Void of Souls
Some disasters leave humanity in a shadow so vast that it obscures the tragedy.
HARRY New Zealander. He has an air of thoughtful containment and melancholy.
LIAM Australian. A reformed wild man, uncultured but loyal.
TORVALD Norwegian. A precise thinker and a reliable friend.
AURELIA Irish pathologist. She has the manner of someone used to commanding attention.
Costuming and Staging
The men are in period attire consistent with a cold environment—heavy trousers, duffel coats, boots. Aurelia is in modern sub-zero clothing.
The performance space has a bisection: the left is the present; the right is late 1918. The men remain shy of the left; Aurelia never crosses over either.
There is an optional visual effect: the Aurora Borealis.
HARRY and TORVALD emerge. Harry is staggering about, arms folded, coughing profusely.
LIAM enters. Torvald and Liam observe Harry anxiously. Torvald starts guiding Harry towards the front.
LIAM Harry, cobber, let’s get you some whiskey, eh? Medicinal tonic. There’s a bar on the island.
Harry stumbles away from Torvald’s guidance and Liam’s advance.
HARRY Better keep your distance.
LIAM Careful on the ice. You’ll slide into the drink.
TORVALD (Whispering) It might be a good idea to keep him away from other passengers.
Liam joins Torvald in steering Harry again, towards the front.
LIAM I think you’re right, Torvald. If he’s got that lurgy they had in Frisco, it’s best to keep him off the ship, isolate him on shore.
TORVALD I’ll call the captain. He’ll probably get him a bed in a cottage.
LIAM Harry! Easy. The jetty’s not steady.
Liam draws Harry with him, away from Torvald. Harry collapses near the front. Torvald and Liam sit on opposing sides of him.
TORVALD Harry, how are you?
HARRY Not too bloody good, mate.
LIAM Hell. You look like…
Now supine, Harry shakes his head. His friends share an apprehensive glance.
HARRY (Upper class accent) Fresh fields, eh, chaps? Tally ho. The Promised Land. (Laughing, coughing viscerally.) This is it—the end.
LIAM (Suppressed alarm) They did say this was the end of the world, eh.
HARRY So this is how Captain Cook felt–in Hawaii. (Exhales.) Minus the heat.
LIAM Minus, alright. Minus ten. (Sniggers.) And you thought Garston was cold. (Pause.) Cook in Hawaii, huh? It’s not that dire, is it?
HARRY (Laughs, splutters) Hey, Liam.
Harry gestures Liam to approach. The Australian shuffles near.
HARRY (Confidentially) D’you remember your, um, declaration of solidarity?
LIAM You’ve lost me.
HARRY What you said on the journey, that time I whipped your arse at quoits–that we’re like brothers now, like the real Anzacs down in Europe, the ones who didn’t have fallen arches or other excuses like us. (Pause.) You should probably think again about your promise—you know, that you’d die for me.
LIAM (Quietly) Oh, Haz. You don’t wanna joke like that.
HARRY I’m out of jokes. The rations are gone.
TORVALD I think he means it.
LIAM Come on, Harry. Who’s gonna excavate all that ore now, eh? You came all this way to get it, you silly bugger. You’ve gotta be tough, that’s all.
HARRY Tough, huh? My Maori buddy Jack always said that. ‘Kia kaha, Harry. Stay strong.’ Easy advice. (Laughing) Not that it helped his mates, all carking it one by one out there in the sticks in Taranaki.
HARRY Country, Tor. The countryside. In their maraes.
Harry inclines himself away from the others. Choking and coughing, he scrunches desperately into an embryonic position. Concerned, Torvald and Liam chat inaudibly.
AURELIA ENTERS, carrying a book and a steaming mug. Placing the mug down, she addresses the audience as though they are her colleagues. She can sit on the edge of the space or stand.
TORVALD STANDS AND EXITS. Throughout Aurelia’s monologue, the other men are in a silent parallel to her modern era. Harry is breathing heavily, ailing; Liam embraces him comfortingly. Eventually TORVALD RETURNS with a blanket, drapes this around Harry and sits next to them. Liam is distraught, Torvald stoic. Aurelia holds up the book. She is subdued, but determined.
AURELIA Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Got it in Seattle on the flight up. One of the few novels about the flu. (Laughs.) Man, I really am a virus hound–even in my spare time. I’ve got the bug, ha ha. If you’ve never heard of this book, fair enough. You haven’t heard of any items of fiction about Spanish Lady, have you? For some reason, not many people sat at their keyboards and started out like, ‘Flu killed all my friends.’ There’s minimal homage out there for twenty or forty million—whatever total you accept. In our research for this expedition, some references cited eighty million. (Pause.) And where are the Ground Zero memorials for the Lady’s fatalities? Oh, there are some. Longyearbyen, Boston, Alaska, the Fort Riley Monument in Kansas, where the epidemic might’ve started. There aren’t pilgrimages to them, though, are there? (Recalling.) ‘The most lethal pandemic ever.’ The single most deadly incidence of a virus. One of the plagues killed more, yes, the one-hundred-and-fifty-year one, but the Spanish Flu caused its attrition in a year or less. (Pause.) And apart from our vocation, who even spares it a thought? (Sneering) You’d think everyone should be into it, not just pathologists. (Pause.) You try to stay detached. They’re just subjects, not people, yada yada. There’s something about these ones, though–so pristine after all this time. (Raises her mug.) Salut, permafrost, an ally to our profession—and to the world, if the tissue samples we glean here yield a preventative or cure. (Smiles.) It’s impossible to understand why such a scale of horror hasn’t osmosed into the global consciousness more than it has. Covid’s given it cameos in the news. Yay, the pandemic. (Snorts.) It’s like no one wants to know about it. ‘Bring out your dead’ was almost a romantic slogan by comparison. (She looks right, through the adjacent tableau of travellers.) Where’s the romance for these wallflowers, the inhabitants of that illustrious little boneyard over there, our extractions? (She waves the novel.) Pale Rider is a measly epitaph for so many losses. (Pause.) The plagues, Dub Dub One and Two, AIDS—you name the calamity, there’s a buttload of fiction to eulogize it. (Laughs.) And then there’s this unexpressed vacuum that these poor sods fell into, and countless others globally. It’s like the rest of us have left them void of souls. They’ve been deleted from our minds, God help us. That’s quite a trick. Los Desaparecidos. They’re the out-of-mind experience for humanity. (Quietly) You know how you dislike someone just because they remind you of aspects of yourself that you despise? (Laughs.) You’re thinking, ‘What’s Aurelia on about now?’ (Pauses, sighs.) I reckon those forgotten tens of millions are like that. A curtain’s been raised against them, for fear of even recognizing something so…so insufferable. Maybe we comprehend evil in ourselves—or our human enemies—but can’t take the reality of such ruin from the invisible inside us. (Pause.) But plagues and AIDS and Covid were inside us, you say? (Chortles.) Plagues? Everyone blamed evil spirits and bearded ladies, then fleas and pets. AIDS? Monkey phobia, homophobia. Covid had the amplification of modern media. The flu? That’s sort of just us, to the standard logic. (Pause.) The original microscopic massacre—a tragedy too insidious for us to glorify.
As the men’s scene reactivates, AURELIA EXITS reverently, taking her book and mug. Harry sobs. Leaning away from the audience, he splutters uncontrollably, seemingly vomiting. He gazes abstractedly past his friends.
HARRY I’d left all this behind. All those bodies slung across Hagley Park, my brother somewhere in that festering heap. Standing there, (Snorts.) I couldn’t help thinking about us playing tiggy with mates, and how he always got caught. Me? Never. (Pause.) I thought I’d escaped it.
LIAM You made it here. You’ll make it through.
HARRY Look at them, our lucky fellow passengers.
TORVALD (Sympathetically.) The captain should be here soon, and the doctor.
HARRY Oh, look at your face, Tor. You know you are looking at your deaths in mine, you and Liam. You know that this (Pointing at himself.) is your future.
Leaning away again, he makes a rasping, guttural cough.
TORVALD Oh, Harry. Soon you’ll have no blood left.
LIAM Is there nothing we can do to help him?
Torvald is looking at the area into which Harry is coughing.
TORVALD It’s no good, Liam. The blood is coming from his lungs. (Yelping.) Herregud! The snow!
LIAM What’s that stuff? Torvald, hold his head up so he doesn’t choke. Let’s get that crap out of his mouth.
Torvald obliges. Liam is facing away and Harry is partly obscured. Liam appears to be clearing Harry’s mouth.
HARRY (Deliriously.) This is my halo, yes? (Laughs.) Liam, I’ve got a holy glow in the snow—a nice red halo.
Harry shrieks, an uninhibited outlet of grief. Liam and Torvald scoop Harry up. Carrying him, THEY EXIT.
Optional visual effect: a suggestion of the Aurora Borealis; kinetic, psychedelic tones. This can last until the finish.
AURELIA RETURNS, carrying some flowers and a sheet of paper that has text on it. She stands facing the audience and conducts a self-styled memorial. Sometimes dropping flowers, she refers to the sheet only cursorily during an eloquent address.
AURELIA God bless these people we study. Unlike many unrecorded ones, at least they have the dignity of identities, the integrity of names. (Reading) Royle, Henry—brackets, Harry. Jolly, Stella. (Pause.) Armitage, Liam. (Pause.) Stigsen, Torvald.
She bows her head devoutly. TORVALD ENTERS coughing and stands near the front. He has a Bible and flowers. He stifles his coughing and delivers a tremulous eulogy. To him, the audience are other mourners in 1918. His composure is fragile; his strained English has an impassioned elegance.
Aurelia stays in a venerating pose, observing a period of silence.
TORVALD This is…How would Liam say it?…a shitty little place. If we stand here much longer, we will freeze to statues, as still as him and the others.
Torvald almost seems to regard the modern day scientist for a moment, then readdresses the audience. As he continues, Aurelia looks up. Softly, restrained, she hums ‘Danny Boy.’ This is a consonance to Liam’s conclusion. As his requiem finishes, she might sing several lines.
TORVALD: I could never forget that awful complexion they had, the colour of extinction–a strong purple, like lavenders. (Pause.) I’m sorry, Harry, Liam, that we can’t give you anything better than terrible crosses of wood to value your terrible deaths, your wonderful lives. You and these other unfortunates from the ship and this island deserve much more. But, dear ones, your deaths were so huge, we had to use dynamite to bury you! (Laughs.) It’s a pity you missed the explosions, Liam. You loved a good…How’d you say?…scrap, a fight. We had to fight to get you all under this cold, hard ice which has no life in it but yours. It freezes the earth and it holds you all, young always. (Coughs, places the Bible down, starts throwing flowers.) Liam predicted that the Aurora would appear by this time of our arrival. Heavenly colours fill the sky to honour our friends, to farewell them. (Pause.) In the end, we can offer them only flowers…and our love, which soon may vanish too. Harry would call me insincere if I speak of a God, (Snorting) as he put it, a godforsaken God. So I’ll just say,…you take with you the grace you brought to this world. I think he would accept that.
Aurelia’s humming or singing diminishes.