Vengeful ghosts, reclusive magicians, lingering curses, and precognitive witches — read enough William Shakespeare and you’ll soon learn that he was no stranger to the uncanny. But what might happen if you took one of his narratives and cranked up the horror elements? Cue the new anthology Shakespeare Unleashed, currently on Kickstarter, which features contributions from the likes of Joe R. Lansdale, Gwendolyn Kiste, Gemma Files, Seanan McGuire, and Philip Fracassi. We’re pleased to present Hailey Piper’s contribution to the anthology, the story “A Soliloquy Of Tongues.” Read on…
A Soliloquy Of Tongues
by Hailey Piper
No one tells a king about his mouth noises. Royal men have no imperfections. Their people see them from upon bent knee, or from a crowd beneath a balcony, or from streetside beyond a palanquin. Firm layers divide the people from their sovereign.
If they could approach a king, they would notice his mortal imperfections. Sweat. Stink. The dull look in his eyes as he falls out of love with you.
And the mouth noises.
Imagine you’re a blacksmith, and King Hamlet strolls into your shop on some business. You think, I am speaking to a man chosen by God to rule all of Denmark. Heaven’s will incarnate. Above all others, he has the divine right to decide our paths through war and money and the bread on our tables.
But the grandeur fades when you notice his tongue sticks against his cheeks, and his teeth clack, and there’s a wordless wet smack between his gums and the insides of his lips. The combined damp cacophony drowns every other sound, from the subtle rumble of street conversation to the forge’s roar and hiss, until your insides scream for silence.
At that moment, you would have to question the very existence of God.
No blacksmith stands close enough to the king to have these thoughts, but I do. There was a time when I loved King Hamlet, but nowadays he is two things to me—the sire of my dear son and the hell of a slopping tongue.
I have to close that wet hole in his face. Forever.
Mouth noises are not hereditary. My husband passed his name to our son, but not the way spit bubbles every time his lips part. Likewise, however the noises found our king, they have not found his brother.
Claudius won’t like my suggestion, not for this reason. He’s been close to his brother longer than I have and doesn’t seem to notice, or doesn’t care, or like me, he holds the scream inside him when King Hamlet speaks. I can’t assume anything, but mouth noises won’t move Claudius’s hand.
Power makes a better motive.
There’s only so long any wife can avoid her husband, even a queen. When a king beckons, you come.
He only wants a little company; I only want to spare him. Put as many walls between us as stand between him and his subjects, and we could be happily married for the rest of our natural lives.
I’m forced instead to sit beside him and attend court, where every murmur, whisper, rumor, and request sputters beneath his restless tongue and the muscly licking behind his teeth. My hands claw at armrests, the fingernails sealing his fate. Any doubts for what I’ve asked my brother-in-law to do die in King Hamlet’s saliva.
Should Claudius’s poison end the mouth noises, I will make him king.
In all the wisdom of prophets, and the promises of priests, and the ringing of church bells, you could never find such a blessed sound as this silence when the king is dead.
I hear it in the weeping. It crumbles in soil around his casket. Silence bounds from the holy man’s mouth as the king’s brother honorably takes my hand in marriage. Relief untwists my nerves and unclenches my hands, and I’m so relaxed that I even enjoy this wedding night with my new husband. I let the screaming rush out of me, my body a glorious cathedral of heavenly silence.
Claudius is king—may his reign be a quiet one.
A tongue slops in the night.
I thrust up from bed, thinking the murder, the wedding, and last night were all a dream, except Claudius rests beside me. The only Hamlet among the living is my son, and mouth noises are not hereditary. I sit perched on my elbows as the night crawls by, listening for the slightest smack of lips or gush of spit through teeth.
Only my breath and heartbeat haunt my ears. Have I misheard? Was it a dream?
Another possibility shares my bed. I creep closer to my new husband and lean an ear over his bearded open mouth, listening hard for an exploratory tongue or popping jaw. He breathes in and out, his mouth’s only noise a faint whistle between dry lips. Even if I hear worse, can I really blame Claudius for what he sounds like in his sleep? Who he sounds like?
I wait half the night, expecting the dead king’s phantom to come gurgling out of the walls, but if there’s a ghost to King Hamlet, he does not visit me.
The hellmouth has closed.
Every night, I wake up listening. Stay up listening, too. Claudius recommends a sleeping draught, some gentler variety of poison than his murderous potions, but what if the dead king visits in nightmares and I can’t wake up? My screams have spent too long locked inside me; I can’t be locked up with them.
Sleep isn’t my solution. Distraction will do.
Like my son’s play. He’s thrown together entertainment for his mother and stepfather, and we’re both delighted to see him busy for a change. His mood has been dour, and I’m unsure if Claudius’s advisor Polonius is right that the boy’s heartbroken over Ophelia, which should soon be mended, or whether Prince Hamlet still misses his father.
He wouldn’t if he heard the disgusting truth, but since when has my son ever known his father to be less than perfect? They were and are royal men.
The players assemble at Hamlet’s behest. His command is gentle but inescapable, and I know he’ll make a fine king someday. Better than his father. He turns now to address the audience, and light, love, and pride join the silence inside at seeing my boy look to me and then to his uncle, new father, new king. Time to introduce the play.
My son’s mouth opens, and those gentle lips stretch wetly from his teeth. Narrow tongue traces pink gums, loud at every bump. A throat quivers as if sucking at the world.
No one reacts. Maybe they’re like me, listening for kingly ghosts, holding themselves together while everything inside them screams.
Or maybe no one tells a prince about his mouth noises.
Has Hamlet uncovered why his father died? Or who’s responsible? Has he been visited and possessed by the dead king’s ghost?
Or does the mouthy wetness wriggle in his blood after all?
I’m left alone to question everything I know about my late husband and beautiful son while Claudius sends Polonius to spy. He worries about discovery; I worry about the noises. Little time passes before we learn the old man is dead, and my son has fled Denmark. Prince Hamlet is supposedly a murderer.
But I wonder, did Polonius hear mouth noises before his death? If so, did my son really drive steel through the old man’s flesh, or did Polonius impale himself to escape the prince’s inherited tongue? Even thinking about it dredges up that slopping nightmare, the death throes of a bog-drowned calf caught in my boy’s mouth. To listen intently like Polonius? He must have taken his own life.
I won’t walk that road. Can’t. My son has run away, and that should allow for peace even as Ophelia mourns her father. Let him think he’s been murdered, let them bury him in God’s sacred ground. All that matters is this precious emptiness.
My husband, my silence, and me.
Nighttime vigilance lingers unending. The dark plays tricks on the eyes, everyone knows that, but only I’ve figured out that it likewise plays tricks on the ears. Sleep-hungry minds, when at last sinking out of conscious thought, will jolt for the surface if they find mouthy mud beneath them, figments of what they see, or hear, or know.
The longer I listen inside the blackened bedchamber, the worse memory and immediacy blur together. Am I hearing the ghost of my dead husband? Or do I only remember him? Did his specter pour fluid noises between our son’s lips? Or is it all a dream?
And if it isn’t a dream, which mouth will suffer the dead king’s wrath next?
I lower myself against the bed as a dry tongue scrapes wet lips, and my eyes fall on the dark silhouette of Claudius beside me.
Their bloodline is cursed.
My son Hamlet has returned to a Denmark of enemies and death. Ophelia is gone, drowned by accident or choice, and if he was heartbroken over her once, he’s heartbroken again, but ask him to describe the pain. Ask him! He’ll only burble and croak. He confronted King Claudius at the graveyard, and I wanted my new husband to do to with the son as he’d done to the father. Steel, poison, anything, and I don’t care if I’m an awful mother. Someone has to close the hellmouth.
But then Claudius parted his lips and waggled his tongue up and down. It stuck to the roof of his mouth and stretched loose like tearing cloth. Another mouthful of noises.
Brother to brother, father to son, uncle to nephew—it’s all of them.
Even now, Claudius and the prince argue back and forth, murmuring in nonsense and smacking their nothings while the dead pile around us. I can’t help envying poor Ophelia in the cold earth, where she hears nothing but worms. Did she hear these tongues, too, before the end? Like father, like daughter, finding escape by their own hands.
No, I won’t walk that road. This curse can’t fester in Denmark’s rot. Is rulership left only to kings with bubbling mouths? Of course not. I’ve already moved a crown from one troubled brow to another, and I’ll do it again. A queen has responsibility too.
I must have a sharp tongue and sharper measure.
Kings are vulnerable in their sleep. I learned this from Claudius when he murdered his brother. I show the power in the lesson when I wake in the night and drive Polonius-slaying steel through my second husband’s chest.
His mouth makes noises again, but they’re different from his haunting tongue. Blood bubbles thicker than saliva, and I don’t mind the croak of a pierced lung. No one hears Claudius cry out, same as they never noticed his swampish maw.
New silence finds me in the night. I can sleep with this tiny heaven inside and trust the world to stay gentle until morning. At daybreak, I call out for my son.
You can hear him coming as he walks the stark streets, his mouth gushing like boots in mud at every step. My hands twitch to cover my ears, but I squeeze the scream inside while I lead Prince Hamlet toward my bedchamber in the castle’s depths. I have a gift for him, and I aim our path toward it until his mournful eyes at last find dear Uncle Claudius. Look, son—I’ve avenged your murdered father. You can let go of his ghost. Be your own man, and then your own king.
I can’t tell if he notices my blood-drenched arms and gown and crown, not when his eyes wander, so fatherly, and his cheeks sallow and puff with fluid. He might not even appreciate the sword jutting from his uncle’s heart, and I pretend I’ve done it for him. For the dead king.
Hamlet licks at his lips and lets silvery strands unglue cheeks from teeth.
I can’t stand it anymore—father and son will meet again. I jerk the sword from Claudius’s chest in sticky fits until it slashes free, and then I drive the blade into my poor son’s heart.
He won’t gag on his own blood if I can help it. Mine is a sweet boy, and I don’t want his own disgusting noises to fill his head when he dies. I cradle his body the way I did when he was a babe, and I sing to him as he slips away.
A mother’s final lullaby ushers in precious silence, almost heaven sent. In this emptiness, I can again believe there is a God.
Until a tongue slops in my ears.
I twist around to accuse Claudius, who lies prone across the bed. My eyes fall on young Hamlet in my arms, but he is stiff and cooling, my princely boy with his bloodline’s malady. Neither of my men will ever move again.
Where the hell is that noise coming from?
The wrongness soaks into my ears, a spittle-soaked coat of fresh poison. Rulership is not left only to kings, but neither are their flaws. When you wear a crown, does it not sit heavy no matter the sex? The walls that divide a king from his people also keep his wife. Is it King Hamlet’s ghost possessing my mouth?
Or does no one tell a queen about her mouth noises?
I can’t stop it, can’t stop hearing it, can’t endure it. My hands shake the sword loose from my son’s chest in a wrenching splatter, and I pause my slopping tongue long enough to sob, but soon my throat fills with renewed sticky clicks, and I can’t let it go on.
The sword turns in my hands, aiming the blade at my face, and I begin the careful work of sawing every moist heresy along its steely point. Tooth by tooth. Tongue-layer by tongue-layer. Peace in meaty chunks.
It is not a self-made death like I’ve wondered for Polonius and Ophelia; I won’t lock myself up with this nightmare. Each cut pours gore over the damp hellmouth in a thickening caul to help to seal it over. Every crimson finger down the blade is one more grasp for sweet relief.
I bleed out the screams, and the noises, and by hollowing steel, my body again becomes a glorious cathedral of heavenly silence.