THE SECRET OF FLIGHT
WRITTEN BY OWEN COVINGTON
DIRECTED BY RAYMOND BARROW
SETTING: The stage is bare except for a backdrop screen showing the distant manor house.
The lights should start at 1/8 and rising to 3/4 luminance as the scene progresses.
AT RISE: The corpse of a man lies CENTER STAGE. POLICEMAN enters STAGE RIGHT, led by a YOUNG BOY carrying garden shears. The boy’s cheek is smeared with dirt. The boy points with shears and tugs the policeman’s hand. POLICEMAN crosses to CENTER STAGE and kneels beside the corpse. BOY exits STAGE RIGHT.
POLICEMAN puts his ear to the dead man’s chest to listen for breath or a pulse. His expression grows puzzled. POLICEMAN straightens and unbuttons the dead man’s shirt. He reaches into the corpse’s chest cavity and withdraws his hands, holding a starling (Director’s note: use C’s, already trained). POLICEMAN holds starling out toward audience, as though asking for help. Starling appears dead but after a moment stirs and takes flight, passing over the audience before vanishing. (Director’s note: C assures me this is possible. C concealed somewhere to collect the bird?). POLICEMAN startles and falls back. (BLACKOUT)
LEADING LADY VANISHES!
October 21, 1955
Betsy Trimingham, Arts & Culture
Last night’s opening of The Secret of Flight at the Victory Theater will surely go down as one of the most memorable and most bizarre in history. Not for the play itself, but for the dramatic disappearance of leading lady Clara Hill during the play’s final scene.
As regular readers of this column know, The Secret of Flight was already fraught with rumor before the curtain ever rose. Until last night, virtually nothing was known of The Secret of Flight save the title, the name of its director, Raymond Barrow, and of course, the name of its playwright, Owen Covington.
Raymond Barrow kept the play shrouded in mystery, refusing to release the names of the cast, their roles, or a hint of the story. He did not even allow the play to run in previews for the press. Speculation ran rampant. Was it a clever tactic to build interest, or was it a simple lack of confidence after the critical and financial failure of Barrow’s last two plays?
Whatever Barrow’s reasoning, it is now inconsequential. All that is on anyone’s lips is the indisputable fact that at the culmination of the play, before the eyes of 743 witnesses, myself included, Clara Hill vanished into thin air.
For those not in attendance, allow me to set the scene. Clara Hill, in the role of Vivian Westwood, was alone on stage. The painted screen behind Hill was lit faintly, so as to suggest a window just before dawn. As the light rose slowly behind the false glass, Hill turned to face the audience. It appeared as though she might deliver a final soliloquy, but instead, she slowly raised her arms. As her arms neared their full extension above her head, she collapsed, folding in upon herself and disappearing.
Her heavy beaded dress was left on the stage. In her place, a column of birds—starlings, I believe—boiled upward. Their numbers seemed endless. They spread across the theater’s painted ceiling, then all at once, they pulled together into a tight, black ribbon twisting over the heads of the theater patrons. You can well imagine the chaos that ensued. Women lifted their purses to protect their heads, men ineffectually swatted at the birds with their theater programs. There were screams. Then there was silence. The birds were gone. Vanished like Clara Hill.
Was it all a grand trick, a part of the show? The stage lights snapped off, the curtain fell abruptly, and we were ushered out of the theater, still dazed by what we had seen.
As of the writing of this column, neither Barrow nor any other member of the cast or crew has come forward to offer comment. Dear readers, as you know, I have been covering the theater scene for more years than I care to name. In that time, I have seen every trick in the book: Pepper’s Ghost, hidden trap doors, smoke and mirrors, misdirection. I can assure you, none of those were in evidence last night. What we witnessed was a true, I hesitate to use the word miracle, so I will say phenomenon.
Prior to last night, no one save those directly involved with The Secret of Flight had ever heard the name Clara Hill. Last night, she vanished. Her name will remain, known for the mystery surrounding it, but I do not think the woman herself will ever be seen again.
December 18, 2012
I know it’s absurd, writing you a letter. But a man my age is allowed his eccentricities. Eighty-eight years old, Will. Can you imagine it? I certainly never intended to be this old. The young have a vague notion they will live forever, but have any of them thought about what that really means? To live this long, to outlive family and friends. Well, since I have lived this long, I will indulge myself and write to you, even though it’s old-fashioned, and there’s no hope of a response. Forgive an old fool. Lord knows I feel in need of forgiveness sometimes.
It’s been fifty-seven years since Clara disappeared. Aside from you, she was my only friend. I wish you could have met her, Will. I think you would have got along—comrades in your infernal secrecy, your refusal to let anyone else in, but somehow always willing to listen to me go on about my problems.
I’m all alone now. The only one left besides the goddamn bird, the one Clara left me. It’s still alive. Can you fucking believe it? Starlings are only supposed to live fifteen, twenty years at the most. I looked it up.
Rackham. That’s what Clara called him. I didn’t want to use him in the play, but Clara insisted, and now I’m stuck with the damn thing. He’s not . . . natural. He’s like Clara. I don’t think he can die.
I’m ashamed to admit it, maybe you’ll think less of me, but I’ve tried to kill him—more than once. He speaks to me in Clara’s goddamned voice. Starlings are mimics, everyone knows that, but this is different. I tried to drown him in a glass of brandy. I tried to wring his neck and throw him into the fire. Do you know what he did? He flapped right back out into my face with his wings singed and still smoking.
To add insult to injury, he threw my own goddamn voice back at me, a perfect imitation. He said, “Leading ladies are a disease. You breathe them in without meaning to, and they lie dormant in your system. Years later, you realize you’re infected, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. You spend the rest of your life dying slowly of them, and there’s no such thing as a cure.”
Do you remember? I said that to you, years ago. At least it sounds like the kind of pretentious thing I would say, doesn’t it? I was probably trying to be clever or impress you. Did it work?
Pretentious or not, it is true. I’m infected, and Clara is my disease. She’s here, under my skin, even though she’s gone. Everyone’s gone, Will. Even you.
Well, goddamn you all to hell then for leaving me here alone.
Items Displayed in the Lobby of the
New Victory Theater
1. Playbill—The Secret of Flight (1955)—Good Condition (unsigned)
2. Playbill—Onward to Victory! (1950)—Fair Condition (signed—Raymond Barrow, Director; William Hunter, Marion Fairchild, Anna Hammond, cast)
3. Complete Script—The Secret of Flight (1955)—Good Condition (signed, Owen Covington)
4. Press Clipping—Herald Star—June 17, 1925
“Victory Theater Under New Ownership”
A staged publicity photo shows Richard Covington shaking hands with former theater owner Terrance Dent. Richard’s brother, Arthur Covington, stands to the side. The article details plans for the theater’s renovation and scheduled reopening. The article provides brief background on the brothers’ recent immigration to America from England. A second photograph shows the family posed and preparing to board a ship to America. Arthur Covington stands toward the left of the frame. Richard stands next to his wife, Elizabeth, his arm at her waist. Elizabeth rests both hands on the shoulders of their three-year-old son, Owen, keeping him close. None of the family members are smiling. To the right of the frame, standing with the luggage, is an unidentified young woman with dark hair thought to be Owen Covington’s nanny. A shadow near the woman’s right shoulder vaguely suggests the shape of a bird.
5. Press Clipping—Herald Star—August 7, 1976
“Fire Destroys Historic Victory Theater”
A half-page image shows the burned and partially collapsed walls of the Victory Theater. Dark smudges above the ruins show a sky still heavy with smoke. Certain patches might be mistaken for a densely packed flock of birds. The article offers scant detail beyond that the fire started early in the morning of August 6, cause unknown. The blaze took several hours to bring under control. No casualties reported.
6. Press Clipping—Herald Star—December 1, 2012
“A New Life for the Victory Theater”
The image at the top of the page shows the exterior of the New Victory Theater. A brushed stainless-steel sign bears the theater’s name, and below it, an LED marquee screen shows the word WELCOME. The article discusses the successful fundraising campaign leading to the construction of the New Victory Theater at the site of the original building. Brief mention is made of the architects’ intent to incorporate elements salvaged from the old theater into the new design, however all the historic pieces are held by an anonymous collector who was unwilling to donate or sell them. The majority of the page is given over to pictures of the gala opening. The article notes that Raymond Barrow was invited to serve as honorary chair of the event, but he declined.
Incomplete Draft of Murmuration by Arthur Covington—
typed manuscript with handwritten notes
(CLAIRE glances over her shoulder before hurrying to EDWARD’s desk, rifling through the drawers.)
CLAIRE (to herself): Where is it? Where is he keeping it?
(As her search grows more frantic, she fails to notice EDWARD entering the room. EDWARD grabs CLAIRE by the arm.)
EDWARD: Are you trying to steal from me?
CLAIRE: You stole from me first. Where is it?
EDWARD: Stole from you? You live in my house. You eat my food. Everything you own is mine.
(CLAIRE tries to strike him. EDWARD catches her hand. He leans close, his jaw clenched in anger.)
EDWARD: Show me how it works, and I might forget about your attempted thievery.
(CLAIRE doesn’t answer. EDWARD grips her harder, shaking her.)
EDWARD: There’s some trick to it. Look at this.
(EDWARD rolls up his sleeve and shows CLAIRE a long gash on his arm.)
EDWARD: I shouldn’t be able to bleed anymore. I shouldn’t be able to die.
CLAIRE (her voice hard): It was never going to work for you, Edward. You can’t steal a feather from a bird and expect to fly, or steal a scale from a fish and breathe underwater. You can’t change the nature of a thing just by dressing it up as something else.
EDWARD: Then tell me. Tell me how it works, and I’ll let you go.
(ANDREW enters STAGE RIGHT, freezing when he sees CLAIRE and EDWARD. Unnoticed, ANDREW hangs back, watching. EDWARD strikes CLAIRE. CLAIRE doesn’t react. He knocks her down, pinning her, and puts his hands around her throat.)
God, this is shit. The whole thing is shit. It isn’t enough. It doesn’t change what happened. It doesn’t make up for the fact that “Andrew” just stood there and did nothing. I stood in the hall and listened to them yell, and then when I finally got up the courage to go into the room, I froze instead of helping Clara. Not that she seemed to need my help. Speaking of which, what about the birds? How the hell do I stage the birds? No one would believe it. I don’t believe it, and I was there. The room filling up with beaks and feathers and wings. Hundreds of birds coming out of nowhere while Clara lay there, and Richard throttled her, and I did nothing.
What the hell am I doing, writing this thing? Shit.
SUICIDE ATTEMPT THWARTED AT THE VICTORY THEATER!
Herald Star—April 19, 1955
Betsy Trimingham, Arts & Culture
There is a hero in our midst, dear readers. One, it seems, who has been hiding in plain sight at the Victory Theater. For months now, the theater scene has been buzzing with speculation over the Victory’s latest production, all of which is being kept strictly under wraps.
Last night, however, one cat escaped the bag. Owen Covington, son of late theater owner Richard Covington, prevented an unknown woman from leaping to her death from the theater’s roof. As it so happens, not only is young Mr. Covington a hero, he is the author of Raymond Barrow’s mysterious new play.
Although he declined to comment upon his heroic actions, I was able to unearth one piece of information at least. Owen Covington’s play, scheduled to open at the Victory later this year, is titled The Secret of Flight.
As for the young woman whose life Mr. Covington saved, could she be a member of the cast? Has Raymond Barrow unearthed the next darling of the theater scene? Or is she merely some poor seamstress working behind the scenes? More scandalously, could she be Raymond Barrow’s lover? The only clue Mr. Covington provided during my repeated requests for comment was an unwitting one. He said, and I quote: Clara is none of your business.
Who is Clara? Rest assured, dear readers, I intend to find out!
December 20, 2012
Here I am, at it again. The old fool with his pen and paper. Did you know they reopened the Victory Theater earlier this month? Not the Victory Theater, of course, a new one with the same name where the old one burned. They wanted me to be on their godforsaken Board of Trustees or some bullshit. I almost wish I’d taken the meeting in person just to see the look on their bootlicking, obsequious little faces when I said no.
God, I’m an ass, Will. I was an ass back in the day, and I’m an ass now, just a donkey of a different color, as they say.
Maybe it’s the new theater that has me dredging up all these memories. It’s like poking an old wound, though there were some good times mixed in with the bad. There was Clara. And of course, there was you. If you could have seen . . . Well, it doesn’t matter. I cocked it all up in the end.
I was so excited when Owen Covington brought me the script of his new play. He was a virtual unknown, this snot-nosed kid who couldn’t hold his liquor, but God help me, I thought he would save my career. Old money and all that. I didn’t know his family had fallen into ruin. His father murdered, his uncle a suicide. All their lovely money pissed away. I should have done my research, but live and learn.
The whole thing was a disaster from beginning to end. Even before Clara, before . . . The press was at my throat from the get-go, desperate to see me fail. Then goddamn Owen Covington goes and tries to kill himself. Like nephew like uncle, I suppose.
Clara saved his life. She stopped him from jumping off the Victory’s roof, though the newspapers reported it the other way around. Made Covington out to be a hero. What was that horrid woman’s name? Betty? Betsy Trimblesomething? She was the one who gave you that absolutely scathing review as my leading man in Onward to Victory! God, I hated her.
But there I go, rambling. I was telling you about Owen and Clara. After she saved him, Clara told me how much she wanted to let Owen jump. She showed me her palms. They were all cut up where she dug her nails in trying to stop herself from grabbing him. But she couldn’t. She told me she couldn’t help saving Owen, no matter how much she hated his family.
That was the closest she ever came to telling me anything about herself. Of course, I knew bits and pieces from Owen, not that I believed half of it. But then here was Clara, someone I trusted, saying the same thing. She said she’d known Owen as a child, that she’d been his nanny, and he was the only good thing to come out of the Covington family.
I asked her what the hell she was talking about, she and Owen looked exactly the same age. I thought maybe she’d finally open up all the way, maybe I’d finally get the truth out of her. Hell, I’d have settled for knowing her real name because I’m sure as shit it wasn’t Clara Hill.
Instead of answering, Clara pointed out a flock of starlings. We were up on the roof of the theater, smoking, the way you and I used to do after rehearsals. That was the first place you kissed me. Do you remember? I was certain my mouth would taste like ash and whatever rotgut we were drinking and you’d be disgusted, but you weren’t.
Are you angry that I spent time with Clara up there? There wasn’t anything between us. We were friends. Actually, we became friends because of the roof. We’d both been going up there separately to smoke, and then we banged into each other one day and started taking our cigarette breaks together. It’s a lucky thing we never burned the goddamn theater down.
I suppose that’s how she found Owen, snuck up for a quick drag on her own and ended up saving his life.
Anyway, the birds. The sun was just starting to rise, and the birds were winging back and forth across the sky like one giant creature instead of hundreds of little ones. Clara watched them for a while; then she said, “Can you imagine what it’s like, Raymond? Being part of something larger than yourself, knowing exactly where you fit in the world, then having it all ripped away from you, and finding yourself utterly and completely alone?”
God, Will, it’s been years, and I can still hear her asking it. Even when she asked it, it had been two years since you’d been gone. When you died, Will . . . Well, I knew exactly what Clara was talking about. You were everything, and I couldn’t even be with you at the end. I couldn’t tell anyone how my heart had been ripped out, or cry at your grave.
Things are different now, but there’s no one I want to cry for the way I wanted to for you.
Maybe that’s why Clara and I got along so well. We were alike in our loneliness. We both had things we couldn’t tell anyone about ourselves. Not all ghosts are about guilt. That’s something else Clara told me once, and I understand her now. Some ghosts are about sorrow, and loss. But God, Will, of all the ghosts to have haunt me, why did it have to be hers, and not yours?
Incomplete Draft of Murmuration by Arthur Covington—
typed manuscript with handwritten notes
(EDWARD and CLAIRE face each other in EDWARD’s office, the same setting as their earlier confrontation. Light flickers through a screen painted to look like a window, suggesting a storm. CLAIRE holds a gun pointed at EDWARD.)
EDWARD: Give me the gun, Claire. We both know you won’t shoot me.
CLAIRE: You don’t know the first thing about me. You have no idea what I’ll do.
EDWARD: Elizabeth is upstairs. She’ll hear the shot and call the police. There’s nowhere for you to go. You’ll be caught, and you’ll hang.
CLAIRE (laughing bitterly): It doesn’t matter. They can’t kill me. It doesn’t matter what you took from me, I still can’t die. But you can.
(CLAIRE steadies the gun. EDWARD finally shows a hint of fear.)
EDWARD: Claire, be reasonable. I can—
CLAIRE: No, you can’t. You can’t do anything. You tried to steal from me, but my life can’t be stolen, not that way. When you couldn’t steal it, you broke it, and now I can’t fly away either. I can’t leave this place, not while you’re alive.
(EDWARD reaches for CLAIRE. OWEN enters STAGE RIGHT, dressed for bed. He looks between CLAIRE and EDWARD, confused, and takes a step toward CLAIRE.)
OWEN: Will you tell my bedtime story?
(CLAIRE fires. EDWARD falls, and OWEN puts his hands over his ears and screams. CLAIRE stands still for a moment, then drops to her knees. Running footsteps can be heard from offstage.)
CLAIRE (barely audible): It didn’t work. I’m still here. Oh, God, it didn’t work.
This is still shit. That’s how it happened, but no one will believe it. The truth is too strange.
Clara shot Richard while Owen watched, and she didn’t run away. She let them arrest her. She confessed, but there was never a trial. She vanished out of the cell where they were holding her. The police were mystified.
Shit. I could write my play closer to the truth. No one would know the difference except Elizabeth. Then she’d start asking questions. What’s the point? I can never produce this goddamn play, for her sake and for Owen’s.
Clara shot Richard with Owen standing right there watching. He doesn’t remember, at least not consciously. His young mind couldn’t cope, so he shuttered the information away, but something like that doesn’t go away completely. It changes a person. It leaves a stain.
I took Owen to see a hypnotist. Elizabeth doesn’t know. Dr. Samson put Owen into a trance, and Owen recounted word for word the whole exchange between Clara and Richard. In real life, Owen didn’t walk into the room the way I wrote it in the play. He was hiding under Richard’s desk, playing a game. He wanted to jump out and scare Clara. He saw the whole thing.
That’s not the worst of it though. After describing his father’s murder, Owen started laughing. Dr. Samson thought it might be some sort of defense mechanism, his mind, even hypnotized, trying to protect him. He asked Owen about it, and Owen said he was laughing because the bird-lady was making pictures in the sky. She was telling the starlings which way to fly, like she used to on the boat from England.
God help me, he was talking about Clara. I’m more sure now than ever—she isn’t human.
TRAGEDY STRIKES THE VICTORY THEATER!
Herald Star—October 10, 1955
Betsy Trimingham, Arts & Culture
Owen Covington’s life was cut tragically short yesterday when he was struck by a subway train. As regular readers of this column know, Mr. Covington was both a playwright, and a hero. I spoke with a police officer who was “unable to comment on an ongoing investigation.” He declined to say whether foul play was suspected, but I do wonder how a young man in the prime of his life could simply slip from the subway platform in front of an oncoming train.
Keep your eyes on this column, dear readers. The truth will out eventually, and I will report on it.
December 22, 2012
Here I am again with my pen and paper. I’ve been thinking a lot about paper lately, the pages Owen had from his uncle when he first pitched me the idea of his play. He wouldn’t let me read them for myself, he just sort of waved them around in front of me and said he was going to use them as the basis for his script. He only had fragments; Arthur Covington killed himself without ever finishing the play.
Of course I read those fragments eventually. It wasn’t snooping, just protecting my investment. Besides, it was Owen’s fault for passing out drunk on my couch with the damn pages still in his jacket pocket.
It was all there—Owen’s father, Richard; his uncle, Arthur; and Clara. Of course in the play they were Edward, Andrew, and Claire, but it’s obvious who they were supposed to be. Except it was fiction. Fantasy. Or maybe I was too stubborn to see what was right in front of my face.
This is what I think now: Owen’s father did something terrible to Clara a long time ago. Clara murdered him, and Owen witnessed the whole thing. Of course, Owen didn’t remember it happening, not consciously. Trauma and all that. But on some primal level he did remember. He was in love with Clara, or he thought he was. It was all tangled up in guilt and her killing his father, like some goddamned soap opera, but real.
Clara loved Owen too, in her own way. Not the way he wanted her to, but like a mother bird that hatches an egg and realizes a cuckoo has snuck its own egg into her nest. Her baby is gone, and she’s accidentally raised the cuckoo’s child, but she defends it and she cares for it because that’s her nature, and it’s not the baby’s fault, after all.
It’s why Owen tried to kill himself. He thought it would set her free. And it’s why Clara couldn’t let him.
At first I didn’t believe it, any of it, but the more time I spent around them, the more time I spent with Clara . . . God, Will. You were gone, and I didn’t have anyone else. I thought I could help Clara, do one good thing in my life and save her. I started thinking maybe Owen was right. Maybe if no one in his family was left alive, she could finally leave. I didn’t . . . I just bumped him, really. He lost his balance. He was so utterly piss drunk, he probably didn’t even feel it when the train hit him.
I never told Clara, but I think she knew. She was the one who insisted the play go on, in Owen’s memory. I tried to convince her to leave. I’d just killed a man. I couldn’t think straight. I was raving, shouting at her. I think I almost hit her. But Clara just looked at me with this incredible pity in her eyes. She put her hand on my arm, and said, “Grief can change the nature of a person, Ray, when nothing else can. Enough loss, and it weighs you down, you forget how to fly.”
She told me everything I needed to know, Will, but I didn’t know how to listen.
I didn’t know how to listen when you told me you needed help all those years ago. The empty bottles, the needles; I refused to see it because I didn’t want it to be true. I should have listened. I miss you, Will.
October 20, 1955
This is it, our big night. The Secret of Flight opens, and I don’t know what will happen after that. There’s something I’m going to try, Ray, and if it doesn’t work, I might not see you again. So I wanted to say thank you for everything you’ve done for me, and everything you tried to do. You’re a good friend. I don’t have many of those, so believe me when I say our time together meant a lot to me even though I couldn’t tell you everything about me. Instead, I’m giving you this story. It’s the best I can do, Ray. I hope you’ll understand.
The Starling and the Fox
Once upon a time, there was a fox, and there was a starling. They weren’t really a fox and a starling, they only looked that way from the outside, but for the purposes of this story, those names will do. This happened far away, in another country, many years ago.
The starling was flying, minding her own business, when she spotted a tree with lovely branches. She landed on one and discovered a fox lying across the tree’s roots, crying piteously.
“Oh, they have killed me,” the fox said. “I shall die if you don’t aid me.”
The starling couldn’t see anything wrong with the fox, but she didn’t see the harm in helping him either.
“What is it you need, sir fox?” she asked him.
“Only a feather from your beautiful wing, and I will be well again,” the fox said.
The starling was doubtful. She looked again and she couldn’t see any blood on the fox’s fine fur, but he continued moaning as she looked him over, and it certainly sounded as if he might die.
The starling chose one of the small feathers near the top of her wing. She didn’t think it would hurt to pull it out, and she didn’t think she would miss it either. As she took hold of it in her beak, the fox cried out again.
“Not that feather! Only the long feather at the tip of your wing will do. The straight and glossy one that shines like a still pool at midnight, even when you think there is no light at all.”
The starling thought the fox sounded a little foolish with his poetic language and the way he carried on, but the fox rolled on his back, weeping, and put a paw over his eyes. His tongue lolled from his mouth, and surely he would die at any moment if she did not help him.
The starling took hold of her longest and straightest feather with her beak and pulled. It hurt, worse than anything she had ever felt, like the stars and the moon and the sun going out all at once.
“Good. Now bring it down to me, quickly!” the fox said, jumping to all fours, even though he had been at death’s door a moment ago.
Dazed with pain, the starling hopped down to him, half tumbling as she went. She presented the feather to the fox.
“Are you saved now?” she asked him.
“Very much so,” the fox replied, and his eyes were bright.
“Then I will take my leave,” the starling said.
She spread her wings, but when she tried to take flight, she found she could not. Without her longest, straightest feather, she couldn’t fly. She leapt toward the sky again and again but crashed back to the ground every time.
The fox watched her impassively through all her attempts.
“Help me, sir fox,” she said when she had finally exhausted herself.
“Surely I shall,” he said, and stepped forward, snapped her up in his jaws, and swallowed her whole.
This is the moral of the story: You should never trust a wild animal. A fox cannot change its nature no matter how it dresses itself up, or what fine words it uses. It will always hunger. If you let your guard down, even for a moment, it will devour you whole.
iPhone Audio and Video Recording
December 26, 2012
[The image swings, showing the floor, a man’s feet, and a desk cluttered with papers. A starling perches on a corner of the desk, briefly visible before the camera turns to show the face of Raymond Barrow.]
BARROW: There, you see, Will? I’ve been dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century after all. My great-niece, Sarah’s daughter, gave me one of those infernal iPhone things. They were all over for Christmas yesterday, and spent most of the day showing me how to use it. Sarah suggested I might like to record some of my personal recollections of the good old days, something to preserve for generations to come. Ha! If the future is interested in a washed-up old has-been who failed at every important thing he ever turned his hand to, then I pity them. But there is something I want to show you, so maybe this thing will be good for something after all.
[The camera turns to face outward again, the image bouncing while Barrow holds the phone in front of him as he walks. The camera catches glimpses of an ornate entryway, a crystal chandelier, a sweeping staircase. Carvings, hangings, sketches, and paintings on the walls depict birds of all kinds. The camera approaches a massive grandfather clock standing next to a door set beneath the curving staircase. The wooden case is chased with mother of pearl, showing a heron standing placidly among a cluster of reeds.]
BARROW: You see, I did all right for myself in the end. Not that I deserved to, but life isn’t fair, is it?
[Barrow reaches for the door, holding the phone steady in his other hand. A flight of stairs leads down. There’s a rustle from behind the camera, and Rackham, the starling, flies past Barrow’s shoulder, disappearing down the stairs. Barrow stumbles, catching himself against the wall, but doesn’t fall.]
BARROW: Damn bird will be the death of me.
[The image is dark as Barrow gropes his way to the bottom of the stairs and flicks on a light. The camera shows rows of red velvet seats on a raked floor, facing a stage. The curtains are open, the set bare save for a painted screen backdrop, meant to look like a window.]
BARROW: It’s the Victory Theater. I bought up everything they could salvage after the fire and had it all restored. What they couldn’t restore, I had rebuilt, exact replicas.
[The image wavers again as Barrow moves to a row of seats halfway to the stage. He sits, steadying the camera against the back of the chair in front of him.]
BARROW: I salvaged too much, Will. I was right, all those years ago when I said leading ladies are a disease. I’ve been carrying Clara in my blood for fifty-seven years, and there isn’t any cure. All I ever wanted to do was help her, Will, but I think I know why she chose me. It’s what she said about ghosts, and loss, and sorrow. A man can’t change his own nature, but the world can change it for him if he lets his guard down. I let my guard down. I fell in love with you. I left myself open, and where did it get me?
[Barrow doesn’t move, but the house lights in the theater dim, and the lights begin to rise slowly on the stage. As the lights reach full, they reveal a woman with dark hair, wearing a beaded gown, standing center stage.]
BARROW: That’s her, Will. It’s Clara.
[There’s a faint translucence to Clara’s form, but the starling flies from behind the camera and lands on Clara’s shoulder. She smiles.]
BARROW (softly): That’s what all my love earned me, Will. A ghost, but the wrong one.
[Clara turns toward the camera, and the man behind it. Her expression is sad but fond. She smiles, but it’s pained. Clara raises her arms. As they read their full extension, birds pour forth from the spot where she stands. Her dress falls, crumpled, to the floor. Dozens, hundreds of starlings boil up toward the ceiling like a cloud of smoke. When they reach the ceiling, they spread outward.
Barrow tilts the camera to show the birds as they pull together into a tight formation and fly toward him. He nearly drops the phone, and the view swings to show him in profile as the birds stream around him. Their wings brush his hair, his skin. His cheeks are wet.
The murmuration flows through the theater. The birds make no noise in their flight. Barrow steadies the phone, turning the camera to face him again. The birds are gone. He is alone.]
BARROW: It’s the same thing every night. Every goddamn night for fifty-seven years. I tried to set her free, and she came back. She came back, Will, so why the hell didn’t you?
[Barrow fumbles with the camera for a moment. The rustle of wings sounds and the starling lands on Barrow’s shoulder. The recording ends.]
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