This story relays the death of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley from the perspective of his wife, Mary Shelley.
To begin with, the book was mine.
John gave it to me as a birthday present, an autographed copy of his Lamia. Percy had borrowed it and never gave it back. I’m not sure if he even found the time to read it before they were both sacrificed to the waves by that defective boat. Strange to think of how broken and bloated his body was when it washed ashore at Viareggio ten days after the wreck, and yet that little book in his breast pocket was almost undamaged. It was his identifier, since Percy was not Percy any longer. That, and his new coat. He’d been so proud of it.
The men decided what to do with his body. These magnificent poets, of course, did not think to consult me. I was only his wife. They burned Percy’s body in the centre of the beach, on a pyre modelled after those built by the ancients. It reminded me of the story of Laodamia, who had leapt into the flames of her husband’s pyre, too grief-stricken to live without him. The gods had pitied her and allowed her one more day with her deceased beloved. Would they have done the same for me? I’ll never know. I was not allowed on the beach that day.
They buried all but your heart in that little plot of earth in Rome, Percy. Under Ariel’s song you lie, forever, far from the body of our daughter. Perhaps you prefer the quiet.
The heart was brought to me, wrapped in Trelawney’s handkerchief, and soaked in wine to preserve it as it was. The fire had petrified it, and Trelawney had nearly lost his hand trying to retrieve it from the flames. It was smaller than my fist. Percy had been sick as a boy and it had shrunk his heart. No doubt this accounted for the little regard he often had for mine. Hunt let me look at it, to hold you once more, but he would not let me keep it. I petitioned him over and over, reminding him that the heart legally belonged to me as the deceased’s wife, and eventually he relented. Although the heart was not given to me, as I would have desired. I had planned to keep it in my desk, to watch over my work as he always had before. Instead, he buried it in Bournemouth, so that the waves of the ocean might replace the rhythm of a heartbeat.
At night, I dream of the pyre and your thick smoke chokes me as the children cry out for their father in their sleep. You will not come. You will not return from Italy. Most days, I’m certain I would not want you to. But then you come to me with arms outstretched, offer to light the fire, and read your latest poem to me and I think, of course, my love. You are as much a part of me as my very own heart.
Fiona Wilkes is a current PhD Candidate at The University of Western Australia specialising in English & Literary Studies. A fierce feminist, her work focuses on the plights of women & queer folk of the past, present and future.