Only the keenest of observers would have noticed the slight hitch in her voice, the subtle buckling of her knees. Her speech was an impassioned one: she wove her shock into the words as though it were a part of the drama. The show must go on.
But in the rear of the packed playhouse, a barn owl perched among the rafters, his star-filled eyes trained on her. All the bodies packed into the refurbished playhouse were observers, all were there to see her perform, but this was the keenest of them all. He noticed.
He’d hidden in the theatre every night for the past week, watching. Her face was lovely as it had ever been, gently marked now by the furrows of time. Each performance had been a little different as she tested the nuances of her words against the rapt attention of her true love. Not him, of course. The audience. She played a great queen, unswayed by the advances, both martial and amorous, of an opposing Lord. The drama ended each night with the Lord on his knees before her, begging to be granted her original terms. She stood above him, haughty and grand, her face unmoved.
Tonight she seemed to look up to the rafters, her chin lifted, eyes blazing.
“You have no power over me.”
A flicker of annoyance crossed the Lord’s face. The Observer read much in the actor’s steely eyes. Oh, two names graced the front of the playbill, but the tired man who played across from his love had had to fight for his. Hers, after all, was the name that drew the crowds. At forty-five, her star still shone brilliantly across the world of little theatre. Yes, it was a small sky, for certain, but hers was the brightest star in it and that was all the joy she needed. The poor Lord was on his way down. He’d been in movies once. She outshone him in every way and he knew it. Here she was again, his eyes seemed to say, trying to upstage him. His scowl broke through character of the fallen Lord, showing the sad, angry man underneath.
The Observer understood. He had been that man once, trying to upstage her.
She didn’t notice. She wasn’t even looking at him, but out, out at her adoring audience, out at the glowing stained glass on the theatre windows, out at the balcony where sticky-cheeked children were beginning to wiggle in their parents’ laps or doze against their parents’ shoulders.
Out at him?
She ended the night with a graceful bow to her love, The People, and with a kiss on her co-star’s cheek. He was undone by her sweetness. Well of course he was. He fumbled awkwardly and offered to drive her home, or perhaps out for coffee? She declined in the sweetest possible way. The man felt glad to have asked her and fell asleep later that night with his nightly bottle only half-drunk and a smile on his face.
But the Observer cared only for her. On this, his last night, he would spare only a moment’s glance for the people that she had been entrusted with. The people she surrounded herself with. Were they enough for her? Was she as happy as she had hoped?
Home at last, she stripped off her working clothes, down to her skin and spun around in her warm bedroom. Surrounded by things that she loved. A clock that went to thirteen. Books about far-away places, each with a taste of the kingdom of her childhood. A stuffed bear. A stuffed owl. A stack of records, proper vinyl. She put on a music, words on wings. No bottle for the queen, why would she need it? She was full of the night’s glory and never drank after a show. Sank into her bed.
The feeling surfaced again. A combination of grief and fear. What was it? She stuffed it down, that cold-water shock that had hit her on stage, that shaking certainty that something was Wrong. Was it something she had read or seen or perhaps just known? She conjured up warmth for herself. The magnificence of the final speech, the way the crowd had been glued to her, the eruption of their applause.
A fluttering against the window. She sank deeper into her covers. No. Let him fly off into the rain. He couldn’t come in against her will. She was too strong for him.
Her stomach twisted. She sat up. Threw on a dressing gown; threw open the windows. He flew in, wings fluttering with her silk sheers, to the beating of a thousand wings, to the turning of a hundred years, to the soft pulsing of the music.
He stood before her. Tried to be imposing. He knew she liked it when he was imposing.
She dropped into her vanity chair.
“Why have you come?” she asked. Pretending not to know. “I told you not to come again.” She tossed her hair, then peeked over to see if he was suitably chastened.
“I came to say goodbye.”
Her stomach turned. There it was again. Something she’d seen in the newspaper. “Goodbye?”
“Please. I am dying. I just wanted to say…”
She stood up. Worse than she feared. “Is this a trick? You weren’t to come back here until St. Valentine’s. We agreed on-”
“I don’t have the strength for a battle. Please. I’m sorry. The magic is almost run dry.” He held out his hand.
She took it and drew close. Peeled off the black glove to find long, gnarled fingers. Cold and dry. Her fingers wrapped his in warmth and he shuddered.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Her voice was tiny in the dark. “We could have had more time.”
“There’s never enough time.”
“We could have – I could have come to you.”
“I didn’t want you to see me weak. Old.”
“And now I won’t see you at all. When… when did you get old?”
He chuckled. “I’ve been old as long as you’ve known me.”
“You never were.”
“I was! But it didn’t matter. In the songs, in the stories, in the adventures, it never matters.”
“So now there won’t be anymore?”
“Not new ones, no. But you can keep everything I’ve given you. You can visit me in all the old places. I’ll see you. And I’ll be there. And… I’ll come back for you. Just once. One more time, when your time is ended.”
“You don’t mean it. That’s just something people say.”
“I mean it. I always mean what I say.” He enfolded her in his arms and kissed her head. “I’ll be back, darling. One more time.”
And then he was gone, in another flutter of wings.
She walked over to the windows; pulled them closed. She swiped at her face, pressed her hand to the glass, tears mingling with the rain. She swallowed. “I wish… I wish…”
She stepped back. Not yet. Not today. Now she had her own magic to make.
R.I.P. David Bowie