from Hungry Ghost Theater: A Novel

The dark warehouse chills Arielle through her coat and gloves—she and her sisters stare at their aunt as she descends an iron staircase, undressing. Torches cast a smoky, wavering light, half-illuminating the audience, who sit in a circle around the stage. A thin, harsh, persistent music turns the warehouse into a haunted cave. Aunt Julia—Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, according to the photocopied program—has stripped down to her underwear and jeweled armbands. A blue-white spotlight strikes the mirrored floor of the stage, lighting both Inanna and her sister, Ereshkigal, Queen of the Dead and the Underworld, who sits on a throne at the bottom of the staircase. White makeup with sharp black lines and areas of red covers the faces of both queens: they look like warriors, like demons, like the angry dead.

            Arielle, Jenny, and Katya have heard about their Aunt Julia and Uncle Robert’s performances but have never, until now, been allowed to see one. “They’re for adults,” their mother said when they first asked. “Putatively.”

            “Too much sex for us?” asked Katya, and her mother said, “If it were only that.” Later, she said, “When you’re older you can go, if you still want to, but you’ll be sorry.” They badgered her this time, though, until she gave in—sooner or later, she always does if they keep at her.

            Arielle feels as if she’s inside one of her own nightmares, but she can’t look away from the stage. Maybe she doesn’t even want to. She’ll never forget this play—if she can get through it. She’s become more and more uneasy as, at each of the seven landings, Uncle Robert’s amplified voice gave Aunt Julia—Inanna—another command: “You must surrender your scepter and crown to pass through this gate,” or, “You must surrender your golden robe to pass through this gate.” Whenever Inanna asked why, he repeated, “This is our way in the netherworld,” sounding cold and formal, like a stranger. So at each gate, Inanna dropped something on the stairs and left it behind: her lapis lazuli scepter, her neckpiece, her robe, her dress, her slip.

            Now at the bottom of the steps, Inanna takes off the last of her clothing and jewelry and walks onto the stage completely naked. Crouching figures emerge from the sides and move toward her. Movie images flicker on each of the walls behind the audience—one with soldiers in uniforms in the desert and tanks firing, another with planes in the air at night, a third with President—now ex-President—Bush talking, a fourth with a bald man the children only slightly recognize. Someone in charge of the war and too many other things, someone their father hates and goes on about. The bald man talks silently, smiling.

            Arielle can see her own breath in the cold air. Aunt Julia might be crying, or is it a trick of the light? The Queen of Heaven and Earth descending into the underworld for her brother-in-law’s funeral, and her sister won’t let her in. Well, why wouldn’t you cry? Arielle’s thinking about all this deliberately, trying to stop her fear, to stay separate from it. But the play has made her part of its world, like one of the dreams where she’s trapped in a culvert with someone coming after her, on the verge of learning something she doesn’t want to know. The old feeling’s coming over her, her breathing starting to close up, tears rising in her throat. She takes off a glove and feels around under her folding seat, pressing her forefinger against the metal edge where a rough bolt fastens the legs to the chair.

            “Don’t wriggle, Arielle,” whispers her mother, and she holds still again, but the tears are coming back.

            She waits until she can’t stand it, then presses her finger against the bolt, hard. In the half-dark, when her mother is watching the stage, she looks down at her finger, the blood very slow, just a drop or two. The pressure eases, but not enough. Moving very slowly, not to draw attention to herself, she presses until there’s enough pain to help. She slides her glove over her bleeding finger and lets out her breath, slowly, the tears receding again.