How the Grail Came to the Fisher King

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Image Credit: Public Domain: Illustration from page 38 of The Boy's King Arthur

I

The Grail-Bearer

Sir Percival spurred the borrowed police horse as far as the corner of York Avenue and 67th, where he swung his armored bulk down from the saddle to land on the sidewalk with a clangor that stopped the startled street vendors in their tracks. Grail in hand, he ran in past the security guards at Sloan-Kettering Memorial Cancer Center, who called after him, “What room number are you visiting, sir?”

Percival tried to wait patiently, chivalrously, for the elevators, but he had traveled too far to bear waiting well. Up the stairs he ran then, clattering past oncology fellows who stood aside, shielding their styrofoam coffee cups against the risk of being jostled.

In the ICU, a nurse waylaid him and insisted that he wash his hands.

“Milady, there is a bit of a hurry.”

She stared him down and said in a thick Staten Island accent, “When you’re done washing, the antibacterial lotion is in this dispenser right here.”

Properly purified, Sir Percival gently drew aside the curtain and entered the sanctum where the Fisher King lay. He lifted the sheet and marveled at the wound. “My lord,” Percival said, “I have carried the Grail to many Fisher Kings these thousand years, but your wound is like none I have ever seen. How did you last long enough for me to reach you?”

“My thoracic surgeon is a fucking genius,” said the Fisher King, and he clicked the morphine button. “Sir Peredur?”

“Peredur is fine,” said the knight. “I have been Peredur. I can call you Bran, if you prefer.”

“Bran’s good. King Bran.”

The Grail was full. The Grail was always full. Sir Peredur poured it out until the wound knit clean together under his pouring. Bran the Blessed slept with breaths deep and even, and in the morning woke rested and content.

II

Sir Percival And The Four Queens

Sir Peredur wandered out of the Intensive Care Unit into the little waiting room. Really, it was too small a waiting room for a knight in full armor to pace in, but he couldn’t help himself. “It was supposed to just work,” he muttered. “The story usually just works.” The Grail sloshed holy water onto the carpet whenever he turned in his pacing.

Four women stood in a corner of the waiting room, discussing leukemia in hushed tones. They looked strangely familiar. Peredur made bold to speak to them. “Please pardon my impertinence, ladies, but have I not seen you four on a boat? A barge, perhaps?”

“Not us,” said one of the women. “Kayaks, maybe. You do look familiar, though.”

“You’re priestesses of Avalon,” Peredur guessed.

The women laughed. “New to Paganism, are you?” said another. “We don’t claim an unbroken line. None of that grandiose stuff.”

The kayak aficionado said, “Oh, I know you. You’re Sir Percival.”

“Peredur, at the moment, but yes.”

She eyed the Grail with interest. “Peredur couldn’t pull off the trick, as I recall. Try being Percival again. You have a much better rate of successful treatment as Percival.”

“But the fellow’s a polytheist,” Peredur protested. “I don’t think he has any particular need for…”

The weariest of the priestesses said, “He’s a polyamorist, too. Maybe we should call in Lancelot for this whole healing shtick. Lancelot got it to work once.”

Percival straightened to his full height, though his armor was very, very heavy, and he had already traveled a long way. “Any healing Lancelot can do, I can do better. All the texts agree that my heart is pure.”

The women did not look especially impressed with the importance of a pure heart, but they offered him their bottled water and some edamame beans from their stash of hospital cafeteria food to eat while they huddled together.

“Give it another go,” said the kayak aficionado. “New name, new Grail, new day. Call him, I don’t know, Pelles or something. King of the Grail Castle. Any version of the tale will do, as long as it ends happily. He’s a pragmatist. At this point, he won’t mind.”

So Sir Percival squared his shoulders, embraced a postmodern approach to comparative literature, and got back to work.

III

BYOG

The clanking of Sir Percival’s armor was keeping the patients awake. The doctors nudged him aside to roll the Fisher King out for a biopsy—nudged aside Sir Percival, bearer of the Holy Grail! He kept readjusting the spelling of his name, trying different redactions of his tale, but still there was no ending in sight, happy or otherwise.

The Fisher King’s wife commiserated with Percival in the waiting room. “There’s no such thing as time in the ICU,” she said. “Haven’t you noticed how all the clocks say different things? And stat seems to mean an hour and a half. I need these blood results stat, they say. Hmph.”

She wouldn’t allow Sir Percival to call her the Fisher Queen, nor Lady Fisher. At being called Mistress Fisher, she snorted with laughter, and Mrs. Fisher didn’t go over much better. Nonetheless, when visiting hours ended at the ICU and the Fisher King’s biopsy results were as well understood as the day could make them, she invited the knight to join her and her people for dinner. Some were the King’s family, some were his friends, most were loud. Before long it was simpler for Percival just to think of the lot of them as the Fishers.

The wait staff at the Indian restaurant balked for a moment when Percival set the Grail on the table. “What is this BYOB, here?” said the waiter. “We charge a corking fee.”

Percival had had this problem before, on other quests. “It’s not BYOB. It’s BYOG.”

Once the orders were placed and the Fishers had puzzled over the preliminary interpretation of the biopsy, Percival said, “The nurses welcomed me to the team. Is there going to be a tournament? I’ve never had to stay so long before.”

The bossy woman, the one he’d started thinking of as the Queen of Kayaks, said, “You’re not running out on us are you? We’re in for the duration.”

“I never give up on a quest!” He was a little affronted.

So they stood him to a beer and persuaded him to try some chicken tikka masala, which he quite liked.

Although he was beginning to have some doubts about the Grail, it was still full, as always, when he bluffed his way back into the ICU and knelt to keep vigil for the night. A vigil seemed the thing to do. He was in for the duration.

IV

The Queen’s Champion Arrives At Sloan-Kettering

On the third day, Sir Percival finally took off his armor. None of the families in the ICU waiting room seemed to mind the way it bent the coatrack. Their minds were all on weightier matters even than good steel plate.

It wasn’t so much the weight of the armor—he’d been wearing it for centuries—but rather the problem of rust. All day, he poured and poured the Grail out over the Fisher King. “To clean things away that need cleaning away,” he explained to the nurses. “I may not know much, but I know about purity. And it’ll help keep the fever in check.”

A familiar voice said, “Oh, you know about purity, all right. How’s my second favorite prig doing?”

Percival didn’t even need to look up. “Hello, Lancelot.”

“Could you use a hand there?”

“A worthy knight is a humble knight,” Percival said, and saying so took the sting out. “Yes, I could use a hand. But you realize, you’re trying to force the patient to be the Fisher King and Sir Urry at the same time. It’s hard enough just crossing redactions. I’ve changed the spelling of my name so many times in the past three days, I think I’m getting a touch of dyslexia, and I know I’m developing a serious case of postmodernity. Some moments, I can’t even tell if I’m thinking in French or German or what. Are you sure you can handle this? Are we sure he can handle this?”

Lancelot examined Sir Urry, whom a hundred and ten other knights had proved unable to heal. “Everyone in the Grail Castle says he’s a fighter. They talk so much about his beating the odds, you’d think they’d been wagering on him at tournaments. So, if he’ll never be healed until the best knight in the world searches his wounds, we’d better get his dressings off.”

Percival swallowed his pride. He’d been second-purest after Galahad, and now he would bear being second-best after Lancelot. The story had to be bigger than he was.

The two knights gently peeled the dressing off the wound, and Lancelot whistled low in amazement.

“There’s something wrong with his blood, too,” Percival said. “They’ve been searching his wound for a while.”

“Better not delay, then,” said Lancelot. “Just think what a report this will make when we go home for Pentecost. If it were any knight less pure than you telling the tale, they’d never believe it.”

So the knight of worldliness and the knight of purity tended the wound in the world. The wound in the world happened to be in the mortal frame of Everyman, any man, the Maimed Knight, the virtuous king, a person who knew how to think in myth, a person who was still hanging on in that terribly literal body.

V

The Arming Of The Hero

The two knights were bleary-eyed from hours of vigil, and wound-washing, and laying on of hands. Around midday, Percival decided to confide in Lancelot. “I can’t tell if it’s working,” he said.

“He’s still with us,” said Lancelot. “Things being what they are, I would say that constitutes ‘working.’ If we can get him through one more night, we’ll know what story we’re in.”

Percival was as uncertain as he could stand to be about what story he was in, so he turned his attention back to the Grail. Still full, so all would be right with the world. That was what the Grail was for.

“Hey, Percival?”

“Yes, Lancelot.”

“Can I hold the Grail for a minute? I always wanted to hold the Grail.”

“It might not let you. It’s picky.”

“I know, I know. But still.”

So he handed the Grail over, for the first time in centuries. “Got it?”

Lancelot beamed. “I have it. I really have it. Take a break, Percival. Get some air. You’ve earned it. I’ll be right here.” And he started singing the Te Deum.

The knight of purity yawned and headed out to the waiting room, where the Queen of Kayaks was typing furiously at a computer terminal. Percival had certain suspicions about her. “You’re the author, aren’t you?”

“Busted,” said the author.

“What if I get stuck here?” he asked. “This place is starting to feel… canonical.”

The bespectacled woman didn’t even look away from the screen. “That’s because the story you’re in now is the first hit on Google for anyone who types in ‘Sir Peredur.’ Consider it a measure of the man you’re here to help.”

“In the old stories, I would just ride from incident to incident. The narrator would say everything was challenging and glorious, but it only had to be work for a sentence or two. You’ve got me lingering in it. Why does it have to be so hard?”

She turned to look at him then. “I think every single person here in the Grail Castle is asking that same question.”

“Hope was easy when I got here. I was an innocent. What’s wrong with you, that you can’t write innocence without wrecking it?”

“Have a seat, kid,” said the author. “When I was a girl, you were my favorite knight of the Round Table. I met you in Howard Pyle’s collection of Arthurian stories, with his beautiful illustrations. Remember how you were a boy alone with your mother in the forest?”

“And I saw knights for the first time and didn’t know what they were. I remember.”

“I loved how you wove yourself a suit of armor from willow withes, because that was what you had to hand. You improvised, and I already admired improvisation.”

“They laughed,” said Percival, “when I showed up at Camelot in willow armor.”

“They laughed, but the laughter bought you time, and they let you in. You were always accomplishing impossible things, because nobody had ever mentioned to you that they were impossible. Laughter, time, a way in—he could use all those things.”

Percival looked at his armor, which no longer bent the coatrack double with its steel weight. The willow suit he’d made himself hung lightly on a wire hanger. Putting it on, he found that he was in the body of his youth. “You made me short,” he protested to the author, and his voice cracked. “Couldn’t you at least make me a tall, gangly youth? I hate it when Lancelot laughs at me.”

The author smiled to herself and typed. “Tall enough?” she asked.

“Much better,” said Percival. She’d also given him a silvery nimbus that floated behind his head. He looked as saintly and innocent as he had in any Howard Pyle illustration. “Cool!”

“You sound like my students,” she said. “Fourteen? Fifteen?”

“I’d like to be fifteen, if that’s all right.” And it was.

Lancelot laughed when Percival made his way back to the ICU, but it was a kind laughter. “She’s tweaked you again, has she? People do that to me all the time. At least she didn’t try to give you a girlfriend. Do you need the Grail back, or is it too soon?”

Percival opened all the drawers and cabinets in the curtained alcove, to see what he had to improvise with. “Hang onto it a moment for me, would you?” The ceiling tiles were printed with a picture of a forest—no, it was a park—in springtime. It was someone’s idea of a comforting image, someone’s idea of what a person would want to see while looking up from a hospital bed. A stream ran through the park. And just at the edge of the image, a willow tree grew. He jumped a little jump and hefted himself up into the picture.

“Where are you going?” said Lancelot.

“To weave him a suit of armor. I’ll be back in the blink of an eye.”

As always, Percival was as good as his word. The two knights carefully, so carefully, helped the Fisher King into the willow mesh. Once it was on, all the places where Percival had nicked it with his little bronze knife burst into leaf anew. The leaves fluttered, feather-light, with the breath of the ventilator. Percival had brought also a sword whittled fresh from an oak bough, and this he placed in the patient’s hands.

“The arming of the hero,” said Lancelot. “Very classic. He looks pretty good like this. The Green Man?”

“Why not?” said Percival. “He’s been everyone else. Maybe this will win him time and a way in.”

VI

Grail-O-Matic

Percival smacked his forehead. “Why didn’t I think of it sooner?”

“What?” said Lancelot.

The nurses were by now quite accustomed to the constant presence of two knights of Camelot. The nurse with the thick Staten Island accent understood immediately what Percival was asking her to do.

“Well, duh!” she said. “What took us so long?”

It took some jerry-rigging, but in a few minutes they had the Grail set up to keep the Fisher King on a constant intravenous drip of holy water.

The nurse looked the arrangement over and nodded in approval. “It’s kind of a Rube Goldberg device, but it’ll get the stuff into his kidneys, all right.”

Percival laughed. “Chrétien de Troyes never saw that one coming.”

VII

Knights of the Cafeteria Table

“Not bad,” said Sir Lancelot, “for hospital cafeteria food.”

Sir Percival prodded his sushi listlessly with a chopstick.

“What? Getting possessive about the patient, Percival? His wife has the right to throw us out and keep the Fisher King to herself a little.”

“It’s not that,” said Percival. “Did you see the man by the front door?”

“The security guard? A lot of good he’d be able to do if this hospital were overrun by giants.”

“Not him. The one in the hospital gown. On an IV. Carrying the IV drip thing with him. And smoking. Barefoot and smoking on York Avenue in December, with nothing to warm him but a hospital gown. That one. I haven’t been able to fix the Fisher King we’re working on now, and he at least quit smoking after the surgery. How am I going to fare when the guy who’s on his second surgery still won’t quit? What will I do when he’s the Fisher King?”

Lancelot narrowed his eyes. “You’re trying to make this a cautionary tale, aren’t you?”

“I’m just trying to do the right thing.”

“Balderdash. I’ve spent the past thousand years trapped in a cautionary tale. I know the moral of the story when I see it. Don’t screw the boss’s wife, boys! Look how it only led to trouble for Lancelot! And you know what? Everybody makes me out to be some kind of romanticized role model anyway. Don’t bother, Percival. Nobody cares.”

“But if the Fisher King had only been able to quit smoking three weeks earlier, this would have been so much…”

“You tiresome prig, what could you possibly know about desire?”

“I’m not talking about Guinevere. I’m talking about cigarettes.”

“Desire is desire.”

“You’ve seen what this illness is doing to the people who love the Fisher King. If you go talking like that in the ICU, in the waiting room, around any of the Fishers, I may have to challenge you to single combat.”

Lancelot smiled and shook his head. “In that willow withe armor?”

“God knows that I am in the right.”

“You never change,” said Lancelot.

All the white-coated oncology fellows at the next table turned to stare.

“Old friend,” Percival said, his voice tight and low, “it would be best if you went back to Benwick. It would be best if you went back now.” His hand went to the pommel of his sword, and he found that the author had given him back his good steel. “Right now.”

And just like that, Lancelot vanished.

Percival popped one last bit of eel roll into his mouth. It didn’t taste like anything in particular. The pink ginger stuff was sharp, but that wasn’t what he wanted, either. Though he’d been warned about the funny green paste, he swallowed the whole daub of it for penance. Surely he had something to repent.

VIII

To Avalon

Two figures—one tall and armored in gleaming steel, the other small and matronly in a wool coat—stood at the end of a city pier on a foggy December morning.

“We’re going to need a bigger barge,” said the author. “This one’s about the right size for four queens and a bier, but everybody’s going to want to come along. To see him safely across.”

Sir Percival handed her a handkerchief. “Then write a bigger barge,” he said, all patience.

“He has so many friends… had so many friends… we could fill up the Staten Island Ferry.”

A bright blue triple-decker barge emblazoned with the words Avalon Island Ferry emerged from the fog and docked silently at the pier.

“You know the deal,” said Percival. “He’ll come back when you have need of him.”

“But you know the deal, too. He’ll come back as a memory, or some entirely different person. He’ll never come back as our George again.”

“Here, have a sip.” Percival offered her the Grail.

“What’s the point?” But she drank from it anyway.

“Listen to me,” said the bearer of the Grail. “Before you met him, before he became your friend, he was already a minor figure of legend, wasn’t he? He already had a hero’s epithet.”

The author laughed. “The Man Who Gets Things Done.”

“And a full name you might have chosen for a comic book protagonist. Of course a George Marvil would be The Man Who Gets Things Done, wouldn’t he?”

“The first time I heard someone call him by it,” she agreed, “I thought it couldn’t possibly be his real name. I thought it was just praise.”

“He belongs where he’s going now.”

“Maybe so, but he belonged among the living, too. Was I a fool to call you here, Percival?”

“No. As long as the best specialists at the best cancer center in the world said there was still hope, someone had to speak for that hope. You were asked to speak for it.”

The procession of mourners came slowly down the pier. They carried, shoulder-high, a man. Though it was a chill morning in the darkest time of the year, he was naked, for they were carrying him to a place where it was always summer, and his arrival would be cause for festival among the ones who would greet him there. What a long procession it was. Percival, whose eye for counting had been trained on armies, thought there were perhaps three hundred mourners, all come to see George Marvil on his way.

When the barge was full, the author stood on the deck and said, “Sir Percival, will you come with us?”

He shook his head. “Sloan-Kettering makes a fine Grail Castle. There are other Fisher Kings there. I should get back to them.”

“I wish you victory,” said the author.

He couldn’t look her in the eye. “Even when I’ve failed you?”

“There was no failure here,” she said. “Only things not working out. Go back to that hospital and give someone a victory.”

Silently the barge began to drift across waters that were and were not the East River.

They waved to one another, the knight and his author, until the fog filled the distance between them.

end article

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Sarah Avery

About Sarah Avery

Sarah Avery is an escaped academic who taught way too many sections of freshman composition. After earning a doctorate in English with a dissertation on modernist poetry, she spent a few weeks driving around the Adirondacks blasting Tori Amos on the car stereo and asking herself, What would happen if I stopped holding back? The answer turned out to be a return to her first literary love, fantasy fiction. As a mildly entrepreneurial private tutor, she’s able to get almost all the best parts of teaching with almost none of the annoying parts.