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The Book of Sin

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Winter, 1662

Living in the fuggy proximity of the room they shared in Trinity College, Daniel was unable to escape knowledge of the most intimate details of Isaac's life. Indeed, it was often his place to remind Isaac of his body's needs: to suggest that perhaps a nap of an hour or so each night might banish fatigue, or that a fellow required moderate quantities of meat and drink to live. He was not sure when the two of them had exchanged roles -- when Isaac had been transformed from servant to master -- and it did not matter that Isaac remained ignorant of this alchemy. Daniel was glad to serve.

"The human body is a sorry thing," said Isaac one dim afternoon in December, shivering as Daniel built up the fire.

"But it's the body that God granted you, when he placed you upon this earth," said Daniel cunningly, "and so tending that body, ensuring that it thrives as a vessel for the mind that God has placed within it, is a means of executing God's plan, and exploring the intricacies of His creation."

"Such a frail vehicle," said Isaac, looking down at his own body as though viewing it through some elaborate glass, "for the work I must do."

Privately, Daniel doubted whether there was any frailty to be found in Isaac's corpus. Every few weeks, when Isaac was out on some business of his own, Daniel would ferret around in his friend's papers -- setting aside complex diagrams and drawings, philosophickal musings, and sheet after sheet of impenetrable numerical series -- in search of the notebook where Isaac Newton, back in the spring, had catalogued his sins.

Under the heading "Sins Committed Before Whitsunday 1662" were a myriad mundane offenses: fights with other children, apple-scrumping, petty lies and childish hatreds. Daniel had committed much of this list to memory, so assiduously had he scanned it in search of the cipher that would unlock the secrets of Isaac Newton's heart. Prolonged exposure to Monmouth's entourage of courtiers, pimps and hangers-on had educated him (albeit at second hand) in the surprising variety of sins available to the young adult human male. And that drawing Isaac'd done ... didn't people say that a picture was worth a thousand words? It was quite likely that Isaac was ignorant of the words that could be used to label what'd showed so clearly in that picture. But Daniel, now, was not.

One word would have made all the difference. One name. Daniel. Anyway, it was irrelevant. That portrait that Isaac had drawn of Daniel, sleeping and beautiful, was ashes. If any stale sins had been omitted from Isaac's book, 'twas not that they'd been displaced by fresh ones. For the second half of the list, "Since Whitsunday 1662", was as empty as it had been the very first time that Daniel'd looked at it.

He looked at that list's Author now, since Isaac Newton was examining himself. The tattered robes did not conceal the slenderness of the body beneath them. Isaac ate scarcely enough to nourish a sick child, and he was capable of working through the night without pausing to rest or even to rise from his chair and pace around the room. With his long, silvery hair and unfocussed blue gaze, and the gradual flush of his skin in the growing heat of the fire, he seemed like a creature of stone and ice brought in to thaw.

Daniel breathed deeply, and tried not to think of thawing Isaac.

"What are you working on at present?" he enquired, gesturing at the piled papers.

"A philosophickal enquiry," said Isaac dismissively. "The nature of the generative spirit that inhabits every living being, and the ways in which it works upon the base physickal nature of man."

"You've finished Euclid, then," said Daniel inanely.

Isaac did not dignify this with a reply. "If God has made men to investigate and understand the marvels of His creation, then we must believe that every element of human life illustrates some aspect of that creation."

"Alone of all creatures," said Daniel carefully, "man can rise above his animal nature to examine that nature in the strong light of Reason." He indicated the table, where a jug of wine and a loaf of bread stood. "That animal nature must still be fuelled, or Reason is extinguished."

Isaac ignored this latest digression. "I have become aware," he said, eyes sliding away from Daniel's, "that there are facets of human -- or rather, animal -- nature of which I have no immediate knowledge."

Daniel could think of half a dozen such ignorances without difficulty. He had shared this room -- with its narrow window overlooking the streets of Cambridge, its sooty bullet-pocked ceiling, its fireplace that smoked when the wind blew from the east -- with Isaac for over a year now, and had observed the minutiae of Isaac's life: as, no doubt, Isaac had observed those of Daniel's. But Daniel had never seen Isaac act in any way that showed, that demonstrated that ... well, that he was an adult male. If he consorted with girls (or boys) he did it elsewhere, and infrequently. And Daniel, in his solitary bed, had been most acutely aware of that bed's creaking and rustling whenever he put a hand to himself: but there had never been any telltale noises from the other side of the room.

Perhaps Isaac had simply discovered a way ...

"Did you have any particular experiments in mind?" enquired Daniel, hoping that the newly-stoked fire would explain the flush in his face. His instinct, honed by months of tending Isaac's animal nature, was to offer help: but some vestige of rationality, some innate caution, urged him to discover what that help might entail.

"I have been considering the progenitive urge," said Isaac, in much the same tone as he might have said, "I have been considering the nature of the æther."

"R-really?" said Daniel. "I could introduce you to a, a female. If you wanted."

"I find that I have no particular inclination towards women," observed Isaac. "This, however, seems contrary to all logic: for if the urge is truly progenitive -- that is, concerned with procreation -- then there should be no impulse towards a sterile union."

"Indeed," said Daniel, dry-lipped. "And yet this contrary inclination is not an uncommon one."

"Is that so?" Isaac was frowning at him, and the blood in Daniel's face seemed to rise towards his skin as though drawn by some lodestone. "But you would know more of such matters than I."

"Only in theory," said Daniel. "But we could, er, investigate the matter."

"I'd hoped you'd be amenable," said Isaac, his frown fading to a beatific smile. Daniel smiled back. "I doubt," Isaac went on, "that there's a female within ten leagues of here who has the slightest notion of experimental method."

"I shall be happy to assist," said Daniel thinly. "Did you have any specific ... requirements in mind?" His anatomy was expressing requirements of its own, to do with heat and wetness and the touch of another's hand. He devoutly hoped that Isaac's experiment might encompass some of those requirements, in addition to whatever arcane and obtuse principles were being tested.

"I must profess ignorance in this matter," said Isaac, without embarrassment.

"As must I!" protested Daniel. Belatedly and vividly, like a shadow that dimmed the firelight and the curve of the bones under Isaac's skin, came the echo of Drake's voice, declaiming against the perversions of Sodom and Gomorrah, and (as an aside) warning Daniel not to fall into temptation.

"Besides," he pointed out, "it's a sin, you know. Thou shalt not lie with a man as with a woman, and all that."

"It cannot be a sin," intoned Isaac, raising his eyes to the cobwebbed ceiling, "to seek understanding of God's work. Besides, I seek merely to know: to experiment."

"An experiment isn't a sin?" said Daniel caustically.

"Once is an experiment," said Isaac. "To repeat the exercise might be more sinful, if it were not for sound reasons."

Daniel knew several theologians who'd differ with Isaac on that matter: but his animal nature had caught him up, and his tongue would not obey his brain's instructions. He could argue no more.

"All right, then," he managed.

Isaac's gaze flicked towards the notebook he'd left open on the table, and he opened his mouth to speak.

"I suspect it would be more convenient," said Daniel hurriedly, "to record the experiment in its entirety, once concluded." Only prolonged, frequent collaboration with Isaac permitted him to retain the gift of polysyllabism. More than anything he longed for simple, monosyllabic things. Isaac's hand on his prick, Isaac's mouth ... Isaac's mouth on his own. The urge to kiss surprised Daniel. He reached for Isaac unthinkingly, and Isaac stepped away.

Daniel stared at his friend stupidly, wondering what he'd misunderstood or failed to see this time.

"Perhaps ..." said Isaac: and frowned, as though his own vocabulary was lacking. He gestured behind him, at his unmade and sourly musty bed.

The bed, it turned out, creaked and squeaked beneath them as loudly as Daniel's own: which was a shame, because it confirmed Daniel's suspicion that Isaac actually didn't do anything in it except sleep, motionless and unconscious. And from that it followed ... it followed ... (Daniel's thoughts were fragmented by the first touch of Isaac's cold hand against his face). It followed, ah yes, that Isaac was unmoved by those animal humours that were currently affording Daniel such quivery thrills. It followed that Isaac's interest in this experiment was truly only philosophickal.

Daniel could not formulate a verbal argument to counter that lack of enthusiasm. In the spirit of scientific experiment, he worked his hand up beneath Isaac's enveloping robes, up over the rough cloth of Isaac's breeches, and was wildly gratified to discover a definite state of readiness.

Isaac's eyes were half-closed, but the spark of blue beneath them was as sharp as ever. He showed no inclination to kiss, and Daniel had no idea whether such things were usual, between two men. Hadn't that friend of Upnor's ...? But Daniel set the memory, and the rush of anger, aside. This might never happen again, and he wanted to remember every moment of it. And surely, now, he could at least look Isaac in the eye, and make no secret of his own excitement.

"The, the urge," observed Isaac, rather more huskily than before, "is to ... to push, to thrust: and yet there's no receptacle, no concavity, into which ... unh."

Daniel curled his fingers, hollowed his palm. He could feel Isaac's pulse against his hand, feel the heat of another man's body, hear the labouring breath in Isaac's lungs as his heart laboured to drive blood, the humour of passion, through his veins. He was aware of similar mechanical reactions occurring within his own frame.

"You might ... reciprocate," he suggested.

"To what purpose?"

"To the purpose of mutual enjoyment," Daniel snapped, too aroused to be tactful.

Isaac looked at him, looked at Daniel rather than some abstract fellow philosopher, for the first time since Daniel had agreed to act the assistant. He looked at Daniel as though he were reading some complex equation, or deciphering an obscure text: something having to do with alchemical transmutation, perhaps. Daniel, not stilling his own hand, watched Isaac reach some conclusion, and begin to smile.

His hand on Daniel's knee, even through the coarse robe, was almost enough to bring Daniel to his crisis. Only by a supreme exercise of will, and an intense concentration on one of the knottier problems in Euclid, was Daniel able to maintain control of his generative impulse.

Isaac did not seem to have noticed his lapse -- and Daniel decided not to admit to it, for it made a mockery of the whole experiment. On the other hand, if he revealed his weakness, a whole series of experiments -- knee, thigh, elbow, hip, navel -- might suggest themselves to Isaac.

Isaac did not seem in need of suggestion. Prompted, perhaps, by the motions of Daniel's hand on his own body, he'd reached beneath Daniel's robe and found his target unerringly. Daniel hissed in a lungful of smoky air, and rocked himself up into Isaac's tentative touch. Whole clusters of thought and memory were incinerating themselves within his skull. It was not impossible that he was now beyond speech, beyond logic, beyond most recognisably human faculties. Daniel Waterhouse had become an animal once more, and it had taken no more than the touch of his friend and mentor, Isaac, to make him fall to that state.

Dimly, though the roar of his blood in his ears, and the sough of his own breath, he heard Isaac cataloguing each sensation. "A weighty feeling in the testicles ... a distinct urge to push, to thrust ... a sense of immanence, of an unstoppable reaction ... a twitching, a small muscular movement, at the base ...Daniel, I ..."

When Isaac's voice stuttered and stumbled, Daniel's body lost its equilibrium entirely, and spilled out light and heat and life over Isaac's hand, and their robes, and the dirty bedding. And perhaps it was that emanation that called forth a similar response from Isaac, as though he were learning, after all, by example.

Daniel looked forward to more tuition.

He let himself fall back onto the bed, too limp with satisfaction to hold his rather uncomfortable half-kneeling position. Isaac, dismayingly, seemed energised by the experiment. Before Daniel had done more than blink owlishly at him, wondering if it would be acceptable to suggest that they took some rest together (for it seemed to him that Isaac had been cold, and Daniel would have liked to warm him a little more), Isaac had wiped his prick and his hand clean with a corner of his robe, and was back at the table, dipping his quill into the inkpot and opening that notebook to a new, blank page.

"Was the ... the experiment conclusive?" enquired Daniel foggily. "Or will further investigation be required?"

"I shall need to formulate another theory," said Isaac nonchalantly, scratching away with his quill.

Daniel wondered what theory had been disproven here: whether the experiment might bear repetition: if so, how the parameters might be changed. He was aware of a powerful curiosity, though not necessarily a philosophical one: he wanted to know the secrets of Isaac's heart, or (failing that) his mind.

Afterword:

On Whitsunday 1663, while Isaac was at prayer in the chapel, Daniel broke his self-imposed vow and stole another look at Isaac's Book of Sin. He did not know what he expected, hoped, feared to read there. But apart from the heading, "Since Whitsunday 1662", the page was as blank as ever.

The experiment would not, he felt sure, be repeated. Isaac was beyond sin now.

-end-