About 3800 words of wandering around the Underworld. Beta-ed by the marvelous thisismsmercy
Scene: Two men under a tree bearing fruit. The shorter one sits with his back to the tree, his head tilted back, his eyes closed. He looks content, but as if he is not quite used to it, and is prepared for some sort of complication (Let that be his character note). The other man, standing up on the other side of the tree, has no such worries. He is too intent on the branch above him. One hand rests on his hips, the other on his chin, and he frowns at a red piece of fruit, not as though it is a problem but rather as though it poses an interesting puzzle (His character note). He squints and steps back to look at it from a different angle. He is silent for a long time and then, finally, he speaks:
Ros: What sort of fruit do you suppose this is?
Guil: (opens one eye lazily) Considering where we are, I suppose it must be a pomegranate.
Ros: Hmm, that makes sense. Or it would if I actually knew where we were. Where are we?
Guil: (sighs, stretches and stands in preparation for a good syllogism) Fact the First: we were put to death, therefore we cannot be alive. Normally that would be enough to satisfy, because nothing can matter to a pair of dead men, least of all their location. Which brings us to Fact the Second: both of us are conscious to hold this discussion in the first place, therefore we cannot be dead, for Death is a kind of not-being and we clearly are.
Fact the Third: Since we are neither alive nor dead, we must be in a third, as yet unidentified state. For the sake of argument, we will call it the afterlife, or if you prefer, merely post-mortem. Its existence no doubt answers questions philosophers have been asking each other for millennia, though it is too late for us to tell anyone still living.
Ros: But where are we, and what sort of fruit is that?
Guil: Fact the Fourth: look at what you are wearing. The toga implies either Greek or Antique Roman, not Danish. It hardly matters, since the two are practically the same. So in answer to your first question, we are in the Greco-Roman underworld, which some call Hades.
Ros: Oh I get it now (practically squeals in his excitement)! We’re supposed to be Persephone, aren’t we? How did the story go again? (sing song) “Find a pomegranate, gobble it up, then you’ll never come back up.” Except that’s not quite right. There was something about seeds and two people falling madly in love. Or maybe they just went mad. There was a pomegranate anyway.
Guil: (smiles slightly) No, it goes like this: Once upon a time, there was a foolish little girl named Persephone who asked too many questions and was always getting into trouble.
Ros: (settles into a sitting and listening position) What kind of trouble?
Guil: (flustered) Well… her mother is the goddess of plants and gardening, so she probably dug a hole somewhere she wasn’t supposed to. (Ros traces patterns in the ground with his finger) Are you paying attention at all!? (not as angry as he sounds)
Ros: (starts guiltily) Of course I am! What? It helps me concentrate. Although I must confess that this dirt smells different from the dirt in Denmark.
Guil: How do you know? Did you often go around sticking your face in the dirt?
Ros: Not really, but I’m sure I’d have noticed if it smelled anything like this dirt does. So what happened next?
Guil: One day the girl wandered off somewhere and somehow or other she ended up in the middle of the underworld with no idea why she was there.
Ros: (flops backwards to look at the sky) There’s no sun, have you noticed? That means we’ll never know which way the wind is blowing. (sits) Come to think of it, there isn’t any wind either.
Guil: (rolls eyes) And she met a man named Hades, who just happened to be the Prince of Hell.
Ros: A Prince? How exciting! Was this prince as crazy as all the others?
Guil: (laughs) All the best ones are. So this one decided that the girl should become his Queen and he asked her to stay in the Underworld with him.
Ros: Was she still alive or just not-dead?
Guil: Oh, she was very much alive, so she really wasn’t interested in becoming queen. Hades changed with disappointed love, so neither the exterior nor the inward God resembled what he was.
Ros: And it must have been a mystery for Persephone to figure out why he was so different, right? Do you suppose she played Questions with him?
Guil: She certainly tried, but he didn’t understand the rules and kept using rhetoric, so she soon got bored. Anyway, he decided he must trick her into staying with him forever in the land of the Dead.
Ros: Oh! Did he switch letters with her and send her to get herself executed? That would keep her here, wouldn’t it?
Guil: (laughs softly, but must tell the story as it actually goes, not how he would like it to go) No, there were no letters, but there was a pomegranate. It looked like that one up there. Or something like it. It couldn’t look exactly the same, since it’s not the same from the story. Anyway she wasn’t supposed to eat it or she’d be trapped.
Ros: Why couldn’t it be the same one, though? If it’s here, that means it’s not-alive, so it wouldn’t grow any older, so it would just hang on that branch forever and it would never be any different. So it could be the same one.
Guil: You have the right idea and maybe that would be true… were it not that she ate it. Now you know it couldn’t possibly be the same one.
Ros: Oh no, she didn’t eat it, did she? Then she wouldn’t get to feel the sunshine or sing with the birds or any of those lovely bits of being alive ever again. And she didn’t want to be dead, did she, or even not-dead. Why should she be punished for something that wasn’t her fault?
Guil: (snaps because he’s scared) It doesn’t matter whose fault it is, as long as it happened! Hades did it, perhaps, or his brothers for giving a thankless task and hating him for performing it dutifully. It was Persephone herself, for no one ever forced the fruit into her mouth. Demeter doomed her daughter by never telling her not to accept gifts from strangers who cannot even remember your name—
Ros: Oh really? Who did Hades get Persephone mixed up with? I don’t blame him – he probably has quite a few names to remember. He’s a busy man, or God, or Prince, isn’t he?
Guil: What are you talking about? He never got her mixed up with anyone. That wasn’t part of the story. (Clutching at straws) It was all Fate’s fault that Persephone had to be Queen of the Underworld!
Ros: (half-remembering) I’faith, she is a strumpet.
Guil: But who are we to question the inner workings of the universe? (Paces, perplexed) Wheels within wheels, depths better left unplumbed and all that. On the other hand, who are we if we don’t question? We’d be left high and home – home and dry – ending for a dead head – hanging and dangling in the wind – we’d be in a bad state if we had no answers! Or would we? Who are we, anyway?
Ros: (laughing) We’re Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, of course! (beat) Though I couldn’t tell you which is which…
Guil: (relaxes and stands still) Oh good, I’d forgotten. Well now we are here and that is most certainly a pomegranate. I’m certain it’s not the same one Persephone ate, but the principle is the same. Or should be at any rate. (Reaches up to pick the pomegranate, tosses it from hand to hand, then throws it into Ros’s lap) Go on, take a bite.
Ros: (hesitates for once) Is it safe, though? I’d been getting so used to being alive and now you want me to be not-alive forever?
Guil: But think about it. We’re already dead and we’re already here, so why not stay here where we can be sure of ourselves? You are Rosencrantz, I am Guildenstern, and we were always meant to die.
Ros: That’s stupid! We could just find our way back to the real world and not go to Denmark and try our hardest not to die. Or rather, we could try not to die again. It would be a bit hard to escape dying the first time, considering we’ve already done it.
Guil: (hostile) No! I’m tired of being confused. We can sit under this tree for the rest of our deaths – forever, in fact, and not worry about anything ever again.
Ros: (pockets fruit and stands up suddenly. Decisive) Let’s explore the Underworld for a bit first and if we still like it we can build a little house or something and then eat the pomegranate. After that, we can stay dead forever, or nearly that long.
Guil: Oh, alright then. Let’s give it a trial run.
Ros is delighted and grabs Guil’s hand to pull him forward.
After a time, they pass by a hill and meet a man pushing a huge boulder up it. Sisyphus (hereafter Sis) is shirtless and very fit, but whenever he has nearly reached the top, the boulder tumbles from his hold and falls back to the bottom. He does this three times and Ros and Guil exchange a Look. Finally, Ros decides to be friendly.
Ros: Good sir, would you like some help? It will likely be easier if there are two of us keeping it balanced.
Sis: (smiles tiredly and shakes head) I thank you, but this is an endeavor I must undergo alone.
Ros: (obliviously blunders on) Perhaps if we devised a system of pulleys? Wonderful invention, pulleys. They make so many things easier to accomplish. All we really need is some rope and a fulcrum and there you go!
Sis: No, I’m afraid ‘twill do no good. I am doomed to always return to the beginning, no matter what I do. (Behind them, unseen, Guil starts violently and curses under his breath) If I make the task go faster, I will accomplish nothing but to increase my times of failure. But I bid you, go on your way and worry no more about me.
Guil: (nodding uncertainly) If that is your wish, I can no more oppose it.
This time he’s the one dragging on Ros’s arm until they are out of sight. Ros keeps looking back in the direction they came from, which in turn makes Guil more anxious, until finally—
Guil: What is it now?
Ros: Do you think that sweet man will be alright?
Guil: (sighs) He is a Grecian and finds himself unable to escape the plot. Either he is unhappy but takes it as his due, or he has resigned himself to this task and is no longer unhappy at all. There is no third option for men such as him. One gets used to repeating one’s actions until it becomes habit. Like his own boulder he goes round and round, racing ever onward to the very beginning. He has given up trying to escape the fall. (Agitated) Oh dignity! Lost to rote memorization! What sort of end is that? (Grabs Ros’s doublet) We must stay here at the end – I cannot bear to begin again!
Ros: (Pats him awkwardly on the back. Softly) We are not Greeks. (Again, louder) We are not Greeks! We are Danes and proud to be so, so we will write our own story.
Guil: Of course. Two bit players will escape their fates (laughs, but there is no mirth in it) That’s rich! Alright, sir, you tell me what happens next. You can’t think of it, can you?
Perhaps Ros is about to argue, but the set has changed around them and they both look up over the hills. There may be a faint strain of music, or it might be in their heads. They, at any rate, certainly hear it.
Guil: (trying not to be terrified) He’s here? How can he be here? I never killed him; he cannot die. Oh God, why can’t the Tragedians let the dead stay dead?
Ros: (brightly) It might not be them after all. What if it’s a unicorn this time?
Guil: (scoffs but hopes despite himself. As he speaks, the music gets louder until the audience can hear it.) There is precedent. There are only two of us, so it is not quite reality yet. Perhaps this experience will not be common, and we will be alarmed but not affrighted.
Over the hill comes not a troupe of entertainers, but a single man with a flute, a cautious smile and no trace of a beard. Guildenstern breathes a sigh of relief and Rosencrantz, friendly as ever, strides forward and extends a hand.
Ros: Welcome, fellow traveler! What should we call you?
Orph: (smiles in good humour) I am Orpheus. Who do I have the pleasure of addressing?
Ros: (hesitates, then remembers) This cheerful fellow here is Guildenstern when we can remember our names and I often call myself Rosencrantz, though if it be the name my mother gave me, I could not tell you. (Gestures at the flute) Tell me, can you play or are you only learning how to lie?
Orph: (laughs a little, then falters) I understand you not.
Ros: A very good friend of ours once said that figuring out a person’s purpose was just a matter of playing him according to his stops and listening to the sounds he doth produce. He said that compared to all that, a recorder should be simple.
Orph: I certainly can play. (Draws shoulders back with an artist’s pride) They say I could tame any beast, and bring a smile to any child’s face or tears to any grown man’s eyes. If that be no more difficult than mere lying, I know not my own art.
Guil: (hurriedly) Begging your pardon, this man means well, but often repeats the words he has heard others say without pausing to ask himself if they may cause offense. Besides, the man who said it first was mad and eventually sent us to be harbingers of our own deaths, so I wouldn’t set his testimony at a pin’s fee.
Orph: (drops to his knees) I have been unjust, for I did not know you were among the dead.
Ros: Aren’t you?
Orph: No, I am here but to search for my wife who is dead. My music hath charmed the gods and they deemed it fit that if I prove my love, I shall carry her out of this place.
Ros: (soft little ‘oh!’ and a look at Guildenstern) Are people truly allowed to escape from here?
Orph: (understands the look but says nothing) So long as their love is true and pure enough and – (hesitates because the reality of it still hurts) – they must not look at each other until they are safely above.
Ros: What, not even a little bit? But imagine that your wife is very beautiful or she trips on a rock and you need to help her up. You couldn’t very well guide her to safety with your eyes closed, now could you? Well perhaps you could, but then there’s a fair chance that you’ll fall on top of her, and then where would you be? Apart from at a bottom of a path with your eyes closed.
Orph: In truth, it will not be easy, but some several minutes of sorrow is but a small price to pay for my wife, alive and with me once more. (He shakes their hands) I must away to search for my beloved, but I wish you both the best of luck. (Exits stage right)
Guil crosses his arms and glares at Ros. As soon as Orph is out of sight he speaks.
Guil: No. I know what you’re thinking and the answer is no.
Ros: But it could work, you know it could! We’re obviously not the first to leave and if we just try a little bit we could make it too. Or if we didn’t make it, at least we’d know for sure.
Guil: I refuse to hold your hand and follow your voice to a place I am not sure even wants us.
Ros: (brightly) I could follow your voice if you like.
Guil: (slightly desperate) Don’t you like it here? There are so many interesting people for you to talk to. What’s not to enjoy?
Ros: But I don’t like it here – I just want to go home, our proper home, not Elsinore (sadly) I miss the sun.
Guil: I suppose I do too. But can we please leave off the talk of getting out of the Underworld? I don’t want to be on my way to anywhere for a long time. No one expects anything of us now. We’re just not-dead and that’s enough.
Ros: It shouldn’t be. (No response. Louder) For you, it shouldn’t be enough that we’re not-dead. Why aren’t you worried?
Guil: Why should I be?
Ros: Aren’t you always, when you don’t know what’s going on?
Guil: Not if I like the answers!
Ros: Statement, one-love.
Guil: Not now, Rosencrantz.
Ros: When else?
Guil: Not. NOW.
Ros: Well if that’s the way you’re going to be, I won’t play.
Guil: (strained smile) Thank you.
They wander onward, in no particular direction. Guil is more at ease now and Ros has forgotten they were even arguing, much less what the argument was about. He runs ahead of Guil.
Ros: Look. Flowers. I wonder what kind they are, don’t you?
Ros: But how could I forget you? We’re part of a set and everywhere we go we’ve gone hand in hand since – well, ever since I can remember, I suppose. You are Rosencrantz and I—
Ros: What? Oh, of course. I am Guildenstern and you—
Guil: Sorry. Wrong again. Don’t worry. There are only so many choices left and I’m sure you’ll figure it out sooner or later.
Ros: So what do we know? (Determined to reason it out) We know that you are not Rosencrantz and I am not Guildenstern. Which, when you think about it, is really quite a lot. There are only two of us here and those are definitely the right names – I know that much at least. So if we aren’t us, we must be – each other! And that makes me Rosencrantz and you Guildenstern.
Guil: Truly you have a dizzying intellect.
Ros: Really? It doesn’t feel very dizzy, at least not right now. Maybe if I spun in a circle it would be. (Spins in a circle, looking up. Guil watches him incredulously with his hands on his hips, then realizes that Ros will be at it for a while and flops down on the grass to wait. Finally, Ros, breathless and delighted, falls down next to him and rolls over onto his back.) I think my intellect is dizzy enough for one day.
Guil: (props himself up on his elbows to look at his friend and sees a red patch spreading across the front of his doublet) Why didn’t you tell me you were hurt? You’d bleed to death if I hadn’t noticed something!
Ros: Too late for that, I think. Besides, I’m not bleeding. (sits up, looks at his shirt, sticks out a finger and tastes the liquid.) Pomegranate. Quite tasty, in fact. (A pause, then) Oh, Guildenstern, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to ruin your pomegranate for you. I’ll replace it for you if we go back to that tree. (On the verge of tears. He’s messed up and he knows it.)
Guil: There, there, it will be alright. I’m not angry at you. Look, it’s a little squashed but it’s none the worse for wear. You see, it’s even been considerate enough to break into two equal pieces.
Ros: (Brightening) Oh! So it has. But each of them is less than half. They won’t add up to a whole person if we eat it now.
Guil: (Leaps up. Paces and counts on his fingers as he talks) Maybe that’s how it should be. There’s some other part of the story I’m forgetting and it would make all the difference in the world if I could only remember. (Suddenly whirling on Ros) What do you remember?
Ros: There was a man standing on his saddle and banging on the shutters at dawn. The pale blue light, like smoke, or dreams – we were sent for!
Guil: Yes, that’s right! (resumes pacing) We were sent for and so was she. It was no accident that she stumbled into the Underworld. Hades always meant for it to happen. But – mind you, this is important – it didn’t quite go according to plan. She only ate half the seeds so she was only summoned here half the year.
Ros: And we’ll do the same?
Guil: Yes. Don’t worry about a thing. You’ll get your sun and rain and wind. (Passes a piece to Ros and proposes a toast) To the future!
Ros: And to the past! (They clink their fruit together like champagne glasses. Ros picks some flowers and puts some in each of their lapels.) Forget-me-nots. So we remember our lesson and do it right this time. (So quietly neither Guildenstern nor the audience can be sure they heard it, but he absolutely did) Pray you, love, remember.
At this faint hint of the spoken word, Guil looks up curiously. He shakes his head, shrugs and goes back to fastening his flower more securely, but he can’t get it out of his head and gazes at Ros as if he’s just seen something new and extraordinary. Meanwhile Ros fiddles with his flowers and lays them out in patterns that make sense to nobody but him. All of this is done in complete silence, which Guil finally breaks:
Guil: Did you—
Guil: I might be mistaken.
Ros: Do you think you were?
Guil: How would I know for sure?
Ros: You could ask.
Guil: But what if I’m wrong?
Ros: (gently, teasing) Would that really be so terrible?
Guil: For this, yes.
They seem to be the magic words, for suddenly the sky is full of forget-me-nots raining down on them. They stand up at this change of scenery. Ros is delighted and Guil is worried – his hand flies to his belt where he’s used to the weight of a sword. And they keep falling faster and faster and more at once. They come down in sheets until—
— Ros and Guil are ankle deep in the waters of the River Lethe. They walk through the waters of forgetfulness towards the sun.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Looove
- Fic: Pomegranates