AS SOFT AS DREAMS
A town in Worcestershire
He comes running across the fields in the early light. Eliza would know him anywhere, a smudge against the green through the diamond panes. She is up at once, legs carrying her towards the front door. Francis rests a hand against the doorframe, swallowing hard, words thick and unsteady: ‘It’s Arthur again.’
She turns, quick as a hare, feet slipping on stone. The rising sun casts strips of light amongst the shadows as she darts through the house, past the great hall and the parlour, through the kitchen and into the still room, with its smell of rosemary and lavender and thyme. She shouts for Ma, and together they rummage the shelves to the clatter of pottery, searching for the herbs, the tinctures, the something, the anything that could save a child’s life.
When they leave, Francis runs ahead. Shirt catching in the wind, strong legs pitching him onwards, worn soles of his boots kicking up behind him to greet the sky. It is always him they send: he is the fastest of his siblings, he is the one the family worry about the least. Francis can get himself into trouble, but he will always find his way out again. That’s what they say. They follow him through the streets, where the houses become cramped and the lanes narrow. A man with a cartload of cloth swears as they dash past. The front door is ajar, and they rush up the stairs to a symphony of creaks and groans, to the room where the brothers sleep.
Arthur is on a pallet. A kind, sickly child, always struck with fevers. This one is ferocious; his thin limbs are slick with sweat, the sheets askew about his feet. Margaret kneels beside him and her hands, as sweaty as her son’s, reach for Eliza and Ma.
Ma feels the child’s forehead and lists ingredients in a low murmur as Eliza scrabbles for them in her bag. Bay leaves, bayberries, sage leaves, wine. Eliza mixes them together, feeling Francis’s eyes on her hands as she works, as though she is a conjuror who can pull someone back from the brink. Her breath is shallow and quick but her hands are steady. They spoon the medicine into the boy’s mouth and watch as he grimaces at the inevitable burn in his throat. In times before he had spat it back out, but not today: he swallows it all, eyes half-closed.
Downstairs in the dark kitchen, Eliza mixes more. ‘Every few hours he needs to take this,’ she says to Francis, her eyes on the phial.
He leans against the kitchen table, his face taut. ‘He was up all night.’
‘You should’ve come sooner.’
‘We thought it would pass.’ There is fear in his voice. ‘Do you think he’ll…’
She knows the question. Children are pulled from their mother’s clutches every day; squalling and vibrant one morning, limp and gone the next.
‘Arthur is strong. A cat with nine lives.’ She tries to smile.
He folds his arms. His sleeves are rolled up to his elbows, forearms corded from daily work. His hands are fists, and she sees a finger worrying at a piece of skin by his thumb. Her gaze lingers a moment, and he catches her.
‘You did the right thing,’ she says.
Ma calls, and Eliza turns to the door. But then she hesitates and reaches for him, resting her hand on his bare arm, feeling the coolness of his skin. He puts his hand over hers. And then she is away, hurrying up the stairs, thoughts tugged back to saving a boy’s life.
A week passes. Eliza watches Francis finish for the day with the rest of the farmhands, the sun beginning to fall from the sky. They have been working her father’s land, bodies bent low amongst the wheat, the rustle and crack as they cut it from the earth, grime and dust on their skin. The harvest has begun.
She joins Francis in the front yard, just as the men are shouting their goodbyes, spilling off down the lanes towards squat thatched homes and suppers made by their wives or mothers or daughters. She checks the contents of her bag again, the clink of the medicines Ma had advised. Ma had advised other things too, as though Eliza had not heard them before, as though she were not a woman grown: don’t let your father see you, come straight home afterwards.
She glances back at the house, but it is silent. They walk as though they are strangers – Francis a little in front as she keeps close to the thickets of brambles that soon will be heavy with blackberries – until the lane bends and they lose sight of the house. It is only then that she reaches up and wipes away the smear of clay on Francis’s neck with the pad of her thumb and loops her arm through his.
His home is busy tonight; his siblings are barefoot and everywhere, squeezed into the corners of the house, the two rooms upstairs, the two downstairs, the yard out the back where the pig lives. The space is full and round with giggles and squeals, rattling and banging, the sow’s soft snorts.
‘The mad house,’ Francis says, raising an eyebrow.
‘I love it,’ Eliza says. Francis’s younger sisters love her too. They gather about Eliza, admiring her dark hair and her soft features, asking her questions; can they plait her hair, who made that kirtle, who will walk her home.
‘I’ll be walking her home.’ Francis manoeuvres himself around his youngest brother, who clutches a wooden doll in his hand. The girls look at each other and giggle. From his stool in the corner of the room Philip, one of the middle brothers and a few years younger than Francis, raises an almost imperceptible eyebrow and continues to adjust the strings of his lute.
Arthur sits in his bed, propped up by two pillows, his eyes shiny and alert. The fever stutters on but his small fingers cling to life’s rough edges. Eliza gently rubs hartshorn and bay salt onto his wrists, suppressing a laugh as he wrinkles his nose at the stink of piss and sweat. ‘Sorry,’ she says. She pulls out a small mincemeat pie wrapped in linen, watching as Arthur’s eyes widen. She places the pie in his palm.
‘All for me?’ he says, the smell forgotten.
She does laugh then. ‘All for you.’
She gives Margaret more medicine for Arthur, and the woman reaches for her purse, pulls out a few scant coins. Eliza shakes her head and closes her hand over the woman’s outstretched palm.
‘You’re an angel,’ Margaret smiles.
When they are at the fringes of the town, where the houses peter out and the lane snakes towards the fields, Francis throws an arm about her shoulder. She fits easily, body bumping gently against his torso, head leant back upon his shoulder. They walk slowly, holding onto the moment like a butterfly caught in a jar.
‘Saviour,’ he says.
‘I’d never mock.’
‘Be quiet,’ Eliza laughs, but she feels a pleasure, a relief. No lost children under her watch.