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Fishing at Montsalvat
Words by Val Votrin
Image by Pansy Maurer-Alvarez
The car turned around the corner of the mountain road, and Graeve saw the white castle. The airy, dreamlike palace with its slim towers and rounded arches was gleaming white atop a steep peak against the dark background of wild cliffs covered with pine forest. The road was meandering up the mountain, towards the glittering castle, its finely carved lines wonderfully silhouetted against the bright blue sky. Further and further along this steep, winding road Dr. Parzival Graeve went, ascending to his royal patient who was awaiting him in that shining palace on the top of the mountain.
Graeve sat motionless in the back seat of the car, his white forked beard freely lying on his chest, his large, portly frame relaxed and quiet. Only his sharp blue eyes gazed piercingly at the landscape. These vigilant eyes immediately noticed the stark contrast between the magnificent castle and the desolate surroundings. Piles of rubbish on the roadside and across the lonely fields, sick, contorted pine trees with yellow branches, abandoned houses with crumbling roofs, people looking both frightened and utterly depressed--Graeve was making his way through a barren land.
Finally, the castle of Montsalvat lay before him.
There were other cars waiting, perhaps indefinitely, in front of the huge cast-iron gate flanked by two towers. It was closed, but, once Graeve’s car turned up, the gate slowly opened, letting him into a courtyard with a beautiful garden. Montsalvat’s chiselled beauty looked very different up close. The castle appeared immense, oppressive, its true color not white but rather pale grey. The car drove on to the hall, the oldest part of the palace and its main residential building, a colossal five-storey cubic structure with a high, gabled roof.
Several men were standing in the driveway, waiting for the car. One of them, a courteous, grey-whiskered man, stepped forward and welcomed Graeve with a pleasant smile.
‘Welcome to Montsalvat, Dr. Graeve,’ he said. ‘I am Count Karl Gurnemanz von Neumayr, His Majesty’s prime minister. Thank you for responding to my call so quickly.’
‘Your Excellency,’ said Graeve with a bow. ‘I am very much conscious of the urgency of the matter and so have put aside everything else to hasten here as soon as I could.’
‘This is greatly appreciated, doctor,’ said Von Neumayr. ‘His Majesty the king is very, very ill, so the matter indeed allows of no delay. You will be shown your room at once. Please take some rest after your long journey. I will be waiting for you downstairs in an hour. We have a lot to discuss.’
Graeve’s room was in the western wing of the hall overlooking the Korbensee, a mountain lake. The stone balcony opened on to a stunning view of it, light blue and misty under the azure sky. The balcony door was open, and crisp, fragrant wind from the alpine meadows was sweeping through the room. Graeve closed the door and stood thinking, looking at the lake.
He knew that the king's realm did not extend beyond the far end of the lake, which was effectively the kingdom's western border. Montsalvat was a tiny state comprising only the castle and a few small mountain villages. For centuries, it had been closed to all foreigners, and little was reported about what had been happening within its impenetrable borders. The only fact known about Montsalvat was that its ruler was ill. He had been ailing for a long time, and nobody was able to help him. There was a time when the king let send after all manner of leeches and surgeons, both unto men and women, and there was none that would behote him the life. As no local medic was able to help, the king started seeking aid from outside. A great many doctors and physicians attended him, but proved powerless to stop his progressing malady.
Graeve had long known that he would eventually be called in to Montsalvat. In his large house on one of Vienna’s quietest streets, which had felt so empty after the death of his wife a few years ago, Graeve had been waiting for a distant call. And he’d finally heard this call. The time had come.
Surprisingly, he did not feel tired after his long journey. He was not hungry, either, and did not touch the abundant lunch exquisitely served for him on a little table. Quite the opposite: he was unusually sprightly and focused, as if before an important exam, and he could barely wait until the hour had passed and he could come down to meet Count Von Neumayr.
Finally, a liveried servant turned up and led Graeve through a vaulted, gallery-like corridor to a large, beautifully decorated drawing room where the prime minister and his retinue were waiting for him. The walls were adorned with murals and tapestries depicting various tournament scenes and knights wearing suits of armor.
‘This is our Hall of the Knights,’ said the count instead of a greeting, giving Graeve another pleasant smile. ‘His Majesty loves everything about the knights.’
‘These murals are excellent,’ said Graeve admiringly.
Von Neumayr nodded in agreement.
‘I hope you have managed to have a bit of a rest,’ he said.
‘Oh yes, perfectly so’.
‘Very good. We have eagerly been waiting for you, Dr. Graeve. His Majesty has been informed and wishes to see you.’
Graeve looked at Von Neumayr and then at the officials surrounding him.
‘I want to ask a few questions before I see the patient, if you do not mind,’ he said.
‘Does His Majesty have a doctor?’
‘Ah yes,’ said the prime minister. ‘I really should have told you more before rushing you into your meeting with His Majesty. Well, the king has had many doctors. It is even safe to say that all the doctors in Montsalvat, one after another, spent some time in this palace trying to cure the king. Alas, all of them failed. So we started inviting others from abroad – and those failed too, quite understandably.’
‘But who is his doctor now?’
‘Unfortunately, His Majesty does not have one. This is partly the reason why you have been invited, Dr. Graeve. We need a real authority now.’
‘So those doctors proved to be…’
‘I will be honest with you, Dr. Graeve,’ said the prime minister. ‘Most of them were charlatans. Sadly, my predecessor was too kind and trusting--or perhaps too greedy. It is also our reputation which now needs a cure. You noticed those cars in front of the gate?’
‘I did indeed.’
‘The quack doctors have laid siege to us, trying to enter the palace by all means. They still seem to be thinking that they can outflank us. We shall use force to evict them, I fear.’
‘You have to be resolute,’ said Graeve. ‘I’ve seen these people before. They are vultures. I am glad to hear that you are determined to eradicate this evil from your country.’
‘Yes, Dr. Graeve,’ said the prime minister. ‘The entire council of ministers supports me in this decision.’
Graeve paused and then asked, ‘I presume this is His Majesty’s decision in the first place?’
‘Very much so.’
‘Do you think his condition has worsened after those false doctors’ interventions?’
‘This may indeed have been too much for him,’ said the prime minister, nodding. ‘I am not a doctor myself and cannot evaluate their methods, but some of them used mercury ointments on his wound. There was one doctor who prescribed a honey diet.’
‘Yes. His Majesty was required to eat only honey, and nothing else.’
‘Oh dear me,’ said Graeve. ‘Why would he prescribe this?’
‘The answer is obvious,’ said the prime minister. ‘We have been too reliant on the wrong people. So every minute counts now. My humble opinion is that it is not his wound. His wound is just a consequence. It is all in his head. Perhaps he is resisting the cure. I do not know why. You have got to tell us, Dr. Graeve. We’ve heard a lot about your novel methods. Your amazing archetype therapy. And I am asking you to apply it now – asking on behalf of the entire kingdom.’
Before Graeve could respond, the door opened and a tall, slender, beautiful woman stormed into the room. She was pale and agitated.
‘Count,’ she said, gasping, ‘I was told that there was a stranger in the palace. Who is this man? What is he doing here?’
‘Your Majesty,’ replied the prime minister, ‘let me introduce you to Dr. Parzival Graeve. We discussed his visit a few days ago.’
‘Ah,’ said the queen, composing herself. ‘Delighted to see you, Dr. Graeve. So you have finally come.’
‘Yes, Your Majesty,’ said Graeve with a deep bow. ‘I am entirely at your service, Your Majesty.’
‘I am honored, doctor,’ she said. ‘But what is holding you in this hall? Come along at once. You really must see him now, Dr. Graeve.’
‘Well, we have been discussing the methods other doctors used--' said the count.
‘Never mind them,’ interrupted the queen. ‘Come along, quick. There is no time to be lost.’
The king’s lodgings were on the upper floors of the eastern wing of the palace, so it took some time for them to walk there from the Hall of the Knights, through numerous corridors and galleries. Inside, the palace seemed even larger than it did from outside--a maze of passages, staircases and private chambers, some looking long abandoned and some incomplete, with unpainted walls and sacks of plaster left lying about. It was already late evening, and it grew dark outside the large windows--but the palace was bright and well-lit, albeit empty. They did not encounter anyone on their way to the eastern wing.
Finally, they reached a high, gilded double door. The queen pushed it forcefully and they came in.
The room behind the door was small and stuffy. The king lay motionless on a bed just opposite the door, his eyes closed, his big, matted beard sticking up in the air. He was breathing noisily. An abominable smell of rotting flesh filled the room.
The queen came closer to him and called, ‘Lutz!’
He did not move.
The king opened his eyes. His gaze was unfocused.
‘Augusta,’ he said.
She brought a cup of water for him and he drank it off in one gulp.
‘Lutz, the doctor came,’ said the queen.
‘Another one? Kick him out!’
‘This is the one we have been waiting for. The good one.’
‘Is there a good one?’ said the king. ‘Well, let him come closer.’
Graeve stepped forward and bowed. The king gave him a long glance.
‘I have not seen you before,’ he said.
‘I have never been here before, Your Majesty,’ Graeve responded.
‘Astonishing, isn’t it?’ said the king with a chuckle. ‘Every horse-doctor in the world has seen me, and the real specialist has not. How could I miss you?’
‘You have not,’ said Graeve. ‘Now I have come here to help.’
‘Isn’t it too late?’
‘I will be able to tell in a few minutes. Let me examine you, Your Majesty.’
Aided by the queen and the prime minister, he took off the king’s trousers, wincing unwittingly at the terrible smell. Underneath was a dirty, pus-soaked bandage. When he removed it, a terrible, swollen wound in the king’s groin came to light. Graeve shied away unintentionally.
‘What? Don’t you like it?’ croaked the king.
‘Dear me!’ muttered Graeve, gazing at the sore. ‘May I ask how long have you been ill, Your Majesty?’
‘For ages,’ said the king.
Graeve could not help staring at the wound. He has never seen such dreadful sores in all his long medical practice. The king must have been experiencing horrible pain. He told the king about this.
‘I don’t feel it,’ said the king quite jauntily. ‘I got used to it. Can be annoying, I must confess, but I even forget about this thing sometimes.’
‘Incredible,’ said Graeve. ‘Incredible.’
‘Yeah,’ said the king. ‘The previous doctor also said that. Before I had him kicked out of the palace.’
Graeve helped the king lever himself upright. Once sitting up, he looked better, as if he had already received some treatment and was now recovering. His brown eyes glistened with excitement; his large, hooked nose turned red.
‘You are old,’ he remarked. ‘I look much younger.’
He laughed. Graeve had not yet applied a new bandage to his wound, and the sore was very much visible. However, the king seemed not to notice it. He continued to laugh.
‘Okay,’ said Graeve. ‘Okay, Your Majesty. Let me clean your wound. This is going to be a bit painful.’
‘Pain!’ said the king with contempt. ‘What do you know about pain?’
Graeve cast a severe look at him.
‘I know a lot about pain, Your Majesty,’ he said. ‘I am a doctor, remember?’
He asked the prime minister to send someone for warm water and opened his suitcase. The king was observing him ironically.
‘You are just like the others, are you?’ he said suddenly.
Graeve could not stand this any longer.
‘Be quiet, Your Majesty!’ he burst out, but then mastered himself and said, ‘Try not to speak. It might be too exhausting for you.’
‘Oh, of course,’ said the king, smiling bitterly.
Graeve started cleaning the wound. The king wailed.
‘I told you, Your Majesty,’ said Graeve.
‘Hurts!’ croaked the king. ‘But don’t stop.’
‘I won’t,’ said Graeve. ‘I won’t, Your Majesty.’
Having finished tending to the wound, he straightened and looked at the king.
The king was smiling.
‘Better,’ he said. ‘Feels much better. At least you can scrape out a wound well.’
‘What do you think, doctor?’ asked the queen anxiously.
Graeve did not respond. He was gazing out of the window, trying to discern – what? It was pitch dark outside and the lake would not be visible from this wing anyway. But he was thinking about it, bracing himself to say the words.
Suddenly the king spoke.
‘Don’t you even dare to start whispering to them,’ he said loudly. ‘Tell me. Tell me the truth. Prove that you are not like all the others.’
Graeve looked at the queen. She nodded.
‘I am sorry, Your Majesty,’ he said, ‘but I do not think that we are looking at a favorable prognosis here. The sore is at a very advanced stage. It is really surprising that sepsis has not yet developed after all these years.’
The queen burst into tears.
‘Come, Augusta,’ the king chipped in bluntly. ‘You cry every time you hear this. Others have said the same. I’ve heard this I don’t know how many times! Sepsis! Advanced stage! And all this leads to nowhere. I wish I’d already died!’
‘Don’t say that, Lutz!’ the queen exclaimed.
‘Are you sure that the prognosis really is this poor?’ the prime minister enquired.
‘Oh yes,’ said Graeve. ‘But there is one possible cure he could try.’
‘Which one?’ said the queen and Count Von Neumayr with one voice.
Graeve paused, pondering his response.
‘I know that the Korbinsee is home to one very rare species of fish,’ he said. ‘You may have heard of it. It is called the king’s fish.’
‘The king’s fish,’ echoed the queen, staring at him in light amusement.
‘Yes, Your Majesty,’ said Graeve. ‘It is also called the bowl fish, apparently because of its shape.’
‘What about it, doctor?’ said the prime minister impatiently.
‘It is just--’ Graeve started but stopped short, looking at the king.
The king was not listening. He had fallen asleep.
They tiptoed out of the bedroom and stopped in the corridor.
‘So what about the fish, Dr. Graeve?’ asked the prime minister.
‘I do not think we can discuss this when His Majesty is not with us,’ said Graeve. ‘Let us continue tomorrow morning.’
Von Neumayr nodded.
‘We will be waiting for you here at eight o’clock in the morning, Dr. Graeve.’
As Graeve turned to head for his room, he met the queen’s wary eyes.
Now he felt really tired and hungry. His cold lunch was waiting in his room. Graeve ate the meal and drank a glass of red wine. He found that, despite the tiredness, he was thoroughly enjoying his dinner – the food and especially the wine were superb. Yet he never stopped thinking about his patient. It was astonishing that a man with such a wound was still alive and could survive years of poor care. Apparently not all of those doctors who had been treating him were quacks.
Immediately after the meal, Graeve felt sleepy and barely made it to his bed. He fell asleep once his head touched the pillow.
The Korbinsee lay before him, its dark, smooth water glistening under the bright full moon. He was alone on the shore, a long fishing rod in his hand. It was damp and chilly, but an unusual warmth was emanating from the water, as if the lake were a giant warm-blooded organism. He had been sitting there for a long time, because the fish were shy and were not biting. Shy fish, he thought. What a curious expression. And then he thought, Here I am sitting upon the shore fishing. What do I have behind me? Only the arid plain. The abominable wasteland.
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
And next moment he felt a nibble. He pulled joyfully, hoping a big, strong fish had just taken his bait. But what was on the end of his line sent chills down his spine.
It was a human skull.
Graeve woke up with a start and lay awake until the early morning, thinking about eerie dreams and sinister forebodings.
At eight o’clock sharp, he was outside the king’s bedroom.
The queen and the count had already arrived and were waiting for him. The queen still looked pale and wary, casting quick, distrustful glances at him.
Surprisingly, the king was somewhat improved in looks. His face had lost its unhealthy flush; his gaze was sharp and focused.
‘Here comes the doctor!’ he announced gleefully.
‘Good morning, Your Majesty,’ said Graeve, smiling. ‘I am delighted to find you in much better health.’
‘Thanks to you, doctor,’ said the king. ‘Thanks to you. You seem to have a magic hand. For the first time in months, the bloody thing isn’t bothering me.’
‘That’s reassuring,’ said Graeve. ‘I’ve just cleaned it properly and here is the effect. I am certain a proper treatment will do wonders for you.’
‘I realize,’ said the king, ‘that I fell asleep in the middle of our conversation yesterday. I did not mean to be rude. It’s just my wound which sometimes makes me do awkward things.’
‘Your Majesty,’ said Count Von Neumayr suavely, ‘Yesterday Dr. Graeve wished to share his opinion as to what steps should be taken next to successfully battle the illness. Would you like to proceed, doctor, and tell us your thoughts?’
Before he answered, Graeve cast a look through the window. He was right--the lake was not visible from this wing of the palace.
He turned to the king.
‘I am very glad, Your Majesty,’ he said, ‘that your condition has considerably improved overnight. To be honest, I was not hoping for this and was expecting to find you in a state very similar to yesterday’s. I will even take a step further and predict that you can walk--or at least try to walk. This will be vital if we’re to get you back to full health.’
‘Why would I have to walk?’ said the king. ‘I can’t even remember the last time I walked.’
‘There is one certain cure for your illness, Your Majesty,’ said Graeve. ‘But, it is not a very accessible one. You have got to get it yourself.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Have you ever heard of the king’s fish? It is also known as the bowl fish.’
‘Yes,’ said the king. ‘This fish is said to be living in the Korbinsee. It also has a third name. It is called the sangreal in our chronicles.’
‘That’s the very fish, Your Majesty,’ said Graeve. ‘A rare species found only in the lake, nowhere else. This is the cure, Your Majesty, that you need to be healed.’
The king was silent.
‘They say it has been long extinct,’ he said finally.
‘I would venture to say, if you permit, Your Majesty,’ said Von Neumayr, ‘that the lake is empty of life, just like the land around the castle. This is a scourge of our country, Dr. Graeve.’
‘This scourge will disappear, once His Majesty finds the fish,’ said Graeve firmly. ‘Because the fish is there, no matter what the village folk are saying.’
‘They have never tried to catch it,’ grumbled the king. ‘It is the king’s fish. Only a king can catch it.’
‘This is absolutely correct, Your Majesty,’ said Graeve. ‘And the fish would allow itself to be caught only by a monarch who is threatened by a grave disease.’
‘So the legends say,’ said the king with a sniff--but he was visibly carried away with the idea.
As he was thinking hard, the queen called, ‘Lutz!’
The king looked up at her.
‘Lutz,’ she said, ‘I do not like this. The lake is very deep, its water dark. You have never gone fishing before. Think twice, my swan king.’
After a long pause, the king replied, ‘I feel I need to do this, Augusta. Have you seen what is happening to the country? I need to set my land in order. And the first step is to fix myself. If this is the only way to do so, I must try.’
The queen, aghast, raised her hand to her mouth. She did not say a word, just stood there silently.
‘My dear count,’ said the king to Von Neumayr, ‘please send people to get a boat ready. I am going fishing today.’
‘Lutz!’ cried the queen.
‘Please be quiet, Augusta,’ he said. ‘This is all settled. I am going fishing. Doctor?’
‘Yes, Your Majesty?’ said Graeve, stepping forward.
‘Do I have to eat it?’
‘You have to catch it, Your Majesty,’ said Graeve. ‘And your illness will go by itself.’
‘How did you know about the fish, Dr. Graeve?’ asked the king.
Graeve looked at the prime minister. Count Von Neumayr looked down.
‘I’ve read about it,’ said Graeve. ‘There is a marvellous book. It tells all sorts of stories about Montsalvat.’
‘Well,’ said the king. ‘I will see you when I catch the fish.’
‘Goodbye, Your Majesty,’ said Graeve.
He left the king’s lodgings and went straight to his room. He did not see the moment when the king sailed off in his boat. He was still in his room at four o’clock in the afternoon, when heavy rain came down and the entire staff of the castle started to search for the king.
Dr. Graeve was still in his room when darkness fell and the searchers returned from the lake, having found neither the king nor his boat. He did not come down to dinner, either.
Early in the morning, Graeve crept out of his room and walked out of the palace. The rain had stopped. Graeve came down to the lakeshore and looked around.
It was still dark and misty, but he was persistent. He started walking along the shore and soon saw something in the water.
Something he was expecting to see.
It was a dead body, head and shoulders above the shallow water near the shore.
Next moment he heard some voices. It was a search party from the castle. A group of palace servants was coming down to the lake.
‘Here!’ Graeve shouted. ‘I have found His Majesty!’
He stayed there, watching how the king’s lifeless body was carried on to the shore and laid on a big stone. The queen must have been notified shortly afterwards, because he heard her shrill scream up there, in the castle: ‘Ludwig! Ludwig!’
Within minutes, Count Von Neumayr, white as ashes, came down along with the castle guards and approached the dead body. He then turned round and looked at Graeve.
‘You surely know what has happened, Graeve, do you?’ he asked.
And Parzival Graeve replied solemnly, as if proclaiming the ancient formula, ‘Sire, the Fisher King has found his fish!’