"'O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.'
It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on."
As I Walked Out One Evening, W.H. Auden
The sky is growing dark. Francis puffs and leans on his shovel, glancing upward at grey nimbus clouds. Sweat upon his brow. His dirt-caked shirtsleeves rolled up and pushed back over his elbows. The air is chilly against his ruddy cheeks and a hole in the ground groans open before him like a grave, waiting to be filled up.
- a hollow place in a solid body or surface.
- an opening through something.
- an area where something is missing.
Empty spaces. The look of a sailor's scurvy-ridden smile, two teeth spit out on the shale. The gnawing of a hungry stomach. The silence after Marco when there should come Polo. "I'm not Christ, Francis," James had said. "I can feel it coming. When it's time, don't bury me, use it. Feed them." He will never forget the sound of James' weak voice. Don't tell me what to bury, where to keep things that fell down in my own arms. Don't tell me where to keep this, this way that I have loved you. (Love like a black hole, pulling us in. We cry warning, as if we've ever been able to avoid falling. There's a hole in his heart. Plug it up. There's a hole in your body, James. Patch it up.)
Francis closes his eyes, wiping sweat from his brow. His trousers are stained with black soil and the green chlorophyll of early grass. When the metal shovel hits earth, there's no sound of scattering shale. No bitter limestone, nothing of lost teeth and falling bones. There is only quiet dirt and only falling night.
"Francis," a voice comes. He turns, finding James' lanky form leaning against the doorframe of their cottage. He had shrugged off his jacket and wears only dark trousers and his shirt and vest. An amused smile curls his thin mouth. "Your dinner's nearly cold enough to need a blanket."
"In a moment," Francis says, wiping the sweat from his brow. At the end of things, he digs a garden, not a grave. A hole in the fabric of expectation. A country cottage like an oubliette to disappear into, their names and history laid to rest. Forget the past, forget how you came here.
"Do you want help?" James asks. His dark curls brush over his shoulder. They're unfashionably long these days. Francis finds he likes gathering them in his hand, pulling James' head back to kiss him. He can do that now, he never ceases to marvel at the thrill of it.
"No matter," he mutters. "I have it in hand."
"I didn't ask if you needed help, only if you wanted it." James gestures to the sapling. A thin hawthorn, the roots wrapped in burlap. Ready to be planted anywhere you've dug a hole. He hopes this is good soil. Rich and black, soaked with nitrogen. If the wildflowers and grasses have anything to say for it, it promises to be. The first year of a garden is always hard to predict.
"Hold it in place," Francis says, his voice rough. "I'll fill in around it." James nods, rolling up his sleeves. He undoes the burlap, placing the sapling in the hole. With the shovel struck in the ground, Francis kneels and pushes the earth in with bare hands. His fingers pat gently, grounding the hawthorn deep. His hands run over the earth as he has laid James down in their shared bed, spreading careful touch over reknit scars, checking for sore spots. Finding the gaps in each other's bodies. An empty mouth to fill with his own tongue, the space between James' thighs, left open for him.
"Looks like rain," James murmurs, looking upward. He glances back to Francis, then nods to the green-painted back door of the cottage. "Come, let's get inside."
The sky opens as they clear the threshold of the house. Both men are drenched. James laughs, wiping soaked strands from his forehead. The rain drips from his brow and nose. Francis wants to kiss it off. There's no reason not to these days, so he does.
"Let's get you out of these," Francis mutters. "Before you catch cold."
"You'll warm me up then, I daresay."
"Yes. Also insufferable, if I recall from your words this morning," James teases, his eyes dancing. "And you like it."
For once in James' blessed life, he obliges without complaint, sitting on the unvarnished pine bench. Francis kneels before him, crouching to take the leather boots from his feet. Black. His initials embossed near the top. Would I have buried you in these? He imagines sewing James into sailcloth. He imagines dropping this body overboard. Piling stones on him like a cairn. Digging a grave. James' long-fingered hands cover over his own, stilling them in their wandering. The leather cold and damp beneath his fingertips.
"Francis, you're shaking."
"Nothing of the kind."
"You are," James murmurs, setting a warm (living) hand on his shoulder. "It's alright. Whatever it is, it's alright."
He pulls one boot from James' foot with a reverent touch, like the perversion of a wedding ring slipped upon the finger. He looks up. James' dark eyes are fierce and locked on him. I love you, he wants to say. But even now, even here, would it be welcome? He's a sentimental old fool.
"I'm losing you," James says quietly. "You're worrying again."
It’s been months. Still, the want is unreal. Francis had always imagined this kind of desire to be an exaggeration. He sleeps and dreams of James’ touch on his skin. He wakes to find it there and to nose at James, seeking more. How I want you. It’s wrong. Inappropriate. He would have rather died than speak of it. Had assumed he would. This sort of want is easier to bury than to bear. His head lands on James' chest, buried in the damp fabric. Rain runs from James' hair and moves in rivers down his throat, dripping onto Francis' scalp. It will be good for the planting, Francis thinks, inhaling. Cotton, petrichor, the faint scent of the cedar chest James keeps his shirts in. There had been no rain in the great white north. He had forgotten the sound of it beating upon roof and wall. The look of rain in spring, the world turned cloud-dark and green, everything soaked to the root. Like being underwater and still able to breathe. He had missed rain. The little things are easy to forget.
Look at him, fifty-two years old, crouched in his own hallway and getting water everywhere. His head still buried in James' chest, a hand slowly carding through his pale hair. A wreck. A ruin.
The boots had been repaired not long after they'd returned on the HMS Investigator. Just like that, all the holes sealed up. The leather touched up, the pair resoled. James with his crooked smile and two false teeth, with pink, freshly-healed scars. Good as new. It's strange, once the holes are gone, he doesn't know where to put his grief.
"Francis," James whispers. " Francis ." James pulls at his shoulders and cups his jaw to his mouth. When he kisses Francis, it's like drinking from a goblet. “Don't make me kiss the melancholy off this sauce-box of yours. Come on then, darling, come back to me,” James whispers, parting his legs. Francis, still kneeling on the tile floor, falls forward. He had always wondered what kissing James might be like. In the end, it's like being the star of one of his stories. James is singular and focused. His mouth occupied, so he uses his elegant hands to talk. He pulls at Francis' arms and shoulders, he spreads them wide across his chest.
James is violently hard against his hip.
"Christ," Francis hisses, closing his eyes. He pulls back into a crouched position. "We shouldn't - the supper -"
"Hang the supper." James quirks a brow and shifts. Francis starts as a firm pressure moves up the inside of his thigh. James has lifted his booted foot and is pushing it higher still.
"You'll be the blasted death of me, James."
"Now, don't be unfair, I have no intention of the kind." His boot lifts higher, pressing over the rapidly-hardening cock in Francis' trousers. The boot moves in small circles back and forth, over and over and over again. Francis glances down, watching that shining leather move between his thighs. He curses, biting his lip. He grips at James' ankle, intending to still the movement. Instead, he only holds on for dear life. First time I saw you, I hated how well these boots shone. I hated the peacocking look of you, your damnable flapping mouth. I wanted to kiss you so hard you couldn't talk.
It had been the boots that had betrayed James to Francis. Bit by bit, piece by piece.
"Tell me, Bridgens, how many hours a week he's got you shining those pretty boots?"
Bridgens had given an odd little laugh and furrowed his brow. "His boots, sir? I'm afraid Captain Fitzjames cares for those himself."
It had not fit. A puzzle piece that did not match a hole. Francis had wondered of it over a tumbler of whiskey. There is what he had known Fitzjames to be: spoiled and indulged, used to tossing something over as soon as it takes a tarnish. There is what he knows of him now: careful and keeping, someone who knows how to make something beloved last. Francis had learned to take the measure of James by his boots. When they looked dull and worn, the same exhaustion could be found in James' eyes.
When they had marched, leaving pieces of themselves along the way, the boots had fallen apart. There had been a hole in the leather. The stitching was coming undone. "You've got holes in you, James," he had said then, with nothing to stopper them.
James reaches for Francis' shirt and pulls him to bend forward again. He tastes of salt and sweat and nothing of blood. Impatient hands make quick work of Francis' laces, pulling him hot and hard from his trousers. The weight of his cock is heavy between his thighs, pulsing and damning. He inhales, looking down at where James sits on the bench, his hands already wrapping around the root of him. His open, hungry mouth. (A hollow place in a solid body.)
When James sucks him into his mouth, Francis bites into the meat of his hand, silencing his own cry. Nearly like the first time, every time. His fingers wind into James' hair, his thumb brushes over James' throat, stilling in the hollow. God, you're beautiful. The gentle tan of his skin, the strong brow, the dark mezzalunas of his lashes against his cheeks. His lined cheeks, his square jaw. Francis runs a hand over that jaw, feeling how it stretches to take him, how his own body fills the gap within. James swallows him deep, his warm fingers digging into Francis' thighs.
"Oh, Christ in Heaven," Francis hisses, his hips jutting forward, the control slipping from his grasp. "James, love, I'm right near - " The hands grip him harder. James' tongue is once again up to his clever tricks. When Francis comes, it's with his cock shoved to the back of James' throat and his hands tight in that dark fall of hair. He twitches against James' tongue as James swallows, tender at the bone.
James pulls back, the cock falling from his mouth and his reddened lips shine obscenely with spit and spill. He wipes them with the back of his hand. "Pity I should do all the work and he gets all the credit."
"Hush, you sinful creature," he mutters, kissing the sacrilege and spit from James' mouth. He likes when James grins while kissing, he loves to feel it against his own skin. He brushes the still wet hair from James' forehead and palms the needy thing between James' legs. James gasps. "Come upstairs," Francis murmurs into his ear. "Let's get you out of those wet clothes then, shall we?"
Out of those clothes. Out of that shirt and waistcoat, trousers and accursed (beloved) single boot. Wherever James had come apart, Francis will touch with careful hands. With his mouth. Press his forehead to the scar. When you love something, you check the seams and the stitching, you massage the leather to keep it supple. When you love something, you care for it yourself. No one else will do.
Later, in the dark and in bed, Francis will pull James close against his chest, feeling his beating heart through his own skin. It had been a habit on the shale, sharing a bedroll, shivering in the cold. Neither had spoken of the blood that seeped through the bandages, soaking both their shirts. Francis had developed a fear of reaching for James and finding his hand coming back wet. This bed is dry. He presses a kiss to the back of James' neck and inhales the faint macassar scent of his hair.
There had been a hole in his heart once, wide open as a grave. Anything can fill it up if you're a careful gardener.
Look how this love grows.