When it happens for the first time, he doesn't know what makes him do it -- and perhaps that's the most frightening thing, the thing that sets him to pacing and trembling all over again when the moment has passed and he is, once more, alone. It's the not-knowing, that awful blind incomprehension that takes his heart in its hand and grips. Nothing in the world is more terrifying than that.
It goes like this:
He is talking -- he is talking because he is frightened, and when he is frightened he cannot keep from trying to order the world. Rosencrantz is sitting, absently counting coins, though how he can count them at all is little short of a mystery when he is so clearly disinclined to take his eyes (wide and curious and round) from Guildenstern's face. "And if you'd lost?" Guildenstern asks, lowering his voice, drawing ever nearer to where Rosencrantz sits. "If they'd come down against you, eighty-five times, one after another, just like that?"
"Eighty-five in a row?" asks Rosencrantz, and oh, he must either be innocent or stupid -- heads or tails -- for the look on his face presents no other option. "Tails?"
"Yes!" Guildenstern leans down, closer, closer. "What would you think?"
"Well..." For a moment Guildenstern has hope for him, for them, for at least a semblance of mutual understanding -- and then that innocent incomprehension splits into a broad, easy grin, and his heart sinks like a ship. "Well, I'd have a jolly good look at your coins, for a start!"
He retires, recoils, all at once, turning away and beginning to pace once again. Back and forth, back and forth -- there's a peculiar rhythm to it, and a soothing one. It reduces the world to a sequence of retraced steps; he is nowhere that he has not been before, and there is nothing that he cannot understand. "I'm relieved," he says, and perhaps it's petty of him, but they've been on the road for days and Rosencrantz has been playing this ridiculous little game for hours; surely he has earned the right to be petty. "At least we can still count on self-interest as a predictable factor... I suppose it's the last to go. Your capacity for trust makes me wonder if perhaps... you, alone..."
He doesn't know what he is thinking. He turns sharply on his heel, rounds on Rosencrantz, extends a hand. "Touch," he says -- pleads, for all the world as though he is a child. And he isn't, he knows that he isn't, but perhaps Rosencrantz is -- perhaps that's all his capacity for trust has ever truly been, some glittering remnant of a childhood half-remembered -- because he reaches up at once and clasps Guildenstern's hand in both of his own, using Guildenstern's weight to pull himself up to his feet. His hands are rough and callused and somehow, inexplicably, they are comforting. The weight of them, the warmth of them -- the proximity of him, with his wide, expectant eyes and his barely-parted lips and the whisper of his breath against Guildenstern's cheek -- everything is familiar, and wrapped up in the warmth of that familiarity, there is security. It feels right. He feels safe.
He shoves Rosencrantz away, and begins at once to speak again.
The first time it happens they are gathered beside a caravan, and Guildenstern is trying hard to calm down. "You said something," he says, haltingly -- not understanding, and already beginning to go mad for it -- "about getting caught up in the action--"
Blithe as anything, the Player frees his shirt-front from Guildenstern's clutching fingers. "I did," he laughs, "I did! You're quicker than your friend--" and he claps a companionable hand against Guildenstern's shoulder; the contact is over in a moment, but it is forceful and intrusive and would be more than enough even at the best of times to leave Guildenstern shaken. "Now for a handful of guilders," he says, and leans in altogether too close -- his breath is stale and hot against Guildenstern's face -- "I happen to have a private and uncut performance of the Rape of the Sabine Women -- or rather Alfred--" He twists sharply to call out a command over his shoulder, and a pale-faced, trembling boy begins at once to struggle into a battered old gown. "And for eight," he says, fixing Guildenstern with a knowing look, the very beginnings of a smirk, "you can participate."
Guildenstern steps backwards. The Player follows. "Taking either part..."
He takes another step. The Player follows. The Player will keep following, he realises, and every muscle in his body aches just to run -- "Or both for ten--" and when he tries to turn away the Player only catches at his sleeve, his grip firm enough that the fabric might tear at a twitch. "With encores," he says, and Guildenstern strikes him hard across the face.
The Player lets go. It ought to feel like a triumph, but Guildenstern can feel Rosencrantz watching him -- he can feel the confusion in his stare, and so he can only tremble.
At a second, softer command, the boy starts to disentangle himself from his dress.
"It could have been," Guildenstern begins, but there is a hairline crack running through his voice and so he stops, breathes, starts again. "It didn't have to be obscene... It could have been -- a bird out of season, dropping bright-feathered on my shoulder... It could have been a tongueless dwarf standing by the road to point the way... I was prepared. But it's this, is it?" His words rise in pitch; he is frightened. He cannot begin to pretend that he is not frightened. "No enigma, no dignity, nothing classical, portentous, only this -- a comic pornographer and a rabble of prostitutes..."
The Player sweeps his battered hat from his head and bows low; there is something pathetic in the flourish of it, in the weariness of that performance of bravado, and Guildenstern does not acknowledge the stab of guilt in his chest. "You should have caught us in better times," says the Player. "We were purists then."
But just as he turns to leave -- just as he hollers out "On-ward!" and the wheels of the caravan creak once more into motion, just as the knot in Guildenstern's stomach begins to work itself loose -- Rosencrantz steps forward and raises his hand like a schoolboy, cheeks flushed slightly pink. "Excuse me!"
At last he has bested his own naivety. Guildenstern closes his eyes tightly, heart pounding, and thinks that he might at least have waited until the caravan had disappeared from sight.
He does not listen to Rosencrantz's questions, or to the Player's answers; he does not listen but he hears them nevertheless, because there is simply no way to avoid them. What would it look like if he clapped his hands over his ears, ranted and raved to shut out all sounds outside himself, for the sake of a conversation by which he has no rational reason to be upset? He is not yet a madman. He is a courtier and a gentleman and so he lets Rosencrantz's wondering and marvelling wash over him like water, and he does not permit himself to think of Rosencrantz tangled up in the limbs of another, wrapped around in kisses and caresses and a stranger's flesh -- he does not permit himself, he will not permit himself to think of drowning.
The waves lap at the hull of a ship bound for England, when it happens for the first time, and Rosencrantz holds out both fisted hands, offering Guildenstern a look that means Pick one.
They have subsided into silence, now -- Rosencrantz's questions and Guildenstern's sword-sharp awareness of his own inability to answer them have driven him to distraction. "We act on scraps of information," he said -- almost wailed, and he grits his teeth now at the thought of how pathetic he must have seemed -- "sifting half-remembered directions that we can hardly separate from instinct" -- and now here is Rosencrantz, holding out his hands, wanting to play a game.
Guildenstern taps his left hand, with the very tip of his index finger. Rosencrantz's skin is warm and rough and spattered with seawater, and when he turns over his hand and opens his palm to reveal a glinting-golden coin, his fingernails are circled with neat, thin lines of dirt. He holds Guildenstern's gaze and proffers the coin, waiting for Guildenstern to reach out a hand and take it.
Guildenstern has no intention of doing any such thing, until Rosencrantz smiles.
The brush of skin against skin feels familiar, as he moves to take the coin; he can't recall why, though, and it will drive him to distraction if he lets it, so he sets it aside and goes on. He watches in silence as Rosencrantz reaches once more behind his back; he listens to the jingling of the coins in his purse as he fumbles for a second prize. This time, he takes the right hand, and once again Rosencrantz hands over the coin. Guildenstern stacks his winnings one atop the other, fencing them in with the curve of his hand as they slide back and forth with the rolling motions of the ship.
Again and again he reaches to touch Rosencrantz's hands; again and again he wins, until his stack of coins has grown into the beginnings of a leaning tower. He should not be winning. He may as well be flipping coins all over again, heads and heads and heads, except that this time the coins are in his hands and Rosencrantz is blithely giving them over with scarcely a thought for anything -- he might be a holy innocent, for all his comprehension of their circumstances -- and so when Guildenstern moves to strike (for he is striking, now, and revelling in the guilt of it because guilt is not terror) first one hand and then the other, he is desperately, breathlessly relieved when Rosencrantz, letting both hands fall open, reveals a coin in each palm.
Guildenstern releases a slow, heavy breath; he feels endlessly lighter for having let it go. "You had money in both hands," he says, and even to his own ears he sounds exhausted and flat.
Rosencrantz squirms, fidgeting with his purse behind his back. "Yes."
If Guildenstern had cherished his guilt, a moment ago, he fervently wishes it elsewhere now; Rosencrantz is hanging his head like a puppy thrown out into the rain, and maybe his hands are stinging where he hides them behind his back, and it shouldn't matter. He cannot fathom why any of it should matter. "What's the point of that?"
"I wanted to make you happy," says Rosencrantz, plantively, and Guildenstern's ribcage tightens about his heart.
He thinks of that later, when he has degenerated into snapping and snarling and Rosencrantz is almost in tears. "Oh, what's going to become of us?" he asks, eyes wide and shining and heartbroken, and before he knows what he is doing Guildenstern has an arm about his shoulders, a hand at his back. "Don't cry," he says, as softly as the waves and the wind will permit. "It's all right... there... there, I'll see we're all right." And he can't -- he knows that he can't, and perhaps that knowledge of his own incapacity is worse even than ignorance -- but Rosencrantz leans in close, and his breath is warm against the bare skin at Guildenstern's throat, and it feels right. Irrational as it is, stupid as it is, Guildenstern does not want to let him go.
But of course he does; he lets go and he stands, and they go on. What else is there to do?
"We've done nothing wrong!" cries Rosencrantz, as the darkness begins to close in at last. "We didn't harm anyone. Did we?"
They are the last men standing, now; there are bodies, perhaps, in the darkness, or maybe they are only actors walking away to clean off their make-up and take new parts. Guildenstern closes his eyes. It scarcely makes any difference; only the half-lit shape of Rosencrantz, close at his side, remains to be shut out. He has never felt so powerless in his life. Quietly, hopelessly, he says, "I can't remember."
Silence falls. Guildenstern hears Rosencrantz draw in a shuddering, fortifying breath.
"All right, then," he declares at last, with an unsteady defiance that Guildenstern thinks might collapse under even the gentlest pressure. "I don't care. I've had enough. To tell you the truth, I'm relieved."
"Our names," muses Guildenstern; it isn't an answer, but it is all he can offer, all he has left -- "shouted in a certain dawn... a message, a summons... there must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said--"
Something is wrong. He opens his eyes.
He is alone.
"Guilden--?" No, no, that isn't right -- "Rosencrantz?" He sounds panicked. He sounds frightened, and if Rosencrantz were here then he would reach out to him and plead for touch but Rosencrantz isn't and he can't and that's the point. "Don't play at hiding -- I know you're out there. Men don't simply disappear..." The absence of presence, nothing more. His own words. He wants to tear them from existence; he wants to have never brought them into being at all. "You have to be here," he says; he is pacing, now, over and over the same ground, through the same slow-encroaching darkness that he knows will soon enough devour him. "You see, you must be here because -- because what am I without you? Don't you see? We're--" and oh, he has to laugh -- "we're two sides of the same coin. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern -- whoever we are, there can't be one without the other -- you've always been here. You and I, we've never been apart. Don't you remember? A ship in the rain, and I'd put my arm around your shoulders when you cried; you'd let me win that ridiculous game of yours because you thought I was upset... you took my hand when I..."
He shakes his head. "What am I saying? Perhaps death makes men mad. A gap you can't see... isn't it all paradox, really? I must be delusional. As though you'd ever... as if..."
There is something intoxicating in the moment of revelation, even as it comes too late. A lightness, a dizziness, a sense of looking out upon the world sub specie aeternitatis -- Guildenstern stops in his tracks, trembling. "You did," he says. "You did -- you took my hand, you let me win, you let me hold you when you were -- Rosencrantz, Rosencrantz, do you remember? Did you ever notice? -- no, no, of course you didn't notice, you never notice, you place your faith in me and that's all -- but how familiar it felt, as though I knew the weight of your hand in mine by instinct alone..." He runs a hand through his hair. He can barely see it, now, as it passes before his eyes. "Familiar. As though I'd learned it already, as though I'd known it in another life -- and I had. Don't you see? Rosencrantz--" and Rosencrantz is not there, Rosencrantz is gone into the darkness and Guildenstern is soon to follow, but men have prayed to stranger creatures in their desperation than men -- "listen to me; you aren't dead yet, there's still time -- Rosencrantz, we have been here before--"
When they wake -- and God only knows what time it is; there's no light but moonlight spilling in between the floorboards and the door, no sound but the howling of the wind and the banging of the shutters that tells Guildenstern home -- they are wrapped up in blankets and in one another; Rosencrantz has thrown his arm over Guildenstern's chest, his leg over Guildenstern's thigh, and has curled close as though he fears even the thought of distance. Guildenstern lifts his head. His hand has come to rest on Rosencrantz's scapula, rising and falling to the steady rhythm of breath. His lips are perhaps a heartbeat away from Rosencrantz's temple.
It feels familiar; it feels exhilaratingly, terrifyingly right.
"Rosencrantz," he says, and shakes as gently as he dares, "Rosencrantz, wake up--" and Rosencrantz groans, clutching Guildenstern yet closer, burying his face in Guildenstern's shoulder. "No, I said wake up -- wake up and tell me what you remember."
"Already asked me that," mumbles Rosencrantz. "Don't you remember?" -- and Guildenstern draws a breath as sharp and as cold as a knife.
"You ought to have forgotten," he says; he sits up and almost dislodges Rosencrantz from his chest, drawing an indistinct grumble and a firm squeeze in reply. "We ought to have forgotten it all -- we always have before. We have woken time and again in this very same bed, remembering no more than the bare bones of what came before -- we have been little more than phantoms, haunting always the same places without the least shred of awareness, without any understanding of who we are or where we came from -- we have never remembered until now. Tell me," he says again, heart pounding, hardly daring to hope, "what you remember."
Rosencrantz huffs, folding his arms as he finally sits up straight; Guildenstern feels the loss of that weight against his chest too keenly for his own comfort. "I remember you," he says, as though it's the most obvious thing in the world. "I was in the dark, and you were shouting for me -- and I couldn't see you, but I was listening -- or was that a dream?" He bites anxiously down on his bottom lip; Guildenstern can't suppress a thoroughly inappropriate shiver. "It was, wasn't it? It was a dream, and now we're awake and I've forgotten everything and you're going to be unhappy--"
Guildenstern catches his hand, draws him in close -- though drags might be the more appropriate term, he thinks, staring into Rosencrantz's wide, wide eyes, and somewhere in the depths of his own mind he finds himself madly, desperately laughing at himself for thinking of semantics, having just reached out and touched and -- "You heard me," he says. "You had vanished -- you couldn't see me and yet you heard me -- you listened for me -- did you understand?" The skin is stretched taut over his knuckles; it grows ever paler as he clutches ever more tightly to Rosencrantz's hand. "We have been here before. How many times have we been here before? Retreading old ground over and over, a pair of ghosts who cannot leave the house in which they died -- how many times have we woken together without understanding? How many times have you reached for my hand, put your arm around my shoulders -- how many times have you grabbed at my leg in a barrel -- you knew what it was, you needn't bother pretending. We have been reliving the same sequence of events repeatedly. We have never before recalled these events at their conclusion. And yet -- you kept reaching out. Every time. We couldn't remember why but nevertheless... like instinct... and this time, this time out of all the times we've played out this story, something has made us remember. What?"
The silence, when it falls, is little short of deafening; Guildenstern wants to speak again, and to keep speaking until he has forced the whole world to coherence.
"No," says Rosencrantz thoughtfully, "I think it was you who put your arm around me--"
"That's not the point--"
Rosencrantz kisses him, then, and Guildenstern's grip on his hand slackens at once; his fingers tremble where they brush Rosencrantz's own. He ought to be afraid -- he doesn't know what he's doing -- but if his heart pounds, it is not with fear. Rosencrantz's lips are soft; Rosencrantz's beard tickles his skin. Rosencrantz's free hand comes to rest against his cheek, and Guildenstern can almost imagine that it means to urge him closer -- he closes his eyes and yields to it, gathering Rosencrantz closer with a hand at the small of his back. Rosencrantz makes a soft sound, a wanting sound, against his lips, his thumb tracing the line of Guildenstern's cheekbone, and Guildenstern thinks: Oh. That's the point. It seems so obvious, now.
"You've stopped talking," says Rosencrantz, when they draw apart, and his eyes shine with wonder as bright as starlight. "I'll have to remember that."
This time, when a shapeless voice calls out their names into the pale sky before dawn, they are altogether too preoccupied to hear it.