Elizabeth Barrett Browning wakes up again. It’s the third time today. She thinks awakenings are far more common in springtime, but all year long she is called this way. She sighs and tucks her dark hair back under her cap. She will not refuse the call.
The afterlife is not as she imagined it. The throne of the Almighty is nowhere to be found, and no creature great or small has asked her to account for her good works or confess her sins. She simply arrived one day and met a woman with dark eyes and excellent manners, who showed her to this restful place, sometimes like a nice rooming house, other times like a torchlit catacomb, and told to sleep. The rooms are small but pleasant. It is always warm and smells of lavender or apples. And it always seems to be twilight, or perhaps just before dawn.
So she must light a candle. There is no pain here; it does not concern her much that she cannot see her way. If she stubs her toe or barks her shins, it would scarcely matter. But she hates to awaken anyone who has not been called. Some of the people who sleep around her—men, mostly—are terribly vexed when awakened and not fed. Horace Walpole—poor fellow—hasn’t had a bite in years. Anytime someone makes a sound near him, he jumps right up, excited as a child at Christmas. Then he lies back down, as disappointed as if that same child had received no gifts at all, whilst everyone else is merrily opening theirs.
As Elizabeth walks down the hallway, she can feel herself smiling automatically as Virginia Woolf comes into view. Virginia is always popular, and she has such a sprightly way about her for a suicide.
“Good morning, Virginia,” Elizabeth says. For it is always morning when you awaken, no matter the hour. And there are no hours here.
Virginia smiles back, reaches out and takes Elizabeth’s hand. “I’ve not seen you up in days!”
Elizabeth inclines her head, looking up knowingly. It seems to her that they are beneath the world rather than above it. They have no view; it is impossible to tell. “It’s springtime up there. I think it is easier for them to find me at this time of year. And who called for you?”
Virginia sighs. “A lovely girl. Scarce fifteen. She’s in love for the first time and only just knows it.”
“Mrs. Dalloway,” Elizabeth says, not really asking. She is being polite. This is always the answer.
“Orlando,” Virginia says, her smile widening. Elizabeth could swear she is glowing. “More and more, the calls are coming because of Orlando.”
Elizabeth smiles back. She does not know how long she has been in the catacomb, nor how the library here works. She only knows that she has read every book ever written. When she meets an author in the hall, she has perfect recall of their entire oeuvre, and they of hers. They know one another in the most comfortably intimate way. The woman who welcomes everyone on the day they die designed it this way. She is Murasaki Shikibu, and Elizabeth sees her always with an inked brush in her mouth, working, working. Shikibu knows everyone this intimately. She knows what every writer wants when they die.
Elizabeth thinks that some of the writers know each other better still. She has seen Anaïs Nin in Sappho’s doorway more than once. She has heard that such things are only possible for authors whose works touch in the world above. Perhaps that is true. Enough poets have come to her door that she imagines they must touch her words often, but she always sends them away. Robert has never once shown his face, and she does not care to know if he’s in these halls somewhere. She sleeps best when she sleeps alone.
She reaches her window, which is only hers. It is near a few others, and she does look around a bit and see who else is awake. There’s Christina Rossetti, reclining at the glass, winding a lock of her hair around her finger, enchanted by whatever she sees there. Elizabeth can see through no one else’s window, and no one may see through hers. That suits her. There’s Amiri Baraka, who always seems to be moving in time, as if he dances to music that no other may hear. There’s Juana Inés de la Cruz, free at last of her habit and sweeping around in crimson robes and a crown as she stands hungrily at her own window and takes and takes from whatever is given her. Elizabeth thinks of it as eating or drinking, but she knows that it not how it is for everyone. Some of them say it is like music, and others describe it as the act of love. Watching each at their glass, she can only guess at how they feel what they feel.
When she reaches her own window, she sees a familiar sight. It is always one of two things: a youth with a schoolbook or a grown person standing in the British Library before a glass case. In the case, they keep a foolscap original of Elizabeth’s poem that asks “How do I love thee?” And then offers to count the ways.
It is perhaps the most parodied and mocked love poem of all time, but such things do not call Elizabeth from her sleep. There is only one thing that wakes the writers who roam these halls, and that is rapture.
There is a young man peering through the glass. He can’t make out the words at first, and even now Elizabeth cringes at the thought of her penmanship. I was only drafting, she thinks. How could I know that centuries of onlookers would see my strikethrough lines, my shaking hand? How can I tell them it was the laudanum as much as the pangs of love which made me quake so?
But he is reading it, or she wouldn’t be here. He is reading it and his heart is swelling beyond its bounds. He is reading it and it is filling him with a longing so sharp that he resents it for puncturing the evenness of his day playing tourist. He came to this place expecting to be moved by Beowulf, and he wouldn’t be the first. That author, that hulking fellow, had breezed past Elizabeth more times than she liked to count. He had the look of an angry bear about him.
The young man is unmoved by the bear-man’s poem. He has come here with a terrible emptiness in his heart. It bleeds out of him now, and into Elizabeth. She feels no pain of her own, but when it is the precursor of the rapture of a reader, she feels it most sharply. It is the hunger before she is fed. (Pangs are only felt in hunger, guilt, and love.)
He is moved, instead, by a poem he knew first as a joke. As a litany recited by cartoon rabbits and snide antagonists who mock anyone who dares to show their heart. It comes over him the way a man is taken by sickness and he must step out of the gallery, into the corridor, to try and compose himself. He is weeping as though his heart is broken.
But it is not, or Elizabeth would not be here.
His love is not with him, but she is not gone from him. Not completely. He takes his own small, rectangular glass from his pocket and writes to his lady.
Ah, Elizabeth sighs. Would that they had such when I was young. When I think of how I pined for months for a letter. But no matter. Here it comes.
He finds it. Not her skiff of scribble, but a clear and even printing from which he may copy.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
He hits send.
Somewhere, in another part of the world, his love awakens. Her life is still in the world where pain is real and the sun still rises and sets. The stab of longing is shared between the two of them, and then between the three. It lands in Elizabeth’s chest, beating her heart once more. The lady above copies as well, and Elizabeth says the words along with her, lips moving as one as when the congregation is joined in prayer.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
And doesn’t she? Doesn’t she love them better than she ever could, seeing them crying for one another, split across oceans and without hope of anything beyond these words— her words!— that they share? Is not her love now a thing that could encompass all the world? She cries with them. She always does. She never loved anything so well in life. Of course she awakens for this. A thousand times, across a thousand centuries. If anything lasts so long.
When the rapture has faded and she is well-fed, Elizabeth rises from her place. It seems to her she has been sitting before a fire in a very comfortable chair, or else taking a sunlit stroll on a spring day that was warm but never taxing. When the bees could be heard but not felt. She stretches lightly, ready for bed again. For as long as she may rest. Until she is called once more.
Through the hall of glasses, she makes her way, only a little curious now about who is awake at this hour (for it seems very late indeed). But she comes to one corner that she knows is never empty, and she smiles, for he is not alone this night.
Disheveled and devilishly handsome, William Shakespeare sits with his chin in his hand, sighing at the glass before him. It never tires him and he is never tired. His bed hasn’t been touched in years. No matter how frequently Elizabeth rises, she sees him always here. He is happier than any of them, radiating contentment like a hot brick tucked between quilts, his reflection always smiling to his fellows over his shoulder.
And his free hand reaches out to his left, where Walt Whitman sits. He clasps William’s hand in his and grins broadly at his glass. His rapture is as pure as a child’s; if his hands were free he would clap them with delight. But he does not take his hand from William’s.
Elizabeth tucks her body closer to the wall, silent as the grave, and watches them just a little longer. It isn’t rapture, but it makes her smile as Virginia did. As any awoken author will.
William pulls Walt’s hand nearer to him and kisses it tenderly. He pulls him closer, wrapping an arm around his waist.
“I hope they never let us sleep,” William says. “I always knew I would be immortal.”
Whitman nods. “I always knew I was a god.”
Elizabeth turns to leave them without saying a word and nearly runs into Oscar Wilde. He smiles at her as he passes. “Well, if it isn’t one of my lost saints. Good morning, Elizabeth.”
She smiles back. “Goodnight, Oscar.”
Wilde slips in beside Whitman, wrapping a long arm around the two men. The three of them glow like embers in a fire that never goes out.
Elizabeth does not know if they are immortals, and she cannot believe they are gods. She does not think herself a saint, lost or otherwise. No one promised her the lifespan of her ink, and now that she is called by people carrying ink that never fades, she does not know if even that matters anymore.
She sneaks past the sleepers in rooms around her and does not envy them their unbroken rest. She cannot wait until she is awoken again by lovers who find her and bring rapture to her words. She loves them so much better after death. She cannot count the ways.
Meg Elison is a science fiction author and feminist essayist. Her debut novel, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, won the 2014 Philip K. Dick award. Her second novel was up for the Philip K. Dick, and both were longlisted for the James A. Tiptree award. She has been published in McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Catapult, and many other places. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley. Find her online, where she writes like she’s running out of time.
2100 words, Shimmer #44, July 2018