You will be relieved to learn, I know, that I survived the suspense of the cliffhanger at the end of Part 10. And as with so many of the surprises (and suspenses) of The Sandman, it was less and more than it appeared. We might have expected Nuala’s luring of Morpheus at the end of the previous part to lead to a story of great explosions back in the Dreaming, or we might have guessed Part 11 would give us an epic attack by the Furies, or we might have feared a giant climax of gigantic giantness to lurk around the corner, with Nuala as a devious double-agent of the forces of evil.
Instead, we learned that Nuala is perhaps best described as naive, and that the destruction heralded by the Furies will be slow and steady and insidious. They have no need for speed. They are the most patient creatures in the universe. They are the masters of revenge, and revenge is best served slow.
What the Kindly Ones offer — their greatest threat — is not just death, but an irrevocable materiality. Look at the wound they cause the Dream King, the scar that will stay on his face. He will, he says, be keeping it for now. “Alianora foretold,” he says, “that I would receive my scars, in my turn, like the one I left on her cheek, like the one I left on her heart.”
Life does that: it leaves tracks and scars. Little baby Daniel looks perfect, as if he has survived his ordeals without suffering, as if he is fresh and almost newly born. The Furies tell his mother that it’s only partly him, though. “He isn’t dead,” she says. “He is no longer alive,” they reply.
Meanwhile, Rose discovers Zelda truly is dead, and what remains are her material things. Zelda becomes the personal items she left behind and a bill for services rendered. She will live, for a while at least, as a memory in the minds of those who knew her and are still alive, but memories grow porous, then perish. Items often last longer. Personal belongings are personal effects. The OED notes an archaic meaning: “Something which is attained or acquired by an action,” as in Shakespeare’s “I am still possest / Of those effects for which I did the murther.” Action is the province of the living, the real. Another archaic meaning of effect: “Practical reality, fact, as opposed to name or appearance.”
The scar on Morpheus’s cheek is real. He is being welcomed into the world of the living, which means, of course, he can then be killed.
Encountering death teaches us about materiality. The dead body, certainly, but even in these days when death is hidden off in hospitals and funeral homes, the corpses kept as far from everyday encounters as possible, there is what remains behind: the remnants, the relics.
This is what struck me four years ago when my father died: how much a person can leave. I am an only child and my parents were divorced; I became, in the eyes of the law, the person to whom it all belonged. My father was a collector, someone who acquired stuff of all sorts, who kept things in closets and corners and an attic that remains a nightmare to me. Even if somehow I ever forgot the memory of him, I will never, as long as I live, forget his stuff. It lives with me, surrounds me, stalks me, haunts me. It bound him to reality, especially at those moments when he felt that life was out of his control. I’m more focused in my material obsessions (books, DVDs), but no different, really. Someday, someone will inherit everything that I own, which will mean they will inherit all that I have kept of my father’s items, and what I kept that he kept from his parents.
I open a drawer in a desk and find a photograph of my grandfather, open another drawer and find an old key to a house I think my grandmother once owned, open another drawer and there’s a pile of business cards with my father’s name on them….
Given the inevitability of entropy and rot, all of this stuff — mine, my father’s, my grandparents’, my friends’, everyone’s — will one day be dust and ash, unidentifiable molecules and atoms. Until then, though, it is the actuality of what we were, the negative space to our personalities and actions. Our effects. It makes me think of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a book that begins with items. Every emotion imaginable can be summoned by our things. We are what we leave behind. Somewhere in the distance, I hear the notes of one of Tom Waits’s saddest songs, “A Soldier’s Things”, in which a whole life is conjured in a list.
Perhaps we should not be sad for Morpheus as he becomes more material. He we will not, if he dies, leave behind only the wisps of dreams. He has a scar, and he has scarred. What sort of box of remnants will be able to be carted off, what sort of inheritance will have to be taken up by those who remain, what sorts of bills will need paying we do not know. But there will be something.
Practical reality. Something attained. Scars on cheeks and hearts.
Those effects for which he did the murther.
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.