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Marlowe in the Otherworld

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Kit met the fae fellow in a tavern in Southwark, a place of disreputable character, well-famed as a gathering-hole for bawds and sodomites, which was not to say that the musty tumble of bricks and sawdust was famed for much at all. The fae fellow lit the drooping walls with his mere presence, his beard like flame and his eyes, as Kit joined them with his gaze, empty pools without orbit, swirling instead bottomlessly with a star-flecked darkness. No one else in the tavern noted the fae fellow, yet he drew Kit to him like silk-swaddled prey to a spider’s jaws. They left the tavern without exchanging a word, fingers laced. He buggered Kit in the piss-damp alley, and Kit had never known a place of sweeter perfume nor more remarkable light.


Kit proceeded through the following days with a shimmer in his loins like the fae fellow had let a few stars fall from his eyes and land there. It was the only favor that Kit expected to receive. But as he left the theater after a long day of battling actors over line readings in rehearsal, he felt a breath at the back of his neck. Kit dismissed it as the wind until it took the form of a flame-bearded man. In Kit’s room, between kisses, the fae fellow said, “The beauty of thy words is matched only by the warmth of thy lips.”


Kit’s knees wished to melt like butter in the sun, but he kept his feet under him, yielding just enough to the apprehension that the fae fellow had been tracking him for some time, as if he were a hart to be shot between the eyes and kept as a trophy. Kit stroked the fae fellow’s beard with his thumb, fearing to be scorched, but the hairs were cool as dew. “Art thou forbidden to tell me thy name?”


“No, not forbidden, only discouraged, as the knowledge doth give thee power to call upon me as thou will’st,” the fae fellow replied. “And I do desire to be called. I am Lief-wine.”


“Lief-wine,” Kit echoed. It sounded of the ancient magic with which it was of course suffused.


“You call,” Lief-wine said, “and I am thine.”


In the months that followed, Kit called Lief-wine sparingly, wisely. He requested no gifts other than Lief-wine’s company and embrace. Fairy favors, he knew, came at a price. Lief-wine was less discreet than Kit, and he drew out Kit’s innate recklessness. Kit found himself ever more often on the wrong side of political quarrels, and a time or two at the sharp end of a dagger. His passion bled into his words, too, and he wrote bravely of sodomy and heresy, of figures tragic not for these sins but because of man’s presumption to judge on their basis.


And yet no one guessed he was in love. Even when he was jailed, it was as a suspected atheist, not for the magical bedfellow he kept tethered by the power of a name.


That bedfellow appeared as Kit sulked in his cell. “They wish thee dead,” he observed, almost needlessly.


“For one crime or another,” said Kit.


“Then come with me to Faerie.”


Kit asked no questions nor hesitated an instant, before taking Lief-wine’s hand.


Kit’s first years in Faerie were a heady blur of pleasure, feasting on mead and summer fruit in Lief-wine’s neat, narrow half-timber house. Although they did not truly spend most of their time in bed, their coupling stayed so forward in Kit’s mind, and in every nerve of his body, that he thought little of his clothed hours. He wrote sparingly, and most of his production consisted of private, vulgar odes to the majesty of Lief-wine’s cock.


The leafy, careless days increased, and Kit grew restless. Half-formed characters and bits of rhyme swarmed in his head, but they skittered away when he tried to capture them in ink. And while Lief-wine was as captivating in conversation as between Kit’s thighs, most of the fae folk were dull and simple, having been spirited from their cradles to the otherworld before weaning.They knew no hardship. Many delighted in Kit’s stories, but they had none of their own to share in return.


Kit made no complaints to Lief-wine, but Lief-wine knew him uncannily well. “It’s time that you visited the world of men,” he told Kit. “You’ll have enough Faerie magic in you to open a door, and enough remaining to open another when the time comes for you to return.”


“What if I choose to stay?” Kit asked, not desiring to defy Lief-wine but fearing his own weakness.


“You shan’t,” Lief-wine replied, with conviction.


The charm took no effort to conjure, only the desire to see what lay on the other side. Kit stepped into a street both familiar and foreign, foul with horse dung and chimney smoke but alive with the noise of humankind. In Faerie, he’d seen glimpses of change: new fashions of clothing, greater efficiency in horse-carts and house-building, the arrival of spices from the Orient and exotic vegetables from the New World. But none of those had prepared him for the wholesale transformation of the London he’d known to the one before him. He reminded himself that this city was a century removed from the one he remembered, and that anyone alive in his own time was long dead, if not carried away to Faerie as he had been.


In his bedazzlement, Kit accepted a handbill from a passing boy. It advertised a stage production of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, The Finest Tragedie of the Finest Tragedian, Mr. William Shake-speare, Presented According to the Original Text, For the Delight of All.


Kit’s old friend had, in Kit’s absence, ascended to a different sort of immortality.


The play was a revenge story turned on its ear, with a hero so conscious of himself that the violence became less the working of fate than the escalating price of human folly. A tall, fair woman with a voice like a bell portrayed Hamlet’s doomed love, her beauty more suited to the role than the reedy boy who would have squawked through it in Kit’s time. Even the stage itself, lit with ingeniously crafted footlights and transported to the ghostly chill of a Danish castle with intricate mechanical backdrops, sang of progress and invention.


Kit dreamed vividly of stages that blazed with fae magic, and of weeping as he kissed Will’s cheek in a last, belated greeting. In Faerie, he had not missed his human life, but now, he mourned those lost goodbyes. He strolled the London streets until he found a bookshop. In an honored place, at eye-level with the cover facing outward, stood The Compleat Dramatick Works of Mr. Wm. Shaksper. Kit marveled at the thick volume. His friend had been busy indeed, producing a full cycle of histories to expand on the collaborations that had sealed their friendship, as well as a rich garden of comedies and tragedies, numbering far beyond the Hamlet he’d enjoyed the night before. As he thumbed the pages, the shopkeeper approached him.


The man looked wizened from afar, but when he reached Kit’s side, Kit reappraised him, and saw that he could not have been much beyond thirty. A pronounced hunch and limp, along with an unkempt flaxen beard, gave him the appearance of a clown impersonating Merlin. “A lover of the theater, then?” the shopkeeper inquired.


“Aye, long ago,” Kit said. “And once again, now that I’ve seen a tragedy of Shakespeare at Drury Lane.”


“There’s no poetry compares with his,” the shopkeeper said, and Kit stung with envy for a moment. “But if drama’s your fancy, I’ve a new collection of Dryden’s tragedies in.”


“I’ll confess I’ve failed to follow the new playwrights,” Kit said. “I’ll be pleased to learn of Dryden, of course. Have you any others of note?”


The shopkeeper picked him out a comedy in two parts, by an authoress, Mrs. Behn, whom he described vividly as “Shakespeare in skirts,” and another by a Mr. Congreve, lately performed to acclaim at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. From the corner of his eye, Kit spied a volume labeled Doctor Faustus, but when he reached for it, the shopkeeper shook his head. “Farcical cow-puckey, not worth your pennies. Rowe writes with a hack-saw more than a pen. But you can have it if you like.”


Kit conjured a coin of Faerie gold, which, contrary to legend, did not turn to ash when spent and accepted in good faith, but conveyed fortune’s favor to its holder. He scurried to an alley with his arms full of books. They were his possessions, but none were his. He supposed it was better to be forgotten.


This bounty of others’ books stoked Kit’s desire for the fruits of human creativity, and he traveled freely between Faerie and the world of men, conferring Faerie blessings on his favorite bookshop. It thrived through generations: the stooped old shopkeeper gave way to a nephew, equally stooped, then to the nephew’s buck-toothed spinster daughter, Irene. She piled his arms full of the prose novels that had eclipsed verse and drama as the fashionable literary form. Kit sympathized instantly with their charming heroines, flawed and self-destructive yet deserving love in the end.


It wasn’t long before Kit found himself inspired to pen a novel of his own. Although he aimed for the lightness of the romances he’d devoured, his efforts resulted darker, the tale of a sour girl who undermined herself at every turn, and the homely, warm-hearted fellow who married her out of pity. Kit brought the manuscript to Irene, who by then had acquired a female companion named Hetty, brown and buxom as a laying hen.


Irene rapped at the door of Kit’s rented room the next morning at dawn. “I’ve passed the whole night by candle, lost in these pages,” she said. “You must publish it.”


“It shall sell quicker with a feminine name as its author,” Kit said. “Shall we use yours?”


Irene gasped, then collected herself. “You’d relinquish that fame?”


“Please trust that I have no choice,” Kit said.


Irene closed her eyes and smiled, as if feeling the first rosy warmth of wine spread from her throat to fingertips. “On his deathbed, my grand-uncle told me of a fairy visitor who would bring me good fortune in exchange for books and conversation. I half dismissed it as the fancies of senility, but I half believed him, too. And now I believe with my whole heart.”


Kit’s novel was published to acclaim, and to a tidy royalty for Irene and Hetty. The book’s successor, which saw its dual heroines reject their sniveling suitors and set up a countryside household together, met with more varied reviews. But Irene and Hetty, and others like them, recognized it for the tribute to their mutual devotion that Kit had intended.


The bookshop closed after Irene’s death, but there were other bookshops in London even as its landscape bent to commerce, industry, and the steam engine. The fashion for novels intensified, and they grew longer and more ornate, a direction that suited Kit’s affection for ornament. He invented a hero, a morose Italian exiled to London with a trail of debts and possible murders behind him. It gained a modest but impassioned following after its first serialized chapters appeared in a popular weekly broadsheet. The following intensified as Kit developed the friendship between his hero and a young Irishman who was possibly an assassin; the right readers recognized that for the love affair it was.


Kit became immersed in his own story, and he spent his days mainly in Faerie to complete it. This left several gaps of years when nothing further of the serial was published, an effect which only stoked the fascination of aficionados. Kit’s most fanatical adherent, however, remained Lief-wine. Kit marveled at how love wisped rosy fingerlets of light into Lief-wine’s fathomless eyes. Between chapters of his serial, Kit penned sonnets to Lief-wine’s masculine beauty that never left their chambers. Although he obeyed the rules and rhythms of Elizabethan lyric form, his words nestled into the cadences of Queen Victoria’s England, and the poems came out like feet stuffed into too-small shoes. Lief-wine treasured them, but Kit saw only their ugliness, their warning that fae folk could remember the past, but were doomed as humanity to live in the present.


They also shared with humans the fate of mortality, although stretched beyond human bounds. One afternoon, as Kit emerged from his writing room, he spied a silver hair among the red of Lief-wine’s mane, and plucked it playfully. Lief-wine scowled at the harbinger of age, and Kit grew pensive. Their time together was not unlimited, and he had passed through so much of it without inquiry. “How did you find yourself in Faerie?” Kit asked.


Lief-wine tipped a copper kettle of coffee into a pair of matched porcelain teacups painted with swirling Chinese tigers. Both remembered a time before either the drink or the cups had been commonplace, and both proceeded as if they had existed forever. “The fae carried me here the day I was born,” Lief-wine said. “My mother was a spoil of war when Britain was all savage Celts in the North and tiny tyrannical kingdoms in the South. My father kicked her into labor, and she died of my birth. He cast me out into the rain to succumb to the elements. The first milk I tasted was in Faerie.”


Kit kissed him as if he could still taste that milk on his lips.


He would come to remember that moment as an ending, as the last time when he was unreservedly in love with Lief-wine. In search of new inspiration, Kit traveled to London. On his way to his favorite bookshop - moved to a new location, but still in business - he happened upon a shop advertising mechanical typewriters. The contraption was fussy, with a propensity for stuck keys and twisted ink ribbons, as if inhabited by an imp who despised fits of artistic epiphany. But the typewriter lent itself to the generation of short, spare, realist prose tales, which had replaced the serial novel as the preferred form for publication in magazines.


Kit hid his identity behind fanciful pen names, but one editor, an American expatriate who thought he knew everything about everything, caught up with him, saying he could tell it was the same mind behind all of those aliases. The editor invited Kit to his literary salon, in which a circle of men blew smoke rings around the rims of brandy glasses and talked over-seriously about authors they disliked on more personal than aesthetic grounds. One member of the circle, whom the group called Tall Ned because he had about an inch on the other Edward in regular attendance, was the first man to make Kit contemplate betraying Lief-wine. They shared a furtive, tobacco-stained kiss in the back stairs of Tall Ned’s house. Kit promised himself he wouldn’t repeat it, but his intentions were stronger than his will.


After several months, Kit’s guilt tugged him back to Faerie. He found the house empty; Lief-wine must have been abroad as well. Kit waited a tense week of Faerie time for Lief-wine’s return. When he came back, he was not alone; he’d carried with him a young man, shell-shocked and one-armed, from the battlefield of the Great War. “Are you in love with him?” Kit asked calmly, without malice.


“I’ve done nothing with him but talk,” Lief-wine said.


“And I the same,” Kit lied, but the rest of his description of Tall Ned was true.


“Is it time we moved on?” Lief-wine asked, again too agreeable for a conversation of this importance.


But Kit’s calm mirrored his. “Not for lack of love,” he said, “but only because we have lived a long time, and will live a great deal longer.”


Kit moved his typewriter, percolator, and library into a spacious and airy flat above a cafe. The flat had sprung into existence at the moment of his need, as things tended to do in Faerie, and placed him in what passed for the city center of the realm. The cafe’s owner, a voluble Bohemian named Karel who’d been fished out of some nineteenth-century war or other, specialized in schnitzel pounded as thin as Faerie silver.


Kit returned to the human world only because his typewriter had aged into obsolescence. He knew too little about the construction of the new electric models to conjure one out of the ether, so he stepped into a London whose battle scars rattled him, even as the residents went about their lives unfazed. On a whim, he boarded an inter-city coach, which brought him to a dense, industrial city in the Midlands before he could finish reading even one novel.


Kit strolled into a bookshop there and found a small room in the back where a man stood before a small audience, reciting a rambling, rhythmic narration of an ill-fated automobile journey from Cardiff to Newcastle. The trip would have taken him almost a week in Kit’s time, but now, even with a flat tire and two hours in jail, the poet had arrived in Northumberland by nightfall. It occurred to Kit, as he unbuttoned his shirt in the young man’s flat, that he could board a mechanical airship and see the whole world.


A directory accompanied the pay phone in the corridor outside the young poet’s flat. Kit discovered an advertisement for a travel agency specializing in Tours for the Discerning Bachelor, with a logo of a pixie sitting cross-legged atop a globe. After a few testing questions to verify that Kit belonged to the agency’s clientele, he booked a series of train journeys across Europe, followed by flights that would trace a meandering path to the globe’s greatest wonders. He’d admire the pyramids of Egypt and the savannas of Rhodesia, the palaces of India and Great Wall of China, the tropical paradises of Bali and Hawaii. He would finish in the New World, lands as exotic as Faerie when Kit was born, but now a simple set of countries and cities on a map, the easy conclusion of a transatlantic flight.


By the time Kit reached Paris, he knew he’d see too much too fast to remember it. So he bought a leather-bound journal and kept a record, illustrating his observations with a pocket camera. He recalled his wonder at the first photographs he’d seen, miracles despite the long waits to expose the film and develop it. Now, he could capture pictures with the click of a button and the turn of a wheel, and could return to a pharmacy hours later to find his memories preserved on glossy paper. The strangest part about it was knowing that, in a few decades’ time, human ingenuity would produce improvements even more marvelous.


Working from a mimeographed pamphlet that his travel agent had slipped into his more conventional documents, Kit learned where to meet like-minded men. He collected them, too, although he did not record their faces. At first, he planned to fictionalize them, but their realities stirred him, and not just the deliciousness of their bodies. He needed to remember the burn scars that the man in Vienna hid behind his hair, souvenirs of a course of electroconvulsive therapy that had not cured him of his homosexuality. The locket that the man in Vancouver wore around his neck, with a photo of his mother inside; she’d never allow him inside her house again. The tattoos on the forearm of the man in Buenos Aires, about which he refused to speak.


When Kit wasn’t touring monuments or men, he was collecting books. Chronologically, Melbourne was the halfway mark of his trip, but his journey might as well have concluded there. On a shelf marked Literature that carried everything from Homer to Oscar Wilde, he found a pair of crisp paper-bound volumes, their spines promising Christopher Marlowe: The Complete Plays and Christopher Marlowe: The Complete Poems and Translations. They were far from complete, of course, but they contained nearly all of his legitimate children, even some juvenilia that might better have stayed buried. It seemed fitting that he’d had to travel to the farthest Antipodes to find his name restored to memory.


The valise that he brought back to Faerie was so full of books that he’d had to cast a charm on it so it could lift itself. The inside of his flat was as he remembered, albeit with the bookshelves in the sitting room rearranged slightly to accommodate a television set. The exterior, however, had transformed into Faerie’s only high-rise building, a sleek structure with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked the entire realm. The ground floor still housed Karel’s cafe, which had amassed a voluminous menu, although the specialty was still schnitzel. But the greatest improvement was his neighbor across the hall, Lynetta, who’d been rescued from an iron lung in Baltimore. Her collection of LP records rivaled Kit’s library, and they spent many delightful evenings together, listening to music and sipping the sweet, potent drinks that Lynetta mixed in her blender.


One night, while flipping through Kit’s photo album, Lynetta mused, “I wonder if there’s a China in Faerie. Or, at least, a town up the road where the Chinese fae go.”


“Well, there’s Xiao on the nineteenth floor,” Kit said. “You have a point, though. Until I moved here, all the fae I knew were English.”


Kit helped Lynetta conjure a powder blue Chevrolet, and she drove them around Faerie. The whole realm was smaller than the island of Britain, although the boundaries glimmered with the potential to expand. They exhausted every road in a week, not to mention a dozen rolls of film.


As they parked the car in the garage behind their building, Lynetta said, “You’re just itching to go back there, aren’t you? To the human world.”


“How can you tell?”


“Your eyes get dark when you’re sad,” she said. “The way the old fae are all the time, like bottomless pools of stars.”


“Would you like to come with me? See what’s changed?”


“Twist my arm,” she said with a laugh.


He taught her how to make a door, and they walked through it to her hometown on the East Coast of North America. “I don’t have much love for Baltimore,” she admitted. “Want to come with me to California?”


“Of course,” he said. She left him to browse a bookstore: a sprawling, multi-story theme park of literary excess, with a coffee shop inside. She floored him when she returned with a boxy vehicle, the color of a wine stain, and a binder full of road maps. “I assumed we’d fly,” he said.


“Where’s the fun in that?” she said, then cranked up the car stereo before he could describe to her the fun of reducing a three-day journey to a five-hour one.


They passed through massive cities, long stretches of farmland, and everything in between, stopping along the way for meals and photo opportunities. Somewhere around Omaha, Lynetta said, “It just dawned on me. Everything here is younger than you are. A whole country.”


They parted ways when they arrived in San Francisco, not permanently, but in acknowledgement that their paths needed to diverge for now. The good news was that San Francisco was full of gay men, proud of their love for each other. The catastrophic news was that most of them were dying. An evening at the theater turned into many more evenings at activist meetings, and days trying to shape the devastation he saw into stories he could tell. For the first time in four centuries, he wrote for the stage.


A man named Michael, whom Kit had met at a few HIV awareness events, caught up with him backstage after the opening night of one of his new plays. “I need to write a musical before I die,” Michael said. “I always promised myself I’d do it, and it’s looking like I’ll have less time than I thought. I have most of the songs written, but my problem is, I can’t make characters talk like human beings. So I wondered if you’d be willing to collaborate.”


Michael was slim but strong, like he bicycled everywhere, and he wore his hair in a wild explosion of glossy black curls that hid his eyes until he wanted to be seen. There was no possibility of turning him down. “It’s been a long time since I’ve collaborated with anyone,” Kit said, “but I welcome the challenge.”


They spent a day in bed together before they wrote a single line, and they did most of their subsequent writing while lounging naked around Michael’s tiny apartment. Michael’s health cooperated with the urgency of their mission until the party after the first dress rehearsal. He began coughing blood. His hospital room became the cell of a life sentence.


Kit wasn’t permitted to stay past visiting hours, but he clung to Michael’s side as much as he could, carrying in armfuls of videotapes to keep Michael entertained, or at least distracted from his condition. The art of film had mostly passed Kit by, and now Michael took up the mission of educating him. “I can’t believe you’re from Baltimore, but you’ve never seen a John Waters movie.”


“I’m not from there,” Kit said. “I drove from there to get here.” He sounded as alluringly cryptic as Lief-wine had when they’d first met; at least, he hoped it was alluring.


He discovered, among Michael’s boxes of videos, a treasure equal to the ones he’d brought back from Melbourne: a film of Edward II, produced a few years earlier. When he presented it, Michael said, “Oh, you’ll adore this one. It’s Shakespeare, I think? Or maybe not, the case says it’s by Christopher Marlowe, whoever he is. Must have been the same time, though. Anyway, Tilda Swinton, who plays the Queen - she’s divine.”


Kit tried to keep silent, but he couldn’t help mouthing the words to speeches he’d puzzled over at his writing desk so long ago.


“You know this one?” Michael asked, not quite surprised.


“I know the play.” Kit watched Michael’s chest struggle to rise and fall, watched his mouth twitch against the lesion that marred his now bony face, and let love guide him toward a decision. Most fae folk of Kit’s age had spirited dozens of humans to Faerie. Some had devoted their lives to rescuing children who would not be missed in the human world: the neglected, the abandoned, the abused. But Kit didn’t have much use for children, and he’d never before encountered a life so in need of saving. He wished he could transport every AIDS patient, but carrying even one human through a door cost a great deal of Faerie magic.


He chose, for the first time, to pay that price. “Darling, I wrote the play.”


It took some time to convince Michael that neither of them was crazy.


“So I should come with you if I want to live?” Michael said, with a wry smile that signaled it was a reference to a film that Kit had not seen yet.


“Well, you’ll die eventually,” Kit said, “but not for a very long time, and not of this.”


It took some time for the magic in Faerie’s air to cure Michael. Kit found a physician to monitor him, a woman who’d come to Faerie in Kit’s own time. She’d been a Russian nun, rescued from execution for witchcraft. Since then, she’d modernized. Months after the color had returned to Michael’s cheeks and the infection had cleared from his lungs, she clucked her tongue at his test results. “You still have the virus, my love. In very small amounts, but it’s there. I believe it will always be.”


Faerie magic had a way of curing what threatened to kill its new inhabitants but leave the rest. Lief-wine’s new companion, the Great War soldier, still had only one arm. The worst of Lynetta’s post-polio syndrome had reversed itself long ago, but she still grew short of breath from time to time, especially when it rained. And Michael would always have traces of virus in his blood, like a liquid scar. Perhaps it was no different for Kit: he remained skeptical of religion, enamored of men, and fond of writing stories that got under people’s skin.


Things changed rapidly in Faerie now, as they did in the human world. With the advent of the telephone, a permanent door had cracked open to permit extremely long-distance calls, and now, that hole between worlds let in the internet, too. A Faerie mobile data network sprung up alongside the electrical grid. None of these were the work of a single fae, but a collective, half-conscious effort. The innovation reduced Kit’s motivation to visit the human world: now, he could download any book he wanted.


Michael had been in Faerie long enough to learn to make a door, and Kit knew he was responsible for providing the lesson. It began as a chore, but by the time the portal opened, Kit was all too eager to step through. Even now, he couldn’t wait to see what the human world had become. Even now, he couldn’t wait to see what stories were left to tell.