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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9. The Church of the Holy Risti [August 11, 1347]

The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 

It was only a few days later, on a sunny afternoon, that the Church of the Holy Risti came in sight in the place called Hattula. Bávlos recognized it at once from his dream. But here it stood in the warm August daylight, a blue lake shining behind it.

Pekka hurried to the door of the large house beside the church and soon met the priest in charge of the place. He was a thin and kindly old man, strands of silver hair pulled back over his balding pate. “I am glad to welcome you to the Lord’s house,” he said. Bávlos felt elated to have reached a church at last.

Inside the church, Bávlos found everything finer and taller than he had ever imagined possible. The roof of the church towered overhead, and Bávlos estimated that at its highest it was five times his height. There was a massive stone table at one end of the church, the altar, and many small windows with a clear material in them that let in streams of light but no wind. To the right of the altar, in a niche set back in the wall, Bávlos saw a beautiful carving: a Sieidi in the shape of a baby Iesh, held aloft by his loving mother.Bávlos looked at the statue. It was unlike any Sieidi he had ever seen. Iesh’s mother was short, less than an arm’s length, but incredibly detailed and lifelike, from the top of her gently bent head to the tip of her shiny black shoe, poking demurely from beneath her ample and magnificent robes. She was slim and dainty, her body bent in a slight arc, with her shoulders pushed back to balance the weight of her little son. Her skin was pink and delicate, with rosy red cheeks and a neck that was long and white. Her eyes were blue, like Bávlos’s own, and they were crowned by gracefully arched eyebrows and framed by tresses of golden hair. Her nose was long and straight and her red lips small and pursed. Iesh, for his part, shared his mother’s eyes and hair as well as her rosy cheeks. His small bare feet were clearly visible, emerging from beneath his garments in a playful and impish manner. He held out what looked like a large golden apple and his smile was friendly and knowing. He seemed to stare intently at something far off on the horizon, perhaps the future that would eventually engulf him. What was most striking about the statue, however, was the Virgin’s clothing. She wore a dress of vivid green, patterned in shining gold. Draped atop this garment, she had a rich scarlet robe, studded with golden triangles, with a wide border of gold at its bottom. She had swept it up beneath her little son, so that it hung in a graceful arc from her left shoulder to her right hand. Where the fabric was folded, Bávlos could see an inner lining of sky blue. The folds and wrinkles of the clothing were so realistic that Bávlos thought them actual fabric, and it was only after a very long and careful look that he recognized the entire piece as wood.

“I have carved wood for many years, Father,” said Bávlos in rapt admiration, “and I have never made, or even imagined, anything so beautiful. How is it possible?”

“Inspiration friend pilgrim, inspiration,” said the priest. “When a craftsman gives his entire heart to doing work for the glory of God, great things happen. The Spirit takes over, the Spirit takes over…” His voice trailed off as he regarded the statue.

“Is the person who made this statue still nearby?” asked Bávlos anxiously. He yearned to meet him in person.

“No, son,” said the priest. “The statue came to us from the workshop of Master Claes Olsson, a great artist who lives in Gotland, very far away from here and in the middle of the sea. It came here more years ago than you’ve likely lived!” he added.

“Gotland,” said Bávlos slowly, committing the name to memory.

“Yes, Gotland is the place to go if you want to learn great art,” said the priest.

“I shall remember the name,” said Bávlos.

“This statue is very fine, indeed,” said the priest, changing the subject with a brisk tone in his voice, “but soon, very soon, our church will become even grander than you see it now.”

“How so?” asked Bávlos. He could barely imagine a finer building if he had not also glimpsed the cathedral at Turku during his nocturnal flight.

“Well,” said the priest with evident excitement. “Good Bishop Hemming has arranged a magnificent gift for this church! “

“What is that?” asked Bávlos with interest.

“A fragment,” said the priest, nearly breathless with his excitement, “a fragment of the True Risti!”

“Ah,” said Bávlos slowly, “Like the name of your church?”

“That’s right!” cried the priest. “Precisely like it! In fact, this fragment has been sent to us by the finest of nobles from abroad, given to the king as a mark of their deep respect for his great person. He in turn turned it over to the gracious Archbishop of Uppsala, and he in turn gave it to our good Bishop Hemming. And now, Bishop Hemming has decided that the fragment should reside in this church until the end of time!”

“And this is a fragment?” asked Bávlos. He was doubtful of the actual value of a scrap of something, even of something as great as the risti of Iesh.

“My son, do you not understand?” asked the priest shaking his head with a chuckle. “The Holy Risti! Why, it was the wood of the very tree of which Adam and Eve ate the apple, buried for hundreds of years and then recovered for making the very risti upon which our Savior was crucified! It has properties more miraculous than virtually any other relic known on earth. Why, even to look upon it can cure the most terrible diseases, if your faith is strong enough. And to touch it—why, it’s scarcely imaginable how stupendous that would be!”

“It heals diseases?” asked Bávlos in surprise.

“It does indeed!” said the priest. “And more. It can bring the dead back to life. It can unscramble the lunatic’s deranged thoughts. It can cause the barren woman to give birth to twins!”

“So, people will come here to see this object?” said Bávlos, his eyes wide.

“They will stream here, son,” said the priest with a grave nod. "The bishop and I already have plans for expanding the church, perhaps even rebuilding it in stone or brick!”

“Brick?” asked Bávlos.

“Small square blocks of straw and mud that have been baked until they are as hard as stone: the finest building materials known to mankind! Yes," he said, looking off toward the horizon, “this church shall before long become known as the spiritual center of the entire north, you mark my words!”

“Are there many of these fragments of the risti?” asked Bávlos.

“Precious few, son, precious few,” said the priest sagely. “The risti itself was lost for several centuries before St. Helena rediscovered it in the Holy Land, and the evil Saracens captured and stole it away only a century ago.”

“But it was found again?” asked Bávlos.

“God did not wish this miraculous object to be missing forever,” nodded the priest. “So he contrived to reveal its location to holy men and they eventually restored it to the Christian world.”

“And now a fragment will be here!” said Bávlos, shaking his head in wonderment. Internally he waited for his spirit gang to announce that his journey was over.

“Indeed,” said the priest. “You must come to visit it once it has arrived.”

“I hope that I may,” said Bávlos.

Bávlos and Pekka spent the evening with the holy priest. Pekka spoke impressively of his work at Skellefteĺ, of the wonders of the church there and of the finery of a city called Tukholma that Pekka had passed on the way there. The priest listened with avid attention and with utter amazement as Pekka detailed his long trek across the far north to reach Hattula.“You are a brave man,” said the priest in awe, “And God had blessed your way.”

“God has guided me well,” said Pekka nodding.

The next morning, Bávlos witnessed his first mass. Pekka had told him all about the ritual in great detail over their weeks of travel, so Bávlos knew exactly what was happening at every step, despite the fact that the priest sang in Latina and kept his back turned toward them for most of the ritual. Bávlos listened carefully for any mention of the words Jesus or Christus or Dominus or other words that Pekka had told him referred to God. At these, it was important to bow one’s head out of respect. He also knew all about the raising of the cup and the bread and how this act, when combined with words in Latina, somehow transformed them into Iesh’s body and blood. It had taken Bávlos a long time to understand this idea, partly because he could never fully believe that he was comprehending what Pekka said. When the priest turned and offered to place a piece of this transformed bread on his tongue, Bávlos felt that he had entered a new relation with Iesh. He could feel Iesh entering him: in fact, he could see a door opening to let him in. The sound of a torrent of water filled his ears and he felt his knees lose their strength. Bávlos fainted to the ground.

He awoke much later in the vestibule of the church. Pekka sat beside him smiling. He helped his friend up and led him outside. “I have reached my destination, my friend,” said Pekka. “It is time for you to go home.”

“Is it?” asked Bávlos. Something told him his journey was not over.

“You have come to the very center of the Church in Finland. There cannot be much more than that,” said Pekka gravely. “And I thank you deeply for your pains.”

“Iesh—Iesu—told me to keep traveling until he tells me to stop, and I have not heard his word yet. I must continue.”

“But Bávlos, think for a moment,” said the friar with irritation. “You have journeyed for weeks, nay, nearly a month already. It will take you a month to get back. If you leave now, you can make it before the snows start. Think about your family, Bávlos, and what you can teach them. They need your help to come to the faith. Otherwise, they will be frying in hell and it will be all your fault!”

“Iesh has told me that he will take care of them as long as I do as he bids,” said Bávlos, “and that is what I intend to do.”

“You are foolish,” said the friar. “I can help you no further.”

You help me?” said Bávlos in disbelief. “Are you serious? Brother Pekka, I like you very much, but you know that you couldn’t have gotten all this way without me!”

“I know nothing of the sort,” said the friar irritably. “I know that you are a Lappalainen from the very edge of the world, whom I had the kindness to baptize and befriend. But now the journey is finished, Bávlos.” He searched for the words to say it in Sámi but gave up. “Go home!” he said at last in Finnish. “I will help you no longer!”

“Kind Brother Pekka, I thank you for your pains,” said Bávlos, his lips tight. “I think I can manage now on my own. I will continue my journey without you.”

“Without me?” laughed the friar. “And how will you ever find your way? Why, you don’t even speak the language!”

Bávlos gripped his belt hard before speaking. “Brother Pekka,” he said. “For a month I have walked with you, hunted and trapped and cooked for you, interpreted for you and cured you of ills. I know your language well now and you still can’t say two words in mine. If it weren’t for me, you’d be dried bones in the bottom of a wolf’s den by now.”

Pekka balled his fists together and breathed hard. “I have put up with a lot of cow manure from you, you ingrate little savage!” he fumed. “All your ignorance, all your foolishness. Falling asleep in the very heart of the church! Now I’ve had my fill. Be off with you where you will! And don’t come crawling back to apologize.”

“Goodbye then,” said Bávlos, turning abruptly. The friar simply turned his back and said nothing. Bávlos saw that he had acquired a horse, which he mounted now.

“So that’s it,” said Bávlos. “You’re in a rush to get back for your meeting and you want to leave me behind.”

“Oh, not that dream of yours again,” said the friar, rolling his eyes. “Bávlos, listen carefully: telling fortunes like that is bad business. It is not proper for a Christian.” With that he spurred his horse briskly in the sides and headed away. He did not look back.