The Knight of the Golden Rose
I never once doubted the stories of wizards, dragons, and heroic knights that my mother used to tell me every night while mending my father's tattered clothes.
She had listened to the tales from her own mother, who in turn learned from her family, all in an unbroken line of mythical hand-me-downs that I was thrilled to inherit, even if the other villagers said they stopped believing in that nonsense as soon as the local lord came to demand food, and no incantation of legend was able to make the crops grow faster and the animals get fatter.
My father was a baker. Very respectable, my mother would tell me. He made breads and puddings and tarts and all sorts of delectable concoctions that tempted your stomach the moment you stepped into the store.
My mother said I should marry a baker. Or a blacksmith. Maybe a carpenter. Every day she threw out a new occupation, a new part of town. That visiting merchant looks exciting, she would say. You could travel all around. Maybe even go to the East.
"I know, I know," I said. "I'll get to it one day."
"Cecilia," she said. "You're my only daughter. I'm doing this for you."
In fact, I gave pretty serious consideration to those suggestions until Lawrence taught me how to read.
One day, I decided I was tired of my father's guffawing and my mother's worrying and my brother's bragging and booked it to the little monastery on the outskirts of the village, just a little bit beyond the awareness of the farmers and the bakers and the carpenters and the people in those black lumber-tiled houses with red-bricked roofs.
I knocked on the door, said I was in dire need of spiritual assistance, and a small rat-headed boy with tousled black hair and crescent eyes answered my call. He took me to a large dimly-lit room with hundreds upon hundreds of books carefully lining each shelf.
There were massive slabs of books that could probably kill a small animal and dainty little sheets nestled between their bigger cousins. The books were highly decorated in blue, green, brown, red, and embellished in splashes of crimson gold and brilliant silver. I passed my fingers through the spines and felt the strong ridges as I walked, imagining myself absorbing the knowledge of everything I touched.
When Lawrence sat me down and started talking about Original Sin and Grace and Augustine and how I was to be saved, I let my mind wander through the shelves and focus on a scarlet red book with a knight on the cover that looked a little like the boy who practiced his swordsmanship in the forest behind our house. His eyes were determined yet kind. They crinkled when he smiled and swallowed you when he cried. He was the page or squire of Sir Hector, the knight of our village and the person who somehow always let bandits and wild boars escape his grasp.
"Where are you going?" Lawrence stopped his sermon when he noticed I was no longer sitting.
"There," I pointed to the shelf. "I want to read that book."
"That's a secular book," he said. "It won't help you."
"Let me read it anyway."
Lawrence, bless his heart, simply shrugged his shoulders and smiled. "I suppose it can't be helped. Bring it here!" Maybe he also got tired of talking about Original Sin and Grace and Augustine.
I brought the book back and gently opened to the first gilted page. I stared.
"You can't read, can you?" Lawrence's eyes grew brighter and narrower as he gave a few soft chuckles.
"You could've just said so. Here, let me help." He started reading.
It was the story of the knight of the lion who defeated the evil villain of the enchanted fountain, found his lover, and rescued his beloved pet.
"I recognize that! My mother used to tell me that story all the time."
"Really? What about these other stories?" Lawrence left and came back with a colorful armful of books decorated with knights, dragons, and castles.
He opened the first one and stopped. "Oh, they're not all in English. How's your Latin?"
"I know some prayers."
"You'll need to come here more often then."
"Sure will." I grinned.
Days turned into weeks turned into months, and Lawrence dutifully read the tales while painstakingly teaching me the alphabet and the rudimentaries of Latin. I wasn't a terrible learner, he said. But maybe a little on the slower side. How rude, I told him. At least my mother was pleased that my soul was on its way to salvation.
I recognized some stories while others were new, but I loved them all. Lawrence always gave a cry of delight when I told him I had heard something before. It was like every person who knew the legends brought us closer to that age when wizards and dragons and heroic knights still roamed the realm, and magic wasn't stuck in books, waiting to be deciphered by only a select few.
"Is everything in books real?" I asked one day.
Lawrence paused. He flipped through some pages and thought. "Yes," he finally said. "I believe that this is the truth. The other monks don't believe me when I tell them either. It's like they don't have any imagination. All they know is praying and fasting and reading. I think all these old stories actually happened, and something's gone wrong because we don't hear about them anymore."
"Do you think magic is gone now?"
"I don't think it's gone. I think it's hidden because people stopped trusting the legends, so we have to find it again."
"I'm so happy someone agrees with me! You should talk to my brother. He's constantly telling me these stories are for kids and that I'm too old for them."
"Your brother seems like a bore."
"He is, he is! He just wants to take over my dad's shop. Isn't that just the dullest thing you've ever heard of?"
"I don't think it's any less interesting than what I do."
"Can't you just leave the monastery? You already know how to read and everything."
"No. I took an oath."
"That oath isn't going to tie you up and beat you."
"I cannot break such things."
Lawrence was silent. I let the air hang.
"I won't be a bore. Up until now, all I've ever known is my dad's baking and all that stupid farmland everybody spends their entire lives on just so the big fat lord can take it away! I'll be like the Lady of the Lake and learn all kinds of spells and help all kinds of people all over the land! And I'll bring back the magic so we can make our own stories!"
"That's very noble of you. Who's your Merlin?" He looked happy to leave the previous topic.
"Haven't decided that yet. You know anyone?"
"Only thoughts and prayers."
"Useless." I stuck my tongue out.
I thought for a moment and continued, "Well, maybe it's kind of you. Because of you, I know how to read and write a little now, and I'm sure to get better with time. So all I need to do now is find a magic book that'll teach me all the spells."
Lawrence had his head down, but his eyes revealed that he was hiding a huge smile. "But magic books are banned. At least you won't find any here."
"Then I'll leave on a quest to find them." I giggled. "And I'll write a book about it once I'm done so you can read it."
He suddenly lifted his head. "You mean it?"
"You're going to leave this village? And me?"
"I'm going to try. Might as well do something a little fun before my mother finally makes me marry someone. What's with the long face? It's not like I'll be gone forever. I have a feeling we're the type of people who will keep seeing each other until the day we die."
"I see..." Lawrence turned away. "How will you travel? You'd die if you went by foot. You have no hunting abilities. You can't defend yourself."
"Slow down, Lawrence! It's not like I'm leaving tomorrow! I can't read nearly as well as I'd like yet. I think I've got a couple of years before I can go on this quest. I'll figure all that stuff out when it's time."
"Okay," He said with a chirp. "In the meantime, I'd like you to copy the alphabet five times. Here's some paper. No mistakes!"
I started writing and thought about the boy in the forest striking the same tree trunk over and over. I wondered if he had similar ideas.