The Sea Witch Goes to the Opera House

The Sea Witch goes to the opera house. She goes there wobbling on borrowed legs. She goes to see the ballet, to slide down the marble banisters, to pet the velvet upholstery. She wears a diadem of coral combs and her gait is a seaman’s rolling swagger. Les Amis de l’Opéra think she’s drunk.

On the steps, she turns to take it in: the crossroads, the sculpture, the traffic, the place.

So this is the world, she sighs. So this is the world.

The wind ruffles the anemone trim on the seaweed coat she wears buttoned to her throat. If you squint, it looks like shearling. If you squint, she almost looks routine.

The Sea Witch passes silently through the metal detectors. She has no shiny phone, no keys, nor coins. Her pockets are full of shells and spells and pale, powdery sand, with which she tries to buy a program. The attendant frowns down at the spider conch she holds out on her palm.

Let me, I offer, handing over my card.

Thanks, she says.

We move slowly with the crowd towards the foot of the staircase. She sighs softly at the well-lit splendor of such a runway, clutching the program to her chest. When it’s her turn to take a spin on the stairs, she ascends step by step, each stride carrying the stabbing pain of two sharp knives. But the Sea Witch is attuned to pain. If she can dish it out, she can take it.

At the landing, she steadies herself against a cool marble plinth. Swaying, she shucks her coat—vamping for a moment or two. Isn’t that what land vixens do? Les Amis de l’Opéra keep their faces blank until she pivots about-face, dragging the coat up the steps behind her in one clammy fist.

Who is this strange Witch? they hiss. She cannot be one of us. Consult the list!

At the very top, she hands her ticket to the attendant, and the venomous whispers dull. À gauche, madame, he says. So gauche she goes, and I go too. We have tickets for the same box, you see. When the attendant retires, she stands to hang her coat. With the house lights up, separated from the crowd, her glamour is plain-to-see. Her gown is ivory silk and net, weathered green at the seams. A belt of studded oysters is slung low across her hips.

You like? she says, catching me looking. Like a child playing dress up, she twirls unsteadily, her train fanning out behind her. It’s Mid-Atlantic. Titanic!

She hooks her coat and slithers back into her seat. In the closeness of our velvet box, the air is heavy and still. I scrunch up my nose. She wears too much perfume, and under it there is a whiff of the wharf, tangy and wet like landed fish and sodden ropes. At close range, she is older than I’d thought. Her neck is ringed with wrinkles. Hovering above the orchestra pit, just us two, I watch the other seats fill up. The great room teems with bodies, but no one fills the layer of seats behind us.

More room for us, she says, propping her bare feet up on the railing.

I want to knock them down. Her soles are black and tiny pieces of grit detach as she wriggles her toes. I watch them settle on the surface of the thick velvet.

Are you Une Amie de l'Opéra? I ask, sitting up straighter.

No, I’m a Sea Witch.

I open my mouth, then close it again. I don’t reply. She doesn’t seem to mind, her attention bouncing from me to the musicians playing their tangling scales. She opens her program and reads through the clipped biographies of the dancers. I watch her slant until the house lights dim and the curtains rise.

The overture is all surging strings as the stage slowly fills with light. From this angle, part of the scene is obscured. Only half of the hamlet is ours. The rest is woods, branches scraping the painted sky. Giselle and Albrecht whirl and plié and grande jeté into and out of the unknown corner. When they prance towards us, they pause. Ballet at close range is sweat and sculpture, rhinestones and pantomime. Arms outstretched, they stare into the middle distance, and I can hear them breathing. The sound of their slippers reminds me of the cats padding along the parquet. The company leaps and flies through the air in concert. The sound of twenty cats landing.

There is no intermission, no call for snacks and programs. You have to arrive here early for that. For seven seconds—count them, onetwothreefourfivesixseven—the stage goes black. In the wings, stagehands unroll a thick carpet of white smoke out across the floor. Spotlights cut through the darkness. The smoke swells over the edge of the stage. Albrecht paces the graveyard, framed by branches like gnarled fingers, but I watch the smoke billow out. I watch the smoke drop into the orchestra pit, tumbling over the oboes. I watch as it dissipates into the air. Then, when it is gone, I watch the Sea Witch watch the ballet. I catalog her soft sounds of surprise and delight, the deepening lines on her forehead as Albrecht whirls faster and faster, dancing with death. A briny tear tracks down her cheek.

When the final curtain falls, she claps until her palms are red. The house lights rise, and applause thunders through the room like waves pounding a sea wall. Dancing out from the wings, the company bows twice, thrice, before they leave us to our ends. The audience drains out through the back doors until only a dribble of musicians remains, snapping glossy instruments into hardshell cases.

Is there anyone waiting for you?

No, I say, because cats don’t count.

Will you sit awhile with me?

I let the silence be my answer. We sit on our plush chairs, fingering the velvet upholstery until the attendants forget about us. After thirty minutes, we plunge into a murky darkness, the black auditorium a velvet womb. We stay that way until I notice a faint glow out of the corner of my eye.

You really are a Sea Witch, I say.


She is matter-of-fact. She is phosphorescent. There is nothing to contest. Flaky salt shimmers along the contour of her clammy cheek. The honey of her hair is golden kelp. Even the faint lines on her neck, the rings of skin I’d taken as wrinkles, are the finest of gills.

We watch each other for a moment, and then I ask her if she’d like a drink.

Refreshment would be nice, she says. But let’s stay in.

We leave our coats on the hook and slip out the back door. The corridors are creepy crawly in the dim, pocked with glowing exit signs. There are no windows on the north side of the building, but the Sea Witch lights our way. A six foot torch, she keeps two steps ahead of me. In the foyer, the wide windows cast warped rectangles of light across the floor. We ransack the bar cart, Les Amis be damned. We split open bags of pretzels and salted nuts, and take bites only from the center of the sandwiches. I reach for a bottle of red wine, but she stops me.

Let’s have the bubbles, she says, gesturing towards the bottles of champagne standing sentinel.

I peel back the foil, and untwist the wire cage around the cork. Grasping the neck of the bottle, I wiggle the cork slowly until it shoots up towards the mosaic ceiling with a wet pop. I expect the foam to splutter out over my hands and onto the parquet, but all we hear is a faint fizzing. The glasses have been packed away so we take turns swigging from the bottle. I smile at the Sea Witch in the darkness and she smiles at me.

Would you like to watch the stars?

I nod, and follow her through to the balcony overlooking the crossroads below. She hops up onto the balustrade. Her smile is luminescent pearls and sharpened knives.

Won’t you sit with me?

I hand her the bottle and hoist myself up beside her. My legs dangle over the edge. The glossy billboards, three-stories high, wink at us. I stifle a yawn. The streets are quiet now.

Is it time to go home? she asks me.

Not yet, I say. Tell me about being a Sea Witch, about your potions and your spells.

I live beyond the kelp fields, she begins. People come from miles around to leave offerings tethered to the mouth of my cave. They come to buy better luck, divine their futures, grant them license to misbehave. The greater the boon, the higher the price. Sometimes the spell asks for pain. Sometimes it requires something much dearer—a morsel of your mind, a swathe of your soul—the recipe is precise. All potions come with a price.

I look down at her feet and without asking, she answers.

For fish who walk out of the sea, each fresh step brings the jagged pain of stabbing knives. There is only so much I can disguise. As the day wanes to night, the human cloak will destabilize. And then you must choose who lives—

And who dies? I chime in, a smile playing at my lips as I complete the rhyme.

I sing them the spell before I sell. They know what they’re getting into. As much as anyone can.

She passes me the bottle, and I take a long swig. A companionable silence lies slack between us. My mouth is buzzing with bubbles, wet and cool and crisp. That’s when it hits me. We are entirely alone. The rules do not apply. We could try on the tutus. We could slide through the corridors in our socks.

I feel so alive. Don’t you?

I am sorry, she says softly.

For what?

I turn my head to face her. Briny tears pool again at the edges of her eyes. Haltingly, I reach out to touch her, stroking the salt-encrusted curve of her cheek. A flake of salt breaks off under my finger. I open my mouth and let it melt on my tongue. I close my eyes for a moment, see the sea, and open them again. I blink, and like lifting a conch to my ear, the ghost of the waves flashes again before me. When she meets my gaze, her stare is cool and hard. She is ferociously beautiful, her face is wreathed in her undulating kelp hair.

That’s when she gives me the hard shove. That’s when I tumble through the air. That’s when I am momentarily weightless before I hit the cobblestones with a sick crack.  

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