Flash Fiction: Clarence to his Jailer
(Inspired by Clarence's monologue in Shakespeare's Richard III)
I had a dream that I was outside last night.
Oh, come on. Don’t give me that look. It’s not treasonous to have a dream, is it? I’m not really going to just up and fly away on Queen Mab’s fairy wings through the iron bars!
In my dream, the first blow was the smell. I was on father’s boat, where my brothers and I had fished and dived and played, but that boat had sunk years ago and yet somehow this was the same boat, just raised from the depths.
The wooden cabin floors below my feet were bilious and the air was oppressive. Acid and toxic salt and streaming hatred were inches below my bare feet and I knew, I just knew, that if the tiniest drop brushed me I’d be tarred with whatever this water had become. The varnished floorboards were cracking beneath me as I froze under the weight of my body on their sodden timbers. If I breathed, this grotesque stew would seep into me through the deck and that’d be me, done, drowned. Everything inside me was clenched solid. I knew I was screaming but somehow the scream was permeating through me into the world.
Yes, it does sound like Hell. You’d think Hell would seem like being locked up here, yet my mind can still drag me a bit lower than this cell. Don’t take that personally, of course. I’d hate to lose my privileges.
And the hatch above me cracked open and it was my brother and he was screaming too and the sky behind him was dark and he pulled me out of the hold, up, the shuttering ships’s ladder, tight muscles gripping strained hands…
No, not that brother. As if he’d ever try and save me! I jest, of course. No need to reach for your sword. Have you heard anything from Richard, incidentally? Oh. He was always slow with paperwork and I suppose my release forms are no different, eh? Once he gives up on this silly paranoia and relaxes a little. He is the king now, after all.
On the deck, the world was in free fall. My dear Warwick was gripping me and harshly twisted my locked head to see the cliffs above our tiny boat. It seemed familiar, like I’d seen it infinite times but never noticed it. Huge walls of granite, meant to last, were aflame and crumbling silently, their fire cold and dim. Each block, tall as a city, was backlit, magnetically held by invisible strings that violent and gently pushed it to the ground. Embers were dusty kisses hissing into the ocean. The smoke from the glory and the wreckage was drowned by the burning rain pelting blows upon our shoulders. I opened my mouth but the sound inside me was still locked. How? Who built these? Love and fear and hate and burning, so much burning, so much longing… These walls, falling far slower than the world should allow them to, filled my very being. My soul named them. They were Lancaster and York but without explanation from my mind to support this connection. This night would be eternal, as would their fall.
And, so small, but the centre of it all, there was a man. His body was shrouded and he was dwarfed by the ancient granite, silhouetted against the sky, unphased by the tumbling stones behind him. He was proud of his work.
Warwick turned infinitely slowly and caught my eye. He stared deeply, conveying everything and nothing, and the deep lines into his face creased with a tiny twitch into the saddest smile. Then he stepped away from me, towards the heaving beast of the waves and swan-dived in.
Then time froze.
The flames and the blocks of the walls paused and the dying embers halted in midair like the bullets of rain. Yet, this stillness released me. I could move. I launched after him but the railings caught me. The ocean was now cold, calculating obsidian and I caught one last sight of him sinking. It was solid glass and frost. My brother was still keeping my gaze as he drifted.
No, I haven’t finished yet. Please, don’t rush me. Who knows when the next chance will be to have a chat, even if it is to my jailer?
Where did you get that wine from? It’s been an age since I’ve had anything except that musty water you find from somewhere under the tower.
I glanced up. The man was closer now. Unhurriedly he drifted across the frozen sea without stepping on it. The smoke from the walls was clustering around him. I did not want him to come near.
Little points of light began drifting up through the solid inky mass of water beneath the ship. Tiny sparks of life, but they weren’t a life that we could imagine, the inverse of the frozen fire in the air. Bloody garnets set into skulls were beaming out dull, reddish flares. Dissolving flesh haloed these unholy faces and the bodies still attached to them, hands rising cruelly, pale and skeletal in the depth. Thousands and thousands of drowned sailors with jewels embedded into the sockets where once they would have seen me, wounds long scratched into them by their own cruel fingers. Their uniforms from battles that took place long before I was born were ragged veils as they rose up to try and crack the surface of the water. They wanted me to join them. They wanted me down there, the way they had Warwick. He’d been gone from my sight for a while now. The scratching, the bestial scratching, underneath my feet and from every corner…They needed me for some infernal purpose.
That last candle you lit must have been defective, the smoke is getting in my eyes. It gets dark so easily these days. What is it, November now? January. Time does fly.
But he stopped them. That man with his face masked. He’d got so close now that he was standing on the glass crust of the ocean while the sailors squelched and tapped their fingers to the surface to drag me down. Warwick was one of them now, his face drained, his eyes scratched out and replaced by some rusty stone. He’d pulled out his own eyes under their influence and was part of this swarm. A flick of this hideous figure’s wrist and they paused. Who could command these legions of the dead?
The stench from the bowels of the boat was him. And the cold. Oh, the cold. It emanated from him. He turned to me and I glimpsed decay beneath his cowl. Where a jaw should be there was a gaping maw. His hair was as bright as his face was dead.
His name held his power. In that instant I knew the true power of God above us for this spectre was an angel and a ferryman and a destroyer and a collector, sent from some distant realm.
He held out his decayed hand and I dare not touch it. I feared it should dissolve beneath my fingertips. He was leading me away from this place and I didn’t know whether he offered something better or worse. Follow him and see what the underworld held for me. Stay and I knew if he turned away the world would come alive again and the fire and the waves and those hideous, hideous relics beneath the ocean would take me.
The longing to reclaim my life gripped me. I remembered myself. I was Clarence! I mean, I am! I’m a leader, I’m a duke…I’m nobody. I’m nothing. A prisoner in his cell.
As soon as I came to a decision I woke up. I don’t know whether I chose a drowning death or to follow Charon to somewhere else. Even now, awake and talking to you, I don’t know which I would choose. Join the swarm of the dead or accept whatever path God has chosen for me. Even if it is damnation. And, God knows I’ve done some things I am not proud of.
Sorry to keep you like this, late at night. When you’ve been away from the world as long as I have, your mind tends to send you to the strangest places. I’ve never been one to pray, but after that vision I really need the comfort. It reminds me of being a boy in the countryside: Richard and Warwick and I would run around in the long grass, playing whatever games small boys play, and then the bell would ring and we’d have to run in. With crisp, pale linen shirts and washed faces we’d look up at the face of Christ on the cross in the family chapel. Our Saviour scared me when I was very small: so gaunt and he was painted this sickly green like he was underwater. Drowning’s always been one of my biggest fears, you see, ever since I was a boy. The thought of your lungs closing, the burning pain, your eyes bursting. Nothing to grasp and no-one to help, alone in your head. I can’t bear the thought of it. It’s a nightmare that follows me.
Still, best try and keep my mind off it, eh? Business at hand and all that. Another nip of wine to send me off to sleep, if you please. I’m sure Richard will get me out of this cell soon and then I’ll be treating you to some of this Malmsbury! Delivered today, you say? My, my. Richard always was one for big parties, and with the deliveries so close it could be some occasion he lets me out for. Oh yes, you did mention the paperwork hadn’t arrived yet, but the messengers arrive every morning so tomorrow could very well be my lucky day.
It’ll definitely be my last night in here though. Definitely. Richard will see to that.