“Cabaret Obscuro” by Julian Mortimer Smith
Back at the Rialto I had been a freak. A “novelty act,” Mama Trunket had called me. A token xeno to cater to that small demographic of perverts and degenerates who can’t get it up for human women. Most of the show-goers left titillated but embarrassed:
“Well, that was something different.”
Or: “I’ve always wondered what their tits look like.”
Or: “Maybe I would if I were drunk enough.”
Oh sure, there were always one or two in any crowd who loved my act, who would send flowers backstage or wait for me in the alley behind the theatre after the show, blushing, with marriage proposals and offers to walk me home. They were usually harmless and accepted my rejections with equanimity.
Then there were those who booed at the sight of me, who threw bottles and had to be ejected by Mama Trunket’s bouncers. Sometimes they too would be waiting for me after the show. They were a different matter altogether.
At Cabaret Obscuro a stickman takes the stage. He looks like he’s made of lines drawn with a thick pen; he looks like a child’s drawing of a man; he looks just like his shadow, flung onto the stage by the bright spotlights. He moves jerkily, like the images in a flipbook, as if he occupies a series of positions without passing through the intervening space.
I have rarely seen stickmen, except here at the Cabaret. They are the least numerous of the city’s xeno immigrants and are generally mistrusted. They are notorious thieves, able to hide in plain sight and disappear through tiny cracks in a wall or floor. There are rumors of a small community living in Broadwatch Warren, but nobody has been able to confirm its existence. Tonight at Cabaret Obscuro a small gang of them occupy a table near the bar and get drunk on strips of paper soaked in some sort of fermented ink. They snap their limbs together when they notice one of their own on stage.
The stickman is a contortionist. He folds his bodylines into extraordinary shapes and patterns. He forms himself into a perfect square, then a triangle, then a circle. He rolls around the stage like a hula-hoop. He draws in his limbs and stands on tiptoes, his body becoming a single line descending from his circle head, like a lower-case ‘i’. He spells simple words with his body: wow and grrr written in a rough cursive. He forms himself into a peace symbol, and, for a finale, into the symbol of the Movement for Universal Citizenship. This gets a big cheer from the crowd.
Then he takes a bow and vanishes, perhaps through a stage trapdoor or perhaps by some mysterious stickman magic. We all clap and cheer and bang our forks against our mugs. We can tell it’s going to be a good night.
Last month I was assaulted by a group of proudscum outside the Rialto, men in sleeveless jackets with thick, hairy arms tattooed with the logo of their affinity group. Men I recognized. Men who had been in the audience that evening. One held a length of sewer pipe in his fist. They crowded around me, stinking of liquor and bad temper, standing much too close, their eyes wide with indignation. I tried to back away, but they moved with me, using their sheer volume to force me into one of the covered closes that act as tributaries to Old Maker Street, feeding customers in from the surrounding neighborhoods and the Warrens.
“Hey baby,” one spat as they steered me against a wall. “You ought to be more careful walking the streets alone at night, especially in this neighborhood.”
“Th-this neighborhood. Iz wha’?” I stammered, trying to sound scared and clueless, exaggerating my accent, hoping that if they thought me appropriately intimidated and pathetic they would be satisfied and leave me alone.
“You see, this here is the entertainment district.” The man gestured back towards the lights and bustle of Old Maker Street. All of a sudden it was impossibly far away. “And us human beings come here to have a good time, maybe see a show and a little bit of titty.”
I could see where this was going, so I lowered my trumpet case carefully to the ground, standing it on its end against the wall, praying it wouldn’t be knocked or damaged, praying that Magrak would not be hurt.
The man went on: “And sometimes us human beings will be enjoying a show, only to have it ruined by some fuckin’ hobgoblin jiggling her vileness in our faces and trying to bewitch us into acts of sin and depravation. You think we like watching that? You think we like seeing your vomit-snot skin up on stage? Is that what you think?”
“Iz no my fault if…” I began, but then the one who had been talking shoved me against the wall while his friends grabbed clumsily for my arms. The one with the sewer pipe swung for me, but in his drunken state he failed to connect. The pipe hit wall instead, sending chipped brick and mortar flying. It produced a sound like the top note on a glockenspiel being hit with a hard mallet.
I rammed my boot hard into a kneecap and sank my fangs into a wrist, forced my jaw closed until I felt bone between my teeth. The men were too shocked even to cry out in pain, their thoughts moving too slowly to process such unexpected sensations. While their brains stalled I twisted from their grasp and drew the hook knife that I carry in my stocking. It is not for nothing that humans think of my kind as ferocious savages; that is one stereotype I am all too happy to confirm if the situation demands it. The men stared stupidly for a few seconds, then the one with the broken kneecap crumpled and the one with blood streaming from his wrist began to scream.
“You hobbo bitch!” yelled the one with the pipe, shock and fear rising in him and pulling his voice several octaves higher than he had intended, robbing it of menace.
I lunged for his face, careful not to kill. A dead citizen on my hands would be a sure way to get my visa revoked.
A stuffedwoman takes the stage at Cabaret Obscuro. Her act is a striptease. The little pit band breaks into a schmaltzy blues number and she slides softly into the pool of light at the center of the stage. She is massive and voluptuous, her body a patchwork of silk and flannel and linen, belly bulging hugely, a pair of large, bright, button eyes sewn into her head. She holds in her pillow fingers a tiny tailor’s knife, which she drags across her bolster belly and cushion thighs. Back at the Rialto Mama Trunket hires stuffedmen as bouncers. They feel no pain and are, of course, impervious to blunt trauma. You’re better off getting your aggression out on a mattress.
“Fire is the only thing that can kill them,” Mama Trunket had told me once, and I had wondered how she knew that.
The stripper works the blade of her knife under the stitches that hold her body together, cutting them one by one, in time with the rhythm of the music. There is a gasp from the audience as the first seam splits, opening a wide V in her belly. The stuffing spills from the wound, a billowing, wooly whiteness, like clouds made solid. She holds it in her hands, displaying the stuff that fills her, that gives her shape and volume. She fondles it, sinks her fingers into its softness. I watch in fascination and horror. I know she does not feel pain; I know that stuffedfolk make love this way, tearing open their stitching and sewing themselves to one another, becoming one creature. But it is hard not to see her act as self-mutilation.
From a hip pocket that is part of her body the stripper produces a needle and thread. She threads the needle easily, her massive fingers working with unexpected dexterity, and then she gathers the stuffing back into herself and sews up the wound. Then she starts on another seam with the knife, this one on an overstuffed buttock. The crowd cheers and whistles and the stripper laughs. She’s having a good time.
The stuffedfolk are among the gentlest people I know. Mama Trunket’s bouncers never hurt anybody, even when savagely attacked. And yet the human population fears and loathes them for their great size and fearlessness.
Traditionalist thugs, hooligans, rednecks, supremacists, proudscum – such groups are keen on the cabarets because, like the public baths, they are restricted premises, designated “human only” by the courts. The cops have shut Cabaret Obscuro down three times already and its present Fumblers Alley location is its fourth incarnation. We try to be careful. We register every xeno visitor as a temporary employee at the door. While xeno customers are forbidden from visiting the cabarets, employees are a different matter. As the MUC literature states, the economy simply could not function without us. Even at the Rialto the cleaning staff are all groppets, there are the stuffedmen bouncers, of course, and some of the serving staff and cooks are doublefolk.
And then there was me. The only xeno performer.
It was always lonely work.
A waxwight sorceress drip-walks onto the stage. She is a magnificent creature, with a dozen burning wicks protruding from her translucent, yellow-white flesh. Her body is somewhere between liquid and solid, melting in the heat of her flames and solidifying into new forms; this is how she moves. She juggles fire and works minor feats of magic with flame and shadow. She spits plumes of molten wax into the air that harden in mid-flight, above the heads of the audience. Her wicks burn bright and hot, rendering her flesh, and she flows onto the stage in a focused stream, forming a huge stalagmite of wax. We all erupt into laughter as we realize she is sculpting a giant wax phallus with a burning wick at its tip, an obscene but beautifully crafted candle.
Then she delivers her punch line: “His wife thought she was the luckiest woman alive, but then she discovered his cock was scared of the dark.”
We all roar with laughter and drum our feet on the floor. It’s a bad joke, but everyone is in a good mood and drunk enough to find it hilarious.
It was Cassie who brought me to Cabaret Obscuro for the first time, and who later brought me to the secret meetings of the MUC. Cassie was what we called an ally – a human sympathetic to our cause.
The night that I met Cassie there were storm warnings in effect. There were only a handful of show-goers at the Rialto that evening and we closed early. I held my trumpet case over my head, using it in lieu of an umbrella, and ran across Old Maker Street to the shelter of Flintmarket Close, thinking I would work my way home through the shelter of the Warrens. And there was Cassie, waiting for me in the shadow.
At first I mistook her for a beggar. Then, when she called my name, for an admirer come to proposition me. Then for a potential assailant. And then, finally, I came to the conclusion that I had no idea who she was or what to expect from her.
“Truddla,” she called again. “I saw your show. My name’s Cassie. I just had to speak with you.”
So she was an admirer after all. They were usually men, but I had had a few female suitors in my time. This woman had a butch look to her, bulky and muscular with short-cropped hair and masculine clothes.
“I don’t turn tricks, if that’s what you’re here for,” I told her, not unkindly. “I’m strictly a performer.”
“I’m sure you are, hon.” She winked at me. But then she turned serious and said: “Sorry. I don’t mean to tease. That’s not what I’m here for.” She handed me a business card. “Ever heard of this establishment?”
The card was hand-inked in gorgeous reds and blacks. In the center was a picture of a door with a circular window in it. Across the bottom was the word Obscuro. On the back were the letters MUC. There was no address given, no further contact information.
“I’m afraid I’ve never heard of it,” I told her.
“That’s good,” she said.
“What is it?” I asked. “This Obscuro? It’s something illegal, yes?”
Cassie sighed and put her hand to her brow, trying to decide how she should answer. “Yes and no,” she said finally. “We operate in a legal grey area. Come on, I’ll show you.” She turned down the close, towards a Warren entrance. “Don’t be afraid. I’m on your side.”
“Thank you,” I said. “But I’d rather not.” I slipped the card into my trumpet case and made to head back towards Old Maker Street. Better to avoid the Warrens tonight, I thought. A little rain never hurt anyone.
A groppet runs onto the stage and his arrival is greeted by an enthusiastic round of applause. The audience knows him. There is something of a hysteria about groppets in the human press these days. They are filthy creatures who prefer to live amongst garbage, who reproduce at enormous rates, who never work and who love mischief. Or at least that’s what the papers say. There is a supremacist movement calling for them to be exterminated and a progressive countermovement – sponsored in part by the MUC – who wants their sentience recognized. They look like messy little balls of fur with arms and legs and they stand as tall as your waist. This one rushes about the stage yammering and jumping up and down, either very excited or very angry. He stands at the very front of the stage, leaning towards the closest tables, spitting into his audience as he shouts and gibbers, waving his arms dramatically, blowing raspberries. Nobody understands him, but he comes back night after night to perform, a perennial favourite at Cabaret Obscuro.
“Truddla,” Cassie called after me. “Truddla the Trumpet.” She was just a shadow now, barely discernible in the dark of the Warren entrance.
And then she began to sing. It was a high, melancholy melody with a loose rhythm, heavy with rubato. She sang it loud and clear, and if there had been anyone passing the entrance to Flintmarket Close on Old Maker Street they would surely have heard it above the sound of the rain, ringing out into the night, strong and sure. It was an old hobgoblin melody, a lullaby sung in my mother tongue of Nithlish.
I stood very still with my back to Cassie and listened for what seemed like a long time. And she went on singing – verse and refrain, verse and refrain. Her accent was strong but so was her voice. And besides, it was the tune that mattered, not the words. It had been so long since I had heard that tune that I had almost forgotten how it went. Almost.
At last Cassie stopped, having run out of verses. There were more, but they were less well known than those she had sung. I turned to her with tears in my eyes. “How?” was all I could manage.
“A friend taught me,” she said. “One of your people. Come on, I’ll show you.” And with that she took me by the shoulder and led me into the Warrens.
Cassie took me by a convoluted route that I did not know. The lighting and ventilation were poor in the Warrens and the air was thick with the smoke of cooking fires. Most of the new xeno immigrants lived rough down here, unable to afford accommodation on the surface. Some had set up old blankets or oilcloths to screen off a corner of a passageway and claim some modicum of privacy for their families. Many more simply slept on the bare flagstones, their bodies pressed close to the walls to reduce their chances of being trodden on in the dark by passers-by. The Warrens gave protection from the elements and from all but the bravest or stupidest gangs of proudscum, but there was a constant dampness down there that made it impossible to feel warm.
My first year in the city I had lived in Gunshock Warren with my father and our roost of magpies. Some humans call hobgoblins ‘bird people.’ In truth only the hobgoblin underclasses practice the art of birdkeeping, but my family was from the lowest of the underclasses, which is why we moved to the city in the first place. We brought our magpies with us and they kept us alive during that first year. We ate their eggs raw, made clothes from their feathers and down, and at noon my father would take them out onto the streets, unclip their wings and whistle the tunes that made them loyal to him.
They would fly low between the buildings and steal whatever glinted in the midday sun. Sometimes it was jewelry or other trinkets, taken from street vendors’ stalls, which I would embellish with feathers and sell to tourists on that very same street in the evenings. Sometimes the magpies stole coins from tip jars or right out of the hands of customers. Customers would laugh when this happened; the merchants would shake their fists and throw rocks at the birds, but the magpies always got away. They would fly to my father and drop their prizes into his waiting palms, dumbly obedient to his sharp, clear whistles.
After what felt like a long time beneath the ground, Cassie and I emerged into Fumblers Alley, blinking in the gaslight and grateful for fresh air after the fetid closeness of the Warrens. The alley was narrow, a cul-de-sac at both ends. “Some of the businesses have back exits,” Cassie explained, “but the only public entrance is through the Warrens. The cops rarely come here. Some people call it Xenotopia. We can get away with things that we wouldn’t be able to in other parts of the city.”
She brought me to a low wooden door with a circular window and rapped on it with her knuckles, a rhythm that did not seem a natural way to knock on a door. The door was opened by an elderly stuffedman and Cassie led me into Cabaret Obscuro for the first time.
I begin in silence with my back to the audience, my trumpet dangling from my right hand, the trumpet case open by my side. I wear a traditional hobgoblin dress fastened with bright silver pins. I wear long striped stockings and red garters, a tight-fitting bra and plain, black knickers. I also wear a leather necklace with a large silver ring that dangles between my breasts. I wait a long moment before doing anything, letting my audience come to terms with what they are seeing: a green-skinned hobgoblin in a pretty dress holding a trumpet.
Then I raise my instrument to my lips and slowly turn to face the audience, playing a gentle folk ballad. I have a rounded mute in the bell of my trumpet, giving my tone a warm but strained sound. At this point, the audience does not know what to expect. Perhaps my act is just another musical number. But then I remove my mute and play a high, shrill note. Magrak leaps from my trumpet case. He swoops out over the audience in a frenzy of flapping. There are a few cries of surprise or fear. For those who have not seen my act before the magpie is completely unexpected and his wings make alarming snapping sounds as he beats the air.
I put my trumpet to my lips again and play a song of loyalty, clean and piercing, and Magrak returns to me and sits on my shoulder. I play a hot jazz number and he clicks his beak in time with the beat, occasionally fanning his wings and letting out rapid squawks, as if scatting. He rocks from one foot to the other. The audience laughs.
Then I play another loyalty song and Magrak flies around me in tight circles, spies the bright silver pins that pierce the folds of my dress; they glitter seductively in the spotlight. His magpie instincts do the rest. While I play a hobgoblin dance he nimbly plucks the pins from my dress and deposits them in the trumpet case, where he has built his nest. He darts back and forth, stealing the glittering pins from the lush black fabric, and bit by bit the dress unravels and slips from my body. As I approach the end of my tune it falls onto the stage in a heap and Magrak perches on my shoulder. I play the last refrain slowly, pausing between each note. It’s a simple and clear progression to end the dance, a slow but inexorable push towards the tonic, but before reaching the final note I pause and reach behind my back, and unfasten my bra, letting it flutter to the stage. I am topless now, but before the audience can get a good look Magrak is there against my chest, perched on the ring that hangs from my leather necklace, his wings spread across my breasts.
Slowly, careful not to disturb his balance, I return the trumpet to my lips, take a deep breath and play the final note, the unavoidable tonic, very loud and an octave higher than it might have been, a piercing trill that cuts right to the back of the hall. I sustain the note as long as I can, and while it sounds Magrak flaps his wings, still gripping that silver ring with his talons, allowing the show-goers a thousand fleeting glimpses of my breasts – so like and yet so unlike those of a human woman.
At the Cabaret Obscuro we perform for one another. There are few humans in the audience, and those who do attend are friends and allies, MUC activists and campaigners for xeno rights. When proudscum show up looking for trouble we chase them away, able to hold our own, for once, because we stand together. When the cops come we claim that we are all performers, that there are no xeno spectators at the Cabaret Obscuro. We claim that our performances are for human consumption only, in strict accordance with the law, that we have simply been staggeringly unsuccessful at attracting an audience. We claim that all the xenos in the place – the miremen and butterlings sitting at the bar, the cranepeople and doublefolk flirting and arguing at adjacent tables, the grobbit and the hobgoblin tearing up the dance floor, the waxwight and stuffedman in line for the lavatory – are all employees on their breaks
The cops leave, undeceived but unwilling to take action when they are so outnumbered.
Perhaps there is more truth to these claims than even we realize. The pay at Cabaret Obscuro is terrible and we all work other jobs to make ends meet. We all perform primarily for humans. Cabaret Obscuro really is a kind of break from our real work.
I still perform at the Rialto most nights, playing my trumpet and baring my breasts before all those wide, round human eyes that stare at me with lust or curiosity or indifference or contempt. Even at Obscuro sometimes I can feel those stares on me, and sometimes, when I am very tired or have had too much to drink, I feel I can see our little Cabaret as a human would see it – as if a human is looking out through my eyes. And I see it as a ridiculous farce. I get the sense that we are all freaks, all novelty acts, that we all cater to that small demographic of perverts and degenerates who simply can’t face the realities of the world in which we all live and work.
But then a hobgoblin cancan troupe takes the stage, and I feel at home again.
About the Author
Julian Mortimer Smith lives in Southwest Nova Scotia where he writes short stories for speculative fiction magazines and websites for small businesses. He has previously worked as a teaching assistant (for a university), an editor (for a board game company), and a clarinetist (for an army). He has published short stories in Daily Science Fiction, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review.
Julian currently holds the title of North American Conkers Champion. His website is: http://julianmortimersmith.com.