Christine staggered to her knees and snatched at a step rail studded into the tile, kicking off her slippers to grab traction on the outer surface of the dome. A gale from the south whipped at her white gown, tugging her hair free of its yellow net.
Pulling herself up onto a ledge, she swung around and stared out at the vast, empty gulf of black air over the glowing galaxy of Paris. High above the Garnier Opera House, the world was silent and empty, like a mountain top, except for the wind, slicing and growling through the great, gold angels and scores of stone cherubs.
Her knuckles went white. She licked her dry lips. She’d never been so high in her life.
A footstep crunched above.
Her heart stopped. She swung around.
Against the solid, mauve cloudscape, the figure stood erect and poised, his stage cloak free on one side to whip into the wind like a banner, and the other side curled round his arm against the cold. In fact, everything about him was theatrical, even dramatic, from his etched, knee-high boots, to the ornate vest, the broad gloves and…
A stark white mask covered his face, keeping clear of his mouth. His eyes were fixed on the last weak rays of the sun as it set in a swelter of red clouds and grey stars.
He turned to face her.
He watched her sombrely. “Well done,” he said. “You’re hanging on the edge of the world.”
She glanced down at the swelling curve of the dome, like a rounded cliff. “I’ll fall if I let go!”
“If memory serves, not five minutes ago you were singing about suicide.”
Her ears popped. “That was in the play! Not reality!”
“Then I suggest that you hold very tightly, madame.”
“Help me up!” she shrieked.
“And… I must thank you.”
She felt herself slipping. She quickly sat down, dangling her feet over the abyss of shadows and windows. “Thank me?” she gasped, “Why?”
“You saved my life.”
She glanced at him. He was staring down at the streams of people fleeing out into the plaza, away from the chaos of crystal and shredded silk masking his exit.
There was a long silence.
“Who are you?” she whispered, her throat hoarse.
“I’m Adam, and Columbus, and mankind.”
“I’m the shadow that’s more real than all the souls in Paris.” He smiled.
Her heart beat faster. Not only a kidnapper, but insane. On a dometop. She decided that she’d play to his pride, and perhaps, have a chance to get back up to the doorway from which she’d been thrown. From there it was a quick trip down the ladder back to the stairs and then the main gallery—
“I’m Alexander, and yet, myself,” he mused. “I’ve looked at the stars, and am glad that there’s nothing else.”
Christine cleared her throat. “Why am I here, monsieur?”
“Every Adam needs an Eve.”
“But not for me. Eve is the mother of all the living. You need to take my discovery out to everyone, and give them life.”
Christine ran her mind over the labyrinth of dusted passageways and dirty politics below the dome, governed by intrigue and rumour under painted ceilings and detailed doors. “What discovery? What are you talking about?”
“Listen carefully.” He crouched and tapped the dome with a finger. “Do you know what this is?”
“The… Opera house?”
“It’s the universe.”
She blinked. Insane. “Why?”
“Why does an opera house exist?”
She glanced up at the doorway, and thought quickly. “To produce operas.”
“Close enough,” he nodded. “To tell a story. And that, Christine, is my message.”
Her name on his mouth stopped her dead.
He knew her name. Well, if half of Paris knew her name, why shouldn’t he?
Keep him talking… “I don’t understand,” she said.
“ ‘All the world’s a stage,’” he quoted. “And ‘the play’s the thing’. That’s why we love to hear and tell stories. They are memories to help us remember.”
“That our opera isn’t over yet.”
Christine felt her blood beginning to boil. He was not only insane, and her hands were getting sore, but he was also annoying. “What is your point, monsieur?”
He leaned back against a lead-lined window. “Let me tell you a story. In this very opera house, a boy was born, scarred with a birth defect. Rather than face the embarrassment, they threw him out, and a doorman raised him in the tunnels beneath. But, instead of growing into a philosopher railing that all life was secretly scarred and deserved destruction, he found solace in stories, plays and operas…” He lapsed into silence.
“And?” Christine asked, shifting her position and drawing her foot up onto the ledge. If he stayed focused like that, his glittering eyes staring sightlessly at the sunset, she might be able to surprise him and push him off.
He passed his hand over his eyes. “I’ve been blind my whole life. Until I saw you singing, Christine. Your incredible voice tore the scales from my eyes. You sang about the emptiness of life, and the glory of death. And in that moment, I realised.”
She paused. “Realised what?”
He pointed at the crowds fleeing the plaza in carriages. “That you were wrong. So wrong. And that’s why Man hurries to get out of here. They’ve lost the plot.”
She snapped. “Would monsieur care to either enlighten me, or cast me off this ledge. Either way, stop toying with me.”
“Modern man has destroyed the universe,” he patted the roof again, “without touching a brick. He has grown dissatisfied with the opera because he has stopped acting in his own story, or stopping to watch other stories.
“He has poked his head behind the stage flats, to find a world of woodwork and painted backdrops, clockwork ropes and sandbags, with suns stacked against reams of cloth and paper. Pen in hand, he has cast off the mere, mundane explanation that they are all ‘props’, and has stopped to study each one, categorizing them, trying to find meaning in this colourful chaos by firing the stagehands for their simple answers, and sitting before these arcane artifacts for hours, wondering.”
Christine rubbed her arms against the chill, and pulled up her other foot.
His voice gained power and intensity. “These men go insane, for they can find no reasons recorded anywhere, no writing on the walls illuminating their purpose. And so they declare that there is none, no purpose.” The masked man smiled sadly. “And nothing can tempt them back to their seat, because they deny that there are any seats, or stage doors. They are convinced that the world is far too complex to have such a simple answer as a ‘stage’ for a purpose.”
He turned to Christine again, and his smile gained strength. “And that is what I want to bring to Paris, madame.”
Her mind was churning. “What?”
“Not another, new vision to fill the newspapers. I want to take out the old one and dust it off again! History is not a blind force randomly crushing and spurting life into a pointless future. It’s a story to warm the hearts and hopes of mankind.
“The beauty in this Story is so great it freezes the soul, and still makes the blood melt. It’s full of passion and despair enough to chill your bones, where the drama hangs on a knife-edge at every turn, and even a stableboy’s lines, when given at the right time, can save the neck of a nation.”
Christine stared at him. “What story is this?”
“There is only one, but it is told a thousand ways, and with a thousand mosaics and lights. An embroidered kaleidoscope seems pointless to one of its threads, but is a Persian dream to the painter who sees it all.
“This is the message I want to bring to the world, but I can’t do it alone. It takes a man and a woman to give birth to a nation. I am the man who has been watching the stories for years, and suddenly sat up straight and realized that they were stories.”
Christine’s hand fluttered down to her side. She was no longer interested in flight.
“And this is why I bring a fire and a sword into the world, because I have run out from the wings onto the stage and stamped my foot on the boards and purpose of my existence. I play a dream that God once had for me, and so long as I stick to His script, I’ll have a happy ending.”
Christine stared out at the sunset as the last ray winked into purple oblivion. A star poked through overhead, clear and white. She felt as if the world had flipped upside down, and she swung in the crow’s nest of a galleon, swinging between earth and heaven, and unsure which was which.
“So what is the story?” she asked.
He shook his head dreamily. “It would take far too long for me to tell it to you. But I will say one thing. What I did tonight has been done before. Tonight, I shattered the painted sky and dropped a titan of fire and diamonds onto a wakening people. Many of them will rush home tonight, and in the deadness of their souls, realize that they are actually alive.
“God did the same before, but He came from the wings like all the other actors, and showed them the Directory of Contents to all the rest of the operas. For a while, everyone raced for their parts, confident in their roles, content to play the part assigned to them.
“Since then, they’ve tried to rewrite the scripts, supply their own, and in doing so, convinced many to leave the opera house completely, or damn the rest to a dismal drudgery wiping the windows.”
He shifted and turned to her. “You know what I mean. Every part in a play is crucial. The opera collapses if even one actor fails to appear, or perhaps, invents his own music.”
Christine nodded. “Is monsieur telling me that everyone’s life is scripted?”
He smiled. “Only a master playwright creates a cast that is mankind itself, where everyone matters and everyone has a part only he can freely choose to play. It is only in the audience that all things are made clear, and the cast only joins the audience when they are done.”
He stood up and stretched out his arms at the single star, his mask a white glow above a whirling black cloak. “The best writer is the one who remains invisible, who doesn’t get in the way of the opera. You, the reader, are enthralled at the events, the dialogue and the characters, and slip into the fantasy created by a creative mind. The writer is the phantom, the shadow in the wings.
“I have rediscovered an Opera as old and as new as that star. Only it never changed. We did.”
“What are you going to do?” Christine asked.
“And I’m going to give Paris hope. I’m going to tell Paris that Opera. The opera of history.”
“Who shall I say sent me?”
He paused and thought for a moment. “The Phantom… of the Opera.”
And then he was gone.
Header Image © Warner Bros
It takes God to write a story where all matter and each has a part only he can freely choose to play. https://t.co/zv5CYf94gJ
— CatholicAuthor (@CatholicAuthor) March 16, 2014