“Self-Portrait as Lancelot” by Elaine Castillo

While her father is deep in his suicide, the Lady begins to write a poem about Lancelot. But only as he appears in the romances of Chrétien de Troyes. The challenge is that she has not read Le Chevalier de la Charrette for years, and must construct her poem from memory, or lie. In the poem Lancelot is lost in a forest. He has in his possession the pocket edition of the SAS Survival Guide by John “Lofty” Wiseman. The Lady is writing the part of the poem where Lancelot is sleeping under a tree. “Survival,” Mr. Wiseman says, “is the art of staying alive.”

*

Huddled under a tree, Lancelot reads: “Before any journey or expedition ask yourself: How long will I be away? How much food and water do I need to carry? Do I have the right clothing/footwear for the climate? Should I take extras? What special equipment do I need for the terrain?” On the expedition to save Guenièvre he took whatever available horses were around, slept in the house closest to his path. Survival in epic was still a given, as was death. They needed a stage or platform then; audiences, rituals. Now, he thinks, we demand smaller and smaller rooms. The new rituals are radical in their similarity with the old ones, but have lost much of their nakedness. Lancelot flips to the section on building a shelter. A “hasty shelter.”  “In completely open plains sit with your back to the wind and pile any equipment behind you as a windbreak.” A hasty shelter is an emergency. An emergency comes out of the landscape. He uses the magical ring to see if this is a bewitchment. It is not.

*

In the story there are two deaths. The death in the dream and the other one, which is real. Unclear which dying man is the fictional character. In which case, there is only one death in the story. Numbers don’t lie, letters do everything.

*

“Clouds are the most reliable of the weather signs. There are ten main types of cloud formations.” Lancelot knows of sixty-five cloud formations, and the various omens they carry. The cloud that looks like a horse is the one you want hanging over you as you travel.  But if there are many cloud-horses this suggests a day to rest. The cloud that looks like the beard of God is also good when it is alone; but many beards of God bring certain punishment and misfortune. The low-hanging cloud that looks like a woman promises to present great moral and physical obstacles should one dare to pass beneath it. Metaphor was the reply of faith to horror. Sometimes there are clouds with no shapes, or no discernible shapes, when all is cloud and there is no sky to cast cloud into relief. And then there is no relief, either. But relief there is, never.

*

“Even after a patient is dead you can take pieces of the aorta or grafts of the skin and they continue on living.” Said Frank Gonzalez-Crussi, during a panel discussion. He was a pathologist, or is. She also took grafts of her own. His lips were chapped and so she tore some of the chapped skin away. Wrapped it several times with several folds, in a tissue, which she then placed in a hidden pocket of a handbag she does not use. A photograph, or a paragraph, is another form of grafting. Where is the deceased currently? was one of the questions the family was asked at the mortuary. Photographs and paragraphs are rooms, is not an answer.

*

“Watercourses offer a route to civilization and a life-support system along the way. Aside from the rare occasions when they suddenly disappear underground, rivers offer a clearly defined route. Where they cut through gorges it may be impossible to follow their banks–”  Once, Lancelot crossed a river on the blade of a sword. This is how they tell it. The sword was a real sword, the river a real river. They said if he fell into the river he would be taken in by the current, swept away, never to be found again. He did not fall into the river.  Or he fell into another river, later. But the river was Guenièvre, or obsession, or protocol. In chivalric romance, a river is not what is lacking. Each river represents a chapter in a story, or a wound.

Another time on his journey he found a cemetery. He asked the monk guarding the cemetery to show him the tombs. They were the future tombs of his friends. “Here will lie Gauvain, here Louis, here Yvain,” said the tombs. But there was one tomb bigger and more ornate than the others. “And what does that tomb serve for,” said Lancelot with the well-established heroic curiosity. The monk said that it was not important for Lancelot to know, for he would never see the interior. The tomb required seven of the strongest men in the world to lift its opening. It was written upon the tomb that whoever opened it alone would liberate all those imprisoned in the country. For there were many, many people imprisoned in Logres, people who had disappeared in droves. They were not labor activists or journalists or leftist students. They were peasants. Some of them were knights and ladies. They were the people of Logres who were the people of Logres. Their leader’s name is not Ferdinand Marcos but Méléagant. Guenièvre, of course, was one of the prisoners. Then Lancelot opened the tomb, si que de neant ne s’i grieve. As one opens a book.

*

Now when I think about that, Lancelot says to himself, cutting down the bough of a tree for his hasty shelter, I don’t know what to think. The leaves hang over him. He hides his face among them. Then again; not as if opening a book.

*

A nurse knocks on the door, startling the Lady. She has to climb out of the work like a lake. Good morning, Dr.–, do you know what day it is today? All the nurses address the dying man as the surgeon he was. Doctors are notoriously unpleasant patients. He smiles, a little embarrassed, with adolescent sweetness. Wednesday?

*

Some of the edible plants are white mustard, shepherd’s purse, primrose, cowslip, oxlip, dandelion, chicory, wild sorrel, buckwheat, curled dock, dead nettles, stinging nettles, ribgrass or English plantain, buck’s horn plantain, greater plantain, galingale or nut grass, cattail, flowering rush, bracken, tansy, marjoram, ramsons, borage, wild angelicas. Some parts of these may be inedible. Some parts may need to be boiled. There are poisonous parts or bitter parts or acidic parts amid the nourishing parts.  Lancelot eats everything.  He dreams of Guenièvre rejecting him. They lie together in bed and he bleeds all over her. This arouses them both. He does not feel his own pain when they kiss, or he does and rejoices in it. The electricity is broken within him, his body does not know how to speak to itself. He cannot feel his hand as a hand of his own. Only as it touches her is he aware of its life. With every push he bleeds more dramatically. The next morning she will have to lie and call it menstrual blood though in truth this is no lie.

How lost we are, needing to name things, Lancelot thought. So many people asked for my name along the way. Why do they always ask for the one thing I cannot grant? The name was a grain, I was eating it to survive. I had nothing more of it to give away.

*

Someone wrote, Distance is the place. But not in English. Someone else spoke the words, or the Lady invented them: “In my dying I must replace my cells with sentences.”

*

“Here I lie mournful with desire / feeble in bitterness of the pain gods inflicted upon me, / stuck through the bones with love.” Wrote Richmond Lattimore, translating Archílocus of Paros, who died in battle. The ultimate redundancy is a wave. Who does not die in battle.

Even or especially stuck through the bones with love. He pleads, Not another lumbar puncture. Also known as a spinal tap. Because we love you, we will not listen. Because we love you, you will have to take death into your own hands. Someone said, Hearing is the last sense we lose.

*

In the survival guide, reading the words: “Mayday (from m’aidez: French for help me),” Lancelot is indignant at this grammatical mistake.  He knows HELP ME well. Far too many people have said it to him in his own life, mostly damsels. He does not say it now.  Help me help me help me. “Almost any signal repeated three times will serve as a distress signal: three whistles, shots, or flashes of light.” Thinking, It is shocking to see the places God still coolly resides.

“Take account of the terrain. Choose high points for light signals. Erect an unusual silhouette on a ridge to attract attention.”

I have wandered into a forest, Lancelot thinks, into a forest that has wandered into me. There are women who know the unguents of the forest, but such knowledge is not taught to knights. There are only swords and swords and bleeding and occasional ass-fucking to cure loneliness or prevent pregnancy. The most unusual silhouette is the human one.

*

It was said that when Lancelot left Guenièvre after their night of love-making, he left his heart behind with her. The separation of the body and the heart is something that happens often in medieval romance. These parts were and still are easily disassembled. The chest is an echoing cave, it requires warmth. The heart is the nut it roasts. At this time Lancelot does not know what the heart looks like, or that it can continue beating even when the breath has stopped. Science is a punishment he has not yet received. The heart is still an imagined thing, held together by divine saliva. Gods of love still make their beds there.

Sometimes, towards Guenièvre, he thinks, lacking originality but not sincerity, Rip out my heart woman and eat it. Eating hearts is also something people did then. A heart is not one of the things you can eat to survive.

Though Lancelot has thought about it. Make minimal incisions to remove the heart. Soak it. Steam or boil it if healthfulness or fat consumption is a concern. Over-roast and indeed burn if crunchiness is desired. It is a matter of honor to know what you are eating. Eat. There are poisonous parts and bitter parts and acidic parts amid the nourishing parts. Eat everything.

*

His story has always been about saving and being saved. Variations of imprisonment and liberation. One of the things he would like to do before he dies is see a beach, alone. Without Guenièvre; who would probably list the fourteen different ways of drowning she had expressly invented for him. They were very precise in their instructions to each other. She said, Do your worst at this tournament, and he did so. Erroneous messages transmitted between them announced the other’s death. Each attempted suicide: one by hanging, one by starvation, which is to say, both by sexual bliss. Then the correct message arrived, replacing the first, so there was no need for death, that old comedic nugget.

Words they hung to, for dear life. They also practiced erotic asphyxiation, or talked about it. They barely saw each other. What use is an eye color?  He learned that one could be aroused by grief. When he thought Guenièvre was dead, before he decided to kill himself, the thought crossed his mind that he could live a life without her. Why do we give ourselves to other people, he thinks. But we don’t, he thinks again.

Throw me deeper into another desert, Lancelot says without speaking, I am so tired of song.

*

“The corpses of dead animals should be buried in deep graves. Dry ground can be very hard, but burying is the best way to remove these possible sources of infections.”

Lancelot has not said, I have come into the forest to die. But rather, I have gotten lost in the forest to die. Or even — I have gotten lost in the forest and given up all hope of rescue or escape. So now I am remaining in the forest to die. Presumably his horse has also wandered into the forest to die. Or has gotten out of the forest.

He dreams of crouching near a bonfire, saying to another knight, who has entered this story just at the right time, and who must at all costs become the future lover who will save his life:  This is how we are going to survive. First we need to get out of the verbal, then the visual, then the memorial. Whatever is left will guide us. Hearing is the last sense to go.

More fiction at Used Furniture.

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  1. […] or is forthcoming from PANK’s Queer Issue (story nominated for Best of the Web), Everyday Genius, Used Furniture Review, Bluestem Magazine, and Sink Review. Beginning in February, she will be attending a  free (!) […]

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