Words are immortal and life is fleeting, that's what Keating teaches them.
"Your performance this semester was excellent," the Headmaster tells Neil, and his mouth is still shaped solemn, but the truth of that statement sets his eyes laughing.
They're young, and the possibilities of their future are heavy. For every bright path unspooling before them, there is a shadow cast on their hearts.
Todd takes refuge in the mundane, the smell of boot polish as he sits on the end of his bed with his shoes, the feel of leather a solid reality that seems easier than the words which tumble around his mind and stutter awkwardly from his lips.
Charlie cleaves to violence, as though if he opens his arms to bruises the pain he doesn't choose will hurt less. Maybe it works.
Knox reads romance novels that use words like "throbbing" in all sorts of interesting ways, he traces the shape of the words in his mouth, presses his face into his pillow and imagines the soothing clasp of a girl who has forever been formless in his mind; a lock of long hair come free, the scent of talc and roses, small and perfect hands. It's only when he meets Chris that she finally gains a face, scolding and smiling, and that's how he knows this is love.
Neil, though, Neil follows orders and frees himself from responsibility. He ties his shoelaces in double-knots and never cusses in earshot of a teacher. He says, my father, with a pained grimace and good humour. Neil winds the spring of his animus tighter and tighter under his friendly, open façade.
Really, it was inevitable what would happen when someone set him free.
Magnesium, Mg, they learn in Chemistry, burns fast and hot when exposed to open air; it flares bright enough to blind and then dies.
Classes are a rhythm like a metronome, and life becomes structured by bone-shaking bells; now you wake up, now you eat, now you play, now you sleep. They're an army of spots and swears and Brill cream and cheat sheets. They rise together, lie down together. It's not impossible to find time to be alone — you can walk the hallways when everyone else is in class, as long as you have a hall pass and some legitimate excuse — but Neil's act needs an audience or whispers of thoughts, dark and painfully real, come creeping in at the edges of his mind.
Keating awakes grand passions in the boys he teaches, gives them a life less ordinary. Each of them has a great battle raging through him, a tornado of adolescence, and English classes harness that power, points it at the vast canon of a thousand human beings plumbing the same essential depths, and lets go.
"I love the English language," Neil tells Todd breathlessly, glancing up from his readiing. "Listen to this:
"Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
"I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
"I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
"I do not think that they will sing to me."
Todd's chest is tight when he steps even closer and sits on the bed next to him, the cloth of Neil's blazer rough against the back of his hand. Neil's is tight with the sheer thrill of existing.
"It's good," says Todd.
"It's wonderful," insists Neil, and Todd wants to say, because you make it wonderful, but instead he just nods so his sandy hair falls in his face and Neil reaches up to brush it away carelessly.
"Tread softly," mutters Todd eventually, "For you tread on my dreams."
But Neil's gone back to his book.
The cave is a carefully constructed metaphor. But it's also the smell of dirt and smoke, and even in the silence they can hear the tribal beat of their hearts in unison. Brotherhood, it says. Brotherhood, in a language far older than the sonnets they recite with the hushed awe of religion. Brotherhood, and the god of the cave watches over them.
There's a scrape on the back of Charlie's knuckles, like he's punched a wall, and Neil smooths a thumb over it. When their gaze meets there's no trace of Charlie's cocky smile in his eyes.
"We're more than this," he says with a frustrated grit. His free hand gestures around the small room and means papers, homework, classrooms, schedules, school.
"No, we're not," Neil says with a grin, knocking the edge of his shoe against Charlie's, sloping their shoulders together. "Not yet. But we will be."
Neil knows Todd watches him sleeping sometimes. He wakes up to a gaze shying away, clumsy hands busying themselves with something else, and a slow but turbulent warmth uncoiling in his stomach.
"Then be not coy, but use your time," Charlie quotes, his fingers mapping out the smooth planes of Neil's skin under his shirt.
Summer days are long and lazy, redolent with sprawled limbs and ink stains and wrestling in the grass. They slip by patiently, slipping between Neil's fingers, and there's Latin on their lips instead of kisses. Diem, diem, diem, the echo whistles through the hollow spaces.
"Dear Father," he writes by the light of that strange lamp he found, but the confession won't come. Sometimes he writes around the words: My room-mate, Anderson, and I have become close friends. He tutors me in Chemistry. I am happier now that I have a proper study partner.
"You have a talent for reading between the lines," Keating tells him off-handedly. Neil knows it's because that is where he lives.
Sometimes in class, with everyone laughing around him as Keating does another one of those voices, he feels like all of his cells are vibrating with life, faster and faster until surely, surely, without something to hold him together the resonance will jar and he'll fly apart.
"You're bleeding," says Charlie in the halls after, gesturing to his mouth. Neil licks his lips where he hadn't realized he'd bitten them and tastes copper, Cu.
That night Todd leans across their open books and kisses him with discovered courage, and it hurts.
"I know," says Neil, before he can say the rest. "Me too."
Puck is fae, so fae, and with the crown on and his friends' faces shining up at him from the audience Neil deludes himself into believing he can do anything, be anything, without consequence. The rush makes his whole being feel lighter than Helium, H. Or heroin, maybe, Neil's never done drugs — not seriously, the society are rebels but there are lines drawn, lines of class and privilege. Still, the comparison is unknowingly apt.
The comedown hits him in the car home and the slices of his shattered confidence rip jagged through him.
Idealism is intangible, ephemeral, and inevitably: unsatisfying.
Todd's fists curl in the snow, and there's bitterness at the back of his throat, a great an inexpressible yawp. He understands, then, that sometimes words aren't enough, that sometimes the sheer commonality of passion isn't enough.
The word dead rings in his ears like a gunshot.
He shrugs off the tangle of his friends and runs into the cold until his limbs are light and heavy all at once, until the frozen tears on his face compose their own poetry, stanza after stanza of grief and futility.
There's never an official disbanding. There doesn't need to be.
"Gather ye rosebuds while ye may," Charlie says darkly to the dregs of the Dead Poet's Society at the Welton reunion. He's wearing a suit and is already drunk.
Knox's third wife flashes bleached teeth and drawls, "That's poetry, right? You a poet, Mr Dalton?"
"It's Nuwanda," says Charlie, but the words are empty. Everyone's eyes keep catching and sliding away.
"I am," says Todd quietly, and when the group looks at him he flushes. He's leaner, now, and something in his movements gives the impression of him being battle-scarred, despite his unblemished skin. "A poet, I mean," he adds awkwardly.
Meeks grins, but the rest of them are stilted and guilty; because they aren't, because they didn't know, because they no longer care.
"At least one of us made good," mutters Charlie to him around a slur, offers him his drink.
There's nothing more than the flavour of cheap scotch around the icecubes but Todd swallows it anyway. "Depends on your definition," he says, fingering the worn cuff of his jacket. "Not like it brings good money."
Charlie's laugh is mirthless. "Money," he says scathingly, and Todd remembers belatedly that he's a banker now, remembers reading in the handful of letters they'd managed to send each other.
Charlie had written to all of them; mostly Knox and Todd, never Cameron. Wild Ginsbergian ramblings from from military school, which become gradually more subdued as they beat into him a respect for authority and the chronic alcoholism which would, in time, kill him. They had sent only a scattering of responses: Neil had been the one who read between the lines, who understood words unsaid.
"Our son wants to be a poet, is all," says Knox's wife around her smile, and everyone looks at them. Knox shifts from foot to foot, looks uncomfortable.
"He's one of those, whaddya call it, hippies," he says gruffly.
"We see him on the television, sometimes," adds Mrs. Knox, but she doesn't look proud.
Pitts nods his head enthusiastically. "I was filming at a riot the other day. They're maelstroms."
"Oh, are you in TV?" she asks, lengthening the syllables, and the conversation turns.
The first sentence of Todd's memoir is: I grew up with men who were before their time, and died little by little because of it.
(I saw the best minds of my generation...)
Even all these years later, he knows that's a lie: they died, he died, with their zealous best friend. He died that day in the field of snow, and the person with Todd's name and Todd's face who writes about the injustices of the world, that man is just a trick of alchemy; Frankenstein's monster, pieced together from the leftovers.
He's Puck, and Neil's restless melancholy; he's Keating's misplaced passion and Whitman's sweaty-toothed portrait; he's Charlie's wild saxophone and Knox's love-drunk yawp; he's Meeks and Pitts dancing to jazz on a home-made radio. He's summer, and adolescence, and Carpe Diem; he's Vietnam and the Beats; he's the ghost of everyone who has already said everything that could ever be said, and done it better.
He's the god of the cave, lying crooked on the loamy earth of Neil's grave, watching over them all.