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Bitter great grief has Charlemagne the king*

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When I first met Henry, I was seventeen and he was eighteen.

We bumped into each other on the steps of the college bookstore, a few days before the year's classes began. Or rather, he bumped into me, shouldering the door open ahead of him, head down, already leafing through a recent purchase. His glasses had slid down the bridge of his nose, and he pushed them back with a quick, automatic gesture as he glanced up to see what had impeded his forward trajectory.

"Ancient Greek," I offered, noticing the stack of books in his arms. "I'm taking that too."

His eyebrows went up in surprise. "Are you." He seemed to really look at me, now, in contrast to the distracted, mildly irritated expression he'd worn when we'd collided.

"Henry Winter," he said, shifting the volumes to the side in order to free a hand, which he offered me with rather grown-up formality. "A pleasure." His handshake was firm but unimposing, perfectly businesslike.

I hadn't known, then, the degree of honor that had been bestowed upon Camilla and myself by our admittance into Julian's class, and I felt slightly uncomfortable with the way he was looking at me. His eyes were very blue.

"I'm Charles," I said. "Have you studied Greek long? It's marvelous, isn't it?" I wondered when I had begun using words like "marvelous" in everyday conversation. It seemed appropriate, though, when speaking to him. That degree of formality.

Henry smiled at me and quoted, in Greek, from Plutarch's Morals, something to the extent of education being the foundation for honesty and virtue. I considered whether or not he meant to show off; with anyone else I would have thought so, but it seemed to him as natural as any other speech, perhaps even more so.

I was struck by the normalcy of the conversation, which was unusual by virtue of being so ordinary; most of the students I'd met so far had tried as best they could to impress upon me the great burdens of their uniqueness. It was not unusual at any given time to be accosted by tortured artists in paint-spattered overalls or alarmingly tranquil hippies who appeared in blooms of pot smoke. Henry, in his clean trousers and tweed jacket, would have been utterly unremarkable at any other college but stood out glaringly here, an adult in a sea of determinedly quirky youngsters.

"You should come over for a drink tonight," I offered impulsively, hoping that I'd made a new friend or at least a reasonably pleasant acquaintance. "My sister and I could use the company, and we'd love to have you."

He blinked owlishly behind his glasses, and I wondered how commonly he found himself on the receiving end of such invitations. He certainly didn't seem the type to participate in Hampden's burgeoning party scene, but I couldn't say for sure. It was hard to tell, but I thought he seemed pleased, and at any rate he accepted the invitation.

That night, Henry showed up five minutes early, with his loudmouthed roommate in tow. Camilla, who was still a little homesick, made mint juleps, and we coaxed her into delivering a shy but thrilling rendition of a speech of Antigone's, her voice low and slightly uncertain, but charged with feeling. Henry was charmed instantly, I could tell. I would've been annoyed, but I was too proud of her, and Henry's quiet enthusiasm drew me in until I laughed just to see him mouthing the words intently along with her, his eyes shining.

I have spent years, since then, wishing I had never seen or spoken to him. But that would have been impossible for a number of reasons, and then I would have no story to tell.

-----

Camilla and I were slightly adrift at first. We knew only as much Greek and Latin as we'd been able to cobble together from our grandparents' old schoolbooks, along with hints of higher knowledge gleaned from a steady procession of mostly interchangeable nannies and tutors. Camilla was wild about it, especially Ovid; I think she liked the idea of herself as a dryad, her flesh becoming brittle bark and her thin hair swishing and lengthening into the languid droop of willow fronds. I used to catch her outside, her hand against the bark of one of the great oaks that lined our grounds, fingers splayed against the tangle of Spanish moss, whispering lines of poetry to the muggy Southern air.

I had always found myself drawn to the tragedies, Euripides especially. Henry and I used to spend hours of good-natured argument debating the relative merits of Euripides versus Sophocles. Henry, of course, favored the latter, finding unavoidable fate more compelling than human failings. In retrospect, that should have been an indication of something, but we were not as concerned at that point with our own destinies.

Despite Camilla's and my lack of technical prowess, I suspect that Henry respected our enthusiasm; at the very least, he was unfailingly polite about our mistakes, tolerant of our missteps to a fault. He had a great appreciation for the poetic, his own dry frankness about practical matters notwithstanding. Perhaps there was something about us that tapped into that sense of sweeping literary grandeur: twins, orphaned, symbiotic, grown up wild like weeds among the plantations of Virginia. He welcomed the both of us with open arms. To this day, I credit him more than anyone--more than Francis, more than Julian even--to our feeling gloriously at home at Hampden College. He approached everything, the scholarly and the simple, with a wide-eyed seriousness that belied his staggering intellect. He could make good drinks and good conversation, and though he didn't smile often, when he did it lit up his whole face like a beacon, strange and sweet and unexpected. I think I was a little in love with him, then.

I wasn't gay, mind you. Francis had that market cornered as far as any of us were concerned. It was as much a part of him as his long nose or his red hair, something unremarkable but inextricable. That wasn't the way I thought of myself; it was never that concrete. I liked women, certainly, and there were plenty to choose from. It was an oft-repeated joke that being a straight male at a liberal arts college was both a gift and a curse, but mostly a gift; no matter how unassuming or undeserving one was, one could count on being knee-deep in torn-stocking, be-eyelinered art majors before the end of one's first semester. So if my eyes lingered a little too long on the slope of Henry's broad shoulders, or I let Francis steal the occasional drunken grope, it was never anything to worry about. And therefore I didn't worry.

Besides Henry and Francis and Bunny, Julian had two other students: Paul Roche and Katy Sullivan, both seniors when Camilla and I arrived at the school. Paul was gruff and usually unshaven but surprisingly adept at Latin, and I liked him well enough. It was rumored that his father or grandfather had made a fortune in the stock market but that Paul himself had grown up with his mother in a trailer park in Pennsylvania, scraping by as best he could until his father realized he wanted to keep the vast sums of money in the family and swept down to claim him from poverty. Katy was tall, bookish, and bespectacled, with the clothes and the attitude of a schoolmarm. I never got to know her too well, both because she graduated my freshman year and because she and Camilla disliked each other instantly and avoided each other whenever possible.

We were all together much of the time, at least peripherally: holed up in the library for snow-blown afternoons, lingering over tea and quotations in Julian's office after lessons, clustered in the dining hall over stacks of books. But I liked to think that those of us who spent time with each other even besides that did so out of friendship rather than convenience. Henry and Bunny would host soirees in their shared room, the different halves of it painfully obvious. Bunny's bed unmade, his nightstand littered with candy wrappers and pulp novels and plastic Solo cups cemented in place with spilled drink residue. Henry's books stacked and alphabetized, his sheets pulled glassy-smooth as a military recruit's. Francis would bring ludicrously expensive wine, courtesy of his dear maman, and we'd become pleasantly drunk and warm and talk through the night.

It was easier, then, and I think about those evenings oftener than I'd like to admit.

-----

The trees whirled staggeringly overhead, the moon a kaleidoscope of white. My heart was pounding faster than I'd ever known it to beat before, hard enough that I felt it strain against my chest and thrum in my ears; around me, I imagined I could hear the heartbeats of the others, drumming in time with my own.

The torches we'd used guttered and went out, and we began to run.

Dimly, I was aware that at some point my shoes had gone, and that roots and rocks were cutting into my feet; the space between my toes was wet with something that might have been mud or blood or both. Camilla swam up behind me out of the dark, a vision in white, twining her fingers with my own and tugging me farther, faster.

In the clearing, Henry was waiting, hair windswept, the starlight glinting off his glasses. Caught up by my own momentum, I stumbled into him. His arm as he grabbed me was strong, steadying. I looked up, joyously, drunk with sensation, and kissed him.

It was a messy kiss, long and slow, and a shiver of delight thrilled through me as his tongue slipped between my teeth. Though we were both sober, I found myself lightheaded from hunger and cold and excitement, and I drew my head down, stubble scraping against his jawline, and kissed my way down his neck, nipping hard enough to draw blood. He jerked away from me in surprise, but I could see his pulse working at the base of his throat, fluttering like a trapped moth.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Francis and Camilla, thin white limbs tangled as he pressed her up against a tree, one hand down the front of her dress. It was ludicrously improbable; Francis would as soon have sex with a woman as he would with the Dean of Students, an ancient, grizzled man who smelt overwhelmingly of Burma-Shave. But his eyes glazed over and his fingers trembled in the darkness, and he moaned a little as she moved to kiss him, pale hair sweeping over both their faces.

I felt a rush of jealousy and turned to say something, but Henry drew me back. I felt the weight of him behind me, solid and sure, and I leaned into his touch. The woods seemed to spin around us as we sank to the ground, and I could hear faint laughter in the distance, high and inhuman and eternal.

The night became a blur of scents and sounds, hot fingers and too many hands grazing too many bodies, and a tall figure flitting back and forth, just out of eyesight. From the darkness, I heard Camilla start singing, her voice low, in a language I didn't recognize; it sounded like Greek but was different, sharper, more ancient and gutteral.

After that, my memory of the evening fractures into distinct and horrifying segments: Camilla white and silent, her pale face reflected in the mirror of the stream; Henry leaving bloody footprints along the riverbank as he knelt to rinse the flesh and bone fragments from his hands; Francis knotting his hands in his shirt and whispering Oh God, oh God. The long, silent trudge back to the car in the gray dawn light.

We did not realize, even then, what we had undertaken.

-----

It was almost light out by the time I reached Richard's, and my fingers were numb; I'd forgotten my gloves back at the house. The hall was empty, strewn with empty beer cans and discarded articles of clothing, the usual debris of a weekend evening.

I don't even know why I was there; Richard and I had never been terribly close. But I was afraid to call Henry, I didn't want to ask Francis because of what usually happened with Francis at times like this, and Camilla had shut herself up in her bedroom full of tulips and wouldn't speak a word.

The light was on in his room; I could see a thin glow of yellow from the crack underneath the door. I knocked, first clumsily, then more insistently.

The voice that told me to come in was not Richard's, but Francis', and I knew as soon as I opened the door what had happened. All the signs were there: Francis looking flushed, Richard's shirt buttoned askew.

The two of us walked to Francis' car in silence, our shoes crunching through the crust of snow that covered Commons lawn. He drove not toward my place, but his. I didn't complain; in a way I was almost relieved, and I was too drunk to care one way or the other when we tumbled into his bed, his fingers working open the fly of my trousers and his breath hot against my cheek.

"I don't like doing this to you, you know," he murmured, one hand sliding up my thigh. "I know you wouldn't be here if you weren't drunk."

"I am, though," I said drowsily, my breath hitching under his touch. I pulled his face down to mine, and my head swam as he kissed me.

In the morning I woke, cold, to find the window was open and gusts of snow blowing against the curtains. Numbly, I got up, ignoring the sleeping figure next to me, and took the hottest shower I could stand. Steam hissed up and clouded the bathroom mirrors, and I wondered if the snow was melting yet.

-----

The first day's classes passed in a haze. I've never been a good actor at the best of times, and to this day it amazes me that no one noticed anything amiss. But then, there was no one to notice except Julian, and that day he only had eyes for Epictetus; I doubt he would have batted an eye if his office had burnt down. I had a flask in my coat pocket the whole time, and I itched with the impulse to pour some into my teacup when Julian's back was turned, but I saw Henry looking at me warningly whenever my fingers twitched, and I didn't.

We all dispersed after class, to my surprise and unease. Richard disappeared almost immediately to talk to Dr. Roland about something of dubious importance. "Je suis l'homme de Roland et je ne dois pas lui manquer," Henry quoted wryly, watching him go, and turned to the rest of us.** Camilla rolled her eyes and Francis looked perplexed, but we nevertheless felt that Henry was preparing to marshal his troops, and we stood a little straighter about the shoulders.

"Go home, mes chevaliers," said Henry, shoving his hands into his pockets. "It won't do to mill about unmoored all day, it'll look ridiculous."

"That's it?" Francis protested. His breath formed a chill cloud in front of his mufflered face. We all thought--couldn't help but think--about the long, ghastly day ahead of us.

Henry thought about this for a moment. "Dinner at the twins', then," he conceded, shrugging. "I have a translation of Alciphron I want to finish."

He clapped me on the shoulder as he passed by, and I wondered if he felt me shiver through my winter coat.

"Christ, you look awful," said Francis. "I know how you're feeling. Look; my hands won't stop shaking." He held them out to show me.

-----

Camilla had melted away during our conversation, in that way she did so often. I was used to it, but it still irked me that she could evade me so easily, that there was a part of her I couldn't manage to anticipate or trace. I went home, hoping she might be there, but the door was locked and there was no sign that she'd been back to the house at all that day.

It was brisk outside, but dismal inside, so I walked to the small grocery in North Hampden for sandwiches and cigarettes. On a whim, I bought a jar of cocktail onions; I thought we might make Gibsons.

Before leaving, I glanced at the corkboard on the wall by the window. A grainy Xeroxed photograph of a lost cat with a badly-spelled plea for aid, an announcement about the Sage City Symphony's upcoming performance of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody, a flyer advertising a pottery class. There was nothing about Bunny, though of course there wouldn't be; no one knew he was missing.

Still no sign of Camilla when I got back to the house. Only endless bouquets of tulips in jugs and water glasses and the teapot. It smelled like a funeral parlor.

I'd miscalculated too, about the Gibsons; we were out of gin. Chastened, I spent the afternoon drinking bourbon out of a tumbler I'd liberated from its role as a vase, and munching the cocktail onions miserably.

The door creaked open at around five; I could hear the jingling of Camilla's keys as she set them down on the hall table. She whisked in, cheeks flushed with cold, tugging her scarlet scarf down from around her face.

"Where have you been?" I said, more brusquely than I'd intended.

"I was at the library. With Henry." She stepped on the heel of one boot to draw her foot from the other, and wriggled the freed toes experimentally. "Rats, my socks are soaked through. This snow seeps into everything, somehow."

I cracked an ice cube between my teeth, wincing at the jolt it sent along the nerves in my jaw. "I thought he said to lie low."

"We were," she said, shrugging. If she noticed the warning tone in my voice, she didn't say so, but chattered on lightly. "He wanted me to look at that epistle he's been working on, you know the one. It was something to do. You should turn the heat up, Charles, it's awful in here."

"I like it like this," I muttered. I grabbed her wrist, gently, as she made to pass me and go on into her room. She relented and pressed a cold-lipped kiss to my forehead, then drew away. It was a conciliatory gesture, and it did not satisfy me.

"Drink some water," Camilla said softly. "We're having the others over for dinner and I'll need your help getting ready."

-----

I was down at the station for nearly four hours before they let me go. My hands had begun to shake from too much coffee, murky reheated stuff served in styrofoam cups, and my head hurt from the fluorescent lights overhead. The fresh air hit my face with a slap of cold as I stepped outside into the the parking lot. I took great, painful, steadying gulps of it until I felt somewhat like a human being again.

It was like walking a tightrope: say too little and they'll think you have something to hide, say too much and you're dead. My stomach was clenched tightly enough to make me feel sick.

I called Henry from the pay phone. He picked up after the first ring, and I pictured him waiting in his living room, tense, wondering how I was making out and what I might have let slip.

"How much do they suspect?" he asked breathlessly, as soon as he'd made sure it was me.

"A lot," I said, gripping the phone a little too tightly. "They don't have the right idea, exactly, but they definitely know we're hiding something. I think they think it has something to do with Cloke and the drug dealing."

"Let's hope they start focusing their efforts on him, then," Henry muttered. "I wonder if there's anything we can say to steer them in that direction..."

"I don't think that's a good idea," I broke in, my stomach turning to ice. "Look, I think you'd better come pick me up. It's freezing out and I've just been talked at all afternoon and I need a drink."

"Of course you do." It was hard to detect when Henry was being sarcastic--there wasn't much of a contrast to his usual dryness--but I suspected he was now.

"Damn it, Henry, don't start in on that. You don't know what it's like, it's terrifying, I've spent the past two hours afraid I'd throw up on that Italian detective's shoes just from sheer nerves."

"Fine," he said coolly.

"I'm doing this for you, you know."

"And we're all grateful." He sounded like someone from the college's business office telling a student how glad he was to have received the latest check on time.

We? I wanted to say back to him. Henry had more to lose than any of us. He'd been the one who'd actually committed the murder, while we stood by and watched. We'd known, we'd planned it, we'd watched it happen, and we'd felt the same horror and relief watching the last pebbles slide down into empty air. But none of us had pushed him.

"I'll be there in fifteen minutes," Henry added finally. "Meet me at the diner down the road, I don't want to run into anybody from the police department."

We drove back in silence, my heartbeat gradually slowing, Henry's eyes cast straight ahead, onto the road in front of us. He pulled up in front of Camilla's and my house and stopped, letting the engine idle. I reached for the door handle, then hesitated. Instead, I leaned back toward him and brushed my lips against his.

He stiffened, mouth tightening under mine, and my pulse started its dreadful thudding again. I pulled away numbly, wanting to say something, but unable to think of anything that would help. Henry had turned away, his gaze boring a hole through the front windshield.

Watching as he drove away, I wondered what on earth any of us thought we were doing. Montrez-nous, ô Dieu, où est le droit, I thought, and laughed suddenly, then turned and went into the house.***

-----

It was hard, seeing the two of them together.

Henry was solicitous to her in a way he never was to anyone: thoughtful, tentative, affectionate almost. He seemed to want to protect her, and I kept wanting to scream No, you don't understand, that's what I'm there for. She doesn't need you.

And it was worse because I was jealous of both of them. From a distance, watching them walk together, Henry's head bent toward her, close enough for dark and pale hair to brush strands together--from a distance, it could have been the two of us. Camilla and I looked alike enough for it to be painful in that way, a taunting mirror image of something I wanted but could not have, visible every time I looked around.

I drank more, I studied less, I was vile to the others and worse to Camilla. I couldn't look at Henry without seeing them together, and seeing that night replayed in my mind, his body against mine. It had been a source of comfort, once, the memory of that; the one spot of brightness in an otherwise hellish event. But now I couldn't look back on it without wondering if he had used me because I was there, and willing, and because she was otherwise occupied. If he had kissed me out of desperation, shutting me out, thinking of her.

I could have had Francis, instead. He was sick and upset and would have done anything, or anyone, to quell his panic. I could have had any number of Hampden girls. I could have had anyone, it seemed, except for either of the people I wanted.

Some evenings, I'd walk to the Albemarle and stand in front of it, the alcohol warming my bloodstream, wondering which lighted window belonged to her, and whether he was with her at that moment. Whether either of them even thought about me as anything other than a threat.

-----

What happened next, I regret in a thousand ways, and yet I don't. There was a certain poetry to it that I think Henry would have appreciated. Like something out of Tolstoy, he and Julian had agreed during the search for Bunny's body, and Henry had repeated that remark with something approaching rapture over the following few days. It appealed to his sense of the literary, of the Greek reliance on fate and destiny. The feeling that one was in the hands of the gods.

I think he would have liked to have thought that of himself. And when you thought about it in those terms, you saw that there was really nothing else that could have happened, or at least nothing that would have suited him so well.

Camilla and I haven't spoken in months, which I tend to think of, perversely, as Henry having his last laugh. If he couldn't have her--and he certainly couldn't, in the end--as least I couldn't either. I don't so much miss her as lack her, an almost physical sensation, the frustration of reaching out only to discover that one's hand has been cut off at the wrist. I think about her sometimes, and in my mind she's harder, more brittle, changed. A heavy numbness seized her limbs, thin bark closed over her breast...her feet so swift a moment ago stuck fast in slow-growing roots.**** And I remember that transformation is a way of protecting oneself, and I wonder if it's what she really wanted.

And yet it makes sense that the rest of us, the ones who remained, should be left with nothing. We are forced to start again, alone, our pasts stripped away to reveal something greater and darker at our cores. And we are still afforded the luxury, or perhaps the punishment, of dreaming about what we have lost.