The Excess of the Etoile

I don’t really write short stories on my own – usually I have too hard of a time with the whole concept of a word limit – but every so often I’m asked to write something for school that turns out particularly well.  Here is one of those such things.

This is a piece modeled after a series of short stories by Ursula K. Le Guin, which she published in a book called Changing Planes.  (The stories are really quite good, you should go look them up.)  The book opens with a story about a woman named Sita Dulip who, while stuck waiting in the airport for a layover, discovered that she could ‘change planes,’ or go to other planes of existence (other worlds, inhabited by strange and unusual creatures that are mostly human-like but very different from us) and almost no time passes in the meanwhile.  (You might also call this ‘day-dreaming,’ but I digress.)  The rest of the book is a collection of stories about some different planes and the natives of them, all told by an unnamed, sort of anonymous narrator.  We read a few of those, and then were challenged to write one of our own.  I actually liked mine, so I decided to share it with all of you.

*By the way: the name Etoile is French, pronounced “Ay-twahll”.  Not, as someone scribbled on my story in class, “E-toilet”

girl-falling-into-water-photo-Favim

On my first visit to the Etoile plane, I met a girl named Lia.  She was young, a struggling student with dreams of fame; there are probably a million girls like her, in their world and ours.  I don’t think she’d ever seen a visitor from another plane before, and she was particularly fascinated with me.  She was very nice once she got over her initial shock, and took it upon herself to show me around the bright, glittering city I had landed in.

The Etoile are a species much like us in almost every way imaginable.  When I arrived in Eclat, their capital city, I believed at first that I had somehow ended up in New York City.  In fact, there is only one distinct way I have noted that the Etoile differ greatly from us, and that is in their obsession with fame.

Movies are everywhere.  It’s impossible to visit their plane and not see one.  Likely, you will see five or more, as their equivalent of Hollywood produces them with alarming speed.  Not just confined to theaters, they are played in offices, restaurants, even schools.  Most buildings in the cities are made with screens on the outside walls so pedestrians can view a film while walking from place to place.  I have seen grown Etoile men and women stop dead on the street when a movie they haven’t seen comes onto a nearby screen.  They will stand and stare for hours, captivated by color, light, and sound.

The Etoile all but venerate movie stars, though the shelf life of a star is even shorter than in our own world.  With so much new content being produced all the time, true fame—the kind most Etoile crave like air to breathe—is elusive, fleeting, slippery like water.  Yet that doesn’t stop girls like Lia from growing up dreaming of seeing themselves projected across the side of a building in dazzling high-definition color, of being the exception: the star whose shine never dims or fades.

*****

A trip to the Etoile plane is a bit like eating cotton candy: bright, fun, and sugar-sweet, but not something that should be done too often.  Still, I have never been able to form such a friendship with a native of another plane as I have with Lia, and as I travel quite a bit for my job, I often find myself ending up back there.

Lia always meets me when I visit, and we catch up for as much time as either of us can spare.  Over the years she has finished her schooling and taken on a series of dead-end jobs.  She is such a smart and compassionate girl, and she could easily do so much more with her life, but instead she goes on auditions and open casting calls with every spare second.  She’s been in a few films—though with the oversaturation of the market that’s not saying too much for her celebrity—and every time one of them comes on while we’re in the city she grabs my arm and makes us stop where we are until her face comes on the screen.

During my most recent visit, I happened to arrive in time to accompany her to the set of her latest movie.  Giddy with excitement, she chattered on even more than usual about the size of her part and how this was the break she had been waiting for.

On set, I watched as a host of people clustered around Lia: curling her dark hair, painting her face, helping her into a ball gown with a corseted waist and a full flowing skirt.  She brought to mind a princess from a fairy tale, and I was reminded of how I’d once thought her dreams of fame were mere childish wishes.  I found that, strangely for me, I didn’t mind so much being proven wrong.

It wasn’t until the director was setting up the shot that I realized what they were shooting: a fall off the roof.

A death scene.

And as far as I could see, there was no stunt double or safety net.

I thought of all the deaths I had watched in Etoile movies—and there were a lot, I realized, a sudden cold feeling spreading through my chest—death by gunshot wound, drowning, a fiery car crash…  Were those all real?  Had people actually given their lives to make a piece of cinema?

“Lia,” I asked her in a rare moment when nobody was hovering around her, “don’t you have to get fitted for a harness or something?  To keep you safe on the fall?”

She looked at me with her wide, innocent eyes and said, “What are you talking about?”

Those five words, combined with the look on her face, told me everything I needed to know.

Somehow I managed to pretend that everything was fine, and stay to watch her shoot the scene.  As abhorrent as I found her choice, I couldn’t bring myself to crush her dreams.  It wasn’t really Lia’s fault she had such little respect for the value of her own life; she was simply a product of her society, a society that believed the immortality of being captured on film was greater than living.

I haven’t been back since then.  Movies, which always seemed like mindless fun, have taken on a dark turn, and my family doesn’t understand why I won’t go to the theaters with them anymore.  But mostly, I stay away from the Etoile because I am afraid—too afraid I’d see Lia’s last film on a building and break down crying for my poor lost friend.

I think about her all the time; the way she looked falling through the air, her skirts blown out by the wind in a mocking parody of wings.  I wonder what she was thinking before she hit the ground, if she had any regrets for the way her life was being cut short.

Of course she wouldn’t—she believed this was what she wanted, no matter the price.

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