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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8. The Skellefteå Mission [July 30, 1347]

Beloved, do not trust every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they belong to God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can know the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ come in the flesh belongs to God, and every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus does not belong to God. This is the spirit of the Anticrist,that, as you heard, is to come, but in fact is already in the world.

As the days turned to weeks, Bávlos became better and better able to communicate in Pekka’s language. It was easy to learn, because Pekka enjoyed talking and didn’t mind going on for great periods without either giving Bávlos a chance to say something or even pausing to gather his thoughts. He called this talking “preaching,” and he said that he and his brothers were especially good at it.

“Who were Iesh’s parents?” asked Bávlos.“Did they own many reindeer?”

“I don’t think they owned any reindeer,” said Pekka, “They had just the usual livestock that we Finns keep: cattle and pigs and some chickens I suppose.”

“Was Kiesus’s father also named Kiesus?” Bávlos asked.

“Kiesus’s father was God in heaven!” said Pekka sternly. “This woodsman named Jooseppi was his foster father. He just agreed to raise him as his own.”

“Ah,” said Bávlos quietly. It sounded like Iesh’s early life was complicated in somewhat embarrassing ways. Pekka seemed to read his thoughts.“Yes, it was a bit of a scandal at first,” said Pekka. “God made Maria pregnant by giving her a berry to eat.”

“A berry?” asked Bávlos.

“Yes, a red lingonberry,” said Pekka. “That is why the name for ‘berry’—marja—and the name for Kiesus’ mother, Maria, sound so much the same. They were Finns, you know.”

“Yes,” said Bávlos, “so you have said.”

“Well, then God had to convince Jooseppi that everything was all right even though his new bride had been made pregnant from a berry. And to make matters worse, Jooseppi had to take himself and Maria to a city to be counted, and that’s where little Kiesus was born.”

“In a city?” asked Bávlos.

“Yes, David’s city,” said Pekka. “And in the dead of winter. The snow lay deep all around and the couple had nowhere to stay!”

“Ah,” said Bávlos, what did they do?”

“Well, naturally, when Maria realized that she was going to give birth, she asked for a sauna. But there were none to be had, because David’s city was full of Juutalaiset, and they are not familiar with our customs.”

“So what did they do?” asked Bávlos.“Well, Jooseppi asked if they could use this little stable that was behind one of the big houses where lots of guests were staying. And the owner said it was okay. And then they went inside that little cabin and Jooseppi got the horse and ox in there to breathe hard, and that took the place of sauna steam! It was a quite a night.”

“My goodness,” said Bávlos. Iesh certainly seemed to have had a tumultuous start.

“Yes,” said Pekka musing, “that’s why God gave animals human voice once a year on the anniversary of his birth.”

“Ah,” said Bávlos. He wondered what language the animals spoke on that night. It had always seemed to him that the animals understood Sámi just fine, but, as with this business of Iesh’s language, he thought he should be careful what he said around Pekka. Pekka was so attached to the notion that Iesh was somehow a Finn, and he didn’t seem to take kindly to any alterations of his story.

Amid all the talk about Iesh and his life, Pekka seemed unwilling to say much about his own history. Bávlos had tried to find out more about him, but Pekka had always started talking about something else. At first, Bávlos had thought he was asking in the wrong way or using the wrong words. But after some weeks, he came to suspect that Pekka was deliberately evading his questions. One evening, as they made camp by a lake under some pines, Pekka asked Bávlos about his own history.

“What made you become Christian?” he asked. “Was it my fine preaching?” By this, Bávlos understood his companion to mean the endless talking he always engaged in.

“No,” said Bávlos quietly, “it wasn’t that.”

Pekka looked a little annoyed. There was disappointment in his voice when he spoke next after a pause of some moments. “Listen,” he said. “I have been a brother of the Order of Preachers for five years now, and you are the first convert I have ever made. I just want to understand what I did right so that I can do it again!”

“Well,” said Bávlos thoughtfully, “it wasn’t anything you did, really. You see, I had a dream the first night we were together—“

“Ah a dream,” said Pekka excitedly, “And God told you to listen to my words!”

“Well no,” said Bávlos. “Or at any rate, that wasn’t the main point. Mostly I heard Iesh and he told me to come to him. And that is what I am doing.”

“Ah,” said the friar thoughtfully. “Of course. You learned of God through me and then Risti called you to himself. So ultimately it was my preaching.” He seemed very satisfied now and Bávlos chose not to disagree with him. Now a new thought had occurred to the friar, however, and he asked: “But you say you had a dream?”

“Yes,” said Bávlos.

“Is it, is it so,” asked the friar hesitantly, “that you people, you Lappalaiset, can really see things in dreams?” It seemed like a question he had been wanting to ask for some time, because he was staring keenly at Bávlos now, watching his every movement in a way far different from how he looked when he was preaching.

“Yes,” said Bávlos, quietly, “yes. At times people see things in dreams. But not everyone, and not always.”

“Things like the future, or what is going on somewhere far away?” asked the friar eagerly.

“People have been known to see such things, yes,” said Bávlos.

“But you can see things in dreams?” Pekka asked eagerly. Bávlos hesitated. Divining was a noaide’s task, and Bávlos had never told this man that he was a noaide in training. He was not sure what Brother Pekka would think if he understood that his first convert had an active spirit gang. He might find the notion disagreeable. Pekka had spoken often in his preaching of a man called Juha who said that people should believe in Iesh alone and that anyone who did not do so was an enemy, an Antiristi. And anyway, Bávlos thought to himself, he didn’t know for certain that his spirits would help him divine, even if he wanted.

“I did have a dream, yes,” he said. “But I’m not sure that I could have others.” Bávlos knew that on some level his statement was a lie: he was in daily contact with Iesh and the rest of his spirit gang, and he could easily find out whether or not they would help him divine simply by asking them. In the early stages of one’s training, though, one couldn’t simply order the spirits around: generally, it was best to wait for the spirits to invite you to do something and gradually learn their ways. At any rate, his answer seemed to satisfy Pekka well enough, as he dropped the subject soon after.

“This journey I’m on,” said Pekka quietly, “it’s to get down to Hattula, and from there to Turku, the city they call in the king’s language Åbo. There I must meet with my brother friars.” Bávlos nodded. This was the first time Pekka had mentioned the purpose of his journey or any of the places they would pass on the way.

“Where are you coming from?” asked Bávlos. Maybe now he would find out how this stranger found his way to Sálle’s lands.

“I was in Skellefteå,” said the friar.

“Skellefteå,” repeated Bávlos. He had never heard of this place.

“It is a city to the southwest of your lands,” said Pekka, sensing his companion’s confusion, “some three weeks’ walk from where I found you, near the coast of the sea.” Bávlos nodded. He knew of Sámi far to the west who traded with strangers who lived in that direction, although his family had always traded with people along the river to the south. “At any rate,” said the friar, somewhat uncomfortably, “about a generation ago, King Magnus, or maybe it was his mother or grandmother, or maybe it was one of the nobles who were ruling in his name—“ Pekka seemed to get very muddled at this point, looking off in the distance with great interest as he puzzled over the question.

“King Magnus,” said Bávlos, encouragingly.

“Yes, yes,” said Pekka. “The young king Magnus—he must have been about eight at the time—he proclaimed that people wanting to live a good Christian life should journey northward into the wilderness and settle in a place called Skellefteå, by the River Skellefte. This they did, and a great church arose there and many, many settlers came."

“And you are from there?” asked Bávlos.

“No, no!” said Pekka shaking his head vigorously. “Listen! This Skellefteå had so many people in it that it needed more priests. And our Bishop Hemming down in Turku, in Åbo, he is a Swede. And he heard about the need up there and told our order that we should send one of our members there to work among the people of that city.”

“And so they sent you!” said Bávlos. At last the story was emerging.

“Yes, they chose me,” said Pekka quietly, “although I am only a brother and not yet a priest.”

“But this was a great honor, right?” asked Bávlos eagerly.

“It was—I suppose you could think of it as an honor, yes,” said Pekka slowly. He did not seem happy about the fact at all. “Someone had to go and no one else was willing, and well, our prior Brother Jaakko, he simply ordered me to go.” Pekka sighed heavily as he said the words.

“So you didn’t want to go?” asked Bávlos, confused.

“No,” said Pekka decidedly. “Skellefteå is very far away. I was born outside of Turku and I had no desire to leave my home at the priory. And further, they don’t speak our language—my language—off there. They speak the king’s language, which is ugly and difficult to learn, almost as difficult as Latina in every way.”

“Ah,” said Bávlos. Now he was beginning to understand more and more. This Latina must be what Pekka spoke in when he was praying. Bávlos had wondered why he never understood the words. He would have to listen more closely next time. There ensued a silence until Pekka chose to continue.

“So, I went up to that Skellefteå. I took a boat there. It was hard to reach, and when I arrived I discovered that no one at all spoke my language and that they hardly had any need of me at all. When people needed help they went to one of the priests or brothers who spoke the king’s language. And the other priests, they weren’t nice to me at all. Always jabbering away in their language. Always acting so much better than me.” The memory of the experience seemed to bring Pekka nearly to tears. “So after a long while, I decided to come back. But I didn’t have the money for the boat passage. So I decided to walk. And that is how I ended up meeting you, my first convert.”

“How long were you there?” asked Bávlos.

“Well,” said Pekka hesitantly, “I was supposed to be there three years. But I decided to come back a little early.”

“A little early?” asked Bávlos.

“Yes, I wanted to get back to Turku in time for the annual meeting. That is where I’m headed now. I had been walking three weeks when I met you, and you and I have been going nearly four weeks now—“

“So you left a couple of months early then?” asked Bávlos. He wondered what the prior would think of this fact.

“Well, actually,” said Pekka a little squeamishly, “I left a good deal earlier than I should. I was actually only in Skellefteå for about a month when I decided it was best to come back home.”

“A month?” said Bávlos, surprised. “And you were supposed to be gone for a full three years?”

“You don’t understand,” said Pekka excitedly. “You can’t understand what it is like to leave your home and people behind. Skellefteå, it was terrible. I felt like a small bird in the winter time, drinking cold water on an empty stomach. Nothing was right. The food tasted wrong. No one talked to me. I was all alone.”

“So now you are going home,” said Bávlos. “I am,” said the friar, now eager again. “And that’s why I asked about the dreaming. You see,” he hesitated again and then, after some thought proceeded: “if I were to know whether Brother Jaakko becomes chosen again as prior, I would know whether I’m in trouble or not. Brother Jaakko has never liked me. He sent me up to Skellefteå to get rid of me. I’m certain of it. But Brother Simo,” he said, with a hopeful look in his eyes, “Brother Simo is kind. He didn’t want to see me sent away and he would forgive my coming back so soon. It’s crucial Brother Simo wins the election!”

“The election?” said Bávlos, “what is that?”

“That’s our way,” said Pekka. “We pick two possible people to do a job and then we vote on which we want. The person who gets the most votes, he gets the job. Brother Simo almost won the election last time, but Brother Jaakko beat him out. I need to get back and vote for Brother Simo if I can and anyway, I have been hoping and praying that he will be the new prior when I return.”

“So you want me to find out about it through my dreaming?” said Bávlos.

“Well, if it wouldn’t be any trouble,” said Pekka hesitantly, “I wouldn’t mind knowing…”

Bávlos nodded. “I will see what I can do,” he said. That evening, after their evening prayers, Pekka settled down uneasily to sleep. Bávlos pretended to go to sleep as well, listening carefully to his companion’s breathing and his nearly ceaseless tossing and turning. When Pekka’s snoring made it evident that he was at last sound asleep, Bávlos quietly rose and went to his pack. He drew out his grandfather’s drum and stole away into the forest. “Perhaps this was the purpose for which I packed it,” he reflected to himself. Ever since he had been contacted by his spirit gang, the elder Sálle had been instructing him on what the figures on the drumhead meant and how he should use it, especially whenever Bávlos found an opportunity to be away from the chattering and watchful Pekka. Now he walked for a long while, until he came to a small hill where the trees were less thick. There he lay down with the drum on his chest, looking up at the stars. Quietly, he beat the drum, placing a small ring on its surface. He crooned a joik to himself, watching the ring as it moved across the surface. Before he knew it he was asleep.

As he lay there, he felt himself rising out of his body. He looked down and saw himself lying on the ground, his hand still lazily beating the drum. “Hurry,” said someone at his side, “You do not have much time before sunrise!” He felt himself rising into the sky and flying, flying south. The wind whipped against his face as he sped through the air. Below, in the moonlight, he could see forest land and lakes passing by at great speed. They flew over a tall wooden building with a pointy roof at the edge of a lake. “That must be Hattula,” thought Bávlos, “the place where we’ve been heading.” Then he felt himself turn toward the southwest and speed even faster. In no time he saw a great city emerge on the horizon. Soon there were nearly innumerable houses below him, some even two stories in height. Towering above the other buildings was a huge stone building by a river, and not far off another huge building with a tall tower at its front. “This must be Turku,” thought Bávlos. He felt himself swooping downward toward a low rambling set of buildings enclosed in a wall. He saw a small courtyard with a place for water in its center. He saw a room nearby with its door open. He flew inside and hovered in an upper corner. The room was filled with men all dressed in the same clothing as Brother Pekka. Two men were standing before the others: one thin and yellow-haired, with a long straight nose and a kind of sneer on his lips, the other short and round, with very pink skin and a nose that was short and knobby. The thin man was speaking.

“My brothers,” he said. Bávlos noticed something cold and disagreeable in the man’s voice, and he noticed that many of the men in the room became rigid at its sound. Not all though: there was a group of men to the left of the speaker who were smirking and whispering to each other. They seemed very happy with this man and looked at him eagerly.

“My brothers,” he said again. “We need someone to count the votes. I designate Brother Timo.”

“Why not Brother Markku?” murmured one of the men who did not seem to like the thin man. “Brother Markku has always counted the votes before.”

“We should have two counters!” shouted another disgruntled man. The thin man ignored them.

“The vote,” he continued. “Is between myself and Brother Simo.” He did not indicate whom he meant, but Bávlos sensed that the small round man must be Brother Simo. He had kind eyes and he looked very weary. There was much stir from the friars who were seated. “You may now vote.” Bávlos saw that the men had small slips of something that looked like drum head: leather that had been scraped thin. They were scratching it with bird feathers dipped in some dark paint, such as Bávlos’s grandfather had used when he made the pictures on his drum. A thin man with red hair and a twittering snicker of a laugh was now proceeding among the men, gathering the slips into a cloth sack he was carrying. To some of the other men he gave a warm smile and a wink; others he barely seemed to notice as they strove to place their slips in the bag. After a time he spoke with a tone that sounded very self-important to Bávlos.

“I believe I have everyone’s vote now,” he said. He turned to leave the room.

“Not everyone’s, not everyone’s!” said a voice from the back. The brothers gasped and turned to see who had spoken. Bávlos turned abruptly as well. There at the doorway he saw a tired and bedraggled Brother Pekka, stepping forward from the shadows. Bávlos was so surprised at seeing Pekka there that he felt himself slip from the place he had been floating. Before he knew what was happening he was retreating out of the room and into the courtyard, where he started to rise back toward the sky.

“But I need to find out what happened!” he cried. It was of no use. No matter what he tried, the wind was carrying him away. He saw the city of Turku disappear behind him as the familiar landscape of lakes and forest returned beneath. Far to the east he could see light emerging over the horizon. It would be sunrise soon. His body seemed to travel at twice the speed it had gone on the way there, and he felt nauseated by the experience. Before he knew it he saw his body lying below and then, with a rather painful crash, he felt himself reenter his body and come awake. The drum and ring fell from his chest as he sat up. He had returned, but not with the information that Pekka had wanted.

That morning, Pekka seemed very quiet. The men said prayers together and then Pekka sang a long prayer in Latina. Bávlos could tell now that the language of prayers was indeed different and that it had not just been Pekka’s mumbling that made it difficult to understand. It sounded beautiful as a language; Bávlos felt that he would have to learn it soon enough, at least so that he could talk to Iesh at greater length. When the prayer was over, Bávlos asked his companion about his home.

“The place you come from,” he said, “Turku. Does it have a great building by a river and another building with a tower in front?”

“The castle and the cathedral—yes!” said Pekka eagerly. “You know them! You have seen them?” Suddenly he seemed aware of what this fact implied. “Tell me more!”

“And your home there,” said Bávlos hesitating, “it is a long building with a wall of stone around it and a place for drinking in its center?”

“Indeed it is!” cried Pekka, his eyes wide. “You have seen it as well?”

“I had a dream,” said Bávlos quietly.

“Tell me it!” said Pekka excitedly. Bávlos proceeded. “I saw a room with lots of men dressed like you.”

“The Chapter meeting! Has it already started?” There was a look of panic in the friar’s face now.

“Wait, I’ll tell you what I saw,” said Bávlos. “A tall thin man with yellow hair—“

“Brother Jaakko!” said Pekka with a shudder.

“He was standing in the midst of the others with another man beside him: a shorter, heavier man with a blunt, twisty nose.”

“Brother Simo and his potato nose!” gasped Pekka in wonderment.

“Yes,” said Bávlos. “And they were voting.”

“They were voting?” said Pekka. “You saw that? Who won?”

“I didn’t get to see that,” said Bávlos. “I saw a mean-looking red-haired man taking up the votes into a cloth bag. He smiled at some people but not at others.”

“Brother Timo,” said Pekka. “Why did they let him collect the votes? It’s always been Brother—“

“Yes, Brother Markku’s job—people mentioned that,” said Bávlos nodding. Pekka’s jaw dropped at his companion’s remark. Bávlos ignored him and continued. “At any rate, here’s the strangest part of the dream. Brother, Brother—What did you call him, the mean one?”

“Brother Timo,” said Pekka, his lips tight.

“Yes, okay,” said Bávlos. “That one turned to the others and said that he had all the votes. But then a voice came from behind and said ‘No you don’t have them all yet—you forgot mine!’ Or something like that. And do you know who said that?”

“Who?” asked Pekka anxiously, leaning forward.

“You!” said Bávlos with finality. “And that is all I saw.”

“Me?” said Pekka. “You saw me there?”

“Yes,” said Bávlos, “I did.”

“Then it was the future you saw,” said Pekka thoughtfully.

“That’s what I think,” said Bávlos.

“Last time we had an election, Brother Jaakko won by one vote,” said Pekka. “And that was the vote of a new brother who didn’t know what kind of person this Jaakko really is. He will almost certainly have changed his opinion by now! If I get back in time for the vote, then we shall be able to unseat him!” His eyes were wide with excitement now. “We must hurry, friend Bávlos! We don’t have much time!”

“I saw the church we have been heading toward,” said Bávlos.

“The church at Hattula!” said Pekka.“Yes, we must go there at once and pray for speed and guidance. From there we can get to Turku in under a week!”

“That sounds good to me,” said Bávlos.

“Let us pray in thanksgiving for this message,” said Pekka reverently. “God has sent me good news through you.”