The Edges of Stories
This one makes a little more sense if you read 'The anatomy lesson' first
“Let's go back to the sail locker Archie. I want to check that bandage. I am worried about those sores underneath, too.”
They stood at the taff rail, He knew the wind was at his back, and blowing the sound of his voice away over Spithead. Nevertheless, after less than a month, the habit of caution was strong. Horatio's voice was very quiet.
Archie nodded. “I'll go first. Meet you there.” He had been more lighthearted, in recent days. His impudent smile back, and it was delightful. Archie's ribs must hurt at each breath, but Horatio was quite sure no one else knew. No one but himself, and Archie, and the monster who had done it.
Horatio, in the dim below decks, took a long moment to watch and listen, before opening his sea-chest. The act of crouching, with his back to the room made him uneasy now. But, upon examination, the space was empty, but for Clayton, who was doing some sort of musical thing to his violin. He was playing little repeating noises, and twisting some sort of wooden gear, at the top. He was frowning. It didn't sound like music to Horatio, but then, nothing did.
Clayton, nodded at him tiredly, his thin mouth arched into a smile that was worn, but still sweet. Horatio amended his list. Clayton's mild grey eyes missed nothing.
His sea chest was a mess. Simpson's depredations and his own hurried pawings had left it all askew.(Ahoo, Archie had said, was the proper Naval term, and Horatio had laughed an laughed because Archie looked so like a censorious owl.) Still, at the bottom, Horatio found the things he was looking for.
The sail locker was dim this time. Light from two small gratings trickled in through whorls of dust, to gild the rolls of canvas.
Archie sat, bare chested, elbows on knees, hands relaxed between them. The strange light limned him too, picking out odd details for the eye's focus. Archie, had chest hair, Horatio noticed, it sprang, forthright from the grimy edge of the bandage. It was caught in the odd golden light. Horatio, as yet, had none. At 17, he had almost given up waiting.
The bruises had not diminished in area. Horatio had been foolish, of course to think that they would have done so, so quickly. Some areas, previously dark, had yellowed, but the underskin bleeding had not stopped. Working gently as he could Horatio unwound the canvas. Archie stifled a wince, as the support came away.
“I think it's getting better.” He said breathlessly.
“Still hurts you to breathe, or cough?”
“Well, yes,” Archie admitted. “Coughing would be ghastly. Have not felt the need through, and I'm grateful for that.”
“Hmm My father always said that coughing was helpful, in cases of broken ribs, he said that it prevents a pneumonia...”
“Well,” Archie said, “I would not wish to defy the learned doctors Hornblower, but I am reluctant to endure such a regime.”
“I'm sure that my father would say that climbing to the main-top answers well enough to get the vital forces moving.”
“Thank Christ for that...”
Horatio felt the moment, then, as the jest slid aside. “Archie,” he said, “You are the bravest person I have ever known.” Archie gave him a level look, allowing Horatio to watch the smile fade from his eyes. It was replaces by a look that Horatio did not understand, something shone there, remote, measuring, cold as a loaded pistol. Then, it too, slid away somewhere. The smile returned to Archie's mouth.
“Mr Hornblower, You really have to get out more.” He said.
Horatio realized, then that he was standing, mutely trailing the dirty canvas on the floor, staring like an idiot.
“Here, Archie” he said, moving closer, kneeling. “I cannot sense any corruption in the sores, but they seem to be healing only slowly. I have an unguent that my father sent with me. It may help.
If I may?”
Archie nodded, eyes averted.
The little bottle was made of jade, chipped, cracked, but still good. It was cool in Horatio's hand, familiar as childhood. The smell of the ointment filled the space.
“What is that?' Archie shivered under the stroking hand. “It, it doesn't hurt. I thought it would.” He added softly.
“It's nard.” Horatio said. His voice was low and toneless. He could not say 'I would never hurt you, Archie.' He would not dare to say it, and besides he had hurt Archie already, hurt him just by seeing.
“Spikenard, some call it.” He watched his hand moving over Archie's skin, careful over the burns the bruises, the aching that seemed to be burning them both.
“It's in the Bible. The wise men brought it, I think. I always imagined little Jesus having it on his skinned knees, as I did.”
Archie looked up, in blue startlement. “You did it too, Horatio!”
“Did what?” Alarmed.
“I never knew anyone else who found the edges of stories.” Archie said. “I always did that as a child. I wondered what happened before, or after, where the story didn't go.” His head dropped, submitting to the slow soothe. His voice became more quiet. “For instance,” he said, “Horatio and Hamlet, what do you think they did for fun? I mean – they didn't have Eccleston and Chadd to order them about.”
Horatio nodded, although he didn't think Archie could see. “I did do that. Sometimes I still do. When something makes no sense to me, I imagine I am explaining it to someone clever, who will help me to understand.” He laughed, a little ruefully, “Marcus Aurelius has been hearing quite a lot about ships rigging lately.”
Archie stood up, stretching up onto his toes, grimacing a little, against the ache. He smiled, and reached for his shirt.
“Just think Horatio, we must have been looking at the world in the same strange way all these years. We didn't even know each other.” He smiled. “Next time you want to think about rigging, come to me first. I'll help you anytime.”
“I will, Archie.” Said Horatio, “I'll come to you first.”