Once there lived a brilliant young flautist named Gil. Gil played the flute before he used the potty, although his toothless, drooling embouchure left much to be desired. Nevertheless, the tiny, bediapered Gil persevered, and as the years passed, his virtuosity as well as his fame grew.
When the time came to further his education, he enrolled at a conservatory in San Francisco. Late at night while the tourists slept, he rode the streetcars down to the piers by the bay and played his flute for the seals. As he played, the seals joined in, harmoniously, melodiously, in wonderful trilling tones like those of an ocarina. When Gil finished, the seals applauded and barked, and Gil returned the compliment, clapping and woofing until his throat grew raw from the cool fog.
One night, after his concert with the seals, the streetcar bearing him back to his dormitory jumped the tracks at the top of one of San Francisco's famed hills and tumbled end over end to the bottom. Gil lay in great pain, trapped beneath the tangled wreckage, smelling ozone and wet pavement, hearing the hiss and crackle of sparks in the rain. As darkness overcame him, he heard the siren of the ambulance and believed it to be the mourning song of the seals.
Days later, Gil woke from his coma. A doctor in green pajamas and a showercap stood at the foot of his bed. Gil rose up on an elbow and tried to ask what had happened, but instead of words, he heard the sounds of a flute--beautiful, haunting, perfectly shaped flute notes, forming an unfamiliar melody. He touched his neck and felt bandages, and from the bandages, a protrusion on each side. The doctor smiled sadly and held up a large mirror. In horror, Gil saw that his flute had impaled his neck, directly through his voicebox. Gil cried out, but heard only the reedy moan of the flute.
"I'm sorry," the doctor said. "We've done all we can do."
Gil began to sob, but instead of sobs, he emitted a deep, soulful fluting that caused the doctor to close his eyes and sway. A red-haired nurse joined him from the hall, and they danced lightly around the room, cheek to cheek, while Gil wept.
After months of rehab, Gil learned to sleep on his back and to turn to the side when passing through doorways. When he returned to the conservatory, life was difficult. To communicate, he wrote on a small
blackboard tethered to his belt, and soon developed an allergy to chalk dust.
But worse, he could no longer play the flute as his instructors demanded-that is, with his mouth. His fellow flautists derided and scorned him as a showboating freak. He brawled. Soon, he found himself expelled and living in the gutter. Desponding, he wandered the city in the chill damp for two days and two nights, until at dawn of the third day he crested a hill and saw San Francisco Bay. He decided in that moment to drown himself and end his miserable flute-necked existence.
He stumbled down the hill, sprinkling the street with tears, until he reached the water's edge. He stopped at the end of his favorite pier, listening to the adolescent tenor of the seagulls and the basso profundo of the foghorns. He inched to the edge of the gray planks, his toes hanging above the water, trying to summon the courage to leap, but his legs were leaden with fear. Frightened and angry, he ranted against God and fate. But instead of a rant, what spewed from his throat was a jazz riff, wild, energetic and cool. To his amazement, he heard the seals, jamming a perfect bebop counterpoint.
Feeling joy for the first time since the accident, he stepped back from the edge and called to the seals through his flute; they responded boisterously. Soon a crowd of tourists gathered and threw money at Gil's feet.
Gil became an instant legend as a street musician. Every tune that emerged from his flute was vibrant and magical, no matter what words he intended to speak. He read the back of a can of drain opener and people fell to their knees, light-headed from the beauty. An agent heard him and arranged a worldwide tour. He landed a highly lucrative recording contract. Suddenly, Gil was wealthy and pampered, an international celebrity. His picture loomed from newstands and from late-night television.
People maxed their credit cards to hear him speak, or splute, as it was called. His ghostwritten autobiography, The Flute and I, became a runaway best seller; the film rights were optioned to Jim Carrey. Young music students clamored to have instruments surgically implanted in various parts of their anatomies. Gil was a star, an idol, an industry.
Yet, despite the initial thrill of success, Gil was unhappy. He wanted a wife to murmur to, and children who would listen to his bedtime stories, and a white picket fence over which he could gossip with the neighbors. He wanted to wear turtlenecks. He longed to hear the sound of his own voice instead of the incessant notes of his flute. Despite the riches and acclaim the flute in his neck brought him, it put these things beyond his reach.
One day after a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, his manager told him that a woman had asked to meet him. At first, Gil declined. Many women had asked to meet him, offering extravagant sexual favors, but he had learned that these women engaged in a sort of freak-lust, an obsession with the famously deformed, that left him feeling belittled and disgusted--to these women, he was nothing but a woodwind.
But his manager returned with the request renewed, and an explanation that the visitor was none other than Dr. Meredith Swan, the world-famous neck surgeon. Cautiously curious, Gil agreed to meet her.
When Dr. Swan appeared in his specially widened doorway, Gil gasped a two-octave scale of thirty-second notes, so did her beauty smite him. He self-consciously touched his flute, wishing he could hide it from her sight.
Dr. Swan explained that she had read about his case in the New England Journal of Necks and had flown across the country to hear him splute, and to get a closer look at his injury. A radical new surgical technique might enable her to extract the flute from his neck, she said, if he was interested.
Gil nodded frantically and closed the dressing room door behind her. She stepped close and began to examine his neck, caressing his Adam's apple, tracing the blood vessels with a gentle French-manicured nail. His heart triphammered with excitement. He sensed that her finger lingered at the notch of his collarbone with more than professional interest. He smelled her perfume and saw the blush rising to her cheeks.
"Your music," she said. "It moves me." She leaned forward and kissed him, her lips forming a perfect embouchure. Gil began to hyperventilate; the valves of his flute clattered open and closed like a calliope. She grasped the ends of his instrument like the handlegrips of a motorcycle and pulled him closer. Gil moaned a series of dotted whole notes.
At last she stepped away and crossed her arms under her bosom, her attempt to restore her professional demeanor belied by the blush of her cheeks. "It will be difficult," she said, "but I can remove your flute, if this is what you truly want. However, there is one thing you must know. After the operation, you will never play the flute again." With that she opened the door and left.
Gil slumped onto the velour sofa and held his head in his hands. The flute had been his entire life. Could he live without it? Who would he become, if he could not be a flute player? Were a wife, child and picket fence worth the sacrifice? But his chest tightened most when he thought about Dr. Swan. He had never been kissed the way she kissed him. He'd never had his valves rattled so. Would she find him attractive, could she love him, without his flute?
Gil returned home to San Francisco and grappled with the dilemma for three days and three nights, unable to sleep or eat. His eyes grew dark and sunken. He stared into his bathroom mirror, fingering the flute again and again. His mind swung to and fro. One moment he would pull himself to his full height, shake his fists and vow to undergo the knife; in the next instant he would sink to his knees, shamefully recanting any notion of life without the flute.
At last, accepting that he could not decide, he sought the counsel of Madame Shaloubi, the most renowned and expensive fortuneteller in all of the Bay Area.
Gil explained his quandary to Madame Shaloubi. "What shall I do?" he wrote on his blackboard. "What choice shall I make to find happiness?"
The seer peered into her crystal ball and sucked her teeth. "You are at a crossroads," she said. "Your future will take one of two paths."
Gil frowned. "I knew that," he scribbled. "But which one?"
"The paths are like the sides of a coin," Madame Shaloubi said. "No one can predict whether the coin will land heads or tails. I could predict the destination of each path," she said, with the tiniest hint of a twisted smile, "but not for a single fee."
Gil scowled, feeling that he had been duped. Exhausted and sick of the whole mess, he threw his wallet on the table before her.
"Very well," she said. She tweaked a knob on the base of the crystal ball and cocked an eye into its depths. "On the first path, you will walk the streets for days. Eventually you will go to the pier to make music with the seals. There you will see a young couple with a toddling son and daughter. The mother will point to the seals and the tots will clap merrily. The parents will lean easily against each other, radiating bliss. Overwhelmed by your desire for a family of your own, you will ask Dr. Swan to remove the flute.
"The surgery will succeed. In the recovery room, you will awake and see Dr. Swan waiting. You will open your mouth to speak and out will come your own voice, squeaky, raspy, but not at all flute-like. By the repulsed expression on the doctor's face, you will know that you've lost her.
"In time, you will marry a tone-deaf seamstress who will bear you three fat sons, all of whom will prefer the Jew's harp to the flute. It won't matter, because they will all run away from home and become book editors. Termites will infest your white picket fence, your wife will leave you for a drummer, and you will move into a home for old musicians. You will die when you take a shiv to the jugular in one of the ceaseless turf rumbles between the flautists and the piccolo players."
Gil grimaced at this bleak destiny. He gestured to Madame Shaloubi to continue with the second path.
She tweaked the knob once again and squinted into the orb. "On the second path, you will walk the streets for days. Eventually you will go to the pier to make music with the seals. There you will meet a young couple with a toddling son and daughter. The mother will heckle the children to stay away from the pier's edge, the boy will smack the girl with a putrid mackerel, the father will reek of cigarettes and Greek wine and contemplate heaving himself into the water. You will realize that normalcy is no guarantee of happiness, and you will decide to keep the flute in your neck.
"Dr. Swan will be irked when you rebuff her aid and will never speak to you again. You will eventually marry a barren, lemon-faced flute-fetishist and move to Monterey, where you will live in seclusion among the abandoned canneries until one day when a strain of Asian kelp will clog your flute, suffocating you. You will die alone and blue-lipped. The mortuary will punch holes in the sides of your coffin with a ball peen hammer."
Gil's chest filled with sorrow. "So," he wrote, "I will never be happy."
"There's a three percent margin of error either way," Madame Shaloubi said, "but I'd say 'no'."
Gil left the fortuneteller and walked the streets in a silent daze, feeling as if he had already died. Eventually he went to the pier to make music with the seals. Their song lured him as never before, and, knowing that only sadness lay before him in life, he dove into the bay, prepared, once again, to drown.
Miraculously, Gil found that the flute allowed him to breathe under water, and that his submerged spluting took on the sound not of a flute, but of an ocarina. He sounded just like the seals. Overjoyed, Gil trilled and trilled until a gang of territorial bulls formed a circle, eager to rip him to gobbets. At the last instant, a beautiful white selkie burst through the ring of males and claimed Gil as her mate. They lived happily ever after, and had dozens of pups with voices like mandolins.
After many years, Gil died in peace. Nurse sharks consumed his corpse. Nothing was left but the flute, which drifted to the silty bottom of San Francisco Bay. It lies there still, its mouth frozen in an eternal, silent O of astonishment.
STEVEN GULLION's other fiction has appeared in Inkburns, Dead Mule, Haypenny, WordRiot, NFG and Pindeldyboz, and is forthcoming in Surgery of Modern Warfare and Thirteen Stories. His short story "Stray Dogs" won first place in the 2003 Sherwood Anderson Short Story Contest. He lives in Houston with his wife, two daughters and a thriving colony of sea monkeys.