Gentle Breath of Yours My Sails Must Fill

Craig Chalquist

An archetale in the Assembling Terrania Cycle

The play was about to begin.

The nobility in the packed audience wore white, sea green, silver, and carmine, the glistening apparel highlighted by the beeswax candles lit above the stage and along the walls. Sequins and shadows winked and danced as the flames flickered restlessly in their sconces. Surrounded by silent courtiers, the king stroked his beard, waiting.

A gasp went up from the audience as thunder and lightning assailed the room. The flash illuminated the rain-drenched coats of a master and boatswain struggling on the deck of a wind-pounded ship in peril of capsizing. “Bestir, bestir!”

The crew stood no chance of saving their ship. Backstage, Will smiled.

Another cannonball rolled thunderously down a lead pipe as loose canvas blustered like wind and fireworks burst like lightning. He winked at a stage hand poised to douse the emerging mariners with a bucket of water. If all the world were a stage, as Will would tell the audience later in the play, then stage magic made the reverse come true before their eager eyes.

He sighed. He felt old and had seen much.

He remembered his first trip to London as a man scarcely grown and eager for adventure. He had known since his youth, when he saw his first play in Stratford, staged by traveling actors, that his destination was the theater. The decision caused pain to his family, especially to his wife; but had he stayed he would have been miserable. He had to go west.

How London had astonished him at first. His world, formerly of meadows, streams, texts, hard benches in school, and the odors of leather and wool, swelled in a space of footsteps. As he entered, the city burst like a boil into ringing bells, rising smokes, beggars, apprentices in aprons, drunks reeling from alehouses, blue-garbed ladies crooking fingers, blindfolded Cupid signs above their heads, horses pulling carts, sacks of malt, bundles of hay, daggers riding on right hips, the occasional rapier, children pushing heavy barrows, street merchants shouting up spices and cheeses for sale, and an inescapable stench of dung. Singing balladeers, some with lutes, jostled with wrangling butchers and vegetable hawkers lurking on roadway corners near dark alleyways.

He liked it.

It was a promising time to become an English playwright if you could stand the envious older colleagues, the queen’s persecution of Catholics like his father, the theater-closing waves of plague, the resulting countryside play tours, and the long periods apart from family. Will had felt in his bones the tingling of an enormous cultural shift as candlelight, ritual, and art left the church and entered the theater. Once travel around the globe opened new vistas of knowledge, only spectacle could capture even a rivulet of the vast flow of discoveries and make sense of them. The public still learned from the clergyman, but ever more from the playwright.

He missed Anne and the children, but he had always been drawn to the exciting teeming spaces lodged like tenements between ruin and rebirth.

From behind the curtain, Will heard Gonzalo and the other island-bound nobles congratulating themselves for surviving the shipwreck. Little did they know what awaited them.

Will stood at the top of his career. He had paid for it in long days of writing and study, endless negotiation with officials high and low, restraint when responding to competitors, tact in making players play together, wise investments and purchases of land. He had flattered royalty and avoided controversy. His reputation of being much more careful than men like Marlowe and Essex was accurate. He kept his own counsel and never lost his head.

But he had lost a son and a father. Both reappeared in his dreams, his father lately with greater frequency. Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing to what I shall unfold… Upon awakening, Will could never recall what had been said.

To leave or not to leave the stage: that was now the question. Given his age and the life so long deferred in Stratford, it made sense to retire. It also fit the mood of the time. The magical creatures of both theater and collective fancy were fading fast, replaced by mechanical marvels and global markets. The figure of the wizard was giving way to that of the duke. How would a former playwright do as a country gentleman?

He checked his cocked hat, stiff collar, robe, and stockings once again and prepared for the next act. “Time goes upright with his carriage…”

He looked around. Always a relief when the stage hands knew what they were doing. So while he waited to go on, he daydreamed….

The Dreamvale is a peculiar geography by Coaguum standards. On Earth as humans perceive it, territories are divisible by borders, whether ecological and natural or arbitrary and political. The Dreamvale’s imaginal landscapes, villages, cities, regions, and worlds are organized by creative themes: the Vale of Middle-earth, of Xanadu, of Wakanda, of the 24th Century, of 221B Baker Street…

Normally, the inhabitants of one Vale cannot contact those of another across the purlieus that keep these territories separate to preserve them. Now and then, however, some coagulant’s dreamy imagination—in this case, Will’s—bridges the Vales, allowing their occupants to talk to one another. Some had gathered in a grassy clearing fringed by fog and framed by trees.

“He needs to go home,” said Hermione with gravity and grace.

“Hear, hear!” said Titania, clapping. Oberon smiled, as did Puck.

“Have we not heard the chimes at midnight?” put in Falstaff, looking drunk but happy.

“The sober choice,” added Celia while frowning at the mug in Falstaff’s hand, “would be putting an end to his state of exile.”

“Why call it exile?” asked Duke Senior. “He has done very well for himself.”

“I wish he would make up his mind,” fretted the Duke’s daughter Rosalind.

“He must come to it himself,” murmured Hamlet in his existentialist bad boy tone. “He’s wise not to confide in anyone.” Ophelia shook her head sadly at this, but King Henry VIII nodded slowly.

“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none,” the Countess corrected him.

“Yes, let him be,” said Benedick sharply, “and let him reassess married life while he is about it, the poor fool.”

“What would you know about married life?” asked Beatrice with equal sharpness. “But I’ll grant you the ‘fool’ expertise.”

“Some of us,” Cleopatra stated to smother a reply from Benedick, “would give all for love.”

“Too much,” added Desdemona. Iago quietly chuckled.

“No such thing,” said Juliet, taking Romeo’s waiting hand as Orlando and Rosalind smiled at each other.

“In the end, he must act for the good of all,” said Brutus as he toyed with a dagger.

“Once more unto the beach,” said Henry V as his knights nodded.

“He should go home and take charge,” advised Richard III, to the delight of Petruchio and Lady Macbeth. “I could tell him how.”

“He’s too honest for the likes of you,” Othello told the king. Cordelia and Portia nodded.

“He is a human, take him for all in all,” murmured Hamlet.

“Tickle him, will he not laugh? Prick him, will he not bleed?” asked Shylock rhetorically.

“He is bound upon a wheel of fire,” declared King Lear melodramatically while his daughters rolled their eyes.

“He must needs know himself,” intoned Polonius, ever the lecturer.

“He’ll miss the drama,” predicted the other King Richard.

“Methinks the gentlemen are using up too much air,” decided Portia, “preening themselves with their jaws. The decision to be made by the man who regards himself as our creator is not so simple as: gold, silver, or lead? He stands in the breach not only between two kinds of life, but two great periods of time, one oncoming and one passing away. It is no light decision.”

“To avoid counterfeiting himself,” suggested Falstaff, “he must needs die a little so that what he may become can live.”

“Whatever he decides, he must be determined,” said Helena, “and follow through.”

“Whatever he decides,” added Prospero, clutching his wizard’s playbook, “the rough magic will never return in its present form. That staff is broken; that book is buried. For now…”

The daydream evaporated.

Will took a steadying breath and walked on stage into the flickering light.

The archetypal Powers observing all this from the Infrarealm could not be said, strictly speaking, to be on the ground in either Elizabethan England or the Dreamvale clearing now dissipating into mist as the actor walked the boards addressing his attentive audience.

In a sense, though, they who were so often known as gods gathered backstage for their own animated conversation. Pivotal historical transformations, whether on Earth or anywhere else in the Tetraverse of sentient worlds, tended to get their attention. Moments of mortal awakening fascinated them.

“It seems to me,” said Aluere, who had stood behind Juliet, Titania, Cleopatra, and so many other ardent figures in so many realms of being, “that it really comes down to love and practicality. His wife, his heart, and his holdings lay in Stratford, so of course he should go there and live out what time is left to him.”

“I have been with him from the beginning,” said dramatic Renastra, who had animated Richard II. “I watched over him as he play-acted before he could even speak. He was born a poet and playwright, and he will die a poet and playwright. Pretending to be a country gentleman in retirement will never suit him. He will reject the tedium and grow unhappy. What good will that do? He should stay in London.”

“But it’s not just about what makes him happy,” protested Komoyna, the Power of family and community. She felt a strong sympathy with Hermione. “He left his kin behind to become successful in the world. Yes, he sent them money and visited occasionally. But for too many years, he was not present. He spent more time at his son’s funeral than he did with the boy when still alive. His wife has waited patiently all these long years. His family needs him, not being famous in the distance, but at home, in the flesh, fully there.”

“Let me show you all something,” said Kluni the trickster. He had enjoyed playing Falstaff and Iago. With him were timely Cronicus, skillful Smee, and fierce Bellum. Naran was in the background. “Roll it, Cronicus.”

—Having decided to remain active in theater, Will walks one evening toward his lodgings near the Blackfriars Theatre when a gang of cutpurses approaches him. He draws his sword and fights back, wounding two, but a blade enters his back and pierces a kidney. The thieves rob him and move off, leaving him dead in the street. Although England and King James mourn the passing of their greatest playwright, rumor-mongers classify him as yet another shady showman. As a result of this controversy, publication of the First Folio is delayed indefinitely. Outside of England, only a few later specialists learn of his work.

—Having decided to remain active in theater, Will visits Stratford less and less often. After their mother dies, daughters Judith and Susanna resent him greatly, inspiring Judith’s husband Thomas Quiney to plant false evidence of Will’s involvement with the Gunpowder Plot against King James. The king responds by ordering Will’s execution. Quiney gains a substantial portion of Will’s estate and uses his influence to bar publication of his father-in-law’s poetry and plays.

—Having decided to remain active in theater, Will catches the plague on its latest passage through pestilential London and infects his business partners before they can leave town. All those infected die, including Will. Publication of his works dwindles, and his name is all but forgotten.

“There is no way his staying in London turns out well,” said Kluni, thanking Cronicus for running the time stream simulations.

“Other outcomes are possible,” Terkwa pointed out.

“True, but outcomes like these keep popping up when we run things forward. That does not bode well.”

“Kluni is correct,” said Vaeda. Her Cordelia-like powers of foresight had given her glimpses of the worst possibilities even before she saw the simulations.

“But why is he correct?” asked Wildia > Beatrice. “Why do the simulations go abysmal like this?”

Nobody spoke. Then:

“We need a deeper picture,” Wildia went on. “Who played Portia?”

Radantia spoke: “I did. Perhaps I can fill in a bit.

“Consider the underlying historical forces at play. What humans would one day call the Renaissance was ending, and with it, the fairies and dryads, angels and nymphs, deities and spirits of old. Mersenne, Descartes, Gassendi, and other mechanists would side with Galileo that the only valid knowledge is of what can be measured and tabulated. This attitude goes worldwide, promulgated by mechanists within and beyond Europe.” She glanced at Smee and Naran, two of the Powers behind this counterreaction to churchly authority. Ordiri made a third, and Magus, oddly enough, a fourth.

“Will and Prospero both feel this pendulum making its massive swing. Other gods besides theirs must hold sway for a time. The long rule of religion has created a cultural imbalance that must somehow be compensated for.

“Meanwhile, Komoyna is correct: His family needs him, and he needs them too. He has been a loner for long enough.”

“If that is true, then how is it that his magic-filled work becomes so important later?” asked Smee.

Magus fielded this question: “The magic never leaves. It merely changes form for a time. Instead of investing hills and brooks, it makes its numinous way into machines and mathematics. When it returns, humans will gain a new appreciation for what their playwright left them.”

Paesha spoke up: “What a risky pendulum swing! What if they don’t correct it? Technology in the wrong hands could devastate their planet.” Smee and Bellum cast a cold look at her, but she shrugged. Kluni raised the archetypal equivalent of amused eyebrows.

“That’s where consciousness comes in,” replied Vaeda. “It’s up to them to balance the extremes, keep the peace, control the machinery, and await the eventual reanimation of their spangled heavens, earth, and sea.”

An awkward spacetime moment dragged on as everyone wondered the same thing:

Was humanity up to this challenge?

The magical masque assembled in the air by Prospero delighted the new lovers Miranda and Ferdinand, but it came to an abrupt end when the weaver of spells remembered all else pending in his life.

To the king’s ear, Prospero’s lines seemed delivered with a particular poignancy. The utterly silent audience was equally spellbound by the obvious emotion of the actor garbed as a mage about to end his career forever.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air…

For the first time in his decades-long career, Will paused to choke back tears.

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind…

Yet still he couldn’t go home, not fully. Instead, he bought property in London. Although he no longer acted or wrote plays, he continued to collaborate with other writers and manage the Blackfriars and other business arrangements while dividing his time between London and Stratford, where he concentrated his finances for the inevitable day of retirement. In other words, he equivocated, slowing the transition from mage to duke. Perhaps he could have it both ways?

On June 29th, 1613, a cannon went off for effect during a performance of Henry VIII. A spark ignited the rooftop thatching. Within two hours, the Globe Theatre in which Will had invested so much time and money lay in smoking ruins.

From that time onward, he spent more of his remaining years in Stratford, finally withdrawing altogether from the world of drama. He had criticized no kings, nor had he staged any activism, for “the people” or anyone else. Even so, his creativity set in motion a perpetual evolution in the question: What might it mean to be an embodied, passionate, ideal-pursuing human being?

The literary and psychological treasurers he had composed grew even more well-known in his absence. Enheduanna of Akkad had introduced true individuality by signing her name to her writings millennia ago; Will deepened the impression with unforgettable characters.

In April of 1616, he closed his eyes forever on his birthday, his fitful life rounded with a sleep.

In 1896, Warwickshire, the living countryside that had nourished Will and other great writers, would entrance a boy just moved there from South Africa. His novels, though not political, would summon the sensitive to protect the green magic of enspirited natural places. Elves and trees spoke to him. His name was J. R. R. Tolkien.

Kluni, who had ignited the theater fire, nodded with satisfaction: “All’s well that ends well.”