Death is a Dialogue between
The Spirit and the Dust.
"Dissolve," says Death -- The Spirit "Sir
I have another Trust" --
Death doubts it -- Argues from the Ground --
The Spirit turns away
Just laying off for evidence
An Overcoat of Clay.
- Emily Dickinson
Second Clown. Who builds stronger than a mason, a shipwright, or a carpenter? ...
First Clown. ... a grave-maker: the houses that he makes last till doomsday.
- Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 1
It's difficult to believe there was ever such a thing as sun in Denmark, anything outside fog and shadow -- ever a place or a purpose at all, buried beneath the sheets of winding grey like dreams buried in with a young man's skull. The fog breathes softly, exhales and inspires, slinks through sleepy streets and shut-up houses, through wilted violets in a windowsill, an old castle that aches from battlement to battlement, echoes from step to stone. It breathes in the graveyard, breathes out in grave dust -- settling shapes subtle as decay -- with weeds watered by visitors, mourners.
In the graveyard, someone is singing six feet in the earth, stirring and shoveling up hard, gallows dirt. Something else sits by the side staring in, something disheveled and pale behind faded brown hair, blue eyes half-lost. Something clings at the ground with fingers that sink straight through.
He doesn't notice a shower of grave dust, but it doesn't notice him, either.
"Excuse me --" He clears his throat (it rattles). "Hello? Hello, I don't mean to be a bother, but. Well. Well, I'd rather like my body back -- if that's all right with you. I know it isn't much, it's just ... I've got somewhat attached to it. Had it most my life, I expect. Probably a bit before. The fingernails, they grow before birth -- did you know that? Though." His fingers drum in time to the beats of a shovel. "Not the beard."
Some silence, and the grave dust showers stop. He edges forward, breathless -- but this no surprise -- a curious little face still paper-pale, and peering over. Then the showers start again, and the someone in the grave keeps singing.
The something at the grave side whimpers, and he edges back. "I'd like to know where it's at, at least," he says, pulling his hand back with him -- not-quite-biting the knuckles. "I've the right to know, I think -- I mean -- it is mine. Or, I suppose, it was. Or I suppose it is. It's just, I don't know where ... You could tell me where -- you could tell me where you put it, couldn't you? ... Can't you? I've the right to know, I think. And I've nowhere else to go ... I've looked ..."
A tiny, desperate sound -- whining-pathetic and small (like learning to choke). "Please?"
"It's no use, you know."
His eyes light up; it’s almost literal. "Rosencrantz --?"
"No," comes an even voice in a dry, gentle correction. "No. I don't think so -- you, without a doubt, are Rosencrantz." Dryer, gentler, "Only you could be Rosencrantz."
"Guildenstern -- !"
"It seems so."
He turns to see. It looks like a Guildenstern -- guilder, gold -- worn at the edges, but brittle-bright in the dark of his eyes, arms crossed, at attention, hawkish and wary. Rosencrantz's features twist into a slow, awkward smile -- remembering to smile, and then it's natural as breathing. More than breathing (after all, more than life).
He does the next natural thing. He leaps up and he hugs him. Half because he had to hug something -- hold something solid and warm and real -- and half because Guildenstern is none of these things, and Rosencrantz didn't, doesn't care.
"... Rosencrantz. Rosencrantz, you do realize your hair is turning into moths, don't you?"
"I'm just so happy ..."
"... They're flying away ..."
"They'll come back. I just -- I'd missed you -- I'd thought I'd lost you -- and I did, didn't I? But I thought I'd lost you forever ... and I could, couldn't I? How long has it been? I can't quite tell here."
"I can't quite either. But I'm certain -- reasonably certain -- fairly reasonably certain, that a person’s hair shouldn't be turning into moths. Anywhere. Or into anything in particular, at that."
"They'll come back. But oh -- ! I’d thought I’d lost you -- to think, and I never even told you I --"
"Here." Guildenstern catches a fluttering handful from the air, lacing Them back through the strands of Rosencrantz's hair like little brown flowers. Their backs go flat, Their wings lie still, flicker once and then aren't wings at all. "There. Now -- don't do that again."
"Do what?" Rosencrantz blinks. He adds, helpfully, "You've got a moth in your hair."
"It's one of yours."
"Well, you can keep it, then." He smiles, letting go of Guildenstern long enough to glance back at the grave. Starting into an explanation, he says, "I'm looking for my body. You can come along, if you like -- I've just got to ask --"
"There's no use," Guildenstern repeats, and Rosencrantz's smile falls into a frown.
"No use in what?"
"In asking. They can't hear you -- or at least, they won't. Or at least they don't, or at least, they didn't. And even if they did -- or do -- or would -- even if they could, I don't see how they'd be very apt to answer. What would we say?" Guildenstern demands -- suddenly weary, wistful -- "I am Lazarus, come from the dead, come back to tell you all, I will tell you all ..."
"I am thy father's spirit," Rosencrantz agrees (distraction in his aspect), "doomed a certain term to walk the night ..."
Guildenstern blinks. "Who?"
Rosencrantz returns it. "What?"
"Who," he insists.
Dimly, "Who what?"
Tersely, "What who?"
"Which who what, when ..."
Guildenstern blanches and groans, "Sometimes I could kill you."
"You're a bit late, I think," is Rosencrantz's reply, along with an apologetic smile.
"Or the both of us are. I'd have thought ..." Guildenstern casts a look into the grave, around the graveyard, and the trees that stretch from the parched, cracked earth, like skeletons clawing at the sky, while the fog wraps the rest of the world away. "I thought," he finishes.
The fog breathes softly.
With the tatters of his cloak murmuring behind him, he turns, and walks, and doesn't look back. He doesn't need to; after a while, everything starts to look the same.
Rosencrantz follows -- exit, right --
"How do you even know it's here?" Guildenstern asks, when he can no longer hear the gravedigger or remember what he was singing about.
"Oh, it's here," says Rosencrantz, airily; the idiom is an uncomfortable one, bits of his hair and fingers blinking, fading, lost with the wind until they teach themselves to re-attach. Guildenstern is at least all together, but what little light there is falls through him -- tracing-transparent, like someone's skin in the dust. The simile is uncomfortable.
"It might not be."
"It is." A beat. "Isn't it?" A doubt. "Why wouldn't it be?"
"For one," presses Guildenstern as he presses through the fog, and what little good that does him. "We were for England, not Denmark. Our sentence -- short as it was -- was read in England, not Denmark. The execution was in England, not Denmark, and so, I see no reason why we should end up here -- in Denmark."
"Well, I don't believe in England," Rosencrantz explains, and hops over a little headstone (passing through the next). "Why should I be buried in it?"
"I can’t think that's relevant. You may as well ask if England believes in you."
"That's silly. If England didn't believe in us, why should it have us executed?"
A sharp wince, and a startled look, as though he had heard something obscene. To Guildenstern, it might have been. "Why should it? Do you know what logic is?"
For that there’s a smile, wide and bewildered. "Do I?"
"Don't contradict your own premises," Guildenstern snaps. "If England exists, it exists to be buried in. Alternatively, if it does not exist, it should not exist to be executed by. Granted: an execution may suggest a burial, and a burial may just as well suggest some execution, but it is, or it isn't -- it's one or the other. Take it or leave it, but for God's sake, choose."
In all innocence, "It can't be both?"
"It can't be both."
"Because." And he might have stopped at that, but that would be easy -- and nothing in life is easy, even without the life (he thinks). He stops to sit on a hollow skeleton of a stump (a tree stump) and postulates, "Logic is by definition deductive. To conclude any thing, one thing must be left, and only one thing, or whatever it is, it isn't logic. Logic demands one thing follow another, that there be a pattern, a way things work … a structure of sorts that can be used, deduced, as each thing, each step, each piece of the progression takes over the last, eliminating what is impossible or irrelevant until only the Truth remains. Logic demands Truth be possible, fathomable -- not absolute, but not outside a syllogism either -- not outside an order anyone can comprehend. Logic is reason, and without reason, it is nothing ... Without reason, there is nothing, nothing we can comprehend. Without reason, there is no order, and with no order, there is only absurdity, confusion and chaos. So let's be reasonable. Reasonably, effect follows cause, actions have actors, there is, for every premise, a conclusion, and for every conclusion a premise. i.e., for example: things should not happen unless somehow meant to happen, bodies should not move without excuse for moving, just as letters should not rewrite themselves during the middle of the night and men should not die ..." Here his voice stumbles. "No. Men should die, in the right circumstance -- or with enough time. But not without reason."
Rosencrantz was listening, mostly, but he was also realizing that when -- and without much thought, at first -- but when he braced a hand against his chest, and a sudden sort of absent-minded wondering struck him, he realized if he pushed -- he pushed, and it was as though nothing was --
Guildenstern's eyes grow wide. "Stop that," he hisses.
"I say," Rosencrantz exclaims, "I say. This is odd, isn't it ...? Right here, about, aren't I supposed to have ...?"
Letting his hand fall out and away, Rosencrantz pauses and blinks, beautifully. "What's the matter with you?"
Guildenstern almost buries his face in his hands … but then he can’t. He thinks he sees bone. He shivers, and mutters, "Sometimes I could kill myself."
"I think you're a bit --" But Rosencrantz cuts himself off -- another idiom. "Well. Nothing for it." Smiling, he holds out a hand, and says, "We can still look for it, I suppose. No reason we can't -- it's not as though we're awfully busy otherwise, are we? We can always look. " He still smiles. "If you like."
"Nothing for it," Guildenstern echoes. He takes the hand, still thinking of bone.
And only the fog seems to stretch on forever -- lands shift, times change -- crosses float on unseen hills, scattered through the unseen sky like strange, warped stars.
Together they pass through a throng of graves, with names more Antique Roman than Dane: I fare you well at once, an epitaph, for Brutus's tongue hath almost ended his life's history (and its side, et tu). They pass, alone -- atop a hill -- one who loved not wisely but too well, and past it a pair of stones tilted to touch like lovers’ heads -- eyes, look your last! and happy dagger! They pass three mourners, fair black widows, women in long veils and slithering skirts, the smallest propped against another, her slim shoulders shaking with what seems like sobs. They come close enough to hear her high, helpless laughter; they hurry on.
They pass inscriptions scrawled and scribbled, subtle and tasteful, as awkwardly, elegantly unremarkable as the next --
Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have immortal longings in me --
I have done a thousand dreadful things, and nothing grieves me heartily indeed but that I cannot do a thousand more --
Ask for me tomorrow and you will find me a grave man --
Lips, let sour words go by and language end: what is amiss, plague and infection mend. Grave be men's only works, and death their gain! Sun, hide thy beams. Timon hath done his reign.
-- Exit, pursued by a bear.
Shadow, fog and stone, but it is not all grey. Autumn leaves crumple underneath their footsteps, discarded gold lost to red, like paper monarchs ... butterflies, philosophers ... and underneath, the undiscovered country ...
"It's larger, than I remember it," Guildenstern remarks.
Rosencrantz shrugs. "Cemeteries grow, don't they?"
After a while, everything looks the same. Only the fog seems to stretch forever.
Conversation passes the time, as they pass through everything else. Guildenstern studies the shadows as if they have secrets to tell him. He asks, "What do you want to find it for, anyway?"
"Find what?" asks Rosencrantz, twisting his head to look at the sky, and twisting it a bit too far.
"Don't tell me you've forgotten already. Your grave,” says Guildenstern. “Your body."
His smile is as broad as a skull's as he twists his head back again. Guildenstern pretends he doesn’t notice, continues to stare at the shadows as Rosencrantz says, "Well, we can find yours, too, if you like. I was going to do that next. Or at the same time -- I'll admit I'm not very particular."
"But why?" Guildenstern demands. "What for?"
"Because I'd be lonely -- wouldn't you? No, I think we'd best both find ourselves, and together, or neither should at all."
"But I don't see the point, of finding either of our bodies, if we're not in them."
"But if we were in them, we wouldn't need to find them, would we? And we can't be in them until we find them." He looks at Guildenstern. "Can we?"
"Contradictory premises again."
"No. Well – maybe. I've forgot, really, it's just ..." Rosencrantz gives an odd sideways sort of smile. "I'd like to live again. That’s all. I'd gotten rather good at it -- got the breathing down and everything. I miss it."
"Living. Both, I suppose."
"It might be difficult having one without the other, certainly," Guildenstern agrees. "But is that it? Is that all? Is that what living is, what life means -- a working pair of lungs, and a shape to put them in? There must be more than flesh and bone and blood -- there must be spirit to the substance. If mind is more than matter, the physicality of it is irrelevant; brain or not, body or not, can’t we contemplate, postulate, dissect, discuss? We think, and we are -- are we not? -- and being is as much a part of living as breathing. Not-being is the effect of dying. To think of it another way, we are quite alive," he concludes with an empty, satisfied sigh, exhaling useless air. "It's our bodies that are dead."
"Sunlight, too," Rosencrantz continues. "I miss sunlight. Though, it's not just the seeing it I miss, I mean. It's the feel of it. Spring, you know -- sitting on the grass -- watching clouds. Eating apples. That sort of thing."
"Pastoral. And you think finding your body will help bring that back?"
"Well, you can't eat apples without a body, can you?"
"You can’t eat apples without apples," Guildenstern says -- and he adds, thoughtful, "They're out of season."
"But there has to be apples somewhere, hasn't there? And springtime. And sunlight."
"Spring is over and gone. It's autumnal."
"Still. Autumnal after autumn apples, just brushed with winter, the touch of a chill, of white, before snow ever falls."
"But it'll be spring again sometime soon, won't it?" asks Rosencrantz, flapping the ends of his cloak through the fog. "And then the grass'll grow again."
"And again. And again, and again ... But think. In the same manner as snowflakes, no two seasons are exactly alike; once a spring is gone, it won't come back again, no more than time must needs run backward. And since it will not, new flowers bloom -- and the earth inherits the old. But it seems too crude, too simple, if death is, after all, only an eternity in a grave yard. I wanted a graceful end. I wanted an end. And if that isn't possible, at least graceful means, the river and the ferrymen to collect up our coins, heads or tails or scales the right size to weigh a human heart. But is this it?" he snaps, the anger flaring into his eyes. "Is this all? Is this as far as we're allowed to go, as much as we're allowed to understand? Like little cups who can hold so much, and no more ... Who said that?"
"You did, didn't you?"
"Did I? When?"
"Just now." Rosencrantz stops flapping his cloak and tilts his head to a side, considering. "I don't much like the idea of eternity. I want a good story, with a beginning and a middle, and. Well. It can't go on forever, can it?"
Whirling on the horizon, Guildenstern shouts at the fog: "When is this going to end?"
"I thought it did already?"
A little, faint-feathered wren peeks out of Rosencrantz's hair and chirps its agreement.
"... And I wish your hair would stop turning into winged things."
"I'm sorry," says Rosencrantz, and frowns a bit. "What would you like it turn into?"
"Nothing would be best, wouldn't it?"
"But then I wouldn't have any hair ..."
Guildenstern sighs. Gingerly, he reaches out and brushes back a wing, and Rosencrantz's frown turns back to a smile. The hair doesn't change.
"Say," he asks after a moment. "What was it like, do you suppose?"
"What was?" asks Guildenstern.
"Who says we had a funeral? For that matter, who would have come?"
"I don't know -- people. Friends, family, that sort of thing. I expect we have a family. Or had, at least."
"We never had a family."
"How do you know?"
"I don't. But I'm beginning to think, or wonder, or suspect, that the only thing we ever had was ..."
"... Was what?"
He doesn't answer, but Rosencrantz hears it. His smile grows.
"... Will you give the eulogy, then? You're better with words than I am. "
A moment's pause, and Guildenstern smiles. It’s a fragile, breaking sort of smile, and (he starts to think that) Rosencrantz’s is better. "You wouldn't remember enough for an eulogy, anyway."
There are other things rattling in the in-between, hissing and whispering in the dark, shadows like snakes curving and coiling, out of sight and up in smoke, past imagination. Secrets steal from grave to grave, and stop whenever the wind moans, its desperate fingers scrawling desperate signs on everything it touches. Blackness creeps in, and nothing is certain in shadow.
"I want to go home," Rosencrantz whimpers.
"Not much of a chance of that now, is there?"
The wind tears at his hair, snatching in and out of slow, unearthly silences -- he thinks he hears screams -- "I want to go home. I tell you, I'm dead sick ... I'm scared to death ... I'm death-sick, I'm dead-scared -- I'm dying --" His voice trails and rises until it breaks -- his hair is full of fluttering wings, his skin holds light like thin, frail clouds -- his eyes are almost blank –
A hand snatches Rosencrantz's before it disappears. "None of that, please." Guildenstern is there. "And no more ... What are those? Bats?"
The wind dies, his hair stops. Color comes back in his skin, by bits, and he clasps the hand tightly, absently -- quiet, cold, and grateful --
"Just some." Meekly, "Sorry."
"There, now. You've nothing to be afraid of, not while I'm here. We'll be all right."
"How can you be sure?
"How can you?"
"I'm not. I've never been.” His eyes dart back and forth like nervous moths -- but Guildenstern’s are brittle-bright.
"I'd noticed. But in that case, you might as well not be sure we won't be all right as anything ... I'm sure. There, now ... I've got you ... there's nothing to be afraid of ..."
"You're not -- not just saying that, then?"
"Of course I'm just saying that. Haven't you been paying attention? I think we're doomed either way, personally, which in itself a comfort. It at least suggests there's an order in this."
"Oh." Drawing it closer, Rosencrantz pulls up Guildenstern's hand in his own, touches his lips to the back of it, and the kiss is something soft and intangible -- a strange, sudden coolness against faded skin. Like shadows. "Well. Thank you."
"... Give us this day our daily tomb," he whispers, voice caught up in quiet awe.
"All I need is earth, and room," is the wry response. No inscription, no epitaph, nothing except smooth stone and a pair of names too cleanly carved, huddled close as if for company.
"Which is which, do you suppose?"
"Whichever one it says, you'd suppose. Though you know, I wouldn't be the least surprised if they've mixed us up again -- and for the last time."
"For the last time forever, yes."
"Well, now what?"
"I don't know. Give it a knock."
"... Let's not start this again."
"Why start? Exactly. Let's not."
For a moment, even the fog seems to hold its breath. The clouds part like curtains; the sun pours in like applause; Rosencrantz leans in, and knocks.
"Hey, you --"
"-- what's-your-name --"
"-- come out of there."
(Even the fog seems to hold its breath.)