The Reptilian Vaudevillians arrived every ninth full moon, and their performances were so mesmerizing that beasts and creatures of every ilk would come and gather by the swampy stage to watch, to be awed, to laugh, and buzz, and hiss, and rattle.
Waiting nine full moons was not a trying task for some, like the turtles. But for my kind…we didn’t live long enough to see a second performance. We are but mayflies. We are not meant to laugh or buzz or hiss or rattle.
As soon as we wake into the world, we are tasked with a single purpose. We find our mate. We mate. And then we die.
No one will know of my crime. Tomorrow, I will die. And so will every one of my cohorts. The ones who came before are already dead. So none will know of my crime.
Today, I should be searching for a mate.
But instead, I am hiding in the shadows of leaves, having broken from tradition, from fate, from my duty.
In the moments after I was born, I gained sense and language, and I spoke with my fellow mayflies. But most of them were of a single purpose. They wouldn’t stop to speak. Some wouldn’t even stop to eat. So I went searching for other beasts and creatures, with whom I might converse, other insects at first. I had questions. I sought answers. But every moment that passed, I drew closer to death. So I became reckless in my search, even knowing that most of the creatures I spoke to would swallow me whole before I could utter a word.
But a charm was already working its way through the swamp. I didn’t know it then. I didn’t know that there was some power beyond the invincibility of youth that protected me from all my natural predators.
So no one ate me. Instead they tried to answer my questions. The first question I asked each creature was, “How long do you live?” I knew all of them lived longer than I, but I was astonished at the unfathomable span of time that some of them endured. Days beyond days. So many days that new measures were used. Measures called weeks, months, years, and even beyond.
I wanted more time, but I could not imagine what I would with years. So I began to ask them what they did with all of the time that was allotted to them. Surely, they did not spend days upon days mating.
Most creatures spoke of their joys: eating and hunting, flying, swimming, running. One toad spoke of the joys of sitting. Another began to smile a wide, toady smile as she spoke of a glorious thing called sleep. But sleep did not appeal to me. I would be sleeping soon enough, and forever.
I wished to experience much of what my fellow creatures spoke of. But I simply did not have the time.
It was the blue heron who told me about the show.
She had attended many times, ever since she was young. By the time I spoke to her, I myself was no longer young. I had reached middle age, trying to find something I could do, something worthy, some way in which I could make my small mark upon the infinite world. Even if that mark was wiped away, not after years, or even days, but mere moments, it would be worth it. It would be worth my having spent half my life searching.
And it seemed, I had finally found what I’d been searching for. Myriad experiences condensed into one.
I watched the creatures gather around the swampy stage. My eyes could not see far, so I dared to flutter closer and closer. I landed on a branch and hid beneath the peeling skin of the bark. From there I could see the stage clearly. It was empty now, so I watched instead, the gathering crowd. I was high enough above the cacophony to hear it but not be drowned in it.
The ducks waddled ashore, quacking their way past the cranes. The alligators followed, whipping toward the front, hissing excitedly with each other. Crickets chirped their complaints that all the larger beasts were blocking their views, and they kept hopping up and down.
Snakes with shimmering scales slithered through the crowd, and they were all carrying small gourds upon their heads. They offered these gourds to any creature they passed who asked for a drink. Some of the snakes raised themselves up on the stage and swayed and chanted.
I knew what they were doing. The heron had told me. They were casting an enchantment, something called the Orpheus charm, named after a human who was said to have some musical talent.
(I would have liked to have some musical talent. But I hadn’t the time, not even to learn to sing.)
The charm could only be cast on those who allowed it. And only those who would allow it were allowed to watch the show.
For the charm prevented our baser instincts from overwhelming our higher powers of reason. Predator and prey could sit side by side. The serpents had begun chanting before I was even born. And so I was born into a kinder world than most of my kind.
Within the gourds that the snakes were offering to the audience was the most refreshing water any had ever tasted. That was all. There would be nothing else to eat or drink. The performance would last all night, and yet none would hunger, not for food. Enjoyment would be our food for that night.
I considered flying down to try and take a sip of the refreshing water. But I didn’t want to take the chance that someone might mistakenly consume me along with the water.
The show had not yet began, but I already felt a twinge of sadness at knowing that most of my kind would never share in such an experience. My progeny certainly would not, for I would likely have no progeny. I would be too old by the time the performance was done. I would try, of course. I would spend my last moments trying to find a mate.
But even if I succeeded, I would die before they were born. I would never have the chance to tell them the story of this night. Even if I left at that very moment, having only seen the great gathering of many beasts and creatures, it would be my grandest adventure. One that none would know of.
I could never have imagined such a spectacular thing as the show I witnessed that night.
The master of ceremonies came upon the stage first, a stage constructed of mud and branches, and hung with curtains of weeping willow. He was an alligator, but small and lithe. He must have been young. He raised himself up on his hind limbs, stood under the glow of the fireflies, and flourished his forelimbs. The audience grew quiet. That in itself was a marvel. I caught my breath.
I could see sharper and more varied colors than ever before. Perhaps it was the charm. And the alligator, with his glittering scales and gleaming golden eyes was the most stunning alligator I had ever seen.
He began to sing a song of welcome. From behind himself, he pulled a reed pipe, and played upon it between verses of his song. I would have expected an alligator’s voice to sound dry and raspy, but his voice was rich and reedy, like the pipe he played.
When he finished his song, he flourished his forelimbs again and bowed.
The spell of quiet was broken as the audience cried, hooted, cackled, flapped, hissed, and chirped, and croaked in applause.
The alligator told a few jokes, teasing his fellow alligators in the front rows, before relinquishing the stage to the next act.
Dozens of frogs leapt and bound and tumbled across the stage in a show of acrobatics. They finished their performance by climbing atop each other to form a pyramid that then exploded into the audience, as the frogs each leapt off in every direction.
The master of ceremonies rushed upon the stage, placing his claws above his eyes and looking out into the audience, demanding that we return his frogs friends to him immediately, for they all seemed to have disappeared. While he was gazing out at us, the willow curtain parted, and all the frogs stood behind him.
The audience applauded.
I had no cries to contribute.
I merely flicked my wings.
Next came an enticing dance by the undulating desert serpents. This was followed by a dashing battle between the heroic striking cobra and the villainous rattlesnake. But the same rattlesnake was redeemed when he next joined the band of tortoises for a musical performance that had the audience swaying and jigging, and had me flitting my wings to the rhythm of the drumming on the tortoise shells.
The master of ceremonies returned to the stage, this time for a longer bout of jolly complaining about life in the swamps. He spoke of how his mother wished for him to go into a different profession, preferably hunting, as all his siblings did. The audience laughed often, but most of what he said did not make sense to me. I did not know my progenitors, just as my progeny—if I had any—would not know me. I did not know who among my people were my siblings. Surely, I had siblings, and many.
The alligator spoke of the difficulty of finding a purpose to his life. And the difficulty of fulfilling his purpose after he did find it. I did not need to find or choose my purpose. I had only one purpose in life. And it was chosen for me.
Then he spoke of the difficulties of finding a good and understanding mate. And I at last had something to think upon. I did not think I would laugh, having been reminded of my greatest failure. But the alligator spoke words that had often passed through my mind. Why did he have to find a mate at all? What if he was happy as he was? And when he did someday seek a mate, what if the mate he chose did not chose him in turn?
In my mind, such questions were frustrations and lamentations. But the alligator turned the questions to comedy, and I found myself chortling.
After the alligator was done, the serpents returned to the stage. This time, they folded their bodies to mimic the shapes of other beasts. And as each beast recognized their shape, they would cheer. The serpents became a baby hippo, a graceful crane. They clothed themselves in folds of spider silk dyed many colors from chestnut to mahogany to mimic the look of the furry mammals.
Next a dozen lizards came skittering and tapping across the stage in another dance performance. The first few times they tripped or fell, I had thought it was a mistake, but I soon realized that they were teetering and tripping on purpose to make us all laugh.
It was all to make us laugh, and to cheer, and to smile.
And in the grand performance, the play in which most of the reptilian company played, it was also to make us cry.
The story was a simple one. But the reptilian actors were so skilled that I felt as if I were immersed in the lives of those upon the stage.
An ordinary lizard sought to bring joy to her ordinary town by building a place where all would be welcome and where all could gather and eat and drink. None who entered would be allowed to quarrel, even if they were the bitterest of enemies. Her dream was about to be realized, and all around her joined in her happiness.
But then the villain of the play appeared, a terrible tortoise bent upon destroying the lizard’s eatery to make room for a giant complex where only tortoises would be allowed to live, a complex blocking all the main roads in town.
The lizard was powerless to stop the villain. One night, her ghostly mother appeared to her in a dream and told her to recruit powerful allies to help her defeat the terrible tortoise and fulfill her destiny to build that eatery.
Chased by the tortoise’s minions, the lizard embarked on the journey. She found and won the friendship of two allies: a dashing cobra, who had vowed to help the helpless, and a wise tortoise, who disapproved of the villain’s ways, for they were not the true ways of the tortoise.
But the lizard soon lost her allies. They were captured by her enemy. Their lives were held in ransom until the lizard agreed to leave the town and never return.
When the curtain dropped for an intermission, I recoiled. I almost fell off my branch. The fireflies dispersed from the stage and over the audience. The refreshing water was served again, but again, I did not partake. I tried to think of what I had already seen and heard and felt. But it was too much. So I looked up.
The night sky was quiet and peaceful. The full moon shown on us, bright and soft.
And I gazed down at the audience, all those with whom I shared the night. We too were part of the show.
When the curtain was raised again, I was ready. I had not realized that we too, we in the audience, had needed to rest a bit before continuing the adventure.
The lizard tried to devise a plan to rescue her new friends. But without their help, she did not know what to do. While she planned and worried, she received visitors. First her friends came, then her neighbors. They did not know of the tortoise’s villainy. They had just heard the news that the lizard would soon be leaving, and they came to entreat her to stay. At first, she lied and told them all that she had made a mistake and taken on too much in trying to establish her eatery in town. She would go elsewhere, and any who wished to follow were welcome to follow.
But then more came to her doorstep. The more times she told the lie, the wearier she became. At last, she told the truth. And somehow, telling the truth gave her courage and resolve. Before the faces of all those whom had given her strength, she vowed that she would find a way to rescue her two new friends. And then, the heroes would help her drive back the tortoise.
After she spoke, her friends rose and declared that they too would stand with her. It would not just be three who stood against the tortoise. And then her neighbors too rose.
And the lizard realized that the powerful allies her mother had told her of in her dream were there before her.
In the final act, a great number of the lizard’s friends and fellow townsfolk marched to the tortoise’s manor, where the prisoners were being held. While the crowd served as distraction, the lizard and a few of her friends snuck into the manor. The found and freed the dashing cobra and the wise tortoise.
And none too soon, for a battle erupted between the guards and the heroes. The lizard was no fighter, but the cobra was. The cobra struck down the villain’s guards. The wise tortoise appeared before the gathered crowd and denounced the villainous tortoise.
The villain was defeated and arrested. The heroes rejoiced.
And the lizard invited all who were present to partake in some well-earned refreshments at the site of what would soon become her new eatery.
The curtains dropped as those upon on the stage were still cheering.
The fireflies glowed as brightly as they could.
And we in the audience took up the cheer.
We cheered! And we cheered.
I had not dared to fly down to sip of the refreshing water. But now it was done. The night was over. I felt as if I had drunk an entire puddle of refreshing water. I was filled to the brim, overwhelmed, overflowing! I had to tell them. I had to tell at least one of them what a miraculous thing they had done.
They would not see me. I was certain. Many among the audience clamored to see the performers, to touch them, speak with them, gaze upon them up close.
I hovered just above the line that had formed before the performers’ tents, so that the burly alligators who stood guard could see me when I approached. I felt myself growing weary. I did not now think that I would have time to find a mate. I only hoped that I would not fall before I reached the front of the line.
My fellow audience members were discussing the show. I wanted to join them, but I found I had nothing to say that was more profound or clever than what was already being said.
A small lizard was perched upon the shoulder of one alligator guard. This lizard was now looking in my direction. She raised herself on her hind limbs and she pointed in my direction. She waved.
I glanced behind myself. When I turned back around, the alligator guard was standing before me, with the lizard perched and peering down at me.
“That’s what I thought,” the lizard said. I recognized her as one of the heroes in the grand play. “Pardon my rudeness in asking, but you are a mayfly, are you not?”
The lizard grinned. “Then follow me—uh, us. We will speak to you.”
Stunned, I followed the alligator guard into the tent, where all the performers were taking off their costumes and other regalia. We moved past them and back toward the stage—or rather, behind the stage. There sat the master of ceremonies and the star performers, enjoying a few moments of rest before they would go out to meet the audience.
They all looked at me as I approached. The lizard introduced me, and the gathered company smiled and bowed their heads to me in welcome.
I found my voice and said what I wished to say to them.
“Thank you, oh great company,” I said. “I will die before the sun sets again. But I have lived well having seen the spectacle you performed.”
The master of ceremonies, the lithe young alligator with the gleaming golden eyes, smiled and bowed deep and long. When he rose, his smile was gone and his eyes were filled with sadness.
“We are honored by all our guests,” he said. “But you, magnificent mayfly, honor us the most. For we know what you have sacrificed to come and watch our humble show.”
“Your very life,” the dashing cobra said. “And we thank you.” With flaring hood, the cobra bowed, as did all the reptilians who were present.
I grinned. I laughed. “But I feel as if I have lived many lives, many days of my own life, and many days in the lives of others. You’ve given me a gift.”
I thought they would be pleased to hear me say so, but they all looked stricken.
“My people don’t live long enough to receive gifts,” I said, hoping I had not somehow offended them. “I only wish I could give them the gift of seeing your show, or least the chance to see your show. The chance would be enough.”
“Alas, dear friend, if only we could grant you a longer life,” the young alligator said. “And teach you to perform perhaps, so that you could give your people that gift yourself. But we have no such magic.”
The lizard shook her head. “We have only the magic of our performance.”
“Your magic is what I sought all my life,” I said. “Truly.” I rose into the air, hovering above them. “Long live the Reptilian Vaudevillians!”
Nine full moons later, the Reptilian Vaudevillians returned, as they always did. And they cast their enchantment upon the gathered crowd. Again, there were clowns. And again there were heroes. Again there were songs. And again there was dance.
In the grand play of the night, when the villain loomed over the captured heroes, cackling in victory, sneering out at the booing and hissing audience, one of the heroes managed to cry out for help.
A figure emerged upon the stage, not on the stage, but above it. She was small. Quivering and delicate. This could not be the one who could save the heroes.
“And who might you be?” the villain cried.
The costumed lizard raised her glossy glittery wings in the air. She gazed upon the rapt audience, and she told him.
“I am the mighty mayfly!”
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel