A Boy Like Any Other
three legends, from a different perspective
by Mary McCluskey
I’d got my hands round his neck, see. Got my hands so tight round his neck and squeezed hard and I could have killed him then and there if he hadn’t looked me right in the eyes, then gone limp, slid a bit, as if giving in. All the anger gone from his face, as if he was saying do it, do it. His mouth soft, his face too close. I felt the shiver go from him to me and dropped him, left him on the ground.
No pretty words from him that day. No. None of the little rhymes he sang to himself, chanting his made-up stories in the Stratford woods. I left him, went back to my girlfriend.
“I nearly killed the toe rag for what he done to you,” I told Lizzie.
“You kill him, Joe,” she said. “And we’re finished.”
Hard to believe he’d been my best friend all those years, poaching and fishing. We felt like the Avon was our river. My ma told fortunes for the village women and Will’s mother, Mary, came often to our cottage. I listened in the back scullery while she talked about her son. She worried about his strange ways, his head in the clouds dreaming, his stories.
“He’s not right, our Will,” she said. “He’s an odd lad.”
“He’s just a boy like any other,” my ma said, looking into the tea-leaves. “He’ll go far, let him be. Let him grow.”
He grew fast, got into trouble fast. He had a way with the girls, no question. He had a steady, the Hathaway lass over at Shottery, but others met him in the woods, listened to his fancy talk. If there were other babies, I didn’t hear of them. Lizzie was mine, my girl. I had never touched her. He was the only boy who had.
He left for London with a bunch of roving actors and just as well, too, because he was wanted for poaching over at Charlecote.
The baby was born the following Spring, a boy. He’s a quiet lad but I won’t let him get dreamy, oh no. I’ll teach him to hunt, to fight, and when he’s old enough I’ll teach him a trade he can use in the world. No pretty words for him. Lizzie and me, well, we never mention Will, though we hear stories of him in London, tales of affairs with actresses and with actors too, and I pretend not to believe that, though sometimes I remember how his mouth looked that day, so close to mine.
Yeah, I could’ve killed him that day and good riddance. No loss.
The Future for Alex
We knew Cleo would be a beautiful bride but she takes the breath away. Silence falls as she walks towards Philip. Her gown is cut low, displaying her breasts; her eyes, green and wide, are bright with happiness. She is slender as a reed, taller than some of the men. Every woman looks at her with envy, every man with lust. Philip, the bridegroom, smiles. She is his already; he has no need to gloat.
I am not focused on the bride and groom. I wait with the serving girls and I watch Alex, Philip’s son. He scowls as stepmother and father join hands. She is barely older than he is. He is thinking, I know, of his mother. Abandoned now.
His best friend, Heff, touches his arm. I have had them both in my bed. Heff just a few months ago, an eager virgin. I took him because Alex asked me to. Alex, well, he visits whenever he needs a warm body or there is something on his mind. He pumps fast, like an animal, as if this alone will exorcise his demons.
Sometimes, afterwards, we talk and play our game. I read his palm, tell his fortune. I do not tell him everything.
I watch him now as the laughter echoes and I can feel, in my own gut, his anger burning. Heff offers him wine but Alex watches his father. When the bridegroom makes another toast to his bride, Alex pounces.
“Hey, father,” he shouts. “Go easy on the wine, old man, or there won’t be enough steel in the sword for Cleo.”
Philip leaps from the table and rushes towards his son as if he means to kill him. I am holding a tray as he roars like a wounded animal across the room. There is a crush of people in front of me so I step back, just one step. And he trips.
As Philip falls, sprawling on the stone floor, there is some muted laughter, but mostly there is concern. Only Alex laughs out loud; Heff loyally joins him.
“Here is a man who was ready to cross from Europe to Asia,” says Alex. “And he cannot cross the room without losing his balance.”
They guest laugh then; the music starts up. It could have turned into a brawl, like so many weddings.
That night Alex undresses fast, pulling at his clothes and he is inside me within seconds of entering the room. And then it is over. It is a joyless joining. I turn him onto his back.
“Sleep. You’re exhausted.”
“It’s so hard for her – to see him with that whore,” he says. I know he is worrying about his mother again.
“Move her away. She’ll be happy eventually.”
“How do you know these things?” he asks. “Tell me. Tell me what you see for me.”
“Please, please,” he says, kissing my face. He knows I will give in. I laugh when I speak so that he will think it is invention.
“I know you will own the world. And unite Europe and Asia, the largest empire ever. You will marry two beautiful women and love many more.”
“The world and beautiful women, eh?” he says. He is drifting off to sleep, to dream of the worlds he will conquer.
I do not tell him what I see so clearly in my mind. See every day.
That on July 13, 323 at the age of thirty-three he will scream in pain for long hours. And the face he will see will not be of a wife, nor even his lifelong friend, Heff, the man for whom he will have grieved for one whole year. No.
The man they will call Alexander the Great will see my face, only mine, as he dies.
A Different Path
They told me his father would come to take him away. They whispered it to me, like a secret, but I knew. I’d always known. I waited anxiously, watching my boy as he played. He was five years old and moved like a shadow through the vines, swift on his feet, graceful as a cat. He stared up through the leaves, squinted through the rays of light that dappled the woods near our cottage. He could be quiet for hours, breaking off vines with his child fingers, creating arrows that would soar through the air. Then he would smile and begin again with a longer branch. Higher, higher.
As a newborn he opened his eyes at once. He wanted to see everything, all of the world. He slept so little. I would leave him in the shadow of the olive tree so that he could look up the branches to the sky. The light and shade of the olive grove would keep him quiet for hours.
That night before his father was due I knew that I must take my boy away. Take him far from Vinci and the pressures that would bear on him in his father’s house. His body was strong but his spirit so gentle. How would he survive? He needed solitude and peace and nature around him.
Tomorrow, an adventure my little lamb, I whispered to him, as we prepared for sleep. We will go an adventure. His eyes lit up, as I know they would. At dawn I dressed him. I had a plan. A man who had come through Anchiono months ago had a vineyard just fifty kilometres away. He had leant against a tree, watching me as I tended to my chores and he had said he needed a strong woman. Bring the boy, he said. He will be useful.
Mine was a simple plan. I would make it work. We would have a good life.
At the first birdsong, I touched him gently and he woke at once. Just half a mile from our home I stumbled and cried out. My foot had caught in a tangle of undergrowth and the pain shot through me. I yelped and tried to hop, but he held onto me, wrapping around my leg, clinging so tight, a limpet in his distress. I thought of the miles ahead and, almost at once, I heard the voices beyond me. One was immediately recognizable: Ser Piero calling my name: Caterina, Caterina. Leo heard it too.
Papa! he shouted, wriggling out of my grasp, and ran straight and fearless into the darkness, without faltering, without looking back.
When his father took his hand and he realized I was not to come too, a shadow crossed his face, but did not cry, he never cried. Instead, he hugged me.
Now, I wait outside the house that is called Verrocchio’s Workshop in Florence. I want to see my boy. He is fourteen now, almost a man. I know him at once, he stands tall above the others and although beauty is common in this province, still he stands out. He shouts with surprise as he sees me, moves fast to place his arms around me and hustles me to a corner, a crumbling wall. There, he talks. He tells me of things I cannot understand, will never understand, about color and light and the stars and man and his place in the world. And I lose my place in his. I think - how can a boy who thinks so much find contentment?
I walk away, leave him to a life his father has chosen for him and I imagine the life we could have had. We would have been so happy in our vineyard. We would have lived peacefully. If only I had not stumbled that night, if only I had taken a different path, we would have been happy.
* * *
Mary McCluskey is a British born writer who lived for some years in Los Angeles and now regularly commutes between California and Stratford-upon-Avon in the UK. Her short stories have been published in literary magazines in the US, UK, Australia and Hong Kong and included in a number of anthologies She has just completed a novel which may or may not be published, depending on the whims of agents, publishers and the gods.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
Anywhere! From news stories, family memories, friends' gossip, people on the streets, bus and train conversations. I'm a shameless eavesdropper.
The idea for this story came easily. I've just moved to Stratford-upon-Avon and here in the Bard's 'hood it's impossible not to be constantly reminded of Shakespeare. I like to imagine Will as a boy, can visualize him with his friends, larking around by the river all those years ago. Who would have guessed that his name would eventually be known to millions of people all over the world, generation after generation? Did anyone realize then that there was something special about him? Or was he just a boy like any other? That's what fascinates me.