“It is incredible how many old people there are who would be glad to have me at night,” said Ole-Luk-Oie, “especially those who have done something wrong.
“‘Good old Ole,’ say they to me, ‘we cannot close our eyes, and we lie awake the whole night and see all our evil deeds sitting on our beds like little imps and sprinkling us with scalding water. Will you come and drive them away, that we may have a good night’s rest?’ and then they sigh so deeply and say: ‘We would gladly pay you for it. Good night, Ole-Luk, the money lies in the window.’ But I never do anything for gold.”
“What shall we do to-night?” asked Hjalmar.
“I do not know whether you would care to go to another wedding,” replied Ole-Luk-Oie, “although it is quite a different affair from the one we saw last night. Your sister’s large doll, that is dressed like a man and is called Herman, intends to marry the doll Bertha. It is also the dolls’ birthday, and they will receive many presents.”
“Yes, I know that already,” said Hjalmar; “my sister always allows her dolls to keep their birthdays or to have a wedding when they require new clothes. That has happened already a hundred times, I am quite sure.”
“Yes, so it may; but to-night is the hundred-and-first wedding, and when that has taken place it must be the last; therefore this is to be extremely beautiful. Only look.”
Hjalmar looked at the table, and there stood the little cardboard dolls’ house, with lights in all the windows, and drawn up before it were the tin soldiers, presenting arms.
The bridal pair were seated on the floor, leaning against the leg of the table, looking very thoughtful and with good reason. Then Ole-Luk-Oie, dressed up in grandmother’s black gown, married them.
As soon as the ceremony was concluded all the furniture in the room joined in singing a beautiful song which had been composed by the lead pencil, and which went to the melody of a military tattoo:
To the tiny house where the bride folks dwell.
With their skin of kid leather fitting so well,
They are straight and upright as a tailor’s ell.
Hurrah! hurrah! for beau and belle.
Let echo repeat our kind farewell.”
And now came the presents; but the bridal pair had nothing to eat, for love was to be their food.
“Shall we go to a country house, or travel?” asked the bridegroom.
They consulted the swallow, who had traveled so far, and the old hen in the yard, who had brought up five broods of chickens.
And the swallow talked to them of warm countries where the grapes hang in large clusters on the vines and the air is soft and mild, and about the mountains glowing with colors more beautiful than we can think of.
“But they have no red cabbage such as we have,” said the hen. “I was once in the country with my chickens for a whole summer. There was a large sand pit in which we could walk about and scratch as we liked. Then we got into a garden in which grew red cabbage. Oh, how nice it was! I cannot think of anything more delicious.”
“But one cabbage stalk is exactly like another,” said the swallow; “and here we often have bad weather.”
“Yes, but we are accustomed to it,” said the hen.
“But it is so cold here, and freezes sometimes.”
“Cold weather is good for cabbages,” said the hen; “besides, we do have it warm here sometimes. Four years ago we had a summer that lasted more than five weeks, and it was so hot one could scarcely breathe. And then in this country we have no poisonous animals, and we are free from robbers. He must be a blockhead, who does not consider our country the finest of all lands. He ought not to be allowed to live here.” And then the hen wept very much and said: “I have also traveled. I once went twelve miles in a coop, and it was not pleasant traveling at all.”
“The hen is a sensible woman,” said the doll Bertha. “I don’t care for traveling over mountains, just to go up and come down again. No, let us go to the sand pit in front of the gate and then take a walk in the cabbage garden.”
And so they settled it.
–Ole Lukøje by Hans Christian Andersen
But rather than the pride of accomplishment filling Nate’s chest, the sign provoked a gut-wrenching nausea. 101 years? How was that possible? Unless…they were in a Dreaming Life simulation. Yes. That was it. Clara wouldn’t let him die. She kept their bodies alive, year after year, entwined in their shared bed, never to die, never to live again.
Clara gagged as vomit rose in Nate’s throat then ground her teeth together so hard the enamel threatened to shatter. He would not give Clara the satisfaction of seeing the misery his marriage to her had wrought. A vise seized his hand, a hold so strong his bones bowed and crumbled within his flesh. It was Clara, baring her teeth up at him as she used the death grip to pull him along, yet again, toward hell.
Nate and Clara’s dream doppelgangers made their way to the altar, his steps faltering, unsteady. Hers were victorious, dragging his frail body along like prey. They stood at the altar, inhaling the scent of mildew and waiting for the ceremony to begin. Nates knees began to fail and yet Clara forced him to stand, to bear witness as she punished him yet again.
The weathered benches of the hall were empty, but as the miasma of rot grew stronger, guests filed in, gliding over the cracked stone floor and dressed in the black of mourning. It was time for the ceremony binding Nate to Clara for an eternity to begin.
She peered at her bride. Dream-Clara was also dressed in black, and her features were oddly irregular, as though someone had either created her from a befuddled memory or with an intentional unkindness. She stared at Nate with an expression so depraved, so delighted with the anguish she brought him that acid again burned the back of his throat. Perhaps if his tongue dissolved, she would grow tired of his silence and let him die. He welcomed the pain.
The bile grew thicker as Nate recognized some of the guests. His father was there, his face ruined by the explosion that had taken his life, his clothes singed and marred by soot. He gazed at the couple morosely, muttering with his ruined mouth. Nate ached to throw himself at his father’s feet, to beg for the comfort of his childhood, to be a boy, safe from the woman Clara had become. If only he could change places with his father, he could find peace as ashes, too fine for her to hold in her grasp.
Clara’s father was there too, and she resisted the urge to run to his side and throw her arms around him. His face was gaunt, his mouth turned down as it seldom had in life. The mark of his death was on him, a purple bruise that covered his chest, visible under his open collar. Clara’s mother twisted her hands around one of the lace handkerchiefs she’d always carried, her head tucked under her arm, the stump of her neck cauterized by the red-hot steel that had killed her.
“Why did he marry her?” Nate’s father’s voice reached them at last. “How could this happen?” His voice was slurred, charred flesh flaking from his lips.
“It was my fault,” her father wheezed around his collapsed lungs. “I made them promise. But I was wrong.” He shook his head. “So very wrong.” Her mother’s head could only weep, the tears running down her arm and staining the lace.
As the melancholy priest, his robes blooming with decay, bound them in marriage, the guests lamented and pulled at their hair, their voices rising in a dirge that eventually drowned out the couple’s vows. Nate raised his hands to his face as dream-Clara gazed at him, and Clara recoiled. His skin was old, so old and worn. It wasn’t the face of a man who’d married the love of his life, but rather a man who’d been sentenced to death, condemned to the cell of his life with a front-row view of the gallows.
As the ceremony finally came to an end, Nate and dream-Clara faced their guests.
“And now,” announced Nate, “we shall take refreshments on the—”
Dream-Clara put her hand on his arm. “Our guests shall take refreshments, but not us. No, we shall live on love alone.”
Nate was starving.
Hunger gnawed at him, a deep and agonizing emptiness that despaired of ever being filled. It consumed him from the inside, leaching the life from him, and as he gazed at his bride, he wished it would hurry up and kill him. Not that she would let it.
First was the honeymoon.
“Where will you go? Will you go abroad?” The guests appeared hopeful, as though they wished them far, far away.
Nate desperately wanted to go somewhere he had no other memories of. Perhaps, if they went far enough away, he could become someone else. Or Clara could. Or perhaps they could rediscover each other, and he would remember why, after all these years of wretchedness, he’d married her in the first place.
“We won’t be going anywhere.” Dream-Clara sucked air over her synthetic teeth. “Why would we, when everything we need is right here, with each other?” She ground the bones of his hands together again. “At least, for the next hundred years.”
Nate, unable to stand any more, dropped to his knees in front of all their guests, and pleaded for death to come and swallow him at last.
Clara’s visor was slick with tears as she struggled to claw it from her face. Even once it was off, she couldn’t shake Nate’s prayers from her ears. She rose from her desk and stood before the expansive window, pressing her fingertips to the glass.
This isn’t him. This isn’t him. She closed her eyes. Not yet, anyway.
But one thing was clear—Nate was losing to whomever was doing this. And Clara was losing him.
–Clara, Dreaming, A.W. Cross