The Common Dish: a short story of Arthurian times

Today I’m republishing a short story of mine, The Common Dish, which is inspired by that great medieval body of stories, the Arthurian legend–and the Grail Quest as seen by those who were left behind.

Knights departing on Grail Quest, by Edward Burne-Jones

The Common Dish

by Sophie Masson

May had come in, lusty May, that makes us forget the rigours of winter and think of warmer pleasures than those of the fire. May, bedecked in garlands and blossom, sweeping down the country lanes like a bride, showering all with gladness. Usually, we welcomed her with equal gladness; we danced for her honour, we donned our bright clothes again, drawing them out of chests where they had slept all autumn and winter, under lavender and rosemary, to keep the moths away.  Usually, at this time, the lady of this place, Laurel, my sister, gave orders for sweet pastries to be made, and honeycombs to be brought, and last year’s mead brought out of the cellar, new cheeses to be laid fragrant on well-scrubbed tables, the common dish filled with fine and tasty things for all.  The fields were bright with poppies and meadow-sweet and cowslip; the riverbanks bright with flowering parsley, the skies bright with larks and thrushes and other sweet-voiced birds, the roads bright with knights bound for tourneys and shepherds herding their flocks and ladies going a-maying and children singing new songs.  Everyone was happy, in May-time; everyone, from the lowest to the highest, the King to the lowliest kitchen scullion, the most ancient crone to the handsomest knight, saint and sinner.  Even the ill-favoured and ill-tempered might be happy, at such a time. For blue, bright May was God’s gift to the whole of creation.

But this year was different, for Camelot.  Of course, there was the joy that the Quest had ended, the knights returned.  But so many had not, and so the joy was subdued, blue May less welcomed, and mourning amongst the happiness, like thorns amongst the roses. . . .

We had thought, we who had been left behind, that the great Quest for the Grail would bring an ease, a healing, a return to things as they once had been, before Camelot lost its first bloom.  But it seemed that even such second-hand bliss was not to be found.  The returning knights had each sought a private audience with the King; and no doubt he knew just what it was that had happened, in those magical, distant realms of the otherworld.  He must know just which of his knights had reached the Grail.  But he remained silent about it, too.

There was a great deal of talk, of course, amongst those of us who had not gone, those of us not mentioned in the chronicles, whom it was not thought fitting to inform of such weighty and important things; lots of rumours, passed from mouth to mouth, hand to hand.  We looked at the knights, noting here a new serenity, there a strange fixity of regard, here a gentleness, there a wildness of mien, and judged accordingly as to whether the wonderful vision had been given.  But was that truly a good way to judge? If anything, the Quest seemed to have emphasised each man’s character; accentuating his qualities, and also, alas, his faults.

It was so with my lord Agravain.  Aware that he, as one of the Orkney clan, might be seen as unrefined in the sophisticated court of Camelot, surrounded by such knights as Lancelot du Lac, he was overly anxious about his station, and thus never had been one of the King’s favourite knights.  Yet he had always found his place in the court, before.  In the past, despite his faults, he could at times be an entertaining companion, with a dry sense of humour, and a bright manner of speaking.  Yet even then, he had seemed, to me, like the odd man out, beside his brothers: huge, rumbustious Gawain, gentle Gareth, kind Gaheris—a man of uncertain, perhaps even cruel temper under the jokes, with a jealous discontent under the dryness.  I had felt the sharp edge of his tongue more than once: he was proud to be allied to our house, but not so proud to have a plain sister-in-law whom no man seemed to want.

Unlike his brothers, too, he hated Lancelot, though in front of them, he pretended a manly indifference to the French knight.  But Agravain’s true feelings for Lancelot were even more complicated than this: he hated the Lake Knight, yet he often copied him, the way he walked, the way he held his sword, his slow, grave, sweet smile, his natural grace and courteous French manners.  Except that Agravain, poor soul, could do no more than ape Lancelot: never could he have a fraction of his charm, but only be a pale copy, like a cheap facsimile made by an indifferent scribe.  And knowing this, did he hate the oblivious Lancelot all the more?

Ladies of Camelot tapestry by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones

Always, before the Quest, Agravain’s faults had been kept in check, by his brothers’ careful kindness, by my sister’s loyal love, by the gentle management of the King and Queen, who found space for all manner of people in their realm.  In those days, he was careful, at least; he did not approach Mordred, who had come to Court just before the Quest began and was already a disturbing influence in Arthur’s once-serene kingdom.  Agravain knew well on which side his bread was buttered.  He went with his brothers questing not because he wished, like them, innocently to gain, if not knowledge and wisdom, at least adventure and mystery, but because all the knights who mattered were going.  And Agravain would certainly not be left behind in that race.

While he was away, Laurel and I spent our days as we had when we were children, and it was plain to see that she relaxed into it, as if she were freed from a burden.  We gave up the dull Frenchified rituals Agravain insisted on, we ate plain meals out of common dishes with the retainers and the servants; we swam in the river and walked in the woods; we read to each other from illustrated books and we spent many hours in pleasant gossip.  Sometimes, Lynete and Lionors, Gaheris’ and Gareth’s wives, would come over to spend time with us, and then, all together, we spoke longingly of the absent ones, and wondered how the Questers were managing; and sighed, that we should be women, and not be able to go with them.  Or at least, Laurel, Lynete and Lionors  did; I reminded them that Dindraine, Perceval’s sister, had gone with them, and Laurel pouted and said that did not count, as everyone knew Dindraine was practically a nun.  Frankly, I had no desire to go on the Quest; there was in me an unease from the very beginning, an unease I could not explain to anyone, not even Laurel.  Perhaps especially not Laurel, who like most of the others in Camelot, was dazzled by the Quest, by the beauty of it, and coincidentally or not, by the unearthly, untouchable beauty of Galahad.  It was a companionable time, that time without men, and soothing to my own troubled spirit, for it is not easy, being an old maid, when you have no intention of becoming a nun. .

Yet on one day, the very day that the Questers came back, my kinswomen destroyed that peace for me, quite innocently.  We had been sitting in the solar, calmly embroidering, and they had been talking, as usual, about their favourite subject, whilst I listened indulgently.

‘What do you think?’ said Lionors, turning to me suddenly.  ‘You are silent.  Could it be. . ‘ and here she twinkled at me—‘that you do not share our admiration for the greatest knight of them all? ‘

‘I do not consider him the greatest knight,’ I said, stiffly.  ‘He has not proven himself.  ‘

‘Unlike his father,’ said Lynete, with that sharp glance that had so flayed poor Gareth when she had first met him.

I coloured, but said nothing.  Laurel sighed.  ‘My poor sister,’ she said, softly.  ‘Lancelot’s heart was taken long ago.  He cannot give it to you, though indeed you are more worthy of it, my dear one, than she who holds it now.  Beauty is not only in the eye, but the soul: true ugliness is never in the features of a loving face. ‘

It was a great shock to me, this thing she said, for it showed me something I had long known, yet hidden from myself, and something which I certainly thought had been hidden from everyone else.

I pushed away my embroidery and stood up.  I could feel a hot denseness in my chest, a tight pain in my throat.  Yet I managed to speak.  ‘You are being foolish and frivolous,’ I snapped.  ‘I am tired of idle talk.  There is work to do.  My lord Agravain will not thank us if we allow the manor to go to ruin in his absence. ‘

They stared at me.  I stared back proudly, and stalked away. I truthfully did not know where I was going, only that I must go.  I walked briskly, blindly away and towards the stream, feeling their eyes on my back, and the hot dense pain in my whole being.

There was a girl, one of the servants, washing the dishes by the stream.  She was a young girl, and uncertain: when she saw me advancing on her like a fury, she gave a little squeak and hurried away, leaving her work.  I smiled harshly to myself: so, in my despairing, angry ugliness, I had frightened her! All the better.  I looked down at the dishes scattered by the stream: the cups, the plates, and the common dish, a huge blue pottery tureen, encrusted with the remains of all too many meals.  My widowed father had had it made, in a pattern that Laurel and I would recognise, for it was just like the dishes we had had at home.  Agravain had never liked it; it was too thick and homely for his tastes, and so it had mostly languished unused, except when he was away, and then, by common consent, Laurel and I would call for it to be put on the table.

I cannot remember doing it: but the next second, the dish was in the stream, broken in several irrepairable pieces.  And I was kneeling by the stream, weeping as if my heart would break too, trying to gather the pieces of the broken dish, yet trying, too, to smash it even more, my hands bleeding from the sharp shards, but uncaring, for my head was filled with a painful, joyful vision, a thing of such bright clarity that for a moment it seemed to have a tangible reality.

I heard running footsteps.  Laurel had found me.  She touched my arm, timidly.

‘Sister,’ she whispered, ‘forgive me, if I have hurt you, unknowingly, I did not mean to.  ‘

I looked at her with love. ‘Laurel,’ I said gently, ‘do not be afraid.  You saw something I had hidden from myself, and I was angry.  But I am not angry any longer, only a little sorry that I.. ‘ I looked down at my hands.  ‘I am sorry, for I broke our father’s gift to you and Agravain. .‘

My sister’s eyes filled with tears, then, and she leant towards me.  But what she was about to say never got said, for I turned my face away from her, towards the woods—and saw a figure come limping out from their lee, a figure leading a skeletal horse, and I knew at once, with a hot, wild, joyful, despairing leap of the heart, that it was Lancelot, back from the Quest.

The parting of Lancelot and Guinevere, by Gustave Dore

Laurel turned her head and saw him too; then she gathered up her skirts and went running, crying out joyfully as she went.  She was followed by Lynete and Lionors, and then by all the people on the manor, the workers in the fields, the servants, the grooms, the kennel-men, the dairymaids.  From all over the manor, people were hurrying, to give their beloved living legend, the Knight of the Lake, a welcome they would never have thought to give their own lord.  And so it was that only I saw Agravain coming in his turn, not from the forest but the opposite direction, from the direction of Camelot, splendidly attired, and riding a magnificent Arab mare.  He rode with a swagger and a certainty that he would be noticed; and I felt almost a pity for him, then, a kind of shameful wound, as our eyes met across the distance, and I saw he knew who the other man was.  But he never checked in his stride, I’ll give him that; indeed, he quickened his pace, and soon drew level with me.

‘Well, my lady,’ he said, his eyes not on me but on that touching little scene by the forest, ‘as you see, I am back from the Quest. ‘

‘So I see,’ I said.  ‘Welcome home, my lord Agravain. ‘ Some strange levity was bubbling in me.  I could not help it.

He smiled thinly.  ‘But I see I am not the only one.  I must welcome my companion home too. He looks ill.  Perhaps the Quest was not a success for him. ‘

His eyes dared me to ask questions.  Obligingly, I said nothing.  What was there to say? I was not a Quester.  My vision had not been of the Grail; but only of the common dish.

The involuntary mockery of my thoughts must have shown in my face, however, for his lips tightened, and he said, ‘Sister-in-law, it is not fitting you are down on your knees, washing dishes like a common scullion.  ‘

‘No,’ I said, ‘I suppose not.  I must remember my station as sister-in-law of a returned Quester knight. ‘

‘Indeed,’ he said, in his vanity misinterpreting my humble face and lowered eyes.  ‘I am glad you understand.  ‘ He paused for a tiny second.   ‘The other– my brother knight Sir Lancelot,’ Agravain went on, ‘has he been here long? Has he seen the King yet? Is there.. . ‘

‘No, my lord,’ I answered, as steadily as I could.  ‘He has not.  ‘

‘Ha,’ said Agravain.  He looked down the slope at the cheering, whooping party, at his own wife, his brothers’ wives, his retainers making merry around the weary, but obviously delighted, Lancelot, ‘In any case,’ he said, slyly, ‘I do not suppose that it is the King he would go rushing off to straight away, do you, sister-in-law? ‘

I looked at him; at the jealousy distorting his face, at the cruelty fully imprinted there now, at the discontent of his bearing, and I felt a tiny pang of fear, for I knew in that instant that Agravain had not come even close to the Grail, and that Lancelot had.  I knew that if Agravain had hated the French knight before, it was as nothing to what he felt now.  My heart ached—with love for Lancelot, with a kind of tender sorrow that he would never know it, with unease for what might follow.  But I gazed steadily into Agravain’s angry eyes and said, quite quietly, ‘I am sure I do not know what you mean, my lord. ‘

‘Pah,’ he said, ‘you’ve always been a fool, blind like all the others, like the King himself.  Prince Mordred was quite right. ‘ And with that, he touched his horse’s flanks, and was off, galloping down the slope towards Lancelot and the others.

But I stood there quietly for a moment, before moving down the slope in my turn. And the wild, hot, despairing feeling grew again in me, and grew, like a vine twining its way around my heart, a thorn bush of wild blooms protecting the vision I had seen.  The vision of the common dish, that is the lot of common humanity, the ones of us left behind, forgotten, our names and histories lost to the chronicles and the legends, but whose breath and liveness, anonymous, can be found in all of the most ancient stories, the oldest songs: the knowledge of love brought to the light of day, the welcome of spring returning, as it always does.  No, it is not the Grail: but it is given to more of us, and may, in the end, prove as wonderful as that holy vessel.  And perhaps, if a person look only for the Grail, and forget the common dish—is that not a forgetting of God’s magnificence, of His love that remembers even the smallest sparrow?  In my heart, I thanked God for His gift, his gift of this blue May morning, of the unremarked, the common miracle, in the midst of the sorrow and the glory and the gathering tragedy of the great ones of this world.

June, from the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

 

 

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