Title Owl Time
Word Count 1250
Down the stairs, avoiding the fourth, which now, as always, creaked. The door was silent. Father kept the hinges oiled. Heel of bread in his pocket, easy enough. Here the bag with the things he had ready. He had a scrap of paper and a corked bottle of ink. Unsafe to bring anything written with him, but he might need to make notes.
Slipping away had ever been his habit when he came home. He found places to be. If he did not, he would end up in the shoe shop, with the stink of leather in his nose. There was always work to be done there, and he had been avoiding it, with cat-footed care, for as long as he could remember. At days end, he turned up. Mother was willing to put food before him, and not ask where he had been. Kit knew she wanted to ask though. He knew it by the shadows of her eyes, the tuck of her mouth. He had come home often over the years, pressing her warm face to his cold one, hanging his cloak on the same hook by the door. He had returned as a student, as a poet, as a roaring boy, as a secret sodomite. This time he came home to spy.
The walk was not long, nor was it unpleasant. He had scampered often, his books in a bag that bumped his hip at each step. Today the sun was sleepy on the horizon, slanting light through the trees, The sky still white. His feet were wet. The heavy dew meant a fine day later, at least. The year already turned toward spring. Kit yawned. Off to the left he heard an owl call, late to her nest, a falling note, sloping down to nothing.
He was outside the city walls now. The stones of the street stopped abruptly. There was mud in the the roadway, it was dry at the edges, cracked and springy in the declivity in the center and where the carts had gone. Tall grasses bowed, fat with moisture, beside the track. He could smell them, the air was warmer than yesterday. There were the kind that boys picked to fight with, striking and parrying until they came apart. Kit was walking more slowly, but it was not avoidable. Maybe there is nothing to find.
He had tried to squirm away from this task. They are old, Kit said, they are innocent, blameless. I know them. Well, yes, he knew them. That was the point, the pointy poking point indeed.
And here he was. He raised his hand to knock.
The door swung open.
She was sturdy, planted in the doorway, the room dark over her shoulder. She might be called handsome, Kit supposed. One fist on her hip, gathered a fold of apron, her eyebrow lifted in an arc. She was young, but his own youth seemed not to impress her.
“Good day Sir,” she made it a question.
“Give you good day, Mistress,” his reply was automatic. “Is--”
“Who is it Suzanne?” The voice from the darkness was cracked with age. “Is someone there?” Suzanne raised the other eyebrow at him. She was still blocking the door.
“Give me a moment,” the old voice crackled. “Let me get my stick. Ah there. Why 'tis master Marlowe. Come in boy-- Suzanne close the door there is a draft. Where is my coat? Come by the fire, Marlowe.”
The old voice nattered on, from the bent head, level with Kit's chest. The hand that clutched the stick was bruised with age.
“Suzanne-- don't glower so. Bring us some hypocras. Lazy girl, tcha! I can't do it all myself. Let me just poke the fire up. Sit, sit yourself.”
Kit sat. He was sweating. It was dim in here, hot. The smell of his own sweat was different than this, his was clean, fresh under his arms from walking. He had washed this morning at the basin in his room. The smell in here was of old sweat left to mildew.
The small room was as crowded as he remembered. He lifted a stack of books from the chair Most of the books were about trees and flowers, but the top one seemed to be the works of Machiavelli. A forbidden book, sure, but not the crime he was sent to search for. He put them all gently on the floor, and sat.
“I brought you a book, Sir.” He pitched his voice as if to be heard in the god's.
“A Botany of America, oh my-- let me get my spectacles.” He pushed them on his nose with careless force, but the hands that took the book were gentle. The knuckles were red and humped, but they had always been that way. He smiled as he turned the pages, and Kit saw how he forced himself to close the cover again. He really did not look older than he had ten years ago, or twenty, just thinner somehow, as if he were going transparent with wear like an old sheet.
The old face looked up, as if hearing the thought. “The years get on, do they not Mr Marlowe? I remember teaching you your letters, right here by the fire. And now look at you.”
“How does Mistress--” Kit began, but the the old man's head was already shaking.
“Lost her four months back. She caught the flux, went quickly.”
“No, no.” The old man reached out, patted Kit's knee. “She went in peace, no fences to be mended, never a cross word to take back. I hope to do as well. We had forty years you know. You can't even imagine forty years--” the old man gave a soundless laugh.
“What have you there?” The spectacles made the man's eyes look distorted, but they did seem to help his vision, Kit thought.
“Just some cabbage leaves for Jerusha.”
“Ah, you are a good boy to remember her. You know where to find her. Go. I'll stay here.”
Jerusha the tortoise was unchanged. She emerged from her scraped earth hole under the house, and took the cabbage leaves with her beaked mouth and ate them with apparent pleasure. Kit squatted to watch. Her shell was cool under his hand, and she turned her head as a bird does to fix him with one eye. Eventually the leaves were gone. She pushed herself backwards, out of sight in the dark.
He waited a moment, but he knew she would sleep now, safe in the dark earth.
He turned to go back inside, but the girl Suzanne was on the doorstep again.
“He was your teacher,” She said, and this was not a question.
“Aye-- taught me to read, ” Kit said. (And gave me books when I had none. This he did not say.)
“He's my grandfather.” She said. “And he is ill.” She gave him a level look, measuring. “Do not keep him long.”
Kit nodded. She stepped aside, and he went into the house. But, after all, he could hear now the snores from the fireside. And, resolving in the dim light he could see now, the old hands limp on the opened pages of the book.
He raised a finger to his lips, and stepped back, and finally he saw Suzanne smile.