Alone in the house as a very small child, she steps into her brother’s room unguarded and unwatched, opens the drawers that belong to him, rifles through his clothes. They are bright, child’s hose and child’s blouses and child’s caps. Boy clothes. With undersized, curious fingers, she plucks at the sleeves, places her arms into his large sleeves. Her legs into the twin bisections of his breeches, which hang loose between her legs. She walks in a circle around his room with new legs, new limbs, a new body unhemmed by its old patterns. Her calves splay, her knees wobble, and her feet sink against the floor with new, giddy, foolish power: free.
She comes back.
Week after week, or month after month, or year after year—
He catches her when she’s ten. She is standing there in a white linen shirt and hose, not yet breeched or feather-capped or clad in his mi-parti sleeves.
“Don’t tell,” she says, and he furrows his brow for a second of pouting and thinking. He has her face, same as she does—sure brows and a girlish mouth, teeth worrying at his lower lip.
“All right,” he finally replies, and she flings her arms around him in a hug.
“Thank you,” she whispers, breath hot in his ear.
“You’re odd, Viola,” he mutters, and she laughs.
“You too, then.”
They grow up odd, symmetrically so. He cries when first they cut his hair and refuse to cut hers, and privately she finds his curls much nicer than hers. Her own poke out at odd angles, while his ringlet wonderfully. Even when shorn, they grow back by the handful. She grabs them when they’re at play, takes a healthy handful in her little white hand and yanks until he chants ow, tipping his vulnerable throat up to the gilded ceiling.
“Be the maiden now. I want to be the knight.”
“Fine,” he grumbles, “fine, you don’t have to be so pushy.”
On one sleepy summer day—the summer that sees them twelve and that just-a-shade-older color of twelve that she wears proudly (little brother, she has taken to calling him when they get to bickering)—they lie on the lawn, sun-languid and sleeping atop the parted pages of their books, her nails fraying daisy stems ineptly in her lap. “Do you remember playing knights?” she asks.
“Of course I do.” He shoots a quick up-tilt of a smile at her, looking up from the parchment pages he is making his pillow in the grass. “Arthur and Lancelot and—and Guinevere, and the Lady.”
“She had the sword,” he says drowsily. “I could have the sword too.”
“Could rob the fencing room.”
“Ooh,” she says, sitting up straighter, “shall we?”
Inside the house they limn the walls of the large, empty rooms, stumbling sun-drunk over their feet, and trip toward the fencing room. The closet is locked, but only with one padlock, and Viola is handy with a pin: her hair holds a bounty of them. Shedding daisy petals on the floor, she brings out sabres. “I here present you,” she says, “Young Sir Sebastian, with the sword Excalibur.” She moves through the gestures perfunctorily, rapping him about the shoulders, and he shakes his head.
“No, Vi, you do it wrong.”
“Then you do.”
“I’m not a bloody woman.”
“No.” She sucks in her cheeks, looking at him, refrains from biting her lower lip only because he is, and she thinks he looks positively ridiculous (and beautiful, that, too) she won’t play at gestures that are being mirrored right back to her. “I could put you in a skirt.”
“I’m too big for your skirts,” he tosses off. He’s long and rangy, it’s true—if not yet ranged; his limbs haven’t caught up to his hands and feet—but so is she. They still see eye to eye.
“Why?” she taunts back. “Too plump?”
His eyes slit at her. “No,” he says, sounding wounded and sharp, and she giggles: he is lovelier than her, he will always be lovelier than her, wearing the vulnerable variant on her face, but that means he has more open weaknesses. They have not yet begun to grow into their bones, yet he somehow knows to prize his youth, his beauty. He knows it—better than she can, tripping over her skirts and uncomfortable in the set of her skeleton, the subtle striving curvatures of her flesh. Someday she will be plumper than him, she thinks, someday he will be stronger than her—and she cannot bear to imagine it, to think of what living in that discrepancy would feel like. She grasps his hand too tightly, and the tweaked vanity of his wounded expression gives way to simple surprise, that acquiescence they share with every touch.
He follows her, hand in hand, up the wind of staircases to the room at the opposite end of the hallway from hers; their childhood sleeping-spaces had been in the middle. In her chamber, silent and abandoned, the echo of their voices muffled by the frills of the curtains, he pulls on a peach-colored underskirt over his hose, slips a green kirtle over his shoulders, a comically unmatched pair that somehow look synchronous on him. Hands on his thin hips, he demands the sword, and she kneels—gets almost knotted up in her own skirt and wishes she had the options at her fingertips to pick and choose. She knows he would not—will not—trip. She thinks that the dancing lessons she’s given are wasted on her: she has taught him gavottes well into the night, sneaking out of bed to meet him in the nooked rooms between their respective bedchambers and humming tunes for them to step and sway to, her memory embellishing the remembered snatches of the dull metronomic learning-lyre cant into true songs, embroidered with melody and patterned in rhythm by the step of their feet. He learns easily; having seen him fence, she has always known he would. Now in her kirtle, which his shoulders only stretch a little, he tilts up his chin with adopted serenity and holds the foil to the imagined sky and she can nearly see Camelot lake water dredging his borrowed skirt. Play-acting runs in the family, and he wears the Lady with a lack of awkwardness she cannot envision emulating.
Sebastian’s voice is low and sweet. “I hereby dub thee King of Camelot. Arise and take thy sword.”
He offers the foil, handle-first. She grabs it and scrabbles up to her feet, brandishing.
“Shall I slay a dragon to prove my valor?”
“Um.” He laughs, looking cornered. “Slay anything you like. I don’t see any marauding knights in the vicinity, do you, my lord?”
“No,” she says, looking out the window: there are handmaidens on the great lawn playing badminton, dotted along the green summerstruck landscape with quiet aesthetic grace. It’s very dull; she longs for something that breathes fire.
She has read books about sailors and pirates and mermaids, all the books she wasn’t meant to read, snatched from Sebastian’s collection and hidden, along with his private knowing grin when they go missing, beneath her canopied bed. She has inhaled the sea on the page, and seeing it for the first time she nearly faints with joy and brine-salted overwhelm. Little waves crash against the dock, and Sebastian catches her by the elbow.
“Vi, are you—”
Giddy and girlish and overwhelmed, feeling rare and new, she throws her arms around his neck. “Oh!” she says. “I hope you live lands away when we’re all grown; I want to sail to you every day!”
“Perhaps they’ll get you a husband in a new and far-off land and you’ll have to sail back and forth between us.”
She goes still, pulls away. It is getting to be that way—where everyone looks at her with new eyes, wary and appraising and potentially joyous; she sees herself reflected not as she is but veiled and adorned and made-pretty: her face hidden behind white, her overtall and undercurved body amended with fluffy skirts and bejeweled bodices. The coterie of home imagines a husband, somewhere, faceless, to make her a wife, and her stomach—it should not so, she thinks, but it will not listen to such reason—twists like a fist at it. Sixteen and counting the days before they force her to capitalize on it. “Don’t talk about that,” she says, and he cups her face in his hands.
“Vi,” he says, “that’d be a good thing. I was just trying to make something good out of it.”
“Marry yourself to a seaman,” he says, and grins—something rakish in the grin; she punches him lightly on the arm before he can make any of the jokes she can tell he’s thinking. “Personally, I don’t see why you’re so skittish. I want to get me a wife as soon as I can.”
“Of course you do,” she says, and she can’t help laughing a little. “If I were you, I would, too.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“There’s ladies lining up to steal your virtue by the dozen, Bas—or hadn’t you noticed?”
“That’s imagining I’ve any goods worth the stealing,” he says all too seriously, and she links her arm with his.
“Don’t talk like a sailor before we’ve got on the ship.”
“Call it practice. I’d love to sail into the sunset every evening.”
“I think they’d eat you,” she says.
“Now, now, Vi, just because they jaunt off to parts savage doesn’t make them cannibals—”
“Sebastian,” she says, looking at him with a sideways grin and leaning against his joined arm, “they’d eat you. Find a pretty wife, sail to her, and stay there.”
“And leave you to do all the adventuring?” he asks, and she is almost speechless with gratitude—gratitude for her utter absurdity of a brother, for the momentary cast as not a wife and never a wife; she grins at him openmouthed and he cocks an eyebrow to her, looking cheerily indulgent. King of Camelot, king of the sea; he has kinged her again and again and she will never, she thinks, weary of it. Don’t break us, she pleads silently, unbidden, to the world. Promises of wives and wiving and far-off lands and near-in futures: don’t break us, don’t break us. The understanding that passes between them the size of worlds new and new-crafted and never-to-be, almost exhausting to hold in her heart, far too much for her alone to hold. I’ll have to keep you around, she thinks, and composes her face back into amusement.
“Yes,” she says, pressing her hand to his forearm, “do leave it to me. I’ll do my best for you.”
They step aboard the boat, and she runs to the edge, tilts her face into the wind. It loosens the poorly-bound tethers of her hair; she feels tendrils whip back from her cheeks and she shakes her head, only making it worse, only wanting to make it worse. It is glorious; the water reflects the sun and the air tastes of salt and she waits, Sebastian watching, for the ship to move, to take them to parts unknown, to traverse the infinite choppy canvas of blue and green and grey.
The sea betrays.
She washes up onto the rocks, salt-dredged and sun-bleached and gasping. There is a man whose face she can’t see whose hands are poking at her aching bones.
“Nothing broken,” she hears him say.
“Sebastian,” she whispers with her sea-serrated throat; it hurts to breathe and more to speak, but she uncurls her fingers and waits with an open palm: “Sebastian,” she thinks, she longs, she waits.
No one takes her hand.
Nothing broken: it’s a lie, and as she slips in and out of waking, it fails to become true.
She does not cry.
She will not cry.
The sailor holds her hand at first, then when she looks at the unfamiliar limb touching hers, he courteously withdraws. “This is Illyria, lady,” he tells her.
The scope of Illyria is vast to her, though the land is not, stretched with newness. Lying in this borrowed bed, she feels herself set like a peg askew in this new world; she cannot imagine being Viola in it.
She has always known his bones better than her own, she thinks, and now that they are probably lying at the bottom of the sea—
She chops off her hair with a knife the sailor uses for gutting fish, not looking in a mirror and not lighting a candle. The next morning, he finds her sitting on the edge of the bed in the rough muslin of her chemise, her neck bowed and newly bare. She looks up and will not brook argument and his shock defers to acquiescence: he will bring her anything she likes.
When he leaves in search of doublet and hose, she touches the bare back of her neck, ruffles her hands through the sheared sloppy wilderness of her curls. This feels familiar already.
Sebastian might really have loathed Duke Orsino, whose sonorous voice bellows poetry at every turn, whose huge bark of a heart is shipwrecked every day with no buoy of laughter to save the souls inside; she cannot help drawing closer and closer to him, though, perhaps because of it. He does not laugh at himself. He refuses, and he drowns himself in joyously crafted washes of melancholy every day—and, to her eternal gratitude, the glorious boom of his voice drowns out the rest of the world, the languid and self-indulgent heat of his pillows and music an island untouched by the past.
“Come here, boy,” he says, and as she sits collecting imaginary records by his side, his broad, rough fingers stroke idly through her hair.
No, Sebastian would not have liked this man.
She turns her drowsy, longing face toward him, can smell the cologne with which he perfumes his clothes, the pomade and musk
A month passes, perhaps two, in which she sings for him and sits with him and hears him recount tales of a beautiful cold woman in a tower. “Watch out for those,” she says once, “such a woman sank the city of Ys,” and his laughter is a sea strong enough to drown several castles. Olivia is a fairytale. Olivia is an imagined goddess. Olivia shrouds his heart with impossibility, and for a while, she does not even believe that Olivia is living.
He sends her to Olivia some three months into her service.
She has by this time forgotten to think of herself as Viola when she wakes up: it takes the blink into wakefulness for her to remember her shape, both in past and body. She chose the name Cesario before she knocked on the gates of Orsino’s manor, a name chosen with its tint of conquest, of snapshots she remembers from Sebastian’s Herodotus books: veni, vidi, vici. Perhaps this is a conquest, she thinks, even the opiate daydream of Orsino’s proximity: a conquest over memory, over the tyranny of longing, over her own heart.
She grows into the new arrangement of spirit and skin more and more, day by day.
“Go, lad,” Orsino says, pushing her out into the gates, his huge hand lingering on the bare nape of her neck, and she wears both his touch and his diminutive all the way to the lady’s house: lad, she does not have to think about; lad, she is.
Olivia sits with her hands laced in her lap, a demure picture embellished by her high neckline and funereal black and the self-conscious grace in the tilt of her head. Her jester is playing a viol, and Viola remembers, in the absence of Orsino, who she is—all too clearly, almost stumbling with the sharp reminder of how and what she is meant to be.
She stutters her name: “Cesario.” She nearly says Sebastian, and silently afterward she bites her rebelling tongue. Sebastian would like Olivia; it makes her almost determined not to, but her heart drums in her chest as she waits for the other woman’s reactions.
“Cesario,” comes the voice beneath the veil, weighing each syllable like a mouthful of honey. She sends her handmaidens away with a languid twitch of her fingers, and the room is silent around them, the drum of Viola’s heart even outpacing the patter of borrowed poetry in her head. Orsino sent her crammed with verse, bolstered to formidability with iambs, yet still, for a moment, she goes blank with something close to fear. When Olivia draws her veil, Viola kneels—more because her knees are shaking than out of any real reverence. Nearer the floor, bracing herself and hiding her nerves, she looks up at the other woman’s exposed cameo of a face and almost winces—Olivia’s is a visceral, maddening beauty, and the glaze of pride and sorrow with which she wears it only makes it moreso, but she is untouchable when she is still, like a work of art unprinted by the admirers’ fingerprints. Only when she moves does she come alive. Her mouth twists too hard when she grimaces, stretches too wide when she smiles. Viola wonders how often she allows her face to move at all. Yet it moves like mercury as she looks at Viola—Cesario—and Viola bites her lips, swallows Orsino’s impersonally effusive paeans, and tries not to run out of the room.
“He’s an awful poet,” Olivia mutters, and Viola laughs before she can stop herself, the sound hitting the silent, echoing rafters of Olivia’s high, painted ceiling. Orpheus and Eurydice are painted in fresco there, and every Muse in the crowd wears a variant on Olivia’s own face.
Sebastian would like her. Sebastian might even woo her.
Viola’s skin tingles with the potential—impossible, maddening—and when she leaves, she thinks she hopes that she has sloughed it off, has left it behind in Olivia’s silent, black-furnished halls. Instead, the solemn stuffy steward stops her on her way and throws Olivia’s ring into her path, and she has to swallow her own amazement: she arrives back at Orsino’s with the jewel kept safe on her finger and the memory of Olivia’s eyes shaping her: contouring along the lines of her breeches, the slope of her jacketed shoulders, the imagined images beneath her clothes.
“How did you fare?” Orsino asks, and she tells him, “Not well.” He throws pillows around the room angrily all night until he drops back onto his bed with exhaustion; she watches, helpless and bidden nearly into laughter, as he versifies badly and aggrievedly on the spot. When she goes to her own bed, though, she wishes that she had joined him, for sleep does not meet her there: instead she draws her hands shakily over her shoulders, the cloth binding her flat chest, the roll she keeps tucked into her breeches, the narrow joints of her hips. What she sees, closing her eyes and imagining herself, is different than the landscape evoked under her hands: she curls her fists into her bedclothes and dreams, improbably, of herself.
Olivia kisses her one day.
She doesn’t have time to react before Olivia is up, moving with the bright electricity that always comes to life in her when she sloughs off her veil, launched from her high carved chair and into Viola’s unoffered, unopened arms, her hands avid and already clasping Viola’s cheeks.
A boy would kiss her back, and this one does.
She stutters one of Orsino’s poems before she leaves, and then oh lord she runs.
Olivia kisses her again on the street, in front of God and Orsino and everyone, and the world goes briefly, assuredly mad. There is a sword at her waist and one aimed at her neck and Orsino is proclaiming and Olivia’s hands are frantic and—
Suddenly, and madder still, the world stops.
“Sebastian,” she says, and stares at her duplicate.
He is silent. He is not even smiling. He is not quite her mirror image: his clothes, though cut like hers (she knew, she thinks), are striped unfamiliarly, and his hair curls over his collar in a way she would never let hers.
He is more familiar than she has ever been to herself, even still. Even now.
“Had I a brother,” he begins shakily, “I would—”
Before he can close his mouth, Viola flings herself into his arms. “Please,” she says quietly into his ear, and his shell-shocked arms slowly move up to enclose her shoulders, hands patting at her back as if he expects her to dissolve. They rest there—solid to solid. His cheek to hers, he nods mutely.
She leans back. “It is me,” she says. “Sebastian, it’s—Cesario.”
He nods. “Thank God you’re alive,” he says, and hugs her again, properly, his arms a long-missed vise around her.
When they part, Olivia is looking on with saucer eyes, twinning the pair of them in each iris.
“Would that you had a bloody sister,” Orsino groans from behind her, “a live and unfaded sister!” and she, he, Viola, Cesario, laughs with a spirit as wide as the sea. Sebastian looks like he’s choking on his own tongue; when he, she, Cesario, Viola, hits him on the back, pounds him harder than ever she would have dared before, he spits out laughter to match her.
“My God,” he says, “I think I inhaled seawater—or belladonna—never drink at the Elephant! This can't be real.”
“You’re seeing clearly, brother,” she checks him, he checks him, and he, Sebastian, shakes his unruly head. “I suppose I am.”
Olivia runs up, links her elbow with him, kisses him a dozen times on the cheek with her eyes on Cesario, on Viola, glaring and wanting and watching. Her teeth graze Sebastian’s earlobe as she whispers: “You’ve got to tell me everything.” Viola, Cesario, watches as Sebastian’s fingers stroke her cheek, palm curving against her face, and Olivia stares and Cesario, Viola, says: “Orsino, I’m—I’ll be leaving your employ.”
She has to get out of Illyria. He has to get out of Illyria.
Sebastian turns to her. “You know, I’ve got a pirate for you to meet,” and she barks out another laugh; of course he does. “He’d like you. If you’ve still got your sea legs.”
“I live in hope that I’ll remember them.”
“So,” he says, and for one crystalline moment his eyes are not bewildered but merely fond, “I guess you really did adventure for the both of us—”
“Oh, shut up,” she says, “you had your share or you wouldn’t be here.”
His eyes glint, amused. “Rudeness looks good on you. Brother.”
“Unlike that hair of yours, which looks dreadful on you. Someone ought to shear you,” she says, he says, light voice over the glad hammer of her heart, behind his bound breasts, careening with joy in her flat chest.
“We both know I’m the handsome one,” Sebastian says, and there, in the middle of the road, he stops again, grabs her, him, and picks him, her, right off the ground on which they walk. Still stronger, only just. “You’re—you’re the bloody—odd—oddest—oh, bugger it, you’re alive,” he says, disbelievingly, and Cesario, with all of Viola’s old smiles on his mouth, nods without an immediate word. Yes.
I’ll sail back to you, she thinks, he thinks, with no dissonance between the two selves. She is both. He is both. She has her sea legs already, oh yes he has his sea legs, askew and aswagger on the land on which he walks, she walks. I’ll sail back to you, she thinks, he thinks, and grins, and speaks for Sebastian’s audience and Sebastian’s alone (though the whole world might as well have been listening with pricked ears, waiting for her to choose her path, or him his; she thinks she hears it wait, and she thinks she hears the sea crash against the pier in the distance):
“Moreso than ever.”