Work Header

The Whispering Grass

Work Text:

He awoke to darkness, as if he lay in the depths of the abyss. The very weight of his body seemed to press him down, Leviathan on the shore, with such a heaviness that it seemed impossible that he should move. Only his mind knew that he was now awake, and that he had not been, and that in the abyss he had opened his mind's eye to the dark. He sank again and that greater dark closed over him.

He could not have said how long it had been when next he woke. There was nothing to tell, no light, no shadow, no sound, only the constant dark. He seemed to sink now gently in and out of sleep, or something that was not sleep but its brother, a new-discovered third betwixt sleep and death. For assuredly this strange darkness was not that ultimate darkness of death, unless perhaps the Eastern church was right and the souls of all descended to abide in Hades until the Last Day. Did not the Jews, too, follow some similar heresy, and those supposed Christians who proclaimed unitaria religio? Though if so, it were the least of their follies. He had studied such things, in that time before this time, and truly there were dangers in philosophy if a man such as he, in such a time as this, could think them other than folly. For he remembered the wine at his lips and the words said over him in those last moments before the darkness, and he saw now how near death he must have lain that the familiar rituals were strange in his memory, the wine hot in his mouth, the thousand-times heard words unknown. But he had not died. Was he then blind that he lay in darkness? Strange that the thought did not distress him. No, he was not blind. This was not the darkness of physical infirmity, of eyes that could not see. It was the abyss.

Each time he woke to drift in that darkness it seemed that his mind was a little clearer, that it rose for longer above that overwhelming pull of nothingness. He remembered how once as a young man and his father's heir he had gone into the mines. How the foreman had led him alone to the workings far below the earth and as they stood in a great cavern his companion had extinguished the lantern and delivered them to utter blackness. There had been nothing in front of him, nothing behind. His eyes had been open, but there was nothing to see. No glimmer of water on stone, no faint grey line of dawn, no difference between the hand in front of his face and the blackness beyond. Neither of them had seemed to breathe, no water flowed, no small flight of falling stones disturbed the silence. It was as if the only sound he heard was the blood in his own ears and the breathing of the earth. So it was now in the place that he lay.

Until, suddenly, there was light. The merest trace, a line of red that was almost black, and a voice calling him. Something passed over his face, wet and warm, and his hand moved convulsively. The hand at his face dropped its cloth and clutched at his shoulder.

'Can you hear me? Can you speak?'

He opened his eyes to see her and a pale shape resolved into a face. She seemed to shine in the dim light. Surely she had never looked so beautiful, so alive?

'You are awake! You have come back to me!'

Surely her voice had never been so tender, her face at once so loving and kind. He realised that he had not hitherto understood how much she loved him. His voice was nothing, a dry exhalation, the hand he tried to raise to hers merely twitched at the linen, but she smiled. 'Do not fear. You are weak, but you will be strong again, I know it. The doctor said that you would come back and you would be strong.' She bent to wipe his brow again and over the sour reek of the sickbed it seemed that he could smell the perfume of her skin.  Had he been good to her in his life before? He could not remember. He would be very good to her now. 'You must sleep now,' she said, and pressed her lips to his hand. He felt it move again as if drawn to her, a strange sensation but the illness made all things strange. He slept and it was not the abyss, for he dreamed of her.

When next he woke, he burned. He gasped for water and she brought it, but it did not quench his thirst.

 'It is the illness lingering,' she said, 'but you mustn't be afraid. It will pass. You have turned the tide and come back to me and I will not let you go.'

She gave him medicine, bitter and sweet together, and kissed the palm of his hand and his fingers curled instinctively against her cheek, soft as a child's.

The child. Where was the child? He croaked the boy's name. She had sent him away as soon as her husband sickened, her eyes shone with tears as she spoke of it, the boy scarcely old enough to leave the breast but it had had to be done. Now she had called him home again.

'You will see how he has grown.'

'No!'  He scarcely knew why he said it. Why this strange father's wish should be what he found strength to say. 'There is too much danger.'

'The danger is past. But you mustn't excite yourself. We will wait until you are stronger.'

As he sank again into darkness it seemed his last nonsensical thought was that strength would be no consolation.

She nursed him with all the care he had seen her give to her child, with the care that he saw now he had been jealous she had given it to her child. She was gentle and patient and kind, ever there when he woke, alert to a whispered wish for the water that could not still the burning in his throat, ready to smooth sheets and wipe his brow. She bathed him and fed him and the food was like dust, a shadow of what it had been before; he had no appetite and yet he craved it, tore at the bread with his teeth as if some part of him needed to bite, to tear. Almost imperceptibly he grew stronger as she had said he would. He knew it in his clarity of mind, in the way the ever-present fire in his throat seemed to become endurable, in his gathering strength though still pitiably feeble. The first time he sat to piss seemed in that moment as great a proof of manhood as his first woman. Now there was only one woman, now there was only her, and it was by her that he knew he would live. Never before had she looked so beautiful to him, never before had she looked so alive. Her hair gleamed in the lamp-light - for it seemed that his eyes could not abide the summer sun - her skin seemed to glow. As she looked at him her eyes danced and he saw the pulse throb at her throat, this woman who loved him, who desired him contrary to the expected order of wives. He had not known. He had not cared. Now he swore that when he was well he would requite her as she deserved, he would take her in his arms and bury his cold face in the crook of her neck where her warm blood ran, he would press his mouth to her scented throat and whisper of love.

How was it then that he was afraid of her? How was it he thought that such desires were wrong, that this strange hunger that rose at the very sight of her must be denied at all costs? It was not the church that told him so. She was his lawful wife, mother of his son, and would be mother of other children, God willing, that he might yet give to her. He had taken pleasure in her body in the past, now it should be all the sweeter. And yet something tormented him, for in those moments of greatest clarity, when he awoke at certain times and the abyss seemed furthest away, he knew that she was not beautiful. That he had been right before, that she was a pleasant-looking woman, but no more. That if he walked in the village below he might see a peasant wife beneath her dirt lovelier than she. Could knowing a woman loved him make such a difference to a man as to change her? It seemed to him that it could not, or there would be fewer disappointed maidens in the world. Then he must be changed in some other way.

She kissed his cheek, close to his mouth, and he clutched convulsively at the linen under his hands.

'You are sick again!' Her left hand darted to his forehead, the other to her breast.

'No!' He mastered himself. 'No, my dear, it is a spasm only. You have told me that I shall be well, I can do nothing but obey you.'

She smiled. 'Forgive me; I have been so afraid for you.'

'You need be no longer.' He pressed the hand that lay upon her breast. 'You have done more for me than any doctor. It is because of you that I am alive.'

She turned her face into the sheets and wept. His hand caressed the golden hair, smooth beneath his palm, and his body seemed to burn.

'Aren't you hungry?' she asked him, as he turned away from the broth she held out to him. 'You must eat more. The doctor told me that you might find food taste dull or strange. He said that it was not your illness, but the remedy, but he promised that in time you would find meat that tasted good to you again.'

No, it was not that he had no hunger. Rather the tormenting thirst had changed to a hunger that it seemed nothing could satisfy. Why eat, when it was as dust? When the white bread at which he tore was like cloth. The priest had dispensed him from fasting, but it made little difference to an invalid's diet. He envied her little dog that ran in to the room with a red bone in its mouth. How could a man be well without meat?

He remembered, there had been a doctor. She must have sent to Budapest even before he had worsened and this man had come, a grave man with a university face.

'What did you give him for my cure?'

'Nothing you would not willingly have parted with.' She named the sum, large, but not extortionate, fair compensation for four hundred miles and all its dangers. 'He said he would come again in a year and then, if you were well, he asked for a letter testifying to the cure. It seemed to me a very honest thing to wait a year.'

'Do you remember the words he used?'

'Not all of them. He put it strangely. If the new life pleased you - but perhaps that is not strange, for it is a new life when I thought you lost.'

Lost indeed. In the mountains and forests and the heartbeats of the birds that sang outside his window and her eyes and her breast and the scent of her mouth and a lust for unnameable things.

When that man comes, he thought sudden and clear, I must kill him.

He sent her away. She went protesting, but she went. He had always credited her obedience. He kissed her hand and promised she would be sent for should he worsen again. Old Nan would nurse him well in the meantime, tough as her boots.

'Your son needs you, and I - I cannot rest for fear of what may befall you while you are with me.' A foolish thing to say, for what danger was he to her, to his wife whom he loved, whose red mouth glowed, whose white throat rose from her linen like a dove's. She left him with Old Nan who had nursed him at the breast, whose toothless kiss to his temple brought only peace. When Nan sat by him, it was as if nobody was there. When she slept as he lay awake in the midnight hours he heard only the faint rasp of breath, no tremulous heart and rush of blood. He slept less and less at night, tossing fitfully on the pillow until dawn came and he sank once more into the abyss where some red pulsing creature lay in a shadow beyond sight.

 This was madness, it could be nothing else. A madness that must be his lingering illness, the doctor leaving before he had earned his full fee. He remembered the days before the man had come, when he had coughed and tasted blood in his mouth, his own blood, tasting of rust and earth. The early days of concealment, and later when concealment was no longer possible. He remembered the sight of scarlet on white linen, on his cuffs and shirt, on her nightgown in a great stream from her throat to her thighs like the blood of childbed and her cry like the cry of childbed. There had been so much blood spilled from his mouth, it must be that his humours were still disturbed by it. He was no doctor, but he knew a little of such things: the body craved what it had lost. He called for meat and Old Nan brought it to him. It tasted of dust and ashes. Madness, then, but he did not have such a weak spirit as to be defeated by the phantoms of his own mind. He should call for the priest, for spiritual counsel in a dark hour, for the wine and blood that cured all ills. It would taste, he knew, of dust and ashes.

The priest did not come. Not from any lack of will, but a broken leg that would not heal. The man in the next town would have come had he been bid, but they had not bid him. Nor would he now. If it were God's will to strike him thus, it were God's will that he should overcome it through his own powers. It was past time that he saw to his duties. The dragging daylight hours when his head ached might prove less so if he turned his mind to his business and his steward. If a childish reverence for his old nurse could still the strangeness in his breast, so could a due Christian reverence for his wife. He sent for her and for the boy. They came, the child toddling with his hands in hers as he clutched at the arms of his chair, willing himself to be still and realised that he was still, that he felt nothing more than he ought. He could not hear her heart beat, his throat was dry with only a human thirst. He could have wept as she kissed him with her sweet breath and held her son out to him, the small face frowning before it broke into laughter. He pressed his lips to the round cheeks and laughed in turn and played at pat-a-cake.

He was becoming well again. Still weak, still cursed, but he would be well. Whatever had been set in him, whatever the price that had been paid for this second life, he could contain it. Was he not a man well-used to rule? His wife, his men in his days of soldiery, his lands with their attendant peasants and his slaves? Then he would master this, this yearning for things unthinkable; he had mastered it. He walked among his servants and his friends, he ate in his hall, he read the papers his steward had reserved for his judgement. In time he would lie by his wife. Every day he was stronger in body and soul, his legs steadier, his thoughts of unnatural lust contained. Yet still he saw her as she had been in his bed the last time: the ends of her bright hair scarlet with his heart's blood, the horror of her eyes, and in the corruption of his soul he hungered.

Continence was a virtue, said the church, and a modest wife would scarcely protest at it. He was kind to her and to the child. There was pleasure to be had in her conversation, far more than he had known, there was delight in the young boy's steps and falls. The world remained to him when he had thought it lost, surely it was enough?

The summer was as fine as he could remember since his boyhood. Too bright for him to venture out by day, he kept to the shadowed courts and to his work. By evening he walked in the garden and the fields and she walked with him, her skirts rustling the scented grass, the nights too warm for dew. Striding through the cornfields he felt himself at last as he swung his wife over the brook and she laughed. She stumbled on the rough ground and would have fallen had he not caught her.

'I have made you walk too far. Come, sit down a while.'

He sat beside her in the grass, wrapped her cloak around her shoulders, held it there with his arm. The stars overhead were as bright as he had ever seen. He saw them as he lay with his head in her lap, her hand on his brow. He shivered, but it was nothing, a lingering ghost. He kissed her hand.

She lifted his head, held him to her breast. She kissed him as he had not let her, and he could not stop her. Her hand was warm against his shoulder, slipping to caress him under his shirt.

'Sometimes I am afraid you have forgotten that I am your wife.'

He reached for her at last. 'Never that.'

He kissed her wrist. He kissed her hair, her mouth, her throat. He heard her heartbeat through his whole body.

She shuddered as the breath went from her. It was no consolation that the pain could not have been long. At the last, she must have known what he had become and what he had done to her.

He saw to her body himself. He knew the superstitions of the peasants and what must be done. Old Nan had laid her out, bathing her pale body, bandaging the bloody neck. When the castle men came out of the gate towards them as he carried her in his arms he told them it had been a mad dog. He had climbed the crag in the moonlight to look towards the lake, and heard her scream. Why should they question it? She had been a devoted wife and he ever a good husband. They had led him gently in as if he might fall, fools who did not know what he was. How should they? She had not known. Even he had denied it to himself.

His strength sufficed to open her coffin and he severed her head with his own sword. Lastly he placed the cross into her hands. For the first time it burned him. It did not burn her.