Nitimur in vetitum semper, cupimusque negata.
Isaac is twenty-four.
History is what men choose to remember. Truth is what a man cannot forget. Isaac recalled everything about the night he wrote his last letter to her. It was Tuesday, he was young, oak gall ink stained his cuticles, and he was more in love with Andrea Louviere than he had been the day before, and the day before that. He inhaled through his teeth and sealed his letter with molten wax.
Red, the shade of good claret, seeped from under his copper seal and cooled in the shape of a rose. Isaac lingered over the wax petals, debating whether they were blooming or withering away. Beginnings and endings were oftentimes difficult to tell apart. He nudged his letter deeper into the halo of the tallow candlestick on his desk, undecided.
Sheep lard sputtered around the candle’s wick, scenting Isaac’s small bedroom on Woolsthorpe Manor’s second level with wisps of burning fat. A dim orange flame flickered over the grooves of his wax initials. The tip of the I bled into the seal’s border and the grooves of the N were thinner than he would have liked, but he did not doubt that Andrea would know whom the letter was from. He pressed the seal to the bow of his mouth and dented it with a whisper and a kiss.
The syllables melted, honeyed and soft, over his tongue. They were a pale imitation of Andrea’s lips, but he made do. Since she’d left, her name was all he had of her. He spoke it into his pillow each night before he slept. Hope did not require a reply. It grew with every letter he wrote. He added his most recent one to the lopsided stack on his desk and wrapped a black ribbon around the bundle. “Always,” he said, tugging the ribbon tight.
A breeze, perfumed with evening dew, ripe apples, and a flock of longwool sheep, swept through the gap in the mullioned window above his desk and whipped the ribbon into a frenzy. Isaac caught the flailing strips between his long, tapered fingers. The velvet felt frailer than when he had taken it from his half sister’s sewing basket, but there was no point in hunting for an alternative. The heaviest chain in Woolsthorpe was not going to keep his mind still. Destiny was a hefty thing, and tonight he was binding two.
Isaac knotted the ribbon a second time. He reached across his desk and grabbed the window latch. A handsome young man with wavy dark hair, a chiseled jaw, and a hint of a cleft peeking from beneath a day’s worth of scruff on his chin brooded from a glazed pane. Isaac rubbed the wrinkle between his brows, smoothing the crease on his reflection’s forehead. He left the window ajar and let the breeze have its way. Andrea’s letters were going to have to fend for themselves before the night was over, and the wind was the least of his worries.
He slid his hand along the edge of his desk, finding the notches that marked the days Andrea had been away. When he ran out of desk, he had stopped keeping count. He didn’t need nicks to remember how long it had been since she had slept by his side. The cold spot on his bed stepped up to the task, sparing his fingernails from further abuse.
Isaac had never fought sleep as much as when Andrea was molded into his chest, warm, soft, and smelling of sweet cream. Her hair, red golden like the barley fields at sunset, was his favorite place to stand his ground. He nuzzled it until his dreams forced him to surrender.
His fingers reached the end of the etched trail. He heaved a sigh and looked up. Fog crept over the apple orchard and coiled against his window. His shoulders loosened. Delivering Andrea’s letters was going to be easier in the dark. He gathered them along with his sealing wax and candle, rose from his chair, and, with one brisk stride, transformed.
Though they never admitted it, Isaac’s schoolmates in Cambridge shared the same opinion of him: Isaac was two men. The first blended into his books, with only the air rising and falling in his chest to distinguish him from their pages. But when he surfaced from his thoughts and drew himself to his full height, the second Isaac owned the room. The lines of his lean, muscular frame sliced the air when he took the slightest of steps, and the wildfire in his hazel irises made it impossible to look at anything or anyone else.
Isaac did not have an audience this evening, but his bedroom’s heavy oak furniture paid him the same hushed respect. He walked past a bookshelf he’d built and knelt by his bed. He lifted its custard quilt and pushed aside the traveling trunk stowed beneath it. The trunk scraped the room’s lime-ash floor, heavy from the textbooks he had brought home with him from Cambridge. It had been a year since his alma mater, Trinity College, had shut its doors for fear of the plague raging through London, and Isaac had not relished the idea of biding his time at Woolsthorpe. Andrea had since changed his mind. She might not have found him otherwise.
Isaac hauled a small wooden box from behind the trunk. A pair of butterflies, drawn in a corner of the writing box’s slanted lid, watched him with their wings half-open, forever waiting to take flight. Isaac caressed them with his thumb, hoping that some of their patience would rub off on him. He sat on his haunches, admiring the flowers carved along the sides of the box, the trademark of the joiner he had commissioned to craft it. His eyes stopped at the two small intertwined circles scratched into the center of its front panel. His handiwork was crude compared to the joiner’s, but he didn’t mind. It was not meant as décor. He had copied the symbol from John Wallis’s book Arithmetica Infinitorum. Wallis had invented it to represent infinity; Isaac employed it to carry a promise and a prayer.
Isaac lifted the box’s sloping lid. A small pile of packages wrapped in parchment sat inside it. He plucked the largest of the parcels from the box as quietly as he’d done when he had stolen it from Trinity’s library. Not once, in the five years that had passed since his crime, did he regret committing it. None of his schoolmates would ever appreciate the fifteenth-century edition of the Roman poet Ovid’s tales as much as Andrea would. He stroked the book’s spine through its wrappings. The ridges of the winged nymph embossed on its leather binding rubbed against his fingertips. Isaac wished her a safe journey. She was going somewhere he could not. He returned the book to the box, laid his letters on top of it, and sealed the box’s entire lid with red wax.
Isaac squeezed his hand between his feather mattress and bed frame. There was one last thing he needed to do before he sent Andrea’s letters on their way. He drew out a small knife from beneath the mattress and tested its blade on his thumb. A red bead glistened in the candlelight, dribbled down his hand, and slipped under the black leather strap around his wrist. The 1952 Omega Seamaster fastened to the strap told him to hurry. He pressed the tip of the knife into the box’s lid and etched two words onto it with short, hasty strokes.
The toolshed seemed twice as far without his lantern, but Isaac did not wish to wake the farmhands or his family. His half brother, Benjamin, could snore through a thunderstorm, but his mother and two young half sisters were light sleepers. His late-night experiments had woken them on more than one occasion. Explaining the nature of gravity, white light, and fluxions was infinitely easier than having to confess his correspondence with Andrea. In their eyes, she would be the devil’s work. In his, she was the sin that he would commit over and over again.
Mud squished under his boots’ leather and wood soles. He paused at a fence post, adjusted his grip on the writing box, and summoned a lantern of memory to light his way. Except for the years he was away at school in Grantham and Cambridge, he had spent his life at Woolsthorpe and knew its grounds almost as well as he did every inch of Andrea’s body. But there was no contest which of them was more pleasant to explore in the dark. From the moment he had entwined his fingers through hers, he knew that no other place would ever feel like home.
Isaac tripped over a plow and fell to the ground, staining his breeches with mud. The writing box tumbled next to him. He scrambled to collect the box and limped down the length of the barn.
The tip of his boot found the toolshed first. He groped inside the small outbuilding, passing over the sheep shears, hay rake, and wooden beadle. A ditching spade brushed against his knuckles. Isaac pulled it out and held it under a sliver of moonlight. It was smaller and weighed less than he remembered, having been a boy when he had last handled any of his late father’s tools. He clutched it at his side and followed the fragrant trail of apples in the air.
Isaac set the wooden box by the foot of one of the taller apple trees in the orchard. He took a measured pace and shoved the spade into the ground. Its blade slammed against a rock. White heat shot up Isaac’s wrist. Isaac staggered into the apple tree’s curved trunk, knocking a verse from Amores, Ovid’s first book of poetry, from a dusty shelf of Latin lessons in the back of his mind.
Nitimur in vetitum semper, cupimusque negata. We are ever striving after what is forbidden, and coveting what is denied us.
Isaac slumped against the apple tree’s trunk. The centuries had not blunted the truth of the Roman poet’s verse. A laugh cut Isaac’s teeth. It was the cruelest of jokes that of all the obstacles that lay in his box’s path, the one thing that he had power over was a rock. He drove the spade’s blade under the stone, pried it loose, and flung it over his shoulder.
A mound of soil grew next to the apple tree. Isaac wiped the sweat from his brow and leaned over the hole. It was blacker than the night and almost as deep as the secrets he was going to bury in it. He nestled the box between two thick roots and covered it with soil, smoothing the ground with the back of his spade. He stepped away from his night’s work and held out his arms in front of him. His palms were red and blistered, but they did not burn as much as they felt empty. He found a sharp rock and scraped two tiny intertwined loops into a whorl in the tree’s trunk. The infinity symbol was far smaller than the one he had carved into the writing box. It was intended only for Andrea’s eyes.
Moonlight spilled over his watch’s glass face. Time’s two tiny silver hands sparkled. Isaac begged them to be as kind to his letters as they had been to Ovid’s ancient tales. The sealed pages bearing his words were on their way to Andrea, and all that was left for him to do was wait. He tugged the ruffle of his sleeve over the Omega and turned in the direction of the manor. The wind chilled the streaks of sweat on his back, urging him to sprint to the nearest fireplace. He reminded himself that there was no need to hurry. The three centuries before Andrea would be born was a lot of time to kill.
Every particle in the universe attracts every other particle with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses, and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.
--isaac newton’s universal law of gravitation
Andrea is seven.
Apple pie à la mode. Four ice cubes. The “Butterfly Lovers” Concerto. And a crack. These were the details of the afternoon Andrea met the boy who lived behind her wall. She turned seven that day and was good at remembering things that made her smile.
The red velvet birthday cake her father, Andrew Louviere, burned black was less memorable. He warmed a slice of leftover apple pie in the microwave, topped it with Haagen-Dazs vanilla bean ice cream, and stuck pink-and-white-striped candles on it instead. Only three fit on the melting scoop, but Andrea didn’t complain. Apple pie à la mode for breakfast was a pretty good deal. She had another serving with a double scoop of ice cream for her afternoon snack. Cello practice always made her hungry.
Andrea scraped up the last crumbs of the buttery crust from her plate and washed them down with chocolate milk. Ice cubes tinkled against the tall glass. There were four of them. She knew because she listened closely. Three sounded thin. Five was too noisy. Four was just right. Her dad indulged her little requests, believing that such quirks came with the territory of raising a musical prodigy. Andrea wasn’t sure what the word prodigy meant at that time, but she knew that her dad smiled whenever he said it. She sipped her chocolate milk and called on her four ice cubes to do an encore.
Every clink, clank, and clunk against the glass was pitch-perfect. The music room of the cornflower-blue Victorian home in San Francisco made everything sound good. If the room had had a fridge and an air mattress, Andrea would have lived in it. Its acoustic foam–paneled walls didn’t laugh the way the kids at school did when she told them how Gabriel Fauré’s Elegy made the air smell like rain or how Saint-Saëns’s Allegro Appassionato painted rainbows on the ceiling. Juilliard had offered her the same shelter when she was six, but Andrea had begged her dad to turn the music scholarship down. The conservatory’s teachers didn’t read stories from pop-up books, and its classrooms didn’t have any crayons, or goldfish named Steve. Her dad dried her eyes with a white handkerchief, smiled, and told her that Juilliard could wait.
Andrea drained her chocolate milk. Her father set his bone china teacup down next to her glass and straightened the pages of his cello duet arrangement of Chen Gang and He Zhanhao’s “Butterfly Lovers” Concerto on the stainless-steel music stand. “Knock, knock,” he said, tapping Andrea’s knee with his bow.
“Little old lady.”
“Little old lady who?”
“Hey, I didn’t know you could yodel.”