The Keats Variation

By K.M. Ferebee

Part 2 of 2

Continued from Part 1

In the weeks that followed, he went back to his studies. He did not see the knight again, and he was glad. Exams were approaching; he was required to pass them if he wished his apprenticeship to continue, if he were to be awarded qualifications. He bent over his books. The bad light strained his eyes. He learned to palpate the vital parts to determine liver or kidney size and function; he looked at diagrams of dead lungs, showing where phthisis had ravened them. With his eyes closed he could draw the human body, stripped down to skeleton or muscle, reduced to what anatomy he knew. This much he understood about that body: what made it up, what composed it. He looked at his own fist clenched about the pen as he drew. It seemed very small, full of frailty. He could feel the flat scars of blisters lining his hand.

Sometimes at night, when he was sat alone by lamplight, he would see a shadow in the corner start to stretch its arms and legs. Or a casement clatter open and let enter the unpleasant wind, wet and urban, one-note, nosing the hair at the back of his head. Fear stuck its needles in him then. He was happy when Barrie, Bish, or Taylor found him, so that he had something to flee from. And when he fled and still they found him, he thought, But while they are here, nothing else will be here; nothing else will get in.

It was not the ghost he was afraid of. It was the other things, the large and small incidents that started to trouble him. For instance: Barrie bought a hand off one of the resurrection men who slunk about the hospital's back doorway, selling corpses. Whole corpses, three days from the grave, ran sixty pounds each—quite costly, on a surgeon's salary—but you could buy them piecemeal, as students did, to practice your dissection. Barrie had bought his hand for a prank. He put it into Keats's bedclothes in the evening, tucked up under the flat folds of the duvet. So that Keats, climbing into bed, later found it: the bone protruding slightly from the wrist, the flesh plastic and sickening. He picket it, barely placating his nausea, from the sheet by one of its dead fingers, and flung it doorwards as the other boys burst in.

Did it touch you, Keatsie? Did it feel you up?

You stink now, you smell of the dead.

Barrie brought the hand back to the bed, waggling its white fingers. Ooh, it's come for you Keats. It's come to haunt you. That's what happens when you talk to dead men.

I bet you're scared, Bish said. Look at him, he is, he's petrified. Like a little trembling mouse, a country infant.

I'm not scared, Keats said.

The other boys were laughing, and so did not hear him. Look at him! He thought a dead man had come to get him! I shouldn't wonder if he wet his bed.

I'm not scared, he said again.

This time Barrie took notice. No, you're not, are you, he said. He looked at Keats from up to down, from side to side, considering. Keats understood that what he had said had been an error, that he should have feigned being frightened, that this would in some way have soured the game. He stood with a sinking feeling and saw Barrie toss the flaccid hand from fist to fist like a juggler's object, jaunty and sharp, like a sword that would pierce your skin.

I am rather scared, Keats said. Now I think of it.

Hold him down, Barrie told Taylor and Bish.

They did as they were told. They pinned him to the bed, kneeling upon his shoulders with their hard patellas digging into him. Keats twisted the tendons of his arms. He struggled. He did not want the dead hand touching him. But Barrie brought it close, brushing Keats's face with its fingers. Keats closed his eyes. A smooth cool nail traced his lip. He thought, I will not be sick, I will not give them the satisfaction.

Do you know how St. Crix was martyred? Barrie asked.

I do, Bish said.

Quiet, Bish.

The Roman soldiers ate him.

To think that we still study Classics, Taylor said with a smirk. Civilisation.

They cut him up, all into little pieces, because he would not give his sheep to them. We're told there is a Christian message. I think he must have tasted good. The Romans knew what they were about. What do you think, Bish?

Bish said, Filthy savages. Not like Englishmen.

Very educated, is our Bish. But I meant about eating saints and so forth, eating dead men.

Oh. Bish's face expressed revulsion. Really? Even for you, that is excessive.

Keats could smell Barrie's breath, hot and excited. He thought, He is not bluffing; he will do it, he enjoys it. Barrie pressed the limp hand hard into Keats's lips. Keats tensed all the musculature that he possessed, his whole small body, in a bid to throw off Bish and Taylor. He felt something in his chest crack: not a bone, but larger and more solid, farther down inside of him. The taste of darkness filled his mouth, He drowsed. He said to himself, as he said always before sleep, Blessed guardian-angel, keep me safe from danger . . . The small room scented itself with a sweet wild fragrance, as of torn herbs and river weeds. A lightness came over him and he laughed. He was, he thought for a moment, still asleep, lost in that bright pastoral; that was why the air turned sweet. But no, the anchor of his soul was wedged still in his body; he felt Bish and Taylor both back from him; he felt his release, and he rubbed his shoulders, blinking. In Barrie's fist, still outstretched, inches from Keats's face, where the hand had been, was now a small bird of a dun indifferent colour, with a large beak and an outsized head. He recognized it as a nightingale. It was a plain bird, unpretty. Barrie's hands around it were trembling.

Let it go, Keats said.

He's a witch, said Bish.

Barrie said, I can't, I can't move, I can't do anything. He looked around wildly.

Are you frightened? Keats asked him. He was curious. He could not see why Barrie would be frightened. It was such a little bird, so enchanting, and, even as he watched it, it opened up its mouth and sang. An ordinary song, a sudden warble, sourceless as night, its notes water-coloured and sweet.

Yes, Barrie said, and in a sharp motion dropped it. The bird took to its wings and flew. It bore itself out of the open window, into the city air. Keats could see the pale line of its body pass upwards, crossing the silhouette of St. Lachrymose Cathedral; then it soared beyond his field of view.

Back in the narrow, candle-lit room, Barrie rubbed his hands together. He stared at Keats. He said, There's no such thing as witches.

No, Keats said. I know that you don't think so.

So what is it then, how did you do that, what are you.

It was not apparent what answer Barrie wanted. This being the case, Keats withdrew into himself: hunching his thin shoulders. It occurred to him that he did not have to speak, that the other boys would not now pull his hair and pinch his skin if he stayed silent. Indeed, Bish and Taylor were backed against the far wall of the room as though Keats displayed some symptoms of disease, something leprous that might infect them. They looked likely to bolt if he so much as sneeze. He tested this theory: he coughed, and they jumped. The power itched at him. He did not understand it. Surely they had seen before some bit of this power, some piece of the world that stalked behind them. This was not its sole manifestation. His own life was so full of such things. He said, It is good to believe, it offers some protection.

Believe in what? Barrie asked, still dazed.

In ghosts. In angels. In saints. Saints will save us, I think, from the Devil.

He was being earnest. He was anxious that they should understand; in some sense he wanted them dead and gone, yes, but in another he felt he could not leave him to those footsteps, to the black drag and the Devil's limp. Not even they should be left to it.

But Bish and Taylor laughed, after a moment. Time restored complacency to them. Perhaps they were saying already, No, I did not see that, there was no truth in it, it was a trick. Tomorrow they would wake more sure. They would forget the fear, its hard and bitter kernel. Keats, with a sinking feeling, predicted it. When he looked at Barrie, though, his mouth still slack and angry, he thought, But you, you will not forget. You will feel it on your hands. The little feathers. The bones, the little twitching bones, still moving. You will not be rid of this.

Keats slept that night by the open window, in a thatch of blankets pulled from his bed. He awoke damp and sticky, as though from a fever, his hair stirred uneasily by the stifling wind. Hello, he said, who's there? He had heard footsteps. A creak, as of someone sitting down upon a chair. But the sole chair in the room was empty. He could see the light upon its straw bottom, the wan dilute light of the moon. Something skidded on the floor. He caught at it; it was a feather. Furled and insubstantial. It might easily have been from the nightingale, but he thought not; he thought it had come in while he slept; it was the night's debris and harbinger of a new bird in the darkness, something larger, spreading its wings. He shuddered. This was the feeling that the feather gave him. He wondered where St. Crix now was, who had promised to protect him—or no, that was not it: to shepherd. What was the distinction? A shepherd's task, surely, was to intercede wolves and other predatory creatures. To disperse his own flesh foremostly amongst the starving Roman men.

It is true, said the chaplain to whom he went for clarification of the story; we are told that St. Crix died in such a way. He was a very noble shepherd. but you are too young; who has been saying to you such things?

Never mind, Father. Can you tell me what was the miracle of St. Crix? For Keats knew that there would be a miracle at the centre of the thing. It was in the nature of martyrs and their narratives. To twist with truth a death into a mystery.

The chaplain hemmed, resisted. Subject to Keats's cool, light-eyed stare, he surrendered finally. He said, I believe that there was about his flesh a certain aspect, a holy and indwelling quality, that called its eaters unto grace. They gave up their soldiering, and spoke in tongues, and became ascetics. They were exiled from society. They ate no more the meat of animals, nor any other thing, and then they died in starvation. As you would expect.

Keats considered this. He said, I see.

Do you, though? You are very young.

That is what everyone keeps telling me.

The chaplain said, You are a worry. He regarded Keats: the worry. Through his eyes, Keats saw himself: small, tired, and far too devout; a fragile, put-upon thing. He saw the burns on his hands and the shadows on his face. I could be, he thought, a figure in your windows; you could ornament a chapel out of me. Sometimes he felt like stained glass. The light shone through him. His skin and bones were coloured bright, were melting.

Thank you, Father, Keats said. And please don't worry about me.

That night in his dreams he saw St. Crix again. The saint was not now stitched together. He wounds could bleed, and they did; the blood ran down his body like rain that streaks a window, from the butchering cuts on his arms, abdomen, and legs. The raw muscle gaped. The blood kept welling smoothly. You would not believe, Keats remembered Barrie saying, you would not believe how much blood is in a man. The saint seemed not bothered. He raised a hand in benediction. Keats squirmed away; he could not stand that cold and hallowed touch. St. Crix turned sad eyes on him. He opened the same hand: imploring.

Keats said, What do you want, I don't understand—and woke. His window casement was clattering in the rain. He went to check the storm, to see that it was in fact clear water, that warped but did not stain. He tasted it: that sour, guttered taste. Water. He closed the window. Outside, an hourless night clung to the pane. When he lit a candle, the light welled up. He set the candle at his bedside so he would not be afraid. But he was, anyway; the radiance did not diminish his discomfort. Raindrops tapped against the window, or else unseen things, black and winged. Oh blessed guardian-angel, keep me safe from danger whilst I sleep . . . But he was not sleeping. He hauled the duvet over his head. Sleep, he thought, sleep. His own breath came back to him in the closed alcove of the blankets. It smelled of fear, mephitic. He was glad the candlelight was filtered. He did not want to see direct its raw source, undiffused by the duvet's weave. A long shadow passed his body. He said to himself, It is the flame, flickering. But it was not. A hand clamped down upon his shoulder. Or something hand-shaped, with weight and heat. It rested there. It did not shake him. He did not move. He did not breathe. The hand tightened, just for an instant, as though measuring out his anatomy: feeling the clavicle ridge, the edge of muscle as fine and slack as glassine. It dug into him with long and circling fingers. Go away, he thought, please leave me be. The hand did not lift, nor the shadow alter its position. For a long time they stayed that way: Keats and this other entity, this formless thing in the dark that had no pulse, or none that he could feel beat. Perhaps, Keats thought, perhaps it is the knight. He had not a heart; perhaps it is him, come at last to speak with me. But he did not think it was the knight. This figure was a new nocturnal shape. The knight had not imposed the sudden sense of terror, subjugation, shame, as though his soul were unspooling from his chest and he could not force a cessation; as though all the brightness and fear within him were pulled out for display. He drew a breath and then another breath, at least, feeling them shudder through him like a sickness. There were tears on his face. He trembled like that through the night, till he was sleeping, and then he was not sleeping, but sitting, blinking, in his wilderness of blankets, and dawn was forming around him into flesh-coloured day. On the floor, ringed round his bed, were feathers: the largest feathers that he had seen. He picked one up: it was smooth and sharp, not white, but a burnished ivory. An aged colour. He curled his palm around it. It pricked him with unease.

In spite of these incidents, he passed his exams; or thought he did. For some weeks the results would not be posted, but he sensed achievement: predictable and rigid. A surgeon, one of the scorers, stopped him in the hall to congratulate him on the diagram he had submitted showing the progress of a phthisic lung. The other boys got wind of this. For the next week they carried on about it: Keats the teacher's pet country mouse, the country animal the masters keep in a cage. He did not mind it; at this stage, still cowed, they mostly kept their distance. And he was schedule to soon visit his home in Eastsake. He thought, If I can make it till then, if I can board the diligence, I will hear the driver tut and the wheels rattle onwards, the snap of the whip; I will have escaped.

Resolutely he fixed himself on this destiny. He turned himself to an arrow, fletched and narrow. It was the target at which he aimed. When Bish taunted him by loosing live mice in his bedroom, little white mice with febrile eyes that fed on the edges of his papers and fled from him, he said to himself, I can stand this. When Taylor left pinned to his door a dead pigeon, its wings shedding feathers, its feet curled into crescent moon-shapes, he shuddered but knew that this, too, he could stand. Seeing the pattern, he awaited Barrie's contribution: perhaps a bleating goat, he thought, a sacrificial beast, or a country lamb. But no animal appeared, and as the date of his departure approached he became nervous. He began skipping dinner and breakfast, to avoid the dining hall; when he walked through the corridors he kept his back to the stone siding. He stayed out of doorways. He started when he heard noises. He could not stand the voices he heard in other rooms, shouting and laughing. They came through the dormitory walls undifferentiated, the damned roaring, a raucous din. It was distant, but not so distant as he might have liked from him. Sometimes in the street outside his window he heard a new sound: someone coughing, a cold hard bark. Keats clenched his hand into a fist. There are in this city, he thought, many thousands of men: men from the mines, with miners' lungs, men with incurable phthisis—consumptives. There are even women, turned frail by the factory, who cough up woolstuff and cotton threads. Why shouldn't one of them idle for an odd moment outside my window? But he knew that this was not it, that him who coughed beneath the casement unseen was not a stranger. He would not wander onwards, out into the city; Keats would see him again: his face. He had a presentiment, a foreign feeling. He would see him soon, someday.

At night he packed his precious items into a travelling case. His saint's medal and his little inkstand, his surgical books and all his papers. His serge coat, though it would be nigh on summer in Eastsake, once he passed the boundaries of the city, where seasons never seemed to take. When he had quite finished, he lay atop the sheets of his bed and studied the shapes on the ceiling: dark clouds where the plaster threatened decay. The candlelight controlled them: its sharp relief or shade limiting, then exposing their outlines. Yet somewhere behind them a force, a slow drip of water from damaged pipes or rain, was real: not subject to light's inconstancy, not likely to change. Keats considered this original point. He imagined the water: a cool and tawny wealth pouring over him, a true source, a wellspring. He took measured breaths. He could taste mouldy leaves. It was not a bad taste; he was not displeased; it tasted of mulch, the rich spring soil, the rot that leads to growing things. Sometimes he thought he could eat that earth, with all its embers of half-ripe seedlings, of cedar bark and stalks and weeds. He could eat it now: he had been subsisting on dry toast snatched from the dining hall between sittings and cups of tea. A certain lightheadedness sometimes took him, as now. He felt his body lift from his bed, become weightless; it was an airy, wondrous feeling, and he thought, This is what it's like to be dead.

There was a knock at his door: the sad downcoming. He opened his eyes. Yes, who is it.

George Barrie.

Hesitation. Keats said, I suppose you'd better come in.

He sat up on the bed, cross-legged and wary. His body tensed. He had no weapons prepared. He watched the door swing open; Barrie came in. He looked worn. He had lost weight. His cinnamon hair was limp, the curls flattened. His shirt looked as though it had been slept in. He said, after a moment's discomfort: I must apologize for Bish. The mice showed no imagination.

And the pigeon? Keats asked coolly.

Well, that is Taylor.

Was it dead? Or did he kill it?

Barrie said, Am I my brother's keeper?

We are told, yes.

Even so. Barrie stopped speaking. Then he said, I believe he found it dead.

I'm glad, Keats said.

Barrie offered no response.

Keats said, Are you trying to put me off my guard, is this some new strategy?

No.

What then?

Again Barrie faltered. Then said with sudden fury, Whatever witchcraft you are at, you must stop working.

You don't believe in witches.

I cannot eat. When I eat, it turns to ashes. Bread, meat. And I dream—he broke off.

Keats, curious, asked him, What do you dream?

You know.

I don't.

You have made me so I can't rid myself of it. The dream. I am walking, and behind me is a figure whose face I cannot see. It coughs, a bad cough, phthisic. I can smell where its lungs bleed. And it is slow, and limps with dying. I want to turn and see its face; I know it will be—he fumbled for the foremost word. Radiant. No, that is not right, but I desire it. Desire to look at it. And then I wake from the dream.

Keats considered Barrie's pale face: in earnest. He was numbed by the account. He could not imagine wanting to turn towards the Devil. All his life he had stumbled from that dark pursuer, the dread in the darkness, stalked, had become a pursuee. He said, That is not my dream.

You have sent it.

It is not from me.

Barrie stepped forward. His black eyes glittered feverishly. I cannot eat or sleep, he said, you are haunting me. Is it you, Keats? Is it you in the dream? Sometimes I think it is. You or your demon. Your God-damned bird. Your ghost. Your country lungs that bleed. You have a sickness.

Keats found himself in retreat. He backed against his bed. He said uneasily, I don't know why you think that. At the same time he sensed it beginning to open, in the earth's inebriate darkness: the embryo of truth, the sprouting like seed. It split his heart like a husk. It spread its roots down through him. He resisted. He said, You're wrong. You invent things.

There was a tapping at the window, steady and insistent.

Barrie said, Why are you starving me?

He was stood close by now. He touched Keats's face. His hand was hot and greedy. It groped the long line of jawbone, the high arch of the cheek. Keats tried to pull away. Barrie's grasp would leave bruises. But harder and more brutal was the hungry way he looked at Keats.

Please, Keats said. Don't. Please.

He felt the pressure of those eyes. Stripping, as you would strip the bark from a tree, the wings from a beetle, as cruel boys did in the country, so that it writhed and died in the sunshine, its inner workings exposed for all to see. It is not me, he thought, it is not me you want; it is the ghost, the bird, the Devil; it is not me.

A bright wind touched the back of his head and he closed his eyes in sorrow or relief. The casement clattered against the wall beside the window. He heard, out in the unceasing darkness, the sound of wings. He had hoped for some other entity to save him, for a saint. With resignation he saw the angel sweep into the room, enraged, resplendent. It spilled glory. It spooled forth from Keats. He felt it pull his soul out from his body. The air turned molten, and then the floor. His lungs ached. His feet seared and blistered. He said, in agony, Stop, please, no more, no more. The angel did not hear him. Or had its own speech, beyond the human repertoire. It advanced on Barrie. Its eyes were blank and harsh; they showed no kindness. Keats staggered. He was weak. He felt the weakness in him. He choked on the new, hot, raw, thin air. He began to cough. He coughed up darkness. The radiance filled him up. He filled with despair.


K.M. Ferebee previously played the violin in the New York City subway and in a Balkan rock band. She currently studies for her MFA in Creative Writing at The Ohio State University. Her fiction has appeared in Fantasy Magazine, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Not One of Us, and Shimmer.

Comments

I enjoyed finding the connection between this story and the real Keats, especially the gruesome manifestation of what I think is his eventual tuberculosis. The story was also captivating, easily leading me through both sections. I had hoped for the ending to be a little less vague, though.

K.M. Ferabee is officially my new favorite author. This is the sort of writing I wish I could discover every time I read. Utterly gorgeous and masterful in its style. It deserves an award.

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