The sadness of Hob Gadling is, for me, among the most poignant recurring elements of The Sandman. In the third part of The Kindly Ones, Hob’s sadness stands in counterpoint to Lyta’s growing anxiety and, then, horror and hatred.
Previously, we have learned that all lives are brief, but what we learn now is that the pain of death comes from those lives suddenly losing synchronization. As Hob stands at Audrey’s grave, he says, “I thought we’d have longer.” This is what anyone who loses a loved one is likely to feel. I and some of my closest friends all lost parents when we were at very different ages, and yet our feelings of that experience were more similar than different. Prolonged illness may dull the response to death a bit as we feel grateful that the sufferer is no longer in pain, but even in those circumstances where we feel relieved to reach the end, the combination of death and love collapses time. We always think we’ll have longer.
Hob Gadlin’s curse is not so much that he is practically immortal, but that nobody else in his world is — almost everyone he encounters is destined to die before him. (Hence the comfort of his meetings with Dream.)
Lyta’s confusion and apparent insanity in Part Three, and her anger and grief at the end of it, make sense to me, particularly her feeling of disconnection from herself, of watching herself and narrating her movements and thoughts. Grief shatters time; in grief, we cannot reconcile the loved one’s ending with our own continuing. “How can I still be here?” we ask.
Hob’s curse echoes the fate of a parent who outlives a child. I have never seen a more unassuageable grief than that of the parents I’ve known who have buried their children. Because I have been a teacher for over a decade now, I have known such parents, and sometimes known their children. But it’s a knowledge I’ve almost always had: when I was six, my aunt died, and my grandparents lived on. It was my first experience of death, and it made no sense to me. I have often tried to put together the fragments of memory around that moment, but it’s impossible. They are mostly freeze-frame images, hazy single moments that feel like days, such as my grandfather’s phone call to my parents to tell them what had happened. Almost all of my later encounters with an intersection of love and death have felt similar: the world stops, it breaks apart, it speeds up and slows down randomly, and it takes a while to get back into the rhythm of life, to get back into synch.
I’m not convinced that Daniel is dead, given his strangely worried-but-hardly-panicked expression when he was placed in the fire, as well as the emphasis on the phoenix feather in his hand, but Lyta seems convinced. (Why should she doubt it?) Now she must decide what to do, how to survive.
Regaining a sense of the rhythm of life often requires having a project. It’s a way to structure your continuing days while putting the memories you’ll never escape from to some use. Most of the parents I know who have lost children have tried to create some sort of memorial — not a physical memorial, necessarily, but some action to continue the child’s own interests or passions or concerns. It’s a way of reconciling the difference in lifespans, of not letting death be the end of everything.
Lyta, in her misery and terror, seems to have locked on to a new sense of purpose. “I know exactly what I must do,” she says. She seems to associate Dream with what happened to Daniel, and perhaps to suspect that he was the cause. Her project could become one of revenge rather than memorial. Dream warns Hob, who aches for some vengeance against the driver who killed Audrey, “I do not recommend revenge. It tends to have repercussions.”
That statement feels to me like it might be a bit of foreshadowing. Or it may just be an intelligent warning, something we could jot down in a notebook called The Wit and Wisdom of Morpheus. We shall see.
One thing we do know, though, is that Lyta is not particularly reliable in her narration. When Eric comes to visit her and she pushes him away, breaking his arm, she says, “…I don’t want him touching my neck so I move his arm away and there is a crunching noise…” The phrase moving his arm away is awfully gentle for what she probably did, given the effect. At the least, we know she is not a good judge of her own strength.
A couple panels later, she says, “Then Carla comes back and we have a sort of discussion about things, and she decides not to stay another night and I say that’s fine because I can manage on my own.” If we read that text unaccompanied by anything beyond its words, we would have a very different perception of Carla and Lyta’s “discussion” than we do, because this text is attached to an image of a crazed, screaming Carla, her fists raised, her teeth like broken panes of glass, her eyes wild.
Should we believe Lyta’s narration or the image accompanying it? There’s no way to be certain yet. Lyta and her world are out of sync. She has a plan now, but whether it will accomplish anything other than spreading chaos, there’s no way to know.
Whatever she does, though, we can be sure it will have repercussions.
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.