in her head, wistful violet regret, gentle pale-orange, peach-pink longing.

Goddesses don’t love their children, another voice said in her head. They only protect them from death.

I’m not a goddess, Circe told the voice that she knew belonged to whatever controlled her fingers.

You are now. You could be, if you wanted. You could have men like Toby fawning over you all the time. You could have servants carry you from house to house.

And then what? I’d start destroying everyone that crossed me, until they fought back and destroyed me, and what would I do? Circe reasoned. She stopped singing to think. You came from an asteroid.

You can’t fight me forever. One day, I’ll take over. One day, they’ll writhe.

“Not on my watch,” Circe said aloud. She aimed her fingers at the mirror. This one was larger than the small one she had used that night she had gotten angry; it would certainly kill her.

You’re bluffing.

“And if I’m not?”

Silence.

“Thank you,” Circe said. “One day, maybe I’ll let you go to a stronger body. But do nothing with mine, okay?”

More silence.

She took a deep breath and resumed her practice. The lyrics echoed against the walls.

Enjoyed this story? Get the rest of this issue in convenient ebook format!

Priya Sridhar

Priya Sridhar

A 2016 MBA graduate and published author, Priya Sridhar has been writing fantasy and science fiction for fifteen years, and counting, as well as drawing a webcomic for five years. She believes that every story is a journey, and that a good tale allows the reader to escape to a new world. She also enjoys reading, biking, movie-watching, and classical music. One of Priya’s stories made the Top Ten Amazon Kindle Download list, and Alban Lake published her novella “Carousel”. Priya lives in Miami, Florida with her family and posts monthly at her blog A Faceless Author.