The WIP That I Put Away: Grief, Shakespeare and telling stories

I set out to put fiction out in the world here, but there hasn’t been as much fiction on M&W as I’d like. Even though I still hope to finish it someday, Innogen and the Hungry Half stalled out when my mother received her terminal diagnosis, and I haven’t been accomplishing original short stories like I’ve wanted either. This doesn’t mean I’ve haven’t been writing, but sometimes you start a project and realize that it’s just too painful to pursue, even if you go in with open eyes.

What follows is the beginning of a novel whose working title was Kate and Harry Fight the Devil. Some of it has been cannibalized into Coldspur, which I also promise you all should see someday, but that one is more of an adventure story. This WIP is about grief and cancer and spouses. I started it on a visit home the month my mom died, in August 2012. Ever since she got sick in early 2008, I’ve been writing these reverse Eurydice stories. Take one dead Shakespeare protagonist, give him an indomitable wife and shake vigorously. What wouldn’t we do to bring our loved ones back? It’s a kind of war story too — what will we brave for each other? What do we have when we come through to the other side?

This story probably comes closest to expressing what I was feeling in that last month. I was trying to anticipate what it would be like once we lost her for good. Reading it again puts me in a very vulnerable place, but I also have the distance to know that the work is good. I’d like to put it out there. Someone else might need it too, but I also need for people to see it. Sometimes you just need witnesses. If you get that, I’m sorry we’re both in this club.

The plan here was that there would be no single victory, no crowning triumph and reunion: Kate Percy would get back her cored-out husband, and fight tooth and nail to recover him, piece by painstaking, incomplete piece. It would be ugly, and hard, and slow. But it would be about things gained rather than things stolen away: the hideous battle could, in the end, be won by people and not tumors.

I got down 7,000 words before admitting that I couldn’t do this to myself, that it was too painful, no matter how much I liked the idea of my villain, and of Kate Percy, witches’ champion, and of the weirdness of Macbeth stealing into a history play. No one will want to read that kind of resurrection, I told myself. And I’m not comfortable with that kind of body horror, to write about cancer the way it really looks. That’s still too close and private.

We’ll see. Thank you for reading.

If you don’t know Henry IV Part 1, all you need is that Harry Percy rebelled against the king and lost, far away from home.

*
softerpercys

In a cold bed, she still hears him, drunk on her name, good Kate, gentle Kate, my loving Kate, my wife. His shamefaced father has left them alone with the echoing castle, fled to Scotland, where all his allies are captured or killed. She huddles on her side of the blankets, watching the door, waiting for the shadows to flicker, for her Harry and his raging and his flights of imagination to approach. His voice comes back to her in the dark: Will this content you? She has wept herself still and dry without him.

The king’s guard will come. They will ride hard from the battlefield to seek out the rebels and revenge themselves on them. His mother Northumberland is mobilizing the household, dispatching family treasures, sending friends into the wild. King Henry’s men must find nothing at Warkworth Castle, no trace of her Harry, and Kate knows it cannot be done, when he is in every stone and worn path in the marches.

She does not care that the king is still Bolingbroke, she does not care that the Prince of Wales did the slaying. Her Harry’s pillow has not lost its dent; the sheets still smell of him, the goblets he left on the table are where he set them, and she must leave. Would that someone had saved his jacket, a lock of hair, a letter from the front! She would beat him bloody herself if he only would come home.

*

She cannot bear to be inside, so she wraps herself close with thick furs and rough shoes and heads away from the castle. The sharp night is fading; she is but a mile from shore, and she knows the way to the heights about the sea well. Frozen husks of grass crunch beneath her boots. She has nothing in mind, and is too numb to think of throwing herself from the cliffs. All that seems sensible is to watch the sun rise here, as sometimes they did when she was a new bride.

The night is not night anymore when she comes to the old seat, a circle of rocks high above the rocky beach. Kate feels the chill of the stone anew as she lowers herself upon it. She feels thin and shot through under her heaps of clothes. The sky allows itself some blue. The wind whips up, then suddenly falls off. Kate thinks her lips are cracking. The sea is quiet; it is too cold to think of doing much.

She fails to notice when her company comes. In the uncertain dimness, she feels bodies behind her. “All hail, lady of the Sorrows,” croons a throaty female voice.

“Lady of cold Hotspur, hail,” seconds another.

“We hail thee, wrathful Kate,” croaks a third, and the women to whom the voices belong settle in close beside her, stroking her arms and back and face. Kate is too scared to throw them off; she looks sidelong at them, but can only see swaddled faces, the hints of mouths, rags upon rags upon rags.

“Who are you?” she says, and only by seeing her own breath on the air does she notice that theirs is not hot. “What can you want of me?”

“How does the moth know to tumble toward a flame?” says one.

“How does the owl know where to dive?” says another.

“How does the wolf know the miles to the hind?”

Then, as one, “We hail thee, grieving Kate.”

Their hands stay upon her, ceaselessly moving over her body, at least one touching her at all times. Kate closes her eyes and feels herself lean into them. She has fallen asleep on this spot before. Surely exhaustion has found her at last. “Good dream ladies,” she murmurs, “why do you come to me like this?”

“To help thee, Kate.”

“To help thee because we need thee.”

“We need thee, Kate, to win a prize for us.”

“We need thee to rip a man from in the ground.”

“Wilt be our champion, Kate?”

“Wilt prove your mettle upon our field?”

She loses herself in the lilt of their speech. It is not like Harry’s accent, but not like any Scottish she has heard, which she would call closest to it. She opens her eyes again; the sky is muddied with color now, though the sun is not yet up. “I do not know what you ask of me.”

A rough, dry hand caresses her cheek. “Your pain, good sweet, and your labor.”

“A prize for us is a prize for you.” A knotted claw strokes the line of her thigh.

“We want but that you would do to have your fine Harry back.”

Kate jerks away from their hands, rigid and gasping. “Go to! I know you for what you are.” Her lip splits in the cold; her face throbs, the lip is thick and hot. The witches pull her back to them again.

“You would have him back by inches, but you would get him back.”

“If you did as the task demanded.”

“We ask only that, heart.”

“Not your death, not your name, not your living soul.”

“A knight’s quest, a woman’s quest.”

“You will bring down a quarry as huge as a whale if you help us do this.”

“And Harry Percy will live,” they all hiss, as does the crashing surf.

Kate sits a spell, staring out at the water. There is madness in any grief, she thinks, and my grief is the greatest in all England. “Suppose I should take you on,” she says, and one witch snakes her hand around her back, holding her fist next to Kate’s ribs.

“When you sealed your promise to us, we would give you this.”

“When we give you this,” whispers a second, “you would hurl it into the water.”

“When you have given it to the water,” rasps a third, “you will find a shell upon the shore.”

“What then?” Kate presses. Warmth is stirring in her, though it may be base instinct screaming that she throw off the crones and run.

“Then,” says one witch, “you will need help, and help will come to you if you do not make it yourself.”

“Make your answer quick, sweet griever.”

“Peace! The sun’s near up.”

It is not real. She and Harry were of one mind on that. There are no more devils on earth than on the moon, and only what men make creates danger for what is everlasting. She is tired, and sick with grief. This is but her brain preying upon itself.

“I will be your champion,” she says, sleepily, “since that is what you ask.”

The witches kiss her on her bloody lip, one by one, and she smells them upon her as they draw away: underground things, loamy things, rotting things, growing things. She comes to under a milky sun, with no crack upon her mouth, and no dents in the frosted grass around her. Her hand is curled around something warm. She opens it to find a hinged globe, brass, unmarked, the size of a walnut pit. It has no chain and no lock, but it will not open, and Kate becomes nervous to think of trying to pry the halves apart.

*

Lady, his favorite hound, paces and whimpers and leans against Kate’s legs. She follows her through the castle, which grows emptier by the hour.

Lady Northumberland catches them both in the halls. “Daughter, you must get yourself clean. The matter is urgent and I cannot tend it alone.”

Kate does not yet feel warm, save for the skin of her palm, still holding the brass locket. “How now, what help can I give?”

Her mother-in-law’s face pinches, but she battens it down. “The same rumor that first the Earl was told is all over England, that our Harry still lives and rebellion is at hand. A rider came to us in the night and told us of a troop from the king sent to investigate. They will be here within the hour; I have worried myself sick that you were not to be found in your bed.”

Lady’s toenails click on the stone floor as she shuffles behind Kate’s knees. “My widow’s weeds are not packed,” says Kate, her voice flat, and for an instant she imagines, out of the corner of her eye, her husband leaning against that wall, wearing a smirk. She watches the empty spot, and says, “I will meet you downstairs presently.”

She dresses herself with indifference, her limbs still bitten with cold. The witches’ gift she sets upon a chest, and a moment’s staring at it makes her wonder if it had not always been there. Lady rests her chin upon the bed and whines. It is Harry’s side; the dogs were never let in their chambers. Kate does not bother with her hair, but hurries out, leaving the locket behind. Lady follows, insisting on staying close.

The king’s party, when it arrives, is offensively small: just a few men with Northern accents, and one official bearing the seal of the crown. The Lady Northumberland greets them with stony dignity. “If you have business with us, tell it quick,” she says, while Kate hangs at her shoulder. “Our house is racked with sorrows enough, if you think to heap more upon us.”

“Good my ladies of Northumberland, I come on business of the king.” The official eyes them both, eyes the whole echoing hall with suspicion.

“If business you have with my son, I tell you, sirs, he is killed. And if you seek the Earl, I cannot tell you where he is gone, for he left without telling a single soul in our house.”

“It is a practice learned well by his son,” Kate says, on cue. “For many a time I would entreat my Harry to know me of his plans, and always, that honorable man rebuffed me. If you would tell the king of anyone—”

“Peace,” the official huffs. “We need not mark protestations of the rebel Hotspur’s demise, for the Prince of Wales hath reported it, and the king doth well believe him. The corpse was buried at Shrewsbury, and that matter is finished.

“My Lady of Northumberland, you will permit me to search your lands and holdings to prove your word, for the Earl is with his every breath in revolt against an anointed monarch.”

“Well he knows the worth of the crown,” she snaps. “He has had dealings enough with it.”

Lady presses the long bridge of her nose to Kate’s thigh. Kate stays still, the pale and cored-out widow for the king’s men, and her mother-in-law takes the Londoner through the halls.

Kate rushes up the tower again, to their bedroom, and snatches the locket, shaken to be without it. Lady hangs at the door and lays down. Kate falls upon the bed and listens, for what, she could not say; as the sun climbs, she hears not a thing.

*

So, the king is satisfied: Harry Hotspur is gone, and they have moved on to other uprisings. The Percy women are to be left to keen and cry. The dead leader’s mother is gathering the household up, to move them to from Warkworth to Alnwick, a fortress, and better suited to safety.

A thought seizes Kate. “I’ll stay,” she says to Lady Northumberland. “Only leave a few servants here, and our room intact. I will see to the rest of it.”

Lady Northumberland frowns, and takes her elbow. “Kate, it is just a building. You must not think Harry would want you to leave yourself exposed to our enemies.”

“Our enemies have dismissed us. I cannot explain myself, but I will not leave yet.”

Her mother-in-law presses her lips together. “I will send a man for you regularly,” she says at last. “And you will come to Alnwick the instant you are in danger. Do you understand, Kate?”

“I will not let those who stay come to harm.”

They embrace, and Lady Northumberland holds her a little tighter than is her way.

*

The castle is quieted; most everyone has left. Those who remain would not staff a much smaller house: a blacksmith, two cooks, some maids, a groom, a handful of guards. Kate no longer notices that Lady trails her everywhere, and no one speaks up to shoo the hound away. The brass globe stays with her too, heavy and warm in her pocket.

She waits for another dream to come to her, but the ladies of the cliff keep their distance, and instead she starts awake from visions of Harry, wheezing and bloody, or tossed about the victorious king’s camp and torn to shreds for sport. The wild hope that sustained her for a day drops out, and she feels all the absence more keenly than ever.

Lady Northumberland sends her man as promised. He is a stocky fellow, stolid, by the name of Thewlis. They converse for an hour, and she gives him a letter for her mother-in-law, and he departs by noontime. Some wildness seizes Kate then; she beats her mattress and screams into her pillow, and it is then that she grabs the brass locket, races to the stables, Lady at her heels, and mounts her favorite horse.

The three of them fly to the water’s edge, and today the sky is slate gray and the waves slow and rough. Kate drops to the pebble beach and marches toward the ocean. The locket’s warmth has dulled, if it was ever more than desperate imagination.

A great roar wells up inside her, and with a howl she hurls the locket into a cresting wave. The salt water pounds the beach and hisses up to her, lapping at her shoes, though not soaking them. Her arm is good; the brass globe sails far, far out. She does not see where it falls, for another wave swallows it and is gone.

She feels humiliated. What a stupid ploy, and for what? At what prompting? A vision had half-frozen and all exhausted at dawn? The worst of womanish folly. Owen Glendower would laugh at her right now. She feels the cold through her feet, and curses herself again. Defeated and weary, she plods back to the horse, who patiently lets her lean against his great belly and shut her eyes.

Lady begins to prance and whimper. She flits under the horse’s hooves, and the horse warns her off with a low whinny. Kate steadies herself on the horse’s flank and watches the dog, who charges at the water, only to dance back before it can touch her. “Foolish creature,” Kate huffs, and heads off to catch her. Lady presses herself to the ground, whining, as Kate approaches. She grabs the hound’s scruff and tugs. “Come, or I’ll keep thee from the hearth, as you well deserve!”

Lady twists away and flees. Kate curses and starts after her, but hesitates. The ocean has gone particularly quiet behind her. She turns, and feels her face drain. A huge, relentless wave is bearing down on her, has snuck up on her and gives her little time to run from it. She tears after Lady, just as the water thunders onto the ground.

[next]

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This entry was published on April 6, 2014 at 10:00 pm. It’s filed under Fiction, Informal, Not Entirely Real and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

8 thoughts on “The WIP That I Put Away: Grief, Shakespeare and telling stories

  1. tempestsarekind on said:

    I don’t have words to describe how reading this made me feel, but I know I would want to keep reading! And everything feels…solid, if that’s the right word to use – I completely believe that this sort of thing could happen; that Kate would get her information in this stingy, piecemeal sort of way; that these supernatural beings all have their own agendas. And I think one of the things that makes it feel so real is that things seem to be tied to specific country in some way – that part of the reason Kate doesn’t know what she’s dealing with is that she hasn’t grown up in this part of the country, listening to these particular tales. That’s so how folklore works!

    Anyway, I think it’s moving and eerie and odd – thank you for sharing it.

    • Thank you — I really appreciate hearing that. I remember how well this one flowed when I was sitting down to write it. Maybe it was because of the soup I was living in at the time, but everything just seemed to make sense in its own context. Kate not being local is certainly a big deal — not local, and Anglo-Norman at that, and noble, so she hardly even knows who or what to ask in the first place.

      The response to this piece has been overwhelming to me, actually, and I really am starting to wonder if it should stay a WIP, since it seems to resonate so much with people. We’ll see. But again, many thanks. It’s really nice to hear that readers like this and that it’s having an effect.

  2. I paraphrased a Harry Hotspur-related line in a novel of mine and I was curious to see it again, so I dove into the Web and ran across your excerpt, “The WIP I put away.” I read part of it, then turned away because of my own grief sensitivity. Furthermore, I wished my novel had the “flow” as you put it – such poetic grace – so I ached even more. I got over that and wanted to read your words again and it took me a while to find it. I’m glad I did.

    • I moved across the country and started a new job this week, but your comment has been sticking with me the whole time. My apologies that I didn’t thank you for it sooner, but: Thank you. It means a lot to me to hear this.
      All best,
      Esther

      • Not too long ago I moved from Chicago to Orlando for a job and escape from the cold. It was a very good move, though I remember my native, brutal Chicago with a twisted sentimentality. I suppose all sentimentality is twisted, this being a prosaic life that begs for it.
        Anyway, I hope your move and adjustments went well. I read your WIP and found it wonderful and complete – the captured prism of a tear.

        • Not too long ago I moved from Chicago to Orlando for a job and escape from the cold. It was a very good move, though I remember my native, brutal Chicago with a twisted sentimentality. I suppose all sentimentality is twisted, this being a prosaic life that begs for it.
          Anyway, I hope your move and adjustments went well. I read your WIP and found it wonderful and complete – the captured prism of a tear.

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