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I Come to Bury Newton
A servant girl opens the door to a man who is quite miserable in the rain. His substantial wig is soaked and wilting, and the powder has dissolved into white streaks on his wet shoulders. He fumbles with a case and holds out a paper, saying pitifully, “Is this the home of Mrs. Vincent?”
She shows him in, and he enters, dripping.
An ancient woman is already seated in the parlor, in a dark red shawl.
He bows. “Mrs. Vincent? Formerly Catherine Storer? Ah – ah, hello. I’m William Stukeley, of the Society of Antiquaries—”
“Ah, yes. The Freemason,” says the woman. “What would you like to know about him?”
“It’s not as if strangers show up at my doorstep asking after me.”
“I knew your… your friend Mr. Newton. I am compiling his biography.”
“Isn’t he a lucky man,” says the woman dryly.
“I was referred to you, because they say you have a gift for – recalling things.”
She laughs harshly. “When I was growing up, they called it witchcraft. But now it is ‘a gift.’ I suppose we have him to thank for that too. What a world he’s made. So scientific!”
He smiles, fingers his case. “Perhaps you could spare an hour to discuss him?”
The crone turns her head and calls to her servant. “Sarah? Yes, please show Mr. Stukeley to the door.”
“No!” cries the man, clutching his case tighter. “Please, ma’am. Just some words.”
“Because if you don’t, it will die with you. Please. I can’t let it die with you.”
The crone considers the shivering Freemason tracking mud on her rugs, and relents.
A prism glinted between her fingers, clear and more mathematically proportioned than a crystal. It caught a snatch of light that drifted through the shutters, and it cast forth shards of rainbow on the walls. Catherine fingered it as her eyes drifted around the room of things he’d brought back home from Cambridge University. Books he’d crammed onto the shelves he’d built himself. Glass vials and boxes of powder. Clothes, the newest style. Her gaze reviewed the items, and her brain snatched up each one and buried it. When she’d been younger, she had thought that maybe she remembered everything because her mind just wrote it all down on a book – and she had told herself that soon the book would run out of paper. It hadn’t. Catherine Storer was twenty-one. She could remember being born.
“You’re happy I’m back?” he said.
She put the prism down and looked at him. His appearance was the same as when he’d left (he was even wearing the same traveling coat, its button still missing), except his hair had turned silver, which was a strange background for his youthful face.
“You’re happy I’m back?” he said again.
The next day, Widow Newton fell into a panic when the sheep were nowhere to be found. Catherine, who had been staying there at Woolsthorpe Manor to help the lady out, patted the Widow’s arm and said she’d go ask Isaac where he’d left the flock.
He was within the barn, and brushing one of the horses. He did not answer as she called his name, instead kept brushing back and forth with the dedication of a soldier. Through the ancient walls, a few shafts of sunlight fell to break the dimness, and the dust motes glowed like lazy fireflies.
“Where are the sheep?” she said.
He smiled. “Just outside. While they pastured, I thought it would be more efficient to let them be, and groom the horse meanwhile.” He worked a tangle from its mane.
“Well, the sheep are gone.”
“Oh…. But sheep are smarter than most people think. Some instinct will probably draw them back here. And if not, the earth’s traversable areas are not infinite, so the stray pack of sheep must, if left to wander indefinitely, at some point return here. And Scripture says the Good Shepherd will return all lost sheep home.”
“Sheep as in people. You were entrusted with sheep – as in sheep.”
His mouth twisted. “Hmm. They couldn’t have gone far.”
“They did,” she said.
“Did they?” he mused, striding outside. Blinking in the sunlight, he surveyed the countryside below, none of which appeared to contain a flock of sheep. “Damn.”
“Will you look for them?”
“Look! Yes, we ought to look for them.”
“The horse, Isaac?” she paused. “We?”
“The horse—” He pulled the horse into its stall.
“And the crook—”
“The crook!” He grabbed the shepherd’s hook and strode off down the hill. “We depart!”
She hurried to keep pace with him as they meandered through the pastures, following the trail of nibbled grass and sheep droppings. Luckily he was too intent on the task at hand to pursue much conversation, until they rounded Spittlegate Hill and found the family’s flock safe and sound, nestled down and dozing in the sun.
Catherine sat in the shade of a tree as Newton went about accounting the sheep. Finally he flopped down beside her. “Not one missing. I fancy they like it better here at Spittlegate than Woolsthorpe. I do. I remember coming here when I was little, to the hill. It’s a nice hill.”
It was a very nice hill. Below the grass was rich and long, and between the fields rose swaths of English woodland, dark and sightly. The sky was wide and stretched into hereafter – as the sun trekked down it turned a pale, lucent gold.
“I’m sorry, Catherine,” he said after awhile. Then added, “This is all so very strange.”
She supposed so.
“Did you ever learn how to forget things? When I left, you said you were trying.”
“No,” she said. “Never could.”
“I expect that hurts you.” He turned his head. “Do you remember when I took you here, five years ago?”
“Six and three months.”
“Of course. What day was it?”
“April the third. A Monday.”
“What were we wearing?”
Him: a blue shirt with white buttons, hair that hadn’t turned its early silver. Her: a brown dress she’d worn the day before, hair in a bun, seven pins. Catherine winced as information stung her. She said, “You’re making me feel unnatural.”
“I do not think it is unnatural. At least you’re not like me. You can pretend to blend in with them. These idiots.”
“You never pretended,” she said, trying to steer his mind away from her.
“I’m mad, I can’t pretend,” he said, then bit his lip. “With you I felt acceptable. That’s why I proposed.”
“It would have been a disaster,” she said.
“You said yes.”
“If I made myself forget, would I forget it?”
“You can’t put a stopper in your memories,” he said. “It’s like putting a stopper in yourself.”
She hugged her knees and wished herself back at the farm. A soreness had crept across her body. The whole of her felt bruised, and worsened with his prodding.
“Remember something happy, then,” he said with a shrug.
At once, a dozen instances of girlhood glee paraded through her head. She forced out the memories, beat them down as she always did, sickened by their clarity and emptiness. When you had a thousand thousand memories, none of them meant anything.
“Maybe think of me….?” he suggested.
Catherine was glad to hear the smile in his tone, but still she knew that there was part of him she couldn’t reach, that darker part that always returned to himself. Think of me. The part of him that had already written Newton across the sky in his own mind, and longed to write it in hers. And the world’s, too.
“You left,” she said, “and it was good you left.”
“I did. And I learned quite a lot there, really. But since the earth’s traversable areas are not infinite, wandering indefinitely I, like a sheep, had to return here at some point. And I am glad I did.” He stood, and set to picking apples from the tree, as on the slopes of Spittlegate the sheep milled peacefully about. When he had some that sufficed, he handed one to Catherine, and started to put some in her pouch.
She snatched it back. “I’ll do that.” She put them in herself.
He furrowed his brow.
She bit the one he’d given her. “It’s tart.”
“Mine is delightful. Here.”
“I wouldn’t— ”
“I’ll pick more?”
“You needn’t – see, I’m eating—”
“May I try it?”
He took her hand, and suddenly his lips were no longer on the apple, nor were hers. For a while she closed her eyes, and felt how gentle he was, how warm his hands were. Then she opened them, to see the gold light shifting on his silver hair, and his bright eyes joyous. Neglected, the apples rolled down the hill, and were promptly consumed by the sheep.
“Did that not make you happy?” he said.
“Yes, it did.”
“And you’ll remember it. For all time.”
“I will also,” he whispered. “You are the only other human being I feel remotely close to, Catherine, the only one who doesn’t look at me strangely. It’s frightening, being pulled, because only God knows why I’m being pulled toward you. Or why those apples fell down instead of up, or the planets move around the sun?”
“What? Yes, of course, darling, in ellipses.” He talked for a long while about cosmic things that made little sense to her but gave him great joy to discuss. Then he kissed her again. “My mind is in my future. Yours is in your past. If you do the math, they cancel out. Our present. Catherine, I love the present.”
“We can’t do this, Isaac.”
They walked home.
When the sheep were safely returned to the Newtons’ barn, and purple twilight was easing through the cracks in the roof and shining on his silver hair, they went to dinner. Woolsthorpe Manor was a large but simple house with one chimney on each side. Six windows, and only one of them was lit. In its twenty-four years under Widow Newton, it had fallen into shabbiness, almost asceticism.
They made their way to the dining room, where some candles were dying. A note was on the table: Isaac – may be late arrivyng with Mr. Clarke. Sett taybil pleez.
He said, “Yes, Mother.” And he set the table.
Then he sat down at the head, and for a while the only sound was the bubbling of a pot of stew in the kitchen.
“Perhaps we ought to light more candles, Isaac.”
“Perhaps the old bat ought to have left more out.”
“You shouldn’t call her that.”
“Probably,” he said, watching the flickering shadows throb on the walls. “She can’t help it if she’s batty. This house is haunted. My father’s ghost. He hovers over her and makes her forgetful. He floats over her in the fields and makes her cramp.”
“That’s not true, Isaac.”
“I never liked this house. I’ll buy us a manor in Cambridge when we’re married,” he vowed.
She didn’t say anything.
“You want that, don’t you?” he said. He stood, held out his hands. From somewhere in the house, a board creaked. She let him kiss her again.
He sighed happily and went to the kitchen, returning with the kettle. He ladled some chicken stew into bowls for them, and found some bread and butter. She began to protest, saying they should wait for his mother and Catherine’s stepfather, but he said, “I can feed myself.”
Ten minutes later, they heard a buggy being drawn into the stable. Widow Newton and William Clarke, Catherine’s stepfather, entered, pale from the night.
Isaac licked his lips. “Evening, Mother.”
“Hello, Mrs. Newton,” said Catherine. “Hello, Stepfather.”
William Clarke sat down jovially. He was wearing a pea-green coat and a new necktie. Some color returned to his round cheeks as he said, “Isaac. Oh, my boy! Back from the college – and your hair is more silver than mine! I saw you yesterday and still can’t believe it.” He and Isaac laughed.
“It started just after I left,” said Isaac. “I think it got this color from the quicksilver. I’ve experimented with quicksilver.”
William Clarke clapped. “I remember when you used to help me with my potions—”
“Oh, Mr. Clarke, I remember—”
Catherine watched them begin to talk, then saw Widow Newton still standing on the door-mat.
She said, “Sit down, ma’am….”
Widow Newton sat.
“So what is Cambridge like?” said William Clarke.
“It’s wonderful,” said Isaac quietly. Then: “Have you heard anything? Will the plague abate? May I go back soon?”
William Clarke’s lips met in a line. “Well, just today in town, we heard plague is still strong. London is burning.”
“Burning?” said Catherine.
“Someone said it’s the Catholics, someone said it was God,” said William Clarke. “Thank heaven, Catherine, we got a letter from Francis. He says he left before it started. He’ll be back the day after tomorrow.”
“Who is Francis?” said Isaac.
William Clarke halted, and glanced at Catherine, then at Isaac Newton.
When William Clarke told him, Isaac Newton smiled and nodded. All supper he smiled and nodded. Catherine felt her stomach harden like a stone and ate no more. A cramp began to gnaw at her side. Perhaps it was Isaac’s father.
Widow Newton simply sat, watching her.
After they had eaten, Isaac said, “With your leave, Mr. William, I believe that the several chemical boxes I showed you yesterday might interest Catherine. Might we be a few minutes?”
Catherine’s stepfather nodded hesitantly.
She curtseyed and went stiffly to the stairs that led to Isaac’s room. Twenty steps. He was right behind her, and still all smiles, though they were well away from his mother and William Clarke.
He opened the room. She stepped in, and saw he still hadn’t upacked. The prism was where she’d left it. He shut the door behind him.
“The irony of this is terrible,” he began. “Francis Bacon. A man I idolized, the man who brought this country science. Also the namesake of Catherine Storer’s husband.”
She wondered if he had some alchemical powder that would let her dissolve into the dark.
“Is it a legitimate marriage?”
“Of course it is,” she said.
“What were you thinking?”
“You were gone.”
“Do you love him?”
“You were gone.”
“You’ve let him have you?”
“He’s just my husband!”
He fumbled about for a match, and lit some candles. It brought a little light, and she could see her hands turning whiter. The back of her neck burned.
He took her pouch, the one she hadn’t let him open, and pulled out a ring.
“Oh, God, Catherine,” he said. “You have made an adulterer of me.”
“I can’t be an adulterer, Catherine, I can’t. I’ll be something. I learned so much at Cambridge. Descartes. I could disprove him in a week. Aristotle, a day. Tycho’s wrong. You can’t read, Catherine, but other people can! They’ll read it. They’ll write me in stone.”
That part of him.
“It isn’t enough that I am incapable of forgetting you,” she said. “Everyone else has to be incapable too.”
He thrust the satchel back into her hands. “You lied.”
“I did you a favor; I made you happy,” she snapped.
“Did it amuse you? The apples? To make me the fool for once?”
Catherine heard a creak on the stairs. Widow Newton? Probably.
She could see the old woman in her mind, standing there with her empty eyes.
“Here.” He opened a box, took out a bag, and slapped it into her hands. Coins rattled. “My mother paid you, but now you won’t need the money. Never come back here.”
“You don’t have to send me away.”
“I have my soul to think about.”
“We can still be in love—”
“And what?” he spat. “I’ll stay here? I’ll just languish here in Woolsthorpe and forget everything I learned at Cambridge and become stupid enough to be content here? You want my name to just fade away when I die? You want me to be nothing.”
She shook her head.
“Leave,” he said.
She shook her head.
“Nod,” he said.
Finally she nodded.
She went towards the crack of light coming in from the hall. She said, “I’ll forget you.”
“No, you won’t.”
“If it’s the only thing I ever forget, I’ll forget you.”
He stands there with his silver hair in the dark.
Mr. Stukeley is sitting uncomfortably in the chair, case still pressed to his chest. “Of course,” he begins, “of course, things got better?”
The old lady lets him entertain the idea.
“Your other husbands, Mrs. Vincent. Were they like Sir Isaac?”
“Did you love them?”
She threads her bony fingers through each other, smiles her cutting smile. “They were to me what I am now to you: something to resort to once Newton is gone.”
“I certainly mean no offense.”
“Nor do I.” She says this but she clearly does not mean it. Now she leans back, and her smile is smaller, but still there. “I hear they’re planning him a gorgeous tomb in Westminster Abbey, calling him the greatest man to ever live. Which is exactly how he wanted it. I think, Mr. Stukeley, a hundred years from now, I will only be remembered because of him.”
“But surely, ma’am —”
“And you will only be remembered because of me.”
This quiets Mr. Stukeley, who tastes death and shame and mediocrity in those nine words.
The rain still comes outside, but in the parlor the glow is warm. It shines on the woman’s shawl as she reaches for a bowl of fruit. “It’s almost time for tea. Are you hungry, Stukeley?”
She holds up an apple.
Christiansen, Gale E. Isaac Newton. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
“Descartes’ Physics.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward Slowik. 27 June, 2009. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/descartes-physics/ >. 28 February, 2011.
Dolnick, Edward. The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.
“Isaac Newton.” Biographical Encyclopedia of Scientists. Ed. Olson, Richard. Marshall Cavendish. 1998.
“Sir Isaac Newton.” MacTutor. O’Conner, J.J. and E.F. Robertson. 2000. <http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Biographies/Newton.html>. February 28, 2011.
White, Michael. Isaac Newton: the Last Sorcerer. Reading, Massachusetts: Helix Books, 1997.
Woolsthorpe Manor. British National Trust. <http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/woolsthorpe-manor/>
Broughton, P. “Arthur Storer of Maryland - his Astronomical Work and his Family Ties with Newton.” Journal for the History of Astronomy, Vol. 17. Science History Publications, 1988.