Chapter five: Singing shadows
I close the door to the cleaning supplies cupboard and wipe my hands on my apron.
I guess that’s it for today.
Maybe I’ll visit Jaxogeras’ gallery tonight. It’s been a while since I went on midnight adventures.
It’s some time after dinner and the family is sitting in the dining playing games.
I look in for a moment.
“Delaylah, are you done cleaning the kitchen?” Missus Viola asks pleasantly.
“Great, do you play jinx?”
“Family rules or sister rules?”
The lady laughs heartily “Sounds like the girls already initiated you. It’s family rules, come sit down.”
“We didn’t do the points and knocking though last time, you’ll have to explain that part.” Harmony helpfully explains and Mister Viola hums “All right so if you think your hand is good enough to beat everyone else’s you can knock on the table to increase the number of points getting wagered. You can only knock before the first set of cards is revealed, so no knocking after you’ve seen other people’s hands. Is that clear?”
“Good, now normally you play this with money but we just use points instead, you start with ten points and whoever has the most points by the end wins”
“When is the game over?”
“When these two ladies need to head to bed.” He gestures at the twins, Harmony chuckles, and Melody rolls her eyes. He then starts handing out the cards.
I pick up the small pile in front of me, with my limited experience with this game I diagnose this hand as ‘thoroughly mediocre’.
I’ve been lucky with those before though.
The game itself is pretty straightforward, but the moment someone knocks with their fist onto the table suddenly things get interesting.
Time freezes for a moment as everyone looks at their cards reevaluating.
Maybe for one point, it was worth the gamble, but two?
Melody patiently waits for everyone to decide, a wide grin on her face. She’s in by default as the ‘knocker.’
“I fold.” Missus Viola lays down her cards face down.
“I’ll see what you got.” Mister Viola doesn’t sound too sure of himself but it’s too late to back out now.
I look at my cards, if he goes along I’ll get to see the cards regardless so I don’t have to take the risk myself. My hand isn’t exactly great. “I’ll pass too.”
“Bring it,” Harmony says with a smile.
And then Melody lays down a hand made up entirely of spades.
And the table groans.
Harmony huffs as she lays down her hand, a good one, but just not quite good enough “At least I didn’t raise you.”
“If you did I’d have been out.” The father grumbles, but then his smile breaks through again “Well played Melody.”
The girl rolls her eyes “Yeah thanks.” But I notice the edge of her mouth curls up in sneaky pride.
I wonder why Melody is so hard-set on pretending she’s indifferent to things.
But this is probably not the time and asking is probably not the way to figure that out.
The winner collects the cards and starts to shuffle them together.
I look at my cards…this is a really good hand, right? Five hearts and nearly all of them are sequential. It seems too good to be true like there’s a rule that I missed that would make this entire hand invalid. I go past the rules in my head again but no, this should be a winning combination.
Then the sound of a hand on wood rings through the room.
“Again Melody?” Harmony grunts “I’m out.”
Mister Viola puts his cards down “Not with this hand.”
Missus Viola looks tentatively “I think you’re bluffing I’m in.”
All eyes go to me.
I should raise, right? This hand is good enough “I raise.”
“And I’m out.” The mother sighs as she puts down her cards.
“I raise your raise.”
“And I raise your raise.”
“I raise your raised raise.”
“Really? Wait how many points is that then?”
“Four I think.” Mister Viola says helpfully.
“Oh, this is gonna be good.” Harmony muses delightedly.
“Delaylah you only have four points you know, if you lose you’re out of the game.”
“Oh, uhm, well…” I take a moment to think “So be it.”
Melody nods approvingly. “That’s the spirit.’
I’m glad at least one of us is sure of herself.
We open our cards and…it’s a tie?
“No way!” Harmony exclaims.
“Hold up, if the cards are the same the suit takes precedence, now what was it again.” Mister Viola wonders aloud.
“Delaylah wins.” Missus Viola explains.
“Are you sure?”
“Spades trumps diamonds, go find that rulebook if you’re eager but I’m sure of myself.”
“All right then, Delaylah wins, well done.”
I smile wide and receive the tokens. I look at Melody hoping she’s not disappointed by the loss, but she’s smiling even more than I am.
It’s nice to see her smiling.
“Now it’s your turn to deal, just shuffle the cards and deal them around,” Melody explains as she pushes her cards towards me.
“Actually I think it’s time for the two of you to go to bed.”
“No way, I need to defend my honour here.” Melody exclaims.
Melody crosses her arms with a huff “I’m nineteen I can stay up past ten.” She then dashes up the stairs.
Harmony rolls her eyes and kisses her parents on the cheeks. “Goodnight mum, night pop. Oh and goodnight Delaylah.”
Harmony follows her sister up the steps and that’s the end of cards I assume?
Mister Viola gets up and walks to a small wooden cabinet that hangs above the bar “I’d offer you a nightcap but you don’t drink.”
“The thought is nice enough.”
He nods sets down three glasses, and then pours a drink for himself and his wife.
I look at the empty glass in front of me with a fun flutter in my chest.
I guess now is a good time to ask for leave. “Sir, I have a question.”
“What is it Delaylah?”
“I was wondering if it’s okay if I take up some leave, I’ll need to head out to Loptuny for a couple of days.”
“Loptuny, what’s out there?”
“It’s a dolls thing. My siblings and I hold a party every year to…uhm…commemorate the death of our father.”
“Once a year?”
“Any other parties you got planned besides that?”
“Not at the moment sir.”
“And you’d be gone how long?”
“Well, going to Loptuny is three days by train so I’d be gone for a week.”
“You understand I can’t pay you for a whole week of holiday right?”
“Well in that case you’re free to go.”
“Thank you, sir.” I then pick up the glass and pretend to take a sip. It’s nice in a strange way.
After the parents go to bed as well I get out to see the others for a bit.
Kregaya is right, it’s been too long.
Jaxogeras has a photo gallery not too far from here.
However, the moment I arrive there I find them closing up.
“Delaylah! It’s been too long, how are you doing?”
“I’m good, I was wondering if I could see your collection but I’m afraid I got the timing wrong.”
“You’re here for the photos?” They sound surprised “I expected you to be on your way to Memento.”
“Kregaya didn’t tell you? She’s going to sing tonight.”
“Really? Well, in that case, lead the way.”
They nod and we hit the town together. The sky is doing that thing where it’s night but it’s still too light outside to feel like it’s night for real.
“So how’s life been treating you?” Jaxogeras asks to kill the silence between us.
I look at them surprised “You mean Kregaya didn’t tell you about my new job?”
They wave away the question “Oh of course she did but I want to hear it from you.”
I roll my eyes at this “I’m fine. I got a new job at a small hotel, it’s nice, I enjoy my time there.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” They put a hand on y shoulder “Is it what you were looking for?”
I shrug. “Don’t know yet…” I find my gaze drifting up to the sky again.
Ever since we left that big house I’ve been looking for something, a destiny, a purpose or a plan.
This place, this world feels too big without it.
Like being lost at sea without a map.
“Delaylah?” Jaxogeras’ voice is soft, kind and sudden like a bolt of lightning.
My mind has been trailing off again. I chuckle awkwardly “And what about you? How has your life been going?”
A cheeky gleam enters my companion’s eye as they pull a hand-bound booklet from their coat. “I’ve been having some success with the iodized collodion but I need to tweak the exposure. They open it up and show off picture after picture of all sorts of items, animals, dolls and landscapes without a throughline to be found. These are just some tests but you have to come by the gallery sometime so I can show you the real deal.”
“That sounds great.” I’m happy for them, of course, I’m happy for them.
Jaxogeras is amazing they know what they want and stop at nothing to achieve it.
I wish I was like that.
“I like the new wig.”
“Thank you, Kregaya helped pick it out.”
“She made a good pick. I’m glad the two of you are so close.”
“Yeah…so am I.” Although it does make me wonder why she didn’t invite me.
Jaxogeras opens the door and the moment they do I’m greeted by languid music drowning out the conversations around us. Solemn pieces played on harps and violins.
It feels like they press down on me. The people are sitting around black-painted tables on black chairs. On every table stands a small skeleton of some small mammal of other. I think one of them is a cat but I don’t know how to identify the others.
Every surface seems to be covered in the same dull black paint, even the floor and walls.
I find the walls are also covered in picture frames holding a vast collection of moths and butterflies.
This confuses me a great deal.
“I hope they’re not real,” I tell Jaxogeras.
“I mean if they’re wasted otherwise I don’t see the problem.” They gesture at the skeletons.
“I mean the butterflies, one of my colleagues told me that human souls get carried to the afterlife by butterflies, or they are the butterflies, it’s unclear.”
“Sound like a lot of fanciful nonsense.”
“But if it’s true then wouldn’t that mean that some of those souls can’t make it up anymore if the butterflies are here?”
My sibling thinks for a moment, then pushes themself through the throng of people still trying to get in.
I try to stay close to them as they make their way to the wall.
“Well, I don’t know about their theory, but up close I can tell you these are painted silk…expertly done I might add.” They gingerly touch their wooden fingers to the glass. “Most remarkable.”
“You want to try your hand at it?”
“Perhaps…but later, we’re here for Kregaya now.”
We try and make out way towards the stage next.
This is such a strange place.
And seeing the stage I find things becoming even more puzzling.
The stage is empty save for a large canvas screen standing on brass legs.
I wonder what it’s for? Surely they have to take it away before the performance starts, I can’t see anything.
The cat wailing stops for a blessed moment and even the crowd starts to die down as they notice the silence.
The lights dim. Whispers make their way through the room and then-
A bright light appears behind the canvas, shining through a silhouette with long limbs and big hair.
Opening her mouth Kregaya’s voice comes through clear as water.
The music picks up around her syllables stringing along into a poem of sound, a feeling rather than a song.
A feeling of loss, the loss of a friend, the loss of a purpose, feeling lost inside a world that wasn’t made for you. And with each phrase, I feel it tug at a feeling I’ve had in my heart for years and years.
And yet something feels off, why the screen?
My sister is a beautiful woman who wouldn’t shy away from the limelight.
So I wonder why all we can see dancing around the stage right now is a shadow with her voice attached.
But then this place is odd as well so maybe it’s normal here?
Yet, looking around me, even the ones with rat skulls danging down their ears seem to be confused.
I try not to be bothered by it and enjoy the show.
The music winds to a close again, and the lights dim.
Around us people start to clap their hands together, I look at Jaxogeras but they just shrug, then starts clapping as well.
I follow their example, hoping I’m doing it right.
Then wait for our diva to show herself in her full glory again.
As the band picks up their usual routine of solemn dread I spot a blur of purple striding towards the exit.
“Did Kregaya just leave without saying hi?”
“Stay here in case I’m wrong” I make my way to the door pushing people aside as gently as I can manage while also keeping a steady pace.
Once outside I feel the chill has set in, but looking left and right I can’s see Kregaya.
So I was wrong then?
There’s a loud bang around the corner and I rush to the source of the sound.
Kregaya is leaning against the wall, on the other side of the alley I find the source of the sound, a dented metal bin she presumably kicked over.
Kregaya looks up at me with a start “Delaylah, what- oh you saw me leave?”
“Well…sit down then.” She scoots over to make room.
I sit down beside her.
“So what did you think?”
“You were great, I didn’t understand the screen though.”
She grunts at this, I wonder if I maybe insulted her. “Yeah, the screen is bullshit. The owner of the place is ‘worried people would be turned off by hearing such singing come from a doll instead of a person. So they wouldn’t let me try without the screen.”
“Yeah but I mean, I did get to sing for an audience and got to hear the applause. Maybe my craft needs to go before my ego and I should just ‘not care’?”
“I support you if that’s your decision but it doesn’t sit well with me.”
“If the owner valued you as a person he wouldn’t mind you being on stage in the open, the idea he wants your voice and nothing else comes over to me as disrespectful.”
“I see…I mean I think you’re right but he did give me a shot at it, most places I went to wouldn’t even let me in.”
“That’s showbusiness I guess.”
“Well, what about Jaxogeras?”
“What about them?”
“They got a gallery, right? They surely won’t mind you singing-”
“Out of the question.”
“I don’t want the only way I can achieve something to be through handouts from my siblings. I want to do this properly, no handrails, no helping.”
“Stubborn as always?”
“You bet I am.”
“You know it’s not like I don’t get the sentiment, but I am rather hurt to hear you don’t want to sing for me.”
Our heads whip to the side to see Jaxogeras standing by the door.
Kregaya shakes her head “I’ll sing for you whenever you want, but this, this purpose business. I need to go it alone.”
“I understand.” Jaxogeras sits down on the other side of my sister and hugs her “Just know you were spectacular in there.”
“Thank you. I just wish I didn’t have to hide the fact I’m a doll to sing.”
“Well…if that’s your issue there is one quick way to signal you’re a doll, screen or no screen.”
“What are you talking about?” Kregaya asks suspicion in her voice.
Jaxogeras leans over to her and whispers something in her ear. Her eyes go big, then she starts to laugh “Oh yeah that would certainly do it.”
She leans over to me and whispers the words in my ear.
By the time I get back to the hotel, it’s early morning and I notice Melody making her way to the back of the building.
“Oh, good morning Melody,” I say pleasantly as I make my way to the door.
The girl’s shoulders jump into the air as if she just got caught doing…something? “Oh uhm, hi Delaylah.”
“No, not at all.” It feels like she might follow that sentence up for a bit but after a good ten seconds of nothing she says “bye.” And rushes onwards to the back.
It’s odd sure, but I guess there’s some human reasoning behind it.