Pilgrim Reindeer in Pisa, 1348

a free multimedia novel by

Thomas A. DuBois, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Click here to return to Tom's homepage

Detail, Triumph of Death. Camposanto. Pisa

Sálle has waited all his life to be contacted by the spirits. Now that they've called, there's no turning back—not until the spirits say STOP.

Navigate the novel by:

Drum head Calendar Click here to return to novel homepage



Previous chapter
Cultural information for this chapter
Notes from the author
Next Chapter

19. The Journey from Gotland [October 1, 1347]

God blessed them, saying: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.”

Claes arranged for Bávlos to sail to Reval the very next day. Visby was a prosperous port, and ships came and went incessantly. Claes took the statue to be blessed by a priest in the city and then carefully wrapped it in layer after layer of soft woolen blankets with a large sheepskin draped on the outside. “Nothing like Gotlandic wool,” he said. “This will keep all water off our Lady till she reaches her destination.” Bávlos took along only a small pack with some fishing gear and a few provisions and fixed up a sling so that he could carry the statue on his back. He felt like he was bearing a great burden though the statue weighed so little: within the hollow shell of wood and mud and paint resided the love and artistry of a kindly man. Claes’s only wish was to fulfill his promise and deliver the statue that the Danes of Reval had so long awaited. And the responsibility of that wish now lay entirely on Bávlos’s back.

The small sloop that Bávlos was to travel in was captained by a tall, thin man named Ulf and his sons Per and Gunfjaun. They were nearly the same height as their father but only half as wide, and they sprang up and down the masts and decks of the small ship like squirrels in a pine tree. “Named for the rock of Our Lord’s great church,” said the man, gesturing at Per, “and the other named for the third son of our island.”

“I do not know these stories,” said Bávlos as Ulf guided the sloop out of the bay and tacked to port to run the coast southwards.

“Surely you know of St. Per!” said the captain, chortling. “Jesus’s first assistant in his work. He had been called Simon, but the Lord renamed him Per because it meant ‘rock’ in his language.”

“I thought his assistant’s name was Pekka,” said Bávlos.

“Pikka?” cried the captain, “No, no, lad. That means to poke or stick with a knife! Per was picked by Our Lord, and he was eventually killed for the faith, but the name he was given was Per, not Pikka.”

“Ah,” said Bávlos. “Why did he want to call him ‘rock’? Was he particularly hard-headed?” Here he could not help but think of his Finnish friend, even if he had been wrongly named.

“No, no,” laughed the man. “Well, he was stubborn on occasion, I suppose. But the Lord liked his savvy and the way he stuck to things, most things anyway. Why, he even walked on water for a while! And so he called him ‘rock’ because he was the kind of person the Lord could use to build his church on.”

Bávlos thought this very strange. How could one presume to build a church on top of a person? And if walking on water was one of this disciple’s strong points, why did they call him “rock”? Wouldn’t “leaf” or “duck” be better? He remembered how his mother used to say: “A rock can never float,” whenever people expected the impossible of someone or something. But perhaps this Per had walked on the water in winter, when it wouldn’t be any great feat at all? As Bávlos mulled over these questions, Ulf continued to talk:

“Of course, not that all rocks are that steady,” he said, scanning the horizon. “Why, look at our own Gotland: used to sink every night it did.”

“The island sank?” asked Bávlos surprised. Gotland seemed far too big to him to be a tidal island: the sea would have to rise very high to cover the hills and ridges he could see now from the boat. He knew that in the sea far to the north of his father’s lands islands came and went with the tides. He had seen so himself. “But could a tide ever be this high?” he wondered.

“Yes, she used to be above water only at night,” said the captain. “Sank every morning at sunrise and didn’t come back till it got dark. Quite a problem. No one could live here at all, naturally.”

“Well, what happened?” asked Bávlos.

“There was a man named Thielvar,” said the captain, “and he knew what to do. He carried fire across the island and it broke the magic. Since then it’s never sunk again.”

“Ah,” said Bávlos. There must have been strong magic in this place in the past; this Thielvar must have been some sort of Gotlandic noaide of great power. He asked aloud: “What happened to this man?”

“Well,” said the captain, he gave the island to his son. And his son moved here with his wife. And one day this wife had a dream that she had three snakes in her lap, and she predicted that she would have three sons, whom they named Guti and Graip and Gunfjaun. Guti is the one that the whole island is named for. But Gunfjaun was the youngest son, and he was given the southern stretch of the island where our family lives. So my younger boy is named for him, you see.”

“Ah,” said Bávlos. These Gotlanders seemed to share the Sámi tradition of naming sons for famous forebears. In fact, the tales of these Gotlanders sounded surprisingly familiar to him: prophetic dreams, men and women with magic skills, lucky snakes; in some ways these all seemed almost Sámi. “Did they have magic places on the island?” he asked.

“They did indeed!” nodded Ulf vigorously. “Hills and groves where they made sacrifices to their gods and feasted for a prosperous year. Oh yes,” said the captain glancing upward at the island’s contours, “they were steeped in pagan ways before the coming of the true faith.”

“I see,” said Bávlos. He wondered how the true faith had come to these shores and how the local gods had felt about its arrival. Did they welcome Iesh in the way that Bávlos’s spirit gang had done, or did they set themselves against him? “How did the island become Christian then?” he asked aloud.

“Well, it was not easy,” said Ulf. “Some folk were baptized when off trading to the south, and they brought the faith back with them and started to build churches. But others grew angry at the idea and burned the churches down. It became quite a conflict.”

“What happened then? “ asked Balvos.

“Well, there was a great man named Botair of Akebäck. And he had become a Christian and he built a church. And when they came to burn it down he raced up and stood before it and said ‘if you burn this church down, you’ll have to burn me as well!’ And folk didn’t want to do that, because he was a big man in the area and had married well and all. He had a mighty father-in-law. So they let him have his way and they named the church for St. Per. And after that, everyone on the island agreed to become Christian and they built all the many churches you find there today.”

“Ah,” said Bávlos. He wondered how many less popular men had had their churches burned before folk finally gave in. Iesh must have realized that Botair was his best bet if he was ever to become known in this place. Perhaps that was why Iesh had chosen Bávlos, too: perhaps he would someday return to his family and convince them all that Iesh was a good friend to know. In any case, he sensed that he was very lucky that Iesh and his spirit gang got along so well together.

Bávlos found it enjoyable to learn more about these people and to speak to Ulf in Swedish. He had known so little of the language when he had met Fina, and since then, most of the people he had talked to had been in a rush, or foreign, or deaf. Now, however, he found himself on a small craft with a captain who clearly liked to talk and who was a good storyteller to boot. He continued to ply the captain with questions to see what stories he could hear.

“So all you Gotlanders are descended from those three brothers, then?” he asked. He had noticed a distinct family resemblance among many of the folk of the island.

“That we are,” said Ulf, “and there’s more of us, too: folk that had to leave the island to settle elsewhere as things grew more and more crowded hereabouts.”

“They had to leave?” asked Bávlos. These Gotlanders sounded more like lemmings than people. He had never heard of people growing so numerous that they no longer could share the places they lived in. In Bávlos’s family, the same lands had supported the same families for as far back as anyone could remember, and no one’s family ever seemed to grow faster than any other’s. If they did, there’d be nothing for it: the land would not support more people and they’d starve or die. Here, however, growth seemed to occur without limit, and the extra people simply traveled elsewhere to find new lands, perhaps even lands owned by someone else.“What happened?” he asked.

“Well, they drew lots, and whoever lost had to leave. One out of every three had to pack up their belongings and take to the sea. It was hard. Many tried to stay on, but folk drove them away.”

“Where did they go?” asked Bávlos. He was horrified at the notion of people being pushed from their homeland.

“They settled nearby islands at first. But then those got filled up and they moved on to other places. They settled an island that we will skirt on the way to Reval—a place called Dagö, where they built a town that still exists. And when they outgrew that, they headed up the river Dyna into Russia where they came to dwell alongside the Novgorodans. And then they headed across Russia to Greece where they got land from the king of that land as well.”

“The king gave them land?” said Bávlos in surprise. With all this growth in numbers, Bávlos found it difficult to believe that anyone had any land to spare.

“Well,” chuckled the captain. “The king gave them land for what he thought was the waxing and the waning of a moon. But then the clever Gotlanders said that the moon was always either waxing or waning, so they should be able to hold the land forever. It would always be either the waxing or the waning of a moon, you see.”

“And the king went along with that?” asked Bávlos incredulously. He thought that the Greek king must be a good deal easier to handle than King Magnus.

“Yes, he had to,” said Ulf. “A man is only as good as his word, after all.”

“Still, it hardly seems fair,” said Bávlos pensively. “I mean, the king was trying to be hospitable.”

“In this world, lad,” said the captain grimly, “there are folk that take and folk that give. Happily enough, we Gotlanders have always been among the takers.”

“I see,” said Bávlos quietly. He had the distinct feeling that in the kind of situation Ulf described, his people were likely to be among the givers.