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In This Fragile Cage of Bone (Part III)

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There was a wound on the pine tree on the other side of the small lawn. Its sap formed a ragged oval which caught the sun in amber. James kept his eyes on it as he moved forward. Every movement was perfectly balanced, bare feet adjusting to the minute imperfections of the sod. The cloth of his trousers snapped with each kick. The muscles in his forearms visibly reshaped as he blocked and punched, to the right, the left, in front. He turned.

“You’ve abandoned us,” the wood sprite said.

Eyes forward, James continued the poomsae, the friction of rough weave accompanying the execution of each precise step. Pattern finished, he looked towards the arch cut into the yew hedge. His dryad was still there, the sun behind him, expression lost in shadow.

“We expected you back. The fight scenes are better with your blocking. They sent me to tell you.”

“You fence,” James said, resting one foot on the stone bench and bending forward until his chest touched his thigh. He straightened and switched feet.

“Yes.” The faun moved closer. “But you’ve done it for longer. It shows.”

“You can manage without me,” James insisted. He squatted on the grass, lowered his head and forearms to the ground and slowly raised his legs. The loose trousers slid down to his knees, his tee-shirt clung to the sweat on his chest. He pressed his legs together, pointed his toes, a perfect headstand.

The sprite stretched out by James's elbows, turned his face towards him. “Now, we know it can be better.” James met the gaze, a darker green than the grass. He lowered his legs slowly until his toes touched the ground on the other side of the dryad’s shoulders. “And you promised us a reading.”


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James’s brow furrowed. “I read already.”

“Someone else’s words. We want yours.” The sylph slipped from under the bridge of James’s legs and stood.

James raised his legs again. “If I write you lines, you’ll read them,” he said. He had not meant to bargain. He had meant to decline.

From the arch in the hedge, the naiad called, “I’ll tell them to expect you tomorrow.”

***

As James approached the small library for landscape gardening, a woman was leaving, several rolls of paper under one arm. She turned in the opposite direction without seeing him, still adjusting a bag over her other shoulder. He hoped she had been the only occupant. He liked to write at the desk in the bay window. He liked to think between the etchings of Babylon and Alhambra. He preferred to do it alone.

The room was his. A few steps inside the door, James stopped. A game had been left unfinished on the chess table, vanquished pieces standing watch beside the inlaid squares. He considered. Three moves from checkmate. He began to slot the fragile pieces into the recessed compartments in the table. Game conceded? He lifted the beleaguered king from his phalanx of rooks and pawns. The figure was old, its design intricate. The tapered tiers of dentelle were cracked in several places. Damaged by thoughtful fingers or frayed tempers? He turned the piece over. The bone was warming in his hand. He placed the king back amidst his ivory towers, tapping each in turn. Are you unreachable there or would I that you were? James glanced across the library at the other chess set, neatly arrayed in its glass cabinet. He preferred the feel of the jade.

 The King & His Castles

The pale green pages lay blank before him on the desk. James gazed out the library window at the formal gardens that bordered that side of the main house, followed the geometric flower beds and clipped hedges down to the woods where he had run. On the far left of the vista, the long arbour of wisteria could be seen. Its blossoms hid the top tier of the little amphitheatre. The weather had remained fair; they were probably still there.

 

It had been louder than it should have been, the sound of a broad palm on bare flesh. Birds had fluttered from the trellis. When James crested the hillock, Q was on his hands and knees; Claude capering away. Despite having seen them rehearse, James glared at Claude, something red roiling up from his gut and tingeing his vision. Claude halted near where the others sat. Together they watched the way Q unfolded, his focus inward. They observed despair transforming to fortitude in the line of his spine. No one looked away from that lone figure standing naked on the grass.

Simone moved forward first, a large towel in her outstretched hands. Q lifted his head higher, let his hand fall away from his face as she wrapped it around him. She rubbed his shoulders; he nodded at her and glanced at Claude. Claude shook his head and raised his eyes skyward. He saw James. Claude took a half-step back and Q turned. His glance had held James for an instant before he had had to retreat behind the vines.

He had leaned against the trellis, breathing as though he had already been running. On the other side, he could hear them discussing the scene. Auguste had begun a point and stopped mid-thought. Justine had laughed, sharp and sudden. They compared their reactions, as much revealed by their voices as their words. James could not join them, could not analyse yet. Once he had caught his breath, he had run.

 

James tapped the pencil against the open notebook. He had thought to stay away for a while. He looked down at the smooth paper. “If I write you lines.”

***

He did not. James called to the night instead and when he read the words to Simone’s little group, his voice took on the melodic quality of the desert songs that he had heard begin that way. The night was when his fascination had begun and even under the brightest sky, there was too much to Q that James couldn’t see. So he called to the night and her shadows and the half-seen images lit by her silvery eye.

***

“They’re flying plague pits,” Alec wheezed. “Where is Scotty when you need him?”

“You haven’t had a bad cold in years and you fly all the time,” James replied, pouring another glass of orange juice.

“That’s because I take precautions,” Alec whinged and gulped down the juice.

“So why didn’t you this time?”

“They ran out of tomato juice,” Alec said, falling back on the pillows. “And I was looking forward to strolling about and being bitten by mosquitos.”

“We can stay in and read,” James offered.

Alec pushed himself further under the covers. “I’m going to sleep,” he said. “Go follow your muse.”

The protest died before James gave it voice. Alec had already pulled the blankets over his head.

***

The sky was dark in the east. Overhead, the blue shone between streaming wisps of white and grey. Before James, patches of lawn shimmered and dimmed with the passing clouds. The wind pressed against his back, shook raindrops from the wisteria. Beyond the arbour, the air quieted.

The choreography looked good from where James stopped. Wooden sword drawn, Claude was moving along the lowest tier of the hillside, parrying Sheng’s blows from the tier above. From a tier higher, Simone watched. She didn’t speak loudly when she asked them to begin again. James heard her clearly from the other side of the semi-circle of seating. The acoustics were good in the small amphitheatre. The duel resumed. James perched on the wooden edge of the top tier and looked elsewhere.

Auguste sat on a tarpaulin, rifling through a large, plaid hold-all. He had a pile of white and gold cloth next to him, a helmet, a gauntlet and a tasselled cushion. He was wearing chain mail over his tee-shirt. James smiled. The store of costumes and props at Seven Springs had been growing for over a hundred years, used as much for recreation as creation by the fellows. Auguste pulled out a crown, its brass finials gleaming. He disentangled them from a silken wreath of laurel.

James remembered it. Alec had adamantly refused to play Brutus to his Caesar. Simone had taken an inventive approach to Cleopatra’s scene with the asp. James’s eyes flicked back to Simone; her hair had been darker then. He continued his survey.

Justine emerged from behind a tall hedge of white rhododendron, hair in pigtails, legs bare below a short summer frock. She looked cold and unsure. It was a very different look from the fierce fencer James has grown accustomed to seeing. A hand shoved her farther into the open. A dishevelled Q followed the hand, his shirt half undone beneath his long, open coat, his hair mussed, his expression contorted even before he spoke Hamlet’s lines.

James dug the toes of his shoes into the sod. The scornful words struck him. They pushed Ophelia forward, cowering, but not fleeing, her conflict manifest in her posture. Q closed the distance between them, his gait fluid, one hand curving sinuously past his ear. “…you jig, you amble, and you lisp…” he mimicked, then the edges of his words sharpened once more. Ophelia stood still. James leaned forward. Q halted, said something quietly to Justine. They withdrew behind the hedge, emerging a moment later to play the scene again.

***

James sought the solitude of the landscaping library. As he hoped, it was empty. A knight had moved. He tapped the sharp ear, glanced at the king. Not conceded after all. He leaned against the small table.

Hamlet had upbraided Ophelia several times. James had not observed any signal that Q and Justine were done, but Justine had stepped away and picked up a sword, nodding to Auguste once she had it in her hand. They had climbed a few tiers before she had turned to attack.

Claude and Sheng had ceded the hillside, stretching out on the tarp among the props to rest. Q’s jacket was shed and tossed among them; Sheng had bunched it up and settled his chin upon it.

Q knelt to set the crown on his own head. He flung the gold and white cloth over his shoulders as he stood. Justine’s and Auguste’s swords clattered while he delivered fragments of Richard’s abdication speech, tones and gestures tried on and discarded. When he had finished piecing them together, he had prostrated himself on the grass and rolled the crown towards Claude.

James had disappeared though the arbour, unseen.

***

Alec smacked the alarm clock.

“Want coffee?” James asked.

Alec peered across the room. “Did you sleep?”

James turned sideways in the desk chair. “You can’t protect people. Can’t make them happy,” he said.

Alec pushed himself up against the pillows. “I'm not awake enough for this…”

“I’ve been listening to them,” James continued. He took a swig from a bottle of water and set it back next to his computer. “In between the scenes, they talk about the characters' motivations, how the plots might be different…”

“You’re writing him a part,” Alec said.

“A writer can protect a character, make him happy. I think I could create a character he would like to play…” James took a longer drink of water, held the bottle up against his eyes.

Alec hauled himself upright. “Or the kind of character you'd like to see him play," he said, as he headed for the bathroom. “My needs are simpler. I just need coffee before I call that idiot across the ocean.”

"Which one?" James asked.

***

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Voices floated up from the foyer, halting James’s steps. He held out his arm and Alec stopped beside him. The measured cadences they heard were Simone’s, the answering murmur unidentifiable. James peered around the corner of the landing and over the balustrade. Amidst the black and white marble, the two speakers formed a striking tableau, the chandelier casting silver-tinged prisms over Simone’s curls and gown, the dark waves of Q’s hair throwing back highlights of white. His gaze was sombre, a judge before sentencing or the accused awaiting it. Simone’s gloved hand settled on Q’s sleeve, startlingly white against his dinner jacket.

“They appreciated that you agreed to attend,” she said. Q’s answer was indistinct. “Professionally, you recognise the significance of social ritual,” she added.

Q’s voice gained volume. “Stylised behaviours substituting for individual expression,” he scoffed. “What chance do people have to communicate effectively if they never practice?”

“Sometimes they convey more than a person could manage on their own,” Simone said. “A signal is better than silence.”

Q raised his hand to his forehead. James took a step back. The gesture brought unbidden associations.

***

With a slight shake of his head, Q walked away. He’d closed the door of the nearest drawing room behind him before Alec bounded down the stairs. “Simone,” he called softly, taking her hand when she looked towards him, “you look radiant.” He raised her hand high, his eyes sweeping down to the hem of her skirt and up to the curve of her bodice before meeting her amused gaze. “Should I be jealous…” He gestured towards the room into which Q had disappeared. “…of the boy there?”

Simone arched an eyebrow and smiled. “And what would you do if I said, ‘yes’? Challenge him to a duel?”

Alec kissed her gloved fingers and smiled over them at her. “Perhaps,” he said, retaining her hand and stepping closer to kiss her cheek. “God, it’s been too long.”

“You might not win,” James said, descending the staircase at a more sedate pace to join them. “He’s good.” He kissed the same cheek Alec had kissed. He glanced at the drawing room door.

Alec took Simone’s other hand and stepped back, smiling. “If I were more suitably dressed, I’d ask you to dance,” he said. “I defy him to be as good at that as I am.” He looked at James. “Or I could send my staunch friend to distract the enemy.” He turned one of Simone’s hands over and pressed his lips to her wrist.

“I think that’s your cue to go, James,” Simone said, her eyes brightening. “You won’t find him very happy though.”

“Why?”

“He received an award,” Simone replied.

“Always makes me cranky,” Alec observed, holding her hand to his chest. “For what?”

“Pro bono work at the regional psychiatric hospital. He trained the staff in psychodrama techniques. They felt it helped. Q felt it furthered his research,” she finished as Alec’s arm curled around her waist. Her attention shifted.

“I could hum a few bars,” James offered, “or, I could just leave.” He tilted his head towards the door.

Alec raised his eyebrows and nodded. Simone laughed. James didn’t wait any longer. Alec was humming a waltz when the door to the drawing room clicked shut. James looked across the dimly lit room. Through the doors to the terrace, he saw a match flare.

James stopped by the half-open French doors, watched Q smoke through the bevelled glass.

“Simone told you,” Q said, still looking out across the garden.

James stepped sideways between the doors.

“Does that diminish it for you?” Q inhaled deeply. The tip of his cigarette glowed.

James raised an eyebrow that Q couldn’t see, took a step closer, waited for him to continue.

Q’s arm swept past the balustrade, ash scattering. “That I don’t do it for art?”

“No,” James replied. He’d reached the railing. Q didn’t turn. James leaned against the stone, contemplated the lines and curves of Q’s profile. “I do it to order. Pen for hire. Keyboard.” He snorted.

“You give people something they want,” Q said. He exhaled, smoke curling about him, orange-tinted by the security lights. “An escape route.”

“Simone?” James asked.

“She saw your name on the fellows’ list. Told me your first script was born here and that she was the mid-wife.” Q turned around, rested an elbow on the stone and took another long drag. “She’s proud of it,” he finished, smoke coming out with the words.

“Alec had most of the action and adventure written when he arrived,” James said, remembering Simone humouring them through a few frantic days.

“’Still born’, was the phrase Simone used.” Q held his cigarette out to his side, looked directly at James. “She said you breathed life into it.”

James’s eyes dropped, found refuge in a tiny reflection in Q’s shoe, distraction in the narrow foot encased in patent leather and silk hose. Q raised his knee, balanced the shoe on its toe, heel against the stonework. It revealed the ankle, slim and breakable. James shoved his hands in his pockets, closed his eyes. “I can’t do what Alec does,” he said.

“Nor he what you do, according to Simone,” Q replied. “It would appear the perfect partnership.”

James exhaled and opened his eyes, glancing up at the house. The light was on in his and Alec’s room. It made James smile. He turned back to Q. “In a lot of ways, it is.”

Q had followed James's glance. “But you aren’t happy.”

“Elusive thing, that,” James replied. He watched Q stub out his cigarette, winced when Q dropped it in the pocket of his dinner jacket.

“I’m going to swim,” Q said, turning down the terrace steps. “Want to join me this time?”

You knew? The thought riveted James to the terrace, a statue mounted slightly out of line. Q strolled away, limned by the lights, a black silhouette, but for a sliver of white at the neck, a flash of it to each side as his arms swung in time to his unhurried steps. James thought of the shoes, delicate and low, meant to walk across marble floors inlaid with designs, not across lawns, through woods. No rain today though. He took a deep breath.

The path through the trees was etched in James’s mind, the lakeside detail, the mist above the water. He could see it behind his eyelids when he blinked.

The plinths of the statues around the lake were wide. Q might sit as he undid his cuffs, might drop the silvery links in his pocket with the cigarette butt. And if he crossed his legs, James might bow to wipe away any dust that marred the mirrored surface of the shoes before he slipped them off and took Q’s warm foot in his hands.

James shook his head; Q was already lost among the trees. James hastened to follow. It was dangerous to swim alone.

***

As James had expected, Q’s clothes hung from the arms of a nymph. He thought she looked fond, gazing out over the water at Q making his way along the flat stones that led to the hot spring. James stood beside her and did the same by the light of the half moon.

It silvered the mist. The dark water doubled it, the marble ring of statues reflected it from the shadowy shore, but Q shone at the centre of it. Would they let you bathe with them? James wondered. Guard you from lascivious eyes? James slipped out of his jogging suit, draped it on the nymph’s nearest arm. Their favourite, their exception? He took a step nearer the shore. Q had reached the swirling steam. He dove.

One eye on his feet, one eye on the lake, James moved along the stones. Water gurgled. Vapour drifted towards him. He stopped to listen.

Q surfaced with hardly a splash, far from the stepping stones. “Dive from there,” he called. “It’s getting too hot nearer the spout.”

Not a hint of surprise, James noted. He calculated the distance to Q, arching only slightly as he entered the water. Q was gone when James came up for air. He tread water until he spotted Q, chin resting on his folded arms on the other side of the stones.

“You’re fast,” James said. Q chuckled. Cold water eddied about James’s feet as the cloud of steam expanded between them. The water was growing warmer near the surface. James wondered if he could dive beneath it without hitting any rocks on the lake bed.

“James,” Q said conversationally, the sound travelling across the water from a new direction.

James whipped around and saw Q appear near the willows lining the far shore, swimming beneath the trailing branches.

James re-oriented himself, raised his arm, lowered his head and kicked. He was rather a good swimmer.

The lake frothed, hot and effervescent as James cut through it towards the pale blur that was Q. James didn’t stop until his hands tangled in the branches overhanging the shore. When the chill water from the spring between the trees hit his skin, he gasped.

Leaves rustled over James’s head. “There.” James spotted a pointing hand, distinct in a patch of moonlight. A vague outline climbed higher, reached a fork between two stout tree limbs. James followed, brushed past a cool shoulder, and straddled the branch above Q. “Look,” Q said. James braced himself against the trunk and peered out between the leaves.

A plume of water rose from the centre of the lake. A hot mist enveloped the trees.

“I didn’t know it did that,” James said.

“I’ve seen it before,” Q answered. Droplets spattered the leaves. James inhaled sharply when one landed on his thigh. “It’s just as well we weren’t still in the water.” Q observed.

 

The mist thinned, a hazy version of the lake becoming visible. Its centre still churned, expelling the occasional gout of steam.

“That was brief,” James commented.

“It varies,” Q replied. “And the temperature rise is usually more gradual,” he added.

“You’ve been studying it?” James asked.

“Not really, just swimming, a little diving,” Q answered. “The lake bed has interesting mineral formations and a full moon can cast a lunar bow.” He snapped off a twig and poked James.

“This isn’t your first time at Seven Springs,” James said, snatching the stick away.

“Chew on that. The burn must hurt,” Q directed. James tapped the green wood against his teeth, touched his tongue to the splintered end and grimaced.

“No, I’ve been twice before, with my parents,” Q continued. “Technically, three times, but I was too young to remember that, of course.” He broke off another small branch.

“Of course? How young were you?” James asked. He bit off a little bark and hastily spit it back out.

Q laughed. “I was born here,” he said. “I’m surprised Simone hasn’t mentioned it. She was the mid-wife then, too.”

 

The moon was sinking behind the trees, the uppermost swirls of steam brightening in its light before dissipating in a faint breeze. It was chill at their backs as they walked around the lake.

James saw Q glance at the water. “You would have swum back.”

“The water’s still warm,” Q replied, “except where the other springs join. Like here.” He stepped to the shore, dipped his foot into the water. “This one’s Pan’s. It’s too dark to see the bubbles now, but you can feel them.”

James gazed in the opposite direction, following the dim path between the trees. “From the fountain?”

“Mmm. It’s a cold geyser. A small, but steady one. Pushes the water up through the statue. The basin drains back into the underground stream and comes out here,” Q explained.

“But you haven’t studied it,” James reiterated.

“I explored a lot as a child,” Q said, crouching down. “Fascinating rocks come up with the water and the flow wears grooves in the lake bed.”

“Which channel the cold currents,” James finished.

Q stood, reached out for James’s hand, and pressed a small, wet stone into it. “For example,” Q said.

James closed his fingers around the irregularly-shaped lump. “Weren’t you supposed to be in school?” he asked.

“I would sit tests at the end of the summer when we came back,” Q replied, wiping his hand dry on his hip. “I used to ask my mother why I couldn’t take them before we left for the year.” James could hear the smile in Q’s voice. “She told me sudden paradigm shifts make people dizzy, so we should humour the educational bureaucrats and take the tests in the order consistent with their reality.” Q resumed walking.

“No school, then?” James asked, joining him.

“Sometimes, to acquire a language,” Q replied. “My parents taught abroad for a number of years.”

They had reached the nymph with their clothes, Q’s shirt the only discernable garment in the dwindling moonlight. James dropped the stone in his shoe, held the shirt out to Q. Q turned his back, his skin nearly as reflective as the damp cotton. James clutched the cloth for an instant before settling it around Q’s shoulders. His fingertips brushed against Q’s skin, lingered.

“With what are you covering me?” Q asked.

James closed his eyes and breathed. His fingers curled, their backs sliding over the smooth skin of Q’s chest. “Ermine,” he replied, pulling the sides of the shirt closer together. “And I’d hand you the crown to place on your head.”

“Bishop or knight?” Q asked, leaning back slightly.

James snorted after the first word.

“Knight, then,” Q said. “People would follow you.”

“They’d revere you,” James replied, leaning closer.

“What would I do to deserve this?” Q asked, stepping away and turning. He slipped his arms into his shirt sleeves, snagged his trousers from the nymph’s arm.

“Guide them, like a beacon,” James said. “A fierce flame in a fragile cage of bone.” He watched luminous skin disappear inside dark wool. The feel of it was still on his fingertips.

“And for you?” Q enquired, putting on his dinner jacket without fastening his shirt.

“Keep me close. Let me shield you.”

For you,” Q repeated.

James looked away, towards the shadowy clothes held out by the nymph. He started to dress. “Keep me,” he said.

“You’ve been cast aside,” Q remarked, sitting on the plinth, balancing a pale foot on his knee.

James pulled his shirt over his head. “Less often than many,” he replied, “but it’s proved more than enough for me.”

“Not the knight, after all,” Q murmured, standing, feet dark once more. “Perhaps the castle.” James looked up from tying the drawstring of his jogging trousers. “The keep,” Q continued. “But then your king would have to come to you.” Q’s hand smoothed the cloth over James’s shoulder and James stood very still.

***

Notes rippled one into the other, gentle, harmonious. The air was scented with roses and jasmine. A voice spoke a name. Not mine. The music stopped. James didn’t move. Comfortable, but not my bed. The voice spoke again.

“Food? I’m going up to the pergola for brunch. You’ve been practicing for hours; you need to eat. And you’ve put your audience to sleep, time for a break.

James cracked an eyelid. The windows were open, someone was leaning in over the sill, the light too bright behind her to see her clearly.

“He was asleep when I came in,” another voice replied. “My playing has had no effect on him at all.”

James opened his other eye and sat up on one elbow. “Good morning,” he said. He looked more carefully out the window. “If that is the correct time of day.”

“It was until a half hour ago,” said the voice at the window. The speaker leaned a little further into the room and James recognised the landscape architect, sans scrolls.

James looked at the pianist. “I’m sorry if I interfered with your practice,” he said. He surveyed the music room. “I don’t remember coming in.”

“Ah, that kind of night,” replied the pianist. “No wonder you slept so soundly.” James rubbed a hand over his face and shook his head. The pianist glanced at the other woman and back at James. “You look like you need coffee. Care to come with us?”

“There will be lavender ice cream with dessert,” the architect said in James’s direction, “and the first of the strawberries for you, Esther,” she added, turning towards the pianist. Esther closed the piano, gathered her sheet music.

I believe it is night. The darkness is utter. The words were coming back to James. His eyes darted about the room. He didn’t want to lose them.

“If it’s paper you need more,” Esther said, walking to the window, “there’s manuscript paper in here…and pencils.” She patted one of the drawers beneath the glass-fronted shelves full of small percussion instruments, before she sat on the low windowsill and lifted her legs over. “Coffee another time.”

“Thank you,” James said; nodding towards Esther as he stood.

The women’s voices were receding along the gravel drive when he sank to the floor, paper against his knee and began to scribble. I am imprisoned here, in the dungeon of my own castle, by those who have taken everything from me, with nothing but the raw stone of its rough-hewn walls for comfort. And here I shall remain until I waste away, unless they choose to visit the mercy of a more violent end upon me. I rest my head on a stone pillow and listen for the tread of their treasonous feet.

James stretched and let his head bump against the wooden drawers behind him. He drew the rock from the lake out of his jacket pocket and smiled. “But the stones of your castle are not going to be passive, Q.”

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