The movie ended. The crowd left. The show was over. Popcorn and stale toast crunched underfoot. Laughter. Falling feathers from a purple and silver boa. Water pistols squirted to the last of their reservoirs; nipples tucked back under corsets; glittering hats removed, balance on one foot to pull off the tap shoes. A man’s soft voice calling after his friends. The ushers locked the doors, too tired to bother in this crumbling, half decayed theatre. Let the rats have the rubbish, they’d sweep in the morning and screw the boss if he won’t pay overtime.
The theatre was empty, and in the cool deep dark stirred a small brown goose feather. It had been softly gathering dust between seats 14B and 14A, after falling from a threadbare duvet during an all night movie marathon. It had been wedged safe ever since as broom, dustpan and vacuum sucked past it again and again. The small brown goose feather stared up at the faded grandeur of the cinema, thin red velvet gathered in swirls to protect the screen now the show was over. Flaking gold paint on fleur de lis molding slowly losing its glow in the seeping darkness. Reenactments of Greek tragedies, picked out in paper and plaster, dancing across the ceiling.
“Oh, oh!” said the goose feather, as it did every night. “I want to be on a feather boa. I want to be on the stage. Once I was the very best feather. The softest curl for nuzzling goslings. The finest brown and black, stippled with white to make my goose the envy of every gander. Once I nuzzled over the sleeping body of a boy, oh the warmth we gave him. Oh to love and be loved, truly that is to live. I am cut off from the soft flocking of my kin, and must make a new life. I want to dance on the stage. I must! And then, then I shall be loved and rubbed and shine in the lights like there’s only me in the whole glittering world.”
“Ha!” came a short sharp retort. The goose feather’s fronds fluttered. Every night it had cried hi ho for a stage part, and every night silence had been its answer.
The Ha had come from a bright purple feather, its fronds cut into a tangle of sheared triangles. Its shaft had been bent in several places, and it reclined proudly on the seat of 7G. “You? Shining and loved? Some brown curled speck? Some nothing? What temerity! What nonsense! How dare you?”
“Oh! I am sorry,” said the goose feather, dust falling slowly from its fringe, as it gazed up towards the neon purple wonder. “I didn’t mean to offend.”
“Well offend you did. You are addressing one of the Best Feathers for a Boa there ever has been and ever will be. I have been used for Rocky Horror, Cabaret, Sweet Charity, AND an avant–garde remake of The Sound of Music. I have nestled next to the silver threads and sequined tights of more than twenty–seven burlesque productions and university theatricals. But enough! I am weary after tonight’s performance.”
“How does it…”
“I do not speak to tiny specks of nothing underneath chairs. If you cannot give audience in the proper way I shall have none of it.”
The goose feather gathered up its courage and pulled itself out from under the seats, abandoning the safety of 14B and 14A. The goose feather boldly trotted down carpet. The carpet was threadbare and tattered, but still remembered, in its stitches of orient and peacock, finer days when girls in pillbox hats sold lollies, peanuts or ice cream for sixpence. The fluffy tassels near the feather’s base wafted, its smooth curled head bowed down as it dared the exposed open territories, where anything could happen to a feather, and often did. The goose feather tottered to a halt at 7G, and gazed up at the purple feather, lying in state on a seat dotted with popcorn, discarded tickets and sticky maltesers.
“Twenty–seven productions? Really? Was it hard?”
“Of course it was hard. You could not possibly understand how hard unless you yourself have been there.”
“But I want to understand. Oh please, can you give me a role? Please?”
“You can’t just decide to be a Boa Feather. You must suffer for it, you must be prepared to transform yourself.”
“Oh, but I can and I have. Once I protected the soft chest of goose. I cuddled her goslings and kept her warm, but I was plucked from her squawking breast. I transformed myself, I had to. And now I am cut adrift again. I love this theatre, I love this place, but I want more. I want to be a part, I want to belong. I can transform myself. I have and I shall.”
“Oh that is the slightest of the transformations. Look at my lustrous purple, my graceful angles, cut just so, though the pain of it scorched me. I have been boiled in a great vat as I gave myself to this life. You do not know what it is like to give yourself to your art.”
“I too have been boiled and blasted,” cried the goose feather. “My transformations were less visible, but I too have been shaped for my task — to make me cleaner than all, so that I could hold and tickle a boy as he slept. Look at how soft my fringes are! I was made to make hearts warm. Am I not worthy of love? Of that central light upon the stage?”
The goose feather leapt, boldly catching an invisible eddy, and alighted next to the supine purple feather. The goose feather pressed itself against the purple feather, who recoiled and lashed with the sharp base of its quill.
“You may not touch me. How dare you!”
“I am sorry,” trembled the goose feather. “I was overcome. If you could give me just one small chance. I won’t do it again.”
“Why on earth would I want to give a no talent, no name pipsqueak like you an opportunity? I, who know the best. I, who am the best. I, who have played next to the great actors of our generation.”
“I’ll work very hard, I promise. Oh please, you are so beautiful, surely there is something that you can do.” The goose feather paused, fluttered its soft under–feathers. “I will make it worth your while.”
“I doubt it,” said the purple feather. “You are too weak.”
The goose feather pulled itself upright. It kicked a sticky malteser to the ground with a solid thunk. “Test me.”
The purple feather nodded slowly along a crease near its top. “Very well, if only for some peace. There is one thing you can do. As you can see, the theatre is now very dark indeed, and does not do sufficient justice to my elegant form. Find a spotlight. Direct its beam towards my body, and I shall consider giving you a role upon the stage. A minor one of course, perhaps hidden at the back where the boa rubs the nape of the neck, but it is more than you deserve.”
“Oh yes, yes. Thank you,” said the goose feather. This would be the perfect start for a feather of its talents. It would curl so softly against the actor’s neck, and would soon become a favorite. From there to the curl of the wrist, perhaps a promotion to a tickling fringe of a fan or a fascinating curl on a hat. It would start its search immediately.
The goose feather leapt from the seat and landed in a messy pile of chewing gum. The gum was still wet and oozing, smelling of peach and halitosis. The musky ichor smothered the feather’s base and ran tendrils up into its softest fronds.
“Oh!” said the goose feather.
“Is everything all right?” said the purple feather. “I hope you have not snapped yourself. I cannot represent a feather that is bent in the middle.”
“But you are bent in the middle,” said the goose feather, its voice too loud as it struggled to work itself free.
“I have many years of experience,” said the purple feather crisply. “I am a character feather.”
“Well do not worry, I am not bent in the middle,” gasped the goose feather. It wrenched itself from the pile, long sticky strands holding onto it and clumping on the carpet. The goose feather tried to keep a tremble from its voice; its bottom half was ruined, quite ruined. “I’m just looking for the spot light. What does the spot light look like?”
“Look for a yellow thing, with a lens and a button,” said the purple feather. “It can be carried in a hand and pointed and makes things bright.”
“A yellow thing…”
The goose feather searched and searched and searched. It searched under chairs and through rubbish. It searched behind the soft velvet curtains. It even searched underneath the carpet in the places where it had lifted to reveal dry yellow timber. Eventually, as fear of dawn drove it faster (for the sun’s yellow orb would drown out any light the goose feather could muster) it found, in the space between 12 and 13L, a yellow cylinder. The yellow thing didn’t have a lens, but it did have a red button, and a grindy wheel thing. The goose feather rolled the cylinder along the ground and it sloshed in a rather pleasing manner.
“I think I’ve found it!” said the goose feather.
“Bring it to me,” said the purple feather.
It took all of the goose feather’s strength to lift the cigarette lighter, and as it took its first step it felt a creak. It felt a creak and a crickle–crack along its spine. “Uhhhh,” gasped the feather.
“Uhhh, what?” said the purple feather.
“Nothing,” said the goose feather as it held in a moan. There was a crease, a fold in its mid–section. Perhaps it would be fine, perhaps it could cover the white line with glitter or dye. It would be fine, it would be worthy; it was earning its place through virtuous service. The goose feather carried the lighter to the base of the chair.
“Here it is,” said the goose feather, hiding its unseemly crease behind the large yellow cylinder.
“It doesn’t look like a spotlight.”
“It is, it is, look, it says lighter along the side.”
“Of course, of course,” said the purple feather, “I am just used to bigger, grander spotlights. This is such a tiny speck, just as you are a tiny speck.”
“Shall I take it back?” said the tiny goose feather. The pink gum on its tiny fronds bobbed as it struggled to speak. The crease was small, hardly noticeable, surely.
“Oh no no no, it will do,” said the purple feather. “It will do for now. I am not unkind.”
“And after that I shall be on the stage?”
“If you are worthy you may go on to the next test. To illuminate me is a privilege in itself and reward enough. Truly an honor. Now quickly, light me up to my fullest grandeur.”
The goose feather trembled as it consulted the instructions, conveniently located on the side of the yellow cylinder. Its gum–blobbed tip speared the red button, its delicate fronds whipping against the rough round wheels of flint. It pressed itself again and again. Fronds mangled and fell into the mechanism. It did not cry out in pain as parts were torn from itself. It was strong. It was worthy of transformation.
“What kind of a feather are you?” roared the purple feather. “Harder, harder! If you cannot do this you are nothing!”
The goose feather jumped higher, its mid section flexing, its fronds shredding to dust at the tip, until if felt a click and a spark and a sharp crack along its spine. Its top half snapped and flopped limp, but there, oh there! Light! Light from the tip and heat. Fire shot from the top of the cylinder, singing the once smooth brown tip of the goose feather. It fell back, embers smoldering. Flame licked the seat. Light and heat plumed upwards in giddy profusion.
The purple feather, stripped of oils and with edges tasty to fire, was consumed in an instant as flame rose around the seat. Smoke rising to the ceiling sucked the sour breath of chicken from its charred membranes. The fire grew, nibbled the red tasseled curtain, consumed old ticket stubs, forgotten handbags, discarded underwear, and a thousand thousand memories.
The goose feather lifted on the hot air, somersaulting as its curved shape twisted and spun. Timbers fell in the empty theatre. No more popcorn and stale toast. No more glittering hats and swift–laced corsets. No more the laughter and dance and sashay of boas along naked arms, fluttering near a well made up eye. No more, no more, as fire ate film with green and blue flame. No more, no more, as posters turned red and black and then to ash.
The goose feather played the last show, flying high above the stage and curling over and over, as the theatre burned and the roof fell. Twirling, warm and embraced by air.
More from Liz Argall:
This is Liz’s fourth piece to come out in Apex Magazine. She’s been published in a range of places prestigious and not so prestigious and if you google “Liz Argall” most of the hits will be her in all their embarrassing glory. Liz writes love letters, songs, and poems to inanimate objects and creates the comic Things Without Arms and Without Legs, a comic about creatures who are kind. She has a website, lizargall.com.