In a concert: music isn't just something created by one or a small group of people. The word itself, concert: together. Bael knows the meaning of this word, at least.
Music is more than itself, takes breath through the lungs of those that make it. It is exhaled through instruments and amps worked by techies, then is recycled and breathed again by hundreds of screaming fans. This concert is packed into the arts hall known as the Ark, feeding the air with adrenaline, charging it, changing atmosphere – its chemical makeup – into something else. Songs seem to last forever – every chord and nuance suspended with the first time hearing, and eyes draw in every frame and flash of motion. Pressed in with strangers but bonded by music, you do things you normally wouldn't do. Musicians feel it, too, the feedback loop of give and take.
It takes a life of itself, and sometimes you do things you normally wouldn't do.
Cerberus: an apt-name for a three-headed power trio barking punk and noise. Bael the heartbeat and pounded toms and snares as his feet flew on kick-drums: fast, mechanical, and infinitely precise. A clock ran in his head down to nanoseconds, and his reflexes ensured that he never missed his count: keenly aware of this moment, now, and this moment, now. Cerberus was in its death-throes, finishing their set.
He rode up the crashes and a glissando filled the air, a tingling of steel. His crown of flaming hair was matted and weighed by sweat, so he flipped it back over his eyes.
Bem stood at the head of the stage, just down in front of the crowd, wearing his trademark ripped jeans and stained leather vest, massive body bulging. He held his bass by the throat and, with a wide chord shape, pounded the strings with exaggerated, shoulder-driven motions, playing up spectacle. His rings and fingers clattered against the strings, giving his distinctive doubled sound as he beat the bass ruthlessly.
Bael looked up then into blazing lights and saw his long-time girlfriend and bandmate, Moira. She strutted around behind her brother Bem, a wicked grin on her face. She wore high, fishnet stockings and a matching shirt underneath her own leather vest, a midriff-baring affair to suit her ripped denim shorts. Bem frequently said she looked "too adult," but Bael had no such protests. Her usual coif was spiked up in a miniature imitation of her brother's own wild style. Her nails were painted purple and black, and safety pins were strung through the holes in her clothing.
She sashayed her way around the stage, lifting one foot as she pressed her guitar to herself, shredding on the high frets, fingers a blur of motion. She swept down and hovered over an ankle, the other leg extended luxuriously before her. Eyes hot on the crowd, she bent the strings three together with calloused fingers, sustaining it as she pointed across the crowd with her pick-hand. Doing a final sweep, she leapt to her feet and jumped again, kicking out behind her and landing beside her brother. Back to back, they struck a pose with guitars aimed at the audience; as fireworks burst around them, the lights fell.
The audience, wired at this point, exploded with noise. Bael stood, threw the horns in the air and his drumsticks into the crowd. He saw the mosh pit fold in on itself as people dove for them, and again as Bem and Moira threw in their picks. A time-honoured tradition: you don't disrespect the crowd (unless it's a part of your stage show).
"Thank you, you slimy motherfuckers! Keep on banging those heads! Goodnight!" Bem growled into the mic. The cheer crested and burst, a tumbling wave.
They bowed and exited the stage, while the crowd cycled – some would stay for the next show, but most would evaporate, with others to replace them. Audience is amBaelous, ever-changing, but always there.
Moira dumped a bucket of cold water over them as they stepped into the back. A stage hand protested with what about the floor; she replied that she did not give a fuck. Bael welcomed the cold water: it shocked back his senses. They continued to the side area reserved for watching other performers – a series of tables below and off to the wings. They were grinning as always, high off a successful performance. Moira grabbed him, blocking Bem's protesting face with a smothering hand, and pulled Bael in for a passionate kiss. Bael smiled against her lips as they settled down to watch the next performer. Bem ordered a beer, Moira a rum and coke ("Are you old enough for that?" Bem scowled; Moira rolling her eyes), and Bael a Fireball.
Their small talk dwindled into silence as they saw the next performer – a piano being carried on stage by four burly roadies, and a slender, oriental woman in trailing white gauze & silks. Her violet eyes were echoed in trailing ribbons from pinned hair, and her feet were bare on the stage. She sat down without comment at the piano, her back to them. A man, still looking boyish with his dishevelled platinum hair and self-deprecating smile, followed her on stage with his guitar, playing chords.
Zhael and Shiro. It took Cerberus a moment to find their breath, not expecting to meet them here, after months apart. "I suppose that's a testimony to the diversity of the Ark," Bael murmured.
"You even know what you're saying, prof-boy? You're smart; how the fuck does this equal punk?" Bem spat, disappointed.
Moira patted his hand with mock-sympathy. "Hush, Bem. Just listen, maybe you'll be surprised."
Zhael spread her fingers across the keys as the audience's murmuring died, and there was silence. She pressed, and into that silence she threw curling, nascent ribbons of sound. Smokelike, they filled the auditorium: a preface to the mist of her voice. It was a dark, cloudy night in their minds, and Zhael was a lone figure walking the lakeshore.
Shiro played touch guitar, frets responding to fingers with airy ether, replicating dreamlike violin.
But Bael's eyes and ears and body were there with her, walking dusky sidewalks. She was singing to the empty air and she was singing for him (irrational thought. That is the impression that singer-songwriters give: intimacy. But he was drawn all the same). The stage fog blended seamlessly with Zhael's dress, and in his mind's eye the fog did the same on that vast dark lake, where everything was out there and not here: unlit depths and secret shores.
There's a life that pulls you to where you've never been.
There were more songs in Zhael's set, and Bael never left her side. Every word she sung hung in air: he took it down and into himself, dissected each part and analyzed the stroke, the syllable, the hinted underline of meaning. Letters broken, fit together in new ways.
A few times he saw Zhael look down at him, her eyes unreadable. Her teeth gleamed white, as if she were smiling, or simply opening her mouth to sing. Feeding out line, she drew him in.
There is a feeling in deciphering math equations, finding the truth under the truth in quantum mechanics, laid out in crystal. Zhael's song blurred that in a way he hadn't felt before, but he felt that this could not be thought. The audience was completely silent, so there was an intimacy that let him imagine his exhaled breath drifting up and into Zhael's lungs, and that she was breathing him out with her over them all.
She shifted into a sassy Spanish piece, crowd-rousing, and Bael was smiling. He did not notice the way Moira looked at him strangely, running her finger around the lip of her glass. Bem had vanished, off to find something more to drink and a woman – a woman to drink. Moira touched Bael's hand, resting on the table. He looked down at her, met her eyes with his, and squeezed her hand with a smile. "Are you enjoying yourself, Moira?"
She looked at him. Then stood and pushed herself back from the table. "I'm going to go get another drink, and find Bem. I'll be back later, okay?" He did not know that she was thinking: as soon as that hussy gets off the stage. I just need to cool down, she imagines herself telling him, but says nothing.
"Okay." Bael smiled.
It was tough to understand Moira sometimes. When she was in a bad mood she'd speak angularly, sharp slants which he was supposed to realize in every connotation. He felt like a student again, fumbling in a world that didn't quite make sense. She'd storm away, a cloud of indistinct meanings, and when asked Bem would confess he didn't quite understand her, either. Couldn't help.
Once, in one of their worst fights, she slammed her hands against the table and yelled, "Dammit Bael, you just don't get it! Why can't you be more like Shiro?" she kicked her chair back so that it sprawled across the floor – his heart sprawled – as she swore and stomped out of the room.
Afterwards she apologized, blaming a teenage crush, but he never admitted that it hurt him.
He sat alone at their table while Zhael wound down her set. He clapped with all the rest though he dared not whistle or cheer, afraid his voice would crack.
Afterwards he slipped backstage as Zhael and Shiro stepped down, wanting to congratulate her on the excellent performance and besides, it had been rather long since he had seen her, and he should say hello. It was only proper etiquette, after all.
Ahead down the hall, he saw her and Shiro hug, laughing – he recognized the relieved laugh of a show without any miscalculations. They kissed quickly and then Shiro went for the room set aside for him.
And Zhael was walking in his direction.
Bael froze for a moment, mind running through scenarios, calculations: what if we tumbled togeth- he wrought his mind under iron control, and firmly told himself he was simply going to say hello.
They met just as she was opening her dressing room door, a tacky old affair with lightbulbs wrapped around the frame. It had someone else's name on the door with Zhael's written underneath in marker. She looked surprised to see him there, but a smile still curved her lips. "Bael! Good of you to swing by. Did Moira and Bem leave you behind?"
"They left to find alcohol," Bael said, taking a deep breath. "I am sure they'll be back eventually," he smiled. "I found I could not leave your performance, Zhael. It was rather spectacular, I…" he trailed off.
"Hah," her eyes sparked. "It was a pleasure, Bael. Every good musician loves to perform, especially for an audience. You know what it's like. I saw how you opened up to the crowd, peeling away your shy self."
"You saw us play?" Bael said, muted, not knowing what to feel. Zhael leaned in and patted his hand, sending a jolt through his body. "I… never suspected you were a punk person."
"I had my phase," Zhael laughed, as she unwound one of the trailing scarves from her body. "Doesn't everyone? There's a charm in defying – it doesn't have to be anything in particular. Just… rebelling. Against the mundane nihilism of the day to day to day. Against some great wrong that must be righted. Some just scream." She put her hand to the door, and glanced from the corner of her eyelashes. "Do you want to come in and talk?" She pushed open the door and entered.
After a slight pause, Bael followed, looking around at the room. It was a modest brown-and-red dressing room, rented out for the duration of the concert. Unmade cot, cream-colour table, chairs, and a mirror with more of those tacky lights strung around it. Zhael had flung a few lilac draperies here and there: ghostly fogs over the earthy colour of the room. A keyboard leaned against the side of the table, and a few dresses and gowns were laid across the cot, as if Zhael had been deliberating which dress to wear.
She hurriedly threw aside a bra that had been lying on a chair, pulling it and another up to the table. "Wine, Bael? Or would the punk rocker rather have a beer?" she teased, opening the mini-cooler door.
"Wine's fine," Bael said politely. He took a seat and pushed his glasses up, wishing he had time to change out of his sweaty concert clothes. Cold wine would do nicely, though: he accepted the glass, and sipped. He felt his mind cooling, and wanting to know what makes things fit together, asked a question that came often between them. "Zhael, indulge a scientist's curiosity. What attracted you to the singer-songwriter genre?"
She rolled her eyes. "That label should die for all the 'singer-songwriters' who blab and can't play instruments, passing off awful lyrics as art. There's grit to it." she reclined thoughtfully. "I'm out there when I sing. Everything in the music bows to the words you speak, the message you convey. I'm naked out there – there's nothing between the audience and me. You draw them in, make them comfortable. Part of it's an act – did you know I used to act? I sang Broadway for a while. But it's like that. People don't know what's an act and what's real; but there's a line where sincerity and art overlap." She drew one long, pianist finger around the rim of her glass.
"And… what is it about words?" Bael ventured.
"I started writing during a teenage infatuation," she smiled wryly. "Mostly terrible angst. It always felt as if there was something within me building and building, a balloon with too much air. I had to let it out somehow, so I sang. People listened." White wine swirled down her throat. One hand slowly undid her hairbuns, winding the ribbon out and unravelling cotton-candy hair. His eyes followed her movements. "I found out I liked it when people listened. It made a bit of the loneliness recede – I was never a big people person, Bael," she said with a light laugh. "'But Zhael, you're a performer, you're on a stage all the time!' they say. But you and I both know that's not true…" she leaned forward. He caught a fragment of the fragrance she wore. "Just because you're up on that stage doesn't mean that you're there for everyone. The nature of my music is confession, the intimacy of a flash of myself. Everyone else are simply voyeurs."
He thought of smoke curling by a lakeside. He thought of himself: shielded by a drumset.
Drumming is very simple, really. Everything is concrete, metronomic – there is the beat and he locks into the beat, and no matter how many times he hits it, it always clicks into meter. He walks within the confines of reason; the undisputed slam of stick against skin. The same every time. Empirical: something to stand on.
With the solid ground of evidence beneath his feet he lectured before crowds and stood apart from himself, backed by the voice of equations and numbers. He knew what he was doing and how this fit into that; locked into the dialogue of truth, each action uncovering pieces.
Words are different: meaning shifts like spinning pottery under hands. He was never sure what the equation of word really was: there was the shape of the mouth that formed word, but the intention behind it and the comprehension of it were variables. So he knew the shape of the word, and if he knew s, self, he could derive u; but he would derive her through himself, which isn't right. For a moment he thought he heard Moira's voice, saying his name.
Zhael was speaking to him. Waving her empty glass in front of his face, a shaky grin on her face. "Hey. Bael. Are you okay? You were in the stratosphere for a second there." He realized she before him, one hand on his leg, peering into his eyes. She laughed awkwardly and then stopped, sensing the charged air. He blinked, and looked down at his own empty glass.
"Zhael," he said slowly, "how does clarity come? When do you understand, and how? Is it like a sudden flash of lightning in a darkened cloud? In surgery, if we want to know what's wrong and fix it, we open it up and examine it. How do you map the subconscious, the truth of who you are?" he looked up at her, their eyes an inch apart.
"I… don't… know…" she sounded distracted, breathing him breathing her. "If I did, I wouldn't be singing about it."
"Then we must experiment," he said in the same flat voice, and suddenly they were kissing, their lips opening and songs pouring out into one another.
He broke off, looked up into plasma-violet eyes. "There's… a charm in rebelling," she whispered, running her hand on his cheek and burying it in his hair. Shiro was in her gaze, but her mouth parted with wanting, and yes. "There's nothing between us now. It's about intimacy. I want to sing… can you listen?"
The bulbs dimmed, but he could see her outline in the dark. With one hand she touched him: it was electric, tingling. His hand curved her side and she stood; he pressed her against the counter and saw in the mirror's last light the reflection of her and he entwined.
Later, on the cot: Zhael sat up and leaned on one elbow, putting a finger to Bael's lips. He understood her meaning immediately, and raised one finger to her lips. She kissed it and then ducked away, swinging ivory legs off the matt and dressing quickly. Bael did the same, pulling on first one leg then the other in slow, methodical motions. Zhael grabbed a brush and began to tame her dishevelled hair, winding it back up into its buns, the appearance she maintained for the outside world. Bael's hair always looked messy.
He still did not understand.
Before he left, Zhael held his face in both her hands, eye to eye. Something in her softened as she looked at him, and then pressed his forehead to her's, nose-to-nose, breath mingling in the small space between their lips. "If –" she started to say, and then stopped. "You should go." He nodded.
As he stepped to open the door it opened before him, and Shiro stood in the doorway. Tension flared as both Bael and he stepped back in surprise, regarding one another warily. Shiro's hair was slightly messy, and his white coat's buttons were punched through the wrong holes. "Bael? Moira's been looking for you for hours…"
She stepped out from behind his shadow with the grace of rain sliding from a leaf. "Hey, Bael," she said quietly. There was a moment where no words were spoken. Bael came out into the hall after her, Zhael trailing behind.
"Moira." He looked at her for a moment before he hugged her, trying to shove jigsaw pieces together. She made no move to put his arms around him at first, but gradually lifted her arms.
"What were you doing?" at times, Bael still remembered the voice that Moira had as a child, looking up from her studies as they all sat around the kitchen table. He could feel the tension corded in her arms, pressed tightly against his back.
"We were talking music," Zhael said from behind him. No one missed the 'about.' "We had some wine, explored the essence of punk and the intimacy of lyricism." She shifted slightly, rearranged her hair, and smiled at Shiro. She walked towards him, stood on her tiptoes, and kissed him. "Good show tonight, Shiro. You were great."
There was something in Shiro's eyes of dikes and the tide coming in. But he kissed her back. "You were too, Zhael. You always are – I've never seen you give a bad performance in all the time I've known you." She glowed and wrapped arms around him, putting her head up in that sweet spot where shoulder and neck meet.
Moira shifted – Bael noticed she was still wearing her fishnet and leather. "Bem's pretty mad you ditched us, Bael. He was drinking a lot. He better have cooled it by now, though, or he's going to get it. Are you ready to go back?" she leaned into him, but her eyes looked away.
Their fingers touched, then twined. She placed one hand on his chest, lightly. He raised his hand to cover it, but faltered. He lowered his hand, his eyes.
She lifted her hand from his chest and touched his chin. No more than that. Their hands locked, they walked away. "See you, Shiro. Zhael," Moira said, calling over her shoulder.
Bael wasn't going to look back. Even as he felt Zhael's eyes on the back of his head, he wasn't going to look back. The past yawns, monolithic, to swallow the present, and all other moments birthed since time's cool dawn. Let it be consumed. Don't look back. Don't look back.
He looked back.