Chapter Seven: Beneath the Willow Tree

One day there was a terrific storm, like the deluges of old. No amount of magic could hold back the downpour, and so a heavy rain fell upon the garden and soaked the Knight and Princess, both.

“If you wished it, I could stop the rain,” the Knight said between rumbles of distant thunder. “I have parley with she who knows the song of storms, the Lady of the Golden Lyre. She can calm and quell even Zeus’s rage.”

They sat by the spring, under the willow trees. The willows wept, whipped by the wind. The tall grass was bent over, wet and heavy. Rain pelted the surface of the lake and prickled on bare skin.

The asphodel shuddered.

“No thank you,” said the Princess. “I enjoy the rain; I wish to feel the cold.”

They sat, and listened to the sound of the storm. The ceaseless tings and pings of raindrops bouncing off the Knight’s black helmet. The gurgle of the ground filling up, becoming saturated, of water seeping between the grass and mulch. The sound of rain against the trees, sizzling the leaves, echoing across the bark.

“In some ways,” the Knight said after a long silence between the two, “I prefer foul weather. A fine rain stirs all the senses, rouses them, teases them. There are secrets to be learned from the rain, if one can ferret them out.”

The Princess nodded in agreement. “Breathe deeply, breathe slowly and taste the water on your breath.”

A trickle of rain ran racing down her hair, dark and wet.

“Men wish for sun, and bask in it,” said the Knight. “A fair weather day elapses without memory, with little consequence or substance.” He held his arm out and watched the rain bounce off of his armor. “A hazy thought, a carefree dream, clouds pass like idle hours.”

He stared at the sky, full of darkness. Just beyond the horizon he could see a thin hint of pale light streaking through the clouds.

“Perhaps the sun causes forgetfulness,” he said. “After a cruel winter we welcome its warmth like an old forgotten friend, yet soon enough, complain of summer’s heat.”

The Princess took a deep breath, her breast rose and fell. The cool, clean scent of rain filled the air. “‘Good’ weather, ‘bad’ weather, such things do not exist,” she said. “There is merely weather, and your reaction to it.”

The sound of thunder filled the space between them. The Knight studied the Princess. Rain fell from her fingertips. Water beaded on her skin, her dress clung to her like silk. The little brook was purling.

“Consider a drought,” he said, “dry, the land parched like a beggar’s throat. In the heathen days of old, we made sacrifices, pleaded, and struck bargains with the gods. ‘Deliver onto us a rainfall, for the farmer lives and dies by the rain, and we are beholden to his boon.’ Yes, we pray for rain, but also we curse its coming. We fear the flood, we bemoan the storm.”

Above him, the sky rumbled.

“This rain will continue through the night and into the morning,” said the Knight, “and yet we sit, defiant. Will we catch our deaths of cold? Will the wind beat us until we fall? Will this stream overflow, and flood, will the current sweep us away? Tell me of the rain, the rage and thunder. Do you—”

“Knight,” the Princess interrupted, “I accuse you of thinking too much. Thought is good, but you must learn clarity of mind.”

The Princess raised her hands to the storm, and watched in silence as the rain fell upon them, as the raindrops made little trails down her arms, beading on the tips of her elbows, dripping to the muddy ground.

The Knight took the Princess’s hand and bent low to kiss it, but she withdrew without contempt or comment.

“Contemplate the rain but do not count the drops,” she said.

“Do you wish to make me a dullard?” asked the Knight. “To let things be, to not learn from them? Like this swollen earth, I will absorb all knowledge until full and saturated.”

“The droplets are the rain, the rain does not exist without them,” said the Princess. She ran her fingers through her hair. “Tell me, precisely how many do you think will fall today?”

“I could not say. Millions.”

“The pursuit of knowledge is admirable. However, knowledge alone is not enough. It must be tempered with wisdom and experience and virtue.”

The Princess fell silent. A gust of wind blew her hair about, it fell across her eyes, blinding her. Above her, a bolt of lightning cut across the sky.

“Pursue thoughts to where they might lead,” she said, “but do not get lost along the way. Rumination, anxiety; very bad.”

Another bout of wind swept her hair back behind her shoulders. Thunder crashed. The Princess spoke slowly, deliberately, choosing her words with care.

“There will always be more to learn, and that is the wonder of the world,” she said. “Try to hold but a single thought. Turn it, examine it from all angles until thoroughly satisfied.”

She turned to the Knight. “Then let it go.”

The Knight breathed. He’d never known the Princess to say so much.

The storm grew worse. The willows twisted in the wind and lost their leaves. The pond made waves. The swans took roost, the starlings hid. The Princess smiled. She crossed her legs, she straightened her back, she rested her hands on her knees.

Simply, she sat.

“Do not concern yourself with the rain, or the wind, or the storm,” she said. “Meditate on a single drop of water, and all that it holds.”

The Knight shivered. The wind was harsh, he had no protection from the cold. Gusts rattled his steel cage. The wet crept between his plates of armor, through his threadbare gambeson, and froze the cloth that bound him. The wind howled, wailing against his helmet, battering his ears. The rain fell in sheets; he struggled to see. The cold extended down to his toes, his fingers were numb.

“And how does one calm the mind while in the midst of such a storm?” he asked the Princess.

“Calm the mind? Calm the storm? Why do you try to force such things?” was her reply.

The Knight closed his eyes. He tried to concentrate. He tried not to concentrate.

The Knight thought about a single drop of rain. In his mind’s eye he saw it fall from heaven to earth. Surrounded by its sisters and brothers, yet separate from them, it fell. The raindrop hit the ground and rebounded, only to be drowned by its peers. The rain pooled on the saturated earth.

“Tomorrow,” the Knight thought, “the sun will shine, renewed, and this tiny little speck of rain will be no more. This single drop of water will return to the air, return to the cloud, only to fall again.”

The Knight pondered this cycle in all its permutations. Falling, being drunk by a crane from a lake on the night of a full moon. Falling, absorbed by the earth, meeting root, feeding leaf. Falling, freezing into crystal, freezing into snow, caught on the tongue of a girl. All these passages ended with rebirth, the return to the cloud.

Slowly, very slow, the Knight forgot.

He forgot his frigid toes. He forgot about his ears, battered by the wind. Forgot the wet binds that clung to his breast, constricting him. Forgot all language. He forgot all breath and breathing, until slowly and steadily it came without measure.

He thought only of a single raindrop. And then he let that thought go, and he thought of nothing at all.

For a moment.

From somewhere beside him, the Princess spoke. She sounded very far away.

“Can you feel? Every little drop. Every single one?” she asked him. “Can you feel the space between the rain?”

He did not answer.

The Princess cleared her throat. “Come, Knight, let us sit by the fire and drink our tea. I have taken my fill of storm. We are healthy and we are strong but I will not test our limits on this day.”

The Knight huffed out a hot, deep breath through the slit in his helmet. He nodded slowly. He stood, and offered the Princess his hand to take. She accepted it and he helped her to her feet.

The rain seemed lighter, softer. He did not mind it so much now. They walked in silence through the meadow to the summer house. He followed the Princess as she tiptoed lightly through the sodden muck, his sabatons slipping and sinking into the muddy earth.

“That was very nice,” the Princess sang. “Perhaps next time we will focus on the breath alone, yes?” she asked the Knight.

His heart strained against his breast.

Rain was pouring off of the eave of the summer house. The Princess opened the door and he followed her inside.

The cottage had always seemed cramped to him, almost stifling, but today that tiny nature was welcoming.

The Princess gestured to the hearth in the corner. “Prepare a fire and warm yourself.”

She drifted through the parlor and out of sight to the room beyond. Her dress left a wet, dirty trail behind her. The Knight yearned to follow her, to pursue her, but a cowardice took hold of his heart.

He turned his tinder to the fireplace.

He found flint and steel on the mantel, and soon the hearth was roaring. He stared into the fire, watched the fire dance, watched the timbers crack and snap, felt the flames and the heat, felt his flesh warm and his armor thaw.

“Small, this house remains, yet well stocked,” the Princess called as she returned from the backroom. She carried a tray, set with scones and china. “Behold: a sampling of tea, and a selection of nibbles to aid in one’s digestion.”

She clung to a housecoat. Her hair was damp and mussed. She’d patted it dry, and now it went every which way, uncombed and uncouth. “Are you cold?” she asked. “The tea will warm you.”

She set the tray down and moved to the fire. “Will you be alright, sitting around in that wet armor? Think of your health; I fear you’ll rust.”

“I’m fine,” the Knight assured her.

“I would hate to see you suffer from mere stubbornness—or pride.”

The Knight set the kettle over the hearth. “Give me cause to remove my bonds,” he said. Water dripped from his armor, it formed a puddle on the floor. “Lie with me. The mood is set, I think. Two would be, could be lovers caught in the rain, seeking shelter from the storm. A roaring fire. A closeness shared by body and soul. Yes, a romance could be wrought here tonight.”

The Princess bit her lip. “Why you,” she sputtered, “is that you met me today? To woo me with some fabrication, a play?”

“Your naivete amuses me.” The Knight stood. “We must play our parts. Come, you shiver with cold, I could warm your body. The storm rages, a divine calamity; in my arms you will feel no fear. Our amour will drown out the thunder.”

He took a step towards the Princess. She took a step back.

“Come.” The Knight reached out to her. “Let your lofty cries stir my passion, let your contented sighs lull me to sleep. I ask again, under conditions so perfect: spend this night with me.”

“No, damn you!” the Princess cried. “To ruin such a fine afternoon with such vile propositions—”

She glared at him. “I share compassion and am repaid w-with lechery!”

The Knight began to protest, but his voice caught in his throat. He turned away. His back straightened.

“Know this, Princess,” he said quietly, “any discomfort I have caused you is but a stumble, a misstep in pursuit of a greater joy and triumph, one which we both might share.”

The Princess tightened her grip on her housecoat.

The Knight withdrew. “I ask too much of you,” he said. “The rains were lovely. Thank you for sharing them with me. It will make for a happy memory.”

“And yet you are not satisfied.”

His ears burned, the pain in his breast returned. An anger came over him. “No, I’m not satisfied,” he cried. He wrenched open the door and ran off into the storm.

He ran through the garden and into the forest and into the dark, thunder crashing at his heel.

The Princess sat alone, silent and in silence, until the tea kettle sang, and her thoughts were brought back to the present. She frowned, then grabbed the kettle from the hearth. She placed her tea leaves in a pot. She poured the kettle out over them, and replaced the lid. She pictured the steeping in her mind—leaves expanding, colors deepening, flavor and essence diffusing as one.

She counted time with her heartbeat. Time passed.

And when her tea was ready, she poured it with the grace gleaned from a thousand hours of practice; she did not spill a single drop. A strainer caught the tea leaves, she set them aside.

She fanned the teacup with her hands, breathing in the sweet aroma. She lowered her head and took a sip, then a second and a third. The tea was rich and warmed her from the inside out. Soothed, she laid down by the fire and watched the flicker of the flames until her eyelids grew heavy.

“What a silly Knight,” she murmured.

Rain pounded against the roof of the summer house. She slept.