byP aul Levy (c) 2009
Air is the third of four plays set over four successive generations in the 20th Century. It can be read or performed on its own or as part of the quartet.
(Lights up on Maria, a young woman.It is 1964.She is walking across the stage, wearing a coat, in a beret, carrying a shoulder bag. She sits on a bench, front stage left, and takes a letter out of her bag. She reads it aloud)
“Dear Maria. I am sorry I did not stay. I could not stay. I thought I could, but I couldn’t. Never forget my child, it all lies at your feet. It is all possible. Do not let any fool tell you that something is not possible. If you want to love them all, then do it. Love them all. If you choose just one, then love him. Love him with a fire that could burn a village. I know you feel you need to make a choice. One is nice, he is handsome and has firm shoulders. One is small, but dark and moody. One has charm that works like a spell on you. Listen: let your decision flow like a river. Do not dam up your dreams. Never that.”
“Remember, it is all possible. It all floats in the air before it finally comes to rest at your feet. Let it float. But sometime you will have to make a decision. One way or the other, all or everything. In the end your destiny will bring you crashing to earth like a dragon ready to nest. My Aunt Lydia told me our family has dragon’s blood in them. Make a decision. I will visit you again. Your Aunt. Suzanna. Lahore, 1964.” Soon, Suzanna, please make it soon.
(Maria looks up. Sounds of a gushing waterfall and Maria removes her coat and hat, lets down her hair and it is now a mountainside, 1959, walking on a pebbled path breathing heavily in the thinning air. She sings the following song as Suzanna enters and speaks simultaneously)
Maria: (singing song “Away my love” as she walks)
“I give this bowl to you my love,
A rose to put within…”
Suzanna: If I sat beside you on a tram packed to bursting on Titova in the evening rush and begged your attention. If I knocked upon the door of your apartment and announced myself a-begging to cross your threshold. If I suddenly accosted you in the street by the Mrnava Bridge in the afternoon snow and told you to listen. You would think me a stranger. You would thin me mad, perhaps even dangerous and hurry on your way.
Maria: (singing): “I give this rose a name my love,
A lovers’ christenin’…”
But when I stepped into your life halfway up the steepest ridge of Carandak when you thought you were alone; when I stood before you in ragged skirts and a flash of resemblance lit up in your eyes; then I knew you would listen. For I was your mystery, whom you thought had perished in the death camps at Mrnanva. The camps that no one mentions. The camps that do not exist. The camps that contained no death but only work.
Maria: (singing): “Away my love, come away my love,
Across the hills with me…”
Suzanna: I took your hands and how you stared! Then I pulled you up the mountain and told you a story of life, and of extinction, and of rising from oblivion, of passion and of naughtiness, of water and air, of water and air.
(Fades into the sound of a mountain wind)
Maria: Who’s there?
Suzanna: I’M here!
(singing): “And I will give to you my heart
For all eternity…”
Maria (stopping to catch her breath): A woman is perched precariously on the ledge above the waterfall, dangling her feet in the current, her hair dripping wet about her shoulders… Hello.
Suzanna: Hello to you, Maria.
Maria: How do you know my name?
Suzanna: You have your mother’s look of mistrust in your eyes. Besides, what are names for, if not to be known?
Maria: My mother is dead.
Suzanna: Not so. Your mother lives … in you. Though I see you cannot see it. Come closer let me look at you. So like your mother. And her older sister.
Maria: You know them?
Suzanna: I have lived here. It was a long time ago. Your mother was plain. So very plain. And chose a plain man. Though there is good in both of them. And her sister…
Maria: Tell me, what she was like?
Suzanna: I suppose you only have it from that lazy uncle of yours. I suppose he still grunts more than he talks. Sweet Jesus, it must be twenty-five years! And you. You are all grown, yet still so young. You have not had a man. I can tell from the pinkness of your cheeks. And they feed you well enough. Now you frown. It suits you well.
Maria: Will you come down to the house? If you knew him, I am sure he will be pleased to see you. He sees so few people these days.
Suzanna: Not yet. Not yet! It is such a wonderful day. The air. I never remember it so clear as this. Before the war, perhaps. But this is a day! Such a day! I was last in Hungary and before that Bulgaria. There the Party has filled the air with dirty yellow smog. It rises everywhere. Sometimes you cannot even see the sun. But here…come!
Maria: She takes my hand and pulls me up the mountain.
(Sounds of them both running and laughing)
Maria: Slower, please! This is dangerous! Isn’t this dangerous? Shouldn’t we stop?
Suzanna: Foolish child! If you know when to stop, you never give your heart to the journey!
Maria: We are running along narrow ridges and we skip and we trip and we almost fall but she doesn’t care…It will be bad if we fall! Bad for her, bad for me! And she hasn’t even told me her name!
(They stop for a while, catching their breath)
Suzanna: Bad you say? I would rather you did something bad than you did nothing at all.
Maria: That sounds wise. Is it wise?
Suzanna: I am not wise. (Pause) You stare like an owl. Before you ask: Thirty-nine: I am thirty-nine years old. I may look fifty, or even sixty, but I am thirty-nine years old.
Maria: You do not look fifty.
Suzanna: You are kind. Don’t waste your kindness. It might run out.
Maria: I suppose you think I am a child.
Suzanna: Children today, what do they know of childhood? I am your Aunt.
Maria: My aunt? I have no aunt, well, no aunt who lives. (Pause) Aunt Suzanna?
Suzanna: So they told you of me.
Maria: You are a bit of a legend in our family. For just one tiny moment I catch this thought in my mouth before it turns to spoken words: Are you a ghost? (To Suzanna) We thought you were dead.
Suzanna: Such a thing I am not glad to hear. I have only been a-travelling.
Maria: We stand at the centre of the Lannica Bridge and throw sticks into its furious current. Gone they are, before you can even blink.
Suzanna: Now the river is dead. There is no air left in it. No air for the fish to breathe. Is this a hunting ground of yours?
Maria: I often come here. To be on my own.
Suzanna: You have a love of your own company? Good. When I was last here alone there was a terrible drought.
Maria: My Uncle spoke of it. He said there is a drought here every thrity-three years, followed by a terrible fire.
Suzanna: I can see it so clearly as if it were only a day’s past, Maria. Oaks leaves which were once soft and used to lay their healing moisture on cuts and wounds now crunch and crumble under our weary feet.
Nina: The bark a-peeling from trees dry as tinder, branches bare of summer green, like a Winterman, uninvited to a summer solstice gathering, intruding in, turning emerald to yellow, and yellow to brown, as once proud sunflowers now bent low kiss the ground, then crack their stems and perish in the parched earth.
Maria: The Moon Pool a-buzzin’ with mosquitoes the size of chestnuts, you plunge into the welcome cool, holding your breath, you dive to the deep and wrap yourself in bubbles and sand, only to rise, your lungs a-burstin’ for air which is hot and putrid and you get bitten and buzzed and you wish to Jesus you’d stayed in the shade or dipped your swelling toes in the tricklin’ mud up by Lannica Falls. Come!
(Maria takes hold of Suzanna’s hand this time)
Maria: We climb high to Carnak peak where the air is clear and you cannot smell the black smoke billowing from chimneys at the Mrnava smelting works. For here you can sit on top of clouds, here you do not have to queue for a tram or to put a stamp on a brown envelope. Here there are no receipts, or call-up papers. Here there is only sunshine and sky, and snow, even in the summer, it lies in crevasses. Yet even here, amongst the dampness of moss, amongst ancient rocks, as we set ourselves down by a running stream, and breathe in the evening air, we find, a pair of cigarette ends, all butt and no tobacco left, crimson lipstick more on one of them, less on the other.
Suzanna: So one is a woman or a girl, the other a man or a boy.
Maria: She has lit a cigarette, taken a smoke
Suzanna: … then passed it on to him!
Maria: Or perhaps he was the lighter of it and offered it to her first.
Suzanna: Or perhaps they were kissing first and his lips put her lipstick on it!
(They laugh again)
Maria: It is as if I can actually smell the smoke in the air, and feel the presence of these two lovers, desecrating not just their dirty, yellow lungs, but also my own, sacred place. (To Suzanna): Is there really to be nowhere on earth where the air is pure and clear?
Suzanna: Hush child, the breath of old Carandak the Dragon will soon blow away their rotten smoke. Just be sure that the same wind doesn’t carry off your dreams on its back. No, this is no place to dream dreams; this is a place to shake your fist at the stars – that’s what my aunt used to say. Aunt Lydia. Your great aunt. Now I know a place where you can dream a dream. There’s a cave near here that no one in the world knows about but me! Behind Lannica falls there is a cave. And there is an old straw pallet. And there’s an even older rag blanket, and there is moss, and there are cool, clear pools,
Maria: Suzanna tells me there are fish with human hands and fingers though I never saw one, and there are old wax candles and there are bones. Bones! Bones from who knows what kind of a creature! Suzanna says they are from a creature worse than a dragon, worse than a wolf, worse than a wild pig with horns that can tear out your stomach. And I ask what kind of creatures and she says: a man. And with that, she takes hold of my hand, roughly like a boy, and pulls me down the mountain…
(They sing together, and, as they run, the tune gains orchestral backing and builds, then, again, they stop to pause for breath)
Maria: This is so .. so real!
Suzanna: (suddenly stops and pulls Maria’s hand, almost angrily) Reality doesn’t come so cheap. You can fill your head with smoke and mistake it for the clouds of heaven if you like. Have you ever climbed to the top of Carnak peak in the earliest of early spring then ridden to the bottom on the back of a cloud? We used to chase storms on our wooden skis and I tell you I could see angels’ faces and angel wings flying along with us, though they never came lower than the high pastures, they always kept to the place where cloud gave way to green.
Maria: Angel’s faces?
Once I heard Uriel’s trumpet and it gave me such a start I almost came to blows with an old pine tree. Only Michael’s cry of warning saved me from a bloody nose, or perhaps worse. Did you know that angels have mischief in them? They do not follow Lucifer but they like to play his game of hide and catch from time to time. People can fill their heads with smoke and foolish ideas. I’d rather fill mine with the scent of fresh bluebells overflowin’ with the wispy dreams of the faery folk.
Maria: Angels? Fairies? Dragons?
(Suzanna lifts Maria up like a child and spins her around joyfully)
Suzanna: This is the top of the world, child, the top of the world!
(Suzanna sings and Maria joins in)
“I drink a toast to you my love
The wine of my desire
I feel the rising heat my love
Of your sweet burning fire
Away my love
Come away my love
Across the hills with me
And I will give to you my heart
For all eternity”
(Lights come up on Suzanna and Maria with their feet dangling in a stream. Maria cups some water and holds it to her lips drinking. Suzanna reaches into the water and does the same but throws it over Maria. They have a splashing fight, laughing)
Maria: Mirko is tall, and handsome. His hair is fiery red. He works a press machine and has a deep baritone voice.
Suzanna: And his kiss?
Maria: (pause): He will learn. I could teach him.
Suzanna: If a man cannot kiss, he cannot love. Teach him well. And the other.
Maria: Andrej is shorter. He is blond. His eyes are deepest sapphire like blueberries ripe for the pickin’. He is more sallow, paler. He doesn’t look strong like Mirko, but he has a thinkers’ head. He knows so many things. He wants to be a writer…
Suzanna: And he sits drinking coffee all day, staring with moody eyes, and he already has frown lines on his brow from being too serious…
Maria: You know him ?
Suzanna (laughing): I know them all, child. I have loved them all.
Suzanna: So, the tall and dark fair-looker, or the short, blonde and deep Bohemian. Do these two admirers of yours know of each other…?
Maria: It is a small village…
Suzanna: You know what I am asking, child. Do they KNOW of each other ?
Maria (ashamed): No.
(Suzanna laughs heartily)
Suzanna: Perhaps it runs in the blood ! Well child, you have to rivers trying to flow into one. The currents are always dangerous when that happens.
Maria: So, you are suggesting I should make a choice ?
Suzanna: I am suggesting no such thing ! I prefer to swim where dangerous rivers flow. How well do you swim, child ?
Maria: You can judge for yourself.
(Maria pulls off her clothes as lights fade to a sound of her and diving into the pool. This can be done with sound-scape in darkness)
Maria: Come on. Prove to me what it is you say !
(A pause and then another splash and laughter. Sounds of splashing and laughing. Music fades in again, the same tune as before. Lights up on Maria swinging from a rope on a tree branch. Suzanna sits on the ground, chin to knees, plucking a daisy)
Maria: How did you survive the camp. We were told that no one came out alive.
Suzanna: I was never in the camp at Mrnava. Nor any other. I fought with the Partisans.
Maria: You were a resistance fighter…
Suzanna: I was a child.
Maria: Tell me about it.
Suzanna: There are tales. Many stories. One day I will tell them to you. But now. This gorgeous breeze has no need of such words to taint it.
Naria: But I am interested! Mama never spoke of those days.
Suzanna: (sighing): Very well. When I was here last, the air carried a different odour. One which I would rather die a hundred times over than let you have even a hint of, child, with your still strong eagerness for life, with the quest for kisses, and with your two boys, chasing your cherry! That tree which you swing so lazily from, that oak once played host to the corpse of a baby, a little Jewish baby, stuck on the end of a pole, a plaything for two men just like your Andrej and your Mirko, dosed up on Vodka to keep out the cold, to soften their dreams.
(Maria drops out of the tree, landing on her feet and staring up at the tree)
Maria: Will you stay long ?
Suzanna (sighs): I have returned because I have a question, which I wish to have answered.
Maria: Is it a private question? A secret question?
Suzanna: Such a kind, sensitive, child. Private ? When I was last here, there were no secrets. We would share our deepest thoughts. Many’s the time I cried in the company of strangers. I have had Jews and Gypsies as my confessors, even a lamb was my confidant when there was no one else around to listen. Perhaps I should wait no longer. Perhaps it is time. Come, help me up.
(Maria holds out her hand and helps Suzanna to get up)
Take me to Lannica cave.
Maria: So I take her. It is a rough climb and the afternoon light is fading. ‘Tis almost foolish to be seeking out caves with the evening drawing in.
(light change to signify a cave)
Maria: Suzanna knows just what she is looking for. Amidst the piles of rock in its darkest recess, Suzanna digs with her bare hands. I try to help but she is oblivious of my presence.
(they both dig, rocks fall on them, but the digging with bare hands becomes more frenzied Suddenly Suzanna steps back with a cry of surprise)
Maria: Where the rock had fallen away, when the rising dust had settled, we saw a hole. Suzanna knelt and peered into it. It wasn’t very deep.
Suzanne: Look, Maria, Look!
Maria: Holy Jesus and Mary! Who is it?
Suzanna: Who it is, is very old. This is the resting place of your great-great-great grandfather Matthias. Auntie Lydia told the story of how he was buried here, during an earthquake. Why it was before the turning of the last century… (Suddenly she draws a shocked breath)
Maria: And Aunt Suzanna who has lived in waking nightmares has seen the left hand of our ancestor. She holds up her own left hand to the light drifting in from the cave entrance, she stretched out her thumb and three fingers the middle one missing, lost when frostbite took it in ’42. And with her right hand she takes up the left hand of the bony corpse, holding next to hers.
Suzanna: Do you see it, Maria! Come closer and see! Now, do you believe me? Now, surely you do believe me. Come closer and look…
Maria: And I will step forward and see hand next to hand, hers and his the same, for his left fist, all bones and dust yet shimmering clear in the sunny beam. A hand, with but three fingers, a broken stump where the third finger is no longer. Just like hers. And, as the cool air becomes difficult to breathe and the breeze wraps dust around that beautiful sad Aunt of mine she will turn and say to me:
Suzanna: I am home, Maria. At last, I have come home.
(Suzanna begins to cry and Maria takes here in a hug)
(Fade to music)