Modern Prose

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Across the lush tropical hills in a cove washed by the turquoise sea, the survivors muttered about their fate. They were Alonso, the King of Naples; Sebastian, the King’s brother; Antonio, Prospero’s scheming brother and current Duke of Milan; Gonzalo, the counsellor of the court who aided Prospero the night he was banished; and Adrian and Francisco, two Neapolitan lords.

“I beseech you, my lord,” Gonzalo said to the King. “Be merry! We all have cause to rejoice! Our loss is great but our escape is greater. Our woe is commonplace! Every day a sailor’s wife, a ship-owner and a trader somewhere grieve the way we do. The miracle of our survival is something that few in millions can speak about. Sir, wisely weigh our sorrows against our luck.”

Alonso turned his tear stained face to Gonzalo and said, “Please sir, enough.”

“To him comfort is just like cold porridge,” Sebastian whispered to Antonio.

“Dr Gonzalo will persist,” Antonio sarcastically said to Sebastian.

“Yes, look at him thinking of another line to take. Get ready for round two!” Sebastian sneered.

Gonzalo breathed deeply: “Sir….”

Sebastian and Alonso smugly looked at each other and launched into the bitter whispers.

“One!” Sebastian said to Antonio, “Keep counting!”

“When a man takes the opportunity to entertain every grief that comes his way, the entertaining host is given -” Gonzalo continued.

“A dollar?” Sebastian said, clearly enjoying his own wit.

“Dolour, indeed,” Gonzalo continued, unfazed by the sniping. “Sebastian, you have spoken more truthfully than you intended.”

“You’ve only taken it more truthfully than I meant you should,” Sebastian countered, aggrieved at being outmanoeuvred.

“Therefore, my lord-” Gonzalo began again, only to be interrupted this time by Antonio: “Oh, doesn’t he like to exercise his tongue!”

The King was becoming irritable with the sparring; “Please, Gonzalo, enough.”

“Not another word, your majesty. However-”

“He can’t stop talking!” Sebastian squealed.

But then even he recognised his wit and indulgence was far from appropriate and the party of survivors slipped into a long difficult silence. The King got up and wandered about the beach and stared idly at the horizon, the meeting of a sea and sky so brilliantly blue. As he was coming back towards the others Antonio whispered to Sebastian: “Fair bet who will talk first, Gonzalo or Adrian?”

“The old cock!” Sebastian laughed.

“I say the cockerel,” Antonio said, meaning Adrian.

“Done!” said Sebastian. “What’s the wager?”

“Just the joke.”

“A deal!”

Sebastian and Antonio sat straight faced as the silence grew long and poignant. The birds, the rustle of the leaves and the lapping of the waves were the only sounds.

“Though this island seems to be deserted-” Adrian suddenly said.

“Ha, ha!” Antonio beamed.

“So, you’ve won!” Sebastian conceded.

“- Uninhabitable and apparently inaccessible-” Adrian continued.

“Yet-“Sebastian giggled, mockingly waiting for something profound from Adrian.

“-Yet-” Adrian continued pensively and unaware of the mocking of his colleagues.

“He had to say that!” Antonio whispered to Sebastian.

“-The climate here must be fair, agreeable and healthy.”

“Sebastian, I knew a tart like the weather!” Antonio smirked

“Yes, very agreeable, as he so learnedly put it!” Sebastian said.

“The air here has a distinctive smell -” Adrian continued.

“Since it’s from your rotten lungs!” Sebastian laughed to Antonio.

“Perfumed by a swamp,” Antonio contributed.

“Everything advantageous to life can be found here,” Gonzalo said.

“True, except the means to live!” Antonio said.

“Of that there’s is little or none at all!” Sebastian said.

“How lush and lavish the grass looks! So green!” Gonzalo continued.

“Actually,” Antonio said, ‘the grass is toasted rather tawny!”

“Oh, there’s a bit of green, here and there!” Sebastian said.

“Gonzalo doesn’t miss much,” Antonio said.

“Oh no, merely the whole truth!” Sebastian said.

“But the remarkable thing is- and it’s almost beyond belief-” Gonzalo said.

“As remarkable things tend to be!” smirked Sebastian.

“-that our clothes, notwithstanding the soaking from the sea, are still looking fresh and new, indeed newly dyed rather than stained with salt water.”

“If only one of his pockets could speak, wouldn’t it tell us he was lying?” Antonio said.

“Yes, or it would pocket the evidence!” Sebastian replied.

“I would say our garments are as fresh as when we donned them for the wedding of the King’s beautiful daughter Claribel to the King of Tunis,” Gonzalo elaborated.

“It was a lovely wedding and as fair as the journey home!” Sebastian said.

“Tunis has never had such a beautiful queen,” Adrian said.

“Not since widow Dido’s time,” said Gonzalo.

“Widow! He’s talking rubbish! What’s he talking about? Widow Dido?” Antonio ranted.

“What if he also said ‘widower Aeneas’? Good lord, what do you make of it?” said Sebastian.

“Gonzalo, did you say ‘Widow Dido’?” Adrian asked. “Thinking about it wasn’t she from Carthage, not Tunis?”

“Tunis was once Carthage,” Gonzalo said.

“Carthage?” Adrian said in disbelief.

“I assure you, Carthage,” Gonzalo said.

“Amphion’s harp built the walls of Tunis but Gonzalo’s words build cities!” Antonio sneered.

“Oh, Gonzalo’s talking could build houses as well as walls!” Sebastian snorted.

“What impossibilities will he tackle next?” Antonio asked Sebastian.

“I think he will carry this island home in that famous pocket of his and present it to his son instead of an apple!” Sebastian said.

“And by sowing the seeds in the sea he’ll have an orchard of islands!” Antonio said.

“Yes, yes, Tunis was once Carthage, Adrian,” Gonzalo continued what he was saying still oblivious to the merciless ribbing of Antonio and Sebastian.

“The man’s a genius!” Antonio whispered.

Gonzalo attempted again to involve the King in discussion.

“Your Majesty, we were just saying that our clothes are as clean as they were at you daughter’s wedding in Tunis, where she is now queen.”

“The most beautiful woman ever in Tunis,” Antonio said, sounding quite sincere.

“Oh but don’t overlook widow Dido!” Sebastian snorted.

“Oh, yes, widow Dido! Who could forget widow Dido of Tunis!” Antonio said, sounding slightly tired of his own mischief.

“My trousers, sir, are as fresh as the day I donned them, if you follow my meaning,” Gonzalo said, alluding to his earlier observations.

“Follow his meaning?” Antonio sneered.

“I mean as fresh as at Claribel’s wedding!”

This was all too much for the king.

“You fill my ears with memories I simply don’t have the stomach to bear. I wish I never allowed my daughter to marry there! Returning to Naples has resulted in the loss of my son! And she is lost too, far from Naples! I’ll never see Claribel again. My son, heir of Naples and Milan, what strange fish have feasted on your body?” King Alonso shouted.

“Sir, he may be alive!” Francisco said. “I saw him struggle to stay above the waves. He rode the foam of the waves. He kept his head above the surges of the sea and used his arms like oars to get to the shore, which was very close. I have no doubt he reached the beach.”

“No, no!” the King said. “He’s lost.”

Despite the King’s distress Sebastian was still in no mood to be charitable.

“Sir, you can thank yourself for this great loss. You could have blessed Europe with your daughter’s marriage but instead you squandered her to Africa. She is certainly banished from your eye. That alone is reason to weep!”

Sebastian tone betrayed a shimmer of jealousy.

“I know! I know!” King Alonso screamed in distress.

“We begged and implored you to arrange another marriage. She herself was torn between her fear and obedience, wondering what course to take. Now, I fear, we have lost your son too. In Milan and Naples this whole episode has created more widows than there are menfolk to comfort them. The fault is yours.”

“And so is the greatest loss.”

“Lord Sebastian, your home truths are harsh and untimely,” said Gonzalo. “You aggravate the sore when you should be giving you attention.”

“Very well,” said Sebastian.

“Typical surgeon!” Antonio whispered.

“It’s a stormy time for everyone when you are under the weather, good sir,” Gonzalo said to King Alonso.

“Stormy?”

“Very stormy,” piped in Antonio.

Gonzalo ignored the remarks of Sebastian and Antonio.

“If I had a plantation on this island, my lord-” Gonzalo began.

“He’d grow nettles!” Antonio sniped.

“Or weeds!” Sebastian said.

“- and were the king, what would I do?”

“Escape being drunk because of the lack of wine!” Sebastian said.

“In my commonwealth I would do the contrary of custom! There would be no trade. Magistrates and learning, none at all! Riches, poverty and slavery, none of that, too. No legal agreements, no inheritance, no boundaries and markings, no farming or viticulture. No use of metal, corn, wine or oil. There would be no employment. All men would be idle, all men, and all women too. Everyone innocent and pure. There would be no sovereign-”

“Yet he planned to be king!” Sebastian said.

“The small print in the details of his utopia contradict the founding principals!” Antonio said.

“Nature,” Gonzalo continued, “would produce its bounty without human intervention. I would not have treason, crime, swords, spears, knives, guns or cannons. Nature, by its own cycle, would provide all the food needed by my innocent people.”

“Will there be any marrying between his subjects?” Sebastian asked.

“None, man. All are to be idle: prostitutes and crooks!” Antonio said.

“Sir, I would rule so justly that I would surpass the golden age,” Gonzalo said.

“God save his Majesty!” Sebastian yelled.

“Long live King Gonzalo!” Antonio joined in.

“And -are you paying attention, sir?” Gonzalo asked his tormentors.

King Alonso interrupted the petty squabbling.

“Please, no more. Gonzalo what you are saying doesn’t make sense.”

“I agree, your majesty. I did so to simply give occasion to these gentlemen. Their lungs are so awash with hot air they laugh at nothing to relieve them.”

“It was you we were laughing at,” Antonio said.

“In endeavours like this I could never compete with you. You may continue to laugh at nothing.”

“That blow knocked me to the ground!” Antonio said.

“But it didn’t do any damage!” Sebastian said.

“You are gentleman of brave mettle! You would lift the moon out of the sky if it missed a cycle!” Gonzalo retorted sarcastically.

The sniping would have carried on indefinitely but now Ariel had arrived at the cove to undertake Prospero’s instructions. Ariel invisibly swirled among the survivors, quietly playing a soothing lullaby which put everyone but Sebastian and Antonio to sleep

“We would indeed sort out the moon!” Sebastian said in response to Gonzalo. “And with the light of the moon we do some illicit hunting!”

“Oh, dear Gonzalo, don’t be angry,” Antonio said.

“I’m not, believe me. I wouldn’t allow myself to be perturbed by some feeble banter. I feel very tired, how about laughing me to sleep?”

“You go to sleep, and we’ll laugh!” Antonio said, and he gestured to Sebastian to begin cackling.

As if on cue, Gonzalo and Adrian did fall asleep. King Alonso noticed this first and drew it the attention of the self-absorbed pranksters.

“What, everyone sleeping so soon? I wish my eyes could shut out my thoughts! I do feel sleepy,” the King said.

“Well, sir, sleep. It seldom visits those in mourning. When it does it’s a comfort,” Sebastian said with uncharacteristic tenderness.

“Thank you,” said the King. “I feel astoundingly drowsy,” King Alonso added and nodded away.

Ariel having accomplished this assignment then flew gracefully away.

“What a peculiar sleepiness has possessed them!” Sebastian said to Antonio, the only other survivor still awake.

“It’s the salty air.”

“Then why aren’t our eyelids drooping? I am not in the least tired.”

“Nor am I! I’m full of life. They all feel asleep together, as if by arrangement. They drooped off as if struck by a thunderbolt. What if, worthy Sebastian, oh, what if… No, I won’t mention it… And yet, I think your face tells me… This occasion addresses itself to you. My vivid imagination sees a crown resting on your head…”

“What, are you still awake?”

“Did you not hear me talking?”

“I do. And surely it was just the gibberish of someone talking in his or her sleep? What is it you said? This is a strange repose, sleeping while your eyes are wide open, you stand, you walk, you talk- and yet so fast asleep!”

“Noble Sebastian, it’s your fortune that you are allowing to sleep- or to die! You are seeing nothing while you are awake!”

“Your snoring is clear. There is logic in your snoring!”

“I am more serious than usual. You must be so too, if you take my advice. If you do you’ll be three times greater than you are now.”

“Well I am a man of still waters.”

“I’ll teach you how to flow.”

“Do so. To ebb is something I know from my inherited sloth.”

“You mock your own desire. Your perception is an investment. Ebbing men are often at the bottom of the sea, from fear or sloth.”

“Spell it out. From your sparkling eyes and grin there’s something you’re desperate to tell me.”

“This! Although forgetful Gonzalo, who will be totally forgotten about when he dies, has almost persuaded the King his son is still alive, since that’s his job, but it’s as improbable that he’s as survived as it is Gonzalo is swimming rather than sleeping.”

“I have no hope that he’s survived.”

“From that ‘no hope’ you have great hope! No hope in another direction is so high a hope that even your ambition can barely catch a glimpse of its peaks! Will you agree with me that Ferdinand is drowned?”

“He’s dead.”

“Then tell me who is next in line for the throne of Naples?”

“Claribel.”

“She who is now Queen of Tunis. Who lives a culture away. She can’t get news from Naples for as long as a baby begins to shave- fifteen years. From whose wedding we were returning when we were shipwrecked. Some of us survived and it our destiny to participate in a drama in which the past is a prologue and what is to come is our roles.”

“What are you talking about? What do you mean? It is true my brother’s daughter is Queen of Tunis and she is also heir to the Neapolitan throne, even if there is a distance between both kingdoms.”

“And every league of that journey seems to say, How shall Claribel make the trip to Naples? Stay in Tunis and let Sebastian wake up! If death had just seized them they would be no worse than they are just now. There is one who can rule Naples as well as the King who sleeps. There are lords who can talk babble as well as and as long as Gonzalo. I could teach a jackdaw his repertoire. If only you have the mind that I do! What a step this would be for you advancement. Do you understand me?”

“I think I do.”

“And how does this opportunity look to you?”

“I remember you ousted your brother, Prospero.”

“True. And look at my garments now. Better? My brother’s servants were my equals; now I pay their wages.”

“Your conscience?”

“Yes, sir. Where is it? If it was a bunion, I’d have to adjust my footwear. But the deity of the conscience is not to be found in my heart. Twenty consciences couldn’t keep me from my destiny. Here lies you brother if he were as dead as he looks, he’d be no better than the earth he lies on.”

Sebastian looked at Alonso, the temptation was overwhelming and yet debilitating. Antonio pulled out his dagger.

“With three inches of this obedient steel I can put him to bed forever. And you, doing the same, could put that ancient morsel, Lord Bureaucracy there to sleep too before he gets the chance to chastise us for our actions. The rest of them will lap up our version of events as the cat takes milk. They’ll be game for any old story.”

“Your behaviour, dear friend, will be my precedent. As you got Milan, I’ll come by Naples. Draw you sword. One stroke will free you from your tax burden. I, the King of Naples shall be your friend.”

“Let us draw together. When I raise my hand on Alonso you do like wise and strike Gonzalo.”

“First, a word…”

Antonio was irritated by Sebastian’s delays. As they were chatting Ariel invisibly flew into the camp and lay down beside Gonzalo and began whispering in his ear.

“My master through his magic art foresees the danger you, his friend, are in. He has sent me here to keep you and his plan alive.”

Ariel got closer to Gonzalo and began to sing in his ear:
“While you lie snoring here,
Blatant conspiracy
Its chance does take.
If of life you have a care,
Shake off your slumber and beware.
Awake, awake!”

Antonio and Sebastian stopped talking just as Ariel stopped singing.

“Let’s get on with it!” Antonio said to Sebastian.

Just at that Gonzalo suddenly started.

“Good angels preserve the King!”

Gonzalo’s yells woke the others. Alonso saw Antonio with his sword the moment he awoke.

“What’s happening? Everyone up? Antonio, why is your sword drawn? Why this gruesome expression?”

“What’s the matter?” Gonzalo asked sharply.

Sebastian, with a survivor’s instincts thought of an explanation.

“While we stood guard we heard a burst of bellowing like bulls, or lions. Didn’t it wake you? It sent shivers down my spine.”

“I heard nothing,” King Alonso said.

“Oh, the din would have frightened a monster,” said Antonio. “It could have caused an earthquake! It was surely the roar of a whole pride of lions!”

“Did you hear this, Gonzalo?” the King asked.

“Upon my honour, sir, I heard this: a rather strange humming. I shook you, sir, and shouted out. As I opened my eyes, I saw their drawn weapons. There was a noise, that’s true. We better be on our guard, or leave this place. Let’s draw our swords.”

“Lead the way, Gonzalo, and let’s continue the search for my poor son.”

“Heaven keep him from these beasts, for he is surely on this island,” Gonzalo said.

“Lead the way,” the King repeated.
Observing this from a tree Ariel was justly proud: “Prospero shall know what I have done so, King, go safely and seek your son.”