A Modern Retelling of Marie de France's Lay of Lanval
Dad had been a Kappa Alpha Mu brother. I suppose that's why I pledged. I had the idea that Dad would have been proud of my interest in upholding the family honor. I know that my grandmother was pleased as punch when I told her, because the first thing she said (with a gurgle of tears in her throat) was, "Your father would have been so proud." So I decided that I had done the right thing.
It's a pity that doing the right thing usually sucks.
Aside from the fact that the fine, upstanding men of ΚΑM were primarily interested in the three great F's of life (football, frat parties and fucking, not necessarily in that order); and aside from the fact that the collective IQ of most of my brothers was slightly higher than that of a pile of bricks (which proved them masters of a fourth F – the kind that's written in red); aside from those issues, the main problem was Gwen.
Well, Gwen and Art, really, because you rarely had one without the other. I believe that they had undergone some sort of surgical procedure to ensure that they remained in physical contact at all times. Art was the president of KAM and had been for two years running. Which meant that Gwen, as first lady, had basically become a permanent fixture around the frat house.
The problem was that Gwen was the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen. In fact, she was the most beautiful thing that any of us had ever seen, and she knew it. She knew it with a vengeance. Her blossom-blue bedroom eyes constantly held an invitation. Her perfectly shaped, cherry-red fuck-me lips had a perpetual, sensual half-smile that was enough to drive the most celibate Catholic priest to the sins of the flesh. Her smooth, slender legs traced long, curved paths to places that I dared not even contemplate. And oh, God! Her breasts! Pristine mounds of exquisite size and shape with enough heft to suffocate a man. And if I had to pick a way to go…
But I digress. Which, of course, was precisely the problem. Gwen had that effect on men, the dangerous ability to fill their minds with only her over and over in an endless loop of fantasies, which is a deadly-distracting thing when you're a biology major and taking organic chemistry.
I can't even begin to imagine what it must have been like for Art, to be constantly drunk on Gwen's intoxicatingly musky scent. He wasn't a bad guy, really. He was very fair, almost to a ridiculous extent. He refused to make any final decisions about matters that affected the organization until everyone, from the most senior members to the pledges, had a say. I think he must have been very intelligent, and he probably would have been a fantastic leader if not for Gwen's influence. Those sweet lips could spew deadly poison. A guy like Art could always be counted upon to be paranoid about losing a girl like Gwen, and she used that to her advantage, dishonoring those she disliked and granting favors to those who flattered her, like a child on a throne playing at being queen. Art went along with her plots. How could he not? He was completely under her spell.
Like most beautiful women, Gwen was deeply afraid of being faced with a situation in which she was not the most beautiful, as all of her power was linked to that beauty. This paranoia led to a habit of keeping tabs on all of the women that Art's fraternity brothers were dating, taking care to ensure that they weren't too ugly (it might reflect badly on her taste), but making certain that they never had the potential to outshine her.
This is where I ran into trouble.
It started when I officially became a pledge. It was tradition for the new pledges to present their president with a gift of some sort, a sort of tribute. Theoretically, it wasn't the gift itself that mattered, but the thought of it. Everyone knew, however, that the better the gift, the better the final social position of the initiate. Most of the members of the fraternity came from rich families, so it didn't pose much of a problem for them. I, on the other hand, had pledged to the fraternity on my father's legacy, not his riches, most of which had been lost after his early death. I was at school on a partial scholarship, and part of the reason that I joined KAM was in order to be awarded one of the scholarships that the fraternity sponsored. Much to my disappointment, Art completely overlooked my application during the preliminary scholarship nominations, recommending (at Gwen's suggestion, I was sure) several other pledges that I knew didn't have anywhere near the academic credentials that I possessed. Also, I noted bitterly, most of them had presented expensive gifts to Art, and a few had even gone so far as to buy Gwen something as well. I couldn't compete with that. I could barely find the money to cover my meal plan.
I left the frat house that night, fuming. I had no idea what I was going to do about my gift, and I only had a few more days to come up with it. Somehow, I didn't think a construction paper card that said "I Heart Art" was going to cut it, but that was about all I could afford at the moment.
Lost in my musings, I wasn't paying attention to where I was going, and I found myself walking through a part of campus with which I was not at all familiar. The sidewalk petered out into a twisting gravel path that snaked through a stand of oak trees that I hadn't remembered seeing before. Most of the campus was constructed in a gray post-modern sort of style, all cold concrete and twisted metal, which didn't leave much room for trees, especially in the middle of a city. I decided that I must have wandered into a nearby park and thought that it might be a nice distraction to explore a bit. My first class wasn't until late afternoon the following day, so I could afford to be out a little late. I was a country boy at heart, and I missed my natural surroundings. The trees filled me with a sense of calm, and I felt my heart lighten as I continued down the path.
Ahead of me, the trees opened up into a small clearing, surrounded by oak and honeysuckle, the sweet smell intoxicating. At the center of the clearing stood a small copse of oak, ash, and thorn trees hung over with honeysuckle and ivy, creating a natural bower. A tiny warning bell went off in my head, but the pleasant serenity of the place overcame my trepidation, and I entered the brake without hesitation.
A voice spoke, low and sweet, in tones in which I fancied honeysuckle would speak, had it a tongue. I thought it was the honeysuckle at first, until a small, white hand reached out from behind the curtain of blossoms and ivy leaves and beckoned to me. I approached the thicket slowly. The vines parted before me, and I saw the girl, barefoot and goddess-like, lounging on a bed of green moss. She wore a white gauze dress that clung, diaphanous, to the gentle curves of her breasts and thighs. Her long limbs, perfectly shaped, were arranged gracefully, their whiteness almost luminous against the verdant carpet of moss. Her hair, long, dark and wild, was festooned with honeysuckle and framed her thin face, which glowed with an indescribable beauty. It was shaped as perfectly as a Grecian statue and had the quality of a masterful Renaissance painting, almost unreal in the perfection of its beauty.
Her eyes, however, were the feature that drew me in completely. The midnight-dark blue of her irises contained worlds – universes! - of thought and simultaneously held the disarming innocence of a child and the ancient, endless wisdom of a sage, an oxymoronic combination that was both extraordinarily unnerving and terribly gorgeous. These eyes, I knew, could not possibly belong to a human girl, but the knowledge was muted and sluggish, and it receded further into the recesses of my mind the longer I looked at her.
"Hello, Landon," she said quietly and took my hand in hers. Her touch was warm, and my skin tingled. She caressed my face. I shivered. She smiled and drew me close. Her heat suffused me.
My world exploded, and we made love.
I woke the next morning in my dorm room, fully clothed and extremely confused, but so dizzily happy that I didn't really care. The scent of her was in my clothes and my hair, and I could still almost feel her skin and her lips against mine. The thought sent a delightful shiver through me, and I sat up, running a hand through my hair. Something fell from my lap to the floor, dislodged by my movement. I reached down to grab it. It was a small, unremarkable brown wallet that I didn't recognize. I wondered if it was hers. I flipped it open, and a delicate piece of paper fluttered out. It smelled like her hair. I unfolded it gingerly, afraid to tear it, and read what she had written in a fine, spidery handwriting.
This is but one of the many treasures that are now yours, not the least of which is myself. You need only to use what it provides for you, and it will renew itself, as will my love for you. I ask only that you speak of this to no one – none but you may know me. You need only to whisper my name when you are alone, and I will come to you. Know that my love is undying.
The missive was unsigned.
I folded it carefully and returned it to the wallet. I peeked in the billfold, and counted five crisp twenty dollar bills. Was this what she meant by her treasures? I wondered how she could afford to throw away such a large sum of money, although I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to know the answer. I pushed such thoughts out of my mind. With this, I could afford a gift for Art that was much more splendid than my planned construction-paper card, and I intended to take advantage of my good fortune immediately, before the money turned into a pile of dead leaves or ash or something else out of a fairy story.
I ended up selecting a sixty-dollar sports watch for Art in fire-red with a motif of dragons. It seemed somehow appropriate. When I made the purchase and went to put the change in my wallet, I discovered that there were still five twenties in the wallet. I blinked. I knew that I had given the money to the cashier; I had seen him put it into the till. I closed the wallet and opened it again. Five bills. Experimentally, I took one out, pocketed it and opened the wallet again. Five bills. My eyes bulged. I was in possession of a wallet that inexplicably made money.
Slightly dazed, I went back into the store and bought Gwen something as well, a garnet bracelet to compliment Art's watch. I bought myself a pair of expensive tennis shoes as well, something I had never been able to do before. I returned to campus, feeling quite pleased with myself.
I presented Gwen and Art with my gifts at the fraternity house that evening, and I was amused to discover that I was nominated for the scholarship at the business meeting afterwards. My popularity within the fraternity began to improve, especially once my brothers realized that I was suddenly loaded. I helped a few of the other pledges with their gifts and acquired quite the reputation for being generous. I was invited to more parties and approached by more girls during single evenings than I had ever been in my entire life up to this point. The girls in question, though undoubtedly becoming enough, were no longer of any interest to me, but I was flattered nonetheless.
The sudden explosion of social recognition was all very well, but I always looked forward to the time after the parties, when I could return to my darkened dorm room and call her name very softly. Almost immediately, there would be a knock on my door, and she would sail into my room like a wisp of dandelion, blown in on a fragrant cloud of honeysuckle and gauze. I could never recall much of these visits, but I was always left with an overwhelming sense of happiness. My life was, in all respects, perfect.
This is, unsurprisingly, about when the shit hit the fan.
I was at a party hosted by the fraternity one weekend, gingerly sipping a plastic cup of lukewarm beer. I was just beginning to consider leaving when Gwen approached me. She looked stunning as always, dressed tonight in a glittering tank top that clung to her breasts like a second skin, her nipples straining against the thin cloth, leaving nothing to the imagination. Her short skirt displayed her legs, and her face was perfectly made up, accenting her flawless features. Such a vision would have probably caused me to have a spontaneous aneurysm at the beginning of the year, but now, all I could think about was how tawdry and cheap she looked.
I raised an eyebrow at her. "Where's Art?" I asked, noting his uncharacteristic absence.
She shrugged. "Upstairs. He passed out. Besides, right now I want to talk to you." She flashed me a smile that might have caused another man to melt into a quivering puddle of ooze at her feet. I was unimpressed.
"Oh?" I had a bad feeling about this. "What about?"
"You." She leaned closer and ran her perfectly manicured fingers through my hair. "I've seen how you look at me," she whispered, her voice modulated with a practiced veneer of desire.
I edged away from her. "Well, you're very…nice to look at," I answered, lamely.
"I'm glad you think so," she purred, pursuing me. She wound an arm around my waist. "Why don't you come upstairs, and you can see a little…more of me?"
I had a feeling that I was probably wearing an expression not unlike the sort that a deer wears when faced by a pair of headlights. "I…uh…I don't think that's such a good idea. Art is upstairs…"
"Art won't wake up for hours," she assured me, pressing against me, crushing her breasts against my chest. "It's all right. I know you don't have a girlfriend." Her hand slipped down between my legs.
I jerked away from her. "Actually, yes. Yes, I do." I looked around, desperate for escape, but found none. She had me backed into a corner.
"You're lying," she teased. "No one's ever seen you with another girl. Well, here's your chance…" She reached forward and squeezed. Her lips quirked into a satisfied smile. "…Big boy."
"Don't touch me," I snapped.
She drew her hand back as if burned. "What?
"You heard me. Don't touch me. I'm involved with someone else, and so are you."
Her eyes narrowed dangerously. "Someone else? Oh, I see. So you swing that way. I'm sorry, I thought your eyes were on my ass, when obviously they were on Art's…"
"Shut up," I snarled, well and truly pissed. "I'm sorry I'm not weak enough to let you walk all over me. I'd suggest you go elsewhere for your fun, but I suspect you've already fucked every other guy in the room."
Her hand whipped across my face. "Asshole!" she shrieked, her voice shrill and almost unrecognizable, a harpy's cry. There was a sudden silence. I felt fifty pairs of eyes boring into me. "You lost your chance," she hissed. "I hope your imaginary girlfriend is worth it."
I spoke before I thought. "She's more than worth it. She makes you look like the dog you are."
I saw the tears in Gwen's eyes as she screamed, "Liar! Liar!" and ran upstairs, but I barely registered them.
The world seemed to fade around me as I realized that I had just inadvertently broken my promise. I was vaguely aware of strong arms roughly forcing me out of the frat house, but my vision was blurred with tears. I had done the one thing that she had asked that I never do. I somehow knew, in the same, unquestionable way that I knew that the sun would rise each morning, that I would never see her again.
I reeled out into the dark, sobbing her name. People stared at me as I passed, wide-eyed and frightened, but I ignored their whispers. I ran and I didn't look back.
I didn't sleep that night. I covered every inch of the campus and the surrounding city, searching desperately for the grove in which I had met her, but I didn't find it. I'd known with the certainty of breathing that I wouldn't find a trace of her, but I couldn't help but try. The cold concrete of the city loomed over me, and the sharp scents of asphalt and diesel suffocated me. I staggered back to my dorm room at first light and collapsed on to my bed. My classes were forgotten. I slept the dreamless sleep of the damned.
I didn't wake until early evening, when my stomach demanded sustenance. I was surprised that I could feel anything so mundane as hunger, but I dragged myself out of bed, and after a failed attempt to make myself look somewhat presentable, I walked to the dining hall. I didn't think to check my pockets until I reached the cashier with a tray full of food. They were empty. The wallet that she had given me had disappeared.
For some reason, this hit me the hardest. Here was concrete proof that she was gone. I felt tears burning in my eyes like acid, and with a hastily muttered excuse, I left my tray and fled.
Outside, I heard shouts. I turned, wearily, and came face-to-face with a small group of my fraternity brothers, led by Art himself. His eyes were hard with anger. I was too paralyzed with misery to protest when he demanded that I accompany him back to the frat house.
The main room was full. Gwen sat in a chair near the window, staring stonily out into the night. Art crossed to her, and laid a hand on her shoulder. "Tell everyone what Landon said to you Gwen," he said quietly.
My stomach clenched. Was that what this was about? I opened my mouth to object, but Art motioned for my silence. Gwen looked up at him gratefully, her face a perfect mask of wronged innocence. "He tried to get me to sleep with him," she lied with perfect sincerity.
"I did n0t—" I protested with indignation, but I was cut off.
"Let her finish," Art snapped.
"When I said no," she continued, "he got angry and yelled at me. He said that I might as well…" She hesitated, then continued with an artful hitch of feigned embarrassment in her voice, “That I might as well fuck him because I had already…fucked a lot of other guys. And he said...he said that he had a better girlfriend anyway, one who made me look like...like a dog." She looked up at Art, her eyes sparkling becomingly with conjured tears.
"That's not how it happened!" I retorted hotly. "She asked me—"
"Did you say those things to her?" Art asked, coldly.
"You're not listening—"
"Some of them," I admitted grudgingly. "But that's not how it happened. I—"
"If you insult Gwen," Art interrupted, his voice dangerously low, "you insult me. I don't particularly like that kind of behavior from a pledge. One of the qualities we look for in Kappa Alpha Mu is honesty, and using lies to insult my girlfriend does not speak highly of your merits."
"I didn't lie," I insisted. "Gwen sleeps around; everyone knows that." I was digging myself in deeper, and I knew it, but I didn't particularly care. "She's slept with almost everyone in the frat, and anyone who says otherwise is the one who's lying. And I do…” I was forced to correct myself. “I did have a girlfriend. She was superior in every way to Gwen. She was the most beautiful woman I've ever seen."
"Prove it," someone spoke up from the back. "If you're not lying about this girl, where is she? What's her name?"
Art smirked. "Yes, Landon. Who is this mysterious girl? Introduce us. Let us see her legendary beauty for ourselves."
I cast down my eyes. "I…can't. She…I don't know where she is."
"Just as I thought," Gwen cut in. "He made her up."
"I did not!" I snapped. "She's more real than any of you, she's more real than anything…"
"Then where is she, Landon?" Art asked, imperiously.
Her voice spoke, soft as a sigh, commanding as a general. "Here."
Everyone turned, moving as one person. She stood in the center of the room, as naturally as if she had been there the entire time. Perhaps she had been. She was dressed in the manner of a student: tight, faded jeans and a black halter top, but the outfit seemed to flicker slightly, like a television channel out of range, wavering between the modern garb, her usual simple garment of gauze, and a strange, grand gown embroidered with designs that writhed and danced to some unheard music. Honeysuckle crowned her hair, and its heady scent filled the room. Her beauty caused the rest of the world to fade around her.
Only Art found his voice. "Who are you?" he whispered.
"That knowledge is beyond you, Arthur," she said, her voice cutting through him like a knife. "You dishonor your name." She cast her deep eyes towards Gwen. "Though I expect no more from one such as you." She came to me, and laid her hands upon my face. "You betrayed my trust," she said gently. "But you did so out of love. All shall be forgiven in Avalon. Come away, my love. This world is not for you."
I nodded wordlessly. She took my hand in hers and pulled me close. I felt suddenly, giddily happy. I grinned at the sea of startled faces, and gave a cheeky little wave to Art and Gwen. They gaped at me. Gwen seemed smaller somehow, and duller. I could see real tears in her eyes and a longing so intense that it seemed like physical pain.
And then we were gone. Only the scent of honeysuckle remained to indicate that we had ever been there, and soon, that too disappeared, overpowered by the stale smell of beer and cigarettes, and the cold, dead scents of asphalt and diesel.