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The Kind of Guy He Was

Part III

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Part I
Part II

Gringolett, who had been standing in a stall for three days, was all for setting out at a brisk pace. Gawain, however, for reason's of his own, preferred a somewhat slower pace. The two opposing wills clashed and compromised on a steady walk. Nonetheless, a time eventually came when they arrived at the immediate environs of the Green Chapel.

They knew they were getting near because their two combined sets of ears (that would be four total) picked up a sound which is familiar to anybody whose livelihood depends on sharpened steel tools - the sound of a metal edge being applied to a rapidly spinning stone wheel. Also, there was a notably hearty voice raised in a merry, if morbid, song.
(sung to the tune of "Camptown Races.")

"I'm gonna lop off Sir Gawain's head today, do da, do da.
I'm gonna lop off Sir Gawain's head today, oh do da day."

Gringolett shook his head vigorously in sympathy. Gawain kind of loosened up on the reins a bit and sat quietly for a moment, but just for a moment. Then he briskly rubbed his neck and slid off the saddle. He walked into the clearing directly in front of the Green Chapel.

The Green Chapel, by the way, was a picturesque little stone church with a big set of oak doors with big iron hinges in front and some very pretty ivy climbing up the walls. Nowadays it is a little visited tourist attraction in the North of Wales, but back then almost nobody ever went there. You gotta wonder why anybody'd build a church out there in the middle of nowhere, but, judging from the medieval literature I've read, it seems to have been a very common practice. Most likely it kept the property taxes down.

Well...

There in the middle of the clearing in front of the Green Chapel was the Green Knight, in full armor (minus the helmet). His back was to Gawain, and he was planted on a little three legged stool hunched over a grindstone putting the finishing touch on the edge of a big green axe. Incongruously, a cute little green lamb stood next to him watching the rotating wheel and beeping mildly, occasionally bleating out a bit of harmony to the do-da song.

Gawain stood politely for a few moments, head slightly bowed, helmet in hand. After about fifteen minutes he decided it was about time to be noticed, not that he was in a big hurry or anything, but sometimes the waiting is worse than the thing itself, a chunk of wisdom which Gawain had been chewing on for the past year.

"Err hruhh, hrr hrr," croaked Gawain, clearing his throat (an interesting preliminary to having it cut into two roughly equal pieces).

The Green Knight touched up the edge of his axe on the rotating stone one more time, slowly lifted it to the level of his eyes, and flicked his thumb over the cutting surface. Then, apparently satisfied, he hoisted it to his shoulder, and taking his own sweet time, slowly turned to face Gawain.

"Well, well. Looky who's here," he said. "If it isn't Gawain. Have a nice trip?"

"Weather was a bit chilly for the time of year. The accommodations along the way could definitely use an overhaul, although the castle I stayed at the last couple of nights was five stars all the way."

The conversation died just then, and, without leaving a will, the death was a bit awkward. The Green Knight and Gawain stood facing each other for a few uncomfortable moments. Gawain was waiting for the Green Knight to say something, but he wasn't obliging. When the waiting got to the point where Gawain couldn't wait any more, he forced himself to swallow once, hard, for old time's sake, and spoke.

"Well?"

The Green Knight looked him up and down, then looked deep into Gawain's eyes. Gawain forced himself to look back, but his own eyes kept wanting to wander over to the axe which was exercising a profound attraction over his psyche.

The eyes, it is said, are the keys to the soul. If that is true, then Gawain's soul was keyed to the axe which was soon to be employed in the sloppy task of separating said soul from body.

Noticing where Gawain's eyes were tending to travel, the Green Knight's eyes and mouth collaborated in breaking into a smile - a smile which was surprisingly devoid of the degree of sinisterness which one would expect a guy like the Green Knight to be showing in these circumstances. In fact, the smile produced a feeling in Gawain not unlike that produced when the sun suddenly and unexpectedly comes out from behind a black cloud. Gawain, unable to account to himself for the sudden pleasant feeling so produced, stubbornly pretended not to notice.

"Shall we get on with it?" asked the Green Knight pleasantly. "Just lay your head on that block of wood over there. Try to relax. This won't take but a moment."

Mustering up all the dignity he could muster (which was a considerable amount) Gawain stepped over to the block so indicated, slowly knelt down, and placed his head upon it.

From the unusual angle in which Gawain was forced to view the proceedings, he watched as the tree-like legs of the Green Knight planted themselves firmly to one side. Gawain saw the axe momentarily poised in front of his face, and watched as it was lifted out of his field of vision. He valiantly resisted the urge to turn his head and follow it's progress through the air, where it came to rest above the Green Knight's right shoulder. There was a whistling sound, the blade descended at a rate of about 65 miles per hour, and bit into the flesh of that beautiful neck, biting through skin, muscle, bone and trachea. Her head dropped into the basket, and a crimson fount of blood gushed forth soaking those who had paid the extra money for a front row seat...

Whoops.

Sorry.

Those last two sentences are for the piece I am writing on Marie Antoinette (you know, "Let them eat cake..."). I don't know how they got in here, but they don't really fit.

Uhmm... Let me see... OK... Here goes...

There was a whistling sound, the moon bladed edge of the axe descended at a rate of about 65 miles per hour, and, with a loud "Thunk" buried itself into the wood block an eight of an inch from Gawain's sweating neck. This is the point at which some guys would loose control of their bowels, but, fortunately, Gawain wasn't that kind of guy. He did, however, loose control over his arms and back long enough to push himself up from the block and look around for the Green Knight. Gawain found him just where he expected him to be, although it took a while to focus. The Green knight waited politely until the panic was safely concealed within Gawain's head, then spoke.

"Settle down, kid. That was just the warm up stroke. Put your head back and hold still. You don't want me to do a sloppy job, do you?"

Gawain took a really, really deep breath and forced himself to assume the position.

Again, the axe appeared in Gawain's visual field for a moment, jerked upward, paused in the air, emitted a disconcerting whistling and...

"Thunk!"

...buried itself in the wood block one sixteenth of an inch from Gawain's neck. This time Gawain's body got him all the way to his feet and forced him to ball up his hands into fists before Gawain himself was able to reassert control. When his eyes had reconciled themselves to seeing clearly again, Gawain beheld the Green Knight standing before him, legs braced, axe resting on the ground before him, both meaty hands propped on the butt end of the shaft, head tilted slightly to one side, mouth held in that peculiar way some people have of indicating a smile without actually showing one, looking at Gawain.

"Come on, lad," he said. "Third time lucky."

Against his better judgment, Gawain forced his much abused nerves to conform to his will. He knelt down before the block, and bent his own head back into the fatal place.

There are some things in life that you only get to see once, if at all. To even dream that such a thing could be seen a second time is the kind of dream that can tear the fabric of the universe into little shreds of ectoplasm and ether, and send them blowing away into the uncharted regions of the Ginnungagap. This was one of those things. I thank all the powers and principalities of the cosmos that I was able to see it just this once. Such men of power and mastery as Gawain was proving himself to be, way out there in the middle of nowhere, with no witnesses other than a little green lamb and a great big green guy, and you, and me, are, I fear, gone from the world. I miss them. Is there not a spell that can be spoken, a rune that can be written, a sacrifice that can be made to bring them back? If not, maybe it's time for the end of all things.

But I will tell you a secret.

I have heard the first syllable of that spell keening on a bitter winter wind. In my dreams I have seen the first jagged stroke of that rune carven in a block of granite as big as the sun. Such men - and women - are coming back, now, when we most need them. Perhaps even as I type this they are lying in cradles in humble homes, gathering up their strength. And the only sacrifice we have to make is to remove our collective asses from the comfort of the couch, tear our eyes away from that useless mind fucker that has imprisoned our hearts and souls for so long, and to raise our children on a steady diet of the tales of the great men and women who used to populate the back issues of our cultural heritage - before the vast and terrible enchantment caught us. It isn't too late.

And I say it's about time.

Once more the fatal sequence was repeated. Once more the vision of that awful axe, lifted into the air, the whistling wind, and...

"Thunk!"

...the blade struck wood. And Gawain's neck.

There was brief pain, and blood. And Gawain marveled for a moment that his eyes could still see, and his ears could still hear. He wondered how long it would last.

The axe had bitten into his neck, but, oddly, only one thirty-second of an inch, just a scratch along the right side. Gawain's arms and legs realized that he wasn't dead just a short time before Gawain's own self realized it. While his legs were busy lifting him from the ground, his arms were occupied in seizing his helmet (Pembridge style. Circa 1350) and chucking it at the grinning face of the Green Knight.

In that sudden clearness of vision that so often comes in the same box as the sudden realization that you're not dead, Gawain noticed that the Green Knight was no longer green. Nor was he quite so big as he had been. The Green Knight was now, in fact, Berciliac.

Berciliac caught Gawain's helmet lightly in his off hand, looked at it a moment, burst out with one of his characteristic hearty laughs and tossed the thing into the air. He caught it on it's return trip to earth, looked at it momentarily with uncharacteristic introspection, and walked over to Gawain, at which time he handed it back.

"By God, sir, you'll not hack at me again!" bellowed Gawain while trying to fumble his helmet onto his head and simultaneously grabbing at his sword hilt (editorial note: if you go back and review the text, dear reader, you will note that this is the first, and only, time Gawain availed himself of the punctuation mark denoting an excited utterance. This indicates the extreme tension Gawain was under at this time. Thist is this kind of thing that lifts writing from mere tale-telling into the realm of literature, and gives rise to endless sophomore literary essays. It is, of course, a subtle thing, and I point it out at this time to save you the trouble of having to hunt it up the night before your essay is due).

Berciliac clapped him a good one on the back, simultaneously forcing Gawain's hind quarters into a seated position on the wood block.

"Wait here a sec, son, I'll be right back," he said mildly.

Berciliac ducked into the Green Chapel and came out a moment later with a bottle of Old Bushmill's and two tiny glasses (you gotta love the Irish). He poured out a couple of fingers into each glass, handed one to Gawain, and raised his own while looking at Gawain over the rim.

"Drink up, Gawain, it'll even you out a bit."

When Gawain was at last able to speak again without resorting to exclamation marks, he uttered the medieval equivalent of "So what the hell was that all about?"

"Well, it's like this..." Berciliac started, the words rolling slowly off his tongue and through his lips like little damp bowling balls. As he spoke he looked down at the ground, a little (but not a lot) sheepishly. As a matter of fact, in the spot he was looking was the little green lamb, sitting with it's forehooves neatly folded like a Catholic schoolgirl, head cocked slightly to one side as if following the conversation, looking decidedly... uhm... sheepish.

"The, uh..., the, uhm..., the thing is that I really don't understand a lot of what's going on myself. It's like, sometimes, the world, or the universe, or nature, or something, sets up these little dramas. I have absolutely no idea of why it's set up, or who sets it up, or even if there is anyone behind it all at all. I don't even know who I work for, or if I work for anyone, or for anything! But I can't deny that it happens. And, obviously, neither can you. What I can tell you about, though, is my role in the whole thing.

"You had made a raw deal. You were determined to keep it, even though it would mean your death. But you had made the deal in public, and you might have just kept it through vanity. So you were offered a secret opportunity to prove what kind of guy you are - Sweetie Pie. One last fling, behind everybody's back. Three times it was offered.

"The first stroke of the axe was for the first offering. You did well, so I held the axe from your neck. The second stroke of the axe was for your second temptation. You did well there too, so I held back the axe. That third time, though... well, you didn't exactly fail, but ..."

At this point, Berciliac reached under Gawain's tassets, grabbed hold of Sweetie Pie's green garter, gave it a good yank and let go. It snapped against Gawain's southward cheek hard enough to make him yelp and raise an angry red welt.

"... you didn't quite pass, either."

Gawain leapt to his feet and spun to face Berciliac. His face was that red color you get when you leave a chunk of iron in the fire for a good, long time, and he looked like he was about ready to take a hard swipe at that particularly hairy face before him. Berciliac didn't move a muscle. He just sat there, looking at Gawain intently. They were frozen like this for quite some time (regarded subjectively, of course. Objectively, it was a tiny fraction of a second). Suddenly, Gawain exploded into action.

"Ha! Ha ha! Ha, ah ha ah ha! Ha ha ha!" Gawain burst out (notice the exclamation mark thing again. Don't forget to include this in your essay as well. It might just stretch the writing out to the three pages you were assigned. Use a lot of quotes).

Berciliac, who had been absent mindedly scratching the little green lamb behind the ears while he watched Gawain to find out how Gawain was going to take the garter snap, did also (Berciliac bursting into laughter was not at all unlike the tire on a large truck bursting out into rubber. Pieces fly everywhere. So it was with the Ha! Ha!'s). Had it not been for the head of the little lamb resting on his leg, I believe he would have toppled over backward and lain there with his legs kicking in the air. As it was, he just rocked lot.

"So... all along..." Gawain began...

"Yup," sayeth Berciliac.

"Then..."

"Uh huh."

"So..., Sweetie Pie wasn't really...?"

"Why don't you ask her," asked Berciliac, suppressing a laugh while inclining his head toward the little green lamb who, Gawain was startled to discover, was no longer a little green lamb, but Sweetie Pie herself, wearing a renaissance fair style princess hat and resting her head on Berciliac's knee.

"Well,..." she said, "...you're sorta cute..."

Berciliac was still working hard, trying to keep his good humor in check for the sake of politeness. It might have been better to just cut loose because when a big, hairy man turns all red in the face and begins to make snorting noises while little bits of saliva fly from his mouth... Well, it's just not a good thing to see.

He looked up quickly at Gawain, saw the look on Gawain's face caused by Sweetie Pie's words, and cut loose in one of those legendary guffaws that are so impressive that they can only happen once or twice in the history of any one country. His laugh was so deep, so powerful, and so full of good humor that it shot into the stratosphere, bounced around there for four hundred years, and eventually came to rest in the Caribbean where it gave rise to the famous pirate expression "Shiver me timbers" (I don't know where that "Arrrggggh" thing came from. Maybe Monty Python in The Long John Silver Sketch). And Gawain, and Sweetie Pie, laughed as well.

So then, to make a long story just a hair shorter, Berciliac and Sweetie Pie took Gawain back to the castle, showed him a very good (if respectable) time, and packed him off to Camelot. When he showed up at the door, his mates, naturally, all wanted to hear the story. And he told it to them then, exactly as I've told it to you here. Even the embarrassing part about him wearing women's underwear to his near death experience.

And they laughed at him, pretty hard. And do you know what? Gawain laughed right along with them, because that's the kind of guy he was.

P.S. I am informed by reliable sources that, for many years thereafter, it was the custom in Camelot for any lady, when she was really, really in love with a guy, to wear a green garter belt the first night, in remembrance of Gawain's most famous adventure. A quaint and lovely custom I would like to see revived.

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