gawain and the green knight

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"on his deathbed, the king summoned his three daughters. he commanded that upon his spirit's departure his remains should be divided into three parts, each to be interned in a secret locale. then he shuddered; his lips parted slightly, issuing forth a tiny bubble of blood that burst with his final exhalation. the royal physicians and family mortician converged and prepared his body for its tripartition: severing the right hand for embalming, removing the heart for pickling, and boiling the head to expose the clean skull. first daughter, april, took the hand that had held scepter and sword and assigned men their destinies. second daughter, august, took the heart that had enflamed his state with fire and blood. third daughter, december, took the skull that had worn a king's crown and a knight's helmet and was now reliquary to his most private dreams."

thus heralded came the king's head to rest in my arms. having unburdened her charge, the veiled woman made her demands: that her father's skull should be outfitted with goldleaf and jewels befitting his majesty, that he should be reverently memorialized. i inquired after records of his life that would aid me in personalizing the work -- perhaps a royal memoir, letters, or interviews with friends and family -- but she, brushing the snow off her ermine-clad shoulders in a gesture of dismissal, brusquely said, "i'm sure he'll find a way to speak to you."

that night, as the fire blazed and cast itself into the facets of the ruby in my hands, the skull addressed me by name. "gawain," he called. i was not shocked; such miracles are fairly commonplace in the post-mortem business for the dead are endlessly creative in their restlessness.

"gawain," he rasped, "i was old before the ancients of jericho buried the skulls of their forefathers in the foundations of their city, and so you may understand my weariness of late, but i, fire-lit here in the green chapel where once i was knighted, have galvanized myself to grace you with one last tale; may it spur you to your task of honoring me."

living or dead, we all seek the patient ear and open heart. and so i became attendant to the voice that resonated from the ivory:

long ago out of primordial clay hatched five eggs. one by one these first beings emerged and dried their fragile exoskeletons under the sun. they tested their wings and sipped fresh water and practiced their small enchantments upon the earth, and time passed, on and on, until the eldest grew weak and old. on his deathbed, he summoned his siblings. his heartbeat fluttered, weakly and erratically. they linked their hands in a circle. they brought out their drums. and with an incantation of creation that required the union of all their powers, they crafted a new shell for his spirit out of sticks and stones and the philosopher's ether. then they continued their lives until the next eldest grew weak, and the spell was again cast, the old skin abandoned for the new. the process was repeated. and in this way, life seemed eternal.

one evening the now-eldest was gazing skyward when she saw a star vanish. this star had died eons and eons ago but the light waves emitted before its death rattle had been echoing across the universe until this moment; its death had only just reached us.

until then, she had not considered each star to be individual. "stars" had been a singular collective. so she asked herself, was the celestial landscape wholly changed? from the moment before to the moment after? was there anything particular about that one star that she had missed, besides its extinction?

so when time came to pass into her new skin, she refused. she wanted to transition, figure out where she ended so she could understand where she began. and that was that. the first death. afterwards her brothers and sisters with their magic circle broken could not reincarnate themselves. they, in turn, died, too.

gawain, our lives terminate at the break in this ring. we are tormented by the incomplete magic of our forms, but we are soothed by her gifts of a life examined and the promise of the quest that begins once the circle's been breached.

and he fell silent.

no, i'd not expected his story to be a literal accounting of his life. i've learned in my line of work that the whole is often made more distinguishable by its partition. divided and buried, to be rediscovered or retold, truths come together piecemeal, in fragments of flesh and bone, in artifacts left in artist's hands. and so i pieced together my understanding of his truth. i polished emeralds to set into each tooth of his skull. i carved patterns in jadeite and viridian lacquer. i rubbed green ink into constellations engraved around the empty orbits of his eyes. i etched around his brow his final crown of dancing figures, their hands linked except in the one spot where their circle had been broken. all the while i spoke to him, or to myself, in the habit of artisans who tinker too much alone. can you tell me, i began, does the vanishing of a single star matter, i murmured, does the falling of a lone leaf in the forest, i wondered, does the submergence of one grain of sand in sea water? i turned the skull over and over, its bone whites and gleaming inlaid greens punctuated by the blacks of the shadows that filled death's vacancies, and i asked, who mourns their absences? in the courtyard the snow had begun falling again, obliterating the promise of crocuses, and sheathing the headstones in winter's colorless amnesia, and i rubbed my hands together to warm them, and i remembered all the other hands that had once warmed mine, and the silence in the green chapel held the answer.

<--- the arthurian cycle