Madam, an hour before the worshipp'd sun
Peer'd forth the golden window of the east,
A troubled mind drave me to walk abroad;
Where, underneath the grove of sycamore
That westward rooteth from the city's side,
So early walking did I see your son
- Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 1
Legend tells of Cygnus, the lover of Phaeton, who searched so long for the body of his beloved when it tumbled burning from the heavens that Jupiter took pity on the man and turned him into a swan in order to help him in his task. Burned by his inability to control his father Helios’ fiery steeds as they cantered across the sky, the gods had struck Phaeton down in order to save the world. An impulsive act and a quick death for Phaeton, whilst Cygnus was left to endure a dreary, lifeless existence looking for his lover. It is not often that the rash realise the consequences of their actions.
Benvolio ponders the similarity between the myth and recent events and does not laugh. His cousin Romeo lies with his wife in the cold embrace of a marble tomb in the crypt of the city’s cathedral, stripped of the factional allegiances that proved such obstacles to their love. They are united in death as they were torn asunder in life, happy together in Paradise. And he? He is left to deal with the carnage that their families have wrought. Too many bodies have been buried these past few days and too many mourners will crowd churches to pay respects to the dead. Yet Fortune has smiled on him, and he has been allowed to survive the killing. In the privacy of the Montague’s small chapel he fingers the beads of his rosary and presses the crucifix to his lips. He prays for them all, of course. Bright, laughing Mercutio, staid Paris, glorious Juliet, and even sneering Tybalt.
He says another prayer entirely for his cousin. The altarpiece showcases a portrait of Saint Sebastian, pierced by arrows at the moment of his martyrdom and staring in ecstasy into Heaven. Benvolio hopes that God will forgive him for his sacrilege.
For his shame.
“Most divine Son of Man,” he begins, and chokes. There is a crucifix upon the altar and it stares at him with blank eyes. “Oh, sweet Saviour Divine. I do beg you most humbly to relieve me of this burden that vexes my soul.”
A hand settles on his shoulder, and he turns to see a priest who has just come in from the cloister, gazing at him with concern in his rheumy green eyes.
“My son? You seem much distressed. Do you have need of the confessional?”
Benvolio thinks for a second and nods. Rubbing his nose quickly on his sleeve and pocketing his rosary, he strides to the small booth the priest points out, and shuts himself in. There is a moment in which he is allowed to compose himself and gather his scattered thoughts, and then the panel separating him from the priest is drawn aside. A quiet cough indicates that he is meant to start talking, but the words catch in Benvolio’s throat; grief has gagged him and shame presses down on his chest like a succubus. Benvolio crosses himself.
“In your own time, my son.”
He repeats the staid formulae of the confessional, then hesitates to list his sins.
There is a sigh from the other side of the screen. “You miss your cousin, no doubt.”
“Yes,” Benvolio manages. “Yes, and I were that it was this body that lies in that cold tomb, not his. Romeo’s fire was extinguished at its brightest moment... I feel I am left in darkness without him.”
“You grieve over the tragic loss of a kinsman and a life cut down in its prime. This is natural. Do not despair; he is in a happier place now, in the bosom of our Lord. As are all souls gone to their heavenly rest.”
In the darkness of the confessional, Benvolio smiles wryly.
“It will be my birthday next week, father. He promised to raise his ill humour and go hunting with me and the lately departed kinsman of the Prince in the countryside. Now I fear solitude will be my companion instead. In a few days I have lost all that was once dear to my heart.”
“Faith,” the priest answers. “You have my sympathies, but you must not let your spirits fall too far. Despair is as grave a sin as any other. In these dark times we must turn to the direction of the Holy Ghost to light our way forward. Think, boy: you are the surviving son of the House of Montague; your courage must hold. We in Verona look to you to forge a path out of this mire. You must think of making a good marriage, of continuing the line. The truce between your family and Capulet’s is as delicate as a spider’s web on the dew-soaked ground. Consider one of their women for your wife - it could not hurt to continue the example of your cousin. Perhaps it is time the lions lie with the lambs.”
He hurriedly runs through the litany of absolution, unaware of the irony of what he has just said, and Benvolio crosses himself after receiving his penance. The priest leaves without any further ado, called by the tolling of the bell for Vespers. Left in the still darkness, Benvolio broods. There is hardly anyone left in the chapel, and the wardens will be closing the doors for the evening soon, but he thinks they will not mind if he stays in here for a spell.
The old man must feel happy with the small amount of succour he has offered, but he does not know that Benvolio has committed a sin of omission. The last living heir of Montague hides a secret so shameful it would have shocked even the hard-bitten Mercutio, who claimed to have seen everything and bragged of his understanding regarding all matters of the heart. He has not repeated it to any other living soul, but has whispered it several times at the tomb of his cousin, blinded by tears and sobbing, surrounded by candlelight and a marble effigy that looks nothing like Romeo.
The truth is that Benvolio’s affection for Romeo was more passionate than familial, carnal desire often battling with chaste concern. He does not know when these treacherous feelings first began to stir within his breast; he only knows that the sin of Sodom is curse enough, but to desire the passionate embraces of a kinsman must surely damn him to the lowest level of Hell. Often he would resolve himself to be rid of his obsession, but a single glance from Romeo’s soft brown eyes, a quirk of his full lips, or the way his cousin’s hair curled over a velvet collar, and Benvolio would be lost in a sea of tormented indecision; his vow inevitably forgotten.
And yet Romeo never bestowed the sighs and gazes he reserved for various ladies on Benvolio, because Benvolio fought to keep his desire hidden. True, he often wished for more than the familial kisses and hugs exchanged between them, but he had sense enough to keep the turmoil in his heart in check. He would often bemoan his misplaced love to Mercutio, though he was careful to keep Romeo’s name out of their discussions. Mercutio was as smart as Ulysses, however, and twice as cunning, his questions often daring Benvolio to make some mistake, some slip of the tongue.
“Fie! I do not believe such a lad exists, that would take sweet Benvolio’s heart and dash it to the ground like a porcelain platter! You have conjured the man from the vapours of a lusty madam’s dreams, my friend. You may claim otherwise, but until I have a name to give the man who has stolen your heart I will call you false in that regard.”
They had been sunning themselves outside the cathedral that day, waiting for Romeo to find them after he had finished brooding over yet another maiden who would not even glance his lovelorn way. Mercutio had lain with both willowly-limbed women and beautiful boys, who more closely resembled angels than men, and so had no problem with the object of Benvolio’s desperate yearnings. He reasoned that life was too short to worry about whether the partner being swived was man or woman, “though I do call those who lie with sheep and goats bleating madmen.” But Benvolio’s refusal to name the man whose love he craved proved infuriating.
“It is not you, Mercutio, so there is no need for such spectacle.”
He said this though they had often lain together when the weather was hot and a flask of wine easily at hand.
“You do me a grave injustice, Benvolio of the House of Montague,” Mercutio challenged, striding across the piazza in a reasonable imitation of an irate old woman. “And one day I will ply you with enough drink so I that I may pluck your Ganymede’s name from those stubborn lips.”
(Benvolio reflects now that that day will never come. He wonders if Mercutio can hear his mumbled prayers. Again he feels the sharp pain of his losses like a sword twisting in his guts.)
He had laughed, of course, and Mercutio had sketched a flourishing low bow before leaving the piazza, passing Romeo on his way.
“Ah! Two lovelorn Montagues.” He had taken hold of Romeo’s shoulders before the boy knew what was happening. “Here ye are, Romeo! Sit you down by your elder cousin’s side and tell him which fair maiden has ensnared your heart this week, and perhaps he shall pay you in kind by provisioning the name of his true love…” Here he gazed at them both with a sly look in his eye. “But perhaps that answer might prove less surprising than one might think. Farewell, gentlemen! Time flies from all us mortals and the day is still young!”
Romeo had blinked at this rapid stream of words, then stared in bemusement as the gangly Mercutio wandered off to another assignation, this time with the daughter of a wealthy merchant who traded in furs. “What is he about this time, Coz? Do I hear this rightly; you as lovesick as me? He must surely be mistaken, or perhaps you have dark secrets that you keep from me as a banker does with his gold?”
There was a teasing smile playing about Romeo’s lips, and Benvolio still aches with the memory of it even now.
“‘Tis Mercutio’s own good way to make sport of our follies,” he answered, slinging an arm around Romeo. “I have merely had the misfortune to let the love god’s arrows hit my heart at a most inopportune moment. I am bilious with a thousand sighs and I refuse all food and drink because Love has stopped my appetite. He is a cruel master, but I am now his slave and dare not disobey. In this I am much like you, my dear Romeo; we are both doomed to yearn for Love to yield to us and set us free, whilst he delights in our torment.”
“You mock me?” But Romeo’s eyes were sparkling and he wriggled free of Benvolio’s embrace, dragging Benvolio’s hat off his head and leaping out of the grasp of his cousin’s hands. “Villain! I will have this for your slander! I daresay you will not miss it much!”
He dashed off, laughing all the while, up one of streets leading away from the Cathedral. Benvolio gave chase, trying not to lose sight of Romeo’s scarlet-coloured doublet in the crowd of washerwomen and tradesmen with their donkeys. The sun was beginning to set, and the light that enveloped the two boys as they ran through the city was golden, casting long shadows on the sides of buildings and blinding Benvolio as he struggled to keep up with Romeo.
Finally, gasping, they made it to the banks of the Adige, and Romeo passed the hat back with a wide smile.
“Enough!” Benvolio clapped Romeo’s shoulder, “I submit! You are fleeter of foot than I and you have proven me as slow as Aesop’s tortoise. I shall beg the pardon of my greater score of years and retire to a monastery forthwith to be a monk and study gardening instead.”
“You sound like Mercutio,” Romeo said. “Perhaps it is he who has turned your head with his flowery phrases.”
“I promise you, no. But, good heart, tell me of your latest woes.”
And Romeo had taken the invitation eagerly, rambling on and at great length and with laboured metaphors about the fair Ursula, who he had seen once in the marketplace. A raven-haired beauty, she was, and possessed the reddest lips Romeo had ever seen and the bluest eyes - as bright the sky on a clear day. A pity she would not deign to even raise those eyes towards him. Ah, but he was thwarted already! She had been promised to a young aristocrat from Perugia. Did Fate not see how She was mocking his suffering? Could the path of True Love never run straight?
“I daresay even if such a happy circumstance were to befall you, Romeo, you should not be happy with it,” Benvolio quipped. This earned him a glare and a cuff around the head. They watched the river flow for a moment in silence.
“Holy Madonna,” Romeo muttered. “I must sound insufferable to you. I am sure that the one you love does not vex you half as much as Ursula commands my thoughts. My cousin, how is it that there are not more eager maidens sending you perfumed notes of love and begging to be serenaded beneath their windows? Who is this mysterious stranger that has captured your heart? I have been good enough to let you learn of all my misfortunes, now I beg you for your own tale.”
Benvolio kept quiet for a spell, trying to arrange the proper words to answer Romeo’s question and yet reveal nothing of his secret.
“You will forgive me. It is nothing as dramatic as Mercutio has implied. There is… someone whom I yearn for, but my affection is not returned. At least, not in the form I would have it returned. Cupid would laugh, if he could chance a glance from beneath his blindfold.” He laughed once, and the bitter sound surprised him.
“You look sad,” Romeo observed. He took his cousin’s head in his hands, sliding his fingers through Benvolio’s curly hair, and pressed a sudden, chaste kiss to his forehead. “There you are. A kiss from one as forlorn as you! We two are now bound as kinsmen in more than blood.”
Fear and desire mingled in Benvolio and, though he returned to contemplating the river’s currents, the skin where Romeo’s lips had left their imprint burned as if it was on fire. Then, without warning, without planning or meaning to, he burbled, “I will tell you whom I love come my birthday.”
“That is only a fortnight away!” Romeo’s smile was triumphant. “I shall hold you to this promise, cousin, though I wonder that Mercutio had such difficulty raising such a promise from you.”
The river flowed on, oblivious to their bargain and Benvolio’s growing discomfort, and the sun continued its descent in the sky, turning all things to gold.
Barely a week later, Benvolio’s life, as he had understood it, had collapsed; his family and friends torn from him and the city nearly brought to chaos. Fate loves the tragedies of men. He feels like Cygnus now, forced to deal with a bleak world now the radiance of his beloved has been snuffed out whilst it was strongest. How then to proceed?
A soft knock stirs Benvolio from his melancholy recollections.
“My lord,” it is the sacristan, an old man bent over with age, “I do beg your pardon, but we must be closing the church doors soon.”
“Yes, of course.” Benvolio gets up and pushes open the door to the confessional. The sacristan is holding a candle and looking anxious to get about the business of shutting up the church. With another apologetic smile, he strides towards the doors, through which he can see the fast-approaching twilight, stopping first to cross himself with holy water from a stoup at the doorway.
He walks home in the direction of the dying sun, the shadows lengthening as he goes, like ghosts of the past calling to him treacherously with seductive voices of memory. But Benvolio thinks of Romeo’s smile and keeps on walking, following the last golden traces of daylight.