a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Act I, Scene i: The drama of first love unfolds in the murky swill of a primordial landscape, seaside. Proscenium framed darkness, bursts of light—the audience should know the Baroque painters had visions of the Beginning. Centerstage is a hot, dense, ancient of days; explosion and expansion; matter attraction; an atomic dance number here lasting anywhere from ten to twenty million years, make the audience wait for consummation like their Mother Earth did. And here she is! and her Seas; sun-pulled magma tides cool, but the momentum sends the Moon exiting stage right and leaves a wound called the Pacific Ocean.
Another four billion years of dark wet innovation passes, conveyed by our setting sun lighting cue, preset to repeat one trillion, four hundred sixty billion times. Enter the heroes: two gloopy sacks the audience will recognise as single-celled. Trumpets flourish, then decrescendo. The melody should suggest the loneliest time in the history of being. Improvisation—we’ll bill it as dadaism, but, in fact, the stage action—what to eat? what to secrete?—is based on order, balance, homeostasis. Cue solar cycle lighting fades into spotlight, downstage center. The cells pas seul—swell—then pas de deux! The first communion.
But descendants will vie for truce instead of union, a natural denouement. Act I may seem early for the climax of all organic matter, but remember, Earth is a woman, rhythmic, and she’ll melt back into the peripeteia of it all. Fade to black.
Act II, Scene i: Curtains rise to a scenic rococo painting of a seaside, the sweetest pinks and most aching blues. And there!—a lounging Madonna, clad in shining robes, or washed-out denim, whatever best implies Michelangelesque musculature. Hold tableau of a rare moment when the cherubim have flitted on, and only the babe in her lap remains. Here we have Jules, a four-year-old anthrop, recently bipedal. Her doughy hands rest on Mom’s cool white-blubber thighs where her beach shorts ride up and the tan line is stark underbelly. They are not quite one as they were when Jules was enwombed, or when, ancestrally, Mom was a cell and split into Jules, or in the future when they get that promised watery ‘Death Be Not Proud’ embrace. Cast a child actor who knows how to fall in love.
Cue the high tide. This is the moment when Jules meets her other—the cell who consumed her to become their eukaryote so many years ago—and then the common ancestor—the flatworm friend with whom she existed before they were victims of this bilaterian plan; this split that would lead to grooved, structured gray matter; the confinement of a spine on one branch, wild nervous synapses, color, and suckers on the other. He is a cephalopod. Octopus dofleini martini, for the dramaturgical note. At this time in their life together, he is no bigger than Jules’ chunky toddler leg. The tide carries him too far up on the beach—and he is accidentally suckering her leg, then purposefully, then he’s being pulled off by the mother, and he lets go with a fupp fupp fuppth—but he leaves his hickies. The toddler yells, “Oe!” and thus, the octopus receives his name from Jules, not because she is human, but because she loves him.
Act II, Scene ii: Jules ages from toddler to teenager with stage magic and patience. Oe ages with her; he grows, the ocean temperatures rise. Her mother dies from too much cell-dividing and self-gift. This happens offstage, Aristotelian. She is buried close enough to the shoreline that her cells won’t ever stop regenerating in clay muck, then organic strings between pebbles, alive and clingy, then mollusks, then something magnificent. Strip the stage, take everything from Jules, except a broken down Aerostar van to live in and a newfound truant school status. All is portrayed through a dance—very pure, very Degas. Oe is not the little hacky-sack he was in II.i; he has a twenty-foot arm span and weighs over one hundred pounds. Jules is sixteen. Multimedia presentations of early postnatal hyper expansion of cortical surface area, perhaps in MRI scans, would be appropriate here. The stage revolves and the proscenium frame gives way to a Pacific seafloor. If we can secure the grant, build it and present it in the round. If the ocean floor is available when the time comes, produce it there, but this is unlikely with the bleached coral, rising temperatures, and general state of decay. Let the scenic design team make determinations here, but know that there is surplus styrofoam that can be shaped into any number of ocean features.
Jules is waiting on the surface. First she gets a gentle spray from the red siphon, then the eye pokes out of the water, watchful, concerned, and so like her own with an optic nerve, retina, photosensory system. Here a moment of fine human and cephalopod eye contact would be appropriate, buttressed by Debussey or another quartet of the director’s liking. The water is disrupted as he shifts his weight and proffers an algae covered cinder block, a fossil of anthro-dwelling infrastructure, steel rod exposed—Jules gulps air, belly inflates, and when she takes the cinder block from Oe, she sinks right down to the bottom. Oe has to pull water in through his mantle to give himself the extra thrust to keep up with Jules. The keen observer will realize this is more than just a truce, more than just ‘I won’t harpoon you or plug up your vitals with bendy straws if you don’t beak-crack my skull.’ Ah, young love.
But, in accord with cosmic order (sometimes spat upon but never fully avoided), this will be the last time Jules will see her Oe alive. Of course, this is dramatic irony.
Act II, Scene iii: We will draw from Samuel Beckett’s Breath (yes, yes, we’ll pay the royalties to the foundation) for this scene; darkness, and a single piece of trash is blown across the beach as the winds inhale. She cups her hand in the water and siphons it through her fingers; no phytoplankton. All the coral is bleach white. The water is five or six degrees warmer than it was the top of the Act. Jules spends her days down at the beach, tossing starfish back into the tide and despairing. Then, spotlit in the catwalk, Bertolt Brecht and Rachel Carson (can you believe our luck with cameos this season!) pull ropes to release mesh nets of pounds and pounds of garbage. Oe has disappeared, the violins moaning from the orchestra pit inform us. We’ll give Jules a moment for her end of Act II anagnorisis.
Lighting shifts to blue wash and violins swell. Then—whiteout! She knows he’s not dead; he’s gone too far out and found an undercurrent.
Daytime wash. Armful after armful, Jules carries the preset PVC pipe to the shore to check the buoyancy of each; the ones that are still airtight stay piled on the beach. Next she drags down a tarp full of empty milk jugs, tupperware, beer cans, detergent containers, liter bottles, ball-point pens. The Aerostar is already onstage; some stage magic and a lever-pulley system set it upon an oil drum raft. She sets tarp-sail by the pull of the Great Pacific Gyre, by the force that took Oe when he ventured too far because the shallows were too hot.
The vortex takes her gently. Since the great basins were filled by the pouring rains, these ocean currents have always been swirling and pulling—Neptune’s hernia—in such a way that she is now two hundred nautical miles away from her coastal slab-town. As Jules expects, the first night on the open sea is electric-live. The Moon misses the Pacific’s womb, and she pulls and gnaws at her mother’s tides. Five miles beneath them, two Anglerfish make love in their constant night, and, thus, the first generation of Anglers with dozens of lures jutting from above their meshy eyes—so that from a distance amenable to shrimp, they’ll glow like lighters at an Indigo Girls concert—is begotten.
The swill has ceased to be a blue-green and is now brine-gray so that the only way the Humpbacks can be detected is when they break the surface and bbblow! Night falls, and the surface of the deep boasts a red glow—a solar plex of ectoplasm flares up and kisses her cheek. Jules longs for Oe with fingers tickling the glow and Ella crooning from somebody’s bluetooth speakers somewhere, we can be sure (a sound cue, faint). Jules hums. Then she pukes into the ocean from her perch on her Aerostar dinghy; little finned vertebrates materialize at once and chomp up all the marbling vomit.
This is the moment the cosmos reveals Oe’s death to her—it says so in the stage directions. How… that’s open to our interpretation. Perhaps an angelic messenger, or a voice from the booth. But she won’t believe it. Death does not penetrate, and never has; she still expects her mother to burst through the gray surface like a humpback and suck in her oxygen and spray her daughter—a Venus rising. Scene closes with a crash into an island of garbage.
Act III, Scene i: Open on Trash Island. The design team should be able to convey the following in melody and spectacle: Day is hot with no cloud coverage—Ra’s magnifying glass is against his sun, aimed at longitude and latitude coordinates 38° North, 127° West, or, directly down on our hero’s little dinghy. Jules reveals a mostly used squeeze-bottle of Banana Boat™ SPF40—she had found it a few miles back—so far, all man-made goods needed have been provided by the Pacific—Pandora’s box of the discarded and lost.
Hit the audience here with a spray of salt-rubbish, like their own beaches, but exploding into every pore. Like the dump, but in the middle of the ocean. Flocks of plastic jugs crowd the patchwork marina. For the set design: Warhol meets a Monet sunrise that Pollock threw up on. For the dramaturgical note: The news media and maybe a scientist or two might say The Pacific Garbage Patch because it’s pulling all the synthetic and organic material—plastic and plankton soup—into itself. Jules is pulled in now, and she thinks her love maybe is too. A mile directly below, a whale swallows eight thousand litres of krill-plastic soup, and catches seventy-four plastic bags, which will block its gastrointestinal tract.
She dives, breaks the surface and, as is her destiny, she just keeps going down, down, down, past the sunlit area into the twilight zone, light dispersed like after sunset or before dawn, her breath gone like the rest, but she doesn’t need it anymore. Darkness begins to take over. She’s at three hundred, four hundred, five hundred meters. She can see indistinct forms in a soft glow that is the high noon sky above. And then a flash. A sparkle. The bioluminescence receives her—the bamboo choral coils and sends glowing pulses taller than her. The eels shockwave, then demure to her passing. The Angular Fish is a splendid host. And Jules is a creature floating among the glowing fauna, a Venus born in the deepest depths of the sea basin. She hopes to find Oe; she has that heartache of nearness. And then she sees her mother. This blue whale glides right down at her; a colossus; Sanai and Jules is Moses. She takes hold, and is carried atop the great fish to the surface, where she sheds her tank and breathes and holds on for the three hundred miles of ocean covered before sunset.
They land on the beach. Jules embraces the fin, the eye, kisses the rubbery, milky-white skin on the corner of the giant mouth. The whale fills the whole beach, and never leaves it. Long after Jules has called for help, wept bitterly, and exited, the whale sits on the beach, rotting.
No curtain call. Leave the whale onstage. Bring the house lights up. The audience will get restless; some will clap, some will leave. When there are no bows, no fanfare, some audience members will approach the whale. It will have by this point a build-up of gas. The spectators will prod it, and it will explode, and it’s going to rain blood and hundreds and hundreds of plastic grocery bags. And among the poison expelled will be this poor creature—a twenty-five foot Giant Pacific octopus, half digested, still color-pulsing. And Jules could embrace him in a pieta.
Or she could stay offstage, alone and single-celled again. Your choice.
Angie St. John grew up in rural Missouri, and currently resides in the much colder Rust Belt. She writes literary fiction, and her work is influenced by her studies and professional life in theatre. She’s been teaching Literature in the classroom for five years, and directed Shakespeare in prison for three years. She is the recipient of the J.F. Powers Prize in Fiction (2019), and a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her work has been published in Storm Cellar, Dappled Things, and elsewhere. She is currently enjoying what her students write and working on her debut novel.