Dawn saw the stirring of the stage crew of the Palais Garnier, as boys young and old hurried to the kitchen to eat before they had to begin their day’s work. Dress rehearsal for the opera, Faust, was to begin today, and all the stagehands were required to be present at least thirty minutes before the cast. Joseph Buquet would be giving out assignments on this day which caused a ripple of unrest throughout the crew. It was well known that Buquet was a lecherous old drunk whose penchant for little girls was only slightly less than his love of blue ruin. It was also well known that he gave his favorite cronies the best jobs, while those who’d crossed him were relegated to the top of the fly tower. Chris, a slim lad of between ten and thirteen, was popular amongst the men, for he would exchange whatever job he was given for one high up in the flies. The boy spoke little, but rumor had it he was once a sailor who’d run rigging on a smuggling vessel before it was shot from the water by pirates. Since most folk cared little for his background and left him alone to do his job, he chose neither to affirm nor to deny the claims. If the crew were talking about him, they weren’t talking to him and that suited him just fine.
As soon as they were dismissed, Chris contemplated those who were given the fly jobs. An older stagehand, Larry, had thwarted the pervert’s latest conquest giving the little ballet rat time to scurry back under the protective wings of Madame Giry. Knowing that the man’s vision had been failing and his balance wasn’t what it used to be, Buquet deliberately placed him at the top of the tower for costing him his bit of fun. When the senior stagehand left to unearth his secret stash of cheap rum, Chris approached Larry and offered to take his place on the flies. Thanking the boy profusely, the old man promised him an extra portion of lunch and sent him on his way. Satisfied that he’d retained his favorite job, Chris began scampering nimbly up the ladders and ropes to the top of the fly tower. As he passed the rest of crew during his ascent, he slowed his pace slightly to listen to the latest gossip about the infamous Opera Ghost. Like most of the cast and crew, it appeared the apparition had a keen distaste for La Carlotta, their newest diva. Chuckling softly at some of the tricks played on the temperamental soprano, Chris found he liked their ghost more and more. And though Monsieur LeFevre, the current manager, had resisted his demands at first, he’d learned the hard way that things would be done the ghost’s way in what was considered his opera house. After the lesson was learned, the Palais Garnier ran the more smoothly than it had in years, and brought a fine fortune to the management.
Settled comfortably at the top of the tower, Chris had little to do during this first rehearsal. Since the cast were finalizing the blocking of the ballet and chorus, the various backdrops would remain locked in place. As he watched Madame Giry put the girls through their paces, he thought he saw a shadow below him move and held his breath. Would he finally get to see the infamous Fantôme de L’Opéra for himself? Staying as still and quiet as a church mouse, the boy carefully watched the suspicious shadow to see if it moved again. Interested he may be; stupid he was not. Just because he wished to see the ghost didn’t mean he wished to be seen by the ghost. Coming to the ghost’s attention often had permanent consequences. Just as he thought he’d imagined things, a man’s form emerged from the shadows and quietly ran along the catwalks towards stage right. As the ghost agilely navigated the web of ropes that made up the flies, it was clear to the boy that this was no true poltergeist. For one, he was certain that ghosts did not cast a shadow. Also, this ‘ghost’ was quite confined to the material world’s usage of solid objects upon which to travel. Chris pondered what would cause a man to hide in an opera house to play ghost. It was quite an interesting conundrum.
Lunchtime approached and Chris quickly descended, his leather gloves protecting his hands from the rope when he chose to slide down rather than climb the ladders. His swiftness was rewarded when he was the first one to get his lunch. A bowl of hearty stew and a chunk of crusty bread were accompanied by a glass of water. The other men teased the boy about not drinking wine or beer like the others his age, but he shrugged them off. Preferring to work the fly tower, he wanted nothing that would impair his balance so far up. He was on his way out when Buquet staggered in, already smelling like he’d bathed in his rum instead of drinking it. Upset to discover that old Larry had been replaced by the young man, the stagehand grabbed Chris’ shoulder as he tried to slip past.
“Hey lads, look. It’s the pretty little fly boy.” Buquet’s cronies all laughed and started crowding around the boy. The rest of the stagehands watched in horror but didn’t rise to help; fighting meant their jobs and fighting Buquet often meant their lives. “Tell me, fly boy, you and old Larry got a thing going we should know about? Are you keeping his cot warmed at night?” Making a lewd gesture, the elder stagehand leaned in close, causing Chris to wrinkle his nose at the smell of stale rum. “You look so much like a girl; it’s probably all the same in the dark.” The small crowd roared again. Finally feeling the grip on his shoulder loosening, the boy slipped under his arm and fled up the ropes. Rubbing his bruised shoulders, he cursed softly. One day he was going to kill that lecherous old drunk.
After lunch, Monsieur LeFevre gathered all of the cast and crew for an announcement. He confirmed that the rumors of his impending retirement were true and that he’d secured the new managers of the opera house. After introducing Messieurs Andre and Firmin to the cast, he called over La Carlotta and Ubaldo Piangi, their lead tenor. The managers said all that was polite but their eyes strayed more to the ballet corps than their leads or their conductor. Chris almost felt sorry for them, for the Opera Ghost wasn’t known to have patience and these men looked like the kind that felt only they knew what was best. It was going to be interesting in the coming weeks until they learned who really ran the opera house. La Carlotta was requested to sing to the new managers and, unfortunately for anyone who wasn’t tone deaf, she agreed. Running a cat down a washboard couldn’t have sounded any worse. Believing herself to be ‘impressive,’ she was more creative than usual with the high notes. A sudden movement on the catwalk above the stage caught his eye and Chris watched as the ghost displayed his displeasure for their current lead soprano by cutting the ropes to a backdrop so it fell almost on her head. When the expected tantrum ensued, Chris couldn’t stifle his laughter at the ghost’s trick. Suddenly, he was no longer just watching the ghost; he was being watched by the ghost. Though the stark white of the mask on the right side of his face intrigued the young crewman, he figured that was a puzzle for another day. Smiling, he gave the ghost a small salute and was surprised by the elegant bow that was returned. A sound below distracted him for mere seconds and, when he looked again, the ghost was gone.
Erik quietly walked through the dimly lit tunnels as he pondered the boy who had seen him from the flies. Unlike the others on the crew, he neither drank while on duty nor did he chase after the ballet rats; but stranger than that, he’d laughed and then saluted the pranks of the Opera Ghost instead of giving away his position. Strange. What did he know about the young flyman? He’d noticed the lad when he’d first started—he knew everyone in his theatre, after all—and had been struck by the boy’s apparent frailty. To be approaching his teens, he was still extremely small in stature. He estimated the child was no taller than 5’3”, if that, and might weigh 100 pounds soaking wet. He always dressed rather shabbily in patched trousers, an oversized shirt and suspenders. Only the boots and ever present cap looked fairly new, but even they weren’t in prime condition. Perhaps he was an orphan, then, or a street rat trying to leave a life of crime on the streets? No one knew for certain, for the lad rarely spoke and spent his time up in the uppermost flies. In fact several of the older men in the crew watched over the boy, believing him to be younger than what he claimed. It was only that disgusting Buquet who gave Chris a hard time. Once he’d discovered the boy was popular amongst the rest of the crew, Buquet had delighted in tormenting the child on a regular basis. A strong, burly man who was more beer gut than muscle, he especially loved comparing the petite boy to a girl and suggesting all sorts of crude reasons for his popularity. Erik frowned. Perhaps it was time to pay a visit to the Chief of the Flies?
Back in his underground home, Erik tossed his hat and cloak into a chair and walked over to the large pipe organ. It had taken him several nights to bring all the pieces to the landing by the lake, and then several more days to transport them all to his home. The gondola was too light to carry many pieces at a time and the lake too deep to simply walk them across. Another week had passed as he reassembled and tuned the instrument and now it was a glorious thing to behold. The music that flowed from his talented fingers to the pipes reverberated around the cavern and filtered up to the world above. Most of those who heard the haunting song crossed themselves and kissed their rosaries, praying for the lost soul that haunted the theatre. When the music stopped, Madame Giry, the stern ballet mistress, delivered his letter welcoming the new management and establishing that his salary would be paid as usual and was, in fact, due. Had he remained a while longer, he would have seen them dismiss the tales of the ghost as mere superstitious rubbish. He would learn of their disbelief later, to their dismay. A tune danced from his fingers and he itched to write the notes only to discover his supply of paper was woefully short. With a sigh, he rose to grab his cloak and hat once more. It was time to venture to the world above to resupply his larder as well as purchase new inks, quills, and paper.
The shopkeeper at the music store was more dense than usual and it took him twice as long to get the items he needed. Clutching the package under his cloak, Erik continued to the market in hopes of finding at least one merchant who hadn’t shut down for the night. Taking the few things he’d need for tonight, he arranged to have the rest crated for pickup the following morning with an extra bonus if the merchant would be available shortly before dawn. Grumbling softly as he entered through the Rue Scribe gate, he was almost to the house on the lake when he heard singing. Pure and heartbreaking, the voice, though obviously untrained, was pitch-perfect.
“Wishing you were somehow here again, wishing you were somehow near…”
Swiftly setting his purchases in the gondola, Erik moved quietly through the tunnels in search of the voice that could only belong to the angels.
“Wishing I could hear your voice again, knowing that I never would…” A sob interrupted the beautiful flow of words and he could barely make out the whispered plea. “Oh, papa. Why did you have to leave me? I miss you so much.”
It was no surprise to him when the song led him to the small chapel. There, kneeling before the altar, was an obviously female cloaked figure, whose bent body shook occasionally with quiet sobs. Erik turned to leave the girl in peace but something in droop of her shoulders and the despair in her cries spoke to his cold heart. Her grief and loneliness was so familiar, so heartrending, that he couldn’t just leave her so unhappy. There had never been anyone who had comforted Erik as a child when he was alone, but maybe he could be that person to this unknown child. Calling himself every sort of fool, he decided to speak to her through the angel statue that floated above the altar. Throwing his voice so it appeared to come from the statue, Erik sang quietly.
“Wandering child, so lost, so helpless, yearning for my guidance…”
“Who’s there?” The cloaked figure rose quickly to her feet, nearly knocking over the battered miniature of a man holding a violin. Though her cowl remained low to cover her face, he could tell she was looking around rather anxiously.
“Do not fear me, child, for who could ever harm such an angel?”
Snatching the portrait and slipping it into a hidden pocket, the girl slowly backed from the altar. Once she hit the wall, she reached behind her searching for the door’s handle. “Angel? Oh, no, Monsieur, I fear you are confused. It is you who are the angel for only the heavens could create a voice so lovely.” Her hands gripped the handle tightly, ready to flee at a moment’s notice from her unseen visitor.
“You flatter me, child. Why do you sing in this lonely chapel so late at night? Surely so lovely an instrument should be polished to shine for the world to see!” Erik watched her carefully. He knew that if he made the slightest misstep, she would be out the door and gone forever.
“A lovely instrument is, indeed, a gift to treasure and share; however, polish costs more than bread and even so-called angels must eat, Monsieur.” Her quick wit endeared her to him even more. Talented and intelligent, if only he could see her face…would she be lovely as well?
“For you, my angel, I would be honored to mold your voice into an instrument that would make even the angels in heaven weep.” He could see her considering his offer though her hands never released the door’s handle.
“And what of payment, monsieur? There are some things even angels are unwilling to do in order to soar.”
“Your voice shall be payment enough, angel.” At her hesitant nod, he had to bite his knuckle to keep from shouting with joy. He would mold her voice to be a perfect instrument and she shall sing for him, only for him, though she stand on the stage in front of thousands. “What shall I call you, angel, and do I get to look upon the face of my pupil?”
“Non!” The change was instantaneous. She had begun to relax in his presence but now she tensed up once more and was ready to fly out of the chapel. “Non, Monsieur, I will not remove the cloak. If you cannot teach me as I am now, then I fear I shall remain unpolished.” He was slightly disappointed for he could think of only one reason why she’d keep her face a secret from him. Did she suffer the same harsh fate as he did?
“As you wish, Mademoiselle. We shall meet here tomorrow night at 10:00pm for your first lesson. Do not be late.”