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Authors: Victoria Hamilton

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I took a deep breath. “I’d love nothing more.”

I got my car while Virgil retrieved his, then followed him to the police station, where I picked up Cleta, who was rigid with fury, and drove her back to the castle without saying a word. Quite frankly I didn’t trust myself to speak. In my humble estimation the woman was a menace. So far it was Cleta, three points, Autumn Vale, a big fat zero.

I deposited her in the great hall to make her own way upstairs, and took my empty muffin tubs directly into the kitchen to make lunch, a soothing cream of carrot soup. The ladies loved my soup. But it didn’t make up for the rage I struggled against whenever I thought of Cleta, and how she picked on the vulnerable.
woman! I’d have to get rid of her somehow.

Chapter Six

couple days I listened to various people butcher opera as they tried out the acoustics in the great hall. I also solved the mystery of Cleta’s missing knickers, salted sugar, and various other indignities that had been visited upon her. It was actually a joint operation by Juniper and Lizzie, who despised the woman for her behavior, especially toward Hannah, who had become kind of a saint to Lizzie. Hannah had provided Lizzie with books she actually enjoyed reading, specifically
by Scott Westerfeld. My young friend had devoured the whole series and it had led to her binge-reading other young adult series and raising her English grade at school by several points over the winter.

But I made Juniper, who did most of the laundry, return the knickers to Miss Sanson’s room and threatened Lizzie that if she ever did anything like salting the sugar again, I’d make her apologize publicly to Miss Sanson, a fate worse than death. The tricks and machinations stopped.

I ran from place to place, as usual, delivering muffins,
and I put up with Cleta, who complained about Autumn Vale, the castle, and everyone in it. Finally, I had a stern talk with her. She said how sorry she was to have caused so much
, but her tone was snarky, and I assumed she was unrepentant. She did behave better when it was just her and her friends, who were jaded and capable of ignoring her. Except she appeared to take delight in bullying Patsy Schwartz. I wasn’t sure why.

Lush was tearful and apologetic when I spoke with her about her friend. Cleta’s awfulness was not her fault, but when I tried once more to broach the subject of Cleta leaving summarily, I was met at the pass and turned around. The Englishwoman was, for the time being, staying. I couldn’t face Lush’s tears. It didn’t make a scrap of sense to me why my kicking Cleta out upset Lush so badly, except Lush seemed to be the only one immune to Cleta’s cruelty.

*   *   *

The day of the opera performance arrived. It was mid-May, a day faintly perfumed by the few blossoms on the lilac bushes I had planted around the castle in fall of last year. Gordy and Zeke had followed Pish’s orders as to what to put where in the great hall, so it was draped, the lighting was set, and the chairs were in place facing the staircase. Finally the performers arrived. The parlor had become a makeshift dressing room for hair, makeup, and costuming, some of which I took care of.

Janice was wearing a wig and elaborate headpiece for her Queen of the Night part; she had attended enough costume parties that she was competent to put it on herself. Though I am not a makeup artist, I do have a few tricks up my sleeve, so I finished her dramatic look: black eyeliner and green shadow, very red full lips. The effect was perfect and she looked appropriately majestic. Pish has done amateur theatrics his whole life and was able to help many more
with hair, makeup, and wardrobe, including Stoddart, who needed spirit gum and a fake beard for his role.

Lizzie looked miserable, Alcina excited, and Hannah serene—an illusion, I would have bet. Shilo clung to Jack, and Sonora Silva was off on her own, trilling and cooing a few of the notes from her part as the lovely Pamina. The whole castle was a pandemonium of energy, nerves and action, shouts about missing costume pieces, the occasional fit of weeping and a few raised voices.

Set decoration in the great hall was sparse, to say the least, effects mostly created by draperies and a giant hanging sun, as well as a matching quarter moon. After consulting with Barbara and Lush, who both had an interest in theater, Pish had made the sun and moon out in the garage on the property using chicken wire and papier-mâché. The draperies served as representations of the elements, so orange and red for fire, blue and green for water, and so on. Hannah’s mother had whipped them up in a day or two. Pish had rigged several wires from the high galleries so that Gordy and Zeke could affect the set changes by drawing different draperies to the fore, concealing the movement on my grand, two-directional staircase that split, climbing to the galleries that overlooked the great hall on both sides. It was acting as the stage, giving height to some characters, like the Queen of the Night, and leaving the earthbound ones like Papageno and Papagena (Jack and Shilo) at the base of the steps.

Also, the gallery above gave adequate preparation space for the actors to move and change costuming and await their cue. Tucked around the corner at the bottom of the stairs, concealed by draperies, a table held the props, like the serpent—a giant rubber snake with flashing emerald eyes—Papageno’s bells and the magic flute itself, a pan flute that started life as a tourist piece from South America. Pish had sanded off the
Welcome to Peru
burned into it, painted it in gilt, and decorated it to make it catch the light with stick-on jewels.

There were two large papier-mâché columns that would be moved in near the climax, to represent a temple where the finale would take place. They apparently came from a high school Greek drama from years gone by and had been stored at Janice’s warehouse. My dear friend Pish had put a lot of time and effort into the production, and I hoped it went as well as he expected.

Zeke did most of the final setting up, while Gordy spent much of his time regaling anyone who cared to listen about the Freemasonry aspects of the opera, which he had read about on the Internet. Other than believing every story told him by his great-uncle Hubert Dread, Gordy was increasingly relying on the Internet, avidly blending conspiracy theory and pseudoscience mumbo-jumbo, as well as some Illuminati and Templar references. His conversation was often a weird melange of the aforementioned, as well as random references to chemtrails of mind-control drugs, big pharma, and GMO crops, for good measure.

His latest theory was a doozy, and he explained to anyone who would listen that the members of the British royal family are actually wearing a human disguise. In fact they are, he says, members of a race of reptilian creatures; none other than Princess Diana herself had confessed it all to a friend in a taped interview. They feed off fear, he claims.

Distracted by the thought, I wondered if Cleta was secretly a member of the British royal family.

But honestly, he believed it all. Gordy is an example of a fellow for whom the Internet is a treacherous superhighway of dangerous misinformation, given his gullibility. I always have a sense that Zeke, both quieter and quicker, just smiled and nodded a lot when Gordy hoisted himself up on his multiple conspiracy theory bandwagons.

But back to the opera; I had early on put in my two cents’ worth of advice to Pish.
The Magic Flute
was ridiculously difficult and out of reach for the amateur voices he was
dealing with. However, he is immovable once he has seized an idea, and everyone else must bend to his will, including his friend Stoddart, who was singing the Sarastro part. I had heard him sing it, and he was middling at best.

This was the cast list:

Janice Grover as Queen of the Night; it is a part meant for a stunningly talented coloratura soprano. Her most prominent piece is one of the most difficult of all opera arias. I feared for her, I really did. I’ve heard that particular aria before and there are top notes that are staccato and precise, biting through the air like ice crystals. I had gone for a walk the day before during their dress rehearsal, because if Janice was as bad at it as I feared, I’d be dreading her performance.

Sonora Silva, the lawyer’s wife, was to portray Pamina, a soprano part. Her longest piece is commonly called “Pamina’s Lament.”

Pish was playing Tamino, a tenor role. He’d sing the aria “Tamino’s Portrait.”

Stoddart, as I have said, was donning a bushy fake beard and playing Sarastro.

Andrew Silva had another tenor part as Monostatos, the villain. He’s a lawyer. I told him he should be playing
type, not with it, but he just smiled and said he felt it would make people laugh. He was only doing it for his wife’s sake.

I had been pleasantly surprised by Shilo and Jack’s enthusiastic reception of Pish’s plans. Jack was set to play Papageno (baritone), and Shilo was to be Papagena, a soprano part. Theirs is a touching, if comic, love story, and I thought it was a perfect fit for the two newlyweds. Alcina, Lizzie, and Hannah were to play the Three Boys (treble, alto, and mezzo-soprano) and would sing “Look East” . . . in English, thankfully.

There were inevitable alterations. They had to do without the Queen of the Night’s ladies and the slaves, so that
required rewriting. In light of that, and the fact that he didn’t want the event to take more than an hour, Pish had diligently transformed
The Magic Flute
into a shorter opera, with fewer singing sections and more narration—in English—that he would use to explain the story and connect the songs. I told him it took some cojones to rewrite Mozart, but he said he had no choice. I resisted being given a part, since I was the hostess of the evening, and Pish did not insist. He’s heard me sing. I wasn’t sure whether I was mostly insulted or relieved not to be pressed.

The moment finally arrived. The Legion of Horrible Ladies descended wearing their evening gowns and long gloves, glittering with jet beads and diamondelle tiaras. Lush even had a pair of opera glasses in her hand. She’d only be five feet from the action, but oh well. They were given the best seats, a row of dining room chairs set immediately opposite the staircase. The townies arrived: Gogi and Virgil Grace, Doc English, Hubert Dread, Elwood Fitzhugh and his sister, Eleanor, Binny Turner, who unexpectedly brought her father, I was overjoyed to see, and various others from Golden Acres. Jack’s brother, a pleasant fellow as pleasingly plain as Jack, accompanied them. Also attending were Isadore Openshaw, Hannah’s parents and grandparents, Sonora and Andrew’s children—their daughter was in the same class as Lizzie—and some other of Lizzie’s schoolmates. That made a reasonable audience of twenty-five, give or take.

My “staff members” were also present, helping out wherever necessary. Emerald seated folks, and Juniper zipped in and out tidying whatever got untidy. Zeke was running the audio portion of the opera—a purchased background instrumental played on the sound system Pish had installed in the castle—and he and Gordy were, of course, doing the set changes.

I greeted everyone, then stood in front of the curtains as the audience hushed. “Hello, all, and welcome.” Nice acoustics, I
thought. At least we had that going for us, though good acoustics of bad voices was a mixed blessing. “I’m so happy to see you here at Wynter Castle, gathered to watch the Autumn Vale Community Players’ production of
The Magic Flute
by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.” I nodded off to my two helpers, who leaped into action. “Emerald and Juniper are passing out programs that will give you the parts, who plays them, and a synopsis of the opera’s story. For those who would like to know, in brief,
The Magic Flute
is an allegorical tale of human awakening and maturing, sacrifice and love.”

Since I didn’t understand the action of the opera all that well myself, despite having read several synopses, I kept my précis simple and to the point. They could read Pish’s more complete explanation in the program.

“After the presentation, we will adjourn to the ballroom for a light evening repast, which I hope you will all enjoy. Without further ado, here is Pish Lincoln.” Somehow, when one is introducing an opera, words like
flow freely.

I sat down at the end of the front row by Vanessa. Pish, dressed in costume—an embroidered long vest over tights with a simple crown on his longish hair—took my place and bowed, with a flourish. He spoke briefly of
The Magic Flute
and its importance, then said, “Ladies and gentlemen, opera is exceedingly difficult, so I plead with you, be kind to us; we are but amateurs. That said, I hope you enjoy our little production and will join with us afterward to talk about it! Have fun, everyone.” He bowed to light applause and hopped behind the curtains.

The overture began, and with the swelling music my hopes rose. It sounded so good! It gave me grandiose ideas for hosting opera weekends, and even maybe small string ensembles.

I was clearly delusional and getting ahead of myself.

The first set of curtains drew back and Pish, as Tamino,
began. He struggled with the “serpent,” and I had to smother laughter. Unfortunately, not every member of the audience was as kind as I, and giggles rippled through the group, swelling to chuckles and guffaws, the whole repertoire of laughter, as the rubber snake flopped and flapped, jeweled eyes winking in the light. By the time he started singing—he’s really pretty good, with a clear, steady tenor voice—it was too late to recapture the audience and it all went downhill from there. I won’t say the whole thing was bad. There were even moments that were above average; Sonora Silva as Pamina was sublime. The woman had hidden talent, and her children, in the audience, were noisily appreciative.

But the standouts for me were the “children.” Hannah is a stern taskmaster when she has a goal in mind, and she had been rehearsing Alcina and Lizzie relentlessly for two months, ever since she’d found out about the production. The fact that they were better rehearsed than anyone else, and that their main song was in English, gave them an advantage. Hannah’s voice was clear, light, and pretty; the crowd hushed, spellbound.

BOOK: Death of an English Muffin
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