Once upon a time, there was a boy who liked to sing. He sang in the bathtub, he sang in his crib at night, he sang while he played. His voice was beautiful. He sang when he was happy, he sang when he was frightened at night, he sang for no special reason at all except that the notes just wanted to come out. When he sang, his father would smile and his mother would often kiss the top of his head. He sometimes sang for them but usually just sang to make himself happy, not always noticing the way the others would listen with wistful looks on their faces. At night, every night, the boy lay down in his bed and prayed to God to keep him safe all night and let him wake up again in the happy world that loved to hear him sing.
His brothers sang, too. He was the youngest of five sons and all of them had voices like angels, so his mother and father were used to boys who sang. He was the littlest, though, and it therefore made everyone especially happy to hear his tiny voice piping through the house as he played, always on key, always in perfect pitch. His mother would say, we have a house full of angels, a choir of beautiful boys, for they were beautiful, all her sons, though, had they not been, she would have seen them that way still. They sang at church and few things made the boy as happy as the sound of all those heavenly voices wafting up to God in exquisite trills of sound.
The boy grew and as he grew, he came to know that his brothers sang together on stage, often gone for weeks at a time on a tour. He begged to be allowed to sing with them on stage but his parents said no, darling, you are too young, you are too little. He begged his brothers, often singing with them when they rehearsed, and they said no, you are still small. He would puff himself up big, stand tall upon his tiny legs and say, look, I am not small, I am big but they would only laugh and kiss him, pulling him up into their strong arms for a hug. He would climb into their beds at night uninvited but never unwelcome, his brothers always drawing him close to embrace him as they slept. He loved those nights, when he would sleep without dreams, listening to the heartbeats in their much larger chests.
Singing with his brothers became the thing he dreamed of at night, the thing he thought of all his long young-boy days. He would sing with them, he told himself, he would sing on stage and they would let him because he would be so very good despite being small. He practiced and practiced, reading music without knowing that some people couldn't, hitting notes that he didn't think of as hard because no one had told him that they were. And he was good, his voice through the house now sounded more and more like an angel's voice as he learned to reach high and hold long, as he learned to trill the sounds and make people smile and cry with the lovely words he didn't always understand that were written alongside the music.
He grew bigger, of course, but not as big as his brothers. He measured himself against the well-used doorway with markings in inches. No matter how hard he tried to grow, he was still smaller than his brothers but he could see that he had passed the old marks with some of their names beside them. It amazed the boy that his brothers had once been small like he was, smaller even, and so he had hope. One day he too would be tall and sing with his brothers on stage in their choir of angels. One day he too would make people cry and laugh and sing along with the music. He too would make people happy with his voice.
Finally, the day came that the boy had prayed for all his never-ending little boy years. His mother made him a velvet suit just like his brothers wore with sequins on the lapels and put shiny shoes on his feet. His oldest brother cut his hair for him, smiling and kissing him as he did so, and then set him up to the bathroom mirror to see his new self. He was so happy, his heart threatened to burst out of his chest. He looked just like they did and very grown up, very handsome, or so their mother told him. Their father just smiled but the boy could see tears in his eyes as he watched his sons together for the first time in their sparkly velvet suits and slicked back hair and shiny black shoes. The oldest brother had a ring on his finger that caught the light and then released it in a dazzle of rainbows. Their mother took their picture as they stood together, clean and shiny-faced and nervously excited. Tonight they would sing together on a stage as brothers, a choir of handsome angels, and the boy was thrilled to the core knowing that he would miss no note and make no mistake. He was with his brothers who he loved beyond all things and nothing could possibly go wrong in his world.
The show was all he could have expected and more. People he didn't know kissed him in the wings as he awaited his entrance; people he couldn't see clapped and called for him out in the audience behind the bright lights that almost blinded him. His brothers' hands on his shoulders steadied him and he launched into the high sweet notes of his solo with the lights hard in his eyes and the boards harder under his feet in their tight new shoes. The audience loved the boys that night and loved the tiny boy's beautiful high notes that joined his brothers in bright arpeggios that rose up together into the air. He never wanted it to end, he never wanted to stop singing but finally it was over and the family went home with the youngest boy trilling all the way about his night and launching into fragments of song between sentences as if notes were as natural to him as words.
They sang together for years, first on the stages that paid for them and later for the record label that signed them. People lined up to hear them sing in person, they lined up to buy their albums. People followed them for autographs and smiles; people who didn't know them wrote letters telling them they loved the boys, especially the littlest one. People were usually nice but when they weren't, it hurt the boy and he was often afraid. How could people love him and hate him who didn't even know him? He didn't understand that when people heard his voice, they thought they knew him, thought they loved him, thought they owned him. As the star of the brothers' singing rose, their father drew into himself and spoke less and less. Their mother became more religious, asking God to watch over her sons and keep them safe. The hurts mounted up and one day, the boy asked her what a nigger was and she cried. She told him the word wasn't a nice one and cried some more. Their father wouldn't talk so the boy asked his brothers who told him not to listen to the word, not to take it to heart but the boy's young heart was open and like a sponge so the insults cut deep even if he didn't understand them. Why was love so close to hate in some people and why did those people want to make him cry?
He learned what the word meant; he learned that the color of his skin was something that made him less beautiful. He looked around at the people in his life and saw different skin colors, some darker, some lighter, and wondered why they weren't all beautiful, wondered whether God liked one color better than others the way people seemed to. Children he met didn't say these things so much and didn't seem to clock the colors the way that grownups did and the boy discovered that he could be happier away from adults. As he grew older, he pulled further and further way from grownups and into a world he himself created, filled with the sights and sounds of childhood and the uncomplicated laughter of children.
Children felt easy with him even as he became an adult himself because he was so gentle and so soft-spoken, often watching them play in silence with the traces of a smile about his lips. The boy no longer sang when he spoke, only singing when he was alone or with a few trusted young friends who also had angel voices, with whom he might sing into late hours as they spent the night in the many rooms of his mansion. With the money he made from singing, he was lavish with gifts and thought nothing of granting boyhood wishes on the spur of a moment. Their happiness was something he could understand and it made few demands on his heart to give them small things they craved and watch their eyes light up like Christmas trees. What was money for if it couldn't make others happy?
His brothers had grown tired of singing and dropped out bit by bit to marry and make their own families but the boy, now a man, continued to make records and perform on stages around the world. His world-wide popularity as a performer only made it harder for him to talk to other people and he became a recluse, speaking now only to his family and a few close friends, including the young friends who regularly visited his secluded mansion and grounds. He had changed so little, his mother thought, he was still that soft-spoken boy who could smile just because he heard a beautiful piece of music. But he had changed, he was far less happy, finding the world a confusing place for a boy of the wrong color who never seemed to grow up, who never seemed to be real except when he was singing.
He tried to hide himself away when he wasn't singing but this only fueled the cruel articles in the newspapers and magazines that called him strange and published mocking photographs taken of him when he wasn't looking. When a new album failed to meet the dazzling expectations, he fell further from grace and the photographers and critics piled on insults and speculations into articles that never seemed to stop, yet never quite seemed enough for him to sue for what his lawyers called damages. But the damages were real and they filled his gentle heart to bursting with a sorrow that threatened his very soul. He grew thinner and sadder and older in his heart. He was sick now much of the time and spoke to fewer and fewer friends, trusting less and less as the years moved on. The sun hurt his eyes and skin and he became a boy of shadows, covering up when he had to venture out in the light.
Music made him less happy than it once had and almost no one heard him sing for his pleasure any more. He sang mostly inside his heart now and seldom spoke to others. His only happiness was when his brothers would visit him or when his many young friends would come over to play with the animals and circus rides he kept on the grounds of his secret mansion. He loved those things himself and would ride and play long into the night whether he had visitors or not, safe behind strong walls with faceless guards paid to watch over him. When he slept at night, he often dreamed of being small again, of the happiness he remembered from long ago when he had sung all day just for the joy of it. That sweet voice was only in his head now as he stayed quiet and secretive when he was awake, having learned caution in a world that didn't love gentle boys of the wrong color no matter how beautifully they sang. He was content to watch others sing and laugh as they played and opened presents beside him in the vast and beautiful rooms of his secret mansion, their parents often sitting by and proud that their children had caught the famous singer's heart. No one was admitted who had cruel thoughts, who said cruel words, and the boy could often forget what the world was really like outside the strong fences.
The day they came for him was like any other, a bright sunny day in California with birds singing in the trees that filled his private world. They handcuffed him, calling him names and kicking aside the bright toys and things that filled his house and made him happy, laughing as the boy cried. No amount of money made from singing could make his skin color the right one; no amount of money could make people accept a quiet, gentle boy who had only wanted to make others happy with his voice. His soft voice now, weak with tears, only brought derision. Not a man, they said, not sane to want to sing and play and be let alone in a world filled with cruelty. They got him alone and hurt him, which was easy, made him cry, which was easier still as he had never grown the hard shell that so many did in the world of grownups.
They laughed at him when they saw the tears and would not call his brothers when he begged them to. They left him dirty, in pain, took his picture, and laughed at his thin body and what the sickness had done to him over the years. The money from his voice that he had long used to keep him safe was no help now, as he lay alone and frightened. Would they kill him, would they hurt him again, what had he done that was so terrible? He could think of nothing and so he thought nothing and tried to sing to himself to make the time pass. But he had long ago let the easy angel voice die off and could no longer sing for pleasure, especially in this cold place. And so, he lay in silence that filled his ears and heart.
Just when he thought that nothing could hurt worse, they told him why he had been taken and it broke his heart. He was bad, he had hurt the children he loved and helped, he was dangerous and he would be punished. Nothing they could have said would have been worse to the boy. The one good thing he had always known was that his young friends loved him, loved him as no adults ever could and to know that this was no longer true, that someone had called it bad was almost more than his gentle heart could bear. Had they spent the night with him? Of course they had, curled up beside him and confiding their young secrets to his quiet soul, they had often spent the night and played for days on his grounds, finding presents in the unlikeliest places, secreted away just for them, things they had yearned for but not expected, things his music money could easily buy them. His eyes and heart would fill when he saw their small dreams fulfilled so easily and it gave him immense joy to see their smiles. And this was bad? He almost hoped they did kill him; he didn't want to live in a world whose heart was so hard.
The boy, now a man, lay down upon the pallet and cried himself to sleep, praying to God that he not wake up again in this sharp and hurtful world, this world that no longer seemed to want to hear him sing, that no longer seemed to want him in it at all. His song and his happiness had been all he had and now there was nothing left but the hurt inside his gentle heart, and that hurt filled him to overflowing as he lay there alone with no song, no music, not one single sweet note anywhere in his soul.
His song was gone and the world no longer cared.
[For two Michaels, with love from TR]
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