|The Sun Rising
Author: Guede Mazaka
Arthurís back is a broad band of silk, handspans wide and long, wrapped close about muscles and bones that roll ever-so-slightly when I run my fingers over them. There is the line of irregular bumps that holds him up in the face of sense and danger, there are the wings of ribs that expand and flutter with each fragile breath. There, where my nails trace shifting dips and shallows, is the legacy of a life spent lifting: sword, men, worlds.
If I run my hand up to the join of his neck and shoulder and press down with two fingers, rubbing them into the hollows of his throat, I can sense the pump and wash of blood that keeps him alive. And if I stretch out my thumb only a little, I can nestle its nail against the first scar, so near the arteries.
[it was his first battle and he was a coltish, over-lean seventeen in his fatherís armor that was built for a man of mature, cynical years. he stood in line with the other knights and listened to their advice and laughed at their stories of his motherís heart, their friend, that he had never known, and all the while his knees were shaking against the sides of his horse. and when the crash of battle came, the violent smashing of man-man, man-horse, man-death, his hand locked around his sword that was his fatherís and he couldnít let go, couldnít lose it, couldnít do anything but kill until that silver arc buried itself in his shoulder. then he screamed and hurt and then he was not scared but furious, furious. he would not, could not lose the sword.]
He breathes so lightly, itís surprising. In waking he sometimes seems nothing but heaviness, the condensation of everyoneís hopes and failures and duties grinding itself up the next mountain and the next. He told me a story of that once, about the man who beat death once only to be sentenced to perpetual exhaustion in the afterlife. But that was a pagan tale of the Greeks, still used only for its moral lesson, and of course he prefers to listen to the Christian values of humility and generosity and sacrifice.
If you ask me, that Greek should have been more careful with how he worded his bargain with death.
If I follow the scar with the back of my thumbnail to its end, I will stop at his shoulderblade, a rise of flat bone that shivers when I lick at it. And from there, with my thumb still touching the last dwindling trace of the wrinkled fold, my palm does not need to strain to lay a forefinger across the first slashing horizontal scar.
[he had been turning, busy speaking to the village elder and it was a hot day and we were in friendly lands. doing nothing official, but thereíd been time and a trail and he always wanted to know that the villagers were not suffering. his armor had frightened the elderís youngest granddaughter and he had taken it off, making a joke at the heat, and so the arrow would have taken him in the side and the lungs if he hadnít turned so instead it skidded over the ribs and spine instead, shaft a horrific cylindrical bulge just beneath his skin.
it was not fatal, it did not keep him from fighting and then riding and then arguing to spare the village of the elder that afterward had treated him, panicking at the prospect of roman vengeance for an attack from the woods. but it was the first time i ever saw him start to fall and my throat closed and i could say nothing to perceval when he called it a complicated way of acquiring a piercing, when arthur stood for hours and watched the village burn with hotter flames in his eyes than the ones eating the corpses.]
To measure the width and height of our horses, we walk our outspread palms across them, hand-over-hand while we count. In childhood itís a game; sometimes we slather mud over our hands and leave the measurements brown against the white horse so our fathers wonít question our counts. Sometimes we do it as proof of our raiding skills; creep up on the neighborsí prized stallion during the night and leave a small muddy print on its flank in the morning.
In manhood itís a way of measuring the reach our swords will have, the shortfall the reach of our enemiesí swords will have. An extra handspan of height means an extra handspan the footsoldier has to stretch to spear us.
From the arrowís old trail I can reach the next one, pressing on it with my littlest finger and rotating down to run my thumb over hard rough ridges. This time Arthur flinches from me before settling, moving back so his sigh seems close enough to whisper across my skin.
[and by then we were all hardened soldiers though we were still mostly boys, age of manhood passed but legs and arms still lengthening, chests still broadening with every boastful shout. he was man in body and mind and anything else, garrisonís best swordsman and strategist and peacemaker. the only peacemaker, big hands gentle where others would have had fists and eyes listening and ears always open. but he made war as well, sent it with a fury into the skulls and guts of those that opposed him on the battlefield.
it was roar and blood and red mist there, confusing and intoxicating and terrible afterward. it blinded you till sometimes all you could do with your little particle of remaining reason was to hope that your sword didnít kill anyone you liked. and once the fog parted and he was there with a woad coming at his side, but the ground slicked me into sliding and not stopping, and the woad didnít die fast enough. later i was angry and sorry and nearly crying because after the battle, the fighting i was still not much more than a boy, but he touched the bandages on his back, touched the ones engulfing my arm, and he said iíd kept him alive.]
Swords, arrows, daggers. I can go from scar to scar without ever having to lift my hand from one to the other. I can go from memory to memory without ever passing through a spell of peace longer than this delicate, ephemeral, quiet night in which we lie now. They are ragged but whole, they are fragmented and partial, they are the words of our lives written on our skins because sometimes that is all we can carry with us.
If he were to turn to me, if he were to wake and wonder at the man touching so carefully at the lines and imperfections of his back and then to return the favor, he would find me not so unmarked. Those I donít mind; I still have all my limbs and I am fit enough to do whatever is needed. Maybe my joints and old scars have begun to whine a bit in deep cold, but an admiring glance from a girl provides enough warmth to counteract that. Or simply Arthur taking a moment to look at me without something else clouding his gaze.
I mind his scars. I mind them because somehow theyíre deeper on him than on me, because when I pass my palms over his skin I almost feel a whole quilt of them, invisible but no less brutal than the ones my eyes do see.
The lowest one, the ripple of ruined flesh rising just before the edge of the sheet, is one for which I donít know the cause. It is broader than the others, as if the wound was not sewn quickly afterwards but was left to heal open, and parts of it look like remains of burns. The lightest touch on it always wakes Arthur, no matter how deeply he is sleeping.
[there was no battle, no bugles and no swords out, but there was fighting nonetheless. it was about something else, something mundane that i could have let be but arthur took it on a tangent and of course i followed. i always follow, even when iím upset enough to say things that make him freeze and my gut cringe, because when a man seems to care about everything then itís nearly impossible to know how much he cares foró
--and my back was rasping against the wall when my hand found its way to that patch that was just as rough, and i started to open my mouth but then he was in it, and i was opening for him and i had no room for other things.]
He turns over, lashes fluttering up over a questioning stare, and I try to smile as if it is nothing. As if we are only lovers, lying together, without anything beyond the four sides of the bed.
Arthur smiles as well, but he does so because he knows. And because he knows, he can draw me down with feather touches, stroke me into curving around him with a single knuckle running over the bumps and creases and uneven ridges of my back. We lie curled in the sheets, faces to each other and backs to the world, and for a moment, it is peaceful.