Pilgrim Reindeer in Pisa, 1348

a free multimedia novel by

Thomas A. DuBois, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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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.

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33. Up the Meuse (November 14, 1347)

And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a rule, who is to shepherd my people....

In the several days that followed, Jacques steered the company away from the River Mosel toward the valley of the River Meuse, which, according to Jacques, was partly owned by a Count of Bar and partly belonged to the kingdom of France. The friends leisurely followed the winding river upstream through rolling hills and fertile farmlands, grey and dreary in the November light.

For Bávlos, the occasional sunshine was strangely abundant: he had expected the days to be far shorter by now. Back home, the daylight must already be entirely gone, as the darkness recaptured the landscape in the long winter’s grip. But folk here seemed to take the light for granted, complaining endlessly instead about the cold, soaking rains, the cloudy skies, and the shortage of fresh food.

People continued to enjoy a cheerful song, perhaps even more so than a few weeks earlier, and Jacques continued to earn a decent income to pay for the friends’ dinners and lodging. Nieiddash remained a popular attraction and folk found Bávlos’s clothes very amusing as well. Bávlos preferred to sleep outside of villages in the forests as often as possible, but Jacques warned him that rogues would come and attack them if they were not careful. So generally, the friends spent their days and evenings in village taverns, lazily drifting from day to day, Jacques assured Bávlos, in the direction of Paris.

They spent one drizzly afternoon in the village of Sauvigny, close by the Meuse. Jacques was in high spirits and he sang ceaselessly. The village was small though, and the friends gathered few coins. “We have just enough for some bread and wine, I think,” said the boy.

“You feed yourself,” said Bávlos quietly. I will catch us some fish here in the river.”

“Fishing this time of year?” said the boy. “I did not think the fish were alive in November.”

“Of course they are alive,” smiled Bávlos. He had fixed a barbed spear tip to the walking stick he kept along on the journey. “But the fish are more careful whom they give themselves to at this time of year, and they are less hungry. Fish have places to hide when they need to. Holes at the bottoms of rivers and lakes that lead down into safer and warmer places.”

“And they will give up all that for you?” laughed Jacques.

“I do not say so,” said Bávlos. “We must wait and see.” By dinner time, Bávlos had speared four small fish: not a large feast, but a very welcome one. Jacques had bought a small loaf of dark bread at the tavern along with a hunk of rather smelly cheese and a small flask of wine.

“It is a fine feast we shall have!” laughed Jacques. He continued in good spirits.

“Are we nearing Paris?” said Bávlos. “You had said it would take a week to get there, and we have been traveling that long already.”

“Yes,” said Jacques hesitantly, “the paths in France, they are never straight. As the crow flies it would be a week, but you see, we have followed the river, and the river is never direct.”

“But we are nearing Paris just the same?” asked Bávlos.

“Why do you wish so to go to Paris?” asked the boy. “It is a grand city, it is true, but what business do you have there?”

“I am to meet a priest there,” said Bávlos, “a canon of the cathedral at Nostre Dame. The queen of my country gave me a letter for him and he will help me to travel to the Holy Father in Avignon.”

“To the Holy Father?” said the boy. “You? Are you certain my Paul?”

“I have the letter here,” said Bávlos, “and it is written in French.”

“I cannot read,” said the boy, waving his hand. “Listen. We are close to Paris now. I have family in this region, in the village of Domrémy. We will stop there and show them your fine deer. My brothers and sisters will be thrilled to see Nieiddash, and my parents will be impressed with my success. I travel with a pilgrim on an errand from a queen! An errand to the pope!”

“All right,” smiled Bávlos. It was growing dark. “Let us make camp across the river and cook our fish.” They walked across the ancient bridge that spanned the Meuse and found a small hollow in a patch of forest near the river. There they built a fire and cooked the fish.

“Do you not want any of this bread and cheese?” asked Jacques, tearing pieces of the dark loaf.

“No,” said Bávlos, “Not tonight. I am content with the fish and some water.”

“But the wine, and the cheese!” said Jacques, offering his friend a drink.

“Perhaps later,” said Bávlos. He knew that their rations were low and he chose to go without so that Jacques could eat and drink his fill. They settled down to sleep by the fire. It was chilly but pleasant, and Bávlos gave Jacques the reindeer pelt to sleep under so that he would be warm. It seemed to Bávlos that these French needed much more warmth than people needed back home.

In the middle of the night Bávlos awoke in a fright. Jacques was shrieking. He was thrashing wildly and cursing, using many words that Bávlos had no understanding of at all.

“What is the matter?” cried Bávlos.

“My hands, my feet!” cried the boy in pain, “They are burning!”

“Have you rolled into the embers?” asked Bávlos. He turned to look at the fire ring but the embers, still glowing, appeared undisturbed. Jacques was shaking his hands and feet wildly and sobbing.

“What do you mean your hands are feet are burning?” asked Bávlos.

“They are!” cried the boy. He was shaking violently. All at once he began to wretch. He coughed and spluttered and heaved out his dinner onto the ground.

“What is wrong?” said Bávlos frightened. “Have you eaten something bad? Was the fish bad?”

“The fish,” said the boy. “The fish, Paul, what kind of fish was that?”

“I do not know what you call them,” said Bávlos. They had been a small fish that one never found in the rivers and lakes back home, but which Pekka and he had caught frequently in the lakes of Finland. Pekka had called them pasuri. They had usually thrown them back in Finland, for Pekka had said they were not worth eating. But here in France in November, Bávlos had not minded giving them a try. “They looked like good enough eating fish to me, and anyways, I am not ill. I ate as much or more of them than you!” He was conscious of the defensive tone in his voice. Had he managed to poison poor Jacques? Fish were dangerous things to eat in unknown waters. Jacques was crying bitterly and wretching.

“I have soiled myself,” he said pathetically. “Give me your hose,” said Bávlos, “and I will wash them. We may be able to get them dry by the morning if I stoke up the fire.”

“The fire! The fire!” cried the boy. “I have St. Antoine’s fire!”

“St. Antoine’s fire?” asked Bávlos. “St. Antoine is doing this to you?”

“He is not,” said the boy. “It is called that because the monks of St. Antoine know how to cure this fire.”

“Where are these monks?” said Bávlos. “They do not live in this duchy,” said the boy. He was barely coherent now. “They, St. Antoine. St. Norbert. Prémontrés monks. Bermont! The monks of Bermont will help me! Please Paul! Don’t let the fire take me!”

Bávlos reached out and gently held his friend. He was sobbing and shaking, coughing and hot. He could barely keep still. Bávlos spent the night trying to tend to him as best he could, keeping him from plunging into the river to cool his feet and arms.

By morning, they were both exhausted. Bávlos had managed to clean Jacques’s pants in the river but they were still damp. Jacques pulled them on with difficulty. He was pale and shaky and seemed barely able to stand.

“Can you walk?” asked Bávlos. “Here, lean on me and on Nieiddash.” He placed Jacques between himself and the reindeer and showed the boy how to place one arm over them each. They walked slowly, unsteadily, for a couple of hours until they came to the forest of Greux. It had not been far, but Jacques could barely walk and every step seemed to him an agony.

“We are arrived,” said the boy in exhaustion. “Pray, ring the bell and ask the monks if there is room in the hospital.” Bávlos did as he was instructed. He rang the large brass bell that stood by the door of the large stone building. After a few minutes, the door opened and a kindly round monk emerged in a long grey-white robe, with a tall white hat that looked like a chimney. “You have brought a sick person to us?” said the monk with a quick look at Jacques.

“Yes, holy brother,” said Bávlos. “Yesterday he was fine. But last night he began to shake and complain of burning in his hands and feet.”

“Ah,” said the monk knowingly. “So it is St Antoine’s fire.”

“That is what Jacques guessed as well,” said Bávlos. “Can you make St. Antoine take this fire away?”

“We can try,” said the monk, “We can try. Tell me, has the poor soul been eating rye bread of late?”

“Rye bread?” said Bávlos in confusion. “He ate of a dark loaf yesterday. Bread he purchased in the village of Sauvigny.”

“Ah yes,” said the monk sadly. “Then it is certainly St. Antoine’s fire. It often follows eating of rye bread.”

“It does?” said Bávlos. It occurred to him that he had not eaten any of the bread. “Why is it so, holy brother?”

“We do not know, monseigneur,” said the monk, shrugging his shoulders. “We only know that this disease attacks those who eat the cheapest bread, like rye. The rich who eat wheat bread—they are never visited with this malady.”

“I see,” said Bávlos. “Is it, will the evil of the bread kill him?” he asked.

“It would like to,” said the monk, nodding. “Oh, how it would like to! It would like to capture his soul before he has had time to confess his sins, before he has had time to prepare for death! But now you have brought him to us and the demons may relent. Once we have absolved his sins they will see no point in killing him yet.”

“Ah, “ said Bávlos. “They wish to capture him in his sin.”

“Help me bring the boy inside,” said the monk. “He must lie down and have some rest.” Bávlos helped Jacques reach a bed in a long room of ill people. Most beds had two or three people in them, but one bed was completely free. “Most of our patients are lepers, you see,” said the monk simply. “We do not want to put your friend into bed with them. He will be fine in this bed apart.” Bávlos looked at the other people in the beds. Their faces were swollen and wrinkled and they looked drained of life.

“Is there any way we can help my friend?” said Bávlos.

“Well,” said the monk, “there is. But we do not have the money needed to help him.”

“The money?” said Bávlos.

“Yes,” said the monk. “This disease attacks those who eat the food of the poor. But it can be vanquished if we feed him food of the rich.”

“Food of the rich?” said Bávlos.

“Yes,” said the monk. “Fine, white bread and lots of fatty pork. Then he will recover.”

“The demons do not like these foods?” asked Bávlos.

“When they see that he is being treated to a fine meal, they will know that he had access to the sacraments and all that is needed to save his soul. And then they will become dispirited and leave. Do you have any money?”

“Money?” said Bávlos. He looked down at his hands. How much money had they taken in this last week, and how much had they spent on meals and tavern beds and comforts? He felt very sad.

The next day, Bávlos returned to the hospital to visit his friend. The monk greeted him cheerfully. “Your friend is making good progress,” smiled the monk. “Come in. The abbot of Gilbonvaulz is visiting and he is anxious to meet you.” Before long, Bávlos was brought to see his friend. Jacques was propped up in a bed in a separate room.“It is quieter here,” said the attending monk, nodding. “And he will not have to breathe the air of those with leprosy.”

“I see people beside you,” said Jacques weakly, his eyes darting to and fro. “There is Jesus, and Our Lady, and, and many who wear clothes like yours!”

“He is raving,” said the old monk gently. “It is a mark of the disease. Many see far less pleasant visions though—he is lucky in that regard.”

“Ah,” said Bávlos. “Do you see an old man among them?” he asked Jacques.

“Do not encourage his visions, master pilgrim,” said the old monk. “It will only make them worse.”

“I see,” said Bávlos, “I am sorry.”

“An old man!” said Jacques breathlessly. “He is standing with his arms folded and is nodding at me! Bávlos, he looks like you!”Bávlos smiled and nodded. He wished he could see these things with his own eyes but the spirits had not chosen to let that be. He would have to be content with their voices alone.

“Try to sleep now, my friend,” said Bávlos. “I will travel to your family’s village in the morning to tell them of your woes.”

“You will find them,” said the boy in exhaustion, “in the village of Domrémy.”

“Yes, I know,” said Bávlos. “You told me about it the night the fire came upon you.”

“Will you go to the church for me first?” said the boy, struggling to focus his eyes on Bávlos.“Of course I will, my friend. There is a church in your village?”

“There is,” said the boy. “But the church I love is the chapel here hard by this hospital. I often went here on Saturdays as a child.”

“I will pray for you there, Jacques le Piquant.”

“Le Piquant…” said the boy. He seemed to be struggling to say something more, but the monk patted him gently on the shoulder to calm him.

“Jacques,” said Bávlos. He half hoped that his friend would not hear what he had to say. “I have given these worthy monks money to care for you. But I must continue to Paris. I cannot stay. I will come to visit again when I pass back through this place.”

“Come back, you’ll come back this way?” said the boy, tears running down his cheeks.

“Yes, Jacques, if I can, I will come back to see you.”

“I will be waiting for you, my friend,” he said weakly. “I will be listening for your voice. Even if you never come I will be listening for you. Even if you never come, my children and grandchildren and great grandchildren will be listening for you. The pilgrim with the gang of holy saints beside him, traveling through our land. We will welcome you when you return.”Bávlos reached out to hold the boy’s hand. Jacques squeeled in pain and Bávlos quickly withdrew. Gently, slowly, he bent over to rest his nose gently beside his friend’s.

“This is how we say goodbye in my country,” he said. “Stay well, my friend.” Bávlos stayed beside the bed until Jacques was sleeping soundly.

“With time and God’s blessing, he will come around,” said the old monk. “White bread and pork will cure him in time. It has helped many others.”

“Yes,” said Bávlos. He was glad that Jacques would be cared for. “Can you show me the chapel he mentioned?”

“It is right beside our house,” said the monk cheerfully. You will see it when you step outside.”

Indeed, once Bávlos opened the door of the hospital, he saw the chapel immediately. It was a small church, with room inside for barely thirty. A small bell tower stood over the door at the back of the church. Inside it was cold and dark but quietly reassuring. Light streamed in from small windows and it was silent, completely silent. Bávlos found a statue of the infant Iesh there, held by his Mother, stranglely reminiscent of the one he remembered back in the church at Hattula, the statue that had led him to travel to Gotland such a long time ago. He fell to the ground and lay before the statue for a long, long time, crying, and repeating Aves to himself. “Give this boy your guidance, holy spirits and sacred Mother,” said Bávlos. “Lead him and comfort him and counsel him to be brave. And if I should never return to see him alive, pass this care on to his children, and his grandchildren, and even his great grandchildren.”

“We will do so, Master Paul,” said voices. “You have given of your wealth to save this boy and we shall keep him in our care. And from his line will come a great leader, a savior for all of France.”

“Thank you,” said Bávlos. “Will I be able to come back to see him?” The voices did not answer. Bávlos sighed deeply and walked outside. He collected Nieiddash where she had rested the night in the monks’ stable and loaded her packs.

“How far is it from here to the village of Domrémy? “ Bávlos asked the boy who was mucking out stalls.

“You can walk there in less time than it takes to say a mass,” said the boy. “It is a stone’s throw from here!”

“That is good to hear,” said Bávlos. He was glad that Jacques’s family would be able to come to see him easily here at the hospital. He walked briskly down the long small road that led between the two villages and had barely recited a dozen Aves when he arrived at the first houses of Domrémy. He walked along the village’s main street in search of someone who could direct him to the home of the family Piquant. How different the villages of this land were from those he had seen in Sweden and the German lands. There was no wall around the village of Domrémy: it simply stood open and ready to any who passed. Jacques had explained that building walls was too costly for such little places. It was better simply to fortify the church so that, should an enemy arrive, the villagers could flee into the church for protection from the threat. Bávlos saw that the church in the center of this little village was sturdily built, and he noted that the villagers had been digging a trench around it.

“Good day,” said Bávlos to an old woman who was busy collecting eggs around her dooryard.

“Good day monseigneur,” the woman replied. She looked up and was startled by Bávlos’s clothing and reindeer. “My God,” she said quickly, moving backwards toward her door.

“Madame,” said Bávlos quickly, “I have come from the hospital at Bermont. I have left there a young man from this village, a singer named Jacques le Piquant. Do you know of his family here?”

“Le Piquant?” said the woman with a grunt. “Monseigneur, there is no family by that name in this village.”

“Are you certain?” asked Bávlos.The woman stared.

“Monseigneur, do you think this is a city? Look about you. You can walk the whole of our village in less time than it would take to recite the Credo.” Bávlos winced. The Credo was a long prayer that he had not even begun to tackle. “Monseigneur,” the woman continued, “I have lived in this village all of my adult life. I would know if there were a family Piquant here.”

“Well,” said Bávlos hesitantly, “do you know of anyone named Jacques then?”The woman laughed heartily, if not a little unkindly.

“Monseigneur,” she said, “it would be hard to go through life in this duchy and not know someone named Jacques. Most families have at least two.”

“I see,” said Bávlos helplessly. He had not realized how difficult it would be to find Jacques’s kin in a village so near where he had left him. Suddenly, Bávlos heard the shrieks of children’s voices as a gang of boys and girls sped around the corner of the house. They were excited to see Nieiddash and dashed toward where Bávlos stood talking to the woman. Bávlos noticed that they all looked very much like Jacques: thin, slender bodies, thick dark hair, heavy eyebrows and wide-set eyes.

“Monseigneur!” they cried, “It is a deer like that of St. Eustache! Can we pet him?”

“Of course!” said Bávlos gladly. “She is very gentle.”

“Ah, it is a she,” said one of the small girls. “But she has antlers!”

“Yes, in my country, both the he and the she deer have antlers,” said Bávlos.

“It is not natural,” grumbled the old woman. “It is not right for the doe to masquerade as the buck.”

“She is not masquerading,” said Bávlos patiently, “it is the way with deer of her kind. She is expecting a baby, you see, and the horns she keeps to protect herself and her little one from wolves and other deer.”

“It is still not right,” said the old woman, turning away.

“Children,” said Bávlos choosing to ignore the old woman at last, “May I ask you a question?”

“But of course, monseigneur!” said a boy nearly as tall as Jacques.

“Do you know of a boy who used to live in this village named Jacques?”

“Jacques?” cried the boy.

“He is our brother!”

“And he left the village to become a singer?” asked Bávlos anxiously.

“He left because there was nothing to keep him here,” said the old woman grouchily. “And he had nothing but music in his head.”

“That sounds like him,” said Bávlos thoughtfully. “And so you are his kin?”

“Not I!” said the old woman indignantly, “but yes, these children are his brothers and sisters, and they belong to the family of Arc, who live over there. I don’t know where you got the notion he was a Le Piquant though!” She pointed to a modest house further down the lane. And then she returned to her egg collecting.

“We will take you there!” said the children excitedly. “Have you seen our brother? Is he doing well?”

Bávlos decided to keep silent about the details of Jacques’s situation until he should get to meet the boy’s parents. The children noisily ushered Bávlos into the house’s main room, where a tall and wiry farmwife greeted Bávlos with a warmth and sincerity that seemed to contrast with the cold greeting of the old woman outside. “Monseigneur is welcome,” she said politely. “The pilgrim is always welcome in the home of Arc.”

“Thank you, madame,” said Bávlos deferentially.

“My husband will be back from the fields soon,” she said, “and we can have lunch then.”

“That would be very nice,” said Bávlos. “Thank you.” He sensed that it would be best to first tell Jacques’s father about his son’s predicament, for these French seemed to care a great deal for whether someone was a woman or a man, if even a reindeer cow’s antlers were regarded as a perversion of nature. The man of the house soon arrived and greeted Bávlos with the same open and friendly manner that the wife had shown. Bávlos could tell where his friend had acquired his gregarious nature.

“You have a son named Jacques,” said Bávlos after lunch. “Jacques le Piquant.”The man and woman darted glances at each other and turned to their guest with concerned looks.

“Our son has called himself that since he became a jugleur,” said the man anxiously. “Have you seen him? Is everything all right?”

“He is all right, I think, now,” said Bávlos. “I met him in the land of Luxembourg and we traveled together up the Meuse. But he took very ill—“

“Ill?” said the woman, breathing quickly, “Jacques took ill?”

“He ate some bread,” said Bávlos, “some bread made with rye—“

“Ah,” said the man, slumping in his seat. “Then it was the Fire of St. Antoine that took him. I see.”

“No!” said Bávlos quickly, “I mean, yes, he did catch the Fire of St. Antoine, but we managed to get to the monastery at Bermont in the forest of Greux and they are feeding him white bread and pork and expect that he will recover from the fire before long!”

“But the monastery at Bermont?” said the woman, raising her hand to her mouth. “That house belongs to the Abbey of Gilbonvaulz. It costs money to receive care there.”

“I have paid for his stay,” said Bávlos simply.

“You monseigneur?” said the man, staring. His eyes traveled quickly again down Bávlos’s strange clothing. “Forgive me for saying so, monseigneur, but you do not look like a man of wealth.”

“I am a man of wealth, though,” said Bávlos, “for I have come to count your son as my friend.”

“And this has given you the wealth to pay for the needs of Jacques at Bermont?”

“Yes,” said Bávlos. “That, and a ring I received from the king of Sweden.”

“I see,” said the father, straightening up. “Is that the land you come from?”

“I am told,” said Bávlos thoughtfully, “that the king of Sweden rules my father’s lands, though we never knew of him.”

“Yes,” smiled the father grimly, “It is that way sometimes here as well. We are to be ruled by the king of England soon, if that king and his son the black prince have their way.”

“I have heard,” said Bávlos. “I have heard of Crécy.”

“Crécy is just one battle,” said the man bitterly. “This war will not end soon. I pray that a worthy leader will arise from here in France to bring us safely through.”

“From here?” said Bávlos.

“Yes, from here,” said the father. “I wanted Jacques to join the army, become a foot soldier. He wished only to sing.”

“But his singing brings great joy,” said Bávlos. The man said nothing. His wife spoke:

“You say that Jacques is at Bermont now?” she said.

“He is,” said Bávlos. “He wanted me to tell you that he was there. Will you go to see him?”

“I will go,” said the mother. Her husband grunted and folded his arms. “Monseigneur the pilgrim,” said the woman, “you have been very kind. Adieu.”

“Adieu,” said Bávlos sadly. He left the house and stooped down to one of the boys. “Can you tell me the way to Paris?” he said.

“Paris?” said the boy. “It is due west of here—six days’ walk from here, maybe more. Walk due west and you will come to Châlons on the River Marne. Follow the River Marne west and you will come to Paris.”

“Ah,” said Bávlos. “It had been six days’ walk from Luxembourg as well.”

“Well, that is right,” said the boy. “It is so.”

“Adieu,” said Bávlos. “Will you tell your brother I said farewell?”

“I will,” said the boy.