Estimated reading time — 12 minutes
“I just wanted to say, none of you have any idea what you’re talking about.”
“What’s that, lady?”
“I couldn’t help but overhear—”
“How hard did you try?”
“Don’t give her a hard time. She looks like she has a story.”
“I do. It’s not a story you’ll like to hear, though.”
“I’m just saying, you all talk like you know these big secrets about what goes on in this city, but you don’t know shit. There’s only one secret. Only one secret that matters, anyway.”
“Are you going to tell us what it is?”
“I am. Not because you deserve to know it, but because listening to you talk made me angry. This story is your punishment.”
“You hear that? We’re going to be punished.”
“I, for one, am petrified.”
“Should we beg for mercy?”
“Ignore them, Miss. I’m very interested in whatever you have to say.”
“It was a few months ago, just before Christmas. It happened because I was the last one leaving the theater. And because I had been Antigone…”
It was opening night. For the understudy, it was also closing night.
She would still have a part in the chorus, of course. But tomorrow Evangeline would come back and claim her rightful place as the lead and the understudy would go back to being, well, an understudy. Learn the lines, watch the lead, perform your own small role, and wait, that was the game. Still, the understudy thought, at least I got one night in the spotlight.
Not that they could afford decent lights. They couldn’t even afford a real stage, just an empty room with a performance space marked off. The house manager had added another row of seats in an act of delusional optimism (they could barely fill the ones they had) and now the chorus couldn’t move without elbowing each other. And the costumes didn’t really fit and there was no money to pay any of them and the heating in the old theater did not work anymore, leaving players and audience alike shivering even with as tightly packed in as they all were…
But people still showed up, and the show still went on, and even the understudy couldn’t help but smile a little when she saw the Xeroxed playbills: “Antigone,” with the director’s name right under it and Evangeline’s right under that and the understudy’s own name (in much smaller print) toward the bottom. It was a good show, in spite of everything. A classic.
The understudy was the last cast member to leave. Everyone else had gone out to celebrate, but she found she wasn’t in the mood. She carefully folded and hung the bits of her costume in the single communal dressing room so that Evangeline would have nothing to complain about when she came back from whatever “emergency” called her away on opening night. Glenda, the house manager, was waiting at the door and the understudy thought she might be annoyed at the holdup, but then the older woman smiled and whispered, “There’s a man here to see you.” As if were the most amazing thing in the world.
The understudy picked up her purse and headed for the back door, but Glenda added: “He says he’s a critic.” The understudy stopped. “He says he won’t leave until he meets you. I think he really liked the show…” There was a note of pleading, and beneath that a note of insistence. The understudy wavered for a moment and then turned back toward the front. She tried not to notice Glenda’s smug, pleased expression as she did.
As advertised, a man was waiting in the lobby. He wore a shabby suit of indeterminate color, and a brand new fedora hat. He was not a handsome man; in fact he was profoundly ugly. But when he saw her he grinned in a way that made him look, for a second at least, tremendously appealing. He fanned himself with his playbill and pantomimed a swoon. “Antigone,” he said, enjoying each syllable. The understudy told him her real name, but he waved it off. “Tonight, you’re Antigone. The finest Antigone I have ever seen. I first saw the play in 441, at the Dionysia in Athens, and you were a better Antigone tonight than I saw there, or anywhere since.”
She gave him a non-committal look. He smiled again. “Can I walk you out?” he said.
The correct answer, the safe answer, was no, because simply because a man claimed to be a theater critic (of no particular publication that he had mentioned, she noted) did not make it a good idea to wander off down Taylor Street with him in the middle of the night. And no was the sensible answer, because she had to rest after the premiere and because she felt a headache coming on. And she opened her mouth to say, “No, thank you,” but, somehow, it came out as, “Yes, that sounds lovely.”
The strange man took her by the arm. Outside it was cold and the sky was that distinct shade of black that it only gets in December in the city. The uneven rows of tall buildings with their dark windows pushed higher and higher over them. Lights flashed here and there. The critic began walking downhill and the understudy (for some reason) went with him. He was still talking about her performance. She blushed, but feigned modesty. “I’m only the understudy,” she said. “Our real lead will be back playing the part tomorrow.”
“No she won’t,” said the critic. “Evangeline will never play Antigone again, or any other part.” He said it with such conviction that the understudy was briefly speechless. She felt cold and afraid all of a sudden. Eager to change the subject, she said:
“You haven’t told me your name.”
“Pan,” the man said. He kicked a bottle into the gutter.
“Like the Greek god?”
“Not like him. I am him.”
They stopped walking; the street was deserted, though on the cross street below she saw the glare of headlights and bumper-to-bumper traffic. She gave him another sober look. “Where are your hooves?” she said.
“In my shoes.”
“And your horns are under your hat, I suppose. It’s not a very good line. Anyway, you told Glenda you were a critic; I thought Pan was a nature god?”
“The god of the fields, and of the summits, and the streams and the forest. The god of the shepherds, and the flocks, and the leaves and the grass. The god of the beasts and the spirits and the great far wild places where men are afraid to go but feel compelled to journey anyway. The god of the shadows under the boughs of the trees and the secret places in the furrows of the earth.”
The understudy had been about to laugh at him, but when he was done speaking she found she couldn’t.
“But,” he said, smiling again, “also the god of theatrical criticism. So you see, I am a critic. The first and the best.”
“God of theatrical criticism? I’ve never heard that. What sense does that make?”
“Because in those days plays were dedicated to the great god Dionysus, and I was his favorite companion, so who better to judge which playwrights were worthy and which were not? And because before the Athenians built their theaters the first actors gathered on the slopes of the green hillsides where I spent my days, and they wore the skins of goats, and they would drink and dance and sing in divine ecstasy and pour libations in my honor, and I liked that very much, and blessed their revels.”
He was standing very, very close to her now. The long shadows of the winter night had not improved his unhandsome features, but he had a certain quality (perhaps his voice, perhaps his expressive features, or perhaps just what they call je ne se qua) that made him compelling to watch and be near. He even cupped her face in his rough palm, and she did not object.
“But you don’t believe I really am the Great God Pan, do you, little Antigone?”
“No,” said the understudy.
“Then I’ll prove it to you.”
“Come with me.”
It was a stupid suggestion. Stupid, unsafe, illogical, insane. Anyone in their right mind would say no.
She said yes.
The man(?) took her by the hand and drew her away with him; not in the direction they’d been going but down the side street, and then down an alley. It was pitch black but he knew his way. In the dark it seemed to the understudy that his legs were twisted in some unearthly manner, making his gait long and wide. They encountered no one in the trash-strewn alley. The buildings they passed were just dark, blank shapes, black against black overhead. The understudy felt drunk and addled, somehow. Her mind could not focus on any one thing, and the world swam in front of her eyes, as if a film covered everything. It seemed they were moving very fast. When he finally stopped, she was out of breath. He pulled her close (his suit seemed to be made of some coarse hair, and it had a barnyard musk about it) and said, “We’re here.”
She looked around and gaped; she recognized this place. It was the grove. But that was clear on the other side of town, miles away? How could they get here on foot, and so quickly? The leaning trunks of those huge, primeval trees offered no answers. The man with the crooked legs led her down the crooked path as she wavered on her feet, dizzy and uncertain (crooked of mind, she thought). He took her to the place with the stage. In the spring there was a music festival here every year. In the middle of winter it should be empty, but now torches lit everything with blazing orange light. The man sat down and actually pulled her onto his lap. She did not object.
“How is my Antigone feeling now?” he said. Under the brim of his hat his eyes appeared very strange. The understudy groped for words and came up with:
“‘In just spring…when the world is mud…'” She was reciting something from memory, but she did not know what. She giggled, then, uncontrollably. Her head throbbed. She felt as is she’d drunk a great deal of wine.
“That’s good,” said the man. “Now we’re going to see a play. You showed me such sights on your little stage tonight that I thought I should return the favor. This play is called, ‘The Cyclops.'”
“I know that one!” the understudy blurted out. “By Euripides. It’s a satyr play.”
“Yes, and here are the satyrs.” He pointed to the stage with a gnarled finger and the understudy saw shapes converging there. They were men in costumes (at least, she thought they were costumes) of animal hide, with hooves that tromped the boards. They wore masks, but not masks like the understudy had ever seen; though simple painted wood, these masks had faces no human mind could conceive. The chorus (for that’s what the satyrs were) gathered at center stage and, at the strange man’s signal, they began to dance. Not just dance, but cavort, and leap, and even writhe, wretched and mad, heads wagging and eyes rolling. The understudy did not like the way that they moved; it was not natural. She particularly disliked the way that their legs bent. It hurt her eyes to look at them, but the strange man did not let her look away.
“‘It’s spring, when the world is puddle-wonderful, the little lame balloon man whistles far and wee …'” he whispered to her. They were not the lines of the play, but lines from something else. The understudy knew them but could not remember where they came from or why they seemed important just now. The strange man shifted under her, and she felt the coarse hair of his bent legs rub through the fabric of her jeans and heard the stamping of his hooves as he kicked his shoes away. Onstage, the chorus finished their dance and then the chorus leader stepped forward. The understudy knew the play’s the opening lines:
“Unnumbered are the toils I bear, no less now than when I was young and hale…”
And the chorus joined him: “Here we have no gods, no roll of drums, or drops of sparkling wine. Dear friend Dionysus, where are you while we do service to the one-eyed cyclops, slaves and wanderers we?”
When the understudy had seen “The Cyclops” before the satyrs had been funny, even when they complained, and the chorus leader had been old, fat Silenus, baldheaded and hapless. But these satyrs wept real tears and gnashed their (sharp) teeth and tore their hides with their twisted fingers, and the understudy did not like to look at them, or to hear them. Their voices were hollow and full of pain. Pain, and anger.
“This is how the play was performed in the old days, before the theaters, before the Athenians, before Euripides gave it a name and wrote it on his scrolls and gave the parts to mere humans in masks,” the man said, whispering in her ear. “But this is still not, yet, the greatest truth you will see. Watch.”
The play went on: Odysseus and his crew washed up on shore and met the satyrs, and gave them wine, and laughed as the satyrs got drunk and rowdy. The understudy would have thought the Greeks would not be as frightening as the satyrs, but their masks, though fully human, show faces line and creased with fret and grief, livid with anger and bitterness, or wan with utter despair. They were the faces of those who had suffered so much that they hated living. And though the understudy saw the strings that held the masks in place and the empty holes where the actor’s eyes peered out, it seemed, in the flickering torchlight, that the features the masks moved…
The satyrs were warning the Greeks that their master was coming, but Odysseus was not afraid. “For surely the ghosts of Troy will moan in their graves if we flee from a single man after standing with shields steady against the fifty sons of Priam,” he said. “If we die here we will die a noble death, or, if we live, we will maintain our great renown.”
And then there was a voice that made the understudy scream and cover her ears. Even with ears covered, she heard the words boom like thunder:
“What means this idleness, your Dionysian revelry? Here have we no Dionysus, nor roll of drums. One of you will soon be shedding tears of blood from the weight of my club; look up, not down.”
And now the trunks of the trees were shifting as if a huge wind were blowing them around, and now a great shape was stepping through, too huge for the whole of it to be seen in the light of the torches. The satyrs all scattered and the Greeks took up their spears, but most of them fell to their knees or clustered together, shaking and crying, as the cyclops loomed over them with its one huge eye and opened its great mouth to reveal rows of gore-spattered teeth. When it took a step the world shook and the understudy screamed again and shut her eyes and the universe was spinning and mad, and the Great God Pan caught her in his arms. When she opened her eyes, the stage was empty; the men and the monsters were gone.
Pan whispered vile words in a language she did not know but still understood:
“Don’t you like my play?”
He no longer seemed even remotely human, and even the twisted, goat-like legs and horns were gone. Now he was a dark, slithering, shapeless thing, twisting and reforming around her all the time. The understudy blinked through tears. “What are you?” she said.
“I am Pan; my name means ALL, for the Hellenites knew that I was no simple god of the fields. I am the heaviest rocks at the bottom of the earth and the tallest peaks at the edge of the sky. I am the deepest roots of the oldest trees that will never die and the beating hearts of the great beasts that swallow eons in their jaws. I am the long hour between day and night when nothing is real. I am frenzy and madness and death. I am a world that doesn’t care, that dashes your minds and bodies against the rocks and watches you break, and calls it good.
“And when they began to fear me they cut down my forests and plowed under my fields and cut my rocks into columns and roofs and statues. And when Thamus reached Pilodes he told them, ‘The Great God Pan is dead,’ but it was not true. You have paved me over and cut me down and tried to drown me in the poison from your machines, but I can never die. I have always been here. And now I will show you the future of your wretched race. Look.”
He pointed to the stage again. Pale, wretched figures, hairless, eyeless things shimmered into view, things that twitched and writhed, blubbery skin rolling across their bones as they danced. Pan whispered more:
“What you are seeing is a piece called the Dance of the Nephilormus. They reenact the great battle that will take place on this spot, ten thousand years from now, between the human race and the nephil, which for them is ten thousand years in their past. Your kind will suffer and crawl the face of the earth and curse their enemies in that war, and they will call out to me to save them, but I will not. I will only do what I always do: endure.”
“Take it away,” the understudy said, sobbing. “I don’t want to see the nephils.”
“The nephils?” Pan laughed, and it hurt her ears. “These are not the nephil that you see. These are the humans!”
And he laughed while she wept and the vile dancers flopped their shapeless limbs across the stage, worshipping Pan with their suffering. And she wondered, is this real, is this happening, or is this a dream? Did I leave with the others and drink too much and now lie, sweating and afraid, in the back of someone’s car? Or has my whole life up until now been a dream and this is finally the waking?
The dancing went on and on, and soon the whole world spun in a mad circle in front of her eyes, blurring into nothingness, and she was left with just the same words, repeating over and over again in her head:
“It’s spring and
far and wee…”
“Lady, what are you on? Where can I get some?”
“Go ahead and laugh at me if you want. It doesn’t matter.”
“Miss, are you all right? Do you need a doctor, or a place to stay tonight?”
“I’m not insane. And I’m not on any kind of drugs. What would I need them after what I’ve seen?”
“Well I think she’s full of it.”
“But I don’t understand; what even happened?”
“Pan liked my performance, so he tried to reward me. But the things that a god calls a reward are the things that humans might call a curse. He showed me the truth about the world.”
“And what’s that?”
“That time and place are illusions. That what we call reality isn’t any more real than a play on a stage. If you were smart enough you could see the seams in everyone’s costumes and the frayed edges of the scenery, like he does, and like I can.”
“So where’s Pan now, then?”
“Hey, don’t mess with her. I don’t like that look she has.”
“He’s in me.”
“He’s in all of us. His name is ‘Pan,’; it means ALL, because he’s everything. We’re just nsects pretending that we matter, until the day comes when he’ll…”
“Something like that. Anyway, that’s all I had to say. I’m leaving. You can all stay, and drink your beer, and tell your ghost stories.
“And pretend that it matters.”
Credit To – Tam Lin