“You’re a saint,” Sagramore says.
“I’m a sinner. I shouldn’t be here. I should leave now.” Galahad looks away, his fingers clenching on the cross that hangs around his neck.
“You’re the only one who can save me,” he says, more softly, and Galahad has to lift his face, has to lift his eyes.
He shouldn’t be here--that he does know, that of all the places he shouldn’t be, Sagramore’s bed is among the worst. He has a vow of chastity to uphold, a vow his father couldn’t. He has to be the man his father isn’t. He’d get up now and run if Sagramore weren’t watching him like the Magdalen watched Christ, asking him for his help.
“What do you need from me?” He kneels among the sheets, his tunic white as a martyr’s shroud, his golden hair indistinct at the edges like a halo of light. Sagramore is dark, in skin, in eyes, in beard, in clothes, exotic as oranges or dates or fruits of wisdom in a holy garden. “Why did you ask me to come to you? Why are you leading me into these things?”
“Because I’m dying from within myself outward,” Sagramore says, as simply as if he were telling Galahad where he’d stabled his horse.
Galahad has never had a friend besides Peredur of the forest, let alone a lover. He has never even had a father, if he were honest with himself--no father besides God. Lancelot is a man he doesn’t know and can’t face, a man he wishes he could look on with disdain, but whom he fears worse than being alone. Sometimes he knows that without Peredur he’d be too weak to do any of the things he has to do, because the loneliness would kill him, and he understands what Sagramore means when he speaks of dying from within. Sometimes at the convent his heart would feel so heavy he couldn’t move the rest of his body, and he would lie in his little cot watching the sunlight patterns on the wall and wondering whether God was turning him into stone as a punishment for some crime he couldn’t put a name to.
Even now that he has Peredur those mornings still dawn on him, and he can’t rise up until Peredur comes and sits by him and lets him settle with the stone of his heart. Peredur’s prayers, his Welsh-brogue catechisms, are the only thing that anchor Galahad here. Otherwise he knows he would be lost in the knowledge of God and his own incompetence in the world of man and nothing would stop him from lying in bed until he dried up and blew away like dust he was made from.
Sometimes, guiltily, secretly, he wishes he could have a lover, like other men. Perhaps that carnal sin would give him a foothold in this world he doesn’t understand, and allow him to make his way through it with purpose, real purpose. Because he is--O God!--he is so afraid.
The nuns in the convent taught him Hebrew, Latin and Greek to read the Bibles they copied on vellum, alive with calligraphy and letters that turned into animals and trees. The apostle Mark wrote that the Christ was afraid, and he holds that to his heart.
Jesus died screaming, but he died for God.
“Are you listening to me?” Sagramore asks, tipping Galahad’s chin with his fingers. “Are you afraid of me?”
“I’m glad you came.”
Sometimes Galahad dreams of making Peredur his lover. Moses instructs the priests not to lie with men, but Galahad is no priest--Galahad is only a seeker, a servant; he is a Jonah, given a task to complete and nothing further. He will lead no one. The disciples ate heads on grain on the Sabbath when they were hungry, and his millstone heart is as hungry as any man who has fasted all the Sabbaths of his life.
But Peredur is beautiful and pure and wondrous. Peredur is as innocent as Galahad himself, but he has no fear of the world. He can speak to other men as a man, and sport with his friends, and love his God. If Galahad dared to be so blasphemous, he might think that Peredur was the Christ come again, God’s second son. He cannot make unrighteous a man like Peredur, and he shouldn’t even think it.
Sagramore--Sagramore is already unrighteous. He never speaks of God, but he’s from some country over the water, and the darkness in his skin is the mark of some other religion, as with Palomides.
Galahad shouldn’t be here. He shouldn’t allow this, shouldn’t allow Sagramore to sit before him like a supplicant. It’s permissible to be tempted, but one must then resist. Sagramore is half-naked, dressed only in trousers, his soft curly beard and his soft curly hair as black as the world before God called upon the light. His mouth is smiling a little. Galahad should go.
“I’m alone,” Sagramore says. “I have no one. And I’m sick--don’t tell me anyone in this whole castle doesn’t know I’m sick. I wonder whether I’m dying. No one can ever tell me for certain. Do you know what frightens me more than anything in the world?”
Galahad shakes his head, and Sagramore leans forward, his cheek beside Galahad’s, his faintly smiling mouth at Galahad’s ear.
“I am afraid I am going to die alone.”
“I’m afraid being alone will make me die,” Galahad says, before he can stop himself. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to trust God as I should. I’m afraid I won’t be brave enough. I’m afraid that when I am asked to die I won’t have any reason to wonder what would happen if I answered no.”
Sagramore kisses him, swift and tender, like a serpent with a honeyed tongue. His hands clasp Galahad’s waist and he pulls him close, breaching his mouth with no more difficulty than Galahad would have to recite a psalm. In the space of a few moments he has Galahad’s tunic off and discarded on the floor, and Galahad is on his back in Sagramore’s bed, gazing up at him.
Sagramore lies down alongside him. His dark hands are gentler than Galahad expected--somehow Galahad expected to be taken roughly, the way saints always are in the stories he read in the convent. The cold metal of his cross slides across his chest in a slow arc. It wakes Galahad within.
“Wait--stop. I can’t. God won’t speak to me any more.”
“If I lie with you, God will cast me away.” He looks up; smooth and pale, naked as the Christ was when He hanged on the cross. “There has to be another way to save you. There must be another way for me to be saved. God would not allow me to become impure and still attain the Grail.”
“What will the Grail get you?”
“If you find this chalice, this cup, what will it get you? What will it get God? Why should you bother going after it?”
“I am not meant to ask questions. I am a servant.”
“You’re a frightened child.”
Galahad sits up in a rustle of sheets. “I am a servant! God directs me, and I act.”
“When I was a boy, when I was your age, the priests used to say it was God’s will for me to be sick. They told my mother to beg for forgiveness, but they weren’t above selling her holy water to cast the devil out of me. I don’t mean to say the doctors were any better; they sold bitter herbs and poultices and drinks made from the blood of warriors that they swore would make me well. But God doesn’t delight in the misery of children.”
“I’m not a child, and I’m only unhappy when I withhold myself from God.”
Sagramore strokes a hand down his body, from his chest to his belly to his groin, and Galahad chokes back a cry and the urge to lie back down and forget this, forget the talk and Sagramore’s refusal of his only answers.
But Sagramore says, “I’m sorry for what I said. Come here,” opening his arms enough for Galahad. Galahad’s fingers close again over his cross, and he gets off the bed and puts his tunic back on.
“Ask me for something else. Ask me to give up my friend for you. Ask me to exchange my own health for yours. Ask me--something else. All I have to serve God with is my body and what virtues it possesses, my strength at arms, my virginity. Don’t ask me to give you what was never my own to begin with.”
“This is about your father--”
“This was never about him!” Galahad’s voice rises sharply. “He never mattered! I never knew what he was before I came to this city--God was my father before he ever was.”
His heart, his treacherous stone heart, is weeping within him, weeping from weariness and hunger and the wanting in every direction. He wants everything he can’t have. He wants Peredur or the escape of his duties in Sagramore’s bed or to be back safely in the convent where the nuns had firm clear reassurances for all his fears. He wants the approval of his father, and he hardly could say which one. He wants to live in the world freely or he wants to die and be saved from everything he can’t understand. He wants to lie in somebody’s arms without guilt. He knows, he knows, that he can’t have all of these things or even half of them. The most he can surely hope for is the Grail, if he follows the directives God has given him.
Suddenly he feels something warm and steady around his body, his thin shoulders clasped to an equally thin chest.
“Shhh,” Sagramore says, one hand smoothing back Galahad’s golden hair. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to ask for so much.”
“It’s more than I have.”
“I know. I see that. Lie back down with me; I won’t ask you for anything.”
Galahad lets himself be drawn back to the bed, and eased onto the straw-stuffed mattress. Sagramore lies down beside him, taking Galahad once more into his arms. Galahad isn’t as tall as he is, so Sagramore’s bearded chin rests on top of his head, and Galahad can feel the bones of Sagramore’s ribcage against his back. It must be the sickness, he tells himself--he is thin from fasting and by nature, but with Sagramore it must be the sickness in his body.
He waits for Sagramore to speak, but all he hears in the dark is silence, and the breathing behind him slows and evens out. Galahad listens to the sound, and watches the casement in the far wall, where the colour of the night changes from black to shadowy grey, and slowly mellows with the course of the moon.
If I had the power of God, I would heal him. If I could mix my spit with mud to make a plaster for him--if touching the hem of my tunic would make him well, I would give him all my clothes.
He fumbles with the sheets so he can turn over and look down at Sagramore’s face.
He is a good man.
Or perhaps he isn’t. But Galahad doesn’t dare to judge him.
In the morning he’ll go to Peredur and probably pretend none of this happened, or if he speaks of it will only say he sinned. He’ll have to find a priest to whom he can confess, which is difficult sometimes in Arthur’s court where Menw, the king’s physician, is a druid, and the Merlin is wizard. Nonetheless he’ll find a priest, and have his sins purged from him.
Galahad will be pure. He’ll keep his body holy now, against all temptations. He will do God’s will, even when his heart aches, and perhaps when he has done it God will grant him the gift of Sagramore’s health. It seems like a small thing for a servant to ask.
He settles back into the bed, and Sagramore’s hand knots in his sleeve affectionately.
Amen, Galahad prays, watching the light outside change again towards dawn.