Juliet Descending

James Ulmer


A few days after the play closed, I was searching the rows of stacked cans and boxes under the harsh, unforgiving lights of a grocery aisle at Walmart, a basket hooked over one arm. I had an audition upcoming in New York the following week, and if I landed the part, it would take me out of that godforsaken town and back into the spotlight where I belonged. So I was preoccupied, planning ahead, not thinking about the spring production or any of my students, when she stepped suddenly past the end of the aisle, slowing her stride just long enough to exchange a glance before passing out of sight – a jangling of silver bracelets, the white flowing skirt, belled sleeves, that unearthly waterfall of black curls. A quick chill passed over me. Pulling the brim of my cap lower, I headed for the register.

Outside, the moon glowed like a dull pearl above the parking lot. The pale shine of the streetlamps, positioned every fifty feet across the macadam, had erased the stars. I stepped quickly for my car, popped the trunk, and threw my groceries inside. Closing the trunk, I paused for a moment to take in the green, floral smell of the May evening. I remember distinctly that a phrase from Keats ran through my mind: the murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

She stood in the darkness at the edge of the lot, facing me, her eyes gleaming in the shadows like two blue stars. The white, waxy blooms of the magnolia behind her seemed to reflect what little light there was. She didn’t move; she hardly seemed to breathe. There was something aggressive in her silent, riveted attention. Her skirt rippled in the wind, but she never shifted; it was as if someone had dressed a statue.

“What do you want?” I shouted at her.

When she didn’t answer, I climbed behind the wheel and drove away.

Earlier that year, after we returned from the long Christmas break, we had chosen Romeo and Juliet as our final production of the term. My students were still young enough to really want to do that play.

Spring came early that term, the flower beds on campus bright with yellows and blues, bees hovering, a month sooner than expected. Mischief was in the air. None of them realized yet how thoroughly the deck was stacked against them. We were a small department at a small college in a Southern town in the middle of nothing but pine forest and cornfields, but none of that seemed to matter to them. They had all grown up watching American Idol, and they went through life blindfolded with their hands cupped around the brave little flame of their ambitions. In their minds, success was guaranteed, a birthright – all they had to do was have faith in themselves. I suppose that was why they were all so quick to trade their integrity for a part in a play that no one of any consequence would ever see. They believed it was their chance to shine.

It all started with Mercutio.

The boy walked into my office on Monday of the week we were casting. He was thin and lithe, maybe five ten, with a wonderful mass of curly brown hair and quick dark eyes. Only a sophomore, but in a few years he’d be as bald and dumpy as his father, a paper-pusher who worked in Financial Aid. I told the boy his future, and fear passed visibly across his face before he was able to hide it.

“What part are you interested in?” I asked him.

He answered without a pause. “Mercutio.”

Smart kid, I thought.

“That’s the best part in the play,” I told him. “Romeo is nothing more than an adolescent numbskull with a taste for Petrarchan clichés. Mercutio has all the wit, the punning, the Queen Mab speech, the swordfight with Tybalt, and that great death scene.” I shifted my eyes to his.  “How badly do you want that part?”

A quick suspicion flickered across his face.

“What are you willing to sacrifice for your art?” I persisted.

“What do you mean?”

I got up from behind my desk, crossed the room, and locked the door.  Then I told him exactly what I meant. The boy’s eyes got bigger, his face went white to the hairline, but I have to hand it to him, he never flinched.

“Well,” I said. “What’s it going to be?”

I was curious. I wanted to see if I could get him to perform, willingly, the very act that from his perspective had to be the worst thing imaginable. There was power in that, real mojo. I kept my eyes focused on the mantel clock on my bookcase, and when I came, the clock seemed to stop for an instant and the second hand shuddered. When he was finished, he stood up, unlocked my door, and left to begin learning his lines. He never said a word.

After that, I saw no particular reason to hold back. I figured that if I was going to risk being caught, I might as well be ruined for all of them as for one. Benvolio, Romeo, Tybalt, Lady Capulet. Even Friar Lawrence was made to sacrifice for his art. I used my cell phone to take pictures, so of course they had to keep quiet. Shame is a powerful silencer.

The last part to be cast, and the most difficult, was Juliet. Juliet had all the character that Romeo lacked, all the rich contradictions. She was passionate and innocent, intelligent and rash, a woman who was still a child. I had almost despaired of finding someone compelling enough for the role when Kelsey Robertson knocked on my office door.

She had long black hair – gorgeous hair that fell in tight ringlets to her waist – blue eyes, fair skin, a full mouth. You could trace her lineage in her features: from Arkansas back to Tennessee, from Tennessee to Virginia, and from there back to the English countryside, to Whitsuntide dances and flowered Maypoles. She looked like a model in a pre-Raphaelite painting, something by Rossetti perhaps, the kind of woman he would’ve sought out to hold up against the sordid reality of smoky London factories and burgeoning ghettos. She wore a white cotton dress, long and flowing, with belled sleeves, a black velvet vest laced tight to the waist, and black ballerina slippers. Something about her reminded me of wildflowers.

“Juliet?” I asked her.

“I already know the part,” she smiled. A girl like that, a nice girl, always wants to play

Juliet – never Medea or Lady Macbeth.

“You’ll have to learn some Renaissance dance steps,” I told her.

“Show me.”

I bowed my head, doing my best imitation of a courtier, and stepped out into the middle of the room. Hands on my hips, I showed her my galliard, a series of skips and leaps – part of my training, wasted in that empty place. She watched my feet, eyes narrowed, a slim fist under her chin, her head tipped to one side. When I had finished, I turned to her.


She repeated the steps perfectly the first time, with a light-footed grace and elegance I wouldn’t have believed possible – in fact, she seemed for an instant to hang in the air as if she were suspended. When she came to earth again, her dance complete, she threw back her gorgeous head and laughed.

On my suggestion, we did the palmer’s scene, the one that ends with a kiss. When our lips touched, a hot current shot down my spine.

“You kiss by the book,” she said, delivering her line.

Those blue eyes, only inches from mine, darkened, and she didn’t look away.

We wound up at my place. I rent a brick ranch house from the nineteen sixties on a cul-de-sac about ten minutes from campus. It has a good-sized yard with enormous oak trees in back, so the place has a distinct advantage in terms of privacy. I opened the front door for her, glancing quickly around to make sure the neighbors hadn’t seen us, and when she stepped inside, I took her hand. She followed me down the hall to the bedroom.

Poor kid, she was very serious. She kept looking at me, her eyes heavy, and she smiled but never laughed. Her demeanor seemed to insist that something significant was happening. I was content to play along. Later, when we were lying together with a sheet thrown over us and her head on my chest, I could feel her eyelashes flicking, lightly brushing my skin. She was thinking, maybe blinking back some tears. When a nice girl does something sordid, she needs to tell herself that she did it for love – never for ambition, or, god forbid, because she damn well felt like it. Love is the only motive that makes depravity acceptable.

So, if character is fate, I guess what happened next was fated.

I waited for it. Then, “Drayton?” she said.


“I think I’m in love with you.”

What the hell, I thought. Might as well commit to the part.

“I love you, too,” I told her.

That was how my place became our place. After rehearsal, we would leave separately and arrive separately. We’d fall into bed together, then practice her lines; and Romeo, the dunce, never knew the Prince was fucking his angel. In fact, the rest of the cast never had a clue. Each kept his dark secret, believing that he or she was the only one.

The production was magical. Maybe it was the incestuous, underground sexuality and angst that made them all so magnetic. In any case, the local crowd was being treated to Shakespeare as they might never see him again, though I doubted that many of them understood that. This particular play is produced hundreds of times a year all across the country, but I honestly believe that you’d have had to go to Los Angeles or New York to see anything as compelling as what I witnessed unfolding on that stage on those late-April nights. After the second night’s performance, I told them so. The scenes were crackling with energy.

Closing night was our best performance, but it didn’t start out auspiciously. The actor I’d cast as Tybalt was coming apart at the seams. Kyle Johnson was a tall, broad-shouldered fraternity boy who was also a National Merit Scholar and the star halfback on the football team.  He had artistic aspirations, too. Ruthlessly fast, violent, and efficient on the field, Kyle was the perfect bully, so of course he was the perfect Tybalt. But between the first and second acts, he sat backstage pale and shaking, barely able to hold himself together. He crouched in a corner in his green tights and black doublet, a felt hat with a feather in the dust at his feet. I approached carefully, stepping through the tangle of ropes and winches.

“What the hell is your problem?” I whispered hoarsely.

But of course I knew. Having pounded so many bodies to the ground and bedded so many willing girls, he’d never been on the receiving end before. He couldn’t stand the humiliation of what I’d done to him, and now his sullen reaction threatened to ruin everything.

“You bastard,” he said.

I tried appealing to his team spirit, his vanity. “The show must go on,” I told him.  “Listen, are you going to let the entire cast down by wimping out the first time the going gets a little rough? Your best scene is coming up.”

“Up yours,” he said, looking away.

I couldn’t help but smile at that. “No, Kyle.  Up yours. Don’t you remember?”

No response. He simply hung his head and groaned. Fine, I thought. I still had my trump card to play. I grabbed his face with both hands and forced him to look me in the eye.

“You better pull yourself together, bitch,” I told him. “Because if you don’t, I have some pictures of you that are gonna show up on the Internet. Can you imagine what your frat brothers will say? They don’t strike me as a very broad-minded group.”

I saw the rage burning in his clear blue eyes.

That’s good, I thought.  Channel that. The fool would’ve run me through if the sword he was wearing had been real.

The performance continued without a hitch, but it was the last act that truly astonished me. Just before the curtain rose, I saw a group of cast members whispering together among the paint cans and lumber behind the scene. Tybalt was there, stone-faced and pale as death.  Mercutio was talking fast, insisting, telling something to Juliet as Benvolio and Lady Capulet looked on. Feeling my eyes on them, they turned in unison to regard me, an assembly of grim jurists. No one said a word.

But they were all in their places when the scene began. At least I’d taught them that.

When they got to the scene at the crypt, I witnessed one of the most complete transformations I’ve ever seen on stage. Kelsey Robertson, some empty vessel from Nowhere, Arkansas, became Juliet, a brokenhearted Renaissance girl whose lover had left her without hope. When, lamenting over Romeo’s lifeless corpse, she found the vial of poison empty and his lips still warm, I could taste her loss. She turned white, her lips trembled, the tears stood in her eyes. Grief lay on her so heavily, so completely, that we could hardly breathe. It was real. We could feel the knife go in, felt the cut go deep, deep. . .

It brought the house down.

After the final curtain fell, the cast filed out on stage in groups of three or four for a last bow – various Montagues and Capulets, Friar Lawrence, Paris and Mercutio. Romeo and Juliet came last from opposite wings, meeting center-stage to clasp hands. Juliet’s understudy ran out to present her with a bouquet of roses. She clutched the red blooms to her breast and bent her head to breathe in their scent, and when she looked up again, the tears brimmed in her eyes.  Without a word, she turned, darted off stage, the applause still echoing, and slipped out the back door of the theater before I had a chance to stop her or ask where she was going. I went to the door to call after her, but she had already vanished into darkness.

She wasn’t at the cast party. No one seemed to know where she was. I wasn’t worried, though.  I figured she’d gone home to her parents, and since she wasn’t about to tell them what she’d done, I knew I was safe. Two days went by, and then, on the evening of the third day, she stepped unexpectedly past the end of the aisle at Walmart.

Driving home that night, I was struck again by how dark it was in town. Aside from a few scattered lampposts lining Main Street, there were no lights anywhere to push back the darkness. You could be in the middle of town, not fifty feet from someone’s front door, and barely see the house looming in front of you. It’s hard to convey the feeling of isolation, the silence that settles over you in a town like that. The depth of the darkness, the physical weight of it, is oppressive. I picked my way home through the blackened side streets, watching moths flutter, scraps of torn paper, in the beams of my headlights. The magnolias had blossomed early that year, and an occasional bloom glowed like a night-light in the darkness. I kept thinking about Kelsey Robertson, still as a mortuary statue, glaring at me from the parking lot shadows.

When I pulled into the mouth of my driveway, my lights swept the back yard as I turned for the garage. A figure in white sprinted from the glare into darkness. Moving lights, the flash of a white dress, dark hair – the thin, distorted shadow projected fleeing across the lawn. There was no mistaking my visitor.

She’s here!

I pulled into the garage, exited the car, slamming the door behind me, and hit the button to lower the garage door. Moving quickly through the dark house, I stepped through the French doors and out onto the back patio. Night loomed enormously from the black shapes of trees.

I cupped my hands around my mouth.

“What the hell do you want?  Why don’t you quit skulking out there in the dark and come up to the house?”

It was like shouting into a wall of blackness. My voice echoed from the trees.

I figured she would at least come and talk. She wasn’t an adult, of course, but I hoped I could convince her to act like one. So I waited for the white shape of her dress to appear and come forward. But there was no response, no sound but the steady chirrup of crickets rubbing their legs together in the dark. I went inside and locked the door behind me, turning on lights.

That night, I tried to learn the lines for my upcoming audition, but it was no use. I sat on the couch in my living room, yellow lamplight spilling over the pages of my script, the loas in the Haitian paintings on my wall watching me from the shadows.  Lines from the other play kept running through my mind, and I couldn’t focus. I closed my eyes and saw Kelsey tripping light-footed in my office, suspended in air, her head thrown back, laughing.

O! then, I see, Queen Mab hath been with you.

Frustrated, I tossed the script aside, found my way to the bedroom, and was soon asleep.  Eyes stared from paintings. I saw grotesque masks from the Capulet’s ball: a satyr, the sun, two cats, a boar with ivory tusks, a bedlamite. Jungle drums pulsed in the background. I saw Tybalt run through with a sword, a real sword, his doublet soaked in blood. Then the same for Mercutio.  A curse on both your houses!  The pieces came in no particular order, so the play could find no resolution, no conclusion. Fragments broke apart, came together in bizarre combinations: Juliet stabbed Tybalt, Friar Lawrence poisoned Lady Capulet. I woke with a start, heard a light step coming unmistakably down the hardwood hall. Kelsey Robertson stood in the bedroom doorway, smiling, her eyes heavy.

Swear not by the moon, she said, the inconstant moon, that monthly changes in her circled orb

Then I woke again, this time for real. I was soaked with sweat.

“My god,” I muttered.

I pulled on a pair of jeans and stumbled bleary-eyed to the kitchen. I felt as if I’d been drinking hard for a week, though I hadn’t touched a drop. As the coffeemaker gurgled and choked and the hot brew began to drip into the pot, I rubbed my aching head and stared out the French doors into the back yard. The sun was not up yet, but a little gray light leaked between the dark columns of oaks, giving the yard a murky, underwater feel. As I watched, a white mist seemed to rise and take shape, stepping out suddenly from behind a rough black trunk.

A gasp escaped me. Crazy bitch she must’ve spent the whole damn night out there!  I stared at her, disbelieving, and for the space of a minute she stared back. Then she turned and stepped away into the trees. The message was obvious: follow me. 

I was angry – I’d had enough of her game. I left the back door ajar and hurried across the

damp stretch of lawn to where the oaks, remnants of the forest that nudged up against the borders of town, rose in the gray, predawn light. As I approached the trees, a breeze passed overhead, high up, and the new leaves shifted and rustled. Dark trunks were spaced a few paces apart.  Stepping between them, my eye was drawn to a patch of bright color on the grass – a bouquet of blowzy red roses, a single ballerina slipper lying next to them.

I brushed a fly away from my face, and then I heard a swarm of them.

Looking up, I saw my Juliet descending from a rope tied to a sturdy branch, one foot bare. Her hands were empty; her face, wrenched cruelly to one side, was a cold, lifeless blue.  Somehow, she had managed to shimmy up that tree, climb out on the bough, and fasten the rope.  I couldn’t imagine the determination it must’ve taken, the lonely horror of it.

She’d been hanging there for three days, waiting for me to find her.


James Ulmer’s recent collection of ghost stories, The Fire Doll, won the George Garrett Fiction Prize from Texas Review Press.  His fiction and poetry have appeared in The New Yorker, The Missouri Review, storySouth, Crazyhorse, New Letters, and elsewhere.  Ulmer is currently Professor of English and Chair of the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Southern Arkansas University.


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