New in Mission at Tenth, Volume 7

An excerpt from Hungry Ghost Theater: A Novel

San Francisco, March 1993

The dark warehouse chills Arielle through her coat and gloves—she and her sisters stare at their aunt as she descends an iron staircase, undressing. Torches cast a smoky, wavering light, half-illuminating the audience, who sit in a circle around the stage. A thin, harsh, persistent music turns the warehouse into a haunted cave. Aunt Julia—Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, according to the photocopied program—has stripped down to her underwear and jeweled armbands. A blue-white spotlight strikes the mirrored floor of the stage, lighting both Inanna and her sister, Ereshkigal, Queen of the Dead and the Underworld, who sits on a throne at the bottom of the staircase. White makeup with sharp black lines and areas of red covers the faces of both queens: they look like warriors, like demons, like the angry dead.

Arielle, Jenny, and Katya have heard about their Aunt Julia and Uncle Robert’s performances but have never, until now, been allowed to see one. “They’re for adults,” their mother said when they first asked. “Putatively.”

“Too much sex for us?” asked Katya, and her mother said, “If it were only that.” Later, she said, “When you’re older you can go, if you still want to, but you’ll be sorry.” They badgered her this time, though, until she gave in—sooner or later, she always does if they keep at her.

Arielle feels as if she’s inside one of her own nightmares, but she can’t look away from the stage. Maybe she doesn’t even want to. She’ll never forget this play—if she can get through it. She’s become more and more uneasy as, at each of the seven landings, Uncle Robert’s amplified voice gave Aunt Julia—Inanna—another command: “You must surrender your scepter and crown to pass through this gate,” or, “You must surrender your golden robe to pass through this gate.” Whenever Inanna asked why, he repeated, “This is our way in the netherworld,” sounding cold and formal, like a stranger. So at each gate, Inanna dropped something on the stairs and left it behind: her lapis lazuli scepter, her neckpiece, her robe, her dress, her slip.

Now at the bottom of the steps, Inanna takes off the last of her clothing and jewelry and walks onto the stage completely naked. Crouching figures emerge from the sides and move toward her. Movie images flicker on each of the walls behind the audience—one with soldiers in uniforms in the desert and tanks firing, another with planes in the air at night, a third with President—now ex-President—Bush talking, a fourth with a bald man the children only slightly recognize. Someone in charge of the war and too many other things, someone their father hates and goes on about. The bald man talks silently, smiling.

Arielle can see her own breath in the cold air. Aunt Julia might be crying, or is it a trick of the light? The Queen of Heaven and Earth descending into the underworld for her brother-in-law’s funeral, and her sister won’t let her in. Well, why wouldn’t you cry? Arielle’s thinking about all this deliberately, trying to stop her fear, to stay separate from it. But the play has made her part of its world, like one of the dreams where she’s trapped in a culvert with someone coming after her, on the verge of learning something she doesn’t want to know. The old feeling’s coming over her, her breathing starting to close up, tears rising in her throat. She takes off a glove and feels around under her folding seat, pressing her forefinger against the metal edge where a rough bolt fastens the legs to the chair.

“Don’t wriggle, Arielle,” whispers her mother, and she holds still again, but the tears are coming back.

She waits until she can’t stand it, then presses her finger against the bolt, hard. In the half-dark, when her mother is watching the stage, she looks down at her finger, the blood very slow, just a drop or two. The pressure eases, but not enough. Moving very slowly, not to draw attention to herself, she presses until there’s enough pain to help. She slides her glove over her bleeding finger and lets out her breath, slowly, the tears receding again.

Ereshkigal, the queen on the throne, wears shimmering deep blue robes, reflected in the mirrored floor, along with the torches and the faces of the audience at the edges. She calls out, “My sister thinks she can come down here without stripping away all she has, even her skin. She thinks, as a Queen of the Light, that she can rule our realm as well, but she will never see in the dark.”

After the performance, Julia sits “backstage” in her robe, her heartbeat still quick from the performance. Waiting for Eva and the children, she talks with visitors in the warehouse’s old break room, now converted to a place for costume changes but still decorated with relics of the previous era: a defunct time clock, beige lockers, a leftover sign on the wall: “Coffee and tea are free. Please pay into the coffee fund if you wish to use creamer and sweeteners. And clean up your own dishes! Your mother doesn’t work here.”

Her brother has wandered off somewhere. While she chats with people, her adrenaline rush slowly starts to fade; now she’s starving. Eva has explained the biochemistry of performance and post-performance to her. The advantage of having a neuroscientist for an older sister: she can describe all the mechanisms you can’t do anything about. But maybe it feels somewhat better to know that the anxiety beforehand fires up the amygdala, which brings in the hypothalamus and triggers the adrenal glands. Somehow epinephrine gets involved, releasing a lot of sugar, and some brain changes take place that hook into the internal opioid receptors. “Which explains,” her sister said, “why you and Robert are such miseries to be around when you’re not working.”

Julia, now sweating through the thick makeup she hasn’t had time to remove, smiles and responds to real compliments as well as to ostensibly innocent but barbed remarks. Martina, also a director of an experimental dance-theater company, says, “You so captured the sense of uneven power dynamics. How interesting to bring in Desert Storm.”

“Thank you.”

“You and Robert always do such intriguing things with appropriation and collaging bits of all kinds of cultures. This one is really quite… sometime you must tell me all about what the Kabuki makeup has to do with the Sumerian myth.” Bringing in the Kabuki elements was Robert’s idea. Julia argued against it, but she isn’t going to say so. Martina switches gears. “These idea-driven pieces are so challenging. It’s hard to keep them from being either bewildering or obvious. Or both.” She laughs. “I focus on the images and the movement. It’s so brave, though, the way you two take these big risks. I admire you for even trying.”

“Thank you,” says Julia, again. Where is Robert? Leaving her alone with the wolves. “I’m so sorry, I have to go find my sister and her kids.” She shakes Martina’s hand, smiling and thinking, bitch, and moves through the crowd. Maybe Eva hated the show so much that she’s taken the girls and gone home: she’ll call later with an excuse.

Eva said beforehand, “Baby, you know I won’t understand anything of what you’re doing.”

“You can tell me what it felt like to you, though,” Julia said. She’s hoping to hear that the play is about what you have to give up to make it through, about how it’s not too late even when it looks like it’s all over. But if she were to tell her sister what she thinks it’s about, Eva might agree just to keep the peace, and Julia would never know what she really saw in the performance. Waiting, she feels a little sick, as well as excited, even though Eva’s never liked anything they’ve done. Robert would say, “She doesn’t go to the theater, Jules.” Julia will be thirty in three years, she shouldn’t care what anyone thinks. Still, she wants to hear her sister’s verdict.

And the children. Katya, at twelve, might be old enough to make something of it. Eleven-year-old Jenny, though, would just as soon be outside somewhere, playing with animals. And eight-year-old Arielle? Before the performance, Julia wondered if she might giggle uncontrollably once Julia was naked or melt down into one of her helpless tantrums when Ereshkigal had Inanna flayed. What did the kids make of the flaying?

Finally, here are Eva and the children, wandering into the old break room, dazed and out of place. They stand for a moment, looking around at all the half-dressed performers with their friends, and make their way through the crowd to Julia.

Eva says, after the initial hugs and kisses, “Ray had to work. He sends his regrets.” And, “That was darker than I expected.”

“I told you she gets flayed, right?”

“Maybe there was a little more blood than I’d pictured. Didn’t you say it was mostly symbolic?”

Julia asks her nieces, “What did you all think?”

Katya, fierce and good-humored, says, “I thought it was cool,” while Jenny smiles shyly, not exactly agreeing, but certainly agreeable. Arielle asks, “Why did she do it? To her sister.” She has the look of a silver fox, sharp-faced, white-blonde hair and translucent skin, her head tipped to one side. As if she were both intently listening and on the verge of disappearing back into the forest. Little changeling.

Robert joins them, putting his hand on Julia’s shoulder. “Why does Ereshkigal have all the gates locked? She thinks Inanna wants her realm. The kinds of people who rule heaven and earth probably think they should own the underworld too. A matched set.”Eva says, “Thanks for that, Robert. I’m sure that answers all the children’s questions.” She zips up her coat. “Did you write this before the elections? The end of the war?”

Robert laughs, not happily. “The end of the war. Oh, Eva.”

“Fine. I’m going to get these three home to bed. Can you call me tomorrow so we can make Seder plans?” She kisses Julia and Robert and starts off toward the doorway, Katya and Jenny right behind. Robert disappears back into the crowd.

Arielle doesn’t follow her mother and sisters, not yet. She can’t stop thinking about the play, even with her finger painful and stiffening. Ereshkigal killed her sister by glaring at her, and her servants cut off her skin and hung her on a hook. After Ereshkigal cried for three days, she had her sister brought back to life, but they fought, and Inanna disappeared. The beautiful lights and snowflakes at the very end didn’t make it any less sad.

She says, “I never thought hell would be so cold.”

Julia wants to put her on her lap, but her niece has a dignity that forbids it. She’s not someone you can talk down to. Such a strange child. Julia wants so badly to give her something. “Uncle Robert and I, and the rest of the company, were thinking about this Italian poet from a really long time ago. He wrote a poem in which an Italian poet with the exact same name finds himself, in the middle of his life, in some very dark woods. Which happens to most people, though I suppose I shouldn’t say anything about it to you at this point. Anyway, the only way out was through hell, which is all ice at the very bottom.”

“Why did he have to go through? Why couldn’t he go back the way he came?” Arielle wonders if her finger might still be bleeding. Sometimes she gets carried away.

Julia says, “We should be able to go back, but it doesn’t seem to work that way.”

Arielle stirs, restlessly. After a moment she says, “Anyway, that’s a different story than the play tells. And Ereshkigal could have kept her sister out, if she didn’t want her at the funeral.”

“Can you keep your sisters out of anywhere they want to be?”

Arielle considers this. “If you owned heaven and earth, it doesn’t seem like you’d want a freezing hell. No sunshine. No birds.”

Eva comes back into the room, beckoning and calling Arielle’s name.

Julia says, “You should go with your mother.” And, as Arielle continues to watch her, “Maybe once she had all that, she couldn’t stop. Maybe the sunlight wasn’t enough for her. Do you know what I mean?” Arielle nods. “So, there’s another hell, a very famous Tibetan one, where there are these hungry ghosts. They have tiny heads, tiny necks, and huge great empty bellies, and they gobble away at a trench full of food. Once they’ve started, they can never stop.” Like our family, she thought, but there had to be limits on what you could say to an eight-year-old girl, even this one. Instead, she said, “Maybe Ereshkigal thought Inanna was a hungry ghost.”

“Arielle!” Eva’s on her way over to them.

Arielle leans forward, suddenly, and hugs Julia so hard her ribs hurt. Julia puts her face into Arielle’s hair, which hasn’t been washed too recently, and kisses her head. “Sorry about the whole flaying thing.” Arielle looks uncertain. “I mean, sorry about all the blood.”

“That’s okay. I get bad dreams from Eek! The Cat. So…” She shrugs, thinking about her pushpin at home—the cut from the chair hasn’t done it. She needs a little scratch on her leg. Maybe more than a little.

“Arielle! Jules! What is up with you two?”

“Sorry, Eva,” says Julia.

“Kumbaya.” Arielle hugs Julia again and turns to go with her mother.

“Kumbaya,” Julia says, touched, mystified, and hoping that Robert is nowhere in earshot.

She doesn’t have a favorite niece, how could she? But her fellow third child, the fox-girl: she’s the one who shows up most often in Julia’s dreams.

Sarah Stone’s new novel, Hungry Ghost Theater: A Novel was published by WTAW Press in October of 2018. Her previous novel, The True Sources of the Nile, was a BookSense 76 selection and was included in Geoff Wisner’s A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa. She is the co-author, with Ron Nyren, of Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for Intermediate and Advanced Fiction Writers. Her writing has appeared in, among other places, Ploughshares, StoryQuarterly, The Valparaiso Fiction Review, The Believer, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Millions, The Writer’s Chronicle, Dedicated to the People of Darfur: Writings on Fear, Risk, and Hope, and A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft. She has written for and taught on Korean television, reported on human rights in Burundi, and looked after orphan chimpanzees at the Jane Goodall Institute. She now teaches creative writing for Stanford Continuing Studies and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. For more information, find her online at www.sarahstoneauthor.com

Accompanying image "The Importance of Friendship" by Jeff Jerman.