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

The shore has gone quiet again. Kate feels her heart thrashing under each rib. She cannot name the dread that keeps her from turning, but she resists it. Wherefore dread, then? It was just a wave.

She would not believe the sight if Lady did not rush toward it too: a man’s body, spread naked on the rocks. His hair lies plastered to his skull, and a wound gapes in his side, but she knows him, she knows him.

When she has shoved Lady aside and pulled the man away from the water’s reach, she searches him with her hands. A grievous hole in the stomach, a wanton stab to his thigh, a scratch across one cheek, but the face is his, the limbs are his, the whole of him is Harry.

Whatever words the witches spoke have flown out of her head: all she wants is a pulse, some impossible warmth that confirms breath and life. Her fingers are numb with wet and cold; she cannot find a heartbeat, nor bring herself to test whether his blood is hot. Lady licks at his fingertips and cries, as dogs will. Kate heaves him into her lap, her palms pressed to his face; his beard was never his proudest feature, and it is no more than a careless scruff.

She presses her lips together. It will do no good to cry or cradle him whether is dead or no. With a precise gesture, she pulls open one set of eyelids. The bright blue iris is unclouded; the pupil is fat and lazy for an instant, but contracts. When she sees it, she cries out, ragged and half triumphant. She strips off her coat and covers what she can of him. His feet hang bare and knobbly past the fur ruff.

Kate shuffles out from under his head and hurries to grab the horse’s reins. The gelding is reluctant, but she pulls him near enough. With encouragement, she convinces him to kneel, then lie still. The wind whips off the water, a warning to leave quickly. Harry is deadweight. Kate strains and strains just to push him upright, and struggles to keep him so as she works to pull him toward the horse. Lady yelps and frets close at hand.

It is not a graceful process, nor indeed a graceful arrangement, but by the grace of some power, Kate gets her leaden husband onto the horse’s bare back. She wraps him close in the coat, a jest in contest with his broad shoulders, and holds him upright from behind. The horse is a furnace beneath them: So will we keep him, she thinks to herself. It is without hesitation that she urges the gelding forward. All other problems have fallen away, save getting Harry Percy, miraculously delivered, back into the castle.

*

The groom rushes out of the stables to meet them. “What ho, my lady!” he calls. “What have you found?”

“I cannot lift him much,” she answers, fearing to dismount, should he pitch to one side and fall. The gelding stops, patient, and the groom reaches for her Harry. Kate lets him slide into his arms.

“Who is this?” the groom asks. “Where did you find him, my lady?”

“Who?” She frowns at him. “Can you not see who?”

The groom lowers Harry against a pile of hay and grabs a blanket and rags for drying. He begins rubbing down the pale torso, his sopping wet hair. “There must have been a shipwreck,” says the groom. “Poor sailor.”

Kate stares. This man is Harry Percy, by her life she will swear it so. “He does not look familiar to you?”

“He looks at death’s door, my lady.” The groom thins his lips. “I’ll send my boy out to find the doctor.”

Harry lolls under the groom’s hands. “Careful, careful, he is wounded!” she insists. The groom lifts the coat to study the gash in his side and his thigh.

“Ugly, sure, but not deep. They’ll need to be cleaned, but if he makes it through the night, he should wake.”

Kate is suddenly stricken by the fear that she is seeing that which is not real. Those hurts were mortal at the shore. The ocean would not give up a man who died in Shropshire. The dead cannot return in their own flesh. She is a widow, the greatest grief in England. And yet, she threw the locket into the water…

“Bring him to my late lord’s bed,” she hears herself saying. “I do not use it; I hardly sleep now. Can you carry him? Bring him straightaway.”

I am a widow, she thinks. I am allowed a certain madness now.

*

His head fits in the dent in his pillow. He rests more still and silently than he ever did before this, swaddled close in blankets and bandages. Lady, stinking of the ocean, lingers at the door, her long jaw tucked between her front paws. Kate lies next to him, studying him, the shape of his brow, the slope of his nose. He is under too many layers to see his chest rising and falling, but she knows he is with her, and that he won’t leave.

She rolls onto her back, marveling at their circumstance. Now, in the quiet, the witches’ words creep back to her. Wilt be our champion, Kate? Wilt prove your mettle upon our field?

Back by inches, but back. There will be time enough to question this. For now, she stares up at the ceiling, imagining what he would say if told that magic pulled him back above ground. Now would she laugh at Owen Glendower.

Sleep does not come to her, not yet. It seems to Kate that above her husband, as does the reflection of water, some hidden source of light is rippling. Poor sailor, she thinks, and watches it, perhaps, until the sun rises and washes it out.

*

“Kate Mortimer, so, I am told we are to be wed.”

It is a golden light that burnishes him, sprawling on his side of their bed. He has propped himself on one elbow, and cannot keep his free hand off her face and out of her hair. Kate lets him, with a laugh. “My lord, you have a terrible memory.”

“Marry! Have I?” His fingers trace down her collarbone. “Tell me, Kate. Let me hear of it again.”

She jerks awake. Thin, lackluster light leaks in through the windows. The sleeping man beside her has not moved. His face is still terribly pale, and his jaw is slack like it never was in sleep. Kate puts a hand to his cheek, which is no longer clammy, but still is not overly warm. She sighs and sits up. Her own head swims; she tries to remember the last food she had, and cannot recall what day it is.

Lady has inched her way over the threshold; she is half in and half out of the chamber. She pricks her ears and lifts her head when she notices that Kate has seen her. Her tail thumps for a moment. Kate pulls her robe closer and pushes herself to the edge of the bed. No one else in the household has recognized Harry Hotspur, to her ongoing dismay. Yet it must be protection; no one must know of him. She looks at him over her shoulder, and remembers the pressure of his hand over his face: Thou will not speakst what thou dost not know. The king and his people believe him dead, as do his family, his household and his supporters. Now his widow brings a castaway into his bed. People will surely talk. She must shore up her defenses.

“My lady?” Heavy footsteps thump over the steps leading to their room. Kate gets to her feet and steps into the hall. A serving woman is making her way in, a tureen in the crook of her arm. She flashes a gap-toothed smile. “It’s Margaret, my lady. Cook sent me up with some soup for the fella.”

“Cook is of sounder mind than I am at the moment.” Kate pushes Lady away with one foot, and Margaret sets her tureen down with a thud on the table.

“Is he awake at all?”

Kate shakes his head. “Not yet, but he will.”

Margaret lifts her eyebrows. “You must be careful, my lady. These sea-swept men, they don’t always come back to us.” With a stolid straightforwardness, she rolls back the heavy covers and looks down on Harry. “A strong-looking one, though, my word. He may yet, if I have any say in it. Help me, my lady, would you?”

The two women heave Harry upright and prop him against a pile of pillows. He stays unconscious, unaware of anything, even the bandages on his person. Margaret arranges his head as best she can, but it lolls back. She nods to Kate. “Hold him here for me?”

Kate cups the back of Harry’s head while Margaret fetches the soup. Her fingers run through his hair, and she thinks of the kisses she planted at the point where he’d cut it, just at the nape. She looks down at him, limp and helpless. Harry Hotspur, feared by the king, killed by a prince. Margaret takes a seat beside him, bowl in hand, and pulls down his jaw.

“Rub his neck for me, so he’ll swallow. One direction, just like on a dog.”

The soup is some puree, root vegetables and chicken stock. The smell of it makes Kate swoon with hunger. She tracks Margaret’s hand as she dips the spoon into the bowl, lifts it and ladles it into Harry’s mouth. Some of the soup dribbles over his chin. He remains insensate; Margaret mops it up with a rag. Kate, awkwardly, mechanically, helps him swallow.

“If I may, my lady,” Margaret begins conversationally, “I’ve made enough for two. You look as though you need it.”

Kate massages Harry’s bristly throat. She really must help him shave. “I cannot pretend I would not be glad of it. Thank you.”

Margaret gives her another look. “It would do you well to perhaps come down for a while too, my lady. It’s two days you’ve been up here. The rest of the household misses you.”

“I cannot—” She stops at Margaret’s puzzled expression. “Perhaps,” she concedes, to stave off further questions.

*

In the end, Margaret convinces her to see to some matters of the household: everyday things meant to keep Kate from despair. Lady stays behind with Harry, and for whatever reason, that contents Kate. The diversion works. Immersing herself in trivial, physical details reduces the roar inside her skin to a low thrum. She is glad, though, to be able to step back into her room. She goes up alone, by candlelight, before midnight but not much before.

Lady has retreated away from the bed. She blinks at Kate, huddled against the door frame and shaking. Kate pauses. “What is the matter?”

A long exhalation rattles around the room. Kate hurries to the bedside and hovers over Harry, who is breathing harder now. His chest pumps like a bellows, though his eyes do not open. Kate knits her brow. “Harry…” She takes his shoulder to steady it, but yanks back her hand with a cry. His skin is burning up, even through the blankets. “All the saints and angels, Harry!”

Harry wheezes, a sudden shift in rhythm. He begins to laugh: a horrible sound, and not one, Kate realizes, somehow, that he is making himself.

A voice pushes itself out of his open mouth, though neither his lips nor his tongue move. “Is that his name?” It has the timbre of Harry, but not his accent or his diction, nor indeed any quality of his voice save the notes of it. Something is playing Harry’s body like an instrument. “I had wondered,” it says. “I had wondered who it is that would be worth snatching back.”

“What is the meaning of this?” Kate white-knuckles the candle.

The voice inside Harry chuckles. “No one does this sort of thing anymore, you know. It’s been a long time since I’ve found a shell like this one.”

“You must know I am helpless against you. Tell me what you’re doing with him and what it is you want.”

“Helpless? You? The champion? Never.” The voice scoffs and snarls; Harry’s body jerks and twitches. “You don’t know what I do because no one’s told you yet. But you need me…” Kate has the uncomfortable feeling of being sniffed at, somehow. “Yes, you need me, Kate.”

Harry’s eyes pop open, uncomfortably wide. “I need you, Kate,” his mouth says, in a parody of his true voice.

Her heart twists in on itself at that, but she stands firm, somehow. “Go to, then. If you would rather vex me than confront me, I’ll see the three ladies hear of this.”

The voice pauses, and Harry’s breathing slows. “Wouldst not know who I am and what I do?”

“If thou hast care to help me.”

“Those who don’t understand me call me a parasite, but there’s such a thing as symbiosis, my lady. I find a shell like your good Harry here, and I burrow in and gnaw on the hard part that locks him out of himself. Once I’ve eaten through that, he’s yours to fill up as you please. Only let me finish; it’s been a long winter for me. As I said, no one does this sort of thing anymore.”

“I still do not entirely understand you.”

“Your Harry was dead, was he not?”

“Is he not alive now?”

“No. He is empty. I beg your pardon, I misspeak. He is full of nothing. To make room for it, the rest of him was bartered off to all kinds of different holdings. You’ll have to protect him better than you protected him from me; all kinds of uses for a full-of-nothing man.”

“How do I do that?”

“Not by I, said the blowfly. But there’s some in Northumbria that may still be able to help. A family called Leadbitter, are any of them around? I should seek them out.”

“And they can help me bring him back?” She considers this. “How can I tell if you are telling me the truth?”

The voice seems to sigh. “Not anybody doing this work anymore. Nobody remembers. But you’re not from here, are you. No one would have told you. Give me a moment.” The body goes still again. Lady whines behind her. Kate turns to see the wolfhound jump to her feet and stare, stiff-limbed, at the bed.

Harry moans. The noise is too human to be the other voice. In an instant, Kate is at his side, his hand in hers. His eyes flutter, and she cups his face. “Harry?”

He cannot seem to focus. His mouth moves, but no sound comes out. He squeezes his eyes shut and breathes hard for a moment. Then: “…for the worms.”

That was him. That was no mockery, no puppeted speech. That was him. Kate grips his hand harder, an attempt to keep herself from weeping, but to no avail. “Harry, it’s Kate, it’s your Kate. Speak again.”

He opens his eyes. The expression is dull at first, but sharpens after several seconds. “For the worms,” he says again.

“You are not,” she replies, pushing back the hair from his forehead. “Not if I have anything to say on it.”

He watches her, but cannot keep his eyes open, and slips back into sleep. After several seconds have gone by, the voice returns. “He is in there still, a little ember, and awake, what little is left. But you’ll have to get help to get the rest of him back.”

“How do I keep him safe?”

“Hang lavender at every entrance for now, windows and doors. That will keep long enough to get some real help. Now, if you’ll just leave me in peace for a few minutes more, I’m nearly through. Be careful, though. Lots will want a piece of this one. Lots have wanted and gotten it. You have your work cut out for you, Kate Percy.”

***

A lot more was going to happen here, of course. There’s more of this draft, but it’s about 2,000 words of me refusing to see that the story is falling apart and I’m not able to figure out what it needs instead. But Kate enlists the help of women around the castle and the country to beg, fight for or steal back the pieces of Harry’s soul (or some essence like it), which has been divided up by the unseelie beings who would have some use for each part (his temper, his childhood, his brilliance on the field, his love for his wife). There is also the task of looking after Harry’s body, which wants its occupant, which needs care. This remains the hardest thing for me to contemplate and write. Meanwhile, Kate must fend off an antagonist who appears in the guise of one’s death; she is fooled by him at first, for he visits Warkworth Castle as the Prince of Wales — as, indeed, the king.

With each small victory, the shell of Harry becomes more recognizably Harry himself, and Kate achieves everything without a sword, but with cleverness and grit and an unwillingness to lose. Hotspur won’t be whole again, though: there’s no way to bring together all the pieces just as he was. But by God, she’ll fight until she’s savage for every one she can get. My happy ending is that they get close.

kate-grief2

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

  1. 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.

    1. 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.

    1. 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

      1. 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.

        1. 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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