Theatrical Spirits by Kilmeny MacMichael.

In this year of unrest, Daniel Luis was sharing a small house with his mother, sister, his pregnant wife, and daughter. He needed work.

“You will be the new janitor at the Municipal Theater,” his uncle said, “It pays little, but the work is easy. Clean up after every performance. Do your work and be invisible, and maybe in time, I can find you something better. Here is the key to the door. They say the theater is haunted, so wear your crucifix.”

“I don’t believe in such things,” Daniel Luis said.

“A little care can go a long way,” his uncle said.

It was a long ride on the bus to the theater, all the way to the old plaza in the heart of town. In the plaza, guards in bright pantaloons and short jackets carried antiquated rapiers and grimaced for tourists in front of town hall. A drunkard slept under the iron man on his horse in the center of the square, while cars bumped over the cobbles in front of the cathedral dodging newspaper and bubblegum vendors.

The theater on the plaza had been built in a fin de siecle moment of civic aspiration. It was the oldest, not to say the only, live theater in town. Tradition said there had been a performance of some kind every night since it’s opening, that a missed night would signal disaster.

Like all other things in the town, the theater had aged badly, the facade missing pieces of plaster. Inside, to hide the peeling paint of the murals and the cobwebs burgeoning in the corners, the electric chandeliers were only partly lit – dusty light bulbs sat loose in their sockets.

After a few weeks, Daniel Luis developed a rhythm, arriving just as the last patrons spilled out on to the square, working three or four hours, vacuuming and scrubbing sinks and toilets. His pay came in weekly cash delivered by the uncle to the house.

“Uncle likely keeps some of the money he takes for the work you do,” his sister said.

“What does it matter, its more then we had before,” said his wife.

Sometimes the captain of the guard attended a performance, his hand on the hilt of his comically long rapier as he made his way through the exiting crowd.

It seemed that every day there were more political posters and graffiti on the streets but in the plaza very little changed although the drunkard disappeared.

Daniel Luis worked alone. Sometimes a door would slam in a breeze or there would be rustlings in the walls which Daniel Luis found unnerving. He brought a cat in to catch mice and lizards.

A roadblock on the way to work was thrown up, the bus stopped, and each passenger was asked for their papers. The police said they were looking for bandits and drug dealers. They looked at Daniel Luis’s papers and waved him through, but each day they looked again.

As he became faster at his work, Daniel Luis began to explore the old theater. He discovered closets and abandoned dressing rooms, where old costumes lay mouldering crumpled on the floor.

In the early mornings as Daniel Luis left the theater for home, only the guards were left in the plaza, and he would nod or lift a hand in their direction. Two or three of them would wave in return.

As a measure to curb increased criminal and gang activity, a midnight to 6 a.m. curfew was announced.

Daniel Luis’s sister said, “Criminal activities my eye.” She distributed pamphlets protesting heavy-handed police activities, attended meetings their mother warned her against.

Daniel Luis refused to be drawn into political arguments.

There were fewer tourists, and fewer street vendors, but the theater audience still came.

Staying all night until dawn at the theater, Daniel Luis walked in the theater using only his flashlight.

The guards saw the light from his flashlight passing by the windows on occasion, and joked it was the light of a ghost passing by.

Daniel Luis scrubbed away at decades of dirt, digging up old paint and doing what he could to touch up the murals.

Soon the colorful marching guards were augmented by a barbed wire nest of soldiers with very modern rifles. The captain came less often to the theater.

By the time the plaza was blocked to civilian motor vehicle traffic, with an armed checkpoint at each entrance, Daniel Luis was screwing light bulbs back in to the chandeliers, letting the light shine in the theater to its full effect, the first time in decades.

The evening the mob gathered outside the town hall, across the plaza from the theater, a line of horsemen held them back from the steps. Daniel Luis saw the captain and his colourful guardsmen standing on the steps. The blades they drew no longer looked so harmlessly picturesque.

A diminished acting corps performed Bellini’s I puritani.

An armed group supporting the opposition party took control of a number of villages outside of the town.

Civilians were prohibited by government decree from travelling on the streets between dusk and dawn.

Since circumstance now required him to arrive before the performances, Daniel Luis slipped in to a seat as a revival of Lorca’s The Butterfly’s Evil Spell began. At half time he discovered he was sitting next to the guard captain.

“I am Captain Anselmo Eliseo Rodriguez,” the captain said.

Daniel Luis introduced himself in return.

“The janitor?” Captain Rodriguez said, “and you are interested in theatrics?”

“I studied literature at the university, before… before I had to leave.”

“Hrm,” said the captain.

“You idiot,” Daniel Luis’s sister said. “He will think you were one of the purged students. He’ll be suspicious. Why did you talk to him at all?”

Captain Rodriguez joined Daniel Luis at the back of the hall every few nights. They didn’t talk. They watched the shows side by side.

The authorities warned that anyone caught harbouring criminals would be charged with their crimes.

Guerillas visited Daniel Luis’s neighborhood, breaking into apartments, taking donations for their cause. The police came after them, breaking down doors, shouting, and hauling young men away.

Fearing for his family’s safety, Daniel Luis brought his wife and daughter with him to live at the theater. His wife brought the radio. They plugged it into a yellowing wall socket and listened to cumbia. His daughter was happy dressing up in the old costumes. They made a dressing room their own. His mother would not come.

As martial law was declared, Daniel Luis’s sister came in that night’s small crowd for the opening of The Tempest. She brought a friend with her. “Its not safe for mama if I go home,” she said, “and my friend can’t go home either.”

Daniel Luis showed his sister and her friend where to stay behind a tangle of old props in a backroom behind the stage.

Captain Rodriguez no longer came in to the theater, and the number of soldiers in the plaza only increased.

Daniel Luis’s uncle still brought his allowance and Daniel Luis went out in the days to buy food.

A young usher, no more than 13 or 14, begged to be allowed to stay at the theater, saying that when he had last gone to his home, it was on fire and he could find no one he knew. Daniel Luis allowed him to stay.

For the first time, Daniel Luis saw on a side street, scrawled on a wall “Revolution!”

In the evenings only a handful of people came to the performances and some of the actors went missing.

“What will we do when it’s time for the baby?” Daniel Luis’s wife asked.

One day not long after, Daniel Luis saw smoke rising unchecked from the hillside as he fetched supper and heard gunfire in the distance.

On the radio the governor of the state assured the people the disturbance would soon come to a just conclusion.

That night the actor who played Caliban stayed on and on after the show with his understudy, practising the part. Eventually Daniel Luis approached them and asked if he could assist in some way.

“I think perhaps we’ll spend the night, “Caliban said, and so Daniel Luis helped him gather robes and make a bed in the greenroom.

And so the “Calibans” came to live at the theater too, demanding Daniel Luis fetch cigarettes.

The morning the radio began to repeat the national anthem over and over again, the soldiers stopped Daniel Luis from leaving the building. Daniel Luis saw that a machine gun now sat under the statue in the center of the plaza.

He moved his guests and family to the basement.

No one came to the theater, but the Calibans organized a variety show, Daniel Luis reciting an old patriotic poem, the only thing he could remember, and the usher surprised with the trumpet. They performed to the empty seats.

The next evening, Daniel Luis’s wife went into labour.

The Calibans were completely useless and his sister appalled.

It seemed to Daniel Luis that ages of agony passed.

He told the others to hide, and he went to the door of the theater and opened it carefully. He asked for Captain Rodriguez.

Captain Rodriguez brought a soldier with him into the theater, a soldier with a red cross on his arm. Daniel Luis saw there was a small spray of dried blood on Captain Rodriguez’s jacket sleeve.

Daniel Luis led them to the room where his wife laboured, and his daughter sat in a corner.

“Are you three alone here?” Captain Rodriguez asked, and Daniel Luis said “Yes.”

The medic worked with Daniel Luis’s wife. Captain Rodriguez asked if he could go on to the stage, to see the theater from the other side.

Daniel Luis walked ahead of the captain to the stage.

“This will be the first night in over 70 years without a performance,” Daniel Luis said.

“Hrm,” said the captain.

“It’s meant to mean bad luck.”

Somewhere behind them amongst the props, something or someone heavy fell over. There was a muffled, sharply cut off curse. Then silence.

The captain slowly lifted an eyebrow.

“They say the theater is haunted!” said Daniel Luis.

A long moment passed. Captain Rodriguez walked over to the curtains, inspected a place where Daniel Luis had stitched a rent in the fabric.

“Of course,” the captain said.

Captain Rodriguez walked slowly to the center of the stage, turned to the empty seats, bowed, drew his weapon. Daniel Luis backed away, swallowing hard. Captain Rodriguez bent and placed his rapier on the stage in front of him. He took a step back, and then he did a handstand.

The two men returned to the basement and sipped weak coffee in silence until the baby was born.

At the door as he was leaving, the captain said to Daniel Luis, “I hope you don’t have too many ghosts here.”

“Only a few,” said Daniel Luis.

“Good luck, janitor,” Captain Rodriguez said, and pulled the theater door shut behind him.


Kilmeny MacMichael

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3 thoughts on “Theatrical Spirits by Kilmeny MacMichael.

  1. Very good portrayal of the heightening civic unrest. The idea of the theater as a refuge is effective (art as refuge?). It appears that the time Daniel Luis spent with his theatrical spirit saved his and that of several others.


  2. Hi Kilmeny,
    This was a very thoughtful piece of work.
    It was well structured and took the reader along effortlessly.
    To give you a huge compliment, I would say that this reminded me a wee bit of ‘Mrs Henderson Presents’ due to the theatre and what it did for the patrons and performers.


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