In the quiet later years of our lives, my wife and I bought a cabin at a campground out in the woods. There was a murky pond in the middle of this community, and all of the gravel roads that wound off into the different areas of the woods converged on this pond. One evening in mid-July we rambled down the gravel road with our neighbors to see a show down by the pond. There had been a flyer about it posted for weeks on the wooden bulletin board outside of the general store. Everyone had seen it. Everyone was curious and talking about it. As we came to a crossroads where the gravel was looser and the road was worn away into dry dusty ruts in places, a man waved us down as he peddled by on a bicycle with a big picnic umbrella mounted on the back of the seat. He sold us roasted peanuts in little paper sacks, and we could feel that the peanuts were still warm through the paper.
We brought our warm peanuts and our lawn chairs and we set up on the muddy bank of the pond, ready to watch the show. The trees hung dense and dark and low over the far side of the pond, and the rank water was steamy and still. A flat barge with torches lit at each of its four corners emerged from a spot where the water meandered into the trees. Along the edges of the barge there were several people on their knees rowing it out into the middle of the pond, and between each person rowing there was a person in a yellow robe with laurel leaves on their heads holding a golden trumpet to their lips. Once the barge had settled into the middle of the pond and the rowers had pulled up their oars and stood to their feet, the trumpeters let out a blast from their trumpets, as though heralding the commencement of a ceremony. The trumpeters and the rowers joined hands and took their bows, and then they dove off the edges of the barge and swam for the shores of the pond, leaving the barge floating empty.
We could see now that the barge was set up like a stage for a play, and we had a moment to contemplate it as it floated there quietly. There was a bed at the center of the stage, comfortably made with white linens and pillows and lit by the torches surrounding it. A few minutes passed with nothing happening, but just as the crowd began to stir a little, a trapdoor opened in the wooden floor of the barge just in front of the bed, and a person in a brown robe wearing a rabbit mask climbed up out of the trapdoor. It looked like they had ascended a set of stairs that was underneath the trapdoor, and I speculated that there must be a dressing room beneath the floor of the barge, submerged under the water. I pictured a cramped space with soft lights and mirrors and the daylight breaking through and the players all glancing up whenever someone opened the trapdoor.
Soon three other figures emerged. One wore the mask of a falcon, another a crocodile, and the third had the face of the lion. The masks were all made of clay covered in some sort of shiny, smooth resin that made their contours gleam in the torch light. The four figures each made their way to their appointed corners of the barge. They took the long torches from their posts and waved them aloft in the air. They cried out in unison some latin incantation, and they thumped their torch poles against the wooden floor of the barge with three hard rhythmic thumps. Then they repeated the incantation again, and then again they thumped their poles. Our neighbors and fellow residents were scratching their heads and murmuring amongst themselves, wondering what this was all about.
The four figures then turned inward towards the center of the barge. A low continuous chanting began, different words and phrases overlapping. They waved the flames of their torches over the neatly made surface of the bed. One word became more and more distinguishable among the others that they were chanting, and it grew more and more insistent each time they said it. “Rise. Rise. Rise!” And indeed, something did begin to arise from the middle of the bed. Slowly taking form under the linen, I could make out the shape of a woman lying on her back. I knew that there was stage trickery behind this, that there was probably some sort of opening in the mattress that allowed the woman to come up from the dressing room below. But the way it was all timed and done, with the intensity of the mood that had been established, it was still mesmerizing nevertheless.
The figures in the masks stepped back a single pace from the bed and made a single resounding thump with their torch poles and then fell silent. The woman under the linen sat up in bed, slow and heavy, as though the soft fog of a dream hadn’t yet cleared from her mind. She sat on the edge of the bed with her head hung. The blanket was still over head, but she reached up a hand and swept an opening clear for her face. A lock of long dark hair fell free. The figures in the masks seemed to recede into the shadows beneath the torches, and she didn’t seem to be aware of their presence, even though she glanced back over her shoulder a few times and looked this way and that around the stage.
With a sudden surge of vigor and resolution, she got up from the bed. The white linens had formed into a white robe around her. She took three gliding steps to the foot of the bed. She seemed to be looking for something, searching for something beyond the stage, off somewhere in the dark trees on the far side of the pond. Then she made a gesture with her hands, like she was unlatching and flinging open the shutters of her bedroom window. There was an operatic joy about this gesture, something larger than life, something beyond the mortal veil. I felt my breath catch and my pulse quicken. There was a gasp from the crowd as the light began to break through the trees, on the morning side of the sky, where we always knew the sun to be at the beginning of every day.
In the swell of light, the barge had seemed to fade away and it was gone now. Whether they had submerged it somehow or they had used this theatrical moment of distraction to slip off somewhere into the trees, I couldn’t tell. There was just the light now, creeping across the milky water, showing nothing in its depths. There was a buzz of energy in the crowd along the shore. There was talk about going fishing, buying bait from the general store as soon as it opened. There was talk of picnics and barbecues and long drives up into the hills. The miracle had happened. It was six o’clock in the morning. We had the whole day ahead of us.