The Pilgrimage

Novels

Seigneurs, sachez qui or ne s’en ira

En cele terre ou Dex fu mors et vis,

Et qui la croiz d’outremer ne predra

A paines mès ira en paradis

-          From a 12th-century ballad

Anno Domini 1148. Abbey of the Mother of God, Boscodon, Provence.

My name is Dieter. Once I was someone else, but that is of no consequence. The country I come from is no longer the one it was and the people who remembered me are dead. For what is one country and one people? A drop of water in a vessel, no more. All the same, I have tried. I have tried to find my home shore. From manuscripts and maps and travellers’ tales. It is nowhere. Yet I remember the clouds in its sky, the mist on its meadows, and the traces left by the blunt-headed snake that slithered through the cut hay. And I know I was not dreaming.   

A man’s real home is the place he is on the way to. What he is carrying in his thoughts. In my thoughts is the City of God that we won back from the infidels. For me it is everywhere and in everything. Every night the desert creeps across my threshold, the wind blows, the sand-dunes shift and the pilgrims are crossing the wasteland. And then it is no longer necessary to leaf through the yellowed travellers’ chronicles, for each of them must lead the wanderer closer to God, not to his home shore, and at the centre of every map is Jerusalem.     

Aristotle writes that the whole cosmos is mapped in the human body. My body is a map of pain. It helps to find places where the flesh has been cut, bruised and broken. Every scar is part of a journey. Every mutilation is a field of battle. Lying on my plank bed at night, I close my eyes and slide my fingers across the peopled lands: Nicaea, Dorylaeum, Harem, Antioch, Kerbola, Jerusalem, Ashkelon.

Pain has its own memories. My knees and hips are throbbing from riding. My shoulder joint smarts from a sword wound. My ankles, from falling out of the saddle. All this is only a ripple on the surface. The real pain is somewhere else. On the pilgrimage they said: Fight and be not afraid, your life may be taken from you, but your honour – never. But it will. And dishonour becomes shame, which accompanies a man to the end of his days. Which crushes and gnaws at one and brings itself to mind every blessed day: today, today, today. Today. If today is your day, then you know. And to those pressed down by shame, I can say: I know what you feel. I am you.

I have lived several lives. I have been one who holds a pen and one who wields a sword. It has all vanished, like smoke in the wind. Today I am one who holds a plant, and tomorrow I will be soil whence plants get new strength. Soil does not care how much good or evil one has done, and from the righteous man and the wicked man alike the same ears of grain will sprout. Maybe for the grain swaying in the wind all men are equally righteous.

I am a gardener in a monastery located two days’ journey from the town of Montpellier, Count Guillaume de Montmiral’s donation to the Holy Church. In the year of our Lord 1142, thirteen brothers set off for Chalais to found a new convent. The records number them as twelve, for twelve is the number of the Apostles. The brother who was left out is I, but that did not trouble me. A man’s life melts into the past, one way or another, as a fish into water. Especially when one is speaking of chronicles. Only the fish remains. Only the water.

Yesterday, raising a vessel of water from the well, I was bending down. On the murky surface flickered someone’s face. Instead of eyes it had two black sockets. Two black cavern-mouths. The more I followed it, the more hazy the features of the image became. It seemed that the world was rejecting me from my own self. Down there in the depths, where the living turn to nothing, and then to something again.

        

I was present here when Count Guillaume came to view the newly-laid monastery wall. He had with him a distinguished visitor, Godefroy VII, Lord of Brabant. It is said that in his veins flows the blood of Godefroy de Bouillon, Defender of the Holy Sepulchre. That appeared to be the truth. The same high cheekbones. The same wandering gaze. It is also said that Godefroy was the bravest of the pilgrims, and I looked with interest at his successor. What kind of man was he? Godefroy was a weak man. What was taken for courage was only obstinacy – fear of retreating.  

Actually the brave remained in the mountains of Anatolia and the deserts of Syria. The Lord calls the righteous to Himself. To his own people, that they may fall again in some new battle. The lord of Brabant looked me in the face and I did not flinch. I can afford that. I am only a gardener, insignificant and meaningless like the blades of grass in the monastery grounds. It is said that an unremarked life is a commendation to God.

This afternoon rain started pouring at Boscodon. The water came with such force that it was as if someone had tipped an azure-blue beaker out in a single shower. Brother Glaber says that the rain is a part of the redemption granted by heaven to the earth. It sounds beautiful, but that is the wisdom of monks.

The rain is only appreciated by those who expect it: the peasants whose grain has been parched for weeks in the fields. The soldiers, half-dead under the Syrian sun. I watched as the dark flecks on the surface of the soil changed into pools in a moment. The rain seemed to flush everything away, the past and the present. The walls of Jerusalem and the monastery walls. The imprisonment of walls. The world broke down and fell apart, there remained only water, flung down from heaven. A heavenly waterfall. 

Later, late in the evening, we all went to Mass. I stood among the brothers, but it seemed to me as if I were looking down on them from above. The monks sang and their voices undulated beneath the vaults of the new church. Outside it was still raining.

In the courtyard of the monastery a magnolia is flowering. In the sunshine it seems as if a candle-flame were flickering in every cluster of flowers. “Post tenebras spero lucem” mumbled the abbot as he stopped on the procession to admire the tree. Then he looked me in the eye, as if expecting a response. This world is full of shadows, I could have said. Why not the next? But I knew that the head of the monastery does not expect anything of me. I held my tongue.  

There are many different plants growing in the Boscodon gardens, but there is no lavender. It would be good if it were adapted to the soils here. Fields of lavender could spread around the monastery as in Languedoc, through which we rode with Count Raymond’s troops. We rocked in the saddle, the sun blazed down on us, and all around the lavender shimmered blue, as if Heaven had descended to Earth and said: just a little more patience – Jerusalem may be the next town beyond the azure sea. Not much further to go.

Anno Domini 1098. Antioch

After sunset we set out toward Harem. Seven hundred knights, pale and sallow-cheeked with hunger. We are trying to leave camp as quietly as possible, so as not to arouse the attention of the defenders of Antioch. In battle formation we move along the Aleppo road, as noiselessly as ghosts. An army of spirits, I think to myself as I look around. Gliding through the night, vanishing by morning. Those who say: would that it were evening. Whose shadows are their friends. And darkness their allies. The terrors of darkness.

Some hours before dawn it starts to rain. The shower is not heavy, but nevertheless we are soon wet through. By sunrise we get to a clearing between a lake and a river, which has been chosen by Bohémond as the site of battle. We are protected on the flanks and able to make a single swoop together. Like a scorpion that has stretched out its sting, ready to strike. Blindly, without regard to the size of its opponent, with the simplest plan of attack.

And so then it is another early morning and another battle formation, but the feeling is different each time, the boom-booming of the heart, the taste of dust, the taste of iron and the flashes before the eyes. The knowledge that you are in one piece and alive, as alive as you can be, and you can live for two hundred years like Abraham, but you will never be more alive until your dying hour. We are arrayed in six batailles, the silent knights, the cutting edge of the crusade, the tip of the lance, and whatever else we are. But as to what is going on with the other five, I have no idea. I only know who is beside me, and I am aware of myself too, though that feeling is fleeting and wants to escape, like a captured bird whose heart is pounding and who thinks only of how to tear itself free.

And then Bohémond gallops up in front of the ranks, on a black stallion, his standard with a red serpent fluttering behind him, and the flag-bearer is a young boy, a mere child, and his hands are trembling. He is young, he is afraid. That is natural.

“Courage, men,” says Bohémond. “And stand firm. Soon we will kill them all. Those pony-riders will be unable to withstand our attack. The rain has made their bowstrings soggy and in close combat they will make no opposition for us. Think of the fame of your ancestors. And of how you will be spoken of in the future. When you hear the sound of the horn, then – lances forward and go on the attack! Slaughter the heathen and the Lord will rejoice.”

It is a good speech. Brief and clear. In the language of swordsmen, not of chroniclers. And then the call of the horn, and we go into action. We do not know how many infidels there are ahead of us, but one can guess there are thousands. We do not think of that. Ranked side by side, the five batailles rush past the enemy, approaching along the Aleppo road, who seem to have no inkling of our presence. One moment they have before them the sunrise, the clearing, the river and the lake, and the next, a wall of iron is bearing down upon them, and that wall of iron is ourselves, and on this day we are much more besides. And the advance guard of Ridwan makes no opposition to us, not even so much as to break the pace of our attack. We cut through it like a scythe through grain, leaving broad dark spaces in the field. But that is only the advance guard, and the further we go, the denser the troops become. Yet still they cannot halt our progress.

There are those who reason after the event that a part was played by the sun which shone behind us, or by the hill to our left, which drove the adversary to confusion, because they had no idea how many we had in reserve. One thing is clear – Bohémond’s battle plan worked, and even those among us who were inwardly prepared for death observe that death was at work that day among the enemy and did not have much time left for us. And for us it remains to drive more and more infidels before us, so that the Reaper’s scythe will flash in a single direction and not turn back on us. It is hard work and we are giving the best of ourselves, and the only thing we understand is that instead of falling back we always move forwards, and we would be fools not to take advantage of that. We are afraid that this might all end, that our luck in battle may turn and then it will be our turn to retreat, as we did that time by the main gates, and so we chop and hack and hew, at one moment something seems to break, there is not resistance any more, we carrying on hacking, and then the field before us is clear, the enemy flees and the battle is over. We have hacked Ridwan’s forces to pieces and the pilgrimage is saved.

We put our swords in their sheaths and descend from the saddle, standing on the field, our heads bowed, and there are those, too, who collapse on the ground from their wounds or from exhaustion. But then Bohémond comes and says that we have fought God’s battle and won. And he also says that if this is not a miracle of the Lord, he would like to know what is. But above all he wants to acknowledge our bravery, for he has never seen braver men in his life. And he uncovers his head and bows low before his army, for at that moment God’s army is Bohémond’s army, and that is right, it has been earned. I look at him and I wish I were capable of feeling the joy of victory. But all that I feel is weariness.

Translated from Estonian by Christopher Moseley


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