Shortly after arriving in England, Nat goes to bed ill and awakens transported back in time four hundred years to another London, and another production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Amid the bustle and excitement of an Elizabethan theatrical production, Nat finds the warm, nurturing father figure missing from his life in none other than William Shakespeare himself. Does Nat have to remain trapped in the past forever, or give up the friendship he's so longed for in his own time?
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"Nat?" said the voice. It was a young voice, sort of husky, and it had an accent I didn't recognize: halfway English, halfway American. "Nat?"
"Unh." I woke up with my face in the pillow, and even before I opened my eyes I knew something was wrong. My face and my body told me that I was lying on a different pillow, and a different bed; hard, both of them, and crackly. The bed was really uncomfortable. I moved my hip; surely it wasn't even a bed, but a mattress on the floor.
Maybe I was dreaming. Blurry with sleep, I turned my head, blinking in the daylight, and saw looking down at me the face of a boy I'd never seen before. He had long curly dark hair down to his shoulders, and black eyes, and he looked worried.
"How do you?" he said. "Is your fever less?" He reached out a cautious hand and felt my forehead.
I stared at him. "Who are you?" I said.
"Harry, of course. Harry, your new fellow. Have your wits gone, Nat?" He peered at me. "You look strange, a little. Thin in the face. But better. Dear Lord, I was afraid you had the plague."
I lay very still, with all my senses telling me that I had gone mad. The plague? Nobody's had the plague for centuries. Everything was different. This was a straw mattress I was lying on; I could feel bits of stalk prickling through the cover now. My pajamas had gone; I seemed to be wearing a long shirt instead. The room around me was smaller, with one window, divided into small panes. Sunlight slanted in through it to show rough plaster walls, a threadbare carpet on the floor, and a smaller one draped over a sort of bureau. I grew aware gradually of a rattle and hum of voices and creaking wheels and the chirp of birds from outside the window, and a stale smell in the room like...like something I had smelled before, but I couldn't think what, or when.
I was baffled, and frightened, though at least I didn't feel ill anymore.
I pushed back the rough blanket over me and scrambled to my feet. The shirt reached to my knees. My head reeled, and the boy Harry saw that I was shaky and reached for my arm. I realized that I needed to go to the bathroom. I said: "I have to "
He smiled, understanding, looking relieved. "Tha must be better if tha needs a piss," he said, and he drew me to a corner of the room and took a flat wooden cover off a wooden bucket, whose smell made it instantly clear what it was for. I stared at it blankly, but Harry had turned away to fold up my blanket, and since there was no time to argue, I went ahead and used the bucket. It had been pretty well used already, for assorted purposes. When I'd finished, Harry came over, glanced outdoors, picked up the bucket, and in one shatteringly casual movement, emptied it out of the window.
Such a small thing, such a huge meaning. I guess that was the moment when I first began to think, with a hollow fear in my chest, that I might have gone back in time. It was like being in a bad dream, but the dream was real. The night into which I had fallen asleep had sucked me down into the past, and brought me waking into another London, a London hundreds of years ago.
I leaned weakly against the wall. "Where am I?" I said.
Harry put down his reeking bucket and grabbed my shoulders, hard. He stared nervously into my face. "Art thou he they call Robin Goodfellow?" he said.
I said automatically, "I am that merry wanderer of the night."
"Thank the good Lord," Harry said, looking relieved. "At least thou hast thy lines." He moved me sideways and then downward, to make me sit. So there I was, sitting on a little stool topped with a hard cushion, sitting in a century long, long before I was born.
"Th'art Nathan Field," he said, looking me deliberately in the eye, speaking slowly as if to someone deaf or half-witted. "Come to our new Globe Theatre for a week from St. Paul's Boys, since we lost our Puck for Master Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. Th'art a wonderful actor, they do say, though it seems to me too much learning at that school has addled thy wits. Unless the fever has done it. Tha joined us yesterday, remember? We rehearsed lines, just thou and I together."
How could I say: Yes, I remember? That wasn't what I remembered at all.
"Aah," I said. Our new Globe Theatre, he had said. In 1999, where I lived, it was the Globe's four hundredth anniversary. So, if the Globe was new, this was 1599.
I sat there gaping at him, trying to cope with the unbelievable, with being bang in the middle of something that was totally impossible. All I could think was: Why is this happening to me?
"Come," Harry said. "It's past five. Master Burbage will be up and ready dress, quickly " And he began thrusting clothes at me from a heap at the bottom of the mattress; it was lucky he was there, to show me the right order. There was a kind of padded jockstrap of thick rough cotton; then long dark tights, like those I'd worn onstage sometimes but much worse fitting; then a bulgy padded pair of shorts, a thin floppy undershirt, and a fitted jacket to match the shorts. A doublet, he called it. Around my waist went a leather belt, with a knife like a dagger in a leather sheath attached to it.
"And I cleaned thy shoes," Harry said, and held them out; they were leather, rather like loafers, with a buckle on top. "Tha couldst never have done it, the way tha wast last night."
"Thank you," I said.
I have to write down the way he spoke, the way they all spoke, not as they really sounded but as I understood them. I'll use things like "thou" and "tha" for "you," sometimes, just to remind you that they didn't sound like us, but I can't make you hear the real speech. It was like a thick, thick dialect, with strange vowels, strange words, strange elaborate phrases. But it was more like the speech of my home than the English of today's London or New York, so perhaps that's how I understood them and they understood me.
Or then again it could just be part of the whole impossible change that took me there. I was living, but not in real life at all.
A round-faced woman came in, kind looking, with a long dress, a white pleated ruff around her neck and a sort of floppy cap on her head. Harry said at once, happily, "See, Mistress Burbage he's well again."
She took my chin in one hand and felt my forehead with the other. I had the best-felt forehead in London by now, it seemed to me. "The Lord be praised," she said, and then she looked at me critically, reached to the bureau, and took a damp cloth and scrubbed my face with it. I laughed, feebly, and she gave me an amiable pat. She reminded me of my Aunt Jen, a little; she was a link with the real world, in this mad dream that I was living.
Down a wooden staircase we went, clattering, Harry leading; it wasn't much more than a slanted ladder, with a rail to hold on to. In the room below, a man was sitting at a heavy wooden table with plates and mugs in front of him, and a sheaf of papers; he was chewing, and muttering to himself through the mouthfuls.
"Good day, Master Burbage," Harry said, so I said it too, and Burbage blinked at me. He was a chunky, goodlooking man, younger than Arby, older than Gil. He had a neat beard, and a rather big nose. His doublet was a wonderful glowing blue, with a broad collar.
"Better, art t'a? Good!" he said, and went back to his munching and muttering.
Mistress Burbage filled two mugs for us, from a jug with a curly handle; all these were made from a grey metal that I found out later was pewter. There was a big round loaf on the table, and a hunk of white cheese, both on square wooden plates. Harry cut us slabs from both of them, with his knife. Suddenly hungry, I took a big bite, chewed, and washed it down with a swig from my mug. The drink was cool, sour tasting but not unpleasant; I realized, with a shock, that it was a kind of beer. Ale, they called it, and it was the main thing I drank in all my time there; a weak homemade ale was the main thing everybody drank, from morning till night. You could say the whole population of Elizabethan England was slightly buzzed all day long.
Burbage said to himself, through his bread and cheese, "If I were fair, Thisbe, I were only thine....
So he was learning Bottom's part. I knew that bit. Bottom the Weaver comes back onstage saying his lines for the little play they're rehearsing, and his buddies rush away screaming because Puck has given him an ass's head.
I said, very fast and agitated, "O monstrous! O strange! We are haunted! Pray masters, fly masters! Help!"
Burbage chewed more slowly, looking at me. I could see a muscle twitching in his cheek, under his left eye. It looked sinister, though later I realized that it was just a sign of mild stress. "Hast played Quince too?" he said.
"Puck is onstage for those lines," I said.
"Thy memory is good. Will Kempe says thy tumbling is even better, is that true?"
"I do well enough," I said modestly, thinking: Wait till I show you. I knew that Arby had put me in the company partly because of my cartwheels and somersaults, back flips and handstands. For the way he wanted to do the play, they were as important as my acting or singing.
But I wasn't working for Arby now.
I had no time to worry about that; Burbage rushed us through our breakfast, eager to get to the theater. "Across the bridge today," he said. "No boat. We need to use our legs. "
He swung a wonderful short cloak about his shoulders, the same blue as his doublet, and Harry jammed a flat floppy hat on my head and the same on his own. Master Burbage had a hat with a brim, and a curling, slightly battered feather. He wore it at a jaunty angle. Out we went, raising the wooden latch of the heavy front door.
And their London swept over me, caught me up, in a nightmare mix of sight and sound and smell. Even before six in the morning, the street was filled with people bustling about, carrying huge bundles, selling fruit or pastries or pamphlets from trays slung from their necks, dodging to avoid men or horses. Carts clattered over the cobbles, creaking, rocking, splashing up muck sometimes from the stinking ditches into which Harry and everyone else had emptied their waste. Water ran through those ditches, but slowly. There were flies buzzing everywhere. The whole street smelled bad; so did the people sometimes, if a particularly unwashed one jostled you too close. Where there were gaps in the crowd, squawking crows and ravens hopped and pecked and fought over garbage in the ditches.
We passed shop fronts where bloody meat hung on enormous hooks, or vegetables and fruit were set out in gleaming rows, or a wonderful smell of fresh bread wafted out from hidden ovens. We passed a door with a bush tied over it, and the stale smell of ale strong from inside, and raucous shouting. We stayed close to Master Burbage, Harry and I, as he strode lordly down the street with his hand on the hilt of his short sword. People greeted him, here and there; sometimes he lifted his plumed hat, but he never paused. I scurried along in a blur of amazement, wonder and the beginnings of fear, past delights and horrors. A dog with no ears or tail snapped at me beside a bank of glorious roses set out for sale, and a beggar clutched at me, screaming, a filthy child with no legs, propped on a little wheeled trolley.
Then we were around another corner into an even more crowded street, narrow, lined with tall wooden buildings; between them I caught glimpses of the flat brown River Thames. We were crossing the river; the street was the bridge. It was London Bridge, I found out later; the only way of crossing the river except by taking a boat. There were houses built all along it, a row on either side, their roofs touching over the road running between. It didn't take us long to cross over; the Thames was not wide here.
And above the roofs where the bridge ended was the worst horror of all: a series of tall poles, with a strange round lump stuck on the top of each, lumps that gleamed white here and there, lumps attracting flurries of crows and other black birds that shrieked and tore at them, pecking and ripping and gobbling. It was only when I saw the farthest pole topped by a grinning white skull that I realized all the round lumps were human heads, the heads of men and women chopped off by an axe, and I stopped abruptly and heaved up my breakfast into the reeking ditch.
It occurred to me later that I'd now thrown up in two different centuries in the space of twenty-four hours.
Harry patted my back, consoling me over this last sign of my departed fever. Master Burbage was only concerned in case I'd splashed my tights.
Text copyright © 1999 by Susan Cooper