An Excerpt from Richard Monaco’s Lost Years: The Quest for Avalon
Western wind, when will thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.
What has gone before….
Gawain has been disfigured in battle and so never returned to his married Moorish lover, Shinqua who went to try and find him. She failed, and is heading home, despondent. She’s heard rumors he was injured but nothing specific. At the same time he, himself, is going to back to the castle village for maybe one last glimpse of her before he disappears forever.
The road was following the little river upstream. In his little circle of sight he mainly watched the whorls and purlings as the water caught and bent around rocks and sticks and stirred darkly along the greenish black, weedy muck of the banks.
It gave him no new ideas. He just looked; sensed no metaphoric meaning in the twists and whirlpooling water or the stagnant places where flickering, surface-walking bugs flourished. The muck, the stones, the unending, ever-shifting current were all one to him.
He kept thinking he just might find the castle town by going this way; thought it really made so little difference except for the stupid, incurable hope….
At this pace, with water and forage, the horse hardly needed rest so he could ride and doze in the saddle when the now moonless night fell and the faint, starshine showed where the trees vanished into the ground fog. He considered how the new moon would be rising before the sun.
I’ve come back at the dark time, he thought, good for planting, the serfs say…or ploughing under….
Semi-dozing, things came back, partly memory, partly dreams so there was a hot humid summer night in a barn hayloft at the edge of the village, the castle maybe a mile away….the moon crossed the opening that was like a window space and he was in her and she under him, soaked with one another’s sweat and scent, breathless with rocking and thrashing together, leaning above her on locked arms, sore, aching but ever besotted by her sweet abandon…the dark gleaming face, rich, parted lips, amazing long, strong legs and two-toned, long-toed feet (like dark golden honey, he’d fragmentarily thought) lifted wide and softly kicking as he drove himself down into her as if he could ever actually get deep enough…on…on…and on….
“Ahhhh,” he whisper-shouted, now, in this moment’s bitter longing.
She turned the cart and simply headed back through the ghostly glowing mist, wheels bumping and creaking over the ruts and stones of the reverse slope.
The sense of going on, she thought, is no sense…
Down and across the short bridge again and it really wasn’t far now. There was the broken windmill, the single blade that, for a moment, startled her, looking like a giant with a wide sword, poised to strike.
Not so far, now, she thought, as the wooden wheels clattered dully across the slatted bridge. You are still the dreamer, woman…see what the dream is….
The new waning moon floated on top of the mist, a bow bent at the east, the sun not far behind. She was near the river that fed the moat and knew there were huts maybe 100 yards ahead. She didn’t want to see them and just be back. Now she wished she’d gone the other way.
Reined up, got down and found a dry hummock of mossy grass and sat watching the soft, crescent reflection on the dark water surface…after a while she stretched out and might have dozed off in the slight murmuring of water and night-bugs and the muffled, soft chanting of frogs….
So earlier that day, when he came to the same wooden bridge he remembered where he was, as the heavy-shod hooves clunked on the damp boards and he took in the rich smell of wet woods and muddy banks. The sun melted the mist down to the bushes so the trees seemed to poke from a cloudy flood. The bright warmth was good and he lay back on soft grasses among summer violets, stripped to the waist; slept away the afternoon.
Like any ghost, he thought, I need the night….
The sun was still high when he woke up went to the stream. Stood looking down at the bright rippling. Knelt to top off his near empty water skin. Saw his cowled reflection among the undulant weeds and smooth stones. Threw back the hood and looked on the open ruin, softened by sun and shadow.
What’s the point? He asked himself. Why not stick my head under and draw breath?
“No point,” he murmured. “Not deep enough.”
Broke the reflections as he cupped a palm full to drink, then tilted and held the waterbag under. Watched the bubbles rise and pop.
In a little while he went on. After sunset he watched the slim, crescent moon lead the sun down behind the fog. He was getting close, to judge by the low forested hills the road had been winding around and over. He knew the country.
Decided to keep on a little longer before eating and soon passed a set of half-fallen-in huts. He halted at one and sat just inside the doorway; smelled damp and sour but almost pleasant. Sucked at strips of salt, dried and barely chewable beef.
Sat among the faintly starlit, shadowy forms and wondered if plague or the roving killers had emptied this place. He thought about Lohengrin and the girl Jane which turned his mind to Parsival.
He liked to talk about being a boy, the knight thought. I hated being a boy, ruled by others. In that, I am like his son….
Continued on the road he knew was the right one. His mount was skittish; kept snorting to clear his nostrils. Gawain had taken to calling him Horse. The knight appreciated how footsore the beast must be. He dozed and jerked awake in the saddle a few times in the thick, earth-scented early morning air….
Nothing drags its feet like a dawn you long for, he thought. Or comes so swift when the headsman waits….
The sun was still an hour or two under the earth, he calculated. “Not far to go, Horse,” he said, stroking the smooth neck. “Then what?”
Then an empty cart took form in the luminous mist and he halted and waited, listened, hand on sword hilt. Who would leave an animal in traces out here, unattended? Who might be out here, attending? He dismounted and hitched the horse loosely to the back of the cart.
The mists stayed thin above the stream so that the stars and slim, rising moon were blurred but visible and now shone in the relatively unruffled water-surface. So, as he went past the cart on the soft wet grass, he saw her outlined against the faint luminescence of the stream and the moment she moved her long, graceful arm to touch her hair and shook back her head, he knew it was she and his heart and stomach clenched as if in fear.
He stopped at the end of the subtly shifting, cold smoke and watched from under his hood. The droning night bugs were soothing. The air was damp and rich and sweet. He wanted to leave and stay…call her name…flee…wanted….
“Ahhhh,” he apparently voiced in his confusion because she turned, quick and fluid, long-fingered hands each holding a dagger, glinting the muted moonlight.
He was pleased. Smiled, feeling the stiff stretching where his lip edge had been sliced away.
“How beautiful you are,” came out of him, “even but half seen.”
“Keep your distance, brigand,” she suggested.
“Have I not?”
She was a blotted silhouette. Only the twin blades showed.
“I know the ways of weapons, fellow,” she told him, crouching slightly.
“Well I know it,” he replied. “As I am armored, all you need do is slip into the water and I cannot follow.”
“You school me, fellow?
“Again, my lady moor.”
The knives went away as she came closer.
“You,” she said, not even shocked yet. “How can this be?”
He could now make out hints of her soft features. With only one eye he strained less to see in poor light. Then her scent overlaid with the sweat and grubbiness of her recent exertions, seemed somehow sweeter, catching in his throat and heart so that (by the time she was looking up into his face) his impulse to remount and ride had no more force than a tendril of mist.
He twisted his head, keeping his undamaged side towards her, holding a futile but wonderful moment of normalcy.
“Gawain?” her long supple, strong hands closed on both his mailed arms. “You…never came back.” He sort of groaned, as she went on: “I set out to find you when I learned you were not dead.” It was hitting her now.
“Well…I came back…I….”
“Now, sir? Now?” She shook his mailed arms, slightly. “Now, sir?”
“Ah. I could not, before.”
He didn’t look at her, face twisted away.
“Were you held captive? Imprisoned in some dread dungeon?”
“Indeed, indeed. In the terrible cell of my head. And there is no hope of parole.”
“Cozening riddles?” She pushed his hood aside. He winced. She touched his face, across his cheek…lips. As her fingers moved he caught her wrist. “Will you not look at me, sir?”
“I came back to see -”
“Not be seen.”
“Not be seen.”
He held her away, a little. It wasn’t easy. “Please, Shinqua….”
“So am I called.”
“I love you. More than before. As if I’d never had you at all.” That was better.
“Why speak so brokenly, Gawain? Am I not here? How many nights did I wait and wonder. How many times….”
He almost shook her.
“You know nothing!” he cried. The arm with the wooden hand locked behind her long back. “This moment is more…is more than….Yes, even my speech is broken in halves. I am half a knight in half a world and can but half have you…I have half a love, yet how I burn with it! I, who never needed words now eat and drink them! I live on their empty sound. I, Gawain, who did such…such deeds as…as….”
He was weeping as he clutched her. She felt his agony and shuddered.
“Oh sad knight,” she whispered into his neck, pressing the ripe fullness of her lips there, above the harsh metal of his armor. She could feel his desperation and her own. “What, my poor love? O, kiss me! I beg it.”
“Kiss you,” he almost shouted, crushing her into his iron skin until she sighed with pain but made no complaint. Her head was prisoned under his chin. “Kiss you?” he murmured, this time. His breath heaved as if he’d run a mile. “Fare thee most well, my dark jewel…my love, my pain, my heart, my hope….” Holding her harder she gasped with pain and pressure. “Lost forever…kiss you? Were I more than half a man with more than half a mouth, how I might kiss you, then. My heart the only thing left whole and with all that heart, I love thee, from beyond death’s utter night! I love thee…out of all this I cry to thee, from hell and fog and ruined earth. But kiss thee I cannot.”
“What words you find.”
“That gain me nothing.”
And he almost hurled her away so that she staggered back and went down on the loamy riverbank, almost disappearing into the shadows from where she called back, with broken breath:
“We have a son!” She just crouched there. “But what, poor Gawain? What?”
“I cannot kiss thee,” he said, cried. “Nor may I show myself to him.” He backed away, starting to melt into the fog. “I live in mists and nothingness.”
He drew his sword and slashed at the blurred, dimly gleaming, empty almost-shapes around him.
“Oh, Gawain,” she said, not loud.
“I cannot kiss thee,” he repeated, almost shouted. “I cannot.”
His sole eye weeping, burning, voice choked with pain and passion, he turned away.
She heard his mail tink and the horse snuff-cough. She was quick so he hadn’t mounted yet, just freeing the reins. Maybe he hadn’t actually meant to.
So he just stood there in his wetly gleaming, silvered steel, holding the saddle, facing the horse. The arc of moon showed over the low trees across the pond, first hinting of sunrise faintly silhouetting heavy limbs.
She didn’t touch him, this time.
“You became tired of me,” she said, “for all your words. Half of heart and half of this and that. Is there another who has your whole heart?”
“No,” he said, a catch in his voice. His throat felt thickened with feeling.
“Tell me, knight and man.” Because she wanted to be free if he would not be bound, one way or another. “But tell me.”
“Another?” He thought about the peasant whore innkeeper where (in a sense) he now longed to be, free of knighthood, feeling and purpose, obligated only to eat, fuck, and drink himself to blank sleep. “Another who has my whole heart? Ha, ha.” He still didn’t turn, wooden hand absently hooked on the saddle girth, eye shut. The night sounds droned on as if suspending time as the mist suspended space….
“I went to find you,” she told him again, staring at his metal back formed from soft moonlight and burnished harshness. “More than once. Tell me, man and knight, why so silent now? And why do you only stand like a tranced madman?”
His living hand stroked the horse’s warm, damp flank as if he touched her. For all the suffering he’d had, this was a new one because he truly loved and longed (as poets would put it) and had no dream, no dram, no speck nor spot of hope.
“I am like one 80 years old,” he finally came out with, voice shaking and choked. “Or a dead man come back to endlessly reach for what he cannot grasp. Gawain’s shadow. Cans’t love a shadow or the dead love you?” And then he sobbed a kind of scream that terrified her for a moment. “To have no hope. None.” He flung himself up into the saddle, violent, furious. “A ghost in love with the living.”
He wrenched the horse around and nearly knocked her down. “Gawain!” she cried.
“Fare thee well!” he yelled. “My hour up, I now return to hell!”
He kicked the horse ahead, then reined it to a stiff legged, snorting halt because she held on and now was being dragged.
“Damn you,” he cried.
“Damn you, you white fool,” she cried in exchange. “Am I grown a hag? Am I loathly?”
He twisted in the saddle, gripping her with his right hand, holding the false one up to her face.
“See this!” he told her. Let go and drew his dagger, stabbing it into the palm of the wooden hand and left it sticking out. “See!”
“Sad to lose your limb,” she said, just standing there, now, weeping. “Many have before you. What care I for that? Save you kept the best one.”
“I have lost all hope of thee,” he said, quietly, plucking the blade free. “All hope…I came back because I could not help myself. Of all women it was only you I loved entire.” His eye was weeping now, in the dark mist and obscurity of his cowl. “There is nothing I would not have done…I…please, let me go, sweet Shinqua. I am a ghost and you must free me to join the shadowy pack.”
The horse rocked his head and snorted but barely shifted in place. She still just stood there.
“I am no child,” she said. “I can see thou art solid flesh and blood. What spirit has a hand of wood?”
“I beg you, my love, my wonder, my dear night and magic…I beg you….”
“What words…what words….”
“Free this ghost and ask no more, my only love.”
“Are you all words? A ghost of words?”
“You seem flesh and blood,” she said again, baffled, not moving, staring at nothing. “You may be mad….” Paused. “Yet are you intact below?”
“Lady, you know my meaning.”
The soft light made her seem an exhalation of grace from the mysterious, murmurous night and he could bear neither to look at her nor look away. Then she gripped his steel-sheathed leg in both hands.
“I know nothing,” she told him. “All I wish is here with me now.
Show me what you must.”
“Yes, fool. Or leave me cursed in doubt.” He clutched his hood.
“Look then,” he said, sobbed. “Look.”
“Look,” he said, softly this time, hand clenched to pull back the hood and show her his face. She held him, half-dragged along as the horse restlessly shifted and snorted.
“What care I?” she insisted. “I had heard your face was hurt. What care I?”
“Yet am I monster and man.”
“Many are. You are my love. Even were you become a monkey- man of the woods, all foul hair and stink.”
Then she reached up and tore his concealment away. He wrenched his face aside so that only the fine profile showed in the gentle, fog-diffused moonlight.
What? Her mind asked. He still looks like some pale god…. “You are like some angel in the Holy Book,” she told him.
“Then ever keep that single half to me, my love,” she whispered. “And I’ll put out this eye -” She held the dagger to her face. “- with this hand and see you only from one side, forever.” He knew she meant it.
“Ahhh,” he groaned.
“Then cover yourself, I care not, fool.”
“Better to be half myself with you than live out this dull bitterness alone.”
He threw himself from the saddle and crushed her to him, to his mail and plate and she gasped with pain and pleasure.
“Shinqua,” he whispered.
“I need but part of thee, my Lord,” she told him. “Which still you keep from me.”
Easy to say, he thought, in night and fog…yet….“Yet daylight will come,” he murmured.
“Give me the part I burn for now,” she said into his ear so that he sank within himself and his heart pounded. “Strip off this shell.” Her fingers skillfully worked at the armor’s lacing. “Or slay me here, if you be not white of heart as well as flesh. I’ll not part from you alive this night.”
Then they just stood there, silent, breathing hard; the horse still too. Head twisted to the left, his eye stared across the flowing water into softened forms and shadows, into the misty night melting into morning, the high leaves now taking substantial form….
He could go neither forward nor back and she knew that, too. He disarmed and let her help him lay aside his armor. She kissed his good cheek again and again and his good hand. They finished undressing and lay down together on the soft, warmish knoll. Her rich body astonished him as it formed from the brightening vapors that concealed them both.
“Let me hold you, now,” she said.
“I know not what’s to come….”
“Mayhap little or much. Let me hold you, lover. And if you must leave me, then slay me.”
She was naked and he kept saying no without meaning anything so in the din of night-bugs and the subtle, soft pre-dawn gleaming he lay athwart her, left side aside, locked into the sweet suction, shuddering with agony and relief, good hand under her, intact cheek pressed to hers, lips at her ear adrift in night and sighs and wordless words…she melted fiercely in the sweet air, closed so close that two was one from mouth to loins as if forever….
Because, finally, for them, there was no future and no past or pain…finally under the horned moon and still mists, time held in perfect stillness as sometimes it will for lovers, for all the enraptured…crying out like drowning swimmers…rolling over on the crushed grasses they pressed a memory on the earth itself, a momentary shape of love…
The moon seemed to lift the dawn behind it. Now shrinking, every moment it was slightly less, would soon be gone…then, empty, it would start to fill again. And they lay there, legs overlapping, side-by-side, on the crushed grass as the water flowed with low, sopping sounds and faint, faint tinkles….
His good half was to her, arm under her head. He lay there hating time.
“The sun will soon rise,” he murmured. “No,” she said.
“Never. It will never rise again for us.”
“We will live only under the stars. I will sleep by day and wake for you all night.”
“Yet it must rise.”
“No,” she declared. “It will not.”
Richard Monaco’s Lost Years: The Quest for Avalon is available in paperback and kindle versions here.