Walter Wangerin, Jr., died yesterday. He’d wrestled lung cancer for a decade, so it was a long time coming, but death stings no less for the wait.
He was our first Hutchmoot speaker and a National Book Award winner. He wrote some of my very favorite stories in The Book of the Dun Cow, The Book of Sorrows, and Ragman, and Other Cries of Faith. I developed a relationship with him over the years as his editor and learned so much from him, and his words, and the unique ways he used them that I find myself often thinking as I write, “What would Walt say?” And one of the great delights of my life has been the publishing of so many of his books and stories under the banner of Rabbit Room Press.
For me, he was a giant. He threw a long shadow.
The proof of that shadow’s reach, perhaps, is that a few weeks ago when I sat down to write a short story for a forthcoming book called The Lost Tales of Sir Galahad, the tale that came out was, unexpectedly, about Walt. I wrote it quite by accident in a single sitting, having intended to write a different tale altogether. What came out instead was an homage to the literary giant in whose shadow I counted myself fortunate to dwell.
So today, in the wake of his long-expected passage into mystery, it seems right that I honor him as he honored all of us: with a story.
SIR GALAHAD and the PLUMED KNIGHT from The Lost Tales of Sir Galahad (forthcoming from Rabbit Room Press) Copyright 2021 by A. S. Peterson
Night upon night upon night had Sir Galahad traveled, until at last in the deeps of the Forest Wyld he found himself lost beyond hope. The thick of the wood gathered around him and permitted no light of the sun to enter. He slid in despair from his horse, pulled his helm from his head, and looked all about him for some clue of his deliverance, yet no clue presented itself and in the darkness he fumbled at his firecraft like one desperate for air.
“I fear we have come to the end,” he said, but his faithful steed had already wandered away in search of a digestible fodder. “So be it, then. I am alone.”
Galahad startled and dropped his tinderbox as he looked up. Before him stood a ragged knight. The man’s breath came out in scrapes and coughs and his appearance was like a withered oak that, though once mighty and staunch, had been winnowed down to the pith by some blight. The man’s brittle bones rattled about in his armor and he wobbled upon his feet, but his voice was halcyon and pure. Upon his shield was blazoned a fiery rooster, and upon his helm a great plume of cock-feathers was fixed, though they had long since lost their first lustre.
“Forgive me,” said Galahad, “but I did not think to find another knight in this dismal place.”
“It is long years indeed since anyone thought to find me at all.”
“Perhaps. Yet here we are all the same. I am Galahad, son of Sir Lancelot, knight of Arthur’s round table in Camelot. But tell me your name, and sit. I shall have a fire to warm us quick enough.”
The wizened knight shuffled forward and bowed. “Sir Walter am I, son of someone long forgotten, knight of a kingdom old when the foundations of Tintagel were but a dream.”
“Where is this kingdom you hail from?”
“Where? I have lost it, I fear, and am unlikely to find my way back till the newness of all things is at hand.”
Sir Galahad studied the ancient knight with some concern, for he seemed to have strayed out of an elder age indeed. “You speak in riddles, Sir Walter. But even a riddler is fine company in this wild place. Will you sit and tell me how you came here?”
As Galahad turned to ply his firecraft once more, Sir Walter sat. As he did so a great creak sprang forth and a grinding of metal accompanied his movement, and Galahad could not discern whether the noise issued from the rusted armor or from the bones within it.
“Come. Speak. I beg you.”
“How mean you?”
“Maroooooned!” The old knight wailed the word like a lament, and Galahad looked about fearing the noise might draw some wild beast from the darkness.
“How came you to this marooning then?”
“They have left me, and all that remains of them are the tales I keep.”
“Who left you?”
“Keepers? Keepers of what?”
“Of the Earth. All gone away. Even her.”
Now beginning to suspect the man of madness, Galahad endeavored to be gentle with him.
“I am sorry to hear of it. Can I assist you in some way? Can I help you back to these Keepers?”
“I cannot go back. I can only follow, and testify to what I’ve seen.”
“Have you seen some holy vision, then?”
It seemed an ancient grief came upon the withered knight. He shuddered in his iron cage and wept beside the fire.
Sir Galahad, unsure how to comfort the distress of the wayward knight, retrieved a ration of victuals from his bag and set about the preparation of a simple meal—some water in a pan, some dried beef to make a broth, a few carvings of potato for substance, and a sprig of rosemary for grace. As he stirred the thickening stew, a noise from the outer darkness disturbed his preparations. It was like a faint howl, yet distant as if it came from the bowels of the earth itself. Sir Galahad cocked his head to listen and noted that Sir Walter stifled his grief and did the same.
“Hear you a howling?” Sir Galahad asked.
“A howling, aye. Ever it haunts me, and ever I follow its forlorn note.”
“What manner of thing is it?”
“A beast. A friend. A castaway. A regretful word. A specter of my ruin.”
“Again your riddles confound me, sir. Can you not speak plainly?”
“What can be plainly said of ruin or war? Only fools speak of them plainly. I have been given years uncountable and undeserved, and I have learned better than to speak simply of any mystery or terror. For it’s in mystery the howling resounds and tumbles round in the belly of the good earth, striving with powers vast and unreckonable by mortal men.”
“Then if nothing plain may be said of it, adorn it with a tale and spin it in the light of our fire.”
Sir Walter’s eyes fixed then upon some distant point and he became silent. Even his creaking ceased. “The spinning of tales is my quest. You have spoken aright. But alas, I have not the strength tonight. Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps tomorrow.”
Sir Galahad frowned and offered to the old man a bowl of his meager stew. But the knight refused it and slumped in his armor, drifting, it seemed, toward sleep.
“Are you ill, Sir Walter?” inquired Galahad.
“Ill? Aye. Ill with a wound that cannot heal. Every breath a trial. Every word a trouble. Yet of breath are words given flight. And by words are stories flown. So suffer I must, for it’s a story my chest is shaped to toll. Strike me, and I shall ring it out.”
“To strike you so would be too hard a tale to tell. But perhaps some rest will help instead. Take your sleep, sir. No harm will come to you here.”
Sir Galahad finished the meal as Sir Walter’s breath rasped in and out of his brittle chest. He pondered the strange man as the fire waned, feeling a kinship which moved him to affection like that of a young man adoring a grandfather.
At length, the fire grew cool and Galahad rose in the darkness to patrol the area before retiring to sleep. With the fire’s faint embers as his anchor, he ventured amongst the trees, sword drawn, ears alert for danger. And soon again, as if from a far-off cavern, a howling note arose and drifted amongst the columns of the great arboreal cathedral about him. Galahad turned this way and that to discern the direction of its origin, but it eluded him. The sound came from everywhere at once, and yet was ever distant.
As he stood alert to the howl and the darkness that carried it, he heard behind him a heavy crunch. He spun, sword outhrown and ready, and in the shadows he spied a great form moving slowly. The darkness did not permit a full report of its features, but as Galahad drew nearer with blade upraised, he made out four stout legs, thick shoulders, and a broad head adorned with a curved horn. Its like, he thought, he had never seen.
“Stay thee in thy place, beast,” spake Galahad.
At these words the dolorous creature turned to Galahad and set the weight of her eyes upon him. Such eyes Galahad had never known—eyes like wells deeper than any pit or cave, eyes whose depths reach beyond the foundations of the world and encompass all things–all sufferings, all joys, all power, all grace. Under the gaze of those eyes Galahad felt both great terror and great peace, and in his inability to contend with the mind that governed them, he stood transfixed, still as a chiseled statue before its sculptor. Helplessly, and yet somehow joyfully, he watched as the dun-colored cow approached him nearer and nearer until the mysterious beast stood at the tip of his sword, no more afraid than if she had approached a blade of grass.
Galahad felt suddenly that he ought to drop his sword, for the powerful feeling came across him that this was a creature against which he should risk no offense. Indeed he thought perhaps he should turn his sword and present its hilt to the cow as an offering. But still his enchantment held and he could not move, and the great cow, larger now than she had at first seemed, gently dipped her head and with her horn touched Galahad’s outstretched sword. As the two points met, a golden note rang out in the darkness like that of a perfect voice, and along the blade of his sword a blessing ran like quicksilver.
Then the cow attended him no longer. She ambled past Galahad, and he saw that the sibling of the horn that had blessed his blade was sundered at the root and missing, broken away, perhaps, in some long-forgotten clash. The great cow moved with power and grace and settled herself to the ground in a crescent shape surrounding Sir Walter. Again, Galahad felt stirred to action, to defense, in case the beast’s remaining horn should be turned to violence against the elder knight. Yet even as he thought it, the need for the thought fled away, for the cow gently nudged the old man with her nose as she might one of her own young, nuzzling him with infinite tenderness until he rested upon her flank.
Galahad looked on in amazement. He felt he was witness to some holy sacrament and was an intruder amongst its graces. The cow, sensing his uncertainty, turned her head toward him, and Galahad found himself captive once more in the gaze of one whose eyes said with a single look that they knew every stitch and atom and act of his whole life and being. And under the weight of that timeless scrutiny he slowly laid himself down, for sleep was coming upon him like the rising tide, lap upon lap upon lap. As his eyes closed into slumber, he watched the cow gently licking the withered Sir Walter, licking his armor new, licking his skin white, licking his feathers clean, licking gently, softly, selflessly. Lap upon lap upon lap.
When morning came, a cock crowed and started Galahad awake. He leapt to his feet, for he recalled the late events of the evening and feared some sleeping spell had come upon him. Indeed, as he looked around he saw no sign of Sir Walter or the benevolent form of the otherworldly cow. But lo, from out of the trees a tall lady strode, clothed in white with a splash of brilliant ruby about her golden neck.
“Hark!” cried Sir Galahad. “This wood is wild and not safe for such as thee, my lady. Already a companion has vanished in the night. Come within my camp that I may guard thee.”
The lady gave Galahad a knowing smile and condescended to his request. Upon her back she bore a ponderous sword, and this she removed as she sat and placed it athwart her knees. The skin of her face was ruddy and ageless and the lines about her eyes were lovely to read, though their tales were perilous.
“I am Galahad, of the table round. Arthur-king is my lord and liege. Pray tell, how I may serve thee.”
“The Lady Pertelote am I, of the Keepers of the Earth. Our days are nearly passed and I am much bereaved. But I have no need of your service or your sword. I have come with a tale, a farewell, and a blessing.”
“And a mighty sword, I see. But in what knight’s service do you bear it?”
“Little knight,” she said with a tolerant smile, “the ken of creaturekind rolls wider than you yet have eyes to see. I have borne grief and violence and children, and for this the sword is mine by right. War-Spur is her name. Her steel is descended of the first mountains of the earth. The bite of basilisks have tested her. The blood of Cocktrice has tempered her. And upon her fell stroke I shall break the world.”
“A mighty sword indeed. I have misjudged you. Surely you are a high queen of old.”
“A queen? Once, perhaps. Certainly I have loved a King. But tell me of your lost companion.”
“A knight he was, though somewhat addled. And if I recall aright, he spoke of the Keepers of the Earth and mourned their loss. ‘Marooned!’ he cried, for he seemed all alone. Is he known to you?”
The Lady Pertelote smiled, and though her jaw was hard and mighty as the ridgeline of a mountain, her smile was as the sun’s first rays at dawn. “Aye. He is known.”
“Then will you join me in the search? For he was ill and near to death, I fear, and now he’s wandered away.”
At this the lady laughed, and the sound was bright. The trees trembled in the passage of her mirth and the shadows slackened their hold on the wood.
“Forgive me, lady. I meant no jest.”
“Then tell me, was there any other visitor to your fire last night?”
Sir Galahad faltered, for he half-believed the appearance of the strange cow to have been a phantom of his mind, a figment of his own weariness.
But the Lady Pertelote’s inquiry was not easily turned aside, and he confessed, “I saw, or thought I saw, a dun-colored cow, single-horned.”
The Lady nodded and smiled gently. She breathed a deep sigh as of one released from trouble. “Then the time is come at last.”
“What time is that, pray tell?”
But the Lady ignored his inquisition and continued, “Did Sir Walter give you his tale?”
Sir Galahad was somewhat startled to hear the name spoken when he had not given it, but he could no longer deny that he was himself caught up in some grander tale of which he was but an audience. “Nay, dear Lady, for he was weary, and grievously wounded I think. He said he would grant me a tale this morn, but now he is gone, and I fear I am poorer for it.”
She frowned then, and the shadow of the wood crept nearer. “It is true that you are poorer without his tale. He has spun them across the world for years uncountable, and they have held the world together with their golden threads. I promised you a tale, a farewell, and a blessing. Therefore accept the first of these. I give you a part of what he could not:
“In another age, he contended with the Wyrm of the World’s Ending. He vied with Wyrm’s twisted offspring and with all the evil brood that offspring sired. He shepherded us. He storied us. He sang to us to keep us. He kept the Keepers and we kept the Earth.
“But in the wake of his contention with his foes, he cursed a little one he ought to have held dear, a lowly dog who had only given him his faith. Think you then how his heart was torn when Great Wyrm arose—and instead of the proud knight, it was the lowly, accursed dog that rushed to save us all and was lost to us in the saving.” She paused and shed a silver tear in memory of a grief that Galahad scarce could ken. “Yet though the world was saved, though the Keepers had kept it, the feathered knight was marooned and alone, for he could not forgive himself.”
She dropped her eyes and quieted, and Galahad felt the pull of many questions.
“A strange tale. I have not encountered its like.”
“And you will not hear its like again. That is why I have come to this appointed place at this appointed time. She bade me here, and I have answered.”
Though Galahad understood little of the Lady’s tale, in his heart he understood the “she” of whom the Lady spoke and longed to be seen by those eyes once more.
“Sir Walter will soon pass beyond his tales. Or rather, he will pass into the fulfilment of them. And who then knows what tales will follow? But look! Bear witness. A new chapter shall you write. And then you shall bear it from this darkening wood so that he and I and all our creaturekind will not pass from the world altogether.” Thereupon, the Lady Pertelote arose and took up her sword.
In all the wood now arose the howling as before, though it nearer came and louder grew. Then out of the wood strode Sir Walter, slight as ever, but clean and radiant in his aspect, his feathers bright, though his breath still rasped and his bones still clattered.
“Marooooonnned!” he cried.
Lady Pertelote laid a tender look upon him and answered softy, “No longer.”
Then she heaved War-Spur aloft. A glimmering light ran down its length and skyward sprang. The darkened trees crowded away from its argent gleam, and the sun shone upon the light-starved ground. Then the great lady thrust the sword into the earth. Hilt-deep she drove it with a single stroke. And behold: the Earth was broken asunder. A vast crack opened before her, dividing the Forest Wyld upon opposite sides of a chasm.
Galahad trembled with fear and knelt upon the quaking earth and watched helplessly as Sir Walter tottered toward the pit.
The Lady turned to face Sir Walter. Galahad crept to the edge of the chasm and looked over its precipice. There, down, down, down, in the depths of the earth lay exposed a great skeleton, as of a wyrm whose full measure lay beyond imagination. Coiled around the bowels of Earth it was and dessicated beyond all life or hope of life, and within the socket of its cavernous eye, Galahad spied a peculiar thing: a lowly dog—a shaggy, emaciated, flea-bitten thing with a ragged nose and a mangy hide. It howled, and its howl was familiar. But once only did it send up that saddened note, for then it saw Sir Walter at the brink. The dog sprang away from the monstrous corpse and bounded upon the sides of the chasm, working back and forth across heaps of stone, ascending, ascending, then cresting the cusp and leaping at last to lick the face of Sir Walter.
“Is it you?” said the plumed knight.
The lowly dog licked the knight again and again and again, lap upon lap upon lap.
Lady Pertelote withdrew her sword, and the rent earth slammed back into its place, sealing away the dread skeleton beneath the hills.
Sir Galahad approached the Lady and the Knight and the Dog. “What thing was that I saw below?”
Spake the Lady Pertelote: “The Wyrm of the World’s Ending, crushed forever by the lowliest of creaturekind.” Then the Dog it seemed was transfigured from the form of a lowly cur to the princeliest of hounds—golden of hide, sharp of tooth, kind of eye, and thick of shoulder. Like a horse he was in his stature, might, and power, and his kindness he continually offered to the withered knight with lap upon lap upon lap.
For the knight’s part, he wept—but not as before, for one’s tears may be transfigured too.
The Lady turned to Galahad and bowed. “Sir Walter’s quest is now complete, and the Keepers’ age has passed.”
Then the great hound came forth. He approached Sir Galahad and at his feet laid a broken horn, the sibling of which Galahad had seen upon the head of the benevolent cow the night before.
“A great gift,” said the Lady. “The very horn that pierced the eye of Wyrm the Terrible, Corrupter of the Earth. She once broke herself to give it. Now he has given it to you. Take it up. Carry it with you. It will serve you faithfully.”
“And what of Sir Walter?”
But when Galahad turned, Sir Walter and the Hound were far afield, side by side, dwindling into the sunrise, for behold: though land was healed, the Forest Wyld was riven in twain, its darkness broken forever by the Lady’s sword.
“The tales are yours now. Tell them well. The Earth will need them before the end. May they bind the world together in their golden threads. You will not see us again until the newness of all things is at hand. Fare thee well, Sir Galahad. Godspeed.”
Sir Galahad watched until the feathered Knight, and the Dog, and the great Lady had ventured wholly into the brightness of the risen sun. Then he turned, and he went his way in wonder.