Image: Set design by Salvador Dalí for Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Reproduced in William Shakespeare, Come vi piace, Rome: C. Bestetti, 1948. Source: Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC, EUA.
Short story by Grayson Elorreaga. Proof-read by Miguel Ribeiro.
Phillius and Rex existed together in a state of perpetual limbo. Neither man had any idea how he had found placed where he currently resided. And their shared limbo was very literal. They lived together under a wrecked timber ship in the middle of a vast desert with no limits. Phillius dreamed of cities and towns and people and seas. He would cry out in the night, shaking in cold sweat, as his mind would grasp beyond his body. But he had no conscious memory of these things. He could only remember seeing them in dreams. When he woke, Rex shouted and spat at him with his ugly brown tobacco teeth and wrinkled face, telling him to quiet down with his whimpering, because Rex had anger in his soul, and not much else.
Phillius was a young man and he could not grow much of a beard though it was patchy and blonde. Rex said he was a beautiful lad and didn’t deserve to be where he was. This was confusing because it was kind, though Phillius agreed with the elderly crank. Rex was grey and wirey and covered in hair all over his body. His eyes were planetary blue dots nestled in the mess of his hair. Phillius wondered sometimes if he was like a goblin or a wise-man but he never asked. Rex would tongue-beat him for asking the question, and he didn’t want to get tonguebeat.
They never ate and they never drank, because there was nothing to eat or drink. And yet they survived somehow. The sat under the timber wreckage for eternity and all time, usually in silence because they had said to each other all they had to say.
Their first conversation had gone like this:
“Where are you from?” Asked Phillius.
“Don’t remember.” Rex replied. “Where are you from?”
“I don’t remember either. Do you have kids?”
“What’s my name?”
“You told me it was Phillius earlier.”
“When did I do that?”
“I don’t remember… Say, what’s my name?”
“I think you said it was Rex.”
“That’s a regal name.” Rex said.
“Well, it is yours.”
“How do you know? I bet you lie to me. Trying out to make me a fool.”
“It’s what you said.” Phillius replied, gritting his teeth.
“When did I say it?”
“I can’t remember.”
“Can’t remember anything.” The subject was ambiguous. After this conversation, they sat together in silence. There was nothing to see but sand. There was nothing to hear but their anguished breathing, grating with the dust in their lungs.
But once, they realized that they each knew some things. Phillius felt that the imagery vomited forth into his skullcap from the depth of his muladahara chakra. It was blue like the water he had long since forgotten.
“I had a wife once.” Phillius said.
“What makes you say that?” Rex was scratching his nutsack.
“I think that I can remember her.” Phillius smiled.
“What did she look like?”
“She was beautiful. Long brown hair with curls in it. Curved body. Pale white skin that would glow in the moonlight.”
The image made him curl in the awkward sun like a reed flute.
“Well aren’t you lucky.” Rex replied.
“Wait.” Phillius started to note; “What do women look like again?”
Rex looked confused.
“What are women?”
“I think they’re like men but slightly different.” He said, wracking his brain.
“What are men?” Rex asked.
“I think we’re men.”
“Well, I think we’re just people.” Rex said indignantly. “And if we were men we would be sorry excuses for them.”
“Men can be people.”
“So can be women.” He said.
“What are women?” Phillius asked.
“I think they were the best in the world, and I think that I miss them.”
“Did you ever know any women?”
“I knew many.” Rex said, “I used to travel the world in a big ship. It might have looked like this.” He gestured to their shelter. “I used to live on the sea and I have visited a hundred ports in a hundred different countries and I’ve seen everything there was to see and I’d loved probably over a hundred women.” Rex said, pushing out his chest like a sick pigeon.
“Was the world always like this?” Phillius mused.
“I don’t think this is the world, Phillius.”
Rex was uncharacteristically sombre. Then he began to cry. Phillius didn’t know what to do when Rex began to cry. His crying was bitter. It was the tragic, scraping cry of an old man. There is nothing more pitiful in the world than the tears of an old man. It made Phillius want to cry as well, but he couldn’t because his body was too dry. It also made him sick as a dog. He didn’t know what was happening because Rex had never cried before, and he couldn’t remember what one did when somebody was crying. He could recognize crying in general, but he couldn’t remember crying.
Then Phillius realized that he was crying. The tears ran into his mouth and tasted of salt. It reminded him of one occasion where he had tried to eat the sand out of boredom. The tears made him drool. The two men cried on together but did not touch each other kindly or or move at all from their positions on empty crates of wine. Each cried until he was asleep and neither remembered the episode when they woke up in the morning.
“I want to leave.” Phillius said.
“There’s nothing else other than here.”
“There must be.” Phillius said. “You said it yourself. The wide ocean. Ports. Women!”
“That was all the ports in the world. And we’re not in the world, anymore.”
“We must be in the world. Where else could we be?”
“Dunno. I don’t think it’s safe out there though. A fragile little man like me could die. He could be killed by savages. I don’t think you do would do much better.”
“I feel like I’m dying in here.”
“Well you aren’t.” Rex shouted. “At least not more than any living thing dies as a matter of course.” He thought that he had settled it there. Rex screwed up his shoulders and thought that Phillius would do well to learn his place. There was benefit in listening to older, more experienced men.
Rex conveniently ignored the way that he himself was just as ignorant as Phillius, by virtue of their joint amnesia. There was just something strong and well-trained in his own soul that he recognized and admired. He must have done something to earn it, so Phillius would always have done well to just shut up and listen.
“Do you think that we existed before we were here?” He asked Rex.
“Definitely. How else would we dream like we do?”
Phillius shrugged, because he could no longer remember dreaming.
“What if water doesn’t even exist?” He asked. Now it was Rex’s turn to shrug.
“Does it help to know that there’s something else if there’s no way for us to get there?” Rex asked.
“I think we can get there.”
“Get where?” Rex suddenly looked puzzled.
“Somewhere else!” Phillius was heaving.
“Stop being such a young fuck. I know more about life than you, so you should listen to me, and I’m telling you that this is all there is. You should be grateful for it. Because it is certainly better than nothing.”
“You don’t know anything. It is nothing.” Phillius said. “You know just as little as I.”
“I know that I know nothing! Maybe you should learn that.”
“That’s just Socrates.”
“Who’s Socrates?” Rex asked.
“Well, I know that I miss my wife, and I know that you’re a senile old fool.”
“And you’re just as senile as I am.” Both men were raging, and Phillius rose to his feet.
“So now you’re taller than me, eh?” Rex spat.
“Get up.” Phillius said. “I want to fight.”
“What a joke. Sit down. Watch the sand.”
“No, I’m serious. I want to fight you.” He insisted.
“What would the point of that be? If you killed me or hurt me, you’d just be alone, or you’d have to take care of me.” Rex’s eyes were red and watery and looked pathetic to Phillius. His whole knurled body was pathetic to Phillius. He looked like driftwood. He looked like the wreck they were stuck in.
“I don’t have to kill you. I just want to feel alive. When was the last time you even stood up?” Phillius began to roar, his voice rising to the fevered pitch of anxiety and exasperation reserved solely for use by cast-aways and hermits. He was the very form of a madman now.
“No point to standing up. Nowhere to go.” Rex grumbled, as defeated as if he were already dead.
Phillius was full of courage and passion like an idiot. His eyes were glinting like sharpened steel. Rex could see that he was trying so desperately to find a reason to live. It was almost admirable. Rex didn’t need a reason to live. He thought that his freedom made him stronger, and was satisfied in that.
“I’m an old navy hand, boy. You don’t want to fight me. Maybe I know more about that than you do.”
“You’re a piece of driftwood. You couldn’t touch me. That’s why you won’t stand up. You’re just afraid. You’re pathetic.” Phillius said.
“Look at you. All piss and vinegar. You don’t belong here with me. You weren’t made for this world. This sand and dust is much more a punishment for you than it is for me. I pity you, I really do. This is paradise for me. I’m easy. I can sit here and watch the nothing all day. This is the easiest thing I’ve ever done, I think. What a relief it must be. That’s enough for me. My old bones are one with the desert already. You just don’t get it because you’re young. You’re young and stupid. When you get old you’ll be happy you’re here like this with me. Maybe if you’re lucky I’ll still be around for you to talk to then.”
And then Phillius was in the air and he was roaring like water. He was on Rex like the crashing waves. And he made Rex cease to be human. Rex didn’t even resist. Phillius returned him to the dust he loved so much. He disorganized the ordered tissues. He tore apart the structure that was once Rex with his bare hands and brutal fists. Through the raging and brutal murder, Rex’s face was a mask of serene relief. It was the victorious flag of a free man. He even smiled, just before Phillius wiped his face from his skull with such an awful ripping sound that he felt it in his belly.
When it was over, Phillius was covered in blood. It was the only liquid he could ever remember seeing. The orange dust stuck to the blood and formed a gritty coating on him. It was his war-paint. Rex had become a human baptismal font, and Phillius had been born again. Phillius died with Rex, and came back different when he opened his eyes and wiped out of them the visceral fluid. He was alone under the wreck.
The dust blew across the vast distances. There was never anyone else but Rex. Now there was only Phillius. The sky was blue and the sun was bright gold. It was hot and Phillius began to sweat. Then he closed his eyes, and heard only his own breathing. Then he opened them again and saw only sand.
He looked at the viscera and he wondered what it was. He thought that maybe it could be a person or an animal. But he didn’t know how it had got there. He wondered if he had only just begun to exist. He could no longer remember Rex. Or his wife. But when he slept at night, he dreamed of an old willow tree twisting in the wind by a river, and being swallowed by it. And one day, Phillius was sick of waiting. He walked off into the desert, and never returned to the sunken ship.