Authors: Anne Blankman
To two of the “traitor angels” in my life—Lynn and Peter:
readers, writers, and beloved parents.
Thank you for my beautiful childhood.
OUT OF THE DEEP
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
“IN THIS EARTHLY LIFE,” MY FATHER OFTEN SAID
to me, “we move with real or willful blindness. But only one way leads to true darkness.”
I puzzled over his words whenever I descended into the cellar. There the blackness was absolute, but I was accustomed to moving in the dark. That summer morning, I dipped a cup into a barrel of sand, listening to the grains sifting together against the vessel’s earthenware sides. Soon it would be time to sprinkle the sand across the pages covered with my father’s poetry, to prevent the ink from smearing, and thus to capture his words forever. As soon as I joined him upstairs, he would begin dictating to me, his story transporting my mind from myself into a strange and new world.
“Elizabeth!” our cook-maid, Luce, hollered down the cellar steps. “Your father’s waiting for you!”
“I’m coming!” I clapped the lid onto the barrel. Somewhere above me church bells were ringing, the sunrise chimes summoning farmers to their fields. The mingled scents from bins of potatoes and damp stone walls wafted to my nose, and beneath the thin soles of my shoes I sensed the unevenness of the packed dirt floor.
Every morning I visited the cellar without a candle because I wanted to understand how it felt to be my father—locked in an endless darkness, dependent on his other senses to survive. Some of my sisters thought I was mad; Mary despised the dark, and once she fetched an apronful of potatoes, she always raced back toward the slivers of daylight shining around the edges of the door at the top of the steps. Not me. I was my father’s daughter, after all, and night held no terror for us. Our fears were made of kings and nooses.
. I couldn’t let my thoughts slither into that old, familiar pit again. Father was alive. As long as he did nothing to regain the king’s attention, he would remain that way.
I went up the stairs, trailing my hand along the wall for balance. In the kitchen Luce was stirring a pot that hung over the fire. Beneath her white cap, her lined face was flushed from the heat of the flames. She sent me an annoyed look.
“Have you been rummaging about in the cellar again without a candle?” she asked. “You’ll break your neck one of these days, Miss Elizabeth,” she went on without waiting for my response. “You’d best see to your father; he’s been asking for you.”
Although my stomach rumbled, I hurried to Father’s sitting room before breaking my fast. My shoes clacked on the
bare floorboards—a poor man’s sound, for we didn’t have the money to buy rugs. Even the whitewashed plaster walls were a silent testament to the meager state of our family purse; they ought to have been covered with striped paper or the strips of fabric that the genteel poor used for decoration. Instead they were unadorned except for iron brackets holding cheap tallow candles.
Father sat by the window in his private sitting room, his chair turned so he could feel the first shafts of sunlight on his face. Silver strands glinted in his shoulder-length auburn hair and wrinkles scored his pale cheeks. He wore his usual clothes: doublet, breeches, stockings, and shoes with wide metal buckles, all in black, so unlike the greens, blues, and reds of the men who now sat on Parliament’s benches.
Once my father’s dress had been indistinguishable from that of the political leaders he used to work with. They had seemed so alike, these revolutionaries in their clothes of Puritan black, that my then-childish eyes couldn’t always tell Father’s colleagues apart.
But that was before the government collapsed and a king was placed again on England’s throne. Before the new leaders had called Father a traitor.
“Ah, Elizabeth,” Father said. “You have such a quick step, it must be you. Let me see you, daughter.”
Obediently I crouched before him and did not move as he ran his hands over my face, tracing the swell of my cheek, the length of my nose. I gazed at his pale blue eyes filmed over with a thin layer of white. His eyes never met mine, of course. If only he could see me, even once—then maybe he’d tell me the reasons behind my unusual upbringing. As a child I’d sat beside him on
hundreds of mornings, at first learning to read and write; later mastering Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Italian; then studying the great philosophers such as Plato and Cicero. My education was a replica of the lessons Father had given his students when he was a young teacher. His
students, for he had taught me as though I were a boy.
But I doubted he’d ever tell me anything, for I must be frozen forever in his mind as a toddler, which was how old I had been when the last sliver of vision in his right eye had darkened to black. I swallowed down my disappointment.
He dropped his hands into his lap. “I’ve been composing lines in my head for hours. Elizabeth, I think I’ve done it at last. This poem will be my masterpiece.”
I sighed. Not this impossible hope again. Father’s writing might be beautiful, but the story’s simplicity would surely prevent it from being well received, let alone considered a masterpiece.
I sat down at the writing table. “Of course your poem will be wonderful.” I shifted uncomfortably.
Father’s poem was a ten-book epic centered on the oldest tale of all: the origins of mankind. Satan and his band of angels attempt to overthrow God’s rule and are cast out of Heaven, so Satan decides to infiltrate Earth and corrupt its only human inhabitants, Adam and Eve—which he does, ushering evil into our fallen world forever. A straightforward tale, written in the English tongue, and utterly unlike my father’s earlier elegant Latin elegies and fiery political tracts.
“Let’s get to work,” Father said. “The minutes pass too quickly, and it won’t be long before your stepmother and sisters are awake and we’ll have no more peace for the rest of the day.”
Smiling, I dipped my quill into a pot of ink. These early hours, when Father and I were closeted in his study with only words for companionship, felt like coins clenched in my fist: valuable and rare. Since we had fled last year to this village, Chalfont St. Giles, to escape the plague in London, he had altered his writing habits; he used to write only during the winter, saying the cold stirred his creativity. Of late, however, he had taken to writing year-round and seemed determined to work on
constantly, regardless of the weather.
“It isn’t their fault they don’t understand,” I said. I sneaked a look at him, even though I knew he couldn’t see me. “Sometimes I don’t, either, Father—understand why you’re educating me, I mean.”
“Someday you’ll learn my reasons,” he said. “Until then, you must trust in me.”
“My faith in you will never be shaken,” I assured him, but he shook his head.
“Untested faith is not faith, but ignorance,” he said. “I wouldn’t wish such an easy but meaningless existence for you.” He took a deep breath. “Now we must plunge into Satan’s world.”
Then he spoke in such a rush I couldn’t think; could only cling to his words and scribble them down. “His ponderous shield / Ethereal temper, massy, large and round,” he dictated in a breathless gasp, slicing the air with his hand to signal a line break. My fingers flew across the page. I recognized these verses; he was revising a section he had written last winter. By this point, Satan has escaped from the flaming lake and is moving toward the shore. The shield he wears on his back looks as big and bright as the moon a man would see when peering through a telescope
at the night sky. Then Satan calls his band of rebel angels closer to hear his plans to invade God’s newest creation, Earth.
My quill paused on its journey across a page. Whenever we worked on this section, I found myself wondering about the man looking through a telescope, whom my father called a “Tuscan artist.” Why make this man a citizen of Tuscany when Father was writing in English for the English populace?
Before I could puzzle over it further, I realized my father had stopped speaking. As usual he had dictated about fifty lines in a thunderous cascade, then halted without warning. He sat with his head bowed, lost in thought.
I recognized the dismissal. It was time to fetch his morning meal. Hastily I sprinkled sand across the pages and left them to dry on the writing table before leaving the room. As I stepped into the kitchen, my sister Mary thrust a bowl of stew into my hands. “Eat up, for pity’s sake!” She ran anxious fingers down the front of her bodice, smoothing imaginary wrinkles. “Betty said we could go into the village to buy bread, and if we time things properly, we may bump into Mr. Sutton. He usually goes for a walk in the early morning.”
I groaned and dropped onto a stool. Francis Sutton was the squire’s son and, for reasons I couldn’t understand, he seemed to think he was irresistible to all the females in the village. “Then I’ll tarry, so we can avoid him.”
Mary flung herself down beside me. Our sisters, Anne and Deborah, watched wide-eyed from their stools next to the hearth. “Don’t be so heartless! You know I can’t go alone, and Deborah has to finish mending the table linens.”
She didn’t say why Anne couldn’t accompany her—she didn’t
have to. Unbidden, my gaze slid over to my eldest sister. She had stood, and one hand gripped the seat of her stool for support, the whiteness of her knuckles betraying the effort it cost her to remain upright. Every evening when I helped Anne change into her nightdress, I saw the uneven lengths of her legs, the muscles wasted and spindly, the flesh ghost white. As always, I had to look away, my eyes stinging.
“How can you be so cruel about Mr. Sutton?” Mary wailed.
“I was teasing.” Partly. “I can’t go anyway—I have to bring Father his food.”
“I’ll do it,” our stepmother said in her quiet voice that always reminded me of water running in a creek bed, clear and clean but icy cold. Betty brushed past me to pick up Father’s tray from the table in the middle of the room, where Luce was chopping vegetables.
Saying nothing, I studied my stepmother from the corner of my eye. A white cap covered the red hair she had scraped into a bun. Her thin face was set in the habitual expression of distaste it assumed whenever she dealt with me.
Quickly I turned my attention to my stew, trying to ignore the bitter taste rising in the back of my throat. As soon as the door closed behind Betty, Mary grumbled, “You know she’ll take credit for the stew, Luce, although you cooked it.”
“Hush.” Luce wiped her hands on her apron. “There may be bad blood between you girls and your stepmother, but you still ought to show her respect.” She trudged to the back door, stopping to glance at me. “I’m checking the pennyroyal in the garden. I don’t want you saying nasty things about Mistress Milton while I’m gone, do you understand?”
I hitched a shoulder in halfhearted acquiescence, pushing around the carrot slices in my bowl with my spoon. Fine. I wouldn’t utter a word about Betty. But I
think about her. Her narrowed eyes watching me slip from the house once darkness descended, dressed in boys’ clothes, a sword gleaming silver at my side. As soon as she had married Father three years ago, she’d learned that I practiced sword fighting every night, and had since I was a small child, at Father’s command. What she didn’t know was why. In fact, none of us did but Father. When I pressed him once for an explanation, he squeezed my hand.
Elizabeth, a veil covers the world, obscuring our sight
, he replied.
I’m training you to keep it safe or to cut it—only time will determine which you must do
. All I could think was that his plans must involve his political past—and whatever he intended me to do sounded terribly important. And this had made my heart swell with pride.
Mary’s plaintive voice interrupted my memories. “Elizabeth, I have to find opportunities to see Mr. Sutton. You know how Father says he hasn’t any money for our dowries, even though he keeps dozens of expensive books. It’s up to
to secure our futures.”
Suppressing a sigh, I surveyed my sisters. It was like looking at reflections of myself: chestnut-brown hair that peeked out from beneath white caps, freckles sprinkled across their noses like spices in milk, identical blue eyes. Only a couple of years apiece separated the four of us—Anne was twenty, Mary nearly eighteen, I sixteen, and Deborah fourteen—and between our similar appearances and our Puritan garb of cheap linsey-woolsey, we were often lumped together as “the Milton daughters.” I was all too aware, however, how different I was from my sisters. Just
because I had no inclination for romance, though, didn’t mean my sisters should be denied.
Besides, eventually we would all have to be married off—or we’d be dependent on our relatives or the almshouse to survive. Each option turned my stomach, which was why I rarely let myself think about the future. I set my bowl down with a clatter. I wasn’t hungry anymore.
“Very well,” I said. “I’ll accompany you.”
Mary squealed and flung her arms around my neck. “You’re a darling! Let’s be off at once. Deborah doesn’t mind doing the washing up—do you, Deborah?”
“Actually—” Deborah began, but Mary had already seized my hand and pulled me from the house. I couldn’t help laughing as we practically flew through the gardens, the strings of our caps fluttering behind us. Mary jerked open the gate and we started down the dirt road. I glanced over my shoulder. The sun had risen behind our small brick cottage, turning the structure into a black mass rimmed with gold. I could faintly make out the white oval of Anne’s face; she had managed to hobble to the door to wave farewell. I waved back and caught the gleam of her smile before Mary tugged on my hand again, forcing me to follow her.
“Let’s head for the woods,” she said. “He often walks there.” She aimed a warning look at me. “And do keep a civil tongue in your head, won’t you?”
“That won’t be easy,” I said, and then laughed when she looked horrified. “Mary, I spoke in jest! Naturally I’ll be polite to him!”
“One never knows with you,” she muttered, then smiled and slipped her arm through mine. “He’s so charming, isn’t he? And
such a learned gentleman—he just finished his university studies at Oxford, and I daresay his father will give him his own estate when he gets married.”