I live in the northern mountains of the Adirondacks, a wilderness so vast that it takes up the majority of New York state (although most people think New York as only the city). It is so utterly untouched in most areas that there are no trails or roads to travel to get to the lost places between the hills.
In such a place lay the Featherburnt Theater, a small outdoor theater that ran for nearly 50 years before being shut down. It was rumored that the theater had shut down because of the death of the main actress, a hippy kind of girl who was crushed under the weight of a falling piano that was supposed to lower her onto stage. Or in another telling, she was an underage girl who was coerced into a relationship with a man far beyond her years who then slit her throat in a jealous rage, spraying her blood all over a white piano. The only thing consistent in the many versions of the story was that there was a girl who was incredibly good at playing a white piano.
And so I found myself climbing the every so small winding track up the side of the mountain on the eve of my graduation from high school. I had turned 18 earlier in the year, but that didn’t make it legal to carry the vodka I had in my backpack. George had a beard at the time, I thought the scruff was handsome, and I planned to ply the liquor on him until he gained courage enough to see what was under my shirt. Heather and Faris were already well beyond that stage and I had more than a tinge of jealousy seeing as college was looming before me.
While the theater proved difficult to find, we came upon it just as the sun was setting. We had just enough time to set up camp before the last of the light dimmed. We set about collecting wood for a roaring bonfire, safe in those mountains as they had gotten a lot of rain. I wanted my childhood to go out with a bang.
Chips, liquor, chocolate, s’mores, and more junk food than you can imagine were passed around as we reminisced about school.
“Remember when Janie pulled the fire alarm with her teeth because she thought it wouldn’t spit out blue ink?” Faris said.
“It looked like she…BLUE a smurf!” George laughed drunkenly, his arm around me. My plan was working perfectly, and I was having a great time. The weather was good, the booze was flowing, the stars were out. Nothing could have been better.
“I’ve gotta take a leak,” George said and leaned over, giving me a wet kiss before stumbling off into the bushes.
Heather covertly gave me the old “finger in the hole” move, and I covered a laugh.
“What’s so funny, girls?” Faris asked, and we just giggled together.
“Hey, tell you what. I’ve got a dare to go to the theet…the a ….theator,” Faris slurred. “Oh man, I am tipsy. I’ve got a list of things to read at the piano place, you’ll love it.” He pulled out a sheet of yellowed paper that looked like it had been designed and written by medieval monks. Maybe even that old.
“It will summon the dead! Oooo!” he exclaimed.
“What will summon the dead?” George said as he came back to camp, his fly unzipped.
“Faris say’s he’s got something to bring the ghost girl back from the dead or back to life, or something,” Heather smiled.
“Didn’t she die at home with pneumonia after playing during a storm?” George replied.
“No, I thought she burned alive on stage in a freak accident,” I said.
“No matter!” George stated. “We shall perform, and if she does not show, perhaps I will give someone my own performance!” he nudged Heather, who groaned.
Begrudgingly, we followed Faris through the woods to the stage. Who would camp directly in the old theater? That’s just creepy.
It stood before us, now bathed in moonlight. It was beautiful and mysterious, but not scary. Fear was driven out by a feeling of the sacred, the way druid circles or a church might. Someplace you walk in and it just feels right.
We walked down the center aisle between wooden logs cut in half for benches and sat in the front row, as Faris walked up on stage with his paper, and set down a lamp so we could see him. The stage behind him had long since decayed and had graffiti and vines covering it.
“Ahem, Klatu Barata…Nickto!” he thought himself hilarious at that one.
“Come on Faris, is there anything even on that?” Heather pouted.
“Alright, alright guys,” Faris tossed his hair back. “Here we go.”
et exsurgat nocte manes,
tibi sacrificao nocte ad vitam et sanitatem et vires fortuna”
“Oh, that’s Sacramento,” he chuckled and squinted. “I think.”
The air changed when as the sound of his voice died, the cool mountain breeze carrying sweet pine through the air turned sour as a full outhouse. Shadows shifted on the stage as if a light was moving along them. As they did, our eyes caught a girl sitting at a piano, sweet notes already fluttering over the breeze to us. We froze.
She continued to play her melody on her gleaming piano, white as the moonlight, casting its own glow among us. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. An echo of her voice came to us.
“What?” George responded.
“He will choose…and be rewarded,” the girl spoke again with a light smile.
“What is she talking about?” Heather demanded.
“Choose a person,” the girl said on such smooth and flowing notes. The song began to crescendo. The woods around us creaked and something growled, although I couldn’t tell from where. It seemed something lurked just outside my vision, but moved when I stared directly.
“Faris…” I said, “Faris let’s go, we need the light to get back to camp.”
The woods felt like they were closing in.
“What…what do I get?” Faris asked the girl at the piano.
She stopped playing, the silence deafening.
“I choose…” he looked at us for a moment and my heart skipped a beat. He couldn’t possibly.
“I choose him,” and he pointed to George.
The fluttering notes began again and the piano slowly opened. Something that flicked off my sanity like a light switch crawled out. Although it was bathed in moonlight, it was covered in the void of night and moved like no creature on earth should naturally move. Enormous claws were inside my George’s body and holding him like a pig on a spit. In moments that lasted eternities, his screams were pulled back inside the piano with him until the lid closed, and they suddenly stopped.
The piano was gone. The girl was gone. Faris and Heather were tripping over each other and yelling. And I was screaming.
I was still trying to scream when they found me in the morning, my throat nearly bloody with effort.
Faris and Heather said they dared George to go to the stage in the woods, and he just never came back. It was a long time before I could even speak again, before I could form words in my mind that I could put on paper. Like learning to ride a bike again.
And what would I tell the police? There wasn’t a trace of blood, and they figured he had wandered off into the wilderness not to be found again.
So I stared at my white walls and my padded cell for months, waiting.
When the doctors were pleased enough with my progress, I left. I wandered the woods, thinking that perhaps I had imagined it all. Faris and Heather supported that idea, from a loft in France where they moved after he won the lottery. And then a payout from selling a large investment in a company that was barely six months old. And then played his cards right in the stock market.
It has been years since that day, and I wandered the woods for solace and companionship. Finally, I have found something I think will make me a little more whole. Tonight, I will hike the mountain again where I believe I lost George and sit on the stage and wait for the moonlight to rise high above. Where I believe a drunken 18-year-old boy was too stupid to read a relic properly, and certainly too drunk to read the fine print.
I will call to the sky with an offering, an offering that probably sat comfortably in a rich and luxurious setting across the world. See, with the right words, there is no distance barrier to the nightmares of the unknown.
And I want to see George again.