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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7. The Trek toward Risti [July 11, 1347]

And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment

and begged him to lay his hand on him.

He took him off by himself away from the crowd.

He put his finger into the man's ears

and, spitting, touched his tongue;

then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him,

"Ephphatha!" (that is, "Be opened!")

Over the coming weeks, Bávlos and Pekka traveled a long, long distance—longer than Bávlos had ever trekked before. Valley after valley, lake after lake, hill and hill, they walked. The days were still long and warm, but somehow they seemed to be getting shorter, although Bávlos reckoned that the real shortening of days should not occur for another month. As the days altered, so did the forests: they became taller, denser, more difficult to see through. The birches were far taller here, and the pine trees grew to a towering height, filtering the light beneath them and carpeting the ground in a thick matt of dry needles. It was no longer possible to see over a vast area that lay before them: they had to pick their way from clearing to clearing, following lake shores and streams, always heading south. Bávlos and Pekka shared a love of fishing, and spent many an afternoon catching their dinner. Pekka also proved skillful with the bow Uncle had given them: not only could he shoot birds as well as Bávlos, but he was expert in shooting the squirrels that lived in these trees. He seemed to know exactly where they might hide and be able to pick them off with ease, even from a bough high overhead. With these foods to supplement stores Aunt had placed in Bávlos’s pack, the two men prospered on their journey.

From time to time, they came upon houses of the strangers: not pleasant tents of hide or snug huts of turf and timber like those of Bávlos’s people, but larger, more imposing dwellings, built of whole logs stacked one on top of another. Inside these houses it was smoky and dark, and although they were different in many ways from what he had grown up with, Bávlos still found them somehow reassuringly familiar. The area farthest from the door was still considered the women’s part of the house, as among his people, and the area closest to the door was still considered the place of guests, just as it was back home. Being invited to sleep on a dry floor with the heat of the fire for warmth was still a happy thing, especially on a damp evening.

On the whole, though, the strangers seemed to have many more things in their homes: since they didn’t move between different dwellings in different seasons of the year, they seemed to acquire more and more goods. Indeed, it was hard to imagine how they would pick up and migrate if they had to, except to leave everything behind and start fresh in another place. Bávlos felt that his people’s way was wisest: keep only the things that a most essential and make sure they are portable or that you can stash them in places where you can recover them again when next needed. The old saying seemed true: Better to keep moving than to settle down.

The strangers the companions met usually viewed Bávlos with evident suspicion, but they always seemed delighted to see Pekka. It was as if he were some long-lost kinsman come for a visit from out of the blue. They would bow to him solemnly, and Pekka would pronounce words over them and trace the shape of the risti in the air over their heads. And then they would straighten up delighted, and provide Pekka and Bávlos with a generous meal and provisions for their next days’ travel: hard chewy bread, thick and sweet beer, great pieces of fat from pigs they had slaughtered, and other such delicacies that Pekka in particular delighted in receiving. Even better, they would sometimes step out to heat one of their little sauna cabins with plenty of wood till it was smoky and gloriously hot. Then they would invite Pekka and Bávlos to share in the heat and to bathe in the lake nearby. A sauna felt wondrously relaxing after a long, long day of trekking, and Bávlos was always delighted to partake of it. He was glad that the strangers knew of the custom and he noted that their word for it was almost the same as the one it went by in his own language.

Bávlos soon became proficient in the strangers’ way of speaking Not only did he know that the thing he had always called a sávdnji was known as a sauna among these people, but he also knew that saunahan meant stepping into the sauna, while saunassa meant sitting inside. Saunasta meant coming out again, while saunalle meant walking toward it or even climbing up on top. Saunalla meant sitting on its roof, while saunalta meant leaving it behind after a pleasant time. Things could turn into a sauna—saunaksi—and one could find oneself miserable without a sauna, saunatta. There were even more ways you could change the meanings of a single word, depending on whether you meant one or many, and Bávlos reveled in all the possibilities. No matter what odd permutation of endings he thought of, or what words he added them to, they made some sort of sense to Pekka, who would nod readily and wait for Bávlos to finish his statement. Bávlos found it tremendously amusing.

On the other hand, despite this abundance of ways to say things in their language, there were things that the strangers seemed to have no words for: essential things, like the shape of a reindeer’s horns or variations in the tracks an animal left. And no one seemed to care particularly if things came in twos. You could say that something was one alone, like a man walking in the forest, or that there were many men walking there, but you said nothing special to inform listeners that there were two rather than twenty men there, or that you had two eyes, or that your reindeer had two front legs. Bávlos had realized this strange lack when he had first started to discuss things at length with Pekka.“When are the two of us going to eat?” he would ask, or, “The sun is certainly striking the two of us hard this afternoon!” Pekka would always seem to ignore the two in his responses:“Yes, let’s eat now,” he would say, or “yes, we’re certainly getting heated,” instead of what Bávlos would have expected, “Yes, let’s you and I eat now,” or “we two are certainly getting fried out here!” It was strange that the idea of two—so important to life among Sámi—merited no special notice among the strangers. Perhaps they didn’t care so much about it since they were so numerous already.

As Bávlos learned more and more of Pekka’s language, his companion told him more and more about Iesh. Bávlos was eager to learn as much as he could about his new ally, and he questioned Pekka readily at every turn. One day, as the men were relaxing on a bank waiting for fish to bite, Bávlos asked Pekka to explain to him what he could of Iesh’s life before he was killed.

“Where did he live, this Iesh? I mean, where did he live when he was here on land?” “He lived in a place called Israel, far to the southeast,” said Pekka.

“He lived among a people called the Juutalaiset.”

“Is that where we are heading?” asked Bávlos.

“No, no!” said Pekka “That land is full of treachery and danger now because of still others who wish to take it for themselves. We Christians have fought many battles to regain it for Risti.”

“Have the Juutalaiset turned treacherous then?” asked Bávlos.“Not so much treacherous, I think, as wrongheaded,” said Pekka with a sigh. “God kept on trying to make them reform, but it was never any use: they always returned to their evil ways. They never accepted Kiesus as the Savior.”

“But Iesh was one of these Juutalaiset?” said Bávlos.

“Some say he was,” said Pekka quietly, a furtive look rising in his eyes, “But I know better.”

“Oh?” asked Bávlos. He could sense that Pekka was getting ready to reveal a powerful secret to him.

“They say that Kiesu was a Juutalainen,” whispered Pekka quickly, as if to get out the words before someone heard, “and that he spoke Latina, like all the folk of that land.”

"Yes?” said Bávlos.

“But they recorded a few of his words as the Juutalaiset heard them from his mouth. And these are not Latina at all. They are—and I can tell you without hesitation—“ Pekka stopped again and looked around as if to make sure that they were completely alone, “They are Finnish words: the words of my people!”

“Iesh was a Finn like you?” asked Bávlos.

“Indeed he was!” said Pekka eagerly, “and I can prove it!”

“Please do,” said Bávlos. He felt fortunate to be in the company of one who knew so much about Iesh. Iesh had said that he was Sámi, but perhaps he meant that he spoke Sámi but was originally a Finn.

“There was a time,” said Pekka, “when Our Lord was healing a man who was deaf and could not speak properly. I have heard the story told many times at our priory in Turku, and I have listened with the ears of a diligent man. The Bible says that Kiesu groaned and moaned. This must refer to the sounds of a Finnish healer when preparing to heal. I have heard healers groan and moan in such fashion many times in my childhood, before I moved to the city to become a friar.”

“So you think this moaning was in your language?” asked Bávlos. He found the claim less convincing than he had expected.

“No, his moaning was just moaning,” said Pekka quickly, “but it must have sounded foreign to the Juutalaiset so they wrote about it thus in the Bible. And they write more as well!”

“More?” asked Bávlos, “Tell me!”

“They write that Kiesu looked up to the skies and put some of his spit on the man’s tongue. I have seen healers in my village cure all sorts of evils by blowing and spitting upon the wound or the afflicted part of the body.”

“Yes,” said Bávlos, nodding in recognition. He knew this technique as well. It was essential in the healing of many ailments to blow and spit. “So you think this means Iesh was a Finn?”

“I know he was!” said Pekka, “for then he spoke, and the word he said—the word that they say he said, was this: evveta!”

“Evveta?” asked Bávlos.

“Evveta!” said Pekka triumphantly. “They say it means ‘open up!’ but it is obvious that it is simply the Finnish auta!—Help!”

Auta,” said Bávlos quietly. “You know,” he said hesitantly, “to me, the word sounds more like veaketa, which is our term for Help!”

“Nonsense!” cried Pekka with a snort. “How could our Savior have spoken your language? He lived far to the southeast, in a land that is so hot that they wear shoes made only of a piece of hide and some strings, like those that I wear.” He motioned at his unsightly and ineffective shoes.

“And your language is spoken all the way to the land of the Juutalaiset?” asked Bávlos.

“No,” said Pekka, with a touch of uncertainty.“No, our language is not spoken beyond the southern sea.”

Bávlos’s ears pricked at the mention of the sea. He recalled that Iesh had told him that he would need to cross two great seas before coming to his destination. “They speak something else to the south of that sea?” he asked.

“They do,” said Pekka, somewhat crestfallen. “But the Bible tells of a time when the entire world was flooded with water. And after it receded, the sons of a pious man, Noa, built a great tower. They called the tower Populi, which in Latina means the House of the People. Now this tower, it grew so tall, so tall, that God became angry. And he sent confusion to the people so that they could no longer understand each other any more. And that is how it came to be that the men of this world speak so many strange languages.”

“So then, how did Risti come to speak like the people here?” asked Bávlos.

“Don’t you see?” asked Pekka, his eyes wide. “Some of the people who received our language came north. But some stayed right there near where the tower had been built, and continued to speak their language. And Kiesu was one of their number, and he sought to convert the Juutalaiset, but to no avail.”

“Ah,” said Bávlos. He found the story confusing.

“They recorded his words at the moment he was dying,” said Pekka fervently. “They wrote down what they heard him say. This Risti, who died on the risti, he called out to his father in heaven and he said words that I know are in my language, although I do not fully understand them yet. The Juutalaiset did not understand them, so they wrote them down incorrectly.

“What were the words?” asked Bávlos.

“Well, the Juutalaiset say he cried Eli, eli, laama sapaak tani.

The words struck Bávlos like a fist. “Elle, Elle, leaba mu sábet dávvin—‘Elle, Elle, my skis lie to the north.’ Iesh had spoken Sámi. Bávlos knew the truth.

“The first part is easy,” rambled Pekka half aloud, half to himself, “Elä, elä ‘Live, live.’ Risti wants to live and he is asking God for help. But laama—what could that mean? I must think on it more.”

“Do that,” said Bávlos with a smile.