“Nothing like summer in the country,” Burr said. He was still recovering from his sun-stroke and his words were half-liquid, a slurry of ice scrapings; they ran straight down Hamilton’s backbone and chilled him to the heart. He tried to sit up but Burr caught him by the shoulder and forced him down flat against the cot once more. Burr’s smile—Hamilton had seen that smile on the mouths of men who had died and dried in the dust and scabrous mud of Monmouth, whose lips had cracked and shriveled back. He hadn’t seen it on the living before.
“How long have I been out? What day is it?”
“I’m afraid I can’t say, sir.” The smile was unfading. “Think on what that means, if you’d like.”
“We aren’t out of time.”
“It wouldn’t be in your nature to admit it if we were, would it? Here.” He placed his hand behind Hamilton’s neck and offered him a canteen. “We can’t have you dying of thirst.”
The water had gone warm and stale, but it was as smooth as silk, and it uncoiled down Hamilton’s throat like a ribbon. He drank until Burr stopped him; he must have been a long time in bed, prone and half-desiccated, because the work of drinking exhausted him and made his mouth wet and swollen, as if he’d been hard at kissing.
That reminded him: it wasn’t Burr whom he’d expected to see upon waking.
“Where is Laurens?”
Burr’s dead man’s smile only pulled back further. “Don’t worry, sir. He’s not forgotten—numbered in our company still. He’ll be along once they’ve set up the rest of the camp. It’s only those of us who are ailing who get our rest.”
“Infirmary tent, then. That’s where we are?”
At last, the smile faltered, and Burr seemed human once more, not some revenant chiseled out of wood and stone, but only a man weary and ill; the heat and his collapse had stolen all the warmth from his skin and repainted him a sallow, earthy yellow-brown. Hamilton felt an inexpressible pity for him. Burr, of all of them, had the most to lose, so much that it was almost shocking he’d dare to wager it at all, for he’d not been bred from whispers and he’d had no need to tie his fortune to them. He had been the son of a great man and the grandson of another; born of a woman whose sex had never circumscribed her genius. Hamilton had asked him once how he, of all people, had dared take up arms against the story.
“There are tales of what happens when men fail at what we’re attempting,” he’d said. “Men who make war may die, but men who try to make history may be overwritten.”
“Don’t quote proverbs at me, Alexander. I’ve read my Gibbon as much as you have.” This was a conversation they’d had when Burr, in lieu of Washington’s physician, was fussing about with the bandage around Alexander’s overworked wrist. “I know the consequences of invoking right as well as might in matters of war. I know our risk.”
“But here you are.”
“I found myself in poor company,” Burr said, knotting up the bandage. “We kept meeting. To wrench my page from the binding of your life was more than I could manage.”
Now, Burr, committed to the only choice he had ever made, splashed some of the water on his handkerchief and smoothed back Hamilton’s hair. “Of course we’re in the sick tent, Alexander, you dear sweet fool. Where did you think we were?”
“I hadn’t formed an opinion.” He rolled to his side and looked out the open door of the tent. “The sky’s changed colors. They say that when Carthage burned--”
“It isn’t the sky. It’s our position.”
“I’m accurate. No one outside of Carthage’s fall could have seen the paper sky: they say it’s a spectacle reserved for the lost. Which begs the question of where the stories come from--those on the very margins, I suppose.”
“The sky’s only bruised now,” Hamilton said decisively. “Fresh calf’s skin still on the meat and bone. I refuse to worry until it’s cured to vellum. No one can write on an open wound; open wounds are for stitching.”
“Is that how you talk to a sick man?” Laurens said, coming into the tent; whatever changes the sky had undergone, the sunshine in John was the same as it had ever been. “Apologies, Burr, you look like death itself. You’ve a bed of your own? Let me help you to it.”
“As kind a dismissal as was ever issued,” Burr said, amused, and he let John help him to his feet and take him to his own cot across the tent. Hamilton fell onto his back again to watch them—there was something alluring about the sheer constancy of John’s goodness. In his least reasonable moments, he thought that would be bedrock enough to build a life on.
John made his way back to Alexander’s bedside with a little French moue of disapproval he had probably borrowed, like hair powder or the impossible luxury of silk stockings, from Lafayette. “He really isn’t well, you know. He’s much worse off than some.”
“Am I ‘some’?”
“You,” John said lowly, “are ‘all,’ and you know it. Would you like something to drink?”
“Burr’s nursed me already.”
“I’m to be deprived of administering tender comforts?”
“No, you’re merely to sharply differentiate yours from Burr’s. I believe you’ll manage.”
“I believe I shall.” He took Alexander’s hand in his and held it a while, moving his thumb back and forth in steady strokes along the knuckles. “If you’re restored to yourself this afternoon, the General could use your assistance with his correspondence. He’s opined, confidentially, that anyone else would cut themselves bloody on the double-edged pen you manage to wield with such ruthless efficiency.”
“Well,” John said. He looked across the tent and saw Burr’s eyes were closed, his head turned aside, and dared to lift the back of Alexander’s hand very briefly to his mouth. “At this point, after such a loss, I think the balance is tipped, that we slide towards relying on words rather than weapons if we’re to survive as ourselves at all. We must leave a record, or history will never reclaim us from our enemies.” The unnatural joy in his face was so bright it could almost blister—but Alexander knew it too well to count it as a change in him. John’s longing to wed himself to death was regrettably familiar. It shone from him bright and wild; seemed at times the realest thing about him, more real than his body, however Alexander tried, in their brief encounters, to insist upon those limbs, that mouth, that neck. He was wildfire inside a hurricane lamp.
Alexander wrenched his hand away. “Are you so happy, then, that you put so little faith in my words? Imagining they’ll be read only after our deaths?” Or disappearances, he thought sourly. “Do you know better than Washington what I’m capable of writing?”
“Hush, dear boy.”
“No need to ask why you agreed to war.”
“Would you like me to admit it?”
“I like you as man better than I’d like you as myth, should I admit that?”
“That is not the war we chose to fight,” John said sharply. “Musket-fire and cannonades? Raids like knives in the dark? We have ground them down for some time, but they have ground us out, Alex. With story, as David against Goliath, at least we had a chance; story fed us for a while, gave us men, gave us hope. Our country—if a country it’s ever to be—chose this, in blood and ink, in its damned declaration, that this was not just about our earthly selves or this nearest shore but principalities and perceptions, and—”
“Laurens,” Burr called across the tent. “You’re as bad as Hamilton. If you will not talk less, at least talk quietly.”
John’s head reared back, the movement of a well-blooded horse with a frenzy on him, and then at last he converted that wild spasm into the nod of one gentleman to another. “Of course, sir, yes. I forget myself.” His smile was as ghastly as Burr’s: at least Burr’s insincerity was, in and of itself, sincere. John, lacking any skill for it, simply looked as if he were trying not to vomit.
The expression mercifully left his face as he turned back to Alexander. A harangue in hushed tones was still a harangue, however, and Alexander was left to bear it, for that they would tolerate each other’s scoldings, such as they were, their little lectures and redundancies and follies, was a bargain they too had sealed between themselves with blood, spit, and bruises. A strand of John’s hair, just a touch lighter than Alexander’s own, had fallen onto his hand once as they slept shelved against each other like books; Alexander had knotted it around his finger, where it nestled as tightly as a wedding band. He had therefore promised to listen, and owed John that much.
“We declared truths to be self-evident,” John said through his teeth. “We tried to remake the world to be as we said it always was. We said history would prove us right. We tried for legacy, Alex, for paintings and pamphlets alongside pain, and like it or not, we are losing.” He breathed out, looking suddenly young—was it already happening? was he coming undone? unraveled by history? but no, he had looked like that before, though never in such a place as this.
“Listen. I would rather die bloody, die muddy, die early or late, but if I must fade away, I’ve known worse places to meet my fate. To be a legend—there would be worse things. Achilles and Patroclus—”
“Were on the winning side.”
“But still they died. You’ve written us as rag-tag upstarts, valiant if outnumbered, but they’ve written us as traitors, and with every loss, they sell their story more. They’ll prevail. If we burn down with Troy, we may yet be remembered—if it’s magnificent enough, they’ll still tell our story.”
“Or,” Alexander said, “we could win the next battle, and the next, and still on. Their blood, not anyone’s words, could turn the tide, and we’ll have a sky again that’s only blue. Washington hasn’t given up. He’ll have me savage Congress for reinforcements, his generals for their plans, and I’ll bleed them white as England, claw down to their marrow. I won’t write us a legacy, John, I’ll write us a tomorrow.”
Laurens’s smile now was gentler. “I could almost believe you.”
“Have a little faith.”
“Faith from a sinner—”
“Is the only kind worth having.” But he had not persuaded John, he knew soon enough, because this time John bent down and kissed him, his mouth as warm and ripe as a fresh peach. Oh, Southern boys, Alexander thought, irrelevantly, there was nothing like them, or at any rate, nothing like this one, the way he always tasted of blood and fruit.
Restored again to the General’s tent, Hamilton wrote until his right hand felt as though he’d thrust it into a fire: pain licked its way up and down his bones like flames. He couldn’t say such to Washington, not when blood was in the corners of the man’s mouth from his teeth cutting into him all throughout his long dictation and collaboration. He would soak cloth in water after they were done—which at this rate would be sometime after midnight—and wrap it around his hand and sleep like that, with the chill and pressure ebbing the pain away.
Then Washington took the most recent letter off Hamilton’s desk just as Hamilton scratched out the closing to it. He examined it and then said, “Here, give me your hand.”
“It isn’t an order,” Washington said mildly.
He didn’t know why that reassured him. He held out his hand, which, freed a little from his sleeve as he stretched out his arm, looked as lumpen and red as malformed clay even to his own eyes, even as much as he wanted to will them to denial; Washington took it with a sort of distressing tenderness. His own hands were cool, and gentle.
“Like a brick straight from the stove.”
“We’ll all have our wounds in the end, sir, from whatever side of the war. This will leave me unscarred.”
“I ought to separate you from me,” Washington said, almost musingly: he was a man much given to thinking, but not, it seemed to Hamilton, to saying his thoughts aloud, and these words had the muddiness of something dragged up through the river-bank of his very soul. “You, Lafayette, Laurens. –All of my staff. Let the British see your absence in the lines, in whatever they can purloin of my letters. You might yet—stay. If it comes to it, Alex, will you go?”
“No, sir.” He had never been surer of anything in his life: he had not been so sure of Eliza or John as he was of the revolution once he was in it. And he flattered himself that he was the best weapon Washington had, at least for the most peculiar of their battles. “I have no wish to leave.”
“And if that were an order?”
“Then you would have to clap me in irons, and I would be entered into the records, and still part of this story in any case. And even in prison, I would smuggle out letters—I can forge your signature quite passably.”
“Can you?” Washington said, almost interested, almost smiling. He had aged a decade in the time Alexander had known him.
“You can’t disprove it, sir.” He moved his fingers just a little and was forced to admit, “This is a balm of sorts.”
“I wish to God we were fighting this war with guns alone,” Washington said, still not relinquishing him. “I had rather leave a body behind for my wife to bury, and not make her the widow of some half-cocked traitor and would-be tyrant, or whatever specter they make of me once I am gone—still less I like the thought of them making one of her, and I cannot guarantee they shall not.”
“It’s not honorable to take a woman in war,” Alexander said sharply, thinking of Eliza, whose letters to him came more and more frequently blotted in places with tears.
“Honorable? No. But honor is the prerogative of men, not the forces they harness, and wives and daughters have been lost before. I only thank God Patsy is safe in heaven, and Jacky off the field. They’d not have thanked me for bringing them up as my own if they’d known what I would do to their mother.” He seemed to feel Alexander’s hand tighten in his own, a flex of unruly muscle as panicky as a fish trying for water, because he said, “I don’t think that will happen for Mrs. Hamilton, son. Truly. Not as your wife, and not as her father’s daughter. She has money, she has connections, she is well-suited to survive. She has too much of her own story, no matter what victor writes our history, to vanish into yours.”
“Is that a promise, sir?” He could feel the flushed spots in his cheek, high and hectic as if he were feverish in truth; some part of him was always burning.
“How could I—” But he was not the first of them, and would not be the last of them, for nothing. He changed his hold on Alexander’s hand to be that of a handshake, a punctuation as firm as that he had made when he had first taken him on as an aide—a gesture not between equals but one of utter finality, such as only he, of all men on earth, had the right to make. “A promise, Alexander.”
It was in another retreat, with the buzzing of flies thick about them, with his arm around Burr’s waist to hold him up, that Alexander looked up and saw the sky change colors: a dull white flag thrown up above them, not of their surrender, but of their defeat. He had been about to say to Burr that they were not done, that he should not lose hope, but even he could not gainsay that sky. They had had their warning--everyone but him had known it--and now they were done.
They had lost.
He looked down at his hands, to see if they would immediately start changing to ink and figment, but of course that would take more time. Until then, they were merely flesh, and as ailing and weak and battered as flesh anywhere. He impulsively pressed his mouth to Burr’s temple, seeking nothing but comfort, though whether he was giving it or receiving it was an open question.
“Leave,” Alexander whispered. “Run. Go where the sky won’t follow you. You take all my caution, and I’ll take all your glory, isn’t that what we always agreed? Be the one on the margins.”
“I’ll die,” Burr said, his voice a croak.
With almost a snarl of impatience, Alexander uncorked his canteen and emptied it down Burr’s throat and over his face. Burr sputtered up water. His face shone with it. It seemed, at least briefly, to trick some blood back into his face, his cheeks sparked anew with circulation, flushed.
“Better to die than to fade away. Dead, you have an immediate chance of heaven.”
Burr scoffed. “You hardly know how I’ve lived my life.”
“But I know you are alive,” Alexander said, “and soon enough I won’t know that of myself. Run, sir. Washington has not commended you, your record is scant—you’re tethered only to me, and I can sever you, I’ll burn out your name, never let your name pass my lips again. Tell no one you ever knew me. But get out from under this damned sky before it’s overwritten.”
Burr’s legs were barely steady enough to hold him straight. He could not run, not really. But it was not speed that would save him, nor distance, but only the ability to take his own advice, shut his mouth, be carefully taught, give nothing away. And be forgotten, of course. Cruelly enough, Hamilton thought that it could be managed. He could forget Burr as he could never have forgotten Laurens, Lafayette, Washington, Eliza. He loved him, in his way, but he could—lose track of him. And so could history. Burr had only been the barest scratch across the king’s face; even Georgie could forget that.
“I can’t counteract what they’ll say of you,” Burr said. “Not enough. You know that, don’t you?”
“I’ve just said not to mention me.” Because he did know. History would always have its eye on Burr, however much he was on the periphery of its vision; it would take so little to attract its attention back to him, and meddling in legacies was a sure lure. Those stories of what happened when such wars as theirs were lost, when empires and would-be empires fell, they were always, as Burr himself had said, anonymously told.
Burr nodded and for a moment it seemed like he really would refuse to go, or at least that he would say something poetic about it, for he really was given to striking bits of language when the occasion called for it—but in the end he just reached out, cupped Hamilton briefly around the back of his head, knotted his fingers in Hamilton’s hair, and staggered out of line.
Alexander watched him make his way to the margins of their world. Into the woods, the leaves, all that would-be pulp, all that destined history. He prayed Burr would make it out.
John, who had kept his horse, rode up beside him. “You were always sentimental about him.”
“He was, I think, surprisingly sentimental about me,” Alexander said. With some effort, he took his eyes off the tree-line. John, having gotten his glory, was resplendent. Alexander could think of no reason now to guard his tongue. “You look very beautiful.”
“Here,” John said, putting his hand down. “Ride double with me.”
“Into the sunset?”
“Hooves like thunder over the horizon until we fade away—it makes no difference now. Nothing does.”
John smiled. Someone else’s blood was on his teeth. “Then we’ve had our victory after all—we at least are free.”
“Another such victory as this and I am undone,” Alexander said, but he let John help him up, and he placed his legs against John’s and wrapped his arms around John’s chest. He thought: Pyrrhic, Piraeus, pyre, as though he were conjugating, as though they were all part of the same family of words. John’s unwashed hair in his face smelled of grease and smoke and the lingering remnants of Lafayette’s powder. Alexander put his face against the back of John’s neck and breathed in, hard.
Washington had ordered out all the drummer boys, fifers, slaves, and as many privates as could be spared some weeks ago, stripping their numbers down to the bone despite Hamilton’s protests, and now, holding court like the Arthur Alexander would have made him—and not the Tyrannus they would say he was—he tried to assess with each man whether or not he could go home. He let Alex stay at his side all the way through, but he was tight-lipped and furious with him, and that day there would be no compassion for his hand and wrist: “Write faster, damn you, Alexander. We’ll need records even if we burn them.”
The extent of their conversation during all of it was: “Colonel Burr?”
“Gone,” Hamilton said succinctly.
Washington looked at him. “Gone or—gone?” He pinched his fingers in the air and drew them away from his palm again, spreading them out, to indicate Burr’s potential dissolution.
“As a lieutenant colonel? I wouldn’t have thought he would make it.”
“You don’t know him as I do, sir. He—leaves very few traces of himself. I told him I would not—”
“Of course,” Washington said. “Burn everything. Burn it all.”
They had discussed this, obliquely, when the tide had first started to turn against them. Anyone whose ties to the war were weak and not widely published would have their commissions and orders burned the moment the war was lost, and whatever time Alexander had left on this earth would be spent scouring out names in what letters and journals remained to them. If no trace of them could be found, they might escape history’s cold, transfiguring eye.
For the rest of them, doomed already because they had shone too brightly and made their names too well-known, all that remained to them was to polish the bare bones of their records as best and as quickly as they could. It would do little to nothing for their immediate legacies—not when they would be so directly shaped by their enemies—but in time, perhaps, some more favorable hands would unearth a letter, or recall their histories, and then there would be hope.
“I could almost wish it were a more ordinary war,” Alexander had said to Eliza, the night of their wedding. Her head had been on his shoulder and he had thought he should, to be as much of an honest man as he might be, take some of her hair, too, as a keepsake; blood and bone and hair were more honest than any ring. Or so he had tried to tell John. (Not that John thought much of his own ring.)
“If it were that kind of war,” he said, “I would have every confidence of meeting you soon, one way or the other, but—”
“Shh,” she said, hushing him almost viciously. His bride had decided teeth. “You’ll win, and live, and come home to me.”
“If we fail—”
She put her hand to his mouth and, lacking anything else to do, he kissed her fingers and put them between his lips; tasted the soap and perfumed violets of her.
She said, “If nothing else, in the end, the books will give up their dead no less than the sea and the grave—and if you are understood, if you gain yourself again, even just a flicker of it, in some stranger’s mind, you will be translated over to heaven sooner still than that. Translated to me. Everyone says so. And I swear, Alexander, if it comes to that, I will speak loudly enough to cut to ribbons whatever slander they speak of you; I will write under pseudonyms in every paper until the monster they have made you is your shadow, not theirs. And then I will see you again.” She climbed atop him, her color high, her long hair falling down about her shoulders, her knees—as smooth as silk—on either side of his thighs.
That there, he thought, had been the true consummation for them, in which he had seen and been awed by her love for him and rendered his love likewise unto her.
It had soothed him—no one could have witnessed it, he consoled himself, for it would have been like laying eyes on an eclipse.
He blew a kiss to her, as trite as that seemed, over the horizon, to whatever blue sky she could shelter under still. He had no doubts about her at all, and it put him strangely at peace—however much time he would spend lessened and defeated, cunning and sinful, or however they would shape him, in the end, she should shape him too, and with far more determination than his enemies.
My love, take your time.
He had to remember that John had no such hope of being understood before the Final Judgment—he had not given himself to his wife in that way, she would not know him well enough to shape his legacy truly—and neither did the General, who would be first and foremost the target of Britain’s ire, and whose wife, after all, was with them. Alexander had seen her already, ashen-faced but steady.
So he did as he had never done before—as he had dared other men to do, knowing how it would go for them—and he put a hand on the General’s arm.
Washington did not move away, but he bore the touch as a statue would.
“It is not the end of everything, sir. Only the end of this—our pocket of a world, that we’re turned inside out and shook—”
“I should have discharged you.”
“I would not have gone.”
“I might have had you drummed out,” Washington said, not harshly but contemplatively. “Could I not have, Alexander? If I had doubts about that, you and Laurens amply satisfied them in our final retreat.”
“You wouldn’t have done me that dishonor.”
“You might have been dishonored and not dead, yet still walking.”
He remembered telling Laurens that he preferred him as a man, and not as a myth. He had never known someone else could feel such about him—Laurens had not, and Eliza refused to believe a distinction could persist, so it was in this way that he was at last humbled.
“I have been of indifferent religion, lately,” Alexander said, “but Betsey assures me—”
“Today is not the day for consolation,” Washington said. “Give me that space, at least, to grieve what you might have been if I hadn’t seen your talents. And if you were not so everlastingly stubborn.” He gave a straight-lipped smile. “Go on, Alexander. We’re done with this, and you have so much work to do.”
Hamilton bowed—he always had the feeling, when bowing to Washington, that he was offering less his deference and more the back of his neck, bared beneath the knot of his queue; that here was the offer to give his life, for whatever it was worth. In the end, he supposed the offer had been taken, though not as he would have liked. So he would have to give something else, instead: he stuck out his hand.
They had begun with a handshake and would end with one. He did not know if he would see Washington again like this—their enemies would act on him quickly.
The stories of such were terrible. He wanted to promise that he would do his best not to look, but what he said instead was:
“It’s been an honor, Your Excellency, sir.”
“Thank you, son,” Washington said. His eyes—he looked down at the ground and blinked rapidly before he returned them to Alexander’s face. “It has been my honor, as well.”
“While we have bodies yet to eat and drink, we must eat and drink,” John said, matter-of-factly, “even if no one will eat with us.”
“I had not expected men on the verge of nonexistence to be so prudish,” Lafayette said. “Though I suppose many of you were recently English.” He had taken the powder—a curious affectation anyway, Alexander had privately thought—from his hair, as his ribbon had been lost some weeks ago, and his hair had formed a glorious penumbra around his face.
(“French decadence,” someone had opined of this, before John had hit him in the mouth and knocked him down. Afterwards, he had looked up at the sky, scanning it for those same words, as if they’d rained down, or--like smoke--risen up.)
“It did not even occur to me to doubt you would remain in our company,” Alexander admitted. “That doesn’t offend you, I hope?”
“Not in the slightest. War makes bedfellows.”
And that was not, Alexander wanted to say, quite the expression, but John gave him a look that might have been borrowed from Burr—no, forget Burr—and so he restrained himself.
They had what would pass, with their rotten and stale stores, for a feast; their futures mattered very little now. This was all they could have of a party. And afterwards, Lafayette would go to the Washingtons, to be a son to them while he might, and Alexander would go with John. (But he had not removed his ring. He would wear it, whatever the Hamilton-creature who came after him would do. Eliza would put it back on him in the end, and he would not break her faith in that, at the very least, for as long as it was in his power.)
At the end of the night, Lafayette kissed Alexander on both cheeks and then, more hesitantly—and it was unlike John’s kisses and unlike Eliza’s—on the mouth. He smelled of wine and would have tasted of it, too, but the moment was too brief for that. All Alexander perceived was warmth, which had always and ever been what Lafayette had given him
He thought, I have never adequately understood this, but he could not complete the reflection—I have never known by whom I was loved, and how, and why—it was very late to change, and this felt so fundamental.
He wanted to be simpler than that, more easily understood, so that one day some hand would be able to catch him by the ankle and draw him back into the world.
He told John this, as they took advantage of the dying embers in the last of the fire to strip down and see each other—to memorize, while they could, angles of hipbones, curves of buttocks, paler insides of knees—and John laughed.
“I apologize,” he said. “It’s only the idea that you would ever be simple.”
“You should talk,” Alexander said. He could not be honest, so he would have to be loving. “It will take them half an eternity just to know the number of your freckles.”
After that, things happened very quickly.
Washington stayed closeted with his wife and Lafayette, but nonetheless, there were rumors of him: that he was already as transparent as smoked glass, as weakly formed as clouds and fog. Moreover, his replacement had been sighted: a monstrous creature with tusks like a boar.
What the British had done with Lafayette, Hamilton had seen firsthand—his legacy was a petulant boy, with a candy-box prettiness and a child’s wooden sword, brittle and crystalline as marzipan and caramel, a mere toy from Versailles. They would make the general into a beast and the marquis into a joke. He was glad he had not seen the new Washington, at least, though he had heard its roars and bellows, and seen the marks it had left on the trees.
For the most part, he stayed in the tent with John. As they faded away, the representations of them would take form, just long enough to taunt, just long enough to let them see the gulf they would have to be brought across to have their souls once more.
“I may not have your gift for words—or your talent for outwitting those who’d steam open letters—but,” John said, “I think this at least is within my power.” He dipped the quill into ink once again and resumed his writing: he was across Alexander’s bicep now, and Alexander shivered.
“It will not be long now. The sky’s growing dark from all the ink they’ve poured into it, the General and Lafayette have gone—so rumors say—and you—”
“Hush. I’ll want to write on your lips, as well.”
“But not yet. I’ve seen myself on the edges of camp, all mouth and hands, studded with quills, fire-breathing, foolish. Bones made of tightly-wound scrolls of paper inked-up with vile calumny--conjecture, of course, I haven’t gotten close enough to read them. And I don’t remember—”
“We all have such bald patches in ourselves.”
“They’ll make me very noble and misguided,” John said. His tongue was in the corner of his mouth with concentration: he had not yet erred or blotted, and the poetry he was committing to Alexander’s skin was still perfect in its Greek and Latin. “It means recovering me will take a very long time, for I am not noble, and I am not misguided. If any historian ever wins me back from shadows and shades, it will be that either we are all truly free, and I am remembered for being right, or that they have recollected you, and seen that I love you. Those are my only truths. They will need both of them. They will need, I think, to know that I wrote poetry on you before the end of the world, that I gave you words and names to outwit them, because I have done very little else that’s mattered.”
“If the shoe fits, I must bear the pinch of it.”
“You really haven’t my gift for words,” Alexander said, “or for sense. If a shoe fits, it does not pinch; if it pinches—that was not an invitation to pinch.”
“Tell me you love me.”
“I love you.”
John’s eyes had gone white.
Already, that morning, Alexander had woken alone in bed, and it was only later that he had found John, and John had not been able to tell where he’d been.
He wondered what his own eyes looked like.
He thought of the words and theories he would dissolve into, the horror they would write him as; he thought of the parchment that he was underneath John’s pen.
You have no control, Washington had told him, who lives, who dies, who tells your story.
I am willing to wait, he thought—hummed, really—and he closed his eyes and John, now the wild no-colors of ice and wind, continued the poem onto his belly, just above his navel. I am willing to wait for it. There is nothing in life I can control.
Take your time, take your time.
He could no longer feel anything.
Eventually, you’ll see my ascendancy.
The moment came; he let it be.