Light from Heaven
Love is stronger than death, so poets and prophets said. But the High Sheriff of Nottingham could never believe it. He dared not face such opening to face such closing. He dreaded the brink, the abyss. Living and half-living, just trundling along through twist of plot and mental coil…that is how he would live, day in, day out…
Everyone knew the he felt uncomfortable dwelling too much upon his little wife, long dead, like a diminutive spring flower killed by the first chill night. Though he remembered how he had gazed at her in her casket, in the dark church, cold, empty, and how she still looked so weak and wan, he had instinctively wanted to put a cloak over her to prevent chill…he had grown to used to worrying over her health, for she was the vessel that would bear him a son…
Now he felt the cloak of guilt bearing down on his own shoulders. For she had tried. She had tried for him, so very hard. It had killed her trying. First a miscarriage early on, then a stillbirth male infant later, and lastly only living baby girl to show for it. And viewing her lying there as she had died, cold, alone, unloved, he felt God must be punishing him for his family name, and his family deeds. But he still did not know why she had to pay the price for it…
He had not known his wife as he should have, though he'd known her in the flesh. He had not loved her as he should have, though they had "made love", forced yet necessary to provide a tangible link into the future, a futile grasp at power beyond the grave…
But he still remembered the feeling of her lips against his all the same. He had been awkward over it all, when they'd bedded for many nights, trying to bring her belly full with child again and again, and he sensed her own awkwardness, but sometimes he sensed a craving in her, in her lips, to get through to something more than was skin deep in him, something intangible he always buried beneath the roc k and root of his physical self.
He'd sensed a desire for love in it, and he would redden, realizing all of a sudden that he was naked in front of her. He hated being naked in front of anyone…damn, he had not even let his youthful desires drive him to harlots, lest they see him naked, feel him naked, pry something out of him that should be covered up, covert, hidden away…
He played his game far too well. Sometimes it felt like it was strangling him.
There were some few moments he let himself feel. But more often than not, the feelings were not good ones, and the fault was often his own. His wedding night had been hell…they'd gotten halfway through consummation, when she'd panicked at the pain, and he, terrified of facing the consequences of failing in his duty, had held her down in order to finish.
"Bear up with it," he rasped through clenched teeth, when she struggled on instinct, and whimpered against his chest. "It'll just hurt worse…doing it all over again…just…bear up till it's done…"
He'd told himself it was better for both of them to get it done, but by the end she was frightened, hurt…and he felt like a monster seeing the tears running down her face, and the blood down her legs. He had not meant to make it hurt worse than it had to…he'd just been desperate to get it done…
He had tried to calm her afterwards, told her it was natural…that it wouldn't hurt like that again. And he had tried to help her get her shift back on, because she was shaking so badly, but she shrunk away from his touch. And he thought he knew what Lucifer must have felt like when cast from heaven, cut off from everything, everything, because his touch burnt, or froze, defiling everyone, everything. Surely he should have stopped…surely he was evil for not having stopped…but it mattered not. They still would have to mate, time and again, in order to bring forth some continuance of themselves, of the family name. They would have to get it down, even if they had to grit their teeth to complete it.
He was right, though; it didn't hurt like that again. No, it just became an almost sterile ritual, in which he told he, in an almost unnaturally calm manner, how to position her body so that it would as easily done as possible…when to relax, when to breathe, when to move in such and such a way in order to complete the act. He meant well by it, and she did as instructed, having been raised to be a dutiful wife since she was but a child. All the same, he could not help feel himself unnerved by the fact that she often shivered when he touched her, and even when she didn't, he felt as if it always brought her sadness.
What did she expect him to do, though? Neither one of them had a choice in this. They were bound by the words they had spoken at the altar, to carry on their mortal flesh into the next generation, to bear up great family names, and to somehow cheat death, cosmically lunging at everything that lived, through propagation of their race. And so they continued on…feeling neither pain nor pleasure…living and half-living…numb…
But death reared its head anyway. After the miscarriage of their first, Young Cavendish had avoided his bride for several days, as if unable to face the failure, withdrawing within himself to sustain the attacks from both his parents. Following this phase, his parents had pressured him to waste no time in getting her to conceive again, and she dutifully obeyed. Always duty…always mechanics…
But after the still birth, it while he dealt with it by trying to block everything out having to do with it, she went into a tunnel of grief and depression, locked herself up in her chambers, alone except for one hand maiden and the visiting physician. She had finally reached the breaking point, it seemed, and could not bear going through heartless motions any longer.
Said physician took the initiative to inform her husband that she was neither eating nor sleeping right, and that if he expected to recoup his losses, he'd best do more to keep her alive. So her husband had sent a message, half-inviting, half-ordering her down to breakfast. She'd come, and when he saw the state she was in, he felt something deeper than self-interest stick in his throat, and pulled out the chair next to him for her. She looked like a gentle breeze might knock her down, and she'd blinked as the sunlight pouring over the veranda where the weather had induced his father to take a breakfast.
Although he said little, he had busied himself slicing her muffin and a cross-bun and spreading some jam on them. When he had finished this task on his own plate, he moved them over to hers, and started pouring her some milk. They exchanged the briefest of glances, the first eye contact they had made in days, and he muttered, "You'll feel better when you eat, m'lady…you'll see…"
And she did try nibbling at what she'd been given, albeit very slowly. When he saw she was starting to shiver in the morning air, he offered to back inside and get her a shawl.
"She shouldn't have come down half-dressed with her hair loose to begin with," his father snapped.
"I asked her to come," his son ground out, then added shortly, "It's her home too."
"If her womb keeps serving as a graveyard, she can find a new home in a nunnery," his mother retorted bitterly.
At this, her eyes filled with tears, and she stood to leave the table, her hand pressed over her flat, aching belly.
"We gave you no permission to leave!" his father barked.
"Then I give it to her!" her husband spat, disgusted by the excessive cruelty.
"Since when have you become so chivalrous?" Lord Cavendish sneered. "Since you pushed yourself into her, and her body rejected her seed, time and again, so you think to try new methods…?"
Roger had stood, and flung the napkin down angrily. "For once, just…leave-us-alone!"
"When you've gotten a living son out of her," his mother hissed. "So you best be in her bed again, starting this very night and from here on out till she swells full again…"
"I'll start…when we're both ready," he growled.
His wife had turned from the threshold to gaze at him in surprise for his defense of her against the odds. Then her emotions got the better of her, and she ran off into the garden sobbing.
When he followed after her a little while later, she was seated by the edge of the border wall, and he could hear a boy's voice coming from the other side, by the stream beneath the slope of the land. Damn it if wasn't the 11-year-old Locksley nuisance…
"Why do you cry, lady? Has he done you any hurt?"
He saw her shake her head. "No, dear one, no…not now. He's not the man you think…"
The "not now" part made him wince, but he kept listening anyway.
"This I know from I've seen and heard, that the Cavendishes treat their servants poorly, and their tenants like chattel," the boy retorted. "I knew not how they might treat their women."
"My grief…is for my lack in the body…to bear him a living child," she explained, haltingly.
"My own mother, rest her soul, had babes before and after me," he told her. "They died, though, either inside her, or soon after they were birthed. She cried too. But…" He inhaled. "She did have me, and living too, as you see. So there's hope. There's always hope. You'll have a baby in your arms yet, m'lady, believe me."
She brushed another tear away. "You…miss your mother, don't you?"
"Mmhh," he hummed under his breath, as boy will do, hesitant to let his deepest feeling show altogether. "Sometimes, though…in the hall outside her chamber, I've felt her there, on All Hallows, when the veil thins…it's like…a tunnel, almost, a sheer spot, between we are, and she is…and it makes me feel better. As long as I can go up there, I feel…she's not really that far away."
"Well…I miss…miss my babies too," she choked. "And…I cannot feel them like that…except that they left a mark on me in their passing…and it will never leave my body…"
For some reason, Roger Cavendish had never concretely thought of this. How could she miss them when she didn't really know them, unborn and invisible to her while they lived? Yet he had caught her speaking or singing to them when they were inside her sometimes, when she thought she was alone, and he'd always chalked it up to a flighty imagination. After all, they surely couldn't hear or understand in any meaningful way…hell, they were hardly real. At any rate, he couldn't imagine his own mother had ever done such a thing when he was inside her.
Now he started to wonder if he should miss them too…for they had been from his body as well as hers…whatever they were, whatever level of life they'd possessed…he didn't want to think about it though. But he had no experience with children, except an occasional odious run-in with the foxy show-off, mischief-making Locksley boy and his little she-wolf cub of a playmate, the strong-willed FitzWalter girl. Nevertheless…the tiny lives, now snuffed out within his wife, had been…his. Some part of him in her, now dead. And there were so many possibilities for what might have been. And he didn't want to think about that, because he didn't want to risk feeling anything, or missing anyone. It was a weakness…
"I'm sure your babies miss you just the same," the boy was telling her now.
Her breath caught. "They were never christened," she blurted, wringing her hands. "What happens…to little babies who…?"
"Holy Mary takes care of them, never fear," the boy assured. "She's the Mother of God; she'd never lat a baby get hurt or lost. She'd christen them with her own blessed hands first."
Cavendish was glad young Locksley had told her that. Whatever he thought of the damn boy, he had too much sentimentality in him to not try and say something of comfort to a grieving woman. And the image he'd stuck in her mind would no doubt help her get by…she was pious enough to accept such fairytales.
"I'll say my beads for you then," the boy was saying softly, "that you'll have another, in good time, and you'll be holding it in your arms. And if you need anything…if you need help…well, tell us. We're your neighbors."
"But not in the coalition," she noted quietly.
Ah, yes. The coalition. Roger knew what she thought of the ways of his family, how they treated the servants dismissively, and the tenants with even less sympathy, as if they were mere chattel. When there had been a minor serf uprising the year previously, it had been quelled brutally by the local lords, bound together in a coalition…all save the bloody Saxon Locksley who would take no part in it, for he believed the demands made by the laborers where fair, and due to his own policies, suffered no such unrest on his own estate. He'd come to argue against Lord Cavendish and his son, for reason and restraint, but his pleas had fallen on deaf ears. And the tacit resentment between the two families only grew.
"No part with the coalition indeed," Robin answered back firmly. "And never shall we have one. But you don't hold that against us, do you, lady?"
She shook her head. "Its not even my battle…" Then she smiled gently. "You Saxons are a proud race."
"You Normans don't do so poorly at that account either," he retorted.
"I supposed not," she sighed. "I miss it, though…my home, by the sea…" Her voice drifted.
"Marian FitzWalter, she's always bragging about some shell she's got from there, brought from her grandsire in the invasion," he told her. "I could try and get her to give it to me for Christmas, then I could give it to you…"
"Oh, no," she countered. "It's her treasure."
"But she's born and raised here; this is her home, so she doesn't need that old shell from Normandy. But you…you'd still hear the waves of your home inside it. Everyone's got a home deep inside, and their heart tells them where it is. That's how my father feels about this shire, about our hall."
"And you, Master Robin? What does your heart tell you?"
He shrugged. "The shire…and the forest."
"And will you make your little lady Marian your forest lover someday, your queen of the wood?" she teased him.
"Ew, no, not her," he grimaced. "It'd ruin her! She's too good at scrabbling with us lads to be a sweetheart! Besides, we fight so much, we'd light the woods aflame!"
She giggled like a little girl at this. It was the first time her husband ever thought he heard her laugh. "Time has a way of changing things," she assured. "You'll see…"
"Eh…dunno. Maybe." Then he handed her something from below, which her husband could tell at a distance were a handful of yellow forest flowers. "Put them under your pillow," he instructed. "Father says they bring good dreams."
"They're…beautiful," she whispered, nearing tears again.
When the boy was gone, and Cavendish finally stepped out of the shadows, she looked abashed and turned to hide the flowers behind her back.
"Look – no need for that," he blurted. "But…you don't require a Saxon imp for things like this. I could…could get you a dozen or more roses finely grown…not these weeds…"
"But I like…the flowers grown wild," she told him.
He shrugged. "Suit yourself then. I only meant…" He hesitated. "He knew he cold not buy her favor or forgiveness what everything that had passed between them, but it would be so much easier on his conscience if he could manage to do so.
"Would…would you like flowers for the infant grave?"
"I'd like a cross," she stated quietly.
"Unchristened, it'll be hard going for that…"
"Can't you just…make one?" She looked him earnestly. "Without…anyone knowing?"
His eyes flickered. "Want me to excommunicate myself, don't you?"
"Oh, no…it isn't that…it's just…"
"I was being sarcastic," he sighed. "You must learn to better read my cynicism in the face of life and death, little wife…" He made as if he might touch her in some way, some small, would-be comforting way, but then lost his nerve and didn't go through with it. "I'll do as you ask…if you'll eat something I send up to your room. Not just nibbling at the edges either…I mean get it all down."
She nodded her agreement, and now looked as if she intended to touch him, even just a hand to the arm, something to bridge the gap, but he quickly took a step back from her, and hurried away.
Later that evening, he had sent her food, which she did force herself to eat, but ultimately couldn't keep it down. Vomiting just made her weaker, and more agitated.
"Oh, please, I did try, I did…" she whimpered when he came to see if she'd eaten and the made explained she'd been too ill to hold down food.
"I'll send you something easier in the morning," he mumbled. "Some porridge, perhaps…"
"And the cross?" she half-asked, half-pleaded.
He swallowed. "Our son will have a cross…never you fear."
Her eyes started to fill up. "You're…good…"
"No, no, I'm not," he countered honestly. "But he'll have one nonetheless. Now get some sleep…" He turned then lift over his shoulder slightly, seeing her hurriedly stuff something under her pillow.
Again, seeing she'd been caught, she looked abashed, preparing for censure.
But he simply murmured with unexpected gentleness, even though the words rung with mild defeat, "Hope they bring you good dreams."
But when she lay in her casket over a year later, he found himself reach towards her, and run a finger against his lips, remembering another night, after she had already fallen pregnant for the third time. It was late on Christmas eve, when they crossed paths together in the hallway outside her chamber. He was slightly drunk from a party, and his father had mocked him again in front of the assembly, and he just remembered being terribly cold and hungry, for he had hardly eaten a morsel from the table, but guzzled down to much wine. But he felt unable to eat or sleep, and he wished for once he might talk to someone, but realized he had no one, nothing…and it was so very cold, inside and out…
He had not expected to see her outside her room, dressed in her translucent white nightgown, with a candle held out towards him. He had even less expected for her to ask him to come to her room of her own accord. He hesitated at first, not sure how to interpret the invitation. But once inside, she offered him some food, which was unexpected as it was…some pieces of buttery croissant and some milk to wash it down. He'd no idea she even kept food in there, or how she could have known how little he'd eaten, but he appreciated the generosity. He just was rather surprised she was offering her personal fare to him, that was all, and wondering what it might signify.
When he was done eating, he wasn't sure if he should leave the room, lest he overstay his welcome. But she shocked him again by putting her hand on his shoulder to stop him from leaving. Then she kissed him gingerly on the side of his mouth, and onto his cheek, and he knew he was turning red, because it was something unrehearsed, unnecessary…a grace.
"Reste avec moi," she'd whispered in his ear. Stay with me.
They had found their way under the covers soon enough, and she had let him kiss her, and stroke her, and bed her that long winter night, for he imagined she might know herself the nature of being utterly alone. They were so much adrift, the two of them in an ocean of great things, like shattered sea glass, doomed never to be whole…but this night, the glass was melting, like molten liquid, into each other.
It was one night, just one night…when he thought he was having a son…and he talked too much about it to her, for no one else would listen, but listen she did, about his hopes, his fears, his petty judgments about this or that, the scurried ideas that ran through his head about the possible future, things he wanted to get out of his head about the past, but could not quite manage. He felt like a little boy some moments and a man in others, making conversation then making love alternately. He was not analyzing the pleasure of it so much then, just experiencing it, and he was cold, and it felt warm…perhaps not hot, but warm…
He'd then grown self-conscious, asked her why she was being kind to him, letting her touch her when duty was not at stake. He had never tried to make her take him when he wasn't trying to put his seed in her; that would have twisted the extent of the vows both were forced to bide by and bend to. But she would not answer the question he put to her now, just let their mouths move together, and their bodies move together, and he was afraid, because she was pregnant, and didn't want to do damage, and tried to go careful, laying down with his back to the bed and her on top of him for that reason…and somewhere in the midst of their pleasuring each other, he had blurted out, uncharacteristically, possibly due to the drink, that he was sorry.
But he was sorry. For the first night. And for every night since then. The nights of physical encounter as meaningless as dust, and the days of emotional aloofness as relentless as the frost. And he meant it in all sincerity as the words rolled weakly off his tongue. He wondered if she knew what he meant, though, for he didn't, couldn't explain it all. He imagined she did, though, by her touch. He got the feeling she knew, and she still pitied him, because at the heart of it, he was afraid. It was a fearful thing to live without love altogether, even if giving it back was a mystery he could not comprehend…
He remembered how, even after the passion had run its course, he kept kissing her softly, lightly along the shoulders, turning pink because she was blushing more from that than from the fullness of the act. And he knew she liked it, and it made him content inside…for once. She liked the kissing, the petting, the affection that seemed to be for its own sake, not pushing towards completion. That, he realized, was what she'd been yearning for the whole time…tenderness, understanding, beyond climax or forced mechanics.
The trouble was she hadn't been married off to a particularly tender, understanding husband. He knew himself, and how selfish and harsh and terrible incapable of expressing higher sentiments he could be, even in those rare moments when he felt them. But that night he was at least trying…because she'd been kind to him, letting him open up to her like this, naked before her in more ways than one. And he always responded to kindness awkwardly, wanting to pay it off quickly lest it make him feel guilty for being what he was, before he remembered he didn't deserve it in the first place.
In this case, though, he genuinely took some small pleasure it paying it back. He liked finding out how to make her blush when his lips met her skin in a certain way, and he heard her moan softly when his hand caressed her breasts, and then try to stifle the sound because someone had told her it wasn't ladylike. It was really rather sweet seeing her that bashful over it, and he told her he didn't mind it at all. He'd learned something…that her right breast was more sensitive that the other…he'd heard her gasp a little when the grasp was too firm, and he'd asked nervously, "Did…that hurt you?"
She gazed at him, reading between all his lines, and answered quietly, "A little, my lord."
So he took his hand away and kissed it gently as his way of making up, of saying things that didn't come out right verbally, even through his earlier fumbled apology. She said she hadn't known he could be gentle like this, and he felt like an animal again. He muttered he hadn't known either.
She seemed to sense how convicted and conflicted he felt, and unexpectedly took his face tenderly in her hands and kissed him, mouth to mouth, once, twice, three times, to tell him…she knew. The deepest was the third time and it was he who pulled away, almost afraid of what he was being pulled into. He knew his own mood swings too well…and how being slightly drunk was n o doubt making him better at all this than he usually was, and he didn't want to reopen all the old wounds just now starting to heal as soon as he was sober again. He couldn't let her care too much…couldn't let himself care too much.
But he did run his finger along her lips in gratitude, and then started rambling a bit more, slurred, nervous, said she could name the child whatever she wanted, and then asked if she had any names she liked. She said it would be his son, it should be named after him, "Rojjjer." She had said it with her thick accent from the shores of Normandy, and it had made him smirk slightly in spite of himself. And he'd kissed her again on the neck, felt the blood quickening, touched her all over, and felt her touch him…and it felt natural for once…as God must surely have intended it…and he made some joke about how they should stay there and not go downstairs to face his parents when the first gray light of morning broke through the window and fell across their bed.
"But we must be off to mass," his wife reminded him. "Don't want to be in mortal sin on Christmas day, do you?"
He's smiled thinly., with no mark of joy about it, and remarked, "Most likely I've been in mortal sing for as long as I could reason."
She looked shocked by what he said, but he continued. He had to get it out to somebody.
"They say…God comes down upon the earth, and the priests talk about it…especially now, in the crèche or in the host, but…never to me, you see. Not really. God has ever been outside, never inside me in any way I could feel, and even if any trace were there from childhood, I suppose I chased it away. That's what being in mortal sin is; not having God inside you." Seeing she was turning pale, he added quickly, "But I shan't put you in sin too, so…to chapel it is."
She turned her head down, and murmured, "You always get a light from heaven if you ask for it."
"This family prefers working with shadows," he stated slyly. "Too much light hurts the eyes."
She gazed at him. "If you will not…may I ask for it?"
"You can ask for whatever you wish," he replied cheerfully, in a humoring fashion, "and no doubt you'll get lots of light. And if you ever need a storm cloud or a shadow to break things up, I'll do my best to provide."
And that entire Christmas mass, he knew she was praying her heart and soul out for that light to come…for she seemed to think darkness implied the light *must* come…
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God…
And watching his little wife kneeling in prayer so piously, so sweetly, some part of himself felt moved, just an increment, and he'd vowed to purchase her something rich that season, for it was the only way he'd known how to show…something…some exchange for the touch they had given and taken in the pre-dawn hours…a jeweled brooch, that's what he had offered her that Twelfth Night, and he'd meant it, truly he had…but he knew how imperfect an effort it was…cold stones for warm touch…
But only several months later, he would stand in front of her open coffin, immobile like a statue, except for his one touch along her icy lips, his one silent moment of guilt, of sorrow, for his own body's role in killing her, for not even having to courage to be their during her labor in the morning, or during her death that same evening. But even this single gesture of his deeper self was quickly rebuked.
He thought to try and force out some prayer to the Virgin, in this hour of death, though prayer like love tied him up in knots, though he imagined himself the worst of husbands whose own nervous energy and near constant complaining had no doubt half stressed her to death even before the hard labor took her…but before such a prayer could formulate in his mind or mouth, his mother had clamped down on his arm with her strong spindly fingers and pulled his hand away from the corpse lecturing him to stop acting like a small child with a broken toy, that he'd barely played with anyway. He was a Cavendish. He should act like one.
"So much your luck," he remembered her continuing bitterly, "that the sons would be stillborn and the daughter should kill the mother so there's nothing left to strive for. Just your luck…you should hope the little brat joins her in the ground soon enough, or you'll have put yet another load upon your family, having to hire a wet-nurse, and gained nothing to show for it…and the name she wanted for it…it's no name from our family, traitorous woman…she wanted you to name it a silly nun's name, 'light from heaven', of all the foolery…"
So it was his daughter had been named Celia. Yet he still could not understand God at all when the light out of his lady. It wasn't fair to her. And the notion that the tiny light she'd left him might go out as well haunted him. Yes, even now, so many years later, on his own balcony, with his 14 year old, he could not shake the ominous sense of peril hanging over him, hanging over her. If he lost her, he knew, he would go from the shadlowlands to a realm pitch black.