Saturday, December 24, 2011

Rough Creatures: A Play for Advent - Part 1

"Rough Creatures" was written between 2002 and 2005 - I don't really remember the exact date. I just recall trying to get it ready for rehearsals, and then being unable to launch the production due to casting difficulties. Feel free to use it however you can - it's in fragments, but I think the pieces add up to something usable, or at the very least, intelligible.

Another time, another place. It is a land ravaged by perpetual winter; no one can recall how the winter began, if it was by the weapons of power which the world’s leaders had forged, or if it were an act of God, a meteor striking the earth and forcing everything underground. With time, small settlements have grown up under the ice and snow as Life finds a way through the grey death. Gamin Sanctuary is one such settlement, built within the basement levels of some once-great building. Nestled at the edge of the settlement, in all that remains above ground is the Inn, a place for travelers’ mad enough to traverse the ice wastes to stop, and for denizens of Gamin Sanctuary to come for a drink, a game of cards or stones, or more intimate pursuits.  


The Abbess – a strong, mature middle-aged woman who runs the Inn.
Tinker – a man of unknown age (older than mid-20’s) who roams the ice wasteland looking for items of value to trade
Simeon – a older Jewish man who lives at the Inn, hoping for the coming of the Messiah.
Rachel – Simeon’s eldest daughter – a whore
Sarah – Simeon’s younger daughter – a whore
Fen, the Matchstick Girl – the Abbess’ ‘daughter’.
Anno – The Abess’ husband
Woman – a traveler who comes upon the Inn in labor
Man – a traveler, the Woman’s companion

Scene 1

(As the lights go up, we see the interior of the Inn. It is an assortment of obviously salvaged odds and ends, with the end result being something that vaguely resembles the common room of a frontier saloon. A series of shelves with a motley assortment of drinking vessels stands behind a poorly constructed counter. Bottles of a clear alcohol line the remaining shelves. There are stools lined up against the counter, and a table off to the side. A deck of cards sits on the table, as does a chess set. A fluorescent light fixture hangs over a potter of plants. The bulbs are presently off. Light comes from oil lamps on the bar and the shelves. There are ‘Christmas’ cacti around the room. FEN, a girl of about 10 years is sitting at the table, reading a book with SIMEON, an old man.)

FEN:                (reading) “Then Pharaoh's daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the river bank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to get it.  She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. "This is one of the Hebrew babies," she said.” (She stops reading, a look of horror on her face.)  Oh no! Does that mean that after all that trouble, this baby will die too?

SIMEON:        That would be giving it away. That’s the joy of stories you know. Wondering what happens next. (He takes the book from her hands.) I guess that’s where we’ll end for today.

FEN:                (Pleadingly) Nooo…I want to know what happens.

SIMEON:        Good incentive for coming to your lesson tomorrow. (She makes an exaggerated pout, and SIMEON just smiles.) Oh, all right. Read some more. (He returns the book.)

FEN:                Yes! (SIMEON raises an eyebrow.) Thank you Simeon. (She finds her spot on the page and continues reading.) She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. "This is one of the Hebrew babies," she said.  Then his sister asked Pharaoh's daughter, "Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?"  "Yes, go," she answered. And the girl went and got the baby's mother.  Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you." So the woman took the baby and nursed him.  When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh's daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, "I drew him out of the water."  (she looks up.) What’s a Pharaoh?

SIMEON:        A Pharaoh…would be like the Headman of the Sanctuary, only he had many more people to rule over.

FEN:                Like a king!

SIMEON:        Yes, like a king! Where did you learn about kings?

FEN:                From one of the books in Mama’s boxes. It’s called “Fairy Tales,” and it’s filled with stories just like the Torah!

SIMEON:        No, not just like the Torah! The Torah is filled with true stories, things that really happened. Fairy tales are stories that did not really happen.

FEN:                You mean there aren’t any real kings?

SIMEON:        Oh, yes, there are real kings. There are kings in the Torah…like David, the greatest king who ever lived, and his son Solomon…

FEN:                I want to read about them!

SIMEON:        I thought you wanted to find out what happened to the little baby.

FEN:                I do…I just like stories about kings, and princesses.

SIMEON:        Well, I told you, Pharaoh is like a king, so his daughter would be like a princess.
FEN:                (Her eyes lighting up.) A princess! Can we read some more?

SIMEON:        No, I think that is enough for now. You found out that the baby did not die, so we can leave the story alone until your next lesson. Time for chess.

FEN:                (Putting away the book and helping Simeon set up the board.) Do Rachel and Esther know how to play chess too?

SIMEON:        Yes, I taught them both when they were little girls. Rachel was better at it than Esther, but they were both very good. Just like you are.

FEN:                Then how come you never play chess with them?

SIMEON:        (Speechless for a moment.) Well, Fen…you see…(he notices she has the bishops and rooks mixed up.) Now look here, this is the rook – and this one is the bishop. (He switches where they go.)

FEN:                You still haven’t answered my question.

SIMEON:        What question?

FEN:                About Rachel and Esther.

(Suddenly the loud voices of ABBESS and ANNO interrupt them.  SIMEON gives FEN a knowing glance. They smile conspiratorially. This obviously happens a fair amount, and is nothing serious.)

ABBESS: (offstage) I don’t give a damn how important those dogs are Anno, they don’t make us any money, and we’re running low on food. If you don’t have the balls to shoot one of them and skin it, then I will. 

(ABBESS enters, a middle aged woman with a bundle in her arms.)

ANNO: (offstage) Don’t talk to me about having balls woman; it’s not that I haven’t the stomach for it, it’s just that every time we kill off one of those dogs, we kill off any hope we’ve got for making it out of this place.

(ANNO enters. He is wearing clothing that is obviously intended for cold weather.)

ABBESS: (incredulous) Make it out of this place? Anno, when the hell are you going to stop dreaming about getting out of this place. This Inn is our home. Your father fixed it up, gave it to you, and all you can think about is leaving! Heat!

ANNO:            You’ve just given up hope.

ABBESS:         I haven’t given it up. I’ve just stopped hoping in foolishness, is all.

ANNO:            Hoping for a better place to live isn’t foolishness.

(SIMEON stands up and stretches. ANNO and ABBESS look at him, seeing him for the first time since they entered.)

SIMEON:        I used to complain about living in the Sanctuary. My grandfather would always say to me, “Simeon, if you can’t be content where you are, you’ll never be content anywhere else.”

ANNO:            What’s there around here to be content with?

ABBESS:         (Throwing herself across his lap.) Me. (ANNO laughs and kisses her on the cheek. FEN jumps up from her chair and joins them.)

FEN:                And me! (ABBESS hugs FEN close.)

ABBESS:         We are more than content to have you, Fen.

SIMEON:        Children are a blessing from the hand of God.   

(FEN looks up at ABBESS.)

FEN:                Mama, I don’t want one of the dogs to die.

ABBESS:         All things die Fen. If we don’t have food, it will be us.

ANNO:            What if I go catch a cat or two?

ABBESS:         If you can find a live cat in the Sanctuary, I’d be more than happy to cook it for you.

ANNO:            Rat?

ABBESS:         If I eat another rat…

ANNO:            All right, all right… (He goes to exit.)

FEN:                I’ll help you catch a cat, Papa!

ANNO:            You think we can find one together Fen?

FEN:                If it means we don’t have to eat one of the dogs, I’ll catch two!

(ANNO looks to ABBESS, who shrugs her shoulders, smiles, and waves him off.)

ANNO:            Well, then mighty hunter, let’s go see what we can find!

ABBESS:         He’s too soft for this world, Simeon.

SIMEON:        We could use softness around here. Don’t be too hard on Anno. His grandfather brought those dogs down from the far wastes. They’re loyal animals. He used to talk about how they’d keep a polar bear occupied long enough for the master to shoot it.

ABBESS:         You need polar bear around for that to happen Simeon. The only animals around here are the few rats that escape the snares. And those will be gone soon, at the rate things are going.

SIMEON:        My mother said rats were once considered pests; people killed them just to get rid of them.

ABBESS:         They didn’t eat them?

SIMEON:        That’s just what she told me.

ABBESS:         What a strange world it must have been before the sun disappeared. Killing animals just to kill them…my mother said they used to cut down trees to bring them in the house for some sort of festival. And now you’d kill someone to have a live tree.

SIMEON:        We must always keep going. Keep striving. When I was a little boy, my mother told me tales of her great grandfather…or was it her great, great, grandfather…(ABBESS is staring at him with a look of irritation, as if to say “get on with it.”)—one of my ancestors. He was taken as a little boy by an invading army and put to work in awful camps where my people were killed by the thousands, only because we were Jews. When he was in the camp, he was certain it would be the end of him, and likely his people as well. But somehow he survived, and life went on. The Jewish people did not die out…even today, here I am, and two daughters…such as they are.

ABBESS:         Yes, but with the resurgence of the plague—no live babies born in Gamin Sanctuary now for four years. That’s not a good sign.

SIMEON:        The Lord will not abandon us. He has promised to send his Messiah!

ABBESS:         What happens if your Messiah gets born somewhere else?

SIMEON:        It won’t matter where he’s born—he is going to bring my people back to greatness, just as Moses once did.

ABBESS:         Who’s Moses?

SIMEON:        One of my ancestors. He was sent by God to free the Jewish people when they were enslaved in a foreign land. Come to think of it, perhaps it was Moses who freed my mother’s great, great grandfather…

ABBESS:         Is that another one of those stories from that old book of yours. (She picks it up and opens it.)

SIMEON:        The Torah. Yes, it is from there.

ABBESS:         By the way, thank you for teaching Fen.

SIMEON:        It’s no trouble. It’s easier to help raise your daughter—

ABBESS:         She’s not my daughter…we just take care of her.

SIMEON:        She seems to think she is your daughter. Sometimes life isn’t what we see, it’s what we believe. Anyhow, it is still easier getting along with Fen than it is talking with those two Jezebels the Lord left me with. (he gets into a ‘preaching’ voice) "The leech has two daughters. 'Give! Give!' they cry. There are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say, 'Enough!':  the grave, the barren womb…”

ABBESS:         Enough! I say ‘enough!’ I’ve told you before Simeon, I’ll not abide that sort of talk about the girls. They made the only choice they had – if they could get married off, you know they would. But there’s a shortage of healthy men down in the Sanctuary.

SIMEON:        So it’s better to sell your body to all the traveling riff-raff that come through here?

ABBESS:         One of those riff-raff might give you a grandchild.

SIMEON:        No grandchild of mine.

ABBESS:         That’s enough of your poison. Any living child born in this world is a child nearly all of us would want to claim as our own. Don’t you go thinking so much hurt. There’s enough real hurt without you cooking it up in yourself.

(Footsteps can be heard on the staircase. RACHEL and ESTHER enter, laughing about something.)

RACHEL:        Such a skinny little thing he was. Must have been for his coming of age.

SIMEON:        Have you no shame?

RACHEL:        None, father. I traded all my shame to stay alive. No, no shame left. But I do have eggs. (She holds a basket out to ABBESS.)

ABBESS:         Eggs! Good lord you girls charge enough! If I’d known we would have eggs, I wouldn’t have sent Anno and Fen off hunting cats! Oh well, the meat will keep. (She walks off to the ‘kitchen’ with the eggs. The girls are left alone in the room with their father. ESTHER, hoping for some time with her father, sits down at the table with SIMEON.)

ESTHER:         Would you like to play chess, Papa?

SIMEON:        If your mother could see you.

RACHEL:        Well, she can’t. She’s dead. And we’re alive, and doing the only thing we can to stay that way.

SIMEON:        Living outside the law of God is not living.

RACHEL:        Well, if God wants me to live under His law, He’d damn well better bring back the sun.

SIMEON:        God didn’t take the sun! We did! Your great grandfather said—

RACHEL:        And others say it wasn’t us! They say it was God, that a great stone fell from the sky and made the earth the way it is!

SIMEON:        God wouldn’t do that…he wouldn’t allow…

RACHEL:        Allow what? What he allows everyday? Wouldn’t allow the entire world to be covered in ice, wouldn’t allow the clouds to never part? Wouldn’t allow any new babies to be born? What wouldn’t God allow?

SIMEON:        I’m not listening to this. (He exits, angry.)

ESTHER:         Why do you do that? He might have played…

RACHEL:        He started it.

ESTHER:         I know, but you could just ignore him. It’s not the life any of us hoped for. Mama wanted us to find husbands, have babies…

RACHEL:        Well, that’s what I’m trying to do.

ESTHER:         What?

RACHEL:        Sit down, let’s play some cards.

ESTHER:         I wanted to play chess.

RACHEL:        You were never very good at chess Esther. Stick to games you’re good at.

(ESTHER shoots her sister a look, but RACHEL is oblivious. They sit down at the table, and RACHEL starts dealing cards for a game. ABBESS enters, wiping her hands on her apron.)

ABBESS:         Game of cards! Mind if I join you?

(RACHEL pulls out a chair and deals ABBESS her cards. The girls’ conversation takes place during the game.)

ABBESS:         Simeon and you have another argument? Is that why he left?

RACHEL:        You need to ask?

ABBESS:         Just being conversational.

ESTHER:         Speaking of conversational, Rachel, you were just about to tell me what you meant by saying you are doing what Mama wanted you to?

RACHEL:        Well, that’s not why I started whoring, but I was thinking about that story Papa used to tell us about that man, from the Torah, the one who God told to marry a whore.

ESTHER:         There’s no such story!

RACHEL:        There is so. And so the man does, and she keeps on whoring, but God tells him to stay with her anyhow.

ESTHER:         So?

RACHEL:        Well, I was talking with Bridget, the lady who makes dresses down in the Sanctuary, and I got to feeling sorry for myself and started crying, and she asked me what was wrong, and when I told her, she told me not to give up hope. (The women stare at her, waiting for the revelation.) She told me she had been a whore down in Southtown, and that her husband and her moved to Gamin Sanctuary so people wouldn’t talk too much. Made me swear I wouldn’t tell anybody.

ABBESS:         Being the tight-lipped confidant you are and all. (ANNO reenters, his gloves bloody.) Back so soon?

ANNO:            I told Fen we could hunt better if we split up. (He looks at his hands.) I assume she won’t know the difference between dog and cat—don’t tell her.

ABBESS:         (Stands and crosses to him.) You are a good man. (She kisses him on the cheek. There is an awkward silence. ABBESS attempts to break the mood.) You and Rachel should get together and talk hope Anno. You hoping for a place to move to, Rachel hoping for a husband to walk in and sweep her off her feet…

ANNO:            What this?

RACHEL:        Nothing. I wasn’t saying nothing.

ABBESS:         Rachel here thinks whoring’s a good way to find a husband.

ANNO:            (grinning) Beats bringing him home at gunpoint.

ABBESS:         You hush now.

RACHEL:        No, there’s a story there, or I’ve never heard one. Come on Anno, ‘fess. Did Abbess make you marry her at gunpoint?

ANNO:            Not quite. I was taking some potatoes down to Southtown by dogsled, and saw a fire out on the wastes. So I went to investigate. And there was Abbess, cradling a shotgun in her lap, half-starved, half-dead, burning what appeared to be a sledge.

ABBESS:         My family was from the flatlands to the east, where there’s no shelter from the winds and the cold. We thought we might find something better if we came west, toward the mountains. By the time I reached here, most everyone had died off.

ESTHER:         I’m sorry…

ABBESS:         People die. It’s the way the world is.
RACHEL:        I’d like to hear the rest of the story.

(ANNO looks at ABBESS for consent to continue. She nods.)

ANNO:            Well, that was how I found her. I guess that’s where she got her taste for sled dog, because there was a spit of meat roasting on that fire. I hadn’t had meat in a good while, so I tried sneaking over to steal me some of it.

ESTHER:         Anno!

ANNO:            I wasn’t gonna take all of it! And besides, I had every intention of taking her with me to Southtown.

ABBESS:         Only I didn’t know it. And the sound of his boots on the ice woke me up. I aimed that shotgun at him and said…

ANNO:            That’s my damn dog. Go get your own.

(This is apparently very funny to the couple. RACHEL and ESTHER try to laugh at the joke, but it is obviously something shared between ABBESS and ANNO.)

ANNO:            (Still laughing.) So she points the shotgun at me and asks me where the nearest settlement is. I wasn’t all that far from the Sanctuary at that point, but I told her I was headed for Southtown. And she just waves the shotgun and tells me to bring her back here. And that’s how we met.

ABBESS:         Romantic, eh?

ANNO:            Well, that’s not the whole story. The whole story is that she started helping out around the Inn, and when my father saw how good she was with the customers, he started her as a working girl.

RACHEL:        Abbess?

ABBESS:         What? You two thought you were the first girls to try making a living on their back in this establishment?

ANNO:            You make it sound like you know what these girls have had to go through. Tell them the rest.

ABBESS:         Anno couldn’t stand the thought of me being with another woman, he was so smitten by my beauty, so he proposed to me about an hour after his father hired me on as a working girl.

ANNO:            Well, my father wasn’t too pleased, but my mother was, and they both agreed that having grandchildren would be a good thing. (This kills the conversation as surely as anything.) Damn. I’m sorry. (He exits, embarrassed, gone back to finish his work.)

ABBESS:         Anno! It’s all right! (He’s gone.)

RACHEL:        At least there’s Fen.

ABBESS:         Yes. But Anno thinks it’s his fault, and I think it’s why he’s so—careful with me. I can’t have a proper argument with the man, because sooner or later it occurs to him that he never gave his mother—or me—a little boy or girl.

RACHEL:        But no one’s had a live birth for nearly ten years!

ABBESS:         Fen was the last.

ESTHER:         But she was sick as a child, wasn’t she?

ABBESS:         Oh yes. And her mother caught it, and died, and then her father couldn’t bear the grief and went off into the wastes. Left Fen all by herself, the selfish bastard.

RACHEL:        It’s been a piece since we’ve seen Tinker.

ABBESS:         Nearly a year. It’s probably the longest he’s been gone.

RACHEL:        Well, for all his past sins, I miss him. He makes me laugh.

ABBESS:         He makes us all laugh. And I guess I should be thankful. If he hadn’t gone off, I’d never known what it would like to raise a child.

ESTHER:         Have you told her?

ABBESS:         What would the point be? Besides, she thinks the world of Tinker. It would kill her to think he’d gone off and left her as a child.

ESTHER:         But when she’s older, don’t you think she’ll understand?

ABBESS:         Maybe. But there’s enough hurt in this world without us looking for ways to bring more in.

ESTHER:         That’s true enough. Still, if Simeon wasn’t my real father, I think I’d want to know that.

RACHEL:        If Simeon wasn’t my real father, I’d throw a party.

ESTHER:         That’s no way to talk about papa.

RACHEL:        He doesn’t speak kindly of me, I’m just returning the favor. Eye for an eye, isn’t that what his Torah says?

ABBESS:         Don’t necessarily make it right. Simeon’s just having a hard time watching the world fall apart around him. He’s older than anyone I know girls; he remembers when things were a little better. A time when kids were still getting born, when there were still cats to hunt…

RACHEL:        The plague didn’t spare the cats or rats neither, did it?

ABBESS:         Some think it was the rats who carried the plague, passed it on to the cats, and then onto us. It’s like the world just wants us all dead. Dead and gone.

ESTHER:         This is certainly a cheerful conversation.

RACHEL:        Things aren’t cheerful, Esther.

ESTHER:         I am. I’m cheerful. I’m happy to be living here with Abbess and her family, and I’m happy for all the men that come to visit, ‘cause if they didn’t, we’d have all starved by now.

ABBESS:         That’s true enough Esther. I’m sorry, but it’s just not in my nature to see the happy side of things. It seems easier to see things just the way they are.

ESTHER:         I don’t see things any other way than they are as far as I’m concerned.

ABBESS:         Well then, you’re charmed. Feel blessed, and maybe just point out all the good things you see.

(They sit playing cards a moment.)

ESTHER:         Playing cards.

ABBESS:         Pardon me?

ESTHER:         Playing cards. It’s a good thing. You told me to point the good things out to you.

ABBESS:         I’m not sure I was asking you to tell me every good thing you see. But I have to admit, I certainly do love a good game of cards.

RACHEL:        (laying all the cards in her hand down in a pattern.) As do I. I’m out.


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