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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 6. Getting Doused [July 7, 1347]

 The Lord said… “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk

and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.”

The next morning Bávlos awoke with a sense of vigor and excitement that he had never experienced before. It was as if the whole world had been opened to him overnight and all things were now possible. He felt elated and yet restless, as if he needed to learn a great deal in a very little time. Luckily, he thought, there is the stranger to help him learn of Iesh.

The stranger himself did not rise so eagerly. He had apparently not enjoyed sleeping on the ground, and Bávlos suspected that he resented having been woken several times the night before. “Sálle,” he said at last, as he rose and stretched, rubbing his back.

“My name is Bávlos,” said his companion. “Bávlos?” said the man surprised, “Why that is a saint’s name! St. Paulus. We call him ‘Paavo’ in our language.”

“Saint?” asked Bávlos, “What is that?”

“One who lives with God,” said the man smiling. “One who attained eternal life.”

Bávlos did not understand everything the man said, but he did pick up on the idea that a “saint” was someone who lived with the sun. He smiled and nodded. Iesh had given him a new name because he was now in relation with him. Bávlos had a spirit gang and Iesh was at its core.

“This son of Jumala,” said Bávlos over breakfast, after the man had finished what seemed to be a long prayer, “What was he called?”

“His name is Iesus,” said the man eagerly, “although some call him Kiesus as well.”

“Iesus,” murmured Sálle quietly, “Iesh.” It was the son of Jumala who had spoken to him the night before. Sálle felt a shiver along his spine: something profound was underway: he was at last on the road to his life as a noaide.

“Still others,” said the man, rambling on with his tales, “call him Risti, because of how he died.”

“How he died?” asked Sálle, intrigued again.

“Yes,” said the man. “He died on this,” he said, holding up the small Sieidi statue that he wore on a cord around his neck, “He died on the risti, and so he has been called Risti ever since.”

“What do you mean?” asked Bávlos, looking more closely at the Sieidi.

“They nailed him to the risti,” said the stranger. He acted out torture in which the son of Jumala had been grabbed by his enemies, pushed against a risti and then hammered into place there, to remain apparently forever more. Bávlos shuddered at the thought. His hands twinged in pain at the very thought of it.

“Still,” he said, “It is not good to call him Risti just because he died on one!” Bávlos thought of people he knew who had acquired nicknames they didn’t like because of things they had done, or even less pleasantly, because of things that had been done to them. There was old man Kicked-in-the-head who lived with another family that shared the lands around Sállevárri. And Sáhve Seven-Finger who had lost a finger to frostbite as a child. He thought that Iesh must be a very patient spirit helper to tolerate such teasing, even from his friends.

“He died on the risti, but it was also his triumph!” said the man enthusiastically.

“Triumph?” asked Bávlos. It was again a word he had not heard of before.

“His big win—his happy circumstance,” said the man. “When Risti died, he was buried, and three days later he came back to life and appeared to all his disciples, and—”


“The men he called to work with him, his followers,” explained the man.

“Ah,” said Bávlos. These were human companions, not a spirit gang.

“Yes,” said the man, “And their leader was a man named Pekka—that’s who I’m named for! And another disciple was named Paavo—like your name—but he came later and spent most of his time wandering around with foreigners.”

Bávlos was struck by this information. Perhaps Iesh had some similar intent in mind for him? “How did they become his followers?” Bávlos asked.

“Why, Kiesus invited them,” said Pekka. “And once they agreed, he poured water over them to wash away their sins.”

“He washed them?”

“Yes,” said Pekka. “Would you like me to show you how?”

“I would,” said Bávlos, “If it means becoming a better friend of Iesh.” “It does,” said Pekka, “In fact, it is essential.” It seemed strange to Bávlos that the Finnish word for what was essential and the one from his own language sounded so much alike. So many smaller, more ordinary things seemed to have very different names in the strangers’ language, but this complicatedone was somehow nearly the same. As Bávlos mulled over this fact, he hardly noticed his companion’s bustlings. He had put a ribbon over his shoulders and was now standing over Bávlos with a pot of water. He began to intone in a deep and unfamiliar language some prayer. And all at once, Bávlos felt the potfull of water splash upon his head. He spluttered and coughed.

“There!” said Pekka happily. “I have baptized you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

“Which gods are these again?” asked Bávlos.“They are not gods,” said Pekka intently, waving his finger at Bávlos, “They are one God, in three parts.”

“Ah,” said Bávlos quietly. He had no idea what Pekka was talking about at this point.

“You will learn in time,” said Pekka. “I did.”

Bávlos took this statement as a great comfort and reassurance. If Pekka could learn it, it was almost certainly not very difficult.

In the next days, Bávlos led Pekka further and further south. They came to the trading settlement that Bávlos had promised to bring him to on the river Ieshjohka, but once they were there, Pekka still seemed dissatisfied. He wanted to go further south still, and he begged Bávlos to help him find his way.

“We must go to visit my uncle,” said Bávlos. “If we are to go further still, we must take provisions with us. At this time of the summer, the strong weather of the fall can come quickly, and it would not do to be caught unawares.”

“Yes, fine,” said Pekka. “Only we cannot linger. I must get back south as soon as possible!”

“I understand,” said Bávlos patiently. “But getting there alive would be preferable to freezing or starving on the way, I think. My uncle lives not far from here, in Oarrajávri.”

Pekka nodded sullenly. Something was driving him southward. He was like a reindeer in the spring: his mind set on something far off on the horizon, and no patience for the here and now. Bávlos, on the other hand, was not relishing going any farther than his uncle’s settlement, and he was hoping his spirit gang would intervene soon and extricate him from this journey. But the spirits remained silent.

It was evening when Bávlos and Pekka arrived at Uncle’s camp. Uncle was Bávlos’s father’s older brother, a wealthy man and very wise. He had six daughters, two of whom had married very skilled hunters and herders in the region, and his two sons were well known throughout the region as able trappers and traders. Bávlos led his friend to the side of a large round tent. Pulling aside the door flap he bent over quickly and darted inside. Pekka followed, somewhat clumsily, behind.

“Sálash!” cried the man when he saw his nephew plunk down on some skins between the doorway and the tent’s central fire. “What brings you to our camp in the late summer, and with a stranger in tow?” He looked suspiciously at Pekka, but continued to smile.

“Greetings, Uncle,” said Bávlos, bending his head. “I am glad to see you again.”

“And I you,” said the man smiling. Bávlos rose and embraced his uncle. They touched noses warmly and gripped each other’s shoulders. Bávlos did the same with his aunt and female cousins, who sat on the other side of the hearth, smiling brightly at him. It was good to see family again. Aunt immediately offered both guests some stalks of fresh boska to chew. The plants were long and fleshy, with a firm, white marrow that was delicious to gnaw.

“Väinönputki!” said the stranger excitedly, peeling his stalk quickly and beginning to eat with abandon. The family stared at the stranger uncomfortably and made no response.

“But tell me, nephew,” said Uncle, choosing to ignore Pekka for the moment. “Why have you come?”

“This man,” said Bávlos, with a tilt of his head, “He is a stranger who appeared at our camp some days ago. He is desperate to reach the south and he has begged me to help him get there.”

“Yes?” said the old man, frowning now. “And you trust him?” he asked, squinting a little and darting a sidelong glance at Pekka. Pekka, in the meantime, was smiling blithely, apparently understanding nothing of the conversation. His eyes roamed about the tent as he continued to chew, smiling contendedly, looking confused.

“I trust in my spirits,” said Bávlos quietly. The older man raised his eyebrows and paused for a moment.

“So they have spoken to you at last,” he said.

“They have,” said Bávlos. “They have renamed me Bávlos, and they have commanded me to travel with this man until they tell me to stop.”

“And where will that be?” asked the man, scratching the hair on his chin.

“I do not know,” said Bávlos. “They have not said. But they have assured me that my family will prosper if I follow their command.” There was a murmur among the women at the other side of the fire. Bávlos’s aunt was whispering excitedly two two of her daughters and ladling out a cup of reindeer milk for Bávlos to drink. He received the cup gratefully.

“And so you are on your way south,” said Uncle.

“With your help,” said Bávlos. “I need supplies for the journey. Things to help me go as far as is needed. I fear that this trip may extend even further than the lands of the Sámi. So I must bring with me what I need.”

“Indeed you must,” said Uncle briskly, “and I shall gladly provide you with those things, for you no doubt will send luck my way through your spirits!”

“I shall, gladly, Uncle,” said Bávlos.

“I will give you a load of furs, Bávlos,” said the old man impressively. “The strangers covet these more than anything else. You can trade them for anything you need, anything!”

“Ah,” said Bávlos, shocked at the generosity of his uncle’s gesture. “You have pelts to spare?”

“I have pelts for my younger brother’s son to help him win favor with his spirits. That is an investment worth all last winter’s trapping!” he said. “And the furs I will give you are last winter’s. They are the finest imaginable: ermine, and martin, and several colors of fox. And of course, a reindeer hide or two for good measure.”

“Reindeer, yes, that reminds me,” said Bávlos quickly. “The spirits, they asked for a two-year old female reindeer.”

“We will sacrifice one this evening!” said the old man eagerly.

“No!” said Bávlos. “I am to bring this reindeer with me on the journey, “ he said. “And when the spirits say ‘Stop!’ that is where I think I am to sacrifice the reindeer.”

“Ah,” said the old man, nodding quietly. Bávlos could tell what he was thinking: noaidit never made sacrifices like ordinary people. Everything they did was always shrouded in mystery, in secrecy. Now Bávlos had become one of them.

“When I return,” said Bávlos anxiously, “We shall definitely have a grand feast and sacrifice together, my Uncle!”

The old man smiled. “Come,” he said. “Let us look for a suitable cow.”

Bávlos and his uncle stepped out of the tent into the cool evening air. Pekka followed along like a hungry dog.

All at once, Bávlos felt a heavy shove at his back. He turned quickly to see who was behind. Was this Pekka’s idea of a joke? Or was he that impatient that he could not even allow him to prepare adequately for the journey? As he turned, however, his eyes opened wide. He had been shoved by a beautiful young reindeer, a cow of perhaps two years.

“Nieiddash!” cried the old man testily. “Please forgive her, Nephew. She is a nuisance, this cow!”

“Nieiddash,” said Bávlos. The name meant ‘Maiden.’ “She has not had a calf yet?”

“No indeed,” said Uncle. “This one was abandoned by her mother right after birth. The dogs started to bark and her mother panicked and ran off. My youngest daughter took pity on her and raised her as a pet. But she is a nuisance as a result. She thinks she is one of us and she spends no time with the herd. I have started to train her to the harness, if only so that I can find something to do with her.”

“Uncle,” said Bávlos with sudden fervor. “May I take this one with me?”

“This one?” laughed the old man. “You would be doing me a great favor to take this beast away from here! But you must ask my daughter’s permission.”

“Let us do so,” said Bávlos. “I feel she is the one.” Later that evening, after receiving his cousin’s permission, Bávlos took his knife and bored a small hole in each of the young animal’s ears. Through these he ran long ribbons of woven cloth which he had obtained from his aunt. “These mark you as a sacrifice to Iesh,” he said. Nieiddash did not seem pleased at the pain in her ears and sprang about the camp trying to shake the ribbons out. After a long while, she seemed to calm down, if only from exhaustion.

That evening, the old man and his family treated their guests to great hospitality. Bávlos’s aunt provided a grand meal of fish and reindeer cheese flavored with sorrel, and there was much laughing and singing and storytelling. Pekka seemed confused and very silent, but he seemed to be enjoying himself at least somewhat, Bávlos thought. He spent the evening mostly muttering to himself, fingering the long string of beads that he wore attached to his waist. Although very intent on counting these, he stopped frequently to eat and drink and it seemed to Bávlos that he packed away more food than would seem possible for a single man of normal size.

All the while that the feast was going on, Bávlos’s aunt was busy stuffing goods in packs and bags on the far side of the fire. She seemed to be imagining every possible scenario that Bávlos might face in the next months, and equipping him with the supplies necessary to manage. He could hear her constant mutter alongside Pekka’s: “Shoes for colder weather, a pack of shoe grass, extra leggings, extra tinder, a small flask of salt, cheese—“ As he stretched out to sleep that night, Bávlos pictured himself next to a giant mountain of supplies, a victim of his aunt’s excess of concern.

When the morning came, however, Bávlos discovered that his aunt had managed to compact all her supplies into a relatively small and light sack that could be packed on one side of a reindeer, so as to balance the load of pelts that his uncle was sending. His little cousin had made her farewells to Nieiddash with a mixture of sadness and pride, and Uncle had managed to load her with both packs, although she seemed skiddish and unreliable.

“Are you certain you will not take a different reindeer?” asked the old man. “An older gelding? I worry about this one.”

Bávlos walked resolutely toward Nieiddash and peered in her eye. He could see himself mirrored in the deep black of her pupil. “We understand each other,” he said silently to her, “we are friends.” The reindeer’s eye opened wider and she seemed to breathe deeply in response. She let out a small grunt and grew quiet.

“He is taming her with noaide magic,” the old man whispered to his wife.

Bávlos heard his words. “Aunt,” he said, drawing near her. “Does your daughter have something she can lend me for my trek? I have been told that I must travel across two seas.”

The woman nodded. “My oldest daughters have taken their knots with them into marriage,” she said. “But the third daughter is newly come of age, and she has knots of her own.”

“That is Elle,” said Bávlos.

“Yes, Elle,” said Aunt, “born the same season as your Elle and almost as good in every craft. Elle!” she called.

Her daughter approached from behind. She was young and slight, with sparkling eyes and a broad smile. “Yes, mother?”

“Daughter, Bávlos here needs wind knots for his trip. Do you have knots to give him?”

“I do, Mother,” said the girl blushing slightly.

“Get them then!” said her mother.

Bávlos smiled as he watched her disappear into the tent and emerge with a strand of cord tied with three knots. The cord was grey and crusted, as if it had been soaked in some fluid for a long time. Wind knots were powerful magic, and the finest were produced by young women at the time of their first becoming a woman. Elle’s must be very new.

“Thank you,” said Bávlos reverently, as he received the cord. "I will guard these carefully. And if I don’t have need of the winds they bring, I shall return them to you.”

“May they bring you mighty winds,” said Elle shyly. She turned quickly away and reentered the tent.

At last it was time to go. Bávlos looked about and found Pekka where he was sitting, muttering with his beads.