Synaesthesia Magazine Green - Page 39

I smelled him before I saw him, the stinging-nettle barb of him burning the inside of my nose. Next would come the laugh, I knew, and then the cold wind that would raise my neck hairs, but nobody else’s. I knew his cloak of hair and his giant axe would draw no curious or terrified looks; not one person would laugh, or sneer, or ask him where the party was. He would pass through the crowd like a wave thick with seaweed, washing people out of his way with a gentleness that belied his size, unseen and unremarked. I gripped my glass tight as I felt his tread, each step pounding on my heart. I took a gulp of beer. It tasted like piss, long left to settle, but I swallowed it down regardless. I lowered my eyes to the gnarled, stained tabletop as he turned the corner.

‘And here he is!’ His voice was a blade in the dark. ‘The pearl among men. The right hand of the King.’

‘Bertilak,’ I said, wiping the beer-froth from my beard. I must’ve grimaced as I placed my feet to rise. My pains were worse in cold weather.

‘Do not trouble yourself,’ he laughed. He slammed himself down on a creaking stool, facing me across a table that yearned, I knew, to put forth leaves. I could feel it long to touch his skin. I met his gaze, and he laid his axe on the table between us without a word. I saw he’d sharpened it in honour of our meeting. He always did.

‘Has it been a year already?’ I asked. He grinned at my words, rolling his reddish eyes around the room. I saw him notice the carved wooden faces in every corner, the curled beards filled with leaves and pine cones, the deep-set eyes so like his own. ‘I see you’ve retained your sense of humour,’ he boomed, ignoring my stupid question.

‘It’s as good a place as any for our meeting,’ I replied. ‘True,’ he said, laughing. ‘Though I hope there’s enough room to swing.’ My throat froze with sudden fear as I took another mouthful of beer.

‘If there is not,’ I said, hearing the sourness in my own words, ‘I’m sure you’ll make it so.’ He chuckled.

‘Yes? Perhaps.’ He reached out a hand to stroke the wooden wall. A tiny sprout burst forth from it and licked him as though the entire room was a favoured dog, curled at its master’s feet after the hunt. I was outnumbered here.

‘They’ve forgotten us, you know,’ I murmured, gazing

into my beer. The clamour of life continued all around us, oblivious to our presence. ‘Our legend. Its meaning. All they remember is my failure.’

‘You did not fail, Gawain,’ he said, his voice warm, amused. ‘You did more than any man could have.’

‘But it wasn’t enough.’ I took another drink.

‘Nothing could be, for you,’ he observed, his hand returning to the table to rest gently upon his axe.

‘Did you know?’ I asked, struggling to contain the sudden swell beneath my throat. ‘Did you know what you were doing when you tested me?’

‘My friend,’ he said, frowning. ‘You tested yourself. You are the one who was not content to leave things as they were. Do you remember differently?’

‘I remember humiliation,’ I said, my long journey back to court shimmering in front of my eyes. It had been hundreds of years, but I would never forget. ‘I remember being tricked, chastised like a child, and sent home to my King with my honour in tatters.’ I had to fight for breath, suddenly. ‘I remember the scar you gave me, and how it burned.’

‘And you thought challenging me again would lessen your pain?’ Someone had placed a brimming tankard in front of him, I saw. The smell alone was intoxicating.

‘I thought a second challenge would kill you,’ I said, simply. ‘But I should have listened to Arthur. He knew what you were.’

‘And what am I?’ He drank deep and looked at me with steady eyes.

‘Something which cannot be beaten,’ I said.

‘My friend,’ he asked, after a moment. ‘Why did you come here? You have nothing to prove.’

‘Our pact,’ I replied. ‘You granted me all the chances I wanted, in exchange for this night. I keep my word.’

‘But it has been a game,’ he said, raising his hands. All trace of his good humour was gone now. ‘Just a game. There is no dishonour here.’

‘My lord,’ I said. ‘That is untrue.’ His eyes burned into mine. Time passed, the room creaking around us like a wooden heart.

‘You recall our original terms,’ he said, when he was ready. ‘Any show of cowardice…’

‘Means you claim my head. Yes,’ I replied. ‘Yes, I remember.’

‘And you will not release me from this burden?’

‘I will not, my lord.’

‘If I refuse to strike?’ His fists were clenched on top of the table. It quivered under his touch.

‘You will not.’ I was sure of that.

‘I cannot…’ he began.

‘I am ready,’ I interrupted. I stood, making my way slowly around the table to stand in the middle of the room. He lifted his axe and planted its handle on the floor. Using it like a crutch, he rose. The hair of his head

flowed over the ceiling above me. His eyes were lightning, and his skin sunlight on water. I told myself I was not afraid.

‘You are holding me to my word,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I must.’

I saw his fingers settle themselves on the handle of the axe, the same one I had wielded against him time after time. I knew its weight, its balance. Knew it could not miss.

‘Is it sharp?’ I asked.

‘It would split a nun from her underdrawers so smoothly, she wouldn’t miss a word of her Pater Noster,’ he replied with a faint grin.

‘Then, let’s begin,’ I said, kneeling on the bare floor at his feet. My fear tasted like a sword on my tongue.

‘This is unnecessary,’ I heard him say. ‘I had a lesson to teach you, and you learned it long ago.’

I remained kneeling, knowing he could see me trembling. He could probably hear my heartbeat. For all I knew, he could read my mind, too.

Then, he heaved a sigh as he hefted his weapon, and I knew I didn’t have long to wait. I had been here before. A beat, and then I flinched as the blade began to fall, in full knowledge of what it would mean. He swung his axe away, his breaths ragged and wild.

‘Please, my Knight,’ I heard him say. ‘Do not force my hand.’

I nodded, once, and took a breath. I felt the air move as he swung again, and I ducked my head, covering it with my hands.

‘Oh, my friend,’ he said, mournfully.

‘Please, my lord,’ I said, my voice tight. ‘Just do your duty now.’

I heard the floorboards creak beneath his feet as he adjusted his stance. I imagined him weighting the axe in his hands, knowing I had left him no choice. I imagined his hair bursting into leaf, the veins flowing from his scalp like sap through a stem. I watched, through my closed eyes, as his feet grew roots and his skin began to gleam, the greenness growing over him like smooth, fast-moving lichen. His strength was a fire at my back, the power of him soaking through my clothes to my cold flesh. His was the colour of life and death, the colour of growth and decay. He was the Green Knight.

And his axe was finally poised to take off my head.

I stilled my muscles. My heart pounded with my breaths, and my mind flickered as I waited. I saw the blade’s edge biting into the boards beneath me. The dull thump my severed head would make as it hit the wooden floor; the groaning breath of my friend as he bent to pick it up.

The freedom of finally being beyond the terms of the promise I had made when I was too young to know

better. I stretched out my neck.

The blade fell.

When he dug me up, his emerald fingers parting the soil like the roots of a giant tree, his touch was gentle. He wiped the earth out of my eyes, and breathed for me until I could do it alone. I coughed, the pain a liquid fire around my heart.

‘You cannot trick me so easily,’ he said. ‘Now, our pact is done.’

I freed a hand that didn’t yet feel like my own, and ran clumsy fingers round my neck. It took me several long minutes to see, through encrusted eyes, that I lay brightly green amid the darkness of the soil, freshly grown. My head, the seed, he had planted deep.

Sinéad O'Hart writes flash fiction and short stories for children and adults, and is currently working on a novel for younger readers. She blogs daily at http://sjohart.wordpress.com about her reading and writing life. She was longlisted for the Irish Writers' Centre Novel Fair 2013 and the Fish Flash Fiction Prize 2013, and her stories can be found all over the place, including in The Bohemyth, Number Eleven Magazine and wordlegs. Follow her on Twitter @SJOHart.