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372 pages, Hardcover
First published March 31, 2020
“Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns.”
“The moment she has feared most, the event she has thought about, mulled over, turned this way and that, rehearsed and re-rehearsed in her mind, during the dark of sleepless nights, at moments of idleness, when she is alone.”
“She grows up with a hidden, private flame inside her: it licks at her, warms her, warns her.”
*(No offense meant to my vegetarian brethren. I blame the metaphor.)
“They beg her to stop, not to touch people’s hands, to hide this odd gift. No good will come of it, her father says, standing over Agnes as she crouches by the fire, no good at all. When she reaches up to take his hand, he snatches it away. She grows up feeling wrong, out of place, too dark, too tall, too unruly, too opinionated, too silent, too strange. She grows up with the awareness that she is merely tolerated, an irritant, useless, that she does not deserve love, that she will need to change herself substantially, crush herself down if she is to be married. She grows up, too, with the memory of what it meant to be properly loved, for what you are, not what you ought to be.”
“She is rarely wrong. About anything. It's a gift or a curse, depending on who you ask.'
* Almost every page is like this:
“Several streets away, the owl leaves its perch, surrendering itself to a cool draught, its wings silently breasting the air, its eyes alert. To it, the town appears as a series of rooftops, with gullies of streets in between, a place to be navigated. The massed leaves of trees present themselves as it flies, the stray wisps of smoke from idle fires. It sees the progress of the fox, a man, sleeping in the doorway of a tavern, scratching at a fleabite on his shin; it sees coneys in a cage at the back of someone’s house; horses standing in a paddock near the inn; and it sees Judith, stepping into the street.”
‘Someone who knows everything about you, before you even know it yourself. Someone who can just look at you and divine your deepest secrets, just with a glance. Someone who can tell what you are about to say – and what you might not – before you say it. It is,’ he says, ‘both a joy and a curse.’
“He has, Agnes sees, done what any father would wish to do, to exchange his child’s suffering for his own, to take his place, to offer himself up in his child’s stead so that the boy might live. She will say all this to her husband, later, after the play has ended, after the final silence has fallen, after the dead have sprung up to take their places in the line of players at the edge of the stage.”
It is to him she speaks in her disordered mind, not the trees, not the magic cross, not the patterns and markings of lichen, not even to her mother, who died while trying to give birth to a child. Please, she says to him, inside the chamber of her skull, please come back. I need you. Please. I should never have schemed to send you away. Make sure this child has safe passage; make sure it lives; make sure I survive to care for it. Let us both come through this. Please. Let me not die. Let me not end up cold and stiff in a bloodied bed.
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
[She] refuses to give up her bed, saying it was the bed she was married in and she will not have another, so the new, grander bed is put in the room for guests.
For the pestilence to reach Warwickshire, England, in the summer of 1596, two events need to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these people need to meet. The first is a glassmaker on the island of Murano in the principality of Venice; the second is a cabin boy on a merchant ship sailing for Alexandria on an unseasonably warm morning with an easterly wind.
It’s like a mirror, he had said. Or that they are one person split down the middle. Their two
He feels again the sensation he has had all his life: that she is the other side to him, that they fit together, him and her, like two halves of a walnut. That without her he is incomplete, lost. He will carry an open wound, down his side, for the rest of his life, where she had been ripped from him. How can he live without her? He cannot. It is like asking the heart to live without the lungs, like tearing the moon out of the sky and asking the stars to do its work, like expecting the barley to grow without rain. Tears are appearing on her cheeks now, like silver seeds, as if by magic. He knows they are his, falling from his eyes on to her face, but they could just as easily be hers. They are one and the same. ‘You shall be well,’ she murmurs. He grips her fingers in anger. ‘I shall not.’ He passes his tongue over his lips, tasting salt. ‘I’ll come with you. We’ll go together.’
Then the idea strikes him. He doesn’t know why he hadn’t thought of it before. It occurs to Hamnet, as he crouches there, next to her, that it might be possible to hoodwink Death, to pull off the trick he and Judith have been playing on people since they were young: to exchange places and clothes, leading people to believe that each was the other.
The fleas that leapt from the dying rats into their striped fur crawl down into these boxes and take up residence in the rags padding the hundreds of tiny, multi-coloured millefiori beads (the same rags put there by the fellow worker of the master glassmaker; the same glassmaker who is now in Murano, where the glassworks is at a standstill, because so many of the workers are falling ill with a mysterious and virulent fever).
It is tall, cloaked in black, and in the place of a face is a hideous, featureless mask, pointed like the beak of a gigantic bird. ‘No,’ Hamnet cries, ‘get away.’ .. Then his grandmother is there, pushing him aside, apologising to the spectre, as if there is nothing out of the ordinary about it, inviting it to step into the house, to examine the patient. Hamnet takes a step backwards and another. He collides with his mother, ‘Don’t be afraid,’ she whispers. ‘It is only the physician.’ ‘The . . .?’ Hamnet stares at him, still there on the doorstep, talking with his grandmother. ‘But why is he . . .?’ Hamnet gestures to his face, his nose. ‘He wears that mask because he thinks it will protect him,’ she says. ‘From the pestilence?’ His mother nods. ‘And will it?’ His mother purses her lips, then shakes her head. ‘I don’t think so.’
The spectre is speaking without a mouth, saying he will not come in, he cannot, and they, the inhabitants, are hereby ordered not to go out, not to take to the streets, but to remain indoors until the pestilence is past.
If the plague comes to London, he can be back with them for months. The playhouses are all shut, by order of the Queen, and no one is allowed to gather in public. It is wrong to wish for plague, her mother has said, but Susanna has done this a few times under her breath, at night, after she has said her prayers. She always crosses herself afterwards. But still she wishes it. Her father home, for months, with them. She sometimes wonders if her mother secretly wishes it too.
‘Madam,’ the physician says, and again his beak swings towards them, ‘you may trust that I know much more about these matters than you do. A dried toad, applied to the abdomen for several days, has proven to have great efficacy in cases such as these.
She thinks of her garden, of her shelves of powders, potions, leaves, liquids, with incredulity, with rage. What good has any of that been? What point was there to any of it? All those years and years of tending and weeding and pruning and gathering. She would like to go outside and rip up those plants by their roots and fling them into the fire. She is a fool, an ineffectual, prideful fool. How could she ever have thought that her plants might be a match for this?
What is given may be taken away, at any time. Cruelty and devastation wait for you around corners, inside coffers, behind doors: they can leap out at you at any moment, like a thief or brigand. The trick is never to let down your guard. Never think you are safe. Never take for granted that your children’s hearts beat, that they sup milk, that they draw breath, that they walk and speak and smile and argue and play. Never for a moment forget they may be gone, snatched from you, in the blink of an eye, borne away from you like thistledown.
It is even more difficult, Agnes finds, to leave the graveyard, than it was to enter it. So many graves to walk past, so many sad and angry ghosts tugging at her skirts, touching her with their cold fingers, pulling at her, naggingly, piteously, saying, Don’t go, wait for us, don’t leave us here.
And Agnes finds she can bear anything except her child’s pain. She can bear separation, sickness, blows, birth, deprivation, hunger, unfairness, seclusion, but not this: her child, looking down at her dead twin. Her child, sobbing for her lost brother. Her child, racked with grief.
‘the place in your head. I saw it once, a long time ago, a whole country in there, a landscape. You have gone to that place and it is now more real to you than anywhere else. Nothing can keep you from it. Not even the death of your own child. I see this,’
It is also plague season again in London and the playhouses are shut. This is never said aloud. Judith notes the absence of this word during his visits.
What is the word, Judith asks her mother, for someone who was a twin but is no longer a twin?
Hamlet, here, on this stage, is two people, the young man, alive, and the father, dead. He is both alive and dead. Her husband has brought him back to life, in the only way he can. As the ghost talks, she sees that her husband, in writing this, in taking the role of the ghost, has changed places with his son. He has taken his son’s death and made it his own; he has put himself in death’s clutches, resurrecting the boy in his place. ‘O horrible! O horrible! Most horrible!’ murmurs her husband’s ghoulish voice, recalling the agony of his death. He has, Agnes sees, done what any father would wish to do, to exchange his child’s suffering for his own, to take his place, to offer himself up in his child’s stead so that the boy might live.
„Agnes este purtată pe sus..., de parcă ar fi o ucigașă, o nebună” (p.246). „Agnes este o femeie sfărîmată în bucăți, călcate în picioare și împrăștiate în jur” (p.297).