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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55. Arriving in Assisi [May 7, 1348]

Elijah went over to him and threw his cloak over him.

It was a warm afternoon when the friends arrived in Assisi. Giovanni insisted that they stop at first at the Porziuncola on the plain below the city. This was the place where Francesco had repaired the little church and where he had come to die. The setting had become far grander in the century since then, however. Even in Francesco’s life, Giovanni related, the order had grown incredibly in terms of size and prestige. At Francesco’s death, his original brotherhood of twelve had already swelled to some five thousand, and the growth had never abated since.

Bávlos could see the effects of this success when he looked up at the city. One entire side of the town was now dominated by a massive basilica, filled with works in honor of San Francesco as well as the saint’s relics. It was a gigantic church, two floors of chapels and altars, all splendidly decorated. A high church tower looked out over the valley above the massive priory in which scores of Franciscans lived. The friends climbed up the steep hill to the city and came to the priory. With Giovanni’s help, they were able to obtain a sizeable box stall in the priory’s stables for Nieiddash and her calf. Bávlos would be allowed to sleep there as well, while Giovanni could sleep in the priory along with the other friars. Bávlos could share meals with the brothers as well and learn their ways. They were insistent that he accept a bedroom cell to sleep in, but Bávlos said he felt more comfortable sleeping in the air than inside the large building.

Over the following days, Giovanni eagerly brought his friend to see the sites related to the holy Francesco’s life. Every street and corner was one that the holy saint must have seen in his life a century earlier, and whenever they walked out of the town into the surrounding countryside, Bávlos felt like he was retracing the footsteps of Francesco along the same paths or roads. There were abundant fields and vineyards all around the city and plentiful farmwork for a healthy man to do.

One day, an old friar named Ugolino took Giovanni and Bávlos to see the place where Francesco had grown up. It was now a large but rather run-down building: the old home and shop of the merchant Pietro Bernadone. Pietro had been a wealthy cloth merchant, Ugolino explained, and Francesco had helped his father in the business for some time, before he began to give away all the goods and take all the business’s money to repair churches or feed the poor. He had been a soldier for a time too, and had been imprisoned by the enemy for an entire year. Old Brother Ugolino showed the friends around the house and answered their questions. He showed them Francesco's boyhood room and the small closet under the stairway where his father had locked him as a punishment for his stated desire to live as a poor hermit. Friar Ugolino seemed to know everything about Francesco.

“Indeed,” Giovanni whispered to Bávlos, “this man has written a great book full of the stories of our founder.”Bávlos seized upon the opportunity to try to learn more about Francesco’s origins.

“So he was born right here?” asked Bávlos, addressing the elderly brother.

“No, not here,” said Brother Ugolino. “Follow me.” He led the two out of the house and down some stairs. They descended to a small side street where they entered a little chapel, not even the size of Brother Bartolomeo’s little church high on Mount Morello.

“Here,” said the old friar, “here is where he was born.” Bávlos looked into the chapel. It was a small room with a rounded ceiling. A simple altar stood at the far end, and the only light came from the doorway. The place looked strangely familiar to Bávlos, like a Sámi home.“This is where she gave birth,” said the old man. “Lady Pica. She tried to have the baby in the fine house but it wouldn’t come. A pilgrim who was passing suggested that she come out to have the baby here and she did. Little Francesco didn’t want to be born in a place grander than the stable where Christ was born, you see.”

“What did you say his mother’s name was?” “Lady Pica,” said the old friar. “Her family came from France.”

So that was it. A girl with a Sámi name, a name that means “servant,” from somewhere in the North, had come to Italy to live with her merchant husband and settled down here in Assisi. She couldn’t give birth but in a Sámi house. And she raised a son who understood Sámi lore. No wonder the crucifix at Lucca had wanted Bávlos to learn about Francesco. No wonder why he felt such an affinity with this saint. How many other Sámi had Iesh brought over the centuries to try to help these people? Would they ever be successful in their attempts?

In the days that followed, Bávlos learned more and more about the saint. He spent time often in the great church erected in Francesco’s honor, filled with frescoes that depicted scenes from his life. The church stood directly beside the priory, and Bávlos made it a habit to go there in the late afternoon, after working out in the fields, so that he could contemplate some aspect of Francesco’s life or see the depictions of the many other saints or stories on its walls. There was an entire chapel devoted to stories about San Nicola, for instance. Bávlos thought back to his passage on the ship and the stories he had heard from the captain before that monkey had discovered his windknots. There on the wall was San Nicola, providing dowries for the poor girls. There he was saving the sailors on the ship. San Nicola had helped him come here, he reflected, saying a prayer of thanksgiving to the saint. So many things happened for such unpredicted reasons. The storm had driven him to shore in that one part of Italy, from which he had made his way to Pisa, whose name meant “Stop here.” Iesh had a plan in all of this, but Bávlos never knew more than what was happening to him at the moment. Only in hindsight did any of it make sense.

Above the altar in the lower floor of the church, Bávlos saw magnificent ceiling paintings by Master Giotto, the painter that Buonamico had so admired in Firenze. In one of these, Iesh seemed to be handing a beautiful bride to Francesco, a bride who looked like Lady Fina.

“That is Poverty,” said Giovanni.“Poverty,” said Bávlos, “A strange name for a girl.”

“No, no,” said Giovanni, “It’s a symbol—Francesco is taking a life of being poor as his bride.”

“Ah,” said Bávlos. He felt a little sad just the same. Why was it that Iesh had such high expectations of some while others seemed to get away with doing anything they wanted? In the upper floor of the basilica there were more paintings, again by the marvelous Giotto. In one of these, he saw Francesco, now dead, with a nun leaning tenderly over him, another resting her head in his lap. “

Santa Chiara and her nuns,” said Giovanni. They had probably loved this man, these women who had become his first female followers, but here they were embracing, only after he was dead. It seemed so sad to Bávlos: Iesh was always calling Sámi down here to help these people live correctly, but then not letting them marry! Or when they did, he ended up calling their sons into service and snuffing out the family line right away. There could have been a whole colony of Sámi down here by now, if Iesh had willed it that way. But no, he preferred to treat them as reindeer set apart, living their lives as sacrifices for others.

Near the door to the basilica was a picture of Francesco’s wood carvings: he had made a set of sculptures that told the story of the birth of Jesus, with Notre Dame, Giuseppe, farm animals and shepherds. It was said that he had made the baby Iesh so realistic that on Christmas eve it had even come to life! Francesco, like Bávlos, had been a carver. The picture showed Francesco lifting up the little Iesh, as his carved sheep and goats looked on. Masses of folk were depicted beside him, looking on in wonder. Even the clergy that had come from behind their altar screen to see what all the commotion was about out in the laity’s part of the church. Francesco had cared about the ordinary people; it was for them he carved. Other frescoes acquainted Bávlos with Francesco’s noaide skills. Bávlos saw how Francesco had knelt outside the walls of Arezzo and prayed that evil spirits would leave the place. He had sent his friend Sylvestro to the city gates to tell the spirits that they must leave, and the spirits had begrudgingly complied. Francesco had power over ill-willed spirits and had learned to order them away. Perhaps he had learned from his mother. No doubt he had many great saints in his spirit gang. In another picture Bávlos saw how Francesco had healed a man with a terrible throat wound. He had bandaged him head to toe, just as Iesh had done with Lazaro. In the picture, two spirit helpers looked on, depicted with angels’ wings.

Bávlos asked Giovanni about Francesco’s healing that same day. “Oh yes, Francesco healed many,” said Giovanni. “He wasn’t afraid of death or disease. Or at least he didn’t act like he was.”

“Smart,” said Bávlos. One should never act afraid near a disease. Such spirits were attracted to signs of weakness, they listened for the quaver in the voice when choosing whom to attack. He wondered if Francesco had known to disguise his voice when talking, as Sámi healers did when dealing with the ill. He seemed fairly recognizable in the picture, dressed in his characteristic tunic and rope belt: no disguise on him, as far as Bávlos could tell.

Disease was such a frequent topic of discussion these days. The Plague, it was said, had spread from Pisa and was making its way across the countryside, menacing populations wherever it came. People were erupting in great painful bulbs beneath their skin, suffering fevers, coughing blood, dying in a matter of days. People healthy on Monday and were dead by Friday. Entire families were wiped out, and often their livestock too. All were affected: young, old, rich, poor. Reports had come now that the scourge had even reached Siena. Bávlos thought of the brothers he knew there, and of the poor dyer and his wife and children, and of course, of Buonamico.“I hope they’re all right,” he said. “Let them be all right,” he prayed. But something inside him told him that many would not survive.

On an especially warm and pleasant afternoon, Bávlos came into the basilica to reflect. He came to a fresco showing Francesco receiving the stigmata. Francesco had been fasting in the countryside for many days and was exhausted and weak. The fresco showed him kneeling on one knee, a spirit helper hovering before him in the air. Rays of power that looked like reindeer leads passed from the spirit’s hands and feet to the hands, feet, and side of Francesco as he genuflected before the figure. Francesco had come to share the marks of pain and humiliation that Iesh had borne. He had accepted the markings of his sacrificial life. At last, Bávlos felt that he, too, wanted to do the same. He prayed to Iesh that night for guidance.“Iesh,” he said, kneeling with arms spread wide in the box stall as Nieiddash and her calf dozed in the corner. “I know now why you asked me to learn of Francesco.”

“Yes,” said a voice inside him, “now you do. But you do not know the whole story yet, even though your time has finally come.”

“What do you mean?” asked Bávlos timidly.

“Bávlos,” said the voice, “Do you wish to be like Francesco?”

“Yes,” he replied.

“Do you wish to bring people back to the real holiness of life, as Francesco did?”

“Yes!” said Bávlos more enthusiastically.

“Well, then,” said the voice. “Tomorrow it begins. You must leave before the dawn. You can say goodbye to Giovanni, but not to anyone else. And you must hasten back to Siena to save Buonamico’s life.” The voice said nothing more.

Bávlos was shocked. He had grown so comfortable here in Assisi, so used to the brothers’ kind ways and their jovial fellowship. He had enjoyed walking out of the city into the surrounding farms like Francesco had done, offering himself as farm labor to peasants who could use the help and receiving a little food and thanks in return. The countryside here was fruitful and warm, and the priory was generous in allowing him to stay here with Nieiddash and her calf. He had almost forgotten about Buonamico altogether, back in Siena, painting his versions of Francesco’s life and then moving on to his next commission. How did Buonamico need his help? What did the voice mean when it spoke of “saving” Buonamico’s life? He had tried to convince his friend of the goodness of Sámi ways, but he had come to understand that Buonamico was entirely satisfied with the life he had. Bávlos’s ideas were merely irritants to him, or often enough, sources of humor.

Bávlos decided to say goodbye to Giovanni and ask his thoughts on the matter. “Giovanni,” Bávlos said, when he found his friend after evening prayers, “The Lord has called me away from here tomorrow.”

“Oh,” said Giovanni, his eyes widening, “but I thought you were planning to become one of us!”

“I was, I am,” said Bávlos, “But I must do something else before then. I must rise before the dawn and head back to Siena, where someone needs my help.”

“Needs your help?” asked Giovanni.

“Yes, I need to save his life,” said Bávlos plainly.

“Then you must go!” said Giovanni at once. “And before the dawn!”

“You’re right,” said Bávlos sighing. “It just seemed so pleasant here—”

“Pleasant yes,” said Giovanni, hitting his friend on the arm, “but a calling isn’t always about things being pleasant! You’ve got a job to do!”

“You’re right,” said Bávlos cheerfully. “Besides, it’s only a few days walk back to Siena: I can go and come back in no time.”

“Things don’t always work out that way with callings,” said Giovanni frowning a little. “You have to just go where you’re going and see where it takes you.”

“It has taken me a long way so far,” said Bávlos thoughtfully, “a long way indeed.”

“Will you leave right away?” asked Giovanni excitedly. “The moon is bright tonight and it’s cool in the evening air.”

“No,” said Bávlos, making an excuse to buy himself one more night. “I will get a good night’s sleep here and then leave first thing in the morning.”

“Okay,” said Giovanni, “You’re probably right. A good night’s sleep will set you up fine.”

Bávlos slept restlessly that night. In his dreams he saw Buonamico offering him a gigantic mug of wine. The more he drank the more it was full and it tasted bitter, like vinegar more than wine. “I don’t want this!” he cried in his dream. “Don’t make me drink it!” A laughing Buonamico simply winked and held the mug out to him again. Bávlos could not stop drinking, even though he felt he would burst.

Bávlos awoke well before sunrise to extreme pain. He struggled to raise himself up and discover what was wrong. In the dim light that fell through the stable window he was able to look at his hands. They were throbbing with pain. He saw that they were bleeding, profusely bleeding, flesh hanging raggedly around what looked like gouged out holes in his palms.

“What has happened?” he thought. He tried to stand. His feet hurt even worse: they too were skewered and bleeding, as was his groin. “The stigmata!” thought Bávlos. “I have the stigmata!” He felt cold and feverish. It all seemed so ironic, so silly. Yesterday, when looking at the picture of Francesco, he had thought how wondrous it would be to share the marks of the Crucifixion. Now, the very next morning, he found them a nuisance. “How am I going to get to Siena with these holes to deal with?” he thought. “This is going to be harder than I expected!” He took some cloth that he had stored in his pack for wiping off paint and wound pieces of it around his feet. Then he wedged the bloody and painful bundles into his shoes. He dug his gloves out of his pack as well and carefully pulled them over his hands. The smooth fur inside the gloves felt good on his palms and fingers, which had felt cold and stiff in the air. With his wounds covered in this way, he harnessed Nieiddash, gave her another drink of water, and then led her out of the stable. Admirabilis followed behind. They walked through the courtyard to the gate of the priory.

“Okay, Iesh,” he said. “You’ve got your humor. But anyway, I’m ready. Lead the way!”

“Wait!” said a voice from behind, “I’m coming with you!” It was Giovanni, hurrying toward him. He looked tired but determined, with a pack on his back and his bow and arrows that Bávlos had taught him to use. He carried a walking stick in his hand.

“You’re coming with me?” asked Bávlos surprised.

“Of course I am!” said Giovanni, “Why do you think I’ve got this pack and staff?”

“But Iesh told me to leave before dawn without telling anyone—”

“Without telling anyone?” asked Giovanni.

“Well no, he said I could tell you.”

“And why do you suppose he told you that if he didn’t want me to come along too?” asked the friend triumphantly. “You see, he must have some purpose for me, too, in this adventure! Not that I can think of any help someone like you would need from me,” he said, his voice trailing off. Giovanni was in awe of Bávlos’s skills for living off the land.

“Well actually,” said Bávlos a little sheepishly, “I really could use your help if you think it’s all right.”

“Sure it is,” said Giovanni brightly, “Did the Lord say explicitly that you were to go alone?”

“No, he said I should only tell you.”

“Well then, it’s obvious, isn’t it?” said Giovanni. “Let’s go!”

“Okay,” said Bávlos, “Let’s.” As he turned to open the priory gate, he stumbled. Giovanni watched as his friend stiffly hobbled through the gate.

“What on earth is wrong with you?” said Giovanni, as soon as they were outside.

“Stigmata, I’ve got stigmata,” said Bávlos.

“Well,” said Giovanni crossing himself. “You do everything in a big way, my friend.” Giovanni handed him the walking stick and took ahold of Nieiddash’s lead. “You’ll need this,” he said. With Bávlos hobbling painfully, the friends set off in the early morning light.