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Doubt Thou the Stars

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When Ophelius was very small, his father forbade him from playing roughly with the stableboys, as he and his brother had been wont to do before. Instead, he told them, they were gentlemen of the court, who should conduct themselves as gentlemen should, and never be too loose in their ways. Ophelius didn’t know what loose meant, and he didn’t much like the pages, who were boastful and noisy, and wanted to look at swords. Ophelius preferred to dig in the dirt, looking for worms and the dark, secret roots of things, and the nursemaids always called him an odd child in a half-affectionate, half-frightened way, as if they were afraid not of him, but for him. He began to realize, from a very early age, that he could not dig for insects with the stableboys or the kitchen servants, and instead, had a much narrower choice of playmates. In theory, he could play with any youth at court. In practice, this meant Hamlet.

For a prince, Ophelius thought, Hamlet was singularly fascinated with the workings of things. He liked herbs, and he liked to make himself known by scrawling words along the stones of Elsinore with charcoal stolen from the hearth. He would dig eagerly for worms and beetles if you asked him if he’d like to do so. And though he liked to fence, he liked equally well to play in the marshy places along the river, gathering flowers and weaving garlands for the drooping willow trees that lined the banks. Ophelius taught him bawdy songs he’d learned from the kitchen boys, and he tried not to begrudge Hamlet overmuch when Hamlet went away to learn the arts of war.

Ophelius’s father didn’t like him to exert himself too much, not like his brother Laertes, who seemed very strong to Ophelius, or, indeed like Hamlet. Instead, he was supposed to stay inside and study, taking dictation for Polonius and learning to make accounts. He shadowed his father at court, paying attention to the ways in which the king spoke, and the queen comported herself, and their son spent his time with the other underfoot court children.

“You could make yourself sick,” Polonius told his youngest son very kindly. “If you made yourself sick, then you could die.”

That second part was not so kind, but as Ophelius would realize as he grew, it was understandable. His mother had been weak, and weaker still after she’d borne both Laertes and Ophelius. And now she was gone, leaving only two sons as pale imitations, one of whom bore her eyes in a face not unlike hers.

Later, Ophelius would wonder if that was why he’d always been the one protected. Perhaps his father couldn’t bear to lose the face of Ophelius’s mother once again, through childhood accident, or through anything else. But he was fine. Everything was fine. He got older, he grew up, and he stopped caring quite so much about worms, although he did sometimes move them from the pathways and courtyards of Elsinore when it rained. But still, he spent time with Hamlet. And life, for all its cold winters and drizzling rains and choking muds that stole fine riding boots from childish feet, was reasonably tolerable.

Polonius puffed himself up like a great pigeon ruffled with feathers when mentioning that his younger son was the especial friend of the prince, and Laertes enjoyed mocking Ophelius for it, but always kindly.

“When are you going to meet girls?” he asked his brother one night. They were in their quarters, having not been to dinner with the king and queen that night. “It’s not like you and Prince Hamlet ever do anything but read at each other.”

“Mmm, I don’t know,” Ophelius replied, watching a moth lazily circle the candle-flame. He thought, perhaps, that he ought to shoo it away before it caught fire in its endless dance with the light. “Hamlet and I are reading the Aeneid, you know.”

They were struggling with the Latin, and laughing more often than not at Hamlet’s mistranslations, but Ophelius didn’t feel the need to tell his brother that. It was a private moment, something to keep between Hamlet and himself, safe and secret as a pearl. Laertes made a dismissive noise, a sort of displeased grunting sound.

“Are you going to be a scholar then?”

“If Father lets me go to university.”

“Well, I won’t be,” Laertes said. “What’s the point? We’ll be at court forever, won’t we? In Prince Hamlet’s retinue, the way our lord father is in King Hamlet’s.”

“I suppose you’re right, but Father went to university--”

“And seems to have done nothing but play Julius Caesar--”

“A thousand times, if you’d believe him.”

They collapse in a fit of laughter, imagining their father as a young man (somehow still paunchy, with thinning hair) writhing and dying onstage in a makeshift tunic. In that moment, in the candlelight, Ophelius was happy with his life. The only thing that could have made it better would be to have Hamlet there, with him and Laertes, watching the flickering candles. He stared at the wavering light, and the moth circled it again. This time, its wings caught. It took only a second before it blackened, shriveled, and fell into the wax.

***

It started on a bright spring day, when Hamlet and Ophelius smuggled books out from the castle library and down to the meadow by the stream. They lay on the damp grass in the warm sun, and Hamlet spoke of theories and saints and stars. The clouds rolled overhead in the blue sky, and the breeze sent the leaves of the willows dancing and whispering. They nodded as if sharing secrets, bathing Hamlet and Ophelius in the gentle light that dappled between the branches.

“I’m going to go to the university at Wittenberg,” Hamlet said, staring up at the clouds dancing high above the green crowns of the willows. “I have time. I won’t be king for years and years.”

“We’ll both go,” Ophelius muttered, looking sleepily down at his book. It was a thin volume of love poetry. He leaned back against the tree as Hamlet sat up to peer into the book. “You’ll read everything, and I’ll learn about plants, and whoever else your parents send to university with you will drink their time away on the crown’s coin.”

Hamlet laughed at that. He was in a sunny mood to match the sunny day, and Ophelius felt a swell in his heart that he couldn’t quite contain. This, he thought, was perfection. This was friendship, pure and golden, and the bright shining love that one could find between two young men who appreciated each other at an intellectual level. He smiled, and leaned back against the tree, and utterly did not expect it when Hamlet leaned over Ophelius to look at the book. But his face came close to Ophelius’s instead, and for a moment, they sat there, each breath laced with nervousness, and then Hamlet softly pressed a kiss, chaste and close-mouthed, to Ophelius’s lips. He pulled away, breathing quickly, and Ophelius could suddenly give the perfection a name.

He cupped the base of Hamlet’s head in his two hands, and drew him back into a proper kiss, long and deep and a little bit sloppy. The day fell away between them, lost in a sea of hands and touch and taste, and in the bright union of two people. They fell apart panting, rumpled, hands still linked against the willow bark. Quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante, Ophelius thought, quite suddenly, although he could no longer remember where he had heard such a phrase, or why it came to him with the strange, sudden darkness of a church bell ringing out a death knell.

.

***

Everything divided then, from before and after the kiss, and Hamlet became Ophelius’s constant companion even more than before, in the meadow, in the palace halls. They made plans. They thought of future things, and Laertes looked sideways and oddly at Ophelius.

“Really,” he said one night, “someday you’ll regret this. Princes don’t keep favourites for long.”

This time, there was no moth to flutter around the candle-flame, and nothing to distract Ophelius, who was carefully reading a note scribbled on a bit of scrap parchment. It was from Hamlet, and rather wordy. Several quotations from Ovid (proper Ovid, and not the old moralized Ovid Polonius occasionally pushed in the direction of his sons) dotted it, as did a bit of misplaced rhyming. Ophelius smiled at the note. Hamlet had, as of late, been trying his hand at poetry. He was no Vergil, but he wrote Ophelius verses, and that was quite enough. Laertes watched Ophelius and frowned.

“What are you mooning over now?” he asked.

At that moment, Ophelius was thinking about two nights earlier, when Hamlet had pushed him up against an oak tree in the moonlight and slipped his hands into his trunks. But he realized that telling his brother such a thing would probably be a terrible idea, so he smiled instead.

“Only Ovid,” he said gently. “Nothing more and nothing less. Prince Hamlet and I are working at our Latin.”

“So you’re going to meet him tonight?” Laertes asked.

“Maybe.”

“Funny time to be working on Latin. What would Father say?”

“The same thing he said when he found you sneaking out to an inn with Rosencrantz. Only he probably won’t have me beaten.”

“The beating of small boys is good for their development,” Laertes said in a passably reedy imitation of Polonius, only just barely managing to keep his face straight. “Never mind that we haven’t been small for years.”

This was true enough, with Laertes nearly eighteen and Ophelius nearly seventeen, but they were, however, still small enough to climb down the ivy that grew on the side of Polonius’s quarters, and this was how Ophelius planned to go out into the night. He walked to the window, and shuffled the clasp back and forth until it swung open and let the air into the room. Ophelius stuck his head out the window, but saw nothing below besides the glowing lights of other houses, other chambers.

“Well, I’ll be off, then,” he told his brother. “Cover for me?”

“I’ll make sure Father thinks you’re fast asleep if he comes in tonight to be bothersome. Be careful, would you?”

Ophelius tossed his hair in order to affect a more carefree disposition than he truly had within him.

“I’m always careful.”

“Not in this,” Laertes said. “Hamlet’s going to throw you over someday, you know?”

“Much like you and your sweethearts?” Ophelius said, punching his brother lightly in the shoulder, and heading towards the window of their shared room. He’d propped it open, and the night air smelled ever so slightly of violets. “I know your ways.”

He ducked out of the window, and climbed down the walls. Above, Laertes stuck out his head.

“You’ll regret this someday!”

Ophelius knew he wouldn’t.

***

He met Hamlet in the water-meadow, his hands sweat-clammy with anticipation, and the stars very full and fiery as they circled above in their ineffable spheres. In the moonlight, the willows seemed silvery, the water beneath them a black silk ribbon. Hamlet stood against one of the willows, wearing green in a futile attempt at camouflage, and Ophelius felt something expanding in his heart. He started to run, dashing through the damp grass, racing towards the willows. Out of breath, Ophelius smiled at Hamlet, pushing damp hair from his face in an effort to look presentable. He wouldn’t, but he was pretty sure that no matter what, Hamlet wouldn’t care.

“How are you this fine evening?” Hamlet asked, a glitter in his eyes.

Ophelius’ lungs burned and his heart thundered. “It would be better if you kissed me, my lord.”

Hamlet smiled at him, and pulled him close, and then Hamlet was pushing him up against the willow’s bark. Against his back, the willow felt rough, digging through Ophelius’ thin doublet and scratching ever so slightly against his skin. But Hamlet pressed his body to Ophelius’ and kissed his breath away there, against the willow and under the night sky.

Matters progressed from the kiss to hands winding their way under clothes, fumbling touches, and agonizing gentleness all at once. They undressed in a rush, unfamiliar with the ways to remove another’s clothing, fingers clumsy on clasps and ties until at last, the clothes lay in a pile on the ground, and Hamlet and Ophelius nearly fell to the grass.

“We should have brought a blanket,” Ophelius mumbled as he felt the dew against his naked back. “Or something to spread on the grass.”

“At least we’ve got moonlight and very little mud,” Hamlet replied.

The sex was, ultimately, messy and overwhelming, perhaps not as good as it might have been, all probing fingers and elbows in the wrong places as they explored each other, each sigh and reaction sparking as lightning through them. At one moment, as Ophelius gasped Hamlet’s name into his mouth like a litany, he thought that the joyful pain of the arousal would be his world and his everything forever now, and he found he didn’t mind. There were worse ways to live one’s life than in a water-meadow with the stars all shining above, and a hand on one’s cock, surrounded and encircled by the person one loved.

Hamlet, it turned out, had a great knowledge of the various concepts of sexual congress, but was rather bad at putting them into practice, especially out in a field beneath the stars. But he managed, after only a few aborted tries and pained hisses from Ophelius as Hamlet tried to press himself into Ophelius’ insufficiently prepared body, to bring them together, in a frenzied union under the willow tree, thrusting into Ophelius with irregular rhythm and unexpected delicacy.

Afterwards, sweat-slick, filthy with each other’s spend, they lay beneath the stars on the summer-smelling ground, and Hamlet turned to him, smiling.

“Never doubt my love. Swear that, won’t you?” he said.

Ophelius nodded. He would never doubt it. He kissed Hamlet again, still warm in the afterglow of their activities, and utterly besotted. They were in love, and nothing could go wrong. Indeed, for some time after, nothing did. They kissed in corners. They were always together, at lessons or in their free time, even when they were joined by Laertes, or other young men of the court like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet would go to university soon, but that wouldn’t be too much of a problem. When he went to Wittenberg, Ophelius would be with him.

But as Hamlet prepared to leave, Polonius seemed to grow more and more anxious about his sons. He contrived to have Ophelius learn more and more about the workings of the court, and spend less and less time in his lessons on philosophy and rhetoric. Instead, he memorized charts of names and took dictation for Polonius’s letters. Polonius was endeavouring as well to compile a memoir of his time at court, and often conscripted Ophelius to help him compile his papers.

One evening, Ophelius took down a letter of introduction for Laertes when he began his time at the University in Paris, and stopped writing long enough to look up at his father, seated before a pleasantly crackling fire, stirring it occasionally with the poker as he spoke.

“Father, if Laertes is going to Paris, might I go away to Wittenberg with Prince Hamlet this year?”

Polonius looked sadly at his son.

“I did plead your case to the Queen and King, but they have decided that Hamlet will go with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and they cannot be seen to send too many young men away from court.”

“But Laertes is going to Paris!”

“And you have always been frailer than Laertes. Perhaps another year.”

Ophelius thought he might go to the king and queen the next day, but he was thwarted by more tasks, and could only just break away from his father in order to see Hamlet and to kiss him quickly in a darkened corner behind a moth-eaten tapestry of a hunting scene.

“My father says I can’t go to Wittenberg with you,” he whispered to Hamlet.

“Mine says I ought to spend less time with you and more time preparing to learn to be king, but they won’t separate us, not so long as the stars burn bright. You’ll go to Wittenberg with me. I swear. Maybe not this year, but next. I don’t want to be king. I want to read forever with you and write you poems.”

Ophelius kissed him, his chest feeling tight with a longing sadness. Hamlet was so optimistic, and perhaps that came with his princely nature, but Ophelius was a courtier’s son. He knew that he would not go to university, and indeed, he did not. He watched Hamlet set out with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern just as he watched Laertes set out the next day for Paris, and he tried not to feel too bitter as he wandered the kitchen gardens, asking the cooks to teach him about herbs.

The letters came when they came, which was not always as often as Ophelius would have liked. However, they were always welcome, even if the gushing discussion of classes and lectures and troublemaking brought the familiar tightness back to Ophelius’ chest. However, there were always poems in the letters. They were never very good, with simple meter and cliched phrasing, but Ophelius treasured them anyhow. Each one was a tiny, precious surprise to be kept in a box under his bed, and Ophelius opened them often and reread them as he waited for Hamlet to return.

Hamlet did return, and each time he did was a small miracle, accompanied by poems and new Latin to decipher, and walks in the water-meadow. They kissed against the willow just the same, and Ophelius tried not to wonder if Hamlet had kissed anyone else while he’d been away. This was fine, he thought to himself. He had Hamlet back.

“I missed you so much,” he whispered into Hamlet’s dark hair.

“I missed you too,” Hamlet said.

That night, they united in the flesh again, skin pressing skin, and Ophelius, this time, was the one to take, the one to feel the heat of Hamlet’s body around him, and for a moment, he was truly joyful. Everything might be the same. But he wouldn’t be allowed to go to university. He’d remain and wait for letters while Hamlet learned more and more. But at least he’d be able to assist Hamlet when Hamlet was king. At least he’d have something to do with his life. He would watch Hamlet leave again, but at least Hamlet would remember.

Hamlet left all too soon, but he and Ophelius kissed goodbye in the dawn, in the water-meadow by the stream, and Ophelius tucked a flower into his hair. A violet, because Ophelius had always loved violets, and Hamlet had loved them because of him. They’d see each other again, Ophelius knew, and he waited all summer and all springtime long for Hamlet to come back and visit. The autumn stretched out before him, and Hamlet’s letters seemed less frequent, but Ophelius treasured them as much as he did those he received from Laertes. He wept sometimes, in the night, but less than he had before. All was, for the moment, well and good. Until the King died.

Hamlet returned then, and he returned different, cold, and bringing along a friend from Wittenberg whose name he often mentioned in his letters. He sequestered himself with Horatio while Ophelius watched, feeling a hunger for the scholarly brotherhood the men shared and he did not. Hamlet haunted the court through Christmas, dragging himself about in funereal black like a sick crow. Ophelius tried to speak to him one evening, urged by his father to reason with the prince, who seemed increasingly gripped with madness.

“Hamlet?” he asked, coming towards him in the hallway. Hamlet glared.

“Where’s your father?” he asked, his voice peevish and brittle.

“Nowhere I can see. I wanted to speak with you.”

“And I don’t want to speak with you,” Hamlet said, and shoved him.

It wasn’t a hard shove, but it was enough to make Ophelius stumble backwards, gasping.

“Hamlet!” he cried.

“What do you want? To sponge off me like everyone in the court? To have some special contact in this viper’s nest of eyes?” Hamlet’s face seemed wild, lit with a frightening gleam. “Who are you spying for? Who’ve you whored yourself out to in my absence?”

“No one!”

This wasn’t strictly true, but Ophelius hoped his father wasn’t watching now, to hear the confirmation of what he’d likely always known about his son’s relationship to Hamlet.

“All lovers are betrayers, so who have you betrayed? Is it me?”

Hamlet stalked back towards Ophelius, still trailing his black cloak, and kissed him then, full-on in the corridor, before he could say a single word, then released him with as much force as with the shove, sending him skidding backwards and tripping over his feet as Hamlet turned and ran. A wind from the outdoors followed him as the door of the corridor swung open, and Ophelius sank to his knees.

In a way, others would later wonder, was that not the first moment when his mind began to shatter? But in the moment, Ophelius only felt numb, cold, and brittle, which continued all through dinner and through the evening’s entertainment. He walked in a trance and fell to sleep with tears on his cheeks. He would be over it all, he thought, someday. He would have to be. Maybe Hamlet would turn around, and smile at him, and beg for his forgiveness. He would give it to him, too. All Hamlet would need to do was ask.

Hamlet didn’t ask. Instead, he killed Ophelius’ father, and thus began the end. Ophelius’ mind shattered like glass. As the courtiers spoke of Polonius’ death, Ophelius only laughed until he wept, and then began to sing. The bitterness choked his voice and made the ditties seem less sweet, less suited for the early springtime. But he had to dance, he knew, or else everything might break his heart. He wished Laertes were there, to shake off this strange and heavy fog from his shoulders, but Laertes was far away in Paris, at least until he returned to take flowers from his brother, and to look at him with tears in his own eyes as well.

“Oh, my brother, what have they done to you?” he asked in the throne room, and tried to kiss Ophelius’ forehead, as he’d done when they were both small.

Ophelius couldn’t say. He only smiled widely, to stop the tears he knew would fall, and as he handed Laertes flowers, he knew what he would have to do. Hamlet would be waiting for him in secret in the water-meadow. He was always beneath the willow, wasn’t he? All Ophelius would need to do was hang flowers from the trees. It seemed sensible. The flowers would call Hamlet back at best, and at worst, they’d simply remind him that there was brightness in the world. So he went to the water-meadow, hunching his shoulders against the light rain, carrying a basket of flowers from the garden, and looking for Hamlet beneath the green of the trees. He didn’t see him.

Ophelius leaned against the willow on that cold, spring day, and he looked up at the grey sky and the green, unfurling leaves. New life was starting somewhere, and he thought of roots, digging deep into the rich and fertile ground, readying themselves to blossom. It was a comforting thought, even in the fog of madness. Less comforting though, were the clouds. They’d dim the stars, Ophelius thought, and then how could he trust the truth of their fire, the star-fire Hamlet wrote so many poems about (but had the poems ever truly meant anything? Were they ever anything but a way for Hamlet to paste pretty words upon a page and call himself a lover? Ophelius found himself doubting once again)? He closed his eyes, expecting to smell the river, and the new rich mud of spring. He did, and for a moment it brought back thoughts of ages past. Perhaps things would be fine in the end. But as soon as Ophelius really inhaled the spring air, another smell found him. It was harsh and familiar, a funerary scent urging him onwards, practically begging him to deck the trees with other flowers to drown it out. As Ophelius began to climb onto the willow’s branches, he sniffed the breeze again. It seemed less light than it had been once, and the air stank harshly of rosemary.