By: Jamie Steidle
“A plague on both your houses!” he said as thunder reverberated through the church. “Those were the words that woke me from my dream, father.”
The father of the church contemplated this for a moment, stroking his beard. For the past half-hour since this cloaked and mysterious man had entered his church, the priest had wondered who this man was and what meaning had brought him here. He was upset, the priest could tell, but he didn’t seem a penitent man.
“Tell me more of this dream, son,” the father said, trying to pierce the darkness that enshrouded this figure. The stranger’s face was covered. There was the subtlest hint of the eyes glinting whenever lightening lighted the room through the cracks in the shutters.
“I awoke in a dark chamber,” the mysterious man said. The voice was oddly familiar to the priest, but he lost his thoughts as he fell into the story the man before him told him.
The man did not pause much during his story, only briefly stopping to take a drink from the cup of water the priest had given him when he had arrived. They sat on church pews, the priest beside the man, turned towards him with his hand lost in his beard as he listened pensively.
“I awoke from a dream into a nightmare,” the man said. “I awoke from my warm death alive and into a cold world.”
When he awoke he was not in his bedroom, that much was certain. He was laying on his back. His hands clasping something cold. His blanket was over his body. His back ached. Was it stone he was laying on? He rose and took the object from his hands. It was a sword. His sword. The blanket fell from him as he rose and his eyes could discern that it was not a blanket, but a shawl.
Questions raced through his mind. Why was he covered in a shawl? Why was he holding a sword? Why was he in a—
“Crypt,” he said, stumbling from where he stood. He staggered backwards and tripped down two steps onto his back. He landed with a clatter onto the platform.
What was he doing there?
He tried to remember.
Was he dead?
Yes – yes, that must be it. He must be dead. He felt his face, his arms, his limps. They were all there. That was good. He was not cold to the touch. Not the icy feel of dead flesh. His limbs were warm. He touched his chest. His heart was pumping within. He was not dead. He was very much alive.
Then why was he here?
And then he remembered. He remembered the poison he had taken. It was supposed to have killed him, but he was not dead.
“The apothecary was not true,” he said to himself. “My love. My love!” he said, remembering her cold body laying dead within her own tomb. Remembering her cold form in his arms. Could she be dead? Or was this a dream? Could the love of his life be truly gone?
Questions. He had so many questions. He wanted answers. Grabbing the sword from the chamber floor, he made his way through the catacombs. He saw so many who had fallen. His family, generation after generation, slain by war, killed by the plague, brought to their knees by their mortal family enemies – the family enemy whom he fell in love with, the daughter of his family’s most hated foe.
He made his way through the dark crypt, alive and well, feeling anger as he passed each chamber. As he ascended stairs, he knew he was heading in the right direction. He could see out the windows the moonlight coming in. He found the way out. It was not shuttered and he was outside in the moonlight.
It was dark, but early night. The moon hung low at the horizon, a sickening yellow color. The graveyard was misty. The ground was wet from the rain that was rolling in from the west. There was a slight breeze. There was a guard standing near the entrance of the tomb he was making his way towards.
The guard drew his sword as the man approached.
“Who’s there?” the guard asked. “Answer and unfold yourself.” His sword nearly fell almost as soon as he took it out. “You!” he said, backing away from the shadowed figure. “You’re dead. You killed yourself.”
The shadowed figure unsheathed his own sword.
“Let me through,” he said.
“You can not be him!” the guard sputtered.
“Then I am not him, only his ghost. A ghoul. A thing of death. Call me Sheol. That is where I am. I am in that shadowy realm of the afterlife where nothing matters…, except that I must see her.”
The guard, stricken with fear, backed away from Sheol. He blocked the entrance to the tomb.
“You should be dead,” the guard said, raising his blade again, ready to strike.
“And so should you,” said Sheol and he stabbed the guard, who fell over dead.
He cleaned his sword and sheathed it and made his way into the tomb.
“This is terrible,” said the priest. “That you would kill a man.”
“Death is nothing. This is my second death,” said Sheol. “He would not move and threatened me. He began what I started.”
“Tell me there isn’t more.”
“There is more.”
Leaving the chamber, Sheol made his way through the night. Lightening streaked the sky. Thunder echoed. The ground was wet. The light of the streets reflected in the puddles set an eerie scene of the city. He had not been out during these hours when he was alive. When he was a man with a different name. This night he enjoyed, it kept him shrouded. The storm kept him in secret. There was no one on the streets.
He found his way through the night, down streets he once walked with his friend, now long dead and his lover, now also dead. He looked up at the ancient wall that rose before him, with decaying bricks and ivy clawing its way up. He remembered it was this wall that he had ascended to escape his friends, who thought he was mad for falling for a lady such as his widow. He made his way up the wall now. How easy it was to climb then – before. He didn’t remember how high it was, how it crumbled beneath every grasp. ‘Love does give you wings,’ he thought as he made his way over the ledge of the fence and toppled over it.
With a thud he landed on the other side. If he was the man he was before, he would have paused, taken his breath, felt where his left arm met his shoulder, the protrusion of broken bone through skin, called out in pain and been unable to proceed. But instead, he continued, his arm hanging limp and dead. He felt warmth where blood oozed out. Purpose had brought him here. Purpose would keep him going.
There he saw the balcony above. How lonely it looked without his love standing there and looking radiant, light emanating from her like the sun. How far away moments can seem when you look at the spaces they once occupied. To him looking on the empty balcony was like a playgoer looking upon an empty stage - there was once a scene here of beauty and truth, but now the place was empty, the stage was empty and dark.
Sheol made his way up the balcony, using the vines that intertwined the pillars. He was on the balcony, then. How he remembered his first kiss with the lady. How warm it was. How wet. He wished he could go back. But he couldn’t. There was no going back. She was dead, like he would be soon, like he was now.
He made his way through her empty room. How it looked as he had met her. How nothing had changed. Each object was where it had been. Her hairpin, on the vanity; her books, resting by her bedside; her favorite jewelry, hanging on their stand. The room was the same, but different. There was no ‘her,’ no beauty, just an empty bed where she had slept and he had slept with her.
He heard a bird call from outside.
“It is the nightingale,” he said. “It was never the lark. The sun never has risen and we have been here all night. We are still together.” He imagined her in her bed, laying there, smiling at him. He imagined they were still together, that it was still their first night, but then the bird called again and pulled him away from this reverie.
Sheol took the candle from beside the bed, struck a match and made his way out of the room and into the hall. Shadows danced across the walls as he made his way to their chamber.
His lover’s mother was asleep in bed, but her father was awake, sitting up, reading by the light of a candle. Sheol left the candle outside the hall and entered stealthily. They wouldn’t have noticed him if it wasn’t for the creaking of the floorboards. Her father looked up, startled.
At first, he saw only a figure.
“Nurse?” he asked. But as Sheol drew closer, her father’s face grew starker, more ridged as he didn’t recognize the figure; as Sheol drew even closer her father’s face grew even more ridged and starker as he recognized the figure. “But you are dead.”
“Your hate. It was your hate that killed her,” Sheol said. “It was your hatred of me and my family that killed her. Your selfishness. You only cared for yourself. You wanted her to marry a man who was not fit for her. It was for your own vanity.”
“I did what was best,” was all he said.
Beside her father, her mother was stirring from her sleep.
“Who is it?” she asked, concern in her voice.
But her father was not able to answer because Sheol had unsheathed his blade and laid it into him - he slumped on the bed. Lifeless. Dead.
“You did nothing,” Sheol said. “Nothing to protect your daughter and so you let this hatred grow.”
Her mother stirred and in terror, before she could let out a complete scream, the blade was at her throat. And she slumped on the bed beside her husband.
He cleaned his blade. He thought of the nurse. How much of a part of this she was, but her mother had let out enough of a gargled scream that Sheol could hear the house stirring. Looking into the hall he could see lights illuminating in different corners of the house. He could hear the feet of the guards and the metallic ring of unsheathing blades.
He left the room through the window. There was a fall. Some 20 feet. And he leaped to the ground. His legs buckled under him. Something shattered. It was his left leg. He pulled himself up and limped forward. His body ached, but he had a purpose.
His left arm was numb, his legs were filled with shooting pains, but he ebbed on. His body was dying and he likened it to his soul, as grief was all he felt – grief and anguish – his body grew to match his inner-self. Like Dorian Gray’s portrait, Sheol was becoming a grotesque form of his inner-self; all the pain and hardships within were becoming outward.
The way out was tough. He had to ascend the same wall, but he was able to make it up by way of sure will. He left that place, his lover’s house, and made his way to his own home.
His home was across town and he had to make his way through the night, hobbling on cobblestones, through the thunderous night as lightening streaked the sky and as rain fell down upon him. Finding the city streets empty, he felt he’d accomplish his task. He felt he could make it. The rain felt good on his worn body, cleaning the blood from his wounds. The blood tricked and trailed behind him as he walked.
The house stood before him. Unlike his lover’s house, he entered in through the front. It was his own home. It was a place he had lived since his birth and it was the place he had lived until his banishment, till his first death. The way was open, the door was never locked and he saw as he entered that the hall was lit with the nightly candles. The house was still stirring.
Each hall he turned down, he expected to spy someone. Adrian, Bernardo, but he saw no one. It was when he neared the rooms of his parents that he saw Benvolio.
Benvolio came out from his own room. Drawing a sword from his side (he frequently left his sword in it’s sheath, tucked at his side at all times – for the family were frequent brawlers and he felt safer having a blade near). The blade glinted as he held it up.
“Who?!” he pleaded, fear in his voice.
Sheol did not draw his sword. He looked at his old, faithful friend, his cousin.
“You have always been with me,” Sheol said.
“It can’t be. Can it?” Benvolio asked, squinting.
“It isn’t,” Sheol said.
“To satisfy a need.”
“To see family.”
“To end enemies.”
“A reflection of my inner-self.”
“I’ll call the doctor! Will wake your parents! We will celebrate! There is so much I need to tell you,” Benvolio said, not listening to his cousin.
Sheol, at the mentioning of waking his parents, drew his sword.
“We need to help you. You’re bleeding.” Benvolio was not listening to Sheol; he had put his sword away, pushed passed Sheol and was on his way to wake the rest of the house. Who Sheol was before, he would not have acted so harshly, so coldly. But he did not want the house to be awakened. It would thwart his plans. Sheol was consumed with revenge and it bled out of him with cold, determined action.
Benvolio spilled onto the floor, his hand to his chest where the blade had pierced through him. He looked up at Sheol with a questioning, glazed look and then he was gone.
Sheol cleaned his blade with Benvolio’s dress and made his way deeper into the house.
He found his father awake, sitting at his desk, going over some leaflets. He looked lost in thought as Sheol entered, the blaring lanterns casting Sheol’s face into a mosaic of grotesque shadows. Looking up, his father froze. The look of terror was on his face.
Sheol realized his father didn’t recognize him.
Sheol's form was so disfigured from the night. Sheol was hunched over, his left leg was still bleeding, a trail of blood led out the door. His clothes were ragged and torn from his climb and his fall. His arm was broken; shoulder dislocated, forcing that deformity of his posture. His face – Sheol couldn’t tell you how monstrous his face looked. He had mangled it from his fall. There were blood stains on his shirt, some not his own.
“Who are you?” his father asked.
Sheol walked towards him, speechless; dragging his foot.
“Who are you?” his father demanded. He stood and grasped his pen tightly in his hand, as though he would use it as a weapon.
Sheol moved closer. Dragging his foot in silence. His blade held beside him.
It was at this moment Sheol’s mother entered. She came in through the door beside his father’s desk – the one that led into their bedroom – and she froze when she saw him. No mother could mistake their son, even if they looked like they’d been struck by a carriage.
“Son,” she said, ignoring his grotesque form, his sickly hobble, his bloody clothes and the blade in his hand. To her, nothing mattered but that he was alive – her son was alive!
She ran towards him, her arms aloft and he didn’t hesitate. He lurched forward and fell into her arms. She embraced him. He embraced her.
“I can’t believe it! I can’t believe what this night has brought us! How wonderful!”
“Can it be?” his father asked, dropping the pen he clenched in his fist. “Son?”
She hugged him tightly, sobbing.
“Can it really be?” his father asked.
“No,” Sheol said.
His mother fell away from him, his blade now smeared anew with blood. She fell, grasping her side.
“You did this. Both of you. My love and I are dead. We have taken our lives, who we were and are buried because you would not bury your own strife and your own grudges. Vengeance begets vengeance and death and sorrow. But I’ve come to make amends.”
“You were my boy,” his mother said and then she was gone.
His father was all action, he had grabbed his chair and held it aloft. He was shaking. He pushed at the air with the chair, trying to push away Sheol, but Sheol did not move away, instead he walked forward.
“You murdered your mother.”
“She is not my mother,” he said. “The boy whose mother that was took his own life because he couldn’t bear to be without the woman he loved.”
“This is not my fault. This grudge, it’s no more. After your deaths we swore to make amends.”
“That was not enough. You should have made amends years before, or when you saw the love between me… between him and her. This ancient grudge has made your hands unclean! You killed us with your strife and hatred and anger. Could you not see that hate and hate alone divided us?”
Sheol was on his father and he took the chair and brushed it aside. The chair clattered to the floor. His father was not fighting. Not anymore.
“You took away my love,” his father said.
“You know how it feels, then,” Sheol said.
He cleaned his blade afterwards and he left the house.
“Mercutio was right,” he said. “A plague on both our houses. I didn’t know I’d become the plague,” Sheol said to the friar after telling his story. “I loved her, you know that. She had become my everything. A light to the eternal darkness of my soul.”
“You said the same about Rosalind,” the friar said. “But then, not a second later you fell for your enemy’s daughter. You can’t hang your life on these complicated emotions. You are young. You don’t understand how much depth there is to everything.”
“I understand enough. I kill to right these wrongs. So many deaths because of the shallow hatred of two families. Death created me.”
“You don’t have to do this!” the priest said.
“Cursed spite, that ever I was born again to set things right,” he said. “Friar, you cursed us by marrying us. I trusted you, but you only cared about your name in these affairs. You wanted to fix the feud between my family and her family to better yourself – not to better us. You cursed us with your selfishness.”
“How rash love can be,” the friar said. “A moment of light that soon condemns a man to torment and hate. You have to be strong to love, child. To not let these passions control you. You have to be accepting of your turn in fate, or else you are fighting a losing battle. You can’t fight it.”
“Accept your fate, then, father. And do not fight it.”
“I tried to save her. I sent a messenger to you to explain. She was not dead. She took a poison that let her sleep but two and forty hours. That must be what you were given. After you drank your poison she awoke from her sleep to find you dead and killed herself, not wanting to live without you.”
Sheol was not listening. He had decided long before what he would do to the friar. He had condemned himself to death, Sheol decided, when he muddled in their affairs.
The friar fell to his knees, clasped his hands together. Begging.
“I have done so much for you!”
“You must do one more thing for me.” And he slew him.
He cleaned his blade and made his way out into the night.
After he had left his own tomb for the first time that night - after he had slain only the guard, he made his way into her tomb.
He took a lantern from the wall and made his way through the ancient tomb of his mortal enemies’. The place was eerie and covered with a thin layer of dust. He saw her cousin – his cousin Tybalt – newly slain laying still in his chamber. And then he saw her, where she had laid when he first saw her dead.
He pulled the shawl from her and looked into her cold, dead face.
“Juliet, it is your Romeo. I have come back. I don’t know how, but I am back my love. To lay with you again.” Romeo took his sword in his hands and was ready to take his own life again. “This is not a goodbye,” he said. “Because I will see you soon.” He looked down at the blade as it reflected the face of his love. “This scene is too familiar. You died because of this feud. So many have died because of our parents' anger. This is not our doing. This is their doing.”
He looked down at his love.
“My enemy was our enemy. They live, Juliet. Those who kept us apart. They live. They should not be living. I will be back this night, my love. But I must do something to end this.”
And he sheathed his blade. He had to go to right the wrongs that he saw had been slighted against them. The two star-crossed lovers who had taken their lives, not because of love, but because the world was against them.
“I will be back before dawn, my Juliet and we will be together again. Before the lark calls I will be back! Your Romeo will be back.”
And he kissed her dead lips and left her.