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No Unworthy Aim

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[W]e know that he borrowed from the library a number of books, all of them, oddly enough, poetry and mostly of the Lake school. These volumes may still be occasionally picked up at second-hand bookstalls, with the name “Jacobus Hook” inserted as the owner.
     -- "Captain Hook at Eton" (speech), J.M. Barrie

Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own;
Yearnings she hath in her own natural kind,
And, even with something of a Mother's mind,
     And no unworthy aim,
     The homely Nurse doth all she can
To make her Foster-child, her Inmate Man,
     Forget the glories he hath known,
And that imperial palace whence he came.
     -- William Wordsworth,
     "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood"
     (Wordsworth was part of the Lake school.)




If Hook had died in England, then as a lifelong believer in the Church of England and its Christian God, he would have gone to Hell, and this story would not exist.

Fortunately for our purposes, Hook died, but he died in Neverland, and Neverland treats with its dead through the same arcane rules that govern its behavior toward the living. Hook should, perhaps, have died in England and awoken in Hell. Instead, he died in Neverland and awoke in the trenches of 1916 France.

One may speculate that the former would have been a preferable destination.



The day that Britain declared war on Germany, Wendy had approached her parents and begged for permission to serve as a nurse. "Think of those poor boys," she pleaded. "They stand willing to give their lives for our nation; ought we not to do our best to support them? Just imagine if George or Michael were --"

"George and Michael are not," her father interrupted, casting a dour gaze at the closed door to the parlor (behind which the youths in question, no doubt, knelt evesdropping). "And neither are you."

"Think of how Nana should worry," her mother agreed. "The battlefield is no place for a young lady."

Wendy thought of Tiger-Lily, her gaze as sharp and relentless as the razor-sharp dagger she'd honed and wielded, and gritted her teeth. "I'm not asking to put on soldier's boots and march on the front lines. All I want is the opportunity to take care of those boys, as a sort of mother to them -- the mother they won't have out there, and will miss terribly."

She could see her mother's eyes softening at the appeal, but Mr. Darling's jaw tightened. "The sort of mother whose heart broke for you, over and over, every d---ned morning she woke to find you still gone? I shan't allow it again, I simply shan't." His hand sought out Mrs. Darling's, clutching it in the sort of sentimental gesture that he had once scorned.

(Yet the kiss, Wendy noticed, still waited there at the right-hand corner of her mouth, unclaimed and undiminished with age. For the first time, with a burst of shocked guilt at the very thought, she wondered whether her father could even see the kiss at all.)

Her father's judgment stood firm, and her mother's eyes welled with tears when she considered the unmaidenly horrors of war, and Nana had grown too weary in her venerable age to interfere with such petty quarrels. Wendy would not go to the Continent; the decision was made.

But Wendy had faced down Captain Hook himself, and her spirit would not be daunted. The following month, instead of resuming her studies at Somerville College, she began her training as a VAD nurse; and she could never find it in herself to regret the decision, no matter the peculiar path it would set beneath her feet.



Two years passed, filled with enough trials for twenty. Wendy became accustomed to things that she had never before considered: the scrape of a starched nurse's collar around her neck; the mingled odors of medicines and rotting limbs, that sank into the walls deeper than scrubbing could cleanse; the sharp startle of hearing her name called out by a disapproving superior; the awful sobbing of a man waking from a horrid dream to a worse reality. She learned to love her boys with a cool, impersonal love, for every one of them would depart sooner or later, whether back to the front, or home on crutches, or into the ravenous teeth of death.

(Once, she had known her boys -- different boys, boys still bursting with life and braggadocio -- so well that she could recognize each one by the hitches in his sleeping breath. She had warded her boys from dangers within and without, and not one had been lost to her, excepting only the one who would not suffer himself to be saved.)

She trained at the 4th London General Hospital, where she learned to respond when the patients cried out, "Sister!" (The curious irony amused her for a time: to be called such a name, when her own brothers had instead called her "mother.") She bound wounds and administered morphine as ably as she could, but her finest talent, the other Sisters said, was her imagination. No matter how restless the patient, however so much he shuddered with waking nightmares or groaned with incurable pains, Wendy could always find the directest path from their heart to the Neverland. To one lad, she told tales of knights jousting for the honor of fine ladies; to another, she recounted travelers summiting Oriental peaks to discover lost cities of silk and gold. Unless her duties called her away, she would talk and talk until they drifted into a sleep filled with happier worlds than their own.

The wrinkled old doctor who visited her ward would call her "Scheherazade," and Wendy did her best to curtsey and not blush at the term.

She wrote letters home, too busy to visit most weeks: to Mother and Father, to George and Michael, even a few that she begged them to read aloud to Nana. In turn, all of them (save Nana) wrote back to her, telling quaint stories of the domestic world that felt further than the Neverland from her own. Her father, long established as a sensible man more suited to manage columns of numbers than columns of men, had been appointed by the government to the estimable task of managing war finances. But her brothers had no such defenses, and thus Wendy read with little surprise, in the summer of 1916, that John was to take the soldier's cap and rifle.

"You must know how proud I am to see you acquit yourself as an honorable son of King and Country," she wrote him. She said nothing of her own terror that the next dead-eyed, shrapnel-torn body to enter her ward would be his.

Then, three months later, the hospital's head nurse approached her. A new hospital was opening in Edinburgh, she said, one especially for patients suffering from shell shock, and Wendy's gentle touch with the men with war neuroses had earned her a specific recommendation. "It's a lovely place, so they say," Sister Hutton urged. "And all the men will be officers, so they'll know their manners."

Wendy thanked her prettily and accepted the assignment. Two years at 4th London General had not made her doubt her own heart, but they had awakened her to an understanding of how far it stood from the other nurses' minds, filled with dreams of handsome soldiers and pretty dresses and the endless quest to be ordinary. She knew that they would not be unhappy to see her leave.




A new hospital, a new city, and the same dreary routines of linen-folding and ward-walking, the same tedious attempts at conversation among the other VADs. Wendy did not wish to talk about how the war was going, or whose maiden aunt was ill, or whether it should rain on Tuesday. She listened with some interest to the debates among the doctors, whether a certain patient's hysteria should be treated with patience or strictness, but her own voice in the debates was not permitted, let alone respected.

The other nurses frowned at attachments to the patients, but they spoke wistfully about their own boys out on the front. Wendy laughed, though quietly in her own mind, each time they mentioned the "boys." She had seen her fill of boys, had played at being her boys' mother and a boy's wife, and she had no desire to repeat the experience. Even when the dark eyes of some lad made her breath catch, she searched them for world-weary cynicism --for the sort of bitter acceptance that saw the world's flaws, rolled up its sleeves, and plunged in nonetheless. She could never find what she sought.

Time at war hospitals, Wendy had found, followed a certain cycle: a convoy of men would arrive, the men would be distributed among the wards and treated, and their beds would empty slowly from one cause or another, until a new convoy of men arrived to fill them again. At Craiglockhart, the cycle ran more slowly; few men died, and improvement to the point of discharge was rarely swift. Thus, when a convoy arrived just as the autumn leaves were beginning to change, a susurration of excitement spread through the staff, as each wondered how many her ward would receive and what their symptoms should be.

A week later, the head Sister of another ward approached her. "Sister Darling, I hear that you've a knack for telling stories that help the men dream peacefully."

"So I'm told," Wendy agreed.

"Well, I was hoping you'd help me with one of our new patients, bed 37. He's a perfect gentleman during the day, all alert and proper, but at night, he claims he can't dream -- just falls asleep into nothingness and wakes up with a start. I don't believe he's had a full night's rest since they found him in the trenches."

To be unable to dream! Wendy knew that the other men, their dreams haunted by bayonets and bleeding bodies, might envy him, but she felt nothing but a surge of deep pity. "Of course I can try," she said.

"Excellent," the woman said, nodding with brisk approval. "He's a bit of a funny case, you should know. They found him in the trenches, missing a hand and his uniform, with no idea how he got there -- nothing but odd fairy-tale stories. If the commanding officer hadn't recognized him from Eton, who knows what would have happened. The doctors are calling it shell-shock-induced amnesia."

"How horrid," Wendy agreed. (They had both seen cases far more horrid, naturally, but the polite fiction of empathy was all they had.)

"And here's the really odd bit. I told you he'd lost a hand, but it wasn't in the hospital at the front. He'd all healed up already when they found him! So they think he may have been a patient who escaped and wandered back out, with no memory of any of it, but they can't find any trace of a record for him in the records. It's all very peculiar."

Wendy nodded and sympathized, and they arranged a time for her to come by that evening, after Wendy's own duties were finished. "One last thing," the matron said. "Be sure not to bring a pocket-watch with you; he can't abide the sound of the ticking. Goes into a terrible fright."



When Wendy entered the room of Bed 37 that evening, the patient lay on his side under his wool blankets, facing the wall away from her. She could see only the stretch of broad shoulders, the bunched-up muscles of a man who had seen vigorous activity since well before the outbreak of war, and an unevenly shorn crop of hair as black as wrought iron. "Good evening," she said cheerfully, "Mr. . ." She glanced at the chart near the entrance, where his name was written on the chart, and she froze as still as a startled mouse. The name had to be a coincidence; surely, in all of England, there had to be more than one --

"James Hook," the man said irritably, and he rolled over to face Wendy.

At once, his eyes widened in shock, then narrowed; he opened his mouth as if to speak, but no words came out. There could be no mistaking it now. From his dark, hooded eyes to the stump of his wrist to the cultivated drawl of his voice, Wendy stood face to face with Captain Jas. Hook, former captain of the Jolly Roger, former villain of the childhood memories so impossible that Wendy sometimes called them dreams.

Hook had lost his fine frock coat, his imposing hat, his curls like sleek black glass, and his terrible metal hook. Wendy recalled suddenly a moment, so absurd in retrospect, when she had scorned him for the shadow of grime on his fine lace cuffs. His sheets were coarse cotton now, the same cheap linens as all the others', and the contrast wrenched at her. Yet beneath all the appearances, this man was undeniably he; his expression shone with the strange mixture of pride, self-pity, and shame that had so characterized the pirate captain.

"It cannot be," he murmured -- but every syllable of his words confirmed to her that it was truly so.

In an abrupt rush, he sat upward in his bed, the sheet falling forgotten to his waist. "Tell me that you remember," he said urgently. "Tell me that I am not mad, I beg you. The Neverland was a story for children, I know, and yet --"

"And yet," Wendy completed, "it became our only world." She stepped closer to the bed, one foot ahead of the other. Here, divested of his corsair's trappings, he appeared fierce but not frightening: just another victim of suffering, another boy in need of care. Yet even there, the words felt inadequate; from the wiry black hair that trailed down his chest to the harsh cast of his jaw, he would always be the opposite of Peter Pan, ever a man and never a boy. "I remember," she said quietly, and crossed the final distance to stand at his bedside. "I thought you had died there."

"I did." A queer, indecipherable shadow twisted his face.

"Yet here you are."

"No. Here is a mere body -- a form recognizable by schoolmates and friends, yes, but a shell of a man. I died there, and my dreams died with me, and now, when I close my eyes, I see nothing but emptiness where Hook used to live. A useless stump." He shook his hookless limb in Wendy's direction, the flesh scarred and twisted in a way that had not been visible in Neverland.

Wendy chose her words carefully. "For a man dead at heart, you're speaking with awfully great passion."

Hook snorted dismissively, then turned away from her again. He was silent for so long that Wendy thought to leave. "They said that you told stories," he said at last. "Can you give me something to remember in the darkness?"

Wendy's heart clenched once more: the fearsome Captain Hook was reduced to begging for a bedtime story from a woman. "I shall do my utmost," she said. Carefully, carefully, she sat down on the edge of his bed, for his room had no other chair. The nearness of that brutal strength sent a thrill through her, one threaded with fear, but also with something more.

She wracked her memory for a story that recalled neither the Neverland nor the Great War, and settled at last on one she had read in a fairy-tale book. "Once upon a time, there was a village near a vile bog, filled with all sorts of evil creatures: imps and witches and crawling horrors. All these wicked beings were powerless in the light of day, but at night, a man who entered the bogs had only one hope of leaving alive. You see, when the moon shone, her light illuminated every inch of the ground, near as bright as day. Even a little child could wander freely, as long as the moon kept watch."

Hook's eyes had slipped closed -- not asleep yet, but more peaceful than before. With his keen gaze no longer directed upon her, Wendy could watch him unreservedly, still marveling that this ghost of her past should have appeared.

"The moon heard tales about the bog's foul denizens," she continued, "but she wished to see them for herself, being an adventurous soul. So during the next new moon, she covered her shining hair and pale skin under the hood of a black cloak, and she ventured out to the bog. But in that treacherous dark, the evil creatures roamed freely, and though she trod carefully, they soon had her lost and mired in brackish water, her limbs tangled in moss-slick vines. She struggled and struggled to no avail, but all of a sudden, she heard the footsteps of an ordinary human; and she knew that if he reached her, the same fiends would capture him as well. So she used the last of her strength to tug back her hood, and the brilliant silver light that radiated from her hair frightened away the spirits and guided the man back to a safe path. Then, no longer able to resist the vines that dragged her down, she sank into the bog and into darkness."

Hook's hand clenched around nothing, and Wendy pushed away the entirely inappropriate urge to clasp it in her own. "Your story is rather less cheerful than I expected," he said dryly.

"That's because I haven't finished yet," Wendy retorted. "You see, the man whom the moon rescued returned to his village. And the next night, when the moon failed to rise, he realized that she had never escaped from the bog. She was still trapped where he had left her, unable to reveal her light and break free. So he went to the wise woman of the village, and she placed a stone on his tongue, to block the spirits from entering his body, and a hazel twig in his hand, to guide him true. Thus warded, he returned to the bog, and he followed the trail all the way back to the buried moon. He drew her out of the mire and freed her arms and legs, so she could lower her hood, and in that moment she shone more brightly than the sun itself. So she ascended to the night sky, and from that day on, the moon cast paths of light throughout the bog, so brightly that no evil thing could bear to live within."

"And what about the man?" Hook's voice was slurred with sleep, but still cautious.

Wendy smiled to herself. "Once every month, during the dark of the new moon, the moon came back down to the village. She would wear her black cloak to walk the streets to his house, but once inside, she revealed her splendor, and he enjoyed her as his special guest until the coming of each dawn."



The Sisters of his ward said that Wendy's visits did good for "Mr. Hook," and though her duties prevented her from visiting him each night, she came as often as she could. Some nights, he was weary from doctor's visits or the weight of dark memories, and she merely told him a story until he slept. Other nights, with increasing frequency, he had a bright gleam in his eye, and they spoke of diverse subjects, from his opinion of the other patients' poetry (mere imitation of the greats, but poignant in a simple way) to the relative merits of pistol and sword. He made efforts for her, some days, wearing his bathrobe like a velvet coat and greeting her like a princess, a gesture that left her both flustered and charmed.

"I feel like I ought to be more afraid of you," she said once, after he had set her laughing helplessly with his tale of a prominent lordling's schoolboy follies.

His demeanor stiffened immediately, then softened into thoughtfulness. "My dear, it was your fearlessness that I admired most from the beginning."

Wendy found herself with no ready retort.

She suspected that the other nurses gossiped about her; she knew that she could not hide the brightness in her eyes as she left his room. Hook felt real, in a way that the white-painted hallways and crisply folded sheets of Craiglockhart never had. Hook's quick wit and curious mind delighted her, and he took pains to conceal the shadows that she knew still haunted him. He would never be a kind or a soft-hearted man, but the suffering of his fate had made him more careful of his deeds, more generous to the needs of the human spirit.

(Once or twice, in the twilight thoughts of evening, she had imagined his fate for herself: to be eaten alive by a crocodile, then wake to the bloody muck and barbed-wire mazes of the trenches. The doctors suspected that battlefield scavengers had found him first, unconscious, and stripped him of anything of value: hook, coat, boots, even the mud-stained lace of his cuffs. Hook told them that he remembered nothing. If he did possess any memories of the journey from the Neverland to France, he would not detail them to Wendy.)

At last came the day that Hook -- nay, James, as he had asked that she address him -- greeted her with the shadow of news in his demeanor. "The doctors say that I may soon be ready to depart," he said, in a voice devoid of emotion. "They say that my neuroses have decreased, and that my amnesia shows no signs of altering with time; there is nothing else they can do." Both of them knew, of course, that no amnesia had ever existed -- merely a span of years for which Hook retained memories too marvelous to be believed as truth. "Better to be a blank slate than a madman," he had told her once.

The news stopped Wendy short in the doorway. "But what will become of you?"

James shrugged elegantly and nodded at his missing hand. "They've decided that the Government no longer has an interest in that question. I'm not to return to the front, and I'm not to linger here; that is all they can decide."

"And the absence of dreams? Surely they cannot call your condition normal." Even as she approached him, Wendy examined her own odd reaction of shock and loss. Surely she should not feel so adrift about losing a man now merely her patient, and formerly her enemy.

"Ah, my lovely, perpetually hopeful Wendy." The sardonic tone of his words cut her to the quick. "You and I know the reason I have no dreams, and we know that it can never, ever change. So I began to invent dreams to tell the doctors, and the ruse seems to have succeeded entirely. They consider me cured."

She sat next to him and clasped his hand, his touch no longer foreign to her. "I am sorry that I could not heal you more fully. I shall miss you."

"And I you." He laughed almost hoarsely. "Is it not strange? Your very existence reminds me daily of my suffering at the hands of that boy, and yet I feel more secure in your presence than anyone's in the world."

Wendy longed to kiss him, but the room's open door warned her of the foolishness of such an act. "Will I see you again?"

The corner of James's mouth twisted without humor. "Our fates appear to be far too intertwined for anything else."

The next evening, he was gone.



War is like childhood: it seems endless when one is living it, and impossible to imagine any other existence; even when the years pass and the era comes to an end, its memories have been seared too deep into our souls for us ever to escape them entirely.

The nations signed armistices, and John returned to England, whole in body if not entirely in mind. Michael wrote that he wished he had been old enough to partake in the thrill of battle. (Wendy urged him never to express the sentiment to John, if he had any love for his brother.) Mr. and Mrs. Darling wrote that with the end of the war, Wendy had no reason to delay her ordinary obligations any further, and that they were aware of several eligible young men in London who had already returned, bearing military decorations and officers' ranks. Wendy wrote that many British lads still needed healing, and she could not neglect her duties to them.

Wendy realized one night, while she stood outside and let the cold winds of early spring in Edinburgh whip hairs across her face like razors, that she dreaded few things in life more than the prospect of returning home to No. 14. Somerville College was a more attractive choice, but even there, she found it hard to imagine that the hands that had held together split stitches and soothed convulsing soldiers would be content with holding a pen and taking down notes. She had no appetite for war, but a still-unquenched thirst for adventure.

Meanwhile, Craiglockhart had only ever been a war hospital, and rumor said it would be closed before year's end. She asked the head nurses to be kept on until the end, and they indulged her, which bought her a few months of reprieve. Nonetheless, those months passed all too soon, and the day came that Wendy stood outside the estate, staring at the now-locked gates, clutching a suitcase that contained all her personal effects, and wondering where on earth she would go from here.

"Miss Darling, have you ever been to the Americas?" A familiar sardonic voice interrupted her thoughts, and Wendy whirled around, nearly losing her grip on the suitcase in the process. James Hook stood tall in the evening light, leaning lightly against a car. The two years since leaving Craiglockhart had done him much good; his skin bore the fresh tan of hours in the sun, and his thick hair had grown back out, currently tied neatly at the nape of his neck. Instead of a hook, his right arm ended in a mechanical claw-like apparatus, lacking the hook's brutality but retaining all its sleek menace. His cuff, Wendy noted with some amusement, bore not a speck of dirt.

But he had asked her a question. "Never," she replied. "But I haven't the money for --"

"I do," he said. She found herself at once curious as to the source of this money, and certain she would not be entirely pleased with the answer. "Would you care to join me on an adventure?"

She stepped closer, tilted her head up to face him, and smiled. "I believe I would like nothing more in all the world."

"That is most excellent news." James continued to look down at her, his face inches away, and he seemed to be scrutinizing her mouth in particular. "When I left here the first time, I took with me the memory of your kiss -- the way it always rested right there, at the corner of your mouth, as if designed entirely to tempt me. I thought it would certainly have been taken by the time I saw you next, but it has not."

His pupils were very, very black, and Wendy's own voice sounded breathless to her. "I lived surrounded by aging doctors and broken-hearted boys. To whom would I give it?"

"I can think of at least one supplicant who would value it greatly indeed." James bent forward, but slowly, cautiously enough that Wendy could shy away if she wished. Wendy found that she did not wish to move an inch.

When her lips touched James's, she felt a spark -- not merely the metaphorical spark of some romantic heroine, but an actual spark, sharp and almost painful, leaving an intangible absence in its wake. He gasped softly, and they started apart, each touching their lips in bewilderment.

Then James closed his eyes, and his mouth curved into something she had never seen on him before: light, carefree laughter. "Oh, my darling, Darling Wendy. I hadn't thought it would be so simple."

"What would?"

"You gave me your kiss, and a kiss could not possibly be crafted out of anything but the finest dreams. The kiss alone would have been reward enough, but don't you see? You have given me back my dreams." Then he wrapped his arms around her, embracing her with gratitude and wonder, and they passed kisses back and forth to each other, until neither could tell which kiss had been whose.

What happened next -- their journey in Hook's car, and the longer journeys that followed, and the solaces and pleasures they took in each other -- is a tale for another day. Yet I will tell one final secret of their future: that night, when Hook closed his eyes to rest, his slumbers overflowed with the sweetest and loveliest dreams that you or I could ever imagine.


The end.