The Knight of the Golden Rose
The air melted around me once more like it was the most natural occurrence, dull shapeless forms sharpened into a vibrant kaleidoscope of color, each hue morphing into the other like the ingredients of my mother's stew. The sparse grass of my childhood home shot up and up, falling over each other like rope, and the neat and tidy row of straw huts gave way to clumps of dense vegetation interspersed with barren patches.
There was a small, rough gravestone planted in the ground. Engraved on it was a name and a year, the date of birth and death. I remembered how every morning I would pick a new flower from the garden and put it on that grave, mumbling a broken prayer.
Suddenly, the earth beneath me shook, and the loose dirt erupted in a flurry to reveal a mangy layer of hair then face, neck, and finally the full body of a young boy, no more than ten, with spindly arms, knobby legs, and a face so angelic it was unsettling. He had a smile that almost cut his face in two. Transparent skin that might disintegrate from a single touch. Fat water droplets pooled under his soaking wet sackcloth and plopped on the ground.
"Are you cold?" I asked.
"Not at all," the boy said. "Thank you for visiting me. How do you like my forest?"
"It's very lively."
"That's because we have so much fun here! Haven't you had a good time?" He spun around and around then fell to the ground, laughing, bare feet raised high in the air.
"I've had an interesting time," I said. I looked closer at him: my mother's button nose and delicate silk hair. A bleak face that unashamedly lamented his own misery. Large, wide-set eyes, a hollow stare, and baby-like cheeks. A splitting image of Arthur had he grown up.
"Have you been here the entire time?"
"Ever since I died? Sure have!" The brightness of his voice betrayed no knowledge of the answer's morbid nature.
"Are you happy?"
"Happy as I've ever been," he said just as cheerfully. "This is the forest you wanted to visit that day, right? The trees behind our house were no good. They end if you walked for more than thirty minutes. Bellemere is the real adventure. A place beyond life and death!"
"Come play with us! This is where all the good children go after they die. It's an eternal playground!"
"Does that mean I'm dead?"
"Not necessarily. We have alive children and dead children and all states in between."
"How can you be between life and death?"
"Well you know eventually they all die, but you're still allowed to play with us if you're alive." The boy responded like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
I wanted to ask him if it was my fault he was here. If he was mad at me. Or maybe trapping me in this forest was his rightful revenge on his cruel older sister. Besides, surely this could not have been my only sin in life. Perhaps every misfortune that visited upon me was a being of my own creation because my body yearned to do evil, and Lawrence was wrong about my salvation and my Eternal Soul.
Mountains of mistakes and missteps weighed heavy on my mind as I pondered his question. If I decided to play, would it free me of the guilt?
"Come on, it'll be fun," he sang.
Before I could finish, Anselm burst from behind me and grabbed my hand.
"There you are, Cecilia! Where have you been? I was so worried!"
The boy grunted and kicked the dirt.
"I've been here the whole time ever since I fell off the horse. How did you find me?"
"You're lucky your voice is so distinct. I can recognize it from a mile away," Anselm said proudly.
He started to lift me. "Let's get back on the road. The horse misses you."
"Not yet! Let me stay at the grave for a little longer," I said.
I turned my head and realized that the grave and the boy were no longer there. The ground was dry and unbroken.
I stuffed my face in Anselm's chest and sobbed, dry and hacking, like my insides were going to fall out at any moment.
"Never scare me like that again!" Anselm was barely more than an inch from my face.
"I'm sorry!" I hung my head in shame.
"I can't believe I didn't notice... It seems I fell asleep as well."
"Must have been the forest," I said. "What happened to you?"
"I was riding the horse and all of a sudden I was in this bizarre dream, the most realistic-looking dream I've had in my entire life. It felt like I was living through the famine again. I was so hungry when I woke up, I almost cooked the horse."
The famine was three years of dry months and blistering heat when crops withered immediately after sprouting from the seeds and animals dropped dead like flies, one after the other. Anselm's family must have been hit particularly hard since they lived in the Peasant's Quarter. They started with five children, but only Anselm, who was the youngest and most sickly, survived. His parents must have taken it as an early sign from God that he was special and destined to accomplish great things. The poor boy was forced to graduate from a playful, happy-go-lucky toddler to his parents' most trustworthy farmhand and undertaker of every odd job.
My family fared a little better. We had less mouths to feed since it was only the four of us back then, and my father was somehow able to turn scant amounts of grain into several days' worth of meals. It was during those days that we made hourly trips down to the creek in hopes of eating those stupid fish before anyone else had a chance to snatch them away.
The other children and I scoured the land, looking high and low for half-rotten berries and plants that had any chance of being edible. My mother became adept at cooking grass.
All of us kids had stomachs bulging with hunger in those days. We were a couple of twigs attached to a flesh-colored balloon, skin stretched tight over the premature belly-button, walking unsteady, tipping over from the slightest gust of wind.
"I never want to relive that hell again," Anselm said.
"I'm sorry I put you through this," I said. "We should have taken the long way around."
"Did you also have a dream?"
"Yes. About Arthur."
The only thing Anselm knew about my baby brother was that he died of a fever twenty days after he was baptized, and my mother was devastated. I never told Anselm the details, and I'm not sure if I ever wanted to. Perhaps he could guess that there was more to the story.
For me, Anselm and Arthur were two opposite ends of my world. To accept one was to reject another. Anselm was the only person who allowed me to completely forget the prison that I found myself in.
"Will you tell me about it one day?
"Maybe," I said in a low voice. "I saw his grave. I know he would've grown up to be handsome, and my mother would've wanted him to see the world. She loved him more than any of us."
"Parents play favorites, don't they?"
I laughed. "A very natural thing to do. You must be the favorite then. Being royal and all."
Anselm's face darkened. "I don't know. Either they really love me or they really hate me."
"My father definitely likes my brother more than me. He's gone days without saying a single thing to me. But when my brother is in the room, oh boy. And my mother... Well, I don't know. I don't think she likes anyone in particular. Maybe the stray cats that come eat our leftovers sometimes. I bet she would replace us with those cats if she could."
"You don't seem to like your mother very much either."
"Really? I don't recall talking about my parents very often."
"Exactly," Anselm said.
"It's more like indifference," I said.
"I know you care."
I was silent. We rode for a couple of minutes.
"I guess I do."
Bellemere Forest seemed satisfied with my answer, for light burst forth from the tangled throne of leaves on the path in front of us. The rays of light shone brighter and brighter as our horse dutifully marched onwards, blissfully unaware of the forest's suddenly kind gesture.
Anselm beamed. "Look at that! All it took was some self-reflection, huh?"
"This time, it's your win," I said.
He turned around and hugged me. "Anytime together with you is a win."
His hot breath on my neck caused my heart to furiously beat against the cage of my chest. The thought that Anselm could feel my nervousness only increased the frantic tempo of my humiliation. I hoped to stay like that forever.
Finally, we left the forest where Arthur and all the other lost children played in their eternal paradise of death.