Creative Writing Competitions:
Excerpt from When Stars Begin to Fall
Context: John Paul Archer has flown to Paris to search for the mother who vanished from his life thirty years ago. Early in his search he has been directed to an abandoned Paris cabaret hall where he witnesses a scene beyond all imagination.
There’s a clank. A spotlight strikes a huge curtain some distance in front of Fadra, Constancia, and me. There is light enough to see we are seated in a theater box next to a balcony rail. The spotlight illuminates the heavy, wine-colored curtain on a lower level. The folds begin to quiver.
A deep, resonant voice booms forth, seeming to come at us from all sides. “Ladies and gentlemen. We welcome you to an evening you’ll never forget at the foremost club in all of Paris—Le Fleur-de-Lys!”
The curtain rises, and the spotlight widens to encompass an entire stage. Spotlights from other angles direct their beams back and forth across the scene, a stage filled with figures in a semicircle around a single figure with his arms raised, a baton in one hand. There’s a blast of trumpets. The answer of trombones. Woodwinds come to the forefront. The whisper of violins begins far in the distance and weaves through the darkness to carry the melody forward.
But there is something strange. The musicians are eerily still. There’s no stroking of violin bows, no gliding of trombone slides, not even the rhythmic sweep of the conductor’s baton. Constancia responds to my frantic wave and passes her opera glasses to me. These are not flesh and blood people at all. They are figures crafted from wood, shaped and painted to perfection, all poised in silhouette, each with his own instrument and each seeming to bear a unique appearance and expression.
There are tables on the level below us, each draped with a white cloth. They are filled with people laughing, toasting, applauding—all exquisitely carved wooden cutouts as well. The music resounds through speakers throughout the club, across the top of the stage, and along the upper and lower walls.
The spotlights dim and are extinguished, all but one. It stretches to the stage and comes to rest on the first violinist, who stands with a grave expression. Monsieur Patou LaBlanch, the only living, breathing member of the Le Fleur-de-Lys orchestra, lifts the violin to his chin, his bow poised. With a master’s skill, he draws the bow gracefully across the strings, sending notes of magnificent splendor into the great auditorium, his eyes now closed and expression pure and serene, as if in a deep dream.
Eventually the number draws to a close. The stage goes black. All is silent. I wonder if this incredible show is over. In the dark I cannot see Constancia or Fadra, but I can tell neither is making a move to leave.
The recorded voice of the announcer again rolls forth through the darkness. “Ladies and gentlemen. The Club Le Fleur-de-Lys is pleased to present for your listening pleasure the radiant . . . the ravishing … the incomparable Paris Nightingale herself … Mademoiselle Lilli Dev-i-ille!”
I jerk forward, a shiver shooting up my spine. The spotlight again sends down its beam, now encircling a life-size wooden replica of a hauntingly beautiful blond woman in a black glittering gown with gloved arms outstretched. When I hear the first soft, golden notes, I know beyond all doubt it is a recording of my mother’s singing—the same song I’d heard her hum as she washed and ironed through my childhood—and that Jeanne Corday is Lilli Deville and that I am the proud and astonished son of both.
I sit amazed and enthralled by the Paris Nightingale. I am lost in the magic of the moment and the sense of reality of looking down from a balcony to a lighted stage and the presence of Lilli Deville herself. Her likeness is different from the others, not a flat depiction but a complete three-dimensional figure, a statuette that is delicate and real in its polished perfection. It surely conveys all the poise, the beauty, and the mystery of the real Lilli. The black gown almost quivers in the spotlight.
I would not be surprised if her hands, gloved to the elbow and held in frozen emotion before her, were to open wide, acknowledge the audience with a sweeping flourish, and stretch long and beseechingly to the center balcony, where I sit spellbound. It is incomprehensible that the image before me is unaware of my presence, that she is not singing directly to me.
She gives wholly of herself. Her voice is pure and immaculate. She sings of dreams, of yearning and hope. Her voice glides across the grand hall, rising and falling, pausing for a moment, then surrounding us all in its bell-like clarity. Best are the low whispers, as to a young child at bedtime. It is a musical prayer.
I strain to memorize each note, each word. But they are quickly taken from me and replaced by others.
Finally, the orchestra provides a concluding wave of sound, and the voice of Lilli Deville travels the crest and beyond. She holds a last, lingering, hushed note, beyond the orchestral accompaniment, and releases it to a moment of total silence.
The lights dim. The recorded audience bursts into riotous applause through the surrounding system of speakers.
Fadra and Constancia are focused straight ahead and wholly absorbed in the drama. I’m glad for the darkness. I find it a safe haven in an unbearably emotional moment. Thoughts spiral through my mind. Feelings and sensations rush in and out. There is nothing that could prepare me for the voice that has encircled and enveloped me, that still wraps me in its resonant embrace. The tone, the inflection, her framing of the lyrics. It is the most sacred and craved voice of my youth.
It draws a flooding of mixed memories. There is the warm smile, a laugh, a little joke as she tries to teach me the waltz in our small living room, my birthday gift to her, she’d said. I followed her graceful lead with an unsteady tentativeness. She whispered the numbered steps of the dance in my ear and beamed as though we were swirling across the gleaming floor of a Viennese ballroom. Each time the record finished, she would remove the needle, curtsy deep to the floor, and whisper “Thank you” in a voice reserved for me alone. Her voice. The last sound I heard each night. The voice that refashioned a nondescript valley into the Rose of the Pyrennes just for me. The voice finally telling me I must go.
The spotlight again finds its mark, and the singer moves into a longing, wistful ballad. It is a haunting melody. I strain to understand this woman at an age before I knew her. What are her concerns, her fears, at this instant? The music’s vibration suggests an inward pleading for something … to someone. Was she, I wonder? Pleading?
Then a startling thought—was I, at the moment of this song, coming into being? Curled like a seashell in the cradling fluids of her womb? Swaying next to the very heartbeat of Lilli Deville?