Light from Heaven
In the complex web of marrying and being given in marriage according the traditions of the nobility, love matches frightfully few. The High sheriff of Nottingham had long before decided that love itself never be depended upon, though poets and prophets alike claimed it was stronger than death. He dared not face even the possibility of such opening which would be doomed to end with an inescapable 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 forced himself to function, day in, day out…
Still, he avoided dwelling too much upon his long dead Normand bride, who seemed in his memory to have been like a diminutive spring flower killed by the first chill night. She had been so much like his daughter was now…small, shy, plain of face, soft of heart, her hair reddish-brown, and her nose sprinkled with freckles. She was what the world might regard considerably forgettable, and the first time Roger Cavendish laid eyes on her, just a few days prior to their wedding, he would have been the first to concur with that judgment.
But try as he might, he could not forget her. Neither could he block out the image of her lying in her open 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 her from catching chill. He had grown too used to worrying over her health, for she was the vessel that would bear him a son…and he had felt the cloak of guilt bearing down upon his own shoulders.
For she had tried. She had tried for him, so very hard. It had killed her trying. First there was the miscarriage early on, then the stillborn male infant the year after, and lastly the living baby girl that robbed her of her life, and which most would regard as a paltry show for all her efforts. And viewing her lying there as she had died, alone and 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. Surely if anyone deserved to be spared, it was her.
This of course, was largely an impression, for he had not known his wife as he should have, with his heart, though he had known her well enough in the flesh. He had not loved her as he should have, though they had "made love" many times, forced yet necessary to provide a tangible link into the future, to carry their mortal flesh forward into the next generation, to grasp at power beyond the grave, to somehow cheat death, cosmically lunging at everything that lived. They were bound by the words they had spoken at the altar, all for the propagation at their race. And there were times when he seriously questioned if their race was really worth propagating.
His wedding night had been hell. They had gotten about halfway through consummation, when she'd panicked at the pain, and he, terrified of facing the consequences of failing to complete his duty and receive the censure of his parents, had held her down in order to finish. He remembered the feeling of her struggling, whimpering against his chest, pleading for it to stop. But he had not let himself listen, not let himself stop.
"Just bear up with it," he had rasped through clenched teeth. "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 finish it, 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 tried to calm her afterwards, told her it was natural to bleed after the first time, that it would never hurt like that again. He'd gone on to try and help her get 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 everyone, 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 anymore. They would still have to keep mating, time and again, to bring her belly full with child for the sake of the family name.
He was right, though; it didn't hurt like that again. No, it just became an almost sterile ritual, in which he told her, 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.
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 had sensed a desire for love in it, and he would redden, realizing suddenly his own nakedness in front of her. He hated being naked in front of anyone. He had not even let his youthful passions 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. So much for doing everyone possible to countermand the scourge of death.
But death reared its ugly head anyway. After the miscarriage of their first, Young Cavendish had avoided his bride for several weeks, unable to face the failure, or acknowledge the deeper implications of what had been lost, withdrawing within himself to sustain the attacks from both his parents. Following this phase, however, he had been pressured to waste no time in getting her to conceive again, and she dutifully complied to return to the bedchamber with him, commencing their old routine. Always duty…always mechanics…
Then nine months later, there came the still birth. And it had been a son. While he dealt with it by trying to pretend it had never occurred, she plummeted down a tunnel of depression, locking 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. Her husband would dare not pretend he could blame her.
After nearly a week, said physician took the initiative to inform him that his wife had been 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 proceeded to pull 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. He'd needed to take her arm and guide her into the chair lest she should fall.
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 go back inside and fetch her a shawl.
"Let a servant fetch it," his mother had snapped.
"I believe I can manage if my wife asks it of me," he'd responded quietly.
"She shouldn't have come down half-dressed with her hair loose to begin with," his father growled. "What does she think she is, a lady of the evening? Shall we get her some paints for her face to better play the part, eh?"
"I asked her to come," his son ground out, realizing their insensitivity was reaching new heights and were about to push the poor trembling girl over the brink. "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. "Think it will make her body any less likely to reject your seed, as it's down time and again?"
Roger had stood, and flung the napkin down angrily. "For once in your bloody wretched lives, 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…"
"We'll be about it when we're both ready. And that's the end of it."
His wife had turned from the threshold to gaze at him, seemingly surprised at his words of defense spoken on her behalf. 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 it wasn't the 10-year-old Locksley nuisance…
"Why do you cry, lady? Has he caused 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.
"It's more than just my thinking," the boy retorted. "I know from what I've seen and heard that the Cavendishes treat their servants poorly, and their tenants like chattel. I knew not how they might treat their women."
"My grief is for my…lack in the body, meant 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 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 boys will do, hesitant to let their 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 where we are, and she is…and it makes me feel better. As long as I can go up there, I feel as if 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, and so…I suppose I shall always…miss them."
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, when she thought she was alone, and he'd always chalked it up to a flighty imagination on her part. After all, they surely couldn't hear or understand in any meaningful way…hell, they were hardly real. At any rate, he could never envision his own mother having 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 much as hers…whatever they were, whatever level of life they'd possessed. He didn't want to think about it though, for if he did he'd come to the conclusion that 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 realized suddenly, 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 he had said that. Whatever he thought of the Locksley boy, he knew the little fool 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," the boy was saying softly, "that you'll have another, in good time. And if you need anything, well, tell us. We're your neighbors."
"But not in the coalition," she noted pointedly.
Ah, yes. The coalition. 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 Saxon Lord Locksley, that is, who would take no part in it. He had believed the demands made by the laborers where fair, and due to his own policies, had suffered no such unrest on his own estate. He came out to argue against Lord Cavendish and his son at the council, trying to sway the other lords in favor of reason and restraint, but his pleas had fallen on deaf ears, and Locksley had left the hall in protest. 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. "It's 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 acknowledged. "I do 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 during 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 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 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 muttered. "But…you don't require a Saxon imp for things like this. I could get you a dozen or more roses finely grown…not these weeds…"
"But I like flowers grown wild," she told him.
He shrugged. "Suit yourself then. I only meant…" He hesitated. He knew he could not buy her favor or forgiveness, given everything that had passed between them, but it would be so much easier on his conscience if he could manage to do so somehow. "Would…would you like flowers for the infant grave?" he tried.
"I'd like a cross," she stated.
"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 become an excommunicant, don't you?"
"Oh, no…it isn't that…it's just…"
"I was being sarcastic," he exhaled. "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, perhaps a brief brush across her cheek, 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 a meal up to her, which she did force herself to eat. But she soon vomited it up again, which 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 maid 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 glanced 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 reaching towards her, running a finger against her lips, and remembering another night, after she had finally 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 where his father had once again made sport of him in public, and he just remembered being chilled and hungry, for he had forgotten to wear his proper winter cloak and hardly eaten a morsel from the table, just guzzled down too 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 had 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.
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, like shattered sea glass, but this night, the glass was melting together, like molten liquid.
It was one night, just one night, when he thought he was having a son, and he talked too much about it and everything else 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 mind 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 the warmth of it, and he liked how it felt…
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. 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 meeting of their flesh since then. He was sorry for 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, for he couldn't manage to explain it all in the moment. He imagined she did, though, by her message of her touch. Surely she knew the truth, yet still understood him well enough, 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 fully comprehend.
He remembered how, even after the passion had run its course, he kept kissing her softly, lightly along the shoulders, 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, caring.
The trouble was she hadn't been married off to a particularly tender, understanding, caring husband. He knew himself, and how selfish and harsh and terribly 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 unworthy of it.
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. He'd learned something else; 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, "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. She said she hadn't known he could be gentle like this, and he'd felt like an animal all over again. He muttered he hadn't known either, and he felt afraid to touch her again. He was enjoying himself too much, and he knew he didn't deserve it. Perhaps it was a dirty thing after all.
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. 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 no 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, told her she could name the child whatever she wanted, asked if she had any names she liked. She said it would be his son, so 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 giggle slightly in spite of himself. And he'd kissed her again on the neck, felt the blood quickening, and then just pulled her close, just kept holding her in arms with her head against his bare chest. They must have stayed like that for hours, and she seemed very happy, and he felt very happy, and he wished to God they could keep this feeling somehow preserved between them, for it felt natural for once, as God must surely have intended it for the start…
When the gray down rose across the shire, he had slept off some of the alcohol, but not his sense of near giddiness from the night before, and she was still nestled in his arms. He waited for her to stir from slumber first, then made some joke about how they should stay there and not go downstairs to face his parents when the first pale light of morning broke through the window and fell across their bed.
"But we must be off to mass," his wife reminded him with a smile, starting to sit up in bed to get dressed. "Don't want to be in mortal sin on Christmas day, do you?"
He's smirked 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. "The priests say God comes down upon the earth, 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. Just a little light, even, but enough to see you through."
"This family prefers working with shadows," he stated slyly.
She gazed at him. "If you will not ask God, then may I?"
"Far be it from me to stand between the Almighty having His way with my wife," he chuckled in a humoring fashion. "You can ask for whatever you wish, and you'll no doubt get a flood of light. And if you ever need a storm cloud or a shadow to throw a damper on things, 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, just as it came in the reading from the Gospel of John…
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, he'd felt himself moved, just an increment, and vowed to purchase her something rich that season, for it was the only way he knew how to preserve what had been felt between them, some exchange for the touch upon 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…
And he would never have the chance to make a better show of it, for only several months later, he would stand in front of her corpse, 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. 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, and he imagined himself the worst of husbands, the worst of Christians, incapable of reaching God in any way that He would want to hear…
But before any attempt at pious words 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 ranting on, "that the son 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. She wanted you to name it a silly nun's name, 'light from heaven', of all the foolery. It's no name from our family, traitorous woman!"
So it was that his daughter had been named Celia, for he would not allow it to be anything else but what his wife had desired. Yet he still could not understand God at all when the light went out of his lady. It wasn't fair to her. And the notion that the tiny spark of light she'd left him in the cradle might go out as well haunted him...
Yes, even now, so many years later, on his balcony in the chill of December, with his 14-year-old in front of him, 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 shadow-lands to a realm pitch black. And he could not even bear to think upon him. He would surely die, and then pass from earthen darkness into cavernous darkness, for all eternity.