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Miles, his curtain call

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My breath catches in my throat. My heart pounds in my chest.

(It does not flutter. I am no trapped bird, whatever you may think me.)

Once more I am conjured back into existence. To speak, to sing, to tell a truth that you...

You cannot put into words what you ask of me. Why, then, should I be able to?

Long, dreary hours I laboured over my Latin, close-bitten fingernails and smudges of ink. Long hours I listened to Flora reciting her lessons. You were told that we were always delightful; I was not always delighted. Learning did not come as easily to me as it might have seemed. And now you expect me to express truths over which grown men have stumbled. I am only a boy.

But, you object, I am too eloquent. I am too innocent. I am too knowing. I am too bad.

(Children don't behave so. Children, if they have eaten from the tree of good and evil, are children no longer.)

I would like to be bad. It would mean, at least, that I am something. A real boy, not a ghost or a vision. You forget that it is over a hundred years since I was given birth.

Miss Jessel made me, Quint formed me, my Governess won me. This was my catechism, the burden of my song. I can hear the piano already, those inexorable fifths and the turn of that inexorable screw, cuing me once again to tell my tale. What if I tell you that I never listened, that my dreams had other terrors? What if I spin you a different story?

Come now! What else do you remember...?

Memories blur like fingerprints on glass, flicker like lightning glimpsed between half-drawn drapes. I remember nothing of my parents. I remember nothing of the time before school, my first small joys and loves. Nothing is left to me of my school but the damp feeling of another hand in mine, three marbles nested in a schoolfellow's palm and passed to my own. A shy, sidelong smile and then another blank. All the stories I told at school have faded away.

Mr. James was ever so kind to me. He introduced me to Maisie, and Morgan Moreen, and Dolcino. We played together for brief days before the heavy covers of his books snuffed out our lives once more. Mrs. Piper tucked me up into bed alongside her own brood, hummed me a lullaby that slipped from my grasp even as it spun out its simple phrases. Her words formed in my mouth, smothered me until I forgot my own. It was not I who was talking horrors.

Mr. Britten invited me with David Hemmings to his house at Aldeburgh, a phantom alongside a live boy. But which was which? Perhaps David knew. Miss Holst taught us piano, told us that we were such clever boys, helped to shape us in the image of the man that she loved.

If I heard any songs in the night in that cozy guest room on the first floor, it was only the twittering of birds in the fading dusk, the careless arpeggios of a tenor voice that never called out for me to come. Music took shape but it was not my music. Its composer couldn't hear me over the sound of the waves breaking on the shore.

I sat up at night, watching out the window for a familiar figure that never came. The pages of Molesworth tempted me not at all. I went out under cover of darkness to swim naked in the sea. Amphibious things delighted me, and the quenched, noctilucent, diluvian fire of the sea. I dreamed of drowned voices and wondered whether mine might be among them.

Did you want to know something else? I can't think what it might be. Would you listen if what I told you wasn't beautiful at all, not fit for the stage of La Fenice, all garlanded with roses and heavy with the sultry heat of a Venetian September? Or would that story please you even more? Perhaps it's you who ought to say. I'll listen. Go on then. What are you waiting for?

You sit up at night in your attic room striving to give me shape, listening to the songs of long-dead singers. Along with the record, I skip out of your grasp again. Your kindness is no different than other kindnesses. Your ear is no keener than any other's. Those echoes you hear are nothing of mine, nothing but the croaking of frogs and the first drops of rain on the still surface of the lake.

(It's a great wide sea.)

David's voice broke, unable to hold both youth and adulthood, knowledge and innocence, within its frail compass. Mr. Britten cast him into the outer darkness, where I always have dwelt. I felt a wicked delight that night in Paris to know that I was not the only one who faltered under the weight of my secrets.

I was the boy whom he usurped. My voice speaks as neither boy nor man. The forestalled applause still rings in my ears. My story calls me back to begin again.

Mr. James, Mrs. Piper, Miss Holst, Mr. Britten, even David... all of them are gone. You will follow them. I will remain.

My secrets, my refusal, are all I have to give me form. Without them I would crumble into dust and be forgotten. Without them I would forget even myself, my own words and my own breath.

In my pocket I grasp three marbles, cool and hard in my hand. I am still and silent. I stand and I stand and it seems that I shall stand forever. Other voices sing my story. Other pens scratch it. Other ears will strain to hear it for years and centuries to come. All they have is surmise. I will not speak. My secrets will endure.

I will tell you, I repeat. Everything. I will tell you. But... not now.

That is my triumph, whatever may follow.

And the curtain falls.