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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37. Advent (December 1, 1347)

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled.

Bávlos felt that he had been recommissioned by his conversation with Pierre. He had never felt entirely comfortable about visiting the pope, or delivering the mysterious letters of the king and queen. And the dispute with Bishop Hemming had made him quite unhappy indeed. Was it the Lady Birgitta’s ideas that the bishop was promoting about the throne of France and war, and so forth, or were people just using her words to push for a king that would be more palatable to the “Hansa camp” rather than the “landed camp” that Canon Girard had spoken of? Now, at any rate, he no longer had to worry: Pierre would deliver the letters in due course, once the demon Ruto had left this land and it was safe for the pope to receive visitors again. And Bávlos could cross a second sea and return to his original mission: to keep going until Iesh said “Stop!” When that would be he could not say, but somehow, it felt like he was approaching the day when Iesh would at last give him word.

“I will be leaving soon, my friends,” said Bávlos to Guillaume and Girard one morning soon thereafter. “In fact, I mean to head off today.”

“You cannot!” cried both men together. “Not today! We are to have a scrumptious feast tonight, for the season of Advent begins tomorrow!”

“Advent?” said Bávlos. “What is that?”

“The approaching,” said Guillaume, patiently. “Christmas—the Nativity of our Lord—approaches, and the Holy Church teaches that we must prepare for it with fasting and penitence of every sort.”

“Fasting?” said Bávlos.“Yes, you know,” said Girard, “Going without food or drink for extended periods: purifying the soul through hunger, and inflicting on the body various trials, the pain from which will remind one of one’s sins and the suffering of Christ.”

“Ah,” said Bávlos. He remembered many times from his childhood when food had run low, and the family had gone hungry for days on end. They had always viewed it as bad luck when such things happened and redoubled their offerings to Sieidi and to the old women under the floor. But here, in this land of plenty, where meals could take hours and include plate after plate of delicious food, people could make hunger a holy exception, a way of bowing to Iesh. Somehow, though, he had trouble imagining his friends fasting or enduring great pain: they enjoyed their meals too much for that, and their lives were thoroughly comfortable and easy, as far as Bávlos could tell.

“But today, then, we feast?” he said at last.

“Yes indeed!” said Guillaume. “We must feast so that we feel the bitter deprivation of the next days more fully! So you will simply have to put off your travels until after mass tomorrow!”

“I shall do so,” he said. Bávlos and his companions spent the day in ease. They skied to the estate of Pierre to pass the time, and Guillaume and Pierre played a strange game that involved a checkered board and carved pieces of ivory and wood. It was different from the board game that Bávlos knew, where the two sides were uneven: one trying to capture the chieftain, the other side trying to escape. In this game, in contrast, both sides had kings, and they were desperately trying to kill each other, sacrificing virtually every other man on the board to get the job done.

“Once the king is captured the game is over,” explained Girard.

“But couldn’t they just go on without the king?” asked Bávlos.

Girard laughed. “I suppose that is what happens in real life: we name a new king and rise again. But in the game of chess, the story ends with the death of the king. Every other piece must die before the king, for he is the most important. And yet,” said Girard smiling, “it is these other pieces: the queen and the bishop in particular, that have all the power.”

“Tell me,” said Bávlos, shifting the topic slightly, “of this king who wanted to count everyone at the time of the birth of our Lord.”

“Ah yes,” said Girard, watching the chess game proceed. “There were two kings in that situation, you know.”

“Two kings?” asked Bávlos. “I have only heard of the counting king.”

“The counting king, as you call him,” said Girard with a smile, “was the Emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus, who ruled much of the world at the time: all of this land that we are now in and many other lands too, including the holy places where Our Lord grew up.”

“And the other king?” asked Bávlos.“He was Herod,” said Girard. “A petty king of the realm of Israel, who had taken an oath of allegiance to the Emperor like other such leaders of his time.”

“Ah,” said Bávlos. “So he was a vassal.”

“Precisely,” said Girard. “And there was little love lost between these two kings, I can tell you.”

“So the Emperor wanted to count everyone,” prompted Bávlos, eagerly.

“Yes,” said Girard patiently. “And so the ancient Joseph and his little wife Marie were obliged to travel to the City of David to be counted there.”

“Joseph was ancient?” asked Bávlos. He had not heard much about the married life of Iesh’s parents on earth before.

“Quite so,” said Girard. “And Marie was a young woman, barely of age, who had lived her life as a nun. The marriage was arranged by the temple officials, with the approval of Marie’s mother, Saint Anne.”

“She had lived as a nun?” asked Bávlos. He had seen these holy women in balconies or behind grates in many churches, but had never dared to speak with one. They seemed quite separated from other folk, although once in a while, one of their leaders would emerge and go about the ordinary world like a canon or monk.

“Well, the Jews did not have nuns exactly,” said Girard, pausing for a moment. “But Our Lady was presented to the Temple when she was three and grew up their in perpetual virginity helping do different tasks at the temple. And that was how she imagined she would ever live.”

“So what happened?” asked Bávlos.

“Well,” said Girard, “they had a rule at the temple that a girl could only serve there until she was twelve. So at that time they told her she would need to go home and get married.”

“So she left?” asked Bávlos.

“She didn’t want to,” said Girard. “You see, her parents—Joachim and Anne —had gone through a lot of heartache to have her. They had lived together for many years, but had never had a child. And then the temple elders told Joachim that he could no longer worship there, as he was clearly guilty of some great crime to be so cursed with barrenness. And Joachim, bitterly upset, left his home and went out into the desert to fast and do penance for forty days. And at the end of that time, an angel appeared to him and told him that his prayers had been answered and they would have a child. And the same angel told Anne as well. And when she heard the good news, she promised to give the baby up to the temple as soon as the baby was weaned. So, you see, Anne and Joachim did not feel that they had lent Marie to the temple; they felt that they had given her forever. And further, Marie loved life as a nun: she had miraculous visions every day, and an angel appeared daily as well with food for her. So in every way, it was a good life. And anyway, come to think of it, Joachim had already died, and Anne had been married two more times since, then, so Anne was quite busy with her other daughters by then.”

“Other daughters?” said Bávlos.

“Yes,” said Girard, “Marie, daughter of her second husband Cleophas, and Marie, daughter of her third husband Salome. Their sons would eventually become Christ’s apostles, the two Jacques, and Joseph, Simon, Jude, and Jean.”

“Ah,” said Bávlos. Pekka had told him about all these disciplines but had never mentioned their kinship to Iesh. This detail made good sense of the situation: he could understand now why they had agreed to help Iesh become a fisher of men.“But the first Marie,” said Bávlos. “The temple sent her away nonetheless?”

“Well, “ said Girard. “They decided that they would help Anne by finding a husband for her oldest daughter. And they made all the men of the house of David bring their staffs to the altar. For they knew by prophecy that the one with whom she was destined to live would have a staff that would bud and grow leaves as living wood.”

Bávlos thought that such a man would have to be very young for his staff to be so green that it would actually sprout.

Girard continued: “Well, now Joseph the carpenter was already quite old at this time. He had already been married, and had six children by his former wife. Some of these sons eventually became apostles as well. And then Joseph’s wife died and he was very sad. So when they asked for his staff, he hid it away so that he wouldn’t be in the running for the young Marie. He felt too old for her, and too used up. But nevertheless, it was his staff that wound up with leaves on it, so they knew he was to be her husband. And that is how they got married. He was ninety at the time, and she was just twelve when she came to his household. But they waited a couple of years before actually marrying.”

“Ah,” said Bávlos. “And that was when she became pregnant.”

“Yes,” said Girard, “Joseph was deeply troubled when it happened and nearly put an end to the marriage, but then the angel appeared to him and explained it all. And then she and Joseph went to the City of David to be counted.”

“And that’s when the Lord was born in a little stable,” said Bávlos. He decided not to mention that the stable was also a sauna, as Pekka had explained.

“Indeed that is so,” said Girard, “That is where she gave birth. And the midwife attested to the miracle of the virgin birth and said that she had never seen anything like it! before!”

“Whatever happened to Joseph after that?” asked Bávlos.

“Well, Joseph was old,” said Girard, “and he died when he turned 111. Jesus was there, and Marie and all the other kids by his first marriage. And it was a good death.”

“A good death?” asked Bávlos, “What is that?”

“A good death,” said Girard, “is when you manage to say goodbye to everyone you need to, and you get all your unfinished business settled away, and, of course, you get forgiveness for your sins.”

“Ah,” said Bávlos. He remembered how the monk at Gerbonvaux had talked about Jacques having his sins forgiven as a means of chasing away the demons of Saint Antoine’s fire. “How do you do this forgiving of sin?” he asked.

“Why, it is simple,” said Girard: “You ask a priest and the priest forgives them for you.”

“Ah, they, I mean you, can do such things?” said Bávlos in wonder.“Yes,” said Girard proudly. “All priests can. We listen to the sins and give you some sort of penance to do. Pilgrimage is a very good penance, you know.”

“Ah,” said Bávlos. “I am glad to hear it. But what would happen if you do not get forgiven before dying?”

“Well, you have a lot more sins to pay for in the hereafter if that is the case,” said Girard gravely. “Most people want to cut that list of wrongs down to a minimum before death. Why, even Joseph was petrified at death: he saw Death approaching on a great horse, with an army alongside him. And he was convinced that this evil demon would capture his soul and take it to hell!”

“But that didn’t happen?” asked Bávlos nervously.

“No, of course not,” said Girard. “He told Jesus of the vision and Jesus forgave his sins and sent him a pair of angels—Gabriel and Michael— to carry his soul safely to the throne of heaven and keep the devil far away.”

“Ah,” said Bávlos. “So this forgiving of sins stops the demon from taking the soul.”

“That is right,” said Girard. “You must have done much good in your life, and gotten forgiveness for your sins, and of course, lived up to all your vows.”

“Vows?” said Bávlos. He hadn’t realized that Iesh had required promises of other folk as well.

“Yes of course you must uphold your vows,” said Girard, “Like Marie did remaining a virgin, or Joseph did kindly receiving her as his wife.”

“Have you ever made any vows?” he asked.

“Of course, we have!” laughed Guillaume, his game now finished. “Girard and I are both priests after all! I have taken the solemn vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity. And someday, I imagine that Pierre here will have to as well, at least if he wants to become pope!”

“Ah,” said Bávlos quietly. He was feeling a little confused. “You say you are obedient, poor, and chaste?”

“Why yes,” said Guillaume stoutly. “I do little or nothing in life without first asking permission of my uncle the bishop. If I were to have gone off on this journey with you without first asking his leave, it would have been a serious error indeed.”

“And you, Girard,” said Bávlos, “You asked permission as well?”

“We canons of the Cathedral of Nostre Dame,” said Girard with dignity, “need ask permission of no one but the pope himself. I found a substitute to sing my masses for while I am away, and came along with the confidence that, should the matter be brought up to our Holy Father, the pope would certainly approve of my pious visit to his worthy nephew Pierre.”

“I see,” said Bávlos. “And what is meant by the concept of poverty?” To him, both Girard and Guillaume seemed to possess many fine things, and they never seemed to lack money for the inns or the meals that they had enjoyed during their journey.

“Poverty,” said Girard studiously, “is not one of the vows of the canons of the cathedral. We are content to receive a fitting income from the farmers and other lands that have been bequeathed to the cathedral for our perpetual upkeep.”

“So the cathedral owns farms?” said Bávlos.

“Many,” said Girard, “and fine ones too. And we canons are merciful and generous to the peasants who work our land and supply our daily bread.”

“My vows include poverty,” said Guillaume. “And I must admit, it is sometimes a trial on my soul. For none of the things you see about you back at the monastery—the stately halls and cloisters, the monastery’s many books, its commodious rooms and fine refectory, indeed none of these things belong to me! I am simply a poor monk living amid these properties, partaking humbly of the common meal provided to all of my brethren by the charity of grateful lay folk.”

“But you live in Paris,” said Bávlos, “not here.”

“Yes indeed,” said Guillaume. “Again out of humble obedience to my abbot and my uncle the bishop; and in complete and perpetual poverty, too. It was my uncle who arranged for me to teach at the university, and none of my goods there, neither my living quarters nor my books, nor even the meals I am served actually belong to me. All borrowed, all owned by others.”

“I see,” said Bávlos. He wondered how a meal could really be borrowed. But he asked instead, “And what is this third vow you mentioned?”

“Ah, chastity” said Guillaume, glancing somewhat guiltily at Girard. “That is indeed a difficult one.”

“What does it entail?” asked Bávlos.“We are to be like the Virgin Marie,” said Guillaume: “We are never to marry. We may never take wives.”

“But our Lady did marry, did she not? Girard just told me the story.”

“Yes, of course she eventually did marry,” said Guillaume. “But only out of obedience. Otherwise she would have stayed without husband.”

“And you two will never marry?” asked Bávlos, looking at his friends.

“No indeed,” said Guillaume firmly. “That we shall never do. Of course,” he said with a pause, “of course from time to time one makes mistakes, commits, as it were, indiscretions, but these one humbly confesses to obtain pardon from our Lord. After all, even the great scholar of our university Abelard failed at times in this respect.”

“I see,” said Bávlos. “so after you have sinned, you go to your uncle or the abbot to confess it and gain forgiveness?”

“Well,” said Guillaume, winking, “if it’s not too serious I do. I’m afraid that for the really grievous indiscretions I find a kindly Franciscan to confess to instead. They’re always far more lenient than either of the worthy men you named.” He laughed with a touch of embarrassment. “One sins, you know,” he said, “for one is only human, after all, and the vows of the religious life are stringent and demanding indeed.”

“Keep that good advice in mind,” said Girard to Bávlos. “Look for a kindly Franciscan when you’ve got a long list of sins.”

Bávlos smiled. “I will remember that,” he said.“And anyway,” laughed Guillaume., “If you overeat tonight or fall into any other unfortunate sin, I shall provide you with absolution in the morning.”

“Thank you,” said Bávlos. “I should overeat tonight then, you suggest?”

“Let feastdays be feasts,” said Guillaume impressively, “and let your days of pilgrimage and penitence and fasting come thereafter.”

“Yes,” said Girard, “Let us let the nightingale sing tonight and the lark rue the morn!”