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A hole, in its essence, is an absence. A space in which something expected is missing. A grave doth make this plain.
I stood beside my wife strangely comfortable in her company after the evening just past, that honest assessment of our current stations allowing us each to stand as who we were with all pretending stripped away and to watch as the coffin bearing our only son was lowered slow into that absence so as to remind us what expected thing we would miss this day, and the next, and in the month hence, and in the year, and also to remind me what I had missed previous, having most of his life been father in name only and not in presence.
He had made good progress in his schooling so that in my more recent visits he took joy to converse with me in such Latin as he had acquired, me thinking by his gift with it that his Latin soon would exceed my own, and I had started to share with him some of those books that I had first enjoyed when I was near his age, and in this scholarly congress had made a bond with him that I never did manage when he was a boy, me being more comfortable with the girls when they were younger, supposing, I think, what expectations we hold for girls being slighter, they seem more near complete in some way, as they will not be schooled and can learn early at their mother’s knee such skills as will be their province, and so they become their fathers’ darlings until those strange years in which they acquire their womanhood and cross that boundary that doth place them permanent beyond our manly knowing.
But in our sons we hope to fashion our own immortality, to shape such men as through who’s loins we will be pleased to pass our name, and so in our expectations of them, in our striving to cure in them those faults we see in ourselves, we do never hold them in that pure and simple affection that we afford our daughters, for a daughter can be a joy only, unanchored by the weight of our name’s eternity that doth often weigh on a son.
My father stood across the expanse of the grave, some straighter on account of the quick-made standard bearing our name’s new coat of arms, his petty opponents in the press of mourners knowing that no such mark of station would adorn their graves or those of their children and, I hope, suspecting that my success in London that did somehow grant me the status to secure these bearings could also be used, if they continued in their unwelcome suits against my father’s interests, as a weapon. But I could see also in his face that knowledge that his name would now end in this hole, his grandson gone before his son, and so those grand hopes men do hold that for some long future the name they watered and grew and shared would pass generation to generation, and even in ascending in glory, and that they thus might live eternal. Now, instead, in this hole, he could see not just that hard promise of his own mortality, for if such boy as this, all his years hale and fair, could so sudden be gone, then the claim of time on my father’s aged and wearied bones must be that much more sure and close. And he could see also the already fading name of Shakespeare, it having only my few remaining years to gain what glory it may, and then be gone.
The service at the grave, as had been that in the church, was short and plain, in keeping with the spirit of the crown’s ordained religion, which despised such pomp and ornament that did so inform its Catholic ancestor, and I thought this folly. Death is stark enough, and such religions as we might fashion in our human imaginings concerning a God beyond our hope to know should at least contribute to our own comforts, and that the absence of the grave could be made to feel less yawning, its inexorable gravity less fearful awesome, if we did fill the air around it with those rites and songs and costumes and incenses that made a Catholic gathering better theater, for what was religion, really, except such human theater through which we tried to please a distance audience whose tastes we only little understood.
And then that last moment, the coffin lowered, the earth shoveled o’er it, the service done, there being no ritual further to prolong the idea of a son who, in truth, had been gone complete before I ever had returned home, and in that moment, the hole of his grave did swell and consume my whole person and thinking, all my distracting reveries swept aside, and again I was party to that dizzying emptiness that short days previous I had never imagined but that did now seem so present, this bridge of life across which we tread seeming so fragile and subject to such easy injury that by what magic we did at all ever suspend ourselves above that underlying void was beyond my understanding. And the temptation, again, to hurl myself instead into that hole, to become part of that absence, to never again need be party to life’s incessant worry and striving, to instead in death make such true communion with my son as I never had in life, that urge was on me strong, and its disease in me so clear that even Anne, on noticing it, did take some pity, and lead me by my arm from the pull of the grave that I could not, at that moment, escape on my own.
We retired to our home, where by custom we would feast our neighbors and pretend again that each hole, each grave was unique, that it held the death of this man or that, and that it was not that portal through which we saw death entire. Pretend again that what we saw as a hole was not in fact that window through which shone the dark truth of eternity, the ever-night that at our own sunset did each of us await. Pretend again that it was the frenzied fabric of life that surrounded the grave, and not the grave itself that mattered.
Death is the real stuff of this world and the next, and it is our vanity only that makes us suppose other.
The morning next, I rose early to make my return to London, there being no comfort anymore in Stratford for me, and knowing I would likely never again return here as to a home, but instead as an unwelcome landlord. My father, in the habit of the old, knowing, I suppose, he would have soon have such fill of oblivion as he may require, rose early to horde what wakefulness life still offered. And so, while I had meant to steal away unnoticed, having taken my leave of family the night past and my visit having left me foul in my temper, he met me in my leaving.
“Will, I must say true that I do fear for thee.”
“Life is a fearful business father, but I suspect myself no more pray to its insults than another. And so how do you fear?”
“For thy soul, Will. I do not inquire into your marriage bed as it is not my affair, but have seen the pamphlet that I know did greatly concern your Anne, and did overhear those artful remarks by which you have deflected its charges away from the honor of our name. And were I a better father and stern, I would have thee swear to me the honesty of your objections, but will instead pretend to their truthfulness and thus make myself in conscience party to that lie that I will in consciousness pretend I do not know.”
“As you ask no question, I will offer no answer.”
He sighed, and sank into a chair. “I will admit I am made shallow happy by the favor you have secured us – the recent arms, the increasing comfort of this house. But, Will, it is our Godliness only that will serve us beyond this life; and we have recent reminder that this life is uncertain and even in its longest, measured short against eternity. In those ways I could serve example as a good Christian, I have, but do wonder whether you have even any little care toward God’s opinion, or toward his church, and so I do fear that the grave, which I do true believe holds they son in the warm embrace of God’s favor, will hold thee other, and as you are my son and as I do love thee, this grieves me.”
Though I think myself a respectful son, and while my usual temperament toward any authority is cautious, as the prideful satisfaction of rebellion carries in its own commission the risk of its punishment, the experiences of the days just recent past and the sense of death now as my constant companion did prompt me to anger.
“Godly, sir? How Godly? In your example? To cling some, but in private, to one religion, while trying also to pay sufficient service to another so as to preserve such station that you did all but squander in your vain attempt to serve two masters? As you are not martyr, you have failed in the former, as you are still hypocrite but poor at the art, you have failed in the later, and as your failing did invite those attentions that have also eroded such human estates as to which you could have aspired, then you also have failed us all. No, then I am not Godly, as I will ready admit that I will kneel to whatever object of worship that crown may choose to present, it being in my philosophy as valid as any former or as likely as any later, and that whatever God may bear witness to our affairs is either the same amused or the same offended by either effort. Or perhaps you mean more full Godly, as was our last Queen who in her thirst to satisfy your God’s honor did send so many to burn or hang or otherwise suffer dear solely for the service of their conscience. Or Godly perhaps as our new Puritan brothers? So certain in their imagining of God’s will that they piss on those few pleasures he doth grant us and think that in abusing his gifts they do serve his glory? No sir. I claim myself in no way Godly. I know my own sins, and I do suffer them complete, but I have met no man yet not fully poxed with sin. But even could I make them pure, I would not be Godly for it would seem require I choose one god or another by which to define it, and then grow some appetite for cruelty, as any god of my choosing would seem require that I abuse any man that follow some other. My sins are of my appetites and my selfishness and my faithless holding of others hearts, and as such are vile enough, but to be Godly would require that I do purposeful evil and then pretend it good, that I constant seek chance to stand judge of my fellows and then do them grievous ill in service of an imagined master. In the shadow of such sins that I already have so careless committed I am sufficient darkened. I have no stomach for more.”
And I left, closing the door hard behind me, sorry already for my harsh words to a man who’s path in life was marked by more charity and care to his fellows than I could claim for mine, and whose hypocrisies were those only of one trying to serve both flesh and conscience in a world that made one pay dear for either attempt. And so I could now add to my swelling ledger the sin of dishonoring a father who had faithfully executed that office toward me, his son, in so well as his conscience and human limitations allowed, who had served me far better than I could claim to have served my own son.