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Shadow's Box
by Feech
Feech -- all rights reserved
 

I sit on the wall of the black box theatre, my legs clinging lightly to the rough paint. In come two young men, through the small door that leads to the stairs to the costume shop. I think, who are they, as they snatch a kiss by the door, and then realize that I know them from the days that I was a man. I used to be a dramaturg. Now I am a butterfly and a dramaturg. Disgusting.

I open and close my charcoal-and-yellow wings once, twice. Bahni looks up and smiles.

"Hey are ya, Shadow? Come on to Luce's class with us. Need an audience."

I motion my head for, "no." He frowns slightly but doesn't say anything. John has his turn. It's like I am a sport or something. I don't blame them. I wait. "Free, extra-strong super-sweet cherry gooey syrupy thirst quencher bought for twenty-five cents a two-gallon concentrated packet if you attend," says John.

He's laughing. I remember that I like John. Shifting to a downward position, I remove the pen strapped to my left leg and write, on a little pad affixed to the same leg, "Throw in a quart of Bahni's blood and I'll consider it."

"Very funny, guys," Bahni grumbles but he can't stay mad for long. John is laughing loudly-- it's easy for him. I stay on the wall. I am not who they want. They want Dominiq Leonen, not Shadow.

The boys leave and I watch them. It's amazing they can constantly walk shoulder-to-shoulder like that. You'd think they would fall over. I mean they're really glued. It surprised me, John's freshman year when they got together, to find that they truly have talent as individuals.

That was long before last semester, however, when I threw up in my office wastebasket and dragged myself into the hall for help. Long before I forgot who they were, who I was. I used to know everyone. Now I'm the Shadow. Is it my fault? I guess...

Another student enters and begins scoping out my half of the black box for possible seating arrangements. The upcoming show will use all of the other side of the theatre, since the crew needs access to the scene shop. She doesn't see me. I do nothing to attract her attention. The fewer who see me, the fewer who might touch me. That's why I stay up so high.

Charcoal black like the black box. Disappearing. Yellow spots and lines might as well be paint left over. The Papilio aristodemus ponceanus was figured extinct. Maybe it only disappeared. There's a difference between the two. I think... One is far sadder.

Melodie walks in. I want to huddle down. That's hard to do, for a Swallowtail with wings the size of university flags. Shit. She's coming over. She usually brings me lunch, but right now her hands are empty. That means she wants to talk.

"Melodie, go away," I write on my armpad.

"What's with you?"

The student measuring for seating arrangements looks up and notices that, while one individual just came into the room, I have been on the wall the whole time. She looks slightly embarrassed.

Melodie is still talking. "Come on, Dom. Don't give me that. I want to ask you what you want for lunch."

I soften. She sees it and makes her strike.

"And I want to talk to you."

I cringe. She looks soft, sad, but I know she won't give up on me. Heaven knows what it is she feels she's going to accomplish.

"Come on down, Dom, and let's talk."

No way.

"I won't go anywhere near you. I promise." It hurts her to say that. "I just want you where we can be at eye level."

I relent. Sticking carefully to the vertical surface, I step downward until I can let one foot, and then another, onto the shiny, many-times-painted-black spongy floor. I write, "Is this what you had in mind?"

"Come on. Out into the light. You never used to hang around in corners."

I don't even justify that with an answer.

Melodie sits down on the black floor and tries to look me straight in the eye. "I know you've been working on Kent's play, helping him, and that's good. I like it. The last draft he handed in to me he told me some of the things you'd said. I'd like it if you would do a production with us. You've still got it and you know it."

Since the attack of this cursed virus I've managed to avoid any dramaturgy outside of the required mainstage shows that pay my salary. Not that my position matters anymore. I'm waiting to become paint on the walls. What makes Melodie think I can remember? I never was a man. I'm not now. I'm beginning to think like Juliet, who doesn't know one end of a play from another. God, I want Melodie. I start climbing back up the wall.

"Dominiq! Shadow! You know I won't touch you! I don't know what you're so afraid of anyway. Get down here. Please."

The measuring student is gone. Just me and the Playwriting I teacher. Way too dangerous. I let go my hold on the wall, flapping up to the nets below the catwalk. I hang there until she leaves, remembering and forgetting.

Melodie walks out and I remember how long it seemed to take before anybody came to help me.

I lay on the hall floor outside my office and passed out. I woke in a puddle of my own clothes and tried to call out, but made no sound. It felt like forever but must have only been a few moments before Melodie stopped before me. I had not recognized the sound of her footsteps arriving; everything sounded and looked different. I recognized my friend and reached up for her.

"Dom? Is that you?" She reached down and did not cringe when the tiny claws on my feet gripped her arms. I don't remember much of what happened then, but I don't want to.

She found what I had been writing at the time when I got sick and didn't understand it. I'm not about to tell her. There are two creatures now. I wish she'd quit calling me Dominiq.

From hanging on the catwalk I move to the ledge below the sound booth and feel vibrations moving through the material of the theatre. Tom, in the sound booth, sees me and smiles a little. He's thinking about something he's creating.

I sense movement below and look down. Melodie is back. She's placing a dish and a something white on the floor near where we had our talk. She looks up and scans the room, but can't find me. My appetite perks up when she leaves and I pick my way down to the dish.

The white something is a piece of paper. I pick it up and read, "Dominiq/Shadow, You forgot to tell me what you wanted for lunch so I brought a selection. Please try to eat the cottage cheese-- the liquid at least. You are still human and you need your protein. I'm not sorry about the suggestion I made. Production meeting Thursday at 4pm, Room 217."

I patently avoid the cottage cheese. I have no idea why but I go to the production meeting.

Bahni and John are there, Juliet and Calico, Melodie and the director of so many of these student things, Jordan Milner. Calico turns to look at me when I enter Room 217 and I feel suddenly jealous of him.

A lot of people might think Calico is a person with Scabs, but he's the real McCoy. A leopard, black with spots barely showing. His blonde mistress next to him is intently trying to prepare herself for a productive meeting. She's got some kind of mental deficiency, but is an amazing actress. How can someone be diseased and exquisite at the same time?

Melodie begins the meeting with a rundown of the play we're to be working on; Kent is sick and can't be here. I wonder what he's got. Jordan starts in then and things get interesting. He's a fiery, big guy with red hair and he loves the theatre the way an automobile buff likes really big engines. It's only the university budget and the script he's working on that keep him slightly in check.

We decide to do Kent's play in several pieces, since he told Melodie that he felt it best to have some different voices in the show as a whole. Melodie and Jordan agreed and now Jordan puts out a call for pieces for a theme show.

Juliet volunteers for paint crew and a young man in the back whom I have never seen before immediately does the same. I would smile if I were a human. Fuck, I am a human. I wonder whether the Florida Swallowtail found the nectar of rejuvenation. I wonder if that's why it reappeared. I bet those scientists never expected to find it again. I wonder what kind of nectar it was.

"So we've got a small window for arranging these short pieces," Jordan is saying in his rather harsh voice. "Call your friends. Get your classmates in here. An early production meeting is no excuse for slacking off. Let's make it a great show, alright?"

We feel inspired and say yes, let's.

There's a young man talking in an aside to one of the costumers. I recall his face from the days when my eyes were a man's. I had forgotten that he had come down with Scabs before I got it. He's still changing daily, has been for months, and nobody can quite put a finger on what he's going to be. If anything, ever. I slip over to him and listen to the costumer.

"It's tricky, Gabe. But I'm not saying I can't do it. We'll play it by ear."

Gabe nods, haggard, way too haggard for his years. He's got gumption, that kid. He'll go on with one foot a hoof and one pink and normal. I swear he'd beat those boards if his costume fell off and he had to do it naked.

I never have been an actor. I remember that I've been naked since that day in the hall. Suddenly I'm angry. I go over to Jordan and wait in the group that's surrounding him. I ignore Melodie, who's trying to get my attention without making a big deal out of it.

"Jordan," I write when the director has a moment.

"Hi, Shadow. You're our dramaturg, 'ey?"

I nod and hear Melodie gasp. I think I hear her gasp, anyway. I look at Jordan Milner and write, "I have a piece for your show."

"Good! How's it fit the theme?"

"It's about suicide. Is that all right?"

"You're the dramaturg! Actually, yeah, that should be fine. But Melodie, Kent and I need to see it first. When can you bring a copy?"

"Tomorrow."

"Great. Who can perform it?"

"I will."

"Okay, people," Jordan booms out, "We've got one suicide piece so let's see what else we can find. Costumers need your measurements-- be sure to go downstairs and see them within the next two weeks. Juliet Kelly and Bethuel Reiner can't paint this set by themselves so let's see some volunteers! Oh, by the way, maybe a sex scene would be good. Dark, if possible. John, quit laughing. Okay. You all go ahead and have a good afternoon."

Out in the beige-tiled hall I feel strangely sick and conspicuous. Melodie run-walks up behind me and when I don't turn around at her voice, she reaches out and brushes one of my wings.

I turn on her like a vicious dog. Tears immediately spring to her eyes. I've never seen her cry. I take off flying and leave her there. Butterflies are very fragile. How much more fragile is a butterfly who used to be a man? I don't want to hear anything that that woman has to say. We are two entirely different species.

I carefully turn the knob on my office door and look in. My jacket is still hanging jauntily on the back of my captain's chair, the best piece of furniture I ever owned. Jaunty. Jaunty to graceful? How? This is a disease and I have died of it.

Then why am I still able to write? I do up the piece for Jordan and open a drawer in the desk. Under several layers of blank forms is the paper I confiscated from Melodie the day I changed. I don't want to read it. I take it out anyway and read the line, the only line, at the top: "I have lost myself. When I speak to you of this, I will be found--"

That was when the virus wrenched my gut and I turned and vomited into my wastebasket. Now I feel perfectly healthy. How ironic. I put the paper back and go down to the black box.

The upcoming show swings into its last weeks of development. The usual chaos ensues when set must be put up for this show and set must be built for our show, Step Into the Light. I am in the black box for the current show, and it is quite wonderful. That new boy, Bethuel, is in it and he's not half bad. Could use some polish. The writing is very good; an author known nationwide. They might get him here for a workshop some time next year.

My soft charcoal wings fan the air for applause. Then I disappear into a fold behind an unused curtain and skip the opening-night reception. Later I write Bethuel a note mentioning that I thought he was good and give it quietly to his acting instructor the next time she comes through the black box.

Our show moves relentlessly into its last days of rehearsal. Costumes look great at the final parade, although Gabe's is in perpetual development. I will not be wearing one. Kent is back and seems fine-- must have just been a touch of flu. I have been practicing with one of the props department's pistols, the one of lightest weight. Melodie has tried once to talk to me, but there have been no more notes with my lunches. She seems somehow desperate, but I deflect her advances.

Two other faculty members are in the show, along with about sixteen students. It's going to be a dark night, but uplifting. If my piece ruins the show for the others, at least I will have tried acting once. I have no idea why I want to. I suppose it is the nature of the soul to have a desire for something, and my other desires are over.

Opening night, a Thursday, comes. Calico is prowling the backstage in a collar that he hates, but which looks great on him. Juliet is using him in Kent's play. The lights go down in the black theatre and the audience hushes for us.

Step Into the Light opens with a discussion of Scabs, almost a comedic one since Melodie made sure to cast the parts entirely as people wearing make-up to look like animals-- not actual victims.

It's tasteful, I suppose. The audience eats it up. I wonder if they really understand it. I know the cast does, for I explained it to them myself.

My piece is the next one after intermission.

A black box is just that, a black box. Any production you want to put on can be accommodated, because the entire theatre is one black cube, with flat doors leading here and there to resources the audience never sees. I come out from behind the black velvet slung over the small back door.

The light is on the tan platform downstage, and my audience can already see my dark brown gun on the boards. I cross the sky-blue arch that has been the focal point of the action so far and descend to the gun.

The lights separate into jittering twinkles in the sections of my eyes. I remember the way I felt when Melodie lifted me up from the hall tile. Papilio aristodemus ponceanus. I pick up the gun.

The sight of a butterfly holding a gun clumsily in one foreleg is comical. The audience laughs, but then pauses, as if feeling sorry for me, waiting to see what my character's next move will be.

I lift the gun to my head. Of course the audience tenses, waiting for a cap-gun explosion. I lay the gun down and huddle, legs folded under my black torso, wings upright and pressed together. I wait.

Three minutes pass. By now a whisper has begun in the audience. Not a cough, a whisper. I pick up my gun. Utter and absolute silence. The gun is to my head.

I wait. The audience is bracing its ears. The lights come down. We all sit in blackness. Breaths are held, waiting for the inevitable theatre effect of the cap-gun.

In my private darkness, I lay the gun down and ascend to the ledge below the sound booth. My wings stir the air just above the members of our audience, and they begin to realize that no bang is going to assail their ears. It is at this point that the lighting operators bring up the spot on Bethuel, wearing dingy jeans and ready to do his part. The gun is gone. I know one of the freshmen removed it for me, the blackness deaf to his stockinged feet.

We both get applause. Bethuel and myself. When it sees him on stage the audience breaks into clapping for my piece and for his appearance. I have not destroyed Kent's play.

I hang from my familiar ledge. Hatred. Hatred for these legs that cling to this wall and for these fragile wings. Step Into the Light continues on and everyone is doing a fine job. I'm hanging myself from the edge of my world while up-and-coming actors deliver lines that will shape their entire college careers.

When the lights come up I find them uncomfortably bright. I slink off into a dusty curtain, hung and not cleaned since last year, and try to avoid the reception.

"Where's the Shadow?" I hear a now-familiar voice and realize that Bethuel, Juliet and Calico have come looking for me. I move so that the heavy curtain sways just the slightest bit.

Instantly there is a black leopard powering his way up the curtain with his claws, and I have to take off to avoid being run into. Bethuel calls me down.

I land on a wall and shake my head, "no."

"Come on. Shadow. You were great. Everyone's talking about you. Kent keeps talking up your skills. Are you coming down or not?"

I start slightly. No one has ever spoken to me like that, not since my illness. I descend to the floor.

"That's better." Beth comes over and pats my head. All of a sudden a rush of something nearly suffocates me. Juliet takes Bethuel's hand and saves me, and I begin wondering what is swirling in the air about me. Nothing, I tell myself. Nothing.

Melodie is standing behind us. She came in through the other door and I know she saw Bethuel's hand touching my face. I nod to him and he takes it to mean, "I'll be with you at the reception when I'm done here." He smiles and says, "All right, we'll see you out there."

It's Shadow and the Playwriting I instructor, alone once more.

She walks up to me. My little claws are glued to the floor.

"Shadow. Why did you let him touch you?"

I make no move for my pen and pad.

"It's not him, is it. It's you and it's me. Come on, Shadow. Dominiq. Why must you be so difficult?"

I stare at her. If I unrolled my proboscis now, I would be touching Melodie.

"Dom, are you so fragile? Why is it me? What's wrong with you and me? Dom, are you listening to me?"

Melodie has beautiful chestnut hair. I know my compound eyes are blank as I gaze at her. So close-- I could have sworn I was not a man-- would never feel like one again--

"Shadow, come out with me. Join the reception. Come to the party. Jordan and I are having dinner afterwards. Come with us."

I feel a wave of delicious anger. I begin wondering if I could survive the chill air outside.

"Dom? Are you listening to me?"

Oh, yes, Melodie, I am listening to you. What is so wrong with me? How can someone as healthy as Melodie be so exquisite?

Vulnerable in the wild, difficult to keep in captivity, the Florida Swallowtail is one of the most endangered butterflies on the planet.

"Dom, stop this. Please. Come with Jordan and me."

The Florida Swallowtail is one of the most endangered butterflies on the planet.

One of the most endangered... butterflies....

I begin to unroll my proboscis.

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