THE NIGHTS AT ELSINORE ARE LONGER THAN ANYWHERE else. But I have never been anywhere else; I merely imagine this to be true.
And this one is longer than most, a night without slumber.
I am filled with such restlessness, as though I am being taunted by the moon itself. I perspire, though it is more cool than warm, and toss in my bed like one who is mad with fever.
There is no help for it, and my thoughts settle on Hamlet. Prince of Denmark.
Home now from school in Wittenberg, twice two months, summoned hither with news of the tragedy. Before then, I was forced to endure his absence, with only his cherished missives to assure me of his devotion.
Since his return, we have whispered gentle promises and sworn upon our very souls that we, indeed, are meant to spend eternity in each other's arms. He is all known and unknown to me, a sweet secret, and I do revel in the study of him. He is a diamond in moonlight, glinting in facets of unimaginable number. He is water rippling in moonlight, he is moonlight itself.
I believe he hath stolen the smile of Apollo--and wears it to far greater effect. It warms me even in the memory of it.
Oh, and he is as brilliant as he is handsome, and he speaks to me in a voice that is at once rough and tender. We talk of past and future and all that comes between, and we speak of art and music and literature, for Hamlet does so love words.
Ah, words! Hamlet revels in them! He loves to tumble words over themselves, upending their meaning and playing on their sounds. When he speaks, I must listen with my understanding tipped at an angle that would make most others dizzy! 'Tis true--but only for the placing of one letter, do meanings slant and distort and become others--trust becomes tryst; friend, fiend--while one word's position among its fellows can make some sentence another. Hamlet hath shown me that a word is as good as a kiss, when, like a kiss, one knows how to bestow it.
And as brilliant and handsome as Hamlet is, he is even sweeter still. When no one watches, he presses his lipsin careful kisses against my fingertips. Together, we talk of the sun and the stars and the earth, and of how we wish at times we were the only two who dwelled upon it. We speak of flowers, of their beauty and their meaning, and I present him with blossoms I have grown, or small bouquets, which he keeps, he tells me, 'neath his pillow.
He speaks of making me his wife, and I am told that the Queen finds favor in this.
But, alas, for near four months, Hamlet has dealt only in darkness. Since the death of his father, the King, my Prince has been ... I can only name it melancholy, overcome with a most agonizing grief He speaks little, and his eyes often gaze at something grim and far off that only Hamlet does see. Would that he could share his pain with me; would that I could ease his worried heart with a word, a touch, or even a silence of my own.
'Tis nearly morn, and sleep is distant, still; the creeping dread returns, and I am out of bed, pacing among the shadows.
Something strange is upon us, I know it, something I cannot name. Be it curse or blessing, I am not sure, but it comes for me, like some mystic messenger, and tugs at my sleeve. I dare not ignore it, for it calls.
Quietly, I dress, and quietly, I leave my room. "Anne will come," I tell myself In the dawn stillness of the castle I make my way to the kitchens.
Anne is a servant's daughter, a servant herself; she rises early. We are friends, despite the great discrepancies of our birth. We are six-and-ten years now, but we have been as sisters 'most all of our lives. My mother, saints rest her, would bring us both to play beside the gentle brook that just beyond Elsinore runs; she cared not what Anne's station was, only that she could be a friend to me.
I believe I loved Anne instantly, for she made me laugh like no one else, save Laertes. It has been thus ever since.
Anne is the careful one. When I find her in the scullery and tell her my design, her eyes open fully, and her pretty mouth falls.
"No!" she gasps. "No, Lia!"
"Yes," I say. "Tell them I've summoned you to ... assist me in washing my hair."
"Your hair has just been washed," she reminds me. "A mere four days past."
I lift my eyes to heaven. "Then tell them something else. But you must come."
Anne's chin trembles. "To the guard's platform?"
"That is what I said."
"I confess, I know not." I sit down on a stool and pick up an apple. "But I feel I must go. The moon wills it. Some secret knowing shudders inside me."
"Secret knowing, hah!" Anne, more herself now, snatches away the apple and returns it to its basket. "You go only in the hopes of finding the Prince there."
I eye a tray of meat pies. Anne slides them away with a snort.
"Why would Hamlet be about at this hour?" I challenge.
"I know not," says Anne. "It is only that everything you do these last months touches somehow on Hamlet. You sigh whene'er he walks past. It is no wonder that I should assume it is he you stalk at dawn."
"I do not wish to argue," I tell her, then add pleadingly, "You will join me?"
"I shall be whipped, mark it"
"You are never whipped. Let us go now."
After but a moment's pause, Anne says she will accompany me. I never doubted it. She sees to a simmering pot first, and then we make haste.
From the kitchen, through the cavernous hall, outdoors and up the moonlit stairs to the guard's watch. The air bites our faces; already my slippers are damp with dew.
Oh, I am awake and alive, even in the gloom! The vast stoniness of the walls is colorless but for their dusting of quartz. We climb toward the sky as it swirls above us. We are high, so high, where only men are allowed. This fills me with more than excitement. Anne says I was born to misbehave. Perhaps she is correct.
In the east, the sky is milky gray, not yet daylit.
Anne hears them first.
"Shhh," she hisses, grabbing my sleeve. I stop to listen.
The voices approaching are familiar. One in particular is that of Horatio--friend of Hamlet, schoolfellow atWittenberg, a guest at Elsinore for the funeral, but gone these many days.
Anne's eyes gleam with surprised joy. "Horatio hath returned?"
Horatio is quite beauteous, built coarse and lean, with wide shoulders, tall as well. Anne is taken with him, verily. I've seen her look upon him as a starving man might look on bread.
She knows that Horatio, before his departure, did believe he loved me. But for all his beauty, Horatio was not for me. And to his great credit, Horatio quit his courtship when he learned of Hamlet's intentions in my regard. That, I always felt, spoke of the depth of their friendship.
From the guard's walk, I hear the officer Marcellus and Horatio as they greet the guard Barnardo. It is a moment before the dull-witted oaf notices that Marcellus has been joined by Horatio. "What, is Horatio there?" he inquires.
Horatio's golden voice ripples with his response. "A piece of him."
"Any piece is sufficient," Anne whispers to me with a grin.
I strain to hear them as they go on to speak of a visitation they expect this night.
Aha! Something is about! I knew as much; the moon told me ... . Something dreaded is expected to arrive. The damp night crawls suddenly along my spine; I thirst for more, for more ... .
Anne is cooing over Horatio's auburn hair. I hush her firmly. 'Tis not the time to admire a boy's locks, no matter how luxurious they may be.
They continue their discourse, and now I learn from Marcellus that which they fear. The words reach me as though on a wisp of smoke; he foretells the coming of an apparition.
An apparition! The very breath catches in my throat.
"What?" begs Anne, who did not hear. "What causes you to tremble, Lia? They speak in such shrouded voices."
Shrouded, yes. Shrouded like death itself, which, they say, has walked this very watch among them. I take a step to reveal my presence, but Anne pulls me back. She is right, of course. I do not belong here. Yet I am fascinated.
"Pray tell," Anne whispers. "On what subject do they argue?"
"The guards have seen a ghost ..." I explain, then cover her mouth to muffle the scream. "Twice. On this very spot, at this very hour, two nights now. Marcellus has brought Horatio to prove them true, to confirm their vision, though Horatio is convinced the ghost does not exist."
"His eyes are like topaz, are they not?" Anne intrudes in dreamy tones.
"Anne! Hush! You may be lovesick later. For the moment, please, be still and listen." I draw a breath and go on. "If it comes, tonight they will rely upon Horatio to speak to it."
Anne crosses herself mightily. I am not sure if 'tis the thought of an apparition or the thought of her beloved engaging one in conversation that distresses her more. For good measure, I cross myself as well.
Now Marcellus cries out for silence. At this, I fear I am found. But he notices me not at all.
Marcellus points at something. In a tone most disbelieving, Barnardo remarks that it is the same figure like the King that's dead.
The King that's dead! This revelation pierces me like a dagger, but slowly, as though the blade were blunt. The King that's dead ... my Hamlet's father?
I peer round the parapet behind which we've secluded ourselves and stare fiercely at what is at first vaporous emptiness but now becomes a figure, a specter turned out for battle.
The deceased King, to be precise! My heart leaps, though whether with joy or terror 'tis hard to say.
Anne is no help. She faints dead away.
Marcellus demands that Horatio speak to the ghost.
"What art thou?" comes the echo of brave Horatio's voice. "By heaven I charge thee, speak!"
I am not surprised that the ghost ... the King ... the King's ghost ... says naught. His Highness is no doubt unused to being ordered so.
"It is offended," Marcellus observes.
Well, of course it is offended! He is the King, even in death--or half death, or after death, or whatsoever this state be called.
Surely it is Hamlet the apparition seeks; surely someone should offer to fetch the Prince! But men know only orders. I would speak to that ghost myself, did I not fear the guards, in their agitated state, might react badly and run me through. Besides, it is too late. I gaze in disgust as the apparition withdraws, vanishes.
"How now, Horatio?" says Barnardo, a bit smugly. "You tremble and look pale. Is not this something more than fantasy?"
I strain to hear more--Horatio, employing mayhap some intuition of his own, suggests that a visitation such as this bodes strange eruption to our state.
Now Horatio and the others turn their talk to war, to disputes with one called Fortinbras, and to that most mindless masculine obsession, vengeance.
I nudge Anne with my toe; she stirs, and I smile down at her.
"Ah. You've not died. That is good."
Her first thought: "Horatio--is he well?"
"Quite," I inform her, "for one who's just encountered the spirit of the King. And, I might add, behaved poorly."
Anne, dear Anne, just blinks.
But before I can go on, I am halted by more excited voices from the platform. Anne remains where she is--sprawled on the stones--but I lean farther around the wall, so I might see better this time.
The ghost has returned! This time I am unafraid and prepare to speak. I've a million inquiries I would make of it. But Horatio speaks ere I even open my mouth. True to his gender, the fool accosts the noble spirit with--of all things--politics!
Shame on Horatio! When one meets a ghost, one should query on heaven and hell, on the meaning of life, on any number of the most divine obscurities--but this boy seeks military advantage?
Marcellus suggests to strike it! To my great shock, Horatio encourages the violence!
Unable to control myself, I gasp.
Horatio makes but the slightest start at my sound, and I see him tilt his ear in my direction. Again, my breath holds in my throat. And now he makes a near-indiscernible glance--away from the spirit, toward my hiding place. And now ... a smile? Yes, methinks I saw the man smile!
Returning his attention--and a countenance less amused--to the dead King, Horatio and his fellow soldiers make to attack it. But before they strike, there comes the sound of crowing, and the ghost into the coming daylight fades, first to vapor, then to absence. Had I not seen it with mine own eyes, I'd not believe it. But it is so.
Horatio and Marcellus remark on't; Barnardo, fiddling with his dagger, has nothing to offer.
'Tis my opinion that the ghost simply tired of them and their inappropriate behavior. I listen unseen as they plan to report the happening to Hamlet. But I shall beat them to it. God save me, I shall go directly to Hamlet.
"My lady ... a word."
I turn to find Horatio, separate from his companions now, standing behind me.
Anne is aglaze and speechless. I am mostly angered with myself for being caught.
"Horatio! Why, welcome once again to Elsinore, my lord."
"I thank you, m'lady. But I would know, wherefore thou art about at this late hour?" His demand is softened by the warmth in his eyes.
"It is not late, sir," I tell him. "It is early."
"The world is dark."
"It grows lighter as we watch," I tell him, with a lift of my chin toward the east, where the night holds hands with morning. "Unless it is to its disposition you refer, then, yea, sir, the world is surely dark."
Horatio lowers one eyebrow at me. "How much have you heard?"
"Enough to draw the same baffling conclusions as thee."
"Nothing, my lady, of this world or any other, doesbaffle me so much as you." A smile twitches at the corners of his mouth, and he leans close to me. "How go things with Hamlet? He was most despondent when last I saw him. I expect he is not overly attentive to thee in such a cloudy condition. I, on the other and ..."
Men! Can they not think on anything but conquest, of one sort or another? I interrupt him.
"Some ladies find a melancholy beau appealing."
"Pray tell, is the fair Ophelia one of those ladies?"
"We have at length discussed this, Horatio, and my decision is as ever."
Horatio shrugs and smiles. "One cannot blame a man for trying."
"Hear me, Horatio. I love Hamlet. And I know you, like a brother, love him too. You would not dream to lure me from him."
Horatio sighs. "Would that I could ... ." ('Tis muttered.)
I ignore it. Anne, at last, sees fit to remove herself from the floor. I assist her in dusting the filth from her skirts, then turn back to Horatio.
"Now ... what shall we?"
"Yes, we. You've devised to tell Hamlet of this ghostly encounter, and I would play a part in it."
"Oh, no ..." Now his hand is firm upon my shoulder."I shall speak to Hamlet. You will hold thy tongue. Speak not of what you've witnessed."
"To none but Hamlet."
"Nay, to Hamlet least of all." He grins again. "For to do that, thou wouldst need admit to being here."
He doth have a point. I frown. "Think you that Hamlet would be angered to know I was here?"
"Angered?" Horatio laughs gustily. "At you? No, dear lady, I doubt he would even know how to be angered with thee. My worry is for my own skin, should the Prince learn that his love hath been about at daybreak, unchaperoned, in my company. He would go mad!"
With that, my erstwhile suitor guides Anne and myself down the stairs. I pay no attention to his laughter, for I am thinking too intently on his words. Hamlet has never seemed to me the jealous sort. Has he communicated otherwise to Horatio? 'Tis possible.
There is also the half-chance that my lord will find the boldness of my actions cause for concern.
But, oh, to be the one to reveal that his father's spirit wakes ... .
Confusion boils in me. To tell. Or not to tell?
Hah! Confusion is short-lived.
For I, Ophelia, am not one to suffer the plague of indecison.
I will act! And tell my love of this night's most ghostly vision.