Hope, Love, Remember- The Real Death of Ophelia
by Carly M. Miller
The library would have to be one of the last places a truant officer would look for a teenager skipping school, Layla thought as she slipped inside, moving in an instant from noisy traffic and pouring rain to the dry and quiet calm of the Library. It had been years since she had been here, she realized. She walked without thinking towards the children’s section, the only place she had been allowed the last time she had been here, and paused to watch two older ladies on a pair of stepladders hanging a picture on the wall behind the main desk.
It was a picture of a lady lying in a small stream, surrounded by brightly colored flowers. Drowning? Was she drowning there? Her face and open hands were above the water, as if she could have reached out and pulled herself up without trouble. But she laid there, her face almost expressionless; there was only a sad hopelessness and it came not from her facial expression, but the posture of her body as she willingly let the water have its way. That isn’t right, Layla thought, and her heart beat a little faster as she wondered why she was so sure of that.
The ladies climbed down off of the stepladders and stood back to admire the picture. They smiled at one another and spoke softly, congratulating one another on hanging the massive picture in its heavy frame all on their own.
“I was so lucky to get it,” one of the ladies was saying, and by her thick red hair pulled up in a bun on the back of her head, Layla recognized her as the reader of stories in the children’s section from her childhood. She went on, “It was only twenty dollars. Those people had no idea what they had. It’s only a print, but an old one in a beautiful frame. The frame alone is worth more than what I paid.”
“It’s just beautiful,” the other lady said. Layla didn’t recognize her. “And it was so sweet of you to bring it here for everyone to see.”
“Psshh,” the red-haired lady laughed and waved her hand. “Why keep it in my little apartment for only my kitties to see? It belongs here.”
“It does,” the other agreed. “Well, I’d better get to checking in the books from the overnight box.”
Layla waited for the lady she didn’t know to leave, and then slowly approached the children’s librarian.
The woman looked at her sharply, but there was humor in her eyes as well. “Shouldn’t you be in school?” she asked, eyebrows raised.
Layla thought about lying, telling a story that had a good reason for her to be out of school on a Wednesday morning in October. Several came to her. Or she could tell the truth, that her mother had been up all night crying again and Layla had lain awake listening, making sure her mother didn’t do anything drastic; that she just didn’t feel up to dealing with the petty drama of high school when real problems existed in the world. She could tell the librarian that who liked who and who cheated on who just seemed ridiculous and infuriating when your alcoholic father had left your mother a depressed and suicidal wreck who cried all night and slept all day. But finally she just smiled and said, “Probably.”
The lady looked back at her for a long moment before smiling back. “I’ll just assume you have to write a big paper for school, and the library there just doesn’t have the books you need. That wraps it up nicely, doesn’t it? What can I help you find?”
Layla pointed to the picture on the wall. “Who is that?”
“That’s Ophelia from the play Hamlet by Shakespeare. Have you read it, maybe in school?”
Ophelia. The name echoed in her mind and made her heart race, and her vision dimmed for a moment. She heard the name called, whispered, shouted in a thousand different voices and tones, all of them speaking, somehow, to her. Ophelia… One deep male voice stood out in particular, and made her want to smile and cry at the same time. It spoke the name with laughter, with love, with anger and rage and madness, and Layla had to bite the inside of her lip and take a deep breath to make it stop.
She shook her head. “No.” She took another deep breath to help clear her mind. “We read Romeo and Juliet. I just hated that they killed themselves like that. I think we get to read Hamlet in our senior year. Is Ophelia drowning?”
“Yes,” the librarian answered, and she sounded terribly sad. “I’m afraid she killed herself, too.”
Layla found herself shaking her head in denial. “That can’t be right,” she said, remembering that male voice that had spoken with so much love. Yes, the anger and madness, too, but the strength of the love was there in the anger as well, and a part of the madness was the love. Why do I know, she wondered, and how do I know? “Didn’t someone… I mean, didn’t she love someone? It was Shakespeare… wasn’t there always love in his plays?”
The librarian looked at her strangely, and Layla wondered if she could see the knowing in her, but she only said, “Shakespeare was known for his tragedy, too. Let me find the book for you, and then you can read and find out for yourself.”
I think I already know, Layla thought as she sat down in a big, plush, brown chair with the book in her hand. She was near a window, and outside the rain continued to come down as if it never intended to stop. I do know. I know Ophelia drowned, that she hurt so deep inside of herself that the pain of the cold water filling up inside her, the pain of needing so badly to breathe, seemed like nothing in comparison. But… but she didn’t kill herself. She wanted to live. She had hope. She had…something blue she was making. Something the perfect shade of pale blue that would make all of the love come back, would make all of the anger and madness and harsh words go away. It was hope, and it was pale blue.
She opened the book and began to read.
Hamlet was not an easy play for her to read—she kept having to look at the word definitions and footnotes at the sides and bottoms of the pages—but she kept at it. She had to find out about Ophelia. There was this overwhelming need inside of her to find out who Ophelia was, how she died, and why… why she had this horrible feeling that she already knew, and knew too that Ophelia had not purposely killed herself. So she struggled through.
The first parts of the play with Ophelia in them seemed mostly to involve her father and brother warning her away from Hamlet, whom she loved. She did love him. Layla had never really known him of course, but at the same time, as Ophelia, she loved him with all of her heart. She had grown up with him, been a child with him, and learned to read beside him. Together they had climbed trees, ridden horses, thrown snowballs, and laughed at the old Fool, Yorick. Her first kiss had been with him, in fact, her first, last, and every kiss between. As Ophelia.
But Layla’s childhood had not been like that at all. She had never ridden a horse at all, really, but she could feel the rhythmic pounding of hooves on the soft ground of the meadow and the strong muscles of the little gray pony she had called Ryge. Ryge? What did that even mean? Layla, even at sixteen, had never been kissed by a boy in her life. They didn’t like her. She was shy and awkward, and didn’t dress the way the other girls did. She flinched sometimes when people shouted or moved suddenly. Even with her father gone for months now, she still flinched in sympathy with her mother at the simplest, most non-violent things. Layla had never loved anybody other than her mother.
Ophelia loved Hamlet, though, and Layla felt that love with a fierceness that she couldn’t logically explain. She listened with Ophelia as they warned her of Hamlet, that he might have bad intentions, that he might not be the one for her to marry after all. She spoke along with Ophelia, saying, “… but as you did command/I did repel his letters and denied/his access to me”, even as it broke her heart (II.i.109-111). It hurt her terribly that the father she loved and respected so much was keeping her away from the man she hoped to spend a long life with. She must obey him though. He was her father; he must know what was right. That thought felt foreign to Layla, but with Ophelia, it was different. Ophelia’s father cared about her very much. She had to believe that, had to believe completely that her beloved father would never tell her to do something that was bad for her or would harm her in any way. He would guide her through her life until she was happily married to a man he approved of. It would be Hamlet. It had to be. Hadn’t it all been arranged since she was born?
“Pray, love, / remember” she thought suddenly, and wondered where it had come from (Hamlet IV.v.173-174). She wasn’t religious; she didn’t pray. Hope would be a better word.
Layla tore her eyes away from the book and looked outside. Morning was wearing off and afternoon was here, or nearly so. It still rained, though not as heavily. Her heart hurt for Ophelia, who was somehow herself. A part of her wanted to stop reading, to stop taking this so seriously, to let Ophelia just be a historical character in an old play, but it wasn’t to be. Somehow, this story was real, and she was a part of it. She was Ophelia, or had been. Perhaps, like in those strange stories on television late at night, she was a reincarnation. She had seen a show once where a little girl was believed to have been a reincarnation of Mary, Queen of Scots. The girl had described in detail the life she had led and the feeling of an axe separating her head from her neck. Layla shuddered, feeling the fear of death, the end of hope, and the cold water that held her like a cradle on every side. Maybe she was Ophelia reborn, and it had taken the picture and the story of Hamlet to make her realize, to make her remember and feel all of these things. Maybe that was the explanation for a lot of things… She let the thoughts fall away—they left her feeling queasy— and turned back to the book.
She obeyed with Ophelia, going to walk where Hamlet would surely see, her little book in her hand, just as her father had told her. She would not believe that her love was crazy, that they were not destined to be together, but she obeyed her father meekly. She spoke calmly, almost emotionlessly, with Hamlet, as he ranted and raved at her. Inside she kept searching for a logical reason that he was so changed. His father’s death had unhinged him, but he would recover. He had taken some kind of poison that worked in his mind, but it would fade with time. He was angry with someone else, (who?) but would somehow reconcile and apologize for taking his anger out on her, his love. Something, please, anything.
“I did love you once” Hamlet said to her, and her heart leapt in her chest (III.i.116). If there had been love once, there could be love again, she was sure.
With Ophelia, Layla turned her head to look up into his eyes and said “Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so” (III.i.117). She put all of her love, all of her sympathy, and all of the hope she had ever had into her voice as she said those simple words.
He shattered all of it. Hamlet broke her world into pieces with what he said next: “I loved you not” (III.i.118-119).
Layla buried her face in the soft chair for a while and cried. There was no helping it. Everything was too real, too close, even though it made no sense. She cried herself out, and then stared out the window for a time. She watched the rain slow and then stop. She felt as if she had been here, in the library for years, but knew it hadn’t been very long at all. School had not even let out yet. Time had slowed down for her, so that she could live this life in a day. It frightened her, but she knew that there was no stopping, now. She must finish this.
She read quickly through the horrible conversation with Hamlet, and then flipped through the pages of the book, reading bits here and there. She watched her love go more and more insane, and knew that she would never find a reasonable explanation for this. She watched the play with his head in her lap, biting her lip the whole time as she tried not to feel anything too strongly. She closed her eyes for a moment as she remembered a small thing that Shakespeare had somehow missed, a detail that came so clearly to Layla that she had to smile: the blue silk.
One of the players had it, and was offering it to the ladies at court for sale. He had bought it to make a costume of, but had since heard that he had relatives back home who needed the money more than he needed the costume. It was silk, the softest, palest blue. It was like the sky, in a way, but different too. It was like the sky in a dream. It was a dream of the sky, and Ophelia bought it. She typically had no coins of her own, but her brother had given her some as a gift before he left for France. He was like that, warning her to be careful but then smiling fondly and mischievously as he gave her a thing he knew she might not be careful with.
And so the silk was hers, and she was making it up into a lovely sky-dream of a dress. She was doing all of the work herself, without the help of her ladies or maids, and that seemed right. This dress would be hers in a way that nothing else had ever been before, because somehow it would bring Hamlet back. In some magic way, it would bring him back to his senses and to her. As she sewed the sky-dream silk, she also sewed together the shattered pieces of everything that Hamlet had torn to bits with his harsh words. It was her only hope. It would be a dress the color of hope.
She didn’t know if she was Layla or Ophelia now, but she knew her father was dead. The father she loved and trusted and needed so badly, killed by her love in a fit of madness. And her love was gone… sent away. Everything was wrong. There was no right left in the world, only songs and symbols, flowers and water. She moved and everything was water, flowers fell from her mouth and floated from her eyes and every one of them meant something. She watched through the water as people moved around her and spoke silence at her. She called for the Queen and glimpsed her brother. He stared at her through murky water with dead eyes. Only the blue silk of hope remained what it had been. The pale blue that would somehow mend…
And then that flower. It was the one flower that was not the vibrant purple of its sisters, but a pale blue that in some strange mutation nearly matched hope. She felt the water and confusion slowly leave her mind as stared at that flower. She vaguely remembered singing some awfully bawdy songs in front of the Queen, but pushed the memory away with a blush and focused on the flower. Something must be done with it. It must be hung somewhere, at once. It must be put somewhere so that he could see it when he returned. He would return. He would see the flower and know that there was hope in the world. His madness would fall away and he would come find her, find her in the dress of pale blue, the sky dream dress of hope.
So carefully she wove the flower into a perfect garland. She surrounded it with flowers that made its differences stand out, and leaves and vines that made it seem to be a part of every plant she could find. She wove it all together in such a perfect way that the entire thing still seemed alive and growing. All that was left was to hang it. She spent hours wandering; searching for the perfect place to hang the garland so that Hamlet would see it when he returned. She sang to herself as she searched. They were old songs of love. Her eyes poured tears when the song ended with the lovers apart and she laughed and murmured happily to herself when the song ended well, with the lovers together. The quest for the perfect tree took so long that the flowers should have wilted, but they did not. At last she found the tree.
It was a willow with a large branch that slanted over the stream. Hamlet would surely see the garland there, and the flower. He would see and come find her. The dress would surely be done by then. She tied her skirts up so that her legs would have more freedom to climb. It was a childish thing to do, but some things were more important than appearances, than dignity. It had been years since she had climbed a tree, and she closed her eyes for a moment, remembering the last time she had been up a tree. She remembered Hamlet smiling up at her from the ground, laughter and love in his eyes. A perfect summer from years ago…
Layla jerked her eyes away from the description of her own death. On the page before her, Queen Gertrude was telling Ophelia’s brother how she had died. “Her clothes spread wide,” Gertrude said to Laertes, and then:
“And mermaid-like a while they bore her up;
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and endued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death” (IV.vii. 146-154).
She closed the book, fighting off the feel of her own death by drowning, rising up out of the cradling water and pushing the icy-cold opposite of breath from her lungs with her will alone. Outside, the clouds were beginning to burn away. She walked over to the librarian, who leaned on the desk and waited for her with a searching look. Obviously, she could see that Layla had been crying.
“Done already?” the lady asked. She patted a bit of her red hair back into place.
“Not quite, but I have some questions.” Layla set the book carefully on the counter, afraid to treat it roughly, as though somehow she could harm herself by doing so.
“I’ll answer what I can.”
“I read up to where Gertrude is telling Laertes about Ophelia’s death. She doesn’t say anything about it being a suicide. Does she believe it was? Did other people at the time?”
“Well, if you had read just a bit further, you would know that the grave diggers argue it a bit, about whether it was suicide or not, because Ophelia just lay there, singing songs, and letting the water take her. Here. I looked this up, because I noticed how interested you were in the subject. It’s an article from the community college library.” The Librarian turned her computer monitor around so that Layla could read it.
The article was called Neither Accident nor Intent: Contextualizing the Suicide of Ophelia. It was written by Barbara Smith, and just by the title it assumed that Ophelia had killed herself. Layla quickly scanned the article, then went back and read other parts more carefully. There were parts that admitted that Ophelia might not have actually had a conscious intent to kill herself. “The presence of an unconscious death wish argues against mere accident, but not intent,” Smith wrote (108).
Yet it was still wrong. Layla shook her head and looked up at the librarian who had been silently flipping through a magazine while Layla read the article. “It isn’t right,” she said, pointing at the line in the article that said: “During the innocent, child-like activities of crafting and draping garlands, she drowns, a guiltless victim of her own mad oblivion” (Smith 109).
“Why do you think so?” the Librarian asked quietly. She looked worried.
“She wasn’t mad then. She was …other things… but not crazy. She was determined. She wasn’t completely logical, but she wasn’t crazy like that.” Layla felt her tears start up again. She was sure that the librarian would think that he was crazy, now, but she couldn’t stop. “I…I mean she…she had a goal. She was making a dress. It was blue. And she had hope. She was sure that he would come back and love her again, that he would stop being crazy. She had hope. She was hurt.”
The Librarian opened her mouth to say something, but Layla pushed on. She was sure that she sounded insane, sure that her mother or the police, or somebody, would be receiving a call about her before too long, but it didn’t matter. She had to tell someone, and here was the librarian from her childhood, watching her and hanging on her every word, even as worry and a touch of fear filled her eyes. The truth of the story must be told. It hurt her to know that generations of people had believed, had assumed, that she had committed suicide. It just was not true. She didn’t know if the Queen had lied or was just mistaken, but she—Layla and Ophelia both—had not killed herself. There was always hope.
“I—she was hurt,” Layla said. She spoke quietly, calmly, although inside she felt as if she should be screaming her words. “Maybe no one could see it. Maybe the cold of the water made the bruise not show up, or maybe they never checked. She fell from the branch and landed on her back in the water, but below the water, just a bit below, was a rock. It wasn’t very big, but it was just big enough… and when Ophelia landed on it, the highest part of it hit right on her spine, on the upper part of her back, right here.” Layla touched the spot on her own back, just below her neck. The ghost of the terrible pain spread from the spot and her vision narrowed and dimmed. Her heart beat as if she had run for years to reach this point in her life.
She took a deep breath and went on. “I think something was broken. She couldn’t move… her arms and legs wouldn’t move no matter how she tried. She sang. Gertrude had that right. I don’t remember seeing her there, but I guess she must have been to get some of it right. I-Ophelia sang because nothing else worked. She laid there in the water hoping. She hoped for someone to save her, and for Hamlet to love her, and for everything to be all right. She waited and hoped and sang because that was all she could do. She didn’t want to die, even unconsciously, like the article said. She wanted to live because she had hope and love. She couldn’t move.”
Layla was having a hard time moving, herself, just then. The world swam around her and she felt as if she were going to fall down. She leaned forward onto the library counter and closed her eyes, but still spoke: “I did not kill myself. I wouldn’t ever. There’s always hope in the world. No matter how bad everything is. Even as the water pulled me away from the rock in the water, even as it weighed down my dress, and silenced my song, and filled my body with cold… Even as everything went black…” She forced her eyes open and looked into the librarian’s shocked face. She was faintly aware of the afternoon sun shining in through the windows behind her, shining brightly on the painting of her death that that hung behind the librarian’s head. “Hope is why. I hoped. I had a dress that would make everything all right again. It was the dream of the sky. I hope…I hope you call someone now. My mom, I have to tell her something… the hospital… someone please.”
The last thing she saw before her eyes dropped closed was the red-haired librarian reaching for the phone, and behind her, the painting of Ophelia floating in the cold water. The painting didn’t show the hope, but it was there all the same.
It should be ‘hope, love, remember,’ she thought.