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Orpheus, to No One But Himself

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When I disembarked, my legs were not quite under me, staggered by the ship's stores--cheap rum and mealy bread--and the rollicking of the Atlantic. I felt sick, and weak as a child.

A man, unseen until that moment, bolstered me steady. When I was able I saw we were standing by a cart piled high with rough sacks of grain. The cart clutched at a weathered horse.

'You look like a man with a good strong back,' he said, and though he talked incessantly on the cart ride from the docks to his mill, I did not hear beyond that anything the man said. Unlike some, I had never cared for spirits, and weeks of nothing but beer and the like had their vengeance on me. I passed in and out of awareness among the grain, feeling thick-headed and too warm.

A boy perhaps seventeen or eighteen--I am no judge for children--stood at the door to the house, waving at the miller. The miller made his fastidious way down from the bench seat and clapped hands on the boy's shoulders, smiling. Together they unhitched the old horse from her harness, and the miller took her to the barn to dress down, leaving the boy with me to sort out the contents of the cart.

I hefted a bag to gauge its weight. The boy put his hand on my arm and led me to the house.

 

From that day onward I lived in the miller's spare room, nearly for nothing, only that I was occasionally called on to aid him in his work. It was an annoyance that had to be borne. I had, after all, taken the man's son from him.

 

All those months, Ferris had kept me at a distance and said it was for my own good that I starved for him.

Now I was the cautious one.

The boy--Stephen--delighted in teasing me when the danger of discovery was greatest. Just as his father rounded the corner he whispered in my ear what we had done the night before. He knocked his foot into mine at the supper table, or brushed his pale hand against my own dark one as he served me. I had not understood these love games with Caro, but even Stephen's muted attempts at coyness were betrayed by his own youth.

And anyway, I had no brothers left to accuse me of blindness.

He begged for kisses, for my hands beneath his clothes, for me to turn him over and press him against the sheets; it was what he liked best: to feel my strength, and to struggle under me. He pushed his face into the pillows to quiet himself, but still I coaxed my name from his lips, frantic and more breath than speech--it was vanity, but also the least of my sins.

 

Stephen was an affectionate boy, more so when we were together in his cramped bed. His room looked over the millrace: when he dozed, I could hear the sluggish movement of water. He liked to brush the hair back from my brow and kiss along the scar there. It had faded, with time and care, but looked frightful, he said, when my face was heated.

When he asked me what had caused the grief I could not answer, so I let him turn down the light and think what he would.

 

This city earned no kindness for itself in comparison to London. To even call it a city was a brag: the thoroughfares were barely paved, and while it was not one estate with master and servants such as Beaurepair, neither was it the crowding pile as London is. I was fond enough of it.

I was apprenticed to a man in town called John who had his own press. He was an efficient, intelligent man who joyed in what he took for my natural aptitude for the work, for I had not told him of what Ferris showed me, in London.

Stephen appeared at midday, when I was setting the second page of John's newsletter. John's words were less revolutionary than those my brothers and I read in secret, shielded from Sir Bastard, but garnered him ill looks in the commons all the same.

Stephen unwrapped brown wax paper from bread and a hunk of cheese. He divided them up, pushing the larger portion to me, and we ate together, passing a ladle of water between us. The stains of ink on my fingers mottled the bread and, shortly after, his hips.

 

It was near dawn when I left Stephen's bed. The miller was waiting for me outside my own room, dressed for the day's work, hands in fists at his sides. They clenched tighter still at the sight of me, for weeks of carelessness had made me lazy, and I had not done up the buttons on my shirtfront before leaving Stephen's room.

The miller had no wife to make him bold before a stronger man, but faced with the corruption of his only child and companion, he put away his meekness.

'You are a wolf,' he cried out, 'a wolf bearing himself as a man--'

'I bear myself as I am, old man. You knew me when you took me in.'

Botts always turned red in the face--or redder, rather, than the perpetual wine haze that occluded his cheeks. The miller turned white as his apron.

I was six weeks in the crossing from Southampton, and had been docile in Stephen's hands for nearly the same length of time, but lack of quarrel did not make me forget my height, or my dark look. I went inside my own room and waited: he did not follow.

 

It would have been simpler to leave the boy and go, or even to take the boy and go, but I had grown accustomed to the comforts of this place, as I believe I have said. I did not have it in me to suffer the loss of another home.

Whatever I might have done, I was damned, and certain of it. Perhaps I always was, and my vision of the Elect was nothing but a fever's dream, a sinner's longing for something pure.

I knew as surely as I knew that Ferris would never speak another word of love to me--the Voice was not my Father, nor The Adversary. It was none but my own, all along.

The miller was a small man.