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Anticipation builds as Emma awaits her father’s opening-night performance in a new opera

A sweet summer wind tore through the desert, flinging dust and small rocks into the night air. Flying over fields of cacti, across Los Alamos, and finally making it to the open back of the Santa Fe opera house, it tousled the hair of the many stagehands, all dressed in black. It breathed life into the bells on the ceremonial clothing of the three different indigenous tribes that had been invited to perform in the show, and as I stepped out of the car that my father had driven us in, it stroked a gentle hand across my face.

*          *          *

“It’s beautiful . . .” my Grandma Laura breathed, looking up at the magnificent structure that towered above us, with its rafters, all shaped like the sails on a boat, lit up with a warm laughing glow. My face curved into a soft smile as I too gazed up at the familiar building I had used as my second home that summer.

“It is, isn’t it,” I mumbled.

“I have to go get into costume now,” my father called to us. I nodded, a grin starting to appear on my face as I remembered the uptight suit Dad had to wear for the opera. Grandma beamed.

“Of course!” she exclaimed, hugging him. “Good luck! I’ll just be at the lecture with Emma,” she said, the smile never leaving her face. I gave him a one-armed hug, chuckling slightly at my overly excited grandmother.

Dad started to walk towards the stage door, but before he got out of earshot, I called out my own good luck: “In bocca al lupo!” His face lit up at the familiar phrase, a bit of secret code between opera singers that means “in the mouth of the wolf,” and he replied in the way he had thousands of times before:

Crepi il lupo!” (“Bite the wolf!”)

And with that, he turned to the waiting door and disappeared from sight.

*          *          *

Grandma and I hiked up the steep hill the opera house was built on and into the plaza. We walked straight past the iron gates, welcoming to me, but intimidating to the strangers all gathered at its feet, and to the employee entrance that was guarded by two junior ushers.

“Hello, Emma!” the boy greeted, smiling as he opened the gate. “Here to see your Dad?” I nodded, grinning.

“Julia and Dan too,” I said, waving as Grandma Laura and I walked right on through. There were a few people there for the lecture by Peter Sellars, all of them in a large blob of a line, an air of excitement and impatience at the prospect of being able to meet the director of the show.

“Are you coming too?” Grandma asked as she joined the line. I smirked.

“Nah, I already know everything there is to know about Dr. Atomic,” I said, smiling. “I’ll probably just walk around a bit, and meet back up with you afterward, okay?” I asked, looking at her face, glowing with anticipation, for confirmation. She nodded quickly, slightly too eager to pay attention to a word I was saying.

I giggled and waved goodbye to her as I strode over to the terrace, my shoes making a soft clicking noise on the stone courtyard. A few employees glanced at me, sizing me up, as if deciding if they should tell me that this place was only for adults, but all of them quickly decided otherwise. My mother had taught me the art of looking like you belong. Chin up, shoulders back, back straight. I leaned on the wall, its rough and bumpy surface scratching my hands, but I didn’t care. I gazed out at the sunset, its colors lighting a fire on the desert sand, arcing over the few clouds that coated the light-blue and lilac sky. Orange, pink, and red flames danced across the sailboat roof for the last time as the sun gave way to a dark blanket of navy blue, littered with tiny glittering gems sprinkled across the night sky. I tilted my head up to the wind, breathing in the smell of rain and lavender that seemed to be an ever-present scent here, in this magical place.

I was gently reminded that I was here, not out on the open plains painted dark blue with the lights of Los Alamos in the distance, as the orchestra started to tune itself. The sweet melodies of the violins, the flutes sounding like a choir of songbirds, and the strong embracing arms of the percussion welcoming me home. I smiled as the friendly wind nudged me toward the main entrance where Grandma Laura and Mister Verm would be waiting. I strolled past the families of both young and old, and laughed internally at their excitement to see a performance like this, perhaps for the first time. I didn’t actually know which show was my first, or where the houses first welcomed me into their never-ending hearts. I didn’t know when I first became a daughter of the opera.

“Emma! Over here!” The voice of a baritone singer pulled me out of my musings. Mister Verm was waving at me from the front steps, his green-and-blue eyes shining with amusement and laughter. I grinned and made myself a path toward him, my eyes still sweeping across the large crowd, searching for Gram. I finally found her, waiting not too far from the Verms. I pulled the Verms over to her, and they were just getting introduced when the chime of the 10 minute bells rang over the chattering crowd.

“We should get going,” I said, grinning at the ever-growing impatience. “Can you get to your seat alright?” I asked Grandma Laura. She nodded quickly, her movements becoming fidgety.

Orange, pink, and red flames danced across the sailboat roof for the last time

“Yes, of course!” she exclaimed. “You go on, have fun!” She gave me a quick hug and tottered off. I giggled and made my way to the VIP lounge with Mister Verm. When we got there, I once again recognized the ushers and smiled at them.

“Here,” Mister Verm muttered, showing the girls his ID. “And the young lady is with me.”

“Of course.” The one on the right smiled. “Enjoy the show!”

We walked in, and I looked around, grimacing at the very obvious absence of anyone under the age of 18. I shook my head and made my way up the stairs onto the upper level of the lounge. I pulled a chair over to the wall and positioned myself so that I could see the show. The lights went down, and a hush fell over the crowd. The only set the entire show used was a gigantic metal sphere hanging from the ceiling. It had a mirrored surface, and it sparked the interest of everyone in the vicinity, except for me. I had spent all summer seeing the rehearsals of Dr. Atomic. My dad was playing the lead role, Oppenheimer, after all.

But as the show went on, even I became captured by the story. The people it spoke of were not yet gone, the effects of the testing had not yet ended. People from the Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, and Tesuque Pueblo were still dying because of the radioactive energy emanating from the test site, and a group of people called the Downwinders were suffering the same fate. Intermission came and went, and at the very end of the show, a young woman’s voice sounded across the audience, bringing tears to my eyes. She was speaking in Japanese, and she was speaking from Hiroshima. She was asking where her son was, she was begging for water, she was praying for help.

Then, as she fell silent, a terrible scream of a hundred children sounded over the loudspeaker. It rang through the night, flying on the wind, angry, scared, sad. It made its way to the lights of Los Alamos, to the ancestors of the people responsible for their pain, and it shook me to my core. Others in the audience had tears of wonder in their eyes as they leaped to their feet to applaud the singers, the tribes, and the Downwinders, but as I clapped, the tears I forced away were not of joy, or wonder. They were born of anger so deep, I didn’t recognize my own emotions. The anger screamed for recognition: it didn’t want to be shut away, it didn’t want to be channeled into something else. It wanted to be set free, and then it wanted to force my country to take responsibility for all the harm it had done.

I locked it in a chest and saved it for later. I put on my best smile and waltzed out of the lounge as if I were simply intrigued by the show. I didn’t say anything about it when Grandma or Mr. Verm asked me what I had thought of the show. I just smiled and said I had loved the performance, just as I had during rehearsals. When Dad came over to us and offered to show us backstage, I beamed and acted just like my usual happy self. He showed us the stage and introduced Gram to our friends and two of the other main performers in the show, Julia and Dan. We also got to meet some of the dancers, but we, of course, had to leave eventually. So we made our way to the car, and Dad waved goodbye to his colleagues, still blind to the turmoil boiling in the pit of my stomach.

The wind felt it, and so did the house. They wrapped me in their embrace, reminding me I wasn’t alone in my anger. The wind wanted its people back, and the house did too. And so I got into the car without complaint, and as the wind hugged me for one last time, I looked back at Los Alamos and smirked, knowing what would eventually come.

In bocca al lupo,” I whispered to the wind and got into the car.

*          *          *

A sweet summer wind is tearing through the desert, throwing rocks and sand into the night air. It’s angry for its people, and when the wind is angry, all of the world feels it. The wind has never been alone in its anger, and it never will be. It has an ally, who is lying in wait, searching for the perfect moment to bring all the secrets to light. Until that day, the wind will hold onto its anger and keep its best friend, the opera house.

Emma McKinny
Emma McKinny, 13
Old Fort, NC

Alexa Zhang
Alexa Zhang, 9
Los Altos, CA

 

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