"Thus, arm-in-arm with thee, I dare defy
The universal world into the lists."
Friedrich Schiller, "Don Carlos, Prince of Spain"
He didn't know where he was, except that he was on his knees in very cold sand, surrounded by darkness. He had, for a moment, even forgotten who he was, until he heard a voice in the distance calling to him. "Carlos!"
The man who had been Carlos, the Infante of the Spanish Empire, squinted into the inky dimness. His eyes were beginning to adjust, and he could see a black shape against what looked like rocks all around. The figure drew closer, dull footfalls sounding from the sand, and sank to the ground at his side.
"Rodrigo! You? Here? How?" He reached out towards what he could barely see, and soon his hands were enveloped in another's. "Then--"
"Yes, my Carlos--we are reunited, in death." Oh, beautiful deep voice that brings both comfort and dread!
"As you said we would be," said Carlos, squeezing both of the hands that held his. "Oh, but my Rodrigo... My Rodrigo, I have failed you."
"Never! What do you mean?"
"You gave your life so that I might live to rule Spain with a kinder hand than my father's," Carlos reminded him glumly, "and to free those oppressed lands we vowed to liberate. Willingly you went to your death for me, and for Spain. Yet here I am--I've wasted your gift."
"Ease your mind," Rodrigo admonished him. "We vowed to fight for freedom or to die trying. You kept your vow, just as I have. Never did you turn your back on our vision."
"Freedom for the people of Spain... of Flanders..."
"Others will bring about that freedom. I know it."
"I believe you when you say it with such conviction." Carlos studied his face. "So full of hope you are. I've lost everything. I've lost Isabella; I've lost my father; and now I've lost my life. But I still have you, and somehow that's enough to soothe me."
"Yes, I have hope for Spain," said Rodrigo.
"Then what troubles you?" Even without being able to see the Marquis de Posa's face clearly, Carlos could tell that his friend's mind was running along a course of worry.
"I can't reason where we are. Before I came to you in the prison, I knew I'd soon be killed, so I visited my confessor. I thought I would see you again in Heaven. Yet--yet here we are in this tomb. Rocks... sand... darkness." He gestured to that which walled them in, then at the ground, and then waved his hand around. "So much darkness."
Carlos was silent, listening, breathing heavily.
"I must be guilty of something I hadn't thought of to confess," Rodrigo concluded, "and this is purgatory. Carlos--" He turned his head toward the prince suddenly, his expression suddenly full of turmoil. "Carlos, did you receive last rites?"
It was as if icy water were poured directly into Carlos's brain. "I--no," he stammered. "My father came upon Isabella and me as we were saying farewell forever; he was threatening us both with execution... 'a double sacrifice'...I don't know what happened after that. I think... I had the vague idea that the emperor, my grandfather, appeared to protect me and got between us... but I fainted, and...."
"Carlos, Carlos, my own, this is very important." Rodrigo seized him on both shoulders with strong hands. "Please, you must think--had you gone to confession since you defied your father in front of the people?"
The icy water flowed in an anguished stream from his brain into his body, through each arm, and down into his belly. "Rodrigo..." The name escaped, choked, a gasp. He hung his head. "No. No, I hadn't been to confession." Then he looked up and met Rodrigo's horrified gaze with his own. "I am damned. I know it."
"You will be taken from me." Rodrigo clasped his shoulders more firmly now, his face wracked with pain.
"I can't bear it. I lost you once when you died in my arms; my consolation was that I'd be with you again in the sight of God."
"I never imagined that we'd be parted forever. I won't allow it!"
Carlos remembered Rodrigo's words just before he'd been shot in the back by his father's henchman--God permit that we will still love each other, near Him, when we're in Heaven. Rodrigo had seemed almost overjoyed to die knowing it was to save Carlos and send him, liberty-bound, toward Flanders.
There was no end to Carlos's shame at how badly he'd squandered Rodrigo's sacrifice. "My Rodrigo, I'm so sorry. To die without saving Spain, and then not even in a state of grace! When you had expected so much from me!" His face sank down again; he was unable to look Rodrigo in the eye. "You would be right to withdraw your affection. Why do you still--"
"Because I do," said Rodrigo, his voice suddenly soothing and calm again. "I have an idea." With a gentle hand he nudged Carlos's face to bring them back into eye contact.
"What can we do? We can't change God's law."
"No, but..." Rodrigo's eyes, large in the darkness, stared into his. "I must sin, so that I'll be cast out from Heaven with you."
"What? No!" Carlos grasped both Rodrigo's forearms.
"I am determined not to leave your side again."
"If only I could come with you to Heaven! But you mustn't squander your soul for my sake. It's all you have..."
"No, you're all I have. My soul is yours. I no longer fear speaking that aloud even if it's blasphemy, if by uttering blasphemy I'll keep you with me."
"Is saying that enough of a sin?"
"I don't know, but this isn't all I've got. I want to make sure."
"How else will you sin?"
Rodrigo let go of his shoulder to take up both of his hands again. "Carlos, my Carlos... let me lie with you. Let me give you pleasure."
Carlos's mind flooded with unexpected joy. Until that moment, he had never realized the intensity with which he craved Rodrigo's arms around him. "I would have done in life, had I known we would end up damned anyway."
"Then let us be damned together," said Rodrigo, squeezing Carlos's hands in his own, "still united in life and death, and fighting for freedom. Who knows--maybe, together, we will even liberate Hell!"
And he leaned in and kissed the prince.
Rodrigo's mouth was warm and soft but sturdy, and Carlos soon eagerly parted his lips to accept his tongue. Theirs was the slow, savored kiss of familiar souls; once drawn together, impossible to separate. Carlos threw his arms around Rodrigo and pulled him down onto the soft sand. It was still bitingly cold, but Rodrigo's heat surrounded him and he barely noticed the freezing ground. Fingers in his thick, dark hair--the savory pressure of a muscled torso pinning him down--relentless lips that covered his face with kisses--what could mere inanimate dust do to compete with these pleasures for his attention?
Carlos had expected the stings of a swarm of horrors when he opened this final gate of his tormented soul--shame, guilt, disgust, dread... but instead, all he knew was peace and relief. The affection he had missed from his father and had been denied by the fate of Isabella now poured freely from Rodrigo into all the empty caverns in his heart. Even knowing he was destined to be be cast into the fires of Hell, he was comforted by Rodrigo's touches. The eternal sentence seemed powerless beside the magnitude of the caress--and the magnitude of the emotion he knew lay behind it.
The Marquis de Posa made love to him, and he loved well in return.
Languid, they lay holding each other half-sunken into the soft ground. "Now we are well and truly damned together," Rodrigo observed dryly.
Carlos felt sand start to drain out from underneath his back. "Do you feel that?"
"What is it?"
"The ground is moving."
A flash of white light blinded them both, and they screwed their eyes shut and clung together more tightly. "We're being taken to Hell," Rodrigo guessed. "If there's a way for me to protect you from the tortures, I'll try it--even the most forlorn hope."
"United eternally," Carlos whispered. "Even as the flesh is ripped from our bodies."
"Yours, even as our blood spills like water upon the brimstone."
"As our bones smash into sand."
"As we become nothing."
"With my last thought, if I can still say, 'I am Carlos', let those words also mean, 'and therefore I love my Rodrigo'. My very name is synonymous with my feeling."
"And while I still have my mind to say, 'I am Rodrigo', let it stand for 'I love my Carlos'."
"Until we are swallowed up completely."
They fell through space, eyes shut, holding fast to each other--not because they were scared, for neither's heart held any fear, but simply so they wouldn't be separated.
The impact broke their embrace, and they tumbled into separate piles upon a soft surface.
"Rise, Carlos, Infante of Spain, and Rodrigo, Marquis de Posa."
It was a woman's voice.
Carlos opened his eyes. They had landed on a cloud floating in a brilliant blue sky, and before them on the cloud stood a Lady in a white gown. Her hair was also white, but her face was young and exceptionally lovely. Wings of pale colors, like mother-of-pearl, bloomed from her back. "¡Madre de Dios!"
Rodrigo chuckled, sensing that Carlos had meant this as an exclamation, not an address. "Yes, I agree, it must be she," he murmured to Carlos in an aside.
Carlos flushed. "My Lady." Both men rose to their knees, but no further.
"You have prayed to Me as Maria," said the beautiful Lady, "but many of the stories are false."
"My Lady," said Rodrigo, "have we been forgiven? Even for our acts in the cave of purgatory?"
"Your love for this man is no sin, and never has been," said the Lady, smiling sadly at them both. "You created the purgatory yourselves, with your own minds. Only by taking joy in what you are to each other, rather than stifling it to appease the church's lies, could you break free and join Heaven."
Carlos felt like there were rods in his brain, stretching it in all directions. "I have much to learn," he observed.
"You have all eternity in which to learn it." The Lady took one of his hands and then one of Rodrigo's, and held them together. "Both of you. Your devotion to freedom and lifting oppression is beautiful in My sight. I have selected you, therefore--your vows to freedom will persist after death. I will send you across the world forevermore, guardians of those who fight in the cause of liberty. Your work will be long and hard but your rewards great--starting with the reward you have already given each other."
The hands that she had pressed together now held each other firmly with entwined fingers. "Carlos; Rodrigo; you will be husband to each other in accordance with the vows you voiced as the caves in your minds collapsed around you into dust and memory."
"I can scarcely speak, for wonder," Carlos stammered, barely understanding her. "I thought we were to be damned."
"It is infinite lifetimes of never-ending work to which I put you," she pointed out. "You will have no home, no country, no end to your labors. This is no Elysium."
"We're ready!" said Rodrigo proudly. "We are united in our love of liberty!"
"We stand by our oath! But--my Lady," Carlos suddenly interjected. "What of Isabella?"
"You can't have everything you want," she pointed out bluntly.
"I don't--I know--I'm sorry. I just want her to be happy."
"In time, she will learn to love your father and cherish you as a fond, bittersweet memory."
"As long as she isn't miserable anymore, I can embrace my own happiness." He squeezed Rodrigo's hand.
"Tell me--my Lady--" said Rodrigo, "will we see true freedom for Spain?"
"If you two are the men I think you are," she said in a sudden conspiratorial whisper, her face spreading into a smile, "you'll be able to achieve miracles. Not just for Spain, but for the world. And, yes--for Spain in particular."
It was a relatively minor triumph in the four and a half centuries they had spent watching over the liberators of the world, but when Spain finally legalized gay marriage in 2005, the two spirits who had helped remembered that strange smile, and understood.