Chapter 3: Fear and Wonder
The fog sat uneasy on the castle grounds. It was as if the very world did not like the events about to take place and wanted to hide it away in deep and dark shadows.
It began with a shout. “Who’s there?”
A voice answered from the gray, this one scared, accompanied by the sound of a rifle cocking. “Nay! Answer me. Stand and unfold.”
Bernardo, with a sigh, slung his own gun back over his shoulder. As the young solder stepped forward, he raised his hands in the air as if he was comically surrendering. “Long live the king.”
The other solder, upon seeing the sight, lowered his gun, relief taking over his frame. “Bernardo?”
Bernardo smirked and lowered his hands. “He.”
This troubled Bernardo, he had never seen Francisco looking so tense and fearful. This was more than the fog. Bernardo was beginning to wish he didn’t agree to this foolish plan of Marcellus, or as he liked to think of him, “The Grump.” When Marcellus brought it up after the second night it seemed wise, and really why argue with the Grump.
Francisco held out his hand for Bernardo to shake, which he did. “You come most carefully upon your hour.” Bernardo couldn’t help noticing how cold the other soldier’s hand was. It was ice and the grip was tight.
“Tis now struck twelve.” Bernardo studied his fellow soldier. As much as he wanted the company until the others arrived, he would not have been any help. Not in this condition. He shook his head. “Get thee to bed, Francisco.”
It was like Francisco was given a bishop’s blessing. He could not hide his smile. “For this relief much thanks. Tis bitter cold and I am sick at heart.” And without a goodbye he quickly began to walk away from Bernardo into the thick fog towards the stairs.
Bernardo called after him. “Have you had quiet guard?”
Francisco stopped almost suddenly. He turned back to Bernardo and it was obvious to the young solder that he was carefully choosing his words. “Not a mouse stirring.”
That was a very interesting response and Bernardo did not believe it for a second. “Well, good night.” He waved Francisco away and then added, “If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus, the rivals of my watch, bid them haste.”
Francisco nodded and then was lost in the fog, leaving Bernardo alone. Bernardo needed a cigarette, wondering immediately what Francisco wasn’t mentioning. If not a mouse was stirring, what was? His fingers fumbled on his lighter. He was startled to realize that he was shaking. He wondered how long he had been trembling, and then he wondered if it was obvious to Francisco as well. The flame of the lighter was the only illumination and it did not spread. It hung in the air, as if solid and weak. Bernardo was once again filled with the dread he should not be there, no living man should.
The grounds of Elsinore no longer belonged to the living at night.
Before the first time the Grump and Bernardo saw the specter, life made sense to the young soldier. There was a careful plan to his days. These evenings on the castle walls was a step along that path, something to earn before his important life truly could begin.
Bernardo was the youngest of five boys. His brothers were always smarter than him, a fact their teacher father had no problem pointing out. Bernardo knew there were more ways than study to find wealth and success. As a child he read the stories of WWI as if they were fairy tales, taking note of the heroes and villains and their daring exploits. He was almost a little bitter when the war came to end before he could join the fray. While his brothers did everything they could to avoid the draft (only one served in the trenches, and he would never speak of it no matter how much Bernardo begged), Bernardo couldn’t wait for the opportunity.
When he turned sixteen, he enlisted in the military without speaking to his father. The shock of his decision seemed to ripple through the family like waves. For some of his brothers, it quickly confirmed their belief in his lack of intelligence, but he didn’t care. The more days he spent away from his family, the more his confidence grew. Bernardo was mindful enough to know that some of the soldiers rolled their eyes when he began to speak, but he didn’t care about that either. He was going to make his mark in the service. He would rise. He was certain of it because of his stolen lucky charm.
Bernardo’s mother died during childbirth when he was six. His lone sister also died that fated morning. The only thing Bernardo had of his mother, he wore around his neck. None in his family were aware of it, and if they did they would probably be scandalized.
It is the cross his mother was supposed to be buried with.
Her body was in the parlor downstairs, her casket closed and it was late at night, past the witching hour. Bernardo remembers every bit of this moment. The creak of every step he took down the stairs and slowly to the casket, carrying the heavy chair he needed to bend over the body.
The candles around the casket were burned out, but Bernardo didn’t need the light for what he had planned. He had spent so much of that first day staring at the corpse, he could have done the thievery with his eyes closed.
Slowly, ever so slowly, he raised the top of the casket, doing his best not to let the hinges screech or groan in protest of the movement.
There was his mother, her eyes closed and lying still, and next to her side, the baby sister that took her life. Someone had placed his mother’s arm around the stillborn child, but it did not look lovingly, more like a weight or a purse that she felt burdened to carry with her into the afterlife.
Bernardo took a deep breath and reached his hand under his mother’s neck. Her hair tickled his skin. To think he would never touch that hair again, that soon it would fall away like everything else. Bernardo shook off the thought, finding the clasp of the necklace.
One try. Two.
Finally, it became undone and it was an easy yank for Bernardo. A quick stuff into his pocket, the closing of the casket and he was back in bed. Only then did he allow himself to feel fear and relief.
It would be three years before Bernardo would find the courage to wear the necklace. He expected the questions from his brothers, but none of them noticed it, just like they didn’t notice it was missing before she was put in the ground. He had a good story prepared just in case. He would say he saved up his allowances and went to stores trying to find one like their mother’s. It was just coincidence and lucky shopping, nothing more, he would’ve said. But they never noticed and never cared. Which also said a lot about how much attention they gave him.
For many, such an object would feel morbid, but for Bernardo it gave him warmth. It always gave him courage. And when he needed some extra vigor, he would take it in his hands and squeeze, remembering his mother’s smile, the touch of her hair…
That night on the castle walls when Bernardo reached for the necklace, he did not feel any strength or any warmth. It was cold and metallic and nothing else, and Bernardo felt truly alone.
Alone and silent.
In the distance, Bernardo could hear Francisco. “Stand ho! Who’s there?”
A quick response. “Friends to this ground.”
Another voice. “And liegemen to the Dane.”
Bernardo could hear the relief in Francisco’s voice. “Give you good night.”
“Who hath relieved you?” That was Marcellus (the Grump).
“Bernardo hath my place. Give you good night.”
Then there was quiet on the grounds again. They were near, he just had to be patient. Bernardo wrapped his arms around himself. That did not give warmth either, he began to pat his hands against his arms, almost as if he wanted to remind himself he was alive, not like the still corpse from that night in the parlor. Why did his thoughts always return to that evening and the stealing of the necklace? Was that his curse for wearing her cross?
Bernardo could hear their footsteps up the steep stairs to the top of the parapet walls now. Two sets of feet. Marcellus was able to get the rich American! That must have been the other voice. Bernardo couldn’t help but be impressed by the Grump for pulling it off.
“Holla, Bernardo.” Marcellus called from the fog. He was trying to find Bernardo in it.
Bernardo waved at a dark shape he saw in the distance. It grew closer. “Is Horatio there?”
“A piece of him,” a voice with a strange accent replied.
When they finally emerged from the fog, it was obvious to even someone like Bernardo that Horatio had money. The newspapers told them that he was a good friend of the prince’s and Bernardo could see why. He just looked better than them, from his clean shoes to his perfectly shaved face. He exhaled money.
Bernardo held out his hand to Horatio, who took it. “Welcome Horatio.” Horatio shook his hand but he quickly dropped it and looked away.
“Welcome, good Marcellus,” Bernardo said to his fellow soldier, the Grump.
The Grump didn’t reply either but Bernardo wasn’t surprised by that.
Horatio stuffed his hands in the deep pockets of his black cashmere coat, and when he spoke his breath came out like smoke, adding to the fog. “What, has this thing appeared again?”
He didn’t believe them. Bernardo could immediately tell by how he said it. Bernardo looked from Horatio to Marcellus and back again. “I have seen nothing.”
Marcellus grunted in annoyance and waved the others to follow him. He was leading them to the fire in the back, as if warmth could help the cold of that fearful evening. He spoke as he walked ahead. “Horatio says tis but out fantasy, and will not let belief take hold of him. Therefore, I have entreated him along with us to watch the minutes of this night, that if this apparition come, he may approve our eyes and speak to it.”
The fire was in front of them. Horatio pushed past Marcellus to warm his hands over it. “Tush, tush, ‘twill not appear.”
This was not going well at all. Bernardo took a deep breath, deciding that he would fix this. “Sit down awhile and let us once again assail your ears that are so fortified against our story, what we have two nights seen.” He waved to the benches near the fire.
Horatio looked Bernardo up and down, Bernardo did not like how his eyes felt. It reminded him of his brothers. “Well, sit we down, and let us hear Bernardo speak of this.” The tone was the same as his condescending brothers as well.
Before Horatio even sat, he began almost immediately and a little too hurriedly. “Last night of all, when yond same star that’s westward from the pole had made his course t’illume that part of Heaven where now it burns (and here he pointed up to where the stars should’ve been if the fog wasn’t covering the world) Marcellus and myself, the bell then beating one…” He looked over at the Grump and stopped.
Marcellus’s eyes were elsewhere, looking away, his face paling before them as if his very blood was dripping out. “Peace, break thee off. Look where it comes again.” He spoke in a whisper, but it felt like a scream.
The fog did not touch the green specter, it spread out from him, like a cape, great and terrible. This evening the king was more than a simple spirit, from the green light to his authority of the natural world, he exhumed a great imposing power. The ghost was the only true light in the entire land and it shined something very different from sunlight.
Bernardo had only seen the king once during his life, it was when he became a guard. The king took it upon himself to greet each of the new guards. A quick handshake, an exchange of names and the royal visit was done.
The king did not look this powerful to Bernardo then.
He did not look this big.
He did not look this terrible.
The king was ruler of a new land in this guise, death.
Out of the corner of his eye, Bernardo saw Horatio stumble to his feet. Bernardo turned to him, speaking the obvious for all to hear. “In the same figure like the king that’s dead.”
Horatio looked up at the young solder, he nodded for a second and then returned his gaze to the phantom.
Marcellus kneeled by the quaking American, his arms under his shoulders helping him to his feet. “Thou art a scholar. Speak to it, Horatio.”
Bernardo stepped back closer to the other two and the weak flames. “Looks he not like the king? Mark it Horatio.”
Horatio opened his mouth three times before words were able to come out. “Most like it.” He held out his trembling hands, shocked to see how terrified he was. “It harrows me with fear and wonder.”
No, this would not do! Horatio was a scholar, successful. He had seen the world more than Bernardo had ever dreamed. He was brought here for a reason, not to simply feel fear. Bernardo grabbed Horatio by his shoulders. He almost shook the man as he forced eye contact. “It would be spoke to.” It was an order.
Marcellus stepped closer to them. “Speak to it Horatio.”
Horatio looked between the two soldiers, and to Bernardo’s relief he took a breath, getting some control over his horror. He turned from them and took a step forward to the great apparition. “What are thou that usurp’st this time of night,” his voice cracked, but he bravely continued, “together with that fair and warlike form in which the majesty of buried Denmark did sometime march?”
The dead king heard him!
The spirit truly took note of them, his eyes slowly turning on the three, but especially on Horatio. Bernardo could see immediately the impact of the gaze of those inky black eyes on the new member of their watch. His knees instantly buckled under that look. Yet, to Bernardo’s surprise, the American bravely continued, “I charge thee… speak.”
The wraith didn’t speak, nor show any sign that it wanted to. It just continued to prick and prick the man with his stare. Horatio took another step forward. His hand out now as if pleading. “Stay illusion. If thou hast any sound or use of voice, speak to me.” Another brave step. “If there be any good thing to be done that may to thee do ease and grace to me, speak to me.” A third brave step, with each he seemed to get bolder. “If thou art privy to thy country’s fate, which happily foreknowing may avoid, O, speak!” Horatio was getting braver with each action, but both soldiers had yet to move. “Or if thou hast uphoarded in thy life extorted treasure in the womb of earth, for which, they say, you spirits oft walk in death, speak of it.”
But the terror didn’t speak, instead it raised its arms. And as if picked up by a hundred invisible hands was elevated into the air; the fog came with him, rising and rising and rising.
Marcellus grabbed a partisan from by the pyre and ran to Horatio side. “Shall I strike it with my partisan?”
Horatio quickly turned to Marcellus. “Do, if it will not stand!”
It was like swinging at air. He swung madly, the spear striking through the ghost like he was doing nothing more than attacking the fog. He was too near the edge! Bernardo ran forward, catching Marcellus as he teetered near it. The old soldier gaped at the young one, a brief look of astonishment. Bernardo couldn’t be certain but it looked like Marcellus wanted to thank him, but had lost the words.
When the soldiers both looked back at the apparition, it was gone, taking much of the vapors and fog with it.
The air was clear, but numb and still cold.
Horatio collapsed then, his strength finally escaping. His head was in his hands, but the soldiers could not be certain if he was weeping or praying in the gesture.
Marcellus looked to Bernardo, he put his hand on the young solder’s shoulder. It felt warm, something had returned to the night air and they could all tell. He then spoke in little more than a whisper. “I this morning know where we shall find him most convenient.”
Marcellus did not have say who he meant by “Him,” for Bernardo was thinking of the very same man.
Permanent Spring Showers was published by 5 Prince Books. You can find out more about my novel as well as my other books (including A Jane Austen Daydream and My Problem With Doors) and grab a copy via my author page on Amazon.com here.