That night I had dinner with my parents. They must have thought I was nervous, heading off to the war with my first command. I was quiet enough, but it was my conversation with Gramps that kept running through my mind. I never told them about it. Gramps had made me promise. I'd keep his secret.
"What'll you have, Sargeant?" Dad asked with a proud grin.
I ordered a steak, I think.
I remember them talking to me, but not much of what was said. Mom kept having to call my name: "Josh? Are you listening?" And I kept having to ask her to repeat her question: "Sorry, Mom. What was that?"
She said she understood. She just kept on talking. That was Mom's way of easing her own fears--the fears she would never express in the open. But I knew they were there.
Mom was a devout woman. She read the Bible and searched it for answers to the puzzles in her life. Many times she had turned to those tissuey pages in her quest to figure out how to raise four boys in a turbulent world. She would often comment on the events in the news, relating them to the difficult to decipher clues in Revelation or Isaiah or Zechariah concerning the 'Last Days'.
And when the towers fell and our country went to war, our troops gathering so near to the Holy Land and the Mountain of Meggido, Mom knew I'd be in the middle of it.
Just two weeks after my visit with Gramps I was, stationed in a village a hundred miles or so from Kabul, sent there to root out any al-Qa'ida cells or Taliban hostiles still clinging to the old ways. Our platoon camped just on the outskirts, just as we had done at a half-dozen other such villages.
After the first few days I was convinced the place was clean. Our C.O. was ready to move on to another town, too, but we had our orders. We weren’t going anywhere for a while. I knew the men would become restless, rowdy even if we didn’t keep a tight rein on them. But the delay brought a bonus--mail from home caught up with us; stacks of letters and packages, something for almost everyone.
For me there were the usual letters from my folks, even one from my little sister, and a small box. It was addressed in my mother’s neat hand. I was hoping it was the digital camera she promised to send after mine got lost somewhere between Atlanta and Ramstein and I opened it eagerly.
But it wasn’t a camera. It was a book---The Once and Future King. A pocket copy, just the right size for a man at war. The pages were yellowed and brittle, the binding cracked, the cover stained. On the inside of the cover, in tall capital letters, was Gramps’ name: PFC DONALD S. MORGAN, 1944. There was a note too, written in dad’s all-caps hand. But I didn’t need to read it to know my grandfather was gone.
I sat there with the book between my hands. I must have been crying because I felt a dozen hands pat me on the back. But all I could see was that book.
It was Gramps.
It was Gramps and me and countless hours poring over books and maps and pictures trying to make sense out of the myth of Arthur. It was him when he was sound of mind, telling me stories of the war with that odd mix of solemnity and pride and avidness in his voice and eyes and tears. It was the reassuring strength of his hand holding mine when we crossed the street to the library. It was the smell of the things that he always kept around him--the books and scrapbooks and pictures and memories kept in cardboard boxes so worn out they were held intact more by duct tape than by their own binding--all those things that would likely be sorted through and stored away and doled out to my aunts and uncles and the fourteen other grandchildren while I was away.
And they had sent me this book. This book that Gramps hated because, as he said: "This ain't Arthur."
That night I got my men to mess then headed back to my own tent. I couldn't eat and wanted to be alone. I stayed on my cot and leafed through the book instead. It was filled with underlined passages and notations written in the margins--questions he and I had tried to answer together. Questions he had been asking himself for more years than I ever realized. I fell asleep reading those notations, staring at the loops and whorls of his pen.
We gave the proverbial Hershey bars to the kids, though in the desert it had to be hard candy. We lugged groceries and laundry for little old ladies who rewarded us with desert-creased smiles and rapid-fire expressions of gratitude that sounded like the chatter of magpies to those still unaccustomed to the language. We looked in windows and opened doors and swept the empty buildings first down one side of the street then up the other.
In the morning I stuffed the book in a cargo pocket and led my squad into the village.
I was starting to feel the weight of that book on my hip. Late afternoon and it was blazing hot. We had our trouser legs bloused out in a vain effort to keep cool, and were sucking water out of our camelbacks almost constantly. I decided we would check one more building then head back to base. It was a three-story building with empty shops at ground level and apartments above.
I led my men down a narrow hallway to the back where stairs led up to the apartments. We fanned out, splitting into pairs to search the rooms. There were people living there, but not many. Most of the apartments were empty, with doors wide open.
Juarez and I had just finished our last apartment on the second floor and were heading for the third. I could hear the movements of the others below us--rapping on doors, trying locks, searching rooms. Everything was going well.
But there was a man at the top of the stairs. A man with white skin.
“You can’t go up there,” he said. He had a thick accent, but not one I was familiar with. Certainly not like the locals.
“Why?” I asked warily.
“I can’t let you.”
“Sargeant?” Juarez was two steps below me. “Did you say something?”
“He can’t hear me, Joshua. Nor can he see me. He’ll think you’ve gone mad if you keep talking to me.”
“Who are you?” I demanded, raising my rifle. I could hear Juarez tense behind me, a faint whisper of movement as he slipped his finger into the trigger guard.
“Sargeant?” Juarez was whispering now.
“He can’t hear me,” the man insisted. “Listen to me, don’t answer. Tell him it’s all right.”
Instead I backed down one step, shoving my body against the wall to give Juarez a clear view up the stairs. “Juarez,” I hissed. “Do you see anything up there?”
Slowly Juarez leaned to see around me. He was holding his breath and sweating. His answer came as a relief to him, a terror to me. “No, Sir. I don’t see anything.”
I could feel the color drain from my face. Juarez still waited behind me, but I couldn’t lift my feet to take another step. Instead I held my breath and looked at the feet of the man at the top of the stairs. They were just as Gramps had described--almost floating, not quite touching the floorboards.
Arthur! I guess I said it out loud, because I heard Juarez shift his grip on his weapon again. He must have been spooked standing there on the stairs with me talking into empty air.
“You’d better do something to soothe your friend,” Arthur said. “He’s likely to kill someone with that thing-—the wrong someone anyway.”
He waited while I did nothing, just staring at him, my body rigid.
“Say somethin’ to him," Arthur said as he waved a hand commandingly. "Tell him you thought you heard somethin'. Then listen to me.”
My mind reeled back to Gramps, to the things he told me in the nursing home. Now I knew. I knew it was true. And with a cold weight in my gut I also realized why Arthur was here. I put a hand on Juarez’s shoulder and told him to keep silent, told him I’d heard something.
“You can’t go up there,” Arthur said again. “There are seven men in a room waiting for you. They’ll kill you and your friend before the others can come to your rescue. Wait for them. That’s all it’ll take. Wait for them and all your lives’ll be spared.”
I nodded slowly. “I think we should wait for the others,” I whispered to Juarez.
Arthur grinned. “Your grandfather said you’d believe,” he said, stooping to settle himself on the top step. He was exactly as Gramps had described: a face, though not exactly how I imagined it, possessed of the proud grace of nobility; the golden eagle eyes; the skin of his scalp showing ruddy through strings of dark oily hair that hung to his shoulders. He was like a museum piece, but sloppily authentic, right down to the rough homespun cloak and a stitched-up tear in his breeches.
He caught my gaze lingering on the hilt of his sword.
“You like it?” he said. He drew it from a scabbard made from some kind of softened hide. The long blade glinted in the light of a bare bulb hanging from the wall above us. He laid it across his palms and let me stare.
“I had it made when I was in my sixteenth year. I thought myself the greatest warrior the land had ever seen, and such a man needed to have a weapon to match his prowess.” He laughed. “It took me a good year to build the strength to use the damned thing.”
I used every ounce of restraint to keep myself from reaching out to touch it. It wasn’t beautiful--at least not within the fantastical standards to which Excalibur is generally held. There were no jewels or gold. The hilt could have been silver, but most of it was wrapped in hide and entwined with twisted wire. The blade was finely made with the sheen of oil to protect it from air and water and blood.
He held it as if it were a natural part of his hand and arm, as if it belonged there as surely as his thumb.
“There’s no magic in it,” he said, smiling. “But my enemies took pause when I came onto the field.”
He admired it himself for several moments more before slipping it back in its sheath.
“But, ach! Those days are past for me. Just beginning for you.”
The thump of boots on the landing below told me the others had caught up with us. Juarez signaled them to be silent and waited for my command. I looked to Arthur.
“You’ll find them in the room just there.” He pointed to a blank wall above my head, toward the apartment at the rear corner of the floor. “They know you’re coming. They’re willing to die and more than happy to take you with ‘em.”
“Sarge heard something.” Juarez said.
“Just a funny feeling,” I said.
No one scoffed. In war you learn to take funny feelings seriously.
Arthur smiled and winked at me and signaled for me to follow. I found myself echoing his signal to my men and, with weapons ready, they followed me right to that door in the rear corner of the building where Arthur, more like the B-movie ghost my grandfather said he was not, passed through the wood without a pause or a backward glance.
I took a deep breath and looked back at my men before knocking on the door. I knew what lay beyond the thin waferboard; they did not. For the blink of an instant I thought about telling them, but the sight of them told me I didn’t have to. I had been telling them with my tensed-up hands and pallid face and my ‘funny feeling’. They were ready.
I knocked. It sounded like the rattle of bones as the door vibrated on cheap hinges.
No one answered.
I reached for the knob, but Juarez pushed past me and stared at me with a look that told me he was worried about me. He had good reason, I suppose. Every one of us knew of at least one guy who had known, somewhere deep in his soul, that he would die. He always acted much the way I had been that day.
I stepped aside and let Juarez do it.