When my fellow thespian, Alexander Davis, broke from his normal pleasant disposition into an angel-cringing tirade, I had my first indication that both of us might not make our opening curtain in Reno.
“I’m sorry, Alex. I’ve never even heard of this Drowned Horse we’re stopping at, but you most certainly have. Care to elaborate?”
“It is the place Satan wipes his ass,” my swarthy companion explained. “Everyone who’s ever traveled through Arizona can attest to it.” His eyes lost their focus as he seemed to play back a memory in his mind. “Strange things happen there. Bad things. Stories that don’t end up in papers. Well, not the ones any sane person would believe.”
Born Alexander Davidovic, Alex was a Serb who held theater in his heart like no one I’d ever met. His size limited the roles he could play despite his incomparable skill. I’d met him in St. Louis during one of his more prominent roles: Brutus in Julius Caesar.
I, a gentleman from Maryland who’d practically been born on the stage, had played the doomed Emperor, yet I couldn’t help but feel upstaged by Alex. He gave a magnificent performance, and I partnered with him three more times before word of our talent spread throughout the country.
“I think it sounds delightful!” I challenged. “Remember, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ Think of it as an adventure.”
“My cousin died here.”
“There were not enough pieces to bury.”
Suddenly, I felt the fool. Here my friend sat, obviously tormented, and I showed no empathy. Yet, with no frame of reference, I had a hard time reigning in my obsessive curiosity. What type of town puts fear in such a behemoth as Alex?
When our carriage made its previously announced stop, I bounded out the door to see this damned village…
And my heart sank disappointedly.
It looked like any other small town west of the Mississippi; a collection of matchboxes just waiting for someone to strike the side. I mean, the only saloon was named The Sagebrush Inn. How cliché!
Upon entering this establishment, I heard a song; a song that would forever haunt me.
There's a yellow rose in Texas
that I am going to see,
No other soldier knows her, no soldier, only me…
The performer played without reservation, as if nothing mattered save him and his piano. His fingering was quite good and I couldn’t help tapping my hand on the side of my leg as Alex and I sat waiting for our drinks.
“Those aren’t the original lyrics,” Alex announced.
“No. It was originally written by a black man, about a visit to see a white girl. But the song became popular, so someone rewrote the lyrics so it could be sung by soldiers in the Confederate Army.”
Alex and I shared a thirst for knowledge. It added realism to our craft. At that moment, for instance, I absorbed my surroundings, drinking them in. Uncharacteristically, Alex’s eyes shifted nervously around the room—a collection of rabble if I ever saw any: gunslingers, gamblers, homesteaders, miners and drunks; their professions apparent by the dress, mannerisms and—whew!—smell. Did no one bathe west of the Mississippi?
“They have a stage here. I wonder if the locals would appreciate some of the Bard?”
Alex grunted. “This is not the type of place men come to for enlightenment. That stage is for women to sing while wearing little more than a smile.”
“Hmph. How are we supposed to save the heathens if we cannot bring them the word?”
“They do not wish to be saved, and you are no messiah.”
“Come now. You are unquestionably my John the Baptist, and I can surely raise these dead with my performance. If not us, who?”
Alex could not be convinced, so I sat back, pouting. I sighed loudly. I shifted on my chair, arms crossed. After a few minutes of that, my herald got up to speak to the owner.
Never sure what roles I might be called upon to play, I discerned the nuances in the saloon’s cavalcade. They dealt cards, spit tobacco onto the floor and took the creaky steps up to the second floor where whores called to them like sirens. Two-dimensional proto-beings, none fun to emulate.
None…save for one.
He sat alone at a corner table, trying his best not to be noticed. His body was closed, and his dress nondescript. He wore no “iron” at his side. No dirt on his pants to mark him as a laborer. A glass of water waited on the table for him to pick up, but he never reached for it. A Stetson hung low over his face, obscuring most of it.
His lips twitched as if he spoke to someone. I deduced that my objective silently mouthed the words to the song we’d heard upon entering. He whispered them like sweet words into a woman’s ear.
There's a yellow rose in Texas that I am going to see,
No other darkie knows her,
no darkie, only me…
Fascinating! The man spoke the original lyrics Alex had mentioned earlier, indicating he was intimate with the song.
This was a man worth knowing. He would make such an amazing character study.
Before reason could convince me otherwise, I got up and joined the stranger at his table. Closer to him, his face had the appearance of being weathered by sun and wind. A leathery tone matched the texture.
“I’m sorry, but you look familiar. Could you possibly have been at my performance of Hamlet in Kansas City?”
I placed my hand on the chair opposite of the man to sit, but I stopped in mid-slide when he spoke.
“Go away, if you value your life.”
At first, his accent made me think he was Indian, but what I could see of his features made me consider a race much farther north. His voice engaged me so that I didn’t take stock of the words or their meaning.
“You’re an Eskimo, right? What is the term your people use…Inuit, I believe? Your people are all the rage in the papers out East.”
No response or indication I’d been right.
Unabated, I continued, “What would one of the north being doing so far south? Isn’t this heat stifling for you?”
“It’s not the heat, but the dryness that hurts. Go, or you’ll regret coming over here.”
I pulled out the chair the rest of the way and took my place.
“I never regret anything. Life is too short for regrets. Don’t you agree?”
Seemingly resigned to his fate, he continued, never looking me in the eye.
“Life is regret. We regret being born. We regret what we become. We regret the things we do to others.”
I laughed, leaning back on my chair and clapping my hands. “What a dour outlook you have. How can you say such things? With the coming of every sunrise we have a chance to make a difference.”
I thought I caught a slight grin, as if all of my comments were part of a joke.
“Not all differences are good. Take me, for example. I was a normal child, living a carefree life along the coast. I loved to watch chunks of floating ice smash into each other, breaking into smaller pieces, which then collided with more. Then I collided with something. Something evil. And I was taken from my family.”
A chill ran through my veins, as if I, too, strolled with him along the northern shore. An impossibly cool wind passed through the saloon.
The instinct to leave wailed in my mind. Despite this, my body remained unmoving, as if the story he told had frozen me to the chair. I’d heard the word “evil,” in plays, knew its meaning in a thousand different contexts, but to know true evil? How could one say they’d experienced it with such certainty?
“Oh, my. And you met this evil as a child? How dreadful!”
“That’s how they feed. They take curious children, though sometimes they take adults with childlike curiosity in their soul. It’s like potent wine; a spirit, I mean. The longer a person keeps their innocence, the sweeter the final product is.”
His tongue passed over his top lip, and I found myself thirsty. Pulling the handkerchief from my cuff, I dabbed at my sweating forehead. I envied the glass of water poised between us. My subconscious begged, Where is Alex? Go get Alex! I paid it no heed as I fixated on the glass. Could I, should I, ask him for a sip?
My voice croaked. “A-and this person, who was he? How did you escape him?”
“I didn’t. And never said it was a person.”
I tore my eyes away from the glass slowly to look up to his now visible face. What had been leathery and brown before had transformed to smooth and blue-tinged. His eyes, wide and green, slanted away from a flattened nose. His neck moved, and gill-like slits carried in air to his heaving lungs.
The watery hum of The Yellow Rose of Texas assailed my ears, and I could not turn my gaze from his. If anyone in the room saw us, we must have appeared as lovers, unable to pry our eyes from each other. I heard the glass as he pushed toward me. Reflexively, my hand wrapped around it and lifted it to my dry lips, wetting my arid throat.
I drank and the glass never emptied. I drank and filled my stomach. The liquid flowed into every artery, every vein until it poured out my eyes. I wept and I became my tears, tears that refilled the glass perpetually with my soul. I did taste like sweet wine, and the Qalupalik who drank me thought so, too.
I’d been a fly and the Qalupalik, a Venus flytrap—oozing a tempting mystery until my curiosity couldn’t resist. I felt his thoughts meld with mine. That’s how they survived, drinking the souls of the innocent. My naïveté went down his gullet like sarsaparilla.
Alex returned and found my chair empty. He approached the water demon that had drank me whole. I wanted to call to him, warn him, as the shade of the Inuit man had to me, but I no longer had a voice, just an echo.
“I’m sorry to intrude, but did a gentleman come over here by any chance?”
“No,” said the Qalupalik, who’d returned to his previous appearance, one of the hundreds he’d devoured. The demon lifted the glass of water in front of him, draining it. He wiped his lips with the back of his sleeve. “No one has come over to talk to me. No one ever does. I like it that way.”
Alex apologized for the interruption and asked a few more patrons. Assuming I must have headed out to the loo, he left the saloon. I’m sure my friend looked for me until the stagecoach was ready to depart; maybe he’d even re-entered the saloon and inquired about the strange man I’d pointed out to him.
None would remember the demon sitting there, neither his face nor name. A skill of the Qalupalik race: only people they wanted to notice them would. People with appetizing souls.
People like me.
And as my devourer walked the arid, dusty road out of town, he hummed The Yellow Rose of Texas over and over much to my eternal damnation.