Present Blusters by Caroline Wilkinson

 

 

Present Blusters

by Caroline Wilkinson

 

    

               

We should be mildly famous.  We should be as well-known as those characters from Hamlet who won title roles in Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  But we live in profound obscurity.  What has been hard for us to admit—what we have managed to deny until a moment ago—is that even the two men whose fame we have envied for years, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, have come close to becoming unknown since we first started comparing our status to theirs in the late 1960s.  It is possible that our claim to fame no longer makes sense now that their status has dwindled.  Still, we feel compelled to make our case one last time.

 

Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we have appeared in a great work of English literature. Several great works actually.  We are in the novels of George Eliot, or Mary Ann Evans as the author was named at birth.  From Eliot's earliest novels, which are set entirely in England, to her middle and later ones, which move into other countries for some or all of their scenes, we are there.  It's just that we are hard to see because of two factors that make our appearances much like disappearances:  We are never named, and we are located in these books in the same hidden place as we are now.  Underwater.

 

We are on the floor of the ocean outside of what used to be an elite social club.  The building is so empty it seems closed, but then again, the large structure often looked vacant years ago when the club was open and doing quite well.  Very few people ever belonged to this club because of the central requirement for membership:  Only people who had died at sea in a work of literature could join.   Sometimes the club's definition of literature was strict and reflected high artistic standards; other times new members were selected on the basis of personal motives and not much else.  None of the members worried about having their rules examined by the light of day because of how private the club was.  The only people with knowledge of the membership list either were on it themselves or were employees and knew that their job required discretion.

 

We fell into the latter category for a brief period.  For six months, we worked at the front desk of the club.  While we would like to go into our old place of employment, a chill is holding us here outside the doors, a chill that reaches beyond the usual cold of the deep.  Until we overcome our dread, we must rely on memory to describe the club's interior. 

 

Etched into our minds is a frieze on the wall opposite the front desk.  The granite frieze depicted the heads of eight sea monsters jutting out of the wall like hunters' trophies of deer or moose.  The monsters' eyes bulged and their mouths were large and gaping.  From the sides of their massive jaws spilled scrolls of granite seaweed.  Sometimes the frieze offended our aesthetic sensibility but not because of the grotesqueness of the monsters. Actually it was the opposite.  What bothered us was a blandness that emerged if one looked at the faces for too long.  Whenever one studied the frieze, the large eyes of the monsters would begin to look bored and unfocused and the mouths would fall open with vague stupidity.  The longer one studied those faces, the more one saw how thoroughly they lacked the fierceness that all real monsters possess to some extent.

 

Above the frieze was a cornice that ran along the top edge of the first floor.  In a room of humbler proportions, the upper edge of this cornice would have abutted a ceiling; in the lobby—a room almost as grand as it was ornate—the walls reached up past the cornice toward a ceiling that was so high we couldn't even see it from down at the front desk.  We would have doubted its very existence were it not for one time when, falling asleep, we drifted up to the top of the room.  We hovered there for a while, half awake and hidden in the shadows of what we believe was the concave underside of a domed roof.  At first the room below us was empty of both members and sea life, but as we continued to drift in and out of sleep, various creatures slipped into the lobby:  trout and crabs and anglers with arms growing out from above their eyes.  A large school of silver fish created a tapestry that undulated with some slow collective thought before getting caught here and there on the tentacles of two octopi.  With only a few of their sixteen arms, the octopi unraveled the tapestry, creating a flash of silver and panic, by pulling some of the fish into their mouths.  We frightened many of these sea creatures away when we were at our visible seat at the front desk.  It was our job to scare them off for the sake of the members, who tended to be sensitive in the extreme when it came to—how to say it?—the brutal beauty of life in the ocean.

 

The members were a terrified bunch in general.  When we first started working at the club, their terror struck us as completely unnatural in its severity.  It seemed both deeper and colder than the bottom of the sea.  We used to tell ourselves then what we must tell ourselves now:  that we cannot let this sort of extreme fear overcome us.  We must break through our dread and move through the doors in front of us.

 

 

 

How dark it is inside the club.  The lack of light surprises us, but really it shouldn't.  This part of the ocean floor is much murkier than it was years ago, a fact we knew before we came through the doors.  We should have guessed that the increased amount of sediment in the water would obscure the once impressive interior of the club.  It always has been dark in here, but now between the new murk and shadows cast by the roof and walls, we cannot see the front desk let alone that old frieze.

 

Of course, it's possible that we are not in the club where we used to work.  If only we could move a few yards to our right, we could feel for the stone of the front desk.  We could know for sure that we are in the right building if we could press our body into that stone.  But we don't want to hurt our eyes.  Unlike the "human fish" or the "ghost fish"—those eyeless creatures that live in caves—we did not evolve in total darkness.  We have eyes, and they leave us vulnerable in places so dim.  Were we to run into something, we could suffer a painful and possibly blinding injury.

 

So we must stay put for the moment.  We must stay focused on the two factors that brought us in here:  our choice to overcome fear and our claim to fame.  The two men whose status has shaped our thoughts on fame, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, came into this building while we were working at the front desk.  When we first saw them, they were standing just above the frieze on a balcony that looked down from an immense room on the second floor.  Their appearance took us aback for a moment since neither of them belonged to the club.  They must have come as guests of a member, probably of the Mariner from The Winter's Tale who often brought other Shakespearian characters with him into the club.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern didn't stay on the balcony for long.  They soon jumped off and drifted down through the water.  The two of us, sensing that they needed something, came out from behind our desk to meet them on the floor of the lobby.  Our perception of their need was as strong as our feeling right now that some large creature has entered this room.

 

It turned out that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern did want something from us.  When they reached the ocean floor, they showed us their tags for the coat check.  We led them over to the corner of the lobby toward a room that we used to think of as dark but that was, in fact, much brighter than the scene before us now.  At least we could make out the glint of the brass hooks in the coat check whereas we can still see nothing of our surroundings here.  As soon as we had moved behind the counter of the coat check, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern gave us their tags.  They did not place them on the counter but tossed them past us onto the ocean floor.

 

Their rudeness was not exceptional within the context of the club, and we did not react to it as if it were.  While bending down to see the numbers on the tags, we even felt ourselves saying in the language of the body, "Thank you, we're sorry."  We remained a little stooped after we got up to go to the coat racks.  As soon as a row of brass hooks entered our vision, we came to a stop.  Our spine—the thing that holds us together and makes us one—felt like one of the hooks in front of us:  dramatically curved with subservience, rigid and cold.

 

We suddenly were struck by how divided our fate was.  Here we were in a coat check on the ocean floor, but at the same time, we were underwater in George Eliot's novels.  In those books, we were, and still are, bearing witness to many deaths by drowning.  Eliot created a fictional world that mirrors the real one in that it is largely covered in water. Her plots unfold near brooks, rivers and seas, and many of her characters end up dying in the water that surrounds them.  As perpetual witnesses to these deaths, we usually see ourselves as lucky for being able to live underwater.  But we didn't feel fortunate while standing in the coat check with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern behind us.  We only felt constrained and servile.

 

Rage swelled within us.  We tried to contain it with the thought that we deserved our fate.  It was poetic justice, we told ourselves, for us to serve the sorts of characters whom we usually pitied.  We speculated that our time in the coat check would rid us of our condescending attitude toward the doomed and drowned. 

 

While trying to hold on to these lofty thoughts, we found ourselves turning back around.  We can't recall what we planned on saying or doing as we looked toward the counter.  All we remember was seeing a man behind Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who made our mind go blank with dull shock.  His name was Constantius, and he rests at the heart of our claim to fame.  This heart beats hard with ambition, panic or frustration, we don't know which.

 

 

 

All around the edges of the room, jellyfish are starting to glow.  In their pulsing light, we finally see our surroundings.  Now we know for sure that we are in the right place.  Next to us is the front desk, and over in the back corner, we can see the entrance to the coat check.  On the whole, the lobby is remarkably unchanged.  Few barnacles have attached themselves to the walls and moldings.  The most notable difference in the room is the surplus of jellyfish.  Back when we worked here, we never saw so many jellyfish in the lobby at one time.  The slow rhythm of their light is mesmerizing—but we mustn't watch the display for too long.   We must finish making our claim to fame as quickly as possible, seeing as how we are not immune to the poison of jellyfish.

 

And so we return to the subject of Constantius, a man we know well.  He knows us too.  He mentions us in a discussion that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1876.  The piece, entitled "Daniel Deronda: A Conversation," is a dialogue between a man and two women who are discussing what turned out to be Eliot's last novel; she died in 1880, four years after writing Daniel Deronda.  The women in the conversation have strong, opposing views on the novel.  Pulcheria is critical of it, sometimes peevishly so, while Theodora has only the highest praise for the book. 

 

Compared to the women, Constantius comes off as grounded and calm.  At first he mostly listens and offers neutral comments such as "I think you are both in a measure right" and "Well, I must say that I understand that."  He claims to understand Pulcheria when she calls Daniel Deronda "protracted, pretentious, pedantic."  Theodora quips:

 

…Oh, you understand too much!  This is the twentieth time you have used that formula. Constantius. What will you have?  You know I must try to understand; it's my trade. Theodora. He means he writes reviews.  Trying not to understand is what I call that trade.

 

At this point, Constantius emerges as a double for the man writing this conversation, Henry James.  Not only is Constantius a critic, but, like James in 1876, he has written some fiction too.  Just how much fiction reveals another similarity between James and the double he created for himself.  This similarity pertains to a subject most dear to an ambitious, panicked and frustrated heart such as ours:  lying. 

 

By 1876, James had published two novels, Watch and Ward and Roderick Hudson.  Later in his career, however, he pretended that the former didn't exist.  In a preface he wrote in the early 1900s for Roderick Hudson, he claimed that Roderick was his "first attempt at a novel."  In light of how James denied the existence of Watch and Ward, it is interesting to note how Constantius speaks about his own career.   He makes a point of saying that he has only written one novel.  When Pulcheria says about him, "He writes novels," he corrects her by saying, "I have written one."  Maybe by the time James wrote this conversation, he was already trying to forget Watch and Ward

 

Or maybe we need to think about what we want to avoid.  We have reached the most critical point in our argument, but we don't want to continue, our embarrassment is so acute.  We feel ridiculous asserting that we should be well-known while staring into an oblivion lit by jellyfish.  But we must, so here it goes:  "Daniel Deronda: A Conversation" should have rescued us from the obscure depths in which we live.  James's script casts us in a much more visible role than the one we play in Eliot's novels.  It should do for us what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead did for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  It should transform us from invisible characters into stars in a single moment, and that moment comes when Constantius says of Eliot's work:  "These two heads have been very perceptible in her recent writings; they are much less noticeable in her earlier ones."

 

These two heads have been very perceptible in her recent writings; they are much less noticeable in her earlier ones. 

 

We are those "two heads."  As Eliot's double, we live underwater and usually go unnoticed.  Eliot sweeps her characters into rivers and seas, and we unblinkingly watch them die.  Unlike the astute Constantius, we are an unflattering version of the author we represent.  We are cold if not cruel, and chances are that, were Eliot alive today, she would deny all connection to us.  Our whole body contracts with shame when we think of her disavowing us.  Of course, our relationship with her could be an illusion.  It could be that we have just taken a sentence out of context from an old book review to nurture a fantasy about being Eliot's double and deserving fame.  To do such a thing would make us small, and we do feel small right now.  In fact, we feel infinitesimal, staring into the darkness in the center of this room. 

 

 

 

We must surface soon to breathe, but not yet.  We are beginning to understand the language of the jellyfish.  They are pulsing with light because they feel threatened.  They sense the same thing we do—that a creature bigger than all of us together is in the center of this room.  The top of this creature is brushing up against the domed roof.  Its legs, which number in the hundreds, are threadlike and clear and very long.  Those legs are a drifting tangle of hunger and sting that almost touches the floor.   There is a jellyfish in the center of this lobby, a giant one, and even though we are the only creature of our kind here, we are starting to feel comfortable.  We feel we are among family.

 

No, the sense of closeness is stronger than that.  We feel as if we were looking into a mirror made of nerve, of pure sensation.  It is the most honest mirror we have ever come across even though we can see nothing in it.  We only feel this reflection.  The creature revealed in it is like a jellyfish; it cannot see itself because it has no eyes.  It doesn't have ears or a brain or a heart either.  Its only feature is a mouth hidden among the legs.  Confronted with this simple reflection of nerve and hunger, we remember the matter of survival that led us to work here:  We were hungry when we took a job in this club.  We never wanted for food while we were here because the building played home to countless fish.  Whenever the members were not around, we made sure to eat our fill and then some.

 

Our focus shifts to the background of this reflection.  We remember the staircase that used to be in the centerpiece of this lobby.  If it is still there, it would be behind the legs of the giant jellyfish.  The gentle sway of those legs is calming us down, oddly enough.  It is allowing us to remain here for another minute.  We want to stay and see that staircase, an impressive thing built of marble to a massive scale.  The members would stand with such a sense of importance on those steps as if the banisters, which were two feet across, were just large enough for their hands.  But we don't remember the Mariner from The Winter's Tale ever standing there.  He was down-to-earth, so it's hard to imagine him posing on those steps.  Truth be told, we can't see him standing anywhere in this club.  The room is so grand and opulent that not many people could come into this building and feel they belonged.  But just thinking about the Mariner makes us want to leave.  We need to resist the urge, even though we need air.  Before we go, we must face the fact that we have lied.  The Mariner never stood in this club period, not unless he came as a guest.  We were wrong when we said he belonged to this club.   He never did.

 

 

The moment we saw Constantius, we could tell from his blank expression that he had no idea who we were.  Our gaze moved over his impassive face to the line forming behind him.  The men over his shoulder were all members, but for an instant, they were strangers to us.  As if Constantius's empty stare were catching, we looked at these men without knowing who they could be.  Then our memory came back to us in a wave, and we saw the members in too much detail.  Not only did we know their names, we were conscious of the violent dramas in which they played starring roles.

 

The first man behind Constantius was Theoclymenus, the King of Egypt in Euripides' drama Helen.  He dispatches a ship at the request of Helen, who wants to hold a funeral at sea.  But the man being honored at this funeral, Helen's husband Menelaus, is not really dead.  He is alive and on board and has plans of seizing control of the ship.  He wants to keep Helen from having to marry Theoclymenus against her will.  A battle breaks out, a rather lopsided one.  Menelaus's men are armed with swords, which they have been concealing beneath their robes, while the sailors must fight with nothing but poles.  Blood runs down the decks of the ship as those sailors who do not jump overboard are killed.

 

Behind Theoclymenus stood Leontes, the King of Sicilia, from The Winter's Tale.  At the beginning of the play, he suspects his wife of sleeping with another man.  He also believes that their baby girl isn't his.  Even after an oracle states that his wife has been faithful, Leontes remains unconvinced.  For defying the oracle, the gods cause the death of his older child, a son.  Still Leontes is furious about his wife and baby who he insists is illegitamate.  He orders one of his lords, Antigonus, to leave the infant in "some remote and deserted place."  After sailing to Bohemia—in reality, a landlocked country but, in the play, a wilderness by the sea—Antigonus comes to shore with the baby and the Mariner.  Before returning to the ship, the Mariner notes that a storm is on its way:

 

We have landed in ill time: the skies look grimly, And threaten present blusters. In my conscience, The heavens with that we have in hand are angry, And frown upon 's.

 

The storm worsens soon after the men get back on board.  Not far from shore, the sea swallows up the ship.  A witness to the wreck describes the sounds that the doomed men made:  "how the poor souls roar'd, and the sea mock'd them."

 

Other men from lesser plays stood behind these kings.  What those members had in common was not how they had died.  None of them had perished at sea.  What brought them together were circumstances of birth.  They belonged to the class that sends other men out to die.  They were kings and lords, not nameless mariners.  Usually we saw them as separate from the dramas in which they were cast.  We would focus on their needs and fears and make them feel comfortable.  In that instant in the coat check, however, we only saw the roles that had secured their membership in the club. 

 

As we suddenly looked at the members in horror, they continued to stare at us without any emotion.  Their gazes were vacant until Constantius turned a critical eye our way.  Afraid that he would make some cutting remark, we immediately fetched Rosencrantz's and Guildenstern's things.  While handing the men their coats, we said with one of our heads, "Pardon the delay"; with the other, we thought about leaving the coat check.  We needed a break and soon got one.  While going to the surface to breathe, we promised ourselves that we would change jobs soon.

 

We kept that promise, but the club members seemed to follow us wherever we went.  We felt that, wherever we traveled in this wide ocean, we were working for the same small club of royalty.  Maybe it's time to rid ourselves of this chilling paranoia once and for all.  We probably should change our perspective on these kings and lords.  We should view them with the sympathy all human beings deserve, and the truth is that both Theoclymenus and Leontes eventually do learn from their mistakes.  By the end of The Winter's Tale, Leontes is ashamed of how he has destroyed his family, and Theoclymenus does come to accept that he can't marry Helen of Troy.  Maybe if we were human ourselves, we would believe in the redemption of these men.  We would like to celebrate the idea that goodness prevails in them, but we can't.  It's possible we are too tangled up in their tragedy to free ourselves.  Whatever the reason, our heart goes cold when we remember the characters whom we served too well and too long.  In the end, we think too many people have to die before a king will care about what he has done.

 

 

We sense hundreds of paralyzing arms moving toward us, be we cannot leave. We cannot return to a world growing emptier every day.  All of the creatures that we eat and need to survive are vanishing.  Sometimes we travel for days without coming across a meal, and so we try to convince ourselves, using both of our heads, that the ocean is full of life still.  We are being followed by schools of edible fans until we wake to find muck and jellyfish.  These waters have become so airless that few things can live here anymore.  The jellyfish have flourished because they don't need much oxygen.

 

As for us, we are sick of making it through one more day, one more month.  We don't want to rise to the surface again to breathe out the tops of our heads like the exhausted servant we have become—one breath, a long apology, the other, a sigh of resentment.  We yearn to be part of something much larger than ourselves. 

 

Something as large as you, dark star in the center of the room.  Creature of sting and appetite.  If we were part of you, we would never starve, even if the ocean became so dense that only jellyfish could live in it.  We would endure if we were part of your body.  You can feast and sting whereas we can only stare and speak about the past.  Go ahead and take us into your arms and mouth.  It seems fitting that we should die this way.  Always in the back of our mind, we have kept a quote from George Eliot about the nature of the appetite—something about the "family of desires" and living "hand to mouth."  It's strange that we can only recall snippets of the quote since the passage has shaped many of our beliefs. 

 

Maybe our brains need oxygen—or maybe we are turning into an organism without a brain, a thing of pure nerve.  We are becoming part of you.  You with your pale legs coming closer.  We have a new understanding of the secret moving around the terrified edges of this room.  The secret is pulsing through us, illuminating your form in such a lovely glow.  We know that you, taking survival to its deadly extremes, eat other jellyfish.  That is why everyone here is so focused on you.  You truly are the star here. 

 

And you are the future too.  Not us.  Just you, consuming you.

 

**

 

Caroline Wilkinson's fiction, poetry and nonfiction has appeared in many journals including DIAGRAM, Memorious, Tarpaulin Sky, Can We Have Our Ball Back? and 42opus. She lives in upstate New York.

 

                                                                                                                                 

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