I begged to use the carriage but my mother refused and so we walked into town. Jane carried a sack full of other empty sacks, and Isabelle and I trotted alongside. We had tried to bring our swords but my mother wouldn’t let us do that, either.
From the little road that connected the manor to the main road we could see the whole of Bungay, and a couple of other towns that appeared as brown smudges in the distance. At more-or-less random places in the grass sunlight glinted off the river, which must have been terribly curvy to appear in so many places at once. Small boats sailed up and down, and where the river was hidden by the meadows it appeared as if the boats were sailing across grass.
I had expected the market to be something small and shameful, but instead the heart of town was a riot of activity. On one end was a mass of people selling butter, and on the far end a similar mass selling flour, and in between was a jumble of voices and clanging and singing and shouting. The only difference between this market and the one I knew from home was the absence of street children; the few children I saw here were all busy.
Jane went straight to work, checking the wares and comparing prices. It wasn’t as easy as it looked. In London you could just say, “Pound of carrots, please,” and the deal would be done. Here things were different. Each time Jane went up to a stall, the vendor would strike up a conversation, asking all manner of questions about Jane, about our family, about how we liked the town and our house and what were the names of the children and did she herself have any children and was the lady of the house alone or would she be joined by the lord of the house and where did Jane it was Jane wasn’t it where did you come from before you came to their employ your accent suggests you aren’t a native Londoner oh Cotswolds that’s grand and how are the children adjusting do they have a governess is there need for a
And on and on. Sometime, eventually, Jane would have a chance to ask about the bloody carrots, and then on the next stall for cabbages, and a whole new battery of questions, different but essentially the same, would resume. I wondered why they didn’t all just take notes and then compare behind our backs; it’s what the ladies at Covent Garden did, after all.
Without asking Jane, Isabelle and I moved on. I don’t think she really expected us to follow her around anyway, and even from the center of town we could see Winston House in the distance so we couldn’t possibly be lost.
The doors to St. Mary’s were open so we peeked in. The sanctuary was empty. The inside was less decorated but perhaps prettier than St. Martin’s.
“You may enter,” a voice said behind us. Behind us was a priest. A sign out front had named a Right Reverend Bishop George Mather, and I assumed this was he. The bishop was tall, older than Father Mallory but much younger than Chauncey. The dirt under the river was younger than Chauncey. The bishop was a bit older than my father, and his face showed its age with dignity, without a pile of sagging wrinkles. He had black-and-grey hair and narrow blue eyes.
“We were just looking,” Isabelle offered as a polite refusal.
“You must be the new children. Master Julian, I believe?” I nodded. “And Miss Isabelle Edmonstone.” A quizzical look crossed her face. The bishop saw it. “Your name is not unknown in these parts. Daughter of Lord Robert Edmonstone of Portsmouth. We had the pleasure to meet, he and I, years ago. I never met your mother but heard wonderful things, and when she passed I sent my respects. You must look quite like her, as you don’t resemble your father much at all.” It was both polite and rude, the way he spoke. I couldn’t really explain why. “Might not I interest you in tea and biscuits? We can take them in the garden.”
I didn’t answer but looked at Isabelle, whose eyes stayed locked on the bishop’s. “I’m afraid we cannot stay today,” she said, “but perhaps another time. If you’ll excuse us.”
“Of course,” he said. “Run along. The Lord has blessed us with a beautiful day.”
She took my hand and we scooted past him and back into the square, into the market where we pretended to be busy. The first stall we came across was run by an old man who was half asleep. His table was was covered with an odd assortment of kitchen items like pots and cups, as well as bolts of blue and white cloth and random bits like combs and dolls. Isabelle picked up a blue and white scarf and wrapped it around her head like a grandmother. I laughed a bit. She started to make a silly face but stopped herself—her lip was still badly hurt from the Incident, and it hurt her to stretch it too much. The vendor stirred and Isabelle quickly put the scarf back, trying awkwardly to fold it as it had been before stepping away. The vendor looked down at it, frowned, picked it up, and began folding it properly. We scampered off.
It only took a few steps to be out of the market. Jane was struggling to buy flour; we let her be. There was a road that curved away from the market, and Isabelle and I followed it. The alternative, we supposed, would have been to walk out into the meadows, which probably wasn’t a good idea.
On one side of the street were the backs of the buildings that faced the square. They were just as crooked on this side as they were on that, but a little more crumbly-looking. They showed their best side to the square, I suppose. The other side of the street was mostly open to the meadows, except for two or three squat little houses and one surprisingly sturdy box of a building. It must have been the newest building in town. We walked up to it. A sign on it said “Bungay Staithe.”
“What’s a…” I wasn’t sure how to pronounce the word. Isabelle didn’t know, either. At least now I knew how to spell Bungay. In my mind I thought it was “Bunghee.” The building had a large wooden door that was held open by a rope, and so we went in. It was a large undecorated room with a small table on one side; at the table there was an empty chair and a closed ledger that I wasn’t curious enough to open. Another door on the opposite side was also open, so we walked through.
Here was the river, stripped of its protecting grasses. It was broad, and a barely visible current tugged the water towards the sea. An earthen path led to a wooden pier to which three small boats were tied. We had found Bungay’s famous little port.
I found a rock and threw it into the water where it made a satisfying plunk. Isabelle did the same but her rock wasn’t big enough to make a good sound. She was disappointed. She tried again, trying this time to throw it farther into the river, but she misjudged the distance and it landed in the grass, startling a large bird that had been rested there unseen. The bird took off, which must have been a signal to another bird on our side of the river, one that had been hiding in the grass beside us, for it took off as well, startling us in turn. Isabelle cringed and whipped her head around quickly to get a look at the birds. I knew what she was looking for; I was doing the same. But these birds were blue, and rather small.
We weren’t alone here, that much became clear to me. Isabelle took a step away from the river and towards the walkway. “Hello?” she called out, more to herself than anything.
“Hello?” I echoed, louder this time. There was a rustle in a bush, and a glimmer of a figure.
“Is anyone there?” Isabelle called out again. A little hand emerged from the bush and called to us.
“Come here,” a tiny voice said. “I want to show you something.” A quizzical smile spread on Isabelle’s face. I drew close to her and we walked over.
Too slowly, apparently. The hand waved again, faster, telling us to come. It belonged to a very small child, or perhaps an elf. I felt relieved but Isabelle’s halting footsteps made me think harder, and I thought for a moment that it might be—or at least that she thought it might be—a trap. When we drew close the hand disappeared into the bush, and when we peered in we saw that behind the bush there was a clearing of packed earth, on the edge of which sat crouching a little boy, perhaps not more than four years old. He didn’t look up at us but instead waved us closer and repeated, “I want to show you something.” Looking at me for approval, Isabelle stepped into the clearing and I followed.
Whatever small sounds the town had made disappeared entirely in the clearing. The boy signaled with his hand for us to come down, and so we squatted beside him. We couldn’t squat the way he did, though: he kept his feet flat on the ground, his knees together and tucked all the way up to his chest so his chin could rest on it. I tried it for a moment and found the strain on my legs and pressure on my toes unbearable. I knelt instead. Isabelle didn’t last long either before simply sitting on the ground.
The little boy traced his finger in the dirt in front of him, drawing a small circle before gently lifting with his fingertip a small blue flower from the ground. It was tiny, with a green stem as thin as a thread. He drew another circle on the ground a few inches away, and again drew a tiny blue flower from it. After he had drawn five of them he pulled them up from the ground, roots and all, and arranged them into a little bouquet, tiny even in his little fingers, and held them out to Isabelle. It was the first time I saw his face, a little oval framed in light brown hair, with saucer-like eyes that were a light brown flecked with gold and green.
“For me?” Isabelle asked, but I was more interested in where they came from than where they were going. I had to resist the urge to draw in the ground myself. “Thank you.” She took them and smelled them. He reached out with one hand and put a finger on the cut on her lip. For a moment a quietly serious look came on his face, and at that same moment Isabelle’s eyes changed—her whole face, really. I couldn’t explain what it was. I wasn’t even positive that it happened, but something like a light or a shadow passed over her face and for a moment her eyes seemed to slip away.
But only a moment. Not even a moment. He smiled, revealing two rows of tiny white teeth. “Ha ha!” he laughed, pleased with himself. His laugh was almost more of a snort. Then he raked the ground quickly with his fingers, erasing his circles, stood up and bounded past us, out of the bush. Isabelle was back and normal, and she raised her own finger to her lip, to feel the cut that he had touched. She smiled, the first real smile she’d had since the Incident. I could see that the swelling had already gone down—funny how I had forgotten than her bottom lip was supposed to be thin and pale pink, not the thick red cord it had been for the past few days. The cut itself was barely visible, too.
We didn’t run after him, but we did get up and follow—I, for one, was intensely curious. He was standing in the door to the building which much have been the waiting room or office or whatever for the Bungay port, and waved for us. Isabelle dusted off the seat of her dress and I did the same to my knees, and then we walked after him, she holding her flowers very lightly and occasionally bringing them up to her nose to sniff.
As he ran ahead of us he began zigzagging along the road, then abruptly stopped to examine something on the ground before getting up and running ahead. He was entirely unpredictable but seemed content, laugh-snorting to himself and beckoning us with his little hand, sometimes looking over his shoulder to make sure we were following. He tripped every so often, falling to the ground with a perfect splat and then picking himself up and saying, “I’m not hurt!” and then toddling away again, his little legs racing like hummingbird wings without carrying him very far. We followed him and before long reached the edge of the town, where the road to Norwich began to rise over the hill.
“Where are we going?” Isabelle asked him when we caught up. He looked at her and then pointed with his entire arm towards a little shelter built by the side of the road. He ran in and we followed.
He had plopped down on a wooden bench inside the shelter. There was a burlap sack there which he picked up and began digging through.
“Do you live here?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“Where do you live?”
Without really looking up he pointed across the river, towards a small smudge on a hilltop that could have been a cottage, surrounded by much smaller smudges that might have been cows. From his sack he pulled a roll of bread about the size of my fist and celebrated it with his “Ha ha!” laugh-snort. He held it out to Isabelle, who took it in her other hand, and then he found another and held it out to me. I took it. It was still warm.
“Why are you in town?” I asked him. He shrugged and swung his feet. He was small enough that when he sat on the bench his feet didn’t touch the ground. “Are your parents in the market?”
“What’s your name?” Isabelle asked. I suppose that was a better question.
“Asa,” he said as he bit into his own roll of bread.
“Are you here alone?” He shook his head again, and then pointed at me and at Isabelle. She laughed. “Besides us, I mean. Is there anybody else here with you?” He looked around. The shelter was empty. He shook his head again. Was he deliberately misunderstanding, or was he so young he took everything exactly literally? He laugh-snorted again, though it was unclear if he was being funny or just being happy.
“My name is Isabelle,” she said. “And this is Julian.” I waved at him with the hand holding the bread. “We’re not from here.” He didn’t answer. “We’re only visiting.”
He stood up then, put the last of his roll into his mouth, and grabbed both of us. He took my free hand, but since Isabelle didn’t have any free hands he had to take her wrist. He tugged at us, which I could barely feel, but we obligingly moved in the direction he wanted us to, which was out into the road. Once in the middle of it, he pointed back towards the town. I followed his finger with my eyes. From this angle we could only barely see it, but there, half hidden by the castle and the church, was our house. Or at least Chauncey’s cottage.
“Yes,” I said, “that’s where we live.”
And then the little boy—Asa, he said his name was—whipped his head around as if he had heard something. He let go of us and darted into the shelter to grab his burlap sack, and then ran past us again on the road up to Norwich, stopping only briefly to wave goodbye and the point us back in the direction of Bungay.
“Bye!” Isabelle and I shouted out to him, and he ran off out of sight over the hill. We watched him as he ran in his zigzag way, one arm spinning like a windmill as he disappeared over the rise of the hill. Isabelle and I turned back into town.
Jane was easy to spot, as she was one of the last active buyers in the market. Many of the vendors had already packed up. With not much time left, the vendors were less interested in Jane and her story, letting her actually buy things at last. Her sacks were quite full now and I wondered how she would carry everything. Probably I’d have to carry at least one of those sacks. I stopped before she could see us, and took the road back to the port. Isabelle followed.
We found the spot in the clearing where Asa had pulled the flowers. I could tell that Isabelle wanted to go in and see if she could make the flowers appear in the dirt, too, but we both knew we couldn’t. Whatever trick he was doing, neither of us knew how to do it.
“Hello there,” another voice called. This one, deep, a man’s voice. I saw Isabelle stiffen. Maybe next time we’d bring our swords.
The man was walking through the station building carrying a large sack. I recognized him as the old man selling the odd assortment of items in the market. “Hello!” he repeated. It felt impolite not to say hello back, so I did. “I wonder if you might give me a hand. I left a bag like this one back at the market. I’d get it myself but you two look young and strong. If you each grab a handle you can drag it back together and I can be on my way that much sooner. Would you lend us a hand, then?”
Isabelle looked unconvinced. I’m sure she was thinking of a way to say no without being too impolite. If it were me asking she’d just say no, but this was an elder and even Isabelle knew to be respectful of elders, at least in public.
“I’ll make it worth your time. My wherry’s the one there, with the orange flag.” He pointed at one of the boats in the water. Wherry, he called it. I knew from living near the docks in London that every kind of boat has a different name, each more ridiculous than the last. Dory, dinghy, sloop, schooner; I could add wherry to that list. The Spanish ships had more respectable names—galleon, caravel—but then maybe they sounded just as silly in Spanish.
We didn’t answer him, but a twinkle in his eye told us that he believed we would help him. He shouldered his sack and carried it towards his boat. Isabelle and I watched him pass us, and then she shrugged and I shrugged and we went into the market.
The sack was where he’d said it would be, with a handle on each side. I was able to lift it, but without Isabelle I wouldn’t get it far. She took the other side and we began to walk.
“What do you think’s in here?” she asked.
“Clothes, maybe.” It grew heavier with each step. This must be my punishment for not wanting to help Jane. Jane would have given us very light bags.
“Sad little market, isn’t it?” Isabelle said. I actually didn’t think so, but I agreed with her anyway.
“I hope Jane bought all she needed. Maybe the locals go to the nearest city when they need to buy things.” Although I couldn’t really imagine what they needed. I suppose everyone needs pots and clothes.
By the time we got to the port my hands were hurting, and the straps had carved red bands into my palms. The expressions on Isabelle’s face showed that she was running out of strength, too. We could see the boat, though, and it wasn’t too far away.
“You made it!” the man called out from the deck. He didn’t hop down to help us, he just turned back and kept doing whatever he had been doing. When we reached the edge of the boat we dropped the sack. He popped up like a cork and smiled down at us. “Great job! I thank you from the bottom of my old salty heart.” He hopped down and grabbed the sack with both hands and flung it onto the boat.
“What’s in the bag?” I asked.
“My wares. Old clothes, mostly. I buy them here and sell them on.”
“Who buys old clothes?” Isabelle asked.
“Nobody here. I’m going from here to Holland. There’s an English community there, people who left after the Restoration. They cling to the old ways, want to pretend Cromwell is still hanging about. I suppose it’s a harmless enough fantasy. They make some nice crafts that I buy and sell here in England, and I take back old English clothes that nobody would want to wear now. Look at this!” He opened the sack and pulled out a scrap of black cloth. After turning it around a few times to find which way is up, he held it up. It was a woman’s dress, a plain black smock that was too simple even for Jane.
“Compare this to your dress, miss,” he said, gesturing to Isabelle. Her dress—a play dress, no less, nothing fancy—was a rainbow of color by comparison. “This is how we dressed when I was a lad. Everything’s much better now. But this is what they want, so I give it.” He balled it back up and stuffed it into the bag.
“You’ll sail this all the way to Holland?” Isabelle asked.
“No,” he chuckled. “Only as far as Yarmouth. I got a proper ship there to take me across the sea. These wherries are only good for the Broads, you know. But at Yarmouth and Lowestoft we get on bigger ones, and head out all over the world: London, Holland, Spain, America even if you want to.”
Isabelle’s mind, I could tell, was working.
“I promised you a reward. You two just wait there a minute. Would you like to come aboard?”
“Yes,” Isabelle answered quickly. The man stopped and looked down, a slight frown on his face.
“I’m sorry, miss, I only meant him. Sailors are superstitious, you know. You have to be where you’re going up against old Neptune. It’s bad luck to have a lady on a ship, even if it’s a little lady and little ship.” Before she could protest he held up a hand and smiled. “But you two wait right there, I’ve got something for you.”
He rummaged through another sack for a bit, his back to us, considering and then rejecting the items there. I could see that Isabelle was fighting the urge to jump onto the ship, just to prove him wrong. It’s only fair that the man should learn that Isabelle’s will is not to be toyed with. Old Neptune may or may not have his revenge, but Isabelle certainly would.
He kept mumbling about having something until finally he turned around. He beckoned us over to the side of boat and rested his own foot on the side and leaned over to us. “For you, little lord,” he said as he held out my reward. “You have a beautiful lass here, and you need to take good care of her, you understand? This is a dangerous world. Here.” It was a small dagger, not much bigger than the man’s hand, with a simple handle. The blade was grey and old with dark spots on it. I touched it with my fingertip and it wasn’t very sharp, though it could probably cut through bread with some effort.
“And for you, little lady,” he said, and held out a blue-and-white scarf which he deftly folded into a neat square and handed to her with both hands. It was the one—or at least very similar to the one—she had played with in the market. So he hadn’t been sleeping after all. “Thank you both, I must be off.” And with a nod of the head he returned to his work, and although we stood there for a bit we were now invisible to him. Isabelle and I retreated. I carried the dagger a ways, then tucked it into my belt.
“What does he mean, take care of me?” The entire way back to the market she railed at the injustice. “I should have the dagger.” This much we could both agree on: she was far more likely to use it than I was. She was also far more likely to use the scarf, though. When I refused to give her the dagger she punched me in the arm and I nearly down fell in the street. She unwrapped the scarf and used it tie a bow in her hair.
The market was nearly empty now. We looked for Jane but she wasn’t anywhere obvious. A woman who looked like as round and red as an apple called us over, and we were close enough to her that not to go over would have been rude. “What a lovely bow in your hair,” she said to Isabelle, completely ignoring me. Isabelle thanked her, curtsied, and faked a blush. As if she were a sweet little girl who hadn’t just given me a bruise on the arm.
“A sweetie for a sweetie,” the woman said. She had a jar of candied orange peels on her table, what back home we’d call suckets but which here probably had some weird name. She gave one to Isabelle. I leaned over as much as I could to try to get one. Eventually the lady noticed me. “And a fine little lord accompanying,” she said, and gave me one, too. Then she gave Isabelle two more.
We passed through the rest of the market and found the road back to our house. Jane was most of the way home now, struggling with several large baskets and sacks but moving forward. Feeling guilty, I offered to help. She stopped, took a deep breath, and then said, “You run along and play. I’ve made it this far, I can manage the rest of the way.” Feeling even guiltier now because I felt relieved even though her face was bright red and her hair was stuck to the side of her face with sweat, I ran on. Before we made it home, Isabelle got over her anger and gave me one of her suckets. My arm still hurt, though.
Death is an enormous concept. We see, touch, breathe, and feel, the world spins on around us in good ways and bad, we close our eyes every night knowing we will open them in the morning. And then in a moment all of it can cease. I remember once a vase falling from a shelf in the house. It had stood on that spot for years, and before then had stood on a similar spot in Mother’s house for centuries. It had survived the Fire and countless other tragedies. It was very pretty, and I remember looking at it from time to time, wanting to touch it. Mother once showed it to me, and then when she put it back it slipped out of her hands and shattered into a thousand pieces. In my heart I wanted so desperately to take back that moment. I understood immediately, and also entirely failed to understand, that it was gone forever, in one instant from one mistake that wouldn’t have happened if only we’d left it alone. Mother was so heartbroken that it was days before she thought to reassure me that it wasn’t my fault. Years later I still looked to the empty spot on the shelf.
Death, I imagined, was something like that. What was the empty spot on the Shively’s shelf? Or Isabelle’s mother, what did that empty space look like in Isabelle’s heart?
The Greeks gave death many names, divided it among several different demons. There was Hades, the God of the Underworld, whom people called the Rich One or the Hospitable One because they didn’t like saying his name. And his queen Persephone, who had once been a beautiful young girl until he kidnapped her and tricked her into becoming his queen. She was now cold and malevolent in her anger.
But they merely ruled over the dead. The dead came to them and were received. Dying itelf was the domain of the Fates, the three sisters Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Clotho, who spun the thread of life for each mortal at birth; Lachesis, who measured the length of the thread based on formula known only to herself; and Atropos, who cut the thread and made death inevitable and inescapable. What was done could not be undone, and when the thread was cut the measure of life was done.
There were other sisters, the Keres, dark creatures with sharp claws and gnashing teeth who brought violent and brutal death upon those they chose. One should be so lucky to have their death decided by Atropos and not the Keres.
And then there was Thanatos, death himself. Gods and men hated him equally. He was merciless, visiting good and bad, men and women, young and old. He could not be escaped or defeated or bargained with. When he came, summoned by Atropos or the Keres, it—everything—was over.
In my bed I held my dagger. I’d never held a real weapon before. My sword was made of wood. I’d watched as my father carved it from a block of wood, replaced one that Isabelle had smashed a few weeks earlier. She’d swung hers hard, and it must have hit the grain of mine in just the right way for a deep crack ran down the blade; I tried to make her stop but she swung again, and the blade broke into two large pieces and a hundred small ones. She declared victory and howled with delight until she saw me crying. Father came and found me kneeling over the pieces. “I’ll make you a new one, don’t worry.” The new one was heavier.
Isabelle’s was also damaged, we learned later. She replaced hers with a lighter one. Perhaps that made us more evenly matched. I could swing as hard as she did; I just didn’t.
This dagger was metal, iron perhaps. Maybe bronze. I don’t know much about metals, and the dagger was so tarnished that I couldn’t even tell what color it was supposed to be. It was not as heavy as my wooden sword, and was significantly shorter, but there was a heft to it that gave it an air of menace.
I ran my finger along the blade. I doubted that it could even cut through bread, but once it had been a real weapon, and the scuffs and marks on it make me think it had probably been used as such. There were spots on the blade that could be rust or the remnants of blood. I imagined the damage this would do, and thought of death.
The Minotaur in his labyrinth. How many people had he killed? But he couldn’t help it. He was born an animal, and none of us could choose how to be born. Perhaps his parents should have killed him when they saw him, knowing that his fate was to eat humans until at last a human killed him. But they didn’t, and that wasn’t his fault, either. He hunted and killed, just as we do with deer and rabbits and even animals we have no intention of eating. And when Theseus came for him the Minotaur, who had seen and caused so much death, fought with ferocious intensity. How desperate he must have felt, trapped in his own room, the exit blocked, a half-god with a sword attacking him in the dark. He must have known it was his end. What could he do? I imagined a savage and desperate struggle, a fox trapped by dogs, knowing that the moment has come, that Atropos has made her cut and Thanatos is reaching his hand out, understanding completely and yet unable to understand anything, that the light will go out and this will all end.
This dagger in my hand, cutting through flesh and stilling a beating heart, Thanatos’ icy hand on my shoulder, the Keres shrieking overhead, Persephone’s cold smile, the Minotaur’s final roar caught in his savage throat.
I remembered the crows on Shandos Place. Six of them in a perfect row, staring directly at me from Emily Shively’s window, cold and unblinking.
I slipped the dagger under my pillow and curled up on my side. The house was quiet except for the wind outside whistling through the branches of dead trees. I curled up and waited.
Thanatos had a brother, I remember. Hypnos, the Greeks called him: sleep. Sleep is death’s brother. I would close my eyes and this world and all of its sensations would disappear, just like death. Except in the morning I would wake up.
I didn’t wait for sleep, I waited for her, for Isabelle. I didn’t know why she came but I hoped that she would again. I curled up and waited, leaving room for her. I don’t know how long I waited. Sleep came first.
But in the morning she was there, her head on the mattress below my pillow, her fingers resting lightly on my open palm, and one of her feet dangling off the edge of the bed. I stirred and she opened her eyes. I closed mine then, so quickly that she didn’t see me. I could tell that she didn’t want me to know. She slipped out of bed very quietly and snuck back out the door, leaving it open just a crack, the way that I had. I passed my hand over the mattress where she had been, feeling her warmth slip away into the air, and then I felt for my dagger. It was still there. I decided to leave it.