Curtains

A short story.

Curtains. That’s what death should feel like. Everything was tinted red, and there was a crushed velvet softness to his numbed half-consciousness. Roger felt that something bigger than the play was ending. He only dimly remembered its last scene, a grating panoply of lights and sounds, and then a steady, slowing beep-beep. The red curtains that crowded the corners of his vision were closing in, or at least rustling as if they meant to. But Roger was the star, making his last long bow to the hall–not empty, for a few loving faces remained–and he welcomed the curtains as the final end of his role.

As his mind concentrated on the bow, the finale, something changed in the darkness behind him. Was that a hint of a breeze on his neck, a stirring of the dank backstage air? Roger felt an urge to turn to watch. But he knew he must keep the bow low and elegant until the curtain draped over him. The rustling of the interminable curtains became louder, over the sound of the last drawn back chairs beyond. Was that a bird calling behind him? Or only a mewling mouse below a dusty set piece?

Roger’s bow grew strained, a tremor flexed his back. Once again there came the eerie feeling that the space behind him was expanding and becoming unnaturally light, as if dawning light was only half an hour distant. The stage winked out, one by one. The air that reached Roger’s nose was fresh. He seemed to hear many strange sounds from behind, not the muffled laughter and ribaldry of the stage crew who should have been there, but the soft sounds of a wild garden.

After a point, Roger could not tell which was more real: the parquet floor of the stage, the dim, winking lights, and the rows of seats beyond, or the strange, rustling half-light behind him. By the time the curtains drew almost around him, the last light blinked out ahead and there was darkness as the heavy curtains touched. Then, a horrible, shuddering pain took hold of his chest. He let out a tearing scream. Now the pain was gone, and he straightened out the bow. The curtains looked gray and stony in the pallid light. He felt that nothing could be beyond them.

Now Roger knew that he had not been bowing to the emptying hall–no one did, after the last encore. The Playwright was here, and Roger owed him honor for the role he had been given. The settled cold in his body lessened, his hands relaxed. Somewhere he heard altos and a baritone holding a low throbbing note, then an oboe soaring high above. Following the sound, Roger lifted his eyes. There was real sky there above the curtains, clouds purple-gray and dim, not the fluffy pastels of a set painting. He saw in them a suspicious hint of pink. It pervaded the vast space above the curtains. A second oboe sounded, then a cello with a deep and vital thrum. Roger yawned as if newly waked. It was before dawn, after all. He turned to watch.

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