No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous....
T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
On a beach by the Eastern Ocean lived the Sand Prince. He could change his shape but came of an unknown race, not of the shapeshifter lineage of his friend Thing. The Prince was made of sand; his face and hands and hair and even his eyes were of the color of sand, and he could disappear into the beach or wrap it around him like a cloak.
The Prince was charming, sincere and lazy. He made no attempt to deny it to Thing and her companion, the Lady Ewas. "I don't need much to live," said the Prince, "and I have no particular ambition." But the Prince was also compassionate and intelligent, as was evidenced by the keen interest he took in the two women.
Ewas had been harmed by men, and so had Thing, and on their journey together the two women had often found it necessary to defend themselves against male cruelty and rapaciousness. Ewas now was hostile to all men, while Thing was still ready, after all their experiences, to give any newcomer the benefit of the doubt.
But the Sand Prince worked very hard to reassure Ewas, and gain her trust. It took him many weeks, but he succeeded; one day, Ewas said to Thing: "He's not like the others. He doesn't want anything from us."
The next day, the Prince made them a house. (Until then the women had lived in a cloth tent they carried on their backs from place to place.) He had a way of binding sand to make it solid; it was a very pleasant little house, bright and constantly aerated by the sea breeze. Thing had never lived any place she liked better.
Thing wanted to thank the Prince, and did so in the only way she knew: she performed a story for him. As a shapeshifter, Thing could send pieces of her body away from her; she had perfected the art of making parts of herself mimic people and objects. Since a shapeshifter can lose and replace up to nine-tenths of herself without serious harm, these performances put her at no particular risk, though they left her tired and hungry.
So Thing acted out her own story: her days in the forest before Ewas; how she had almost died, and Ewas had carried the last remaining living piece of Thing in her ear, without knowing it; Ewas' quest through the forest for the remaining dried remnants of Thing; Ewas praying to the Lady of the Wood; Thing's restoration to life. She could have ended there-- the Sand Prince pronounced it a marvelous tale--but for some reason, Thing continued. She hardly knew if her motive was boastfulness, or friendship for the Sand Prince. Perhaps it was both. She sent more bits of herself out on the stage of sand she had scooped, to illustrate her travels with Ewas, and their many adventures. Finally, she introduced a little light-colored comic character, who whirled and swooped like a sandstorm. The Prince cried, "Why that's me!" and was delighted.
The next afternoon, when they met again (for the women spent their days getting a living, Ewas by catching fish, and Thing by scouring the landscape for edible plants) the Prince said: "Watch. I've learned I can do this too." Three of his fingers grew long, until the ends ran away; and on the sand before him were two tiny women, one constantly changing her shape, the other thin and taller and goldenhaired. The third finger became a tornado of sand, then coalesced into a tiny copy of himself, bowing repeatedly to the women.
Afterwards, when they were back in their house, Ewas was very thoughtful. "We are entwined with him now," she said. Thing wasn't sure what she meant. "He had your idea and has given it back," she said. "It means we have a little of him and he of us. There is no harm in him, though."
The next day, the Sand Prince suggested, with the utmost deference, that they could join together to make a living better than the one they took from the sea and the beachgrass. People would pay good silver for a performance in the sea air on a stage of hardened sand.
Back in the house, Ewas turned wary hazel eyes to Thing. "Do you want to do this?"
"Well, you said there is no harm in him."
"I still think that," said Ewas, "but he has shown that he shares the vanity and greed of men."
In the weeks to come, as they prepared their show, the Sand Prince proved that even in money-making ventures he retained his compassionate approach. They planned only such exertions as would not unduly burden Thing, and for an audience that would not harm the beach. Ewas, always vigilant and protective of Thing, approved each arrangement, though she sometimes seemed grim about it. "Are you sure you want to do this?" she asked Thing at each new stage of the preparations.
Thing had shared everything with Ewas since the two women had joined their lives, except the pleasures of creation. Ewas watched as each day Thing and the Sand Prince showed each other new inventions conceived in the half-waking hours of the night before. Thing might present a little dancing figure dressed in colored tatters; the Prince would improvise a companion for it, a grave sand gentleman dressed in evening clothes who presented it his arm, and led in a pavanne.
Thing watched Ewas carefully to see if she was jealous; she was not, though much of the time she seemed unusually quiet and serious. Still, Ewas was not impervious to the joys of their creations; almost against her will, they could make her laugh with their wild spontaneity. Every day, they worked the best of their new inventions into the pageant.
In the late afternoons, the women swam while the Sand Prince sat nearby on the beach. He could not enter the water, for fear he would dissolve; if his grains were separated too far, he could not rejoin. Sometimes they were joined by the Otter People, who were like quicksilver, unreliable and completely charming. The Otter People liked Thing and Ewas, because the women would swim with them, but taunted the Sand Prince, trying to anger him so much he would rush into the water.
The Sand Prince and Thing presented their work to the public on a beautiful cool afternoon in the fall of the year. The Sand Prince made a stage forty feet long, and they presented a story which began with a dance by the little tattered figure and its sand suitor. Then, sick Thing in the woods was almost destroyed by the deceitful boy and saved by Ewas. As the two women traveled, the scope of the story broadened to include kings and empires, and a dark counselor who acted as advisor and goad. Finally, two armies fought a terrible battle, and then, amidst the ruins and scattered corpses, the tattered girl and her sand gentleman danced again.
People of every social class came from leagues around, intrigued by the spectacle of a performance by shapeshifters of flesh and sand. The Prince created armchairs for the wealthy, and comfortable benches for the poor, and charged silver and copper respectively for them. Afterwards, the audience thronged around, praising them, laughing as if electrified by their work. Thing was frightened by the adulation and her own eagerness for it; her eyes constantly returned to quiet Ewas, her watchful bodyguard, never more than a few feet from her. The Sand Prince was at his most charming. Afterwards, he made a broom and swept the beach clean, and the three of them sat together watching the crystalline surf in the light of a full moon. The Sand Prince poured coins from a sack and divided them equally--one portion for himself, and one for Thing, as was their agreement. For Ewas had not helped in the making of the play. But Thing gave all her money to Ewas; the women had no possessions separate from each other.
Otter People ran up on the beach and stole coins from them, but returned them shortly because they did not care for money. "Swim with us, Prince!" they cried. "Swim with us, Thing and Ewas!" The women dived into the water, where the rising moon made spots like shimmering coins, and they swam with their friends.
Word of their pageant spread throughout the kingdom, and people traveled from great distances to see their monthly performances. The play evolved; each time they added new inventions, and towards the end even included funny little commentaries on events in the capital city, which made their more knowledgeable spectators roar with appreciation. After one performance, a group of strangers came up to Thing and Ewas, and stood looking at them with quiet love, until Thing said, "I feel I know you, but I have never seen you before." And a tall man with flowing brown hair said, "I am Truthseeker, and this is Silverlake," and Ewas and Thing knew their friends with whom they had whispered through the tree network, when Thing still lived in the forest. And not all the friends were of the gender they expected.
A powerfully built, dark-complexioned man began to appear at every performance, sitting in the most expensive section of the sand thrones, and one day when there was no performance he came to the beach and spent many hours walking near the surfline with the Sand Prince. That afternoon, when Ewas returned from the village market--for the women had money now, and no longer needed to fish or to dig for roots--the Prince came to their house and asked to speak to them.
The women, though life was easier, continued to live simply, in the airy house the Prince had made for them. It was no larger, but was better furnished, with a harpsichord for Ewas and a library of beautiful old books for Thing. The Prince sat cross-legged on the wooden floor Ewas had laid in their living room; the floor of their bedroom was still of sand.
"That man," Ewas said, "resembles the counselor in your play, who speeds the two armies against each other to their destruction."
"I based the figure on him," said the Sand Prince. "He is my brother, who chose a different path when we were young. He is an advisor to King Mog, the sole in all the kingdom the King trusts."
"Why has he come?"
"He has made an offer, which I have taken the liberty of refusing, and another, which I wish to place before you."
The first offer made by Dark Brother, as the two women came to call him, was for all three-- the Sand Prince, Ewas and Thing--to move to the capital and continue performing their pageant there.
"The King and all his court are dying of eagerness to see it," said the Sand Prince, "but it is incommensurate with their dignity to come here." He had refused the offer because he doubted whether he himself could live long away from his beach. "I am afraid I might lose my ability to bind sand there, which means that I would not be able to bind myself. I would blow away in the wind."
Dark Brother had then made a second offer. If they themselves would not come to the capital, he would purchase the pageant from them, with all its figures. He would bring carts and oxen and move the stage and the seats to the city, exactly as they were, and set them up again in a huge hall there.
Ewas was dubious that the figures, which were a part of the flesh of Thing and of the sand body of the Prince, could long survive by themselves. Also, since they were animated by the intent of Thing and the Prince at the moment of separation, how long would they remember the play, even if they lived?
"He has studied this, and he believes he can make them go," said the Sand Prince, shrugging. "And he is willing to pay gold now, so it will be his problem to solve, not ours." With his usual diplomacy, he then excused himself to give the women time to think.
Thing asked the pensive Ewas for her counsel, and Ewas replied, "The Sand Prince wants to sell the pageant." She reminded Thing of that earlier time when she had observed that the Sand Prince shared the vanity and greed of men.
Thing decided, at the risk of hurting Ewas, that she must speak alone to the Prince, and the next afternoon they took a walk on the beach together while Ewas was at the market. The Prince explained that Dark Brother would pay them enough to live on the rest of their lives. Thing said, "Ewas will make the decision." For the first time, she saw greed in the Sand Prince's eyes, as he said: "Is it not our pageant and our choice to make?"
Thing felt impelled to reply, "Once Ewas knelt in the grove of the Lady of the Wood and offered her life for mine. I was in thousands of pieces then, spread about the forest, until Ewas gathered me. But if Ewas was ever in danger, and the only way I could save her was to be destroyed and scattered again, I know in my heart I would do it."
The Sand Prince was silent for a long time. "As you may know, I am fragile," he said. "Sand is so easily dissipated in the sea, or blown away in the wind. Too much distance between my grains, and I would lose the ability to bind. When Ewas sought you in the forest, she was looking for lumps of leather which stood out from the trees or rocks in which they were caught. Imagine the greater dilemma faced by one looking to identify my grains among masses of inanimate sand."
"And if you were presented with the choice which Ewas made, in the Lady's grove?"
"I have never been tested," said the Sand Prince. "I cannot say what I would do." She had never seen him so serious.
That night, Thing knelt at Ewas' feet, and putting her arms around her, looked into her eyes and asked her to decide. Ewas answered sadly, "You must sell the pageant."
"That is not what I expected you to say."
"You must sell the pageant," Ewas said with regret, "not because we need the money, because we are doing fine. Not because the Sand Prince wants to, though that is important. And not because you desire to please him, though I know that too. No, you must sell the pageant because it is over. Dark Brother has turned his attention to it. Before, he was a figure in it. Now, the entire pageant has become Dark Brother, and if you do not sell it, he will come between you and the Sand Prince."
The next day, they sold the pageant to Dark Brother, and in a way nothing was ever the same. The two women continued to live on the Sand Prince's beach, and later Thing and the Sand Prince made other pageants and even finer ones. And these later pageants captured their love and attention, to the point where the first one was almost forgotten. But never quite. Their hearts were never in the later ones as much as in the original; it was as if a piece of each of their hearts had gone away to the capital. At all times it continued to have a quiet, painful subterranean existence, as Thing herself had during the months when she had been no more than a seed living in Ewas' ear.
Dark Brother had a great success with the pageant for a few months. The King set the tone by attending every performance, so that everyone else paid good gold or silver to go too. First the critics pointed out that the pageant no longer changed; the little figures, pieces of Thing and the Sand Prince, could only perform the roles they knew at the moment of separation, so that the new inventions of each performance on the beach were lacking. Then, after a few months, the lumps of sand and flesh started to forget their roles. Finally, they died off one by one. Today, the huge hall Dark Brother built is a museum, which almost no-one ever visits. In its echo-filled rooms are dusty dioramas, inside which leathery remnants of Thing and glued-together lumps of the Sand Prince are posed in scenes from the pageant. In the first diorama, the tattered dancer and her sand courtier lean against each other, and will until the merciful teeth of time have gnawed them into invisible molecules again.