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Unaccommodated Man

Chapter Text

“Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.”

 Shakespeare, King Lear 4.6

 


 

1.

He crosses the Atlantic on board a packet ship out of Plymouth. He has never been to sea before. Confined to a cabin with nary a window, yet still he finds the salt gets into everything. Each day he brushes it from his clothes like dust or ashes. Soft as snuff on his hands. In his teeth, a taste that he can’t get rid of. Why ought saltwater always taste so much like the past? Is there some power in water to retain its incarnations? Some flavor, some essence of everything it has touched? Perrault, in On the Origin of Springs, suggests that all water in the world is part of one body. Rain flows into the ground, into rivers, to the sea. Halley in St. Helena suspected that earthly waters become air, ascend to the clouds, return as rain. The ocean has been other creatures. Perhaps it remembers.

He had brought no books into the hospital— no Perrault. No Halley. No Herbert. No Spinoza. They had probably burned the Spinoza. They who? His father? Imagine his father sitting down to a nice spot of book-burning: A little glass of claret, a log on the fire, a leather-bound tome curling in the grate. Newton, Locke, and Pascal. Descartes, Malebranche. Say goodbye to Grace and Nature, to prisms, to Pensées.  How friable paper proved, when it had seemed so permanent once. Words go up in smoke and don’t come back.

And books were not permitted him in Bethlem, or after. Books agitate the nerves. Madness is a state of nervous agitation. A demonstration: the doctor pricked his finger with a lancet. The breath; the inadvertent flinch. “Thus does the nervous system.” Has a book such sharpness? Does it draw blood?

Twelve months and more till he was allowed to read so much as a journal. He had whispered secret volumes to the walls by then: Hamlet’s speeches and the Holy Sonnets, all he knew of the Psalms and the Song of Solomon. He has a prodigious memory, everybody used to say so. How educated grew his voluptuous cell— not Bethlem, by then, but the Leicestershire manor, a private madhouse for the rich. Velvet curtains and heavy wood panels, each night a keeper to lock him in. No candles were countenanced, no shoes, no quills. “We should not like you to do yourself a violence.” The ambits of light and darkness colonised the room. “But I have no violence in me.” “My lord, you must not become excited.”

The London Gazette. He slept with it pressed to his cheek. A Thursday: the first of May, 1707.

Peter brought him St. Augustine— O uninterpretable gesture! De Civitate Dei. But the madhouse-keepers took the book from him. “What, not even a saint?” “You are made sick with words, sir. You should not court a fever.” They prescribed a second daily ice bath. He slipped under the water, thought of Ultima Thule: a place where there were no Peters saying what Peter had come to say. In Ultima Thule, Pliny wrote, there was no darkness. There was neither land, nor sea, nor air, Pytheas said, but a compound of the three on which the sea and earth hung. This served to keep the parts of the universe together. Nor was it possible to go thither on foot or by ship.

In 1709, he was permitted to read from the Bible each morning. He had prised one of the buttons from off his coat and used a chair leg to break it in half. With its sharpened edge he scratched one word onto a floorboard, in a place where no one else could see. When they found this stylus, they forbade him reading. But they did not find the word, and he had cut deep. It would take tearing up the board, perhaps the whole floor, if ever someone meant for it to be erased.

And so; and so. And then one morning in 1712 came unsmiling men in expensive suits. “The Earl is dead,” they informed him. What, really? He wondered if he had perhaps caused it by sorcery. He had had a number of astonishingly violent dreams, some in which his father was dead. Sometimes the gravediggers buried him in his father’s coffin in these dreams, and he could not get out of it again, so he was trapped there with the corpse, under the earth, face-to-face. The cold eyes. “Dead? Dead? But then— Does that mean I am—“ “The boy, I think, agitates himself with grief. He must be given laudanum.” “No, I mustn’t! No— please, please, I won’t—!” But they had borne him down and forced his mouth open. The too-sweet taste. Oh-so-familiar. The dark dark darkness. He awoke on a ship.

He might have raged, but he did not. He likes to think he made a decision, that years ago he built a very small box and put all the angriest parts of himself in it. Not a prison; more for safekeeping. The way that leopards with jewelled collars were held in kings’ menageries. His were more feral. He had meant to free them, if only he had not lost the key. That is what he likes to think. In darker hours he wonders— is he engineered for meekness? He had not thought so. He would have called himself a daring man. Not this strange, docile, timid, weak, and often-mute creature. Lying limp in a swaying cot on a ship, thoughts empty and dispersed as the halloo-ing seabirds.

So he sleeps. So the ship sails. From one cell to another. And yet, and yet— then— to his cabin, unexpected, the captain comes one morning, a shy but rather fulsome man in a carefully brushed coat. Every inch a merchant. He understands that the gentleman is mad, but there is so little culture among seamen, and being such a fine educated gentleman— which the captain himself has some learning, certainly not at all like the gentleman, but he flatters himself that he has some learning— he would be most happy if they might dine together?

Of course, the gentleman says. And: You do not perchance have any books?

Which certainly the captain has books, being a learned fellow, though certainly not at so learned as the gentleman himself; he would be delighted to put his library at the gentleman’s disposal. Perhaps the gentleman will honour him by accepting a book as a gift? The gentleman will! The captain hurries to fetch such an item.

Bound in morocco leather, a sleek and pretty volume with gilt embossing along the spine. A Cruising Voyage Round the World. He dares not open it. He thinks he could not bear to find the pages blank, the whole book somehow emptied. It seems possible that such a thing could happen. All sorts of things are possible at sea. Only when the captain has gone does he give into temptation. How to resist? He is a febrile and desirous creature. Even a sailor’s memoir is full of such particles, such nouns, such pronomials, such words, words, words.

In the hushed not-quite-dark of the locked cabin, small moon of a lantern swinging over his head, he pushes his face into the thus-spread pages. Inhaling the scent of ink and new paper. He is there in the library again: rustling silk and rain at the window, the hoarse scrape of his quill, a chaise rattling noisily past. “Darling, have you seen the—?” “I had it a moment ago. Let me see—“ “Oh, don’t get up—“ Until the sea gives a raucous lurch. All the objects in this ship-world slide around him for a moment. He has to hold on very hard to the book. Then, with trembling fingers, he turns to the frontispiece— folding out a carefully drawn and lettered map— He stares for a while. When he has drunk his fill of the swimming lines he tears the whole page from its stitching and brings it to his mouth, reverently tasting it. A medicinal leaf from some tropic jungle. Oddly bitter, the ink against his tongue. Then tearing at it with his teeth: ravenous, starving. Texture like a Eucharistic host. Take this holy sacrament to your comfort. Swallowing down the finely chewed pap. The whole world in his belly: its destinations, the circumnavigated seas and the land.

He has eaten the title page as well before he doubles over, cramped with the violent urge to weep, clenching his hands in his hair— a stone struck with a staff by some implacable prophet, the water gutted forth from it. He can hear his own wet and animal noises. He wants to rip out the book’s remaining octavos and stuff them each by delicious each into his working jaw. How else might they not be lost to him forever? He cannot allow them to be lost. He would die, he thinks. He would die. He would be in Bedlam, holding his breath underwater, or his face shoved down to the strawy dirt as a hand forced his flailing wrists together. He would be testing the point of a broken half-button, watching blood form up at his fingertip. Has a book such sharpness? Had he ever doubted?

It is at this point that, for the first time, Thomas Hamilton begins to consider that he has gone mad.

 

2.

It is no unhappy thing to be mad. So he had often thought in Bethlem, and after. Oh, speak the truth: he had longed to be mad. Lord, make me mad, so that in the future I may recall what transpired here only as a fever dream. I do not wish to be the man who scraped his fingers against the door until the nail fell out of one of them. I wish not to know what I would do for one newsprint journal. —That I would feel grateful to him, that I would love him a little for it. I wish I might someday forget that this is what the heart is. Perhaps this is wisdom, to know that within oneself, there is nothing that cannot be altered. If it is wisdom, make me mad.

The mad suffer themselves to scream. Even in the madhouse in Leicestershire they screamed. There was a girl there, the daughter of a baronet. He never saw her, but he heard her scream. He envied her. He rooted for her. Don’t let them shut you up. Scream. But he was too proud, and would not scream. Instead he bit his lower lip through. Still to this day he has the scar. Lord, if you are listening, make me mad so that I may touch this scar and not recall my sin of pride. The baronet’s daughter screaming. I never even knew her name.

But here, now, at last, his prayer is granted! Here, now, America, he is mad! He is mad in Boston Harbour, as he was mad in the North Atlantic, as he was mad in Massachusetts Bay!  He is mad beside the docks to which he listens through the shipsides, their cacophony of sea-birds, their wrangling of bells and their sailor-shouts! He is mad as he chokes down the draught of laudanum that is forced upon him— “I will not make trouble; I will do exactly as you say; only I would prefer not to be drugged—“ “Sir, it is for your own peace of mind.” He is mad when he wakes again on board a new ship, and then he is mad in the coastal waters as they warm and bear new scents to him, strange new mad American scents. For, being the New World, must not America be somewhat mad? She is untamed, and raw, and dark, and savage. He had once thought to bridle her, and now he is ashamed. He recants himself to the American air. I will not chain you, he says silently, I will not strip you of clothes, I will not strike you, I will not purge you, I will not half-drown you in ice water, I will not hold you down and take my pleasure from you. Had I any left, I would bring you words, and joy, and laughter. As it stands I can offer only myself and one book.

 

3.

If he is mad, then there is no reason not to say or think their names. But his silence has become a physical compunction. His body has forgotten how to summon the words.

 

4.

He tips his head back to an evening sky like the slice of an agate. “Are we in Carolina?” No response. But surely they must be. They had drifted past a series of raw wooden fortifications, smoke rising from beyond the walls, British flags floating overhead. The ship has made anchor in a broad muddy river whose banks are heavily laden with trees. The air is warm and not at all like England.

He holds out his hands to receive the irons when they are produced, though he says, “I am not a violent man.” A ceremony, so familiar, an endless ongoing call and response. Where would he go if he ran, if he overpowered his captors? Here is non hom; here nis but wildernesse. Chaucer meant that the earth itself was only wilderness, a waiting-place for the heaven to come. He can almost believe it. There have been times when he crept up to the sill of that forbidden door and, feeling in the darkness to find the handle, saw the light that came spilling out from under. There was a life beyond that door. The key was in the lock; he had only to turn it. But a force seized his hand and said, Not yet.

The oars of the dinghy lap through the water. Frogs croak; birds rise from the trees in jets. He has read that among certain uninhabited islands, in the desolate wastes of the South Seas, there are beasts who have never met a man, and therefore do not know to fear him. They do not fear any creature: birds and lizards; seals, sea lions. They will go quite trustingly up to meet you. They cannot believe that anything would slaughter their kind. They cannot conceive of such reckless violence.

“Here you are. Put him ashore.” First foot on this new land. “Careful, there. Steady.” Walking in chains. He has never quite got the trick of it. “The place is not far.” But they put him in the back of a wagon for the trip. The rough colonial who drives the wagon says, “Have you other cargo?” A sailor chucks the mailbag in the wagon next to him. Because he is mad, he does not mind being cargo. The mad are always cargo and he has grown used to it. The absent stares of keepers, their casual touches, as though he were a docile bullock or an market crate. He has never formed part of a cargo of letters before; he finds, unexpectedly, that he rather likes it. He lies back against the floor of the wagon and watches a dusting of stars appear. As white as salt, replete as he has never seen them.

“What do they send you here for?” “I am mad.” “Mad? Have you killed a man?” “No. Or— they would not tell me if he was dead.” “You don’t look the sort.” “No. But then, I killed him with love.” “Did you.” “You do not believe me.” A laugh.

It is night when they arrive at the gates of the settlement. Settlement! It is a rough place, barely hewn out of darkness, whitewashed buildings amongst the seedling fields. The forest barely ceases so as to let them breathe. Here is non hom indeed. Torches run orange in the darkness He is lifted from the wagon, wobbly-legged. He stoops to hide forbidden treasure: he had tucked A Cruising Voyage Round the World into the waist of his breeches, thinking that it would be taken from him. He is become a smuggler of books; a pirate, he thinks.

Into a large white house, softly lit by candles. In the parlour a gentleman waits, casually dressed: a waistcoat, a banyan. The message: we are not formal here. Certainly not, if a madman is present, who a month past was not even permitted shoes. The gentleman smokes a clay pipe, perhaps a colonial fashion. The scent  of it is rich and unsterile and warm. The walls of the room are full of books.

“Well,” says the wagon-man, “which, I have brought him.” “We may have these chains off, I think.” “As you say, sir.” The chains leave his wrists and ankles. He does not regard this; he is looking at the books. There are so many that he feels quite queasy, rather as a man at the top of a mountain might feel. He wanders over to a shelf without asking permission— the mad do not ask permission, and no permission is asked of them. He runs his hand along one red calf spine, then another. Milton. Hobbes. Francis Bacon. He leans forward, nosing at them, inhaling their odor. He rubs his face against the whole line of books, cat-like— a displaced animal looking for comfort. His fingers clutch at the shelf as though he’s still at sea, as though one unkind heave might send him flying.

He does not expect the gentleman to address him. Men, for the most part, do not speak to him. He has said more on this voyage than perhaps in years. And so he does not recognise that he is being addressed until the gentleman takes him by the arm, and turns him gently, steering him towards the conversation.

“Mr. Hamilton,” says the gentleman. “You are welcome here.”

 

5.

The gentleman is James Oglethorpe, and he calls this place Georgia. It has not been settled long; perhaps ten months. Oglethorpe set sail from London with a cargo of cotton seeds and convicts. To improve the convicts, he brought a doctor, a few silk workers, books. Other ships followed, bearing England’s unfortunates: Debtors, Dissenters, a colony of Jews. They have named their settlement Savannah, this being what the natives call the river. But not all of England’s unfortunates are suited to such a life. Some may not live in a civilised world. This plantation has been built for them. “For those whom we must make more secure, for the vulnerable.” “You mean, for the mad?” “For those whom the world would prefer not to exist.”

Oglethorpe is a nice man, a little on the dim side. He has vast ambitions, articulated in his colony, which forbids slavery, lawyers, and (horrors!) rum. He works for prison reform, and to improve the lot of sailors; he wants to end debt imprisonment, and elevate the poor. His opinion on pirates, Mr. Hamilton dares not ask. Mr. Hamilton! A novelty. “Ought I to call you Thomas?” “There was a time when I demanded it.” “We do not often use Christian names here; many of the men have had it from their betters. For them, it is a mark of disrespect.” “I do not mind it. I have never been Mr. Hamilton.” That is its virtue. No one has ever called him this.

“Here, Mr. Hamilton, each man builds his own house. When you have done with that, you will work in the fields. It is hard work, for this is an unforgiving country. But you shall have respect here, and your work will be honest. Together we shall transform the face of this wild new land. It is a place without sin, a veritable Eden, and it accepts what we bring to it; therefore we must take care not to come burdened by the evils of Europe. Here, each man is a new Adam.”

Oglethorpe speaks in these little speeches, pat and homiletic and, apparently, prepared in his head. Hamilton’s tendency is to lose interest partway through and wander whatever room they are in, touching the walls, leaning to look out of the windows, perching upon the chaise-longue with a book. For here he is permitted books, as many as he would like lay hands on. “Are you not concerned about nervous agitation?” “A man has only ever been improved by books.” A man, a man. Always talking about a man. As though there were, somewhere, one very special Man, the template for all those elsewhere on the earth. A Man is formed good and honest and healthy and upright; a Man desires sons and a faithful wife and honest work; a Man is ill-served by cities, with their corruption. When Hamilton thinks about this Man, he feels faintly derisive. He does not think he has much in common with him.

Still, he builds his house: a small side-gabled cabin. The other labourers help him to raise it. They are open, friendly men, hair bleached and strawy, skin darkened by the relentless sun, and he is afraid of them without knowing why. It is not on account of any crimes; they are not violent men, and indeed they are hardly criminals. Some are radicals, republicans, Levellers or fanatical Dissenters; some are inveterate debtors; some are sodomites. They speak like gentlemen, all of them, and dress in breeches, though their hands are coarse and their manners have grown rough. They do not ask him about his past; indeed they act as though the plantation birthed him fully-formed. But they address him constantly in the warmest and most informal fashion. “You will be happy here, my friend. It is scarcely a prison.” “You will find the work satisfies; it is good for the soul.” Some are intellectuals: “"O fortunatos nimium, sua si bona norint, agricolas, eh?” They touch him casually, as though this is the most ordinary action. They embrace him; they clap him companionably on the back; they take his arm and lead him towards the mess hall; they place their hands over his and demonstrate how to plane wood. He takes, with some effort, to woodworking. He makes a bedframe, two lopsided chairs, a table. He can spend hours lost in the planing and be startled, after, to see that any time has passed. Those are the pleasant hours, the emptinesses, when he is no one, from nowhere. He has no name and no body. He exists only as a function of work.

The houses on the plantation have no locks, and he finds it hard to sleep in a house with no locks. He keeps waiting to hear the key turn.

Instead he reads throughout the night’s long hours. Oglethorpe lends him books, one volume at a time, and Hamilton curls close to his sputtering candle, reverently turning the pages. Shakespeare. Paradise Lost. Sophocles. How had he forgotten the way the words form a heartbeat rhythm, as though the book itself is a living thing, a stuttering-paced creature whose chest he presses his head against? Listening as one might listen to a lover and marvel at his secret, energetic centre. The part one cannot see or touch but nonetheless loves.

He feels drunk after so long an abstinence and now such a surfeit of books. Hypersensitive, acutely open to strange emotions. One night he weeps for six hours over Antigone’s death. These emotions rush through him, and they are gone when they are gone. He is left raw, abstracted from his own body, confused by the tumult of being in his skin. The other men notice; of course, how not. They find him skittish; abstract, fey, and even remote. “Hamilton, you are an odd duck.” “Am I?” “I put my hand on your shoulder just now, and I swear you were about to bite it off.” “I am mad, you know.” “But you are not like other madmen. You are very quiet. You do not scream and rave like those wretches in Bedlam.” “I suppose I do not.” No. He does not scream. Quite mechanically, in the midst of this particular conversation, he sets the blade of the plane against his own arm. It manages to gouge out a chunk of flesh before the blood garners exclamation. The wound is bandaged very quickly. He is astonished by how little pain there is.

 

6.

It worries him that he does not always recall events in the correct order. Sometimes he thinks he was in Bethlem for years, though he knows it was months. The keeper who— was that before or after the street-ranter died, and flies gathered on the body all night? Hamilton— but he was not Hamilton then; he started out as Thomas, but then for a time he had no name. They shaved his hair because of lice, but he doesn’t know when. The surgeon was incautious and made him bleed. Later he touched his head and could feel the stubble. He thought, this is my fleshly mortification, I can survive this, I am like a Desert Father. What a very stupid thought. That must have been early. For a while— after the keeper, after he pinned his wrists and— he had no thoughts at all, or only about the oddest ordinary things: Will someone remember to prune the apple trees at Helensburgh House? I have put so much time into them, and Mrs. Collett is too elderly now, she cannot be out in the orchard.

Poor Tom had been scared out of his good wits.

His father had died, or had he imagined that?

The ice had been in both Bethlem and Leicestershire, but he is certain that only in the latter place had the attendant knelt beside him and put a too too warm hand against his cheek. “It is not good to be too cold,” the attendant had said— the man with the newspapers. He had worn spectacles. He had vanished when at last the doctor began to suspect. No more warm hands, no more newspapers. Poor Turlygod! Poor Tom! He must have made some remark about it; they dosed him with laudanum for days. Or was that later, after he broke the button?

He would not have called himself unhappy. Such a word had been outside his lexicon. He had been.

 

7.

Oglethorpe is most concerned about Hamilton’s injury. “I am reluctant to put you in the fields— to hand you a tool such as a scythe, knowing you are so clumsy as all that.” “You need not worry.” “I do worry. You have been entrusted to my care. Perhaps, for the time being, we might confine you to some lighter work.” “I do not wish to be confined, sir.” “Even so.”

There is an elderly Indian gentleman who visits, Mr. To-mo-chi-chi of the Creek, Oglethorpe’s particular friend. He leads the Yamacraw tribe, whose village is a little upriver, perhaps three miles from where the plantation stands. Mr. To-mo-chi-chi is eager that the children of his tribe learn English. Perhaps, suggests Oglethorpe, the children might come to the plantation once a week in the afternoons, and Hamilton could teach them. After all, he is a very learned man. “I am not a teacher, sir.” “You are not a farmer, sir. The New World makes new demands of us.”

So the children come: a strange gaggle of brown-skinned, wary creatures, shirtless and wrapped in blankets and animal skins. Some have heads shaved at the sides; some wear beads in their hair, or feathers. They smell of campfire smoke and horses; they are shockingly un-English. They sit straight-backed and cross-legged on the library rug, very formal, and he is, at first, a little afraid of them. But they are children, he discovers, the same as any other children. They laugh in the chortling, unstifled manner of children when he cannot manage to pronounce their names—  “Toonahawi.” “Hohuewahehle.” “Chitto.” “Opamico.” “Fuswa.” They demand that he say more words in Creek so that the hilarity may continue. He obliges them; he cannot help but be amused. He is reminded of Abigail Ashe and Anne Bertie, little serious-faced girls, so careful with their manners, and how they would laugh when he fooled at the harpsichord. “That’s not Purcell at all! You are dreadful!” “Lord Hamilton, let me show you how to play!” He had loved children, with their lack of prejudices. He’d thought that one day, maybe, perhaps—

As a boy, he had started Latin with very simple nouns. He assumes that this is the correct way to begin. He takes a book from the parlour shelf— “Book.” “Choga.” Choga.” He says it again. “Choga. Book.” He points to his hand— “Hand.” “Enge.” “Enge. Hand.” Hand, foot, head, neck, eyes; he learns all the parts of the body. Enge, ele, ega, nogwa, tufwa. “This is a…” The children quickly understand the concept, This is a. The bolder ones, Toonahawi and Chitto, immediately scramble up and search the room for further objects that they can put names to. “Heya nage te?” “This is a leaf,” he tells them. “Heya edoesset omes. Heya nage te?” “This is a glass of water. “Ouwa,” Chitto says. “Heya ouwat omes.”

The children are easier to talk to than the men and women on the plantation. The vocabulary they share with him is limited. Nothing that they say requires an answer that is more complex than his expressive range. “Ma choga chate owa?” “No, that book is not red. Chate— omeks? That book is brown.” “Eh, heya choga lane omes.” “Brown. Like your clothes. Your clothes are brown, aren’t they? Ma— chem accage— lane omes?” At times, it is more like play than lessons: the children make noises and faces like different animals, and he has to guess at the animals that they intend: a horse, a dog, a mouse, a panther. One week, Toonahawi brings a grasshopper carefully cupped in his two hands. The grasshopper, of course, escapes at once— pinging off the walls and the wooden shutters before it is chased out into the fields. “That was a grasshopper,” Hamilton says. “And it doesn’t belong inside.”

Creek nouns sometimes change with their possessor, an idea he has not encountered before. My hand, change. Your hand, chenge. He does not quite understand why certain nouns change and others do not. He tries to guess at it with each new noun, and the children laugh, as though he is being quite foolish, as though it is obvious that some things by their very nature cannot be detached from the one who possesses them. A mother, a father, a heart, a voice. In his experience, there is nothing that cannot be detached from a person. He does not know how to say this in Creek.

 

8.

He can remember sitting on a chaise-longue in the Leicestershire madhouse and thinking, with some puzzlement, This is not my mouth. He touched his lower lip with two fingers. It was warm and familiar, slightly chapped. His teeth and tongue, all accounted for, all the component parts of a mouth. It was a mouth, and it was a part of his body, but he had forgotten how to make sound come out of it. In some deeper sense, the flesh was alien to him. It did not seem to matter much what this mouth did.

Since coming to Georgia, he sometimes half-wakes in the morning with the sense that someone else’s body is beside him in the rough shuck bed. He can feel it shift, feel the warmth of its nearness. —It is awake, he thinks, and he is plunged into a terror with the texture of an ice bath. It is too close, and he does not want it to touch him, even as he knows with the strange perspicacity of dreams that it is his own body, that he is alone in the bed. If he could only speak, if he could only speak to it, if he could only make a sound, call it by name, then it would flee from him, as insubstantial as sunshine. But he is frozen, still immobile in sleep, and besides, he cannot recall the name.

 

9.

Once a week, a barber comes to the plantation from Savannah. All of the labourers are submitted to him: a luxurious moment, a little episode of civilization. “Well, after all,” Oglethorpe says, “aren’t we civilised men?” He has this affectation of saying we, as though they are all of them equals. Perhaps he would like to believe this; perhaps it is what allows him to sleep at night. Hamilton thinks that Oglethorpe lives partially in his own dream of the future, in which he has raised up all of these fallen men to the standard he expects of the English gentry. Presumably he sees himself surrounded by these future figures, by endless copies of his ideal Man. His benevolence thus always misses its mark slightly, being directed not towards you, but towards the man you are not yet.

Hamilton has managed to avoid the barber, growing a pale, sporadically trimmed, scruffy beard that the Yamacraw children find alarming. On account of its fairness, they have given him the name ‘Ste-Hatke-Hatke, “the very very white man.” One of the little girls, Fuswa, had tried to pull the beard off, amazed to find that it was not made of fur or dried grass. But at last Oglethorpe expresses his disapproval— “After all, you are not one of those Indian traders”— and so to the barber he heads.

In Leicestershire, he had been drugged when they shaved him, even though there was no need. He was a tame creature by then, listless, taciturn. The laudanum made him feel dim-witted and ill. He would often vomit afterwards. The taste of bile. Sweat standing out all over his skin. The man’s hands on his head, tipping it this way and that way. As though he were a child or a doll. “That’s right, there we go. You’ve no idea what I’m saying, have you, you fucking bedlamite? You’d cut my throat if you could, I’m sure.” A demonstration: the blade pausing in its work to lie flat and cool against his neck. He felt he inhabited only his toes and the tips of his fingers, his far far distant extremities. “But we’ll have you looking like a gentleman again in no time. Not that you appreciate it.” A skilled barber. There was never any blood. He did indeed look like a gentleman, he supposed. Though he did not see a mirror for six or seven years.

The barber from Savannah is a cheerful Birmingham fellow, a former debtor whom Oglethorpe freed. He tells Hamilton his life story, asks his opinion on styles, on the weather, on the Indians. Hamilton finds it increasingly difficult to answer. Scrape, scrape, scrape. “If I may— just adjust your head for a moment?” When the thing is finished, he leaves the building and vomits in the grass. His hair is damp and stuck to his forehead. The air is sticky. There are thunderclouds overhead. Soon the rain will come and release this tension. This country is prone to violent storms. He wants the tumult of the rolling thunder. He is experiencing a wild and inexplicable urge to run. To scale the fortifications that border the plantation; to steal a horse and charge the gates; to fight any man he might encounter. What he mostly wants is to be hit— or to hit something, which is much the same; to hurl himself against a physical obstacle until it hurts. He slams his fist against the side of the building, and that is better, and he does it again, and the rain comes, first in droplets and then in a flood. Mr. Squier (son of a wealthy Boston merchant, advocate of common ownership and free love) finds him there. “Hamilton, your hand is bleeding! Come now, you must come out of this weather.”

Oglethorpe says, “Perhaps so long as you keep yourself tidy,” and, “We must make allowances for your infirmity,” and, “After all, men in the New World may keep different standards.” He has taken to squinting at Hamilton slightly, as though he cannot quite focus the future image of the ideal him.

 

10.

They take tea, he and Oglethorpe, once every fortnight. It is a privilege that none of the other men enjoy. One might think that this would spark resentment, but in fact Hamilton finds his compatriots rather protective towards him, as though they feel he is fragile in a way they are not. He very much doubts that this is the case. Some, it is true, have been in debtors’ prison, have been torn from their lovers and families; but for many, this is the harshest life they’ve known: this raw little colonial outpost, planting cotton, cutting cane and shucking corn. Because he is mad, does that make him in need of protection? He has survived his father, Bethlem, a madhouse, freezing, purging, isolation, violent keepers, attendants who bargained for his body, and transportation across the Atlantic.  He does not know how not to survive, he thinks.

“Perhaps they like you. You are very gentle.” “That is not the word I would have chosen.” “They have not known much gentleness in their lives.” “Do you think gentleness compatible with civilization?” Silence. Oglethorpe says, “I must believe it can be. Or what is it that I accomplish here?” For the first time, a weariness in his face. How much effort it must take to maintain his optimism; how hard he must work to to keep his utopia in view. Hamilton knows; he remembers. He wants to say, You are going about it wrong. But he is not sure that this is the case. He is not sure of anything anymore. Once, he might have untangled the contradictions in his head. Then, he had felt he was nearing some complete understanding, a vanishing point at which all lines of logic would converge. When he reached this oh-so-imminent horizon, the question of how to govern men would prove to have a very simple answer. Problems would clarify. Principles would appear. But the closer he got, the further that point receded. The world asserted itself with catastrophic effects. A solution no longer seemed so near he could touch it. All the careful foundations had gone to chaos. Now he says to Oglethorpe, “Why did we never meet in London? Eight, oh, ten years ago. We ought to have met.” “I believe I was fighting a war on the Continent. It was foolish. I was a very dramatic young man.” “Strange how we become so many different people. You would have liked me. I believed everything you do.” “But you don’t any longer.” “Mm. Do not let it trouble you. After all, I am mad.”

“I worry about you, Hamilton,” Oglethorpe says on another occasion. “Yes. You have said so.” “You are a gifted teacher; the Creek children have a great affection for you. And I esteem your opinions. But you trouble me extremely.” “I am sorry for it.” “I can never decide if you are really mad, or—“ “Or?” “I do not know.” “No.” Hamilton half-expects the conversation to end. But Oglethorpe gazes at him and says— defiantly, as though he expects opposition— “You are a good man.” “Do you think so?” He himself has no feelings on the matter. He does not know if he is a good man or not. There was a time when he did not know if he were a man. For years he had reminded himself each morning upon waking: ἐπὶ ἀνθρώπου ἔργον ἐγείρομαι. I am rising to do the work of a man. He had stopped when the precept fell into question. “Only it occurs to me,” Oglethorpe says, “that perhaps no one has ever told you: whatever happened to you, I am most exceedingly sorry.”

Hamilton picks up his china cup, touches it to his lips. Drinks the fine weak tea they drink. “Are you,” he says.

 

11.

Time goes by like this. The seasons change. Hamilton works at sowing cotton seed in the fields— apparently this is a task with which he can be trusted. Overseers pace the rows on horseback, occasionally calling out men’s names. “Mr. Smythe! Mind to your duty, sir!” ( —Though punishment, in this place, tends towards nothing so coarse as a whipping, but rather an “improving” lecture of some sort.) From time to time he is conscious that he is, in fact, in a prison. The Yamacraw children have asked him to visit their camp; they wish to show him to their parents, to introduce him to their dogs (“Cha-efa hatke echoghesse oches,” says Opamico proudly— “My dog has a white beard, just like you!”), for him to witness a type of dance or song to celebrate “Little Green Corn.” But Oglethorpe says, “It is, of course, out of the question. No; it is a general policy. Men may not leave here. You might well think as though the world beyond these walls does not exist.” So: a prison. The thought does not upset him much. A prison is an honest thing, unlike a madhouse, where they will say, It is all for your health. A man (Oglethorpe’s Man, in his Edenic setting) is sent to prison because he has committed a crime. Hamilton committed a crime, and he does not regret it. He committed the same crime more than once; he would, if he were able, commit it again. He is incorrigible, the worst sort of recidivist. All of this is to say, He understands his situation. He tilts his head up to the nascent sun and thinks that if England cannot bear to allow him in it, here is as good as any other Tomis. Ergo erat in fatis Scythiam quoque visere nostris. He scatters the seed upon the American earth and covers it with thick black soil. His body aches, and for the first time in years he is conscious of hunger. The heat grows as summer comes on; he sweats through his shirt. He sleeps through each night without any dreams.

In the late summer he strips leaves from the cane stalks that other men have cut, and bundles them up to heave over his shoulder and carry to the waiting cart. The chopped cane has a strange and musty odor, grass mixed with caramel and sweat, and its sap clings to his palms and clothing. All the labourers grow sticky and fragrant with it. The hours are long, and McClintock (who hails from the coast of Massachusetts) teaches the men a number of sea shanties to sing while they work. The sound of their singing is startling, almost violent, even when laughter breaks into it— a great defiant shout of pleasure. It is not what Hamilton has known music to be (a rare performance of L’Orfeo— “Isn’t Monteverdi divine? The current crop of Italians simply can’t measure up, they haven’t half his strangeness, and, you know, I think music must be strange—” “Why must it be strange? Surely the very nature of music is an orderly progression—“ “Oh, but darling, the heart is strange—“ and the heart was strange, but he was thinking of music, music, ch'ai dolci accenti so far tranquillo ogni turbato core) but it is music, and for a long time he forgets his labour and simply stands in the midst of the field, amazed.

He does not sing, cannot bring himself to loose that kind of voice, but he teaches the Yamacraw children songs he knows: a song that Abigail Ashe and Anne Bertie used to sing about the cuckoo bird—

“The cuckoo is a lovely bird
She sings as she flies
She brings us glad tidings
And tells us no lies

She flies the hills over
She flies the vale down
She flies to the sea
And she mourns for her love.”

— and one of McClintock’s sea songs, “The Golden Vanity,” since the children are well acquainted with the threat of the Spanish. Another, a bit of foolish doggerel that mocks the fishermen of Cape Cod. He is surprised by how eagerly the children take to the music. They want to know what a cuckoo is (“Fuswat lanet omes, I think— I don’t suppose you have them here”), and what a cod is (“Hlahlo? Is that the word? It swims, omiyes.”), and are there any cod in Georgia (“I very much doubt it”), and they insist on singing the same songs over and over, despite not understanding the lyrics, long past the point when any sensible person would have grown tired of them. For weeks he works to explain the words in the songs: what a tiding is, what it has to do with a tide, what vanity is— a word for which they have no exact cognate, though they seem to have two that overlap with the general idea— and, predictably difficult, the concept of love. One cannot play-act love, and anyway, the customs are different. He suggests that mothers and fathers love, and that mothers and fathers love their children, but he knows very well this is not always true. At any rate, that is not the love the cuckoo mourns. It isn’t even the same noun. He thinks the children leave confused, and more interested in codfish. He had used the term e-anokechka to translate the words of the song, anokechka being the word they offered for love, e- the prefix of possession. Surely love was so intimate a possession, so vital to the body, as to require a prefix. Chanokechka, my love; chenokechka, your love. The children could not tell him if this was grammatical. But surely, he thinks, surely, nothing is more difficult to part with than love.

 

12.

The last time he thought so very intensely about language, he was at Cambridge, studying Latin and Greek. Those days are coloured with other discoveries in his memory. First fumblings after midnight in someone else’s bedroom, while wax made warm Pennines of the candlesticks. “The Greeks, you know—“ “Yes, but the mechanics of such an act—“ “Φέβει?” "No, of course not.” Reading Pindar amongst the tangled linens. The Pythian Odes, it was. The Py— the Py— the puh— the puh— the— say it with a rising exhalation— the please, please, the oh, the oh, God, so this is what men write odes for, oh his face hot on the fisted-up bolster, a hand cramped hard at his iliac crest. He had not known before how much lay outside his understanding. That there were ways to touch someone else’s body for which no words existed in English. That he might need so many new words just for want.

(Why does thinking of this cause him such pain? Ναυσιφορήτοις δ᾽ ἀνδράσι, he thinks, πρώτα χάρις ἐς πλόον ἀρχομένοις πομπαῖον ἐλθεῖν οὖρον: ἐοικότα γὰρ καὶ τελευτᾷ φερτέρου νόστου τυχεῖν. Oh, God, unbearable fragment that he must banish from his mind. His memory is not his friend; it is a poison flask.)

The process of learning seemed an upwards expansion. An endless exhilaration. He came to associate learning with love. So much of what he learned was how to love other people. What love he was capable of giving a woman; the different love he was capable of giving a man. The love he steadfastly presented to his father, despite its ongoing refusal; the love he poured and poured into England, like a farmer watering withered fields and waiting for fruit. All men, he had thought, ought to be loved. It was not an abstract ideal. England had fathered its people, and owed them love. Surely it was a natural right. Once such a duty was performed, the rest would follow. Love would in turn become learning: how to govern, how to live.

For so long he has learned nothing except to suffer. Not how to suffer, for it never grew easier, nor he more graceful at it; any skill he’d once imagined himself to possess had, in fact, diminished. Could such a thing be called learning? It was an atrophy. Now increasingly he feels the muscle flex, and is aware of its weakness. I cannot. I cannot. I am not capable. I am a poor bare forked animal. I cannot bear to learn, to stir, to rise, to stretch, to move, to carry that burden again.

 

13.

“I am…” “Omis.” “You are…” “Ometskes.” “I am hungry.” “Chawanketos.” “I am tired.” “Noskeletos.” “What am I?” Hamilton asks, and waits for an answer.

 

14.

Midway through his third year in Georgia, the plantation is struck by an epidemic. Everyone fears that it is yellow fever, which killed twenty of Oglethorpe’s original colonists in their first year. Fever, aches, and chills, a sweating sickness. The first of the plantation’s labourers dies of it three days after falling ill. Two children in Savannah the next week. Four more labourers take to their beds. Meanwhile, the sun overhead rakes them with its beams; the air is a swamp; the moss-lined trees don’t stir. Out in the fields, pulling weeds, Hamilton feels the heat like a hammer on his head. His shirt is heavy, drenched against his skin. When he reaches his home in the evening, he has to strip down to sleep.

When he wakes, he is cold and his teeth are clenched. Groping in the thin dawn light for a shirt, for breeches. It takes him three tries to pull them on. Confused by the chill in the grey air. For a while, he thinks it is winter. He leaves his house barefoot, and is surprised there is no snow on the ground. No. Snow was in England. It rarely snows in Georgia. The Yamacraw boy Chitto has not seen such a thing. He is the youngest. He thinks it is a fiction. Lakes freezing; ice-skating on the pond at Helensburgh House. Mrs. Collett: “In my day, we’d never dreamt of such a thing!” Wrapping him in a woollen blanket. “At last, tha’s got some colour in your cheeks.” The pleasant fire in the nursery grate. That is what is called for, fire. But he has no tinder. And the cane fields when he squints already seem to be burning, with their long waving leaves that turn and glint. He cannot tell for certain. He walks towards them. He likes to be warm. “You are exceedingly spoilt.” “There’s nothing wrong with being comfortable.” “You’d not survive a day at sea.” “I know, you are always telling me so. I do not plan to go to sea, so I fail to see why it is an issue.” “One of these days, I shall manoeuvre you into a ship.” “Oh you shall, shall you? You’ll execute one of your naval manoeuvres.” “My naval manoeuvres are very highly regarded, I’ll have you know.” “Mm. I should like you to manoeuvre yourself over here; my God, you’re a furnace.” “Any way I can serve you, my lord.”

He halts, confused, clutching at his damp hair with jittery fingers. Aware that something is terribly wrong. His head aches; where is the straw hat he wears for weeding? Where is the madhouse attendant who will take him to the bath? Is it still Fletcher? He does not want to be touched. Or he does. He cannot differentiate the feelings. Like being cold and hot at the same time. A hand on his elbow; he thinks about breaking the fingers. He has this thought rather a lot. But there is no violence in him. No real violence. “Mr. Hamilton, I fear you are ill.” But no. That isn’t the problem. “It’s only a symptom.” “Even so, sir.” His own house again. The stale air. The book he keeps hidden under his mattress. “Perhaps he would have liked it.” “Who, sir?” “James.” He is weeping, and he doesn’t know why. His head is agony. “Forgive me,” he says. “Forgive me. Forgive me.” “We have sent a man for the doctor. You must rest.”

But he does not rest. For a time he thinks he is back in Bethlem, and that men are putting chains on him. Thrashing against their hands, because he did not have the chance before. He was kind and peaceable to those who after all knew no better. Lack of reason is the only real enemy. God, oh, God, he will not make the same mistake. “I know you; I know what you want; I know you will hurt me.” “Shh. Shh.” Hands at his ankles and wrists. Not chains, but something more unbearable. Noise of someone crying. They keep trying to lay cold cloths on him. Is this some new treatment? His bones feel hollow at their centres, as though the core of him has been taken out and replaced with pain. He brought cold cloths to her sometimes. She had headaches. “Darling, thank you. Would you sit and read to me for a while? Only very quietly.” “Do you fancy Shakespeare? The Tempest?” He did all the voices. His favourite was Ariel.

When he is not in Bethlem, he is nowhere, exactly. He is at the bottom of the ocean. Shivering and wet. He is being hanged for sodomy and he cannot breathe. He chokes on liquid that tastes of the inside of wells. Sleeps. Sleeps. At odd intervals, he is sure that someone keeps watch by his bed. A warm presence, smelling of old wood and salt water. He used to wake in the morning and know, without opening his eyes— hooking a lazy foot round an adjacent ankle, trailing a line up a shin with his big toe. “It’s too early.” “Hmm?” “You are insatiable, Thomas.” “It’s only that I couldn’t touch you for so long. Imagine owning a beautiful instrument, and not being allowed to play it.” “I am not your goddamned harpsichord.” “Several witty remarks about organs suggest themselves… Are you going to hit me?” Laughter. “No. I’m going to go back to sleep.” The bass hum of his breathing, like a gentle beehive. Even in the New World— “I would know you anywhere.” “Shh. Don’t try to speak.” “I did not want to forget. I wrote your name.”

Waking— night, orchestra’d with insects in the outside grasses. A lone candle in the cabin guttering low. An older, olive-skinned man is reading at his table. A respectable-looking man, wearing a waistcoat and spectacles. “Who… ?” “Ah. You are awake at last.” An Iberian accent, Portuguese or Spanish. The man closes his book. “I am Samuel Nunez, the doctor in Savannah. You, my friend, have been struck down by the malaria, the marsh fever. You have been very very ill.”

Ill. He is too weak to lift his head. His body a cloth wrung out for drying. “I thought— I dreamt—“ “You were delirious with fever.” He can feel his lip tremble, as though he is a little child. The tears come, as though something inside him has cracked open and he is helpless to hold in the leaking contents. Nunez sits beside him, resting a kind hand on his forehead. “Many men weep. It common after such fevers. Let yourself weep. There is time to regain your strength.” “I fear, sir,” Hamilton chokes at last. “—I may have been indiscreet in my fever.” “Psh. You were a very dull patient. You discoursed at length upon natural law.” “Ah. My sin is found out. I was once a politician.” “You must certainly thank me, then, for had you died: straight to Hell!” “…Thank you,” Hamilton says.

Nunez fetches fresh water from the pump outside, and pours him a little in a tin cup, mixed with vinegary wine and a powder of Jesuit’s bark. At Hamilton’s skeptical face on hearing the name of the powder— “Ah, but, you see, I endorse it, and I am a Jew. Besides, I think you have a little of the Jesuit in you, no? Already I see this.” A weak smile; a wracking cough. “Some would say I am a sophist, sir.” Nunez pats him on the shoulder and takes his leave to look to other patients— four more on the plantation, he says. He returns towards dawn to check for spiking fever. His assessment: “You have some politicking left in you.” He stays longer than strictly necessary, fixing the blankets on the bed and shooing sleepy moths away from the candle.

“… It was like being mad,” Hamilton says reflectively. “The fever… I have been mad. Perhaps I am still mad. I am not sure I know anymore.” Nunez’s regards him kindly. “As for that,” he says, “who can say what it is to be mad? Too much sanity may be madness, and the maddest of all…” His voice trails off. He does not finish the quote. Perhaps he can see that it is not necessary to do so. Hamilton closes his eyes. He feels immensely tired.

 

15.

Two more men at the plantation die of marsh fever. Mr. Cochrane (an admiral’s son turned preacher), and Mr. McLellan (a Scottish paederast). They are buried in the small plot at the southeast edge of the plantation, each grave marked by a wooden cross. Hamilton cannot attend the service; he can hardly leave his bed. Had he been able, would he have wanted to? He believes in God, but God the Father? Father, he thinks, you have neglected your children. Perhaps the Christian faith is an attempt to make sense of it. We cannot believe in a God who would pardon Isaac, but a God who would murder his own son—?

He is ill for a long time. Nunez returns twice a week from Savannah, dispensing his foul decoctions of barks. He seems to have some special feeling for Hamilton— what had he let slip in his delirium?— and brings him, in addition to the medicine, ink, and pens, and a sheaf of paper. “Thank you. But it’s expensive. I cannot repay you.” “You repay me in conversation. You know what this is in Savannah, the conversation? My God! A roomful of men discussing their cows. In Portugal, I once met the king himself. Now I am English, and what does it get me? Nothing but cows, cows, cows.”

Nunez is a highly educated man; in addition to English and Portuguese, he reads Spanish, Greek Hebrew, and Latin. He is familiar with natural philosophy, with Descartes, Pascal, and Spinoza, although— “Spinoza! That abominable man.” “Why do you think so?” “He takes God out of God, and puts him here in the world! He tells men that there is no life beyond this life!” “And you disagree.” “I think that there are things men must believe in order to stay being men.” “So we should simply not question them? I find that offensive.” “Well— but you are a madman, so you tell me.” Many of their conversations go like this, more a kind of fencing match than a discussion. It is much like being back in a London salon. They take to playing chess. Hamilton tires easily, and his mind has a tendency to wander; he finds he gets lost inside his own head. But he has missed having a worthwhile opponent, in chess and in discourse. He is— glad, that is the word.

He spends the hours of his recovery looking out of his window, making observations of insects and birds. He is, he supposes, perhaps the first Englishman to do so. He draws them in ink in their characteristic poses— the chattering bird that bullies the others, the dove that coos on his rooftop at evening and dawn, the fireflies that float over the fields at twilight. The Yamacraw have words for all of these animals, though he cannot pronounce most of them. When the children learn about his interest in wildlife, they start bringing him all sorts of specimens. Mostly flowers: a pinkish sort of berry, and a white plant that they call “snake root,” wild strawberries, and large brown polished nuts. “We fear you die,” Fuswa says, handing him an enormous bunch of prickly yellow blossoms. “Like the boy in the golden ship. Because the white men are die so much. Do not die. It is not good.”

“No,” Hamilton says. “It is not good to die.”

 

16.

At Christmas, there is a fine dinner for all the labourers, with venison, wild duck, and cranberry cake. The men dine with the women, whom normally they rarely see. There is a general air of boisterous celebration. They are quite profligate with the candles; the merriment goes well into the night. Hamilton accepts the embraces of his fellows till he cannot accept them and steals out into the dark. Frost on the fields. Glittering stars. He thinks of Halley, Synopsis on the Astronomy of Comets. He had left the book unfinished, on a library table. He has not thought of it in so long. Halley speculated on the recurrence of comets, suggesting that the same celestial objects returned and returned, their visits sometimes separated by more than men’s lifetimes. A miraculous idea, that the heavens could be so vast and men’s lives could be so small. So small, and yet so full of— of men being profligate with candles, in a prison, in the midst of the wilderness.

Behind him, a voice rises, and others join. A carol, as roughly sung as one of McClintock’s sea shanties, yet recognizable nonetheless: Then why should men on earth be sad, since our dear Saviour makes us glad? Oh… he could offer reasons. But in this moment, he is unexpectedly stirred, moved as Christ has not moved him for a long time. There is something in the men’s voices that he had not looked for, had not been prepared for, had not defense against. Joy. It is joy, he thinks.

When he arrived in the colonies, he had made a promise. But he thinks he has not loved America well. He had not been capable of love, and perhaps he still is not. Perhaps he never will be again. The very word had been stripped from his body during that long absence of words. So when he pledged himself to the New World, it had seemed a poor sort of offer. But in spite of himself he is more now than he was then. Mad, yes, skittish, at times oddly feral. Parts of a man, though not a whole one. He pictures himself as a Roman mosaic, made of the fractured pieces of the Thomas Hamiltons that he was before. He had thought he was nothing, but he is something. —What? He does not know.

That night he sits at his little table and takes out a sheet of paper. He dips his quill into the ink and writes, Dec. 25. 1715. He pauses; he does not know how to continue. Even after all this time, the act feel interdicted. His heart beats fast; his body tenses against some outcry. He has to set his teeth and grip his hand hard round the pen. The nib scratches. His handwriting is small and quick and furtive. It is I, Thos. Hamilton, who write these words…

 

17.

In the summer, James McGraw comes to Georgia.

Chapter Text

18.

Odysseus, in order to converse with ghosts, was forced to sail the river Oceanus to the land of the Cimmerians— a place, Homer writes, of eternal mist and darkness. The dead must be propitiated with barley meal, milk, honey, water, and wine, and still it was only after they had tasted blood that they could speak. What is the moral of this story? To beware what you feed ghosts? That the dead may come back, but they demand blood? The dead, of course, do not come back, not in real life, or if they do then they were not dead, so at first he thinks: I am mad, and then he thinks, It is a fever, for Dr. Nunez had warned him that the fever might recur, and in the grip of the fever there had been such visions, fire in the summer cane fields and irons around his ankles and wrists. But no fever nor madness ever showed an aged lover, tanned with the sun and battered by years, soft in the belly and hard at the shoulder, broken-nailed and crop-haired, and he feels for a moment such an access of loss, seeing all of the irrecoverable days written on this man’s flesh, that he knows this no ghost, and then he is laughing, laughing, and they have not even reached each other through the rows before he throws open his arms.

 

19.

“James,” he says. “James. James.” Just to say it.

The smell of old wood and salt water where he presses his face into that curve of neck.

 

20.

“Thomas—“ “Say it again.” “Thomas.” “Yes, I am Thomas. I had almost forgotten.” “Forgotten?” “It has been so long since someone called me by that name.”

James looks at him, searching, and Thomas fears he will recognise that Thomas is not really Thomas, not quite Thomas, not the Thomas he had been, and so he says, “I have gone a little mad in this world without you, but now that you are here—“ And James makes a sound, a sobbing, laughing sound, and crushes Thomas to him once more.

 

21.

“We were told you were dead—“ “I thought that surely you must be, I thought perhaps—“ “No, we went to Nassau, we—“ “Peter said he did not know, he would not tell me—“ “Peter!” “Yes, I—” “Peter is dead. I killed him.” A brief pause in the flood of questions; the spectre of violence enters the room, as ambient and cold as a raincloud’s shadow. “How. Tell me how,” Thomas says, because he wants to to be able to picture it; something savage in him snaps and grumbles, where he thought it had been locked away for good. Tell me. Tell me. Let me see it. But James rubs a hand across his brow and breathes, “God, where do I even—“

They are sitting side by side on Thomas’s bed. A stray breeze lifts the cream-coloured curtains at the window; outside, the summer fields are ablaze with late sun. Thomas can hear voices raised in the distance, a peal of laughter. The hard irregular chunk— chunk— of men cutting cane. He has a sudden, intimate sense of the transience of this moment, that the peace here— the pale freckles visible at James’s open collar, the warble of birdsong, Peter dead— is about to pass, is already passing, and cannot be recovered. It will be gone when James opens his mouth again. Thomas doesn’t speak. He watches James struggle, looking impossibly weary, like a stone that has slowly subsided to rest and now finds it cannot rekindle momentum.

“You should wash,” Thomas says at last. “You’ve had a long journey. I will bring you water. There’s no need to speak now.” He is a coward, he thinks. But he has known this of himself at least since Bethlem, surely, since he had locked that savage animal away. So he takes the wooden tub out to the water pump and fills it, and by the time he comes back, James is asleep on the bed. He does not stir when Thomas tugs the dark shirt free of his body, nor when he wets a linen cloth and gently daubs at the sweat and dirt thus revealed. There are fading bruises spread along his ribcage, one forming the cloudy print of a boot; innumerable other mementos of violence: a white sabre slash across the chest, an old gunshot wound, smaller scars— perhaps from the shipboard scourge of splinters. An angry, crooked line running down one shoulder— another sword thrust? Badly healed. A whole history of violence he cannot interpret. He traces the broken ridge of the sabre slash. After a while he looks up and finds James awake and watching him. “Does it disgust you?” James asks. “No.” He offers the damp cloth. James shakes his head; sits up, turns, exposing his back. There are more scars there, and another bruise over the ribcage, shapeless and yellowed. Thomas resumes his washing without a word.

“Miranda is dead,” James says at last. Thomas does not say anything. “She was— it was Peter. I put a sword in his belly.” The soft downward stroke of the cloth over skin. “Aren’t you going to ask me anything?” Thomas can’t think what he would possibly ask. There is a cold, flat stone inside his mouth. Men who are starving will suck on stones, chew on belts, boil shoe leather; any substitute for what their bodies demand. Is that where this feeling comes from? Hunger for— James says, “I turned pirate. One of the pirate raiders of Nassau. By some accounts, I was the best of them. I killed— I don’t know how many men. Hundreds. I sacked Charles Town. Fought a war against England in your name.” His shoulders are hunched. Thomas reaches to unbuckle his heavy studded belt. He sets it aside, motions James to stand and strip. James does, with a tense and studied indifference. He is breathing hard, as though in the midst of battle. “Miranda and I,” he says, “murdered Lord and Lady Ashbourne, but the blade that slew them was mine alone.” Thomas kneels on the dirt floor and drags the wooden tub closer. He dips the cloth in the cool water and wrings it out. Carefully and in silence he washes James’s feet and ankles; washes his cock, which stirs faintly under his touch; washes the backs of his thighs, the vulnerable bends of his knees. He has always loved all the parts of James’s body. James says, “I am considering whether there is more I must confess.”

Thomas stays kneeling for a long time, his head bowed a little. Spilt water slowly soaks the knees of his breeches. At last he raises his head and rests it against James’s stomach, pressing his mouth to a knife-scar above the hip. “It does not disgust me,” he says. He feels James’s hand come up, touch his hair hesitantly, and settle there.

 

22.

They share a bed that first night, though they do not lie together. For a long time, James simply weeps, and cannot say why he is weeping. His whole body shakes, and Thomas holds him. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” James says, the words wet and strangled. “I’m sorry.” “There is nothing to be ashamed of. Weep if you want. Scream if you want to.” And James does: he pushes his face into Thomas’s shoulder and makes a long, pained, tortuous, loud, muffled, unbearable sound, and Thomas cradles the back of his head and thinks: This is for all he has suffered; this is for all we have suffered, both of us.

 

23.

“I do not object to his sharing your house,” Oglethorpe says; “indeed he is a prisoner I should not have accepted had I not been assured of your improving influence on him, and I look for such influence to be exerted. However, I cannot encourage— that is, I do not condone— I am sure you know what sort of acts I mean.” He levels an uncomfortable look at Thomas. “For my part, I do not shun the sodomite; you know this, you know that there is no man of whom I will say, He is beneath me. But here I have tried to form a place free of the corruption of the Old World, a place where men may lead peaceful lives, and if I allow one manner of crime to run rampant—“ “I do not think I have the energy to run rampant,” Thomas remarks. “It sounds extremely taxing. I suspect that James will agree; he is very tired, and we are both of us getting on in years.”

In fact James had slept through the morning bell that wakes the labourers. He had slept as Thomas washed and dressed, woken briefly when Thomas kissed his forehead in parting, and then immediately returned to sleep. He has not yet been assigned any labour; it seems that no one is quite sure what to do with him. The plantation is not a haven for violent criminals. The past year, a man called Lennard had beaten a man called Boyer over the theft of a good shirt; it is the most serious incident that Thomas can remember, and Oglethorpe had been at a loss for how to deal with it. In the end, Lennard had been administered six lashes by an overseer, and was forced to read a public statement of repentance. James would no doubt have pointed out that children in the Navy received as much. As for pirates— Thomas cannot imagine the laws of pirates; indeed it has never occurred to him before that pirates must have laws, that even amongst the lawless there are permissible and impermissible acts. Is there, he wonders— a little hysterically— pirate jurisprudence?

Oglethorpe leans back in his chair, setting his tea cup in its saucer. “But will your influence be enough,” he says, meditatively, as though to himself. “Can this pirate captain truly live among us?” “You do not know him,” Thomas says. “He is the best man I have known, the only good man.” Oglethorpe looks at him, his gaze rather sad. “Yes,” he says. “I believe you.”

 

25.

James sleeps on and off for much of that week, as though recovering from a long illness. In the evenings, they curl together on the narrow bed and converse in quiet voices, reaching— without speaking of it— a silent resolution not to touch on painful topics. Thomas recounts what he knows of the history of Georgia, explains who Oglethorpe is and his lofty goals, describes the other men who live on the plantation. They reminisce about books they have read; James has done a surprising amount of reading for a self-proclaimed pirate; he has developed a new appreciation, he says, for Thucydides, and they digress into a long consideration of the Peloponnesian War. It is gentle, comforting: the undemanding closeness of James’s body, his steady, probing intelligence, the rise and fall of his breath. For minutes at a time they might be back in London. If they should come too close to some underlying darkness— if James falls silent and stares out towards some phantom figure or landscape that only he seems able to see, or if Thomas stands, abruptly unable to tolerate the pressing stillness, walking the length of the room in agitation and biting his lip— the conversation is carefully redirected towards safer ground. We must not trouble the waters too much; after all, James is tired; we are both tired, Thomas thinks. Do we not deserve a little rest?

But as the week turns into another, James grows less tired and more impatient. He has always been a man who needed to work; now there is a harder restlessness to him, a savage energy that emerges, one he cannot hide. He does not complain, but he is confined to Thomas’s house, and each evening when Thomas comes home there is a moment before James can school his expression, and Thomas sees it: the prowling look of a caged animal.

In bed, they are careful with each other. Once, they had known each other’s pasts: what prior lovers had done, and how well it had been liked, and how they themselves had touched each other, and with what kind of response that touch had been met, and how to read pleasure in the other’s body and face. Now everything is unknown again, and they are turned strangely timid. James kisses with worshipful devotion, but despite the plain hunger in his gaze, he is as watchful as though Thomas were a virgin, and asks so many questions, questions that Thomas cannot answer, “Is it good?” and “Is it all right if I… ?” There were not so many questions before, surely; not during the sexual act itself; they had been so sure of themselves, so sure of the answers. Now Thomas too has become unsure— James has been so badly hurt in so many places, and he does not want to cause any further hurt. He must skirt around the aging bruises and older scars, and still sometimes he catches a flinch, which is so viscerally upsetting that when it happens he can’t continue, however much James protests. He does not ask about James’s wounds, and James, perhaps returning the favour, does not ask about his deficiencies— his occasional strange halts, the caution that borders on fear, the acts he enjoyed and no longer does.

James has violent dreams in which he jerks and pants, as though he is running through some dense jungle, or fighting an enemy much larger than himself. The third time they are woken by such a dream, Thomas asks, “Would it help to talk?” “You would not like what I dream about.” “I don’t have to like it.” “I would not like for you to hear.” “About the past, then. Whatever it is that haunts you.” James says nothing, but shakes his head. “You said you fought a war in my name; am I not entitled to know?” “… I lost,” James says. “And yet you are here. Is there some third option, do you suppose, besides winning and losing? Because it does not feel like loss.” “No. No, it doesn’t. And yet—“ A distant grimace. And yet you are ashamed, Thomas thinks.

A concession: James talks about Nassau, about its voracious green vines and sudden rains, about its scrabbling lizards and startling tropical birds, about black pearls as big as a man’s eye; about the Lascars who could write in seven languages and had a word for every type of wind; about the barefoot boys who sold tobacco to the men in the beach camps, who could tell you the name of every captain back to Avery and what prizes he took. He talks of freeing slaves, looting fat merchantmen for silk and china, about the black banner he sewed himself. “My name was Flint.” “Flint,” Thomas echoes. “You might’ve heard of me.” “I’m afraid I haven’t. Are you disappointed?” “Very.” A smile in his voice that doesn’t reach his eyes. “I could ask someone about you— the doctor from Savannah visits; he thinks he is going to beat me at chess. Or Oglethorpe.” “Don’t.” —No smile at all now. His brow furrowed, face drawn in something like sorrow. “Don’t.” “Tell me another story,” Thomas says.

 

26.

“You could talk,” James says. “I’m not the only one who’s lived a life. Ten years of which I know nothing. I feel as though someone has stolen them.” “There is nothing to know.” “There must be something.” “It’s not interesting,” Thomas says. “It doesn’t have to be fucking interesting. You interest me.” He touches Thomas’s forearm, gently tracing the scar left by the wood plane. “What happened here?” “Nothing. An accident while working. While making this bed, in fact; there, are you satisfied? That is something: I made this bed.” “Did you lay out your chamber around it?” “Alas, no. Mr. Oglethorpe is meticulous about the planning of his settlements; he makes no allowance for stray olive trees. And, after all, I did not know that you would share it.” “I can see that. It is a very small bed.” “You are free to craft another, if you have complaints. That would put Oglethorpe’s mind at ease; he does not approve of our sharing.” “I only meant that when we leave, we might look for something larger.” A pause. Thomas says, “When we leave?”

James frowns. “I assume you would like to leave. I can hardly imagine you farming sugarcane forever, particularly under another man’s whip.” “It is not just sugarcane. There is also cotton, and I have told you of the garden where we grow our vegetables and fruit. I’ve suggested that we plant orchard trees. Not apples— the climate is wrong— but perhaps apricots and peaches.” James’s incredulous expression, quickly concealed. “You don’t need to decide now. It would take some time to put in action.” “—I see,” Thomas says. James says, “Consider it.” He is still holding Thomas’s arm, stroking the place where the tanned skin turns to scar.

 

27.

Jul. 17. 1716 A good harvest today, 6 melons each more than 3 lbs & Chitto assures me if we plant early next year we may have more. He is not Creek as I supposed, but of the Ya-ma-see people who defeated in war by the English chose to join with neighbouring tribes. There are few left & some live now amongst the Spanish in Florida. I think I have understood this right. The Ya-ma-see have farmed the coast here for “much time, hofonay, hofonay,” says Ch (who speaks readily of yrs, for instance saying he is 9 yrs of age, but remains confused & even offended by the idea of the decade— I suspect he believes I conceived of it in jest), and thfore know its weather well. 4 lbs strawberries also & several excellent squashes although the most are not yet ripe.

Thomas dips his pen in ink and hesitates. He has not written about James in these pages. He has hardly had a chance to write since James arrived. Nor has he had the clearness of head that might allow the writing. He does not know how to put into words all that has transpired. Indeed when he tries he feels faintly nauseated, as though inside of him is a roiling sea that resists any effort of elucidation. He cannot look at it headlong, or he will be sick. It is not— he has long known that there will be no more men in his life, that the love he bore James was of a purity and strength he does not now think he would have the fortitude to kindle. It is an enormous thing to love someone like that; one must wake every morning prepared to be devoured, not by one’s lover, but by the intensity of one’s own love. He had not shared that with— anyone else. Perhaps because of the sexual passion, perhaps because he and James were so closely matched in aim, in principle, and in fierceness. “People think you are opposites,” she had said, “but you are apposites, really. You share the same brute force, but it is easier to perceive in him. It faces outwards, where yours is turned in a different direction.” He had wrinkled his nose. “Brute force, really?” She had laughed like a peal of bells.

So. No need for either to renew a suit, for I was flax and he was flames of fire. He still goes up in smoke when faced with James. They are all still there, all the old feelings. Only— sometimes— he cannot quite parse them out. Sometimes they are part of that dark, undifferentiated sea.

  

28.

His attempt to introduce James to the Yamacraw children does not start off very promisingly. “Chanhesse omes,” Thomas tells them. “This is my friend, Mr. McGraw. Mr. McGraw, am chaga-heka omes, these are my students.” The children are very interested in using James to practice shaking hands, a practice that they find strange and hilarious, and they are amused that he too has a hair of a startling colour. (“Echoghesse yalaha oches,” hisses Fuswa, “mowis— yala-yalaha!” Thomas doesn’t have the heart to tell James that she’s described his beard as very orange.) But they also seem disturbed by him, or perhaps by the presence of Oglethorpe, who does not trust James to go an hour without threatening a child and thus starting a war. Thomas has to prompt the children— “Ligeras! Hopuetake, ligas atam apohichas!”— to sit and listen, and when they do, they are more interested in staring at James in distrust than in practising English conversation. James, in turn, adopts an aggressive posture and eyes them in much the same manner as Thomas imagines he might have eyed mutineers. “Mr. McGraw is a sailor,” Thomas says. “Who can tell me what a sailor does?” Opamico volunteers in Creek that Mr. McGraw looks like an evil red tusked bear that Chitto’s mother has warned them lives on the road to Savannah. “Holwayeche chate nogose nene ohomeks,” Thomas says reprovingly, though he suspects there is nothing he can say to convince them such a bear does not exist. “And,” he adds, “Mr. McGraw nogose omeks.” The children seem equally skeptical about this statement.

Thomas spends the rest of the lesson prodding his students to recall basic details, such as what the sea is called, what ships are, where white men come from, and the rudiments of how ships work. Some of the children think that ships are sea animals, while most of them think ships fly like birds; only Toonahawi, who has actually been on a ship, knows that wind moves them. It is somewhat disheartening. However, it leads to a notable success, when James demonstrates sail propulsion by building a tiny model of a ship out of a stick, a leaf, and a handkerchief he borrows from Oglethorpe. The children, by blowing at the handkerchief sail, can make the leaf-ship scud across the parlour table. Even Oglethorpe is at least amused. He gives James a distinctly reevaluating glance.

“Careful,” Thomas says afterwards, “you might win yourself friends.” James is pacing around the parlour in his typically restless manner. “I did not realise you spoke their language,” he says. “Well, speak— I know only what they have taught me. As you can imagine, it is a somewhat limited range. I can name several very exciting monsters, but not conduct trade negotiations.” “Still— I’m impressed.” “Thank you for patronising me.” “I’m not!” “I know it’s hardly assembling a pirate fleet, or— whatever it is one does.” “I have known at least one man with a pirate fleet who would balk if presented with that horde of children.” “In addition to yourself?” Thomas says lightly. James frowns at him. “I did not balk.”

“—I suppose it’s only,” James says at supper, “that I never imagined children. I don’t mean for you; for all I knew, you were dead. In some larger sense, I thought— we were already so old, in my mind. And it was as though life, real life, had stopped, and something else began. A wholly separate world, a world in which there were no children, not in the normal course of things. A child is a future, a compromise, a weakness. Perhaps that’s why we never thought… But now, seeing you with them, I wonder.”

Thomas finds himself confused, and opens his mouth to ask— then shuts it abruptly, mute and swallowing hard when he realises the we James had spoken of does not include him. 

 

29.

James tells him about the Guthrie warehouse, filled with bricks of tea and barrels of spices, with bales of calico cloth and bottles of rum. The smell of it on a warm day, like some drunk and sun-baked Indian palace. About stealing a Spanish man o’war off the coast of Florida, a grand ship filled with gilt trimmings and Papist icons and polished dark wood. “Imagine tallying your ill-gotten goods under the eye of the Virgin. Even worse, having to sleep in such a cabin. Like bedding down in a church. It made for supremely uncomfortable nights.” He talks of the taverns of Nassau and Port Royal, stained with tobacco smoke and smelling of saltwater and ale, where one might barter for Spanish gold or eye a quattrocento painting, talk with an African who had once spied a kraken off the Cape, or a whaler who could show you a narwhal horn.

He talks of the girl Eleanor, who ran the Guthrie empire, whom he had met when she was only fifteen years old. “A tiny thing, with her jaw set like a pug dog, carrying around this enormous ring of keys, as though she thought she could unlock anything or anyone that so much as threatened to stand in her way.” How she had thrown the dread Teach off of the island, how she swore like a sailor, and smoked little cigarillos until she began to fear they would blacken her teeth. “She was,” James says, “vain, in her way. Conscious, I think, that she was neither fish nor fowl, but something sad and… absurd, in-between.” His voice is heavy with fondness, and some other emotion that Thomas cannot quite understand. It is there when he talks of his ship, the Walrus, and his hapless crew: laughing, good-natured Joshua and deadpan Joji; stolid, moralizing Billy; exasperated Gates.

James himself hardly features as a figure in these stories. It is hard to form a picture of his life for the last ten years. He does not talk about the scars that cross his body, or about how he came to Georgia, or about the confessions he has made: the men he killed, the war. His stories are peaceful, or at least nearly bloodless. A light entertainment, a kind of child’s history of the world.

 

30.

Oglethorpe puts James in the fields, on the understanding that Thomas will oversee him, and all through August they strip cane side-by-side. “I can’t believe you don’t get paid for this,” James says, wiping sweat from his brow. His hair is growing back, long enough to lie flat now, and distinctly mixed with grey. Thomas asks, “What would I do with money?” “Buy a bigger bed. Buy books. Buy some kind of food other than corn and fucking squash.” “Did you always swear so much?” “Thomas.” “Books must come from Boston or England; it is not as though they may be purchased here. Oglethorpe has books, which he freely lends me. I do own one book; if I owned more, who’s to say they might not be taken from me?” “You have beautifully articulated the purpose of ownership.”

Wearily, Thomas considers the ground. The stripped stalks ready to be bundled, the rows and rows of cane ahead. He does not want to have this sort of conversation. He feels remarkably unready for it. There are a number of conversations he feels unready for. He had thought that readiness was something he would grow into, that if he spent enough time with James, he might inculcate it, the way one develops a facility with a language while in a foreign country. Perhaps James might communicate some of that boundless confidence, that beautiful loudness, skin-to-skin. But in fact he feels, if anything, less ready to tackle these topics, more willing to engage in certain tactics of prevarication. “You are a pirate,” he says. “Do you not think it odd to lecture me about ownership?” James grins rather wolfishly. “A fair point, well taken. Though if I were still a pirate, all the men of my crew would be well remunerated.” “Do you not enjoy the work, at least a little?” “I did not encounter Virgil at a susceptible age.” “It’s not that. I suppose I like… being active.” A pause. Mentally, Thomas winces. He does not look at James, and hopes that the line of enquiry may be left to die there. But James says rather carefully, “There is other active work.”

“What,” Thomas throws out, defensive, “will you make me a pirate?” James, less carefully: “I do not think you would care for the sheer volume of spilled blood.” “I don’t know; I think I’d rather like it. There are times when I feel it would be satisfying to spill some blood.” He bites his lip hard, trying to quell the rising tide of irritation. He had made the remark at least partly in jest; he is not prepared to turn and see James’s look of muted anger. “Men who have never spilled blood,” James says, “speak of it that way.” “Well, I am such a man; please indict me.” “There is a difference between choosing not to for moral reasons and treating it as a laughing matter when one has had the luxury to—“ “The luxury?” Thomas laughs, then stares, then laughs again. He says, “I can’t decide which one is worse— if you believe I have chosen not to kill for moral reasons, or if you believe I have had the luxury to— to—“

Humiliatingly, predictably, his voice dies in this moment. His mouth works for a moment, but no words come out; nor can he derive more— for his mind is flat, blank, de-verbed, naked, a spiny creature with all of its spines removed. He cannot think beyond the sentence that he had not finished. Some vague and formless idea of a vengeance that he’d had the luxury not to choose. The sick knowledge that his silence is its own self-indictment— saying: you did, after all, have the luxury, the moral high ground; you did not do violence. He is doing it now, though. The nails of one clenched fist puncturing his skin. In a few moments the pain has reached him. He can feel a slow line of blood crawling down to his wrist. By that time, he has recovered himself enough to turn. Move to the next cut stack of cane stalks. This is what it is for, then, the work. The action that gives his mind a respite.

“Thomas. Thomas,” James says, and follows him, reaching out with a look of intense shame. Thomas says, “Please do not touch me,” though he does not withdraw. James obeys— his hand stilling in the air, like a kind of question mark, or the silent punctuation of an apology.

After a moment, Thomas moves to him, allowing the touch, answering the question. He feels, more than hears, James’s sigh of relief.

 

31.

That night. He sits at the table in his shirtsleeves. He has washed recently, and his hair is damp. He is aware of James’s presence in the room. He opts to ignore it and bends over his writing. There is comfort in the quill’s scratch, scratch, scratch, the wet gleam of the ink on the paper.

… Ogl. has every faith that Mr. To-mo-chi-chi, as the mico of the Yamacraw, will be received in England as a foreign dignitary. Toonahawi, who is a relation of To-mo-chi-chi— I do not understand the kinship— will accompany him, & I have assured Ogl. that his English is quite up to the standard of the Court of St. James’s & in fact surpasses that of many royals I have known. Ogl. not amused. Toonahawi asks about England: do men travel in ships everywhere? I believe he imagines it a nation built on water, perhaps like Venice, or Amsterdam. He asks if England is a good place. I answered—

“What are you writing?” “I keep a diary. It helps me think.” He sets the quill down and turns to see James watching him. The room feels prickly, delicate, as though carpeted with shards of glass. “What do you write about?” “Oglethorpe is going to England. He is taking one of my children with him— the children I teach.” “And what is your opinion of this?” “I have no opinion. It is a political manoeuvre. It does not involve me.” “I see.” A silence. “Thomas—“ “Please do not apologise. You know I have always respected that you say what you think.” A longer silence. James, gently: “Will you come to bed?”

Thomas goes to bed. He sits stiffly beside James, the two of them bathed in low light from the guttering candle. He is hoping that James will not notice his hand, the narrow crescent cuts that line the palm. Instead James says, his voice deliberately light, “You said you owned a book. I didn’t know.” “Only the one. Everything else they—probably auctioned, really, though I used to imagine it had all been burnt.” The same casual tone. This is how to have a conversation. Stepping lightly on the broken glass. James says, “Let me guess— Milton? Donne?” “You will laugh. It is something a sea captain gave me. But it comforted me extremely at the time. I suppose in some slight way it reminded me of you.” He sits up and gropes behind the mattress for the hidden weight of A Cruising Voyage. He will not mind it, he thinks, if James laughs; they can laugh together, his attachment to this foolish volume, and that will break the tension, and he can set it aside, and he will kiss James then, a mark of forgiveness, and James will seize him with his usual starved near-reverence, and no words at all will need to be said.

But James does not laugh. He stares at the book with a drawn look of sudden revulsion. “This is your prized possession?” “I warned you it was hardly Milton or Donne—“ “This man is— do you know who this man is?” “Some sailor or another; I hardly noticed.” “You hardly noticed.” A hard-edged, almost mocking sound. Ugly and difficult to hear. “And he reminded you of me.” In an abrupt and uncontrolled, almost animal gesture, James hurls the book at the wall.

Thomas breathes. For a moment, there is physical reaction: his heart racing, his hands and feet going cold, his whole body’s instinct to go very still. At the same time, the old chilling panic: don’t take it away, don’t, no, please, please, don’t take it away! He fumbles his way out of the bed, clumsy, almost panting, desperate to retrieve the book, hugging it close to his chest as soon as he has it. “How could you,” he says. “How could you, how dare you—“

“That man slaughtered hundreds of men who relied on me to lead them! Threatened those I held closest; put those I called allies to a death you cannot imagine—“ “—Stop.” “—Have you ever seen a man keelhauled, Thomas?” “You know that I haven’t.”  "Do you know what a man looks like when he has been reduced to a sack of ragged meat—“ “—Stop—“ “—what you would be hard-pressed to even call flesh?” “—Please stop.” “He sent men with guns in boats to pick off the dying after he set fire to my ship—“ “Please—” “He set the Spanish loose on my island, and they murdered Eleanor in my own house, little Eleanor Guthrie, in Miranda’s house—“

Thomas slams the door behind him as he leaves. He is barefoot and dressed only in breeches and shirtsleeves, but it is early in September and the ground outside is warm. It is starting to rain, just a little— the air is clean and wet-smelling, and he drags great gulps of it into his lungs. He is still crushing the book to him, as though by doing so he can force it into his ribcage, someplace where no one can touch it, where it will be safe. But all at once there are too many words, too many words inside him. Little Eleanor Guthrie. A tiny thing. A sack of ragged meat. He is picturing— It was Peter. I put a sword in his belly. Little Eleanor Guthrie, in— She was also small. Like a jewelled ornament, until she opened her mouth, and produced the most astonishing statements, a wit like a boning knife. “Well, one of us has to be witty; you’re far too serious.” “I am reliably assured that I am very witty.” “Was it someone in Parliament who told you this?” God— God— “I shall never love another woman as I love you.“ “I believe they call that damning with faint praise.“ “I’m quite serious!“ “Oh, my dear—“ and he drops to his knees somewhere at the edge of a cornfield, shivering in the dark, and claws at the dirt with both hands, heaving up clods of earth and stones, scrabbling at tangles of worm-white roots, a nail splitting as he hits at a hard stone, he had lost a nail before, it had not affected him much, hours and hours and hours of scratching vacantly at the locked door, no particular reason, only so he would not think, so he will not think about her down here in the dull soggy soil, no bright colours, no Buxtehude, no theories of Greco-Roman art, only these endless damp black stifling fistfuls, and there has to be something, something, something more, something beyond a sack of ragged meat, he cannot believe that they are made for this, and a low ferocious choked-off short sound escapes him as he hurls the book into the ground, and he shovels the dirt over it, packing it down as the rain falls, pounding with the flats of his hands, until all the joints of his arms hurt and his shoulders are shaking, as though he is weeping, though he cannot even bring himself to weep at all.

 

32.

He does not speak to James for three days. They cannot avoid one another; they work side by side in the fields, and they sleep in the same house, though Thomas sits at the table writing till James is asleep and then curls up with a blanket on the floor. James does not respect the same silence. He had apologised at once when Thomas returned to the house— “I cannot justify myself. There is no excuse; I— Thomas, you’re soaked through. What have you done to your hands?” The next morning: “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Please— please let me—“ He had tried to touch Thomas’s hands, wincing at the broken nails, the badly scraped palms, and when Thomas pulls away, he looks like he’s been slapped. In the evening: “I know that the only question is whether you see fit to grant me your forgiveness. But will you not even speak to me?” A bleakness in his eyes that resembles despair. The second day: “What the fuck am I supposed to do, then? Tell me what it is you want me to say!” On the third day, they are out in the field, under a gathering storm, when, without looking up from sap-stained stalks, he starts to speak in a low, even, almost inaudible voice. “A week before I arrived here, there was still so much hope— there was still, on the horizon, the vision of a new world— a new world beyond even the one that you dreamed of, a nation of men and women who renounced bondage, who turned their backs on all that is vile and corrupt, who reached out for something better. And to see it all end in such base machinations, when so much suffering had purchased it… I thought I could leave it behind: the violence, the rage, the losses. But I cannot. I cannot.” Then he does look at Thomas. His expression is as bare as a pane of glass, as fragile as china. That night he leaves the house for some hours and comes back clumsy and reeking of liquor, with no comment as to where he had gotten the spirits from. “Please take the bed,” he says thickly. “Please.”

On the fourth day, Thomas falls ill.

 

33.

He recognises the strange aspect that the world takes on: the way the air seems to pulsate, liquid, overbright, and thin, as though filtered through a layer of water. He is cold, so cold, and sweating through his cleanest shirt. His headache bleeds into his bones. He cannot seem to grasp the cane stalks. They slip through his shaking fingers. It takes him three, four, five tries to seize a leaf, and then he cannot remember what to do with it. He longs for the late afternoon to turn into nightfall so that he can subside to the ground and sleep; what could be more appealing than sleeping here, on the warm ground, in the rustling, flickering shade of the cane? Strange how the clouds in America are so enormous, drifting high overhead with their cargo of rain, as though commensurate in size to the vast continent. Everything larger and wilder. He is frightened of it sometimes. So many things he is frightened of, now. There used to be none. He has learned fear, fear that cannot forget, στάζει δ᾽ ἔν θ᾽ ὕπνῳ πρὸ καρδίας, so men against their will— what? He can’t remember. “Thomas, what’s wrong?” “It’s only a fever.” A rough hand pressed to his damp forehead. He jerks away. “Jesus Christ, you’re boiling hot.” “It’s nothing… it will pass.” Distant voices. James shouting. James has become so violent. It is beautiful to witness, that stroke of darkness. A lion not entirely on its leash. No one does anything to James that he does not want.

He pushes his icy face against James’s neck, making a low sound. They are walking, or rather James is half-carrying him. The house. The bed. Someone brings water. He does not want water. “Please drink a little. Please.” But the first sip tastes like laudanum, and he spits it out. “I know what you are doing! I won’t let you drug me again!” “No one is trying to drug you.” The same cup of water, nudging insistently at his lips. “Please don’t make me drink it. I’ll do what you want, you don’t have to.” But he thinks wildly that if they want him to drink it, they will have to hold him down. Even then he will fight. He did not fight when they hauled him from Bethlem, dirty and stubble-headed and heavy with chains, and they said, We are taking you away from this place, but you must be very good, now, do you hear? and he had taken the laudanum and woken up in Leicestershire, in a new cell, and after that he had thought, I will not let anyone drug me, but he had let them do it again and again and again.

Night comes and makes him less lucid. He remembers that he was ill before, and he knows that he is ill now, and that it is affecting his mind. But he dwells in a place beyond reason. Someone keeps trying to touch him, and he cannot bear it, and he struggles weakly to get out of the bed, and a hand catches his shoulder, steering him backwards. “Don’t hold me down— don’t!— please—“ His legs tangled in the damp sheets as he tries to work loose. “Hush. Easy. Easy.” “James is going to come for me, and you will regret your actions!” “Thomas, it’s me, it’s James.” “You are not James!” The hand retreats for a moment. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I know I’m not.”

For a long time, while he suffers through waves of chills, someone tells him fantastical stories about a ship called the Walrus— how they sailed into a storm; how they drifted, becalmed, through the vast waste of the Sargasso Sea; how they were tossed upon the shore of a jungle island, home to a secret city of runaway slaves. How the king of the city was dying, and his bold daughter pledged to join the pirates; how she fell in love with a handsome one-legged pirate king, and together they fought a war to free all those who labour in oppression. How they were kind to their friends and merciless to their enemies, how they refused to make peace with the British Empire, for they would not betray all those who— “Fuck,” the storyteller says, and there is a long silence, and he begins a different story. About a Spaniard named Vasquez, and a lumbering treasure galleon, and an emperor’s ransom of gold spilled out onto the sand, and the foolish antics of all the pirates who tried to claim it. The gold becomes jewels; the jewels are hidden in caves: all those black pearls and rubies, gleaming underground, lost in the Indies’s wet green depths. The story is hard to follow, but the voice is steady and soothing. Familiar, somehow: fond and weary.

Around dawn, delirium returns, and there is a brief period when he is seized by an extraordinary, visceral, bodily grief, one that seems to come out of the very marrows of his bones. He lies there, still shaking with chills, his breath in-and-out, in-and-out in dry sobs. His fists clenching, relaxing, clenching. “Thomas, what is it?” “They—“ Hard to speak. “—They took something from me.” “Who took something?” “You mustn’t tell James.” “All right, I won’t. I promise.” “He mustn’t know.” “Why mustn’t he know?” “Because I did not fight for it!” All those savage animals suffocating, locked in their box, howling inside of him, clawing the lid! He squeezes his eyes shut, sickened. He sets his teeth against his lip, at the exact site of that small scar, the so-familiar motion, I will not— I will not— He had covered his ears to block out the sound of the screaming, he had curled himself into a corner and rocked back and forth, he had smiled so sweetly I’m sure we can come to a civil agreement I’m much obliged to you I prefer the Gazette, he had tested the button’s edge against his tip of his finger, the blood had come up so easy— “God. There was nothing you could have done. How could you think I would judge you?” “You mustn’t tell James,” he insists again— and then the pain in his head becomes very bad, and all goes mercifully blank.

 

34.

He is aware that people come and go from the room, that they hold rapid conversations he cannot interpret, and sometimes he thinks the people are real. Dr. Nunez is one of them; he looms over the bed and says, not unkindly, “Que alboroto! Que jaleador!” and then there is more liquid, foul-smelling liquid in a tin cup, and someone says, “He doesn’t like—“ “It does not signify; he must be made to drink.” But he resists at first, and chokes, and— “What the fuck are you doing, I said—“ “He requires this medicine, if I do not—” “Thomas— Thomas, please just drink it—“ —and after he swallows he feels very shaky and light-headed. His face is oddly hot, and he rubs his cheek restlessly against the bolster, and someone takes his hand and holds it far too hard, and he sleeps; he thinks he sleeps, here and there.

It is the rain that wakes him, soft on the fronded roof. A grey-green light, typical of autumn storms, is glowing at the window. He feels out of tune, like an instrument exposed to an unexpected climate. Muscles aching, exhausted— he remembers that he has been ill, but it comes to him vaguely, as though a century or more has passed.

James is asleep in a chair by the bed, looking haggard. At the table, on the far side of the room, Nunez is studying a half-played game of chess. He senses movement and looks up, his dark face wry. “Hush,” he says, bringing a finger to his lips. “We do not wish to wake your friend. He informs me he is a very dread pirate captain, and will fucking murder me in a least pleasant fashion if I so much as look at you askance.” “… James?” “He did not introduce himself. But he says, do I know who the fuck he is; and also, have I a fucking idea how he has made his enemies suffer. I told him, yes, yes, I’m sure he is quite evil and wicked.” Thomas breathes out a half-laugh. “I apologise for him.” Nunez waves a hand. “Please. I distracted him, and he has been sleeping now for some hours.” Thomas forces himself to his elbows, out-of-breath with the effort. “How long have I been…?” “Two days. This is not so bad as before; it is a relapse, the ghost of a fever.” “A ghost,” Thomas echoes. 

Nunez brings the chessboard to the bed, and they play a slow, wandering, half-hearted game, free of their usual acerbic banter. Thomas drifts off sometimes between moves, but he is awake when James first stirs, and sees him flinch hard into a state of full sharpness. He looks at Thomas with a wide, alarmed, unbelieving stare. “Hello,” Thomas says. James doesn’t speak. He lets out a long exhalation and covers his face with his hands. “Fuck,” he says at last. “You fucking scared me.” “I don’t think Dr. Nunez appreciates that kind of language,” Thomas says. He wants James to touch him, and he wonders if Nunez will read the gesture and be disgusted, but he is too tired to cater to others’ sense of shame. He reaches out and gestures weakly till James lays a hand on his forehead. It is cool and heavy and so so peaceful. He cannot imagine anything as safe.

Perhaps he drowses a little, for then Nunez is clearing his throat and packing up the chess pieces. He does not seem discomfited by the ongoing intimacy of their touch. In fact: “I am leaving medicine with you,” he says to James, with a mock-severe look. “It must be boiled and mixed with wine; you have wine? No? —This heathen establishment! So; I will leave you some. He—“ pointing to Thomas— “is quite familiar with the dosage. Let us not dance this dance a third time, yes?” “Yes,” Thomas says. Nunez says, “Good. I will return on Sunday. You will not exert yourself till then. He will not exert himself till then?” —This last, again, directed at James. With alarming intensity, James says, “No.”

The door shuts, and they are alone.

Silence. For a long time, silence. Thomas says at last, “I would like some water, please.” James goes to fetch it; returns and helps him steady the cup. It is cold, sweet, tasting of nothing but water. “When you were—“ James starts. “—You wouldn’t drink anything we gave you, you seemed to think—“ “I don’t remember.” Putting a final tone in the phrase. Please, let’s not discuss it further. He searches for some alternative topic: “I remember you telling me stories. Something about a vast Spanish treasure?” “The Urca gold.” “Yes. You held my hand.” James looks away; studies the wall; balances the cup between his palms. He says, “You wouldn’t let me touch you for a long time. You were frightened.” “I was not in my right mind. Such as it is.” —Then the full weight of James’s gaze on him. He wonders which of them, in that moment, appears the wearier. Which of them has the right to be. He lowers his eyes. “It can be,” he allows, “—difficult, sometimes.”

Abruptly James stands, knocking the chair to one side. It is astonishing to see a body so close-packed with rage, as though his very muscles are woven from its fibres. In a low and vehement voice, he says, “I would hunt down every man in England who has ever hurt you, who has ever made you fearful, and when I had found them, I would tear out their beating hearts with my own hands. I cut Lord Ashbourne’s throat, left Peter bleeding out his guts in the smoking ruins of his city, and I would have done more, I should have done more.” A pause. He looks down. “I know it is— repellent to you, that it is unadmirable, that it is nothing you could ever desire, that I have strayed so far into the dark from where we started our journey that it is… hard, perhaps impossible, for you to recognise me. But I cannot deny that there is, in me, such a violence. I cannot—“

“James,” Thomas says, and— “James,” he says, and touches James’s wrist: the lightest touch. He guides James to sit beside him on the narrow bed; lays his head in James’s lap, and feels, after a moment’s hesitation, those cool fingers carefully stroking his hair. It settles him, so that he can speak when he has to, when he has tried to hold together some of the prone-to-deliquescing words.

“I,” he says at length. “When I was— There was a girl. Not in— this was— later. In a room somewhere nearby. She used to scream. For hours, sometimes; sometimes all day and all night, just— screaming. And I was jealous of her; I was so jealous. I think— if I could have just screamed, at least it would have been— at least someone would have— heard. They would have had to hear. They would have had to listen. But I never screamed. Why do you think that is? —I’m asking; I don’t know the answer. It’s a question that occurs to me at odd moments, perhaps two or three times a day. Less than it did.”

The sound of James’s breathing, as though he is still struggling to yoke his rage. “You are a good man,” he says. “A peaceful man, an enlightened man—“ “Yes, a civilised man. I suppose that was what I thought. Perhaps it was even why, at the beginning. ‘I am better than the others; I will conquer this.’” He feels calm, drowsy, lulled into an almost meditative state. “But we are not aethereal beings, doing combat in some higher realm of cognition. On some level, we are just bodies, struggling to live. I wonder if I— buried that body, somehow, interred it alive. A different sin of self-murder.” “There is nothing sinful about surviving.” “But you are the one who survived.” Thomas rolls onto his back, gazing up at James. James’s face reads rejection. Thomas says, “You are the one who screamed. You are still screaming. Sometimes I can’t stand you for it. What a disappointment I must be. Then again— sometimes I love you for it. I think that troubles you more.”

James struggles to speak for a long time. His breath is uneven. Finally he says, “There is no part of you that could ever disappoint me. It’s simply not possible. You must know— that there is no incarnation of you on this earth that I could not love.” He moves to lie close against Thomas’s body, letting one arm drape across his chest. A proprietary gesture, a kind of safekeeping: rest, you are mine to protect. “Sleep,” he says, and Thomas does.

 

35.

It storms throughout the long nights that follow, when the fever swells up and Thomas sweats and dreams, among other things, that he is underground in a cave in the Indies, someplace green and moist, sea-smelling, dark. A locked treasure chest sits on the ground at his feet. Its wood is water-logged and stinks of rot, as though it has been in that cave for a very long time. He thinks that inside is an emperor’s ransom, gold and rubies and black pearls, if he could only open it. He pries at the lid, pounds at the lock, kicks at it savagely, but there is no getting inside. At last he subsides, panting, shuddering, exhausted. Water drip-drip-drips somewhere in the shadows. The jungle outside rustles. Something in the box stirs.

 

36.

Each morning when he wakes, James is sleeping in the chair beside the bed. In sleep he looks raw, weary, bitterly wounded, a sea creature stripped of its protective shell. Thomas feels a wave of tenderness towards him more intense than his shaky body can support. It surprises him, and he does not quite know why. He tests it tentatively and with trepidation, rather like one might check one’s teeth, feeling with the tip of the tongue for a toothache. Or children when their adult teeth have first come in— this new bit of bone, an odd feeling. Only— he had always loved James. But perhaps he had thought it a fixed quantity of love he had to offer, harvested long since from a plant grown sterile. Now this ratoon love. A startling offshoot. For this new, battered, half-wild, constant man.

During the day, James mixes terrible medicinal decoctions, and brings books from Oglethorpe’s library to read to him. He reads the Holy Sonnets, and Horace’s odes in Latin; he reads from an English translation of Livy: “Mucius said, Behold me, that thou might be sensible in what small esteem they hold their bodies, those whose eyes are fixed upon glory! And he thrust his hand into the fire kindled for the sacrifice. When he continued to burn it as if he were not sensible to pain, the king was beside himself with wonder. He bounded from his seat and bade them remove the young man from the altar. Quoth he, Begone, having acted more like an enemy towards thyself than me. I would encourage thee to persevere in thy valour, if that valour stood on the side of my own country. Now I dismiss thee untouched and unhurt, and I release thee from the penalties of war.

“You’re not working,” Thomas realises at one point. How could he have failed to notice? James gives him a wry look. “Oglethorpe is in England, and his lackeys are frightened of me.” “They sailed. I had forgotten.” “It was while you were ill. The atmosphere has become somewhat relaxed. It’s strange; he doesn’t strike me as a disciplinarian.” “The men like him. They do not want to disappoint him.” “Ah,” James says, and looks away. After a moment, he says, “You know, there are times, a very few times, when he almost reminds me of…“ Thomas says very precisely, “If you say me, I am going to take that cup of foul-smelling bark and empty it on your head.” “You, at least, are not frightened of me.” —James’s tone is dry, but their eyes meet. “I have never been frightened of you,” Thomas says.

 

37.

By Monday, he is well enough at least to teach, but the Yamacraw children show up damp, sullen, and tired. It transpires that their village has been thrown into a frenzy, trying to harvest the early corn and move it upland, along with any goods that can be transported. “It is a big rain,” Fuswa says. “The river, when it rains, sometimes— very big. Once upon a time, my father sees the river—“ She gestures with both hands, indicating a height above her waist. “Mahi hachee,” Chitto agrees. “Hachee talofa hompes.” With To-mo-chi-chi gone to England, along with several other tribal leaders, the work has not been going well. The children are bored with harvesting corn and squash, and Fuswa expresses that she would quite like the river to flood, as then there would not be any more corn to pick, and all the children could go swimming. “I don’t think it’s very likely;” Thomas says, “I don’t think they would have built so close to the river if they thought that it was going to flood.” The Yamacraw had originally lived where Savannah now is, but, when Oglethorpe and his colonists arrived, had moved their settlement further upriver. Surely, he thinks, that put it on safer ground. Upriver sounds safer.

“Do you know anything about floods?” he asks James that night, as James is making a nuisance of himself, unfolding far more blankets than their bed requires. James raises an eyebrow. “I lived on an island for ten years. Well, to be more precise, most of that time I lived at sea.” “The Yamacraw think their village is going to flood. Or might flood; I’m not quite sure, but they seem to be taking it seriously, at least. Wouldn’t they be safer than Savannah?” “I don’t know enough about the land,” James says, but he’s frowning. He leaves the blankets half-folded on the bed and prowls for a moment in his restless way, thinking. “It’s late in the year for a hurricane,” he says, “but not too late. And even a smaller storm— I can’t see the river, but I imagine it’s high. And the ground is soaked.” “So you’re saying they might be in danger.” “Well. Their crops might be in danger. Their houses.” “I see,” Thomas says. Then: “Where are we in relation to the river?”

 

38.

“We should leave,” James says into the silence of the library, spreading his hand across the fine paper of the map. The rain hushes high on the roof of the house. “This is the time to leave; a flood would provide a distraction. Oglethorpe is gone; his men are fools and dreamers. If the rain continues, I think the river will certainly rise. Perhaps it reaches the gates and recedes. More likely, it kills the crops. It may rise higher— and in that case, what will you have left?”

Thomas is staring at the dark polished wood of the table, thinking abstractedly about the expression Chitto had used, Hachee talofa hompes: the river eats the town. He is imagining the muddy waters of the Savannah as a living creature, something vast and animal that sees and hurts and breathes. He is thinking of the roiling sea inside him, all that saltwater. He says, “How would you leave? Where would you go— Savannah? How would you explain where you had come from?” “I would go to the Yamacraw, and I would borrow horses. I would ride to Carolina. Catch a ship there.” “The Yamacraw’s mico is on his way to England with Oglethorpe to ratify a treaty with the king.” “I cannot believe they would betray you.” “Ah. So you would not do this; I would do this. And I would ride to Carolina, in spite of being, as you continue to insist, too ill to work in the garden or make my own tea.” “You think I would let any harm come to you?” “No. I think…” Thomas sighs. He says, “I think we find our homes in the strangest of places. And that we cannot carry them on our backs.”

James’s jaw works. He stares down at the map, the tracery of the coastline, just barely beginning to grow black with words; the wide expanse of the sea beyond it. “So you will not go?” Thomas stands and moves without particular purpose towards a bookshelf. He begins to understand something of how James feels, his need to simply exert himself in a room. Perhaps he has always understood, but in James it looks different: a powerful animal owning a dominion, rather than an anxious insistence that he is real, he is there. He remembers calling out for James in the midst of his fever. It had not only been for comfort, he thinks; he had wanted someone to say his name, someone who knew its meaning, someone whose very presence would tell him who he was— in those moments when he ceased to know himself, lost in the bedlam that had been made of him.

“You misunderstand me,” he says at length. “I will go. If that is what you want— and I know that is what you want— I will go. But—“ he says, quelling James’s evident pleasure, “I have no money, no possessions, no trade; my mind is—“ He makes a gesture, like leaves flying away. “There is nothing wrong with your mind,” James says fiercely. Thomas shuts his eyes briefly. “I think you know that is not true.” “You think I am undamaged by all that has passed?” “I know that you’re not. So how will we survive? What will we do?”

James crosses the room to him, takes his face in his hands. His fingers are rough; the touch is ferocious with affection. Thomas lets himself lean into it. Their foreheads touch. As though they might read each others’ thoughts through the skin-to-skin contact, read each others’ hearts. “There is a life outside these walls,” James says. 

 

38.

That night in bed, James says, “I will take you to the Indies. You’ve never been to the Indies.” “No.” “Green islands where anything you can dream of grows. Coves fills with fish of every colour, some with fins like feathers. I’ve seen you sketching birds and beetles; there are those too. You would never exhaust them. There are so many wonders, so many islands… some that are still not found on any map. On one of those islands is a ransom in jewels, and I am the only one who knows where it is. With it, we could go where we like, live as we choose.” He talks of Libertalia, another pirate kingdom: an island off the coast of Africa, where men go to live as they like amongst the dense wet forests, or on the choppy oceans. There are whales there, thick in the water, and strange animals on land— giant birds, and cats with enormous eyes. James has known men who lived in Libertalia, and they say the day is punctuated by the Arab call to prayer, that men sell great heaps of spices out in the street, so that you can smell them everywhere you go, and that there is so much gold coin on the island that a man can make or lose a fortune gambling in a single day. They do not have to travel so far as Libertalia; there are places in the Mediterranean that would serve as well— North African haunts of thieves and privateers where it is odder to be respectable than not. Some of these cities harbour Roman ruins, and that would interest Thomas, surely— a temple to Apollo, the last crescent of an amphitheatre, ancient coins that you can pull out of the sand. Even in America, there are places they could turn to, but perhaps it would suit them to look farther away, someplace fresh with opportunity, new to them both…

Thomas falls asleep with his head on James’s shoulder, and dreams of Roman temples, overgrown with laurel on sea-facing cliffsides. He wanders through the painted rooms, murals cracked and peeling. When he presses his ear close to the walls, he can hear voices whispering poetry. The noise of it makes him immensely sad. He does not know if it is the poems themselves, which he cannot remember on waking, or the fact that the voices are dead, or if it is something about the very small rooms, something that he doesn’t like. His feet grow cold, and he sees that the temple is flooding. The sea has risen up.

He wakes to find an inch of water covering the floor.

 

39.

James says, “Gather anything you wish to take with you. Your clothes, your writing. Your medicine. Tie it up in a spare shirt.” Outside, the wind has risen to a very high pitch. It rattles against the buildings and shakes the roofs. Thomas obeys him. It does not take long; he owns so little. He wishes the wind were not loud. It fills him with a vague anxiety. Several times James must repeat something he has said. “Where are you?” he asks Thomas at one point, and Thomas cannot tell him. He is in Bedlam; he is in a carriage on the road to Leicestershire; he is here in the flooding room; he is in a ship; he is somewhere far within the skin of his body. He is, as ever, all places at the same time.“I wish that I had told the children,” he says. “They will not understand. I would leave a note for them, but they cannot read.” James looks at him closely for a moment. His expression is hard to interpret.

They leave the house. The air is dark. The rain is sheeting. Guards are shouting at each other near the gate, wading through the shallow floodtide. A few labourers mill around the mess hall. The rest are unseen, but no field work is being done; there is no one to oversee it, even had it been possible in the storm. It’s unclear who is immediately in charge; in Oglethorpe’s absence, it is supposed to be his secretary, Mr. Hallam, but Thomas does not see him, and suspects that he might have already fled to Savannah. James says, “They might as well leave the fucking gates open. Jesus Christ. We won’t be the only ones to escape.” Thomas says, “They will open the gates if the water gets too high. They would not leave us here to drown.” “Do you think?” James says. His eyes are alert, scanning the yard. Another rush of water slams into the fence, pouring through the wood. It is muddy-green and brackish, carrying leaves and branches. It laps over Thomas’s feet, soaking into his stockings. He shivers. James seems not to notice the water.

One of the guards, Attwood, a man Thomas knows, jogs over to them through the heavy rain. His hat is shielding his eyes, but only barely. He keeps having to ward off streams of water. “Mr. Hamilton,” he says. “—Sir. Are you well, sir? I know you have been ill.” “I’m well,” Thomas says, puzzled by this opening. “Only,” Attwood says, “the situation is very bad. We have already lost half our grain stores. Men are trying to move the rest to Mr. Oglethorpe’s house, with the cotton seed and the powder, but it is difficult in all this wind. We fear that the houses may come down if the storm gets much stronger.” “I see,” Thomas says. “The river is running high between here and Savannah,” says Attwood. “We thought perhaps you could send word to the Indians— asking for their help, like. It is only a few miles upriver. Do you think the Indians would help us? They would help us, would they not?”

Thomas draws breath to reply, but James says, “They would. But Mr. Hamilton is not entirely recovered, and I would have to ride with him, to ensure he doesn’t fall ill.” Attwood, who is young and perhaps a little credulous, accepts this notion. Indeed, he looks concerned. “I know it is irregular,” he says, “and I do not like to ask it of you, and Mr. Oglethorpe would certainly not approve, but you are the only man here who speaks their tongue. And if we lose our provisioning for the winter…” Which is the best outcome, Thomas thinks. If they lose not only their winter provisions, but their crops, their seeds, their powder, their food… Savannah will not be able to resupply them. They will have to wait for ships from Boston, maybe from England, and the cost of it all will be catastrophic. “We will go,” he says aloud. “You have a horse ready?” He can feel James’s eyes on him.

 

40.

The two of them ride out, veering south of the river to stay, as much as possible, on higher ground. The rain pours down on them, and the wind howls, making speaking difficult. So it is a little while before James shouts at Thomas over his shoulder, “I assume we’re delivering the message and getting the hell out of here? Away from this prison colony and this goddamn flood?” “We’re going back!” Thomas shouts in response. “Why?” James shouts. “Because they need our help!” “Bullshit! Two men won’t make any difference!” Thomas ignores him and concentrates on riding through the storm. He feels intensely queasy, and has done since leaving the plantation. Perhaps it is his soaked clothes, the onslaught of water. Perhaps it is the unfamiliar landscape, he thinks— such a lot of land around him, all of it unconfined and strange. It has been so many years since he travelled somewhere of his own volition. It is like breaking a rule that he had not known he’d been taught to obey. He takes a hand off the reins to clutch at James’s fingers: a small point of contact, solid and real.

“Are you all right?” James says, close to his ear. “I’m fine,” Thomas says. James asks, “You’re not ill?” “No. But I’m not going to argue with you about this. Who’s going to translate for the Yamacraw? The children? Who’s going to take charge of the work, to captain it? Not Attwood. Not Hallam. They haven’t got what it takes.” James is silent for a moment. Then he says, “Are you suggesting I take charge of the men whose job it is to keep me prisoner?” “It certainly sounds like something Captain Flint would do,” Thomas says, “—from what you’ve told me.” James laughs under his breath. It’s not a humourous sound; there is something else behind it. “From what I’ve told you,” he says.

The broad flooded swathe of the river bends before them, punctuated oddly by the tops of trees. Thomas guides the horse farther south. But they are still in a half-foot of water, picking their way over unseen debris. “You know,” James says, sudden and ferocious, “that none of them would do the same for you. The men back there. If they were in the same position, they’d leave you. They would choose their own skin above you every time. You think they care about community, about principles, about Oglethorpe’s goals? You say they wouldn’t leave you to drown, but they would. You care about them; you care about their survival. You’re willing to sacrifice your freedom. But they would fuck you in a second, just like that.” —And he pulls his hand free, and snaps his fingers right next to Thomas’s ear: a cutting sound, and ruthless.

Thomas’s stomach turns. “You’re wrong,” he says. James says, “You think so? They will always turn on you. When it suits them, they will turn on you. They will turn on your children— maybe not today, maybe not in ten years, but when they decide that there is no more value to be gotten out of them, they will turn.” “Stop it,” Thomas shouts. “Stop it!” He fights a childish impulse to put his hands over his ears. He says, “This is not you speaking. You told me you fought a war in the hope that men could be something better.” “I lost,” James says— “I lost. I lost the war.” There is in his voice something savage and anguished; bare-teethed, like a trapped wolf. Thomas says, “That does not mean that it was not worth fighting! It does not mean an end to that hope— that trust—“

“—Let me tell you a story,” James says brutally, “—about a man I trusted. A man I knew, a man I... I killed men for him. For no other reason than that they might do him harm. I murdered a man who would have laid down his life for me. I watched him die; He was so... bewildered. Not even betrayed, just confused. That I would do such a thing. And I did it as though by instinct. For this man who was closer to me than any other living creature, so close that at times, it was as though we shared one mind, one flesh, so that what pained him was painful to me, and he in turn had to suffer through my torments. Yet at the last, when he was forced to measure his own happiness against the balance of a larger goal, he was willing to give up anything to secure that happiness. Our work. Others’ wants. My wishes. My life. He stood there, and he pointed a loaded pistol at me. This man to whom I had given everything. Everything that I had in me to give to him. ”

The rain, falling, is quieter now. The wind, in this moment, is curiously calm.

James is breathing in pants that are terrible to hear. Like a wounded animal. Thomas can feel his pulse where their bodies are pushed together, the pulse of a man pushed past endurance. Thomas is trembling a little, from the rain, from an unbearable tension, from a storm-surge of emotion he can’t begin to parse or understand.

“I’m sorry,” he says, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, James. I’m sorry that you and I have been betrayed. By men who were supposed to be loyal to us, by men who were supposed to love us, by our country, by our institutions, by our friends, by everyone who stood by and did nothing while we were made to suffer. Everyone who did worse than nothing. They have taken so much from us, and we can never get it back.”

Never. It lances him, a sudden and penetrating grief for the lives they might have one day lived, for the future they might have gone on to share, for that other James and Thomas, extinguished forever. The Thomas who was whole, who was impish and charming, bright and perhaps a little bit spoilt; for the James who was shy, soft, gentle and wide-eyed. God, he thinks. Where do they go, these ghosts of ghosts, these men we might have been but were never quite? Sometimes they seem less like lost chances than stillborn children. It is hard for him to keep speaking. He has to swallow hard. He feels as though he is swallowing back that sea within him, the rising and rising and rising sea.

“They have taken so much,” he says, “so much that I sometimes feel I am— some anatomised creature instead of a man, and I did not fight it, and now, now I must fight. I refuse to give them any more of me. I will fight for what I have left— the belief that there is still, in us, something worthy of devotion. Something that is worthy of surviving. I have to believe that. I think you must believe it too, or you would not hurt so very badly. You would not find it impossible to understand how someone so worthy of devotion could cause you so much pain.” He takes a breath. “And if you cannot fight for that belief in this moment, then I will fight for it on your behalf.”

“I don’t want you to,” James shouts, and Thomas says, “I know. I know you don’t."

He does not think that James would ever, ever strike him. But he feels him grip his shoulders very hard, so hard that it hurts, fingers digging into muscle.

James says hoarsely, “I don’t want you to. I don’t want you to have to do that.” He does not loosen his grip, but he pushes his face against Thomas’s shoulder and it takes Thomas a little while to understand that James is weeping, his tears hot through the wet cloth of Thomas’s shirt. He covers one of James’s hands with his own. “I’m sorry,” he says again. “James, I’m so sorry.” And they ride for a long time just like that.

 

41.

Most of the Yamacraw have left their village for higher ground, but a few men of the tribe remain: sitting on the thatched roofs of the flooded settlement, smoking pipes and  telling loud jokes to each other. They are astonished when Thomas and James appear; more astonished when Thomas says, “Chehopuetake kerris; emahayat omis. Amanicheras. Please—“ Then he is so tired, so cold, and so wet that he cannot find the words, and he uses Chitto’s childish expression: “Hachee cha talofa hompes.” The men point them towards a slope of higher ground where Thomas can see the smoke from cooking fires rising. One of them calls, laughing, after him as he and James ride away: “Akerrichekoras, hachee yekche-yekche hompekos!

The water recedes as they ride away from the river; by the time they reach the top of the slope, the ground is free of flood. Thomas and James are somewhat less free of it, being so bedraggled that Fuswa, who encounters them first, does not recognise them. Then, when she raises a joyful shout, the other children swarm over, and it is very hard for Thomas to speak to anyone else. He gazes around the cheerful, busy encampment— the makeshift palm-frond and deerskin shelters, an incongruous canvas tent, dogs barking and splashing about through the rainfall. “Rakkot ocheskes!” Chitto tells him seriously, tugging at his sleeve and sounding very impressed. He repeats his observation to the other children, and their attention gradually shifts from Thomas to the horse. Eventually, Thomas is able to dismount and communicate his message.

A group of Yamacraw men saddle their horses to ride to the plantation. Someone— Chitto’s mother, he thinks— hands Thomas a woollen blanket. At first he can only stare at it stupidly. Then he unfolds it and drapes it around James’s shoulders. James, standing beside him, submissively accepts the attention. He has not spoken more than one or two words since he straightened on the horse, just outside the village, and cleared his throat as though to assure himself that he would not weep anymore.

Another blanket is procured for Thomas, a heavy red patterned item. “Mato,” he says. “Mato, mato.” He scrubs his hair and beard with the blanket, then wraps it around himself. He is surprised by how comforting the weight of it is. It is warm, even though the rain is picking up and the wool all-too-quickly grows wet. He leads James back to the horse, over the protests of the children, who wish them to stay. Opamico has brought his very damp dog to show off, which does indeed have a scraggly white beard, as promised. He points to it, and than at Thomas, and laughs. “I have to go,” Thomas says. “Enkapakis; ani chameroses. I promise that I’ll see you soon.”

He and James ride towards the broad brown plain of the river. From this high up, Thomas can see the spread of the flood. It does look as though it is eating the land, sucking greedily at the forests, devouring the shallow river islands with their sparse copses of trees. He cannot quite believe that the water could recede again, that the river could ever go back within its banks. How could so much water simply vanish? It seems more natural for it to appear, as though it had always been waiting in some underground chamber. But for it to dissolve into thin air? It will come back as rain, of course, if Halley is right; perhaps it will even be floodwaters, someday, again. But it will not continue like this, in its current form. Not forever. Nothing is truly consumed.

 

42.

They reach the plantation under a new wave of roiling clouds, rolls of thunder darkening the air, and dismount to find the water a foot or more deep. Men are carrying grain sacks and crates into Oglethorpe’s house, shouting over the noise of the downpour— labourers and guards working together. Attwood comes splashing up when he spies their return, and when he sees the party of Yamacraw riding behind them, his face perceptibly glows with relief. He takes off his hat and bows, as though he is greeting a group of foreign dignitaries; there is something very absurd about it. Thomas laughs without quite meaning to. He feels rather lightheaded. He translates what Attwood is saying into Creek— the location of the seed corn, how to handle the boxes of powder (he does not know the word for powder, but he mimes a gun), how they are storing what they can save of the dried beef and venison. One of the Yamacraw men rattles off a string of suggestions, gesticulating: the plantation’s livestock must be moved to higher ground, perhaps in wagons, unless there is room for them in the house; he offers the slope that the tribe is camped on. It’s clear that Attwood doesn’t know how to respond to this; flustered, he says, “But who will drive the wagons? I cannot let men leave willy-nilly. All of our livestock? How can we be sure we will get it back?”

James, until now silent, steps forward and says, “Tell them that would be much appreciated. We will divide men into work crews— those who are strongest will work here; those who are more skillful riders will take the livestock to the camp. The water is high, and they’ll need to be careful with the horses.” Attwood stares at him, but doesn’t say anything. It is something about James’s tone— a note of command that admits no questions— and something, perhaps, about his stance: arms carelessly crossed, weight braced, powerful shoulders thrust wide. It is the posture of a man who is heavily armed, though James isn’t. Thomas looks at him. James raises an eyebrow back: a challenge— You put me in this role, he seems to say. Now I am going to perform it.

He continues performing it as he divides the men into crews, as he issues orders on how to deal with the provisions, as he inspects the crates to determine what is worth saving and what is not, and as he does so, something changes about his performance. The artifice in it slides away. He has, Thomas realises, almost certainly done something like this in the past. That had not occurred to him; he had thought of James only as an officer. He had never considered the tasks involved in leading men, the unromantic, grinding work that James had left out of his stories. Unromantic— but the sight of James striding about, barking commands, heaving a sack over his shoulder himself, without any evidence of discomfort, all as the rain continues to fall, stirs something in Thomas. It is the most, he thinks, that James has looked like the lieutenant Thomas used to know. Easy and comfortable in his own skin, unconscious of sorrow, at least for now. Thomas forgets all about the work of translation; he just stand and stares as though mesmerised. The wet clothes clinging close to James’s body, his half-buttoned shirt, his powerful thighs, his fierce look, his sharp motions of approval and impatience. One could get drunk on such a sight. In fact, Thomas feels rather drunk. He leans back against the wall of a building, unsteady on his feet. The blurry world begins to spin, growing alarmingly bright at the edges. His vision is filled with dazzling shafts of sun. Someone says something, but it does not seem to be in English or Creek, and it is coming from very far away. He says vaguely, “Chenkerrepeks,” squinting to try to determine who is speaking, but before he can manage to see clearly enough—

 

43.

He wakes to find a goat standing over him. The goat eyes him consideringly, chewing its cud, before it emits a disappointed grunt and wanders off, its hooves clip-clopping on the wood floor. Thomas stares up at a ceiling with crown moulding around the edges. Weak sunlight is making its way in from somewhere nearby. There is a profound and unpleasant smell of mildew. His joints ache and he is naked, wrapped in a quilt. He is not sure how to make sense of these unusual facts. He turns, wincing a little, and finds James sleeping beside him. James is also naked beneath a deerskin blanket, and they are both lying on the floor. Thomas considers James’s face: very peaceful. He looks softer with his short, almost tufted hair. He seems to sense unconsciously that Thomas has stirred and, without waking, reaches for him. Thomas smiles and takes his hand, drawing it to his waist. James sighs in his sleep.

They are in Oglethorpe’s house, Thomas thinks. They must be. Looking around, he sees that furniture has been pushed to one side of the room: a table and several decorative chairs. The door is cracked open, presumably from the goat’s exit, revealing a sliver of hallway. An upstairs parlour, maybe. Stacks of wooden crates are balanced against one wall. Thomas remembers the flood and winces. He supposes he must have passed out. The events of the previous day are somewhat unclear to him. He assumes the storm has passed, and everything has been saved or not. It all seems very far away from this white room, and he dozes a little, in and out of slumber, until James rolls half on top of him and says blearily, “Hello.”

“Hello,” Thomas says— “You smell like pondweed. What happened?” “You wilted. Like a hothouse flower,” James says. Thomas frowns at him. James says, “Like an exceptionally hardy hothouse flower. That doctor of yours is going to have words.” “I’m going to tell him it was your fault,” Thomas informs him. James groans against him. 

For a while, the two of them lie there, Thomas stroking absent fingers through the soft hair at James's nape, thinking of nothing in particular. Pale sunlight floats against the painted walls.

At length James says, “I think you should come to the Indies with me.” He is being purposefully distracting, kissing Thomas’s neck in an aimless, sleepy fashion.

Thomas sighs— eyes the ceiling with weariness— but just before he is about to make a careful reply, James says, “But if you will not, I offer another option. These men are being wasted here. They are intelligent— educated, some of them— and capable of hard work. But Oglethorpe does not know how to manage them.” “And you propose a better strategy.” “I propose giving them a share in the profits, a say in how they live, a choice in the crops they farm. “You want to run the plantation like a pirate ship.” “I want the plantation to run itself. I have no interest in taking charge.” “Mm. But you do it so beautifully,” Thomas says, thinking of James standing ferociously in the midst of the storm, and then the conversation ceases for quite a long time, and they have to kick the door closed.

Later, James goes to fetch their stiff and wrinkled but mostly-dried clothes, and as they dress, he says, “There will have to be changes, at any rate. All the crops not yet harvested have been lost, and many of the stores for winter as well. The seed and livestock we mostly saved.” Thomas says, “—I met an inquisitive goat earlier.” “Yes, some of the stragglers we housed in here. But consider it— what better time to implement new tactics? The men have been working alongside those who are supposed to be their captors, and Attwood at least, I think, is amenable to partnership. If Oglethorpe arrives in a few months and all is in place, then ask yourself: would he really protest?” “No,” Thomas says, thinking, “—not unless it offends his principles.” “Well, then— so we have rules. We’ll draw up articles.”

“You are absolutely incorrigible,” Thomas says, lifting his eyes heavenwards. Then, more seriously— “I know that this is not what you want.” James lowers his eyes. He says, “If Oglethorpe rejects this proposal—“ “I know you do not wish to live in a prison.” “So you will—“ “I have told you,” Thomas says— “Whither thou goest, I will go; where thou lodgest, I will lodge; even, I suppose, if it means my people will be pirates.”

Very gently, James takes his wrists and does up the small sleeve buttons. Their hands find each other and stay clasped for a long time. “Thank you,” James says. “—For fighting for me.” “I think we must fight for each other,” Thomas says.

 

44.

From an upper window, he can look out at the flooded plantation. The borders between fields and footpaths have been erased; there is no road, no pasture, only the wide, muddy, finally satiated river. Large sections of the fence look to have been demolished. Corn waves dreamily, half-underwater, like an acre of sea-kelp; far-off, the last rows of sugarcane look as small as marsh reeds. The large trunk of a willow tree loll, rocked back and forth by the water, against the supports of the porch below. Everything feels upside-down, the wrong size, turned topsy-turvy. It is hard to believe that the world beyond might not have been thus altered, that in Carolina, business goes on as usual— merchants selling their goods, farmers reaping the harvest, mothers tending their children, fathers behaving however it is that fathers behave, so often in defiance of the love that batters down their doors. Oh the unremitting constancy of it all, in the face of disaster. It is either the kindest or cruelest part.

Come early evening, he ventures downstairs to visit the library, removing his shoes and stockings so that they will not get wet again. The flood has at last begun to recede, but an inch of water still laps at the shelving. Where the height of the water had been, the walls are warped and stained. Perhaps they will never be the same again. Thomas traces the mark with a curious finger. He pulls some of the books from the lower shelves. Their pages are swollen and blurry, paper reduced to the consistency of a wet autumn leaf. The Greek playwrights; Hobbes; Spenser. They can still, in some places, be read, but other parts, entire chapters, are lost. He finds a volume of Milton and cradles it to him, heedless of the spreading damp against his shirt front. It does not seem fair that so much can be so easily erased. So many lives, loves, dramas, tragedies, dreams, thoughts; so many words.

He has brought his own papers with him, hoping to find some available surface where they could be set to dry. He had carried them to the Yamacraw camp and back through the storm, not knowing, at the time, what might befall him. Perhaps they had still fared better than they would have done otherwise. Some are legible and some are not— the innermost pages only damp, while ink has bled through others, leaving ghosts of his small script. Setting the damaged Milton aside, he lays them out on the table. Page after page. So many of them. He hadn’t realised. Such a quotidian account. A diary of survival. I ate this, I said that, I learnt the name of a bird from the children. I took tea. The corn was very high today. No one else would have been troubled if the flood had destroyed these pages. But he would have known; he would have grieved.

On the far desk are a quill pen and ink stand. He fetches them to the table and selects a blank piece of paper. The edges are damp, but it is mostly dry. For a long time he stares at it, perched on a wooden chair, his knees drawn up in an effort to keep his feet out of the water. He dips the nib of the pen and writes: Sept. 14. 1716. On account of rising floodwaters, with the aim of reaching the Yamacraw village, James & I left the plantation yesterday…

 

45.

The whole vast house is filled with women and men, all of whose own homes have been rendered uninhabitable by the storm. At night they bed down in chairs, on sophas, on carpets in the hallways— presumably someone is even sleeping in Oglethorpe’s bed. Guards and labourers and house servants share quilts and blankets, stretching out amiably side by side. A Yamacraw man has stayed behind, perhaps curious about the people he had helped to save, perhaps not wholly trusting in their continued survival. Thomas has not asked the man his reasons, but he has seen him drift from room to room, looking at paintings, listening to the innards of small gilt clocks, standing in front of a mirror and touching his own reflection. A steady hum of conversation can be heard at most hours. Women laugh quietly in an upstairs bedroom. Men play cards long into the night. The cousin of a baron, Mr. De Lancey (sodomy; from Surrey) reads poetry in a corner, the long flame of his candle stuttering as he turns each page. The stairs creak, and there is a constant faint shushing of water.

It is like being aboard a ship, Thomas thinks, as he lies cradled in James’s arms, James’s sleeping breath warm against the back of his neck. An enormous ship heading towards some far destination. Perhaps a destination that none of them yet knows. A fanciful idea. How will they know when they reach it? Will there be flags? Signs and omens? He cannot imagine that it appears on any map. He thinks of the story of Ultima Thule, a place that one would recognise when the sea ceased to be sea and the land ceased to be land, when all was once more as it had been in the beginning, the whole world like an unbroken egg. You could get there by ship, but you could not enter, not by any means that the Greeks could devise. Perhaps one has to learn how to be just such a kind of admixture, to hold the universe together, all of its thousands of parts. It sounds a complicated trick, a kind of cosmic juggling. Thomas cannot hold even himself together. He is holding onto everything he is with both hands. But a whole ship of people, perhaps, could do it. They could learn the art if they practiced enough. And it would be a long voyage, one that might take a lifetime.

Out in the hall, there is a quiet burst of laughter. The sound of someone singing under his breath: a quick verse of a song that Thomas does not know. James utters a muffled curse. “It’s as bad as the Walrus,” he mumbles. “How is anyone supposed to get any goddamn sleep?”

“Let me tell you a story,” Thomas says.