In Theatrical Spirits, an impoverished man living in a troubled country takes on a new job as custodian of a haunted theater. As civil unrest becomes violent, can the elitist captain of the guard, a patron of the theater, be trusted?
About the Author
Kilmeny MacMichael lives in western Canada's Okanagan Valley, where she writes flash and short fiction. She has been published online with The Ilanot Review, Watershed Review, and Flash Fiction Magazine, as well as other publications.
Theatrical Spirits by Kilmeny MacMichael
In the year of unrest, Daniel Luis shared a small house with his mother, sister, pregnant wife, and daughter. He needed work.
“You will be the new janitor at the Municipal Theater,” his uncle said. “It pays little, but the work is easy. Clean up after every performance. Do your work and be invisible, and maybe in time, I can find you something better. Here is the key to the door. They say the theater is haunted, so wear your crucifix.”
“I don't believe in such things,” Daniel Luis said.
His uncle said, “A little care can go a long way.”
* * *
It was a lengthy bus ride to the theater, all the way to the old plaza in the heart of town. In the square, guards in bright pantaloons and short jackets carried antiquated rapiers and grimaced for tourists. A drunkard slept under the iron man on his horse in the center of the square. In front of the cathedral, cars bumped over the cobbles and dodged newspaper and bubblegum vendors.
The theater on the plaza had been built in a fin de siècle moment of civic aspiration. It was the oldest, and the only, live theater in town. Folklore held that there had been a performance every night since the opening and that a missed night would signal disaster.
Like the other buildings in town, the theater had aged badly, with pieces of plaster missing from the façade. Inside, the proprietors hid the peeling paint of the murals and the cobwebs in the corners by only partially lighting the electric chandeliers; dusty light bulbs sat loose in their sockets.
* * *
After a few weeks, Daniel developed a rhythm. He would arrive just as the last patrons spilled out on to the square and then work for three or four hours vacuuming and scrubbing. His pay came as weekly cash delivered by his uncle.
“Uncle likely keeps some of the money,” his sister said.
“What does it matter?” said his wife. “It’s more than we had before.”
Sometimes, the captain of the guard attended a performance. He would stride through the exiting crowd with one hand on the hilt of his comically long sword.
Every day, more political posters and graffiti appeared on the streets. In the plaza, the drunkard disappeared.
Daniel worked alone in the theatre. Occasionally, a door slammed in a breeze or rustling sounds came from the walls. He brought a cat to catch mice and lizards.
The police constructed a roadblock on Daniel’s route to work. They stopped his bus and asked each passenger for their papers, saying they were looking for bandits and drug dealers. After inspecting Daniel’s documents, they waved him through, but the roadblock remained, and after that, the police stopped his bus every day.
Daniel became more efficient at his work, and he began to explore the old theater. He discovered closets and abandoned dressing rooms where old costumes lay crumpled and mouldering on the floor.
In the early mornings, as Daniel left the theater for home, only the guards remained in the plaza, and he would nod or lift a hand in their direction. Two or three would wave in return.
* * *
As a measure to curb increased criminal and gang activity, the authorities announced a curfew from midnight to six a.m.
Daniel’s sister said, “Criminal activities my eye.” Against their mother’s wishes, Daniel’s sister distributed pamphlets and attended secret meetings. But Daniel refused to be drawn into political arguments.
Fewer tourists and fewer street vendors visited the plaza in the daytime, but the theater audiences still came every night.
Working all night at the theater, Daniel would patrol the premises using only his flashlight. Outside, the guards saw the light passing by the windows and joked that it was the light of a ghost. Inside, Daniel scrubbed away at decades of dirt. He found some old paint and did what he could to touch up the murals.
* * *
Soon, the colorful guards in the plaza were joined by a barbed-wire nest of soldiers carrying modern rifles. The captain came to the theater less often. One day, the plaza was blocked with armed checkpoints to keep civilian vehicles out.
On the evening that a mob gathered across the plaza outside the town hall, Daniel watched the captain and his colourful troop guarding the entrance. The blades they drew no longer looked picturesque.
An armed group supporting the opposition party took control of villages outside of the town. Civilians were prohibited by government decree from travelling on the streets between dusk and dawn.
The curfew required Daniel to arrive before the performances, and one night, he slipped into a seat at the back of the theater as a revival of Lorca began. At intermission, he discovered he was sitting next to the guard captain.
“I am Captain Anselmo Eliseo Rodriguez,” the captain said.
Daniel introduced himself in return.
“The janitor?” Captain Rodriguez said, “and you are interested in theatrics?”
“I studied literature at the university, before . . . before . . .”
“Hrm,” said the captain.
“You idiot,” Daniel’s sister said later. “He will think you were one of the purged students. Why did you talk to him at all?”
The captain joined Daniel at the back of the hall every few nights. They sat side by side and watched the shows without talking.
The authorities warned that anyone caught harbouring criminals would be charged with a serious crime.
Guerillas visited Daniel's neighborhood, broke into apartments, and took donations for their cause. Then the police would come, break down more doors, and take young men off to prison.
Fearing for their safety, Daniel Luis brought his wife and daughter with him to live at the theater. His wife brought their radio. They plugged it into a yellowing wall socket and listened to cumbia. His daughter dressed up in old costumes and danced.
When martial law was declared, Daniel’s sister slipped into the theater with that night's small crowd for the opening of The Tempest.
“You need to hide me,” she said.
He showed her a place to stay behind a tangle of old props in a backstage room.
* * *
Captain Rodriguez no longer attended the shows. The number of soldiers in the plaza increased.
Daniel’s uncle still brought his allowance, and Daniel went out in the daytime to buy food.
A young usher, no more than twelve or thirteen years old, begged Daniel to allow him to stay at the theater. He said when he had arrived at home the night before, his house was on fire, and afterward, he could find no one he knew.
For the first time, Daniel saw a new word scrawled on the walls of side streets: “Revolution!”
In the evenings, only a handful of people came to the performances. Many of the actors went missing, requiring the remaining members of the troupe to perform multiple roles.
“What will we do when it's time for the baby?” Daniel’s wife asked.
* * *
One day not long after, as Daniel fetched supper, he saw smoke rising unchecked from the hillside, and he heard gunfire in the distance.
On the radio, the governor of the state assured everyone that the disturbance would soon come to a just conclusion.
That night, the actor that played Caliban stayed on after the show with his understudy, purportedly practising their part. Eventually, Daniel approached them to ask if he could assist in some way.
“Perhaps we'll spend the night,” Caliban said. Daniel helped him gather old props and other materials with which to make a bed in the green room. And now the Calibans lived at the theater too. They demanded that Daniel fetch them Cokes as well as food.
* * *
On the morning the radio repeated the national anthem over and over, soldiers stopped Daniel from leaving the building. A machine gun sat under the statue in the center of the plaza.
He moved his guests and family to the basement of the theater.
No one came to the theater that night, but the Calibans organized a variety show. Daniel recited an old patriotic poem, the only thing he could remember, and the usher played the trumpet.
The next evening, Daniel’s wife went into labour, a development that left the Calibans dismayed and Daniel’s sister appalled.
Desperate for help, Daniel told the others to hide and went to the door of the theater. He opened it carefully and whispered to the guard that he wished to see Captain Rodriguez.
The captain brought a soldier with a red cross on his arm into the theater. The captain’s elegant tunic was torn, and a small spray of dried blood stained his jacket sleeve.
Daniel Luis led them to the room where his wife laboured. His daughter sat in a corner.
“Are you three alone here?” the captain asked.
“Yes,” said Daniel.
As the medic began to help Daniel’s wife, the captain asked if he could see the theater from the stage. Daniel walked ahead of the captain onto the stage and said, “This will be the first night in over seventy years without a performance.”
“Hrm,” said the captain.
“It's bad luck.”
Somewhere amongst the props behind them, something or someone heavy fell. A muffled sharp curse sounded. Then silence.
The captain lifted an eyebrow.
“They say the theater is haunted!” Daniel blurted.
A long moment passed. The captain walked to the curtains and inspected a place where Daniel had stitched a rent in the fabric.
“Of course,” he said.
The captain strolled to the center of the stage and drew his weapon. Daniel backed away, swallowing hard. The captain placed his rapier on the stage in front of him. Then he took two long steps back, and to Daniel’s amazement, performed a handstand. Returning to his feet, the captain bowed to the empty seats.
The two men climbed down to the basement and waited in silence until the baby was born.
At the door, as he was leaving, the captain said to Daniel, “I hope you don't have too many ghosts here.”
“Only a few,” said Daniel Luis.
“Good luck, janitor,” Captain Rodriguez said, and he pulled the theater door shut behind him.
About the Story
Theatrical Spirits was written by Kilmeny MacMichael and first appeared in the journal Literally Stories.
The story photo was taken by Sergio Souza.
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