The Keats Variation
By K.M. Ferebee
4 June 2012
Part 1 of 2
There was a ghost in the hospital. They had told Keats this. "They" were the other boys, the older boys, who lived like him in the apprentices' dormitory attached to the hospital, but higher up, on the second floor. Bish, Taylor, and Barrie: larger boys who came and went clattering loudly on the dormitory's wooden stairs. They had served, each of them, as an apprentice under the surgeons for two years already, and told stories of malformed infants, amputations, massive wounds that emptied all a man's blood from his body across the floor, so that you must needs wade through it to reach the exit and it lingered, black and sticky, on your boots and under your fingernails. You would not believe, Barrie said, you would not believe how much blood is in a man.
Keats was quite ready to believe it. He believed most things at this time. He had come, at the credulous age of thirteen, from the country, where men did not tell so many lies, or they were a different sort of lies, not fat distended fancies like soap bubbles that rise from a washer-man's wand and swell and swell the expanse of their shining hollow bodies till they burst and you are left with just a thin wet sour residue. Country lies were smaller, harder. They had substance, which you sometimes had to fight to figure. They might be a truth about some other thing. A fairy man in the lane taught the miller's wife to dig, she said, for buried treasure, which she found on his instruction but which come the morning was not lapis and diamonds but a felt hat filled with mouldy leaves. Mrs. Hayscomb saw the Devil out walking; she said he wore the fine black coat of a merchant and smiled as he passed and had a white crown round his head like a saint. Keats had seen the mouldy leaves; he had touched and smelt them. They had left damp flecks on his fingers. They had reminded him of well water pulled from far, far down in the clammy pit where moss fronded wild in silent darkness and, one suspected, old things lived. Those leaves had brought the miller luck. His wife had cooked them in a pot-au-feu and eaten them and given birth to three children, white-skinned infants with flat solemn eyes like coins who never cried. Everyone said in Eastsake that these were fairy children and the fairies would be back for them; and that the miller, if he'd drive a hard bargain, could do well out of it. He could get a cartload of gold, or a saucepan that never emptied, or a shuttle that threw itself through the shed, to do the weaving. There was no limit to what he might expect, in exchange for these children. So there had been treasure in the leaves; that was a truth.
And as for the Devil—Keats himself had seen him, or something of his nature, or not quite seen. That had been in the purple part of the night, in summer, when heat bowed the high barley in submission and the earth was an ember into the evening, when the glassy sun had gone and night birds called throughout the cooler air. Keats, coming homewards, had cut through the barley. The stalks were higher than him. They had a sweet white woody scent. The long leaves had a language, snaps and whispers, over his head. He held his hands crossed on his chest and whispered a song, a song about the Apostles, a song to summon angels to your bedside. He was careful to tread only where he knew the path. But he took not care enough, for soon he was lost and he heard a footfall behind him. A step. A stop. A hard dry cough. A hesitation. His heart crawled and stuttered. He did not turn to see. Slowly, slowly, he walked forwards. The listless barley shed long shadows. The shallow dark seemed living. In back of him the sound again commenced. Something striking earth, a slow and laboured step, like one leg dragging. A ragged, monstrous breath. He ran, then; his nerve broke, and he raced ahead. Still he could hear it following him: its long strides, its effortful gasps, the air in its unseen lungs rattling, till he was free of the fields and could see the lamplight leaching towards him from his aunt's front window. He reached it. This was the radius of his safety. When he told the story to his aunt, she did not disbelieve him. So now you've seen the Devil, is what she said. As the days progressed he came to accept this explanation. His unknowingness diminished. To his school friends he said, I saw the Devil. The statement assumed a quality of truth: of definition, which, after all, was truth's right hand.
So the idea of how much blood was in a man did not overmuch stretch his imagination. Nor the stories Bish told about babies born back to front, or with fins instead of hands, or the woman whom, he said, they had cut open—he clearly relished the cutting-open; when he reached this part of the story his eyes lit up and he rubbed, one against the other, his thin white hand—only to see that there was inside of her a number of strange objects: Roman coins, and the stump of a candle, and a soapstone figure in the shape of a lamb. They had sewed her up, but she died later—not from sepsis, but from starvation. She would not eat meat, milk, potatoes; she could not be sustained. She wanted only to swallow down these certain odd antiques. But the doctors would not let her. Her wanting killed her, Bish said; she wanted it to end.
It? Keats asked.
Bish spread his hands, bored, expressive. It, all of this.
I don't understand.
No, you wouldn't yet, you're just a squeaker. A little country rat of a thing.
Barrie joined in. Hallo, country rat. Said your catechism yet today?
Catechism sounded like cachexia, the kind of slow sickness that Bish's woman had died of, the wasting disease. Keats practiced his catechism daily. He had promised his aunt when he left Eastsake. Besides, he had a fear of the Devil. You had to do certain things, say certain things, and this kept the Devil at a distance. A distance greater than six or seven paces, a distance that the saints maintained, so that you would not hear the Devil's hacking cough or heavy footsteps, so that you would not hear him drag his leg.
I don't know why you make fun, Keats said.
No, Bish said, you wouldn't yet. Squeaker.
And so on and on this game went.
There were no other apprentices of Keats's age; he was quite the youngest. It amused Bish and Barrie and Taylor to call him names, to make fun of his country faith, his country way of speaking, to keep sometimes in the dark at the side of a hallway, at night when he had thought them all in bed, and reach out suddenly to grab hold of his wrist or a fistful of hair at the side of his head. This they called a mousetrap. I've caught a country mouse, Barrie had said triumphantly, the first time it happened; a country mouse in a trap. The coinage had stayed.
Keats had learned to keep still, not to fight his capture, though the shock of it turned his heart to a struck church bell. The leaden echoes of its reverberating could be felt throughout his tired body. His response was to clench the muscles round his mouth and think hard about large bright things. He pictured saints the size of houses, huge towering men who shed a soft, tawny light from their hands and robes and heads. He pictured angels, white entities without faces who, suspended on their opalescent feathers, hung in the cramped space of the hallway. And when he had scampered off, often after an indifferent beating, and was safe inside his room again, he would say the song he had been taught in the country, asking these saints and angels to stand round his bed. He never saw them, but sometimes he suspected their presence: when he woke up warm on winter mornings and saw scratch-marks on the floorboards where perhaps some saint's hard shoe or shepherd's crook had scuffed them. The hospital to which the dormitory was attached was called after a saint with such a crook: St. Crix, who had been martyred among the fields by Roman soldiers. The method of his martyrdom had not been told to Keats; it was thought to be too gruesome. He dreamed of the saint naked, with his stomach stitched, like a surgical patient. The stitches were neat and perfect, done in black thread. St. Crix smiled at Keats and raised his curving staff. He said, Little lamb, I will shepherd thee when thou art dead and buried. What about now? Keats wanted to ask, but he could not speak in his dreams. He was too transfixed, always, his tongue silenced by dread.
There had long been some legends, part of the city of Ludminster's general lore, of St. Crix lingering in the halls of his hospital: to heal the sick, to dispense mercy, to direct the souls of the dead. But the ghost about which Bish, Barrie, and Taylor had begun to tell stories was an innovation. Keats perceived that it might not exist. It was the sort of thing that these other boys might do—seize upon his fear of the darkness and invent for it a bespoke creature, a demon cut whole-cloth to suit. He did not like to think so badly of them, despite their lies; and anyways he believed that there was in all people something tending to be true. There was this magnetic force; you could not resist it; it warped your stories northwards, in spite of you. So he listened at night, when they were all gathered in the dormitory kitchen round a candle, as Barrie and Taylor and Bish related tales that grew ever more extravagant. Barrie, a solidly built boy with auburn ringlets and an India-ink gaze, cupped his hands over the candle. Light leaked through his fingers from the flame, casting seaside shadows on the wall, wandering underwater shapes.
Theatrically he said, In the dead of winter, there rode into St. Crix Hospital —
Rode? Keats questioned.
Yes, it was in those days.
There rode a soldier. His horse was black; it smoked with hellfire.
A bit rich, Bish muttered under his breath.
I heard that. Shut it.
I was only saying.
Barrie cleared his throat. It smoked with hellfire, he said again. Its rider slid to the snowy ground. His blood turned it red. Blood-red, from the gash in his belly where a bayonet had been. The soldier's guts spilled out —
But they didn't really, Keats reasoned. Or else he'd be dead.
He held them in. Like, thus. Barrie demonstrated.
Anyway, Bish said, he'll be dead in a minute. Wait and see. That's the best bit.
Barrie let Bish tell that part of the story. Spectacular deaths were Bish's talent. Pale hair sparked by firelight, light eyes gleaming, he leant in. By this point in the tale, the soldier had reached the operating theatre, where a noble surgeon tried to save him. And then, Bish said, he saw the soldier's immortal soul rise from his body. It was a bloody thing, all blackened and hideous, naught but bones, no flesh on it.
No flesh on it, Taylor echoed. He was not, of the three, the most inventive. But he embellished the description: And gaping sockets, where the eyes had been.
Staring out, Bish said, towards their damnation. Bish was alive with pleasure at the image; his small lithe body shuddered. He said, The surgeon's sight grew dim! He thought he would faint, for standing before him was—death! The darkest angel! A horrible figure, scythed and grim!
Barrie added, And behind him followed all of hell. An awful scene. Seas made of the bloody hearts of men, still beating. Heaps of bones that writhed and clattered, the howling of the damned calling out—
What did they call out? Keats asked, curious.
They called out: James Keats, we're coming for you . . . Barrie drew out the vowels, darkened his voice to a wail, grabbed at Keats's shoulders. Keats, ineffectual, tried to shove him off.
That is not what they called out. I was not there. That is not true.
Oh, well, they might have done. Had you been there.
Bish and Taylor were laughing soundlessly behind their hands. Keats was angry, but he did not show it. He said, So what happened then?
Barrie shrugged. The soldier would not go with him. The soldier said, Death, I will not go with you, to get my heart sucked out in hell, to suffer forever and ever in pain and blood and so forth, in endless burning. Instead I will stay and give a taste of hell to mortal souls who remain, that they might fear your eternal horrible approach and repent of their sins.
How about you, Keats? Taylor asked, grabbing onto Keats's arm and twisting it round so that it hurt. Do you repent your sins? You will; you will repent them.
That story ended with Keats's hand held above the candle till tears streamed down his face and the skin on his palm swelled into white hilltops: a new, painful, penitent landscape. He choked out sin, some real and some imagined, writhing like a hooked fish while Barrie said, No, I think he is a sinner, I think that he has further sins.
Keats confessed that he hated God, that he had impure thoughts about women and about men, that he disbelieved in the Devil and in hell, that he had often wished their tutor—Dr. Haylebury—to damnation, that he thought wickedly of others as well.
Bish said, This is what hell is like, now he will believe in hell.
It was unfair, Keats reflected later, bitterly, for almost certainly they did not believe in hell; not a one of them did. They thought it a source of fun. They laughed at him for saying prayers, for practising his catechism; they thought him primitive. They had irreligious convictions. They were not afraid of the dark. They did not experience the world as he did. He lay in the dark, in bed, and fingered his forming blisters. They had a wormy feel to them. Morbid flesh, like maggots under his skin. He did not mind the pain; it was the weakness that turned to white worms and gnawed at him. When he pierced the blisters with a pain, weak water welled out. It turned his stomach. He thought, From now, I will never be weak again.
And to the Devil in the darkness, he recanted his confession. He whispered, I do believe in him. Not daring to speak directly to the Devil, and risk his gravel cough, his livid, unseen stare. He did not want to believe, but there it was: the thing he clung to, this small dark truth, the reality.
During lectures he considered the ghost. It would not be a soldier; that much he knew. Barrie and Bish favoured soldiers for their stories. They invented wars for the Continent, conflicts, bloody and endless, from which no hale man withdrew. Their heroes and ghosts were always horribly maimed, most often by bayonet thrusts—though sometimes blackened by gunpowder, from musket fire, for a change. But Keats thought, Perhaps a knight. A knight from ancient times, a knight in armour like a carapace that creaked and rattled. A very sad knight, ponderous and solemn, who went about the corridors in tears. Keats could see him: sighing in the light from the yellowed windows that lined the lecture hall, dust congregating in curious motes about his broadsword's hilt and blade. The knight had white hair, which Keats had not expected. He wore no helmet. He had a young, elfin face.
After the lecture had finished and the last students had departed, taking their anatomical notes, their sketches, their tenuous understandings of skeletal structure and phthisic symptoms, Keats crept back into the hall. The knight still lingered. Like a night watchman he held his posture, sorrowful and alert, nobly standing.
Hello, Keats said. I wondered how you did.
The knight did not turn his eyes to Keats, but rather lowered them. Ah, woe and alas, he said. Ah, woe the day.
Keats was taken aback by this gloomy assessment. Following narrowly on it he realized, however, a number of things: for instance, that the knight's armour must be heavy, which accounted for a part of his poor temper, and, too, that he was, after all, dead. The wound that had caused his death could not be seen, but blood pooled at his feet, dripping out from under the greaves of his armour in a slow black viscous seep. What is it that's wrong with you? Keats asked.
The knight looked at him piteously. He tried to raise an armoured hand, but stopped and dropped it, coughing. Blood came from his mouth and stained his lips. He could not speak. Keats offered him a handkerchief. The knight held it to his mouth. His eyes mouthed mute gratitude. All at once the truth came to Keats.
You've got a terrible wound, he said. It can't be healed. No one knows what to do. That's why you're a ghost; you were a great knight, but a sinner in life and so you were afflicted. Now you haunt the hospital because you are waiting for a surgeon who can heal you.
The knight bent his head. He said, Ah, woe the day. He handed the handkerchief back to Keats. Arterial blood was on it, the brightest shade of red.
Keats said, I am a surgeon. Well, a surgeon's apprentice. Someday I shall be a surgeon. I can change a dressing, and mix a compound. I can say when a man is dead. Perhaps I can help.
Despite this declaration, he was not quite sure what to do. He removed the knight's armour piece by piece, stacking it in a corner carefully. It was heavy, as he had suspected: made of iron plate, and faintly tarnished. It felt hot, as though the knights' body still held some incalescence, as though the cold of the grave were incomplete and some memory of fever had got through. When he reached the knight's under-linen he could smell the stench of the grave, a green and efflorescent smell like water stagnating, and see the stains that hinted at decay. He said, I do not know that I can fix this. But he placed his hands on the knight's abdomen anyway. He probed for a deep gash or some contusion. He knew how to sink the swelling of the latter, and sew the former up with careful stitches. But the source of the knight's suffering remained at bay.
At last he sat back on his heels and said in frustration, I can't find a wound. And your heart does not beat, anyway, so how is it that you are bleeding?
The knight directed at him a steady gaze. His eyes were limpid, like marbles, light grey. He lifted his hand and closed it around Keats's. Keats felt the shock of contact: his own little hand subsumed by the lack of heat, the dead cold of the grave. He thought, Perhaps his armour is heated by hellfire. Then was ashamed of the thought, and afraid. The knight's fingers locked around his wrist, icy, starved, insistent. Keats smelled his foul breath. The fragrance of rot, of cease. He saw what it was the knight desired, but he would not give it. He wrenched his hand out of that grasp. He pulled away.
You would eat my soul out, he said. You do not want a surgeon. The hurt you have no surgeon can assuage. You want to live, and I can understand it. But if you took my soul, I would die in despair. The Devil would have me.
The knight's mouth moved. Keats leant forward, to hear him speak. But he merely coughed, misting the air with his arterial breath. Keats wiped the red from the knight's white lips.
I'm sorry, he said. I will not give my soul away. If you come back tomorrow I will make you a cup of tea, though, for the cough, and tell you a story.
This was clearly not sufficient. The knight closed his eyes in dismay. His face grew slack and lost; an aura of sorrow came off him. It was tangible, that aura. It had a dank smell. It made Keats nauseated and homesick, with the sharp bitter homesickness that was his hardest pain. He tasted at the back of his throat the air of Eastsake: its raw pollen; its ripened grain; the rays of sun that skimmed the river, fomenting dark weeds down in its shallow waters; the light that shocked a rich hot life from orchard branch and undersoil, from loam and summer tree.
He wrapped his arms around himself. He said miserably, I'm sorry. I understand. I would like to. Can we not be friends anyway?
He had thought that the knight might cease his grieving and be a companion. But the doors to the lecture hall burst open; laughing, Barrie and Bish came in. They had been looking for him; Bish said, Oh, run tell Taylor we've found the country mouse at last, we've mousetrapped him.
Keats felt trapped indeed. He glanced over his shoulder. The knight had gone: his body and armour, as though he had never been. The faint scent of brimstone remained, and something sweeter, stronger—a thicket of jasmine, growing on the wall beside the window. Colourless flowers tart and star-shaped amid flat leaves. The odour was everywhere. He inhaled, and felt lonely. Bish grabbed his arm. What's this, what've you been up to in here?
He looked scared, Bish: his face imprinted with astonishment. As though he thought Keats might have made the flowers on purpose, to impose fear.
Talking to the ghost, Keats said.
I suppose you think you're funny.
No. He did not feel funny. He was tired; he could not comprehend why Bish punched him in the stomach upon hearing him say this. He doubled over. He pictured himself safe, curled in a tiny knot upon his bed, like a leaf that had not budded. Dense and hidden, its forms obscure still, its structure still unwrit.