In honor of Pride Month 2019, here’s a short story I wrote for a 2016 anthology Falstaff Books put together to raise money for LGBTQ support and awareness. Get your copy of the full anthology HERE. In my story, a transgender woman who found herself as a boy actor at Shakespeare’s Globe makes peace with the playwright she loves as father.
The Dark Lady
Burbage expected a scene of squalor. But he found a neat little house of fresh plaster and timbers built on the edge of the suburban village he had never heard tell of before. He was ushered into a second floor parlor and told he might wait if it pleased him. A fire was burning in the hearth, and the mantelpiece was lined with polished silver plate.
He had just taken a seat in the best cushioned chair when the door opened and a lady swept in. “Forgive me, mistress,” he said, getting up again with his old player’s grace. “I fear I must have come to the wrong house.” She was a very pretty lady, too, with thick, glossy waves of dark brown hair drawn back in a veil of gold net and wide, bright hazel eyes. Her gown was plain but rich, black brocade with white linen collar and cuffs, and she wore a simple choker at her throat with a dark red stone in the shape of a heart. As he bowed to her, she smiled, and a dimple appeared at the corner of her mouth. And suddenly he knew her. “God save us!” He fell back into the chair, all courtesy forgotten. “Orlando!”
“Hello, Dick,” the little monster said, still smiling. “And if you don’t mind, it’s Mistress Thatcher now—or Rosalind, if you must.”
“Monster!” he said. “It’s an outrage. It’s indecent! I’ll have the sheriff on you, you impertinent pup!”
“Are you a magistrate now, Dick Burbage, that you would lecture me on decency and threaten me with the law?” she said, her cheeks flushing pink. “My father-in-law is, and he loves me well.” The arch of her eyebrow was familiar, too, a trick she had used to great effect against him in battles of wit on the stage. “He will stake his considerable purse and influence to defend my honor, should you accuse me. Think you, player, that you are his match?”
Burbage considered the silver plate along the mantelpiece and the jewel at her throat. “Forgive me, chuck,” he said, tempering his tone. In the old days back at the Globe, he would have boxed the creature’s ears for speaking to him so, but now this seemed imprudent. “I was but surprised to see you so—I loved you so well as a boy.”
“Loved me?” she said, her smile returning. “Nay, Dick, not once, though not for lack of trying. Will you have a drink?” Without waiting for his answer, she poured a cup of malmsey wine and put it in his hand.
“Thanks, Mistress…Thatcher, did you say?” he said, taking a drink.
“I did.” She poured a cup of her own and sat down. “But call me Rosalind. You did so once before easily enough.”
“On the stage, aye,” he said. The wine had calmed his nerves, and he was able to look at her again and smile. “But that is all the world, isn’t it, chuck? So our Will did say.” He drank again; the wine was excellent. “You always were a pretty thing.”
“I thank ye kindly, sir.” Rosalind surveyed the old ruin with weary affection. “But have you come just to pay me compliments and threaten me with shackles? ‘Tis a funny sort of visit.”
“I’ve come for Will.” The old actor’s eyes were red from more than drink, she thought. “He is dying, Orlando—Rosalind. He has fallen into a stupor, and I thought it would ease him to see you again.”
“And why should you think that?” She took a long swallow of wine to mask her sudden grief. Will Shakespeare dying? It couldn’t be so. “’Tis twenty years since I left London. ‘Twould be passing strange if he remembered me at all.”
“Go to, monkey,” he said. “As if any of us could forget you, whatever you might have become.” For a moment, she was offended, but his eyes were twinkling, and she couldn’t be angry. She raised her glass instead, and he returned the salute. “He spoke of you right recently, in fact,” he said, holding out his empty glass. “Drayton and I made a party to visit him in Stratford a month or so past,” he said as she refilled it. “He had just made his will, and Michael asked if he felt well. He said he felt content but for a few small matters now out of his power to help.” In his eyes and manner, she could see the great tragic player he had been. She knew how dearly he loved Will; in his eyes she saw he was telling the truth. “I asked him what small matters, and he mentioned you. He said your parting still troubled him, and he would give much to speak with you again.”
Her eyes had filled with tears as he spoke. “A month ago this was?”
“Aye, chuck,” Burbage said. “It has taken me a fortnight to find you—I began when he fell ill.” He leaned forward in his chair and offered her his hand, and after a moment, she took it. “Will you not go to him, Orlando?” he said. “Our Will did love you once.”
“Don’t try to be Hamlet to me now, Dick,” she said. “You haven’t the legs for it anymore.” But she couldn’t be cursed with him, not now. “Of course I will go.” She went to the door and called in the maid who was eavesdropping there. “I must away to Stratford-upon-Avon with Mr. Burbage to visit a sick friend,” she said. “Call for my carriage and bring me my cloak. And if any do have need of me before I return, tell them I may be found there.”
“At New Place,” Burbage said. “But God’s life, sirrah—mistress—will you not change your costume?”
“Nay, sir,” she said. “I go as myself or not at all.”
After a moment, the old player nodded. “Aye, chuck. As you will.”
For the first few miles, Burbage kept up a lively monologue, catching her up on what he knew of all their old friends from London. But old age conspired with the gentle rocking of the carriage and the wine he had drunk, and soon he was asleep, leaving her alone with her thoughts.
She had ridden this rutted road with him before, though not in comfort. She’d still been Orlando then and had perched like a monkey on top of a wagonload of scenery. They had been bound for some further place, some country manor or other, to play Romeo and Juliet for a rich noble and his household outside the plague-ridden danger of London. Juliet had been Orlando’s first noteworthy role with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men; he had been barely fourteen years old and as a boy looked younger because of his size. Will Shakespeare and Dick Burbage had stopped off at Stratford-upon-Avon on the way, and they had taken Orlando with them for reasons neither had bothered to explain.
Dick and Orlando had waited for Will in a sort of orchard across the road from the house where Will’s wife and children lived with his in-laws. “You must cheer him up when he returns,” Burbage had said, settling on the ground against a tree as if he expected a long wait.
“Why does Will need cheering up?” Orlando had asked. The playwright had been sad and quiet since they’d left the Globe. “Dick, what’s happened?”
“Never you mind,” the older player had said, pulling his hat down over his eyes. “Just be ready with your best japes when he returns and none of your tragedy.” Orlando had been a clown before Will had cast him as Juliet, and to Dick’s mind, he ought to have stayed one.
Dick was soon asleep, leaving Orlando alone to wait. More than an hour had passed; he knew it by the chiming of the village church bells. But he saw no sign of Shakespeare’s return. Finally, reckless with boredom, he left Burbage sleeping and ventured across the road.
He didn’t have the nerve to knock on the front door, so he sallied around to the back of the house like he knew where he was going. There was a stable and a flock of geese in the yard, but all was strangely quiet. From an open window upstairs, he could hear a woman crying and the soft voice of a man who might have been Will. But he couldn’t make out the words.
“Who are you?” a voice spoke behind him. Turning, he found a girl of what looked to be his own age.
“Orlando, mistress.” He made a deep bow as Burbage would have done, on-stage and off. “At your service.”
“What are you doing here?” She was a pretty girl with serious brown eyes that were very like Will’s.
“I’ve come with Will Shakespeare,” he said. “I’m one of his players.”
“Oh!” She looked more interested. “Then you must be wicked.”
“Must I?” He rarely talked to girls his own age and never of this class. “Who says so?”
“My mother,” she said. “Will Shakespeare is my father. I’m Susannah.” She walked around him like he might have been a camel displayed at the fair. “You’re very handsome.”
“I have to be,” he said. “I play the lady’s parts. Or in truth, I play the whole lady. Her parts are hidden—as they must be, mind, as I am playing her.” She didn’t even smile. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mistress Susannah,” he said, bowing again. The girl continued to stare at him. “Are you glad to have your father home to visit?”
This had seemed the most harmless of questions, but the girl’s expression crumpled. “Yes.” She turned her back on him and hid her face in her hands. “Go away!”
“What is it?” He put a hand on her trembling shoulder. “What ails you, child?”
“I said go away!” She ran from him down the garden toward the orchard, and for a moment, he thought he’d let her go and go back to Burbage. But that seemed cowardly. The girl was obviously upset. So he ran after her.
He found her leaning on the gnarled trunk of an apple tree, sobbing like her heart was broken. “Don’t look at me,” she ordered, looking back when she heard him approach. “It isn’t decent.”
“What isn’t decent?” He touched her shoulder again. “That I should see you cry?” She nodded, crying all the harder. “Susie, why are you crying?”
She turned to him. “Because my brother’s dead.”
“You poor darling.” Without thinking, he pulled her close, and she pressed her hot little face to his breast. “I’m so sorry. No wonder you have to cry.”
“Mother says I mustn’t,” she said. “She says Hamnet has gone to heaven, so we must rejoice. But I don’t feel like rejoicing.”
“Of course you don’t,” Orlando said, stroking her hair. “And just between us, your mother is a horse’s ass.”
She almost giggled through her tears. “No, she isn’t,” she said. “She’s a very godly woman.”
“In a pig’s eye,” he said. “I promise you, Susie, I know my business. My father was a priest. He would have been a bishop if he had lived. And when he died, I cried and cried for a fortnight in the bishop’s own house, and no one once told me to stop.”
“You lived with the bishop?” she said.
“I did indeed until I ran away,” he said. He handed her his handkerchief. “You were right before; I am very wicked. But I promise you are not.”
“I don’t think you are either,” she said. “I think you’re very kind.”
Will stepped out of the shadows of the trees. “So do I.” He held out his arms to Susannah, and she ran to him. Orlando turned away, not wishing to intrude. From a discreet distance, he heard the girl’s soft weeping and her father’s tender voice speaking comfort. Tears stung his own eyes, and he wiped them away.
He was just about to leave them in peace and go back to Burbage when Will spoke to him. “Is Dick drunk in the tavern yet?”
“Sleeping where you left him,” Orlando said, turning back to him. Will had his arm around Susannah, and she was tucked close to his side. “Shall I tell him we’re going on without you?”
“And who will be your Friar Lawrence?” Will said. “No, I must come, too.”
“Please don’t go, Papa,” Susannah said.
“I must,” he said, hugging her close. “But we shall be back in three days’ time, after the performance.” He kissed her forehead. “In the meantime, Orlando was right. You must weep for Hamnet all you like, you and Judith both. I give you my permission.” He had tears of his own on his cheeks.
“Yes, Papa.” She wiped away her father’s tears with Orlando’s handkerchief. “I will see you in three days.”
Walking back to Burbage, Orlando hadn’t known what he should say, so he kept silent. But before Will woke up Dick, he suddenly turned to Orlando and hugged him close much as he had Susannah.
“I’m sorry about Hamnet, Will,” the boy she had been had said, half-choked with tears.
“Thank you, chuck.” Burbage had let out an almighty snore, and they had both laughed. “I am sorry, too.”
The village of Stratford-upon-Avon had changed very little in the twenty years since her last visit. But Will Shakespeare’s family’s fortunes had obviously improved. “Our William did very well for himself in the end,” Burbage said as he climbed down from the carriage in front of the fine New Place. “Though perhaps not so well as you.” Rosalind stood in the door of the carriage waiting, one eyebrow raised. “Oh, God’s almighty teeth,” Dick swore. “Come on, then.” He offered his hand for support, and Rosalind took it and climbed down. “Insolent puppy,” Dick grumbled.
Rosalind just smiled. “That’s insolent bitch to you.”
Will’s wife was none too keen to welcome either of them. “How dare you come back here, Richard Burbage,” she said, coming down to stop them as soon as they crossed the threshold of the hall. “’Twas you put my husband on his deathbed, you and Drayton. Carousing so at your age and dragging him with you. And what strumpet is this that you’ve brought to my house?”
“Mistress Rosalind Thatcher,” Rosalind said, making a deep curtsey that would have passed muster at the royal court.
“Go to, both of you,” Anne said. “Out of my house at once.”
“Mother?” A younger woman was coming down the stairs. “Is this not still my father’s house?” With a shiver of shock, Rosalind recognized Susannah. “Think you he would not wish to see his friends?” She offered her hand to Burbage “Well met, Dick.” When she turned to Rosalind, her eyes widened in recognition. “And you…Mistress Thatcher, did you say?”
“I did,” Rosalind said. “At your service.”
“My father was most eager to speak to you,” Susannah said as her mother made an ugly snort that added nothing to her meagre charm. “Won’t you come upstairs?”
She led her to a bedroom with windows facing west. “He always wants to see the sunset,” Susannah explained in a hushed tone. “He says the twilight is the best time of day.”
“So has he always done,” Rosalind said. She could hardly believe the man lying so still on the bed could be Will.
“It is safe to come near him,” Susannah said. “My husband says it is a fever of the brain that ails him, not the plague. He’s a doctor, my husband.”
“I wouldn’t mind it either way,” Rosalind said. She sat on the edge of the bed and lay her hand over Will’s. He felt warm, and his face though lined now with age and pain was just as she remembered. “I would risk much more than plague to speak with him again.”
“He mostly sleeps now,” Susannah said. “But he has awakened twice since yesterday to ask for water and to talk with me and John. I believe he might wake again for you.”
“May God so will it,” Rosalind said. “Do you remember me, Susannah?”
“Of course I do.” She still had her father’s eyes and her father’s sad, sweet smile. “You still play the lady’s part, I see.”
“It is no part,” Rosalind said. “Not anymore.”
Susannah put a hand on her shoulder. “Then we must be as sisters,” she said. “My father loves you as a child.” Before Rosalind could answer, she had gone, leaving her alone with Will.
“Is that so, ancient Will?” she asked, clasping his hand. “Can you love me as a daughter as you loved me as a son?” But he didn’t answer.
She waited beside him holding his hand as the shadows crept across the floor. Susannah came back in every hour or so to look in on them, but otherwise, they were alone.
As the sun was setting, Rosalind went to the window. “I love the twilight, too,” she said. “At the Globe, Hamlet would just have been dying now.” Ophelia had been one of her last roles. It was said even the Queen herself had been moved to tears by her performance.
But her last part had been as Rosalind in As You Like It. She remembered her last performance. Her last night on the stage. Her last night as the boy Orlando.
She had lingered long after she thought all the others had gone until a messenger came with a bundle she had saved her wages for weeks to buy. In the empty tiring house by the light of two small candles, she took off her boyish habit for the last time and put on her new clothes, a plain gown such as a shopkeeper’s wife might wear. She combed out her hair, grown long for years so she never had to wear the wigs that so plagued other ladies on the stage, and pinned it in coils under a white linen cap.
She was just fastening a ribbon around her throat when she saw Will Shakespeare reflected in the copper mirror in front of her. “What new mummery is this?” he asked.
“None at all,” she said, tying her ribbon. “I am leaving, Will.”
“Who has procured you?” She heard the fury in his tone but knew it wasn’t for her. He had thrashed a minor player within an inch of his life two seasons before for playing pimp between nobles and another boy. “If your purse is light, why not come to me?”
“My purse is fine,” she said. “I’m not playing whore, Will.” She stood up and turned to him. “I’m leaving. Leaving the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, leaving London. Leaving Orlando.” She could see from his face he didn’t understand. “I can’t playact innocent girls any longer. I am ready to be a woman.”
“Queen Gertrude,” Will said. “Lady Macbeth. Cleopatra—are these not women?”
“Aye, Will, but they are imaginary parts,” she said. “Your parts, the women who live inside your head. I am ready to be myself.”
Finally she saw the beginning of understanding in her master’s eyes. “But you can not be this woman, chuck,” Will said not unkindly. “I made you a woman for the stage, but God made you a man.”
“Do you mean now to preach me a sermon?” she said. “You know me, Will, as well almost as I know myself. Was Rosalind not written so that the world might see me as I am, as you do?”
“Rosalind was written to amuse a mob,” Will said. “She is a thing of air and fancy.”
“Aye, but I am not.”
“And who has taught you this strange text?” Will asked. “What wizard has promised to transform your parts and make you his bride?” She blushed and turned away. “You are right, boy, when you say I know this malady.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “But malady it is, a fever of the mind, not magic that may undo nature. I would have you escape this hell, Orlando, and for my part in bringing you to it, I must beg the pardon of Almighty God.”
“You’ve done naught but be as a father to me!”
“And a right poor one, too, methinks,” Will said. “I have made you believe you are a monster.”
“Then what of your noble patron?” Rosalind said. “Your most beautiful beloved, your holy soul? What manner of monster is he?”
Will slapped her so hard he sent her sprawling. “A poison tongue does not become thee, Orlando,” he said, his voice trembling.
“Orlando isn’t here, Will.” She wiped blood from her mouth. “What’s more, you know he is not, else why strike me with your open hand and not your fist? If a man so offended thee, why not draw thy sword?” She could see from Will’s horrified expression that he understood. “I am younger than you are and stronger. If I be a man as you are, why should I allow you to strike me down?”
“Get up, for pity,” Will said. “Get up and stop this.”
“’Twas your Almighty God made me a woman, Will, not you. You know I am no monster, and you know I am no man.” She climbed to her feet. “I have taken nothing from the company but honest wages. I ask nothing of you but your blessing. The blessing of a father to his daughter as she leaves his house.” Tears were streaming down her cheeks. “Will you not grant me that?”
For a moment, she had thought he would. She had seen in his eyes that he wanted to, that he loved her still. Then he had turned away. “Go to, boy,” he said, the last words he had spoken to her. “Go to.”
Now twenty years later she went back to Will’s bedside, tears brought on by memory wet on her cheeks. “Fairly met, master-father.” She went down on her knees beside the bed and clasped his cold hand between her own. As cold as any stone, she thought, remembering the death of old Falstaff. She had played the boy in old King Henry’s play, her first time ever on the stage. She had been paid for it with the first good meal she’d had in weeks, an orphan and runaway apprentice alone on the streets of London. “You saved me, Will,” she said. “For certes, you must know that.” She brushed the last wisps of his hair back from his fine, handsome brow. “Dick Burbage said you wished to see me,” she said. “I am here.” His lips were pale, and his eyelids looked bruised purple. Old Hamlet, she thought. How many times had she seen him made up as the ghost? She held his hand against her cheek. “Will you curse me again with your silence?”
Will’s eyelids fluttered. “You,” he said, a rasp barely louder than a whisper. “Is it you?”
“Aye.” She smiled.
He smiled, too. “My lady still…” He stroked her cheek. “Ophelia, then?”
“Nay, love. Rosalind.” She kissed his wrist and felt the flutter of his pulse against her lips. “A merry wench, I promise.”
“Good.” He frowned as if something pained him. “Aye me…” She gripped his hand more tightly. “Blessing….” He laid his hand on her head. “All blessings, daughter,” he said, smiling as she cried. “All my blessings on thee.” She leaned down and kissed his cheek, and she felt him kiss her back. But when she drew back, his eyes were closed, and he was sleeping.
She returned to her own house in the morning, and her own sweet Lydia met her in the yard. “Well met, beloved,” her wife said, kissing her. “Well met, wife.” Rosalind dissolved in tears against Lydia’s breast, and she held her close. “Welcome home.”