b e s s    w i n t e r

Lord Byron's Teen Lover, Claire Clairmont


As he undid her maidenhead he also tied knots inside her by invisible thread, so that when he left the inn she felt a new tug that snaked between her legs to him. It found anchor in her heart. It only increased with distance.

Good-bye! He said. He buttoned his vest. The candle burning on the nightstand mirrored in each gold button: a column of flames. Do not write me again!

That night, on loose sheets, she began her first and only work, The Idiot.

I am full of poetry, she thought. With one hand she worked the quill. The other tested a nipple he'd sucked, still wet.

She felt a tug toward Switzerland. This must be his direction. It was easy enough to swing her party of poets from the Lake District to Lucerne: her sister, heavy with child, and her brother-in-law, with a stormy brow and many loose sheets of poems Claire had made in fair copy for him. Homeless, all three. They would rent a villa. They would commune with Byron. When they arrived, he was not yet there. They waited six full days, each working at a manuscript. Sometimes Claire watched her companions write, each lost somewhere inside themselves. Each leagues away from where Claire was. Sometimes, when she watched them, she was never so alone.

He arrived with peacocks and a private physician. He arrived in a gemmed gypsy cart. He arrived with reddened lips and a smudge of kohl about his eyes.

And there was Claire, snuck into his villa by way of open window. Stretched on his soft-made bed, fanning herself with her thin manuscript. I am a poet, she said.

Go away, said Byron. He pressed a ticking muscle in his temple.

He communed only with the other poets in her party. The men went out on the lake in a paddleboat: Byron and Shelley, small against the water. Claire watched from shore, heeded the tug she felt, increased The Idiot. Ten pages became twenty. Twenty became thirty. She watched Lord Byron at dinner, in his shirtsleeves, misting the air with wit. The way he encircled Mary Shelley's wrist with one browned hand. The way he avoided Claire's own gaze. That evening, by lamplight, The Idiot grew.

Mornings, she waited in the shadow below his balcony. When he composed there, above her where she hid, she felt the scratch of his quill as on her own pages. His physician took to eating cherries and launching the stones off the balcony in arcs. They landed with soft thumps steps away from her secret niche.

Perhaps The Idiot was a novella. Claire felt it kick at her from where she was knotted. One afternoon, long after Byron had retreated into his villa and she was alone in the shade of his balcony, she wrote a single sentence that was more than itself. She read it aloud. The sentence was for her and it was for the whole world. She read it again. She returned to her own villa and the sentences came one after another, clear and glinting, like the waves that scalloped the lake. This was a new feeling. She could make her own world. She made more of it. Sometimes she worked all night and stumbled to breakfast with prune-ringed eyes. Sometimes, when she made words, she forgot her reason for making them at all. It was the words, only. And the words were enough.

But, by the pull of the thread in her, Claire felt The Idiot must pass before the Adriatic eyes of Byron. Only he knew what work was good. And she thought The Idiot might be very good. When it had reached one hundred pages, when she could no longer keep it hid, she snuck into his villa through the same unlatched window. She found the door to his chamber. She knocked. There was no answer. She pressed her lips to the keyhole.

You must read The Idiot, she called.

Still no answer.

I need you!

She rattled the knob. She slapped her palms against the door. She called his name, again and again. She knocked until her knuckles ached.

She slumped there against the door, manuscript in hand. And she slept, head cocked against the doorjamb.

She was half-awake when Byron lifted her to her feet. His eyes deep and distant. His breath heady with spirits. His curls all off to one side. She felt the thread reeling taut, at last. She heard her own blood, the deep sludge of it. She remembered her purpose.

Will you read The Idiot? She whispered.

Byron smiled. He traced the collar of her blouse, where it opened.

The manuscript in her hand was soft from clutching.

No, he said. What nonsense.

For a moment, she made to back away from his touch. For a moment, she clutched her work tighter. Then, his hands around her waist. Their expert pressure.

Her loosening grip. Her letting go.

The thread between them so short, and so fine.



BESS WINTER's fiction has been awarded a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in W.W. Norton's Flash Fiction International, American Short Fiction, Alaska Quarterly Review, Black Warrior Review, A Strange Object's Covered With Fur, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. She's held scholarships and fellowships at the Sewanee Writers' Conference and Yaddo, and is currently a PhD student at University of Cincinnati.

in issue fourteen

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