She didn’t. Neither of them did. As Dick quieted and seemed to sleep more peacefully, they just remained by the dinner table, listening to the storm rage its way through the night.
“So you work here.”
Will heaved a sigh. “Yes.”
Did she hear the world of weariness tied to that one syllable? Her expression was unreadable. “So you know tanning.”
He made a face. “I know the outer trappings of it. I know the language. I know the methods, and every kind of skin. But I’m not a tanner.”
She shrugged. “You’re still an apprentice.”
“Yes, but…” He hesitated. What was the point of confessing? She had no interest in his childish grief. But the night was still dark, and there was nothing to do but talk. “I’m not a tanner at heart.”
“I see.” For a long time she was silent, but he could sense her thinking. Then finally she said, “You write.”
Her eyes. He couldn’t speak. They were worse than a priest’s.
He hunched his shoulders a little, and she seemed to notice. There was the afterimage of a smile, he didn’t catch it until it was gone, but the residue was warmer and colder than anything he had ever known.
“How…?” he croaked.
“It’s just a cramp,” he began, and then realised she wasn’t talking about his handicap. She was talking about his fingertips. “Oh…”
“I recognise the colour of ink,” she said, and this time her smile wasn’t residual, it lingered in full bloom for him to register and savour.
“Of course.” He wasn’t sure it merited quite so much mirth, but his mouth teetered on the edge of an answering smile.
Swallowing, he forced out, “I, uh, there’s, I mean, um…” and other words that didn’t mean anything. She watched him through his meaningless monologue, didn’t seem to mind. Or did she? His usual powers of observation were knocked out of whack by having to speak about himself. Looking down into his lap, at the hand that lay there quill-less but prepared, he made a herculean effort to produce something coherent. “Sometimes I write, yes. It’s been a while, but I’ve… rediscovered it lately.”
Heat poured over his face. What he just said – it sounded too intimate somehow. Like a compliment he wasn’t authorized to give.
A pause, too long. Then: “Well? I’m curious.”
She chuckled. “Your writing. Is it a secret?”
“N…” he frowned. “No.”
“So what do you write?”
He should give a simple answer, but suddenly it was as if he didn’t know. That vast array of carefully weighted words, all in the right place to create an infinite web of significance… but now that her eyes were upon him, waiting, assessing, cutting – he didn’t know.
“Uh… this and that.” It was his voice, but it wasn’t his words. His brain wasn’t in them. “Stuff.”
Again that residual smile. “Stuff.”
He swallowed, breath locked in his throat. Was it his turn to speak again? It shouldn’t be, but he was the first to choke on the silence. Her eyes stayed on him, amusement and deadpan seriousness all rolled into one. The ball in his court, but he didn’t know what ball to reach for, didn’t know the game.
“Love poems?” she urged.
“No.” Too quick, but he resisted the urge to elaborate: it would only make him look more foolish.
She nodded, but didn’t look convinced. He was jarred by the thought of being analysed. For the first time in forever he felt like a presence of soul and mind, not only of flesh and blood.
“The little love god lay asleep.” Agnes cocked her head. “Or what was it?”
Something strained in Will’s chest, like an animal howling to break free. She had heard? She remembered? “I, uh… That was just…”
“A band of nymphs came tripping by.” Her fingers tapped a rhythm on the table. One-two, three-four, five-six, seven-eight. “Maybe you should try the sonnet form.”
“S… sonnet form?”
“Yes. It’s an Italian format with fourtee–”
“I know what a sonnet is!” he burst out, mortified to be so lectured by a woman. How could she possibly know about such things?
She quirked an eyebrow. “You forget that my…” She glanced over at Dick, and a shadow of worry crept back into her face. “That Dick is a printer in the making. He sends me bits and pieces. Apparently there’s a fair amount of English poets turning to the sonnet form at the moment.”
Will was filled with a renewed wish to slash Dick’s arm open. “And who reads it to you?”
Agnes averted her eyes. “I can read,” she mumbled. “My brother taught me.”
“Oh…” Will felt strangely lightheaded. “Yes, well… I taught my sister.”
“The one that…?”
He winced. “No. I never got the chance. My other sister.”
“I wish you could have known her,” he said stupidly, but Agnes didn’t laugh at him.
“What was her name?”
He met her gaze full on. “Anne.”
Her eyes were bottomless in the candlelight. “Yes?” she said softly, and then shook her head and chuckled. “Oh, you mean…”
There was a moment of weightlessness, of timelessness.
“But we called her Annie,” Will said, breaking the spell.
Agnes flashed a strained smile. A moment passed, but neither of them managed to make anything of it. Instead she stood up and walked over to Dick. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she stroked his forehead. Will should leave, should mount the stairs and leave the pair alone, but he couldn’t. He just sat there watching her, reeling from her words and the impossible connections crisscrossing his life. Annie and Agnes; Aunt Joan and Master Jenkins. They all disappeared, all left him. Went home to their husbands, to other towns, to their heavenly father. And for all their printing and their sonnet forms, no poet had ever truly caught that pain with their wordsmithing: the real world, the constant loss.
Words were pointless and dumb.
And yet the five insidious feet were creeping into his mind, quiet and careful as if they thought they could enter without him knowing. Reopening the boxes he had kept shut, raking among the ashes for a drifting ember to blow on. To coax them into that raging fire once again.
“So…” He swallowed, unsure of how to go on. “He sends you poetry?”
Agnes nodded. “Trophies, of a kind.”
She shrugged. He waited for a reply, but got none. Just now they had felt so close, almost intimate, and now a chasm yawned between them.
He really should leave.
But he couldn’t tear himself away. He wanted to sit here in this cramped room for an eternity, listening to her silence. If this was heaven, he could live with it. A tattered collection of furniture and pewter dishes, drenched in a faint smell of urine. He didn’t need the promised euphoria. Her presence was enough, her presence and the itchy worry it ignited in him. He wasn’t happy, but he was alive as hell.
“Isn’t Dick younger than you?” he asked, and immediately regretted it. “I mean… He lives in London.”
Agnes gave him a look that said it was none of his business, but then she mumbled, “Once we’re married, I’ll move there.”
“Why?” It was out before he could stop it. “Don’t you prefer Warwickshire?”
The question was too tinged by his ridiculous despair. She must hear it.
But Agnes just sighed and stared at the black window. “Is it that obvious?” Then she looked down at Dick again. He was snoring lightly, regularly. “Well, London is where he lives,” she said dully. “It’s where he has his career.”
“So you’re giving your heart to someone who leaves you crying in a Stratford graveyard in order to pursue his career in the capital?”
Agnes glared at him, and he didn’t blame her. Who was he to question the economic alliances of his neighbours? He wasn’t even a major yet. He was only eighteen, with nothing to his name but a failing family business and a handful of poetic ashes.
“I wonder that you’re not ‘pursuing a career in the capital,’ as you put it,” she shot back.
The words, so sudden, grabbed him by the throat. “I don’t… I…”
“You’re a man of letters too.” She smiled tartly, almost seeming to laugh on the word ‘man’. Will stared back at her and couldn’t even stutter a protest. “And you admire him, don’t you?”
“You don’t take your eyes off him.”
“I… uh…” Will shook his head at the preposterous claim. “That’s really not–”
“Is it because you think he’s smarter than you? Is that the fascination?”
Will fell silent. Her gaze skewered him, he was a fish on land. Desperate convulsions in his chest, air supply dangerously low. Or high? Was he breathing too fast? He wanted to look away so he could find his voice, his self, but her eyes held him hostage.
Images from school, black spots in front of his eyes. The charmer, the nemesis. The way Dick managed not to alienate anyone with his intelligence, but make it work for him instead. His hubris that turned out not to be hubris, just a correct estimation of his prospects. Because he had the makings of a career now. A career that had nothing to do with piss and blood and beaming knives.
Agnes pursed her lips. “I’m sorry. You don’t have to answer that.”
But I want to. Will’s fingers twitched in that familiar way, wanting a quill. He was restless like an anthill and tender like a bruise. All this time, and no one to confide in. This endless stretch of years, and not a word of confession. Was she right? Did he long to kneel at the feet of intellectual authority?
He would have kneeled for Master Jenkins.
But he didn’t just want to kneel. He wanted to be kneeled to. He wanted to bow his head in respect for a mind on a par with his, and then to surpass, to outdo, to conquer. He wanted to be blinded with awe and then blind the awe-inspiring one in return.
But for that person to be Dick? The thought was caught in a tangle of memories and hate. All Will had ever had from young Goodman Field was resentment and torture. He couldn’t think about it without disturbing that old snake pit of despair, that feeling of utter isolation, because time was meaningless. Your wounds could heal and the thin white line cover them like nothing had ever happened, and then suddenly you passed that way again, the place the blow was dealt, and rrrrip the bloody fronds gaped wide as if you never left. Life saying fuck you and your fake fucking recovery. Fuck moving on, and fuck anyone who thinks they can one-up my backwards timeline.
We’re all just one step away from bleeding to death.
His hands declenched, because apparently they’d been balled into fists for quite some time. A series of nail-cutting half-moons dotted his skin, like a reflection of his inner wounds. His soul was marked by history, by the razor-sharp edges of Dick’s life brushing his, and the blood had dried in secret slashes. It felt right that such imperfections should be outwardly visible, if only for a minute. Like pock marks of the heart.
“What if I’m not good enough?” He whispered the words.
Agnes cocked her head. “For what?”
He recoiled from the enormity of the answer he couldn’t give, not under any circumstances. He had already said too much. Instead he muttered, “It doesn’t matter. I’ll stay here and work. Someone has to.” His father’s words, moulded to almost fit his mouth.
But it was too late. “And what if you are good enough?”
Will stared at her, at this stranger who was suddenly acting the priest in a confessional. “What if I am?” he sneered. “What if I’m smarter than Dick, smarter than Master Jenkins, what if I was meant to go to university? How does any of that matter now? I’m a tanner’s apprentice. I’m stuck for seven years in this hellhole. I’ve missed my chance, and no one will ever know what I had to say, because everyone’s so bloody busy experimenting with the bloody sonnet form!”
Heinous words, ridiculous. Embarrassing and pompous. Hubris in the extreme. And yet they fell into place like pieces in a puzzle, each bit linking to the next in a perfect pattern. He held his breath, afraid to have provoked some jealous Norn of fate, to have jinxed his entire existence, but nothing happened. No hell-finger reached up to strike him down, no chasm opened at his feet.
Agnes just reached out a hand towards his, and he flinched. “Forget it.” His voice was tin against stone. “I was joking.”