Tuesday Fiction: “Fear and Loathing in Deptford” by K.A. Laity
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by K.A. Laity from the USA. K. A. Laity is the award-winning author of Pelzmantel and Other Medieval Tales of Magic and the forthcoming Owl Stretching (both from Immanion Press) as well as Unikirja, a collection of short stories and a play based on Finnish myths and legend, for which she won the 2005 Eureka Short Story Fellowship as well as a 2006 Finlandia Foundation grant. With cartoonist Elena Steier she created the comic Jane Quiet. She currently resides in Galway, Ireland where she’s a Fulbright Fellow in digital humanities at NUIG. Elizabeth Hand writes, “Laity is a very remarkable sorceress indeed.” www.kalaity.com
Fear and Loathing in Deptford
I am waited upon by a wench with green snakes writhing at her brow, a hideous sneering gash of crimson for a mouth, and a pendulous bosom of terrifying proportions, but she throws a sack at me and I unclasp it and drink deep, glad to close my eyes to her gruesome visage. Dr. Jack jostles my elbow and mutters incoherently about dire predictions, and I recall at last Rowley’s dark prophecy. Settle thy gorge, Marlowe and begin to sound the depths of your decadence. Bene bibere finis vitae est. A greater subject fits my wit than shadowed words that I am to die tonight. “Bibamus, moriendum est,” I say to Jack, but his eyes roll and he falls off the bench. He never could balance his drinks.
Leaning over to assist his rise, I realize I am in grave danger of spilling my own sodden carcass. I jerk myself to upright once more. How I am glutted with this cheap Spanish venom. Why, why this night? What desperate enterprise brought me hither, to drink, to danger, to the damp smells of this dim hostelry? Jack is crawling through the dust, murmuring a wild soliloquy of blistering loss and betrayal. Jack, oh yes. We had begun the afternoon in his cheerless study, surrounded by the parcels and bottles of his trade, the rank stench of his potions and unguents. As usual, he was bubbling with servile enthusiasm for a new discovery, the latest translated from some book of Cornelius Agrippa. Having canvassed every quiddity thereof, he swore this would be the best yet. I remembered too well, however, the last miracle, the one that left us barking like dogs and then retching like them too.
No, no, he had assured me with all his unctuous charm. He had in fact tested it on his serving maid. That made me smile. The doctor was becoming crafty. “Where is she?” He giggled and fetched a small key from his desk. Crossing to the hallway he unlocked a small closet and out spilled the wretched girl. Jack grabbed her elbow and her glazed eyes stared at him in wonder. “Hedgehog,” she said, pointing toward his head, then becoming entranced by the movement of her own arm, allowing it to sway over her head like a willow branch. “Bring her here,” I said greedily. With some difficulty he steered her across the floor, her hips undulating to unheard music, her bleary gaze still entranced by the sway of her own arm. Pity she was not more attractive, for with her mismatched features and horsey teeth—a face that might launch a thousand ships away from shore with alacrity—she was perfectly pliable. I could see the good doctor had already realized his freedom, hoisting her up before him and letting his hands roam around her poorly-fed frame. Her breast was hardly worth such caresses, hardly a mouthful to be spared. Jack was not known for his generosity to servants, but then it wasn’t the lack of money which drove them to steal away in the night, a prayer on their lips and terror in their eyes. This one seemed unfamiliar; no doubt, she too was new and would soon be skittering away in the dark, clutching her small bundle, tears streaming wildly.
But it was no business of mine; a man’s household must be his castle. Curiosity was my sport, not spying—well, not this time anyway. I held the pathetic girl’s chin in my hand and tried to direct her attention toward me. Not easy, for she was beginning to respond to Jack’s ministrations with a gyrating sway, and a crude smile touched her lips, lending some tremulous light to her plain countenance. I shook her chin and her eyes lazily opened, although they remained crossed with a distant film. “What do you see?” I asked her gently, then repeated my question. Her eyes focused at last and she reached up to touch my chin, strangely mirroring my posture. Involuntarily, I felt myself begin to sway with her. “Colors,” she said at last, “a thousand stars.” Her eyes closed once more and she gave herself over to the pleasure of Jack’s rough touch while continuing to mouth the colors she saw even with her eyelids firmly shut. “You see,” he said eagerly, “no nausea, and a certain agreeable, ah, lassitude, should we say.”
I was intrigued. But I was not willing to settle for some slovenly servant for paramour should the herbs bring me to the same ecstatic lethargy. Jack had no qualms on the topic though, as his increasingly frenzied raptures proved. I grabbed him roughly by the collar. “Fiend, you selfishly pursue your own pleasure and neglect your promise to me. Let us ingest your new concoction and retire to some solitary grove to ply our wiles with more suitable companions”—I paused to raise an eyebrow at his slumping girl, a smile still plastering her disheveled form even as the doctor panted, hands thrust deep into her layers of clothing—”and a good cold luncheon to while away the afternoon.” He nodded vigorously, trying to simultaneously bow and drag her back out of the room, while mumbling something about sending word to Madame Helena, our current favorite procuress, although I did not doubt he would make good use of the pliant doll before he did so. Sycophant! Imagine such studied politeness to a shoemaker’s son. How it amused me. How I have grown in the world, thanks to my dear Franny.
They stumbled off with a great deal of noise, leaving me unoccupied. No mind, I could wait. I helped myself to a portion of the good doctor’s brandy, its fiery glow doubling the anticipatory warmth already rising within me. I had come to enjoy of late these experiments with the good physician, especially since my Franny had been so put out with my troubles. Dear Franny and his scruples. What booted it to think of Queen or country? I did it for the thrill, for the chance to laugh behind my hands. He of all people should have known me better. If it weren’t for that mischievous goat—but I digress. I should have predicted he could not sustain much in the way of pain, but why did he blame me? I could only assume as the torturer’s ministrations grew wearisome he must have thought, why not? Why should I suffer? Why not Marlowe? Great inconvenience to me! It was envy, I suppose. Not just the plays—the little goat may bleat all he likes, but it is my plays the public crave, to wallow for a while in sin and then imagine themselves washed clean when they pass once more through the gates. Such vain fancies, and the little goat’s despair that he would, never daring, never succeed the heights I have reached. But that wasn’t it, was it? Not even the plays really, but the rooms afterward, where Franny’s folk scraped and bowed and begged for the touch of my hand, toasted and swanned before this shoemaker’s son even though they feared for their very souls and knew my proclivities, knew that the god I served was mine own appetite, knew that I might very well bathe in warm babies’ blood on the altar of a young boy’s back.
Franny could never understand. No, he still saw that shoemaker’s son and reveled in each success as if it might well be the last. Always with him it was the politics, the Catholics, the plots, the serious games of his life. If he only knew that they have been less than a dice game to me. I poured another glass of the amber elixir and tossed it straight down my throat and it warmed me to the cockles. It would be good to die between someone’s thighs tonight. I only hoped that Jack wouldn’t get some base bawd for me like last time, although God’s teeth! she proved persistent when the sack had the upper hand of my slovenly knight. I gave her an angel for her trouble and she seemed quite pleased. I remembered then how far I had come from the time when money alone satisfied me. Not that I am averse to keeping my purse tied. That cozening draw-latch Frizer always seemed to think that, having the most, I should pay the most; but come whirlwinds, tempests, thunder and lightning, I’ll pay my share and no more.
Jack returns to find me sprawled comfortably upon the cushioned bench, awash in my thoughts and his brandy. “I have sent for Helena’s best,” he said, emphasizing the latter word. Gesturing to the window, he continued, “And our little luncheon is on its way as well.” A small troupe of his servants carried plates and baskets to the grove at the back of his ill-kempt garden. Jack was inordinately proud of that garden, which he claimed had been laid in the time of the first Henry. I had to doubt him, but he waxed poetic on the charms of its long-standing history, though I would have sworn the trees to be no more than twenty years old. No mind—for he had already turned to his desk and rattled together the vials and flasks that held the latest elixir. A foamy white flecked with herbaceous green, it plopped thickly into the goblets. He handed me one tarnished globe and we clinked them and shouted “To your health!” at one another and swallowed the bitter contents in one protracted gulp.
It slid down like pudding or a thick gruel, and I winced at the tart metallic taste. Nevertheless, I had some confidence in the doctor despite our recent outing. I had to admit, after the barking and vomitus, there came such a profound swell of peace, as if I lay in the lap of blind Homer and he sang songs only for me, and comforted me with a mother’s weeping. It pains me to recall it, but there was something to the melodramatic scene. Yet today, I hoped for a very different experience, and the warm grasp of the brandy in my belly that seemed to have got hold of my pillicock whispered to my very innards that this day would be historic. As I stepped to the door with the good physician, I could sense the potion begin to chart its course through my soul.
Warmth radiated from my limbs and my brow. I felt a joyous noise fill the air, as if a melodious harp plucked forth ravishing sounds. At once all nature became soft and inviting, like some old quean’s bed, desperate for my fall. Jack grabbed my arm and wailed, “It is beginning! Take care!” but already his voice took on the tones of the crumhorn, blatting at my ears and I laughed because none of it mattered at all. We steered our unsteady way to the grove, where the troupe of players awaited—servants for service and whores for pleasure. I was gratified to see that Helena had sent the golden youth who had captivated my fancy during a recent visit. Frivolous I may be, but sometimes, Franny, I do not want clever conversation and court gossip, but only mute caresses and those golden locks, and the too-pink globes in my devouring hands.
“You’re drooling,” Jack seemed to be saying, but he was sounding more like a trumpeting swan than he did normally, and I noticed a certain wavering in his gait as he bumped somewhat roughly into me. Supporting one another we ambled across the herbal expanse until, at last, we rolled onto the outspread blankets. I felt myself grin as I threw out my arms and legs, begging come to me, come to me. And at once there were delicacies pressed to my lips, wine decanted into goblets then thrust to me after each rich mouthful, and it was all beautiful, worthy of Helen of Troy, of Jupiter himself, ambrosia. The sky stretched blue and endless above me, for me, only me, it was the circle of my existence. Somewhere the waters, too, flowed only for me, and I could hear the grass growing, straining to touch me. I heard flowers call my name in crimson pale flutes of songs.
“The girls,” Jack panted, and they approached him as I watched, grabbing his eager hands and laughing, shucking his clothes with practiced ease. He giggled like a novice, babbling incoherently, as the homely trulls went about their business. The sauced drink was no doubt helping all this along, I realized, as the wanton youth turned at last to me. No figs for me, I thought, as I reached out to caress his silk-clad curves. As I brought his eager young lips to mine the sky exploded with a thousand stars, yes, even with the late afternoon sun, I could see for miles and miles into the welkin, clear of the heavens, into the universe, far beyond god’s golden chariot, to the rainbow of colors at the end of time and space. I brought my hand down to stroke the youth’s downy cheek and my own hand floated before me and swelled to reveal universes, worlds of its own, where storms brewed and lightning struck, traveling down my arm to my gut and then my codlings, charging me with a white heat that made my very head sing withal. I fastened my lips more firmly upon his squirming face and thrust my hands deep, searching for the knob. Exquisite joy burned though me like the brandy, like the wine, like the herbs of many colors that bloomed in my heart like wild wanton flowers. My heart panted and quivered as I stroked golden treasure, and under the lad’s arm I saw the good philosopher and his trulls, costards up and down, feet flying up in the air, and all was blue, so blue, like the sky, like the ocean, like Franny’s cold eyes. The warmth quickened in my gut again and flooded the limbs of my body and arced like lightning over to the body of my golden fellow, who groaned ecstatically. I enveloped him with insatiate hunger, as if I must needs consume his gift, his life, his very skin. Homo fuge, I whispered, homo fuge, but he only sighed and succumbed to my ministrations with a corrupt grin.
Over his shoulder three angels arose, the first arrayed in white for hope, the second in red for blood, and the third in black for the end which was coming soon. They beckoned and I left my boy behind, taking their hands. Together we flew up over the garden, over the city, like falcons, I imagined it must be, like the view from the seat of a dragon’s cart. They spoke to me as we glided soundless through the firmament, but I could not understand and only drank their words in, imbibed them like the wine, like the brandy, like endless flagons, skins without number, barrels without bottoms. It was truth they told, and though I could not recall a word later, somehow I knew, to my very humours, I knew that they were sharing sacred words, god’s own secrets with me. When we stopped at last, the mists swirled around us and I lay flat on my back in a meadow so pristine, so new, it could be the very chin of Eden. I looked up to my companions and they looked down upon me somewhat harshly, for I saw their teeth grew long and sharp and their eyes blistered mine with the light of a thousand lamps. Two held me down as the black angelus bent low over me, speaking that intolerable tongue I could not decipher as its hair coiled thickly around its head, making a halo alive with bright light. It pulled out a cuttle, and I confess I flinched, but it put one long-fingered hand of claws on my chest to hold me down and murmured words of senseless reassurance and I knew I could not die no matter what happened here. If I could survive their ministrations, how I would be blessed—such knowledge, such insight. I gathered my courage and jerked my head in a nod, so down it thrust the cuttle into my eye, and the world exploded: colors leapt from my mind and my body shook with an exquisite ecstasy even as it shuddered with pain and violation while the universe sang in my ears, tears fell, and a rapturous joy filled every limb. Was it heaven? Was it only the remnant of my body’s plight back in that prosaic garden, the ordinary expenditure of passion? No matter—if Julian’s wounds brought her to enlightenment, if she herself could pass through the side of the Christ, why could not an angel pass through my eye and inhabit my very bones with its wisdom and grace.
Cut it did—the blade felt like a singing shriek, parting my eye, my bone and brain with its cold steel, seeking, seeking, what? My heart, my mind, my soul? As if in answer the point of the cuttle tweaked a pain so deep, I knew it must at last be that wretched shadow of mine, my paltry soul. I saw him at once with my angelic vision as a tiny, wizened figure who scowled at my abrupt entry on the point of the knife and cursed me. His ire was unfeigned, for we had always been at odds, and by my deeds, no less, I had charmed him to hell and left him quite bereft of any salvation. “Murderer!” he cried in the depths of my being, the words resonating inside my empty skull. “Wretch, what hast thou done?” he cried again, cowering before the glowering angelic companion at my side. The black angel spoke and pointed to my soul, and I knew again that the incomprehensible words it uttered condemned me likewise. There was nothing I could do to shun the snares of death and then final damnation, my soul itself rebuked me, cheerless and devout. My soul uttered a cry of black hopeless despairing and grew even smaller between my eyes and the voice of the dark angel roared in my ears and in my skull a reproving blow of sound that echoed throughout my limbs. False cocklorel! Foolish, prating beast! it seemed to say, look upon your sins and tremble. The terrible eyes of the lord are upon you as well, and he is harsh and unforgiving.
I gasped and sought to withdraw from the darkened chambers of my terrifying skull, but remained held captive by the sharp edge of the blade and the murderous grip of the dark angel. Had death already come from the lethal concoction of the doctor’s brew, had Lucifer come to claim me as I writhed in desperate lunacy, and the very blood of my heart dried from simple fear? I would weep with frustration but my stubborn spirit rose up in its pride, swinging away again with feeble weapons, seeking a port any port for its blade—any but me, but us. The black spectre leaned over me in cruel anticipation and my soul cowered, defeated, behind me as I struck out blindly, desperately, like a cornered animal with no mercy, no compassion from its mindless predator.
All at once a ray of brilliant sunlight strikes across the dark chamber of my mind. We three turn as one to see the floor of my skull break forth and another player join the stage. He is as radiant as the angel is black, a wild hue of colors blistering from his face his heart his mouth, I cannot tell which. But he comes to save me, I know and I spread my wings to join him in flight through the midnight black of my skull, and my soul and my angel gnash their teeth in anguished desolation: the prisoner escapes! He is my saviour, my brilliant resurrector, my hope, my glory, with the face of my mother and those long flowing curls of flax, and arms open and welcome, with a rainbow of lights to show me the way, to show me myself, radiantly reflected in the armor of his chest. We wrap our arms around one another and sail into the bright sun opening up in my skull, tearing away the inky forgetful night of that angel, so grim, so angered, so disappointed. And we traveled to heaven—or was it only a sunny pasture—and there he made me lie down beside flowing waters, and there he gave me the simple pleasure of the brutish beasts, before I dissolved, complacent, into the very elements, still me, still in his arms, and I know that here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips, and all is dross that is not He. I will be Paris, I swear to the crook of his neck, and for love of thee, in stead of Troy shall all London be sacked, and I will combat with every weak Menelaus who thinks he has thee in his heart, and I shall wear thy colors on my plumed crest. I will wound fond Achilles in the heel, and then return to thee for a kiss. Oh, thou art fairer than the evening’s air, clad only in the beauty of a thousand stars and my arms. Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter, when he appeared to hapless Semele: more lovely then the Monarch of the sky, in wanton Arethusa’s azure arms, and none but thou shalt be my Paramour, forever and ever, world without end.
I awoke to find only the earthly corpse of my golden lad who, upon being given a not too gentle nudge, untangled his form from mine long enough to draw me another goblet of wine. I heartily devoured it in one gasp and again felt its comforting fire run through my bodily members. My fair partner again plied his lips to the trade as I swirled more wine into my glass, but I feared even his coaxing would do nothing for my sleep-shattered knight. I patted his head gently and bad him rise for one final sodden kiss, then staggered off to raise Jack from the dead. This proved more of an ordeal, for it took some time to sort one set of coarse limbs from another and I was far too impatient. I wanted to be walking under the night sky, filling my lungs with its crisp bouquet and trying to understand the vision of which I had been deemed worthy of partaking. A few smacks and some moans later, the good doctor emerged, grinning and groaning in equal parts, gathering his misshapen garments from the far corners of the plot and apologetically dressing with speed. He poked the trull nearest with the toe of his slipper, indicating that her rest was over and that she and her companions might go, but, as we staggered to the gate, I looked back to see them all prone once more, enjoying a rare moment of peace, and in my head I bad farewell to my fair-haired boy.
We walked and we talked—I talked rather, trying in vain to capture the gist of my vision and the strange secrets it had imparted. We took frequent strength from the jug of sack Jack thoughtfully retained, and rambled vaguely southward. The old sot brabbled on about his pedantic desires, and I came close to throttling him for his refusal to comprehend my new world’s image, but we drifted on complacently until we came here to this night-rule under our dame Nell’s benevolent and thoughtful nose. True, green tentacles rose from her brow too, and the voice from her throat seemed like a cart-wheel’s groan. But the marvelous draught of the doctor still streamed through my flesh and left me dazed and sated.
The solid bench beneath my collops and the next skin of Spanish sting failed to dispel completely the dreamy vision encircling my brow. When it returned again to my memory after an hour of sodden vagueness, I gasped in sudden recognition, and the perils hemming me in at every side were at once as nothing. A peculiar benevolence o’ertook my limbs, and I smiled at the death that surrounded me. And even that sheep-biter Poley, back from the Hague with truffles and spice and the sting of saltwater, could not deflate my wonderful sense of peace and well-being. I could hardly hear the churlish comfits that fell from Frizer’s gob and felt no peril at all when his knife sprang forth toward my eye to send me back, forgetful but ever so grateful, into the arms of my beloved.
First published in The Women’s League of Ale Drinkers 1 (Oct 2010): 29-40.