Paper, rough and crackly. It lay under his hands like a virgin, a white expanse of nothing for him to put his blot on. Waiting, demanding: where are all your words now?
Will leaned his head in his hands, and his hair swayed into the candle. A burnt smell wafted up at him and he started. A premonition of eternities to come, deep in the pits of hell? He pushed the candle away, and it spat a drop of tallow on his hand.
That hand… He glowered at it. But it wasn’t his hand’s fault that his brain wasn’t working. In the graveyard he had been replete with words, a thronging congregation of syllables. And now? Now he delved deep into nothingness, and his heart was a hole in time, a stretch of infinite zero. Outside a storm was raging, but in here the trapped heat was frying his brain, cooking it, boiling it like cabbage.
Maybe if he tried to describe the day, the weather, the woman? But he no longer remembered. He only felt the echo of excitement, of an opened channel in his mind. Now it was closed again, and he couldn’t even remember what she looked like. How could he write about a woman if he didn’t know what she looked like? In the graveyard his mind had filled with similes, but even they were gone, leaving a faint fragrance that had him clutching at air.
He had composed a line or two, but nothing had made it onto paper. He knew better than to make such subpar musings visible to prying eyes. It had to be perfect before he made it real, and the phrases he had managed so far were less than stellar. It was surface rubbish, the floating debris that littered a springtime Avon.
An orphaned piece of advice surfaced in his mind, a stray sentence from his one-time teacher: “It’s a bit like looking at the stars. Sometimes you have to shift your gaze a little and unfocus for the pinprick to appear.”
But how to unfocus, when he could not even focus? Sighing, he sat back and stared at the candle. It fluttered in the gust. He should snuff it out and go to bed instead of wasting good tallow on what wouldn’t amount to anything.
He sank deeper into the chair, remembering. She had been a jumping flame, a woodland sprite that had burned bright for a while and then died. Just like that. As if nothing she had done in life mattered.
It was strange how grief could sneak up on you after three years when the time for mourning should really be over, but the thought hit him sometimes – that she would never grow up, that he had hardly known her when she was alive and now he never would. They had lived for almost eight years under the same roof, and he had no idea who she was. An obstinate tomboy, yes, but everyone knew that. Such narrow words did nothing to capture her true soul.
He closed his eyes. Agnes’s hands had been narrow. They had talked about words, and about Annie. There had been… rain. Not lashing rain like now, but fine, almost non-existent rain, a mist that fell slowly, slowly like dust. It had settled in her hair, and her hair had been dark. Tiny droplets, like pearls on a noblewoman’s curls. And…
Blue. Her eyes had been blue.
A moment of suspension, of utter unreality… and then a loud noise jolted him out of his trance. The vision of porcelain skin shattered into a thousand shards as he tensed, heart hammering.
Someone was banging on the front door.
Jumping up, he ran to the window and opened the shutters, but the world was blacked out. Rain smattered at the panes, at his hands and face. What if it’s her? The thought was an arrow in his heart. Utterly impossible, of course. At this hour? Ridiculous. A woman wouldn’t be out after dark. But what if? his brain insisted. What if she found out where you live? What if the brilliance of your graveyard speech caught her in a golden net and she can’t fight free of it? What if…
Another bout of banging. Will’s fingers gripped the window frame. He shouldn’t. It wasn’t his place. It could be a cozener or something. He had no authority, no right to answer that summons. But the servants seemed not to hear a thing, and Goodman Field was in Warwick for the night. What if it was important? What if it was her?
Throwing on a gown, Will ran downstairs. The house shook with strain, battered from all sides by the storm, and his hand trembled when he tried to turn the front door key. The metal dug into his sweaty skin and groaned in the lock. A moment’s resistance… and then it clicked open. The door swung wide to reveal the huddled figure of a man swathed in a dark cloak, his face hidden, his stance… weird, somehow. Hunched, not only against the wind, but against some inner demon.
Will took a step back, already regretting his decision. His hand gripped the edge of the door, about to bang it shut again. But then the man lifted his head, and the light of Will’s candle fell on his face: the drawn but flushed features, the haggard hollows of his eyes. So different from the carefree youth who had bid farewell four years ago and set off for London.
At the sight of him, Dick frowned. Didn’t he remember? “Oh… yeah.” A tired sneer of recognition. Then he pushed Will aside and strode over the threshold – his threshold, his home and hearth. Compared to him, Will was just a visitor. This was Dick’s childhood castle, his lair. Where did he expect to sleep, if not in his old room? And where would that leave Will?
Following into the dining room, Will lit a few more candles as Dick collapsed on the display bed, his wet garments making dark splotches on the covers. His face was flushed and wet, and not only from the weather.
“Give me some beer,” he said in a voice that would have been stern if it hadn’t been so weak. Will’s limbs seemed to move of their own accord as he walked to the cupboard and poured a mug from the pitcher. The glug-glug of the auburn liquid battered against his ears worse than the rain against the panes. The hand that held the mug trembled, but if Dick saw it, he didn’t make a sign. He also didn’t say thank you.
Standing by his elbow like a servant, Will watched him gulp down the beer like something ravenous and bereft of dignity, like an animal on the brink of starvation. As if illness had reduced him to something less than human.
At the thought, a chilly draught crept up Will’s back. He’s dying, the thought appeared unbidden. Then: Of course he isn’t, don’t be absurd. But the way Dick looked… Will didn’t know much about London, but he did know it was a breeding ground for the plague. There was a pulse in his chest, a pulse of pure fear. The catastrophe had touched Stratford many times before. Would this surprise homecoming mark the start of yet another sweeping of the scythe?
Snippets of memories crowded into Will’s mind: the birdman who came to treat his childhood fever, the unseeing eyes, the prophet of doom. The night in the woods that had sent Will halfway to Hades. Had Dick come back to finish his work? Was he Will’s personal angel of death?
Glaring up at him, Dick muttered, “Where’s Henry?”
“He-Henry?” Will managed through a throat gone dry.
“Oh… He’s away on business. Can I ask, what… what’s wrong with you? Is it…?”
“And the servants?”
“Sleeping, I suppose.” Will tried to swallow, but there was nothing, just a mouthscape of dust. “Have you caught the… you know, the…?”
“I’m not well,” Dick snapped, and then winced as if some inner knife was twisted.
“I… see.” Will’s lips were numb, unwilling to bend themselves to the syllables. His brain told him to run, but his body was as unable to obey. “Is there anything can I do?” The words pushed out of his mouth like lines from a play, like the pointless offering of graveyard condolences. “Should I wake up the maid? Or I could go to Barton and get my aunt.”
Dick seemed on the verge of retorting something vicious, but restrained himself. Still convinced Aunt Joan was a witch? Well then, let him fester in his devout refusal to be treated. Will didn’t care. It was the last thing he wanted anyway, to have Joan catch an ague from this lowlife.
But then Dick looked up at him with serious eyes – eyes that offered a degree of surrender. Perhaps despite everything he realised he was at Will’s mercy. “Get my fiancée.”
Will recoiled from the word. “Fiancée?” Who in her right mind would pledge herself to such a man? And why was he engaged here in Stratford when he lived his life in London?
“Yes.” Dick gasped through clenched teeth. “Anne.”
“You know Shottery, right? The Gardner family.”
Gardner. It rang a bell.
“Richard Gardner Ha–”
“Richard Gardner,” Will whispered, the image of an ivy-entwined headstone, a woman in the rain. But there were countless Richard Gardners, surely? Nothing to say these two women should have the same father.
And yet… Will stared at nothing, his brain working to connect the dots. If Dick was betrothed to Agnes’s sister, and he wanted Will to go get her…
And then, like the front door lock clicking open: “Anne.” A flicker of understanding. Dick was a protestant, and Agnes was a catholic name. Chest hollowing out, Will recoiled from the thought. It couldn’t be. It would be too apt, too dramatic. Too like a story from Ovid.
“Well?” Dick gasped, clutching his shirt. “Are you going to stand there and dither until I cough my lungs up on this floor?”
Will didn’t know what it was that made him move. A thought, a feeling that couldn’t be unborn. A butterfly caught in the damp strands of dark hair, in the lines around blue eyes, in a misty alto. Anne or Agnes – by going there he would know.
Dick’s eyes followed him as he reached for his cloak and boots, as he threw them on without even bothering with a daytime shirt. “You can use my horse.”
Opening the door, Will stepped into a sea of ink. The world was steeped in ink like Dick’s fingertips. Black, his mind kept repeating as he saddled the horse. Black like the flow of words he didn’t have, like Agnes’s hair. No source of light in this bottomless tarn but the memory of raindrops.
He gripped the reins and spurred the beast into the night, onto the sightless road. The mud sucked at her hooves, pled with him to just stay home, to go inside and warm himself, to sit and watch as Dick sweated his way into an early grave, but this was his narrative and it was pulling him along whether he could stand it or no.
A thinning line of Stratford houses rushed by behind a cloak of shiny darkness. His cramping fingers slipped on the reins, weak from the pounding water, from the unrelenting cold. His eyes hurt from squinting, and his chest hurt from holding his breath. He was riding like a madman in the pitch black night, seeking out a saviour not for himself, but for his ancient enemy. How was it possible?
And who was the woman he was going to meet? A Shottery Gardner, but was she two different people, or was she her own twin?
And why did he care?
Wild and thorny countryside gave way to sprawling farms. Slowing into a trot, Will threaded his way through the village, searching for the right house. When he found it he was long since soaked to the bone, but he slipped off Dick’s horse to pound a loud summons on the Gardner door, no matter his appearance. A bleary-eyed girl servant with a candle in her hand opened and peered out at him. He saw it in her face, how menacing a figure he cut after twenty minutes in the storm, and babbled his message quickly before she could slam the door in his face.
“Message from Richard Field, son of Goodman Field, tanner of Stratford.”
The girl frowned warily, but the name must carry some authority in this house, because it afforded him the benefit of the doubt. “Yes?”
“He has a fever and needs medicine.”
An older woman in a nightcap appeared behind the servant girl. “What on earth is the matter?”
“Young Goodman Field needs his fiancée,” Will explained, his heartbeat erratic as he searched the woman’s face for a glimmer of truth.
“What, you mean Agnes?” The woman scoffed. “She’s nothing of the sort.”
For a single heart-bursting moment, Will saw his imaginary woman split into two – one vibrant flame his graveyard rendezvous, and the other a sickly, repellent Anne, destined for Dick.
But it was not to be. Before he could paint the full picture, the woman said, “Unless that stripling scrapes together a decent living, my daughter is better off here, working for her daily bread. Fiancée, indeed…”
“I don’t know the particulars of their understanding,” Will gulped, hope and confusion battling it out in a heart that had no business prying into these strangers’ lives. “In any case, he needs his… Anne.”
Moment of truth. It seemed to stretch, to enjoy delaying the truth. Is she, isn’t she…?
Then the mother rolled her eyes. “I’m sure he does.”
Will’s heart sank into sickening heaviness. Her mother didn’t differentiate between the names. There was only one woman, one Agnes-Anne, born from the soil of Catholicism but transformed, Ovid-like, into a Protestant as she grew to maturity in Queen Elizabeth’s world.
“What seems to be the problem this time?” the mother asked.
Skin burning, Will forced out, “He has a fever.” His limbs felt weak, swollen. His arms hung limp and useless, his head swam. Why did he care, why? He didn’t know this woman, this Agnes, this Anne. He had only seen her once.
But her words had pried something open, had pushed a door that squealed on rusty hinges in his mind. She had sparkled like an anomaly in the rain.
“And Agnes is supposed to go with you, a complete stranger, in the middle of the night, across the countryside to put a cool hand on poor Richard Field’s brow? What do you take us for? We’re a respectable, Puritan family, for God’s sake.”
Puritan? “Oh…” He scrabbled for the right words, for something pious to say, a quote perhaps, when another face appeared in the half-hidden doorway behind the servant girl and the mother: a face he knew, a face he hadn’t known – one that had slipped away when he had tried to capture it on paper, but now he recognised it, recognised everything. Again that paleness, that darkness. Again the softness of her cheeks, of that naked mask – a collection of lines that made up a whole he couldn’t divide into parts. Because everything in her face was subject to her eyes. Every other feature was an afterthought. Her eyes were the exclamation mark to a sentence he had already forgotten.
She spoke, he thought she spoke, he couldn’t be sure because his head was filled with blue.
Her mother gave him a suspicious look. “Do you know this person?” she asked, and Agnes nodded.
“It’s Dick,” Will blurted, repeating his message a third time. “He’s really sick.”
Agnes smothered a noise behind her hand.
“Don’t you have any wise-women in Stratford?” the mother muttered.
“Of course, but…” Will wavered. Why had Dick sent for Agnes instead? The obvious answer was the least attractive one. “He wanted… you.”
“You can’t go scampering across the countryside with a stranger at this hour,” the mother protested.
“He’s not a stranger,” Agnes said. “He’s the former bailiff’s son. Old Shaksper.”
Will gaped. She knew who he was?
“Well,” the mother said, pursing her lips at Will’s bedraggled bedazzlement. “You’re not sharing horses with this one. You’re taking your father’s mare.”