Helen Weir
With apologies to Jack alone, Chapter One
By Helen Weir
April 8, 2017

"My bad," I lied, stretching a thin grin across clenched teeth.

Now, the imprint of a dirty boot would forever mar my elegantly calligraphed Program, which I wanted for a keepsake. Would it have been too much for the boor who had just knocked it from my grasp to stop and help retrieve it, instead of scrambling out of sight into the haven of the jostling throng? Idiot! I stage-whispered after him. Not an auspicious beginning to an evening which otherwise promised to be both engrossing and exhilarating.

On the plus side, my Processing was over with. More than could be said for the veritable rivers of unfortunates still flooding into the recently christened Fletcher Center through spacious glass doors from the north, west, and south, where teams of lanyarded officials flipped through lists, checked off boxes, handed out Hello, My Name Is stickers, and requested that each most welcome guest pick up a Program and move along in light of the pressing need to register all the rest. Turning in towards the Stage and standing on tiptoes, I tried to cast a glance over the heads of all that roiling horde. If one was hoping to get a good view (for seating didn't appear to be assigned), it wouldn't do to loiter for long. Accordingly, I permitted myself to be herded by the hoi pollio into the very heart of that impressive enclosure.

I remember the thrill of finding out, several weeks ago, that tonight's keynote Speaker was going to be in Town; posters promoting the event had been plastered absolutely everywhere. And apparently, I was far from the only one to have stood on a sidewalk uselessly shielding my face from the incessant drizzle while making a mental note of the necessary details. Was that him, clasping forearms in hearty collegiality with the rest of the well-tailored VIPs? Or were those people merely his handlers? I wasn't sure; I couldn't put a face to the name. But I believed I could call to mind the titles of several of his more notable works which, at a certain cultural juncture, had taken the bestseller lists by storm.

No, Sherlock, nobody's sitting there; just the guy whose jacket is slung over the back of the chair.

Absolutely! Make yourself at home! Why wouldn't my friends and I want you parked right in between us?

Don't even think about it.

My spirits were flagging and I was beginning to wonder whether there might be some standing room way in the back when something – permit me to choose my words with intellectual sobriety – occurred of which I have no convincing explanation, nor indeed any reliable recollection. As best I can recount, an unclaimed place (right up front, and facing the Podium directly) precipitously appeared in my path. But it wasn't this initial fortuity alone which rooted me like a redwood.

Carved on the oaken extremities of that chair, in contrast to all the others, was a style of Celtic knot I would have known anywhere, even though it had last been doodled what seemed like a lifetime ago – in the margins of my Modern Lit notebook, Senior year. Doodled? Hell, I had designed it myself! (What else was there to do during a lecture on Modern Lit?) But how in the names of all the stars could that idiosyncratic configuration have ended up here?

And then there was the upholstery on the seat cushion and armrests. Embroidered expertly as if by the very tailor of Bayeux (although sadly faded, of course, by this time) was the hippocampus from the novel in my head that Peter had long since ridiculed me out of writing. And it couldn't have been another; can you point to any of that species sporting their mythical cousins' wings, just as I and only I had ever imagined one?

"What next; my name in shining letters on the back of the seat?" I quipped – out loud, as it happened, because I trusted implicitly (and correctly) that no one within earshot would give a damn about anything I had to say.

Noble knights from the mists of Western cultural antiquity, as I'm sure you know, had the "name in shining letters" thing going on the first time they stepped up to the Round Table, as a sort of providential confirmation that they were on the right track. I'm not sure how many people would have connected this particular literary flourish to the itself astonishing experience of discovering one's unmistakable personal symbols in a context otherwise utterly unknown; but I did, having spent more than my youthful share of sun-spangled afternoons waving a wooden sword and indulging the fancy that upon chivalry as yet unripe not only one's own fate, but even larger matters, both awful and ineffable, secretly depended. The analogy of having reached my own point of chosen if ultimately confirmed destiny was serendipitously reinforced by the strange coincidence of the Fletcher Center not being rectangular, as might have been expected, but spherical.

And while I stood still, petrified amidst the drably prosaic, not only Launcelot du Lac, greatest paladin of all Christendom save perhaps his own son, but also Bors de Ganis, and Gareth of Orkney, and Gawaine and Ewaine and Gaheris, and the Fisher King, and Mador de la Porte, and Percival of Gales, and Ector de Maris, and their many splendid peers, and the gracious ladies besides, all came crowding back to me in thought. And then it wasn't a thought, but a place; and we were together in a striking landscape from which all hues had yet to be drained (I held my breath, just to summon sufficient endurance). Stretched forth were steady hands, and the hilts of heavy swords. But the silken sleeves and tresses I seemed to see billowing in that courtyard before the Castle were moved by a breeze I could only ache to feel.

With the back of my hand, I impatiently wiped from my forehead the greasy raindrops with which I knew full well I would be instantly flecked once again, as though it might be possible in that way also to erase the memory of how my child's heart used to twist with the wish to be counted even among the lowliest pages of him whom those blessed figures so gloriously served: Arthur Rex, vinceless sovereign not only of his own people, but of all who finally desire whatever it is that the sunglint off the ripples on a tree-ringed, secluded lake in the golden glory of fall, or the first star puncturing the darkness above a dying sunset at an abandoned stretch of shore, or the unintelligible, ancient lyrics of the most haunting plainsong ever chanted in church three hours past the midnight before Easter morn, do compel one to ride errant in search of.

Arthur Rex, refusing to bleed out until he had cast enchanted Excalibur into our watery keeping, as though unwavering even en route to Avalon in the conviction that no defeat could be final while the brotherhood holds fast.

Arthur Rex, promised to return to us all again, in time to – well, never mind. It doesn't really matter, any more. Nothing does. It isn't the dying, you see, that kills you in the end. It's that the Queen proves a harlot; and Launcelot, no knight at all.

© Helen Weir


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