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The Comedy at Kualoa
by Monica Byrne
First published in Electric Velocipede, Fall 2010.
Edited by Hugo Award winner John Klima.
For twenty-four hours, Gupta didn’t hear from her star theatre critic. She didn’t know if he was alive or dead. So his phone call, when it came, was welcome.
“Olsen, where are you?”
“I’m at home.”
“Well, that’s a relief. I thought you might be swimming with the fishes.”
“Nope. I’m alive.”
He sounded casual, which made her nervous.
“Okay,” said Gupta slowly. “I’ll tell you what we know: The scientists aren’t talking. The entire run of the play has been canceled. But the paparazzi broke through restricted airspace and now we have shots of dolphins trapped in the Theatorium, and no people anywhere.”
“I’m not surprised.”
Gupta lost patience. “Olsen, what happened?”
“I’ll tell you,” he said. And his voice was at ease, as if nothing was wrong.
Sergei Olsen, the renowned theater critic, sat on a blue velvet bench in the lobby of the Grand Kualoa Theatorium.
He leaned forward. The lobby was so long that it curved out of sight on either side, and it was so high that, if he looked up, he could only barely see the curved ribs of the vaulted ceiling. Suspended from the ceiling was a sculpture of an enormous dolphin, in parts, on cables thin as spaghetti. As Olsen moved his head, the dolphin aligned and became whole for one instant; as he continued, the parts misaligned again, and the dolphin expanded into elegant shards.
He had to admit, the sculpture itself was impressive. But other details bothered him. The walls were still obscured by scaffolding, there was still plaster dust on the carpet, and rolls of yellow hazard tape were stacked on the floor. Construction wasn’t done because the theater wasn’t open yet.
In fact, Olsen was its first guest.
He heard someone approaching long before she appeared.
“Mr. Olsen, I presume?”
Olsen started from the bench to greet his host. The woman wore a bulky, ill-fitting black suit. She was in her sixties, squat, and crowned with a cap of jet black hair so shiny it matched the stars in her eyes.
“Doctor Abbas?” said Olsen. He reached out his hand, but Dr. Abbas mowed it down, plowing straight for him, gripping him under the armpits for a hearty hug. Olsen smelled brine and heard a noise of rubber creaking. Dr. Abbas was wearing a wetsuit beneath her jacket.
“Forgive me,” said Dr. Abbas, pulling away. “I’m just…” She spread out his arms and waddled like a penguin. She was clearly beside herself. “I’m so excited you’re here!”
Olsen did not like to be touched. He knew she intended warmth and welcome, but her embrace had left him cold. He suppressed the urge to shudder. “I have to say, I was taken aback when you contacted me,” he said, crossing his arms as if to protect himself. “When the newsroom got reports of a ‘dolphin play,’ we all just laughed it off. But…” Olsen gestured to the sculpture, “…here we are.”
“Here we are,” said Dr. Abbas, who clapped her hands onto Olsen’s shoulders. He jerked away, and then willed his body to stay still, for the sake of politeness. “I asked for you ‘cause I liked your stuff. I read your article on Ooba…on Ruby…”
“Ubu Roi,” Olsen supplied. “A retrospective piece on the history of the avant garde.”
Dr. Abbas snapped her fingers in Olsen’s face. “That’s the ticket!” she said. “I thought, ‘If anyone can appreciate the kind of thing that’s about to happen—to art, to culture, to humanity!—it’s that critic Mr. Olsen!” She looked at her watch. “It’s almost time. Please, sir,” she said, making a grandiose bow, “let me show you to your seat.”
Dr. Abbas led Olsen up a carpeted stairway and through an arch.
All at once, earth and sky flowered around them, like a plume in the wake of a diver.
The Kualoa Valley was a great cradle of stone, its sides sweeping back like two cresting waves. Springs glittered on the peaks and wove their way down to converge on the middle tongue of land, making a river that rolled into the sea.
Dr. Abbas planted one foot ahead. “Isn’t it breathtaking?”
Olsen looked down. Below them was the amphitheater, curving away like a great singular petal poised on the lip of the valley. Towers rose on either side like whalebones, enclosing the ocean of seats, each of them stamped with a silver design—a leaping dolphin. Olsen had read that the design was commissioned from an artist of the sea, who drew only waves and shells, but with masterful precision.
Far away, down unnumbered steps, there sat an enormous aquarium. Olsen estimated it was four stories high. A continuous sheet of bubbles ran from the bottom up like a curtain, and a dark half-moon lay at its foot.
Olsen pointed out the flaw in the panorama. “That’s not very safe.”
Dr. Abbas started from her reverie. “Ah yes, the orchestra pit is unfinished. But it’s all right for tonight, because there is no music in this play. Someday, who knows? The dolphins warmed to our composers right away—you’d almost think they were human!—so someday they’ll incorporate Mozart, Mahler, Mendelssohn!” Dr. Abbas laughed at the thought. “But tonight is their night.” She came closer to Olsen, who flinched. “They’re performing their greatest work.”
Olsen leaned away and cleared his throat. “You mean, with balls and hoops? I don’t mean to be blunt, but I’ve seen dolphin shows at Sea World before.”
Dr. Abbas shook her head violently and waved her hands as if clearing away smoke. “No, no, no,” she said. “Dolphins have only ever communicated with us on our terms. But we have made such limited progress in understanding them. Do you know that for years, scientists dismissed all of their underwater balletics, their vast gestural vocabulary? Scientists just thought it was accidental! Incidental!” Dr. Abbas pressed her hands together and tapped them to her lips. “But all that has changed. Now we are to be treated to one of their greatest plays. They’ve only ever performed it in the wild.”
“What exactly are they performing?”
“We have no idea!”
Olsen lifted his eyebrows. “Excuse me?”
“All they’ve told us is that they’re performing a comedy. We’ve been forbidden to see rehearsals. And we respect their privacy! They are free, sentient, intelligent beings and so we afford them every right we would afford ourselves.” Dr. Abbas planted her hands on her hips and took a deep breath. “It took us years to achieve this, Mr. Olsen. And now,” she said, her eyes glittering with sudden tears, “I can sit down, an old woman, and watch my children perform. In this.” Her arms swept wide, to take in the vista. “Welcome to the greatest premiere in all of interspecies history!”
An intern had slipped Gupta a memo. It sat, read but untouched, as she leaned over her desk with her fingers to her temple, holding the phone.
“Dr. Abbas believed the dolphins were free sentient beings,” Olsen was saying. “But she also acted like she was their mother.”
Gupta closed her eyes, and decided to go on. “Olsen, how did you feel about Dr. Abbas?”
“How did I feel about her?”
Olsen hesitated. “She was a nice person. A little too physically affectionate, for my taste.”
“I’m sensitive,” he said. “It’s what makes me a good critic.”
Gupta smiled briefly. It was an old exchange of theirs.
But she had bad news. She smoothed out the memo in front of her, then took a deep breath. “Olsen, do you know that Dr. Abbas is dead?”
“Oh yes,” he said.
Gupta was startled. “You do?”
“Yes,” he said. “I saw it happen.”
Olsen and Dr. Abbas were not the only guests at this private premiere, of course. Everyone from the Institute had been invited. They only took up one or two hundred seats—a tiny patch in the sea of seats, but they made a lively crowd. In solidarity with Dr. Abbas, many were also wearing wetsuits, either by themselves or under a dress. Several even wore wetsuits imprinted with a tuxedo pattern; specially ordered for the event, it seemed. Some wore decorative kelp in their hair. Some wore blue lipstick. Still others held signs in their laps, hand-made with marker and glitter. They said: WE LOVE YOU KIWAI’O! and PUHO’I ROCKS!
“G-51 and G-52—the perfect seats,” Dr. Abbas announced, bowing again to Olsen. He sidled past a row of people, all half-rising to accommodate him, and finally made it to his seat. The cushion was deep, plush, and waterproof.
Dr. Abbas settled in next to him. Then she reached under her seat, drew up an enormous bouquet of red roses, and held them in her lap. “For my dolphin, Bapuha. She’s our most brilliant female. I just thought I’d get a little something for her,” she explained, beaming and conspiratorial.
Then she turned away to chat with another scientist, leaving Olsen to study the view. The aquarium was so enormous that he had to crane his head to see any sky—a thin strip above the lip of the tank. But before him, the water-stage glowed electric blue. The curtain hummed and bubbled.
Olsen pointed to a dark patch on the aquarium floor. “What’s that?” he asked Dr. Abbas. “‘Enter stage bottom’?”
“Exactly!” she said, turning back around. “That’s the dolphins’ avenue to the ocean.”
“Why don’t they escape?”
Dr. Abbas gave him a reproachful look. “Because they’re not wild! We live in harmony. They choose to stay. And we, recognizing that, have built a tunnel connecting the aquarium to the ocean. They come and go as they please.”
Olsen nodded. He had to admit, he was genuinely impressed. He noticed he was squirming. The excitement had crept up his gut into his throat, and his heart pumped faster, as if getting ready for a dive from a high place.
“This really is remarkable,” he said.
Dr. Abbas nodded. “And it’s only the beginning,” she said.
“I heard you’re sold out for the next month,” said Olsen.
“Try six months!” said Dr. Abbas. “Everyone in Hawai’i, of course. And then word began to spread. Who can resist? The first occurrence of true interspecies communication? Heads of state have been ringing us up. Well, their staff, that is,” laughed Dr. Abbas.
Relaxed now, Olsen laughed with her.
“The king of Bhutan will be attending a performance next week, with his retinue. Prime Minister Chalem and her Cabinet, later on. The entire population of the Japanese Oceanographic Studies Institute has in fact booked the amphitheater for a midsummer’s night performance. Every single one of them, and their families too. Can you beat that?”
Olsen shook his head, marveling. “It’s the event of the century,” he said, and he meant it.
“More, Mr. Olsen,” said Dr. Abbas, leaning across the armrest into Olsen’s space, and Olsen found to his surprise that he didn’t mind. “We’re about to see ART that is completely alien to us. It will redefine everything.” She looked at her watch. “Sixty seconds to start!”
Olsen let out his breath, a loud wind on the phone. “Language,” he said slowly, as if reciting a lesson, “is the creation of information in one mind by means of signals from another.”
“Right…” said Gupta.
“But,” said Olsen, “if the signals are not agreed upon…”
“If they’re not the same…”
Olsen took his time. “Imagine you’re fighting for your life, and banging on the see-through side of a one-way mirror.”
Gupta rested her forehead in her hand. “I don’t understand.”
“The ones on the other side. They might just think that music is playing.”
Gupta nodded, understanding now. “Or,” she ventured, “conversely, if you’re singing an aria—”
“They might think you were dying.”
The lights went dark. The curtain parted.
At once, the waters glowed and dimmed, one layer atop the other.
Dr. Abbas leaned over to whisper in Olsen’s ear, her voice thick with emotion: “The photic zone! It’s a representation of the photic zone and then the deeper, darker zones…”
Olsen nodded impatiently and drew away.
Then, in the blue silence, one lone dolphin swam into view. The crowd gasped, then sighed. Dr. Abbas whispered, “It’s her. It’s Bapuha!”
She floated and twisted across the stage like a dandelion seed on the wind. Olsen watched her go, pumping along the bottom with fluid grace. Then she swam across the top—still the only actor in the blueness—and then dove down, where the photic zone met the deep, and swam in perfect circles. Around and around. Over and over.
“Won’t she need to breathe soon?” Olsen whispered.
“No, no,” said Dr. Abbas, a touch impatient herself. “They can hold their breath for up to fifteen minutes.”
Olsen nodded and leaned forward, heart thumping. He followed Bapuha with his eyes, watching her every turn, letting his mind be a blank page upon which she could write her meanings.
Behind Bapuha, Olsen began to see a grid of tiny grey dots. He squinted. The dots swelled, each in their own place, becoming larger. He blinked. He was looking at a perfect fleet of dolphins emerging from upstage.
Olsen leaned back and covered his mouth with his hand, fascinated.
Bapuha circled, and circled again. She wouldn’t stop circling. The audience was utterly silent, mesmerized.
Now four new dolphins swam into view, two from each side. They were about the same size as Bapuha. Dr. Abbas whispered their names rapidly to Olsen—four more females. They swam straight for Bapuha as if to crash together, but then they turned at the very last moment, blooming from the bottom up like flowers squeezed out of a bouquet.
The grid of other, larger dolphins from the back continued to emerge. Even their tails swished in sync. Back, forth. Back, forth. Bapuha returned to circling. Her four companion dolphins swam in a larger circle around her. First it was wide and comfortable, and then it drew tighter, closing in.
Olsen glanced at Dr. Abbas, who sat still as a statue, with light on her face.
Bapuha was still making her endless circles, faster and faster now. Her four companions swam through the circle she made, disrupting her plane of motion, playful and almost mocking.
The grid of larger dolphins was almost upon them. Each of them seemed to be smiling. Little eyes glittering.
Suddenly, as one, the grid of dolphins split into a sunburst—a perfectly synchronized choreography, the way a school of fish moves as one. The halo reached the edges of the tank, and there they braked, and stopped. They each pointed their noses toward the middle. They looked like a ring of torpedoes. They floated there, still, and waiting.
Bapuha had stopped too. Now she faced forward, toward the audience. She looked as if she was smiling.
Dr. Abbas cocked her head like a little dog, not understanding.
With startling suddenness, every dolphin in the outer ring pumped their tails as one, and shot for the middle.
Olsen leapt out of his seat, holding his hand out as if to stop them.
Bapuha was lost in the crash. For a second there was only a huge grey rosette, made of dozens of slender bodies pumping and slithering apart like a tangle of worms. At last the bodies parted. There floated Bapuha, her mangled body trailing ribbons of red.
Olsen heard a scream beside him. The scream multiplied into many screams.
The scientists were in turmoil. Some were yelling, some were scrambling. The crowd surged and pulled—some running up the steps, and some tumbling down, toward the foot of the tank. Olsen got up with them, pushing toward the aisle, following them to unknown end.
The dolphins noticed the chaos and began to move in random gentle paths. They swam to the wall of the aquarium, and looked down at their audience, nudging each other for a better look. Behind them, Bapuha’s broken body still drifted, the threads of blood blurring together to make a rose-colored cloud.
Olsen saw a dark shape hurtling, in spurts, down the aisle.
“How could you?” she screamed, each word like a bolt. “How could you?”
It was Dr. Abbas. She bore her bouquet like a bayonet.
She did not see the pit. In her fury, she ran right off the ground, and fell, like a cartoon coyote, into the blackness. There wasn’t even a sound.
Olsen rushed to the lip of the pit and looked down. Her head was bent to one side.
Seeing this, the dolphins responded at once with jubilation. Each of them rocketed up, all the way up to the top of the tank. Olsen could see them breaching, flipping, walking in place with their flippers out. Their whistles resounded in the clear night air, and their somersaults exploded like fireworks.
Gupta was shocked into silence.
At last she spoke. “I don’t understand,” she said. “They wanted her to die?”
“No,” said Olsen. “They thought we’d understood their play. That we had answered back, in their language. And they were happy.”
Olsen looked around him, and saw people pointing and shouting. Arms waving. Mouths opening and closing. But he couldn’t understand what they were saying. No one could understand anyone else.
Then a bellow emerged from the noise: “Close the gate! Close the gate!” As Olsen watched, the dark patch on the bottom of the aquarium vanished as smooth doors slid together. The floor was now all of one color.
The dolphins’ celebration abruptly stopped. Their movements became anxious, chaotic. Their clicks and whistles got louder, layering and repeating. They crowded around the closed door, nosing at the crack, trying to get out. But every attempt was futile.
Olsen felt his knees wobble, flesh turned to air. He stumbled back from the lip of the pit and reached for a seat to steady himself, and bent over, taking one last look at the aquarium. He saw a small crowd of dolphins, clustered at the wall, looking down. They floated, no longer performing and no longer jubilant. Just floating, helpless.
They looked sad, he thought. They knew something had gone very wrong. But they didn’t know what.
Olsen felt specks of rain dotting his face, which turned to specks of color dotting the blackness, until his knees gave way.
“I see,” said Gupta.
She didn’t know what to do.
She could tell Olsen had been through something traumatic. But he didn’t sound sad.
Then again, if he was, he’d never tell her.
She leaned back and folded her arms.
“Would you like a few days off?” she asked, offering what she could.
“No,” said Olsen. “It’s all right.”
Gupta paused. “Would you like one day off?”
“No,” he said, “but thanks.”
“Dinner at the Plaza? Cheese basket? Bubble bath?”
She knew by his silence that she’d taken the sarcasm too far. So she took her penance, waiting for him to speak.
“No thanks,” he said at last. Gupta sat at her desk in silence, looking at her hand.
“Well,” she said finally, “What are you going to write?”
“Write?” Olsen sounded surprised.
“Yeah. About what the dolphins did.”
“Nothing. They’re just animals,” said Olsen. “What do you expect?”
Gupta saw that rain had begun to fall outside. She was vaguely surprised. She hadn’t even noticed the sun.
“Okay then,” she said. “See you tomorrow.”
They hung up.
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