"When I was a boy," he said slowly, now the one to look away while he spoke, "my mother liked very much to keep me at home. Other children were nasty things and not to be bothered with, and in principle I agreed with her, but honestly. She could barely stand her own company on the bad days, how could I? So I went out into the world, such as it was. Posh little suburb of Dublin proper. Trees to climb, cars to avoid, children to play with. Two just next door- twins. Riding their bikes and running ragged like boys were meant to. Far too young to sort out what bothered them about me, I think. Didn't even settle on 'poofter' until it was far too late to be of any use." His smile was fond, as though leafing through a scrapbook.
"One day I'd run out of books or Evelyn was having an episode or some catalyst that drove me outside, and they were there, those twins. The quieter one never troubled me until later; it was Matthew who aimed to toy with me from the out. It frustrated him, how his plans never seemed to work. I didn't act like other children, lonely or desperate. It always angers them, you must have noticed. And that day he didn't bother with any pretense, only hefted himself from the ground where he and his brother were busily scraping chalk over the pavement, marched up to me and said 'Your mam's a whore, an' everyone knows it, an' she's a nutter an' you're prolly a nutter too'. Then he spat in my face." He paused a moment, thinking. Remembering.
"I knew I should be angry; he'd said bad things about my mother, and that was meant to be a nasty breach of conduct, at least where and when I grew up. I knew I should be filthy angry, especially with him sneering at me like a thick little monster, his brother snickering on the ground behind him. I think a part of me wished then, right then, that I could feel what everyone else felt. Indignant. Humiliated. Afraid- Matthew was quite a bit bigger than I was- well, you know I've never stopped wondering if fear- it's not important.
"The moral of the story, Sebastian, is that while Matthew sneered and his brother sniggered, I picked up a pebble lying at my feet and whipped it as hard as I could at his face. Not because I was offended or upset, but because I knew I should be. That was the code. Because I wanted to see what happened. When his eye began bleeding and his brother started shouting- all those cries of disbelief and racket and chaos- how could I trade what I felt then for anything?" There was a trace of a smile when Jim turned back.
"I didn't need to be normal, or anything like it, even if I flirted with the notion as a small child. I already knew what normal people did, and isn't that the same thing? Isn't it better, knowing how to look like one of them and being so much more?"
Old rambling houses were sometimes the very quietest sort of quiet. With windows closed against a grey sky outside them, even the birds made no sound that James could hear. He wasn't trying to listen to the magpies, only watch. Two, eyeing the wren's nest he'd noticed a week ago on the branch nearest his bedroom window. He wondered if they would take the eggs; he wondered if they would wait for the wrens to leave. The faintest thud and strum of music came from down the stairs and through thick doors.
That was the sort of quiet his house got. The kind that James sometimes loathed, would sometimes scream just to fill it up and burst it all over. Today he'd settled quietly inside it, because there was something to watch. For awhile.
"James." That he heard clearly enough, up the twisting stairs and through the door he hadn't bothered closing. Standing on two thick, leather-bound volumes to see properly without frightening the birds, James didn't turn to watch the voice and its sturdy feet clomping up the stairs. Tired, spindly legs and strained grey face. He needn't look, if he already knew what he'd see.
"James." The voice was at his door now; James' fingertips spread slowly against the windowsill, still pulling him up for a better view. That was more than enough acknowledgement that he'd heard. The man in the doorway responded, after all, entering uninvited and sitting on James' tightly-made bed.
"I've been speaking with Edward Powers. He said you pummelled their Matthew this afternoon." The Man didn't sound angry, only fatigued, which James expected. He wasn't really paying attention yet; the wrens had taken note of the magpies and were fluttering about their nest in some confusion over what to do next.
"I said it couldn't be. Matthew a head taller than you and a brother with him besides, and you're not the pummelling sort. But he's angry, Mr. Powers. Says you could've blinded him. I didn't like to call him a liar without talking to you first. Are you listening?"
James was listening. He could pay more attention now, both parties of birds having been distracted by some jackdaws interfering with their dispute. Not that he turned around.
"I'm listening. I'm watching, mostly. I'm thinking. And also I'm wondering. That's all, right now."
The Man seemed to have no reply for this at first, though it was far from the first time he'd gotten more and nothing at all of an answer to any question James might be asked. "Did you stone Matthew Powers, lad? All you've to do is tell me."
"I'm watching the birds," James said plainly, exercising patience. It took a great deal of practice, patience, and there was never an end to chances for it. It kept him from screaming when it was quiet, or loud, or stupid. Most of the time. No one took you seriously if you screamed always, even if it was obvious you ought to.
"I'm watching the birds, I'm listening to you tell me what Edward Powers said. I'm thinking about Edward Powers' face when he gets angry, the way it gets red and swollen and he breaks things. I'm wondering if he was angry today, or not. I'm wondering why magpies wait for the wrens to leave when they could kill them and take the eggs. I'm wondering why you've a different voice outside home."
"A diff- what are you on about now-"
"In court. Speaking to the judge and all the gallery, I've been there twice. You think it sounds English, but it doesn't. At home you speak like Edward Powers. Except your face doesn't change colour and you don't shout. " James smiled out the window. Still watching the birds, but leaving his attention on the Man. "You don't ever speak like yourself."
"Child, did you wallop Matthew Powers in the eye or no? I've not the patience for this-" The Man was getting angry, and just as James had said, he didn't shout or turn colours. His fists were gripped beside him, pushing the bed as though he were holding down a great force pushing upward.
"Yes. He called me names. He called Evelyn names, as well. You aren't meant to get away with calling people's mothers anything."
"I don't care what he called anyone." The Man had long since given up telling James not to call her Evelyn. She's your mother. You should say so. It's a matter of respect. Everyone knows she's my mother, James had said, and everyone knows her name is Evelyn. It's a pretty name. And he'd had nothing more to say on the matter.
"Then let me watch the birds."
"You're to apologize to Matthew Powers first thing."
"No. At school, he'll apologize to me, and then he'll leave me alone. I might tell Sister Mary Gabriel that I saw Carl do it. Yes. Isn't that what you told Edward Powers, Da? That it was probably Carl who threw the stone?"
"James Mul- you will not lie to the Sisters or anyone else. You will apologize." The Man's voice became thin and reedy when he was angry. Like he couldn't take in enough air, and in the end, he'd sound pleading. Only a tight, quiet voice and deep nasal breaths, which James was still working out how to film and show back to him, to show him how foolish he looked. It probably wouldn't do any good.
"No." He turned now that he'd said it again, and his face was angelic; a young boy, round and sloping and pale and dark, destined to break hearts, people said. He thought about that, too. Breaking hearts.
He looked solemn now, eyes flicking a glance at his father's tightening fists, his narrowed eyes, lined like a much older man's. "No, I won't apologize. I shouldn't like to. I'll look contrite. That's what you tell the people who hire you. I'll do that, and I'll tell Sister Mary Gabriel another story. Whatever I like."
He held his father's gaze, unblinking. It would be over so quickly; James was losing interest in these games, lately. The pale grey tired clomping man said nothing, now that he was faced with James' stare. Sometimes- most of the time- that would be all. But the only real remedy for boredom was more effort.
"Do you know why, Da."
"Do you know why I'll say what I like and tell you all about it, and nothing more will happen."
"Because everyone will believe me, and no one would believe you. You know that, don't you? If I cry and point at Carl, and tell them the right stories. I know the right stories." James' father sat in silence, staring at his own son. Transparently wanting very much to leave, or at least break eye contact.
"You can't hurt peo-"
"Why don't the magpies kill the wrens, Da? They're twice the size. I don't think they like to be seen stealing eggs. Everyone knows they do it. They must get better at it somehow." If James killed the wrens himself, it would be cheating, but it might be worth a try to see what would happen.
James' father sat back on the bed, face slack now the boy was looking out the window again, standing on two of the Man's own law texts. Such a small child. He'd seemed like he might break when they'd first brought him home. Whatever Evelyn did, James' father had never raised a hand to him.
It was far too late to start.
"You're tired all the time. You work very hard and you talk a lot, and it makes you tired. It's all right. Edward Powers will drink a lot of whiskey and forget. He won't talk to you again, Da. I promise." Was it worse, his father wondered, when he sounded like that? Like he was telling genuine, reassuring truths? "Evelyn's in New York today. Maybe all week-end. Berlin next. She'll be all right if you want to go have a rest."
"Yes. In Cork, where you go." The silence that wasn't, muffled music still echoing, stretched. "We'll be all right. I promise there won't be trouble while you're away." He sounded almost cheerful.
"Yes?" He turned again, and it was obvious now he hadn't been solemn, before. Now that his eyes were wide child-like expectation, his mouth curved ready to speak or smile or frown. He hadn't been solemn, only blank.
"You are trying to be a good lad, aren't you?"
"Yes, Da. Of course I am. Wouldn't you tell me if I were doing it wrong?"
James' father only stared some more, the smile spreading slowly across his son's face as he stood to leave.
He already had a bag packed; he always had a bag packed. James would keep watching the birds; Evelyn might not notice, but the fit she'd throw if he pointed it out-
In the five minutes it took him to load his car and leave, James stepped off the now-flattened volumes, setting them carefully on his desk to look at later. Sure his father's car was gone, he crept downstairs to the sliding wooden door that muted the swelling orchestra behind it.
Evelyn danced alone on the faded carpet, violin and brass doing nothing to drown out the maudlin lyrics she sang along to; she had an invisible partner, signalling to James that he ought to stay quiet until he knew whether or not someone was really there.
The record had begun to skip before she noticed him, swooping to gather him in her draped black and red silks, dark red hair tumbling down her back.
"Jim, Jim, my jewel, listen. The music lasts and lasts on days like today. It traps itself in the walls, do you hear it?" She danced with him now, though he was really too big to be picked up and twirled the way she had done so often when he was littler.
James still let her. Tangled his lengthening fingers in her hair while she dipped and spun. Always he would land on something flat and solid, this time the piano bench, across from which Evelyn sprawled languid and smiling, foot dangling over the edge of a divan.
"New York, my angel. New York and its streets. You know it. For me."
James always watched her for long moments between being stood somewhere and beginning whatever it was to be begun. The way her eyes glinted with the light from the chandelier, the way her hair could seem perfectly curled or matted and unkempt depending on the angle. He almost always found something new, but that wouldn't last. It never did.
"I sing the body electric
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.
Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?"
"Corrupted, discorrupted. It doesn't matter. Do you know what it means? You've a soul, Jimmy. A perfect soul, inside a perfect body. A great ruby that gushes blood. We'll go to the very top of Empire State, my darling, we'll soar over the streets below. Come dance with me. Come."
He looked out the window first, to see the driveway was empty and the garage locked. He saw Matthew Powers in the street, his brother, five or six other children shouting and kicking a football. He wondered how best to take the wrens by surprise.
Turning, solemn, he took Evelyn's hand.