FOUL PAPERS

by Beth Watzke
Excerpts From "FOUL PAPERS":

THE CONFESSIONS OF JUDITH SHAKESPEARE

Part One, Beginnings: Home 1585 — 1597

We are born and christened 2 February 1585 the old Feast of Purification. Our birth was no purification but long and bloody, my mother squatting on a birthing stool, cold chill misting the windows, cracks of the fire and her screams. Me before my brother but never after. We are like two eyes, two ears, two halves of one heart, of one face. His hand in mine, married, our fingers laced up bodice like, sticky with honey. As babes we share a truckle bed beneath our grandparent's snores. Hamnet's hair black as earth and eyes blue as sky after rain. He is my twin in all. Even now I close my eyes and smell the sweet sting of dirt and salt and sun that was his smell and hear the thump of his heart like a rabbit. I carry him with me in the darkness and curl up to his shadow in sleep. Hamnet is my first memory as the busy fingers of my mother bathing, dressing, feeding, wiping, hugging. Us is always us. We are together as seed cleaves to husk, we are made from the same seed split. He is my blood.

We have a sister Susanna. She is a halo of gold. Her hair gleams as newly cut straw. Perfect in duty and piety. She reads to us the Bible and Prayer Book, the Psalms, her finger following the words. Each morning and night we kneel and ask our mother's blessing and pray for our father.

Our mother like my sister but darker, burnt by the sun. Always busy ever moving.

Our grandfather John. Still full of the pomp of business though he had fallen from that office. No more the taster of ale and purveyor of law and order, marching through market with his buff colored sergeants decreeing the price of bread and ale, front pew in the nave, applauding the players in Gild Hall. Cloak of black velvet, ring on his thumb, all gone, scraped as the hair from the kid's skin he now finger molds into fine leather goods for ladies and gentlemen no better than myself, he scoffs. Burrowing like a mole with gloves on hoarding for the plague. Now he is a glover, his house our home and work with the stink of animals boiling and my brother scraping the skin smooth. My gloves fit the hands of the Queen, says John. A Queen's glove once a goat's hide. I pity my brother's servitude and bring them both a cool drink.

My grandmother Mary, warm and round as the bread she baked in exile from her land in Wilmcote that was lost to grandfather John's debts. It was she taught me to spin and kept me to work in the garden. The garden, our kingdom where I am queen and Hamnet is king. Judith, my mother calls. And calls and calls.

My father. Distant as the moon. Constant in our mind's eye. He makes his appearances, entrances and exits as if we are one of his plays. He has two homes, a double life, two faces, two lives, two places, and two wives. My mother and that harlot London. And yet I know I am his daughter for the same spells and visions crowd my brain. What would they make of me. Throw me in the river and see if I sink.

When he was eleven my father was bewitched by a mermaid as she rode upon a dolphin in the moonlight. Water dyed as blue as ink, her scales shimmering luminous silver and dulcet tones humming in his ears all stole my father's mind, plucked his brain and cored his soul. He was lost ten years I ere we were born. A jeweled liquid dropped in his eye and formed a mist over his heart wherein he dwelled constantly inconstant to all save the rapturous vision that was his lady, his boy, his love, his all. His work. Until that gone he turned again to us and tried to pull our strings as if we were his players and he our poet.

I ask my fathers blessing the first time I see him. He has returned from London. He is tall, his hair long, a cap upon his head and mud on his boots. He smells of smoke and the road, city smells. His hand fits the crown of my skull. He smiles at me and Susanna but the light of his eyes for my brother. He is carried and coddled and father tries to teach him how to write letters, the quill dancing. And so I learn to write by mime, my eyes riding the back of his hand. How do you come by a quill, father? Put a sock over a goose's head and pull, says he. I am born on Brigid's day, say I. She is the saint of fire and poetry. My mother hisses in the corner and Susanna tells me to hold my tongue. Be careful lest ye burn, laughs he. My father is a poet and so shall I be. A goose is easily found.

A is for apples and ale. B is for brother. Baking and Brewing. C is for candles and cold. D. is for Death which comes to us all. E is for enter, entreat, earn, enclosure. F is for fool's folly. G is for God and good. H is for Hamnet. I is for Inn where fellows eat and drink and carouse. You may sleep at an inn, says my father. No she may not, says my mother. J is for Judith, jackal, Jove, my Jewel. K is for kill or keep or knit, a tricky word. L is for love, to learn to love. M is for marry, as in will you marry me. So M is also for me. Also for mother and Mary, says grandmother. N is for nay, noon, nonce, and never never never, I shall never marry you. O is for obey, as in you must obey your father, Judith. O is also for orchard and open, as in open field. P is for prayer, for play, promise, pretty or plain. Am I pretty? No, I am plain. Yet I may be pretty by and by. Pretty is by the by. Don't tease the girl, Will. Q is for quick and quarrel. R is for rose, ramble, rove, read. R is for return return. S is for supper. And save and soul. T is for truth and tale. U is for ugly and under, as in under the earth. V is for very as in very very pretty. W is for Will as in where is Will? Says my mother. W is also for widows and windows where you look out at the world. X is to make a mark. Y is for yes for yesterday and yellow. Z is for zounds, the child grows dangerous.

Soon our father is gone again to London, patting the crowns of our heads and disappearing as in a magic trick, leaving only his ghost to haunt us.

At market we may sell gloves, pies, and apples from our grandmother's orchards. We must stay away from beggars and grown men who drink and wear the dirt of the road on their faces and hands. Beggar children stare at us and are sick. We hold hands and stare back. They are to be pitied, says Susanna, and avoided. At home we must work. I like the garden best, hate washing, baking is hot and dull, spinning hurts my back and my hands are for better things.

There are fallow fields and open fields. Carded wool is wool brushed smooth. Cloth is fulled to shrink and felted. Dyed in the wool means to dye wool before it is spun into cloth. I love the dyes and once plunge my hands into the yellow. Judith, Susanna cries. My hands are the color of a daisy center. There are correspondences in Nature. Fire — choler, Air — blood, Earth — melancholy, Water — phlegm. The round of the day. The garden. Fruit, trees, plants, and vines grow out of the earth. The fields sleep until harvest. That is when my brother succumbs to the sickness. It began with heat, just after supper.

Take away the fire, mother. Tis too hot.

We stare at him, for the fire may die down but never go out. Hamnet is pink as a peony, his eyes staring as if he saw not what was in front of him. She gathers him in her arms and takes him up to bed.

The kitchen is empty and the house quiet so we may hear the dying fire crackling. We wash and dry the plates and bowls, store what food is left, and then sit at the table. Susanna reads from the Bible. She shows me a word but is not as generous with her learning as Hamnet is. We wait and wait for Mother for our prayers are to come with her. But no sounds nor footsteps come down to us from above. I grow tired of sitting and decide to creep up to bed.

We must stay and wait, Susanna protests. She places the book open in front of her and places her hands in her lap.

But look at the fire, say I.

She turns and stares at the fire. Its fading gleam casts shadows on her face, making her suddenly as old as the poor women we feed with our charity. Very well, she sighs. Closing the book, she says, we shall go up together.

I follow her up and into the room we all still share. There is my grandparent's bed, the trundle beneath it where Hamnet sleeps, and the loft I must share with my sister. I know the room is empty as if I could see through wood and so I seek my mother out and find her, my grandmother, grandfather, and a man I know not in my mother's room, all gathered round her bed. They do not see me and so I may approach until I stand outside the ring of them. Hamnet is laid out on his back. He holds my mother's hand as the man lays a blade to his arm and cuts him. Blood shoots up in a stream and my grandmother catches it in a gleaming white bowl.

My stomach twists over and panic grips me so I cry out and throw myself at the man's back. You are hurting him! I pull at his arm and thrash about and see Hamnet's eyes turn upon me. They glitter as beads. Grandfather sweeps me up into a bundle and carries me into our room. Susanna perches in the loft. She wears her white dressing gown and now sits up and stares at us as if she is an angel.

It is a feeeever, girl. My grandfather hugs me in his lap and I hide my face in his chest, hide in the comfort of his girth, solid as an oak. The doctor bleeds him that he may cool and rest, says he.

Yet I cannot help but think of the lambs slaughtered for their skins, scraped clean and soft, so that we may wear gloves.

Once early in his sickness they let me nurse him alone. I soak a cloth in rose water and pat his brow, his face, his chest, arms, hands, calves, even his feet, taking care to rinse the cloth again. His hair is dry, his eyes closed, and he is far away until I speak to him to call him back, frightened that he may leave me all alone here.

Hamnet, I shake his shoulder.

He opens his eyes and they are their color again, a pale blue, his father's eyes. He sees me and smiles at me, and reaches for my hand. Jude, he says, squeezing my fingers, I can't stay. His voice far away in the stars, as if in a deep sleep. Brother, I whisper, stay.

You may have my hornbook and quills, he says. Hide them in the thatch between the wall and roof. And then he closes his eyes and sleeps, as easily as if he slipped under the water of the river on a summer's day. He turns his head away from me and melts into the bed like hot wax. I feel a cold spirit suck life from me and cry for my mother. She bends over him and I stand behind her, afraid to move and shamed for my fear. She turns and bends low to hold me by the shoulders so she may gaze into my eyes. Lines crease her forehead, digging a trench from cheek to jowl, as if she never smiled.

He sleeps, she whispers, but his fever is catching, Judith. If you may not see him, you must not protest. It is to save you and your sister from the same fever.

I nod, not knowing what she says. Where is father? My voice whines and cries out of me yet is not a part of me, of my soul.

He will come soon. Go, your grandmother calls. And I run down the stairs, through the house and out into the garden, into light and air and sun, though my heart remains in that room nestled in the darkness.


Thomas, 1596

Thomas is like a flash of metal in sunlight. His eyes are changeable: now mottled gray of threatening skies, now murky green of the river's depths or clear glass of shallows. A shock of wheat colored hair falls in his eyes as a horse's forelock in want of combing and he wears one earring — a green stone — before he even begins to sprout a beard.

He has the air of an eagle or a hawk sent forth on messages and errands, his face lean, bold, and proud as a cat. He smells not of the shop but of green hay, the stalk before it opens, first sown flax. A bit of leather encircles his left wrist, and in his right hand a stick, worn thrust in his belt for a sword. His voice a rasp and crackle of skies promising rain. He plays the lord with me as if born to it. Too tall for his own good, strong as vines and twists of rope and a gaze bold enough to stop my own.

In another life, my Thomas may have been a prince but he was born the middle son of nine, his father selling cloth and silk oddments in a market town built on malting and brewing. And so they spun commerce mad, his grandfather, his father, and himself, struggling always to gain the status of gentlemen whilst manorial lords still held sway over the laws of men.

Oh, he had far to climb. Position was to him a potion. And so Thomas sought revenge and glory as a green leaf the sun.

May days and Whitsuntide. The first tunes of summer release us into fields and forests. We gather flowers and dance the maypole and bands of children swarm about the parish hall where our elders drain the ale as we play Blindman's Bluff and Hot Cockles. I hide my head in Susanna's lap and must guess who strikes me upon, as my grandfather might say, the bottom of my favors.

Susanna holds me tight as if I am a mewling puppy, her petticoat scratchy and hot, the cloth of rose I spun myself, and the smart smack upon my favors pricks my pride and delight. I challenged cry out, tis Hamnet's hand — for who else would dare?

Quick I feel his sweaty palm press upon my shoulder. Not I, Judith. His breath is hot and clove scented. You are mistaken if ever you think I should offend you. I rather will defend!

And then I hear clicks as of wood striking upon wood, shouts and cries of have at you, dog! Bark, cur! And knocking about my shins as if two bear cubs wrestle against my skirts. But still Susanna holds

Who is it? I cry.

Guess again, Susanna laughs, but lets me up into light and air and the circle of trees and fresh grass. There Hamnet tumbles with a boy I know not. Twisted tight in a knot of gold and black hair, the boy reaches across Hamnet's back and rolls them both as if they are tumblers at a fair until breathless they break apart. Hamnet stands and this boy scrambles for his stick, grabbing it and holding it high, crying, hail King Hamnet! King of May! King of Whitsuntide!

A crowd of children ring around us. Susanna claps her hands, and Hamnet says in all solemnity, for this and for thy youth I shall forgive thee, Sir Knight — but what sayst thou, Queen Judith? As it is this impudence that outraged your royal person — decree his fate.

Even in jest a show of power can be a dangerous thing. And so I say, pitching my voice for the pit:

No mercy! Off with his head!

Whereupon the children scream and run in circles, Susanna takes my arm as if I were a charging horse, Hamnet leaps in front of me, and the boy rises, stick in hand and glint in his eye — a glint that shall become most familiar. One flaxen girl flings her self on her knees before me and cries and pleads — have mercy your highness! He meant no ill intent! And a tall man, stifling laughter, steps among the screaming children and holds up his hands. Peace, peace! cries he. And all suspend their motions, as if we are caught in the waving glittering tapestries in grandmother's house.

Good Queen, he thus begins to speak, if you forgive this offense, I feel sure that this young upstart, and here he grabs him up and holds him tightly by the arm, shaking him, shall forever be in your debt and be of good service.

The boy keeps his head bowed yet peers up at me, again that glint as metal shines under sunlit water. And so I take his sword, the stick, out of his hand, and ask my brother — may I, good King, bestow my honor upon this commoner?

Hamnet stands as tall as I, so our gazes marry. His eyes shine blue as the sky washed clear by rain then colored by the setting sun. In two months, death shall take him.

As you wish my queen, he says, and sweeps a bow.

And so I touch the stick upon the boy's head. I forgive thee and I anoint thee my own subject. Arise, Sir Knight.

Come on you baggage, says his elder. Thank the lady.

He stands and for the first time I see his face and eyes. I thank thee, your highness, and forever pledge my troth. He holds his hand upon his heart and bows.

And so is war and plunder averted, laughs Susanna. Now come — and here she looks to the older man — a feast to celebrate this hard won peace.

And there this memory fades into the taste of honey cake and the feel of twigs snapping underfoot as we gathered flowers for the dancing.


I did not see him again until the burial of my brother.

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AUTHOR NOTES:
Beth Watzke

Author biography not supplied.

 

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