The Dome-Singer of Falenda
Katherine Bolger Hyde
In Which I Lose My Balance
The day first shifted out of kilter when I had my little chat with the Canon.
We’d finished rehearsal with my favorite high C. I love to listen to it echoing up to the highest arches of the cathedral, to follow the sound out through the stained-glass window and up into the atmosphere, where it shoots like a rocket out beyond the stars. But I always have to come back to Earth eventually. My voice may someday be my ticket out of this life, but for now it’s all I’ve got.
Canon Howard turned his ray-gun glare on us choristers. “Good work, Danny. The rest of you really must tighten your timing, or the Lessons and Carols will be a victory for the Adversary and not a glory to God.”
Bull and his toadies shoved past me on the way out of the stalls, making gargoyle faces and mouthing “Good work, Danny.” They threw their robes in a heap on the vestry floor and clattered out. I hung about, straightening my robe on the hanger and smoothing the collar.
The Canon came in clucking like a mother hen. “I spend my life’s blood trying to make music to glorify God, and what does he send me? A pack of croaking frogs who won’t even bother to hang up their robes!” He bent down to pick up Bull’s robe, which is about the size of a young dirigible, and saw me behind the rack. “Except for you, Danny. I can forgive God when I remember he sent me you.”
I always think the Canon must be talking about someone else when he talks like that, but it feels good all the same. I supposed he wouldn’t bite me if I asked him. As for Dad, now, that’s another story—if he found out I’d so much as mentioned the subject of money to anyone at the cathedral, he’d go ballistic.
“Canon Howard—” I started, but then my voice broke into a squeak. It’s been doing that more and more lately—once or twice even when I was singing, though the Canon hasn’t noticed yet. I hoped he’d go on not noticing, because I didn’t know what would happen once I lost my treble range.
But the Canon turned those sharp dark eyes my way and I knew he was onto me. “How old are you, Danny?” he asked with a voice like a knife.
“Fourteen in March, sir.”
He scrunched his foxtail eyebrows together until his forehead looked as if someone had gone over it with a lawnmower but missed a strip right along the edge. “I always forget your age, you’re so small. We’ll be losing you soon. Lucky if you make it to Easter.”
“Losing me, sir?” He couldn’t mean it had already been decided I’d have to leave the school at the end of the term.
“As a treble, that is. Not altogether. You do plan to stay on for upper school, I hope?”
“Well, sir—I’d like to stay, of course. But—” How could I say it without crossing Dad’s invisible line? Invisible, but touchy as an electric fence. “Hypothetically, sir—if a boy wanted to stay on but his family couldn’t afford it—”
The corners of the Canon’s mouth twitched. “Hypothetically, we can always find a scholarship for a talented treble. Or tenor, as the case may be.”
“Even—for a boarder, sir?”
One foxtail arched up so it looked as if the man with the lawnmower must have been drunk. “A boarder? Is this hypothetical family thinking of leaving Midchester?”
“Just curious, sir, you know—hypothetically.” I couldn’t help a little grin. He was onto me, but he wouldn’t give
“Then I think that might be hypothetically possible.”
I dropped the other shoe. “What if the boy’s father didn’t want him to come?”
He pierced me with those needle-sharp eyes until I squirmed like a first-year boy desperate for the loo. “Suppose I have a little talk with this hypothetical father? Say this evening?”
“Sir—you won’t let him know I said anything, will you? He made me promise not to tell.”
“You haven’t told me a thing, Danny. Just asked a lot of hypothetical questions.” He grinned. “Now you’d better get going, your father will be missing you. I’ll be along in a
That’s when it happened. He turned to the side and I heard, “God help me wring anything out of that drunken beast.”
I stood rooted, the hairs on my arms standing up as if ready to take flight. It wasn’t so much what the Canon said that shocked me—that was true enough, though I’d never have thought he’d say it aloud in my presence. What threw me was that his lips hadn’t moved at all. They were clamped together like a vise.
I ducked out onto the cloister lawn and took a few deep breaths, leaning against the ancient stone wall of the cathedral. The stress must really be getting to me. I was hearing things.
The prospect of leaving the choir school was certainly enough to drive me barmy. Singing is my life. It’s the only thing I can do. Forget games—I can’t see the point of running around a field after a ball. And forget lessons—I’ve got music playing in my head round the clock, even in my sleep. Throw in figures and names and dates and it’s a jumbled-up mess. If I lost my chance to sing, I’d lose everything.
I walked out a few paces and turned back to look at the cathedral with its spire soaring into the sky. The sight of it always comforts me, like there’s one thing in the world that will never go bad on me. When I was small, I was sure the carved saints on the west front were watching me everywhere I went—not scary watching, but looking out for me the way my mum did back then. They had to protect me from the gargoyles, who crouched on the parapets and leered out of the gutter spouts, ready to pounce the minute the saints closed their eyes—which, fortunately, they never did.
Now I whispered up to the saints, “Help me on this one, won’t you? Don’t let him take me away.” I homed in on St. Cecilia, my mother’s name saint and the patroness of music. Then I blinked and looked again. I could have sworn I saw her nod.
Barmy for sure.
I turned to go, and there they were—Bull and his toadies, in a semicircle and closing fast. They must have been really brassed off, or really bored, to wait around for me all this time.
I pulled my stomach up off my knees and got into a boxer’s stance, ready for any sudden movement. I already knew the theme of their fugue.
Sure enough: “Where’s your mum, Danny-boy?” Bull sang out. Creeper took up the counter-melody: “Took her off to the loony bin, they did!” Weasel came in on cue: “Couldn’t stand to be around this little prig—threw herself in the ocean!” Then the whole lot of them chanted in unison: “Threw herself in the ocean! Threw herself in the ocean!” as they came for me.
It’s always the same. They were lying, of course, but how could I prove it? My mum disappeared when I was six. Just gone. Poof. Not a trace of her. Even my memories of her were unraveling like a worn-out robe. The more I clung to the shreds I had—stargazing on the bell tower, watching butterflies on the cloister lawn, singing Christmas carols together—the faster they disintegrated. I could still hear her singing, though. Everyone says I get my voice from my mum, along with my fair hair.
But my temper comes from my dad.
Here was another thing different about that day. Usually when things get to that point, I run for the bell tower, all the way to the top. I may be small, but I’m fast, and they’re too lazy to follow me past the first flight.
But that day I didn’t feel like running. I felt like fighting. You ever hear of berserkers? Those old Norse warriors who went crazy on the battlefield and slaughtered everyone for miles around and couldn’t be hurt? I felt like one of them. I felt like mutilating the whole gang.
My fists balled up of their own accord and started to rise. And then I heard a voice just behind me.
“What’s all this? Picking on the smallest boy again? You lot get off home before I call the constable and let him give you what you deserve.”
He must have spoken aloud that time. With a glare that told me next time I’d be like Frodo facing the Black Riders, Bull and his minions scarpered.
The wind went out of me like a balloon. I should have been relieved, since I’m not really a berserker, and the gang would no doubt have clobbered me. But instead I felt oddly let down.
“Since you’re still here, Danny, how about me walking you home?”
We crossed the close in silence—me jumpy lest I start hearing things again—then turned down the cobblestone street that leads to my house. When the Canon finally spoke, I kept my eyes on his lips to be sure they were moving.
“It may be my fault those boys pick on you.”
“Oh no, sir. I’m an easy target.”
“No, it’s more than that. They’re jealous of you.”
It was all I could do not to guffaw at that. Who’d want my life? No mum, no friends, a home I only go to in order to keep out of the rain—and now the barminess.
But the Canon’s narrow chin bobbed. “Because of your voice. And because I tend to make a bit of fuss over you. Wrong of me to single anyone out like that, but I’ve always felt you needed a bit of encouragement.”
He got that one right. I certainly didn’t get encouragement from anyone else.
“If I treat you—differently—from now on, Danny, don’t take it personally. It’ll just be my way of evening the playing field.” He stopped outside my door and turned me to face him. “You understand?”
I kept my eyes steady on his. “Yes, sir.”
He let go of my arm and knocked on my front door. After a bit the door opened a crack, and my father’s unshaven mug poked out.
“Fine time to show up,” Dad growled down at me, then looked past me to the Canon. He widened the crack to the width of his body—a laborer’s body gone to flab—and straightened to his full height, which matched the Canon’s six-foot-plus. They matched in nothing else.
“Canon Howard. What’s this? Boy been making trouble?”
“Nothing like that, Mr. Cutler. Danny is a fine boy and a superb musician. But I would like to speak to you for a few minutes, if I may.”
Dad stood back to let us in. “Go to your room, boy,” he said to me, with a shove on the shoulder that could almost have passed for a pat.
I shut my door with an audible click, waited a few seconds, then eased it ajar and stood close behind it. I had to hear them decide my fate.
They kept their voices low, and all I got was a word here and there. Something about “upper school,” “scholarship,” and “like to keep him” from the Canon, countered by “go where the work is,” “no handouts,” “boy’s got to face facts” from Dad. Then footsteps and the outer door scraping shut.
I heard my father’s boots thudding toward my room and shut the door, then leapt onto the bed and grabbed the nearest book. Fortunately I grabbed it the right way up.
He poked his head in. “I’m going out.” Out meaning down to the pub. I cracked his code years ago. “Get those lessons done and get to bed.” His head disappeared.
I screwed my courage to the sticking point. “Dad—” His head popped in again, like a jack-in-the-box. “Dad—if they give me a scholarship—couldn’t I stay on? as a boarder?”
The veins in his forehead bulged. “You’re going to vocational school, learn a real trade. Singing’s no job for a man.”
I was about to argue further when I heard a faint mumbling: “Just like her …”
And his lips hadn’t moved either.
He pulled his head back and shut the door. The walls shook as the front door slammed behind him.
If I had to hear people’s thoughts, couldn’t I hear something pleasant?
Of course I’d known all along on some level: when he looks at me, he’s seeing Mum. As long as I’m around, he can never forget.
And singing is what she wanted for me.
I went to the kitchen and opened a few cupboards. A tin of sausage and beans, a pack of pot noodles. A swallow of milk and some wilted lettuce in the fridge.
I wasn’t that hungry anyway. This was a bell tower night.
• • • •
Midchester is justifiably proud of its bell tower. As the cathedral guide will tell you, it dates from the fifteenth century and is the only freestanding medieval bell tower in England. As only a handful of locals can tell you, it’s a great place to stargaze, watch the sunset, or just be alone for a while. Mum and I used to come up here all the time. Now I come up by myself.
I flattened myself behind a buttress and waited for the old verger to come and unlock the door to ring the bells for Evensong. I slipped in behind him and crouched under the stairs while he wheezed up them, rang the bells, and stumped down again. Then I sprinted to the top of the tower.
Leaning on the parapet to catch my breath, I gazed at the whole town spread out below me. The last red rays of the sun glinted off the tile roofs, turning this ordinary place into fairyland. My favorite time of day. I squinted at the red rim of the sun as it slipped below the horizon, and I could swear a piece of it broke off and flew toward me—a scrap of red fluttering over the rooftops, making straight for the tower.
At first I thought I was seeing things again. Then I laughed. It was only a butterfly. But a solid red one? I’ve seen hundreds of species in my time. I’ve got drawings of them all in my notebook at home, labeled with their proper names, Latin and vernacular. But you hardly ever see a wing pattern that’s just one solid color—certainly not tomato red. Mum would have been so excited, she’d have danced right over the parapet.
Mum. The red butterfly swam in my vision, and I put my hand in my pocket for the one thing that can ground me when I get these blitzkrieg grief attacks: Mum’s music box.
Dad had it made specially for her. It’s tiny, the size of my palm, shaped like a Purple Emperor butterfly with the wing pattern inlaid in enamel on the top. When you open it, the inside of the lid holds a picture of the three of us, me just a baby in Mum’s arms, and it plays the tune she used to sing me to sleep with: “O Danny Boy.”
I opened it and listened to the tune, Mum’s voice singing it in my head. “Mum,” I whispered, “you’ve got to help me before I lose it completely. Make Dad let me stay at the choir school. Help him be himself again.”
I closed the box and slid it back in my pocket, then blinked the strange butterfly into focus. It was close now, and I could see its wings really were solid red. But—I couldn’t see a body between them. And the wings seemed to change shape as it flew.
I leaned over the parapet and stretched out one arm, hoping it might come to me, but it hovered just out of my reach, teasing me. Or—peculiar thought—beckoning me? I put a knee up on one of the crenellations, balancing with the opposite hand on the top of the parapet, and stretched as far as I could toward it.
Too far. My balance shifted, and I fell.