“How many times have I had the misfortune to die?” Juliet falls into her chair with a dramatic toss of her head.
“As many times as the rest of us.” Desdemona rolls her eyes.
Ophelia glances up from her crossword. It’s a bit early in the day to be squabbling over status, but rain does bring out the worst in her cohort. None of them enjoy being cooped up. None but Cordelia.
“You know that’s not true. Juliet has died more than any of us,” Ophelia says, hoping to quash the dispute. “She’s the most popular. The most adaptations and revivals. Reimaginings and reprints. She dies over and over and over.”
“Endlessly,” Juliet sighs, “for their entertainment.”
“You’re almost as popular,” Desdemona gestures to Ophelia, “and you don’t whine about it.”
“What good would it do?” Ophelia shrugs. “My story is written.” She has the privilege of hearing her final speech dozens of times a day. Most recently from an apathetic high school sophomore in Peoria, Illinois, made to read it to her equally indifferent classmates. The presentation doesn’t matter; her fate remains the same.
Cordelia brings around the teapot and freshens Ophelia’s cup.
“At least they weep for you. No one weeps for me,” Lady M. interjects. Ophelia tells herself it’s just her accent that makes her sound so harsh.
“I weep for you,” Cordelia says. Ophelia doesn’t think the others heard her over the crash of thunder from outside.
“You weep for everyone, dear-heart,” Ophelia whispers back, patting the gentle princess on the head.
The Scottish queen returns to stoking the fire. Ophelia glances at 3 down. ‘To move through water like a fish.’ Too easy. She makes short work of the next three clues as well but pauses at 12 down. ‘Five letter word meaning deadly to ingest.’
Words are funny things. They can be confusing, swirling, nonsense: said but not meant. They can be cruel and misleading, falling from the tongue of one you always thought a friend. But if you find the right words, the ones that fit and make sense, words are a solution.
“Poison,” she mutters, filling in the boxes. “No, that can’t be right.” She rubs out the letters with the eraser. “Toxic!” she crows.
“What?” Cordelia startles and gapes at the teacups.
“Nothing, sorry,” Ophelia soothes her and moves on to the next clue.
“Honestly, I don’t see how any of you can complain.” Desdemona scowls. “All of you killed yourselves. It’s not close to what happened to me. Or…” She glances back to the window where their silent companion stares at the sheeting rain. None of them speak for a moment out of respect. They don’t see her often, she prefers solitude. Ophelia thinks her presence discomfits the others almost as much as the storm.
“It’s not fair. We were so close,” Juliet says when she can’t take the silence any longer. “If I woke a little earlier, or he arrived a few minutes later, none of it would’ve happened. It’s just not fair.”
“Of course it’s not fair!” Lady M. explodes. “It’s tragedy!”
Ophelia picks up her pencil. “9 across. ‘Seven letters, causes distress and suffering.’” It fits.
“If it was just, it wouldn’t be tragedy,” the Scottish lady asserts.
“But your story is a tragedy, and you got what you deserved,” Juliet says. Ophelia can’t decide if it’s an extremely brave or extremely foolish thing to say.
“I beg your pardon?”
“You murdered the king so you went mad and killed yourself,” Juliet recites.
“My husband murdered the king.” Lady M.’s eyes flash.
“At your urging. Your death was the result of your wrongdoing. It was just. So why are you here with us? What makes you so tragic?”
“Yes, what?” Desdemona chimes in.
“I was a victim of irony,” Lady M. says, taking a swig from her ever-present flask.
“Does irony count?” Juliet asks.
“Of course it does. And it’s 16 across.” Ophelia carefully fills in the empty squares.
“I still think she had it much better than the rest of us,” Desdemona huffs.
“Nonsense!” Lady M. growls.
“You got to be queen!”
“Briefly! That one at least got true love.” She points to Juliet.
Ophelia bows her head and returns to the calm of her crossword, but all the words are wrong. Wrong bitter words dragging her down, down, down… She pushes the paper away, massaging her temples. The commotion stops abruptly. A figure stands in front of her. Lavinia, the silenced one.
“Um, can I…? Do you need something?” Stupid question; she can’t answer. The rest of them can quarrel over whose fate was the least tragic but there is no question as to who suffered most. Ophelia shudders. The things those men did to her. Then they cut out her tongue so she couldn’t accuse them.
Lavinia nudges the pencil to Ophelia with the stump of a severed hand. Her tormentors were thorough. They didn’t even leave her the means to write.
“I don’t understand,” Ophelia says.
Lavinia nudges the pencil again, sending it rolling toward Ophelia.
“I think she wants you to write something,” Cordelia says. The voiceless girl nods.
Ophelia picks up the pencil. “You want me to write what happened to you?”
Lavinia shakes her head. That’s a relief. But what does she expect Ophelia to write? All of their stories are already written. Ophelia looks back at the crossword.
“Oh!” she exclaims. “Our stories are written.”
“Yes, we know,” Juliet says. “That’s the problem.”
“No, they’re written. They’re words. We just have to find the right words!” Ophelia flips the crossword to the blank side.
“Juliet woke before Romeo entered the tomb,” Ophelia reads aloud as she writes. Juliet’s brow furrows then her face lights up.
“Yes.” She nods and takes up the telling. “Yes, they were reunited. The two of them ran far away from Verona and lived to at least forty.”
“Okay.” Ophelia writes in her addition. “And Lady M. uh…”
“Left her husband and formed her own army,” the older woman says, a fire in her eyes. “She defeated Macduff and united Scotland under her banner and waged a great and bloody war on England.”
“Alright, sure.” Ophelia adds it to the page.
“I think it’s Cordelia’s turn,” Ophelia interrupts.
“Cor…Cordelia…” Cordelia stammers, twisting a strand of hair between her fingers. “She had nice sisters and a kind father. And they all lived together someplace where it never rained. Is that okay?”
“That’s lovely.” Ophelia writes it down. The sky clears, a sunbeam illuminates the page.
“I killed Iago,” Desdemona announces. “And Othello.”
Ophelia puts it in writing.
“Good for you!” Lady M. applauds.
“And Cassio too.”
“But Cassio didn’t do anything,” Juliet says.
“Exactly!” Desdemona pounds her fist down on the table. “He’s innocent. It’s a tragedy.” She giggles.
“Oh, I like you.” Lady M. passes her flask down the table. Desdemona pours the brown liquor into her teacup.
“What about Lavinia?” Cordelia asks.
Ophelia takes a deep breath. “Lavinia,” she looks up at her, hoping to read the answer in her eyes, “evaded the men who were trying to hurt her. They never touched her. She reported what they were going to do and saw them brought to justice.” Lavinia smiles a small smile and nods at Ophelia to continue. “Then she made the most inspiring and unforgettable speech, ending the war between the Romans and the Goths and ushering in a new age of peace.” Yes, that fits.
The women have begun chattering again, discussing their new endings. There’s only one left to write.
Ophelia stares at the remaining white space, at a loss. There are no boxes to fill in. No clues to piece together. Unlike the others, Ophelia could be removed from the narrative, and little would change. It would end as it always ends, with poison and bloodshed and opportunistic Norwegians. She can’t change an end she has no part in. Which means she only has to change her own end.
Ophelia taps the pencil against her teeth. How to fix her story? Ophelia went to the nunnery as Hamlet instructed? Terrible. Ophelia stopped caring what Hamlet had to say? Not good enough. She was unaffected by her father’s murder? Impossible. Maybe there is no escape for her. No words but the ones that chase her to the bottom of a pond.
She returns to the reassuring order of the crossword. Her eyes fall on a clue. 3 down. Smiling, she flips the page over again.
“Ophelia,” she writes in steady, confident letters, “learned to swim.”
Susan Taitel spends nearly as much time writing as she does putting off writing. Most of her not-writing occurs in Minnesota. Prior to 2011, she did not write in Illinois. She often avoids writing on Twitter and Instagram as @susantaitel. And sometimes she writes.