VII: Aubade | Searchlight Song: "Catching Fire"
Even from the beginning the stage never felt like home. Every second spent gazing into the faces of hundreds I wasted fazed, flaming. My voice would break as soon as it escaped my throat. The murmurs were deafening, my breath a staccato I could never predict, never contain.
I was young. I wanted a taste of the spotlight. I never realized flying into the sun could scald so deeply. I was young, and I said perhaps I could try, and I meant if this burning kills me, I’ll rest certain I was once a spark.
I did try: sung showtunes to strangers to the rhythm of my heartbeat, uneven, unpredictable, lit from within. Breathed through the searing pain of smoke in my diaphragm. I handed myself to audiences drenched in gasoline. I burned exactly to the melody I was expected to, tongue caught in a sizzle, ears bleeding, voice breaking. Who knew I could ever be too visible, too drenched in full-on sun?
Months marched on and I found myself stuck in the thing they called baptism, a sacrificial awakening for every student of the arts. An aubade to the new generation of absurdists. Study musical theater in its form, its essence, they said, and I couldn’t help but oblige. Said a little prayer before I knelt at sunrise, like maybe that would teach me the proper way to catch fire the next time I stepped in front of an audience. Being onstage, they said, meant letting myself burn—and by “they” I of course mean me, my voice shaking and sure. I could grow a thick skin. I could thrive where I once had withered.
So I bit my tongue until it bled. I retreated back into the shadows, wore pain like inspiration, twilight like dawn. In the darkness I taught myself to fall in love with the stage once more, a perfect calculation this time, keeping a safe distance until the calluses on my hands had thickened to the memory of that relentless burning sun. Perhaps this time, my tongue scarred, cheeks sore, I could sing like angels at daybreak. Perhaps this time the fire wouldn’t break me.
To be the perfect musician, the perfect thespian, I had to rid myself of my fear of the stage. Examine the crime scene; study its arcs and edges, measure its length and girth. Read every textbook page for page. In those books I learned of the many faces of theatre, and I taught myself not to cower below them.
Then after years or hours we moved from classroom to auditorium. I walked the stage in its most naked night, cool and unafraid, with no set pieces or LED lights to disguise it. I gazed upon the hundreds of empty seats, a tender kind of music, a quiet kind of dawn. This song wasn’t so intimidating with the house lights on around me.
Even still the direct sunlight of performance terrified me; I knew all the books and knowledge could never be sharp enough to weaponize against fire. I skirted the topic of burning. Instead, out of necessity or curiosity, I learned to paint a set, light a performance in sync with the pulse of music. I held the actors’ lifelines, kept them speaking, singing, seen. Backstage was the hub of visual artists, the corner of technical operators. In the shadows I painted set pieces, beautiful illusions, breathed life into dying wood, and after all my ache this beginning was an imitation of softness. My once-trembling hands grew steadier; my hesitation dawned into relief. There was something about being sung to rather than singing that made me glow rather than burn.
It was half a year of late nights and later dinners, of listening to actors rehearse the same scenes over again, humming along to libretto and orchestra, watching the sun rise through a copy machine. Backstage during show nights the blaze didn’t feel so scalding; I stood behind the audience, lingering in the liminal space where the lights were set, the sound system mounted. The music back here stepped ahead of natural, the first chords immaculate, an undying confession to people, to wind. Every night I saw the stage anew, dappled and choral. Every night was a discovery, a baptism. I’d never realized sun could soothe like this, that hurt could fizzle into tenderness. What a strange salvation: to not burn in vain.
There was, I started to understand, a better way to ignite. From the beginning I’d been enamored with that terrifying, dancing fire, that screaming sun, a self-confessed pyromaniac. Now, though, I learned to dance with the flames, learned to pick up their rhythm, take it as my own. I held fire at the tips of my fingers, heard the ache of the sun’s name and still grasped the sound in my control. My fire had changed color and shape, changed form and feeling. I heard the same song in a different tempo. My voice was warm in my throat, nothing more.
I’d once been good at being paralyzed, caught onstage in the flames. Now I bloomed in indirect sunlight, behind the audience. It didn’t hurt anymore. When I sang along I didn’t need to sound divine.
Apart from the stage, I thawed, in this place where the sun touched instead of singed. The lines were no longer a recitation, the songs no longer a mass. What once was an inferno became the softest dawn. The brightness was kind, was enough. There was no more tradeoff between the hurt and the light. Like surviving. Like healing. Like waking up. Like saying yes and, for the first time, meaning it.
(Searchlight Song is a column, originally written by Christina Im and now by Elizabeth Ruth Deyro, about the music behind identity: how it shapes us, explains us, and finds us when we are stumbling in the dark. This column, along with two more by the HM team and dozens more pieces of art, music, and writing by contributors, is published in Half Mystic Journal’s Issue VII: Aubade. It is available for preorder now.)