As the anniversary year marking 350 years of the Paris Opera draws to a close, Stéphane Héaulme played the game of imagining the Opera in 350 years’ time: saturated air following the catastrophe of global warming, degenerate culture, authoritarian and oppressive regime! To survive, opera lovers come together underground around the Blue Ring, thus escaping the militia of the DAIS, the Degenerate Arts Information Service. A sombre, disquieting tableau that leaves the reader wondering.
The sounds of gunshots were getting closer. They were behind me, in the vast moorland night. I ran, bent double, skirting the bushes. From time to time, the beams from the torches skimmed over me, banishing obscurity with their white blades. There were cries. Orders shouted in the dull emptiness of that moorland now become a hunting ground.
I was not the object of the chase. Simply, I found myself in its path. Inevitably. I had to be careful. The other ran on in front of me, a long way ahead. His silhouette reared up intermittently, an animal jumping from one bush to another. I didn’t recognise him. Had I ever seen him amongst the spectators? Had I ever spoken to him in what we called “the foyer”? Perhaps he had even sat at my side during the shared enchantment of the music. This evening, he had not taken sufficient precautions. The militia had known that he knew the whereabouts of the meeting (we were only informed of the location at the last minute). It was at his heels. He would never be able to reach a safe haven.
The cavalcade caught up with me. I crouched behind a rock. The soldiers passed a few metres from me, revolvers in their fists, their eyes alight with the madness of their mission. I heard the hammering of their heels on the ground, stabbing the earth, crushing the grass, as we would all be crushed if we persisted. Nobody could escape them. We were the last of a hated, condemned circle of lovers of a forbidden art. An art declared to be a sickness by the regime.
There was a cry. The stranger had been caught by the militia. In spite of the half-darkness, I saw the fist of the man stretched up towards the sky, and on his finger the ring that shone with a blue light. Deadly proof: he was one of us. He was done for. He protested. I heard his voice. The tortured voice that might once, born aloft by the orchestra, have soared up into the domes of opera houses long since demolished. Then there were three gun shots. Execution. A fourth detonation. Silence. Curtain.
I waited, my right hand buried in my jacket. In spite of my glove, I worried that the light from my ring would shine through the fabric, that the militia would discover my presence. My heart pounded. I was stunned.
A few hours earlier, I had left the town via the old underground stations. For more than sixty years now, they had been turned into artificial canals. Water flowed between the platforms, ferry boats had replaced the trains. No engines, but two pilots, one in front, the other behind, who rowed. The expression “tube lines” had long since taken on another meaning. Thirty passengers who spoke little. There was something clandestine in this means of locomotion. Like our lives, like the three months of the year, between December and February, when the regime authorised us to leave our homes. The air at this period was bearable, between 25° and 28°C; we mostly went out at night.
It was at this period that our little community received secret invitations via the ring to watch what used to be called an opera. At our own risk; but the DAIS, the Degenerate Arts Information Service, had never managed to destroy our network. It struggled to dismantle it, spotting clumsy members darting out of their burrows like rabbits, their rings on their fingers.
This intelligent ring was both our salvation through music and our downfall if it betrayed us. I had chosen to wear it at the age of twenty, knowing that I could never survive without opera. If my life were to be shortened as a result, so be it, at least it would be full of meaning. Jarmila and I had made the same choice. We had grown up together, it could not have been otherwise; we loved each other already. My parents did not follow us, preferring the political kowtowing that led them to the most degrading servility, that slow drying up of the soul, crueller and even faster than that of the body. Like many slaves in denial, they rushed to their deaths when they decided, at the end of September one year, to surface in order to contemplate what remained of the leaves on the trees in the town one last time. They succumbed to the heat.
I didn’t emerge from my refuge until I was certain of the departure of the militia. Deserted heath. My ring indicated that I still had twenty-seven minutes ahead of me before the start of the opera. I got up and hurried off in the direction of the sea, heading for the old bunkers half-sunk into the cliffs- over four hundred years they’d been there. Another war, another regime, another decline.
Soon the sea air reached me. A little, muted joy spurred me on, effacing my recent fright. I would be with Jarmila, she would sit on my left, as she had been doing for the last fifteen years, I would feel the curls of her long, blond hair on my shoulder, smell her perfume. We would hold hands at the first notes of music.
Was I being followed? I turned round. No one. The crude shapes of the bunkers emerged on the mauve-streaked horizon. The hypnotic sound of the surf seemed to be trying to mask the immense fear that rampaged in our thoughts. I advanced, entered. It was so dark in the shelter that I had difficulty spotting the glass medallion on one of the walls, the open sesame for us all. I took off my glove, presented the ring. There was a click somewhere. A trapdoor opened in the floor. A staircase, a feeble light. I was invited to descend.
Only three minutes before the start of the opera. All the spectators would be seated already. Jarmila would be getting impatient. I imagined her annoyed expression. I descended the stairs. It was an underground passage that led into the Earth, below sea level. On the rock face, strings of tiny lamps had been hung. Little by little floated up the muffled sound of conversation.
I emerged into an improvised amphitheatre. There were cushions on the stones. A lot of people. A curtain of sapphire blue stretched out in front of the unknown. Impatient and delighted looks. In the half-light, each of our rings formed a shifting swarm that glittered at the heart of the illicit. Jarmila had not yet arrived. I made my way towards row 11, seat 25, always the same one – whatever the location – greeted my neighbour, an old lady, smiling, whom I didn’t know. What was Jarmila doing? A strange heat seized my body. I prayed to beat back the unthinkable.
The lights went down. The lamps were completely extinguished. A great frisson rippled through the assembled company. My Melisande, where have you gone? The rustling of the curtain could be heard as it swept to either side of a stage plunged in a bluish darkness. Breath suspended.
Then he appeared. Very erect, solemn, his white, pupil-less eyes riveted on us. His beard gleamed and his dinner jacket seemed alive with tiny reflections. The magus for us all. The one, the only one who retained the memory of seven hundred years of opera, the memory of a buried world, in our image, the high priest of a mass celebrating a history forever closed.
He advanced towards the centre of the stage where a glass rock rose up, very high, a sort of transparent column. Then he raised his arms and held up the Ring. The one ring. The unique ring we all depended on. Religiously, he placed it in a casket on the summit of the rock and returned to the wings. The fatal hour had come.
The ring gleamed sapphire blue, a deep sea blue, the blue of memory, the blue of gowns, of stage sets, of voices, of orchestras forever disappeared that were wholly contained within it.
Then there was music. A long chord in B flat major, profound, that rose from the depths. The origin and end of all things. Of the world. It rumbled, it flowed over us and in us, it filled all space, enveloping our souls, flooding us with happiness. Suddenly we heard, in the distance, several gun shots. Nobody moved. And whilst my tears rose with the swishing of the wave, the immense music gradually caught fire to carry us away in the tide of my misery and its timeless spell.