Lily Maid

Sunday, December 13th, 2015

 

"On either side the river lie

Long fields of barley and of rye,

That clothe the world and meet the sky;

And thro' the field the road runs by

            To many-tower'd Camelot;

And up and down the people go,

Gazing where the lilies blow

Round an island there below,

            The island of Shalott."

 

           I stand in the river, feeling its coolness surround me. My dress blossoms around me, floating as the water streams past. I can see the fish beneath the water - their scales brush against my skin, rough and smooth at the same time. I grasp a lily, sniff its white petals - surround myself in its heady perfume. As I look up towards the blue sky, I spy dust on the road, a shaking within the fields of grain along the river. Sighing, I gather myself together, stepping out of the water. I place my cloak over my dripping dress, and begin the trudge back to Astolat.

 

           As I walk, I think. From my earliest childhood, I have always lived near the water. My father is the lord of Astolat. My mother, before she died, used to love to walk with me along the river. She named me Elaine for the way the light shone off of the river. I have bathed in the river's water since I was able to walk. And I know that, someday, the water will take me away from Astolat, never to return.

           I set one foot before the other on the dusty road to Astolat. Normally nothing comes out to us. We are on the far coastline of this tiny island nation. But today, someone - or something - has decided to come and find us and disturb our peaceful existence.

           I sigh and, picking up my skirts, endeavor to walk a little faster.

 

           It is a knight on horseback. That is what has caused the commotion. I stand and stare at the man as he is hoisted down, his armor so heavy that he cannot climb off by himself. My father's servants crowd around him, offering him refreshment, the chance to remove his armor, to rest his head - but he waves his hand to force them away. He pats his horse on the neck, and then walks towards the door, his helm still covering his face.

 

           I cannot help but be fascinated by this mysterious knight who has appeared on our step. His shield is not one that anyone recognizes, not even my brother, who knows the crest of every knight in the official annals by heart.

           "This man must be newly knighted and testing his strength," he informs me. "Either that, or he's a well-known knight in disguise."

           I wait to give my own judgment until I meet him myself.

 

           I take extra care in preparing for our evening meal. I choose a dress to flatter my natural coloring, and brush my auburn hair until it glows. I smile at myself in the polished copper before me, and approve of what I see reflected back.

           I step gracefully down to the small chamber my father has chosen for our meal, just outside of his great library. The guards open the doors, and I enter silently, a talent acquired from many years of walking on rush floors.

           My father and brother are in deep discussion with our guest. My brother turns to me and smiles - this man is kind, he seems to say. I step forward a single step, but wait behind, unwilling to interrupt their conversation. My father only turns around when he hears the door boom shut behind me.

           My father appears glad to see me. "Daughter!" he calls out, and extends his arms. I gladly step forward into his embrace, safe for a moment from all fears. In the midst of my peace, a single fear comes, unbidden, to my mind - that one day, when he clasps me so, it will be because I am no longer among the living - but I shake the feeling of gloom from my mind and smile up at my father.

           He turns to our guest. "Sir Lancelot, my daughter, Elaine of Astolot."

           As I curtsy, I peer through my hair at the guest. He is fair, with dark hair curling at his temples. His eyes are surveying me as I rise, piercing green underneath his furrowed brows. When he notices that I am looking at him - examining him - his lips curve into a smile that I have never before seen on a person, woman or man, a combination of happiness and sadness. I straighten, and, my welcome done, turn and bid the men come to table.

           As we eat, I learn more about the knight's quest. He has been charged by his lady to attend a tourney not far from our holdings, but he wishes to prove his mettle and compete under a different shield than normal. He also bids my father and brother to tell no one that he is at our land - if the king learned of what he planned, then his hopes would be ruined. My brother and father nod in assent.

           I cannot keep my eyes from this knight's face as I eat. Despite everything within me telling me not to, I look up multiple times to see him looking back at me in a puzzled manner. Each time I catch him looking at me, I feel a hot flush creep up and cover my face. I do not know what it is about this man that has affected me so. But something about him draws me closer - it pulls me towards him.

           The meal ends, and we leave for our rooms. I turn in towards my apartments, when the knight calls me back.

           "My lady!" echoes through the hall, even though he only whispered it.

           I turn my face half back, and he grasps my hand. "You look so very much like my own lady," he tells me. I blush. "Perhaps, someday, we will meet again, but in better circumstances." I nod, pull my hand away, and leave.

 

           As I lie in bed, I wonder - why does my heart beat faster when I think of him?

 

           I ask my brother to tell me of Sir Lancelot. Who is he? What has he done that is of renown? I have no knowledge of this man.

           "He is the greatest knight of the king's circle," my brother tells me. "He has defeated many enemies and saved our people hundreds of times over. He is said to be very faithful to the true faith. But most of all, he is known as a champion of women, especially of the queen. He is her special favorite."

           I nod, and wander away to think about what I have learned.

 

           I stop the knight on the walk outside. I hand him my token. I ask him to take it and wear it during the tourney.

           His rough hands brush mine for just a moment as he grasps the fragile silk, and I jump. It is as if electricity passed through his fingertips. I am sure that I have been burned. But he examines the pattern of waves and lilies on the white cloth, and nods. He smiles and tucks it away.

           I stand there, stock still and frozen in place until he leaves. Then I sigh and walk.

 

           I walk to the river and stand within the water. I don't know what I feel for this visitor. But I would have him stay forever. The lilies gather around me as I kneel on the river bottom. The coolness reaches my chest, swaying me back and forth.

           Here I am calm.

           Here I am Elaine.

           Here I am complete.

 

           He leaves for the tourney with my brother. I beg them both not to go. I fear for them. I know something will go wrong. They both laugh it off.

            As they ride away, I see a bit of white cloth flashing in the wind.

 

            My brother rides back to me.

            "He is injured," he says. "Lancelot is hurt. In the woods. I cannot help him."

            I look up and silently nod. I will go to him.

 

            I have tended him for so long that I do not remember what the sun looks like anymore. I find it within the smile Lancelot gives me each time he wakes up. I do not remember the feeling of water. I drown in green each time Lancelot opens his eyes. I do not remember what lilies smell like. I find a better smell in the fleshy odor of bandages and the sweet smell of ointment, which permeate the room and remind me that I am still needed.

            He cannot survive without me. He is mine and I am his.

 

            Lancelot returns with me to Astolat to recover completely. I walk with him to the river. I do not take him in, but show him the lilies along the banks.

            "Guinevere always smells of lilies," he murmurs.

            I pretend I do not hear him. We keep walking.

 

            He is desperate to return to court.

            I cannot let him leave.

            I return to the river. I remove my outer gown, stepping in with only my underclothes on. I fall to my knees, and then lean backwards - the dead man's float. I bob up and down with the waves, thinking.

            I cannot lose him. He is all I have now. All I have devoted myself to for so many months. He cannot leave.

            I smell lilies on the air.

 

            I do something unspeakable. I ask the witch Morgana for help. At one time she had gone by another name - some say that she was the king's half-sister. It matters not.

            She enters my apartments proud, her gowns swishing on the rushes.

            I give her my request.

            Her eyebrows raise, but she nods, pulling out a vial from her sleeves.

            "It is only good for one use," she warns me. "Once you have what you wish, leave. Its powers do not last forever."

            I nod.

            She bows slightly, and leaves.

 

            I wait anxiously for nightfall. I choose a gown - blood red with a white girdle. I select the jewels I wish to wear. I have my maids twist my hair in a complicated manner - one that I have heard is popular at court.

            Once it is dark, I pull out the vial and unstop it. The room fills with the scent of lilies.

            I place Morgana's gift within my hair, behind my ears, on my wrists - everywhere I think it might be effective. I dress quickly, and turn to the copper to see my reflection.

            I am blurred. Where normally I can see myself, I see a shadow-self imposed. When I move, she moves, too.

            I smile, and move towards the door.

 

            He answers his door sleepily. But it only takes the smell of lilies to make him more aware.

            "Guinevere?" he murmurs, still drunk with sleep.

            "Silence," I say, touching his lips lightly with my finger. "We have much to discuss tonight." And I step within his room and close the door silently behind me.

 

            I awaken to warmth. I blink, and then realize what has happened.

            I did not leave. I am still in his rooms. And, as I wave my hands before my face, Morgana's gift has worn off. I am completely vulnerable.

            I try to slide his arm from around me and escape. But he awakens.

            The disgust and horror on his face is unmistakable.

            Before he can say anything, I grasp my gown and flee.

 

            He leaves that day, and I have never been so glad to see a man leave before.

 

            I feel changes within me. But I cannot tell my father what has happened.

            I go to Morgana. I cannot understand why she would do such a thing to me. Why she would curse me with another life, when all I wanted was to be loved.

            She looks at me sadly.

            "I did warn you," she says, "that it would not last."

 

            I return to the river. But I am so heavy that I cannot wade in much further than my ankles. Tadpoles nibble at my feet. The coolness does not calm me as it used to.

            I want answers for what has happened. I want him to return.

            After everything, I think, I still care about him.

            I sigh, and move slowly back up the bank, back towards Astolat.

            Back towards my prison.

 

            The baby coos in its crib next to me, but I cannot stand to look at it. Its little mewling face is too similar to his. Its little shock of hair curls just as his did. It has his eyes, his lips.

            At least it has my nose.

            I contribute something, at least.

            I ask to go to the river, but the maids attending me laugh. They send me back to bed - my prisoner's pallet - and tell me to sleep instead.

 

            I cannot sleep, like so many nights now. I stand next to the window of my room, staring at its reflection in the copper across the room.

            When I look outside, I think to myself, bad things happen. Don't look outside.

            But then I do, because I can hear the river gurgling and the birds singing. And, sighing, I climb back into bed.

 

            I send him a message.

            Come acknowledge your son, I say. He is at a monastery here. He is training to be a knight like you.

            What I want to say: He looks like you. Except his hair is the same color as mine. And he does not love the man who abandoned him. Come and make him love you.

            Like I still do.

 

            I wait. Every moment seems like an eternity of waiting.

           

            I long to go down to the river. I ask my father when he comes into my room.

            "By dishonoring me, you have lost any possibility of leaving my sight," he tells me.

            I offer to let him accompany me. Or have maids accompany me. Anything to get out of this accursed tower.

            He shakes his head no, and leaves.

           

            I throw myself at the door, desperate to get out. Surely someone knows that I am here. I am not forgotten, am I?

            I call for my brother, my father, my son.

            I call for my mother.

            I call for my knight.

            No one comes.

           

            I weep.

 

            I receive a response to my message. He will not come. He refuses to see his son - the product of sin, he calls him. I know better. My son is a great man. Or he will be, one day.

            I lie on my bed, thinking about that visit. And suddenly, I know that, one day, they will meet, no matter how much he doesn't want it to happen. Because my son will replace him as the greatest knight.

            My son.

            My son, Galahad.

            I smile, and slowly drift off to sleep.

 

            I cannot remain in the tower any longer. But there is no way to escape.

 

            I begin to weave a tapestry to pass the time. One that, when I am gone, will tell what happened. Each image tells my story.

            I am completely caught up in the task of weaving my life into the fabric. Here, I can tell my story without words being used. I am pouring my heart into the threads, my sorrow into the shuttle moving back and forth. Here, I can speak for all time.

 

            I weave.

 

            I reach the final panel of the tapestry. But I do not know what to place there. Because my life has not ended yet. Nor has this story.

            Sighing, I set the tapestry aside. Someday, I will finish it.

 

            My father begins to leave the door unlocked at night. He doesn't see me as a threat anymore.

            The maids whisper stories about the Lily Maid in the tower - the enchanted princess that they have never met. They beg me to tell them my story, ask what knight errant I fell in love with, desire the story of how I became locked in this tower.

            I do not have the heart to destroy their dreams.

            So I tell them nothing.

 

            I cannot stand this imprisonment much longer.

 

            I run.

            I push through the door - past the startled guards, who only see a blur of white as I streak by, past the maids at the foot of the stairs, who think they have spied a ghost and shriek.

            I run to the river.

            The water is cooling. I walk further and further in.

            Ankle height.

            Knee height.

            Hip height.

            Waist height.

            Chest height.

            Neck height.

            Then I lean back.

            Dead man's float.

            I am still in my full gowns. I should have taken one off.

            Too late now.

            As I look up at the moon and the water gurgles around me, I smell the lilies.

           

            Finally, at peace.

 

"Who is this? and what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they cross'd themselves for fear,
           All the knights at Camelot:
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, 'She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
           The Lady of Shalott.'"