perceivall & the fisher king

* * *

had he been uglier, blanchefleur would never have approached him in that copse. but he wore ugliness like armor or actor's paint, and she (no ignorant peasant, she thrilled to think, no superficial, shallow child) could see the princely nature beneath that troubled mask. so she sat beside him on the mat of pine needles and offered him a few pieces of dried venison and a sip from her flask. it took him a while to crank out a rusty "thank you" from a voice box long disused; then his face fell into his hands and he wept. she asked him why he wept. he could not explain how he'd been so moved as he'd moved through the woods. he knew only that it had all been overwhelming in the simplest sense. imagine an arrow loosed along the path of the straight and the narrow until its impact draws blood and brings a man to his knees; like that, a simple force, but an overwhelming ache.

spying no trace of bloodshed or disfigurement upon his person but sensing his pain, blanchefleur proffered her hospitality and her hand, and led him down a winding path to a ramshackle shack.

he crossed the threshold to the chiming of a bell, and in a fog of woodsmoke, tallow, and herbs, he saw a table; upon that table, a typewriter bearing a single sheet, and a triad of folded paper toys: a swan, a crown, and a sword, which he took in his hand. "sometimes we -- me and my sisters -- we play," she stammered, embarrassed by the admission of an adolescence not quite abandoned. "we pretend... never mind. it's foolish."

he could have almost smiled at that. "it's not foolish," he said. "when i was a child, i often played at being a hero. do you think it's foolish that now i'm on my way to arthur's court, that someone like me could take the knight's oath?" he returned the sword to the table and righted the fallen paper swan. his head and heart began to pound painfully. a syncopation of the slow pulsing between his ears and the ragged drumming from his ribcage. how foolish, he thought, who ever heard of a knight so easily moved? but how could he explain this? for it suddenly seemed every thing in this space shimmered between meanings. along the windowsill, the rusty assortment of old tins pregnant with green saplings, and on the floor, the square of braided rags serving as a rug: these, and all else, like props placed by an unseen hand. he was startled by their liminality, by every object cast in the pall of metaphor, by every theatrical gesture, by every sound -- a cry? a woman's voice? what new deus-ex-machina called to him now?

"elaine," said blanchefleur. "that's my sister, elaine. she's sick. but it's not a catching sickness." and spoken in a conspiratorial hush: "it's a sickness of the mind."

as a man in a dream or a figment compelled by a narrative beyond his own devising, he moved towards the voice in that corner. he pushed back a curtain and saw upon a cot a peeling birch of a girl, white bedclothes twisted about dark, bony angles. the girl gripped his sleeve and drawing him to her, she rasped,

"i saw a mirror crack down the middle and in one half a barge took away a girl and in the other half a barge rowed by three fairy maidens took away a king without his sword. it's a large lake we're all floating in, bottomless waters, shining like a mirror. do you see?"

what did he see? blanchefleur twisting and twisting the apron in her calloused fingers? elaine thrashing between waking and sleeping with her pillowcase clenched between her teeth? overwhelmed, desperate for a lungful of fresh air, he took his leave.

before the young man disappeared off the path, blanchefleur called out, "what's your name?"

"perceivall," he replied.

what do you see? perhaps a young man back on track, turning his back on a house of secrets, and framed in a doorway, a girl filled with longing, a grail overflowing.

* * *

a typewriter comes to life in the night, finds a rhythm, and scribes these words upon the page:

perceivall continued, undeterred, upon a road as rigidly forged as the lines of a sword converging upon its point: his point of destination, camelot. there a king pointed him upon the path of the straight and the narrow. there perceivall defined his destiny by the iron in its scabbard and the hero's oath, thrice recited before the court. given rules and reason to shine upon reality, his heart was healed of its once painful outbursts and his head freed from the strange and sudden aches of old.

but, perceivall, what of your former self, that ghost left wandering the pinewoods of your past? let me now tell you the story of a boy you once knew. this boy, wide-eyed and wild-eyed, maneuvered amongst pines and birches like one enchanted in a museum of memory. he saw wintergreens, like the ones his mother threaded into the buttonholes of her ragged coat. he saw a rowan's contorted limb, so much like his grandfather's arthritic left hand. and for those objects with no attachment, he reserved his wonder, for were they not overwhelming in the simple promise of meanings yet to be assigned? were these not your thoughts as you stood under my roof, before the nervous gaze and crazed rantings of my sisters? why did you not ask after the third sister, the lady of the lake who was diving for snails and minnows that day? did you not wonder which sister wore the paper crown and played the fisher king in their games?

the question you did not ask hatched the worm that has been worrying holes in your heart all these years; come to me, and i will pluck that worm from your chest. all you have to do is ask me who i am. i may not remember my name because i have a heart of quicksilver, i am mercurial, slightly lunatic. but i have something better than a name for you; i have a story to tell.

the keys fall still. there is a rustle and a sigh of shuffling paper. all is silent in the wordless dark.

<--- the arthurian cycle