But here and there, now and again, signs of distraction appear. A singer’s head turns, a singer’s eyes twitch, a singer’s sash flickers with movement. Here and there, now and again, they give in to the urge to look back.
One or two even murmur among themselves. Hey, what was that? Did you see it? Am I just crazy? In bits and pieces, for a measure at a time, the voice of the choir wavers.
It’s coming. It’s here. It’s happening at last. We’re doomed.
The conductor, of course, can see it. He can see how the wall at the back of the stage shifts and shimmers. It’s subtle, hard to detect at first, but once you’ve noticed it, it’s impossible to ignore how the phenomenon is increasing in frequency. Something is coming through, something big and unknowable, unnameable and rude. But the conductor knows, everyone knows, there’s nothing to be done. With each small incursion of the other world into this over the past few months, it has become increasingly apparent that not only is the nation under attack, but furthermore the forces invading are beyond all comprehension. There is no conceivable defense. There is nothing anyone can do but stand stoic, face the darkness, and sing. Sing out their worthless defiance. Sing their unfounded hope. Sing the anthems, beautiful and stirring, of faith and love of country.
It’s all they can do, and the conductor means to do it. But his singers are disappointing him. They’ve gone from intermittent glances to outright staring as the wall scans between worlds as though between radio stations. And—would you credit it?—one of the altos has actually left the stage! She’s kicked off her concert shoes and started to run. Fool woman, where does she think she’s going to run to?
The alto in question isn’t thinking at all about to. All her attention is fixed on running away. Behind her, part by part and singer by singer, like an entire fleet of vehicles running out of gas in formation, the patriotic hymn judders to a ragged halt. Behind her, singer by singer, the choir’s discipline falters and fails and the singers begin to flee.
But the alto doesn’t care about that. Her only concern now is to put as much distance as possible between herself and what’s coming through the wall.
Civic Park is twilit and the trees are reassuringly familiar. The grass under bare feet is soft and safe to touch. Between the rough-barked trunks, the alto can see how the distant buildings flash with otherworldly influence. But here, here in the park, all is well.
She comes to rest at the foot of a stately oak. She crouches among its roots and huddles against the trunk, letting the cradle of its roots lull her to calm. You are safe. I’ve got you. You’re well out of it here.
But she isn’t out of it at all. She isn’t safe. The strangers invading from otherspace can’t come through vegetable matter, but animal flesh is a wide-open door. The alto knows this. Everyone knows. Everyone has seen it happen over the course of the slow but accelerating invasion, when something other looked out of the eyes of a family member or friend. “Like, if he was a song, someone was playing a really disturbing cover version of him,” was how an early witness put it.
The alto has not remembered this. Or, more accurately, it hasn’t occurred to her tonight. In the panic over what might be chasing behind her, the thought of something coming through her doesn’t arise. Has it ever happened to her before? How would she know? She’s seen it happen, of course, most recently to a fellow singer at last night’s dress rehearsal. It had lasted only a few seconds. The invader had looked around with her friend’s eyes, turning her friend’s head this way and that for a better view. Then it was gone and her friend was back, entirely unaware that anything unusual had happened.
The alto didn’t tell her. What would be the point? Yes, it had been horrible watching the muscles of her friend’s face move in such unfamiliar ways, but no harm was done. It wasn’t like when that poor college kid turned into someone else who, in a fit of apparent terror, ripped a visiting friend limb from limb before retreating once more from the world. His roommate had watched the whole thing, and he told him what had happened. Of course he did. It was the kid’s only consolation in that horrible, sad situation, to be told it wasn’t your fault. Besides, the police had to be told, and the media. But that something other had peeked through the windows of a friend’s eyes for such a short time that, blink and you’d miss it, whose business was that? What good would it do, telling her friend, alarming her unnecessarily when they had a concert to prepare for?
But the concert has been interrupted, the singers have fled, and the final incursion is underway. The alto’s friend never knew when it happened to her last night, but when it happens now, the alto knows it. She can feel it. She can feel something else inhabiting her, flexing the muscles of her jaw, moving her arms inquisitively. And she can feel herself beginning to shrink in some undefinable way that has nothing to do with size except metaphorically. She is being crowded out of her own body and she does not know how to make it stop.
She can’t make it stop. It will not stop. It does not stop until she is gone.
Something that is not her before looks out of new eyes to scan its new surroundings. Something other than her before holds up new hands, flexes new fingers, explores the body now available for its use. So this is a thumb. So this is an oak tree. So this is our new world. “We made it,” it says aloud. “We escaped. We’re free.”
Then it begins to walk—hesitantly at first, then with new confidence—back to the concert hall.
The bodies of the singers, now under new management, return in an irregular flow. They walk up to the stage and pile into the risers, one after another, in no particular order beyond order of appearance. The body of the conductor, similarly having enjoyed a change of driver, is still standing at the podium. It holds up the conductor’s wand and beams.
Every mouth opens. Every pair of lungs swells with a new breath. Every voice sings.
They sing triumph. They sing hope. What they sing is bittersweet, for the oppressors forced them to flee their home and made what was left behind unrecognizable. But in a very real sense they have brought their country here. They have rescued it from the oppressor’s heel. They have established it in a new land where its ideals can flourish and where its people can be free. They sing celebration and thanks and love of country.
They sing the same song that they before had sung. But they sing it differently, a difference not wholly accounted for by the change in tone. Someone might have called it “a very disturbing cover version” of that patriotic anthem, but they’re not here to be disturbed anymore.
This has been the Friday Fictionette for November 24, 2017. It's also the Fictionette Freebie for the month, making the full-length fictionette (1278 words) available for anyone to download from Patreon (as an ebook or audiobook) regardless of whether they're subscribers.