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Holy Week

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In the Old Testament stories, God never sends word to His prophets before He makes them prophets. They’re ordinary men, shepherds and tenders of trees, quiet men, unimportant men. Until He calls them, they go about their lives unaware that there is anything remarkably holy about them.

Until God called him, Galahad supposes he was the same. He remembers when he was a child growing up in the convent--he doesn’t remember his mother at all, but the nuns told him she brought him when he was very young. Sister Catherine, who was better with children, took care of him; he remembers her kneeling in front of him while he only came up to her shoulders, brushing his yellow hair and dressing him in his white habit.

He was quiet--he must always have been quiet. He remembers Palm Sunday when he was a child, when the nuns of the convent would gather in the courtyard to process into the chapel with arms full of reeds. Of course they couldn’t have palms, but the reeds, and fresh branches of pine and fir, suited well enough for thirty women, the priest who led services, and Galahad. He remembers solemnly waving his handful of reeds and the little sweeping branch of fir he would put on the path into the chapel to invite Jesus to travel in.

Thirteen years ago, he hadn’t yet been called by God. It was only a celebration because there was so much noise and hymns and the brief respite from the Lenten fast. Now that God sends angels to speak to him, Galahad can’t think about any of the holidays without knowing their whole meaning. Nothing is just a clamour of music and sweet smells any more.

Palm Sunday in Camelot is celebrated with a feast, and a procession early in the morning. It isn’t the whole point of the day, and half the knights sleep through it. Galahad understands--he thinks he understands. When he was a child, if the nuns hadn’t woken him, he might have done the same thing. But when the morning dawns cool and clear, without even April mist to temper it, and he goes to the chapel with a scattering of the more religious knights and a good deal of the townsfolk, watching the children process with their own small bundles of reeds, he wonders what it’s like to watch this without knowing.

The children don’t feel the hot imprint in their hands, or hear the rustle of palms and the shouting. He isn’t even sure, at this moment, whether they know that they’re welcoming Jesus in to die.

On Maundy Thursday, even in Camelot, everyone gathers in the chapel to have their feet washed. Arthur does it himself, to humble himself, bearing in mind the words of the Christ: the master who does the work of a servant. Galahad watches them going forward.

Kay, the king’s brother, looks gruff and uncomfortable as Arthur tenderly washes him. Gawain smiles brightly. Peredur, Peredur whom Galahad loves with the love of a disciple for Jesus himself, is eager and unashamed and ready, as he always is. Mordred isn’t there, and Galahad can’t fault him for that, because he wishes he weren’t there either, when Lancelot goes forward and Arthur washes his feet and kisses them when they’re dried.

It is no secret that Lancelot is betraying Arthur with his own queen, but Arthur is as gentle as if they were brothers. Galahad can’t understand. He tries to, but he truly can’t. Beside him, Peredur squeezes his fingers, a firm and steady touch that Galahad anchors himself to desperately. Peredur is like his map for the world of men.

When he was a child, the priest would wash the feet of all the nuns. They weren’t allowed to do it themselves, just as they weren’t allowed to lead their own services. The priest, though, was old and his back and knees hurt him, so he let Sister Margaret help him, and she was the one who knelt down on the stone chapel floor and took Galahad into her lap to wash him.

Sister Margaret was always tired and always worn-looking, but on Maundy Thursday she washed everyone’s feet, her hands as careful as if she were illuminating a manuscript. She crossed Galahad before she let him go back to his pew, three crosses in the water: one on his forehead, one on his lips, and one on his chest. Keep, O Lord, the thoughts of my mind, the words of my lips, and love of my heart for your name’s sake.

When he was twelve years old, God called him, as He called Samuel, out of the darkness while Galahad lay in his bed.

In the convent the world was easy to navigate. He got up for prayers, for matins, vespers, and compline, he trained with weapons because God told him he was meant to be a knight. The nuns let him alone, once he grew too old to be an innocent. No one bothered him when his sadness fell on him and he had to lie for hours on his pallet in his cell, watching the wall, counting the bricks, trying to keep breathing. He could sit outside and talk to God and no one thought it strange.

Now there are all sorts of things to be understood--unkindness, spite, new routines, people who don’t understand when he has to be alone, and fathers who commit treason against their king and are loved anyway.

On Good Friday, Galahad kneels in the chapel and prays with all his heart. He and Peredur are fasting, along with Bors and Lionel, although they don’t speak to each other. Peredur left him in the chapel after kissing him on both cheeks and making Galahad promise to come to his room after he’s done praying.

In the convent on Good Friday all the crosses and crucifixes were covered with black cloth. The cross on the altar was shrouded, and all the usual ornaments of the sacristy were taken away. The service was a long, sombre one, and all the hymns were sad ones, the funeral service for the Lord.

It was always a day when Galahad’s sadness was worst. After the service he had to sit by himself on one of the pews with his head in his hands, trying to discern why God had chosen him to do anything, when he so often sinned through despair. He had had God’s visitations for so many years. Sometimes he saw angels who spoke to him and told him God’s will, and sometimes saints, and sometimes the Lord Himself. They all told him what his life was to be, and Galahad did as he was told.

Amos said to the priests, I am not a prophet. I am not even a prophet’s son. I am a herdsman, and a tender of sycamore trees. Galahad is even less than that. He is the son of a deceiver and an adulterer, a bastard child born to an unhappy woman, who grew up so far out of the world that he can’t climb back into it. He wishes he had sycamores to tend, quiet trees and a quiet home. His only saving grace is that God hasn’t asked him to be a prophet; it’s easier to be a warrior. He can hide his face under his helmet, mask himself in his armour, and do battle for God’s honour. When the time comes, he’ll ride out, and give his life for the glory of God.

He won’t have a family, he won’t grow old. But God has promised him Peredur, at least, and a lady to fight for (he’s sure it’s Mary), to be his footholds on this mountain.

Peredur is the only one in Camelot to know that God talks to Galahad. Peredur understands. He watches Galahad with his big simple eyes that know so much and tells Galahad he’s brave for doing all of God’s wishes for so long.

But Galahad doesn’t feel brave. He feels tired and sad.

On Holy Saturday they go on fasting. Galahad has begun to feel dizzy and light-headed, and Peredur takes advantage to tease him. He hangs upside down by his knees in a tree in the Queen’s orchard, and swings back and forth, making Galahad sick to his stomach.

“What’s your favourite? Mine’s Easter. I mean, they’re all good, but none of ‘em would mean anything without Easter. Even Christmas, yeah?” He grins at Galahad upside down.

“Pentecost,” Galahad murmurs, looking away.

“Oh, that’s a good one. All that red, just as fiery as anything.”

He laughs. “The church set aflame.”

“A Godly fire, though! Anyway, wait ‘til you meet Heli. Her hair’s the same colour as mine, but she can wear red just fine. And she makes rolls for breakin’ your fast on Easter. The best rolls. And she always gets you up real early, so you can see the dawn, like Mary in the garden.”

“Is she perfect?” he asks--he still feels light-headed.

This time Peredur laughs at him, dropping out of the tree and landing right-side-up somehow. “Sure, of course she is. She’s my sister.”

Some of God’s prophets tell their messages loudly and fiercely, proclaiming and then disappearing into heaven in carts drawn by flames, their disciples weeping for them below--loved that deeply, in spite of everything. Galahad thinks of Hosea, ordered to marry a whore and get her with child, to show how Israel was faithless to God.

His work isn’t so thankless; it can’t be harder to do what he has to do; but he thinks sometimes that God has done something like that to him, ordered him into the world to do the things he doesn’t know how to do in order to prove something to some later scholar looking backwards.

That night he dreams of Peredur’s sister, though he’s never seen her. He dreams of her, long red hair like the Pentecost fire, clothed in a gown the colour of blood, offering him Eucharist in a strange church he can’t recognise. He kneels before her, and she tips the chalice to his lips so he can drink.

The wine tastes of iron and fire, of blood and fire, and Galahad’s breath catches in his throat with pain, but Peredur’s sister rests her cool hand on his neck and the pain eases.

“Galahad,” she says. “Don’t be afraid. Percy and me, we’ll work you through it. I know I’m not here for you yet, but I’m gonna be. You just let Percy help until I can come. Okay? To-morrow’s the Pascal Feast. You keep your heart open just like you been doing, and everything will be okay. I promise.”

In the morning he wakes, feeling less heavy than he has in years. It’s so early even Peredur isn’t up yet, so he goes and shakes him awake. “Percy. It’s Easter.”

Peredur grins at him sleepily from his mattress. “Huh, already?”

“Yes.”

“Well, good. Christ is risen.”

“The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.”

“Time for Communion yet?”

“I don’t think anyone is awake yet. Just us, and the servants.”

Peredur sits up excitedly. “Let’s go see if the sun’s up!”

It isn’t, not fully. They stand on the edge of the gardens, watching it rise in a flood of watered-out colours, yellows and off-whites and a hint of faded orange. When they finally turn to go back inside, Galahad asks,

“Your sister--do you think she’ll ever come to Camelot?”

“I dunno. I’d like it if she did. It’s been a real long time since I seen her.”

Galahad tries to keep back a wistful look, but he isn’t sure he manages. God has instructed him to be pure, to be chaste, above all. Even if Peredur’s sister does come--even if she truly is as welcoming as she was in his dream--he’d never be able to court her, to win her, to love her. Those are things other knights may do with their ladies, not him. His purpose is to wear his white shield and his white linen and never to tie any woman’s colours on his arm.

Peredur leans on his arm for a moment, friendly. “She’d like you a lot.”

“How do you know?”

“’Cause I do!” he says contentedly, as if this is all the answer Galahad would ever need in the world.

They take the Eucharist in the little chapel, but this morning, unlike Good Friday, it’s full with the entire court. Even Mordred is there, although his black look shows he’s not comfortable. Galahad remembers that the Orkneys are still largely pagan in practise, and supposes that Mordred’s only trying to make Sir Gawain happy by attending.

For once, though, he feels at peace. It doesn’t bother him that he’s hemmed in on every side by men and ladies, and he doesn’t feel stripped naked when he goes up to take the host and wine. Even when the taste of the host on his tongue makes his hands and feet ache with nails that aren’t there, even when he feels the sharp bite of the spear in his side, and the prick of thorns in his hair, and the lash on his shoulders, he keeps his head bowed and swallows. Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they that trust in Him!

He’ll always feel these things when no other man does. He can’t be a child any more, and wave his fir branch without knowing what it means. Even the prophets who protest become prophets, and those that don’t become Jonahs, damning the people around them while they hide in the bellies of boats.

After services there’s to be a feast, but Galahad only manages one glass of wine before he’s too sleepy to endure it--between his restless sleep, his early waking, and the fasting, it proves too much. He slips out with only a few excuses, and goes back to his room to read his Bible.

It’s late in the evening when he wakes again, and he’s on his own mattress, instead of the chair where he fell asleep, and Peredur is curled up beside him like a dog at its master’s feet. Galahad feels a warmth in his body that’s far less painful than the burn of the wine in his dream. He strokes Peredur’s mop of red hair, tangled and curly.

When he was a child, he didn’t understand, not really, how Christ could love the whole world so entirely that He was willing to be beaten and hanged for its sake. He didn’t even understand what it was like to love one person so much. He isn’t an innocent any more. God doesn’t hide what will happen to him. But Jesus was welcomed and loved before He died, and after He died He rose again, and Peredur is right: without that nothing else would have any meaning.

And Galahad-- Galahad will never be betrayed.

To be loved, even by one man, and then to die for God is not so terrible a life. He is certainly no Christ. But he has the knowledge of Christ that no prophet before Him ever had, and he has a beloved disciple who will never leave him.

Galahad pulls Peredur closer to him, and lies still giving thanks to God until he falls asleep again.