All my life Frances had been hard to bear, but marriage had turned her intolerable. Our mother had taught us about love, speaking the word as if it named an illness and tipping her faded aristocrat’s face toward our father as he chewed or scratched his chin—our jowly, thick-fingered father, dust from the road to London worn deep into his knuckle-creases. Understanding as I did the roots of my sister’s affliction, though, made me no more inclined to forgive her for it.
I should have been glad that we had gotten Frances married; it had been no sure thing. The match made our father hearty and exultant. I could tell that our mother, who knew more, felt not joy so much as the floating-up relief that comes when a burden is removed from one’s arms, an urge to reach toward the sky from which had come this great reprieve. Robert Cresswell was not a man well-known to any of us. He had been a physician in London before arriving in our village and had accounted for himself only by saying that he wanted a change of pace, and then that he wanted Frances. I had thought they would set out for somewhere after the marriage—it was evident from the first that he was a man in need of a stage—but they seemed instead to be rooting themselves in place, just a few houses down from our own.
This left Frances free to come and sit and sew with me daily in the same room where we had sewed together for years and interminable years.
“Robert reads, you know,” Frances told me, one afternoon a few months after the marriage. “He reads all the time. He reads aloud better than anyone I have ever heard.”
I could have struck her with the book on the table beside me for all the hours I had read aloud to her in that room. Though our mother had taught us both to read when we were small, somehow Frances, elder of the two of us, had taken to it more slowly, and never fully. When she wanted reading, the duty of providing it had thus fallen, over and over again, to me. The book, a volume of Petrarch, had a good heft; it would have thumped a nice red knot onto that doughy forehead.
“Robert knows so many people,” Frances said. “They send him letters, from all over. In all sorts of languages. People he knows from his travels. They want his advice about medicine. They want his ideas.” She raised her eyes from her sewing and widened them at me, muddy ponds reflecting nothing. She looked like a startled cow.
“Impressive,” I told her. “Watch your work, though. That dress will thank you for it, and so will your fingers.”
“Always the wit,” she said, with maternal indulgence, as if she had not lived in mortal fear of that wit for most of her life. Then she seemed to forget me again and sighed the sigh of a woman with a mouthful of her favorite pudding. “He’s just so brilliant, Cassie.”
I listened, as I had to. For the rest of my life I would be listening to Frances. I would like to speak to the soul who could have blamed me for what I felt.
And were there certain features of Dr. Cresswell himself that contributed to my unrest? Would I have preferred that his hat sweep a bit less boldly across his forehead, that his eyes tend more toward dimness? That he sit his horse just slightly less well? That the lines of his legs cut into me not quite so sharply, that they not rise like welts on the surface of my mind as I readied myself for sleep? Yes, yes. Oh yes, that was a part of it, too.
There was plague that year. In the end its scale would earn it a title: the Great Plague. We could not know that then, but we knew enough to be cautious. Our father hurried home from his law offices in London as fast as he could. He bought pomanders to guard us, and we took care with drafts. Mostly, though, I thought of more immediate miseries. Dr. Cresswell came to collect Frances each afternoon, always well ahead of the summer evening chill. I tried to be elsewhere at these times—upstairs, or in the garden, so that I would not have to watch her redden at the sight of him, an excess of joy that looked like shame.
Sometimes, though, I got the timing wrong. One afternoon in June, he arrived before three o’clock. “You’re early!” Frances said, voice fraying, when he darkened our doorway.
“It’s going to storm.” Dr. Cresswell strode into the room with a nod to me. He bowed neatly to kiss her forehead. Then he straightened and surveyed her fondly—it looked like fondly. She dropped her gaze and fussed with the handkerchief she had been stitching, stretching each of the four corners in turn and flattening it on her lap as if to guard her dress from some impending spill. “I wanted to fetch you home before the downpour,” he told her. “It seems unlikely you would melt, but I see no need to test the theory. What would become of me if you did?”
I searched for some sign of irony. But the cast of his eyebrows was level and neutral; if his gray eyes screened some joke of his own at Frances’s expense, they screened it well.
My sister rose and Dr. Cresswell stood back, well clear of her bustling: the fetching of her hat, the gathering-up of her sewing basket, foldings of cloth and pinnings of pins and a minutes-long hunt for a pattern she had put down somewhere, she remembered, she just couldn’t remember where. Finally it was time for her to fasten her cloak, and she managed to yank one of the buttons right off in her too-eager fingers.
“Cassie!” she cried, holding it up in the air.
I sighed. “Pass it here. I’ll tack it back on.”
Frances looked out the window at the amassing clouds. “Should I just see if Mother has a pin long enough to fasten it, for now? Why don’t I.” She rustled out of the room, upsetting her sewing basket in her wake without noticing.
Dr. Cresswell and I eyed the upended basket and then each other. I had never been left alone with him before. He moved first, smoothly. “Allow me,” he said as he knelt to the task. He began to sweep things from the floor into the basket. Frances would never be able to find anything in there.
“Many thanks.” I cleared my throat, then regretted having done so, since it had the sound of a preamble. I sought refuge in sewing and watched my own fingers fumble on the cloth.
“You’re welcome, sister. Cassandra.” He looked up at me. “A fanciful sort of name, Cassandra, is it not? An unusual choice, given the unhappy fate of the namesake. You know, of course . . . ?”
I could feel the flush of my cheeks, and filled with a violent disdain for the quivery self he was turning me into. I wondered when exactly I had fallen victim to this affliction, what weakness of mine had allowed it entrance. “Of course,” I said shortly.
My reply did nothing to quell Dr. Cresswell’s enthusiasm. Finished by now with the sewing basket, he stood upright, one hand tented on his chest, a rhetorical pose. “I always have thought we ought to attend more closely to those old stories. All of life is in them. The Fall of Troy, the fate of Priam. The hurling of children from the battlements. So will great civilizations always end.” He began to pace across our small flowered carpet. His free hand swung a little. “We live our lives with a foolish illusion of permanence. We prefer to remain ignorant, even when such ignorance requires the deliberate aversion of our gaze. There are many kinds of fire, but always fire, in the end.”
I thought of several possible retorts, each of which would have been satisfying. I might have told him that my education lay outside the province of his responsibilities. Or observed that this was hardly a new idea he was voicing so proudly, as if he had just now birthed it glimmering from his brain. Any of these might have made him see that he was not so impressive to me as he appeared to be to himself. But there were too many possibilities, and they tangled before I could choose among them.
There was also the physical fact of him there across the narrow room, stepping, it seemed to me, a bit higher than needed, taking visible delight in the spring and catch of muscle and tendon, mouth flexing. How was I to bear his closeness? The room’s humid air felt thick against my face. We both turned to the window as the first fat drops of rain hit the glass. His fingertips still pressed to his chest the way a man touches a treasure.
That touch made me want, above all things, to touch him too.
With a fast and heavy tread, Frances was back in the room. “All pinned!” she said breathlessly. “Let’s go before the rain gets any worse, shall we, love?”
Love, they often called each other, naming the force and not the person in question, as if it had become the only important thing about either of them.
There was some relief in their departure, some cooling of my cheeks, but it did not last. I wished he would not try to talk to me. It made me think of his talking to my sister, his talking to her while lying in their bed. That mouth of his would be drawn up in its teaching posture, relishing the shape of each word. Frances would relish, too; Frances would run her fingertips over those shapes, which would seem to her extraordinary. Only I could not for the life of me see how this could be enough for him. She would have nothing to say in response. There would be nothing she could offer but to press her own thin lips—no lips at all, almost—to his.
When we were children, Frances and I, our mother had a custom of reading aloud to us from Scripture in the afternoons. At the reading’s end she would elucidate what we had heard, fashioning small, direct lessons for use in our own lives. The lessons were what one might expect: the rewards of kindness, the dangers of pride. I took them to heart, or tried to. In those days there was a part of me that wanted very much to be kind to Frances, especially kind, and smooth away the world’s roughness for her—though always there was another part that held her in scorn, and myself for doing so.
On a morning when I was perhaps twelve, Frances fourteen, our reading brought us to the story of Jacob and Rachel, at the well and after. His working for her all that time, only to earn the unwanted Leah; his continued working for, at last, the desired sister. Our mother read the story more quickly than usual, then set the book aside.
“Well?” I said. “The moral, mother?” I felt both excited and afraid. I suspected that some cloudy thing I had long sensed, without being able to name it, would now be forced into the light. Now our mother would have to give it words.
Frances turned her eyes to the floor.
Our mother fixed me with a level gaze. “Sometimes,” she said, “a story is only a story.”
I have often thought that the story of our whole lives, Frances’s and mine, is somewhere in that line.
The summer grew hotter; the air stilled. One morning as we sewed, Frances pulled a long, black, waxy garment out of her basket and spread it across her knees. She found its tear, all down one of its seams, in an unhurried way—careful, I thought, not to look at me.
“What is that, Frances?”
“An old overcoat of Robert’s. Needs mending.”
But I knew what it was, that thing with its oily fish-skin gleam. I had seen drawings of the black-garbed men with the heads of birds in the pamphlets our father sometimes brought home with him. It was a plague doctor’s coat. Dr. Cresswell must still be riding into London to attend the sick, then. He would have the bird-mask, too, somewhere, that talisman against the bad air.
Frances must have wanted me to see, to know. She was peddling one more of her husband’s impressive features. I would not buy, I determined; I would not ask her a thing.
I picked up my stitch just where I had left it, and my needle was even as it bit-slid, bit-slid; but all the while I was picturing Dr. Cresswell’s eyes, fierce, clear, and diagnostic, above the mask’s beak. When Frances left the room I reached out to touch the coat’s gummed surface, to which the flesh of my fingers stuck.
Reports of the plague’s spread came daily. By midsummer our father was putting off all the clients he could, limiting his trips to London; when he returned from meeting those who’d insisted, his face had an inward cast, and we knew better than to ask what he had seen. We were thankful to be out in the country, but there was fear in the gratitude, a feeling that our safety could not last. Fear in everyone—all but Frances, who still hummed tuneless little songs, whose skin still seemed moist with joy.
In the homes of the sick—who were also, almost always, the dying—Dr. Cresswell would be witnessing horrors. Of these I had only the vaguest of ideas, but I could envision clearly the way he would seem to his patients: a looming dark bird-shape made mythic by fever. I looked out the window at night and imagined I could see his black-clothed figure hovering there, watching me, the coat clinging to all the lean lines of him. I imagined what would happen if I were to go to the window and let that figure in. Perhaps the beak was not a mask at all but real, real sharpness, with the capacity to hurt if I forgot myself for even a moment.
But the bird had flown to Frances and not to me. She had become the proprietor of that visitation, a thing that seemed to me as improbable as flight itself.
At church on a Sunday in July, the hottest day yet, we were offered Holy Communion. The vicar held the cup out to Dr. Cresswell, who told him, “No, thank you.”
He had brushed against me inadvertently as we’d entered the church, and I was still so full of the inflaming thrill of that whisper, cloth on cloth, that it took me a moment to hear his words. Frances, beside me in the women’s section, sucked in a wet breath. Dr. Cresswell had accepted the bread readily enough, and the vicar continued to thrust the cup toward his lips, brow slightly furrowed. Our vicar had been an old man for as long as I could remember. His hands, and the cup in them, trembled.
“No, thank you,” Dr. Cresswell repeated. Not loud, but loud enough to be heard in the silence of the sanctuary. If all he had wanted was not to taste, he might have simply crossed his arms and bowed his head, as the others who’d refused communion for private matters of conscience had done. But this was aimed at all of us.
Our mother’s lips tightened. “What is he doing?” she asked Frances, and me, too, as if the two of us were equally responsible. Beside Dr. Cresswell in the pew, our father stifled the laughter that always claimed him when he was at a loss.
“Lowering the risk of contagion,” Dr. Cresswell said. The men’s and women’s sections were divided only by a narrow aisle—ours was a small church—but still, to have heard my mother, he must have been watching for our reaction. “There is fresh thinking on this matter, a reinspection of the old,” he continued. “Understand, I would never do this lightly. The newest theory is that to put one’s mouth where the mouths of others have been in a time of plague is a foolish danger.”
“The Holy Communion, Robert,” Frances said, barely above a whisper—so strange it must have felt to her to be talking in church. She looked like a woman whose beautiful new dress, in which she had delighted, had ripped unexpectedly.
“I explained this to you, Frances,” Dr. Cresswell told her.
“But,” Frances said, then stopped. I knew what she was thinking. She hadn’t expected that when the moment came, he would really make such a scene.
“You may choose for yourself, my love,” Dr. Cresswell told her. “But I must urge you to consider, to fully consider. Would God want you to risk yourself in this way?”
Frances looked at the cloth with which the vicar had wiped the rim of the cup between the sips of the faithful. My eyes went with hers, to those pink stains, then back to Dr. Cresswell.
“All right,” Frances said. She crossed her arms and bowed her head.
Dr. Cresswell watched the watching people. Each of them would be starting to wonder, now, about the risk. I could see already the shape this moment would assume in Frances’s sewing-room retellings, which would be endless: You remember, Cassie, his bravery, his wisdom. Of course Dr. Cresswell preferred not to press his mouth to the cup’s edge, as if his were anyone else’s. My face burned.
“I know what I will choose,” I said loudly, for I could talk to the listening people too. “I will observe the sacrament.”
My words set the vicar back in motion. He moved down the line to my father, and his hands settled into the easy ruts of his routine: raise the cup, touch it to the waiting lips, tip the liquid down the throat. When he came to me, the wine bloomed in my mouth and then in my stomach.
The scene repeated itself. Each time my parents and I took the sacrament, along with the rest of the village; each time Dr. Cresswell and my sister did not, and our neighbors stared. I felt sure that I had put some of the judgment into those stares.
Frances was not cut from sturdy enough cloth to make a good religious rebel. Other people’s anger had always withered her. When she was ten and I was eight and she accidentally left my favorite poppet out in the rain—my life is strewn with the wreckage of Frances’s accidents—she cried for twice as long as I did, then gave me her own favorite in recompense.
No real recompense was possible now. The one act that would have pleased those she had offended would have betrayed her husband. Her flesh seemed to droop as the days passed; her eyes became rheumy. She began to avoid our sewing times, coming only every third day or so, which suited me. When she did come, she brought word of letters upon letters from people of Dr. Cresswell’s acquaintance who approved of his course. She recited the names with desperation. “Another letter from Dr. Littleham, just yesterday,” she told me. “Saying again that Robert is right.”
“How pleasing for the both of them,” I said. I thought she might cry.
Meanwhile, Dr. Cresswell himself seemed to have taken me on as a personal mission. He did not bother much with my parents; perhaps he sensed the futility of that pursuit, or perhaps he thought that if he won me, I might deliver them as well, and any number of others. In any case he seemed to need to explain himself again and again, to someone. He often came to see me on the days when Frances did not. He always began by making apologies for my sister’s absence.
“No need,” I told him.
“Frances is unwell.”
“Isn’t that odd?”
He exhaled, plainly furious. I gave him a pleasant smile. The project of defying him had contented me beyond what I had foreseen; I felt more composed than ever before, and hard—a beatific, rounded marble statue.
He rearranged his face and spread his hands. “I have nothing but respect for your faith, Cassandra.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“But let me say it once more. This is the very latest thinking.”
“Certainly we must be current.”
“You accept, I trust, that if you were to touch with your tongue a thing that had been covered in paint, the paint would be transferred to your mouth? Why should disease not work in the same way? It is surely caused by physical agents. Contact with the ill, or contact with sites with which they have been in contact, is a means of opening oneself to their disease.”
The wave of plague had come to feel as large and abstract, as unlikely to touch my life, as the faith Dr. Cresswell had mistakenly attributed to me—whereas I knew my other sickness could reclaim me in an instant, though my refusal to heed him had armed me, for now, against it. I raised my eyebrows. “I see.”
“You do not see. It is not possible that you see.” His hand clenched now in the air between us. “How close have you been to a person dying of the plague?”
He had been as close as it was possible to be, of course. This thought raised the great black bird in my mind to flight again and took away my lovely marbly feeling.
Dr. Cresswell did not seem to have noticed my change. “It is a thing,” he said, “too terrible to describe to a person as young as you are.”
I looked at him curiously. I did not feel young.
My mother entered the room then. She stopped short when she saw Dr. Cresswell. “Oh,” she said, “I hadn’t realized you’d come.”
He inclined his head. “I hope you’re enjoying the morning.”
“We’re working through the ledger books.” She and my father did this at the close of every week. She would have left my father red-faced, peering down at the small black markings that noted the particulars of suits and fees, and that so often seemed to turn on him. She would have fled that room, telling him that she needed something—an old record book, a shawl—when what she really needed, I knew, was air.
I saw a sketch, once, that my mother drew of my father when she first knew him. He strides through a field with his dog at his heels. He looks like a young king gone hunting.
“The work goes smoothly, I hope?” Dr. Cresswell said.
“It goes much as it always goes.” She adjusted her sleeve at the wrist. “Do tell Frances we’d love to see her later on. She comes less often than we would like nowadays.”
I almost laughed; I only just stopped myself.
“She’s had much to occupy her,” Dr. Cresswell told us.
“I thought you said she was unwell?” I said.
“In any case,” said my mother quickly. “Please just tell her that we miss her.”
Dr. Cresswell nodded. “Well, I won’t keep you,” he said.
I cast my gaze out the window, as he left, so that my mother would not see me looking after him. “I wonder,” I remarked, “if it may soon rain.”
“No Frances again?” my mother said, wiping fine beads of sweat from her upper lip on a Thursday morning in August.
“It seems not.”
“We haven’t seen her all week.”
“Are you complaining?”
“Cassandra,” she said, reprovingly.
“Yes?” It had been an honest question. I couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t take the tapering of my sister’s visits as the great sparing it was to me.
“You ought to be kinder,” she told me. “Your gifts and Frances’s are different. You ought to appreciate hers as she does yours.”
As if I needed to be told we were different. I could see the mark of this difference in almost every memory I had. It was there in all her blunders; in all the times the girls in our village left me alone, because to include me would have been to include her, too; in all the subtle curbing of our learning at our mother’s hands, so that Frances should not feel the pangs of being left behind; in the thousand small conversations at our table that stopped short at the point past which she would have been unable to trace them. Frances’s limitations had always been mine as well. The rage in me stirred.
“Gifts?” I said.
“Yes, gifts. And Frances needs our appreciation and our caring just now, more than ever. Her position is—not easy.” My mother’s lips parted and she dabbed them again with her handkerchief. “Marriage isn’t simple, Cassandra. Someday you will understand.” She sighed, shifting in her chair. “Walk over and see how your sister is, won’t you?” she asked.
In the lane between our houses, dust clung to the hem of my skirt. The day’s heat was a kind of stupor. Even the leaves of the trees were limp; they looked as fat and wet as eating-greens. I kicked a stone and watched it tumble away from me. I wished I had told my mother she need not speak to me about the complexity of a thing Frances had grasped, but the fact remained, indisputable, that Frances and not I had grasped it.
The cottage where my sister and her husband lived had the blank-eyed look of a slow child. I knocked, hard. “Frances,” I said. “Frances, Mother’s worried.” I knocked again, then turned the knob.
Inside, it was darker but not much cooler, the air just as thick as without. “Frances,” I called, “Frances?” I moved slowly across the floor, feeling the boards’ slight shift beneath my feet. If this were my house, I thought, if this were the house of my marriage, I would know the give of each of these boards by heart.
These would be my stairs that I was climbing now, my footsteps soft and easy. This would be my bedroom door, half ajar, that I was pushing open. My room whose center I stood in. Mine and my husband’s together.
I had entered this room before when visiting Frances—though I did not visit often—but it was something different to be in it without her. It was close and hot and smelled of sleep. The bed was neatly made, with the same tuck at the corners that Frances had given her bed linens as a girl. I seated myself on it. My new angle brought my gaze to the long black coat Frances had mended, hanging over a chair. On the floor, protruding from between the folds, was the beak of the mask.
I stilled. Then I stood and approached. I touched the coat, which seemed in its sloppy drape to preserve the haste of the arm that had thrown it, and was as warm as sleeping skin. I lifted the mask toward me, lighter than I had imagined, a clumsy homemade thing of stained and stiff brown leather. Its eyes were dull red glass, one webbed in small cracks. Down the beak ran a line of stitches. A mouth sewn closed but smiling slyly. I was touching it, holding it, but I wanted to be closer still.
I put on the coat first, heavy and so long it fell almost to the floor. The weight of it dragged on my shoulders. I reached again for the mask and settled it over my head. A soft red hazed the room. Because the mask did not fit close against my skin, I had light enough to see that there were herbs inside the beak, shriveled as an old woman’s dried bridal flowers. They had a salty, tangy smell. My shoulders, my chest, my mouth were all where Dr. Cresswell’s had been. My sister, wife or no, had never stood inside him, in the very heart of him. I put out my tongue to taste the papery leaves.
Frances’s voice came from behind me.
“Oh, Robert,” Frances said.
Then, “Oh, love.”
“I had thought you were feeling better,” she said.
She ought to have seen that I was too slight to be her husband, beneath that coat, under that mask. I have never been able to understand why she did not see this.
Frances came closer. Her eyes were sad and wary. She reached one hand toward me, very slowly, as if she feared I might bolt. “I was out back in the garden. I thought you had gone to Essex. Robert, Mr. Allen’s expecting you.”
What could I say? I said nothing.
“What was it, love?” Frances said, after enough time had passed to show that I would not answer. “What was it this time?” Her voice held a vast, weary patience. “Did someone cough in the street on the way?”
What could I do? I could not speak. I inclined my long beak toward her.
Frances seemed to take my silence for assent. “But I have told you. There’s no plague, not here, so you’re safe. You don’t need that thing anymore. You know you don’t. We aren’t in London. You need never go back there.”
Her hand was on my shoulder now. She stroked it down my arm. “You need to put it away. Haven’t you told me so yourself? You’ve been doing so well.”
Frances waited. She was a woman I did not know, who had delivered these lines many times before and who expected to be obeyed. I had to stop my hands from reaching up to remove the mask as she had instructed.
Frances closed her eyes and opened them again. “Well,” she said. “Give yourself some time, then, love. When you feel better again, calmer, take it off and come out to the garden. We’ll talk then. All right?”
And what if I never feel better? I wanted to ask her. Frances, what if I never do?
Before she turned to go, she rested her hand on my elbow for a moment and smiled. I had never before seen a smile like that. I would not have believed that my sister’s lips could carry so much. It was a smile to be used at a sickbed, and in it was a life of ardent, hopeless tending, her embrace of Dr. Cresswell’s sickbed as her own.
What had I known about the heart of anything?
It would transpire that these were the same moments in which Sarah Peterson, down the street, was seized by a chill. “There’s a draft,” she said to her husband, but in truth it did not feel quite like a draft; it felt less transient, more intentional, as if a tight pocket of winter had enveloped her there in her over-warm sitting room and would stay for some time.
She shuddered, rose, and went to her bedroom, thinking to lie down. Her maid, helping her to undress, was the first to see the hot red lump at the side of Sarah’s neck. Sarah fingered the swelling and screamed.
The maid would tell us that it looked as if Sarah’s heart were trying to crawl out her throat.
I was silent, in the Cresswells’ marriage bedroom, silent but quick as I took off the coat and mask and put them back where I had found them. I could be done with this, I told myself—done as Frances never could be. The unhealthy heart that beat in this room, I could leave it behind. It was not mine.
But as I stole down the stairs and out the door, I thought of the way the mask had tangled in my hair when I lifted it over my head, and my own heart thudded. I wondered if a strand might have caught and remained. When next he put on the mask, I wondered if it might brush against his skin, against his mouth; if, for just a moment, he might taste me there.
“Ailments” from We Show What We Have Learned by Clare Beams, forthcoming October 2016. Copyright © 2016 by Clare Beams. Used here with the permission of Lookout Books, University of North Carolina Wilmington, lookout.org.