Melissa’s Night at the Theater


Dear Ken,

Everyone has gone to bed, and as usual, yours truly can’t sleep! It’s these long Homelander days which are twenty-seven Earth hours long. I take an afternoon nap to compensate, but today I overdid it, and now I can’t sleep at all. Everyone else is asleep, so watching television is out. Harshan was so pooped he didn’t even stir when I got up. I put on my bathrobe, slipped out of the guest room, and got myself some cookies and a cup of harng and sat down at Lanni’s kitchen table to write you this letter at a quarter to thirty-one in the evening. I’ll just write until the warmed-up harng makes me sleepy! It usually does, sooner or later.

Harshan is back, as you can guess; and our departure for Earth and the exotic land of Illinois is nigh. Harshan is very excited about it!

Lanni is really a wonderful friend. She’s only known me for a few months, and she’s just met Harshan; but she really has gone out of her way to make sure that we have a proper send-off!

Yesterday, Lanni and Harna arranged a Hapdorn-style “provincial dinner” for us. They provided the groceries, the beverages, and the location—the guests did the cooking. This time I got paired off with Harshan, and I got promoted from salad to vegetables! Everyone was surprised that I had developed into such a competent cook on what is for me an alien planet, but it’s really nothing. I learned some scrumptious Halakanian dishes from Harshan’s mother while I was visiting Harshan and his parents in Halakan. (Harshan always wondered how the two of us could work together so easily in the kitchen without having a language in common, but it worked out fine for the most part.) My favorite, however, is Thorgelfaynese cuisine! Sometimes I wonder what I will miss most about Thorgelfayne, the people or the food! I’m just joking. Everyone here has been terribly nice to me, and I’ve really felt at home.

And that brings me to my point. I mean about missing Thorgelfayne when I go to Earth.

Tonight we all went to the theater. Hank and his wife had other obligations, so there were only six of us: Lanni and Harna, of course; John Anderson, Panu Maksimak, Harshan and me!

We saw a dramatic work entitled Tahibfeneng Eptharkta Thorgelmü, a historical drama about the founding of the Imperial Duchy of Thorgelfayne. (In English, the title means: “Friendship Bound Enemies Together.” ) It was written by some literary giant of long ago, and it really wasn’t a play; if it were performed on Earth it would be considered variety show: part play, part ballet, part musical, part debate society; all mixed up with a traditional steel-drum orchestra and dance routines. It sure was impressive!

It was the Main Theater of the Performing Arts Guild at Hapdorn University, and it was not very different from a Human theater. In fact it reminded me of a theater back on Earth, but I can’t remember exactly which one it was. Anyway, there was a stage with curtains, an orchestra pit, and the seats were arranged in rows with aisles in a fan shape, and a large balcony—the usual arrangement. The ceiling was very high and the walls were beige, and made of rough-textured concrete. (The seats were upholstered in a very pleasant plum color.) Just the architecture alone made you expect great things and talk in a hushed tone.

We all sat together about one-third up from the orchestra pit. On my right was Lanni, and her husband Harna was to her right. On my left was my husband Harshan, then John Anderson, and finally Panu Maksimak. So John, Harshan, and I formed a little white island in a vast sea of brown faces. We had to stand a couple of times to let people through to their seats. We chatted softly and looked through our programs as the orchestra tuned up. (Have you ever heard an orchestra containing steel drums tune up? That is an experience in itself!) But I was ill at ease. Thorgelfaynese are the nicest people I have ever met, but I was overwhelmed by the fact that I was in a color minority. This still intimidates me from time to time. I know it shouldn’t, but it does. Harshan was too wrapped up in me to notice the crowd, and John is used to it by now. He and Panu were in an animated but quiet discussion about something in the program.

As the lights went down, the silence grew. A musician walked up the steps from the orchestra pit. He was carrying some sort of musical instrument with strings and a bow. There were a few muffled coughs from the audience. He began to play. Suddenly, two soft spotlights reached down the immense distance from the ceiling and bathed him in light. At first, it sounded to me that he was playing random scritch-scratches. He got deeply involved in his music; and after my ears adjusted, I even began to enjoy it. Then the orchestra sneaked in with increasing volume until he was a soloist with an orchestral background. Suddenly, what sounded like scritch-scratches before made perfect musical sense. Even the steel drums fit right in!

Harshan thought the music was pompous, but that’s only because he’s from Halakan, where music is quiet and contemplative, like in Japan back on Earth. Thorgelfayne is the unofficial world center of education, so you tend to find combinations of things that wouldn’t otherwise be found together; and that might sound overdone to a foreigner.

Then the curtains opened behind the musician. Gosh, what scenery! It gave me goose-bumps—just as if I were seeing a movie with special effects for the very first time! The scene was the countryside, and dancers were reenacting a symbolic conflict among the eight original Thorgelfaynese tribes. They were wearing native costume—not the kind people wear at special occasions, the kind that was worn about four thousand years ago during the fifty-seventh hexacentury. The musician slipped back into the orchestra pit, and the ballet metamorphosed itself into a dramatic play.

It is a deeply moving story, and I can’t describe all the details here. The tribes had conflicting interests and all sorts of disputes, but no way to settle them, so animosity grew. The conflicts raged over weights and measures, business practices, customs of marriage, property rights, and nearly every other field of Homelander endeavor. There was petty backbiting and maneuvering, which escalated in an intolerable crescendo.

Finally the Chief of the Hep Dern (“Hep Dern” means “six villages” in English) and the President of the Lari independently came to the conclusion that the conflicts had to stop somehow. So the Chief of the six villages sent his son, disguised as a Lari tribesman, to Lari to negotiate a way to settle differences. Meanwhile, the President of the Lari sent her husband in a similar disguise on a similar mission to the Hep Dern. The two would-be emissaries encountered each other on the way, and a confrontation ensued. You see, their disguises were both excellent, but they forgot one essential detail: the automobile license plates! That was a dead give-away. In a tragic misunderstanding they ran each other off the road and into the Larshtek Ravine. Both were killed in what the Thorgelfaynese call the ‘War of the Fayne,’ but I would call it an automobile accident.

Both the Chief and the President grieved their losses. When the facts came to light, this grief was compounded by the absurdity of the situation. The only fatalities in the ‘War of the Fayne’ were the peace emissaries!

The stage grew dark. Shadowy outlines of people in mourning were faintly visible, and they were weeping. A woman screamed. The Chief of the Hep Dern walked into a spotlight and proclaimed in a noble voice strained by grief: “Our sons, our daughters, our wives and our husbands die in the hands of our foolish strife. Let us end our strife and become friends!”

The lights were up with dramatic abruptness. It was the end of the first act. I had a lump in my throat, and the lights hurt my eyes. The members of the audience were experiencing various levels of devastation; in our party, Panu was solemn, John was crying into his hands, Harshan was impressed and very quiet; Lanni and Harna both looked like they had had a good cry. Actually, I don’t know if that was the case, that’s just how they looked.

Gradually, we got up and moved out to the lobby, leaving John and Panu behind.

I immediately made a bee-line for the ladies’ room, but there was a line. It moved pretty fast though.

“Excuse me,” said the lady behind me, tapping my shoulder, “Aren’t you Melissa?”

I turned around and confirmed that, but I was a little puzzled, “Do I know you?”

“Oh, certainly not!” she laughed, “I recognize you from that television program Visitors from the Sky —the one where you were interviewed by Minsel Trothe. My name is Mirn.”

We hugged each other. “You are so very kind to remember me, Mirn!” I said, “I am quite flattered!”

“Well, I am certainly the one who is honored,” she said, and she really did look like she was. “You gave me a lot to think about, and I don’t think I will ever forget you. I used to lie awake at nights thinking of what a painful life you must have led before you came here. What are your plans?”

Mirn is a total stranger to me, but she seemed like a close friend right from the start. I told her all the things that have happened to me, and all about Harshan.

“What a thrilling story!” Mirn proclaimed triumphantly. “It just goes to show that a hard life can be worth living. In fact,” she said in a confidential tone, “you know that everybody has a hard life. Even we Homelanders! It’s just that some people won’t admit it.”

I found myself at the head of the line. It was my turn, and believe me, I was glad for it! I said good-bye to Mirn.

A few minutes later, I made my way through the crowd to the refreshment counter, where Lanni and Harna were standing.

“How have you been enjoying the play?” Harna asked, “We were just trying to guess what your impressions would be.”

I told them briefly how impressed and how deeply moved I was, and then I related the incident with Mirn. “That’s what I like about Thorgelfayne, and the whole planet of Homeland, for that matter,” I said, “No one is a stranger longer than four minutes. There are no anonymous faces in the crowd. People here really know how to live.”

“But you and Harshan will be leaving us soon,” Lanni reminded me somberly. That brought me down to Homeland pretty fast. Suddenly everything became unreal for a moment. Now I understood why John was crying: this really is a special place, and I’m an idiot to leave it. My mind was flooded with memories of the woman who disrupted the television show to offer to adopt me into her family if I did not want to return. I saw John, driving along the interprovincial highway, steadfastly refusing to speak any language other than Thorgelfaynese with me. I remembered all the people on the spaceships who were so kind to me. I even got to meet Manni Thologar, the duke of Thorgelfayne herself! She was the one who had made it possible for Harshan to find me.

“Oh, Lanni!” I wailed. Lanni embraced me and I rested my head on her shoulder. Every person I’ve met on Homeland was either nice to me or became my friend. When I leave here to return to backward old Earth, I will quite literally leave behind all the friends I have in the world!

There was a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Are you okay?” came Harshan’s voice, and I turned towards him. We stood there nose-to-nose. I looked down at my hands.

“Yes, I just got caught up in a nostalgia attack,” I explained, “I have it under control now.”

Harshan’s blue eyes were very soft. “Melissa Lahtissimon,” he said sweetly, “I love you so!” That did it! I just sobbed up a lake right there on the spot.

The second act was triumphant. The business with the license plates embodied the very core of the conflict: decisions were being made by inadequately educated lay people. The experts languished in academic institutions, debating the subtleties of their disciplines, instead of bringing them to bear on life. This convinced everyone that things should be done by experts, not amateurs, and so the technocratic form of government was born. Then all the members of all the tribes swore friendship with each other in an oath so solemn that each one must keep it, even if everyone else breaks it. The play ended in a grand spectacle.

All in all, I’d say it was a very cathartic and uplifting experience.

So now it’s late at night, and here I am in Lanni’s kitchen while everyone else in the house is asleep. I’m about to leave an alien planet to go back to my own, and regretting it deeply. I’m not sure that Harshan’s idea of going to Earth is a good one, and to be perfectly frank with you, I dread going there. I wish we could stay, but at least I’ll be taking all the Homeland with me that I’ll ever need!

Well, that hot mug of harng finally worked. It’s almost thirty-two o’clock and I’m finally sleepy. If I’m lucky, it will be the first time I’ve gotten to sleep before midnight this week!

Your friend,
Melissa