As you begin to bed down in the barn, that first night on the Holdfast’s farm, you see a little ball of warm lamplight making its way toward you from the farmhouse, bobbing like a firefly through the dark. You stand, uncertain - and eventually the lamplight reveals a young man, a covered bowl in his left hand. “Ma thought you might be hungry,” he says, smiling as he holds it out toward you.
You take it eagerly. A warm, homely smell wafts from the bowl when you open it, a scent you used to catch through open windows on cold winter evenings, when the families with enough money for regular meals would be sitting down to their dinner. Stew, thick and deep brown. Your mouth waters, and you can’t help but dig into it the moment he hands you the spoon.
“You look like you haven’t eaten in days,” he says, leaning against the door frame and watching as you practically inhale the stew.
“Haven’t,” you say through a mouthful. You swallow, then add, “Unless you count raw beets dug up from farmer’s fields without their knowing.”
The young man raises an eyebrow. “Probably best not to admit to stealing from a farmer when you’ve just been employed by one.”
“Didn’t steal from him.”
“But you might.”
You shake your head. “You’ve given me stew and a warm bed, you think I’ll turn around and steal?”
The young man smiles. “Do you have a name?” He frowns when you shake your head. “How can you have no name?”
“Never christened,” you say, still gulping down mouthfuls of stew.
“Your parents didn’t christen you?”
“My parents are dead. My uncle saw no need to waste money on things that weren’t drink; surprised I got food, let alone Christenings.”
“But- that means your immortal soul is in danger.”
You snort a laugh. “My immortal soul is in trouble for much worse than not bein’ Christened.”
The young man looks completely at a loss for a moment, while you finish off the last of your stew. “How do people address you, then?” he asks.
“Boy, usually. Hey you, sometimes. Urchin, street rat, weasel, thieving cun-”
“Yes, alright, I get the idea,” the young man cuts you off. “My name is Thomas.”
He seems to expect you to say something in return, so you say, “Pleased to meet you.”
“Likewise.” He takes back the bowl and spoon, and for a moment you just stare at each other. You can see the burning curiosity in his eyes, and you think he’ll say something else; but then a voice echoes from the house, calling his name.
“Goodnight,” Thomas says, and you watch his lamplight bob away, all the way until he gets back to the farmhouse.
The work is hard, but it’s better than scrabbling for scraps on the streets. You mend the fallen fence posts just like you said you would, replacing those that are too rotten to stand any longer, hammering them into the ground and fixing the fallen bars back into place. After all that’s done, Old Man Holdfast seems to have taken a shine to you, and he asks you to stay. Thomas has got himself an education, he says, and some day he’ll be a lawyer or a clerk in a bank, so he needs a steady pair of hands to take over the farm. “Maybe you could even marry my Hilda,” he suggests, and you defer, telling him it’s best not to be too hasty. Still, they begin to treat you like part of the family, and when you go with them to church on Sunday, their friends treat you with kindness, too.
Thomas has also clearly had a word with the pastor behind your back, as the man takes you aside and offers to baptise you, free of charge, and privately, so that no one will know. You think it’s in your best interest to agree, given his grave expression; you move through the short ritual with him the next evening, following his lead as he chants and anoints your head with water. You choose the name he declares for you from the front of a nearby Bible. Afterward, out in the cool evening with your wet forehead, the whole business seems rather a waste of time.
Thomas comes to visit you every night, always bringing dinner. “I could ask my father to let you move into the house,” he says after a week.
“All the rooms are taken,” you say, digging into your stew. “Besides, I’m warm and dry in the hayloft. Even got my own little mattress and everything. What more could I need?”
“A bath?” Thomas suggests, and you lob a clod of horse manure at him.
The next night he asks, “Do you know how to read?”
“Oh, of course, I’ve read all the classics,” you say, giving him a look.
“Oh yes? Then what’s your favourite?”
“The one about a poncy rich boy who asks the vagabond in his barn stupid questions,” you laugh.
Thomas makes a face. “I’m not rich. The only reason I can read at all is because Mr Cadwaller took pity on me, and educated me for a fraction of the fee he usually takes.”
“And I’m not a vagabond no more,” you say, “But you’re still asking stupid questions. ‘Course I can’t read.”
“Do you…” Thomas hesitates, then ploughs on. “Do you want me to teach you?”
You expect him to get bored after a few nights, or refuse to continue teaching such a dullard as you - but he doesn’t. Slowly - painfully slowly - you start to decipher the meaning of the little black letters, and even start to recreate them yourself. Thomas doesn’t make the world’s best teacher, but he’s not that bad, either. You start to make progress.
You notice yourself watching him, sometimes. And sometimes you think you catch him watching you back.
The occasion of Thomas’ twenty-first birthday comes around, and the Holdfasts lay on the biggest party they can afford. The night before the big day, Thomas comes swaggering in out of the dark with your dinner, and something else in his other hand. “Pa gave it to me as an early gift,” he says, holding up the flask. “Now I’m man enough to drink, he said.”
“What’s in it?” you ask, leaving your stew for the moment.
“Whisky.” Thomas tosses the flask, and you catch it. “Tell me if you like it.”
There seems to be something more behind the gesture, some meaning you can’t interpret; but you lift the flask and take a big swig, keeping your eyes on Thomas. You don’t miss the way he watches you do it, the way his eyes flick down to your lips. The taste of the whisky is thick and heady, and it burns sweetly as it goes down, so you give him a cheeky grin and take one more swig. “It’s pretty good,” you say, tossing the flask back to him.
For a second you think he’ll fumble the catch, but he makes it. For a long, pregnant moment he says nothing; and then his mother’s voice comes, earlier than usual, calling him back to the house. Thomas doesn’t move, but instead takes one long, slow sip from the flask, his eyes still locked on yours.
You find you can’t help but watch his mouth, either.
The next night, at the party, you drink far more than you should, caught up in the revelry and the excitement. Old Man Holdfast introduces you as his apprentice, and looks on you with affection, so all his guests look on you with affection, too. The mood is euphoric, and you never imagined you could be this, be here; you never imagined you could be this happy.
The end of the night finds you stumbling back to your bed in the hayloft, ready to fall down on your thin mattress and sleep away your dizzy head.
You don’t expect to find Thomas waiting for you, just inside the door of the barn.
He stops your questions with a finger on your lips. “Will you give me something,” he asks, his face very close to yours, his pretty eyes wide and dark, “as a birthday gift?”
“Anything,” you whisper, because you know what he wants, and then you catch his sweet mouth with yours. You take him up to your cramped little hayloft, lie him down on your thin, straw-filled mattress, and get him slowly out of his clothes. You take your time with him, making him wait, riling him up simply because you love the innocent hunger in his eyes. There’s no need to ask if he’s a virgin, but you do anyway, just because you want to hear it from him, to know that no other man has given him this. This is yours - the two of you, together.
His cries of pleasure are sweeter than any poetry.
You may have had a little too much, but not enough to rob you entirely of your senses. Though Thomas wants to lie in your arms until sunrise - and you want that too, more desperately than you’d like to admit - you make him get up, get him back into his clothes and over to the door of the main house. “Need you safe in your bed, else your ma and pa will worry,” you say.
He steals a kiss as you open the door, and though anyone could have seen, you find you don’t regret it.
Three days later, while you’re hiding in the stables, escaping the torrential rain outside, Thomas bursts in, clearly upset. “Ma says Mr Cadwaller might sponsor me, to study in Boston,” he says, his voice hitching, “But she says he’ll never consider me without a wife.”
For a second sick jealousy floods your stomach, stopping the words in your throat; but you know what you must say. “Then you have to get hitched,” you say, turning away to face the horse whose coat you’re brushing to a shine, so that maybe Thomas won’t see the pain on your face.
He pulls you back to face him with a hand on your shoulder. “I don’t want to get married, I want-”
“You’re going to have to someday,” you say, cutting him off before he can say anything damning, here in the cold light of day. “Might as well be now. You can’t scupper your chances to go to school in the big city.”
“You…” Thomas’ eyes fill with tears, and the pain on his face pierces you to the soul. “Don’t you care? About us?”
It would be so much better for you both if you could lie, say you feel nothing, but the words won’t leave your mouth. “Of course I care,” you croak, and when Thomas launches himself at you, you take him into your arms and don’t let go. The words shouldn’t pass your lips, but the “I love you” slips past your defences, breathed out against his ear. When he kisses you wildly, you don’t stop him.
Later, curled up together on your thin mattress in the hayloft, with the rain pounding against the roof above, Thomas whispers, “Do you really? Love me, I mean?”
You sigh, feeling like a weight has settled over your shoulders that you’ll never be able to lift off. “Yes,” you say, pressing a kiss against his lips, “But I can’t be the thing what keeps you here, Thomas. You were meant for better things than this.”
“I cannot marry,” he whispers, and you feel his body shake with unshed tears. “I cannot lie, cannot pretend-”
“Then you should ask Mr Cadwaller if it’s true, that he won’t take you without a bride,” you say.
“I’m not supposed to know.”
“Just talk to him about marriage, then. See what he says about it.” You sigh again, the air hissing through your teeth. “The answer’ll be obvious, probably.”
The next day Thomas goes for his tutoring session, and he comes back smiling. You see him from the door of the barn, as he walks into the house, and his expression makes your heart lift.
That evening, it’s Hilda who comes out with the bowl of stew.
“What happened?” you ask quietly, as you take the bowl from her.
“Thomas had a big fight with Ma and Pa because he doesn’t want to get married. He says Mr Cadwaller told him a scholar doesn’t have to be married. Pa said a lawyer does.”
“Pa said he can stay in his bedroom until he reconsiders.”
Hilda brings you your dinner for the next three days. On the fourth day Thomas returns, but the happiness is gone from his eyes. “I marry Saturday next,” he says, looking at the floor. “And we leave for Boston three days after. Pa says you can move into the house.”
You should say it’s for the best, but you can’t make your mouth move. “You’ll be brilliant,” you say, because that much is true.
He sets your bowl and spoon down, and for a second you think he’ll walk away; then he darts forward and wraps his arms around you, burying his head in your shoulder. “I don’t want to go,” he whispers, and you enfold him in your arms, whispering soft things into his hair as he sobs. You want to admit that you don’t want him to go, either, but that will only make things harder.
You wake up in the middle of the night to someone shaking your shoulders.
It’s Thomas hanging over you; you can see his wild eyes in the moonlight. “I’m running away,” he whispers, “Come with me.”
You feel your heart banging behind your ribcage as you pull him down to kiss you. For a bright, glorious second you imagine it - the two of you, on your own together. But you’re a practical man; you know how it would end. “I can’t,” you say when you pull away from him. “I ain’t got no skills, no way to get a job. I’d just be a burden.”
“We’d find something,” Thomas says, almost begging.
You shake your head. “I can’t. But you-” You hesitate. “Will Mr Cadwaller still take you, if you’re in disgrace with your family?”
“I sent him a letter in secret, and he said he would.” Thomas gives you a watery smile. “I don’t know for sure, but I think… I think he’s like us.”
“A confirmed bachelor,” you say, a hint of humour in your voice.
“Yes. That’s why I know he won’t turn me away. Won’t turn either of us away.” Thomas takes your hands in his. “You could come. We could be together.”
You lift his hands and press a kiss to them, soft and slow. “I got a good thing going here,” you say slowly, “And we can’t abandon your poor old pa to work the farm alone. So here’s what I think; you go off to Boston and become a learned man, and when you’re done, I’ll be right here waiting.”
Thomas’ voice is choked. “It’ll take years,” he says, clinging to you.
“Then I’ll wait years,” you say, and Thomas kisses you, and for a while the two of you forget anything else.
You ride with him to the edge of town, unwilling to let him risk the road alone in the dark. You make it back a little before sunrise, and manage perhaps an hour’s sleep before you’re woken by a great hubbub from the main house. You come running, pretending like you think there’s a fire, to find Mrs Holdfast crying into Hilda’s shoulder and Old Man Holdfast already saddling his horse. “He’s gone to that damn Cadwaller’s,” Holdfast says, just before he rides off, leaving you and Hilda to pick up the pieces of the shattered morning.
Somehow Thomas is already gone when his father reaches town, and Cadwaller pretends not to have seen him. You pretend you saw nothing, too, telling Old Man Holdfast that all Thomas said was he was nervous about being married. The Holdfasts keep you on, but they keep Thomas’ room empty and cold, waiting for him to return. You don’t mind; the barn isn’t so bad, and next summer Hilda is married, and you move into her old room.
You only hear from Thomas once. One evening around a month after he left for Boston, just after dusk while you’re settling down for the night, you hear hooves on the grass outside. You don’t recognise the man on the horse, but he introduces himself as Cadwaller; and he gives you the letter with a fond, secretive smile.
With Mr Cadwaller’s generous help I have made it to Boston and got myself settled in the dormitory here at the college. I took their entrance exam, and though I think I did not do very well on it, they have agreed that I may become a student. I am so very glad, for there is so much more in Boston than I ever would have believed, and I hate the thought of leaving her now, when my time here has only just begun. My only pain is that you are not here also, and that I might not share these sights with you.
Though Mr Cadwaller says it will be too dangerous to write regularly, I insisted I must send you at least one letter, to give you some assurance of my safety and happiness. Know that the latter is greatly dimmed without you by my side; indeed I long for the way I used to bring you your nightly bowl, and the way we would talk as you ate. I long for the private darkness of the hayloft, the warmth of your arms, and the taste of your kiss. Know that I will think about you every day, and every hour I will long for you, until once more we will be in each other’s arms again.
The letter stays in your breast pocket until the day he comes home.