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What Caliban Was
When thou camest first,
Thou strokedst me and madest much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in't, and teach me how
To name the bigger light, and how the less,
That burn by day and night: and then I loved thee.
-Shakespeare, The Tempest
As sunlight shifted on the sighing palms, the quiet of the island was complete – no sound but flitting linnets in the brush, and sometimes from the sea a gull would call. It filled Miranda with a certain peace. She walked a path along a rocky slope to seek her father in their rooms on the rocky hill-side. Her father was not to be seen. Turning to leave, she almost missed a sudden noise from the alcove where her father kept his books. She ducked her head in. “Ariel?”
But it wasn’t; it was Caliban. He was bent over a book that had fallen to the ground, his face turned away.
“What are you doing here?”
“Dusting,” he muttered, his hands frozen a few inches from the book, as if he were afraid to touch it.
Miranda looked around, and saw a feather-duster lying on another bookshelf. He put the book back on the shelf with dark, thick hands.
“He doesn’t like for others to touch his books,” said Miranda. “Most of them I am not allowed to see.”
“I wasn’t,” said Caliban. “It fell.”
“It’s the Iliad.” Miranda took it, wondering what Caliban could ever want with a book.
She had long since gotten used to the sight of his face, but the expression he wore made it strange again. His skin was ebony, almost black, streaked in places with patches of grey, and the sunlight from outside gleamed on it softly. His eyes were large and gold, and looked up at her fearfully. Was he expecting anger? Miranda fingered the soft vellum pages, at a loss for words.
He shrank under her eyes. “I cannot read,” he said. “I’m sorry. I will go.” He shuffled out of the caves and vanished from sight, leaving the feather-duster behind. Miranda decided to let the poor creature be.
After a while the sylphs and dryads began to sing. Prospero still was not in their rooms when she returned; it was her father’s way to be gone for long spans. She slipped into her bed and drifted off, and she woke to the soft patter of rain on the rocks. Rising and looking about, still she couldn’t find her father. But thankfully by the time she had made herself tea and breakfast, the shower had died away.
On the south peninsula of the island was an ancient pine forest, and the branches trapped a heavy mist that fluttered as Miranda waded through, echoing with the distant sound of wondrous singing. Ariel, she thought, cheering. He ought to know where Prospero is.
Ariel’s voice grew louder, and eventually she saw him perched as a purple owl in a spruce tree, looking down at a heavy, lopsided shape. Caliban was loading logs into the sack he used to carry firewood.
The owl opened its beak and hooted, “You’re quite an efficient little monkey. It’s delightful, how fast you work, Caliban.”
Miranda saw Caliban smile slightly, sadly.
In a glimmer of air and music, the owl became a bat with bright silver wings transparent like the mist, that fluttered down to land on Caliban’s pile of wood. “As some are made to sing and fly, so others just to trudge and die. Is it science to you now? You make it look easy, friend Caliban. I think I could do it, if I only tried a little. How fortunate you do, so I can tend to other things.” And then instead of a bat, there was a lute-player seated on a boulder, strumming sweet notes as he sang:
Wood-maker, wood-shaker, wood-breaker, ho!
So skillfully grand with a stick!
The wizard is waiting, the daylight is fading,
So wood-taker, hurry, be quick!
“O, Miranda!” called Ariel, and at once became a seraph, with a pair of white wings and long hair falling over a bare chest.
She was immune. “Don't taunt him. It isn’t proper.”
“I meant no ill!” said Ariel. “It was only jesting, wasn’t it, friend Caliban?”
“Only jesting,” said Caliban, putting the last of the logs into the sack. For as long as Miranda could remember, Caliban had carried firewood for Prospero.
“Do you know where my father is, Ariel?” she asked the spirit.
“I could certainly find out!” said Ariel gladly, leaping into the air with a beat of his wings, landing on a cloud of mist and pirouetting gracefully. “I shouldn’t be long.” He vanished, although his humming still echoed in the clearing.
Caliban fingered the strings of the sack. “Thank you,” he said.
“It was no trouble,” she said, sitting down on the vacant boulder, watching the trees, but feeling his eyes on her. His gaze was not unpleasant, not at all, but made her feel strange and ill at ease. This drove her to break the silence by saying, “Sometimes the spirit can annoy me so. He’s so close to my father. Sometimes I think Prospero trusts Ariel more than he does me.”
“You ought not say such things,” said Caliban. "Prospero is a noble man. He is good to all of us."
“He’s been gone for three days,” she said. “But yes, it wasn’t fit.”
“Why do you apologize?” she said. “You did nothing.”
“I could have gathered firewood during the rain. Then I would be done, and Ariel would not have found me, and you would not have heard Ariel, and you would not have sent him off and stayed here and said that.” His lips parted a little, as if he had something more to say. But he ran his tongue across his teeth and was silent.
“Do not apologize, Caliban. You’re my friend, aren’t you?” She stepped up to him and smiled, taking a few logs from the sack to carry herself.
He only looked confused. “I am your friend?”
“Whyever so would you not be? I’ve known your face for all my life, and you’re the only thing here that can speak, besides myself and Ariel and Prospero.”
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said.
The air tinkled, and a sing-song voice called, “I’m back!” A Chinese dragon floated lazily through the air, looping around Caliban, who watched with envy. “In just two minutes, I have made my essence one with the eather vapors, casting myself over the island, and by such elementary methods have located our dear sorcerer. He should be back within a day’s time. And then I coasted in the stratosphere, among the vespers and my fellow sylphs, conversing freely with the nightingale, possessed of all the benefits of flight. How wonderful it is to fly, my Caliban! Good day, Miranda.”
He exploded into a cloud of orange bubbles, which drifted for a while before popping, one by one.
Miranda was there to greet her father when he returned the next day, and placed his meal before him. His old, gnarled hands curled tight around the spoon, and he did not converse till he was done. His beard was wet with mist-drops, and his staff was spattered with mud. “I dreamt I saw a ship upon our shore,” he said. “With sails much tattered flapping in the gale. I thought it in the cove to the northeast, but nothing yet was there for me to see.”
Prospero listened religiously to dreams. As a little girl, Miranda had soothed him when he dreamed of Mother dying, as he dreamed of his daughter deserting him. Prospero dreamed of his fears. Recently, he had dreamed ever more of strangers landing on their peaceful isle. It was Prospero’s deepest dread that their isolation be ended. The world was a terrible place, he said, with sickness and with fires, peopled with men more monstrous than Caliban. When he’d left on his expedition, Miranda had feared for him, if he was to encounter such beings on their shores.
“Where does Caliban live, father?” she asked after a while.
Prospero’s eyes were grey, and he looked at her curiously. “What circumstances prompt that question, daughter?”
“It was raining. He does have shelter?”
“A cave on the beach a trifle west, alone, as befits him,” said the sorcerer. “I would not have him any nearer. Surely I need not tell thee again of the evils of his mother, the witch. The leaf seldom falls far from the tree, and I would not risk thee to harm, Miranda. — Ariel!”
A floating footstool appeared beside him. “My master! Master! You’re back! I’m glad you’re back!”
“Surveyest thou the waters round the isle. Assure me that no ships are sailing near.”
The stool bobbed and rocketed out the door.
Miranda dished herself a bowl of stew, and set out when the sun began to descend.
Disobeying her father felt strange, but not guilty. She doubted he could really be angry with her if she were discovered, although upset; and Prospero, though a stern, cold man, always forgave. But she was certain his nerves would be better off if he did not know, so she kept her eyes and ears alert for Ariel or the other spirits under Prospero’s command.
As she moved west along the surf, the distant reef thickened, a great green band in the azure water that broke the waves and surrounded a quiet lagoon rimmed with palms. In quiet place was a rocky cliff, and in the bottom of the cliff there was a cave. A tinkling sound filled the air as she approached it: sea-glass of every color, strung on delicate thread, and swaying in the breeze from the sea, shining light on shells propped in cracks. Caliban stood erect, holding a fishing-pole. He was quite tall when he wasn’t laden with firewood. His mane of raven hair was tied back with a bit of vine, revealing the two small knobby horns that rose from his brow. “Are you here to see me?” he said.
Miranda was surprised with her inability to answer the question. “I think I am. Yesterday you seemed dreadfully lonely.”
He knitted his brows. “No. I was not lonely.”
She held out what she had brought. It was the Iliad, wrapped in buckskin to protect it from the waves. Caliban held out his hand to it, but like before his fingers stopped before he touched it. It made her heart flutter and do things she didn’t want it to do. The feeling made her start.
Caliban caught the book as it fell, lifting it with a gentle touch. “Does my lord Prospero know?”
“It was perfectly fine with him, as long as I return it tonight,” said Miranda, but her throat closed up and it was hard to lie to Caliban, just to cover up the lie she had told Prospero.
Caliban set down the pole and sat on one of the boulders on the shore. She found a boulder next to his and watched him open the book to a place without pictures, pages he had no hope of understanding, but running his hands down the warm vellum and studying it intensely. “What is that letter?”
“A y,” Miranda replied.
“That is my favorite one,” he told her, tracing it with his supple finger. “What sound does it make?”
Miranda did her best to explain, that sometimes it was a yhh and sometimes a why.
He made a face. “It doesn’t sound as pleasant as I thought it would. I thought it would sound more like music, like the music the island breathes at dusk to sing you asleep. I thought it would sound… I don’t know.”
Miranda was warm in the sun, and she liked talking freely with him.
Her eyes closed, she said, “What would be a good sound?”
His lips parted. His finger slid slowly over the letter, again and again. His voice was soft as he said, “Miranda.”
“Miranda,” he sang, “— Miranda, Miranda, Miranda.”
“Miranda,” he said.
Her own name. Prospero had said it, Ariel had said it. Countless times they’d said it! But when Caliban said it, it sounded alien and strange. For a moment, she shivered with a shock and anger and fright such as she had never felt before.
“O, my God,” he cried.
He thrust the book into her hands. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Take it back to Prospero. Don’t come back here. You feel sorry for me, and I – I am – I am trying to —” He wrung his hands. “I do not know what I’m doing.”
He sloshed ashore and went to his cave. Miranda tucked the book under her arm and followed him, the foot of her dress soaking in the waves and stuck with sand. He was sitting miserably against the wall, with a conch pressed to his ear.
“Don’t say that name.”
What was wrong with him? His eyes were shining, his figure was shaking, and he would not meet her eyes. Miranda knelt in the sand.
“Caliban. I abhor it. I cannot stand it – any of it. It was my mother’s choice; I didn’t choose my name. I didn’t choose to look like this.”
“Are you blind?” he shouted. “Are you daft? Are you trying to console me?” He hugged his knees and harkened to the conch. “I’m hideous, you know. I feel hideous, too. And you’re anything but.”
She took the shell from his shaking hands. “You are being irrational.”
He touched her. His fingers reached out to brush her cheek, and she tensed, then relaxed, then felt her resolve slipping away. “If you listen,” he said, “you can hear the ocean, in its depths. And if you look closely, you can see waves in the glass. Aren’t they beautiful? This whole island is so beautiful. I mar it.”
“You are not hideous,” she pleaded, clutching the shell. “I don’t think of anything bad when I look at you.”
“That’s time’s work. I can remember when Prospero and you landed here, when you were scarcely three. You screamed when you saw me. Only time has made you used to me.” He took the book and pointed to a painting of the proud Achilles. “I’m not even human. That’s what you deserve.”
Miranda tried to take his hand.
“You don’t love me,” he said.
She didn’t know. She led him out to the beach, where gulls were circling overhead, and they sat down before a campfire, which he lit by rubbing two twigs together.
“Look at me,” she told him. “Do you think I haven’t seen pictures in my father’s books? I’m not Helen. My hair is brown and stringy. Feel it. My skin is horribly tan and my hands are course.” She took a lock of his hair in her hand. “Your hair is soft,” she told him. “It’s like the down of a dove’s nest. Your eyes aren’t a normal color – they’re gold, like the sunset there, and so deep. I can see the clouds in them.”
“And you have such long lashes –” She closed his eyes and felt the lashes. He began to weep again.
It was dark when she made her way back to Prospero, and the island was beginning to sing. Faeries drifted on the breeze, glowing in halos of green and pink and blue and gold. Music trilled from the shadows, and a purple aurora wove to and fro above the island. A white fox darted through the bracken and fell into step behind her. “Where were you, Miranda?” it crooned, rubbing against her leg like a cat.
“By the beach,” she said without emotion. “I was reading, and lost track of time, unfortunately.”
“May I escort you home?”
“The satin moonlight complements your hair,” he said, “and makes it shine with radiant, dazzling light.” He looked at her book. “The Iliad?” He became a hoplite in gold armor, striding alongside her, smiling.
“Do you have a real form, Ariel? What you started off as?”
“I started off a comet from a dying sun somewhere in Ursa Minor,” he mused. “Can’t remember much. I am content here, on this island. So content.”
Miranda was silent for the rest of the way, as Ariel conjured up a lyre and plucked a gentle tune from it. The trees waved their branches to his voice.
By my troth, by my heart, what a beautiful night!
What a beautiful night is here.
The birds are a-singing, the waves are a-ringing,
And such melodies banish all fear.
All fear, all fear is long gone away,
Thy souls sits calm and clear,
Look long at the lights, at the stars and their heights,
Wouldst thou pledge thyself now as my dear?
“Of all His talents to bestow, why did God have to make mine songs? It makes me foolish. Look….We’re home already. May your dreams be wholesome and your rest complete.”
“Thank you, Ariel.”
He bowed and smiled sadly. He looked around, as if waiting.
“You may go now, Ariel.”
“Of course, of course. Silly me.” H
e transformed into a small white rabbit, and hopped down into the forest, making a point of twitching his nose adorably.
Miranda turned away and stole into Prospero’s book alcove, replacing the Iliad silently. Prospero was lying on his cot, asleep – or at least feigning to be. Miranda slid into her bed, glad for the comfort of the buckskin blankets.
Something about her was changed. She could feel it in her chest: it was as if some warmth was wrapped around her heart, serenading and strangling at the same time.
Caliban. She turned to her side. She turned onto her back. What would Prospero say? What about Ariel?
And I am killing him, she thought, I am killing Caliban.
The next night, she lay awake as she listened to Prospero’s breathing growing even and slow, and the candles to die down. Steadily the room dimmed until the brightest light was that of the aurora outside. She was afraid to stop and think about what she was doing, because if she did, she would talk herself out of it – but she needed to see Caliban. She couldn’t bear to picture his tears if she did not come to him.
She lit a candle and stole out of the cave, making her way down to the beach, then going south. The sound of the ocean roared from the darkness, drowning out the chorus of the dryads. He sat hunched on a huge log, facing the sea, which was just visible though the cracks in the trees. He rested his head on her shoulder. “I wish I was not Caliban.”
She closed her eyes and listened to the sea.
“I wish I was Ariel,” he told her. “Ariel has only to wish himself something else and he becomes it. He can fly into the air as whatever he wants. He’s free; but I can’t fly on silver wings. I’m trapped in this form forever, tied to the thing I hate most in the world.”
“Don’t hate it.”
“I do.” He whispered. “Could Prospero change me? Could he use his arts to make my skin smooth and warm, and take away the horns, and the fangs? Then would he let me be with you? I’d do anything. A spell. A potion. A deal. Anything. To end it.”
They kissed –for a moment not caring. His lips were wet with tears. “Miranda,” he sang, “Miranda, Miranda, Miranda.”
Then he took his hands from her hair.
A white rabbit stood on its hind legs in the ferns, its eyes wide and horrified as they slid from Miranda to Caliban to their hands. Its mouth opened once.
Miranda pulled herself between them. “Ariel –!”
The rabbit’s eyes flared with a despondent, crimson fire. “PROSPERO!” it shrieked. “O, God, my master — PROSPERO!”
A hellhound lunged at them, shoving Miranda to the ground and leaping on Caliban, its claws raking his chest, pinning him to the ground. Miranda was screaming for Ariel to stop, stop! But the hound was deaf. The aurora flashed a sudden red, and lightning struck the highest spruce, sending sparks descending like cruel rain, and backlit against the blaze was a sorcerer in flapping robes.
Caliban’s pleading was a gasp. “My lord… my lord Prospero…”
“Hagseed!” cried Prospero. “Bastard! Seekest thou to violate my daughter!”
Dryads came from the trees, branches bristling, waiting for orders, and the faeries hovered above their master.
“Remove thyself from him, Ariel,” said Prospero.
The hellhound growled at Caliban.
“Father!” she shouted.
Ariel was a man again, and held her down. “She is in hysterics, my master Prospero! He has tried to rape her….”
“No!” cried Caliban. But Prospero flicked his staff and he shrieked, contorting, his black skin shimmering in the flashing lights, the red, the fire.
“Do not torment me!”
Glowing sparks descended on Caliban, burning him, opening his gold eyes wide with pain. Miranda was begging Ariel to get off her; his weight was crushing her, and she pressed her eyes shut, praying it would all vanish – all go away.
Prospero would not let her leave his sight for some time, ignoring her pleads, congratulating his dear Ariel’s prowess, then he had rebuked her, warning her not to venture beyond his parameters when he let her walk free again.
She broke this rule immediately, not caring when the dryads sounded an alarm.
Overhead, the sky was dark and roiling, promising a tempest soon, and the sea was white and wild, a giant weeping being. Her shoes made soft impressions in the dim grey sand until she came to the cave. The campfire was long-dead, almost washed away by the water, and she noticed something shining in the water around the rocks. Sea glass, scattered, broken, trampled, and already slick with algae; shells great and small, of crystal and abalone thrown far into the surf; delicate threads swayed with the ebb and rise of the waves.
A cracked, grey voice said, “What are you doing here?”
Caliban was huddled in the back of his cave, his tattered blankets wrapped around him, the conch shell broken in his hands.
“What have you done, Caliban?”
“Tried to rape you. They said I tried to rape you.”
“No. What have they told you? You’ve taken your glass and thrown it in the sea.”
“It’s where it belongs now. In the water, not trapped in this cave with the creature who stole it.” He looked at her. “I’ve tainted you.”
She took a step forward.
“Go away,” he said.
“Get out of here!” He threw a shell-piece at her, and it sailed past her into the sand. “Don’t stand there, looking so beautiful! Like the glass! Like the shell! Please.”
“We will explain to Prospero —”
“Will you look at me! Look at me for a single bloody second! What am I! Look at me! I’m Caliban!”
He threw the other piece of shell, but it didn’t reach her. Watching it land in the sand before her feet, he shook. The blankets shifted to reveal the raw cuts and burns and sores on his skin. Miranda felt her stomach churn.
Caliban laughed. “See!” he said. “A few new scars and I am ugly to you again! You fooled me, Miranda, and fooled yourself. But I can’t be tricked now! I feel as I look. And I know what I am. Prospero showed me. I deserved it. Go away, Miranda. You’re beautiful and pure, and so I hate you.”
“You don’t,” she snapped.
His furious eyes made her draw back.
“I do! You made me think I could be more, but I can’t, see? It is what I am, Miranda, you wretch. I finally know what I am.”
She heard the spirits coming, high above the trees, their wings beating the air. If she was found with him, Prospero would beat him again, burn him, kill him.
She supposed she didn’t want that to happen.
Caliban. So miserable and hurt. Why did it make her sick? Was it pity or anger that made her step away?
“Could it be you are a monster?” she asked.
The mouth of the cave was silent.
“Yes, I think you are,” she said, and walked away from the dead beach into the storm.