Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Tall Tale Tuesday :: William and Winnie (Part IV)

Missed out on the three prior installments? Have no fear. To catch up, click here:

Part I: http://joehollenbach.blogspot.com/2010/05/following-are-excerpts-from-journal-of.html

Part II: http://joehollenbach.blogspot.com/2010/06/tall-tale-tuesday-william-and-winnie.html

Part III: http://joehollenbach.blogspot.com/2010/06/tall-tale-tuesday-william-and-winnie_08.html

Now, here's the final episode. Enjoy!

We walked on. We walked on and on with the dark river to our left, the silt from her swell beneath our feet. The water's rush and the clopping of shoes treading through mud were the only noise. I spoke. “So are we not going to discuss what happened back there? Do you expect me to just let it pass?”

“What happened back there? It’s simple, really,” he said, dabbing his slick brow with his handkerchief, “ Owen was killed and Brand deserted.”

“Beyond that, though. I’m more concerned with the bit Brand was yammering on about. About the defenses not being undone. What sort of resistance are we up against, Winston? Booby traps? Snares?”

"Of a sort, maybe,” he said, halting. His left hand hefted the oil lantern to eye level as his unoccupied hand crept across his plump gut to his hip where the sword hung. Winston drew Excalibur from its sheath. “William, do you believe this is what I say it is?” The blade glinted silver and glossy in the lamplight.

I laughed. “I don’t know what I believe. I don’t know. I do know if Excalibur ever existed, that's her. And I do know that Brand and the boys are right about you. You are an utter crackpot and an old duffer. But that doesn’t make you wrong.”

A wide smile spread across the old man’s face. “That’s m’boy. Now let’s get moving again.”

After a handful of minutes, the darkness began to recede. Deep in the distance shone a dim radiance, soft blue or clean white. Winston left the shore side and walked toward the light. I stepped in right behind him. Soon enough the rumble of the river weakened in my ears until all trace of the water's roar faded and wash out, only to be replaced by the rhythmic echo of trickling water droplets plopping into shallow pools.

The muted light ahead was spilling down from the ceiling of the cave, perhaps through a sinkhole or chasm. It was too high to spot the fissure. It shone upon a wall of exposed rock slicked indiscriminately with patches of green moss. The light was great enough that Winston stifled the flame of the oil lamp. His face was old and disproportioned in this pale glow; an ugly thing with a profile like a hatchet. As I stared at the vast and wet grey-green wall, I saw Winston in my periphery wheel around to face me. “There’s something I need to know, William, before you and I go a step further; something that’s left me confounded and befuddled,” he said. “If you aren’t convinced that my scheme is legitimate, why have you come this far without a deeper explanation?”

“Hope,” I said, shrugging. “Reckless and unadulterated hope.”

“How do you mean?”

“I’m here for hope that a merciless tyrant can be stopped; that Hitler will, for once, find a Britain united in arms and courage.” I paused, considering whether or not I could trust Winston with the full truth. I continued. “But it’s something more than that. What you are proposing, that is, what you’re after lends itself to truth and decency; that tales from of our childhood are more than mere dreams or silk turned to cobwebs as we grow old. It’s comforting to think that supreme good is a pervasive force and very much alive. Even if it takes believing in fairy tales, I choose to side with absurdity over realism every time, if those are the masquerades Good and Evil don.

“But more than anything, I’m standing here with you right now because it’s what my wife would want of me, I think, to stand on the side foolish hope instead of knee deep in the shambles of resignation.” I sighed.

Winston gave me a hard chuck on the back. “William, lad, I’ve grown fond of you in the few hours we’ve had together. You’re a smidge naïve, but I like you. Now, stand back.”

With the word, I shuffled my feet and withdrew from the wall. Winston raised the sword over his head and brought it crashing down against the wall in a dexterous flash of fury that contradicted the visible limitations of his bent frame. He let out a loud shout as the blade met the boulder, the rasping shriek of the steel twined with his own shout. He let go of the haft of the sword, its bright reflection wobbling in the pallid light, and stepped nearer still to the wall. Placing his hand over the point of incision, Winston began to whisper in a tongue wholly foreign to my ears. Moments later, it became clear those alien words were the recitation of a glamour or cantrip, for as the last syllable vacated his mouth, the wall deliquesced and melted away. The sword fell to the cave floor with a resounding clatter when it dislodged. Winston picked it up and sheathed it.

“What just – I mean – how did you do that?” I asked, stepping to his side.

“It’s probably best just to remember that bit about siding with absurdity and not ask for particulars.” He gesticulated with a waving hand my entry into the passage. He fell in behind me.

Before long, Winston and I came out of the narrow cavernous corridor and onto a balcony overlooking and grand hall, much like the one at the entrance of the cave. Only instead of thick and custardy blackness, our eyes met a most dazzling and familiar sight. The hall was filled with the warm and dancing luminescence of firelight. The colonnades and walls were adorned with huge torches, each burning red and hot.

“Wha– Yes!“ cried Winston, half hugging me. “We did it! We found Avalon!”

We found a small staircase against the back wall at the edge of the balcony and descended it hastily.

From the ground level, the High Hall of Avalon was a precious beauty to behold. Around us were tables and chairs and chests, all formed of the purest gold. Silver statues as tall as elephants stood about the perimeter, each depicting dryads or fawns or sundry forgotten creatures lost in the chasms of time. There were mirrors ornamented with white diamonds, cabinets and armoires fashioned of fine oak and inset with amethysts, washbasins hewn from fire opals and carbuncles. The wealth of Great Britain above could be matched in the topaz cutlery of the dining hall alone. My eyes glinted with amazement and furious desire.

“To the very back, William,” said Winston, “no doubt King Arthur’s sepulchre is there." Each step deeper into the golden hall gave way to sights more opulent and rich than before, until at last we found ourselves standing before a large stone door inlaid with a gilded crucifix upon which was scorched an inscription: Sepultus Rex Arthurus. Below this sat an indiscernible scrawl. Winston stepped forward and read the inscription in a whisper to himself, running his finger over the the engravings as he went.

Winston retreated from the stone door and unbuckled the baldric before handing me Excalibur, a candle and a book of matches. “Well, m’boy, this is where I owe you an apology,” he said placing his hands into his pocket. “You see, I expected this. The inscription says only one, the one, carrying the regal sword may enter and present it to Arthur. The door will yield to none other. And furthermore, it sa–“

“I’m not coming back, am I?”

His smile reappeared. “No. Reanimation isn’t a pleasant science. Concessions must be made if victory is to be achieved. Ever played chess?”

“Not with regularity, but I get the analogy.” I contemplated the situation for a moment. “Let’s say I refused. Let’s pretend I’m not on board with this bit of the scheme. I mean, my lot seems rather grim. You’ve just handed me a weapon and the leverage. But you’ve already thought of that, haven’t you?”

I heard a sharp click in the right pocket of his waistcoat, like the cocking of a handgun’s hammer.

My assumption was spot on. Winston pulled a Walther PP, standard issue, from the pocket and pointed it at me. “You’re not so naïve as I imagined. Well done.”

“Alright, alright. I was going through no matter your cowardly threat, but at least now I understand of what ilk you are. I’m going through that door, but not because of that,” I said, inclining my head toward the handgun. “I’m going because I meant what I said back there, before Avalon, at the edge of sanity. And even though we’ve slipped into some sort of madness, I still hold to it.

“But you, you’re nothing more than a cheap and rotten magician who’s out of his depth, meddling with spell book magic and necromancy and mind you, all come to a just end in due time.”

Winston tried to retort, but I clutched tightly to the sword and turned back toward the stone door. It slid aside as I approached, at the behest of the power of the sword I’d venture, and I strode through the door and into the blackness of the crypt beyond. The stone door banged shut behind me.

The room I stood in was small and was devoid of anything save a marble throne in the middle. The candle burned brightly, showing no exit or entrance but the door I came through. I laughed, a deep mirthless laugh. I crossed the room, pulling from my pocket a small journal and my fountain pen and alighted in the chair. Laying Excalibur across my lap, I took in my surroundings for a moment before opening the journal and beginning to write. This is what I wrote:

May 2 or May 3, 1945

Dearest Gwendolyn,

I am writing to you far sooner than I expected because everything did not go as I might have hoped. I will write for as long as the tallow lasts and the candle gutters. This will be my last letter.

I’m in the burial chamber of Arthur, King of the Britons, sitting in his throne and the chap is nowhere to be found. His sword is near me, but the mysticism is quelled. Our king under the mountain is lost and I’m buried alive. What a blow this will be for that sod, Winston. It turns out he’s a fiend, a devilish sorcerer of black enchantments. I wonder how long he’ll wait outside that door before he realizes his malevolent desires are foiled.

But already I grow bored of detailing my failed exploits and my mind turns to you. I am so lonely, Gwen.

Death is the great emancipator. It is he who leads folk to lands where the deep call to deep, to places where ages and eras meld into one glorious existence. It is by his somber vessel I will find passage back into your embrace. It is very hard to fear such enticement.

It is my hope that my life without you was a perfect reflection of the joy and courage you instilled within me.

After your death, there were moments when I believed you to be so close, only a street corner or cab ahead of me, just beyond my grasp. One day in '42, I chased you through Fleet Street all the way to Parliament, only to find a college student with your chestnut hair and curls. I never mentioned it previously because I was ashamed, but now is the time for honesty.

It’s also a proper place for apologies, as the candle is fading. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to keep the bombs away. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to lay you to rest. I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough to keep our baby girl after you passed. I’m sorry. I love you. I’m coming home.

All my love,

William Pullman

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