Mortal Moments

by Natalie Cherie Campbell

Ophelia was lying dead on the stage. Man, she was so dead.

Bone white with a blank, startled stare, she lay limp, her mud-stained wedding dress clinging to her protruding curves. Slender in ebbing beauty, Ophelia was frightening as Death stilled her energetic spirit to silent dust. But I, feeling blatantly alive, breathed heavily in the balcony, surrounded by calm spectators who thought they were watching a decent Shakespeare adaptation of Hamlet. But in fact, they were watching Death as he took Ophelia by the hand and tugged her soul from its last grip on her cold, dead toes. And sitting in the left balcony, I saw it. The girl on stage may have been still breathing, but all that mattered was that Ophelia was dead. As I stared at her I grew more and more uncomfortable, willing her to move, wishing her to move. She never did. Hamlet’s arms wrapped around her, twisting and jerking her limp shape, but she would not move. They began to spade mounds of dirt on her, clumps striking her face, filling her nose and mouth, but she did not flinch, she did not breathe. She never once moved as she became a mound of dirt, and I began to cry. There is a difference between looking at a body and seeing death itself. Ophelia was the first dead person I had ever truly seen. I’ve seen corpses at funerals, but instead of a remembrance of life, Ophelia’s body only signified death—the damp, suffocating presence of Death. Though dead is dead, Ophelia was not passively fading away; no, Ophelia was forbidden life. I was stunned as her violent, involuntary death became the concrete representation that someday I too would inevitably be denied life. For the first moment in the 20 years of my existence, I shivered at the recognition of my own mortality.

**

When I was five years old, I asked my mom where time went when we spent it. Lying in the grass, I was picking blooming clovers one by one. Accustomed to such questions, she thought for a moment and then explained that the most important thing about time was not that it kept ticking but that every tick of a clock can be worth remembering. This seemed wise enough, but what if time ran out? Remaining in the grass, the flowers at the mercy of my fingers, I continued to theorize ways to save time. Was there a way to tip the hourglass on its side, or if you were really frugal time would time last longer? And how did time move so quickly when I was having fun? I thought it was quite unfair. And then I suddenly saw my pile of wilted flowers. I had killed them. It had only taken a matter of time for them to wilt, detached from their life-source, and I had detached them. For some reason those two ideas—running out of time and inevitable Death—have stuck with me. Sometime after that conversation, I began to press flowers.

**

Time keeps passing, so I collect things, I preserve things. My bedroom has always held my collections, where I vainly try to remember everything. Paramount in my bedroom is a bookshelf whose books are filled with preserved flowers, pressed memories. You see, the best rooms smell of floral ink in the winter. And next to the bookshelf, if I am lucky, will be a windowsill. Lining my windowsill are two jars. One jar protects my seashells, the other protects my rocks. They are evidences of my life.

**

While hiking along the coast of the Germanic Sea, slowly trekking towards the twelve-mile distant Suffolk, I darted around the pebbled sand madly collecting mosaic shards of rock.

As no flowers were to be found on this hike, I was thrilled that at least my jars would hold so much of England. After each pocket bulged with shells and polished stones, I began walking barefoot side by side with Bess, my red-headed companion for the day. The waves crashed in steadily, and the sky was the color of faded denim embroidered with grey threads. This was only the third time I’d ever seen the ocean. The sound compounded like a breeze in long stalks of grass forming the crash of toneless cymbals. I walked as close to the water as possible, and then I’d run up the beach every time, icy water chasing my heels. Somehow the ocean could sweep away my loneliness as easily as it swept away broken glass; I felt liberated. I mentioned to Bess that seeing the ocean never grows old, but before I could go further Bess murmured the last half of my sentence. “The ocean never grows old,” she repeated, and she muttered it again and again. We each fell to our own thoughts, quietly walking near what was now not only a stunning, but an immortal ocean.

Straining my eyes to see where the first wave emerged in an endless cycle of repetitions, I surprised myself by feeling only sympathy for the ocean. I ran my finger over the sharp edge of a shell in my pocket and thought about my jars of similar shells in my room, an attempt at containing immortality. This uncontainable ocean was time itself, infinite, limitless, unconcerned and unperturbed by death. Death had always seemed to me to be the perfect loneliness, and I was afraid of nothing more than loneliness. But now, as I gazed toward the horizon, I felt as though no one could be as perfectly lonely as the ocean whose isolation was immortality.

I have never felt more alone in my life than I had in England. At first, the landscape was my cage. The open skies on the moors were my cage, the vast pastures were my cage, the endless footpaths were my cage. But slowly, I began to welcome them as a familiar companion. And now each time I heard the liquid thunder crash upon the shore, I was comforted, for the ocean and I could be alone together. I was alone because of isolation; the ocean was alone because it lasted. The ocean never dries up. And flowers go and come in their season. Though the ocean may become aged as time passes, the passage of time will never age the ocean till it is nonexistent. A flower may live and die in its season but then time itself brings about its renewal; eventuality brings life. Nature is a reservoir of continuous life, and though it may be lonely itself, the ocean was the ideal balm for my fear of lonely death.

My feet iced as the tide coated my toes with soft foam. As I fled from the waves, my footsteps fled into the ocean—swallowed by a creature that moves within time while existing outside of it. Looking out again, I saw murky glass move closer till it became my reflection, dashing itself into crystal shards on the damp table of sand. When I die I will be buried in this ground; I’ll keep Nature company.

Bess called my name. My head jerked away from the waves, realizing that I had fallen far behind, due to my five pounds of rocks or maybe my thoughts. Leaving the ocean behind, I ran to catch up. Matching pace with Bess, I picked out my favorite rock to show her. Colored deep blue with specks of yellow and white, this pebble seemed to be a fragment of van Gogh’s The Starry Night. As I held my rocks, I felt that each was like plucking van Gogh’s stars from their sky and keeping them closed tightly in a jar.

**

Prancing around the stage, Ophelia was singing folk tunes and giving out wildflowers. It was almost lovely, but not really since I knew that Ophelia was about to be found dead in a stream. Yet, for now she seemed lost in her mind, where she spoke only in flowers. “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts. There’s fennel for you, and columbines. –There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me. We may call it “herb of grace” o’ Sundays. –Oh you must wear your rue with a difference—There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when my father died. They say he made a good end.”

As she hands the fennel and columbines to King Claudius he quails at his adulterous guilt. Gertrude cannot meet Ophelia’s eyes as they both take the Rue of feminine sorrow and repentance. Ophelia gently places the Daisies of innocence away. And she has no violets of fidelity and faithfulness to place anywhere, for with the death of her father those virtues are also gone.  Everyone is silent. And Ophelia, fully aware of what she is saying, disguises her message in the freedom of nature. No one can say a word.

For Ophelia, nature gave voice to her sorrow. Eventually nature would welcome her in death, house her remains, but in this moment it spoke for her. Ophelia and I are not so different. Because Ophelia’s mortality, which confronted me as my own eventual end, was inextricably linked to nature. Through nature Ophelia could escape sorrow, through nature Ophelia could speak the truth. Nature did not mean death, it meant liberation.

I always remember this moment when I pick up Anna Karenina. Books, generally for reading, are rather memory-keepers for me. As I thumb through the soft, crinkled pages I do not read any words because this moment is not for reading but for finding flowers. The cover is grey with a picture of a woman’s knees holding a small bouquet of purple pansies. The pages are well worn with pen marking out my favorite spots and they smell of rosemary. Each bit of rosemary sits pressed between the now scented pages, rendered immortal—for now. I try not to think of when my pressed flower will crumble into pollen and dusty fragments; the fragile metaphor of evading death dissolves into nothingness. Fortunately, my flowers rarely crumble, and whether fortunate or unfortunate, they always remind me of Ophelia.

**

My last night abroad my luggage was as chaotic as my agitated mind. Books and rocks were all over the floor, and after shifting, squeezing, sorting, and squishing everything for the third time, the red needle on the scale still shouted “overweight!” As I sorted through the things I could throw away and the things I could not, I found myself torn; I was staring at a pile of rocks and shells. Luckily my pressed flowers fit snuggly between the pages of my books, but then again my books were also a problem. It was all simply too heavy. I sorted my books and hidden flowers into different carry-ons so the weight wouldn’t be such a problem. But the pile of rocks I’d carefully picked for my family members remained stubbornly heavy, and I simply could not get rid of any of them. It might not have mattered so much had I never given my rocks, shells, and flowers such importance. But I had while walking the ruins of Tintagel.

Tintagel is the legendary birth place of King Arthur. The ruins of the Castle are partially on Tintagel Cliffs and then extend by way of a narrow tongue of land onto the jagged peninsula known as Tintagel Island. From a distance the island appears to be the shell of a giant sea turtle that burrowed its head and long neck into the cliffs after swimming in from the Atlantic Ocean. All along the neck are narrow winding stairs that canvas the whole shell as one descends and then re-ascends in the climb to the inner gates. As I roamed the ruins, I visited the foundations of the Great Hall, the Chapel, wells, and houses. During one of the rare quiet moments, I sat by a small rectangle of stones surrounded by Sea Pinks, a small garden flower that grew between the cracks and around the edges of the stones. This tuft of grass, pile of rocks, and crop of Sea Pinks, once having been a house and garden, was now nothing more than the imprint of man eroding in time. Below I could hear the tide measure out time’s passage, the waves systematically crashing into Merlin’s cave and slowly ebbing out again. Looking out at the Jurassic Coast, I thought of rocks, shells, and flowers. I remembered a hike along the Germanic Sea and a play where Ophelia lay dead. And sitting on the Cliffside of Tintagel Castle I just existed.

Surrounded by ruins from the 13th century, I wondered if the little girl that had lived in this house, which was now a few stones, worried about death as much as I do. As she listened to the ocean crash beneath her, I wonder if she ever thought about immortality. Did she collect rocks and shells? Did she press Sea Pink flowers? If she was anything like me, then she would have. Every shell pulled from the cove would have symbolized the ocean: the timelessness that comes from the sheer determination to remain standing. Every pressed Sea Pink, picked from beneath her window, would have captured the constant rejuvenation, the agelessness, of the fleeting seasons.

I listened to the cry of the seagulls overhead and was amazed at the tranquility they brought on the wind. It was almost easy to accept that all are born, all have the opportunity to live, and all must die. Even the seagulls seemed to exist meaningfully, having found peace in life. For a moment I felt silly collecting rocks, shells, and pressed flowers as a means to defy the passage of time, afraid of death. A fool’s task, trying to immortalize that which was timeless, trying to preserve that which was ageless. Like the little girl who may have lived in Tintagel Castle in the 13th Century, I also would die. And in that moment I will become one with Nature; my body enriching the soil for the Sea Pinks. I cannot escape death any more than she could. So I reached down and plucked a Sea Pink flower from the edge of the stones.

**

Ophelia is lying dead on the stage. Man, she is so dead.

But I am alive. I am no longer sitting in the balcony off to the left, but I still see Ophelia in her wet wedding dress lying peacefully. She wears a small smile. Forgetting her past distress, she stands horizontally like a little wallflower, about to be picked and pressed by Death’s outstretched hand. As time passes she is being grafted into the ground as though the tendrils of her torn lace were becoming vines, weaving themselves into the fabric of Nature. Soon Ophelia will be swallowed by dirt, but if there were wind she would whisper of flowers. As I look at Ophelia I remember the words of W.G. Sebald who said, “Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers.” I am comforted for embers still burn.