Sunday, June 27, 2010

If She Had Lived: Ophelia

(Note, some familiarity with "Hamlet" is helpful when reading this story.)

“Where on earth can it be?” she thought feverishly. Her long sable hair had come unbound and flowed around her, but she paid it no heed in her desperate search.

The scents of drying herbs permeated the room. Bundles hung from the ceiling and many more sat in clay jars. Windows placed up high kept the breezes from mixing the herbs and candles were forbidden here. The stone walls housed many shelves and shadows.

The young woman searched through bundle after bundle. “There's rosemary. That's for remembrance. Please, love, remember.”

Ophelia paused. She breathed in the fragrant herb and the memory engulfed her. She was still in training and had been bidden to harvest the first mature rosemary of the season. She had walked among the herbs and looked for the curled top of the elongated deep green leaves that signaled the plant had matured. Her large round basket had been fragrant in the summer heat and she wielded her knife surely as she cut the precious herb. She had thanked the plant for its sacrifice as she had laid some rice on the ground in gratitude.

So involved had she been in her task that she had not heard his approach.

“Good morrow, Lady Peaseblossom,” he had called softly using an old endearment. “I see thou art hard at work already.”

She smiled at the familiar and beloved voice and drank in the sight as he strode toward her with his long chestnut hair and smiling green eyes. He had grown taller in just the last few weeks, and he resembled his royal father more and more daily. His duties took him abroad increasingly and they had not seen each other for most of this summer.

“Good morrow to thee, my Lord Mustardseed,” she replied. “My priestess is a slave driver. ‘tis true. She seldom gives me time to rest and then too little,” she laughed.

“Do they work thee too hard, then? Shall I speak to the school mistress and have her punish those responsible?” his eyes twinkled in merry mischief.

“Oh aye. Thou must behead all those who make me toil. And then I shall be free to sit and eat figs and cream all day.”

“And I shall join thee. Together will we lie like hounds in the sunshine and grow fat on bread and wine.”

“T’would be a fitting end for us, then. We would be found in the meadow…”

“Entwined with thy head upon my shoulder,” Hamlet finished tenderly as he took her basket and laid it on the ground. “A fitting end indeed.” His hand coiled in her long braid as he stood close, so close. Her lips smiled in welcome as he claimed them with his own. His arms wrapped around her. Hamlet tugged lightly on her braid, tilted her head back, and deepened the kiss. His mouth and tongue explored as small, pleasured sounds escaped her.

Ophelia curled her hands in his hair and then traced the line of one sensitive ear with her finger. His breath stopped. He stood perfectly still and swallowed, hard. She had never forgotten just how much this simple touch affected him and delighted in teasing him with it at every opportunity. She felt him harden against her and laughed elatedly.

“You do this a purpose,” he whispered as his teeth trailed down to her throat. “You do it to torment me. One of these days, decorum be damned, and I will not wait until we are married. I will have you.” He nuzzled her throat and had her gripping his shoulders as her knees turned to water. They played with one another, teased, kissed, touched, until neither could think of ought else.

This last brought her out of her reverie as she came across pansies in a clay jar. “And there's pansies. That's for thoughts.” Ophelia recited as she rummaged. “Memories and thoughts,” Ophelia mused shakily. “This will help him remember who he once was.” She laid the delicate dried flower aside for later use. First, she must complete her primary task.

Laertes watched his sister apprehensively: “A lesson from madness: thoughts and remembrance go together,” he said quietly to the King as the Queen watched Ophelia with pained eyes.

“There's fennel for you, and columbines. There's rue for you,” Ophelia muttered to herself oblivious to those crowded around her. “And here's some for me,” she said as she tucked a bit in her pocket. She would need it later this night as she completed the blessing way ritual to honor her father’s death. At this moment, all she could see of him was his ghost who watched her frantic search. His brown eyes observed her quietly but she knew enough to ignore the vision. It was simply an effect of the herb she had ingested. Yet, as always, the phantom seemed so real, like she could indeed reach out and be held in his arms.

“On Sundays we call it ‘herb of grace.’ You must wear your rue like a family coat of arms. There's a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they all withered when my father died.” Now her tears began to flow freely. She did not attempt to wipe them away for she knew how little time she had. Every second was precious, but she talked to keep her mind in the present. “They say he died well.” Sweetly, she sang a line from a ditty her father used to sing to her when putting her abed each night. ”For lovely sweet Robin is all my joy."

Ophelia sang softly as she picked up herb after herb and discarded each. "And won't he come again? Won't he come again? No, no, he is dead." As the realization slammed into her yet again, Polonious’ specter began to bleed from his wounds. Ghostly blood streamed as she redoubled her efforts. She could not allow this horror to distract her now.

She was operating on instinct; her training took over as she searched. She attempted to keep the madness at bay. She sought the one plant that would help her. Then, she would find the one that would bring Hamlet back. Back from madness. Nothing else mattered now except to show him the truth. This insanity must stop or all was lost.

The room swam before her and her legs buckled as she lay her head down on the bundles of dried herbs. Laertes ran to cradle his sister as she crumpled, panting. He attempted to lift her in his arms to take her to the physician but she held firmly to the table, given remarkable strength by her quest. He released her as his impotence stung him cruelly. His father was dead; his beloved sister was mad. Everything had changed and he was powerless.

The King saw Ophelia’s suffering but did not understand its true nature. He only knew that he had business to complete and this tragedy could no longer distract him. He motioned for Laertes to follow him as he and the Queen left the chamber.

Ophelia closed her eyes and gripped the sturdy table leg. Slowly, unsteadily she got to her feet and resumed her search.

"Goddess, please," she thought. "Aid my eyes before the pull of the Belladonna overtakes me completely." Even as she had drunk the Belladonna potion, she had known she should wait. She had needed clarity and the Belladonna would give her that. She would see exactly what had occurred between Hamlet and her father. She would seek those responsible for creating this desperate time. Sadly, she had drunk the Belladonna too soon after her previous dose and the combination had proven lethal to her. She would not live to see the sunrise unless she found the antidote. All would perish unless she showed Hamlet the truth. He had been fed the Panther mushroom too many times and could no longer see clearly. She blamed herself for not having seen his symptoms sooner. Her own emotions had clouded her better judgment. His unkind words had pierced her and she had allowed that to guide her thoughts and actions until she had seen clearly but too late.

“’Tis not here,” she thought blearily. “I must seek it fresh blooming.” She had been certain that she would find the opiate in the herbal storage room, but somehow, it must have been mislaid. Dimly she recalled that this time of year she might find poppy flowers growing wild by the river. She hoped that eating them fresh would yield the same result and give her time to administer Wormwood to her love.

Unsteadily, Ophelia sheathed her knife and pushed herself away from the table. She fell toward the door and cried out as she caught herself. She hugged the wall for support and began to make the arduous trek to the river. At least she would recognize and find the bright red poppy flowers easily enough she thought with grim satisfaction; they were unmistakable. She held that one thought to her as she stumbled outdoors. The white sun seared her too-seeing eyes and she allowed herself a moment of stillness to catch her breath as she sank against the stone wall.

Deep breaths, unsteadily drawn, focused her intention once more. She pressed against the wall and stood resolute in her purpose.

“Trail the Oak King to the river and gaze both hither and yon,” she recited her teacher’s adage. “Soon shall you see the flowers that bring both the dusk and the dawn.” This was the first adage she had learned. They studied the locations of the poisonous and transformative flowers on the palace grounds and initiates learned quickly which flowers healed and which might hurt them or do worse. “Lavender flowers shall heal you. Passionflower aids in thy sleep. Poppy flowers will transport you while Hemlock buries you deep,” the words propelled her onward. The path widened as she neared the riverbank. “One’s a cure for the other but which is which you might ask. That shall be your life lesson and you must be up for the task.” The cattails along the river’s edge nodded their long brown heads as she approached.

The river. The current thundered in her ears as her eyes sought her quarry - bright red flowers with a deep black center, on long bright, green stems. They grew in clusters and once she found them she would have her pick.

She stumbled and landed hard on the ground. “No, not now,” she cried. “I am not yet prepared.” The visions overtook her anew as she lay panting. Now, she saw such apparitions as would make even the most powerful seers hide their eyes and weep. Blood, death, and destruction–all were imminent. The scarlet of the poppies was nothing against the bright sprays of crimson she saw on the palace walls. Ophelia clutched at the ground, fingers scrabbling in the soil and once again pulled herself upright. She staggered now, but her eyes burned with purpose.

She came upon the Crossing Willow as she and her classmates had dubbed it. It grew slanted from one riverbank to the other and when its boughs were strong and sturdy, they had ridden them and flown across. They spent many hours reveling in the flights and had been severely admonished never to do it again when they had been caught. Of course, no one had listened and the crossings had continued until well into their thirteenths summers. Then, most had gotten too big fly like the birds. Here she would find the sacred flowers and heal herself.

As the water rushed by, Ophelia pushed her way toward the tree and rested for a moment under its canopy. Slowly, she opened her eyes and scanned her surroundings. There, a flash of yellow as bright daisies danced on the breeze. Here, a flare of deep purple as the irises teased with half closed petals. Ophelia turned toward the opposite bank and there, she saw the deep red of the poppy flowers. She would need to cross the river to gain access to their healing powers. The river ran too fast and deep to traverse it and she was now too weak to walk much longer. Slowly, her eyes turned toward the boughs of the Crossing Willow as the idea took form. She might still weigh little enough to work this bit of magic. She might yet fly across. She stood unsteadily and looked for the strongest bough. She tested the one that looked sturdiest and retreated a few paces. With a desperate prayer to Brigid of the Smiths and Healers she gripped the bough, ran, and leaped.

High she sailed over the river and released her hold on the bough as she flew past the river’s bank. She landed hard, rolled and then lay winded as she willed her breath to return to normal. Although her eyes were closed, the world roiled around her and drowned her in an ocean of screams. She balled her fists against her ears and gathered what strength she still possessed. “No! This shall not be!” she cried aloud. And suddenly all was quiet inside and around her. Even the day creatures that normally made the riverbed their home silenced. Ophelia’s ragged breaths softly invaded the expectant hush.

Slowly, she opened her eyes and marveled at the whirls of color. Everything was magnified and yet transformed. The greens of leaves had become vibrant, vivid blues and violets. The sky was the bright yellow of fresh lemons and the sun was too blinding to view. Ophelia shook her head to clear it and rededicated herself to her task. She pushed herself to all fours and sought the bright red flowers. She prayed she would see them as red, but at the least she would recognize their potent black center.

There, up ahead, she spied her objective. The delicate petals were a vivid green but the black center was unmistakable. She doubled her slow pace as she neared her goal. “No more than two consume to ease thy pain,” she recited. “Or suffer for thy trouble half again.” Now, was it two petals or two flowers? What was the exact quantity? She sickened with despair. If she ate too little she would not counteract the belladonna. If too much, she would surely perish. She must choose and quickly too but no certain answer presented itself.

Ophelia made her choice. “If I must die, then it shall be in service of my love and King.” She broke off two flower heads and ate their tender petals. They tasted terrible but she paid her revulsion no heed as she chewed earnestly and consumed both flowers. “Hurry. Work thy magics,” she implored as she lay down for a moment to give them a bit of time to counteract the belladonna. Her body racked with convulsions as the two plants warred inside her, and she rode on waves of ever increasing pain.

With no warning, colors snapped back to normal and a wave of nausea overcame her. She sobbed as she regained her foothold on the world. Weak, she was so very weak but she knew her work was far from over. Ophelia rolled and pushed herself to all fours once again and surveyed her surroundings. She needed to cross the river back but was certain she lacked the necessary strength to fly. She would have to try and walk the stones or swim across. The current was tricky but she might just manage.

She dragged herself back to the willow. Here she knew the rocks and boulders below surface and might well pull herself across now that she had more equilibrium. She lowered herself into the water. The cold jarred her senses as the current greedily pulled at her. There, a boulder, here a vine–she was crossing well. And then, she grasped a tall sturdy-looking reed with which to pull herself the last few feet. The reed screamed in protest and broke with a deafening crunch. Ophelia plunged below surface. Her head cracked against a rock and the world went black as the current took her limp body. Her clothes billowed ‘round her, but they grew heavy with their drink and then slowly she sank and disappeared.

Far away, a sound. Rolling, flowing, thunderous. Far away, a shadow, behind closed eyes. Far away, pain moving closer. Consciousness grasped Ophelia in its searing grip. Coughs wracked her as she fought the current. Ophelia drew in great lungfuls of air as she tried to regain purchase. Fingers scrabbled on moss-covered rocks. Her gown tugged her below surface. Suddenly her feet stood solidly on a flat boulder, and she blindly caught an ivy vine. She held tightly as she calmed her breath. Then, with the last of her strength, she hoisted herself ashore and rolled onto the reeds.

The current had carried her off the castle grounds.

“I must return to Elsinore straight ‘way,” she roused herself. She stumbled forward scant steps before her sodden overdress tripped her up and sent her sprawling.

“Z’Wounds!” Ophelia swore sharply into the silence and with that she found a calm center. She needed to plan her next steps carefully. She twisted ‘round to undo the ties that fastened her fabric prison. Clad only in her sopping underthings, she plaited her hair and stuffed it into her undertunic as the germ of an idea took hold. They thought her mad already. What if they thought her dead as well? Hamlet had been visited by a ghost once and had believed the truth of its words. Perhaps he would do so again.

“Laertes, please forgive my actions.” She prayed that time would give her ample opportunity to make amends to her grieving brother.

Hair plaited and overdress hidden, she stood. She studied her muddied clothing approvingly and began her trek toward the castle. As she walked, she adopted the loping gait of a young boy. Her objective was the garden at Elsinore for traders had brought wormwood to her teacher not five years before and its silver-haired leaves and yellow-green flowers should be easily distinguished among its myriad neighbors. If she could but gain entrance and an audience with her love, she might yet succeed.

After a time, the castle turrets appeared and soon she stood at the main gate. She sent a grateful prayer for the knowledge of the castle grounds that would now gain her entrance. She hugged the wall as she edged toward the thicket of rose bushes that grew along the east wall. Though they grabbed at her and left her scratched, they let her pass and she soon faced a small, arched hidden door. Used for centuries by servants to come and go unnoticed, the door was maintained and oiled to preserve the secrecy and discretion that were so vital to the life of all serfs.

She gained the castle grounds and made for the gardens. There! In the corner, alone, sat the silver-hued bush. None paid her any mind as she kneeled, quickly offered a prayer, and broke off two stems.

Now, she wound her way into the castle proper. She kept her gaze lowered as she unobtrusively made for Hamlet’s chambers. Up the spiral staircase she crept. She kept to the shadows. She strained eyes and ears for any telltale sound or notice as she snuck down the dim hall.

Finally, his chamber door was in her sights and the late afternoon sun spilled pillars of heaven on the floor before it. From within, she came muffled sounds of weeping.

“Oh, my dearest love, I would have spared you this,” she thought even as she knew this had been her only recourse. Alive, she would still be caught up in the intrigue and plotting. Dead, she could roam the grounds and complete her work.

She opened the oak door and wept anew. Hamlet sprawled with his back against the grand bed. His long hair unkempt and his clothes bedraggled he stared straight ahead as his tears ran.

Ophelia entered slowly and moved toward the bed.

“Lord Mustardseed,” she intoned. “See me.”

Hamlet looked up at the endearment as his eyes slowly focused. “I’ve seen you all day, spirit,” he replied quietly agonized. “Why should now be any different?”

Ophelia thought quickly. “Ah, but now it is time for us to speak. You must hear me as well as see me for I have more news for you. Like before, when the spirit of your father gave you news of treachery, I am here to do likewise.” She kneeled before him.

Hamlet shied away from her. “Out spirit! You have taken everything; you will not take the blessed memory of my love. Leave me.” He curled away from her.

“Hamlet, I am thy love else how could I repeat the secret names that we have shared ere non. Listen to my tale and then decide thy course.”

“I know not when, but thou hast been betrayed and poisoned. In sooth, thou hast been driven mad indeed. There is an antidote but thou must consume it soon or all is lost. Please, my love. I beg thee. Listen to my words. Thou shalt know their truth.”

“Nay, but thou art drowned.” He recoiled away from her. “The Queen did pronounce thee dead.”

“Even she might be mistook,” Ophelia retorted. “Now, I beseech thee, quickly, eat of this herb so thou canst once again see clear and true,” she held out the wormwood.

“How could this be?” Now he turned toward her to see her anew. “Art thou sent to torment me further? What else must I endure to prove to thee that I shall avenge thy death?”

Ophelia saw that he still believed her to be the spirit of his royal father, so dropped all pretense, and laid her hand on him.

“Thou hast form!” he cried.

“Aye, indeed,” she cried. “I am she who loves thee.”

He grasped her hard and bruising.

“Please do not leave again,” he said simply.

“Indeed, I shall remain.”

“But no!” he cried. “How couldst thou stay when I have thy loving father slain?”

Her tears fell afresh and yet she soothed him. “T’was not thee but the poison. All is forgiven between us, and we shall take this treacherous tale to my brother and show him the truth. He will forgive thee as well.” She gently gave him the wormwood and urged him eat.

Slowly, unsteadily Hamlet consumed the fine green plant. Soon the tremors overtook him. His muscles spasmed and the breath heaved in his lungs as the Wormwood and Panther fought for supremacy. Ophelia cradled her love and whispered endearments and encouragement as he suffered through the worst of the agony. Slowly he subsided and lay still. She laid a cool cloth upon his brow and then fit herself to him to sleep.

Every joint aflame startled Hamlet awake. Yet, he stilled when he saw the precious bundle he held. His love, returned. He could scarce believe it and he cradled her tenderly.

Ophelia woke slowly as Hamlet gently stroked her hair.

“My love, my dearest love,” he whispered. Lips met as they lay together. Sighs, endearments, kisses long and lingering deepened into a darker passion. Ophelia’s eyes closed against the rush of heady pleasure only to open suddenly as Hamlet’s mouth found her breast.

“So sweet, my heart,” he moaned against her.

Ophelia grasped him to her as she lay bound by her own desires. Now was not the time. There was much still to do, but it appeared that the Fates had other plans.

“Be with me, my love,” she gasped.

“Art thou certain,” he anxiously sought her eyes.

“Aye, please,” she pleaded.

He kissed her gently as he readied himself at her woman’s flower. Then, he was inside her, they were together, and the world flew away and was forgotten.

Ophelia slept soundly as Hamlet quietly left the bed. He sat at his writing table, took out parchment and quill. The room sat silent in the dying light of day as he wrote and then placed the note on his pillow. She would see it when she awakened. He prayed she would understand. He dared not kiss her one last time and silently crept from the chamber.

She woke to darkness and she reached for him. Instead, she found the parchment placed there by his hand. Blindly she sought the candle that habitually stood by his bedside, lit it, and read.

“My dearest love, thou say’st I owe no debt
To thee. While it may be thy heart that speaks
It doth not speak for all those who are owed.
Laertes has a claim as great as thine
And his must needs be paid this dismal night.
From this time forth, I fear thou shalt not have
The love of one of us who loves thee deep.
Thy brother or myself thou may’st keep
Within the chamber of thy tender heart
For honor must be settled ‘tween us two
Thy father’s death avenged, Mine own as well.
The debts I owe can never be repaid
To those who breathe no more but cry so loud
The heav’ns lament o’er their untimely deaths
And while I live their spirits have no rest.
With my last breath, thy name shall from me ring
In thanks for the return of my true sight.

Ophelia’s heart clenched. She realized what he planned as she hurriedly dressed. How long had she slept? Was she already too late? Where would they be? She made breathlessly for the main hall and stopped short at the grisly tableau that awaited her. There, the King with no more breath to lie. There, the Queen, the sweetest creature most deceived. Dead or asleep? There, her beloved brother clothed in crimson never to laugh with her again. And last, her beloved – his emerald eyes forever closed.

She stood mute at the entrance as Horatio told the half-tale of these wicked days.


Not from his mouth,
Had it the ability of life to thank you:
He never gave commandment for their death.
But since, so jump upon this bloody question,
You from the Polack wars, and you from England,
Are here arrived give order that these bodies
High on a stage be placed to the view;
And let me speak to the yet unknowing world
How these things came about: so shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall'n on the inventors' reads: all this can I
Truly deliver.


Let us haste to hear it,
And call the noblest to the audience.
For me, with sorrow I embrace my fortune:
I have some rights of memory in this kingdom,
Which now to claim my vantage doth invite me.


Of that I shall have also cause to speak,
And from his mouth whose voice will draw on more;
But let this same be presently perform'd,
Even while men's minds are wild; lest more mischance
On plots and errors, happen.


Let four captains
Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage;
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royally: and, for his passage,
The soldiers' music and the rites of war
Speak loudly for him.
Take up the bodies: such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.
Go, bid the soldiers shoot.

She vibrated with silent fury until the sobs tore through her. She now knew the truth of Claudius’ deceit.

Fortinbras spun around at the cries. Swords drawn, his men surrounded Ophelia.

“Lower thy weapons,” the prince commanded. “The boy will bring harm to none. Instead, bring him wine to calm his nerves,” he mistook her for the very boy she had portrayed. “Pray, boy, how fare thee? Dost thou hold a different piece of this puzzle?”

Ophelia staggered fully into the hall and dropped to her knees before Hamlet. Tears flowed unbidden and unnoticed.

“All this began with dark deceit, your highness,” Ophelia whispered. “With poison and a web of greedy lies. The false King had poisoned my love to make him mad. Hamlet acted cruelly but from lunacy. He wounded those he loved but from insanity. I saved him once but could not save him whole.” She touched Hamlet’s cold, white cheek.

“How cans’t thou know all this?” Fortinabras queried suspiciously. “Give me thy name and thy connections, boy.”

She took a moment to decide if she could truly trust this man whose father was once defeated by the rightful King. She had many secrets to reveal and just as many to keep but no good thing awaited her at Elsinore if she kept silent. She stroked her beloved’s hair and tenderly kissed his cheek.

“I am no boy,” she stood and proudly faced the prince. “I am a Lady of the Court and named Ophelia, daughter to the dead Polonius, sister to the slain Laertes, beloved to the murdered Hamlet.” At this last, she trembled but held her ground.

“You live,” cried Horatio. “We thought you dead and drowned, but it is you.”

“Aye, ‘tis I,” she replied. “And I have much to add to thy bloody tale.”

“Bring her wine and treat her as is her station,” Fortinbras commanded. His voice softened as he turned toward her, “Once you have rested, we shall hear your version of events.”

Ophelia nodded slowly turned her gaze inward for an instant. Fire lit her face which she quickly subdued as she glanced at her dead love. On this she must remain silent and so very careful for already she felt the quickening, and it would alter everything. Aye, she had much to tell and would have much to conceal for the seed she and Hamlet had planted together would bear a royal fruit.

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