Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Story: Neverking

I've decided to put up one of my early stories. I'll serialize it so I don't take up huge amounts of space for a single post.

This is the story that earned me a spot in Orson Scott Card's Literary Boot Camp--at least the first page of it did. As far as stories go it's not bad. As far as historically accurate, well, you'll see...


by Suzanne Vincent

My Grandfather had two obsessions: World War II and King Arthur. The War because he served in it.

Arthur because he met him.

The day he told me, I had a half-day leave and wanted to see Gramps once more before shipping out to Afghanistan for eighteen months.

“Morning, Gramps,” I said, like I did every time I visited him at the care center. I didn’t expect an answer. He hadn’t recognized me in more than a year. But that day he looked right at me--not through me--and smiled.

He smiled!

His eyes were amazingly focused, the expression behind them lucid. Some circuit in his brain must have connected, because he reached out a frail hand and spoke to me.

“Ain't that a hoot?” he said with a quavering laugh, carrying on in the middle of a conversation that could have begun thirty minutes or thirty years ago. “All them stories and legends got it wrong!”

I must have looked like I’d been hit in the head, gaping at him like an idiot, so astonished to hear his voice and his laugh again that my mind malfunctioned just at the moment his reconnected.

“Didn’t you hear me, Josh? They’re all wrong! Malory, Geoffrey, Nennius…”

I knew those names. Hearing them brought me around. But hearing him utter mine--that was pure gold.

I smiled at him.

“Arthur," I said, pulling my chair up to sit close to him.

“That’s the one. The fabled High King of Britain. He wasn’t ever even a King! And all those centuries later old William the Norman bastard claimed right to the English throne by Arthur’s birthright.” He laughed again, loud and long. “It’s like the President of the United States begging for votes because he’s the great-great-grandson of Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill!”

Gramps' must have read me everything published on King Arthur, from the time I was old enough to sit on his lap with enough restraint to keep from grabbing at the pages. I know Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave. I know White, Pyle, Bulla, Bradley, Sutcliff. He read me the originals that spawned them all, too—--the fable-laden histories, the tales of the Mabinogion, ancient poems with nothing more than a mere mention of Arthur’s name. As I grew, we studied maps and histories and archaeology. We sifted through them looking for treasures of truth.

He uncovered for me an Arthur most never understood.

An Arthur of discarded Roman helmets and wooden shields instead of shining armor; one of longbows and short swords and iron-tipped spears instead of lances and maces; one of shaggy highland ponies instead of heavy chargers.

He taught me of the devastating incursions of Angles, Jutes, and Saxons; of the culture-swallowing sweep of Christianity across Britain.

The more Gramps and I learned, the more we yearned for truth. I even remember him saying he looked forward to dying. He had a few questions he wanted to ask Arthur when he saw him.
Together we'd decided that Lancelot and Merlin were figments of the imagination, the Round Table too, that the famed knights were most likely literary incarnations of Celtic demi-gods. The Arthur we came to know was an extraordinary man living in extraordinary times who became such by doing what any ordinary man would have done--he defended his home and his family.

I joined the Army inspired by this notion.

But in all those years of sharing the wonder of history's most famous king, Gramps never once asserted that Arthur wasn't one. But then he always called him 'Arthur'. Just 'Arthur'. And I'd always felt like he was leading me to something I couldn’t quite grasp.

“What do you mean, ‘never a king?’” I said. “How do you know?”

“I shouldn’t be telling you this. He made me promise. But, damn! I have to tell someone.” He took me by the elbow, his frail fingers closing tightly, pinching me harder than I thought him capable, his eyes wide with excitement. “You have to swear--swear on your life you won’t tell. Not anyone. Ever!”

“Swear I won’t tell what?”

“Don’t you pull none of your bullshit on me. You think I’m stupid enough to tell you without you giving me your word first?”

“Now wait a minute, Gramps,” I said. “You expect me to keep a promise you couldn’t?”
I don’t know why I said it. It was one of those moments of epiphany when I realized the irony of what he was asking. Gramps . . . he would never break a promise. Never. But my outburst broke the spell.

He went quiet, let go of my arm, looked at the floor. He was suddenly old again, his gaze drifting away. He was leaving me.

“Gramps? Don?” I said a little too loud, calling him by name, desperate to bring him back. “I swear. I won’t tell anyone.”

His eyes turned to me again. But the excitement was gone and in its place, a solemn frown. “God forgive me for breaking my word,” he said. “But I can’t keep it inside me. I gotta tell someone. Say it again, Marty. Swear it again.”

Marty? I didn’t know a Marty.

"Swear, Marty."

Gramps wasn't with me anymore. That much was clear. But I couldn’t bring myself to care. He was speaking again, and he was telling me another story.

I took his hand. “I swear,” I said.

He settled some, letting out a deep breath, a reluctant smile deepening the wrinkles in his face. He leaned in close, looked around to be sure no one was listening and whispered in my ear.

“You’re gonna think I’m loopy. And if you tell anyone they’re gonna think the same of you.”

“Tell them what?”

“Marty, I saw King Arthur. He was standing over me, right over there.” He jabbed with his thumb over his shoulder. “It was when you and Ikers went for rations. Marty, he saved my life. He told me to get the hell out of that foxhole. If he hadn’t come . . .”

He lapsed into silence for a few moments, studying his thumbs and trembling with more than the usual aging palsy. I searched my memory for a scrap of the story he was telling me. There had been dozens of stories of the war told to me over ice cream cones or garden gloves. He wanted me to know, to never forget the value of liberty. But this one was unfamiliar. It must have been one of the many he had begged off, telling me there were some things he would carry to his grave, things that shouldn’t be told.

“What happened, Don?”

“He told me to get out. I told him to go to hell. He said if I didn’t I was gonna die, and then I looked at his feet and he held out his hand and I didn’t know what else to do. I mean, when someone like that tells you to get out of a foxhole, you just do it.”

“Like what? Someone like what?”

He shrugged and twisted his hands together. “He was standing there on the edge of the hole, but he wasn’t standing there. It was like he was floating just a little, you know?”

“Like a ghost?”

“I suppose he’d have to be, wouldn’t he?” he said with a frown. “But he wasn’t like any ghost I ever heard of. If he was a ghost they got it all wrong in the movies and books. I could touch him, Marty. He helped me up outta that hole. But . . . I don’t know. It’s he ain’t part of the world and the world won’t let him on it.”

“And you’re sure it was Arthur?”

“Yeah, I’m sure. He was dressed funny--soft shoes and a cloak and all that. And he told me who he was. He said, plain as you like in an accent something like them Scottish soldiers, ‘My name is Arthur.’ And I said, ‘You mean King Arthur?’ And he starts laughing, all the time leading me away from that foxhole like I'm a stray pup following a kid home from school. And he says, ‘I am he. But I was never a king.’ Well, you’ve seen me reading that book I picked up in London . . .”

“Which one?”

“The Once and Future King. It’s by an English fellow named White. It's all about King Arthur and his knights and such. Well, that book don't say nothing about him not being king. So I asks him, ‘What do you mean?’ And he says, ‘I was a prince, a warrior. Nothing more.’ He says all that about him was made up by men who were more interested in making a name for themselves than for finding the truth. Well, of course I wanted to know what he was doing here. Why wasn’t he on Avalon? What did he need to come save a scared American kid for? And he says it’s cause I’m a son of Medraut . . .”


“Yeah, can you believe it? Me, a son of Mordred! ‘I never knew,’ I told him. And he says, ‘It doesn’t matter. I know.’ Only I always thought him and Mordred hated each other, and I told him so. He got mad. Real mad. He said them guys that wrote about him really got it twisted up. He said Mordred was his best friend, as close as a brother. He said Mordred died saving his life. He said he made a promise to him that he’d keep watch over his family forever. Only Arthur died that same day and he never thought God’d hold him to it. Not like this anyway. Not bringing him back every time one of Mordred’s children is in danger. But he said he keeps coming back. He says he made an oath and he’ll keep it till the Christ comes again--that’s what he said.”

A creep-up-the-neck feeling crawled into the hairs of my head. I think it struck me just then that Gramps was reliving a memory rather than weaving a tale. But a real memory? I couldn’t bring myself to go that far. Not yet.

“What did he look like?” I asked, my voice barely above a whisper.

Gramps clucked his tongue. “Nothing like I would’ve imagined. He wasn’t quite as tall as you might think--but then people were shorter back then, weren’t they? And his hair was real thin on top. That’s something you never see in pictures,” he said with a tense chuckle. “King Arthur with a bald head? But I never seen real eyes like that. They were kinda gold and fierce. Like an eagle’s, like the guys in them war bond posters back home. And his hands were strong. He kept one on my shoulder the whole time and it was so strong I never even thought of trying to pry myself away, but it was gentle too, and he just led me on and then . . .” He paused, looking into my eyes, seeing Marty’s face. And I saw a tear trembling at the corner of his eye.

“Then all hell broke loose. I tell you, Marty. The second I heard them shells coming I hit the ground. And when I looked up after the dirt stopped hitting me in the head our foxhole was twice as deep as we dug it and he was gone and . . .” He broke down in sobs, his palms pressed over his eyes.

I did what I thought Marty might have. I rubbed his back, offered him a handkerchief, told him those consoling words every combat soldier learns to say when a buddy gets shot up, or finds the bloody remains of a little kid that reminds him of a kid who lives around the corner back home, or when he finds a gash in his helmet where a slug should have taken off half his head.

“He saved my life,” he whispered. “He saved my life.”

1 comment:

Creative A said...

Neat story. Strange. I've never been one for Arthurian legends but I like your take on it...I'm interested to see what happens next with this.