( Only Name the Quest )
“Run! . . . Run, you scaredy cat! The king will always beat you, Zoltan! And all your dumb ugly creatures too! Ha! Just one of Arthur’s knights is better than your whole stupid army! Ha, ha ha haaaa!” Joby laughed in unrestrained exultation, brandishing his wooden sword from the castle walls as the humiliated enemy fled yet another great battle in disarray.
“Joooooby! . . . Joby?”
Joby’s shoulders slumped, but he ignored his mother’s voice and waved his sword once more at the fleeing horde. “I’ve got better monsters than you out of my cereal!” he hollered in contempt.
“Joby. I know you can hear me,” his mother called, from the side yard this time. “Did you leave all this stuff on the driveway again?”
It was the kind of question Joby had never figured out how, or why, he was supposed to answer.
“I don’t think so,” he called back lamely, turning reluctantly from the battlefield beyond their backyard fence.
His mother came around the corner of the house carrying a large disk of cardboard in one hand, painted yellow, a red dragon scrawled uncertainly at its center, a banged-up book in the other hand, and a tattered red bedspread draped over her arm.
“It must have been some other knight then,” she said with the grim half smile that meant she was annoyed, but not enough to cause him any real trouble.
Joby remembered having left these encumberments behind in the heat of battle, but, like any knight worth his salt, he knew when to keep his own counsel. Did she really think warriors could run around cleaning up in the middle of a battle? Girls could be so pathetic!
His mother set his book, cape, and shield on the lawn in front of him and said, “If you do find the knight who left these there, please point out that your father could have driven right over them when he comes home. Unless that other knight wants tire tracks added to his family crest, he should find someplace better to leave his things.” Her grin widened. She seemed very pleased with herself for no reason Joby could see, but since this meant he was in even less trouble than he’d thought, he obliged her by grinning back. “You might also tell him,” his mother added, “how tired I get of reminding Arthur’s knights not to leave their things where someone will break a leg on them.”
Her grin faded as she reached up to tuck a stray lock of mahogany hair behind her ear, and went back to whatever she’d been doing.
“Break a leg on them,” Joby scoffed quietly, stooping to pick up his things. She always said that, as if people were out there snapping limbs off on every little thing they passed. His toys, his books, his trading cards, even his underwear? Heaving a long-suffering sigh, he went back to the fence, dragging his cape behind him. God help his mother if she ever got into a real battle. She’d find out in a hurry how much more damage a mace could do than any pair of underpants she’d ever seen.
After looking hopefully out over the battlements again, Joby sadly decided that the enemy had truly given up and gone away. He slumped down against the fence, and wondered what to do, almost glad school was starting again soon. He’d heard terrifying stories about what fifth- and sixth-graders did to fourth-graders at recess—especially during the first few weeks; but he was practically dying to be an “upperclassman” at last. For one thing, he’d finally be allowed to play dodgeball! Sadly, all that was two weeks off yet. Practically forever. At the moment, it seemed practically forever just until lunch.
Almost unconsciously, he opened the book, his most sacred possession; the dog-eared, grime-smeared, finger-smudged, broken-spined, long since loose-leafed tome around which his entire cosmology revolved: A Child’s Treasury of Arthurian Tales. It had been a gift from his grampa, entrusted to his parents on the day he was born; and the very map and outline of his boyish soul had formed slowly around its contents. Even after nine years of punishing use, a marvelous smell still wafted from its pages whenever it was opened, like some pungent musty incense rising from within the cathedral of his most secret, joyful dreams.
It had long since ceased to matter what page he opened to. Just lifting the Treasury’s battered cover transported Joby instantly to Arthur’s vast, shadowed throne room, dappled in misty rays of jeweled illumination streaming from stained-glass windows high above his head. He waited, as always, on one knee before the High King’s dais, his eyes cast respectfully toward the black-and-white marble floor tiles at his feet, his heart filled with the kind of urgent devotion that perhaps only a child can countenance—though here he was no child. Sir Joby was a knight; handsome, brave, and loyal, awaiting, as always, some new adventure in service of the glorious Roundtable and its beloved lord.
At Arthur’s command, Sir Joby had battled countless tyrants and terrible beasts, withstood searing temptations, and defeated devious wizards, armed with nothing but unyielding faith and courage. In victory, Sir Joby felt his liege lord’s approval like a shimmering song through his entire being. And on those rare occasions when the beasts proved too fierce, the wizards too crafty, or the temptations too great, Joby had only to call out for rescue, knowing that Arthur would instantly appear with whatever feats of skill or miraculous power were required to save the day. Joby’s heroic liege lord, his finest friend, had never failed him, nor ever would.
“My King,” Joby whispered, eyes closed in delicious expectation over the open book, quoting lines he’d long since memorized, “I would serve you with my life. Only name the quest.”
Michael sat alone on the bright summer headlands, gazing out to sea, as still and silent as another pale outcrop of weathered coastal stone. Out wandering the dun-colored cliffs two days before, he had suddenly been taken by the sparkle of afternoon sunlight on the restless Pacific surge beneath him, and sat down to watch awhile. He had neither slept, nor moved, nor blinked since that moment, but had given his entire attention to the theater of water, sky, and stone constantly transformed before him by starlight, moonlight, and sunlight in the dark breathless hours before dawn . . . and day and dusk and night and dawn again.
He had served his Master here for nearly two hundred years, and still the novelty of so much beauty so completely unmarred by the Dark One’s touch had yet to wear thin for him—which is not to say that angels are easily entertained, only that they find more meaning in the least fragment of shell or surf-polished glass than the most appreciative mortal mind might draw from a Russian novel or a week at the Grand Canyon.
His eyes and the summer sea passed a single shade of blue between them, back and forth, back and forth; a private and familiar rhyme shared by friends too long and well acquainted to have need of words. Back and forth, back and forth: his long ruddy-gold hair matched the tall dry grass around him, step for gentle step, in a long soft dance called by the warm wind sighing past them, headed north. He eavesdropped as the ocean whispered sweet cool nothings to distract the land while slyly dragging smooth round stones, one upon another, off the beach into its deep and secret pockets. Back and forth, back and forth; the world around him swayed to rhythms with which he seemed to sway as well, despite his utter stillness.
This reverie was finally broken by a thin column of pale smoke rising from a distant beach hidden behind the cliffs. It was Michael’s charge to know what passed in this favored place, down to the silent flutter of moth wings at any evening porch light in the village. But when he cast his quizzical awareness toward the beach, he sensed no one where logic told him someone ought to be. A moment later, above the spot where he’d been sitting, a white gull wheeled on updrafts and turned to glide swiftly toward the mystery.
Arriving there, Michael spread his wings and landed gracefully well down the strand from a grizzled old fisherman in heavy, salt-stained waders, standing at the ocean’s edge, patiently watching the tip of his long pole. Higher up the beach, a small driftwood fire blazed cheerfully in its ring of smooth gray stones.
Maintaining his disguise, Michael aimed another mental probe. This time the man registered perfectly, his long life wound and stretched within him. A child’s simple pleasures; laughing adolescent mischief; early loves; earnest youthful dreams and ambitions; a radiant woman’s beaming face; a child held; flashes of joy, gratitude, and pride; moments of affection, fear, and wonder; griefs endured; losses survived; arrangements made; acceptance; in time contentment; and finally . . . the deep and lasting peace that comes to some fortunate few with age. A remarkably lovely life, but nothing unexpected within a very fortunate old man’s memory. Yet Michael’s concern remained.
The old man’s presence should have been as easily detected before. There was nowhere he could have gone to or come from in the few moments it had taken Michael to fly from where he’d first seen smoke. He probed the old man’s mind again. Such broad passion and earthy understanding gradually unfolded amidst the small triumphs and crises of a modest life well and wisely lived. It all seemed too perfectly complete. Too beautifully drawn. Whatever the old man was, Michael felt certain he was not what he seemed; and the presence in this protected refuge of anyone pretending so well to be what he was not could only spell very serious trouble.
The old man reeled in his heavily weighted line, then cast it out again, seeming to relish the labor. An angel’s eyes are quick and keen, and Michael’s concern suddenly dissolved. He laughed a gull’s shrill staccato laugh, spread his wings, and flew to the fisherman’s side, where he resumed his human form.
Seeming unstartled by the bird’s sudden transformation, the old man merely grimaced in good-natured chagrin.
“Welcome, My Lord.” Michael smiled. “I confess, You took me by surprise.”
This seemed to please the ancient angler, deepening the leathery filigree of wrinkles around His wide gray eyes into a crinkled smile that barely brushed His lips.
“How’d you guess?” He grumbled.
“Your illusion was too perfect,” Michael replied, “though perhaps a moment late in coming. Then You reeled Your line in, and I saw You had . . . ,” he smiled, “no bait.”
The old man shrugged. “So? Sneaky buggers tease the bait off all the time.”
“Nor even any hook, My Lord,” Michael chided. “I know few others so in love with fishing for its own sake that even the hook is dispensable.”
“Wanna know the secret of long life?” the grizzled old man asked gruffly.
“Assuredly, Lord,” Michael replied with as straight a face as he could manage.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff.” The Creator eyed Michael sagely for a moment, then barked an old man’s raspy laugh. “Saw that on a bumper sticker comin’ over here. Ain’t that a good one? Don’t sweat the small stuff.” He shook His scruffy head in bemusement. “Too bad the stress-case drivin’ that car doesn’t read his own liter’ture.” He looked joyfully at Michael then. “My friend,” He said with soft but fierce affection. “It’s so good to see you after so much time.” He reached up to grip Michael’s wide shoulders firmly in His weathered hands. “You look happy.”
“I am,” Michael replied, quietly. “Any sadness I feel is reserved for the world beyond this place. To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure, Lord?”
“Let’s talk over breakfast,” the Creator said, nodding toward His little fire. “Had some coffee with Gabe a while ago, but I didn’t get a lot to eat.”
“With pleasure,” Michael replied, following Him toward the fire ring. “But . . . what shall we breakfast on?”
“Fish, of course,” the old man replied as if Michael hadn’t the sense God gave him. “Fried up fresh with garlic salt and lemon!” He produced a large unblemished lemon and a pale blue saltshaker from one of His small pockets.
“But I see no fish, Lord,” Michael teased. “Did the ‘sneaky buggers’ refuse to hold Your empty line bravely in their teeth while You reeled it in?”
The old man’s answer came suddenly, from the air, as a line of pelicans swept in above the beach, each dropping a fish at their feet as it passed. The fourth and last of these offerings, not a small fish, hit Michael squarely on the head before bouncing limply to the sand beside him.
“That,” the old man said with ill-concealed mirth, “is for doubtin’ My skill as a fisherman.” He took a large frying pan from the same small pocket, and placed it on the fire.
“I’m sure I never doubted any such thing!” Michael laughed, raking silver scales from his hair, and handing the somehow already gutted and cleaned fish to God.
“You doubtin’ My word again?” the Creator retorted, laying them in the somehow already greased pan, and seasoning them.
“I doubt You not at all.” Michael smiled back, warming to the game.
“I know,” the old man said, his manner suddenly devoid of play, though no less affectionate. “I trust you too, Michael. I’m countin’ on that trust just now.”
“How could I behold all this,” Michael insisted, arms spread wide at the scene around him, “and not trust the One who made it?”
“You’ve got it pretty bad for this place, haven’t you, Michael.”
“It’s surely the fairest place left on this continent,” the angel answered. “I’ve come to love the villagers; especially the children. . . . What’s wrong, My Lord? Do you need me elsewhere? I confess, I’ll miss them terribly; but if You ask it, I will gladly—”
“No,” the Creator assured him softly. “You’ll be needed here worse than ever now.” He turned a troubled countenance toward the horizon. “Michael . . . I mean to let our old enemy—yours and mine—in on the secret of this place, and . . . well, more or less let him do what he likes about it.”
There was a moment of stunned silence. Even angels can be surprised.
“This?” Michael whispered at last in something close to disbelief. “You’re giving it to him?” He searched the timeworn face his Master wore, able, barely, to accept, but not to understand. “Have we done something to displease You, Lord?”
“Heavens no!” the old man rasped.
“Then why?” Michael pled.
“This morning, I agreed to join that old lamprey in a certain wager. You’ll know the one, I expect.”
“And this place was forfeit? This morning . . . and he’s already won? How—”
“Course not,” God growled, patiently. “I haven’t even named my candidate yet. This place is as unknown to him as it ever was. But that’ll have to change before much longer.” The old man’s fog-colored eyes fell full on Michael. “Still trust Me, friend?”
Michael’s consternation dissolved into contrition. “Of course, My Lord. As much as ever. It’s just that . . .” He bowed his head, gazing first at the sand between his feet, then at the fire where their fish were burning. “You have taken me badly by surprise.”
“I’m sorry, Michael . . . deeply sorry. There are reasons. You know Me at least that well. . . . You also know how damned little I can say about it. That slippery eel claims I’ve compromised the wager; I’ll have to forfeit. None of us wants that—’specially this time. I only came to warn you and make sure that when the storm blows in you make no move to stop it, even though the poor lad’s wake’ll surely be full of sharks and worse. You’ve guarded this place well, My friend. You have My heartfelt thanks. But when he comes, you’ll have to let the whole filthy cargo come ashore with him. That’s about all I can say. You, better than most, know the usual rules of this engagement.”
“Then . . . I may do nothing,” the angel pleaded, “but stand and watch all we love here trampled by that pestilent boar?”
“There’s times it doesn’t serve our friends to fight their battles for ’em, Michael.”
“But, who here knows the first thing about fighting?” Michael pressed in frustration. “Half of them are utter innocents! The rest are refugees! They’ll be helpless as feathers in a gale! If I’m forbidden to interfere—”
“With the candidate, Michael. Don’t go belly up on Me now. The folks here are still under your care. The wager don’t change that. You’ve many years by their reckoning. Mustn’t tell them of the wager itself, of course. That would be blatant grounds for defaulting to Old Sulfur Stacks. But there’s no law sayin’ you can’t teach your little flock to read the weather, and rig a tarp or two against the smell of rain.”
Michael’s troubled heart grew calmer as understanding dawned. “That much I will surely do,” he answered grimly.
“Good. . . . I don’t mean to sound insensitive, Michael, but I haven’t seen your wits this addled since that old blowfish made war on Heaven.”
Then something else occurred to Michael. “Are they to lose the Cup then?”
“No,” the Creator said. “It stays, if they can keep it.” He sighed heavily, and looked up at the sky in consternation, or a damn good impression of it. “I’ve got pretty deep faith in the boats I build,” he said. Then, more quietly, “May they have faith in Me.”
“How am I to know when it is time to step aside?” Michael asked.
“You’ll know him when the time comes,” the Creator said sadly. “He’ll be pretty banged up and full of leaks by then, I imagine. But you’ll know him. ’Til then, keep guarding the borders, and teach the villagers . . . something of caution. Once it starts, everyone’s on their own.”
There was a long silence on the beach then. Even the surf seemed pensive.
“He’ll need a friend, Michael. Awful bad, I expect. A whole fleet of friends, if he can find ’em. That’ll likely be harder than it sounds, by then.” The Creator looked out to sea, and Michael wondered if it were tears he saw in the fisherman’s rough gray eyes, or just the watery seep of old age. “You should see him now,” the old man sighed. “You’d love him, Michael. You’d love him fiercely.”
They were tears, all right. And Michael understood them all too well.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark J. Ferrari. All rights reserved.