(You may wish to read the first episode, in which Sir Percival and his companion set out on the River of Story to bring the Grail to a Fisher King in need of healing, and the second episode, in which our wanderers brave rough waters. You may also wish to read Percival’s first appearance in 2006.)
The knight and his author made their way down the Delaware River, across two centuries, and catty-corner from winter to summer. “Is it this one?” Percival asked when the next creek poured in from the west.
The author squinted upstream, tasted the wind. “No.” They paddled on. “Look, I’ve got no quarrel with your king. He was probably the best game in town at the time.”
“I just don’t see how you can disbelieve in kings after seeing your General Washington for yourself. If any man after Arthur was kingly enough to have pulled the sword from the stone, it would be…”
“This one,” said the author. She leaned west to listen for something. “Yes, this is definitely our tributary.”
The creek poured from a concrete pipe whose diameter beat Percival’s height by two handspans. “Do we go in?”
“Let’s try portaging first.”
So they stepped out into a gulping mud that swallowed the author’s right shoe and left both travelers mud-spattered to the waist. Hefting the boat shoulder-high, they followed the outside of the concrete pipe to its start, where the tributary sparkled over its bed of smooth stones.
“Upstream,” sighed the author.
“Of course,” Percival said brightly. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Their muscles burned. Their elbows crackled. Summer air, wet with the green breath of trees, clung to them.
Trees, and gardens. The creek marked the line between two endless rows of suburban backyards.
It shallowed and shallowed as the travelers hauled their way upstream. At last, when the kayak scraped bottom with every paddlestroke, they passed under a footbridge, and a voice hailed them. Then many voices.
On a broad lawn stood a crowd of people in mourning black, some of them bedecked in the jet and amber beads of responsibility. Percival knew them. The Fishers.
“Oh, no,” said the author.
“Too late,” said Percival.
Three women he recognized from the quest at the old Grail Castle stood at the water’s edge. They reached their arms down to steady the boat, and then to steady the author, who staggered muddily into their embrace.
“I thought I’d bring…” she stammered. “I was trying to… What took us so long was…”
“Stop,” one of the queens said, her smile kind and weary. “This isn’t the El Mundo Bueno any of us expected, but it does seem to be El Mundo Bueno after all.”
Percival thanked a young man for stepping into the shallows to steady the boat, and let an older man give him a hand up. They knew him, welcomed him, showed him to a table heavy with summer’s berries and homemade bread.
He offered them the Grail in turn, and they raised toasts of starwater, one after another, to the man who had blessed them with the most peaceful, most loving death any of them had ever witnessed. When I go, let me go just as he did, said the Fishers. When I go, do for me what we did for him. And they told stories of the songs they’d sung in hospice, the care they’d given the Fisher King and one another in the last long hours, the fragrant oils with which they had anointed his body. Going gentle into that good night looks pretty good after all, one of them said. And another: I never saw anything like it, nor expected to. I’ll always miss him, but this was right.
When the cup came to the author, all she could say was, “As he liked to tell us, what is remembered lives.”
Hours later, with enough stories told and all the summer berries eaten, someone sang “The Parting Glass,” and the mourners began drifting home.
Percival still held the ultimate parting glass. The Grail was full. The Grail was always full. The starlight from that place with the great stone kings lingered in it, and he hoped the light might become canonical, or at least a variant he could count on in times of need.
What need that might be, he was no longer sure. He went to confer with the author, who had flipped the kayak onto the bank to examine a long, leaky split up the blue plastic hull.
“I think that…” he began. “That is, I wonder. For your people, I seem to be more psychopomp than healer. Maybe you shouldn’t call me again for anyone who stands a chance at recovery.”
“I’d been wondering the same thing,” she said, peering up at him, her spectacles speckled with mud. “But if a day comes when I’m struggling for breath in hospice, when the people who care about me need you…”
“Long and far may that day be.”
“Yes,” she said. “Long and far. Will you come then?”
“What was true the first time will always be true. You can call me to bring the Grail. All you have to do is tell the story.” He poured starwater over the hull of the kayak, and the split healed smoothly over. “Good little boat.”
“It’s yours,” she said. “You’ll want it, to get home.”
“And to paddle for the cure. Would it be all right if I joined your kin for that again?”
“Any September you like.”
She held the boat steady one last time for him. With just one paddler’s weight to carry, the kayak skimmed lightly above the pebbled creekbed. He ducked under the footbridge and let the current lend him speed.
Percival took a deep breath, then threw his weight hard to the side in a half Eskimo roll, to see what story waited for him on the other side of the surface.