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Vaster than empires

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[...] My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow; [...]
– To His Coy Mistress, Andrew Marvell


Merrick doesn't tell anyone. He does not really have all that many people to tell, and the ones that he would – the girls – he would rather surprise. He spends the time planning, instead. 

It is enjoyable planning. Convincing the priests had been the hardest part; even after Raphael had issued the word of a minor god, they had fought Merrick on every technicality and detail. But that is finished, and all that is left to do is to wait for the right moment for Raphael to cross entire worlds and come to England.

Merrick has learned patience, over the years. Patience in spades.

It helps that the whitewood plantation has, as Sing predicted it would, made him a wealthy man. It amuses Merrick to have become, in some ways, what people have thought he has been all along: moneyed, landed, a gentleman. The description does not fit him, for all that it also happens to be true.

He's moved back in and done work on Heligan, since Raphael'd decided to come. Personal work, this time, not just something to keep Minna from complaining about how empty and tragic it all is. The work is primarily outside of the main building: on the greens, and the gardens, and the greenhouse that Merrick's renovated quite significantly.

He'd gone on a tour, last year or maybe the year before that, of Kew Gardens. He'd advised them not to try to get a whitewood specimen in there, no matter how tempting to their sensibilities it may be. God knows if they've listened; it's their problem if it all goes to tears, Merrick supposes. That aside, the greenhouses had been a wonder: soaring glass panels and improbably large specimens. There hadn't been anything quite Andean in the collection; nothing could ever truly emulate the effects of altitude, but they'd done a good job in one section of providing the cool temperatures and blazing sunlight and relatively poor soil conditions for the cultivation of some species very familiar to him.

Merrick has no intention of owning a living glass jewel-box, but Kew had inspired him. So he'd come home, and he'd spent some of his new money, and now he has a proper, spacious greenhouse that's attached to the old one. It much improves the aspect of the place, and Merrick has seen their old markayuq taking shelter in the wide gravel-raked atrium space which he'd laid out as a pleasant space to break from the wind and rain.

It's mid-spring, now, almost summer. Under the glass, Merrick, sleeves rolled up and fingernails black with grit, slowly starts to bake as he works transplanting the trays upon trays of seedlings raised up to fill the new space. He only looks up when he has to stop to pull his collar back from his sweaty neck, and it's then that he catches sight of the clock hung up across the room.

'Oh, damn,' Merrick swears, and gets to scrubbing his hands.


'You're less late than I thought you would be,' Keita says without looking up from whatever it is he's working on – a tangle of gears, as usual, more intricate this time than Merrick's ever seen Keita work on before. He'd had to let himself into Keita's workshop; very annoyingly, Keita'd yelled a come in, and then lock it behind you before Merrick'd even knocked on the door.

'I lost track of time,' he says, opting not to apologise in the light of that greeting.

'Are the seedlings doing well?' Keita asks, still completely focused on his project. 'It's going to be very hot tomorrow, so you might want to vent the greenhouse before everything is cooked alive.'

Merrick's long since given up asking how Keita knows anything, and so he just makes a mental note and looks around the shop. Keita's had some time to settle in, it seems. There is a general sort of lived-in detritus about the place: bits of stuff everywhere that only ever accumulate when you spend enough time fixed in one location. Merrick's glad to see it: he doesn't know what Keita'd got up to in the intervening years since they'd left the Company together, but it's pleasant to see him settled. Rooted in.

'How's the work been?' he asks when Keita finally looks up. 'Busy?'

'Busy enough,' Keita replies, with that solemn face that always belies the kind of risks Merrick guesses the man takes. Still waters run deep with this one. 'My clients pay very well for work that I don't consider work.'

'You have a way with your hands,' Merrick agrees, nodding at the completed piece partially obscured by Keita's hands. 'What's that, then?'

'A gift,' Keita says, pushing it over. 'It's a clock.'

'Not like any clock I've seen,' Merrick says, taking it in hand. 'Where are the–'

He stops.

There are no hands on this clock; not for minutes nor for hours. It's a rectangular thing, brass and what looks like gold, dreadfully expensive and complicated looking because what it does have are two vertical columns with metal… Not knobs. Knots.

Merrick feels his breath catch in his throat as he runs his fingers down the panels. The one on the left reads two years ago, which is when Raphael had gone down for a quick nap. The priests think that he will be awake much more often, after this one ends; that is when they are allowing him to be moved. The right-hand panel reads the current date.

'How did you–'

'Doing the days was annoying,' Keita interrupts, answering nothing. 'Tricky, but a good challenge. I don't really know the right shapes of the knots – I just guessed in some places – but hopefully it'll be useful. Hard to keep good geologic time, but everyone deserves to know when it is.'

A somewhat pinched look crosses the man's face; Merrick has no idea what it means. He closes his hands around the clock very gently. 'I'm sure,' Merrick says, as evenly as he can, 'that it will come in useful.'

Keita smiles at him. Merrick, feeling strangely overcome, reaches over and pats him on the shoulder. 'Would you like a cup of tea?' he asks, even though it is Keita's house and he is the guest.

'Please and thank you,' Keita says, and they adjourn to his small nook of a kitchen. Keita has some very good if unusual tea, from home if Merrick had to guess. They end up each with a mug on some stools looking out at Keita's small garden.

'How is the garden?' Keita asks, properly this time instead of plucking it out of thin air. 'I don't know a single thing about most plants. I tend to forget them and then they die and no one benefits at all.'

'It's work,' Merrick admits. 'But the kind of work I can lose myself in. I know what I want to try to do, and it just takes time to do it.' He sips at his mug. 'I've got plenty of that.'

'The money must help,' Keita agrees. 'Horrible stuff, but so useful. What are you planting? You must have all the options in the world.'

'A lot of trees,' Merrick says, thinking of the saplings he'd planted the year before. 'Large things. Plenty of smaller stuff to fill it all in, of course, but I've been enjoying the slow growers, even if they're hard to manage. I'm fighting fit these days, tramping about everywhere keeping an eye on everything that's spaced out.'

'Sorry about your leg,' Keita says, almost out of the blue. It takes a while for Merrick to even understand that he's apologising. 'It was… necessary, in some ways, I think. But I–'

'Don't start,' Merrick cuts him off. 'Knowing you, you'll find a way to trace everything back to something you did. Have you ever thought that it might be because you can only really be sure of the things you do?' He's guessing, a little, at what is in Keita's head, but Merrick is a lot more open-minded about the world now than he'd been two decades ago. There are more things on heaven and earth, after all, than are dreamt of in most philosophies.

'Drink your tea,' Merrick urges Keita, giving them both a way out of the conversational dead-end. Keita drinks.

After they've given themselves some time, Keita breaks the silence. 'The last time I was home, I thought of you.'

'Oh?'

Keita puts down his mug. 'I have another gift for you. Hopefully I haven't killed it – I've tried my best, but my best is likely your worst.'

Merrick follows Keita into the flat's small garden, where he notices that a small plant stand erected at the back,  near the fence in what spare sunlight Keita gets in the space. There is a very small tree in a very shallow, very beautiful glazed ceramic pot.

'What is that?' Merrick marvels, getting up close. He recognises the varietal; an acer palmatum in miniature. Everything seems smaller and larger at once, the scale of things thrown off; it is almost confusing to look at. A doll's tree, except too sophisticated.

'We stole it from the Chinese,' Keita shrugs.

'Which Chinese?' Merrick asks automatically.

Keita narrows his eyes for a moment, then laughs. 'Not the East India Company, Merrick.'

'Well,' Merrick says, momentarily embarrassed. 'When you say stole…'

'Not a bad assumption. No, I meant we as in the Japanese; we stole it from the Chinese, this type of growing. Centuries ago, but it's become more popular now. The Emperor likes it, bonsai. Don't ask me why, it seems like a lot of work to get something to do what it normally does except many times smaller and just as slowly.'

'Trees don't normally do this,' Merrick says, gesturing at the shape of the branches, all neatly – almost brutally – pruned and arranged. 'This is more art than horticulture. It's beautiful.'

'It's yours,' Keita says, in that abrupt way of his. 'Please. I'll kill it and someone, I'm sure, will be very angry if I do. It's been in training since, oh… 1800? Something like that.'

'Over eighty years,' Merrick hums. He looks at the tree, at the signs that – when he lets himself look past its size – reveal it to be a mature, healthy specimen of a maple. 'Seems about right. Are you sure? You've already given me the clock.'

'It would be criminal to leave it with me. Besides,' Keita adds, with a funny look on his face. 'I think you'll enjoy it. You could learn things from this new past-time. I brought back a manual or two and I'll help you translate them as you go. I don't think you'll be in any rush to take care of its immediate needs.'


Merrick sets the bonsai up on its own stand in the greenhouse. He reads the manuals and realises quickly that this will take time, present day time, and quite a lot of it. These are careful, deliberate, maintained things that move on two scales: a day-to-day one for upkeep, and a decade-by-decade one for development.

Keita helps him translate the manuals over a number of long, enjoyable nights at the Filigree St. flat. It is as slow going as any botanical research Merrick has ever done, plagued by Keita's complete and potentially wilful ignorance of technical terminology and his own unfamiliarity with the work. Still, it provides Merrick what he needs to know to keep his own in good shape: everything else is learning as one goes, experimentation.

Merrick prods Keita with one foot mid-translation session one evening to wake him up from where the man had dozed off.

'What–' Keita starts up.

'Pay attention,' Merrick says, severe. 'I've compiled a summarised English pamphlet of sorts, and I need you to double-check some things.'

'Are you planning on publishing?' Keita asks, rubbing his eyes.

'No,' Merrick says. 'I'm making it for you so that you don't murder my tree while I'm gone.'

Keita gives him a sidelong look. 'Oh,' he says, clearly seeing whatever it is he sees. 'It'll be an easy boat ride once you're done fending off the priests trying to protect his honour from your terrible English wiles. Just a long and boring trip. Don't let him drop over the side on the way back.'

A pause.

'That,' Keita says, contrite, 'was a joke.'

'Not a very good one,' Merrick mutters. 'Now, see over here…'


It is a long and boring transit by ship back from Peru, almost a year later. Merrick, perhaps paranoid, perhaps relieved, perhaps elated, perhaps all those things at once, spends a lot of his time in his private cabin, where Raphael sometimes moves from porthole to porthole when he isn't complaining about the sea. At night, Merrick leans his back against Raphael's and waits for England's green and variably pleasant lands to creep closer, closer.


Raphael settles in immediately, thereby scaring Merrick – used to being alone – half to death every other day. Raphael disappears from the downstairs sitting room only to show up halfway across the property, shaded and in the embrace of a tall oak. He cozies up with the other markayuq in the greenhouse after an afternoon rainshower before legging it into one of the storerooms to count spiders. It doesn't matter how fit Merrick's become, made healthy by happiness and better fortune: Raphael runs unseen circles around him, makes him dizzy. Merrick could die, and die joyful.

The flurry of activity is tempered by the fact that, even in this wakeful state, Raphael spends a lot of his time still. Merrick spends one late summer evening seated practically in the markayuq's lap: Raphael'd stopped to take in the sun as it warmed an ivy-covered wall of the house, and just stayed there. Merrick finds him with the tips of creepers over one of his shoulders, a sight and a half. He sits with his back to Raphael's front. Raphael very carefully does not touch him, does not cage him in, but they sit like that until the sun sets and the insects are crying out all around them. Merrick falls asleep dreaming of Raphael bound up by ivy vines, deep emerald green contrasted against washed-out paleness, tipped trident leaves winding around wrists and ankles.

Merrick wakes up to the morning sun in his eyes, stiff as a board. One of Raphael's hands is on his hip, just barely scraping his bare skin. Merrick shudders, staying still. He kisses Raphael on the cheek before getting up.

'Your priests wouldn't approve,' he tells Raphael. Then he smiles. 'Good thing I don't give a damn what they think. I'll make coffee.'


Merrick lets Raphael find the clock and the bonsai in his own time; avoids telling him about them directly. They both have pride of place in one vented area of the new greenhouse, where the humidity conditions and the sunlight are right. Merrick's learning, very carefully, how to keep the tree in training.

It is meticulous work. He is trying out a new task today, binding back one of the branches to contort it into position. It sometimes seems like so much violence done to the tree; keeping it on the knife's edge of life and death and hoping that it will be strong enough to survive and become something beautiful. Merrick wraps metal wire round the branch in preparation to lash it down.

He senses Raphael come into the space more than he sees him.

'It was a gift from Keita, this,' Merrick speaks out loud. 'You'll meet him sooner or later. I worked with him while I was a Company man. He's an odd one, but I suppose we're all odd one way or another. In any case, this is called a bonsai, a tree you train to grow very small, very deliberately. It's rather like shaping rock with water.'

Raphael, in the time that it takes Merrick to get the wire anchored in place, stretching the branch out, moves to the other side as if trying to get a look. What he can see, Merrick can only guess: it is very bright today, but not anything as bright as what a markayuq must be used to.

'I have to keep it in training,' Merrick goes on. 'I'm trying to make this branch cascade down; it's a certain style of growing. I have to tie it in place. It's somewhat brutish to look at, but I've become quite good at knots over time, you could say.'

Raphael is very close behind him now. Merrick can feel heat from sun-warmed stone radiating against his back. He swallows, mouth dry. 'Keita also made you a clock,' he says, keeping at the work. 'You'll be able to read it. I can change the left-hand panel date, help you keep track of when you fall asleep. The right hand panel indicates when now is. So you'll be able to know...' He clears his throat. 'It's hung on the far wall.'

Knuckles against the small of his back, undeniably there and present. Raphael stays like that all through the process, watching.


When Merrick next finds Raphael in the bonsai space, Raphael is facing the clock. He is reading it, touching it, memorising it.


The next time Merrick finds Raphael in the bonsai space, it is full autumn. Most of the trees are shedding their summer foliage, spreading orange and gold and brown in a thick mat across the estate. It is endless raking for Merrick, endless rustling of leaves and the dry smell of the coming winter. He heads into the greenhouse for a drink of water and to take in the higher humidity.

Raphael is in the bonsai space. There are ropes – knot cords – suspended from the top rafters; how he got up there Merrick can only guess. But they are there, hanging, and they are knotted all along their lengths with something Raphael doesn't want to say out loud to him.

Merrick doesn't read knots as well as he would like, but he reads them well enough to get the gist of things: bind – display – beauty. He's simply not sure if he's interpreting it correctly, but then Raphael, stubbornly not talking from where he is standing behind him, tugs on Merrick's jacket collar.

'It's freezing in here,' Merrick points out. Raphael doesn't say anything.

Merrick pauses. It is getting dark outside; hard to see. He sighs to cover up how his skin is all goosebumps, and takes off his jacket and his shirt. He has to guess at what he wants, at what Raphael wants, but ends up wrapping one of the ropes around his chest, tied down to one of his belt loops. The other he winds around one arm. Breathing becomes harder and harder, even if the ropes aren't precisely binding.

When he finishes, Raphael just stands there and looks at him. Merrick is half afraid, at first, that he's gone back to sleep, but then no: Raphael reaches out, and Merrick shudders and closes his eyes as Raphael traces the knotwork, reading its silent filth over and over. Each time Raphael touches a knot, he pushes it into Merrick's skin. Merrick can feel the coarseness of the rope, the scrape of Raphael's fingers, everything.

He is panting out loud by the time Raphael is finished, achingly hard. Merrick starts to unwind himself, attempting to get the rope off of his bound arm, but then Raphael's fingers close around it. Not his arm – god knows what could happen if Raphael touched him and could not let go – but the rope.

'Like this?' Merrick asks, eyebrows raised.

Raphael looks down at him, white eyed, patient. Like that.

Merrick opens up his trousers with his spare hand and touches himself like that. He does not last long. Afterwards, he has to clean Raphael off with his handkerchief while Raphael ties something else into the cords. Merrick makes a note to study harder.


Raphael gets sleepier and slower in the winter, only really active in bursts before going into periods of near-hibernation. He watches Merrick whenever Merrick works in the bonsai room, even if all he is doing is watering, or cleanup, or maintenance.

Christmastime approaches, and the girls want to host another party. Raphael is up enough to joke with him when Merrick brings in a cut tree, murmuring murderer into his ear and trying to bind him up with garlands.

Keita comes for the Christmas party, and while the rest of the room chatters and some comment on the new statue (very large to have indoors, isn't it?), corners Merrick at the punch.

'Ropeburn,' Keita says cheerfully. 'Try to avoid it.'

Merrick, long used to Keita now, smiles serenely back. 'Are you volunteering?'

Keita, scandalised for once, gives him a look and then submits to being tortured instead by Cecily improvising at the piano.

The house echoes with the memory of happy clamour once everyone leaves. It's odd, Merrick finds, to have people over on occasion: he is getting increasingly used to his half-silent slow life, to living glacially, that putting a foot back into the fast-running river of time is almost disorienting. Another good dizziness, he supposes.

Raphael is on one of the chairs, one of the few that can take his weight. Merrick comes to him long past midnight, exhausted from hosting and mild cleanup and so many glasses of wine and brandy and champagne. He drags behind him some rope of his own; not the stuff he leaves about for Raphael to knot with, but smoother stuff, kinder stuff.

As though in a daze, Merrick quietly gets to his knees before Raphael. He kisses Raphael on the forehead, on the nose, on both cheekbones, on either side of his clavicles. He winds the rope about Raphael's ankles and anchors them to the chair's legs. Raphael's wrists he binds to the arms.

There is a fire roaring in the hearth, the only light in the room that throws crazy shadows on the walls. Merrick can barely see well himself; Raphael must be almost blind. Merrick removes his clothes and folds them neatly away, then fetches a large blanket.

He curls up on Raphael's lap like that, blanket over them both. Raphael is cold as ice behind him, but gets warmer the longer Merrick stays. Merrick feels Raphael part his legs to give him a better seat; the whole chair groans at the tension, at the ropes shifting.

The ropes will not hold Raphael down if Raphael were to try to embrace him. Very little can stop stone with a will. That, Merrick supposes, isn't the point in any case. They are, the both of them, in training themselves; bound up and rooted down and learning how to grow. Merrick falls asleep like that; dreamy, transported, sunken into space and time. He dreams of trees, like living rock, rooting and rising, rooting and rising.