by Valo Wing
Dying, the conservatory informed us, was for sopranos. Rule number one. As if we weren’t already aware of our fate; like it’s some great honor to sing ad nauseam a character devoid of agency and doomed from the start. We were warned. Told to accept it with a smile and move on. But my name’s never been Obedience and I took out insurance to safeguard myself instead.
“Keep her secure,” a voice—Archer’s distinct coloratura—directs. “We need to cut them out.”
Dust and darkness. Decaying velvet curtains. Wood varnish and the smell of dried spit staining the orchestra pit. We’re definitely on stage, but I can’t move, can barely see. Can’t make sense of the spasms wracking my body while copper clings to the roof of my mouth. There’s a dripping down the back of my throat, metallic and sharp.
Another voice swears. Says, low: “And if we can’t?”
I inhale a shallow breath laced with artistic desperation gone stale; concentrate on the insistent wet pulsing beneath my skin. There’s an innate alienness to the sensation. As if the wrong muscles are writhing in the wrong places. It’s claustrophobic; suffocating. So maybe this is salvation. Maybe Archer is here to help.
Archer, scoffs: “Can’t? Or won’t?”
Consciousness returns in a violent explosion of gilded pain.
They have me bound to a metal folding chair. I’m restrained by ropes—curtain tassel cord, by the feel of it—around my torso, my wrists, every goddamn finger. Incapacitated and on display center stage for an audience of ghosts.
I move to murmur Archer’s name—rotted sweet, ritardando, not to beg but to merely reason—and find no sound.
In my throat, only a vast and terrifying emptiness. My tongue is immobile, and I don’t know why. Terror slicks oily and suffocating in my lungs. Without my voice I hold no value. And I’ve done so much to safeguard the instrument.
Singers—the conservatory informed us—are not humans but commodities.
That’s rule number two.
Archer looms into my vision, a singular spotlight washing rainbows in her anemic, long hair. Her mouth curls. “The reign of terror ends tonight, Florian.”
And it’s then I realize we’re not alone. Others obscured by shrouds form a crescent around us. Closing in. Smiles of bared teeth, of malice, gleam painful white in the dark. Witnesses? Accomplices perhaps, or victims? A reign of terror implies acts of violence perpetrated. And a need for vengeance, for a dramatic curtain fall.
But I’ve done nothing wrong. Nothing we haven’t been taught.
“Hesperus,” Archer snaps. “Now, please.”
From stage left comes footsteps heavy and resigned and accompanied by the squeak of leather Doc Martens. The stage manager I finally succeeded in sleeping with last week says under her breath: “Fucking monsters.”
Archer, dry and flat in response: “You know what she did to Blanche, to Iris, and all the others. What she almost did to me. This is necessary.”
What she did to Blanche, only, I have no memory of ever touching the soprano—she died five days after my arrival here, I’d barely met her, was trapped in rehearsal when the news of her death broke.
There’s an audible swallow from the stage manager. Archer rolls her eyes and crouches before me. Her mouth is a horizon, and she fills the entirety of my vision, jeweled eyes blinking discordantly in some strange twitch. A haze of shrouded specters stand sentinel behind, silent and watchful with their grinning mouths.
“I’m simply following the rules,” Archer says, soft, as she tucks a strand of short hair behind my ear. The oil in my lungs rise; tar and blood suffocating vocal cords rendered useless by my recalcitrant tongue. Her finger lingers for just a moment. Hope blooms in my lungs but her hand retreats, nails scraping skin as she pulls away. “A villain always dies. Just like sopranos. Lucky for you, you’re both.”
The muscles undulate under my skin, desperate.
Archer crooks a finger over her shoulder. The smiling mouths advance. Rules one and two loop through my brain, a sear of hot metal, the slice of a sword. Barbed wire and viridian lightning. I can’t remember rule three. My eyes rove wildly, burning in my skull, hoping for mercy in a merciless crowd; the inability to speak, paralyzing.
A hand grips my shoulder; familiar but no longer comforting, no longer gentle and teasing. I crane my neck and Hesperus’ severe expression shatters what’s left of my sanity. In her eyes, the gleam of a razor blade, the promise of pain.
And I know what’s coming.
I just don’t know why.
“Do it now, Hes,” says Archer and turns away.
Hesperus doesn’t hesitate. The woman I so sweetly slept with just a week ago withdraws a switchblade from her pants pocket and slices into my arm, brutally efficient. One cut, two; parallel lines that round out at the bottom to meet. Then: the peeling back of skin; excruciation. She slides expert fingers into my arm. Wraps them around the flapping muscle taken residence there, now exposed to musty air. Tugs.
My jaw unhinges, and I scream soundless.
Archer glances over her shoulder, a slight smile playing like bloody dawn on her face. “For the love of fuck, Hes. Just cut it out. Return what was stolen.”
Hesperus inhales with determination as the first shrouded figure steps into the spotlight and falls to their knees before me. Opens their mouth to expose the swirling emptiness within.
And I remember rule three; realize what’s taken residence under my skin:
Tongues, and more than I can count. Tongues in my arms, my chest, wrapped about the knife’s edge of cheekbones and behind my eyes. I am fifty tongues and forty-nine of them lie; each lie protecting me from becoming the victim this place demands.
Stolen tongues, stolen voices, stolen stories.
And one soprano carefully entombed within.
Hesperus cuts the first tongue free, but I’m not concerned. Everything’s going to be okay. It doesn’t even hurt. Probably because it never belonged there in the first place. I made a valid attempt but I’m not out of options yet. There is still rule three.
Spray of blood in the air. Droplets on the floor like a scattering of rubies.
“Fucking shit!” growls Hesperus. The detached muscle in her fist struggles thickly. “Fucking goddamn shit.”
The kneeling, shrouded singer holds forth their cupped palms like a lost saint seeking absolution. Hesperus shoves it into their hands. The mouth takes their tongue and swallows the writhing mass: Iris, I suddenly recall, is her name. Recall how I slithered sweet adorations in her ear under a new moon, pressed my tongue against hers; bit and swallowed. Now she stares at me with a gaze unforgiving. My mouth is dry as starlight. In my arm, the place I stored her tongue bleeds brackish blood.
Archer’s steel voice over the insanity: “Keep cutting, there’s more, there’s more.”
She’s not wrong.
The entirety of my body quivers, the tongues alive and furious at their wrongful imprisonment, pushing against tendon, against bone, against blood vessels; desperate for freedom, frantic to reunite with their rightful owners.
I strain to clap a hand over the hole in my arm. Remember I’m tied down. Lips curl in a soundless growl of frustration and despair. There’s no fucking way I’m going back to the person I was before; a singular being, naked and exposed and raw. I’ve hidden myself in the voices of my classmates and it’s kept me safe, my real voice buried so deep no one can unearth it, no one can take my talent and use it against me. As long as I armor myself in everyone else, I can’t be killed.
Or to be more accurate, I can die forty-nine deaths and still live.
Like I said, insurance.
Hesperus cuts and cuts until I’m down to only one.
So much for insurance.
When she’s finished, fingers crimson stained and shaking, I am a pulverized thing formerly human. Emptied. Blood in the air, on skin, leaking between cracked floorboards. Archer kneels before me, free of gore splatters, eyes like ice chips. She licks her lips, that tongue so red, so wet. I salivate with want. In the black of her pupils, I see a performance with my obituary inked into the program.
“Any defense?” she goads.
But there’s no speech in my mouth, no sound, no way to talk myself out of this. My tongue: stubbornly stone, hard as diamond. And it’s clear her victory, the smug portrait of an uncharacteristically triumphant soprano.
Archer holds out an open palm, and Hesperus hands over the dripping blade.
“I think a similar fate would befit the crime,” she croons, and my classmates nod within their shrouds behind her. Fingers cage closed mouths, as though in fear I’ll lunge from my bindings and devour their voices all over again. A cacophonic hum in the air duets the steady metronome of blood dripping to floor. Singers reunited with their instruments but too scared to open their mouths.
Stage lights and performance nights and one final fight.
I tease the urge to smile because I know what Archer’s forgotten.
Rule three sings in my mind.
Hesperus yanks back my head, hands like a vice. Archer advances. Pries her fingers between my teeth and studies the mass of flesh sitting useless with the black hole of my mouth. When the knife cuts I don’t flinch. I make no sound. No lamentation aria or tragic plea for mercy will spill from these lips. I sit, bound by the stage, blood pooling in my mouth and pouring free.
Archer drops the blade in my lap. Examines the tongue with one eyebrow raised, revulsion carefully tucked away. With a spin, she faces the choir. (She’s a performer. Performers crave an audience.) Stuffs my tongue into her mouth, swallows dramatically. Takes a bow.
Like thunder, it begins with a rumbling basso profundo, before crescendoing into a histrionic riot of sound. Forty-nine singers rescued from the horror of Florian Beck’s violent assault. Forty-nine singers free again to sing their way to death, blissfully naïve players to a narrative that couldn’t give less of a shit for their well-being, their agency.
Because, of course, there is no agency in opera: not for the singer.
Archer massages her throat with delicate fingers. Looks at me with blood lust and pulls Hesperus into her arms; kisses the stage manager without breaking our eye contact. When they separate, Hesperus staggers to the floor. Archer tangles a possessive hand in her hair; a god and her scion from hell. Says:
“How does it feel, Florian? To have your voice ripped from you as you ripped from so many. To know you’re worthless to the conservatory. That it was all for nothing.”
It wasn’t, though.
My smiling silence prompts a curl in Archer’s lip; the dissatisfaction of not getting a response twitching in her fingers, causing a hitch in her breath. She shoves Hesperus toward me. Says, ragged and breathless: “Cut her free, Hes. She’s of no threat to us now.”
And Hesperus obeys as I smile on, slide to the floor in a puddle sunset-hued. The blade, at my side. I cast it a sideways glance. Come to my hands and knees so as not to choke on the blood pouring from the hole in my mouth. A deranged grin reflects from the red mirror. Voices in surround sound: singing, screaming, an unholy clamor of assholes and idiots.
I inhale blood and lift my head. Bring a hand to my lips and blow Archer a taunting kiss. She sneers, opens her mouth, and—
Silence: it’s an interesting brand of violence, if you’re asking my opinion. I always find it uncanny, how the things we learn on stage translate easily to real life, yet almost no one takes advantage. Silence: a concept unfathomable to most singers but not forgotten by me.
Archer’s eyes widen. Hand around her throat. Confusion. Terror. My dead tongue inside her an infection of soundlessness rapidly spreading. I couldn’t stop the infliction with Iris’ tongue. Or any of the others. Silence was coming for me the second I understood what it meant to be a singer and decided instead to fight.
Sharing is caring.
I claw at the bloodied switchblade. Stand. Hand it to her with a quiet gaze.
“Archer, no!” screams Hesperus while the chorus behind us falls into mourning choreography.
Eerily compliant, she slices into her stomach, cuts free the poisoned tongue swallowed. It lands before me with an unceremonious plop. I scrabble for the muscle. Bring it to my lips and reinstate what was lost while Archer bleeds out on the floor.
Amused, I watch as every other singer takes up the knife in a panic, empties their mouths of tongues tainted by time spent under my skin, hoping my poison didn’t yet enter their veins. Idiots. Eager, I watch as the stage floor becomes a graveyard. Wait until the screams fade to ghosts.
Hesperus, still on the floor, shaking and tear-stained, looks at me with eyes haunted. Asks, raw: “Why?”
Copper and desperation and lost melodies in the air. I pick through the carnage, running my fingers through a strand of hair here, pinching an earlobe there, analyzing an iris dazzling blue until I have exactly what I need. The knife slips easy from Archer’s lifeless hand.
I carve myself a new set of armor, assemble it stronger, radiantly luminous and irresistible. The perfect suit to hide my true self beneath. Safe this way. The conservatory never should have told me the rules. Because once I understood the game, it was only a matter of time before I discerned how to win.
Hesperus watches wordless as I slip into my costume. In her eyes, only a fearful obedience, a silent vow to never betray. I smile with a tenor’s sensual lips, massage my new jaw constructed of mezzo-soprano grief, blink with the eyelids of a pretentious bass. Toss Archer’s anemic hair scattered in soprano rainbows over my shoulder and pull a few bills from my wallet; the payment a sprinkle of grave dirt over used-up bodies.
In opera—the conservatory informed us—there are only three rules:
- Dying is for sopranos.
- Singers are not humans but commodities.
And, most importantly, though almost never utilized, never fully understood:
- The non-spoken moment controls the speaking.
I exit stage left, an untouchable god, without looking back. The curtain falls, obscuring an Act Three massacre. Hesperus follows behind, boots a slick slide through a wet wake of ruby droplets. Unhinged laughter bubbles in my throat but I smother it, choke it down, focus instead on what comes next. The industry won’t expect war. But I crave vengeance and am a desolation of the conservatory’s creation, wielding all I’ve learned.
Silence, a singer’s ultimate weapon. Silence: divine violence.
Valo Wing (they/them) is a recovering operatic soprano turned professional funeral singer. Their short fiction is published in Dread Stone Press, Haven Speculative, and Brigids Gate Press. A Pitch Wars 2021 alum, they are represented by Naomi Davis at BookEnds Literary Agency. When not writing about unhinged lesbians or singing for dead people, they enjoy indulging an obnoxious velvet blazer obsession and drinking too much champagne. You can find them on Twitter @valo_wing.