Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2022  Vol.21  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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I have deceived you utterly.
—Yeats, The Shadowy Waters

That was the summer I played a chimerical bird
at North Vermillion High in Terre Haute.
Mr. Byrne demanded we rehearse
in full costume. He’d punch keys in the wings,
projecting on a screen above the stage
the smoky images of skull and rose,
a loaf of bread, a cracked anvil, a cross.
These symbols, lit by incandescent lamps,
were rear-projected through the concave lens
of an antique magic-lantern. They’d hover over
the cast and would grow or shrink according to
how near or far he held them to the light.
Belching mist, a coughing fog machine
would make the skull appear to whirl beneath
a hunter’s moon obscured by wisps of cloud.
Mr. Byrne would claim these shapes possessed
“Intimations of the numinous.”

He always spouted off like that. To tease him,
we’d fire inane questions: “Is it pronounced
Yates or Yeets?” “What the crap is a raised poop?”
The time I asked if he shampooed his beard,
he called us neophytes and summoned me
to sit with him off-left. He picked his ear.
My cape of foil wings crinkled as I sat.
“Denise,” he said, “It’s all an act, you know,
this tête-à-tête of ours, this pas de deux.”
He wouldn’t look at me. He was so sweaty.
“Okay?” I said, adjusting my plumed hood.
The sophomore playing Forgael slipped and said,
“All’s misery” instead of “mystery
and Mr. Byrne galumphed onto the stage
asking who among us could tap the will
of antithetical man, who could peel his own
shadow off the floor? His face flushed pink.

He made us share our phone number with him—
he kept a list in case someone got sick.
Mostly, though, I think the guy was lonely.
The actors would get messages from him
with cryptic stage directions late at night:
Dectora, when she storms downstage right-center,
a runner on the rostrum should swag tabs
and SM should unleash the stroboscope.
His partner Charles had died the year before—
we laughed at him, but never to his face.

One Sunday, he texted me with a favor:
Need 2 c u anon. Mainstage @ 4?
When I arrived, the lobby had been strewn
with elaborate tenting, old bedsheets stapled
to walls and mineral-fiber ceiling tiles.
I opened the mainstage doors and saw him pace
the center aisle, hands clasped behind his back.

“Mr. Byrne?” I said. He looked bemused.
“Denise, thank Christ,” he said. “They’ve finally won—
they’ve managed to usurp complete control.”
As I approached, he touched his face, as if
concealing a disfigurement. I winced—
he’d shaved his eyebrows off and shaved his face,
but left a neckbeard, like the Goshen Amish.
He asked if I could see them. “Them?” I laughed.
I lied and said I could (to humor him)
and asked him what “they” were. He didn’t know—
he’d woken with a headache the day before.
Gulping Tylenols at the bathroom mirror,
he’d seen the thumbnail image of a tree:
black boughs under his skin, like veins of ink,
roots stretching down and burrowing into him.
“It was like,” he said, “a moving tattoo.”

He asked me what I saw. “A tree,” I lied,
“It’s filling with leaves and birds—I think they’re crows—
they’re pecking at your eyes. How do you feel?”
“Hot,” he said, “My brain is pressure-cooking.”
He clutched his balding skull and clawed his scalp.
“Make it stop,” he yelled. I stood there as he swooned.
He staggered toward me, digging at his eyes,
and teetered, trying to regain his balance,
but knocked his skull against an aisle seat
on his way to the floor, collapsing in a heap.

“Mr. Byrne?” I said. Sprawling on his side,
he twitched and muttered something—was it Greek?
I flipped him on his back, which took some effort—
Mr. Byrne was not a slender man.
I slapped his cheeks, like I’d seen people do
in films. He grunted, bucked his legs, unconscious.
“Breathe!” I said, “Just breathe!” Another grunt.

The more I think about this now the more
it seems unreal to me, he seems unreal,
though at the time I must’ve—I don’t know—
played the part of worried confidant.

I have wronged you utterly,” he said, his voice
deeper, British-sounding. He rolled his R’s.
I will confess it all, if you’ll allow me.”
“Confess what?” I said. His skin looked loose
as pizza dough. His British voice again:
Out of the moldering sod, the green fields yielding,
out of the riverbanks bristling with sedge
and withered rushes of my native ground,
out of the tinkling waters beneath the ground,
out of the craggy steep that rose above—

“Wake up!” I said. I smacked his face again,
jowls trembling like sweaty cherry Jell-O.
I’d had enough. “I’ll get some help,” I said.
As I made for the open main-stage doors,
I could hear him groaning: “Wherever it ends
in wine-dark waters or thick foliage
of alders creaking like an old man’s bones
I will find a stone, which I will give to you.”  

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