The Shakespeare Hunters

I tell myself the dream is about the savagery that greatness demands, the way He must have fueled his creative engines with hearts of coal clawed from family and lovers. That’s what I tell myself.

In the dream I walk into a room. There is a man sitting at a scarred wooden table. On the table, a candle licks at the darkness, flashing on a silver knife hungry for the flame. The man at the table is Shakespeare. His face isn’t human: what sits atop His neck is the engraved visage from the First Folio — that infamously vacant stare that has haunted me for so long. It isn’t clear if this is a mask or if the physics of the dream world allow for people to have engravings for heads. Either way, in the dream I’m not frightened by this detail. Those sad, saggy eyes — the eyes of a writer — gaze up at me. Brown eyes.

I look down and the knife is buried in the left side of my chest. I don’t hear Him stir, don’t see Him get up, don’t feel Him stab me. A horrible intimacy hangs in the air. I pull it out with both hands, and I notice it’s more like a letter opener than it is a knife: the handle is smooth, and the point of the blade is dull and rounded. I know the hit is mortal because the blood is not red but the deepest purple, the colour of a glass of shiraz at sunset. I watch an impossible amount of this purple-black blood surge from the hole in my heart (somehow I know my heart has been stabbed). I look up, and He’s gone. There’s just the table now, the candle. The knife in my hands. And then it’s over.

__________

Fossilized somewhere in the albums of my parents’ basement is a yellowed photograph of me sitting in a tree in our backyard, reading a comic book. Both the moment and the snapshot of the moment still hum along the circuits of my memory, although some of the details have ghosted along the way. I think I’m nine. Maybe ten? I remember a chill in the air, but no serious bite to it — is it late fall? In the picture my eyes are on the open comic and I’m wearing the slightest of grins, though I can’t recall if I was pleased with a particular happening in the story, with the sanctity of my elevated perch, or something the photographer (my mother, I’m sure) might have said. Other details are imprinted somewhere deep within me: Amazing Spider-Man issue 277. Swaths of orange and white on the cover, with red-hot letters proclaiming “Cry of the Wendigo,” and my fearless hero sheltering a young child from a harrowing snowstorm while a lithe, sharp-edged monster menaces from above. It is a memory of utter contentment. The lilt of turning pages. The gears of imagination grinding away. Thick branches cradling my frame as I looked down at the world in my backyard and the world I held in my hands. That the photo exists means I wasn’t entirely alone, and yet the power of the memory is rooted in my feeling of absolute isolation. What I recall most vividly is the burgeoning awareness of my self. Myself. I was a reader long before I got in the tree that day, but until that moment I don’t think I understood that reading’s great gift is also its curse: it is always, in its essence, an act of solitude. And so that picture never fails to break my heart just a little bit, because in some ways I’ve been alone in that tree, reading that comic, my entire life. I’ve never wanted to get down.

__________

In my town you eventually stopped climbing trees so you could start playing sports, and for the better part of my adolescence I loved basketball with a ferocity and purity that I did not bestow on anything else. I played the game with joyful fury, reveling in the anger it stirred within me and the friendships it helped forge. I was in tears when my final high school game began, and once it ended I wept like I was coming undone. When I get to university, I’m good enough to believe I can make the team, but when the coach pulls me aside at the end of the first week of practices, I know what is happening. As if trying to brace me for the blow, he places his hand against my chest. I am soaked with sweat and my heart thunders against his palm. “Any other year,” he says, though I don’t hear anything after that because a primal node in my brain is howling for the spoils the team will glory in without me. His lips are moving but I just remember the hand. It’s like he’s marking the spot where Shakespeare will stab me when I have the dream two years later.

__________

Career paths, like memories, are serpentine. In my last days at university I receive a scholarship from a provincial accounting agency in recognition of my achievements in the business program. On top of a small monetary reward, I am taken to dinner by a member of the prize committee.

The ride to the steakhouse is pleasant enough. He gives me a pen, or maybe a pin — whatever it was, I don’t know what I did with it. My steak is more rare than I would like, and the blood mottles the mashed potatoes a dull pink. When I inform him that I’m also majoring in English with an eye on a graduate degree, a thin smile crawls across his face. At the time I assume it is a smirk of disdain, a mocking of opportunities lost, but later I wonder if he was jealous. Had he abandoned the hunt when he was my age? I never thought to ask. And I certainly didn’t tell him that I’m haunted.

__________

Dinner again, this time with my wife and son and infant daughter. I emerge from the basement, blinking my saggy eyes at light leveling through the kitchen windows. My son asks me what I’ve done all day, and I tell him I’ve been writing a book. About Him. Gleefully, he begins to offer suggestions for titles: Shakespeare Eats a Pie! Shakespeare Goes Fishing! I tell him that at this stage, those are as good as any. It is a wondrous thing to work in seclusion, grinding away at the dissertation, but cruel too, these worlds of mine they cannot visit, that I can only share in fragmentary transmissions, like some stranded madman frantically tapping away at a telegraph in a code that only he understands.

__________

It turns out the dissertation is good enough to win an award, which I receive during a ceremony at an academic conference in Washington, D.C. The next night I walk to a nearby pub. It is choked with people, and the only table left is in the centre of a small niche, where I am surrounded by clusters of fellow conference attendees. Acquaintances, maybe, but not friends. I order Guinness and stew: a meal so dark it seems to suck the light from the room. I feel utterly alone and embarrassed by my loneliness, and yet there is nowhere else I want to be. I know they recognize me from the ceremony, these acquaintances, these fellow hunters, but no one makes a move to sit together. I am perched in a tremendous wooden chair that cradles my spine just so, my plate resting on a table ravaged by the absent-minded scratchings of solitudes past.

__________

I’m stretched out beside my daughter on the floor of her room. Our heads together, we look down on Hop on Pop. For the first time in our lives, she reads to me. Yesterday nothing quite clicked into place, but today, furrowing her brow, it’s alchemy — her utterances seem to transmute the air around us, melting walls and conjuring oceans of possibility with each skip of her finger across the page. Everything is happening so slowly, and it’s as if I am outside myself, watching from above as she turns the page. That lilt again.

Her name is Imogen, the heroine from one of His romances, a play called Cymbeline. In the play she dies and gets a funeral, but it turns out she isn’t dead at all, only sleeping. So in a sense, within the bounds of the book she lives forever, and I like that notion of textual immortality. When my father first heard me speak her name aloud, he thought I said “Imagine.” I like that too.

“Which one should I do next?” she asks, running her hands over the books that timber the floor. Her eyes are brown, like mine. I smile and touch her hair. Deep in my chest: a quiver, a ragged ache from a knowing wound.

__________

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