You are watching a secret performance in response to the “Song to the Moon” (“Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém”) in Rusalka, the famous 1901 Czech opera by Antonín Dvořák and Jaroslav Kvapil. “In response” is how the playbill puts it; you’re not sure what that means. You are here because you found a tattered copy of the playbill in your ex-girlfriend’s bedroom, after the end, after the big fight with the broken cups, after she found out the things she was never supposed to find out and left you alone with nothing but shards under your feet. (The playbill promised a secret theatre, an underground masterpiece, wonders never before performed on stage, the usual.) She won’t return your calls but you think maybe she knows someone involved in the production or perhaps she has a part in the play. She dreamed of the stage, you know that. She always said she found it easier to speak lines that were already written.
It wasn’t easy, but you have found the secret theatre. The show is called “Song to the Sun”.
The curtain rises without fanfare. You are not sure if there was a curtain before, or whether it was simply too dark to see. The theatre is still dark, but now a faint dawn is spreading over the lake, accompanied by the susurrus of the other men in the audience. They’re all men, as far as you can tell. Even in the gloom you can tell from their stances, their smells. The audience seems to stretch into the dark without end, and as if to suit, the stage is too vast. RUSALKA is half hidden by mist, standing in the water. You cannot see her clearly. You are not sure how the stage contains a lake.
Unmake my love, O sun, dry out my hair.
Her voice is murky with sediment, coating the inside of your throat. (You have been reading the story of the original opera as printed on the back of the playbill, which is wrinkled from long evenings in your hands while you tracked down the secret theatre. You know it well now, every crease, every faded printing error. It is still clutched in your hands.) There are hooves in the distance. A clip-clop noise made by unseen stagehands in suspected wings. You know the story. A PRINCE will be here soon.
Once I bargained with the moon
for a prince to my lake, hunting a white doe,
in trade for my tongue, my closed lips.
The moon didn’t say that love is brief
and grief is long and wet like my hair in the lake.
RUSALKA’s head is bowed. Curly, dark hair covers her face, damp and gleaming. You wonder if it’s her or some other woman in the role, but you can’t tell without seeing her face. The low-budget mist is dispersing. You and the grumbling audience are unimpressed. It’s probably done with dry ice.
(The opera, according to the back of your playbill, is about a water-spirit named Rusalka who bargains not with the moon but with the Ježibaba, the forest witch, for a potion to make her human at the price of losing her voice. She wants to be human for the prince, of course, even if it means she can never speak again. But then at their wedding, the prince is easily dazzled by another woman, a princess who can speak, and he spurns Rusalka. He says that she is cold to the touch, like the icy waters of her lake. The prince is kind of a dick. Rusalka flees.)
He loved me mute but I would not dry out.
He didn’t stop me from diving back in.
A WHITE DOE runs across the stage. RUSALKA does not move. Her voice has lowered, become rough. You wonder if she has deviated from script. The water laps at her thighs. You can see the ripples, which have a disquieting weight as if the lake is deeper than it could be.
–Then what is she standing on? asks a wag in the row behind you, who is shushed angrily. You laughed at that, though, the sound lost in the cicada buzz of the audience.
The sound of hooves is louder still.
(You know that either the opera will end badly or the producers ran out of room for a happy ending on the back of the playbill. This is the ending you’ve read: the spurned Rusalka flees to her lake; the Ježibaba declares that the prince must die to free them both from damnation; Rusalka refuses at first but eventually the prince comes crawling back, as princes do, and she kills him with a kiss. The last line is all sacrifice is futile. You can’t remember if anybody is saved from damnation in the end.)
Princes come to my lakeside hunting white does, then swim to my toothless smile with swords raised and does forgotten. I bury their bones deep in my silt and smile only when no one is looking.
(It is morning. Somewhere in the gantries above, stagehands angle a spotlight.)
RUSALKA looks up. When she moves there are discontinuities that you cannot explain or understand.
–Jump cuts, says the wag, but others scoff because this is a live performance. You can smell the water like salt’s bitter cousin. You still cannot see her face clearly through her wet hair, just glimpses when she speaks. It could still be her. It could be someone else. You can’t remember why you came here in the first place.
The playbill is gone. Your hands are fumbling at the buckle, at the sheath.
Unmake my love, O sun, dry out my hair.
There are words I’d speak aloud.
I’ll walk up the trail, and the next prince I see
on a white doe’s tail, I’ll show him my teeth, I’ll tell him the words I’ve bottled deep.
And you and the other princes are already hip deep in the water, laughing, swords raised and does forgotten.
Vajra Chandrasekera is from Colombo, Sri Lanka. His short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed and Shimmer, among others. You can follow him on Twitter or find more stories at vajra.me.
Illustration by Akira Lee. Akira is a Universiti Malaya student by day, geek and manga enthusiast by night. Drawing and writing by the moonlight. Accepting commissions at motesandshadows AT gmail.com