John M. Gist‘s creative nonfiction and short stories have appeared in publications such as the Dr. T.J Eckleburg Review, PIF, Superstition Review, Gravel, Wilderness House, Pithead Chapel, Prick of the Spindle, Left Curve, Academic Questions, New Mexico Magazine and many others. With an M.F.A from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, he teaches creative writing at sunny Western New Mexico University.
The Redcrosse Knight
“I fain would follow love, if that could be;
I needs must follow death, who calls for me;
Call and I follow, I follow! Let me die.”
― Alfred Lord Tennyson
I knew Arthur not always, but long before you.
And, before him, with another knight, a red Cross
emblazoned upon his shield, rode I, a dwarf,
with Una, a lady lovelier even than you, Gwenhwyfar,
her hair golden as dew on daffodils in early morning sun.
Questing for a dragon plaguing the fair lady’s
realm, her royal parents’ castle rendered into hermitage;
the land, once fertile, then fallow, finally barren from
dragon’s breath scorching seed with sulfuric heat.
Gloriana, the greatest glorious Queen of Faerie Land,
tasked an elfin knight to quell the stuff of dreams and nightmares.
Yes, Gwenhwyfar, it is true, dragons and faeries
then roamed realities free from confines of imagination,
and this worm ravaged for want of a hero who might
quench its fiery desire with God’s righteous wrath.
No fairytale this, my Queen, know what I say not
that way. Flying serpents and Faerie Queens and, yes,
God: real they stood, their blood spilt on earth, in water,
and over the rough wood of the Cross. A seeming dream now,
before the death of our dear King Arthur, your husband,
my liege, but once they were as real as the walls of this convent.
Do you believe in God, fair Gwenhwyfar, or did you flee
to the shelter of this nunnery for reasons other than divine?
I believed, once, as most dwarves do, and I had faith
in Arthur, too. Now? I know not. And you? Silence
sprouts meaning when words cannot. We are alike, then,
caught betwixt two worlds in paralyzed perplexity:
Metaxy. Are we torn asunder to be for lack of motility?
Not then: I remember that driving rain, the Redcrosse Knight,
the Lady Una and I, a forest green thick sheltering us three
from a sudden storm. Like magic the sky cleared to cool blue.
Dewdrops of rain dripped from needles of pine like liquified
diamonds spiraling bits of sunlight into wet gold.
Lost in paradise, we wandered through the wood to and fro
until a cave we came upon. Black mouthed it opened before
us like a devil’s yawn. Lady Una warned the knight away with,
“This is Errour’s Den, a monster dreadful, whom God
and man does hate: therefore I read beware.” I, too,
urged him flatly, “Fly, fool, this is no place to die.”
He listened not and entered that shadowy hole,
and I behind him, loyal to duty as dictated by youth.
A stench of some foul rot lambasted us both, and tears of fear
blurred my vision. Redcrosse Knight pressed into the black
mire until he came upon it: a revolting creature and her brood
of sucklings warmed by fiendish heat fueled from lava
deep in Earthen bowels. The monster, half-serpent
horribly displayed, the other half woman resembled, a vile
vision of filth painted by the putrid eye of a befouled painter.
She lay lolling over an oily flat rock as her thousand sinister
offspring, tiny and wyrd, wriggled at the beast’s poison teats.
Startled by the elfin knight, the miscreants burrowed
into their mother’s mouth hole and there disappeared.
Light from the sunset outside the cavern penetrated darkness,
clung like love to the red Cross on the elfin shield and shocked
the snake-thing that craved black night and blindness and mold
into anger, so that she hissed and struck quick to silence
the barking of the rabid light rattling inside her foul brain.
Redcrosse Knight dodged her lunge, swiped his sword and uprooted
a protruding fang from the hag-thing’s pale gum so that she sibilated
some speech that stunk like death. The poison sack behind the tooth
burst. Beads of crimson juice befouled the oily floors of the cavern.
If the cursed creature could have made sense with words, it might have
wailed the name of the demon father who had abandoned it to the darkness
so long ago. It did not. No, Gwenhwyfar, it did no such thing.
Instead the snake-thing slouched slowly, slime of venom in its wake,
to the knight and offered up its neck. I was there. I know it true.
The Redcrosse Knight drew a dagger, the silver blade sharp
and thin, from his belt and plunged it into the monster’s open eye,
the pupil a putrid yellow, an eye that, for an instant, swear I,
found peace in the point of the knife that promised oblivion.
The beast sighed one last time then shuddered. Redcrosse
Knight fell to a knee, dropped the blade, and made the sign
of the Cross over Errour’s corpse, hoping, I guess, praying,
that the mercy of God might extend even to the most abominable
of creations. It was then, Gwenhwyfar, that the bitch’s brood,
that legion of wyrd worms, wriggled like maggots on fire in the glow
of light cast down from the red Cross on the knight’s stout shield.
They were hungry, my Queen, starving with sorrow and so the clutch
began to devour their dam, noshing her flesh like a cloud
of carnivorous gnats at a sacrificial bloodletting.
It was then, dear lady, without doubt I knew: this world
is of blood and bone and the one sure cure for evil is the blade.
Arthur knew this too. And now he is gone. God save us,
if God there be, or let me die and sink into sweet forgetfulness.