One of the most common questions a writer gets is “what made you think of that?” People always want to know where we get our ideas. Well, so far as ROTTEN AT THE HEART is concerned, it started with an innocent question from my daughter, who asked “What would have happened if Shakespeare wrote Noir?” Easy, I thought. Othello. But I got an itch, and first scratched it with a short story that appeared in the Spring 2011 NEEDLE. (What? You don’t read NEEDLE? Well start.) But that proved insuffcient scratching. For me, there’s something seductive about the language, its oppulence and more stately pace, the opportunity for digression, and the age in which Shakespeare lived that left me wanting more. Like a novel’s worth.
So here’s Chapter 5 of the novel. As always, if you’ve got a comment or question, please chime in. If you’re new to the proceedings and would like to catch up, you can read the first four chapters right here. And if you’re enjoying the story, do me a favor and invite a friend to the party, drop a tweet or pimp me on Facebook or Google+, won’t you? Thanks for reading along.
As I had thought, the Company was of no mood to return to rehearsal, our discussion of my audience with Carey and the portents of The Lord Admiral’s Men’s visit being too much of mind, and they did early retire to one of the Shoreditch taverns in that human habit of turning what little news we have over continually in hopes of finding from some new angle a benefit we had not at first uncovered. But I was of no heart for this company, knowing I must be false, and my mind still suppurating with such pestilent mood as the previous evening’s adventures and morning’s unseen dreams had engendered, so I took my leave, and being short now of papers and inks made toward the Royal Exchange on Threadneedle Street, so both as to obtain those goods and to address a foul task too long avoided.
In Stratford, any passage would be marked at each turn by only such faces as I did well know, but in London, the unexpected meeting of any acquaintance away from such environs as in which you would expect them is a curiosity. And so I found it passing strange to notice also on Threadneedle Street that man I had first seen that morning seeming to sleep against the wall in the courtyard near my rooms, his nose marking him for my remembrance. He paid me no mind as I purchased first my papers and then my inks, yet somehow his loiterings at this booth and then that kept him always in my view, although he did at least one purchase make, and could thus be only about his business as I was about mine. But I did mark not only his nose, but also his size and bearing and manner of dress so that, should he seem too oft in my company, I could take proper care.
My purchases complete and this distraction addressed, I steeled myself finally to make to the end of the arcade and the fishmonger’s stall, at which I had some hard business I would finally have done.
While I am at heart unchurched, though I do bend my knee in whichever direction the crown commands for the sake of my own safety, I am not unfaithed. I am each day reminded if only by an unexpected flower, a happy fragrance, a gifted tankard, of the unearned and pervasive benevolence that girds us each, and daily, with those few blessings by virtue of which we transcend these corrupt shackles fashioned solely and soullessly by the hands of man to bind us tight to the depraved pestilence of our banal condition. What beauties we enjoy, we neither fashion nor earn, and yet they alone save us from the living damnation of our petty grubbing.
In that spirit I had, on a June day, like Saul, confronted a grace so bedazzling that I did, for a time make suppose a new faith. On that day, I also had made to Threadneedle Street to secure the supplies of my writerly habits, when the girl in the fishmonger’s stall at the edge of the Exchange called out in her sparkled voice so as to gain my attention and perhaps my commerce. In seeing her I felt as if suddenly gifted with some new sense felt both with my heart and from lower down where the pleasure fountains lie, such sense as to make the eyes and ears and nose and tongue and skin feel envy that they can only each in part experience what I could feel in total. Her eyes shone with a blue innocence to make one forget there to be guile and to imagine there be some other world painted in a palette beyond our imagining, these eyes only having escaped to our drab sphere to remind us there be gods. The gentle sweep of her shoulders and neck, which rose to support a face and head of such perfect proportion and aspect that the sight of them fell on my eyes like a smell and roused in me some appetite so unfamiliar that I did not a first think to call it lust. A cascade of hair of as if spun by angelic spiders, colored both in saffron and in a blush of red that seemed to echo the flame she had already in me kindled that could in its web secure the affections of all who looked on it. The gentle swell above her bodice of those twin swales that seemed colored with both cream and light, and that disappeared behind the cover of her rough dress like a temptation to madness, as if your eyes would have no future purpose did you not further explore the promised land of that nakedness which beckoned from beyond those clothed boundaries, so that you would either have her or tear from your own body those now needless orbs you knew your eyes to be.
I am wifed, but being most times a bachelor in London whilst she is in far Stratford, have treated the surly bounds of that churched alliance with the same elasticity to which they so oft have been stretched by even our most royal personages, and with the same diligence and honor with which our churchmen protect their pledged chastity, for I can envision no God who would from a poor scribe demand fealty beyond that of those kings and priests that He hath, in wisdom unbound by human frailty, chosen with his own hand. And whilst these august hath oft plucked the first buds from God’s flowering, womanly harvest, I instead hath dallied only with those flowers already fully and freely in bloom. A mutual kindness that we bestowed, each upon the other, a corporal mercy by which we shared in those delights so heavenly granted, and, having done so, did cage the more savage beasts of our less holy appetites lest they, deprived of even such venal morsels, break the chains of conscience and loose themselves unbound in a mortal frenzied orgy of less willing flesh. And thus conscience doth make lechers of us all.
And then I beheld the fishmonger’s daughter and in that moment abandoned any pretense, any costume of thought by which previously I had made polite my ravening lust. That she was scarcely beyond a child, haven only just broken the bud of womanhood, mattered not; that our first casual mutterings revealed her unschooled and naïve, an onnocent who could be lead, and trustingly, into a forest of words within which I could ease her loose from the tethers of her moral bearings and lead her to betray to me solely for the amusement of my trivial wants that which, to her, was most precious and the province, through the agency of a husband, only of God; this mattered not. For the flame of her beauty like the magic fires of Sinai consumed not itself but burned away instead all that it was not, leaving to my mind only my desire for her, any contrivance of decency charred to nothingness in the face of this seductive inferno, so I knew only my longings and my own gifts, having been told in countless beds and by varied lovers that I am comely of both face and form, that I have an easy wit and that I speak words that lay lightly on the ear — and I would now with these Godly tools ply for Satan that unplied flesh.
And so began my artful campaign. My first gentle affirmations of her beauty and my stunned surprise to find even this easy ground as yet unplowed, my words gaining ever more purchase as they had not to o’ermount the walls of any previous compliment. A brief touch; a lingering touch; a first, chaste kiss; all the while I oiled her fall with subtle reminders of how many imagined sins she already had committed until, still within the bounds of any commandment, she felt herself so foreign to the deserved love of God that she thought herself already damned and surrendered completely to me on a borrowed bed, gifting a mattress soiled with the effluent of a thousand whores the offered sacrament of her unspoiled blood as I plunged once more into the breach.
I gorged on this ambrosial apple unsated, gaining no sustenance, and was become a beast hollowed out by unholy hungers, mad with ravening, debasing the child through acts previously only imagined, a carnival of perversity after which whatever ethereal light that had informed her features was instead transmuted into dead ash, her eyes less animate than those of the fishes she once had offered, and she was become a mirror that held only horrors for me in which I somehow could see both this wilting thing that spread her now rot-mottled pedals with torporous indifference and that rare prefect flower that had first opened unto me her bud with trembling, fearful resistance. And I now wept to think what I had done to a creature of such beauty, and how she had for a time made me think there be a heaven and that I might be worthy of it.
And in my shame, I visited our borrowed chambers no more, despite her messages, and more than one, and of increasing desperation, each asking what offense she had given that did cause my absence and assuring me of her still tender affections, each message reminding me of that grace she did somehow still possess and that I had lost forever.
And so, steeling myself finally, I visited her stall, knowing even still that my weakness might over power my resolve were I alone with her in the privacy of our borrowed rooms. I would make to her what apologies I could, and try to convince her that what virtues she may think she surrendered I had truly stolen, that she was faultless in our tawdry enterprise and that it was my true hope that her aspect could regain such light and blessing as I had, in my wanton cruelty, put out.
But her stall at the end of the Exchange stood shuttered, and when I inquired of the tanner at the stall next was told she had the day before thrown herself from the bridge, thus making to the river an offering of the only gift I had not yet taken. And I continued with my business, left with the packages of papers and inks on which I had no doubt I would someday scrawl some phrase, some story, some sense of heart drawn from my memory of this vile exercise, continuing on in life as the revulsion I felt did in time recede, the proximate gravity of its horror shrunk far enough away that it would no longer pull the tide of my guilt to consciousness, and thus would live my days in such comforts as my poor memory allowed, forestalling that torment as I at that moment suffered in part until such day as I shuffle off this mortal coil and there am reacquainted with my true bride who, with dead eyes, will joyfully lead be to her befouled mattress and introduce me to those travails that I no longer can hope to escape, and I am there made to suffer for my sins in full.
And so I returned to my quarters, the light again failing as I turned up Bishopsgate, armed now only with my bundles, taking no heed of the gaping dark on all sides, thinking should I hear again that urgent rush and see that flash of steel that I would simply surrender my neck to the blade rather than my back to my mattress, so as not confront what dreams may come, being after my last sleep and this day’s news much afraid of my dreaming. But sleep I must, as tomorrow, I was to report again to Somerset to begin my inquiries and so would need my wits.
The landlord awaited as I arrived, bearing a message from Stratford. My son, Hamnet, was ill, and Anne would that I send to home some funds for his care.
I took to my chambers much aggrieved, the death of the fishmonger’s daughter pressing on my conscience, it being a murder in truth if not in such consequence as I did owe on the event’s account. A son I did scarce know but in my fashion did love now ill, and thinking on Anne for the first time in some weeks, overcome with fond remembrance of my youth when we did first meet and that flowering of spirit her smile had then engendered, knowing that such lovers as I had entertained my years in London were just convenient vessels into which I had emptied my lust, but that in the fishmonger’s daughter I had in sooth remembered my own Anne, and did want somehow to again be that lad I now remember, who still trembled with some wonder and did with some fresh eye see on that soft occasion those years back when, betrothed but not yet wed, Anne did first grant to me her favors and I did sense that real communion against which the sacrament of any church pales into wanting sickness. But I stood now, the life I had these past years lived, so divorced from that remembered boy and by my actions stripped of the grace and innocence which are the only hands that can that sweet intimacy grasp, and I could but wonder how I became such man as I now am, celebrated by many, supposed by my fellows to be good, but in secret much fouled and, I feared, beyond any power of redemption.