Show and Tell is a story about past lives of a Celtic god and his mortal lover. The past lives are unlocked by objects discovered by Dan, a history student, and Malcolm, a reality TV show host. A number of these are shown in the novel, but I didn’t have space for all of them. So, over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be presenting these stories here on the blog. Think of them like deleted scenes. These will eventually be available as one collection in a few different ebook formats, if you want to wait until they are all posted.
Dan and Malcolm visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and stumble upon a glass bottle made by a colonial American glass artist named Henry Danforth. Getting near the bottle unlocks the memory of a past life of Aengus and Caoimhin, the Celtic god of love and his mortal lover.
Hugh McLean was an Irish boy from County Cork who had come to London to seek his fortune. He found me instead.
At the time, I was apprenticed to a glass blower who had a tiny shop near Covent Garden. I chafed a little at the limitations of the job; I wanted to make art, he wanted me to make glass bottles for the chemist whose store was down the lane. Still, he was a good teacher. Also, I was having a quiet and unsatisfactory affair with his son.
Then Hugh McLean wandered into my shop one day, looking for a job.
“Tha thu ann, m’eudail,” he said.
There you are, my love.
And that was that. We were inseparable from that day forward.
My apprenticeship ended a short time later. The glass blower’s son was livid that I had stopped coming to him at night. It soon became clear that I’d have to find other employment. In bed one night, I brought up opening my own shop with Hugh, and he said, “Why stay in London?”
“Where would we go?”
I balked. I couldn’t think why we would need to leave London, or even the British Isles, which were familiar and comfortable. After all, we’d been living in this part of the world for more than a thousand years.
Hugh put an arm around me and pulled me close to him. His body was big and warm and hairy and I loved it. I felt so completely safe in his arms. He said, “Freedom, m’eudail. America is a land of possibility. I hear parts of it are unexplored. If we are to live out our days loving each other in a way of which others do not approve, we may yet have more freedom elsewhere.”
It was a fair point, but it seemed like such a drastic change. I’d never lived anywhere but London, at least not in this lifetime. But Hugh had wanderlust. I understood also that he wanted to be somewhere other than the tiny room I had in the loft above the glass shop.
I said, “I know you want to go somewhere bigger, but—”
“It doesn’t matter as long as I’m with you,” he said in Gaelic.
I could listen to him speak Gaelic all day. His deep voice had this lilt to it that was so lovely and musical. He must have known this was the secret way to my heart. I burrowed against his chest. “We will go,” I said. “We will go.”
* * * * *
We arrived in New York a couple of months later, and I was both comforted and dismayed by how much New York reminded me of London. The city was cramped and smelly but also felt ramshackle and temporary, as if most of the houses were just places to live until something better were built.
Through an advertisement, I found some property on Beaver Street. It was a cottage in rough shape, but most of the blemishes were superficial. Hugh agreed that we could fix it up, and then the first floor would make an excellent space for a glass shop. So that’s what we did: we cleaned, we painted, we replaced rotting wood. We slept on the floor, made love in the attic, ate most of our meals at the public house on the corner. When it got cold, Hugh and I would roll ourselves up together on the featherbed he bought for us and use each other for heat. Once I got the shop open, business was slow, but I didn’t much care, because I had Hugh.
And then the war broke out.
Hugh came home one day with a newspaper tucked under his arm. He gave me a kiss. No one was in the shop, thankfully, though business had been steadily improving. He said, “British troops are on the move. There is a battle raging in Brooklyn.”
“Do you not ever care to notice what is going on around you, mo anam cara?” It took me a moment to translate, but he’d called me his soulmate.
“I notice. I knew about the troop movements. I’m just surprised it has come to this. Did men die?”
“Yes, quite a few.”
I found the situation troubling. New York at least had the advantage over London that no one seemed to pay us any mind. We knew, also, that there was a vast wilderness beyond the city limits. Hugh wanted to try his hand at farming, so we were using the glass shop to make enough money to build a farm somewhere. I needed just a little more time, and then we could live in the frontier, away from the conflict. I didn’t really have any stakes in the fight; I just wanted to live my life.
“What would you say if I told you I had an interest in becoming a soldier?” he asked.
“No, you imbecile. For America! For our new country!”
We never really discussed politics, so it was strange to be having this conversation. Although Hugh was the burly sort who liked physical activity—who was strong and capable and probably would have made a good soldier—I’d never known him to have any particular interest toward the current conflict.
“But we come from England. Why would you defy that?”
“Why would you support this oppressive regime? It doesn’t make sense for England to run a colony from so many miles away, not when she doesn’t understand how this place works. And I’ve come to love it here. It’s wild and untamed and it’s ours for the taking, Henry. All of this can be ours!”
“But I’m from London. You and I, we’ve spent many of our lives in England. How can you fight against your mother country like this?”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “You are of the land, my love, but I am of the heavens. I have no land. I never intended to stay shackled to any particular country. But this land, I don’t know. It speaks to me.”
That was really the heart of the matter, wasn’t it? He had never been tethered to the Earth the way I had, at least not until he met me. He might still be free, truly free, if he had not been saddled me. I knew he loved me, but I knew I limited him as well because of the deal we made with his father, and part of him must have resented me for it. Somewhat petulantly, I said, “I don’t want to get involved.”
“You do not have that option.” His usual easy, happy expression was clouded by anger. “By virtue of your living here, you are involved.”
I refused to believe that or take a stance. I mostly ignored the fight. I didn’t want to have the argument with Hugh either, so whenever he brought it up, I changed the subject.
He was persistent. He wanted to be a part of the conflict, wanted part of the challenge of leading men to fight.
He brought it up again one night while we were closing down the shop for the day.
“I was a warrior in a previous life, if you remember,” he said. “More than once, I led men across Ireland! I fought for freedom from the English! I can do it again.”
“I realize that, but—”
“You were once of the Irish people, too, you know, Caoimhin. A different language or accent does not change who you are, not deep in your soul. It’s only because you were born to an English family in this life that you are even contemplating fighting for the English cause.”
“I’m not thinking about fighting for the English. I do not want to fight for anyone. I just want to run my shop and make glass.”
“And did not that English captain stroll in here just yesterday and ask you to make glass medicine bottles for his troops? Did you not take the commission?”
“If you want money to move to your little farm, I need the work.”
“Have some principles!”
I threw my hands up in the air. “I have principles. I do not care about this fight! I just want to live. I want to be here with you. More to the point, we probably do not have much time together in this lifetime. So why not make the most of it? Why are we fighting? We are on the same side.”
He looked at me and scratched his chin. “I am not so sure that we are.”
I took a moment to think about what he was saying. I grabbed a broom from the corner and started sweeping the floor of the shop, and I turned over his words in my head. He was of the heavens, wasn’t that what he’d said? “So we are not the same, is what you’re saying to me? You are a god and I am a mortal. I will never be like you.”
He dropped his arms to his side and his back slumped. “Don’t be unreasonable, Henry. That is not what I meant.”
“’Tis true, is it not? Perhaps I have some delusional sense of loyalty, but this is what I know. You want to fly free in the heavens, I will leave you to it.”
He walked toward me. “You are being difficult. That is not what I meant.” He sighed. “It matters not. I am just as Earth-bound as you are now. We are the same. We have been for almost two thousand years.”
“Do you not feel any regret for your sacrifice? You left a life among the gods for me. For two thousand years you’ve been confined to the Earth, destined to burn brightly but briefly in these short lifetimes on earth. How miserable you must be!”
“Henry. Caoimhin. Stop it. I love you. I have been in love with you since the first time I set eyes on you. I would make the same choice over and over again. It was worth it. Each lifetime with you is an adventure! Think of all the things we have done together!”
He pulled me into his arms. “Just… I want to do this. Let me do this.”
“And I want to continue to work here.”
“Then we are at an impasse.” He stroked my hair and held me close to him. I wanted to resist him, but I was too tempted by his warm body, too comfortable to pull away. “I do not know what to do. Tell me how to handle this situation.”
“I’ll stay here,” I said. “You go fight your battle, and I will stay here and wait for you. I will make you beautiful pieces of art, and you will come back to me, and we’ll continue to live together here for as long as we have.”
“And if not, I will see you in the next life.” He put his hands on either side of my face. Then he kissed me so sweetly that I felt all of our years, all of our lifetimes together. My love for him was a warmth in my chest.
“I do not want to let you go,” I said. “But I cannot fight alongside you. I can’t fight against men from my own homeland.”
“And I cannot sit here idly. I have to fight. I want to be a part of this.”
We held each other like that in the middle of my glass shop for a very long time.
* * * * *
I kissed him good-bye when he left. He went off to fight with Washington’s army. I continued to make glass bottles and sold them to both armies. I had to post a sign out front saying I wasn’t loyal to any particular cause. I couldn’t fight against England, but I couldn’t work against my lover, either, so I declared my neutrality in the conflict, which curried me favors with no one.
He sent letters. Usually they were long and full of long proclamations of his love for me. He also told me about where he was, about where the troops were moving, about how he was getting along with his men. If his letters were to be believed, he was well-loved by the other soldiers and he rose up the ranks quickly. Apparently the Irish accent got him some leeway; he’d given the American general he was working under some song and dance about how he despised the English down to their breeches, and he’d been brought into the confidence of the inner circles of the Blue Coats’ top brass.
I meanwhile had to sit at home and wait for him to come back.
He sent a letter every other day or thereabouts. But then a period of time went by when I didn’t get a letter for three days, and I began to worry. There was a public house where they were posting the names of the dead, but I wasn’t sure how accurate it would be. The Loyalists left in New York didn’t seem particularly concerned with dead revolutionaries. But I went to check every day that there wasn’t a letter.
The emptiness in my soul told me he was dead.
It took me about a week to really lose hope. I had to close the shop because I was so bereft that I ruined every piece I made. How could he have been so foolish as to go to war? How could I have been so foolish to have let him? How could I continue to live without him?
I stopped sleeping. At least when I knew he was alive, I could fantasize about him coming home to me on those lonely nights, but once I accepted that he never would, all I could do was lay in my bed at night and stare at the ceiling.
Thus I was awake in the wee hours of one morning when I heard a commotion outside.
I stuck my head out the window and saw that there was a fire raging up from the south end of Beaver Street.
My first reaction was to panic. This was not a small fire. People were starting to leave their houses to escape it, and I could see that it was the sort of fire that would devour everything in its path.
And yet I couldn’t move. The fire was moving fast enough that it would be a matter of minutes before it got to the shop, and yet I couldn’t make myself leave my home. My feet felt like they were made of lead. All I could do for a good long while was stare at the flames advancing up the street, eating the wood of all of those ramshackle houses on the block.
Then I thought of Hugh.
It was like he was standing before me. That was crazy, because I knew he was dead, and yet his voice was in my ear, telling me to live, telling me to save myself. I’d never really known exactly how our arrangement worked; it could very well have been that when he died, he got to go back to wherever he came from until we were both reborn in the next life. So he could have been looking down on me. Or it could have been my imagination. Either way, suddenly I felt certain that Hugh, that Aengus, wanted me to live.
I was able to pick up my feet and I ran down the stairs from the loft where I slept, down through the store. I hit the door hard, and felt the lock give way and break as I pounded through it, forgetting I had to unlatch it. I burst out onto the street, which was full of smoke. People, mostly women with children in tow, were running up the street, headed north toward the common, trying to get away from the flames that would surely destroy the whole city if no one could stop them. I didn’t even think we had a fire patrol; almost all of the eligible men, except for the most stubborn, had enlisted to fight for one side or the other.
I was about thirty feet away from the front door of the house when I remembered the bottle.
The bottle was our clue. We had consecrated it the way we had consecrated objects before. It was to be left to the next generation, so that if anything happened to separate us, we’d be able to find each other again. It was a strange sort of magic, something dreamed up by Aengus’s father, and I didn’t really know exactly how it worked, but I did know that I had to go back for the bottle or I might never see Aengus again.
I turned back to run toward the shop.
A woman stopped me. “Oh, Mr. Danforth,” she said, a soft Irish lilt to her voice. “You can’t go back there. It’s not safe.”
“I have to get something. Something Hugh left behind.”
“It’s not worth it. You will die.”
“No, I need it. It is for Hugh.”
She stared at me. Something near her throat caught my attention; the silver pendant she wore reflected the light from the fire down the street and glinted as she moved. The pendant looked familiar, but I didn’t have time to contemplate that. It was probably a Celtic symbol of some sort, not so strange for a woman with an Irish accent. I couldn’t figure out how to get around her, and when I moved to try, she grabbed my arms. “You musn’t go back,” she said.
“I know,” she said in Gaelic. “He’s already dead.”
My heart sank. “That’s why I need…” I gestured helplessly toward my shop.
She nodded and let go. “I’ll wait for you at the common. If you need help, I can help you.”
I didn’t know why she was offering me this help. I didn’t even know who she was or what she could do. She must have been a customer at the store if she knew my name. Perhaps she had known Hugh. Perhaps they had been friends even. Would he have told her about us? Would she have guessed?
I didn’t have time to think about it much. I had to get back to my shop before the heat of the fire melted the glass. I wasn’t sure if this fire was powerful enough, or burning hot enough, to melt the bottle, but I knew enough about the melting properties of glass—I blew enough of it in my kiln each day—that I couldn’t risk it.
The fire had reached the shop by the time I got there. The flames were licking up the wooden posts that supported the second floor, and I knew I had only mere minutes. I couldn’t remember exactly where the bottle was, which made me lose some time. I had a vague memory of it being near the fireplace in the back of the shop.
I managed to find it. It was sitting there, untouched by the flames.
The shop was full of nasty black smoke. I could feel it filling and coating my lungs with soot. Breathing burned, but I thought the more important thing would be to get the bottle outside, to give me and Hugh—Caoimhin and Aengus—another chance at life. I knew I couldn’t let it be destroyed. I grabbed it, and as I did, I felt all of my strength start to drain.
I coughed, and couldn’t stop coughing. The smoke became so dense that it was difficult to see. The bottle was hot in my hand, and I thought it might have burned my skin, but I didn’t care. Nothing mattered except getting that bottle outside. I dashed for my front door, but just as I got there, the door came off its hinges and fell so that it blocked the doorway. The only way to get out would be to climb over it.
I cursed. I panicked. I was going to die, and the bottle might melt with me, and then everything would end. I couldn’t let that happen.
But I was so weak. Another coughing spell attacked me, and I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs to power myself forward.
But then the woman reappeared, out on the street. All I could see was flames and her, standing there, waving at me.
“Throw it to me!” she shouted.
I tossed her the bottle. I watched her catch it. Then she took off running northward, to the common, to safety from the flames. I had no idea who she was, but I did know that she would help, that she’d get that bottle to a place where it could survive until I could get to it again.
Then a flame sprung up somewhere near my ear. I took a deep breath, but only got sooty air. I coughed again, hoping I could escape, wanting only to get to clean air again so that I could breathe without so much pain. But I could also hardly see, and as I tried to climb out of the door, I kept putting my hands in the wrong place. I’d touch flame, or I’d get a hold that wouldn’t stay. I could feel my skin start to boil, but I still couldn’t manage to get out of that door. Panic and bile started to rise up my chest and I stopped being able to breathe.
The fire spread to the top of the door, and the house creaked and started to moan. When I looked up, some bit of wood fell from the ceiling.
Then everything went black.
For more of Aengus and Caoimhin’s past lives, check out Show and Tell available January 8, 2013.