Witness this army, of such mass and charge,
Led by a delicate and tender prince;
Whose spirit, with divine ambition puff’d,
Makes mouths at the invisible event;
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell.
—Hamlet, Act IV: Scene 4
They made the pact six weeks after the sickness descended on the King. One day he was their sagacious, silver-tongued father—warring with lusty Norwegians, guzzling mead, dandling chambermaids on his armored knee— the next, he was a man entirely obsessed with poultry. Chickens. Ducks. Pheasants. Geese. A plentiful supply of fowl was always on hand at Elsinore, but the King ordered his aides to scour the countryside and purchase every available bird. Colossal coops were constructed beneath the windows of his private solar, and he could be found in one of these fetid, wood-and-wire structures each morning before first light— wrapped in bedclothes or nothing at all—tugging warm, newly laid hen fruit from beneath feathered backsides. Once his basket brimmed, he would enter the closet of his young sons—crowing to wake them. Placing an egg in each boy’s palm, he would demand to know what pulsed beneath its shell.
The first time neither Claudius nor his brother Hamlet knew how to answer, and their father flew into a rage. “Life!” he shrieked, seizing the shoulders of first one boy and then the other, rattling them until their heads lolled brokenly, until their eggs smashed against the floor, painting broad streaks of yellow over the flagstones. The next morning, once they’d assured him they felt the life force quivering within each hen fruit, the King told his sons the eggs contained the reborn souls of those whose lives he’d stolen. Not only those he’d slain with his own hands, but those to whom death had traveled outwardly from his person, like concentric ripples on the surface of a pond. Infantrymen and mercenaries. Nobles and craftsmen. Women and blameless babes.
“If I keep them safe and warm,” he said, “they will hatch. I will beg their forgiveness and raise them to relive their purloined lives!” The King nestled hundreds of eggs beneath fur-lined blankets, into the eiderdown with which he’d covered his mattress. For three weeks he perched atop this nest, leaving only to collect more hen fruit from the coops each morning, covering sheets of parchment front and back with infinitesimal script, straining to discern the soft crackle of shell.
Claudius and Hamlet were sleeping when the eggs started hatching, when their father burst into their solar, dragging the Queen by one unsullied white hand. “They are coming!” he cried as his family scuttled through the dim halls of Elsinore. “The souls of the Departed!” The King’s torch shed uncertain light on elaborate, floor-to-ceiling tapestries depicting familial forebears on the field of battle, tromping over a bloody carpet of fallen foes. Weaponry flashed on the walls. Spears. Maces. Battle-axes. After mounting the stairs and passing beneath dozens of buttressed archways, they entered the King’s solar, where the monarch dropped to his knees. His mattress had been stripped of blankets, and the eiderdown that covered it was littered with eggshell fragments varying in hue from pure white to speckled brown.
The rank chamber was awash in the strident cheeping of hungry newborn fowl.
“Please,” the King said, his hands folded, his eyes shut. “You must forgive me. All of you must forgive me.”
The Queen stood in the doorframe, both hands pressed to her mouth. With a muffled cry, she sank to the rush-covered flagstones as Hamlet strode forward to stand beside the King. His brother was only a year his senior, but Claudius couldn’t picture himself ever catching up to Hamlet, whose demeanor was that of a man despite his spindly limbs, despite his cowlick and hairless cheeks.
“My lord,” said Hamlet, “there are no Departed. Open your eyes. They are chicks and ducklings and goslings.”
The King hadn’t shaved or dressed or bathed or cleaned his teeth in three weeks, and he bowed his wild, wooly head over the eiderdown. Stroking his beard, he studied the hatchlings—membranous lids stretched over black eyes; vulnerable throats; beaks wide open; damp, bedraggled feathers.
Claudius moved forward. He touched his father’s naked shoulder. “They are hungry, my lord,” he said, his tears splashing his bare feet. “They want to be fed.”
The King rose. He crossed to the door, stepped over his prone, sobbing wife.
“Where are you going?” said Hamlet.
Their father paused—filling the doorframe like a broad, grizzled, naked specter. “I must feed them,” he said. “It is the only way they will ever forgive me!”
So Elsinore was transformed into an elaborate, drafty, absurdly well-fortified fowl coop. “Grow quickly, my sons,” said the Queen as she pecked Hamlet and then Claudius on the cheek and made ready to depart the castle for the distant home of her cousins. “My husband has no male relatives, and Denmark sorely needs you.” The King conscripted the princes, and alongside an army of porters, they hand-fed hundreds of hatchlings as more eggs were laid and carted inside to incubate. Hamlet and Claudius were charged with wrangling the adolescent birds that soon overran the castle—clucking, squawking, roving in gangs through the lofty halls, insinuating themselves into cabinets and pantries, distressing the cooks and the maids and the Lord Chamberlain, bathing in colossal bowls of spiced wine, napping in the Chamber of State, defecating on the throne of Denmark. The King had eggs nestled into eiderdown atop the princes’ beds, and when they weren’t busy with extant birds, Hamlet and Claudius were expected to sit like broody hens upon these nests.
“Fortinbras of Norway is amassing his armies,” said Claudius three weeks after their mother’s departure, “and the King won’t consider abandoning the Departed to oppose him.”
Hamlet slid off his nest and stalked to the window. “Your eggs, Brother,” said Claudius, but Hamlet spat on the floor.
“We are Denmark’s only hope,” Hamlet said, gazing across viridian fields that swept from Elsinore to the frothy gray sea. “The time has come to act.”
Beneath his backside, Claudius felt a small shifting.
“He is no longer fit to turn back the fierce Norwegians.” Hamlet approached Claudius’s bed. “We must take care of the King.”
Claudius’s palms went damp, and his heart knocked around in his chest. Beneath him, stifled cheeps and taps sounded.
“If we do not,” Hamlet said, “there will be no more Denmark.”
“What if his condition is temporary?” said Claudius. “What if he regains his senses in a month, or a week?”
The brothers thought of the King as they’d last seen him—bowing naked before a gang of quacking drakes and honking ganders in the Chamber of State, weeping and begging the birds’ forgiveness.
“We cannot afford to wait,” said Hamlet.
Hamlet would rule—of that there was no question. Though he was but thirteen, he comported himself like a man. Unless something untoward happened to his brother, Claudius would never be King of Denmark. He expected to feel some prick of envy but felt only relief. The knowledge that he would not be ultimately responsible for the lives of so many Danes comforted him; still, he was greatly saddened by his father’s fate. In a decrepit alchemy text in Elsinore’s library, Hamlet had discovered a purportedly painless poison—one concocted from black mushrooms that grew in the vicinity of the castle. The brothers would pour this potion into the King’s ear canal as he slept.
“Come down from there,” said Hamlet.
“But my eggs.”
“Damn your eggs! Get down here!”
Claudius slid off his nest and stood face to face with his brother. Hamlet thrust out his left hand, palm-up, and indicated that Claudius should do the same. He produced a dagger, pressed the tip to his own palm, and sliced open his flesh. Claudius fought to hold his arm steady as his brother did the same to him. Once blood flowed from both boys, Hamlet gripped Claudius’s left hand with his own. He used a yellow scarf—one their mother had left behind—to bind them tightly together. “We must now make a pact,” he said, “one that can never be broken.”
Red seeped through the scarf, and Claudius felt faint. He heard cheeping as if from a great distance.
“If ever one of us shows signs of the sickness that has ruined our sire,” Hamlet said, “the other must take care of him as we will now take care of the King.”
Until that moment, Claudius hadn’t realized his brother feared anything. He wondered what else Hamlet was hiding.
“Say you swear it, Claudius.”
“I swear it.”
“And we take the secret of his death to our graves. Swear it.”
After Hamlet departed in search of the dusky mushrooms they required, Claudius snatched the blankets from his mattress and found a multitude of hatchlings in the eiderdown. Some had pierced holes in their shells, others were half-out, struggling with all their might to be free. Only one bird had shed his casing completely—a damp gosling with black eyes. Wobbling on new legs, he advanced on Claudius, who inhaled sharply, for in that moment, the gosling seemed possessed—driven—as though he were animated by the spirit of a man rather than a beast, as though his ebony eyes were full of mad accusations.
“Forgive me,” Claudius whispered. “You must forgive me.”
Claudius never told Hamlet about the accusatory gosling, but in the days that followed, more and more of the birds overrunning Elsinore seemed to him to exhibit human characteristics. Glancing into a crowd of chicks or a gang of geese, he would catch flashes of featherless, flesh-toned skin. Once, he thought he spied a tiny, malformed hand. A week after the princes made their pact, as they dined on roast mutton, porridge, and smoked herring, their father galloped into the dining hall, clutching a rooster under one arm and a pheasant under the other. He announced that the Departed had started forgiving him. He danced around the walnut table, crooning to the birds. Hamlet fixed Claudius with a weighty look, and Claudius tried not to weep. The time had come.
In the dead of night, the brothers managed to avoid treading on a slumbering bird as they crept across the King’s solar—which bore the distinct air of a barnyard. They found their father curled on his right side, ensconced in fowl, a smile on his hirsute face. He clutched to his chest the thick sheaf of parchment that for weeks he’d been covering with cramped script. Claudius’s heart pumped wildly, unevenly—he feared it would wake the King. The brothers had agreed that they should each administer half the poison, but Claudius’s hand trembled, nearly spilling the inky liquid. Once the flagon was empty—once the deed was done—Hamlet plucked the parchment from his father’s lifeless grip. The brothers returned to their solar, where Hamlet studied the King’s scribblings.
“Names!” he said, letting the sheets spill over the flagstones. “Meaningless names.”
Claudius gathered the pages. He attempted to straighten and arrange them. “The Departed,” he said and started weeping. His father had crossed only two names off the list.
Hamlet knelt before Claudius. He lifted his brother’s chin. “Hush,” he said. “Would the King of Denmark have wished to live that way?”
Claudius did not feel qualified to answer.
“Had he been in possession of his mind, he would have begged for death,” said Hamlet.
Claudius knew his brother truly believed this, and jealousy pulsed through him. He longed for such conviction.
“Now we turn to Denmark—to protecting her from ruthless Norway,” Hamlet said. A gaggle of goslings waddled out from under Claudius’s bed, and Hamlet rose. He aimed a sharp kick at the birds, and as they scattered, one slammed into the stone wall—permanently silenced. “And we rid ourselves of this damned poultry!”
The day Hamlet was crowned King, he banned all fowl from Elsinore. Birds infesting the castle were routed from their hiding spots, rounded up, and slaughtered. Eggs tucked into eiderdown-covered beds were collected and shattered. The coops outside the old King’s solar were torn down and, along with egg remnants and feathered corpses, burned in a conflagration on the castle grounds. The Queen returned to Elsinore and stood between her sons, watching flames lick the leaden sky, a perfume-soaked scarf masking her face. “They smell beastly!” she cried. “Though not as bad as when still they lived!”
At her husband’s funeral she wept politely, but Claudius wanted his mother to break down, to howl and launch herself onto his father’s boxed remains. It was assumed that the King had slid away in his sleep, and in preparation for burial, he’d been bathed, shaved, and dressed in battle armor. Clutching his gold-handled broadsword, he looked like the King whom Claudius had grown up with—the man who’d ceased to exist once his strange convictions about reincarnation and poultry overtook his life. During the ceremony, Claudius was struck by the urge to conceal a couple of duck eggs in his father’s coffin—reborn souls to accompany the Danish King into the afterlife. Somehow, Claudius had grown fond of the clatter and the stench and the drifting feathers. He’d grown accustomed to caring for chicks and goslings—to their pulsing, daily affirmation of life—and Elsinore now seemed to him unbearably silent and sterile. He thought about smuggling a couple of hen fruit into the castle, hiding them from his brother, incubating them in his bed. But he feared spying a glimpse of his late father in one of the hatchlings.
Tales the Devil Told Me can be ordered from Press 53 here.